'Mummy's dead,' I told the girls. 'But Daddy,' Lucy wailed. 'You can't cook': Murder victim's husband Jeremy Howe tells of moment he told his young daughters
In Saturday's Mail, Jeremy Howe, Radio 3’s former head of drama, described the awful day his 34-year-old lecturer wife was murdered in a senseless attack. Here, in the second part of the most emotionally intense series you’ll read this year, he recalls how he coped with the aftermath of her death, telling his daughters that Mummy was dead and burying the love of his life . . .
There is no easy way to tell two little girls, aged four and six, that their mother has been murdered. But I couldn’t carry on living in a weird, make-believe world — so when I returned from identifying my wife’s body, I was ready to tell Jessica and Lucy what had happened.
But before I could start to tell them, Jessica, the eldest, started gabbling away 19 to the dozen about all the wonderful things she’d done since arriving at my sister’s house in Norfolk. ‘We had the best day ever!’ she said.
I cuddled the girls, but I just couldn’t break the terrible news. ‘I’ll tell them tomorrow,’ I said to myself. But, alas, tomorrow came all too soon.
Caring: Jeremy Howe with Jessica (left) and Lucy. He was faced with agonising task of telling them that their mother was dead
Over breakfast, Jessica asked: ‘Did you talk to Mummy last night, Daddy’ There was an agonising pause. It felt as if I’d been kicked in the stomach. Finally, I rallied sufficiently to say: ‘She sends lots and lots and lots of love.’
My mother, sister and I decided on a plan. Immediately after breakfast, I’d take the girls into the garden and tell them. My mother would come out afterwards to help pick up the pieces.
Telling the girls was so painful that I’m struggling to recall what happened next.I can remember them eating their breakfast. I can remember saying that there was something I wanted to tell them and asking them to come into the garden. ‘Is it about the holiday’ Jessica asked. ‘Are we going to the seaside today’
I remember exactly where we stood: alongside a high cypress hedge. I also remember crouching down and putting my arms round their shoulders, but I have no memory of telling Jessica and Lucy that their mummy was dead.
My mother said she could hear the low rumble of my voice, then silence, then an awful cry from Jessica. My sister later said that wail was like the end of Jessica’s childhood.
Loving mother: Lizzie Howe with Jessica as a baby
Jessica says that she remembers thinking: ‘I wonder how long it will take the trees in the hedge to grow tall enough to reach Mummy in heaven.’
The only thing I do recall saying is that I’d look after them, just like Mummy had looked after them. ‘But, Daddy, you can’t cook,’ wailed Lucy.
‘Yes, he can. He cooked us pizza on Saturday,’ Jessica blubbed.
‘But that was from a packet.’
‘And he cooked us fish fingers last week,’ said Jessica through her tears.
She then proceeded to list the other things that Daddy could cook. It wasn’t an impressive list. As Lucy had already rumbled, I was clueless and under-skilled in the mother department.
Our ‘holiday’ in Norfolk with my sister was the strangest of weeks. Every so often, Jessica or Lucy would come to me for a hug and then scurry off to play. We grown-ups sat around, mostly silent, as if we were waiting for something to happen.
The papers were the first thing to absorb. You never really expect to become a news story, but my wife Lizzie was headline news.
On the very day she’d arrived to deliver a lecture at the Open University summer school in York, she’d had her throat slit by a student while innocently sitting at her desk.
In the papers, people whom I’d never heard of from our street in Oxford said nice things about us, while the Open University — for which she’d worked for four years — clearly had no idea who Lizzie was.
My boss was quoted as saying that I’d had a glittering career in front of me. ‘Had’, note, not ‘has’.
On Friday, I’d been one of those upwardly-mobile, thirtysomething execs in the BBC with a promising future; by Monday, I’d had to phone my boss to explain that I wasn’t sure if I was ever coming back.
Time stood still. Family came and family went — all of us paralysed into inactivity by not knowing how to react. It was like a scenario for a holiday as written by Jean- Paul Sartre.
We’d all sit around the table in my sister’s garden, drinking endless cups of tea and talking about everything but Lizzie’s death — because no one knew what to say. When the mere mention of her name reduced Lizzie’s father to tears, there was collective and stiff upper-lipped English embarrassment.
Meanwhile, I discovered that if you keep moving, you don’t get depressed. So the girls and I kept on the move — a picnic lunch on the beach, a walk along the promenade, a fun fair and ice creams with chocolate flakes (‘Really, Daddy, with a flake Wow!’).
