For nearly two years, we have lived in Orihuela Costa, on the Costa Blanca in Spain, among a cocktail of nationalities. Last September, when my son was celebrating his seventh birthday, his Dutch friends brought round a girl from the next road who looked Malaysian. She stayed and had a slice of cake. Her older sisters who came to collect her were introduced as Norwegians. I later learned that their mother was from Kuala Lumpur and their father from Iran, but the family – they were called Bigdely – had become Norwegian citizens and lived there for years. Now they were making a new life in Spain.
On 2 April, Shila Bigdely, the oldest girl, was murdered on her way to school. She was rushing down the road because she was late. The clocks had gone forward that week, which meant she had to cover a very short distance in the dark to catch the bus to San Miguel, a few miles away. There are good lights on the road but occasionally they don’t work. I was mugged further down Calle Nicolas de Bussi (named after a local sculptor of religious images) the year before, when a gang took advantage of the darkness.
Just outside our housing development there’s a ravine. Ravines are about the only areas that don’t get built on in the Costa Blanca property boom. Our ravine stretches across the last couple of hundred yards before we reach home. It is a part of our life. We walk, cycle or drive past it several times a day. On Saturdays, a market runs alongside it, where we buy all our vegetables and roast chickens. Occasionally, an opportunist shepherd puts his flock down there to graze between the housing estates. Afterwards small plants fertilised by the droppings – wild spinach, fennel, even an impressive henbane – spring up beneath the pines and carob trees. The last landmark at the end of the ravine is Chino Dragon, the local Chinese restaurant.
There are small No Tipping notices in English and Spanish now, but the land is still used for dumping rubbish. It is also used for walking dogs and many other purposes. When we first moved here, we had to wait a couple of weeks for most of our furniture to arrive. There was a huge Moors and Christians fiesta and several hundred folding slatted wooden chairs were rented out to spectators. After the procession, the damaged ones were chucked down the ravine and I salvaged five broken ones in order to make three good ones. They are still on my back balcony, painted a vivid bluey green. On another occasion, I found a large broken painted terracotta pot. It is now mended and contains a small kumquat tree. Just hours before Shila’s body was found, I had taken home a plank from this land hoping to make shelves for my growing collection of martial arts DVDs.
The ravine occasionally entered into my son’s bedtime stories. His favourite saga contains a massive cast of characters including three skeletons, 15 aardvarks, Quasimodo, Vinnie the Venus Fly Trap, Simon the Sundew and Pete the Pitcher plant. In my story, an old sofa that had been dumped beneath a tree became the aardvarks’ bed. The sofa has now been taken away by the police for DNA samples. I shall never tell a ravine story again.
Housing estates have strict rules about ball games, so children often went down into the ravine to play. I am glad now that I had banned my son from doing this on his own. I didn’t like the feel of the place. There was broken glass, a colony of rats, enough dog turds to fertilise Kew Gardens, and teenagers hanging around with air-guns, all of which made it irresistible to adventure-loving children. I’d gone down there the previous week to look at a bank where my son’s friends had found a large quantity of lizards and geckoes, which they were adopting and putting in plastic bottles. Most have since died. I managed to discourage my son, telling him that keeping them in anything smaller than an aquarium was not kind. A week or two before we had been there trying to make friends with a pedigree cat that had turned feral. We had walked behind some portakabin lavatories and a storage area. It was here, a blind spot from the road, that Shila’s body was found.
I heard the news on the last day of term. We were driving down to meet the school bus at about 4.30. There were six policemen (almost the entire force designated to cover this mile or two) taping off an area. The body had been found only 12 minutes earlier. I saw the police talking to one or two parents. As my son got off the bus a couple of other mothers told me that there had been a murder.
A retired couple, neighbours of ours, had found Shila’s bag at 7.25 in the morning as they went for a walk. They assumed a child had dropped it and put it on top of an electricity generator beside the road. By then, Shila was probably dead, as they heard nothing. They were friendly people, but now they rush into their house and hide away. The point where they put the bag has been turned into a shrine with hundreds of bunches of flowers, pictures, poems, protest banners. There are many photos of the girl. In another age the shrine would have become a place where a saint or goddess performed miracles. Even now there is something of that atmosphere about it. Many messages refer to her as an angel and speak of her watching over her friends.
Over the days that followed the press descended. An endless stream of photographers and journalists lurked near the shrine or came to our estate to put the Bigdely family through yet another set of questions. The first few were Norwegian. The story ran there in every paper and was on TV six times a day. The next wave of journalists was mainly Spanish. We were interviewed by a man from Spanish radio when we stopped to look at the messages on the shrine.
