Survival skills

Share this article


Portrait debra hurford brown

SARAH PAYNE’S last message in the world was a note to her mother Sara, scrawled on paper in her childish, eight-year-old hand. "To Mrs Payne," she wrote, with that quaint love of titles children have, "I love you so so so so so so so much, love from Sarah." Hours later, the loving, childish voice was silenced. Sarah was abducted as she played with her two brothers and sister, just 100 yards from her grandparents’ house, and subsequently murdered.

There was nothing special about that last day, except that it was the last and no one knew. Only after tragedy did the prosaic become meaningful: Sara Payne was cross when she arrived home from work because her husband, Mike, had overslept and hadn’t done the laundry, despite the fact that they were leaving for the seaside. Dirty dishes were piled high in the sink, toys littered the floor, and the children ignored the chaos to play. By the time they all piled into the car, the atmosphere was strained. But it disappeared quickly, that top layer of irritation, blown away by the sea breezes as easily as the wind blows the fluff from a dandelion clock.

Always soft-hearted, Sarah hadn’t liked the cross words, soothing the friction with the balm of childish declarations in the note she left propped on a desk in her grandparents’ house. She was just at the age where she was beginning to take an interest in her hair and clothes, but it was her family that was still her first priority. "Her kindness of spirit, her awareness of other people’s feelings... that was one of the most amazing things about Sarah," says Payne.

She had hugged Sarah when she found the note. Then the whole family had gone for a walk on the beach. The adults decided to continue, but the two boys, Lee, 13, and Luke, 11, asked to stay and play. Could Sarah and six-year-old Charlotte stay too? Sara and Mike hesitated. They had never let the girls play alone before. But the boys would look after them. And the children’s grandmother was waiting in the house. Yes. An impulse decision that became a matter of life and death.

Forty five minutes later, the adults were back. But Sarah was already gone. She had fallen over and run back towards the house. The boys ran after her but then Charlotte fell. Lee reached the road first; just a minute, police estimated, after Sarah did. The only thing he saw was a man in a white van driving away. A man who turned and smiled and waved his hand.

Sara Payne has written a book about the events that followed. "It was cathartic," she says. "You hear hundreds of stories from murderers. Rarely do you hear from the victims’ families about the devastation they cause." But already she has been subjected to a vitriolic attack by a female newspaper columnist for "sharing every cough and spit of her agony". Strange that a person who makes her living from words should understand so little about their healing power. The columnist criticised Payne for leaving her children to play alone, implying that they had been abandoned for hours.

"To get facts wrong is a bit naughty," says Payne quietly. "The criticism about the book… she’s entitled to her opinion. I take that on the chin." She talks calmly, strikingly without any of the venom that has been displayed to her. There is one thing people just don’t understand. Their criticism is an irrelevance. "I punish myself," says Payne, "far more than she can ever punish me."

WE PREFER even our tragedies neat and tidy, nothing to confuse our lines of sympathy. Angelic-looking child - as indeed Sarah Payne was, her huge, brown, doe eyes peeping from beneath a fringe of soft blonde hair. Parents above reproach and preferably middle class. But Sara Payne’s book doesn’t let us away with that. This is a raw story, a story where the pain doesn’t just sit simmering neatly in the pot; it boils over in a froth on the stove, where it gets blacker and messier and more ingrained in the heat.

There’s grief and anger and loss and guilt and alcoholism and depression in that pot. It’s the story of a marriage that breaks down under intolerable pressure, but from which love is never completely absent. The story of a woman who contemplates abortion because she can’t face new life, of a woman who has to inform the police that her husband has a gun and he intend to kill her daughter’s paedophile murderer with it. Did Payne really believe he would use it? "I did," she says flatly.

You don’t pick up a gun with the supermarket shopping. But Payne stresses that they were always an "unconventional" family. "We are not Mr and Mrs Marks & Spencer, I suppose. We’re kind of loud and… nightmare neighbours, probably. We liked to be noisy, be ourselves, laugh together. Caravan holidays were an ace thing to do - campsites and clubs, that sort of thing. I’m sure everybody in our road knew the ins and outs of our lives. If we laughed, we laughed the loudest, and I really miss that. If we had a barbecue, we had to have the music on full blast. Not any more. I’m quite sad about that, really. I do miss it. But it’s not part of us any more."

The strange thing about hearing Payne describe herself and her chaotic family is that her description does not tally with the woman in front of you. Payne is quietly spoken, articulate and thoughtful. So when she asks if the tragedy would have happened had they been more conventional, is it not simply an illustration of the way parents blame themselves, whether at fault or not? A sign that she hasn’t forgiven herself? "I have accepted that I will live with guilt," she replies. "I will always question my decision, always question that whole day. But I’ve come to terms with the fact that it wasn’t me that killed Sarah. I think that’s the only peace I’ll get as far as that is concerned."

