1. THE WORLD THE RIGHT WAY ROUND
Even later, when she found it difficult to see any good in her husband, Lucie’s mother, Jane, always acknowledged that Tim Blackman had saved their daughter’s life.
Lucie had been twenty-one months old at the time, cared for by her father and mother in the cottage they rented in a small village in Sussex. Since infancy, she had been stricken with fierce bouts of tonsillitis, which drove up her temperature and swelled her throat. Her parents sponged her with water to cool her down, but the fevers lingered, and when one had passed another would seize hold within a few weeks. One day, Tim had come home early from work to help Jane care for the needy child. That night, he was awakened by a cry from his wife, who had gone in to look at her.
By the time he entered the nursery, Jane was already running downstairs.
“Lucie was motionless at the bottom of the cot, and she was clammy,” Tim said. “I picked her out and put her on the floor, and she was turning gray in front of me, just the most sickly, blacky-gray color. Quite clearly the lifeblood wasn’t being pumped round her body. I didn’t know what to do. I was cuddling her on the floor, and Jane had run down to phone an ambulance. Lucie was completely quiet, wasn’t breathing. I tried to force open her mouth. It was tightly shut, but I forced it open with two hands and held it open with the thumb of one hand and put my fingers in and pulled her tongue forward. I didn’t know whether I was doing any good or not, but I did it, and then I put her head to one side, and then I breathed into her and then pushed the air out, breathed into her and pushed it out, and she started to breathe on her own again. I was sick with anxiety and worry, and then I saw the pink coming back to her skin, and by that time the ambulance had arrived, and the ambulance blokes were rushing up the tiny, weeny stairs, these great big blokes with all this huge, noisy kit on, big beefy chaps who were as big as the cottage. And they got their stretcher out and strapped her on and carried her downstairs and put her in the back of the ambulance. And after that she was fine.”
Lucie had experienced a febrile convulsion, a muscle spasm caused by fever and dehydration that had caused her to swallow her own tongue, blocking off her breathing. A few moments longer, and she would have died. “I knew at that moment that I could not only have one child,” Tim said. “I knew. I’d thought about it before, when Lucie was born. But at that moment, I knew that if anything had happened to her, and we didn’t have any other children, it would be an absolutely terrible disaster.”
* * *
Lucie had been born on September 1, 1978. Her name was from the Latin word for “light,” and even in adulthood, her mother said, she craved brightness and illumination, and was uncomfortable in the dark, switching on all the bulbs in the house and going to sleep with a lamp turned on in her room.
Jane’s labor had to be induced, and it lasted sixteen hours. Lucie’s head was positioned against her mother’s back, a “posterior presentation” that caused her great pain during the delivery. But the eight-pound baby was healthy, and her parents experienced deep, but complicated, happiness at the birth of their first child. “I was delighted, absolutely delighted,” said Jane. “But I think when you become a mother, you … I just wanted my mother to be there, because I was so proud I’d had a baby. But she wasn’t there, so it was sad as well.”
Jane remembered little but sadness from her own childhood. Her adult life, too, had been marked by clusters of crushing, overwhelming loss, which had bred in her a dry, dark humor, alternately self-deprecating and indignantly defensive. She was in her late forties when I first met her, a thin, attractive woman with short dark blond hair and sharp, vigilant features. Her outfits were tidy and demure. Long, delicate lashes ringed her eyes, but the girlishness that they might have suggested was dispelled by a fierce sense of rightness and a scathing intolerance of fools and snobs. Pride and self-pity were at war within Jane. She was like a fox, a stubborn, elegant fox in a navy blue skirt and jacket.
Her father had been a manager at the Elstree film studios, and she and her younger brother and sister had grown up in the outer London suburbs, a strict and rather drab middle-class life of homework and good table manners and the annual summer holiday in a gusty English seaside resort. When Jane was twelve, the family moved to south London. Before her first morning at her new school, Jane went in to kiss her mother goodbye and found her asleep after a night of headaches and insomnia. “I felt that something awful was going to happen,” Jane said. “And I said to my father, ‘She’s not going to die, is she?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, don’t be silly, of course not.’ And then I came home from school that day, and she’d died. She’d had a brain tumor. And from then on my father was distraught. He was broken, a broken man, and I just had to be brave. That was the end of my childhood.”
