(And the cover? It’s what you have to do to get a book into Tescos.)
‘It is unusual to be charmed and horrified by alternate sentences, but this is Abi Grant’s gift as a writer…I cried, I laughed and then I cheered!’
The Observer, Sunday 12 November 2006
The first thing that struck me was what a little man he was. Not just short, but petty and nondescript. When he sat he slumped forward, which made him look even smaller. His institutional grey sweatshirt matched his hair and sallow complexion, and I agreed with myself that of the two of us, I had aged better. I was aware of voices gabbling as proceedings began, but kept my eyes on him, with the kind of open glare that in a pub or schoolyard would precipitate a fight. And I felt a strong urge to fight him – to punch him in the face bone-breakingly hard. It was the atavistic call of unfinished business. Eventually he looked up and caught my eye, more by accident than purpose. I dead-eyed him and his eyes flicked nervously down and away. Ha, I thought, not so tough now, are we? I childishly reckoned I could take him and, more adultly, that if I had a tyre iron, there’d be blood on the floor.
We’d met once before.
It was January 1993. I was 28 and had written the book for a musical. After years in the sketch-show salt mines, this was my First Big Thing. Unfortunately, after a successful run in Birmingham, the show arrived in the West End just in time for the last great IRA bombing campaign on the mainland. Everything closed that Christmas, a dozen or more shows in all.
The last Friday, cast, crew, chorus and orchestra all met at a restaurant in the Strand, and although it didn’t start out as the happiest of evenings, put enough gay men and alcohol together and a party will happen.
It was bumping 4.30am when I got home. As I paid the cab driver, a cheerful black boy strolled up. ‘Got a ciggie?’ he asked. Having just waved goodbye to my First Big Thing, I was in a grimly giving mood – why the hell not? So I pulled out my Silk Cut. ‘Excellent,’ he grinned, ‘my brand!’ I gave him two, and he loped contentedly off towards Canonbury.
I went downstairs to my flat, checked my messages (none), made a cup of tea, then slid into bed and a deep sleep.
My police statement takes it from there:
‘I was then awakened with a start. I realised that the duvet had been pulled off and there was a man on top of me. I was flat on my back and he was flat on me. His chest was on my chest, and his face was inches from mine. I was pinned down and my arms were by my side.’
I didn’t believe it and shut my eyes. It took several desperate ‘peekings’ before I realised ‘this is happening’.
‘The man was rocking backwards and forwards as if he was simulating sex, and was trying to force my legs open with his legs. I was for about 15 seconds paralysed with fear.’
My eyes hadn’t adjusted to the dull light seeping through my blinds. All I could make out was a shape, dark, shifting and violent. He jabbed his tongue in my mouth, and I could taste the cigarettes. He grabbed my left breast through my T-shirt and began violently twisting it. ‘No,’ I whispered and, I think, ‘please’. My voice didn’t work. ‘Shut up you fucking bitch or I’ll kill you,’ he said, his voice working fine. The swearing and threats continued as he began punching me in the face, his erection grinding into me, his excitement building.
Then he stopped punching me and tried to insert his fingers into me but I kept my legs shut. There was no way he could force them. So he grabbed my pubic hair. ‘You cunt.’
‘I was absolutely petrified, but I realised my arms were half free, it could be my chance to get away. His trousers were pulled down and he was trying to direct his penis into my vagina.’
He kept trying to force his dick in, but, with my legs shut, there was nowhere for it to go. He let go of my breast, shifted his weight to his left and used his right hand to ‘guide’ himself in.
‘I realised my left arm was half free, so I tried to grab his penis.’
I missed, brushing it enough to feel its sponginess, but unable to grab it. Incensed, he reared up. He forced me back on to the bed, one hand around my throat, holding me down, the other punching my face, spitting out threats with each blow.
‘He hit me at least 10 times. He just kept punching me.’
I was wriggling wildly, and managed to deflect at least half the blows from my face to the side of my head.
‘The struggle became quite violent.’
Pushing his chest with my right hand, I punched his face wildly with my left. I thought I was going to die. No, not die – be killed.
What happened next was downright hallucinatory. Time expanded sideways. Facts, figures, people, places, appeared not in a sequence but as one great moment of ‘knowing’. I have a vivid memory of a photograph taken when I was a child. I can still see the garden, the boy playing a guitar, the dappled light falling on a fat man on a sun lounger. It’s as real as anything that happened that night.
