Tragedy Hits The Community Garden (Part 1)
This is a story about the community garden that I never imagined I would be writing. Yet here I am trying a to find a title that accurately reflects what the content of this post without falling into the cheap trap of shocking click bate.
Tragedies have a way of remaining unspoken about, lest the pain and ugliness spoil the beauty of the present. This is perhaps why I haven’t written an update about the community garden for a long time. I didn’t want to side step it, yet I also wasn’t ready to talk about it.
Now, over one and half years later, it is finally time to tell this story.
Trigger Warning: Violence Against Children and Suicide
Dear reader, this is the moment that I should warn you that this story could be quite distressing to read. I have ‘ummm’ and ‘ahhed’ about whether I should write about it as it is impossible to create a happy ending out of a tragedy.
Yet I realised that in my hesitation, I was submitting myself to the taboos of polite society, and thereby helping to maintain the status quo.
This blog was founded on the belief that a more beautiful world is possible, yet I am well aware that the only way that this can occur is by having the courage to look darkness in the eye and illuminating it with the light of our awareness.
Therefore I invite you into this process with me now, as I share my experience of this tragic event.
I should also point out that this story only reflects my own experience and perspectives of the people and events involved. Many other people involved in this story saw this episode from a very different standpoint.
I respect and honour all perspectives and believe that all are equally valid. This is just my own take, told as honestly as possible in the hope that it can somehow add a grain of sand to the co-creation of a more beautiful world.
The last update about the community garden was in early January 2022, where I wrote about some of the successes we had experienced coming out of the quarantine era of 2020-21.
There was an atmosphere of jubilance as we celebrated our anniversary party and Christmas combined. For 12 years ¡Esta es Una Plaza! had been open to the public, offering a green oasis in the concrete jungle. We had managed to pull through the stagnant apathy that had taken root during the lockdowns and brought some kind of solution to the long seated conflicts about cactus gardens and cement. And this was cause for celebration!
On a personal level I was also feeling satisfied and content with my contribution. I felt pleased with the new connections I had made and I had grown a lot as a person in the time that I had been involved.
However, just as I was finishing writing my celebratory blog post, ‘Success In The Community Garden’, we got the worst possible news that could befall the community.
It was early evening of 29th of December 2021. I had just returned from special Christmas trip in a small round house in the mountains, not far from Madrid. After a tough year on many levels, I was looking forward to bringing in the New Year and leaving the 2021 behind.
I was at home, relaxing, when suddenly, my mobile started going crazy. Messages were coming in on the community garden WhatsApp group. Ambiguous messages that seemed to all referring to something I knew nothing about.
I decided to follow the chat as the messages came through. “It’s horrendous”, one said. “How could this happen?” asked another. I was confused and wondered what all the fuss was about. Surely it was all a bit over the top to be talking in this way about the plants?
Unlike the previous dramas I had experienced in the community garden, the tone of these messages was a lot more urgent and distressed. It seemed like something serious had happened and I was in the dark as to what it was.
That was until someone posted the link to a newspaper article. Upon reading it, I felt sick to my stomach. A terrible crime has been committed. No identities had been revealed, but a description of the perpetrator was given: a French man, mid-forties. The victim: his three years old daughter.
Panic began to rise within me as I read. Could this heinous crime be in some way related to the community garden? I began to search my mind for someone I knew that matched the description.
A feeling of anxious dread began to creep up my spine, as my mind resisted the answer that I knew it had already found.
The frantic messages continued to come in. People were talking about gathering in the main square in Lavapies, the neighbourhood of the community garden, around 25 minutes walk from my house. I had to speak to someone. I had to find out if my guess work was correct.
I messaged my friend and community garden veteran Mimi. To my horror, she confirmed my suspicions: someone I didn’t know well, but who I had got to know more in the garden only recently.
I remember it was a sunny afternoon and I was sitting in my favourite sunny spot by the herb garden doing my observations for my permaculture design course.
He was there with his daughter who was running around the raised beds with some other children. It was a beautiful autumnal day and I basked in the warmth of the sun. He asked me about what I was doing and told him about my permaculture design project I was doing for the garden.
We chatted about the plants and spoke about how long we had been involved in the community garden. Since we were both foreigners in this city, we compared notes on how long we had lived here and what we liked about the city.
It was a pleasant conversation and I enjoyed his company. After about ten minutes or so he had to leave and called his daughter to go with him.
She was beautiful, his daughter.
She had long chestnut hair and bright green eyes. Like most three year olds, she was brimming with life and vitality.
I bumped into him again in a well known cultural centre in the city called La Casa Encendida. I was doing some writing in one of the open work spaces. At that time, it was still mandatory to wear face masks indoors and the security guards prowled around for those pesky visitors like myself who had it placed under their nose.
We spoke briefly in passing. He told me he worked as a photographer there and had just finished for the day. I told him about my blog and what I was writing about before he made his way home.
Out of the blue a few days later, I was surprised to receive a WhatsApp from him asking me if I wanted to go out for a coffee or a walk in the botanical gardens with him. He must have got my number from one of the community garden WhatsApp groups.