She and Mike never blamed each other, but they did blame themselves. Is guilt, even more than loss, perhaps the most destructive emotion of all? "I think it is. It’s one of those emotions that if you feel guilty about something you can change, then it’s a good emotion, but if you just feel guilty, and there’s nothing you can do about it, then it’s an awful emotion. It is corrosive."

The screams and squeals of six-month-old Ellie Payne are poignant as her mother talks. New life, new hope, but no replacement. Sara Payne is adamant about that. She paces the room with her baby close to her chest, murmuring quietly against her ear to pacify her. Her relationship with husband Mike, and their sex life, had disintegrated to the degree that she could scarcely believe she was expecting. But she couldn’t go through with the abortion she arranged. Ellie was unplanned but somehow meant to be. "She has made tomorrow appear again."

Men and women grieve very differently. Sometimes they are on parallel roads and simply can’t seem to meet up at any point on the journey. As Sarah’s mother, sympathy focused on Sara and she became the public face of the Paynes’ grief. As a child, Sara would climb the tallest tree to prove the knot of fear in her belly didn’t exist. When her brothers hurt her in a fight, she refused to give a glimpse of her pain. As an adult, she behaved similarly when her daughter died. She was strong, determined, wowing the public with her dignified composure.

Only once did she let go of the screams inside. It was the very first morning after Sarah disappeared. Payne went out into the field on her own. "I found out that morning that if I let go then there wouldn’t be any stopping. I screamed; I shook; I couldn’t stand; I couldn’t breathe; I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t give in to that. I had to take back the control."

Seventeen days later, when an officer arrived to tell her Sarah had been found, she refused to let him speak until Mike arrived home. She made him a cup of tea, asked him what he had done the night before. "I could see how agitated he was. I think I knew what he was going to say, and I wanted to put it off as long as humanly possible."

But behind the public facade, there was no control. Payne spiralled into depression. Mike already had a history of depression, and now he was also struggling with the feeling that, as Sarah’s dad, his grief was sometimes considered less important than her mum’s. Last year, three years after Sarah died, the marriage finally collapsed. "I think it was Mike’s depression, and mine, working against each other. I was depressed and didn’t realise it for a very long time. I was just numb to everything. I wasn’t angry and feisty and shouting. I could barely be bothered to pick up the phone if it rang. I wasn’t sleeping. I was going to bed at two, three, four in the morning and waking up exactly the same as I had gone to bed: without any energy. And we were drinking too much and weren’t doing anything about that. We’d fallen into a deep hole and somebody had pulled up the ladder. We couldn’t help each other."

Despite the split, the Paynes are still a family. Will she and Mike get together again? "I hope so. I really do hope so. Things can never be exactly as they were. Who we were changed straight away, from that last day of June to the first day of July. Just changed. It was like putting everyone in a pepper pot, shaking it all about and expecting us to come out the same way. That’s not going to happen. Our world is different now. We can’t get back what we lost that day. That doesn’t mean we can’t get back something different, but we can’t have what we once had. There’s an innocence that has been taken away, and a trust, not in each other, but in the world."

Though they live apart, she has never stopped loving Mike. "Mike is the only man for me and always has been, and I can’t see that changing. He’s my best friend. He’s a massive part of my life and I don’t see that changing, whether we get back together or not."

Sarah’s murderer, Roy Whiting, dumped her body in a field. By the time she was found, little of her face was left. Her hair was gone and her fingers and toes had been eaten by animals. Utterly destroyed. Does Payne not resent that Whiting has destroyed the rest of her family too? "I don’t think he did. I think we did that ourselves. We can put ourselves back together. It is little to do with him except that he changed our circumstances, but hopefully what he has made us do is look at ourselves and we’ll become stronger."

Sarah’s murder has affected her brothers and sister in different ways. Payne encourages them to be close, but to be individuals, and she has tried to let each grieve in their own way. Charlotte was always an independent child, but she changed when Sarah died. "From the time she was born it was, ‘I can do it’. But she became very clingy where she was feisty before. She could no longer dress, eat, sleep. She just reverted, and seemed to lose two or three years."

For the boys, Lee and Luke, the pain has been particularly difficult to handle. They were entrusted with Sarah’s care and their grief was tinged with a sense of responsibility that they didn’t catch her before Whiting did. If only they had run just a little faster. Their sense of rage and frustration was evident to Payne a week after Sarah disappeared, when she found Luke flailing his arms and legs at a tree and screaming. "Luke is very individual. He has his dark times," she explains.

But it is her eldest son, Lee, who is most difficult to gauge. After all, he stared Sarah’s killer in the face. It was his memory of the white van, and the vivid description of Whiting’s scruffy, unkempt looks, his greasy hair and yellowing teeth, that led the police to the murderer. But what has it done to him inside to learn that he inadvertently watched his sister being driven away? "He’s like me, he doesn’t show his emotions very easily," says Payne. "In our quiet way we do grieve, but in our own way and in our own space."