Early that evening, the phone rang. It was a detective superintendent, giving me the all-clear for Lizzie’s funeral — with the rider that he wanted her buried rather than cremated, in case her body had to be exhumed.
I was too dazed to do very much, and more than happy for Lizzie’s parents to arrange everything. Then another problem arose: Lizzie’s mother, Maka, felt the funeral would be too upsetting for two little girls.
Holiday memories: Jeremy and Lizzie with Lucy (left) and Jessica
My own instinct, however, was that Lucy and Jessica were inseparable from me and that, of course, they should accompany me. The thought of being apart from them, even for a minute, overwhelmed me.
Yes, it would be upsetting for them, but weren’t they upset anyway Surely they should come.
I sought advice. Or rather, my sister somehow managed to get me an appointment with the head of the children’s psychiatry department in Norwich (waiting time approximately six months) that morning.
As I sat in the waiting room, I felt like a fraud. I’d never met a psychiatrist before.
Surely, all I had to do was ask the doctor: ‘Do I take the children to their mother’s funeral’ She’d then answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and I’d go home. I could have done it by phone.
My sister and I were with her for over an hour. Though she knew my story (she’d read the papers), she wanted me to tell it in my own words. She spoke quietly and monotonously as we sat in her cool, darkened room. Time stopped.
We hardly touched on the subject of the funeral — she certainly never asked me a direct question — but when I left, I wanted to hug her and I was beginning to know my own mind.
I had, it seems, discovered the first
law of coping: trust your instincts. Don’t let the heart rule your
head; go lower down. Trust your gut.
before Lizzie’s funeral in Bath, where her parents lived, I had to
return to Oxford to pick up our kitten, which I’d left in a cattery. It
was one of the few times since Lizzie’s murder that I’d been alone.
Unthinkable: For Jeremy it was as if time stood still after his wife was murdered
Each corner, each turning, each signpost on the familiar road seemed to trigger a memory.
I started to weep and shout out her name. I felt miserable beyond words: helpless, hopeless, sobbing. And I was driving so fast that I realised I was in danger of losing control.
Did I care Of course I bloody cared! I got a grip, pulled into a lay-by and sat there hunched, banging my head on the steering wheel. ‘Oh, Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie. I cannot, CANNOT bear it.’ Then I took off my glasses, because they were so fogged up I couldn’t see, and walked 100 yards down the road, taking deep breaths until I was calm enough to drive on.
The cat was not the least bit pleased to see me and howled all the way back, as if I were her kidnapper. Too embarrassed to behave badly in front of her, I drove back carefully and quietly.
Before the funeral, I arranged to go to the church with the children to see the coffin because I didn’t want it to be a shock when they arrived at the service.
This way, too, we’d all have a completely private moment to say goodbye to Mummy.
Jessica and Lucy had each decorated a plate with sea shells, which we were going to place on the coffin along with a posy of garden flowers. So, bearing our plates and posies, we crept into the empty church.
Seeing the coffin, laid out on a trestle at the head of the nave, was heart-stopping. But the girls were excited and curious, and wanted to be lifted up to inspect it.
‘I didn’t know Mummy’s middle name was Mary, like mine,’ piped up Jessica, peering at the brass name plaque that read: ‘Elizabeth Mary Howe 1958–1992.’
I felt physically sick. Lizzie had never had a middle name. Why had I let someone else organise things and screw them up For the girls, meanwhile, this changed the mood.
‘Maybe it’s not Mummy in there. Maybe she’s not really dead,’ said Lucy. And Jessica wanted me to open the coffin to make sure. When I said I didn’t have a screwdriver, she told me I could get one. But I knew that I couldn’t risk letting them see their mother’s injuries, so I told them gently that Maka had just got confused about her name.
This was, indeed, the case. Brusque and no-nonsense on the exterior, Maka was traumatised with grief and had somehow convinced herself that Lizzie had a middle name.
Nor do I think she ever quite recovered: until the day Maka died, she called Jessica ‘Lizzie’.
Holiday memories: Jeremy and Lizzie with Lucy (left) and Jessica
It rained on the day of my wife’s funeral. I don’t know what I was expecting, but as we entered, Jessica and Lucy each tightly clutching one of my hands, several hundred faces in an absolutely packed church turned round to look at us. I was buoyed up on a sea of love.
‘Daddy, are we sitting at the front because we’re special’ whispered Jessica. She made it sound like a treat, like going with me to the theatre.
As I ushered the girls into the front pew, I noticed that ‘Mary’ had been crudely excised from the brass plaque on the coffin and the girls’ pretty little plates had been fixed to the lid, making it look faintly like a table laid for dinner.
