An extract from ‘The Mother’ by Yvette Edwards
Kwame Johnson is forty-two and has been coaching Ryan’s football squad since Ryan started playing regularly at eight. Ryan always liked and respected him, and as a consequence, so do I. Many of the boys he coaches are Afro-Caribbean and he is hard on them, dishing out punishments for lateness or attitude or bad sportsmanship, balancing this zero-tolerance approach with a wicked sense of humour. All the boys call him ‘sir’ and his relationship with them is great.
The first time I ever saw Kwame dressed in anything other than sports gear was at Ryan’s funeral. That day, those awful days around it, meld in my mind into a Valium haze, but I remember my surprise, later on, at the wake, when I realised it wasn’t the drugs making Kwame look so different, but the fact it was the first time I’d ever seen him formally dressed. I’m reminded of that day looking at him now standing in the witness box and wearing a suit. As usual, his dreadlocks are pulled back into a ponytail that falls midway down his back and they are the only thing about him that feels normal. His eyes dart around the courtroom taking everything in. His expression is solemn.
Quigg is in her element. She exudes confidence, has everything under control. We learn Kwame’s age and occupation, that he’s been coaching for almost nineteen years and that, in addition to the training he does in the evenings at the Sports Ground, he works with excluded kids in special schools and pupil referral units. In fact it was at a pupil referral unit two years ago that he first met the defendant. I wasn’t aware of that. I never really thought about how Kwame knew Tyson Manley, but if I had thought it through, a pupil referral unit would have been exactly where I would have imagined their paths had initially crossed. Kwame coached him as part of a group once a week, excluding school holidays, for a period of six months, up until a year ago.
‘And when you stopped coaching him, was it because your coaching contract came to an end?’
‘You were still coaching other young people at that same pupil referral unit?’
‘Would you please then tell us why the coaching stopped?’
I feel Lorna nudge me as a woman is steered to a seat at the end of our row. It is Ms Manley, who has finally showed up to support her son. I have seen her before at the hearings when her son was charged, denied bail, but we have never spoken. She is late for the afternoon court session, alone and wearing celebrity sunglasses. She sits down and puts her designer handbag onto the seat beside her, pulls off her scarf, her coat, drapes them over its top. I can smell her perfume from where I am sitting. I’m sure everyone in the gallery can.
Kwame is saying, ‘Tyson stopped coming. His attendance had always been a bit iffy. In the end it just kinda petered out.’
Tyson Manley has noticed his mother, gives her the briefest of smiles, returns to his normal expressionless poise, continues watching Kwame in the box. You might almost think he were oblivious to everything going on around him. His acknowledgment of his mother is the first indication I have had that he is not.
Quigg asks, ‘Would you say that during the time you coached Mr Manley you came to know him well?’
‘Mr Johnson, do you recall making a statement to the police on 19th March, on the morning following Ryan Williams’s murder?’
‘In that statement you said that you had tried very hard to build a relationship with the defendant because of his family circumstances.’
‘Would you please tell the court what these were?’
‘I knew his brother, the older one, Vito. He got killed, shot in front of the family two, three years ago. After that Tyson started getting in trouble and didn’t seem to be able to get out of it. I guess I kinda wanted to help him.’
‘Thank you. Would it be fair to suggest you had a special interest in the defendant?’
Kwame is the sort who would. He had an interest in all the kids. I think about Ryan at fourteen. Under duress, we bought him his first mobile phone when he was eleven, replaced it with a smart phone for his fourteenth birthday. Then I spent months worrying about him watching porn on it, being bullied on Facebook or social media sites, talked about the permanence of everything that goes onto the internet, that nothing should ever be sent to friends that he would not want to see hung up on display during whole-school assembly, especially pictures of his willy with some girl’s name wonkily written on it in felt tip (this last was a result of an article I’d read in the paper about young people texting photographs of intimate body parts to people they fancied). Maybe while we’d been having those discussions Tyson Manley’s brother was being gunned down, resuscitated, Ms Manley was identifying her son’s body in the morgue, burying him, another statistic, just another young murdered black boy to add to the tally. One son dead and the other on trial facing life, another day, just another chapter in the dysfunctional life of this family. I watch her, straining my eyes in their sockets so I don’t have to noticeably turn my head, wanting to see whether she is moved, teary-eyed at this disclosure. The sunglasses make it difficult to gauge her feelings. They render her face as expressionless as her son’s.
Thus far Quigg has merely been setting the backdrop. Now she steers Kwame to that day, that terrible day that began so normally but by its end changed everything in my world, the day I am still trying to understand, that my husband can’t bring himself to face.