Jane’s mother was forty years old at the time of her death. “My grandmother looked after us during the week, and at weekends it was Daddy,” she said. “I remember him just crying all the time.” Fifteen months after his wife’s death, he married a woman in her mid-twenties. Jane was appalled. “But he had three children, and he just couldn’t function. It was terrible. The truth is that I can’t remember much of my childhood. When you’ve had a shock, and been through a time as painful as that, your brain makes you forget.”
Jane left school at fifteen. She took a secretarial course and found a job at a big advertising agency. When she was nineteen, she traveled to Mallorca with a girlfriend and stayed there for six months, cleaning cars for a living. It was before the age of mass British tourism to Spain, and the Balearic Islands were still a select and exotic destination. The famous Manchester United footballer George Best was a visitor. “I didn’t meet him, but I remember seeing him in these bars, surrounded by beauties,” said Jane. “But I was very sensible, I was very careful. I’ve got the word ‘sensible’ running through my body like a stick of rock. Everyone else might have been swinging but I wasn’t. I was just very boring.”
In Mallorca, Jane’s virtue was tested by a young man, a nodding acquaintance, who appeared at her front door one day and attempted to kiss her. “I was absolutely mortified, because I hardly knew him, and it was the middle of the afternoon. He was Swedish, I think. I hadn’t given him any provocation, and it made me very wary after that. I liked the sun and the sea, I liked being in the outdoors, but I can’t say it was a wild time, because I’m sensible. I never slept with anyone until I slept with my husband.”
* * *
She was twenty-two when she met Tim, and living with her father and stepmother in Chislehurst in the London borough of Bromley. He was the older brother of a friend, and Jane had already heard all about him. “People said to me, ‘That Tim’s a right one,’” she remembered. “‘A right one for the women.’”
Tim had just returned from the south of France, where he had been staying with a French girlfriend. “But he started flirting with me anyway, and I gave him one of my icy stares,” said Jane. “I think I was the first person in his life who hadn’t fallen for him just like that, so I was a challenge. But I had no confidence, if I’m honest. I had lots of very beautiful girlfriends who had men flocking round them, but at discos I was always the custodian of the handbags. Tim couldn’t understand why I hadn’t fallen for him hook, line, and sinker, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would fancy me, and I think that’s why I ended up marrying him.” The wedding was eighteen months later, on Tim’s twenty-third birthday, July 17, 1976.
Tim managed a shoe shop in the nearby town of Orpington, a relic of the dwindling chain of businesses that his father had once owned across the southeast. But the shop failed, and Tim found himself claiming the dole for six months. He ended up supporting his young family with odd jobs for friends and as a freelance painter and decorator. “We were living hand to mouth,” he said. “They were very tricky, very tricky times in the early 1980s, and we didn’t know where the next fifty pounds was coming from. But we were in this lovely place with our baby, this Laura Ashley–style cottage, and it was a very beautiful life. I loved that time when Lucie was little.”
In May 1980, less than two years after the first baby, Jane gave birth to Sophie, and, three years after that, to Rupert. Tim found a business partner and moved from decorating into property development; in 1982 the family moved a few miles north to the genteel commuter town of Sevenoaks, in Kent. Here, their period of hardship at an end, Jane was able to create for her own family the childhood she had always wanted for herself, an idyll of flowers and pretty dresses and the laughter of little children.
The house where they lived, which Jane christened Daisy Cottage, overlooked a private prep school—Granville School, or the Granville School, as it insisted on being known. It was the fulfillment of all her fantasies, a place of such self-conscious tweeness that everyone who went there remembers it with a smile. The girls, as young as three years old, wore a uniform of blue-checked dresses and gray woolly bobble hats; at the spring festival, they put rings of flowers called chaplets in their hair. The school curriculum included the study of curtsying and maypole dancing. “Our bedroom looked directly over the playground,” remembered Jane. “It was so perfect—at playtime, Lucie would come and wave to me and I could wave back.” It was a school out of the past, out of the pages of an illustrated children’s book. “Like living in la-la land,” said Jane, “not like the real world at all.”