Payne knows her two boys have been seared. "I regret the responsibility I put on my boys’ shoulders that day. I regret the hurt it caused them and is still causing."

Despite the devastation Whiting has caused her family, there is no sense of hatred towards him in her book, which is a remarkable achievement. "I try very hard not to think about him. I don’t think enough of him to hate him. I just wish he wasn’t there. He’s a useless, pointless human being. I can’t see what he has given to the world. Everyone gives something to the world around them, but I can’t see what he does."

Years ago, Payne had an argument with friends about the death penalty. She didn’t believe in it. But what if one of your children were murdered, she was asked? She couldn’t know that one day her views would be tested. They haven’t changed. "I’m okay with the fact that he is in prison and he won’t touch another child. If he came out, then I don’t know how I would feel. I don’t think I would stop Michael then. I don’t think I could live with the thought that he would do it to another child."

Payne now campaigns for "Sarah’s Law", a law that would inform parents when a paedophile was in their area. Whiting had already abducted a child before Sarah, and was released from prison just two years later. "We started the campaign because we were incredulous that a man like Whiting was there. We thought a man like him could do it a first time but would never be able to do it a second. The idea that someone like him could commit an offence and then come out and do it again was mind blowing to us."

Some legal changes have ensued, but not enough for Payne. Since she was involved in the News of the World’s "naming and shaming" campaign, she must know the public violence it caused. Payne argues that the people who subsequently sat round the table with her, including Home Secretary David Blunkett and police chiefs, would never have done so had it not been for the campaign. But she does regret the violence. "If you use vigilante action then, I’m sorry, you should be punished. If you resort to the mob mentality, you are not teaching children any better lesson. Putting a poster in a child’s hand saying, ‘Burn him’, it’s wrong, very wrong."

Her fight, she says, is not about revenge, but about parental choice. "We want the government to tell people when a serious predatory paedophile is about, whether by name or address or picture, or even just letting you know someone is there in the community. When Sarah was taken, my choice would have been very different had I known Roy Whiting was there. Had I known, Sarah would still be alive today."

PERHAPS Sarah’s voice is not silenced after all. She is gone but still around; her mother talks to her constantly. If she sees something she knows Sarah would have liked, that would make her daughter smile, she tells her. And she tells baby Ellie all about her older sister. "I have always believed your loved ones are still around, whether spiritually or physically. Or even just because what they have put into your life means that they have become part of your life. I just feel Sarah is still very much part of the dynamics of our family and how our family works."

The moment Payne’s face darkens into pain is when she is asked how Sarah would have coped with her ordeal. "That is the stuff your nightmares are made of, that time for her. But she wouldn’t have fought. She wouldn’t have… I don’t know. I don’t think she would have lasted long, to be honest. The shock would have got her, if nothing else."

Everything with a child is wrapped up in the future. Your hopes for them. Your dreams. Sometimes Sara looks at Sarah’s school friends and feels a pang of jealousy, of anger. "I look at them and I think, why?" She is forever looking into a future that Sarah doesn’t have. She can’t imagine how her daughter would have been now. Sarah is a child in a bubble, forever trapped on the first day of July 2001. "I have five children, I don’t have four. It’s just that one remains eight, and will remain eight for the rest of my life."

It was a recipe for stagnation until Ellie came along. People tell you to live for today, says Payne, but today doesn’t make any sense without tomorrow. She lost a brother and her mother after Sarah died, both to cancer. It often happens in families where there has been a murder, she says. The effects just ripple on and on and on. But Ellie became a tomorrow in a sea of yesterdays. Payne stopped drinking when she became pregnant, and Mike has too. "I hope that one day Mike and I will reach the point where we live in the same house and everything will be…" She pauses. "Average," she finishes with a wry smile.

Average seems dull until you don’t have it any more, and long for it. When Sarah Payne went missing, parents all over the country tried to imagine themselves in Sara and Mike Payne’s un-average shoes. Most of us mentally kicked them off immediately; they caused instant calluses.

But coming back from interviewing Sara Payne, it is impossible not to stand in her shoes. It’s late. An envelope is propped on my keyboard. Inside is a note from my sleeping daughter. She was only five when Sarah went missing, but she’s nine now. Once she was younger, but now she has overtaken the girl trapped in the time bubble. Her note is Sarah’s note, even down to the repetition of ‘so’. "I love you so, so much." It gives me a shiver because of the timing, but also because it gives an insight into the terrible, arbitrary nature of tragedy. The strangely coherent voices of two children: one strong and vibrant; the other silenced to a mere echo.

Sara Payne: A Mother’s Story (Hodder & Stoughton, 16.99)

Back to the top of the page