Snow White came back from the dead – why can't Mummy After his wife's murder, Jeremy now faces the challenge of being mum as well as dad
In this moving series, Jeremy Howe
describes the aftermath of his wife Lizzie’s murder and tells how he
struggled to be both a mother and father to his young daughters . . .
When your wife’s gruesome murder has just featured on every front page in the land, everyone you know wants to hear your story.
For weeks, I was visited by friends I hadn’t seen in an age. They’d come from far and wide, drop in for about an hour, and then leave. Many of them never got in touch again.
A lot of people didn’t really know how to react. The problem was, my story was more like a Patricia Highsmith novel than something that happens to one of your mates.
Brave faces: Lucy, left and Jessica. Jeremy Howe says: 'We talked about Mummy a lot, almost always as if she were present'
On her first day at the 1992 Open University summer school in York, where she was due to deliver a lecture, my darling Lizzie had been killed by a stranger with a knife. Afterwards, I took the rest of the summer off work and tried to keep going for the sake of our daughters — four-year-old Lucy and Jessica, who was six.
Each morning, I’d wake up feeling acute anxiety and want to return to the oblivion of sleep. Then I’d hear a call from the girls. ‘Daddy! Can we have our juice now, please’ If it hadn’t been for their demands, I don’t suppose I’d ever have got out of bed.
We talked about Mummy a lot, almost always as if she were present. Not only about how nice she was but how cross she got when the girls were bad (‘Mummy could be very shouty, couldn’t she, Daddy’). Above all, I wanted Lizzie to remain real to them.
Meanwhile, I often wondered if I was the world’s worst mum — or ‘mummydaddy’, as Lucy once called me. I wasn’t. But sometimes it felt like a pretty near-run thing.
Love, warmth and tenderness, I could manage. But clean clothes and vacuuming Well, I was OK at that sporadically, but being systematic and rigorous on a daily basis was always a bit of an issue.
When I brushed the girls’ hair, they yelped — so they simply learned to brush each other’s. Creating plaits was simply above my grade; as was mastering the nit comb. Indeed, they probably had nits for years.
Jeremy with his beloved Lizzie who was killed by a stranger in a knife attack
I learnt to have pockets full of Sudocrem, Elastoplasts, tissues and hair scrunchies, but could rarely produce the right thing at the right time. I could get the girls out the door efficiently, but never with the right clothes for the weather.
When it came to food and household items, it was feast or famine, so that by Friday we’d be short of an evening meal but have enough toilet rolls to last the siege of Leningrad. And there were always five boxes of chicken nuggets frozen solid into the freezer compartment, which could be prised out only after a 20-minute attack with a sharp knife and a saw.
The house was full of unfamiliar domestic terrors: machines that never seemed to work for me, washing I never seemed able to clear, hooks hung with too many coats, drawers stuffed with too many clothes (none of which fitted for long).
Still, after turning Jessica’s underwear grey-pink, I did get pretty good at separating whites from coloureds — though I invariably failed to spot tissues lodged in pockets, and grew used to having a well-rinsed cheque book.
In the winter, the girls always had chapped hands, because the art of keeping gloves in pairs was an insoluble mystery. However, they learnt how to throw good, firm snowballs, had no fear of scary playground rides, climbed trees like monkeys and became ferocious card players who played to win. Despite my best endeavours, though, they were pretty rubbish at football.
Knowing my shortcomings, Jessica would sometimes try to be mummy. ‘I turned out all the lights after you because I didn’t want us to waste electricity — you always get cross when the electricity bill comes, Daddy,’ she’d say. Or: ‘I think Lucy is running out of clean knickers, Daddy.’ In spite of this, I tried really hard not to let her be anything other than a child. I didn’t want her to grow up too fast, but she was very watchful.
Not long ago, she asked me why I thought that Lucy always sat behind me in the car, while she sat on the other side. I hadn’t a clue.
‘I was always worried that you drove too fast and would get arrested by the police, and I wanted to be able to see the speedometer,’ she said. ‘And when you went too fast, I’d say something like, “Daddy, I feel a bit sick. Do you think you could slow down a bit, please” ’
Jessica also had terrible mood swings. Once I was standing in a playground, watching the children play, when she suddenly started shouting and blubbing. After a few minutes of this, I told her that if she didn’t pull herself together, we were going straight home.
‘That’s not fair!’ she shouted, storming off to a corner of the playground.
On the way home in the car, Jessica said: ‘I wish you had died and not Mummy.’ There followed a Very Long Pause while I considered my response.
Then I said calmly: ‘That’s not a very nice thing to say, is it, darling’ And I let her stew in it.
It was never easy to tell if her tantrums were down to losing her mother. But one thing became plain: despite their young age, both girls thought often about her death.
Loving mother: Lizzie Howe with Jessica as a baby
One afternoon, shortly after a typical Daddy lunch of carrot sticks and peanut butter on crackers, I was lying on the sitting-room floor reading the paper, while Lucy, curled in the crook of my leg, was busy drawing.
