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A story of love out of grief
7:40am Thursday 8th March 2012 in Features
Jeremy Howe recalls seeing his wife’s photograph on the front page of The Oxford Times, although it may have been the Oxford Mail.
His young daughter Lucy had initially shaken him to the core by saying: “Look! There’s mummy.”
But the girl had only seen her late mother’s picture lying in the gutter, side by side with an out-of-focus photograph of her killer being led into court, in a bright orange jump suit.
At that terrible moment for Mr Howe, now Radio 4’s commissioning editor for drama, the image of his wife Lizzie lying discarded in the gutter, half feted, half forgotten seemed to horribly sum things up — confirming how her destiny had been yoked to an anonymous stranger she did not know and never wanted to have anything to do with.
A lump came to his throat as Lucy, then four, cried out: “So mummy is famous, daddy!”
His other daughter, Jessica, aged six, squeezed his hand as they walked on in silence.
Dr Lizzie Howe had become “famous” in the summer of 1992 after travelling from the family home in Edith Road, Oxford, to York University, where she had gone to lecture on the poetry of Stevie Smith.
She would never return. Her body was found in her room in York. Three years later, Robin Pask, a man with a history of mental illness was sentenced to detention in a prison hospital.
Now, 20 years after Lizzie’s murder, Mr Howe has set out what happened to him and his two daughters in a book describing how he learnt to be both daddy and mummy to his girls.
Faced with the worst thing that could possibly happen, he shows how a man with a broken heart, clueless at cooking and “underskilled in the mother department”, managed to hold down a high-pressure job and bring up a young family alone.
When he told his eldest daughter he was planning a book, she replied, “So, daddy, you are going to write a book about how you cooked us fish fingers every day for four years.”
But Mr Howe has quite a story to tell about grief, the judicial system and most of all family.
“My God, did I learn the meaning of love and friendship,” he tells me. “I felt as though I lived on a place called Planet Grief. It is unlike anything else. The whole world is different.”
Remarkably, it is a book with a happy ending. Ten years ago Mr Howe fell in love and remarried, while his daughters are both grown up — Jessica, 25, works as a radio producer for LBC, and Lucy, 23, is a fundraiser at London’s Bush Theatre.
“We are not damaged,” said Mr Howe. “I am happy and contented in a way I never thought I would be. I am incredibly proud that they have emerged from such trauma as beautiful and normal women.”
He laughs as he recalled once telling Jessica that he regarded bringing up his daughters as his life’s greatest achievement. “Bringing you up, daddy, was Lucy’s and my proudest achievement,” she replied. “Mind you, I am not sure that I would allow my eight-year-old to grill toast.”
He decided to write his story while visiting Lucy, who was studying at university in California.
“I did not want to tell a story that was just bloody bleak. I have not written it as a misery memoir. There is a love story at the heart of it. The book, for all its pain, is upbeat.”
But revisiting the story of the murder of his wife — a promising 34-year-old academic, whom he had first met at Oxford University where they both studied English — forced him to return to a dark place.
He recalls being woken up by a police officer at 1am at his mother’s home and being told his wife had been the victim of a random attack by an Open University student drunk on vodka and high on drugs.
“Lizzie was one of the most blameless people I’ve ever met. She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He sums up the immediate impact. “It was as if we were stranded in the wreck of a car that had just been driven into by a 40-tonne truck. One of us was dead, the three survivors were battered.
“I had an image of all our worldly goods, our lives, lying scattered around the scene of the accident. I was just sitting paralysed in the wreckage. I just didn’t know what to do and it felt as if our future had been smashed up in front of us.”
For him the family was saved by Dr Gillian Forrest, the head of child psychiatry at The Park Hospital, Oxford, who encouraged the girls to talk about their mummy, write about her, draw pictures of her, and make her death feel as much a part of their lives as her life was.
After initially commuting to London from Oxford, Mr Howe moved to Bath after joining a BBC 2 team making short films. While there, he made a film about his late wife, which he admits was to become an obsession, even casting doubles to play himself and his daughters waving off the train from Oxford Station.
“For four months I was in the grip of it, my mission to bring Lizzie back to me,” he said.
When he told a friend that he thought the whole exercise would be cathartic, he was to be chastened with the words: “Jeremy, catharsis happens in Greek tragedy, not in lives like yours or mine, you chump.”
The film retraced his wife’s footsteps in York and he even revisited the room where she had been killed, now a freshly-painted empty university study room.
“At first it was just a room but as I stood there and thought about what I was doing there, it became the bleakest, loneliest place in the universe,” he recalls. He was never to show the film to the girls.
The film lacked the happy ending that Jennie — the film producer that he fell in love with on the day before his 40th birthday — gives to his book. The day that she moved in with them, the family house became a home and life finally became normal once more, he says.
“Lizzie lives on in my heart and in my memories. Our life together feels as if it happened to another person, not me, but another very different Jeremy Howe. I am not damaged but I am changed. Lizzie wasn’t just damaged, she was destroyed.”
lmummydaddy by Jeremy Howe is published by Pan (£7.99).