Life after Lucy

It took just over 30 years for Marian Partington to write her letter to Rosemary West, the woman she believes was complicit in the murder of her younger sister. Thirty years since Lucy first went missing. Ten since her remains were found in the home of Fred and Rosemary West at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester. Nine since West escaped all further accountability for the deaths of Lucy and 11 others by hanging himself in prison before his trial and leaving his wife to face their accusers alone.

It also took Quakerism, Buddhism, psycho-therapy, poetry, anger, grief and finally, almost incomprehensibly, compassion.

Lucy’s bones were found with rope, masking tape, two hairgrips and a few strands of hair in March 1994. Following her disappearance in December 1973, she had been decapitated and dismembered and stuffed face down in a small hole surrounded by leaking sewage pipes. Fred hid the evidence of what became a torture chamber and grave for five young women by concreting it over, turning it into a basement bedroom for his children.

The young Wests paddled around the room in dirty water that seeped in from the cracked pipes. Their home had been a centre for sexual brutality, incest and their mother’s prostitution. Police had finally caught up with the Wests after being tipped off about the couple’s abuse of their own family and the disappearance of their eldest girl, Heather. In February 1994, they began digging and found the remains of the 16-year-old under the patio. The house and garden yielded nine bodies in all. Three more were found elsewhere. Marian describes the vastness of what happened as “sticky and staining”.

In one section of her letter to Rosemary, dated May 7 2004, Marian writes: “I don’t know the whole truth about Lucy’s murder. You have denied being involved in it. I have not met you, and know very little about you, apart from the crimes which you deny committing, the abuse that you suffered as a child from your brother and father, and the abduction and rape you suffered when you were 15 years old. It is difficult to get a real picture of you as a whole person. I do hope that you continue to be helped and supported in some way.” In another, she adds: “I can honestly say that at times I feel a strange sort of gratitude towards you, because I have had to face myself as a human being, deep inside.”

It’s an astonishing letter. How to unpick the decades that shaped it? We are sitting in a living-room in Bristol. Marian was 25 when her sister disappeared. Now she’s a white-haired 64-year-old, precise in language, movement and thought.

Lying between us is her first book, If You Sit Very Still, an account of a life overshadowed by more than 20 years of not knowing what had happened to Lucy, then by dealing with the reality of what had.

The title comes from a dream Marian had four months after Lucy went missing in which a smiling Lucy tells her sister she’s been sitting in a meadow and that, “If you sit very still you can hear the sun move.” The dream put Marian on her long path towards understanding the enormity of what had happened, but in this quiet space also lie troubling questions: how could she trust anyone again, survive, find peace, forgive? Why did this happen? What is to be learnt?

When Lucy’s skull was found, she was still gagged. She had died aged 21. Marian has filled the vacuum left by deafening silence – that of her dead sister and of Rosemary West – with words: the letter and the book. She says: “I felt if I didn’t say anything, I may as well be dead. This huge thing has happened and in order to go on living with it, I had to say something about it, yet where’s the place to say it? And who really wants to listen to this? At least in a book, people can decide whether they connect with it or not.”

The worlds of Partington and West could not be further apart, yet Marian concludes there are parallels between the two, in the process examining her own conscience and the potential for female violence: “It’s a very uncomfortable subject and yet it seemed to me that a nuanced journey of facing oneself as somebody who could harm others, could kill others in a state of rage, in order to move in a direction of healing, was necessary.”

The Partington sisters and their brothers, David and Mark, grew up in a converted cider mill in the Gloucestershire village of Gretton, perched on the top of a hill above a railway track overlooking the council houses below. It was a comfortable, academically inclined household and Marian knew private education would separate them from families on the other side of the track. She admits: “The trenches were firmly dug in my mind. Nothing in ‘their’ environment would be remotely like anything in ‘ours’.”