A few days after the murder, before the police had told anyone that they had made an arrest, there were protest marches and demonstrations near Shila’s school in San Miguel and on our estate. I marched to the town hall with a thousand or so people. Chino Dragon had donated a wreath so heavy it needed two men to carry it. All the children were given bunches of flowers and pictures of Shila to carry. The adults got black ribbons. Spain had run out of black ribbons after the Madrid bombings, and schoolchildren had had to draw pictures of them to wear for the three days of public mourning. I had got my son to draw me one too. I kept it on my jacket for a few days. I had just taken it off when I heard of the murder.
One of the many British oafs from the area circled the procession on his motorbike, revving the engine. He and his mates hang around opposite the ravine at a house called Villa Fcukoff – a joke that must have worn thin before the tiles that display the name set in the cement. There’s a whole generation of drunken drugged delinquent English teenagers out here. Some of them threw fruit and water bombs at me when I first moved in. Because I called them names and reported the incident to the police, the next day someone came round and threatened to throw acid over me. One of the problems with the English is they are unable or unwilling to learn the language. Only the children who go to a Spanish school before the age of seven make the transition. Those who come later can’t manage it. They are bored with being taught in a language they can’t understand, so they start to play truant. The next stage is drugs and vandalism.
My son’s school has children of 22 different nationalities. Even in the primary school the level of violence is shocking. My son had broken glass held to his throat at the age of six. A girl a year or two older had her face cut with a blade taken out of a pencil sharpener. It’s mainly the English and the Russians who are responsible. The Spanish property-buying system is very different from the British. Payments are often partly in cash and false declarations are made on paper to avoid tax. The practice is widespread. This attracts money launderers. I’ve heard people boast of having robbed post offices and I know that some people here run prostitution rings. The sons of gangsters sometimes like to imitate their fathers’ violence. Teachers don’t dish out much in the way of punishment. Expulsion is pretty much unknown. Two boys in my son’s class tried to cut off another boy’s finger with a pair of scissors. Their punishment was to be kept in at break. I have been going to karate twice a week with my son for the last ten months. We practise hard.
Over the next few days it emerged that a boy of 14, a classmate of Shila’s, had been charged with her rape and murder. On his estate they have made a tiny alternative shrine on a smaller concrete post. The main shrine has hundreds of bunches of real flowers. The other has plastic ivy, a butterfly, a frog and a china ornament of a bird and red roses.
At the end of the march there was a service in a nearby church. Shila’s uncle spoke movingly of his niece’s artistic talent. The service was part Spanish, part English, with communion for those who wished it. In interviews with the Spanish press, Shila’s father had said he was not religious but that he believed in people. There would be no comfort therefore in the Catholic sentiments of the service. Towards the end we were asked to shake hands with our neighbours. I shook hands with several black children in the row in front of me, Shila’s classmates. Most were in tears.
For days, Shila’s family were outside their house sitting with friends or the Norwegian consul. Can you imagine a British consul spending days in an obscure part of Europe helping British citizens who were ethnically Malaysian-Iranian? I can’t. The only time I had to contact a British embassy for help, after I’d been mugged and hit a few times in Budapest, they were most eager to tell me that they would charge a couple of hundred quid if they had to renew my passport on a public holiday.
Spanish law allows a maximum of four years in a detention centre for a criminal of the boy’s age. I agree that this is far too little, but I am not of the castrating and disembowelling faction, unlike some other members of the British population. A website devoted to local matters already contains quite a few threats from vigilantes. One boasts that his father worked for the Krays. He says he’s bringing his father and some of the firm over to deal with local crime. Someone else suggests getting the IRA to help.
The police arrested the suspect within a few days, so there’s a result on paper. They searched the ravine all through the night and took away evidence. But much was left behind. Spain has one of the world’s best rubbish collection systems and the street bins were probably emptied that day. Worse, the Saturday market was allowed to set up alongside the murder site some fifteen hours after the body was discovered.
Spanish families seemed to become closer after 11 March. They hugged their children when they met them off the buses rather than waiting in their cars for them. Now all the people here are walking their children to and from each other’s houses where before they played in the street.
I learned the name of the alleged murderer a few days ago as I discussed what had happened with other mothers at the bus stop. The following day, again at the bus stop, I found out that he had attended my son’s school. I can’t quite remember his face, although I could identify most of the children who went there. The newspaper photographs show a hood pulled forward. But I know now that he caught the bus from the Swiss-German Taro bar every day, as did my son. He must have been on the second bus with the older children. One of my son’s friends came round: it seems that many of the children in the school had worked out who the suspect was before we slower parents put two and two together.
After the rain stopped a strong wind played havoc with the flowers on the altar. Most have fallen down the ravine, together with large clouts of tumbleweed. Passers-by pick up candles and try to set things right. Only a small collection remains now. The town hall has promised a monument. We don’t know yet whether it will be something large or a simple cross like the ones that mark the site of fatal road accidents all over Spain. Either way, it will be something that Shila’s parents and the rest of us will have to pass every day.