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Sunday 1 March 2015

A family tragedy

I thought very carefully before posting this. It’s here because, firstly, I found it upsetting at the time having known some of those involved. Secondly, the story has warnings for us all as to what we are capable of when things become too much to bear. I have omitted details that might identify those concerned other than to people who already know.

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Leaving home can be a testing rite of passage. This is true even in cocooned university or college environments where there are organised social activities and lots of others in the same boat. But it can be relentless when you’re on your own.

My first few months were particularly difficult and depressing, marooned in an unfamiliar city, struggling to understand the uncertainties of a new job where nearly everyone at work was older or with very different lives, and expected to begin a demanding, time-consuming correspondence course in a new and alien subject. There was also something strange about where I lived, a pervasive sense of shame hinted at in surreptitious glances, hushed whispers and neighbours watching behind twitching curtains as I entered and left the house. It was some months before I found out why, and some years before the truly dreadful story reached its terrible and tragic conclusion.

We had placed an advertisement in the Yorkshire Post, “Trainee accountant requires lodgings in Leeds, Monday to Friday, bed breakfast and evening meal,” and quickly received a reply from a widow with a vacant room. She lived in King George Avenue, a couple of miles North of the city centre, where Chapeltown Road and Harehills Lane merge to become Harrogate Road. It looked comfortable when we went to look, and so one Sunday afternoon in September, 1968, my dad took me in the car and left me there. 

Although King George Avenue lies at the end of the notorious Chapeltown Road, by the time you get there you are in Chapel Allerton, a green and pleasant suburb where substantial family homes nest in well-established, tree-filled gardens. It looks much the same today, an agreeable place to live. Near the entrance to the avenue, twin stone arches with wrought iron gates mark the gatehouse of Chapel Allerton hospital, then the ‘Artificial Limb Centre’. The weathered remnants of its sign are still on the wall next to the right hand arch today, almost legible in the Google Street View image of June 2008. Just into the avenue, the leafy Gledhow Park Drive leads off on the right. My landlady never tired of telling me how, not so many years before, they had become accustomed to seeing the young actress Diana Rigg pass by, whose parents lived in the Drive.

My landlady lived with her youngest daughter Helen, a lovely, gentle, long-haired Jewish girl some five or six years years older than me. Three older children had married and left home. There was also another lodger in the house, a girl who had a room upstairs, but I hardly ever saw any of them. My own room was downstairs where the house had been extended to make it wider. There was a door at one end out to the hall and front door, and a door at the other end through which the landlady brought my breakfast and evening meal from the kitchen. There was a bed, a table and dining chair, an armchair and a built in cubicle containing a washbasin and toilet, and that was it. I came in from work, had my meal, and was then left undisturbed until next morning.

It sounds ideally suited to getting on with the accountancy correspondence course I was supposed to be working through, and so it should have been, but I couldn’t apply myself to it at all. After leaving for work before 8.00 a.m. and not getting back until 6.30 p.m. it was hard to study with much enthusiasm (the office hours were 8.45 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., with an hour and a quarter for lunch, making 37½ hours per week). I tended to fall into an exhausted torpor worsened by boredom and loneliness. At £6 per week, the rent was more than I earned, so I had to be subsidised by my parents and couldn’t afford to go out. I can’t emphasise enough how much I looked forward to the 17.35 train home every Friday, and how much I dreaded the early Monday morning train back.

After some weeks, when they had got to know me a little better, I was invited to watch television with the landlady and her daughter at agreed times, such as ‘Top of the Pops’ on Thursdays. They asked me about my family and talked a little about theirs, and I began to feel more at home and started to like them, but the feeling remained that they had something to hide. They spoke in Yiddish whispers as if not wanting “the goyim” to hear their “tsuris” (the gentiles to know their troubles), and the evening meal became increasingly slapdash and hastily prepared. From meat, potato and a vegetable at first, it was now beans or eggs on toast. One night I went back to a tin of Heinz spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce for my tea. One week I got tinned meals every night. I might have starved but for being able to get something more substantial during the day – a least a good sandwich or a proper pub lunch on expenses when working out of the office.

I began to look for somewhere else to live, and one of the seniors at work put me in touch with an elderly couple at Kirkstall who were looking for a new lodger. I arranged to go there from the beginning of the new year and was surprised by my parents’ reaction: they seemed keen for me to move as soon as possible. After I’d left King George Avenue they told me why.

