By any reckoning, Neil was a nice man. He had built his business from nothing. Now, in 1965, it was doing rather well. He had happily retired and handed the business over to his son, Arthur, who had the energy, drive and imagination needed to drive it forward to the point that it could become at least regional, if not national market leader.
Neil lived in an old, rambling house that was still, though only just so, outside the city boundaries. His son and family were closer to the city centre, making it easier for Arthur to manage the business.
Returning from lunch with his son, Neil was approaching the city limits, when he saw a young woman standing at the side of the road, one arm extended and thumb raised, seeking free transport, the other holding a piece of cardboard bearing the word LONDON in large letters. Neil wasn’t going very far, but he thought it would help her, if he took her out of town as far as the main road that leads to London. He pulled up close to the young woman, wound his window down, and told her that he could take her to the London road, where it would be easier for her to get a lift the rest of the way. She climbed in beside him, and they set off.
“Thank you for giving me a lift, mister,” the girl said, her little-girl voice suggesting total innocence.
“My pleasure,” Neil replied. “Where in London are you going?” Neil was not really interested in exactly where she was going, but didn’t want to be helping such a young girl to run away from home and possibly end up joining the ranks of London’s homeless.
“My big sister works in a hotel in the West End, and she invited me up for a week as a sort of birthday present. I was fifteen last week.” The coyness of her reply convinced Neil that she was genuine, but one thing troubled him. She wasn’t carrying anything, not even a handbag.
“Where’s your bag?” he asked, “Don’t you have clothes and things for the week?”
“My sister said not to bring anything. She said we could buy some really cool outfits in London.”
“Happy birthday for last week, then,” Neil said, happy that she wasn’t running away from home, assuming she was speaking truthfully. “I hope you have a nice time. There’s lots more for young people in London than there is here.”
Barely a minute later, the girl ripped at her blouse, pulling out a couple of buttons and leaving a tear over one breast. Turning to Neil, she said: “Fifty quid or I tell the police you attacked me.”
Neil was beside himself. He was a well-known and well-respected member of his community, and everyone who knew him would have known him to be incapable of such a thing. However, there being no witnesses, it was her word against his. Although few would believe Neil would do such a thing, fewer would expect a girl of such tender years to engineer and fabricate such a tale.
Unsure how best to react, Neil allowed instinct to take over. He stopped the car, and ordered the girl to get out. She left the vehicle, shouting, “You haven’t heard the last of this, Pig.” Neil drove off, far from convinced that he had handled the situation as well as he could have.
Later that evening, whilst he was relaxing with a book, Neil heard his front door bell ring. When he opened the door, he saw two serious-looking policemen.
“Neil Austin, I am arresting you on suspicion of indecently assaulting Paula Tyler, a minor. You are not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so, but anything you do say will be taken down in writing and may be used in evidence against you.”
With that, Neil was handcuffed and taken, in the back of the police vehicle, to the city’s police headquarters, where he was questioned.
Of course, Neil protested his innocence. “This is nonsense,” he said, his voice quivering with anger. “The girl ripped the blouse herself and demanded fifty pounds.”
“That’s not what the young lady is saying. She has made a serious complaint, which it is my duty to investigate.”
“The only reason she is complaining is to punish me for not giving her the money she asked for.”
“Sounds like it’s your word against hers. We’ll leave the magistrate to decide who is telling the truth.”
Neil was becoming angry. “You do know who I am, don’t you? I have been a respected member of this community, a major employer and a supporter of numerous local causes probably for longer than you have been on this earth.”
“Not for me to decide. All I can say, is that still waters run deep and many people are not always what they seem to be on the surface.”
Still protesting his innocence, Neil was placed into a cell, pending a special hearing before the magistrate the next morning.
That was probably the most miserable night Neil could recall spending. In a way, it was worse than his time in Burma during the Second World War. At least there, he knew where he stood. He knew who was on his side and who wasn’t. He had never faced this kind of uncertainty before. He spent much of the night sleepless, trying to think through his problem, but finding no answers.
