Heaven and Hell

My girl had never been happier, then her angel turned into a demon...

Published by: Mark Christy and Clare Stone
Published on: 25 August 2011

It’s funny how some things just tumble out of your mouth without you thinking, isn’t it? Right now, my four-year-old grandson Harry had his hand clamped over his mouth guiltily, but it was too late to take his words back. ‘Mummy’s got a new boyfriend,’ he’d giggled just seconds before. 

Shocked, I paused from laying a fishfinger on to some bread to make a sarnie for him. ‘What?’ I checked. ‘A new boyfriend?’ 

Harry grinned sheepishly. ‘Don’t worry,’ I smiled, ruffling his hair. ‘Your secret’s safe with me.’

But after I plonked the finished sarnie in front of him, I went into the hall and phoned Jackie, the youngest of my three daughters. 

We were all close, but me and Jackie were particularly so. When we weren’t on the phone, she was round mine – she only lived a 25-minute bus journey away. So now I wanted all the gossip!

‘What’s this about a boyfriend?’ I chuckled when she answered.

‘Harry,’ Jackie groaned. 

‘Don’t blame him,’ I teased. Then my tone grew serious. 

‘You know I worry, though. You’re still my baby.’ 

My ‘baby’ was 34, but I was so protective of her. She’d had her fair share of problems. 

Me and her dad Dennis had split when she was just a toddler, but she’d seemed unaffected. 

With her blue eyes and blonde hair, she’d looked like an angel – and acted like one, too.

When she was 16 though, she’d fallen pregnant by her boyfriend Mike. She’d sat on her bed, surrounded by Wham! posters, and looked like such a little girl as she’d told me.

Me and her big sisters Paula, then 19, and Lorraine, 20, had rallied round her. She’d become a great mum to her daughter Ashley – was always taking her to the library and reading Spot the Dog books to her.

Jackie and Mike had split when Ashley was a few months old. She’d been so young to be a single mum, yet my daughter had ridden every storm, every money struggle, every lonely night.

Then she’d met another fella, fallen in love, and fallen pregnant again. But, like before, the relationship had failed shortly
after little Harry was born.

Yes, being a single mum to two children had left Jackie a little vulnerable, which was why I was so protective hearing about this new man of hers. 

‘I met him in the park,’ Jackie said shyly. I could hear the twinkle in her voice. ‘I was pushing Harry on the swings when he started talking to me. 

‘He’s an electronics student and… Oh Mum,’ she gushed, ‘he seems so nice.’

‘Hmmm. What’s his name?’ I asked.

‘It’s Houssam,’ she sighed dreamily. ‘He’s Algerian and gorgeous. We’re going to meet up for coffee.’

‘Well, just be careful,’ I warned. 

‘Mu-uumm!’ she groaned. Even over the phone I could imagine her rolling her eyes.

Her date went well though, and the one after that, and the one after that… I could tell she was falling for him. 

Jackie had always liked to look nice, but now my tiny, slim girl made even more of an effort with her clothes and make-up. 

Soon, her Facebook page was littered with photos of her and Houssam, 23. Bless her, she wanted the world to know how happy she was with her new fella.

Then she asked if Harry could stay the night as she and Houssam wanted to go out for a meal together. 

‘Here’s his bag,’ Jackie said, when she brought my grandson over. ‘And I brought someone else… Mum, this is Houssam.’

A slender man with gentle brown eyes stepped out from behind her.

‘Angela, it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ he said, shaking my hand. 

I glanced at Jackie and smiled to myself. ‘This girl’s smitten,’ I thought. And I could see why.

Houssam Djemaa was lovely, smart and polite. Most importantly, he was obviously as taken with Jackie as she was with him.

A week later, she invited me over for Sunday lunch. As she cooked the lamb, Houssam fussed around her. ‘Let me do that,’ he said, pouring a drink.

After lunch, I went into the kitchen and grabbed a tea towel to dry the dishes. ‘Sit down, Mum!’ Jackie ordered, snatching it out of my hands. ‘It’s my turn to wait on you for a change.’

Houssam interrupted. 

‘Ladies, I’ll do the dishes,’ he laughed, kissing her.

Grabbing my drink, I plonked myself on the sofa. 

‘You’ve done well there, Jackie,’ I winked.

‘I know,’ she sighed, tucking her legs up. ‘He’s pretty much moved in. I’ve never been happier.’

‘That’s all I want,’ I said. 

Houssam was a natural with Harry too, and loved tucking him up in bed. 

For the next two months, I didn’t see quite so much of Jackie and Harry. So when my grandson came to stay, I was really excited.

He was playing with his cars on the lounge floor when he suddenly said: ‘Mummy and Daddy didn’t make me, Allah did.’

Well, that was another little surprise that had popped out of his mouth! It was obvious this had come from Houssam.

