Friday, 18 August 2017

Excerpt from my latest mystery-thriller, 'What I Did Not Say'.

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The atmosphere in the courtroom crept into my bones.  Here I stood, accused of murdering Jack Banford.  The past weeks I’d spent in police custody, appalling as they had been, were as nothing to the chill animosity that now flowed towards me from all directions. 
I took a deep breath and looked up.  I would face what was to come.  I would not crouch and hide.
Melissa took the stand first.  Expert witness.  She would presumably be followed by the pathologist, although I was not privy to the order of witnesses, of course. These were just simple thoughts that ran through my mind. So much clutter, trying to organise itself.   
When Melissa looked at me, I met her gaze. Despite my resolve, I felt my knees weaken.  She was here in her professional capacity, the look said.  She was not here as my ally.

“Good morning, my name is Jonathan Bewley, counsel for the prosecution.  Will you state your full name, please?”
I listened, wondering what Melissa would say, remembering the evening she had come to visit.
“Miss Shinkley.  How long had you known Jack Banford?"
“Almost two years.”
“And, in what capacity?”
“I was assigned to his case by social services.”
“Could you tell the court why this was?”
“Yes.  His mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and every effort was made to keep Jack at home for as long as possible.  With appropriate support, he managed admirably.”
 Heads nodded and a gentle wave of what could only be sympathy flowed invisibly around the room.  Melissa was a good person.  She had Jack’s best interests at heart.  It was odd to be excluded from the goodwill she was generating.
“Thank you.  Thank you, Miss Shinkley.”
The prosecutor smiled.  Melissa smiled back.
“Now.  I understand you met the accused on one occasion at his home.  Could you explain how this came about?”
Melissa spoke as though I were not in the room.
“It was after I had been informed that Jack was spending time at Mr. Pickup’s house.  We, I mean, social services are obliged to follow up reports if a child is deemed to be putting himself potentially at risk.”
“At risk?”
“Yes.  We have to know where a minor is spending his time outside the family home.”
 “Please go on.”
“I thought it best to meet Mr. Pickup in person and so I suggested going along with Jack one evening.  He went there to observe the stars.  It was an interest of his.  I spoke to his mother, Vera Banford, and established that she and Mr. Pickup were old friends.”
“And what was your impression of Mr. Pickup when you met him?”
“I thought him eccentric.  He seemed to have Jack’s best interests at heart, though.”
There was a tone to her voice that contradicted her faith in my intentions.
“Do you feel guilty, Miss Shinkley?”
This was a strange question.  Melissa was visibly taken aback by it. 
“Yes.  I feel guilty.”
It was clear to see that the jury members had drawn their own conclusions.  Several of them looked my way.  Counsel for the prosecution had succeeded in turning Melissa’s admission of guilt into an assertion that there was something in me to inspire fear.  That I was someone who might harm Jack.
The guard on my left shifted his position.
The prosecutor referred to a file before continuing.  He was changing tack.
“Would you tell the court how you came to know Jessica Morley?”
“I met her on the day I first went to visit Jack.  She was his constant companion.”
“In your professional opinion, was the friendship between Jack and Jessica a beneficial one?”
“Undoubtedly.  Jess is a strong young woman who had a stabilising influence on Jack.  The time they spent together gave Jack a degree of normality to his life and provided him with a loyal friend to confide in.”
“Miss Shinkley, did either Jack, Jessica or Vera Banford ever give you cause to doubt the safety of Jack’s spending time in the company of Terry Pickup?”
“Not directly, no.”
“Please explain.”
“Vera, Mrs. Banford, had nothing but admiration for the man, so much so that it was hard to believe he could be so perfect.  She was fiercely defensive of his good name.  It made me suspect that there was another side to Terry Pickup she wanted to conceal.  And on the evening I accompanied Jack to Mr. Pickup’s house, I put his awkward behaviour down to eccentricity, ignoring the gut feeling I had that he was not all he seemed.  As far as I know, Jess never met Terry.”
“Vera Banford wanted to protect Terry Pickup?  Can you be more specific?”
“The last time I saw Vera, she gave me a photograph album which had been compiled by Terry.  It contained pictures of the places she had visited as a young girl.  Terry drove one of her father’s coaches and was charged with Vera’s personal care.”
“I see.  Could you describe these pictures?  Item five, My Lord.”
The jury began an examination of the album.
“They were mostly of Vera, but included some taken of other children, usually boys.  Many of them in shorts or swimwear.  There were quite a few shots of one boy in particular.   I think that Mrs. Banford believed them to be artistic.  I would say that they were mildly pornographic.”
This caused a stir in the courtroom.
I remembered the album.  That anyone could say my pictures were pornographic made me shudder.
“In what way?”
“I remember thinking that they were intimate.  Too intimate.”
“Did you tell Vera Banford your opinions?”
“No.  She died before I could speak to her again.”
“Did Jack see the photographs?”
“I don’t know.”
“Would it have been possible for him to see them?”
“I should say it would have been easy for him to find them if he’d wanted to. They were kept on a shelf in her room. His mother slept a good deal.”
“If he had seen them, in your expert opinion, what effect would they have had on him?”
“I should say he would have been shocked.  Jack never spoke of Terry Pickup as more than an old friend of his mother’s.  The photographs were intimate, as I said.”
“They were intended to be for Vera Banford’s eyes only?”
“That’s what she told me.”
“Why did she want you to see them, Miss Shinkley?”
“She said they would help me understand Terry better.  I think she considered the photographs beautiful.  Works of art.”
“And were they beautiful?”
“In a way.  As I said, she considered them artistic, whereas I found them to be mildly erotic.”
Was no one going to explain the vast difference between erotic and pornographic photography?  The pictures were all about focus and tone.  They captured movement and intention.  They…
“Did Vera Banford ever suggest to you that her relationship with Terry Pickup had been anything more than platonic, Miss Shinkley?”
I froze, bracing myself for what awful travesty might come next.  My head was pounding and I had begun to feel dizzy.  The guard to my left put a hand under my elbow.
“She once said that Terry had bewitched her.  I don’t know exactly what she meant by it.  She never mentioned a physical relationship.”
“Bewitched.  Hmm.”
I wanted to silence this man.  His deliberate distortion of the truth was astonishing.  My knees gave way and I suddenly sat down heavily on the bench.  The next few minutes were taken up with providing me with a glass of water and a towel.  When I was able to stand once more the trial continued as though nothing had interrupted it. 
“Were you aware that Jack and Jessica were to meet Mr. Pickup on the afternoon of 28th November on the banks of the River Severn?”
“In whose care was Jack Banford at the time?”
“His father’s.”
“Was Mr. Banford aware of the meeting?”
“I don’t know.”
“Thank you, Miss Shinkley.  No further questions.”

