Black Velcro Shoe
Saturday 22nd July 2000. There are two things that I remember vividly about that day: The first, one of the happiest memories of my life, the birth of my daughter and first child Rebekah. Born at 2:10pm and after almost 28 hours of labour. She was reluctantly dragged from my poor wife and momentarily placed to her breast before being cruelly taken to the NIKU department to spend another 24 hours under observation in an incubator. Rebekah being the fiery little red head that she is, and endowed with no small amount of her fathers stubbornness, was not for joining us on her due date. The consultant had tried to turn her, and then turned her back. He tried Ventouse, Keillan forceps, and Neville Barnes forceps, before finally a slight episiotomy and a combination of the three succeeded. I use the word slight here in a way that only a man could; my wife needed more stitches that I can remember, lost a large amount of blood, and required a transfusion that now excludes her from donating back to return the favour.
That night, I left the hospital a very tired, happy man. I was driven home to spend the evening with our families who' had made the journey from Manchester that morning. We ate pasta and drunk a copious amount of red wine. However, before leaving the hospital and being able to relax to this state of euphoria, there was one last task to perform that my wife and I had agreed upon, and that was a quick visit to the hospitals news stand to buy a number of the daily papers to place in a time capsule for our daughters 18th birthday.
The other thing that I remember from that day was a picture that is now so inextricably entwined with the overwhelming joy that I felt that morning; on the front page of the Sun was a photograph of the eight year old Sarah Payne. The previous day a woman had found in a hedge near Coolham, the black right Velcro buckled shoe of the murdered school girl. On the Sunday, about the time I would have been visiting my wife and daughter for the first time as a family, the police arrested the murderer Roy Whiting on un-related charge. It would be another six months before he would be formally charged with the abduction and murder of the girl. That night I thought about Sarah Payne, my daughter, and an event some 23 years earlier that could have so easily made things very different.
When I was six I lived in Portsmouth on a naval housing estate on Matapan Road in Hilsea. The road then served HMS Phoenix, the fire fighting school situated next to the creek, recognizable to drivers as they drive down the M275 on their way into Portsmouth centre. The creek is actually the top end of Portsmouth harbour and during its history, was used for ship wrecking. It ran to Hilsea Lido before connecting up with Langstone Harbour, producing the man made island that Portsmouth actually is.
The creek was an area that my brothers and I spent much of the few years that we lived in Portsmouth. When the tide went out we would scour the sea bed for whatever was stranded in the rock pools. Between the creek and the Lido is a small park and a cricket ground. Well I seem to remember it as a cricket ground, but it may have been a school or something else. The park had a couple of ponds which I think may have been dry docks in a previous life time.
This particular morning the tide was high so I couldnít play in the creek, so I made do with the next best thing, and attempted to catch crabs in the salt water of the man made rock pools.
A man asked me if I knew the short cut into the cricket ground. Well I did. Obviously being a curious child and having explored the surrounding area, I had full knowledge of every little nook and cranny, path and road, and thus promptly showed him the shortcut through the forest. I use the term man loosely as I didnít know how old he was. He may have been in his late teens early twenties, but he was much older than I and very man like to a six year old. I also use the term forest loosely as well, as you may recall from your own childhood, everything seemed so much bigger then. I would be surprised if it was much more than a small wood, maybe even a copse, or more likely a collection of trees.
The man chatted as he followed me to the back of the wood, and a hole in the perimeter fence of the cricket ground. Without warning, I felt hands around my throat, the cold bony hands of the grim reaper squeezing life out of my wind pipe, inviting me to an early grave.
They say that in your final moments, your whole life flashes before you; well as a six year old there wasnít much to see, so I was bang out of luck on the remembrance and reminiscing trip. They also say that you are welcomed at the gates of the after world by the light and the friendly voice at the end of the tunnel; a voice that either beckons you in because your time is up or dissuades you from leaving the party early. I donít remember much about a light, a tunnel, or a friendly voice, but I do recall gasping helplessly for air, frantically kicking my legs as I tried to escape, and wondering what I had done to warrant a rather undignified exit. The other thing that is often romanticised about that final moment is the victimís tendency to find God. I know that I didnít find God there and that he didnít find me. In fact, in that life changing moment as I stood on the precipice of death, I know that I was confirmed with full pomp and circumstance, an atheist.
Finally, I did have a vision, my personal epiphany. Some would argue that God found me after all, but I would counter that my bodyís fight or flight instinct kicked in, because an image of the gardener working in the park near to my earlier play site presented itself to my oxygen starved brain. Somehow, my mouth opened and I cried for help. Death must have been feeling twitchy that day as he let go and I fell to the floor like a discarded rag doll. Adrenaline alone picked me up from the floor and I ran for the main road back to my house and the safety of my grandparents.
I never made it.
The man gave pursuit and blocked my escape route. I was left with little choice but to turn back and head for the safety of that gardener who had inadvertently come to my rescue. As I approached my reluctant saviour I was overcome by a wave of fear and distrust that would stay with me for the rest of my childhood. I couldnít go to this stranger. I could no longer hand myself over like the proverbial lamb to the slaughter, sacrificed to the assistant of the reaper himself. I did the only thing available to me, I ascended the steps to the summit of the park, and finally back home along the longest route possible, without stopping, and without looking back.
I arrived home, a tired and broken child.
Something did die that day. I lost my innocence of youth; cruelly abducted and murdered. I lost my ability to trust; forever wary of anyone or anything new or strange. I gained fear; a childhood unable to walk alone.
When I think about poor Sarah Payne and the uproar that followed, it reminds me of how precious life is, and how lucky I am to still have it. I listen to people talking about how horrible the world has become, and know that the world has always been a horrible place. Try telling the families of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catharine Eddowes, and Mary Jeanette Kelly, the victims of Jack the Ripper, that the world has only just become a horrible place.
I hear people talk about how they can no longer let their children play out alone, and know that they never could. How the parents of Lesley Ann Downey, Edward Evans, John Kilbride, Pauline Reade, and Keith Bennet, the victims of the Moors Murderers, wish that their children could play out alone.