Through his solicitor, Neil affirmed his innocence to the magistrate the next morning. The girl wasn’t there. Her statement was read out by the policeman who arrested him and who, along with the detective, clearly believed the girl’s tissue of lies to be factual and true. After the shortest of pauses, the magistrate declared there to be sufficient evidence for a trial and, there being no objection from the police, Neil was released on his own recognisance, and a date set two weeks hence for the hearing.
The next two weeks were difficult. Unable to do very much to help himself, Neil had to rely on his solicitor, and the private detective hired by his solicitor, to try to find some evidence that would clear him. He had told his solicitor that he didn’t want a dirt-digging exercise against the girl, as he didn’t think that parading in open court her life and any mistakes she may have made would help anyone. He did agree that, if it were found that she had done this kind of thing before, it should certainly be mentioned. That apart, all they could do was to give evidence of Neil’s good character. There would be no shortage of people to attest to that.
It was obvious, on the day of the hearing, that Neil had been very badly affected by this ordeal. His normally robust appearance was replaced with the ashen complexion and downcast expression of a man defeated. Generally a fit man, he needed help climbing the stairs to the dock, where he sat, looking around the courtroom through sad, sunken eyes.
The first witness called was his accuser, Paula Tyler. After confirming her name, address and date of birth, she took the oath. The prosecuting solicitor then started her questioning.
“Miss Tyler. You say that you were assaulted in a sexual manner by a man who offered you a lift in his car.”
“Is that man in the court?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Can you point him out to the court, please?”
Paula Tyler pointed to the dock, to Neil.
“Thank you. Can you tell the court what happened, please?”
The story she gave was exactly, to the word, what was in her statement to the police. Neil was somewhat heartened by that. Surely the magistrate would see through it, would see it as being too slick, too well rehearsed. The magistrate did not see that. The magistrate swallowed it hook, line and sinker. Neither did his accuser falter under cross-examination.
When it was Neil’s turn to take the stand, he had first to face the prosecution.
“So, Mr Austin; you want us to believe that you didn’t touch Miss Tyler; that she ripped her own clothing, in a bid to extract money from you.”
“You have said that you were on your way home, when you saw the plaintiff holding a sign that indicated she was seeking transportation to London.”
“And yet you picked her up, even though your journey was one of less than a mile.”
“I thought that if I took her as far as the main London road, she’d be able to get a lift to London more easily.”
“She’s a pretty young thing, isn’t she?”
“That has noth…”
“Answer the question, Mr Austin. She’s a pretty young thing, isn’t she?”
“Yes, I suppose she is, but…”
“You suppose she is. And you live completely alone.”
“No further questions.”
His own solicitor could do nothing to dilute the effect of those questions. There followed a string of character witnesses, all of whom gave glowing reports, every one of which was nullified by their inability to counter the prosecution’s assertions that he was an elderly man, living a mostly solitary life, and non-one could attest to what he got up to in the confines of his own house.
After the last of the witnesses had been heard, the magistrate delivered his finding:
“I can find no grounds whatever that would cause the plaintiff to fabricate the charge against the defendant. That the defendant is, to all appearances, a man of impeccable character, with no previous mention of wrongdoing of the nature we are here considering, is beyond question. However, the defence has provided no evidence to support their contention that the accusation is false, either as to material facts or as to the character and previous behaviour of the plaintiff. This is a serious offence, and one that, if proven, merits a custodial sentence beyond the power of this court to impose. I shall, therefore, refer this case to a higher court, at a date to be determined.”
On hearing that, Paula Tyler leapt to her feet. Fighting against the attempts of the prosecuting solicitor to pull her back down again, she said, “I can’t let this go any further. I’m sorry, Mr Austin. I was angry with you because you didn’t give me the money I wanted. He didn’t touch me, I ripped the blouse myself, just like he said. Look at the poor man. Look at what I’ve done to him. I’m truly sorry.”
“Are you saying,” the magistrate said, “that you want to withdraw your statement and your allegation?”
“Yes, Sir. I am.”
“Are you aware that, if I allow that, you risk being charged with perjury, as well as with wasting police time?”
“I suppose so.”
“Miss Tyler. Your display of sympathy for the defendant is laudable, after what he has done to you, but I cannot allow it into evidence. My decision is made, recorded and announced; the case is referred to the Crown Court. We are adjourned.”