Fluorescent lights stare at us, their bright eyes seeming to study every fidget and glance at the clock on the grey wall. A TV blares out a morning chat show, the voices of celebrities I've never heard of humming away beneath the murmured conversations of people around us. I sit in my school uniform, minus the tie, trying unsuccessfully to concentrate on the book my grandma gave me. Lacking the focus for reading, I watch over the top of the pages as the waiting room for witnesses for the Crown Prosecution slowly fills up with people.
I am 16. It's the October break and I'm enjoying every second of my holiday as the ugly face of prelims smirks on the horizon. I'm going to Fife with my best friend the next day and have been looking forward to it for weeks. But I'm not thinking about that. My dad and I have been sitting in the corner of the waiting room for two and a half hours. I have no knowledge of when the trial is going to start or when I will be called to testify.
The anxiety is tight in my chest. What if I can't remember? What if I make a mistake? What if they ask a question I can't answer? What if I embarrass myself and let the other victims down? My dad keeps telling me 'you're not on trial'. A woman from Victim Support Scotland comes over to tell us about what's gong to happen in the trial. 'Don't take what the defence lawyer says personally,' she tells me. 'They're just doing their job.' That scares me.
Then the interminable wait resumes. I give up reading and try instead to get some work done on a creative writing piece due soon for English. I almost smile at the irony of writing a crime fiction piece while preparing myself to tell the story of a very real crime.
It's around lunchtime when the woman from Victim Support Scotland steps into the room and calls the name of my case. Half the waiting room stands up, I think around 20 people, maybe more. Anticipation stirs in the air. It feels as if the whole world is silent, waiting for her to speak.
I was 14. It didn't feel young then, in fact it felt as if you were as mature as any adult. But, looking back, it was young. So young. I joked to my friends afterwards that calling 999 for the first time was thrilling, but in truth that's not what it was like at all. My thoughts were a tangle of anxieties, confusions, fears and 'if I hadn't done… this wouldn't have happened'. Police cars flooded the area. I didn't understand why there was so many of them. When I spoke to one of the officers, he told me that there had been four other very similar reports in the last few months, with the man in each report matching the description I had given. I lived just around the corner from where we stood, but I remember not being sure whether I was allowed to go home. I was at a complete loss, still grappling with what had just happened. In my mind, I can still see the police cars' flashing lights, even now. Red. Blue. Red. Blue. Anger. Sadness. Anger. Sadness.
But I was determined to be strong. I obstinately pretended I was completely fine, that it hadn't affected me at all. After all, it could have been a lot worse. All the shocking headlines you read, all the real-life horror stories people tell you as they give you advice on how to keep yourself safe; it definitely could have been worse. That was what I told myself.
They got him. A man matching the description was picked up minutes after the police cars arrived. I remember one officer shaking his head and murmuring to himself: 'It's a good result, it's a really good result'. But I felt no relief. I was so caught in my anxieties, all I could think was 'what if they've got the wrong guy? What if an innocent man has just been arrested and it's my fault?' I didn't allow myself to be happy.
While a woman was doing my cheek swabs, she told me I had lovely skin. It was a seemingly small thing, but it meant more to me in that moment than I will ever be able to put into words. When I think of that evening, I don't think of going through my experience in minute detail, I don't think of the police swabbing a stranger's DNA from my face, I think of that woman complementing my skin. As long as I live, I will never forget that act of kindness.
As the days stretched into weeks, I thought about it less and less. I played it down to my friends, told them it wasn't that big a deal. I appreciated their sympathy but felt like I didn't deserve it. I had successfully convinced myself that, because other people have had it worse, I didn't have the right to be upset.
When I received the letter telling me that there was going to be a trial and I would have to testify, I didn't know how to react. I wanted there to be a trial, of course I did. I wanted there to be justice. I wanted confirmation that he was the right person. I wanted him to be held accountable. But it had been a year and a half since it happened. I had got on with my life and barely thought about it anymore. I had buried it and I didn't want to have to dig it all up and lay it out for a group of strangers to make judgements. I didn't want a verdict on my experience.
When the woman from Victim Support Scotland speaks, I can't hear her. I lean forward, looking from left to right as a murmur ripples through the group of witnesses.
'What did she say?' I whisper over and over again.
'He pled guilty.'
It is as if a rock is lifted from my shoulders, a rock that has been with me for so long that it fused to my flesh, so long that I had ceased to notice its weight. All the emotions I hadn't allowed myself to feel come climbing to the surface and, in a single moment, I feel each one of them. I am overjoyed, I am miserable, I am full of rage, I am grieving my innocence, I am celebrating my victory. I see the red and blue lights flashing in my mind. Tears pool in my eyes, I don't know whether they are of happiness or sorrow. As they slip down my cheek, as the first surge of emotion calms, I feel peace. I can finally, fully, move on. I have been released. Four words play over and over in my head: 'It's over, I won'. My feelings about this experience aren't buried any more, they are at rest. I walk out of the court into the pure, dazzling light of a grey October afternoon.
When I set out to write this piece, I didn't want the message to be that I had this experience and it was awful and that's that. The end. If I could leave you with one thing, it would be this: there is always hope. No matter how dark the situation seems, you will find light.
To quote my diary on the evening after the trial: 'This is a fight that has been going on for centuries and will continue long after I'm dead – but this was my battle. And I won it'.
for the joint runner-up paper by Markus de Blieck
for the joint runner-up paper by Alexander Milnes