How it begins

‘My Lord, I call Sharon Gilbert.’

A gust of small movements disturbed the still air of the courtroom, as people coughed, shuffled papers, and leant forward to get the best view of the witness box. The court usher, a woman in a pink blouse and black robe, opened the door in the panelled wall at the back of the court.

‘Sharon Gilbert, please.’

At the barristers’ table in the well of the court, Sarah Newby leant forward, her fingers laced under her chin. This was the first time she would see the victim, the woman the prosecution said her client had raped. The woman whose evidence she would have to demolish, to keep Gary Harker out of prison. The woman whose reputation she would have to destroy, to continue the steady rise of her own. Sarah had been a qualified barrister for three years and this was her first rape case. A great opportunity, if she did well. The first step on the ladder to becoming a Queen’s Counsel, like the Crown Prosecution barrister, Julian Lloyd-Davies QC, who stood next to her facing the jury.

Lloyd-Davies placed his notes on the portable lectern which he had brought with him, and tapped a silver pencil on it nonchalantly as he waited for his witness to appear. Where Sarah was intent and nervous he appeared calm, relaxed and confident. The lectern, silver pencil, silk gown and expensive tailored suit were all signs of a status that Sarah both coveted and feared. Beside him sat his junior, James Morris, pen poised to take notes. I belong here, all these things said, this is my stage to command. Sarah felt like a novice beside him. Even in her best Marks and Spencer black suit, tight starched wing collar and bands, she was painfully conscious of how the black cotton of her gown marked her out as a junior barrister like James Morris, someone who would normally assist a QC in a case like this rather than lead it herself.

In front of the barristers sat the judge, his lordship Stuart Gray, raised high on his dias under the prancing lion and unicorn of the royal coat of arms. His long cadaverous face surveyed her from under his wig with drooping bloodhound eyes. He had once practised as a QC too, Sarah reflected gloomily, and before that no doubt attended one of England’s best public schools – perhaps the same one as Julian Lloyd-Davies.

Certainly he had not left school at fifteen and spent his teenage years, as Sarah had, bringing up a baby on one of the worst council estates in Leeds.

Sarah drew in a slow, deep breath and let it out again, tensing the muscles of her stomach as the butterflies danced within. ‘I’ve earned the right to do this and here I am,’ she thought. ‘They didn’t have to fight to get here, but I did. And if I win this time, it will be the best ever.’

A woman came through the door in the back of the court and looked about her uncertainly. She was a tall, slim woman in her late twenties, smartly dressed in a green suit with three quarter length sleeves. The waves in her long, bleached shoulder-length hair suggested hours of careful attention in front of the mirror. She entered the witness box and took the testament and card from the usher.

‘Take the book in your right hand and read the words on the card.’

‘I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.’