Death of an ordinary girl

The Guardian, May 14 1994

For most of her life, Natalie Pearman was a walking portrait of an ordinary girl. She lived with her four brothers and sisters and her cat called Lucy in a neat little council house on the edge of a peaceful village in Norfolk. She liked ballet and horses and watching Neighbours after tea, she was good at drawing and painting and she had the idea that when she grew up, she would like to go into the air force so that she could be independent and travel around the world.

Her family was indistinguishable from any other in their street: the father, Chris, going off to work each day as an engineer in a plant-hire firm; the mother, Lin, who had given up her career as a nurse to manage the home; the children clambering on to the bus that took them down the road to school; all of them running through the routines of an ordinary existence.

Then it changed – at least, Natalie did. It was as if she had decided to take a knife to that ordinary portrait of herself and hack it to shreds and start all over again. She was 14 when it happened and, when she re-emerged, everything had changed: her clothes, her hair, her likes and passions, her friends, even her name. Natalie Pearman vanished. And nobody really knew why.

In place of the skinny little schoolgirl with the mousy brown hair, there now stood a willowy blond who called herself Maria, who drank and smoked and played around with dope. She no longer lived in the little council house or had anything very much to do with her family at all. All they knew was what they heard from the police when she was picked up from time to time – for breaking and entering, for stealing a car, and then for soliciting on the streets of Norwich. Maria was a whore.

The last time she came home, her mother barely recognised her. Lin hadn’t seen her for more than a year and it was like having a stranger in the house. When Lin made her a cup of tea, she had to ask her whether she took milk and sugar. She could barely understand the things that Natalie talked about – pimps and punters and the guys in the vice squad. And when Lin looked at her daughter, she saw what she could only describe as a fog of evil hanging around her.

All this might have remained a private mystery, distracting only to those who were closest to her, if there had not been a terrible sequel to the story. A few days after that final visit home, Natalie died. In the small hours of a dark November morning, somebody used her for sex and then choked the life out of her and dumped her body in a lay-by outside Norwich. She was 16.

Her murder turned the riddle of her life into a public puzzle. In many ways, it seemed to be a classic story of self-destructive youth, corrupted by drugs and ruined by reckless self-indulgence, the kind of case that has adults sadly shaking their heads in despair. The local paper wrote her epitaph: “Hooked on drugs, and on the streets at the age of 14. Dead by 16. That was the sum total of Natalie Pearman’s tragic life.” But then again, it wasn’t quite that simple.

The key to the mystery lies in the very ordinariness of Natalie’s childhood. Police and social workers and neighbours, too, have taken a long, hard look at her past, but they have found only the everyday tensions of family life: Natalie used to fight with her brother, Jon, who was two years older than her and inclined to push her about, like older brothers always do; and she sometimes resented Chris, because she knew he was not her real father. She and Jon had been fathered by Lin’s first husband, an oil worker named Rod Earp. But the marriage had collapsed when Natalie was only one, and Chris had played the part of her father since she was eight. They were things that might have upset her sometimes, but no worse.

There was something else which was equally common but which appears to have upset her more. The Pearmans were poor. They were not starving and they were nowhere near that state of sordid desperation which envelopes the destitute, but they were trapped at the bottom of the financial cliff, with Chris working full time and bringing home only £120 at the end of the week, and Lin juggling her child benefit to fill in the gaps. They had enough to get by, but no more. They had no car so if they wanted to go anywhere they had to travel by bus and since there were only four of those a day, they tended to stay in the village. They had no holidays abroad or any extravagance at all. Life was strictly limited.

And when Natalie was 12, it got a little worse. Lin had fallen pregnant with her youngest child and began to have a very difficult time. She needed 24-hour care and the only person who could provide it was Chris. He asked his employers if they would let him take time off to look after her and then come back when the baby was born, but they wouldn’t have it, so he was forced to give up his job. When the baby was born and Lin had recovered, he went out to look for more work. There was the canning factory in North Walsham, the gas terminal at Bacton, a couple of pig farms, but no one was hiring. Once, he was offered shifts at a place near Cromer, but he had no way of getting there. Another time, he signed up with a friend who was starting his own business but there was no money in it, and it all went sour.

