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Red, Yellow and Purple

PG

'Court rise.'

Judge George Witnesham entered the court. Shrouded in red and topped with a slightly tatty wig, he's one of the most senior judges here. For senior, read old. Cadaver-like. But no less sharp for that. Not one of the dodderers the media like to tell you run our justice system.

Of course, I'm part of that media conspiracy. Journalist, boy and man, as my first editor would have said. But strictly local news. None of your sensationalist muck-raking for the tabloids. Sitting on the press bench, notebook in hand, shorthand at 120 words per minute. Twenty-odd years of cases, from the leader of the council being done for dangerous driving to terrible stories of family violence. But rarely a murder. And never a defendant I actually knew.

I say knew. Used to know, really. Peter Edwards lived in the same village as me when I was a kid. Same street. We lived on what was known as the new estate - one-and-a-half roads, built a few years before I was born. And Mr Shelley lived there too.

We all knew Mr Shelley. Bachelor. No job. Always around. To us he seemed ancient - but actually he was little older than I am now. He was one of those men adults were uneasy about. If I was walking past his bungalow with mum, she'd pull me close, away from his line of vision. He always seemed to be looking out of his window. And we were all warned to 'leave Mr Shelley alone' or 'don't go bothering him', though we never knew why.

And then one day there were police outside his home. We'd seen a police car there once or twice before, but this time there were lots of police. Several cars, lining the road. Activity as people went in and out. There were a whole load of us boys on our bikes - I was about eight by then and the youngest by two or three years. We were just circling, like a flock of curious birds. None of us seemed to be curious enough, though, to actually ask what was going on. I think at one point a policeman suggested we moved away, but we just continued circling.

I must have realised what had happened the next day. Mum always read the local paper, and there on the front page was a photo of Mr Shelley. And though I can't remember the exact headline, I know it included the word murder.

The courtroom's neither old and imposing nor new and stylish. Typical 1960s functional architecture. It lacks the old fashioned grandeur of the nineteenth century courthouse in the next big town - all wood panelling, carving and heraldic shields. And it isn't big and airy like the new regional court - grey and white with a massive glass atrium and toughened glass separating defendant from courtroom.

No, our court is strictly practical. Lots of wood - but plywood. Padded benches - but with cheap plastic covering. A balcony for the public gallery, which is at least testament to the locals that they don't chuck missiles at defendant or judge. And press benches on one side; you have to twist round to see the judge and the dock. Most of the time us reporters are head down, scribbling away, but even if we had been face-on to this defendant, we'd have barely been able to see him.

Peter Edwards was a little older than me - three years maybe. He'd been in that flock of circling boys outside Mr Shelley's house when it happened. He was skinny, scruffy, quiet. Brown hair - never tidy. He often had bruises on his arms and legs - but then a lot of us lads did. Mostly from falling off our bikes or out of trees.

Neither of us were ever quite part of the gang. We were both on the periphery. I was a bit young. He was a bit, well, odd. He never joked with the other boys. I can't ever remember seeing him laugh.

Seeing him in court was a bit of a shock. Were there really just a few years between us? His face was turned down, looking at the floor, almost hiding from the rest of the room. But I could see enough. He was gaunt, grey, wrinkled.

That summer of 1981. Seems so long ago. I suppose it is - more than thirty years. But there's an unreality about it. Like a story. I can remember colours more than specifics. Yellow - the sun, the cornfield at the back of our house. The crunch of the stubble under foot after harvest. Purple - the lavender in our front garden. That beautiful fresh aroma - not like my grandma's 'toilet water'. Red - the bricks of our little identikit bungalows. Fresh strawberries picked from our garden, the juice dribbling down my chin.

And feelings. That sense of being happy - carefree - that long summer holidays bring. It's probably only a dream of what it was like: it was probably mostly grey and wet and smelt of the local chicken farm. But in my head that summer before we moved into the town was yellow and purple and red and supremely happy.

Our road was a cul-de-sac - no cars driving through. The only time you saw them was when the dads left for work in the morning or arrived back in the evening. We used to play football in the road. Well, the bigger boys did. I tended to run up and down and try not to get in the way. Sometimes one of them would bring a portable stereo and blast out The Jam or Blondie, until one of the mums came and gave us a different sort of blasting.

