Part of my heart belongs to Lizzie, but I'm no longer a prisoner of the past: How finding new love helped Jeremy heal the emotional scars left by his wife's murder
In the final part of this profoundly moving series, Radio 4’s head of drama Jeremy Howe reveals that it was only when he confronted the brutal reality of his wife’s murder that he could learn to love again.
As we walked back to the car after a shopping expedition, my four-year-old daughter Lucy suddenly exclaimed, ‘Look! There’s Mummy!’ For a split-second, I actually believed her. ‘Where, darling’ I asked, searching the street.
In the gutter at my feet was a copy of the Oxford Mail and there, on the front page, was a photograph of my darling wife Lizzie, side by side with an out-of-focus snap of her killer being led into court in a bright orange prison jumpsuit.
That image summed it all up — Lizzie lying discarded in the gutter, her destiny yoked to that of an anonymous, blurred stranger.
In nine months’ time, I read, Robin Pask would finally stand trial for killing her as she sat in a study on her first day at the Open University summer school in York. He’d slit her throat, but the police had arrested him as he tried to leave the campus.
Proud: Jeremy Howe with his two daughters Lucy (left) and Jessica
‘So Mummy is famous, Daddy!’ cried Lucy. I had a lump in my throat and could barely speak. My other daughter Jessica, aged six, squeezed my hand as we walked on in silence — but Lucy was skipping because she’d found her Mummy, who was famous.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived to say that the trial had been delayed.
As I walked through Oxford on that grey day, I thought of Pask and was overcome with grief and self-pity.
Sobbing uncontrollably, I stood in an empty park and shouted, ‘You ****! You f***ing ****! I hate you! You bastard!
‘Look what you have done to us! I HATE YOU!’ It was a bit OTT, I know, and I was aware that I was acting like a character in an Ingmar Bergman film.
But I was bereft. Utterly bereft.
Justice, as I’d learn in the long years ahead, is a crucial part of healing.
Mentally and emotionally I was not in a good place. Whenever the police called, for instance, I felt my heart rate go up — even though the rational part of my brain knew I couldn’t be under suspicion.
Nine months after Lizzie’s murder, in the spring of 1993, they phoned to say that they wanted to see me at home.
‘Can you tell me what this is all about’ I asked — but they would only say they wanted to talk face-to-face on Saturday morning. For some reason, I was convinced they were going to arrest me. I phoned my sister and — much to her husband’s annoyance — she pandered to her brother’s paranoia and agreed to be in Oxford the next morning.
I wanted somebody to look after the children in case I was carted away.
Loving mother: Lizzie with her daughter Jessica
When they arrived, two burly guys got out of a Sierra. In their leather bomber jackets, they looked like extras from The Bill TV show. I remember one picking up a photograph of all four of us in shorts.
‘I can tell this is a holiday snap,’ he said. ‘How’ I asked.
‘I’m a detective,’ he said with a grin.
You may not believe this, but that’s the only scrap of conversation I can recall.
The whole visit felt like nothing more than a PR exercise, to show how caring the police can be. They stayed only half an hour. Once they’d gone, I felt sick.
In fact, their visit still ranks as one of my worst experiences in a whole ghastly series of worst experiences.
Which says more about my state of mind than anything about the way the police behaved.
Holiday memories: Jeremy and Lizzie with Lucy (left) and Jessica
Incredibly, Pask wasn’t brought to justice for four years. First, there was a shortage of judges; then the defence wanted longer to prepare.
When the trial finally got underway, I couldn’t face the possibility of being trapped in a seat beside members of the Pask family.
So Lizzie’s sister Louise went instead. He looked like a worm, she told me, and both his mother and sister were giving evidence against him.
Then Pask collapsed in court and the case was indefinitely adjourned while he underwent psychiatric testing.
I felt cheated. Sick. Exhausted.
Dozens of women wanted to help me with the girls. They were my lifeline.
The glacial process of the law seemed incredible, considering that Pask —while not admitting to Lizzie’s murder — had confessed he was the only person in the room with her when she died.