Obviously, I had to turn him down and jokingly told him that my partner wouldn’t be so pleased about it. We chatted briefly. He told me how he had recently separated from his wife. Finally he said:
“I hope you are happy with your partner. Look after each other, talk a lot, don’t stop doing the things you both love. Un saludo Olivia, me permito un piropo: eres preciosa. Adios”
(Goodbye Olivia, I allow myself to give you a compliment: you are beautiful).
I blushed to myself, as a flush of pleasure passed through me. I’m not going to lie, it was nice to receive some male attention after so long in a relationship and two years of pandemic.
That’s why it felt so sickening when I fully understood the full extent of what had happened:
He had killed his daughter, left a note and then hung himself.
How do you possibly digest this kind of information?
It comes at you like a cold hard shock out of nowhere. Your mind goes numb and you are momentarily rooted to the spot. The information enters the brain and swirls around the intellect, swimming in circles like an eel eating its own tail thrashing around as it tries to to work its way in.
My heart could not accept it. It resisted breaking, yet resistance was futile. It crumbled under the weight of full understanding, which slowly seeped into my consciousness like a toxic gas.
A horrific scene formed in my imagination.
I didn’t know what to do, but I had to do something. So when my friend Mimi invited me to her flat, I put on my shoes and went. I had to move, to act, to speak to someone.
Speaking to someone who was also part of the community garden and who had known him quite well made it more real. We sat and drank tea in her small living room. She told me that she had known that he was unwell, but she hasn’t realised how unwell. We sat dazed and confused as we tried to make sense of this awful situation.
All I kept thinking was:
“Julien, what did you do?”
“What did you do?”
But it was too late. He was dead and he had taken his beautiful daughter with him.
In these kinds of unthinkable situations, you need your community. We needed to come together and share our grief, confusion and outrage. People in the WhatsApp group began to organise a gathering in the main square near Mimi’s house. When we arrived, a handful of people were already there, their long, dazed faces an expression of sadness and shock.
But we didn’t know what to say to each other and everyone seemed to be avoiding eye contact. There were no hugs or supportive embraces. We clearly didn’t feel like we were close enough on that level for that. Instead, everyone just kept saying. “No lo puedo creer”. I can’t believe it.
Candles had been placed on the floor in front of us. More people began to arrive. People from the neighbourhood who felt the call for solidarity, since this neighbourhood was where Juilen and April had lived.
People arrived from various neighbourhood associations with megaphones. Taking a more activist stance, they began talking about violence against women and ‘crimen vicaria’.
I had never heard this term before but later I learnt that it means violence against a person by proxy, such as a person striking a child to hurt their other parent, or the most extreme example of all: killing a child to get back at the mother or father.
Gender-violence in Spain
This legal term does not exist in English but it is well used in Spain, where since 2013, forty seven children were killed by men who were also violent against their mothers. Indeed, gender-based violence is ever more present in the social conversations, as since 2003, 1179 women have been the victims of femicide.
Shocking cases of sexual assault have also been brought gender-based violence to the forefront in recent years, making Spain was one the most feminist countries in Europe.
Taking all of this into account, looking back it was obvious that any communal gathering of people would be centred around politics and crimes against women. But on that cold December evening, in the wake of the shock and the dismay, I wasn’t ready for this kind of political discourse and angry mega-phone rallying.
Most of the people there hadn’t known Julien or his daughter and were there more for the political demonstration. I had come to find mutual support and comfort from members of my own community, not listen to these unknown activists shouting about patriarchy.
Of course, I understood their outrage and the need to bring this to the public’s attention, but it was still so raw and painful that it felt insensitive to me to use this moment to further political agendas. I was still too numb and upset to listen to their angry speech and I felt uncomfortable.
I didn’t stick around long. I went home with a heavy heart.
I had been robbed of my joy; little April had been robbed of her life – by her own father.
The same man who I had shared that lovely conversation with a few months prior. The same man who was an active part of the community garden, who had once engraved his initials along with his wife’s and daughter’s in a heart on a wooden table that he made for the garden. The same man who was an active part of community life in Lavapies and was described by everyone as a ‘good neighbour’.
I just couldn’t digest this.
Good bye 2021
New Year’s Eve came and went. I stayed at home with Sergio. It was difficult to continue with the end of year celebrations after the impact of events only a few days before.
On one hand, I didn’t know the family, my only connection being the community garden and the memories of seeing Julien and April there often. But on the other hand it was impossible to just move on and continue like nothing had happened.
I thought about April and all the times I had seen her playing, laughing and running around with other children, her long hair billowing behind her as she went. I thought about Julien and what must have been going through his mind to have done such an unspeakable thing. I thought about the mother and the unimaginable suffering she must be going through.
I also thought about his family and friends and how they must be feeling. Their son, grandson, brother, friend, colleague, neighbour: a child murderer. How do you ever come to terms with that?
People who knew him in the community garden all knew he was going through a difficult time. It was well known that the separation between him and his wife had affected him badly. But he was trying to get his life together. No-one ever expected he was so unhinged that he was capable of doing such a thing.
Sadly, rather than bring the people in the community garden together, it had the opposite effect.
In the next post I will explain why.
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Thank you for having the courage to hold space for me as I tell you this story. Your views, feelings, and perspectives are welcome here too. Feel free to share them below.
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