Peter and I were both only children, so we'd often end up playing together. I'd forgotten that. I suppose we'd been quite close, really. But when you're that age and you move away, you make new friends, and forget the old.

'My lord. The background to this case is this. On September the first, 1981, the body of Mr William Shelley was found at his home address in Buttercup Way, Tingwell. He had suffered a single stab wound to the stomach.'

The prosecution laid out the detail for Judge Witnesham - no jury. This was the sentencing - these days a guilty man's rarely sentenced immediately after conviction. A fistful of reports have to be prepared to help the judge understand the sort of man he's dealing with, and by the time they're done, it's so long since the judge first heard the evidence, it has to be outlined again.

Until Peter's arrest I hadn't thought about Mr Shelley for years. Decades. We'd noticed he hadn't been at his window for a couple of days - that was unusual - but it was the milkman who raised the alarm. When, on the third morning, he was delivering Mr Shelley's gold top and the previous two pints were still by the front door, he peeked in the window. And as he couldn't see anything, he went round the back.

The door wasn't locked. The smell must have hit him first - it was a hot summer. Maybe the milko thought it was the rotting ham joint on the table, covered in flies. But that wasn't the only thing the flies were interested in.

Back in the early 1980s there was no such thing as DNA evidence. Even so, everything from the crime scene was safely filed away by the police, in case it was of use at a later date. Then, a year or so ago, a cold case team was assigned to Mr Shelley's murder, and found signs of urine on his clothes - not his. They put the DNA details into the national database - and up popped Peter Edwards.

He'd been in and out of trouble almost from the moment I left the village. His list of antecedents went on for pages, right back to when he was a minor. Shoplifting, bit of burglary, theft from handbags. Nothing violent, though. But his DNA was on the system and it proved he was at the scene. And he did nothing to deny it.

I'd spoken to the copper leading the case before the hearing - off the record. When they arrested Peter, he'd seemed unsurprised, but didn't admit to the killing immediately. He'd stayed silent, eyes fixed on the floor; just as he was now in the dock.

Finally, his solicitor had a word with him in private. The police then returned and questioning resumed.

'Did you do it?'

Peter gave a slight nod of the head without raising his eyes, like a naughty child. They took that as a confession.

As for motive, the prosecution said Peter had intended robbing Mr Shelley and when he didn't have anything worth taking, my childhood friend had stabbed the man and urinated on the body. Peter offered nothing to contradict their version of events.

But I really couldn't imagine Peter doing that. Seeing him in court, he barely looked strong enough to pick up a knife - let alone wield it against another human being. And as a boy?

We had been close. Over the years that had faded from my memory. When the big boys went off for a cycle ride, out of our village, Peter stayed behind with me. Mum wouldn't let me go beyond the end of the road.

We played football in his back garden. I don't know where his parents were. His dad must have been at work - not sure about his mum. She didn't socialise as much as the other mothers, in and out of each other's kitchens for coffee. She and Peter were quite alike. Neither could look people in the eye. Except Peter with me.

I think he'd have loved a younger brother. He was pretty good with a football and tried to teach me - but I just couldn't get it. Sport has never been my thing.

Sitting in court I realised we were probably in Peter's garden the day it happened. In fact, as I sat there listening to the evidence, I started to wonder if I was his alibi. Stupid, of course. I mean, he'd confessed. Sort of.

Thinking back to what must have been the day, I could remember him trying to teach me to score a goal. He was keeper - and the two apple trees were the goalposts. Whatever I did, I couldn't get past him. My body language gave me away. And I just didn't seem to be able to boot it hard enough. And I tried. But it just didn't come naturally. And then finally I really did manage to give it a good kick - and it went sailing over the hedge into the garden next door. Mr Shelley's.

'My lord. The defendant does not deny his responsibility for Mr Shelley's death. But we would like to put forward a number of mitigating circumstances for what happened. In particular, Mr Shelley's attraction to young boys and his inappropriate behaviour towards them.'