‘Why is everybody looking at us, Daddy’ said Lucy loudly. It broke the ice. Some people laughed, while some began to sob.
Afterwards, Jessica, Lucy and I filed out first behind the coffin; then, as at a wedding, we shook hands with the entire congregation.
It was a very strange meet and greet, but it felt right. I don’t think I’d ever been hugged by so many people in my life, but each hug restored just a little piece of the love I’d had ripped away from me.
As the coffin was lowered into the grave, Jessica threw in her flowers. Then Lucy tried to jump in herself.
Perfect match: Jeremy and Lizzie married three years after meeting at Oxford University
‘I want my Mummy,’ she wailed. ‘I want to be with my Mummy.’ And, sobbing, she was scooped up by my mother.
The day after the funeral, I took the girls to see the Walt Disney film, Peter Pan. I held Jessica’s hand most of the way through, as she and Lucy stuffed their faces with popcorn. Once the popcorn was finished, Lucy clambered on to my lap. My abiding image of Lucy as a toddler was of her sitting on her mother’s lap. That’s what she did; so now she did it to me.
When Peter Pan sat on Wendy’s lap and asked her to be his mother, I had tears streaming down my face.
I’d forgotten how much the film worshipped at the shrine of motherhood — and just how unsuitable it was for two girls who’d just buried their own mother.
‘What are you thinking, Lucy’ I asked, wondering if she was in a state of trauma and needed to leave the cinema.
‘I was thinking what a beautiful dress Wendy is wearing.’
Soon, it was time to go home to Oxford to start our new life, where all the rules of the game had changed for ever.
But the awful prospect of returning was softened by my certainty that Lizzie’s presence would be lingering. So, while the girls got changed for a friend’s birthday party, I went looking for her.
I searched everywhere, but there was nothing. She had vanished utterly. There was just silence and emptiness.
There was no lingering smell of her in her bathrobe hanging by the shower, no imprint of her in our bed, no notes or reminders left on her desk.
Just a lot of her everyday objects devoid of their purpose because she wasn’t there to use them — her nightie under the pillow, her toothbrush in its mug by the sink, her cleansing lotion by the bed, her diaphragm (the bane of our sex life) neatly stowed in the bedside table, her lists of things to do on her return from York.
With increasing anxiety, I pulled out drawers, opened jewellery boxes, smelled her clothes, sorted through her papers.
Just then, Lucy interrupted my thoughts: ‘Daddy, Jessica wants to know where you put Katie’s present.’ Then Jessica called up the stairs: ‘Daddy! I can’t find my hairbrush. And we need to go to the party or we’ll be late!’
In the girls’ eyes, I realised suddenly, I was now their mummy as well as their daddy. Presents and hairbrushes and going to parties were what mummies did.
As a dad, I’d seen myself as the Minister of Fun — ‘Let’s go to the fair!’ — while Lizzie was the Minister of Work — ‘Eat that last carrot stick!’, ‘Time for bed, girls!’, ‘Jessica, go and wash those filthy hands!’
In gaining a new mother, I wondered if they’d lost their father, because I wasn’t much good at being fun any more.
And, as a mother, I knew — from the infrequent times Lizzie had been away — that I was pretty inept.
Having found the present and the hairbrush, I was about to slam shut the front door when Jessica asked if I’d remembered the door key. I hadn’t.
(For the next two years, practically everyone on our street had a door key to Number 10, just in case I forgot.)
Missing their mother: Jeremy Howe with daughters Lucy, 8, and Jessica, 10, four years after Lizzie's murder
Off we trooped, with me feeling as if I were walking naked down the street, watched by a hundred pairs of eyes.
We reached the door of the church hall, where the party was being held, and it took all my courage to go inside.
What happened next was surreal. All the mums and children went quiet, as if ghosts had entered the room. Jessica, Lucy and I stood there, stranded.
Katie, the birthday girl, finally broke the silence by coming up to Jessica and giving her a hug. And then she hugged Lucy and smiled at me.
‘I’m so glad you could come,’ her mother whispered. After a few words of condolence, she fell silent again.
Then she asked: ‘You don’t know any party games do you It’s just that Dave was going to do that bit, but he’s had to go to work.’
Ah, I thought, one smart dad.
And so, for the next hour, I organised party games — rather manically — which mostly involved girls running around and screaming, with a bit of musical chairs thrown in.
My new life, it seemed, had well and truly begun.
n 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.