‘Daddy, Snow White came back from the dead — why can’t Mummy’ she asked. After I’d explained that Snow White had never really been dead, Lucy wanted to know about the resurrection of Sleeping Beauty. And Jesus.
I lifted Lucy on to my lap, and told her through my tears that her Mummy was never coming back, but that she was still deep inside in our hearts, that half of what made up Lucy was Mummy, and she’d never lose that. I still don’t know if she understood, but the cuddle made her feel a bit better.
A couple of evenings later, as I was putting the girls to bed, Jessica piped up with a tougher question. ‘Daddy, you know the bad man who killed Mummy Where did he hit Mummy’
I’d told the girls a half-truth — that a bad man had hit their mummy and she’d died. This clearly didn’t satisfy Jessica. For days afterwards, she continued to probe: ‘How exactly did she die’
I decided to bite the bullet. Somewhere, I’d read that more soldiers died in the Great War of infections caused by the filth that got into their wounds than from the shrapnel that caused them. The truth, I hoped, would keep Jessica and Lucy’s wounds clean, helping them to heal.
Recounting the story of Lizzie’s death was like telling them a ghastly inverted fairy story. But they wanted every detail.
Was Mummy working at her desk at the college Did she have a cup of coffee How much blood was there after the bad man stabbed her with the big knife Was it up to here (Jessica held her hands six inches above the floor) or here (12 inches) or here (above her head)
I told them I didn’t know, but that Mummy had a very bad cut that made her heart run out of blood very fast.
‘Oh,’ said Jessica. ‘I see.’ She never asked about it again, not because she couldn’t, but because she didn’t need to. She knew.
I gathered them both up in my arms and we lay weeping on Lucy’s bottom bunk for an age as the shadows lengthened.
To be honest, I worried less about Jessica, who had a wonderful transparency. Each night, she’d pray: ‘Dear Lord, thank you for the nice day I had today. Daddy got cross with Lucy at breakfast because she wouldn’t eat her Cheerios. We had a spelling test today and I got full marks.’ And so on and on.
And then she’d say ‘Can I speak to Mummy now’ as if it were a phone call, and give an exhaustive account of the day.
Lucy, however, would never join in. ‘I don’t need to speak to Mummy,’ she’d say. ‘She can see me through a window in heaven, so she knows what I’ve done today.’ Which is more than I knew, as Lucy would never tell anyone. When asked what she’d done at school, she’d always reply: ‘I can’t remember.’
If we talked about where Lizzie was now, Jessica would say that Mummy was sitting in heaven, sunbathing on a deck chair, drinking scalding-hot coffee and reading a detective novel. Lucy said nothing.
The enormity of her loss was incomprehensible to me. It troubles me that I could never get on her wavelength; even now, when I try to imagine what it’s like to lose your mother at the age of four, my mind very quickly hits a blank and forbidding wall. Still, for all her pain, Lucy was capable of exploiting the situation. Years later, Jessica told me that her sister would walk around the playground at break-time, wearing her anorak the wrong way round, with the hood under her chin like a pouch. Her friends would then put crisps in the hood. When I asked Lucy about this, she said: ‘Well, you never, ever gave us money for crisps, Daddy, and people feel sorry for me.’
I may not have supplied crisps, but that strange summer I did manage to take the girls on holiday. As I was in no fit state to organise one, my friend Clive insisted that we accompany him and his children on a trip to the west of Ireland.
I had absolutely no idea what to pack, so I packed everything the children owned. Apart from their underwear, which I left behind in our tumble-dryer.
Later, as we were driving through Ireland, I was confronted with a brand-new problem when a small voice said: ‘Daddy, I need a wee.’
It was only after I’d found a layby with a public toilet that it dawned on me Lucy had never been to one by herself. There was no way that I was going to take her to the gents’ and no way I was going into the ladies’. What to do
Holiday memories: Jeremy and Lizzie with Lucy (left) and Jessica
In the end, I just shepherded them into the ladies’ and waited outside. Several ages later, they came out, merry as crickets, with Lucy wearing only one shoe.
‘Lucy dropped her sock in the toilet, so we had to fish it out,’ Jessica explained. ‘A nice lady helped us dry it off on the hand-dryer, but it’s still a bit wet.’
I didn’t ask why she was taking off her shoes and socks to go to the loo. Some things are best left unasked.
Late one afternoon, we ended up on a narrow jetty in a harbour, with the car facing the wrong way. Putting it into reverse, I joked: ‘If I’m not careful, I’ll drive off into the sea and we’ll have to swim home.’
‘Good,’ said Lucy. ‘Then we’ll all drown and we can join Mummy in heaven.’ She meant it.
But we did more than survive our first holiday without Lizzie. Even Clive, who’d heroically volunteered to spend a week with the most miserable man in the universe, said I hadn’t been as bad as he feared.
From then on, all through the girls’ childhood, we always took holidays with another family (which we’d never done while Lizzie was alive). I’m not sure I could have borne taking them away by myself. I’d have felt too lonely, as if I were play-acting at being a family.
