I never met Belinda Pereira. By the time I heard her name spoken for the first time, she was already dead. But on the night that she was killed, I stood outside her apartment in the rain, and I listened as a detective described the circumstances of her death. She was twenty-six years old. Were it not for her, I don’t think I would be writing the books I write. In a way, they are an attempt to make sense of her murder, and for that reason they all fail.
Because there was no sense to her murder.
Dublin is a peculiar city. It closes down for the Christmas season and doesn’t really find its stride again until early in the New Year. When I worked as a journalist, Christmas was a period during which most staff journalists preferred not to work. It wasn’t simply that they wanted to spend time with their families, as most people do at that time of year, or to leave the grim winter weather behind and head for somewhere warmer; it was because nothing much really happened in Ireland at Christmas. During the Troubles, even the terrorists would call a brief cease-fire beginning about December 24, so they could stay at home and pretend to be ordinary men and women without blood on their hands.
But I was a freelance journalist, and I worked whatever hours I was offered because I was afraid that if I turned them down, I would never be given work again. By 1996, I had essentially been a full-time freelancer for the Irish Times newspaper in Dublin for three years, and had graduated from education and assorted features to regular shifts in the newsroom, which was how I came to be working on December 28, when Belinda died.
One of the tasks newsroom journalists are required to do is to call the police or the fire department and ask if anything newsworthy has happened. These calls are usually made every hour because, personal sources apart, it is not the place of the police and the fire department to take the initiative in informing journalists of interesting events. In fact, the office of the Irish Times could have been on fire, and the fire department wouldn’t have called us to let us know. That was just the way things were.
So, on the night of December 28, I made my final call to the press office of the Garda S'ioch'ana, as the Irish police are called. I was about to go home, and I was expecting nothing different from what I’d been told a number of times already that day: all is quiet.
But that was not what I was told. Instead, the officer informed me that a young woman’s body had been found in an apartment at Mellor Court, on the north side of the city not far from the newspaper’s offices on D’Olier Street. She had been badly beaten, so the garda'i were treating it as a suspicious death. And, since there was nobody else in the sparsely staffed newsroom who was free, and as I had made the call, the story was mine.
This was something of a mixed blessing. On any ordinary news day, the crime correspondent or a more senior reporter would have been assigned to the story, but as it was Christmas, I was as good as it was going to get for the newspaper. It would be a front-page story, and an above-the-fold byline, which all journalists love. On the other hand, I had already been working for nine or ten hours, and it was raining outside. It would be a long night.
I walked down to Mellor Court, and there I did all of the things that give journalists a bad name: I stopped people going into the apartment building to ask if they knew anything of what had occurred; I talked to the security guard who was manning the door of a nearby convenience store; and then, when my efforts had come to nothing, I simply waited in the rain for someone from the garda'i to emerge and tell me what was happening.
When the detective in charge did eventually come out, he looked pale and shaken. No formal identification of the body had been made, he said. A passport had been found in the apartment, and a preliminary identification had been made from that, but the victim had been so badly beaten that there was no way as yet of being sure she was the girl in the passport photo. All he could say for now was that she was not an Irish national, and she was dead.
I went back to the newspaper office and wrote up the story. Later that night, the girl’s identity was revealed: her name was Belinda Pereira, a child of Sri Lankan parents living in London.
Dublin, at that time, was not a very violent city. In fact, Ireland still has one of the lowest homicide rates in Europe, although gangland killings have inflated that figure in recent years, and we have become increasingly inured to casual homicide. But in 1996, Belinda Pereira’s death was shocking to the Irish public. Here was a young woman, far from home, who had been brutally murdered, and at Christmas too, a season of peace. It was felt that the person or persons responsible for her death should be found and punished. Her murder was headline news in every Irish newspaper.
Then, a few days after her death, it emerged that Belinda Pereira had come to Dublin to work as a prostitute. It wasn’t the first time that she had done so, and she had also worked as a call girl in England. A convent-educated schoolgirl, she was studying to be a beautician in London. Prostitution appeared to be a way to supplement her income. In addition, there were reports that her parents had decided to separate, and her mother wanted to return to Sri Lanka. A week’s work in Dublin would have allowed Belinda to earn the money to help her mother get home.
When the details of her lifestyle were revealed, public attitudes toward her death changed. I think people made two judgments upon her. The first was that her murder was not as terrible as it had first seemed, and was certainly not as tragic as it might have been had she worked as, say, a nurse or a secretary. The second was that she had asked for what had happened to her. After all, she was working as a prostitute. She should have expected to meet people who were less morally scrupulous than the norm. In fact, she was obviously less morally scrupulous than many other young women. She had put herself in harm’s way, and she had suffered for it. It was her own fault.
I did not feel that way. Perhaps it was because she was young-two years younger than I was-and beautiful. It might have been because it was the first murder I had ever covered, and I had not yet grown used to such matters. Whatever the reasons, I believed that there was nothing this young woman could have done in life to merit the terrible death that was visited upon her. In fact, there was nothing that very many of us could do to deserve such an end. When the tabloid newspapers began routinely to refer to her as “the Sri Lankan hooker Belinda Pereira,” I felt ashamed and angry. That was what she had been reduced to: a foreign hooker. Such casual dismissal of her life was the first step on the road from caring about what happened to her to not caring at all.
And so Belinda Pereira’s death stayed with me, even as the public gradually forgot about her.