I’ve come to believe your ‘life flashing in front of my eyes’ is the brain scrolling through everything that’s happened to you, looking for a way out. Like you’ve Googled the word ‘help’.
I ‘woke’ with one simple thought – let him get on with it and live (advice that was bandied around at that time). So I stopped struggling and lay completely still. It seemed to work. He stopped hitting me and let go of my throat. Then he lifted up my shirt, and took his time to feel me, not swearing this time but moaning, ‘Oh yeah.’ As he started to part my legs I had another simple thought. ‘I’m going to be raped.’ And then, ‘I don’t want to be raped.’ So when he turned his attention back to my face, stroking my hair, and putting his tongue in my mouth, I bit it as hard as I could.
He yelped, and lurched backwards. I saw an opening and went for his dick. This time I made it. I squeezed, twisted and dug my nails in and he went berserk. I can’t remember being hit – all I was thinking was: ‘I’m not letting go.’ At some point he tired of hitting me or maybe the pain got too great. Anyway I saw another opening and using his dick for leverage, I hauled myself up into a sitting position.
‘And then I managed to head-butt him.’
As hard as I could.
‘He went “Arrgh” and leapt backwards, he had loosed his erection (sic) and jumped back and ran out of the room.’
I recoiled back on to the bed – momentarily concussed. When I came to, he was gone.
I ran to the front door desperate to escape, but it was locked, which didn’t make sense. If someone’s in your flat, they must’ve come in through the front door, right? I remembered I’d dropped the keys next to the kettle in the kitchen when I’d made the tea. I was trapped, and still had no idea where he was. I ran back to the living room and grabbed an old sword stick I kept tucked behind the TV. It was a rickety old thing from the Twenties, picked up as a curio, but holding the 2ft blade I immediately felt stronger. I knew if he came back in I’d try and kill him. Still operating on simple thoughts, I stood square to the kitchen door. ‘If he comes in, go for the torso.’ One… two… Nothing.
I grabbed the phone and dialled 999, but there was no line. The wire had been cut. I looked down and there, laid out neatly on the floor, in descending order of size, were the knives from the knife block in the kitchen.
I held my breath to listen properly, then hearing nothing ran into the kitchen for the keys. The window was open. He’d left the same way he’d come in. I shut the window and grabbed my keys. I was shaking as I hauled on clothes then ran upstairs to my friend and landlady Peri. I pounded so hard on her door that I left marks in the wood. She let me in and phoned the police. The whole episode had lasted no longer than 10 minutes.
Fifteen minutes later the police arrived and the machine took over. A PC wiped blood off my face and asked me to ‘take him through what’d happened’. I was driven to the station, and on the way another policeman asked me what had happened. The police doctor scraped and prodded me, then took a blood sample for an Aids test. ‘Oh,’ he said matter-of-factly. ‘Your nose is broken.’ Pinching the bridge between his first finger and thumb, he clicked it back into place. Two policewomen came and asked me what had happened. Peri brought fresh clothes and I was led to the only changing room they had – the women’s toilet – where I put what I was wearing into brown paper bags. I was beginning to slow down, sedated by shock. Finally I was taken to a room full of uniforms, where a senior officer asked me what had happened.
I was driven back to Peri’s during the morning rush hour and gazed bewilderingly at people waiting at bus stops, life carrying on. Hadn’t the world just changed? Of course it hadn’t. Mine had, that was all.
The next few days were a blizzard of statements, visits to hospital (I lost 10 per cent vision in my right eye) and mundane racism. ‘Black guy, was it?’ said the BT man reconnecting my phone, merely the first of many. My black friends admitted they were relieved he was white, and then that they were embarrassed they were relieved. But everyone wanted to know. I became an expert at sussing out when they’d ask, and how euphemistically. ‘Did you get a good look at him?’ was popular. Nobody ever assumed he was white.
Privacy was a thing of the past as forensic teams in their bunny suits, booties and gloves traipsed through my flat. They removed everything with blood on it and left strange patches of silver dust in their search for prints. Everything was opened, everything searched, lots of things were taken and nothing was returned.
A few days later, the Islington Gazette linked it with other attacks that weekend and emblazoned the headline ‘Sex Beast’s Reign of Terror’ on the billboards outside newsagents. I’d never read about myself before and it took a second to realise the ’28-year-old professional woman’ attacked in her basement was me. While enraged at the use of my suffering (and others) to sell copy, I also noted I’d made it into the professional classes. Ten years earlier and it would’ve said ‘park keeper’.
