As our Woman of the Year awards are launched, one of last year’s |winners, Patricia Cardy tells Jane Hardy of the trauma that doesn’t end.
You wouldn’t immediately connect the woman in the stripey sweater who steps off the coach at Lisburn and gives me a big hug as the mother at the centre of one of Northern Ireland’s greatest tragedies.
She describes herself as a “coffee-stopper” — cannot pass up the chance of a cup — and leads the way to Hedley’s cafe.
But this is Pat Cardy — “nobody calls me Patricia”. — the mother of Jennifer, the nine-year-old schoolgirl who biked off one afternoon in 1981 to visit a friend from their home in Ballinderry and was found murdered off the AI between Newry and Lisburn just under a week later.
Although this is a woman who knows how to smile, the emotional scars remain and Pat, a youthful looking 64, says that the publicity given to the tragic April Jones case — the five-year-old Welsh girl who disappeared three weeks ago after being abducted — has proved very difficult. She explains: “I know what they’re going through personally and it is heartbreaking.
“When Jennifer died, I didn’t do any personal interviews although the Press was around. They always ask for the mothers, but at the time I felt ‘Can I handle it?’ I didn’t know.”
So her husband Andrew (63) dealt with the reporters. But Pat’s composure, her Christian faith and ability 30 years on, to join with her husband in saying publicly they could feel forgiveness towards their daughter’s killer, Robert Black, made her an obvious winner of The Belfast Telegraph’s Mother of the Year 2011.
Just before the ceremony last December, Pat was involved in a car crash and recalls being wheeled onstage at the Ramada Hotel to collect her Belleek trophy.
“It was the same day as Robert Black’s sentencing and we knew it would be difficult, but it was uplifting. I just remember everybody standing up, which I didn’t expect, and the tears coming.”
She says that she thinks awards for women, the “unsung heroines”, are a very good idea.
“The women I talked to at our table were amazing, and seeing achievements in all the categories, education, art, business, the voluntary sector, is great.”
Asked whether women cope better with tragedy, Pat becomes thoughtful.
“Men are focused on problems and practical realities which enables them to cope with tough situations but women carry problems in their emotional centre.”
Today, as we chat over moreish scones and coffee, Pat talks about the elements in her ordinary, yet extraordinary, life that have kept her going through the sort of tragedy that is almost unimaginable to most of us.
Her marriage to Andrew, known as Andy, who owns a kitchen manufacturing firm in Lisburn and is an equally upbeat character, is a support.
Theirs was a teenage romance and Pat clearly enjoys this stretch of the walk down memory lane. “It was love at first sight. I’d just moved into a housing development with my father — my mother died when I was eight and my sister was married — and had to get the dog in before I went to school.
“I called for Rex, a terrier cross, who didn’t come in, then heard this voice behind me. ‘Can you not get your dog?’ As soon as I saw Andrew, I knew I was going to marry him. Apparently he said to his friends at secondary school the same morning, ‘I’ve just met the girl I’m going to marry.’”
It took about five years before they were able to get married, but they’ve been happy ever since. Christianity is now part of the bedrock of this partnership, but Pat was ahead of her husband in this respect. She found God in 1961, her husband in the early 90s.
Although Pat says she can now accept her daughter’s death, she adds: “There is never any closure”. Sounding as close to anger as she does at any point during our laughter-punctuated conversation, Pat notes: “When we were approaching the trial, people said ‘Now you’ll have closure.’ but I didn’t think we would.”
She is also less than happy when people insist on deferring to the Cardys’ tragedy.
“Someone will say they’ve got a problem, but then go on to say it’s nothing compared to what happened to us. I hate that. I say if it’s a problem in their life, then it’s a problem to God.”
But one way in which they feel divine providence touched their lives before the blight of Jennifer’s death has to do with their youngest daughter’s birth.
As Pat explains, she is diabetic and after having a gynaecological operation, the surgeon recommended sterilisation.
“He gave me six weeks to think about it and said if we were happy with our family of three, we should go ahead.” So she did.
A few months later, when Pat experienced what she thought was morning sickness, she encountered a disbelieving medical profession.
“I felt like Chicken Little. But when our GP did the test, it came back positive. I was pregnant and we had Victoria who was, I think, meant to be.”
In the Cardys’ view, she was a gift from God who would be able to help soften the blow of Jennifer’s loss. Her mother says: “God had given us Victoria for what was to come...”
Nonetheless, the grief was tough, sometimes very tough. “A few weeks after Jennifer’s death, I was pushing Victoria in the pram in Lisburn. I remember standing at the window of a shop with girls and baby clothes.
“I saw these lovely wee dresses for her [Jennifer] and it nearly broke my heart. I was in the middle of the street and felt a complete wreck as I realised she wasn’t there. It took me unawares.”
Pat notes that this experience was quite cruel but that after she got herself together, and was about to leave, “I saw these wee baby clothes and there was Victoria who could wear them”.
Pat believes in real emotion, but dislikes what she calls emotionalism. She is now a grandmother to Andrea (19) and Glen (17), by her first son Mark, and Elijah (3) and Isaac (18 months) by her second son, Philip. She also has a new enthusiasm in life: writing.
Having bought herself a red laptop, Pat says that she is three chapters into her autobiography.
There will obviously be no shortage of material. What distinguishes the Cardys’ narrative, though, from that of other people who have suffered similar loss is their resilience.
One motivational speaker Robert Taylor put it well: “The Cardys spoke [after Robert Black’s trial] with passion, yet dignity. They spoke of their pride and love for their daughter, and the immense pain of losing her.
“They described the horror of hearing in court about the last hour of her life — worse, said Mr Cardy, than they’d even dared imagine... Most impressively, without any hint of bitterness, anger or vengefulness, they calmly articulated their view that murderers such as Robert Black should receive the death penalty...”
Pat says that she can relate to Ben Needham’s mother who said recently, after losing her small son on the Greek island of Kos 10 years after Jennifer died, that it would finish her off if new a investigation turned up his remains.
“I can see where his mother is coming from. You’d rather believe he was still alive. But for the Jones family and for ourselves, the need to know what happened is the bottom line.”
She talks about the morning that Andy went down to see the police search a few days after Jennifer disappeared.
Pat is grateful her husband was there when news they’d found the body came through and that he returned home and told her. “We were sitting on the summer seat and he said ‘They’ve found Jennifer’s body.’”
Pat says they lived with the experience, even though the trial details (“I was prepared for a sob story about his life. But it wasn’t just intercourse he wanted, it was things I couldn’t imagine.”) were so bad they had warned friends and family to stay away.
Jennifer is still so much in her thoughts that once when she meant to say Victoria, she said Jennifer, in a classic Freudian slip.
The Cardys remain active church members in Hillsborough, one of their interviews with a pastor is on YouTube, and they enjoy full lives. “I like watching Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? although nobody else in our family does.
“I’m a voracious reader, but don’t touch fiction. Victoria, who is an art teacher, lives in a flat next door to us and she’s been encouraging me to write. Whenever I see my award in our kitchen-diner, I’m touched and what I really want to say is that I send my love and thanks to the Ulster people who voted for me and have been with us shoulder to shoulder, as they were at the Woman of the Year event last year.”
Best of all, there is a confidence that one day, in the fullness of time, Pat and her much loved eldest daughter, who everyone said lit up the room, will be reunited. “Absolutely.”