Peter's barrister was speaking. And now I knew why the adults were anxious about their neighbour. Mr Shelley had a habit of being rather too friendly with some of the boys. Inviting them in for fizzy drinks and crisps, expecting something no child should be asked to do in return. It seems one or two told their parents - and while Mr Shelley was never charged with anything, the police had dropped in to give him some 'advice'. The defence barrister explained that Peter had been a victim of Mr Shelley's unwanted attention.

'Look what you've done!' Peter was slumped on the ground, head in hands. 'Now I've got to go round there and get it.' Slowly he got up and trudged towards the gate.

The memories were now creeping back. In court, the barrister was describing how Peter had gone to get the ball. But I was back in 1981, back in Peter's garden.

'That's okay - I'll go,' I called, as I ran past Peter and out of the gate.

I rang Mr Shelley's doorbell and explained that our football had gone over the hedge. I'd thought he'd be angry. Petey - I remembered I used to call him Petey, not Peter - had gone all white and wobbly at the prospect of going round. But Mr Shelley was all smiles.

'That's okay, come in. Would you like a glass of Vimto…'

The hallway was dark. Doors all shut. He showed me through to the kitchen. In the middle was a smallish table and on it, a wooden board with a ham joint and large carving knife. Mr Shelley was still smiling at me - but somehow I knew it wasn't a normal smile. It wasn't like your teacher telling you you'd written a good story, or when mum was pleased I'd tidied my bedroom. There was something else. Something I didn't understand. His eyes. They weren't nice.

'No, thank you. I'd just like to get our ball back, please.' I made for the back door, but he grabbed my arm.

'You are a nice, polite little boy, aren't you? But there's no hurry.'

He tried to lead me back into that dark hall. But I felt like there was a monster lurking there. I tried again to get to the door, but somehow he got both my arms behind my back, pinning them tight with just one of his big, rough hands, the sausage fingers of the other one forcing my face upwards. This wasn't like being punished by dad when I'd been naughty. This was weird. I didn't have the words to explain how it felt. I still don't.

His face was close to mine now. His breath was hot and smelly, like when you put damp socks on a radiator. And his free hand… I didn't understand what he was doing. But I knew it was wrong and I didn't like it.

'No!' I had to stop him. Had to. I kicked. I bit. I squirmed and wriggled and fought. And then I was free.

But I knew it wouldn't last. I grabbed the knife.

'No, no, NO.'

He kept coming. He wasn't going to stop. He had to stop. Had to.

And then he was on the floor. There was blood on the knife. On the floor. All over Mr Shelley. I looked at him lying there. Smiling. Laughing, even. And then he sighed. Long and deep and final.

Petey was at the door. And I was shouting. Screaming. When had I started screaming? It had seemed like everything had happened in silence, but the noise must have brought Petey running.

He was beside me. He was shaking. His face was a colour I'd never seen before. Sort of grey. His mouth hung open, just like the man on the floor. He looked and looked and looked. His face seemed as big a mystery to me as Mr Shelley's.

My senses were coming back to me. It smelt like a butcher's shop, but with an added acridness that was coming from Petey. A trickle of wetness had made its way down his leg and had formed a golden puddle at his feet.

We stood there, silent now. Finally, he spoke, quiet and slow.

'Give me the knife.'

He took it and wiped it thoroughly with a mauve tea towel, then dropped it onto the floor. I looked down. Red and yellow and purple.

And then he led me back to his house.

That night mum asked me why I was wearing Petey's clothes. I said I'd got messy. I don't think she questioned anything else. She and dad were busy packing for the house move. They had other things to think about.

All this filled my head as the judge passed sentence. I didn't hear a word. I just stared at Petey. He'd come to my aid then and he was doing it again. As the judge finished, I found myself standing. I wanted to say something. I wanted to shout: 'It wasn't him! It was me!'

But I just looked at Petey. Helpless. Again.

And he knew. For just a second he looked straight at me and smiled. It was weak and sad but it was definitely a smile. Just for me. That childhood bond, that fraternity - it was still there. He was my big brother. Looking out for me. Putting me first.

And then they led him away.