I heard the shouting, went outside onto the landing of the block of flats, and saw the man with the gun. Then I saw him firing it. The other man fell down and didn’t get up.
The Barnaby Estate is renowned for violence and criminality. I should know – I was born and brought up there and only left a couple of years ago.
You see, I was one of the lucky ones who got away. When you apply for a job and put ‘The Barnaby Estate’ as your address you’re unlikely to get an interview, and even if you try to start your own business you won’t get many customers. When you live on The Barnaby you’re branded as rubbish, just as if you had a circle tattooed on your forehead, saying ‘underclass’.
But I had managed to escape it all by getting a job at a big retail store in town, working hard and getting promotion. In time I fell in love and married Sally, a girl who also worked there (who subsequently became a head of a department) and we bought a nice little flat on the smart new estate in an up-and-coming part of town. Sally was everything to me: beautiful, sexy, clever and exciting, and I really loved her more than anyone I’ve ever loved before.
However, Sally hated my background, and often referred to it disparagingly, refusing to meet my family and friends, so that gradually I cut all ties with my old life. And one day, just before we were married, she gave me an ultimatum:
“If you ever go back to that dreadful place, we’re finished, is that clear?” she said. “You’ve managed to get out, so now you have to stay out.”
“But I can’t cut myself off from my family!” I protested.
“You’ve got to choose,” she said staring me in the eyes. “It’s them or me. I mean it.”
“But how can I do that?”
“No arguments,” she said coldly. “Remember, I earn more than you, and I’ll be paying the mortgage for the flat we’re buying. What’s more, I’ve rescued you from the gutter. If I ever find out you’ve been back to that hell-hole, then you and I are finished. I mean it. Do you promise never to go back there?”
Reluctantly, I made the promise.
But do you know what? After a few moths of my new life, I was finding it hard. Because after a lifetime of never being on my own, I began to feel lonely. I began to feel nostalgic, remembering all the happy times I had enjoyed while growing up. In those days my friends were more like my family, and we hung around together, skived off school together and shared everything we had. And last year, when it was my brother’s birthday party, unbeknown to Sally, I went back to see my family and old friends there. Then I began to go back there regularly, telling Sally I was doing overtime. I hated lying to her, but what else could I do? I’d grown to realise that, wonderful as she was to me, she loved to exert control, and I was beginning to resent it. What right did she have to tell me how to live?
You see, there’s a fallacy about The Barnaby, and places like it, and that is that everyone who lives there is a drug dealer, a criminal or a prostitute, a scrounger or a lowlife. In reality the majority of the folk who live on so called ‘sink’ estates are decent, straight, normal people who work hard doing low paid jobs, sometimes two jobs at the same time, and they struggle to make ends meet. When I grew up, sure, my friends and I got up to the odd bit of mischief, but most of the time we were just fooling around, playing football, talking about girls and riding our bikes, not really doing any harm to anyone. There were criminal gangs on the estate, and drugs, but me and my friends managed to stay away from them, and our strict rule was: ‘see nothing, say nothing and mind your own business’. The gang members left us alone because they knew we wouldn’t rat them out. Lots of them weren’t evil bastards either, just normal guys, getting by, having been sucked into the criminal system and doing what they had to, to survive.
But a few days after the murder at The Barnaby I read in the papers that a man had been arrested for the shooting. I knew him, I knew him quite well, in fact he’d been one of my old friends. And I also knew that he was not the killer, and I could testify that the killer had been someone else completely – I could even give a description.
So I was in a bad place. If I went to the police and told them, my testimony would become public, and Sally would know I’d broken my promise to her and gone back to socialise with my old friends, and my marriage, my lovely safe life in the suburbs with a bright future, was over. But if I didn’t do so, a man I knew to be innocent would go to jail for a long time. What’s more the real killer would be on the loose, able to kill again. There had been several other witnesses to the shooting, so one option was to wait and see if someone else was prepared to speak up.
And on the following Sunday we were having a family party at my house. Sally’s family are quite posh: her brother Greg is a solicitor, and actually a really nice guy. I felt a bit subdued, not joining in with the laughter and joking. I was still torn, not knowing what to do. What Sally had said was true: I had escaped from a downtrodden life, and I did appreciate having a good future.
Everyone had been drinking, and somehow the subject of the shooting at The Barnaby came up, and everyone had different views. Sally, who’d drunk more then most of us, was at her most voluble.
“Thanks goodness I got you away from that awful place, John,” she said loudly to me. “What I’d like to do is build a huge wall around that Barnaby Estate,” she went on, “and then give them all masses of drugs and guns and ammunition and knives, leave them all trapped there, and hope they all got high and killed each other. Let them kill each other like rats. That would solve a lot of the problems in this town!”
“Shut up, Sally, you’re drunk,” snapped Greg. “And you’re talking bollocks.”
I went into the kitchen, so I could be on my own. After a while, Greg come in to join me.
“All right, John?” he asked me, laying a friendly hand on my shoulder, aware of how upset I was, because he knew I used to live at The Barnaby. “She didn’t mean that, mate, she was just talking daft. Take no notice.”
“Greg, would you do me a favour?” I asked him.
“Of course, anything.”
“Would you give me a lift to the police station, right now, and give me some legal advice on the way. I saw a crime committed and I have to make a statement. . .”