Who you turn to is only a matter of luck: Suzanne Capper's murder triggered lonely childhood memories for Matthew Campling

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Indy Lifestyle Online
When I was 13 I was befriended by a married couple who lived not far from my parents. We were middle class, this was white South Africa, we had a swimming pool and a professionally designed garden. My father was a workaholic, emotionally and often physically absent. My mother was in love with the husband of a family friend and had her own problems. Thinking back, I have some sense of my isolation and how grateful I was to two older people, who provided some respite from my sad and fearful schooldays.

This is one reason why the tragedy of Suzanne Capper - horrifically murdered by at the end of 1992 by 'friends' who were convicted last month - has had a tremendous impact on me. I am not old enough to have lived through the Moors murders, or the case of Mary Bell. I did not want to take in the details of James Bulger's death - it was too horrific an advance in iniquity.

But friendless Suzanne - there I have some personal experience. My good fortune was that, unlike her, I was not living in a deprived area. Although her fate is beyond comparison, the desperation of emotionally starved children is the same everywhere. Who you turn to is a matter of luck.

Press reports about Suzanne revealed a girl willing to oblige anyone; someone who, it seems, had no sense that she should and could decline, that she was under no obligation to visit that squalid house in Manchester. Yet, since that was where she had found some source of human contact, it would have been difficult for her to break off the abusive friendship of Jean Powell and Bernadette McNeilly.

As any lonely child quickly learns, you dare not object to the way you are treated in case you become unwelcome. You laugh when a joke is told, you do the washing-up; above all, you never rock the boat. All you have to offer is yourself. And no one, possibly, has ever told you that was something of any worth.

I was lucky that my two older friends were sensitive to my situation. Suzanne took up with people who would eventually become her torturers, her murderers.

Apparently, she did anything her friends asked. She was passive, compliant, willing. I was constantly bullied at school, and did not care that most of the attention I attracted was negative - at least it offered some emotional contact. My willingness to forgive my oppressors meant there were occasions when they got bored with their bullying, or other children would feel sorry and include me in their activities. I imagine Suzanne also bided her time and waited for these moments.

My two adult friends were warm and immensely kind. That friendship between a 13-year-old and a married couple in their late twenties resulted from a combination of personalities and fate. John was an avid comic collector; Pat was studying for a degree in child psychology; they were childless.

Since my family was no more than half a mile from their home, it was possible for me to walk to their house on a Saturday morning. I did this every week for about 18 months. These glorious days were time out from the mental agonies I suffered at school and the sterility of my home life.

Strangely, my presence in their lives was never discussed. At no time were rules laid down. It was implicitly accepted on both sides that I would be there, smiling hopefully, outside their panoramic glass doors. The only rule I can remember was that I never knocked before they had opened the curtains - and this was a rule I formulated myself. It sometimes meant hanging around in the road for a long time, but that only added to the thrill of seeing the curtains drawn.

Fate, circumstance and probably luck determined my fortunes - and Suzanne's. My parents were emotionally distant, but my social position remained fixed and I was provided with security. Suzanne did not have any social position - it seems nobody raised the alarm when she disappeared during those six dreadful days.

Nowadays I write a weekly advice column and cannot help looking for hope in Suzanne's story. Perhaps this is it: Suzanne spent four days in the care of hospital staff and police. To the extent to which she would have been conscious, it must have seemed a different world. This tragic girl who, for most of her life, had to work hard for any attention, finally found willing ears to listen to her story. At least she did not leave this life believing that no one would ever take care of her.

Suzanne's story is known only because of the abnormal horror it contains. The day-to-day misery of many children continues. Looking back at my own childhood, I am also, objectively, grateful for the advantages I enjoyed. When my friends moved to America, I found another married couple, this time with children, and started another Saturday friendship. I was lucky, I had options.

The author works for the social service department of a London borough and is advice columnist for 'Boyz' magazine.

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