Training practice was normal. They finished at six precisely. He is confident of the exact time because he’s very strict about timekeeping, thinks punctuality is an important message to send to the kids he works with. Afterwards, everyone went straight to the changing rooms except him. He hung around and had a discussion first with a new parent who was hoping to sign her son up for his sessions. He gave her times and prices, went to the changing room, chatted with the boys briefly as he collected his bags, then went back out to pack up his balls and equipment, get it all ready to take to the car.
Everyone seemed normal. There were no unusual tensions. The boys shouted goodbye to him as they were leaving the grounds, including Ryan. For the next ten minutes Kwame finished gathering his gear together, hoisted it all up, then started walking to his car.
The discussions of the lighting go on some time. It was mid-March. Sunset on that evening was at ten past six. There were no lights directly onto the football pitch, but light was cast from the lampposts along the pathway. The jury is directed to the detailed Sports Ground map where the lampposts can be seen along the borders of the path, twenty-five metres apart. As you head towards the high street, there is also lighting from the street. Here the road is well lit, the lampposts twenty metres apart, with additional lighting from cars and traffic and the shops and flats on the other side. It was not as bright as day, but visibility was good. Kwame is still on the path, nearing the exit, when he sees Ryan walking back along the path towards him. He’s eating chicken and chips. He appears relaxed, nothing untoward in his bearing. He tells Kwame he’s left his boots in the changing room. Kwame says he’ll wait for him, give him a lift home. Ryan says it’s fine, it’s only a five-minute walk; he’ll see him next week.
These are the moments, the minutiae of which has consumed me these last seven months, going around and around my mind till I thought I would be driven mad, the moments when normal things were done and casual words spoken, where microscopic alterations would have changed the direction of everything to come. If Kwame had been slower gathering his bags and balls and equipment, he would still have been at the murder site when Tyson Manley caught up to Ryan, he could have stopped him, and my son would still be alive. If Ryan had been as forgetful in the afternoon as he had been that morning, if he had not remembered the boots he’d left behind in the changing room, forgotten about them till he had PE at school two days later or football practice the following week, by then he would probably have discovered they’d been nicked and I could have scolded him for being irresponsible while I bought him a brand-new pair and he promised to take better care of them, and he would still be alive. If Ryan had accepted the lift Kwame offered him, if Kwame had insisted despite Ryan’s refusal and taken him home, if it had been raining that day and training had been cancelled, any of these, if any of these had happened, my son would still be alive.
Instead, as Ryan passed him, making for the changing room, and Kwame exited the park and turned left, headed towards his car, he saw a figure wearing a brown sweat top monogrammed in gold, and the lights from the other side of the road that would have illuminated the back of the hood simultaneously cast a shadow over the wearer’s face, obscuring it. The person crossed the road at a diagonal angle that landed him on the pavement Kwame had just walked along, so he was now behind him. Kwame looked back. Despite not being able to see the person’s face, he knew it was Tyson Manley.
Quigg directs the jury to bundle number two and a photograph of Tyson Manley in a brown top monogrammed in gold, lifted from his Facebook page, posted at the end of February, almost three weeks before Ryan was murdered. She asks him to confirm if this was the top the person was wearing, and Kwame says ‘Yes.’ In the picture he is with a group of four other boys whose faces have been blurred out for today’s purposes, posing like gangster rappers in a forceful expression of teenage masculinity. It is the kind of photograph I have seen in the newspapers when some young person has died and there is an implication that either the victim or the perpetrator were involved in gangs. I scan the faces of the jury as they look at the image, can feel at least three of them, including the elderly black guy, mentally concluding that Tyson Manley is a gang member, but I don’t buy it myself, not on the evidence of one photo. My Ryan was at an age where he was always trying to look cool in photos, desperate to get rid of those he didn’t think depicted him as the man he wanted to be seen as by the world. Those same jury members would probably be thinking gang if they saw a photo of my son with Luke and Ricardo. It’s not that I reject the notion of Tyson Manley being a gang member, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was, just that even I – and I have every reason to think badly of him – even I can see the image being perpetuated here and I’m uncomfortable with it.
Quigg points out that there are probably hundreds of young men in London who own that exact top, asks, ‘Without seeing his face, how could you be sure that the person you saw was the defendant?’
Kwame answers, ‘Everything. The height, the build, the way he walked … ’
‘What was it about the way he walked that identified him?’
‘He always walked really fast and had a kinda bounce. Lots of the young guys bounce when they walk, but his was very pronounced.’