Seven months on, the forensic evidence made it to the front of the queue, after which I was informed that, whoever my attacker was, he was ‘not known to the police’. Then the machine moved on. The rest was silence.
April 2005. Twelve years later. I was finishing my 60th or so TV episode of Thomas the Tank Engine when I heard a knock at my door. ‘My name’s DC Andy Jackson and I’m with the Cold Case Squad,’ said a man in his late-thirties, as if he’d walked straight off the TV. ‘I’m DC Donna Mitchell from the Sapphire Unit,’ said a woman with dark hair and an impossibly kind face. She asked if I was the woman who’d been attacked in 1993. I told them I was. ‘Have you heard of a Greig Strachan?’ I told them the only Strachan I’d ever heard of was Gordon. ‘Can you think of any reason why Greig Strachan’s fingerprints would be in your flat?’ No. I’d never heard of him. ‘Then I think we’ve got him,’ said DC Jackson firmly. The machine was back and I invited them in.
Over tea, Andy and Donna (as they were to become) said the government had set up the Sapphire Unit to help boost the lamentable number of rape convictions (they didn’t use the word lamentable). All unsolved stranger assaults were being re-opened, and having run the old evidence from my case through their new machines they’d found a fingerprint match. ‘Where was the print?’ I asked. ‘We can’t tell you,’ they replied (a phrase I was to become familiar with). Did I want to go ahead with the case? If not, they’d go away.
I’d been appalled by the statistics, too. In 1985, one in four men accused of rape were convicted. By 2003, that rate had fallen to one in 20. That’s 5 per cent. Any lower and they might as well give every woman a gun and make it legal. But here was a chance to buck the trend, so I said: ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ Donna, now my official Victim Support Officer, made a date to return to collect more statements, and within 20 minutes they were gone.
I went back to Thomas (he had a circus to deliver), and later called my friends. We all agreed it sounded terribly exciting. As it turns out, we were all wrong.
Donna came and took my ‘impact statement’. In the last four years I’d begun a second career writing, among other things, Thomas the Tank Engine . I had a great new agent, a lovely safe flat, money in the bank; I was branching out and felt the right side of cheerful.
I’d forgotten how much I hated him. Because of this man, I lost everything: home, relationship, agent, money, career, even my dog. It didn’t happen overnight. Trauma is like an earthquake that gradually pulls apart the tectonic plates of your life and leaves you struggling to remain upright and sane.
I started drinking and blew more than £10,000 on drugs and alcohol in the first year alone. I became increasingly isolated, despite the best efforts of friends, who wanted to understand but didn’t. Trying to articulate how you feel without a common reference point is impossible. As Seneca put it, small cares have many words, big cares have few, and I ended up saying less and less. Soon the gap between how you’re presenting yourself (I’m a survivor!) and how you actually feel is unbridgeable. It’s like that feeling when you wake up in a hotel and for a few seconds wonder where you are. I used to do that with my entire life.
Descent is a bumpy ride, and I was shocked to be reminded I was once referred to the Waterlow Unit in Archway as a suicide risk. I don’t remember wanting to kill myself. I do remember wanting the pain to stop.
Eight years down the line, following a particularly hopeless relationship, I was homeless and broke, had sold anything that could be sold including my records and was reduced to cleaning for a living. Given that’s what I did when I left school, the sense of failure was complete.
It’s usually at this point that someone says, ‘That which does not destroy you makes you stronger’ and I have to resist saying, ‘Spoken like a German.’ It doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you limping and mean.
And unlike a lot of people whose lives take a turn for the worse, I knew whose fault it was. Time had turned him into a phantom. Now he was real, and I badgered Donna for information. Who was he? Where was he from? If the police had a print match he must’ve been in the system – what for? ‘I can’t tell you,’ said Donna, often adding, ‘Even I don’t know that.’ I knew she was lying, and she knew I knew.
I took comfort in the police’s awe-inspiring pedantry. No fact was too small to be cross- checked, no statement left untaken. To give them access to my medical records, I had to sign permission slips for each person they wanted to contact, then that person had to counter sign, saying their comments could be used. And that’s 12 years after the event.
