The journey from central London to Peckham is tedious and holds no scenic splendours other than the rather bizarre sculpture outside Tesco on the Old Kent Road. On the day that Trudy Mason died I had taken the tube to the Elephant and Castle and then a bus towards Peckham. The meeting I was going to was at the studio of a young opera designer somewhere off Trafalgar Rd. I got off the bus three streets away and as I zigzagged my way past tower blocks and derelict playgrounds my thoughts turned to dinner. We had friends coming and I was cooking. If I did a risotto starter did we have any Arborio rice? Was asparagus good at moment? Did I have time to go to Borough market to pick up some decent cheese? Distracted by culinary fantasy I stepped off the kerb to cross a quiet residential street, as I did so a car came round the corner at high speed, it clipped my right leg and sent me spinning onto the pavement. I was not badly hurt, very shocked certainly and my leg was completely numb but I was much luckier than Trudy who had been crossing the road from her Mum’s house to her Nan’s on the other side a few doors down. The car caught her full on and threw her into the air. She landed head first on the curb, I saw her skull shatter and I knew immediately that she would not even be ‘dead on arrival’ but ‘dead at the scene’. A woman passing started screaming, I must have passed out because the next thing I remember I was lying in an ambulance with an oxygen mask over my mouth, my leg was no longer numb but hurt like hell, the woman was still screaming.
In A&E I slowly came out of shock and reran in my mind what had happened. A nurse seeing me sitting up came over.
“The little girl died” I said. It was a statement and not a question. After a moment’s pause she nodded.
“How do you feel?” she asked
“OK I guess. Is my leg going to be alright?”
“Just badly bruised. No breaks. There is a policeman who wants to talk to you. Are you up to it?”
“Yes why not?”
A young constable came over.
“Thank you Mr Irwin for talking to us so soon after the accident”
“What about the driver?” I asked “He didn’t stop did he?”
“No he didn’t. Can you tell me anything about the car?”
I told him three things that I knew about the car. It was a black BMW, all the windows were blacked out and that it had the letters ‘EMD’ in its number plate.
A couple of weeks later my statement was read out at the inquest. I wasn’t asked to attend, I’m not sure why, but I went anyway. From a conversation with a local journalist on the steps of the Coroner’s court I learned that Trudy’s Mum was a single parent, that Trudy, who had been eight years and fifty three days old on the day she died, was the youngest of three, that she had a twelve year old brother Kelvin and a fifteen year old sister Sophie who played the clarinet.
Two weeks after that an arrest was made. I knew this because my ‘Witness Liaison Officer’ Penny rang me to tell me. I went out and bought a copy of the Peckham Advertiser and read that Alvarez Camargo had been charged with causing death by dangerous driving and remanded in custody. His application for bail had been refused. The story hinted that Camargo had drug dealing connections and was probably not a nice person. There was a murky photograph of an overweight black man with a moustache. Penny told me that the case would come up in a couple of month’s time and that until then I shouldn’t discuss the case with anyone. Needless to say I spent the next couple of months discussing the case with everyone and when I wasn’t doing that I mentally rehearsed my evidence (described as crucial by Penny) and pictured the defence’s cross examining barrister, who in my mind’s eye ranged from Charles Dance to Rumpole. At one point in my conversations with Penny I brought up the question of witness intimidation.
“Oh Mr Irwin you’ve been watching too much television. I don’t think you need worry about that” she said cheerfully.
Eventually she rang to say that the court date was finally set and I received notification from Southwark Crown Court to attend in a fortnight’s time. One evening about a week before the appointed date I was walking home along one of the quiet streets that lead from the Old Vic to the Borough when a car pulled up along side me, two men in balaclavas jumped out and threw me onto the floor in the back. My head was forced down until my nose was jammed into the laces of a shiny black shoe, I could smell the leather. I had no doubt what was happening, as Penny had rightly suggested, I had seen this sort of thing on television. After only two or three minutes the car pulled up and I was rolled out into an alleyway between two shops. The two men started to kick me, I squirmed about trying to protect myself. At first they said nothing but then they started to shout “Do you know why we are here? Do you? Do you?” After only the third kick I came to a very rational but highly immoral decision. I wasn’t going to give evidence against Alvarez Camargo. I would have told my attackers this had I not been so severely winded that I couldn’t speak. As they continued their work in a very professional way (they avoided kicking my head), they started to recite the name of my son’s school, the address of the office where my wife worked and the name of the ward of the care-home where my mother lived. At last I managed to gasp out “I won’t give evidence, I promise, I promise” I begged for mercy and they stopped. One of them bent down and whispered in my ear “If we have to come again we will cut out your tongue”. They walked back to their car.
“Wait! Wait!” I said. They both turned to hear what the man grovelling on the tarmac had to say. “I have a message for him. Get him to call me. They have phone cards and so on in remand centres don’t they? I’ll give you my mobile number”
“We know your mobile number” one of them said and they got back into the car and drove away.
I recovered enough to call my wife who drove the few hundred yards to pick me up. She tried to take me to hospital but I refused, at home she had to help me up the stairs to our second floor flat. She, like me, understood exactly what had just happened. As she helped me take off my ruined clothes she said nothing until the full extent of the bruising was revealed then simply “Oh Jesus”.
We sat on the bed together.
“I can’t give evidence against him” I said
“No you can’t” she agreed.
This was easier said than done. The police and Penny in particular were unlikely to let me off the hook. They had my original statement and I could probably be forced to appear whether I liked it or not and I could easily face a charge of perjury. I hadn’t come up with the answer to this problem when, two days before the trial, I received a call on my mobile from a number that I didn’t recognise.
A deep voice said “You have a message for me”
I hadn’t really expected this call but nevertheless I had thought about what I would say if it did come.
“Oh. It’s you. Er I just wanted to say that…I just wanted to say…” I petered out unnerved by the total silence from the other end. “Listen I know that you are a bad man, probably a very bad man, but I don’t believe that you meant to kill Trudy Mason that day. I also know that there is nothing you or I can do to bring her back but you must promise me to do something for her mother and family. I don’t mean money, this is nothing to do with money, this is not Africa where you run over a child and give the parents the price of a goat or a cow. At some point in the future her mother needs to believe that good things can still happen. Do you understand? I er …I want your word of honour on this”. Asking a man like Camargo for his word of honour was patently ludicrous and the silence continued, I thought for a moment that he had rung off but then he said “OK.” Then he broke the connection.
I felt I had no option but to appear at the trial but I had planned carefully what I would do. I was the worst witness for the prosecution ever. Camargo’s barrister couldn’t believe his luck. In minutes he had convinced the jury that I had a poor memory, poor eyesight, that I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time of the accident, that I couldn’t tell the difference between a BMW and a Fiat Panda, that I was in shock when I gave my original statement to the police, that the letters ‘EMD’ were the first letters that came into my head and finally that I had rabid racist tendencies. Camargo, who had watched me stonily throughout, walked free, Trudy’s Nan spat at me as I left court.
Two years later I received a press cutting through the post. It was a small item from the Peckham Advertiser. Under the headline ‘Scholarship for local girl’ it said that talented local clarinettist Sophie Mason had been awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. For a moment I thought of the visit that must have been made by two men in balaclavas to a tweed jacketed examining professor of music and I smiled.