Images haunt grief-stricken father

PUBLISHED: 13:29 14 July 2001 | UPDATED: 10:20 03 March 2010

MARK Francis is haunted by the image of his girlfriend locked in her Ipswich terraced home and smothering his ten-week-old baby daughter.

He imagines her covering the child's face and most of her tiny body with a duvet blanket and holding her down on the lounge sofa while she struggled.

MARK Francis is haunted by the image of his girlfriend locked in her Ipswich terraced home and smothering his ten-week-old baby daughter.

He imagines her covering the child's face and most of her tiny body with a duvet blanket and holding her down on the lounge sofa while she struggled.

He knows that his daughter must have been terrified, non-comprehending but still fighting for her life.

He feels Mai struggling. He feels her pain, her fear – and it's tearing him apart.

Seven months into the year that dawned with the harrowing image of the body of baby Mai being carried in a Moses basket from her Hayhill Road home, and the grieving is far from over.

"Can you imagine how much Mai would have been struggling. How much she must have panicked," he asked.

"I think about that, what Mai would have felt. I think about it often.

"Imagine just for a second what it would be like for someone to hold you down, purposefully, so you can't breathe – and then explain to me how that wasn't a wicked act.

"Despite what you are feeling, I don't see how you could pick up a baby and smother her. If I had killed Mai I would be locked up and that's it.

"I'm prepared to bet my life that if it was me, regardless of how I pleaded, I would be doing 'bird'."

An image, he says, has built up of the strawberry blonde single mother as a victim. A woman who struggled alone with her young family and her demons. Forced to live on benefits and – since her mother's death in 1998 – with few people to turn to for support.

The reality, says Mr Francis, was very different.

Lankester had made a lot of money from the sale of her mother's house and she hoarded it, in cash, under the bed, says Mr Francis.

"Tracey had no financial problems whatsoever. I feel she was claiming for stuff she shouldn't have been. We used to argue about money and she would say if there's something to claim for then it's her right.

"She thought nothing of going into town and spending £100 on bed linen. She would buy all her clothes from Next and she was supposed to be on benefit.

"Tracey wasn't alone. She had a lot of help, more than she was supposed to have had and then this happened.

"It's been made out that if there were more people about that were prepared to give up their time then it wouldn't have happened but that just isn't true.

"Her sister Jo was living just across the road. I was round there most of the time. She had all this help and then all of a sudden it's 'poor Tracey'."

From the day two uniformed police officers walked into the offices where he works as a computer engineer and told him his child had been found dead, Mr Francis, until now, has maintained an uneasy silence.

The pictures on television and in newspapers of baby Mai being carried in a Moses basket from her Ipswich home left him feeling detached – like watching a film with little bearing on his life.

He sat quietly in Norwich Crown Court barely looking at Lankester as the events leading up to the fateful New Year's Day killing were reported.

"I think they mentioned my name twice, once as Mark Francis and another as the father. It's as if I didn't really count," he said – and it hurts.

He had known Lankester since their days at Northgate High School but they began sleeping together casually only a few months before she fell pregnant with Mai.

"Looking back it was a stupid thing to have done. I loved her as a friend but I wasn't head over heels in love with her."

So when Lankester announced she was pregnant thoughts of termination were not far behind – until they discovered she was carrying twins.

"It changed the situation completely because there was two in there," says Mr Francis.

"I made lots and lots of plans. As far as I was concerned I was going to have two kids and was probably going to stay with Tracey."

But 20 weeks into the pregnancy Lankester miscarried one of the twins. The dream was already slipping away but Mr Francis tells of his determination to remain a committed father, despite deep

harboured doubts.

Lankester was to take on many roles during their time together. A childhood friend, a partner, the mother of his child and eventually a killer. But in the months leading up to Mai's death – and they have not spoken to each other since – she was something to be cared for and protected.

Mr Francis would spend most of his time at Lankester's house, often sleeping on the sofa when their turbulent

relationship faltered and grew cold.

He says: "Tracey would be lying there with my little child inside her. How could I not have feelings for her. The whole situation blew me away. I feel so angry now, angry at both of us. Now I wish it had never happened."

In October last year Mr Francis held his newborn daughter in his arms and was overwhelmed with all the emotions of a first-time father.

"I just held her in my arms I couldn't stop looking at her, she was perfect," he says.

"Having kids had scared the life out of me, it wasn't until after Mai was born that I realised what it would mean to me."

But taking care of Mai and her mother was like treading on eggshells. Lankester was becoming increasingly emotional and erratic and towards the end of December last year she was prescribed a course of anti-depressants.

"Tracey would get herself into a state. She got panic attacks but it could be about anything. I was always there for her. I spent more time with her than anybody.

On New Year's Eve, the day before Mai was killed, Mr Francis recalls wishing he could take his daughter away with him.

"I wanted to spent the evening with Mai but Tracey wanted me to go. I didn't want to upset her by saying I would take Mai plus I didn't have the confidence to look after her alone.

"I didn't have the experience of looking after a child 24 hours a day like she did. I basically trusted her with my child's life.

"Sometimes I think that's why she wanted me to go, she was planning to kill her. I came home and sat watching TV and she could have been smothering my child I didn't argue with her. I should have argued the point that I didn't want to go."

Mr Francis has been fighting in the dark to come to terms with a grief he has been given only partial rights to hold.

Now at least he is able to find some solace through his memories of fathehood.

"I say it was a waste of time, that I wish it never happened but I got ten-and-a-half weeks with Mai as my daughter. I suppose that's something."

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