‘Could you have been mistaken? Could it have been anyone other than Mr Manley?’
‘It was Tyson. I could have identified him anywhere, as long as he was moving.’
‘Did you see where he went after he passed you?’
‘Into the Sports Ground. I looked back after he had passed, saw him go into the Sports Ground.’
‘Would you please tell the court why you did not drive off?’
‘I just had a funny feeling. I knew it was Tyson and he must’ve seen me. It was weird that he didn’t say “yow”, wasn’t like we’d had a fallout or anything. In fact, it kinda seemed like he’d avoided me, deliberately kept his head down so I couldn’t see his face. He was walking really fast, even for him, kinda hyped. I don’t know, it was all a bit weird and I knew Ryan was still at the Sports Ground on his own. The whole thing just gave me a bad vibe.’
‘When I got to the entrance, a woman ran into me full force, nearly knocked me down. She was terrified, looking behind her like she was being chased.’
‘She was screaming, about an ambulance, to get help. I think she said, “He’s got a knife.” I wasn’t listening properly. I was already running.’
‘Ryan was on the ground. There was blood everywhere. I could see from the off it was bad … proper bad.’
‘I ran over to check his breathing. He was on his front and I turned him onto his back. I was scared I would damage him even more but I couldn’t feel a pulse and he had to be on his back for me to do CPR. I was shouting for help between breaths while I was doing compressions … I just couldn’t make him breathe. I knew it was too late but I had to try.’
‘Was there anyone else around at that time?’
‘I didn’t see anyone.’ He has been speaking to Quigg, addressing his answers to her while glancing at the jury occasionally, but now he faces the jury directly and says, ‘I should have run, from the moment he passed me I should have run. I don’t know why I didn’t, I just don’t know why.’
The judge asks, ‘Mr Johnson, would you like a short break?’
Kwame wipes his eyes, takes out a tissue, blows his nose, shakes his head. The What Ifs are the worst of it. I know the depressing slide of that ride and I feel guilty that I have been thinking only of myself, so wrapped up in my own grief and Lloydie’s that I never gave a thought to anyone else, to any of those other people first on the scene. It was as if the trauma started later, with a knock at the door and the lift in a police car to identify my son’s body. I’ve been where Kwame is, such an easy place to get stuck. The What Ifs are infinite, a useless spiral stairway descending straight into hell. What if Kwame had done something other than what he actually did? What if he’d taken more time with Tyson, maybe gone to his house a year ago when he stopped showing up at the pupil referral unit? What if he’d told that parent to come back some other time and sat instead in the changing room with the boys like a mother, checking everyone had packed everything? What if the What Ifs are nothing more than a coping mechanism, nothing more than a diversion from the onslaught of guilt and grief?
Lorna hands me a tissue. I wipe my eyes. I hear someone else blowing their nose. It is one of the jurors, the older woman, the final juror. She looks like a grandmother, an indulgent grandma, wiping her eyes now because she is crying too, and she is not the only juror brushing tears aside. But Tyson Manley is not crying. As I watch, he yawns. He makes no effort to lower his head or cover his mouth, just yawns as he might do while perched on the edge of his prison bunk, and the opening of his mouth is accompanied by a stretch of his arms into the air, and when he brings them back down, he rolls his head around on his neck like he’s a doing a warm- up. He adjusts his tie, loosens it, undoes the top button on his shirt, then settles and is as he was before. He doesn’t do it to annoy, to wind me up or offend the court, it is a natural act. He’s been sitting in that chair all day and his limbs must be screaming from the stress of such a lengthy period of inactivity. I’m sure he’s genuinely feeling stifled, yearning for a little fresh air. He must be, because I am. He is heedless of the jury members watching him, and it is clear from their expressions that that yawn has cost him.
Kwame continues. No breathing into my baby’s precious airways or compressions to his failed heart could bring him back, though Kwame did not give up till the paramedics arrived, then watched as they tried themselves and likewise failed. He gave a statement to the officers at the crime scene where he named Tyson Manley and the following day he went to the police station where a full statement was given and signed.
By the time Quigg has finished asking her questions, it is almost four thirty and the judge adjourns the case until Monday morning at ten. Ms Manley is the first to leave, standing abruptly, snatching up her belongings, exiting the gallery. Though she is only a few seconds ahead of us, there is no sign of her in the corridor outside the gallery entrance. She obviously has the art of the clean getaway down pat. Perhaps I would also be an expert at leaving fast if I had raised my son to kill.
Yvvette Edwards lives in London. Her first novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize. The Mother is her second novel, which will be published by Mantle on 7 April 2016.