And, although — without Lizzie’s earnings — we were desperately hard up, we took lots of breaks. Basically, if someone was kind enough vaguely to suggest, ‘Would you think of coming on holiday with us’ it was firmed up within minutes.
When the girls went back at school, I began to ease myself back into my job as head of drama on Radio 3. Despite my colleagues’ compassion, the BBC now felt like a strange, unfamiliar world.
For almost a year, I hugely lacked motivation, which was unsettling because work is one of the things I do pretty well. I started taking more and more leave (‘Another holiday’ someone would say disapprovingly).
On holiday, I felt alive. I was able to relax and really enjoy my daughters’ company. If I’m honest, I felt none of these things at home: I was in a permanent state of anxiety.
Friends and neighbours helped, of course; but whenever we visited another family, I felt like an imposition. Boy, did I learn the meaning of ‘singing for your supper’ — I’d tell funny stories, do the washing-up, make coffee, and make sure I never burdened them with my multiple woes.
Once, I tried going to a single-parent support group. But it seemed more like a dating agency — such a scary prospect that, having walked through the door, I walked straight out again.
The girls weren’t doing too well, either. At the end of term, Lucy’s teacher told me that my daughter was spending most of the day on the lap of the classroom assistant.
Missing their mother: Jeremy Howe with daughters Lucy, 8, and Jessica, 10, four years after Lizzie's murder
Meanwhile, Jessica, who’d always loved writing stories, would no longer do so; instead, she’d lie on the floor writing rows and rows of numbers.
On top of that, both girls were running rings round the nanny I’d hired (who wore false fingernails, which impressed Jessica enormously). Indeed, I got the impression that they spent a lot of time parked in front of the TV watching The Jungle Book for the thousandth time.
It was, however, wholly unrealistic of me to expect a 20-year-old to know how to deal with two emotionally fragile girls, a father mired in grief and a whole street of well-meaning neighbours watching her every step.
We needed a miracle. And to our relief, a miracle came, in the shape of an NHS children’s psychiatrist called Dr Forrest. She was petite, smiling, with an intense, warm gaze. In a movie, she’d be played by Helen Mirren.
Once, I remember, when I was feeling
particularly hopeless about my lack of parenting skills, Dr Forrest
whispered to me as we left the room: ‘Mr Howe, you are doing just
I’m not sure I can explain exactly what she did for us, but the children loved visiting her every Friday for over a year — and we always felt better afterwards. Which is exactly what she did for us.
In Dr Forrest’s room, Lucy drew spindly pictures of Mummy picking flowers in a beautiful garden. I was disturbed however, when she disfigured one of her drawings with a massive black frame that blotted out whole swathes of the garden. ‘Don’t be, Mr Howe,’ said Dr Forrest. ‘Obviously, the black box represents Lucy’s Mummy’s death.’
She turned to Lucy: ‘In your lovely picture, is the black because you’re sad about your Mummy being dead’ An almost imperceptible nod from Lucy, who continued drawing for another few seconds, and then downed tools for a snuggle on my lap.
Once, I remember, when I was feeling particularly hopeless about my lack of parenting skills, Dr Forrest whispered to me as we left the room: ‘Mr Howe, you are doing just brilliantly.’
No one has ever given me greater praise. Just seven words — but seven words that utterly transformed how I felt about myself as a parent.
‘In child psychiatry,’ she added, ‘we always say that the first four years of good parenting are worth money in the bank — and, Mr Howe, your two girls have gold in their bank.’ For that, I loved Lizzie more than ever. I think it’s the valediction she would have prized above everything else.
But although it was wonderful to be reassured, I realised eventually that I needed help myself. Collectively, our heads were above water, but I wasn’t really coping. And admitting this to my GP was a big deal — a bit like saying that I was an addict.
That’s how the next miracle came into our lives: Dr John Hall, head of the clinical psychology department at the Warneford hospital, who looked the spitting image of former chancellor Geoffrey Howe.
When I first saw him, I was sleeping badly. He sat and thought for a few moments. ‘How old is your duvet’ he asked. ‘I dunno. About ten years old, I guess.’
‘I think on Saturday you should go to Debenhams,’ he counselled, ‘and buy a new, thicker one. Two bodies sleeping together create a lot more heat than one. Now that you’re sleeping alone, you need a decent duvet.’
He was right (but I went to M&S).
One day, I told him I never wanted to go back to York. He shook his head.
‘This year, it’s York you can’t visit, next year Yorkshire, then it will be the north of England — until eventually you’ll become trapped in your house,’ he warned. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s next week, next year or next century — one day you need to go back.’
Slowly, over the course of two years, he eased me back into the real world and helped rub out the chalk circle that was isolating me.
And one day, I did go back to York. Not just to the city but to the very room where my wife was murdered.
Extracted from Mummydaddy by Jeremy Howe, to be published by Pan Macmillan on March 1, at 7.99. 2012 Jeremy Howe. To order a copy for 6.99 (including P&P), call 0843 382 0000.