Natalie hated being poor. It was not that she was ashamed of it, it was the simple practical fact that she could not enjoy the things she wanted, even simple things. There were times when she came home from school asking if she could go on a day trip with the other children and she had to be told that they couldn’t afford it. Some of her friends went to Brownies, but Natalie didn’t; there was no money for the uniform. She had to give up her ballet lessons.

And then there was Mundesley, the kind of village that looks right in the rain. It is a tiny place, with a population of 1,500, perched on the clifftops overlooking the muddy brown sea about half an hour’s drive north of Norwich. There are a couple of caravan parks, which fill up with trippers in the summer months and then sit soaking up the drizzle for the rest of the year. There’s the Haig Club with its star cabaret night featuring compere and vocalist Phil St John; a pub or two; a scattering of guest houses pleading for business (“All rooms en suite”); and the Coronation Hall, built of red brick and pebble dash, with four concrete tubs of ageing flowers collecting dust outside, and a poster that says Come to Sunny Mundesley.

Natalie spent most of her life here and never found much to do. There was the little amusement arcade with the sign over the door telling local children to stay away unless they coud demonstrate to the satisfaction of the management that they were on holiday. No cinema, no youth club. There was the beach, bristling with rules: no dogs on the beach, no parties on the beach, no barbecues on the beach unless they take place in the designated area with the written permission of North Norfolk District Council. The nearest town was a £6 taxi-ride away. Natalie stayed at home. She’d sit in her room and draw. Sometimes, on a Saturday morning, she’d go to a jumble sale with Lin. And for a long time, that was enough.

When Natalie started to change, she did so with dazzling speed. The beginning was simple: a few months after her 14th birthday, she got herself a weekend job at a little take-away hamburger bar next to the amusement arcade and earned herself pocket money for videos and clothes and, while she was working down there, she saw something that caught her eye – a group of village children having fun. To an outsider’s eye, there was nothing to it, just a bunch of boys and girls on a sheltered bench, chewing gum and sharing cigarettes. But they had their little secrets, which Natalie soon discovered.

One of them was dope. There was an older boy who had a room of his own in the village who used to buy little lumps of hash in Great Yarmouth, and then they’d all sit around on their bench, spitting at the grass and giggling while they tried to get stoned. Then there was sex, lots of groping and screwing down on the beach. Natalie started to sit around with them on the sheltered bench and then to join in. Some of the adults from the village saw what she was doing but they had no worries about it. Village kids had always done it. What else was there to do in Mundesley?

Back in their neat little council house, Chris and Lin saw within weeks that something new was happening but when they asked her, she shrugged them off. They told her to behave herself and wrote off to the RAF for glossy brochures about life in the air force, but Natalie wasn’t that interested any more. Lin wasn’t too sure what to make of it, until one of Natalie’s friends came to see her and told she was afraid that Natalie was on drugs.

Now, Lin had always believed in what she calls “tough love”: you lay down the rules and you offer your children love, but on your own terms. The door is always open but the child has to come to you. Lin told Natalie in no uncertain terms that there was no place in this family for anybody on drugs. But years of squabbling with her big brother had taught Natalie to stand up for herself. She said she wasn’t on drugs – not the way her mother thought – and, anyway, she was having fun at last. Then she got pregnant.

She was ecstatic. It was the best thing ever. The father was 17, three years older than her, a local boy with his own motorbike (and a more or less permanent plaster on the leg he kept breaking). She was in love. They’d have their own house together and both of them would go out to work so they could afford to buy furniture and, while she was at work, Lin would look after the baby. It was going to be great. But Lin said no: there was no way she was going to look after Natalie’s baby. If she wanted to have the baby, that was up to her, but she would have to take responsibility for it herself or give it up for adoption. And that was final. Natalie turned to her boyfriend for help, but he took fright and told her he didn’t really want to get involved. She said that was fine, she’d bring up the baby with her friend Julie. When she was ten weeks pregnant, she miscarried, and so the dream was over.