It soon became apparent the case wasn’t straightforward. It was definitely his fingerprint, but you can’t date fingerprints. You can prove they were left, but not when. I even had to sign a separate statement declaring I’d shut the front door before running up to Peri’s so he couldn’t claim to have slipped in during the 15 minutes between the attack and the police arriving.
In conversations with Donna, I remembered I’d been burgled a year before the attack. A thief had kicked the door in, grabbed a mate’s toolbox and scarpered. I knew the thief hadn’t been in my bedroom because I had more than £300 cash from a breast-cancer benefit sitting on the dresser, and it was still there.
So where was his fingerprint? If it was in my bedroom he was definitely guilty. Donna’s answer was the same. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.’
As a victim you’re in the paradoxical position of being at the centre of everything while being told nothing about it. ‘We’re not allowed to coach witnesses,’ they repeat, but it’s more than that. Our system is built on catching the victim unaware, making their testimony seem ‘more honest’ to a jury. Because it’s not you versus him, it’s the Crown v him, you’re a witness, a legal veal calf to be led blinkingly into the witness box when your time is called. Then you’re on your own.
Finally, one wet morning, two months later, I was at home working when Donna phoned sounding pleased. ‘We’ve arrested him – he’s been remanded into custody.’
I felt the need to celebrate. It was too early for a drink, so I went to the fridge and grabbed a pot of raspberry jelly. Even though it was a cold grey day, I put on my coat, shut the door, and stood on the balcony and ate it. Because I could go outside and he couldn’t.
The CPS found there was a case to answer and Strachan was given the opportunity to plead guilty, but didn’t. The legal arguments kept going until Christmas, then in the new year I was finally given my trial date, 6 February, to run for four days.
But the trial date was cancelled, and another put in its place. When that and the next four trial dates were cancelled, I realised the worst thing about going to trial is actually getting there. My life was spent waiting for the call.
Work became impossible, sleep a luxury, the temptation to quit almost irresistible.
Then a trial date held. On a cold, dank morning, Donna collected me and my friends Marsha and Amanda and drove us to Snaresbrook. Seated in the witness waiting area, I was presented with the floorplans of my old flat. There, marked with a red cross, was the spot where his fingerprint was found. On the inside of my bedroom door. I was shown the police photo of my injuries to be presented to the jury. Looking at a younger you is always strange, a younger battered you doubly so. I was less upset than curious; was that really me? And didn’t long hair suit me? My inappropriate vanity was interrupted by a middle-aged woman plonking herself next to me, smelling so strongly of perfume and cigarettes that she reminded me of the Seventies. She was ‘our’ barrister. She patted me on the shoulder, said I’d be fine, and vanished.
A court official appeared and led Amanda and Marsha to the public gallery but I had to wait while they removed Strachan from court. I’d refused a video link, opting for a screen instead.
I took my place in the witness box, the jury opposite a baffle board to my right. Strachan was led back in and I found it strangely gratifying to hear the clanking of the warden’s keys.
As I sat down after taking my oath (no God), I felt dizzy and asked the judge if I could have some water. A clerk swiftly appeared with a cup and those were the last few seconds when I felt I had a say in the proceedings.
As ‘our’ barrister opened with questions about the night of the attack, I was aware of the jury as a mass, not individuals. It was only when describing Strachan physically that I noticed their eyes flicking to the other side of the board and I wondered if what I was saying matched what they could see. I was asked about my cleaning habits, and having been a chamber maid, said I was good at cleaning and did it regularly. It was all over in about 25 minutes.
It was the defence’s turn and his barrister stood: a Home Counties woman, 60-ish, blonde hair, heavy jowelled and wearing baby-pink lipstick, which was a mistake.
She started in a ‘sincere voice’, saying the defence was, of course, not disputing that I’d been attacked, and I found myself saying, ‘Thank you,’ which annoyed me. I realised Donna’s advice to ‘just tell the truth’ provided no clues as to the rules of engagement.
‘I see you kept your wallet in the kitchen,’ she started.
I said yes, which was true and it wasn’t. I’d dropped it next to the kettle the night of the attack, but I didn’t ‘keep’ it there as a matter of course. But saying yes allowed her to launch into questions about pizza-delivery men. In the six years I’d lived in that flat, did I ever ask pizza-delivery men into the kitchen to pay them? (‘No.’) Did I ever ask them to bring the pizza through because my hands were full? (‘No.’) When she asked me whether I’d ever asked a man to bring the pizza in because the box was ‘too hot’ and finally ‘too heavy’, I didn’t know whether I was allowed to say, ‘Are you insane?’ or ‘Don’t you eat pizza in Esher?’ I’d twigged she was trying to place this man in my bedroom consensually, but didn’t know how long was I expected to answer dumb questions without reacting to their idiocy.
