'I just need to know who murdered my mum'
For four long months in the summer of 1991, the name Penny Bell dominated headlines across Britain.
She was a 43 year old mother of two found murdered in the car park of a sports centre in Greenford, West London, a nine mile drive down the A40 from her home in the upscale village of Denham, Buckinghamshire.
Penny was stabbed more than 50 times as she sat in the front seat of her stationary car. Not content with inflicting multiple wounds from the passenger seat, her killer got out, walked round to the driver's door, pulled it open then continued the onslaught.
Despite the ferociousness of the attack (which would have surely left the murderer soaked in blood), and despite the fact it happened in broad daylight in a busy area, Penny's killer has never been caught. There was an exhaustive investigation involving 8,000 interviews and 2,500 written statements but no firm DNA link was established to any suspects. In 2000, a review of the case re examined bloodstains from the scene but found no new leads. Her murder remains one of the biggest unsolved crimes of modern Britain.
As often happens with cases where there's no speedy outcome, public interest soon waned. After Penny's September funeral, the headlines dried up, but the police investigation continued for eight years until it, too, ground to a frustrated halt. This year is the 20th anniversary of Penny's death but a Google search confirms it passed unnoticed. Except, of course, by the family and friends who still mourn her.
And me. I have never forgotten the case. The summer she died, I was working on the Bucks Free Press, the biggest local newspaper to serve the area where she lived. I was 19 and exhilarated to be fulfilling a childhood ambition to train as a reporter. As any journalist will tell you, a murder case can electrify a newsroom. Gathering witness statements, chasing leadssometimes it feels like you're the ones investigating it. Penny's murder was no exception.
At the heart of the case were her children, Matthew, then 11, and nine year old Lauren. That they could be so brutally robbed of their mother outraged and distressed us all. Most harrowing was seeing their shocked little faces on the front pages of the press as they watched her coffin being lowered into the ground. What would become of them? How would they ever learn to live with what happened to her?
Now, 20 years on, I have the chance to ask Lauren. In 2006, she appeared in a Channel 4 documentary Remembering Mum, where she spoke of how the trauma had erased every single memory of her life up until she arrived home from school to find her father, Alistair, on his knees in the hallway, howling in anguish.
When I call her, Lauren immediately agrees to meet me. She is grateful someone has remembered the case and is keen to revisit it. 'I will tell my story 100 times a day if I have to,' she says. 'Mum deserves an outcome and an answer. How dare her killer think that her name will never be mentioned again?'
We arrange to meet a few days later in London. Lauren, director of client services for an event organiser, still lives in Buckinghamshire, 12 miles from where she grew up. The sight of her stops me in my tracks. It's every picture I've ever seen of Penny living and breathing in front of me. The likeness is astonishing and I can't help but blurt it out.
'It's strange,' says Lauren, unbothered, 'because obviously having never met her in my adult life and having no recollection of her, it's amazing how many people say how similar I am to her. Her best friend once told me, "Your laugh is your mother's when you laugh it's like she's next door."' Lauren had charm bracelets for women pandora to take the friend's word for it the memories of her first nine years still haven't returned. Five years ago she underwent a form of hypnotherapy to try to unlock her past, but the sessions proved fruitless. 'I think the brain is so clever because it's almost like a bit of a Pandora's box and it won't let me go back there because it's obviously quite painful,' she says.
It's not clear exactly when she stopped remembering. Certainly in the days after the murder she was able to help the police by revealing she had seen a bundle of money in her mother's handbag that morning. Penny, who ran a catering recruitment consultancy in North London, did indeed withdraw 8,500 out of her and her husband's joint account without his knowledge.
She told the builders renovating their house she was going to meet someone, but there was
no record in her diary. She left home at 9.40am. The last sighting of her was on a road close to the sports centre around 10am. Two witnesses spotted her car crawling along at ten miles per hour, hazard lights flashing. As one overtook her, Penny appeared to be wrestling with someone in the car. She was also seen mouthing, 'Help me,' but neither witness stopped. Penny's body was found an hour later.
'I will tell my story 100 times a day if I have to. Mum deserves an outcome and an answer'
Lauren has played back the police footage of her nine year old self being interviewed by officers.