* * *
From the beginning, Lucie was a grown-up, conscientious girl with a childish earnestness that made adults smile. When Jane gave her peas to shell, she would examine each one individually, rejecting any that displayed the smallest sign of imperfection. She loved dolls and would sit alongside her mother breast-feeding a plastic baby as Jane breast-fed Sophie. “She was so meticulous and tidy and neat,” said Jane. “Like me from an early age.” Sophie, by contrast, was “stroppy” and prone to tantrums, which her older sister gently and skillfully defused. The two sisters shared a big old-fashioned bed, and one Easter Sunday they spent the entire day living underneath it, taking their meals there, reading their picture books, and tending to their toys.
Lucie’s school exercise books suggest how successfully Jane created for her children a world of innocence and delight.
Name: Lucy Blackman
Monday 20th May
To-day Daddy is going
to collect me from
school and we are
going to go home and
I am going to get
my Laura Ashley dress
and it is bluey
gray and it has
little flowers and then
I am going to in to Tescos
home and wear and
I am going to get Gemma
a preasnt but I don’t
know what to get her
for her birthday treat
and she is having
four friends that is
me and Celia and
Charlotte and another
frend in her school
and I will be the
only one from Granville
friends friends friends friends
And from another exercise book:
Name: Lucy Blackman
I used a large mirror.
I looked at myself.
I saw my reflection.
I closed one eye.
I saw myself with one eye closed.
I touched my nose.
I saw myself with my right hand on my nose.
I clapped my hands.
I saw my hands clap.
I used a large mirror.
I put the mirror at the side.
I saw the world the right way round.
“Because my childhood was sad I always wanted to have a wonderful, happy family life,” said Jane. “I’d put their slippers down the front of the stove so they’d be warm when they came home from school. When Rupert used to play rugby, I’d take a hot-water bottle and a flask of hot tea when I met him from school. My biggest fear was losing them. Even when they were little. I had these leather reins with a little picture of a bunny rabbit on them, these reins that I used to make Rupert wear. I’d have him on reins, and to the girls I’d say, ‘You hold hands,’ and in the supermarket if I lost sight of one of them I would feel … It was the worst thing for me, loss, because of what had happened to me. That was always my biggest fear—losing. Because I’d lost my mother, I just couldn’t bear the thought of ever losing the children. So I was a very protective—an overprotective—mother.”
* * *
Lucie won a scholarship to Walthamstow Hall, a stalwart redbrick nineteenth-century institution founded for the daughters of Christian missionaries. She was a hard worker and might have been expected to flourish at “Wally Hall,” which took pride in the number of girls it sent to university. And yet Lucie never quite fitted in there. “Walthamstow Hall was quite a posh school,” said Jane. “A lot of girls on their birthday were given car keys. That was their birthday present, and that wasn’t the league we were in at all.” However, the darkest shadow over Lucie’s teenage years was not money but illness.
At the age of twelve, she contracted mycoplasma pneumonia, a rare form of the illness, which laid her low for weeks. “She was very, very ill and no one knew what was the matter with her,” said Jane. “She’d be propped up in bed on so many pillows, and I had to give her this treatment to get rid of the mucus, to pummel her back. There was a rattle when she breathed, you could hear it in her lungs.” Afterwards Lucie was afflicted with a malaise that caused her legs to ache so much that she could barely walk, and put paid to two years of schoolwork. For weeks at a time she had no energy at all; the effort of descending a flight of stairs left her spent with exhaustion, and a series of doctors could give no assurances about when, or even if, her good health would return.
Jane Blackman had a strong belief in the hidden powers of the mind, and in her own gifts of prediction and intuition. She worked as a reflexologist—a masseuse and a therapist of the feet—and frequently, she said, she had found herself accurately foreseeing imminent events—the death of an elderly relative, the pregnancy of a patient before the woman was aware of it herself. “I just have feelings about things when I’m working,” she said. “A voice will come into my head to tell me something and afterwards I’m right. It goes back to my sense of justice: I feel people’s pain. People say I’m very empathetic, but I think if you’ve been through a lot yourself it gives you that ability.”
It was during Lucie’s long illness, her mother believed, that her daughter’s own gift for supernatural perception first displayed itself.