The questioning had been subtly manipulated.  Jonathan Bewley was a clever man. When Mr. Dunster stood up, I wondered what he could do to mitigate the damage his colleague had done.  At the same time, I knew that the world was a dangerous place and that I was at its sharp edge.  In some way, I suspected that I’d been waiting for this trial all my life.    

“Good morning, Miss Shinkley.  Counsel for the defence, Daniel Dunster.”
Melissa looked the picture of calm.  I remembered how she had laughed with delight at the sight of Saturn and its moons.
“I’d like to begin by asking whether it is fair to say that your knowledge of the defendant is based on a single visit to his home shortly before Jack’s accident?”
I took in the word ‘accident’.
“Yes.  Apart from in regular conversations with Jack.” 
“And did these conversations reveal anything about Mr. Pickup that could be substantiated, Miss Shinkley?”
“That depends what you mean by substantiated.  Jack–”
“–I mean, substantiated as fact, Miss Shinkley.”
“I... I don’t think how you feel about a person can be substantiated.”
The lawyer paused.  I knew where he was heading.
“You were not only Jack’s social worker but also his friend, would that be fair to say, Miss Shinkley?”
“I became close to Jack and his mother, yes.”
“And your opinions, your feelings, about Mr. Pickup.  Are these based on your professional assessment, or your feelings of empathy for a dying woman and her young son?”
Melissa stood taller. “I formed an objective impression of Terry Pickup.  It is part of my job to assess people.”
“Of course it is.  Of course it is, Miss Shinkley.  What I am trying to establish is whether your opinions, your feelings your perceptions are purely a product of your objective observations of my client...perhaps we should move on.”
Dunster turned his attention to his notes.  “Let’s see, now.  Could you explain to the court how exactly you knew what Jack felt?  I mean, did he specifically tell you he was worried or anxious about going to see Mr. Pickup?  Did he communicate specific concerns?”
Melissa was having trouble.  The questions were slippery. But I was interested in the answer.  It was important for me to know how Jack had felt.  When Melissa spoke, I was overcome by a sense of vindication.
“Well, no.  Not in so many words.  But I sensed that something was not quite right.  I have a lot of experience in such matters.  I decided that it would be best to meet Mr. Pickup, which is why I accompanied Jack to one of his astronomy evenings.”
“Ah, I see, you ‘sensed’ that something was not quite right.  A hunch, perhaps?”
“No.  Professional training.”
“Of course. This visit had nothing to do with...intuition?”
“I think you stated earlier: ‘We have to know where a child is spending his time outside the family home.’  Was this not, in your capacity of Jack’s social worker, simply a case of professional duty?  You were required to make a report.  Not to go on a witch hunt, Miss Shinkley.”
I couldn’t quite believe what the lawyer had said.
There was an uncomfortable stirring coming from the public gallery.
“Objection!  The reference to such medieval notions is inappropriate and highly derogatory.”
The judge spoke in a level tone. “Sustained.  Kindly keep to the facts, Mr. Dunster, and abstain from colourful language.  Rephrase the question.”
“Yes, My Lord”
“Were you required to write a report on Mr. Pickup, Miss Shinkley?”
“Yes, but–”
“Your comments in this report would be strictly objective?”
“Of course...”
“Would you explain what you meant when you described the defendant as ‘eccentric’, please?”
“Well, I thought him unusual.  His manner was a little shifty.  He was awkward, in my professional opinion.”
“I see.  Miss Shinkley, may I ask you to put yourself in the defendant’s position for a moment?  Let’s imagine you are to receive a visit from a member of the social services because you have offered to instruct the son of a close friend in a subject you have a particular talent for.   A boy who is considered by the authorities to be vulnerable.  How would you feel under these circumstances?”
He was cornering Melissa and there was nothing she could do about it. It was difficult not to be pleased.  
“I would think it perfectly reasonable.”