'I would watch it and sob because I longed to get into that little girl's body again and remember her,' she says. Two decades later, it often feels as though she never had a mum. 'The only emotion I feel is abandonment.' All this is said in such an upbeat, breezy way that it's easy to forget the horrific context of what Lauren is discussing. Ebullient, confident and direct, she admits her forthrightness when talking about her mum unsettles people. 'I'm realistic, which some people find difficult to take. It's true for me she has only ever been a picture on a mantelpiece.'
We talk about the funeral, the definition of a media circus. The family was told that Penny must be buried rather than cremated because of the investigation. 'The police were convinced the murderer would be there and made us bury her because they wanted a very public funeral.' The attention was bewildering for the nine year old. 'I remember my dad almost crushing my hand as we got out of the car, saying, "Don't smile". Then I remember watching her being lowered into the ground and feeling absolutely helpless because I didn't want her to be there with buy pandora rings online all these people taking photos.'
For all Lauren's self possession, there lurks just beneath its surface a fragility that becomes most evident when she's talking about her father. In the aftermath of Penny's death, it was revealed by newspapers that Alistair had been in a relationship with a man for 11 years before marrying Penny. The family believes her father's sexual orientation becoming public knowledge drew the investigation down a cul de sac from which it never reversed.
'My mum and him were best friends and they fell in love. He had never been in love with a woman before so it was a very special relationship. Unfortunately when it was leaked to the public, everybody said pandora charms special offers it was a gay tryst, that some bitter ex lover must have murdered her. It killed the investigation and it killed him, because people to this day will still turn their noses up at him.'
Or at least she assumes they do. With heartbreaking matter of factness, Lauren tells me she and her father have been estranged for five years. 'He just turned round one day and said I had to move out. That was it. Later, I read an interview he gave after Mum died when he said he would do what was required of him in terms of bringing us up, but once I was 18 that would be it. I think what he said was he wouldn't "do love any more".'
Yet Lauren remains sympathetic to her father. 'When you go through things like that in life you cannot come out unscathed. He believed his life was totally ruined. My dad was never offered therapy, he never turned to drink he just turned inward. He pushed out all our friends and family and then he said he wanted nothing to do with us.
'His logic was that if he cut away from us at an early age, we would have to cope on our own, so when he eventually dies he won't leave two wrecks behind.'
Alistair, now 65, still lives in Buckinghamshire. As far as Lauren knows, Penny's clothes still hang in their wardrobe. There are few other keepsakes. To add insult to injury, the house was burgled after the murder and Penny's jewellery was taken. 'The sad truth is that families who've gone through what we have don't always rally round and hug and have this unbreakable force field around them. I'm not bitter about it. I have made my peace and forgiven him.'
It's now that Lauren crumbles and tears roll down her face. Yet almost immediately she brushes them away, her need to remain in control, she acknowledges, not allowing her more than a moment of weakness. 'When you lose that unconditional support everyone gets from parents, when that reassurance is taken away, there is nothing,' she says. 'I beads for pandora bracelets feel I can't take risks in life because there's nothing there. If I fall down, I have to get myself up. That's the one thing that holds me back. I can't be flighty because if I hurt myself, who would look after me?'
Lauren also appears to put everyone's needs ahead of her own. She rarely sees her mother's friends because 'it's unfair on them. It's pretty hard when you see the faces of the kids that remind you of a very painful time.' She remains close to her brother, but when his daughter was born 18 months ago she told him, 'You don't need to look out for me, you must forget everything from the past. This is your fresh start with your family give them what we never had.'
Even on nights out with friends she's always the designated driver, anxious to deliver them safely home. When I ask her if she's aware that she puts herself second, she gets upset. 'I just want to make sure everyone is OK,' she says. 'I'm conscious of being a good daughter, which I know is an odd thing to say because I don't know what my mum's expectations of me were.'
'For me, she has only ever been a picture on a mantelpiece'
Then Lauren suddenly confesses she hasn't always coped so admirably. Shortly after her dad kicked her out, she had a breakdown. It's the first time she has admitted it publicly. 'It literally disabled me. I went from enjoying my life to being virtually agoraphobic. I couldn't go on public transport or into a supermarket. I'd wake up, go to work, struggle through then get home as quickly as possible.'
At the time, she refused to acknowledge that Penny's murder might have triggered it, believing she had faced up to that in her teens.
'I thought, "I'm fine about my mum, I'm fine." You go from being a teenager thinking you know everything to learning about yourself, and in my mid 20s I realised I was a completely broken soul inside.' She then underwent counselling for five years.
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