At his retrial three years later, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter with diminished responsibility and was sentenced to detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure in a prison hospital.
The trial lasted half a day and made just a paragraph in a few papers.
The day after the verdict, I phoned York police station to ask them to return the possessions Lizzie had taken with her to York.
‘Of course, we’ll send them, Mr Howe, once we’ve received a cheque for 7.30 to cover postage and packing,’ said the duty sergeant.
‘How about if I charge you 7.30 for the use of my wife’s things for four years Then we’re quits,’ I shot back.
‘Don’t get sarcastic with me, Mr Howe.’ Furious, I called the chief constable — and, amazingly, got through.
Perfect match: Jeremy and Lizzie married three years after meeting at Oxford University
He apologised and the parcel was sent right away. When it arrived — a big brown paper parcel — it sat threateningly in the kitchen like an unexploded bomb. It was days before I could touch it.
Inside were an old briefcase, Lizzie’s wallet, her return ticket to Oxford, a couple of dresses, crumpled-up tissues, some moisturiser, pictures of the girls and a mug decorated with kittens that they’d given her on her birthday. The detritus of the living — only they looked old, like exhibits in a museum.
For a second, I got Lizzie back, my Lizzie, and then she vanished. It was unbelievably painful. For a long time afterwards, my pockets were always full of tear-sodden handkerchiefs.
I was inundated, however, by women who wanted — and maybe needed — to hold out a hand to help me. And, boy, did I need help. I can think of a dozen or more women, some of whom I’d never really met before, who just scooped up Jessica, Lucy and me and made sure we were clothed, washed and fed. They were my lifeline. One neighbour, an intense woman called Sam, went further. Late one Sunday evening, she knocked at my door, saying her boiler had broken down and she needed a bath.
I was sure it was a lie. But she clearly wasn’t budging, so I said yes and she said she’d be back in five minutes.
Had I just invited her in for sex
Or rather, did she think I’d just invited her in for sex It wasn’t the first time she’d dropped round. An attractive woman of a certain age, she’d long made it clear that she was desperate to alleviate my suffering with reiki — a form of hands-on spiritual healing.
Within minutes, she was back, clothed only in a bathrobe — without, I assumed, anything on underneath.
Fortunately, I had two friends round at the time, to whom I quickly introduced her. What was Sam thinking while she took her bath I dared not speculate.
What I did know, however, was that her late-night visit would be all round the street by the time the school bell rang the next day.
In the great scheme of things, this was not exactly a hardship.
But I did feel I was living under a microscope, with my every move watched — most solicitously — by half the neighbourhood. Bit by bit, though, I was managing to rebuild the edifice that had been Family Howe. In four years, the girls almost never had a day off school — not because they weren’t sickly, but because I just pretended not to notice or gave them Calpol.
They never complained. Well, not to me, anyway.
I don’t think anyone ever received a birthday card on time, neither was any bill paid on arrival. But at least we were a loving family, albeit a family wearing odd socks and with holes in our jeans. And I always got them to the dentist for their check-ups.
At work, I seemed to be on some kind of adrenaline kick. I pushed myself ever harder, always anticipating a crash landing that never came.
Missing their mother: Jeremy Howe with daughters Lucy, 8, and Jessica, 10, four years after Lizzie's murder
In the spring of 1994, I applied for a dream job: running a BBC2 series of short films for new directors. Miraculously, I got it, even though the children had videotaped Fireman Sam over half the showreel of films I had to watch before my interview.
Nearly two years later, I made a 30-minute documentary about Lizzie’s death. It was like walking up to Medusa and looking at her full in the face: it didn’t break me, but it did change me. What I wanted to do above all with my film was to bring Lizzie back to life. For four months, I interviewed relatives and close friends about her and filmed actors — cast as Lizzie, Jessica, Lucy and me — as they trekked across desolate landscapes or stood alone in muddy fields.