“As a professional, yes.  But, put yourself in Mr. Pickup’s position.  An ordinary member of the public.  How would you feel then?”
“Objection!  I fail to see why Miss Shinkley’s feelings about a hypothetical situation should be relevant, My Lord.”  Bewley stood with a hand on his hip doing a good job of looking outraged.
“Mr. Dunster is trying to establish whether the defendant had a good reason to act in a ‘shifty’ manner, I presume.”
“Exactly so, My Lord.”
“Then kindly continue.  Objection denied.  The witness will answer the question.”
Melissa spoke up bravely. “I imagine I would feel nervous.”
“Nervous enough to seem shifty?”
“That’s not the same thing.”
Awkward, then?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
I was comforted by the fact that the eyes of the jury were fixed on Melissa. And I had a new confidence in Daniel Dunster.
“After this visit did you file a report, Miss Shinkley?”
“I refer you to item two, members of the jury.  On the first page, last paragraph.  ‘In my opinion, Terry Pickup poses no identifiable threat to Jack Banford’s safety.’  Was this your considered conclusion, Miss Shinkley?”
“At the time.  Yes.”
“At the time.  Hmm.  And, at the time, or since would you say that there was any single piece of evidence to show that my client intended to harm Jack Banford, the son of his dearest friend?”
“It was a brief meeting.  I did suggest a second visit.”
“Yes.  You did.  Page two, third paragraph.  ‘I suggest that, should Jack express concerns of any kind, a second and more thorough appraisal should be made of Mr. Pickup.’  Is that what you wrote, Miss Shinkley?”
“It sounds to me as though you had no urgent concerns about my client.  Would I be right in thinking this?”
“At the time, yes.”
“You had no reason to suspect my client of any wrong doing?”
“Not at the time!”
“A simple yes or no, Miss Shinkley.”
“And on no occasion, either at the time or since, did Jack Banford approach you with concerns about my client?” 
The insistent repetition of his argument gripped me.  Melissa’s frustration was clear.
“Well, no.  But–”
“Thank you, Miss Shinkley.  I have no further questions.”
As I watched Melissa leave the stand I willed her to look at me.  Instead, she glanced up at the public gallery and mouthed the word ‘sorry’.
I was exhausted.  Partly from the ill will that Melissa bore me and partly because my liberty hung in the balance.  I was in turn optimistic and terrified.  My head ached.  I dreaded seeing Jess testify against me, but not as much as I dreaded seeing Julian.  That would be difficult to endure.

In the meantime, the pathologist, a slight man with a sallow complexion and eyes that bulged, took the stand and was sworn in.  He delivered his professional assessment in a voice that hovered between apology and boredom, which added to the horror and made me shudder.
Jack had drowned.  He had bruises to his left shoulder and upper arm, which were shown to be inconclusive, in spite of brave attempts made by the prosecutor to prove that they were inflicted during a desperate struggle with me, the accused.  The pathologist would not be drawn.  He was immune to conjecture.  Cold water had entered the boy’s lungs and passed into the body’s lymph channels via the ruptured alveolar walls and pulmonary veins, thence to the heart, brain and liver.  Jack would have passed out within four minutes of submersion, at which point he would have either asphyxiated or experienced organ failure.
When he had given his testimony, the pathologist stepped down and I listened to his sharp, neat footfalls, thinking only of Jack.

I ate little lunch.  Inside my cell, I was tortured by what had happened that morning and also by what was to come.  There would be no real surprises.  I knew the charges against me.  I understood the testimony that would be presented.  But in the courtroom it was not only what people said that counted.  Melissa had performed badly.  Badly enough to silently apologise to Jack’s grandmother as she left. 

When a guard came to take me up, neither of us spoke.  I walked the passageway behind him and climbed the narrow stairs, taking my place like a lamb to the slaughter. 

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