Natalie started to stay out late at night. Chris used to go out at midnight, fishing in the dark corners of Mundesley until he found her and brought her back for a good ticking-off. Lin was going through a rough time herself. She had just miscarried and was feeling bad, her eldest son had joined the army and been posted to the Falklands, and Chris’ mother was dying very slowly from cancer. She told Natalie they really didn’t have time to deal with her silliness. Natalie started drifting further afield, to North Walsham and Great Yarmouth, so that Chris couldn’t find her when he went out looking, and, without a car, they ended up calling the police to find her.

They decided to get tough. One night when two boys brought her home full of cider, Lin took off her slipper and beat her from one end of the house to the other. They started locking her indoors, but Natalie fought to get out, smashed a window once, tried to squeeze herself through the cat flap another time and nearly succeeded. By now, the family was at war with itself. The tighter they pulled at Natalie, the further she ran away. The more they shouted, the less she heard. When the police brought in a social worker to try to help, Natalia gritted her teeth and announced she wanted to be taken into care.

She found a new boyfriend, Simon, a young farm worker, five years older than her, with a ring in his ear and an old Cavalier and two best mates called Dean and Delbert. The four of them hung around together, smoked a little dope, got stopped by the police, got away with it, broke into an empty house and legged it when the police came, got caught, got cautioned, carried on having a laugh, while Chris and Lin sent out the police to bring her back.

The social workers talked to Natalie, who who was full of anger for her family – for her real father who was lost in the past and for her stepfather who was too tough on her. She threw up a whisper of a hint that she had once been physically abused by a friend of the family. She said she couldn’t care less: if people didn’t like her,then she didn’t like them. When she was out, Lin read her diary, scattered with little hints of dope and sex, and then she told Natalie in no uncertain terms that she did not like what she had read.

Once when she came home late, Chris hit her and she wore the bruise like a medal the next time she saw Simon. Then one night, she didn’t come back at all and the police couldn’t find her until the next morning when they spotted her wandering along a beach alone. They picked her up and called Lin and asked what she wanted them to do, and Lin said she didn’t want Natalie home, she wanted her taken into care. The police agreed. And so Natalie was out of her family – less than six months after she first went to work at the hamburger bar and saw the other kids having fun.

Now the war became a stand-off. Lin stuck to her tough love: if Natalie wanted to come back, that was fine, but Natalie would have to make the first move. Natalie told her friends she couldn’t care less about being in care. She hated Chris and she was better off without them. In the childrens home near Cromer, she was caught sniffing petrol.

That week, Chris’ mother finally died of her cancer and when the news reached Natalie at the childrens’ home, she said she wanted to go to the funeral. Chris wrote to the social workers to say that his family did not want her there; she had caused too much upset. The social workers felt Natalie ought to be there, so they ignored Chris’ letter and took her along to the funeral, where Natalie sat alone at the back of the church while Chris and Lin and their friends and relations pretended she was not there. Back at school, Natalie sniffed lighter fuel and was suspended for a week. Chris’ family decided that she should no longer call herself Pearman; she should use her real father’s name if she was going to be so bad.

Natalie spent just over a year in care, calm for months at a time, running around with Simon and the lads at weekends, occasionally pitched into sudden panics if things went unexpectedly wrong. Once, Simon wondered out loud if they should stop seeing each other so much, and Natalie went back to her foster home and said she’d swallowed 50 contraceptive pills. Simon raced over, but she was fine though she fell into a long sulk, snarling at others in the home until her foster mother said she should leave. Natalie didn’t wait to be pushed; she ran and, from a phone box outside a pub, she called her family. Chris went and fetched her and took her back to the social services.

When she returned to the childrens home, she warned the social workers that she was full of heroin. They had her blood tested and found she was clean. She settled back in to the stalemate. Her family did not visit her; Lin thought it would teach her a lesson. They were supposed to go for family therapy, but Lin couldn’t afford anyone to look after the baby and, anyway, she had no transport, so the sessions fizzled out. At Christmas, Chris delivered some presents to the home, without seeing her. Natalie was alone.