Separately, both her parents began to notice a faint but distinctive smell in the master bedroom where Lucie was being nursed—the smell of cigars. No one in the family smoked them; Tim even called on the neighbors to confirm that the smoke was not coming through their shared wall. A few days later, Jane mentioned the strange smell to Lucie. It was a time when she was extremely weak, drifting between sleep and wakefulness, but it was still a surprise when she replied, “It’s the man who sits on the end of my bed.”
“What man?” asked Jane.
“In the night, there’s this old man who comes and sits on the end of my bed sometimes, and he smokes cigars.”
“Poof!” said Tim, telling the story later. “We all thought, ‘Lucie’s gone completely off her rocker.’”
Much later, after her strength had returned, Lucie visited the home of Jane’s father and stepmother. She came across a photograph on a sideboard of an old man and asked who it was. Jane’s own grandmother, Lucie’s great-grandmother, was there that day, and the man was her husband, Hollis Etheridge, who had died years before.
“That’s the man,” said Lucie, “the one who came and sat at the end of my bed.”
Throughout his life, he had been a smoker of cigars.
* * *
The disappearance of Lucie Blackman, the long months of uncertainty, and the discovery of her terrible fate added to the ill feeling between her parents. But it existed long before her death. The shrill, contending versions of the truth were the sound track to the last five years of Lucie’s life.
In Jane’s version, the breakdown of their marriage occurred at a precise moment in November 1995 in their latest home—a big six-bedroom Edwardian house in Sevenoaks, the place where Jane’s dreams of domesticity had finally been fulfilled. “It was the house where I was going to have my Aga,” she said, with a trace of self-mockery at the snugness of the image. “This was the place where it would all be. I would be round the kitchen, Aga cooking, and my children would be in there, and then grandchildren. It didn’t quite work out like that.”
It was Sunday afternoon, and the five members of the family were sitting together in the front room. A fire was burning in the grate. Jane had prepared what the children called “colored toast,” striped with a tricolor of Marmite and apricot and strawberry jam. “We were watching The Wonder Years, which I used to love,” Jane remembered. “We all used to love it. Tim had Rupert on his lap, and I’ll never forget what he said. He said, ‘I love being family,’ as we all sat there together. I’ll never forget it. ‘I love being family.’ That’s what he said. And then the next day it was all over.”
On Monday morning, Jane received a telephone call from a man, a stranger, who told her that Tim was sleeping with his wife. Confronted with the accusation that evening, Tim first denied, then admitted the affair. Jane demanded that he move out immediately. There was shouting and screaming. Overnight, black plastic bags were stuffed with clothes and belongings and tossed out windows. “I believed that Tim was a caring, family man,” Jane said. “But after nineteen years of marriage, I realized that I’d lived with someone who didn’t exist.”
Tim acknowledged that he had been unfaithful to his wife. But rather than the sudden collapse of an apparently happy marriage, he spoke of a long, grinding slide into uncommunicativeness and antipathy. “When Jane was unhappy with something I had done, she would simply ignore me,” he said. “There would be long weekends of stony-faced silence. It went on for weeks at a time, and then it lasted for months, months on end. I was the guilty party, according to the law and according to the whole standard procedure, and no one was particularly interested in whether there’d been a history to the breakdown. I’m sure that, in the children’s eyes, I’d been the one who broke the family up. It’s not quite as black and white as that, as anyone who’s been in a similar situation would understand.”
Jane and the three children spent an unhappy Christmas on their own in the big Edwardian house amid the unborn ghosts of future grandchildren. There was virtually no money from Tim, whose company had gone into liquidation. After the sale of their old home, Jane rented a small house, a grim brick cube in the less genteel quarters of Sevenoaks. It was a place with a history—its previous owner was Diana Goldsmith, a forty-four-year-old alcoholic who had inexplicably disappeared after dropping her children off at school. When Jane and the children moved in, the windows still carried traces of the dust that the detectives had used in their hunt for fingerprints. “The children and I used to say, ‘I hope she’s not under the bath,’” said Jane. “And it was only half a joke.”
The following year, Diana Goldsmith’s body was found buried in a garden in Bromley; her former lover was tried but acquitted of the murder. “Everyone hated that house,” said Jane. “It was filthy dirty and had this horrible past. I’m not at all materialistic, but I like nice things which please the eye, and it offended my sense of beauty. Lucie hated that house.”
It was her last home.
Copyright © 2011, 2012 by Richard Lloyd Parry