25 Cromwell Street, the Wests’ former home, on the day of its demolition

On the night she disappeared, Lucy left a friend’s house in Cheltenham to catch a bus back to Gretton and was never seen again. In her bag she carried an application to the Courtauld Institute of Art to take a postgraduate course in medieval art history. She was in the final year of an English literature degree at Exeter university. She also had a copy of the dream-vision poem “Pearl”. Following the arrests of the Wests in 1994 and Fred’s suicide, Marian attended a hearing to decide whether Rosemary should stand trial and heard that Rosemary tried to lure one young woman to Cromwell Street by promising her a life where she would be able to “ride horses and write poetry”. Marian writes: “There was something about the use of the word ‘poetry’ that leapt out of the general mire of blasphemy and made my stomach churn. Another such moment was when we heard that their last child was called Lucyanna.” Rosemary had eight children while married to Fred. They murdered Heather, the eldest, and Rosemary also murdered Charmaine, one of Fred’s children from a previous marriage.

Poetry and the joy it brought both sisters is evident in the lyrical, redemptive narrative of the book and the memory brings Marian to tears. “Why am I crying? It’s very much about needing to have some words out there that weren’t stuck in the language of the tabloid press and in the language of whatever words you could use about what was actually done, what happened in the physical demolition of people who became labelled as the West victims. The question that I grapple with is, how do you find inner peace without denying the reality of human atrocity?”

She echoes the structure of the poem “Pearl” by dividing her book into four sections: Crisis, Confessing, Comprehending, Transforming. That this gentle homeopath should feel the need to confess anything is startling. It’s only when we face up to all we would rather deny in ourselves, she argues, that we can find any compassion, describing forgiveness as “giving up all hope of a better past”.

She “confesses” her own anger, fear and isolation. How in her twenties, she became a single mother living in a council flat with two of her youngest children, on the at-risk register having left a violent relationship. How, between 1970 and 1985, she had four abortions. Marian writes: “It is not consoling, but true, that this has helped me feel more compassionate towards those who have killed, legally or illegally.”

In another dream sequence, Marian describes sitting in a basement with Rosemary West. “Rosemary was scooping handfuls of flesh from a glistening pile of meat, as bloody and fresh as chopped placentas, on the floor by her feet.” West is pushing the flesh into polythene bags, tossing them over her shoulder into a black night, repeating, “I keep throwing them into the sea, but the waves keep bringing them back.” She links both of them in horror: “Rosemary West could not rid herself of the contents of the basement in Cromwell Street … I would rather edit out my terminations.”

The sisters shared a strong spirituality. Five weeks before her disappearance, Lucy was received into the Catholic Church. Five weeks before Lucy’s bones were found, Marian became a Quaker. The sisters had also begun to share thoughts on the effect of divorce on their family. Marian’s father, Roger, left when Marian was 12. Her mother didn’t see him again until Lucy was reported missing. It was as if he had been the first to disappear and neither the divorce nor Lucy vanishing for so long had allowed the family a chance to grieve. “I did feel it was a traumatic experience and I feel very sad that two of my children have also experienced that cycle. These patterns go on in families and are very much repeated. I felt what happened to Lucy was part of our family history as well, and it seemed important that it was addressed to bring some meaning and hope and learning out of it in a way that the divorce never did.”

Marian later settled happily with another partner and had one more child. None of her children or brothers has as yet read the book. Lucy’s disappearance, like the divorce, was something too difficult for other family members to talk about openly and, “the hole of Not Knowing had its own drill-like momentum. It was becoming a deep pit, eroded by our not being able to talk about it.” Finally, they all had to deal with her death in their own way: “I’ve had to face this question of the different approaches to mourning and how my approach can be threatening to others and yet, if I had not gone on in this way, I would have been compromising my own truth.”

The book is a culmination of years of retreats, pilgrimages and writing and has been published by a community co-operative dedicated to books that “explore and celebrate the human spirit”. Marian also supports restorative justice work in prisons for The Forgiveness Project, talking about Lucy and the effect of what has happened on her own life. Has anyone ever said to her, leave Lucy now? She laughs: “Well, my mother. At one point I think she said, we just wish you would shut up!”