They had noticed a report in the newspaper that a thirty-three year old man of King George Avenue, an unemployed company director with the same surname as my landlady, had been found guilty of incitement to murder. It transpired he was in fact my landlady’s eldest son and his awful story had been unfolding for over a year.

The previous year, after six years of marriage, his wife had divorced him and gained custody of their only child, a son then aged four. The divorce mainly seems to have been due to his obsessive and unstable personality. He had been worried about the health of his father, who had died, and about his business where he worked excessively long hours, often seven days a week. There was also a mutual dislike between him and his father-in-law. After the divorce he became gripped with hatred for his ex-wife and her parents, and the man she later married, and made disturbing and graphically violent threats towards them: his ex-wife was a model and he wanted acid thrown in her face to ruin her looks; he wanted his father-in-law’s tongue torn out so he would never speak again. His obsession culminated in a breakdown and treatment as an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital. 

In December, after leaving hospital, he snatched his son from outside his ex-wife’s home and attempted to take him to Eire, presumably because this would have been beyond the jurisdiction of the custody order, but was apprehended in a taxi in Northern Ireland, three miles from the border, and jailed for two months for contempt of court.

While in prison, he attempted to find someone to murder his ex-wife for money. He put a proposal to a man he thought could arrange it, but the man was actually an undercover police officer. When after his release he tried to put the plan into operation, he was arrested again. He was convicted of incitement to murder by attempting to employ two men he thought were London gangsters to kill his ex-wife and her parents, and her male friend, and given a further three-year prison sentence. It would have been longer had the judge not taken into account his mental state and medical opinion that he was no longer dangerous.

My parents had decided it best not to mention any of this while I was still at King George Avenue, and as I rarely read the newspaper in those days I had missed it completely. The week I got tinned things every night for tea was the week of the trial. There is little wonder my landlady and daughter were so preoccupied.

Four years later, long after I had moved on, there was a most terrible and tragic sequel to this story. After serving his sentence, my ex-landlady’s son enrolled as a mature student in sociology at Leeds University. Now, I have experience of this and can tell you that becoming a mature student is not something you should undertake without being mentally and emotionally robust enough to handle it. Mature students have high and sometimes unrealistic expectations of themselves. They take their studies very seriously. They stretch the limits of their mental powers. But students also have long free hours for deep thought and reflection – that’s what being a student is all about. If you have any hidden demons they will jump out and come for you. I have seen this so many times in different forms and in different degrees of severity. The case of my ex-landlady’s son was the worst imaginable

One Sunday at the end of January, he and his son spent the day together under access conditions which allowed contact once per month in the presence of a chaperone - severely restricted in light of previous events. They had played darts and football and then driven to a golf club to the North of Leeds at Shadwell. They had all enjoyed the day tremendously. My ex-landlady’s son then tricked the chaperone into leaving them briefly by telling him he was urgently needed on the telephone inside the golf club, and drove off with his son. At first it was thought to be a further abduction attempt, but it was far worse. He parked nearby in a quiet country lane, shot his son three times, and then turned the gun on himself. Their bodies and a shotgun were found in the car around tea time. His last wish was to be laid to rest with his son but perhaps understandably he was buried alone. He was thirty-eight.

Police later found he had left a tape recording at home speaking of his anguish at being allowed access to his son only once per month. The inquests returned a verdicts of murder and suicide, with indications that the tragedy had been carefully planned. This was long after I had moved on, but when I read about it I thought of the house in King George Avenue, and my landlady, and her daughter, and her son’s poor ex-wife, and could not begin to imagine what they must be going through. 

Around the time I left King George Avenue I remembered an odd incident which I have always wondered whether it had any bearing on where I was staying. On my very first morning at work, I caught the bus along Chapeltown Road into town, and was walking along the Headrow a little unsure of my bearings when a voice behind asked “On our way to work then are we?” I was surprised to see someone I knew vaguely from my home town wearing a police cadet uniform. I could not remember his name and didn’t get chance to ask because the whole of our fairly brief conversation was taken up by his questions – where was I working, when had I started, where was I living, how long had I been there, how had I found it, and so on. I’ve often wondered since whether it was just coincidence or was I being checked out. I did remember his name later but never saw him again.  

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