'I think of my beautiful boy crying out for me, and I wasn't there for him'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Richard Taylor, Damilola's father, never wanted his son to move to Peckham. Its reputation as a grim, godforsaken badland, pocked by crime, drugs and indifference, had made its malodorous way to the family's village on the outskirts of Lagos. But he and his wife, Gloria, could see no other way of helping their daughter, who was so severely affected by epilepsy she was unable to walk, other than going to Britain.

After the World Health Organisation withdrew from Nigeria, Gbemi's medication was increasingly hard to get hold of. Her father was spending a month's salary hunting down and paying for drugs on the black market. If the family moved to England, Gbemi, who was born here, would be entitled to free treatment.

A relative of Mr Taylor had agreed to let the family stay with her at her small council flat in Peckham, near King's College Hospital, Camberwell, where Gbemi, now 24, would receive treatment.

No doubt the Taylors wondered whether Peckham was really as bad as people said. Surely it could only be better than their own city, where crime and disease reduced life expectancy to less than 50? And they had fond memories of England, having lived here for 10 years after arriving in the mid-1970s as students. After marrying they settled in Uxbridge, west London, which Mr Taylor, 56, remembered as "peaceful and safe". While in England, they also had a son, Tunde, now 22.

The family returned to Lagos in the mid-1980s when Mr Taylor's business failed, and he joined the personnel office of the Ministry of Defence. Mrs Taylor, 50, worked as a bank manager, and they lived in a comfortable four-bedroom home in the village of Isashi. Life was good, and even better when, in 1989, Damilola was born. A much-wanted third child, his name means "gift of God". Five years later, however, epilepsy struck Gbemi, and she lost her memory.

The Taylors spent two years saving the £5,000 they needed for the trip to England. They still, however, managed to pay for Damilola's private education at Luciana School, which did not have a phone, let alone computers. Always punctual, Damilola had never felt the sting of the cane used by Lucy Ikioda, the headteacher, on pupils who were late. Dami, as his friends called him, was a quiet, average student, who always had the right books with him and did his homework.Pained by his sister's health problems, he had ambitions of becoming a doctor and doing research into epilepsy.

It was decided Mr Taylor would stay behind working as head of civilian discipline with the Ministry of Defence in Abuja, 340 miles north of Lagos, but that he would visit the family regularly. Tunde would also go to England, leaving his degree course at Ekiti State University, and work in London to support the family.

They arrived in England in August 2000. Eleven weeks later, Damilola would be dragging himself up a stairwell 200 yards from his front door, blood spewing fatally from his leg.

Mrs Taylor spent three hours searching for Damilola when he failed to come home from his computer class on 27 November 2000. She went to his school, Oliver Goldsmith Primary, which she had visited only that morning to complain that Damilola was being bullied. During his last telephone conversation with his father, the boy had said: "Daddy, they are beating me. You must come to London now."

On her way home, Mrs Taylor met police who said a child had been stabbed. She gave them a description of Damilola and they took her to the hospital. "I pulled him and I put my head on him... and all that came out from his lips was blood," she remembered.

Mr Taylor learnt the news in a telephone call from his remaining son. He flew to Britain broken. "I miss my son. He was my darling, my heart. You cannot understand how great a loss it is to me. Oh my God, I am not going to take it lightly because I so much loved this boy," he said.

A tall, quiet man, his grief propelled him into a rage that saw him blame Britain for letting its family values "go to the dogs", and his own country for its scant medical care, which had forced him to seek help elsewhere. And he blamed himself. "I wondered if the tragedy was the result of a sin that I had committed. Did God want to punish me?" he said.

The children were equally guilt-ridden. Gbemi reasoned that the family would never have come to Britain had she not been epileptic. At Damilola's memorial service, Tunde spoke of how he had failed the "god-fearing, fun-loving, adventurous, intelligent, loving boy". "I always thought you could not lack anything while I was still alive but apparently the only thing I could not offer was protection from your killers on that fateful day and that hurts. Dami, I know you are resting peacefully in God's arms. Please forgive me for not being there. I am deeply sorry," he said.

The parents were plagued by nightmares. Mr Taylor would dream that while he and Damilola were playing their customary game of rough and tumble, he would suddenly realise that his adored son was biting him. Six months after the attack he said: "There's not a day that I do not weep for him, for the loss. Sometimes I feel like going mad, going out there to do something terrible, but I find constraint. I realise I have to let the police take their time, rather than take the law into my own hands."

With time – and counselling – the pain has gradually eased. "I now realise that things happen in life for no reason. That's how God wants it to happen and there's nothing we can do about it," said Mr Taylor.

For Mrs Taylor, the tortuous guilt appears to remain. "I feel I have to be strong for the rest of the family, and to do that I hide my emotions," she said last November. "On the outside I'm a rock, inside, I'm in pieces. I can't help feeling that I failed Dami as a mother. I think of how alone he must have felt when he died. I think of my beautiful boy lying there crying out for me and I wasn't there for him."