You don't stop loving someone when they die
I was particularly struck by something my sister Philippa said about Lizzie and me. ‘I remember one Christmas we were opening our presents at our mother’s house and you had given Lizzie a clock or something,’ she said. ‘As she opened it, I saw the look between you across the room. That look summed it up. ‘Nobody else existed. Just you two, Lizzie and Jeremy . . . When you two were together, everyone felt a bit locked out. ’ I felt as if my heart was about to burst. Together, I’d always felt Lizzie and I could conquer the world. One word defines what gave us that strength: love. Inexplicable, irrational, incomprehensible, overwhelming love. And you don’t stop loving someone just because they’re dead.
For the film I decided to visit for the first time the room on York University campus where she’d been killed.
Irrationally, I had a strong feeling I’d find Lizzie there. But, as the film crew and I approached the city, I became more and more morose. Why in God’s name was I doing this
Uncertain future: Jeremy's whole world came crashing down after his wife was murdered
The room was a plain study/bedroom on the top floor of a 1970s student block. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I found I could imagine Lizzie sitting at her desk working, I could imagine the killer’s knock on the door — and my mind would go no further.
Yet in that small room, I also encountered the deepest feeling of utter darkness that I’ve ever had to confront. Sitting at her desk, I buried my face in my hands and wept, only dimly aware of the film crew, who were unsure what to do.
We are not damaged, but changed – and bound together with hoops of tempered steel
Afterwards, I was in shock and couldn’t speak. In the car, I slept the whole way back home.
I’d thought that if I could confront Lizzie’s death, that I could bring back her life. I’d failed — but at least I’d stared at the gorgon and survived. I’ve never been back to York since.
Exhausted, I took the best part of a month off work. I felt as if I were recovering from shellshock. In that period, I realised making the film had helped me bring some sort of order to the chaos and misery of the past few years. It was time at last to start packing my baggage away.
The final phase of grief is about acceptance and hope. And for me that came after I was introduced to a woman called Jennie by mutual friends. She’d been a film producer — real movies that you pay money to see, not poxy bits of TV like mine — and had decided to leave the business in order to teach and write.
Loving mother: Lizzie Howe with Jessica as a baby
We had a lot in common, so we met again for lunch. A couple of weeks later, we had supper. When I phoned her the following week — the day before my 40th birthday — I asked if she’d just been watching Sleepless In Seattle, which was on TV that night.
‘Of course I was,’ she said, with a sob. We talked and talked for the next two hours. And during our conversation, I fell in love again.
A few weeks later, Jennie moved in with us. There wasn’t the slightest doubt in my mind; even though we’d known each other for no more than a couple of months, it was the easiest decision of my life.
It was like coming home: our house became a home for the first time in four-and-a-half years. What had seemed impossible months earlier now seemed so natural and easy. Ordinary life beckoned — and Jennie became a brilliant mother to the girls.
And Lizzie I’ve dreamed of her only three times since she died, but those dreams have stayed with me for months, as if she’d just walked back into my life. All her books are mixed with mine, her life is mixed with ours.
I see her in the way Lucy wipes her nose and in her fierce concentration when she plays her cello. And, for years, Jessica was the spitting image of her mother, though less so now.
Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Lizzie. A part of my heart will always be hers — but the difference is that I’m no longer locked into the past.
It’s now nearly 20 years since her murder. When I look at her daughters now and see the normal, well-adjusted young women they’ve become, I touch wood and cross my fingers, for things might have been so different.
We are not damaged, but changed — and bound together with hoops of tempered steel.
As I write these words, Jennie — my darling wife of more than ten years — is asleep across the room.
We’re in California to visit Lucy, who’s at university in San Diego, and Jessica has taken a week out from her job as an assistant producer at a radio station to be with us.
I’m happy in my marriage and in my career — as head of Radio 4 drama — in a way I never thought possible after Lizzie’s savage death.
But bringing up the girls will always be my proudest achievement.
When I said this to Jessica once, however, she snorted, no doubt recalling how she and Lucy had to become self-sufficient very young.
‘Bringing you up, Daddy, was OUR proudest achievement,’ she said.
● EXTRACTED from Mummydaddy by Jeremy Howe, to be published on March 1 at 7.99. 2012 Jeremy Howe. To order a copy for 6.99 (inc P&P), call 0843 382 0000.