She reached her 16th birthday, struggled free of social services, walked out of school and headed for Norwich. She had no job, she was too young to sign on, and for a while she lived in the YWCA, but she still had her mates – Simon and the lads and a whole network of other young people who had fallen out of the bottom of village life and drifted into the nearest big town. They showed her how to survive. For a girl, it was easy. Within weeks, she was working on the pavement. “Maria” was born.

She used to stand outside a pub called the Ferry Boat in the middle of the network of streets which have been used by prostitutes for years and which are collectively known in Norwich as The Block. £15 for a hand job, £20 for a blow job, £30 straight sex. At first, she worked only part time, selling just enough of herself to pay for her rent and food, but after a few months, she became more confident and started to work routinely and now, in a twisted upside-down kind of way, she began to find what she wanted.

She wasn’t poor any more. She was pulling in £500 a week and then blowing it in great gushes of extravagance – videos, clothes and anything else she wanted. She talked about buying a flash new car and a mobile phone. No more strictly limited life. One of the girls who used to work round the corner from her, Louise, says that the two of them used to raid nightclubs together and get completely paralytic and then stumble into a taxi in a heapful of laughter. She was having fun. It wasn’t the kind of fun she had dreamed of as a child and often it was it was only the synthetic excitement of something she’d stuffed up her nostril, but it was more fun than she’d ever had in Mundesley.

Most important – and most upside-down – she was wanted. She could stand out there on the Block, cocking her chin at the cars rolling by, and she could watch them wanting her, circling round for a second look, stopping for her, asking her to come with them. If she wanted to, she could turn them away. If she went with them, they would pay her – pay her for her company. It wasn’t real love – any more than a head full of coke is real life – but it was better than nothing. She used to say her real parents had been killed in a car crash.

Maria was not so much a new self-portrait as a caricature, a grotesque parody of the life that Natalie craved, but everyone who was with her at the time agrees on one thing, that she was happy. She wasn’t the mad-eyed junkie whore of legend at all. In fact, she wasn’t a junkie of any kind. All her friends say the same thing: that she smoked some dope and, when she was working on The Block, she played around with heroin and cocaine, but she was never very interested. She wasn’t trapped and dragged down by sinister forces. She chose to do what she did, because when she looked at her life she saw she was trapped and when she looked at her future, it was even worse – getting pregnant, getting married, getting a house and stewing slowly in front of a television for 40 years. What else was there?

When she went back to see Lin on that last visit, just before she died, she wasn’t interested in going home. She went back to collect her birth certificate because she wanted to get a passport and go off to France of Spain. “There’s nothing here for me any more.” she said. And she glided round the house with her dyed blond hair and her skin-tight trousers with her nails all polished and her eyes painted up, and she was saying she’d won the war with her past. Her visit wasn’t an offer of peace, it was a victory roll.

The next night, she was back on the Block. Just before midnight, a taxi driver picked her up and used her for half an hour. At about one in the morning, a man paid her £30 to come back to his house where his baby daughter was asleep upstairs. Then, just after half past three, a lorry driver who was working his way through a narrow road to the north west of the city, spotted a bundle of clothes in a lay-by. He stopped to look and, in the lights of his lorry, he found Natalie Pearman, stripped from the waist down, scarlett bruises round her neck.

The police set up the biggest inquiry in the history of Norfolk but the killed eluded them. They collected her property and found she had acquired almost nothing – a few tacky dresses, some make-up and a little box in which she had kept the medals she had once won for ballet – just the possessions of an ordinary girl.

Lin Pearman was devastated. She blamed social services. She said she had only allowed them to take Natalie to keep her away from the friends who were leading her astray, but they had let her run wild. When the police were finished, she buried Natalie behind the church on the cliffs overlooking the muddy brown sea at Mundesley and sometimes now, she goes back there and cries over the hummock in the grass and catches herself asking out loud. “Natalie, Natalie. How could you do this to us?”