The Wests’ only recorded words about Lucy came from Fred, who claimed they had an affair and he killed her when she wanted him to meet her parents: “Her wanted me to see her parents, her wanted me to do bloody everything.” Marian’s family were outraged – including her cousin on her mother’s side, the novelist Martin Amis. In his memoir, Experience, published in 2000, Amis draws on the clash between the literate victim and illiterate killer, quoting a letter from West to one of his daughters: “ Hi May it your Dad writing to you. Or lette me have your telephone number ... or Write to me as soon as you can … ” and contrasting it with one of Lucy’s poems:

“Things are as big as you make them –
I can fill a whole body,
a whole day of life
with worry
on one scrap of paper;
yet, the same evening,
looking up,
can frame my fingers
to fit the sky
in my cupped hands.”

Marian objected to Amis appropriating her sister for his memoir, but also praises him for encouraging her to write her own story: “I almost didn’t read Martin’s autobiography because I felt betrayed by an enraging mistake on the inside cover, which located the penultimate burial of Lucy’s remains as “the back garden of Frederick West”. “When I phoned him about this, Martin said, ‘I am trembling’, but insisted the mistake ‘did not come from my pen’. Jonathan Cape also denied responsibility for the mistake. It was later corrected.”

There is a monstrous scale to what can never be corrected. As members of the families of the West victims contemplated what should be done with the Wests’ home before it was demolished, Fred’s brother Douglas got in touch with Marian saying he hoped something good could come out of evil. “They are also victims and this is where this whole business of blame started breaking down for me,” she says. She exchanges Christmas cards every year with Anne Marie Davis, who gave evidence in court against her stepmother.

The demands of the trial meant Lucy’s remains could not be immediately released for burial. Marian describes asking for the coffin to be opened so that she could at least place some special objects in with Lucy’s bones. She writes: “I lifted her skull with great care and tenderness. My lips kissed the bone of her brow. I wrapped it, as I have wrapped my babies, in her soft brown blanket, her snuggler. I pressed her to my heart.” Lucy was finally laid to rest on February 16 1995.

Can Marian really forgive after this? “I don’t see that forgiveness is something that is ever completed. We are all interconnected so what we think and what we say does affect the whole. I somehow feel that the opposite of love is fear rather than hatred and it is fear that has the potential for the most destructive actions.”

A police photo of Rosemary West at the time of her trial in 1995

Rosemary West was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 1995. In her letter to Rosemary, Marian recounts how, on her first Buddhist retreat she experienced a murderous rage: “Somehow, I knew that I could have killed someone too.” She writes of brushing past a branch, heavy with snow: “Please know that I do not feel any hostility towards you, just a sadness, a deep sadness that all this has happened, and that your heart could not feel a truth that I wish you could know. Our lives are connected and I am sending you the springing of the branch as a token of hope. May you be less burdened by fear.”

The letter was finally posted in 2008. Within days, there was a response:

“Dear Marian Partington,

Ms West has received your letter and asked me to relay a message on her behalf and asked that you please cease all correspondence, she does not wish to receive any further letters from you. Any further letters sent will be kept in Security.”

What did she make of it? “I had loads of feelings. One of the feelings was, have I wasted all this time in my life? I went back to the question, who silenced her? I think if only Rosemary West could have spoken, about the abuse that she was experiencing as a child from her father and her brother ... If she could have found some words, maybe her life wouldn’t have gone in that direction.

“Then I thought the way I wrote the letter ... how ridiculous expecting her to understand and respond. That it was unrealistic and maybe even cruel to send it. From a Quaker perspective, there is a real belief that there is a bit of God in everybody and I suppose that letter was a gesture towards that of God in Rosemary West. An opportunity of grace somehow ... for something that can come into that moment that can be about healing; something about being freed from a story that isn’t the whole story, that somehow got very stuck because of the way we choose to look at things.”

The book and letter are, she says, a kind of completion. She knows she may never hear from Rosemary West again. But there are still wounds that will never be healed. She quotes a favourite saying: “It is not the dead that haunt us but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.”

“If You Sit Very Still”, by Marian Partington, will be published on May 10 by Vala, £15.99;

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