After similarly tortuous questions about gas men, electricity men, postmen (did you ever have a package that was so heavy you…), she started on men in pubs, making the fact that I had drunk in local pubs sound like an admission.
Did you ever talk to men in pubs? (I’ve no idea, I must have.) Surely in all your conversations, you must have had one so fascinating you said, ‘Let’s finish this at my place?’ (‘No.’) What, really? (‘No.’) Never? (‘No.’) Are you telling the court that in all your years of drinking in pubs you never once had a conversation so fascinating you felt the need to finish it later? (‘No.’) So you’ve never been out with friends and etc etc, into endless variations of ‘Did you pick men up at pubs?’, all in a tone of scepticism, implying I was withholding something (‘Oh you’re right, I forgot – I was a slut’).
Did I ever have workmen in? (A friend was a builder). Painters and decorators? (My next-door neighbour). Finally she hit on motorcycle couriers. I must have used them and asked them into my bedroom, as that’s where my computer was. I said no, I didn’t use couriers, and even if I did I wouldn’t ask one into my bedroom.
Her eyebrows shot up in disbelief. Are you sure there wasn’t one draft that absolutely had to be there that afternoon because etc etc?
I finally explained I’d worked on sketch shows that were time contingent, but the musical was a major piece that took three years to complete. She turned to the jury with a knowing smile: ‘Oh, I’m sure we’d all like three years to finish something.’
I was dumbstruck. Implying I’d fucked the Household Cavalry might be germane to the defence, but sneering at me? I was so thrown I lacked the resources to point out I’d have liked to have got to 30 without being attacked.
Before I realised it she’d moved on to my flatmate, asking whether I knew her ‘male acquaintances’ and any other men she may have ‘brought home’. I gathered myself and said we’d been at the same comprehensive, so yes, I did know her ‘male acquaintances’ and her boyfriend – singular.
Her last serious dig was during questions about the burglary. I explained (again) the burglar had grabbed the tools and left and I knew he hadn’t gone into my bedroom because the cash was still there.
She asked whether, having reported the incident to the police, I later pursued it. I said no, it wasn’t that serious a crime.
‘Well, maybe not to you,’ she replied. ‘After all, they weren’t your tools that were stolen.’
I wasn’t taking that. I told her I’d paid for my friend’s tools to be replaced and was sure that, if asked, he would agree that ‘having a toolbox stolen was slightly less serious than being attacked by a rapist’. Now fuck off.
I was eventually released from the court. Donna said I’d done well, my friends said they were proud, and I was furious but relieved.
Thank God that’s over, I said. If only.
The next afternoon Donna arrived at my door. By then I’d succumbed to the flu and was trying vainly to write. Bleary eyed and wearing pyjamas, I let her in.
She looked unhappy, and told me earlier that day the defence had introduced something ‘that made him look good’, something they knew they weren’t allowed to do, but leaving the judge no option but to dismiss the jury. There was going to be a re-trial. For the first time since it all began, I burst into tears.
February dragged on into March, and three courses of antibiotics later, I was still ill, only now I had thrush, too. I lay in bed wondering what did ‘made him look good’ mean? Was he working with handicapped kids? Had he repented – if so, why was he pleading not guilty? If I’d heard what had been said in open court, it would’ve been fine, but the police thought it better I be kept in the dark (again). It was maddening, but by now I’d spent enough time with Donna to believe she had my best interests at heart. I also knew that beneath her doe-eyed kindness lay a woman who had every episode of The Shield on DVD. So for want of a better plan I decided to trust her.
I had a eureka moment, too, when I realised the defence was operating on a misassumption – that I’d lived in the flat continually for six years. I’d missed it in court because I was busy being wrong-footed, but I’d moved out after four years, only moving back in after my flatmate went travelling.
More significantly, in between her going away and me moving back in, our neighbour painted the place white from top to bottom.
So to hell with pizza-delivery men and how often I cleaned: the print had to have got there after I’d moved back in. I wrote a statement, Peri and Martin wrote supporting statements, and a new trial date was set for May.
Read PART TWO here: