The woman who said I was a murderer

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I AM NOT a bad lad. I'm just not. I have never been in any trouble at all with the police. (In my defence I should point out that if you cannot drive, and therefore have no fears about radar traps and breathalysers and bald tyres, then you really have to go out of your way to break the law - you have to hit someone, or break into a house, or sell drugs, and it all looks like an enormous amount of effort.) So when a woman looked me in the eye and accused me of stabbing her colleague to death, it came as an enormous shock.

I found myself in this difficult position because I foolishly agreed to take part in an identity parade. I was messing about in Soho, bored out of my head, playing a kung-fu video game in an amusement arcade, trying to kill time before I was due back at my teaching job in a nearby language school; when the policeman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I was busy, I almost burst into tears of gratitude. He put me in a van outside and told me to wait.

There was one other guy already in the van. He was around my age, but that was the only similarity between us. He was wearing a suit, I was wearing jeans and a leather jacket. He was tall, I am short. He was clutching a briefcase, I was clutching a carrier bag. He had lots of hair, I have very little.

I was not in identity parade mode, however, and at the time our lack of resemblance did not strike me as particularly significant. (When was the last time you noticed that someone didn't look like you?)

Soon, other men - they were all men, at least - joined us: a sixtysomething tramp, a six-footer with long, flowing white locks and a beard; an Arab, average height, dark-skinned, stocky, black leather jacket; an Irishman, thin, reddish-brown hair, probably 45 or so. If you had been trying to find five chaps to represent the whole of mankind, you could have done a lot worse.

We were kept waiting for a while at the police station (a couple of others had been dredged up from somewhere to join us); we sat in a room and read old copies of the Sun until eventually a policeman came to get us. 'What's he supposed to have done, this bloke?' one of us asked him.

'Murder,' he replied. 'He stabbed someone in the neck in a shoe shop on New Bond Street. We picked him up outside the shop, waiting for a bus, and he was still holding the knife.'

Later, we read that the man was psychotic - 'so deranged,' according to a report in the Guardian, 'that he could have exterminated anyone who crossed his path.' He had gone to get a refund for a pair of shoes, and murdered the 22-year-old assistant when he was refused.

We didn't know any of that then, of course, but even so we entered the room where the line-up was to take place with some trepidation.

I stood on the left-hand edge of the line; the murderer was invited to position himself anywhere he liked, and he chose a spot between the last two men at the other end. He was in his mid-thirties, smallish, ruddy- cheeked, dressed casually; he was thinning on top, but, again, the pertinence of his dress and his balding pate passed me by.

It wasn't the sort of identity parade that you see in LA Law. There was no two-way mirror for witnesses to stand behind, and as we lined up I could see one of them, a young woman, outside the door, waiting to come into the room. She looked terrified, understandably; I caught her eye and attempted to give her a half-smile of encouragement and sympathy.

Big mistake. She didn't even look at any of the other men in the room. She marched straight over to me, stared at me with a loathing that made my knees buckle, touched me on the shoulder, and walked out.

There was no time to brood on this rather disconcerting turn of events: already a young man clutching a motorcycle helmet was striding across the floor towards the suspect. 'Him,' he said. Yes] One-all, and everything to play for.

There was only one more witness, another woman; it really did feel like the decider, even though I knew identity parades didn't work like that. She walked over to me and peered at me long and hard; she walked down the line and examined the other guy. She came back to me; she went back to him. I was beginning to lose it a little. When was the murder? Did I have an alibi? Would any of my friends give me an alibi if I didn't have one? Had I, in fact, killed a man in a shoe shop? Surely I'd remember if I had, but then that's how schizophrenia works, isn't it? Would I get a shorter sentence if I confessed straight away?

She asked to look at my hands, and I showed her: stubby fingers, bitten fingernails - the hands of a killer. She walked up the line and made the same request of the suspect (afterwards, the policeman told us that two of his fingers had been fused together in an accident). She came back to me. 'Will you say something, please?' I looked at the nearest policeman and he nodded. 'What do you want me to say?' I croaked. I'd never noticed before that I had the voice of a lunatic.

I was on the verge of giving myself up when I heard the suspect repeat my line: 'Whaddaya want me to say?' He was American. 'It was him,' said the witness, and though by this stage I was convinced that they were about to imprison the wrong man, I wasn't going to argue.

And that was it. He was taken away to Broadmoor and we were taken away to the canteen, where the tramp, the Irishman, the businessman and the Arab amused themselves enormously at my expense. ('He didn't look anything like me, did he?' I kept repeating pathetically. As soon as the ordeal was over, my vanity superseded my fear.) But for a few moments there, I understood something of what it must be like to do something really, really bad: I saw how people looked at you, and spoke to you, and I didn't like the feeling of it at all. I haven't even been tempted to murder anyone since. -