Well, I suppose there was nothing wrong with learning about different cultures and religions.

When Paula came over, I mentioned it to her, though. 

As she blew on her coffee, she looked thoughtful. ‘The other day Harry told me Allah wouldn’t allow my tattoo,’ she sighed. ‘I ignored it, but now…’

Were we over-reacting? Maybe Harry was just taking comments of Houssam’s to the extreme? But I couldn’t help feeling like my little grandson was being brainwashed.

‘Do you think Jackie’s okay?’ I croaked. 

‘Her Facebook status is always saying she’s “never been happier”,’ Paula said. 

I didn’t say anything to Jackie, though. I didn’t need to, because next time I saw her…

‘Houssam’s bought a prayer mat, and prays five times a day,’ Jackie admitted to me
when we took Harry to the park. ‘He doesn’t like me looking at men on the laptop, either.’

‘What men?’ I asked. 

‘Just relatives on Facebook,’ she sighed. 

I hoped it was just a rough patch. They should still have been in the honeymoon period… they’d only been together four months.

By now, the whole family was buzzing with different stories of Houssam’s controlling ways and sudden religious fanaticism. 

Ashley told me her mum had even begged her to take off a cross she’d been wearing when visiting – she’d been worried in case it offended Houssam.

And Paula told me how he’d banned Jackie from putting Harry to bed, insisting on doing it himself. 

‘That’s when he fills my grandson’s head with nonsense, I bet,’ I fumed.

These days, I barely saw Jackie, so I called her to have a word. 

Every time, Houssam answered the phone. 

Maybe I’d get a chance to tackle her when she dropped Harry off. He was coming to stay the night with me, while Jackie and Houssam decorated the flat.

She was waiting for me as soon as I got back from my caretaking job, pacing up and down the street with Harry.

I settled Harry in front of the telly, then went into the kitchen where Jackie had plonked herself, head in hands.

‘Love, what’s wrong?’ I asked gently, switching on the kettle.

She stared at me, her once bright eyes now dull. 

Slowly, she opened her mouth, knee bouncing up and down nervously. This is it. She’s going to tell me what’s been going on.

‘Can I borrow your phone to call Houssam?’ she asked. 

Was that it?!

‘Of course,’ I said, giving her my mobile. 

The second he answered the phone, she jumped up. ‘I’m coming,’ she panicked.

‘Drink your coffee first, love,’ I soothed when she hung up. 

‘Don’t say anything to Houssam,’ she pleaded.  

Don’t say anything about what? What did she mean?

There was no time for questions, though. ‘Bye Mum,’ she cried, and then she was gone.

This just wasn’t right. 

Shaking my head, I made a decision – I’d call Jackie tonight and, if she still seemed unhappy, I’d force her to tell me what was going on.

So that night, once Harry was in bed, I phoned. 

‘Are you sure that everything’s okay?’ I checked with her.

‘We’re staying in to watch a film,’ she said calmly. ‘I’m fine Mum, honest.’ 

Well she sounded okay, so I felt a bit more reassured. 

But next morning, I started panicking again when two policemen knocked on my door. 

‘It’s about your daughter, Jackie,’ one said softly. ‘I’m afraid she’s been killed. Houssam Djema has admitted doing it.’

My legs went, and the policeman caught me as I fell. ‘No!’ I screamed. ‘Not my baby.’ 

The world seemed to blur, only coming into focus occasionally. 

Paula, Lorraine, Ashley and me hugging each other, sobbing… sitting in the back of the police car… standing in the mortuary, staring at my baby’s face, swollen, bloody and bruised…

As I stood there, trying to work out how I felt, how numbness can hurt so much, I made a promise to her. 

‘Jackie, love, you don’t have to worry about your kids,’ I vowed. ‘No one will hurt them like you’ve been hurt.’

I meant every word. But before I could concentrate on them, I needed to know exactly how my beautiful daughter had been hurt. 

As painful as it would be, I needed to know every detail of what that animal had done to her. 

It couldn’t be worse than what I’d been imagining.

‘Jackie was beaten with a fire extinguisher,’ an officer explained gently. ‘This caused internal bleeding in her brain.

‘Houssam also sat on top of her and strangled her. We have some photos…’

‘I want to see them,’ I mumbled. He slid them across the desk.

She was laying face- down, naked from the waist down.

‘Jackie,’ I breathed. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what was wrong?’ 

The next days were a blur as I stumbled through the motions for Harry. Luckily, I got custody of him. 

‘When’s my mummy coming home?’ he asked one night, as I tucked him in. 

I swear my heart stopped. ‘She, err, she’s not,’ I stuttered, kissing his cheek. ‘She’s in Heaven.’ 

As his eyes filled with tears, I wanted to scream at the world for being so cruel. 

After two months, Jackie was cremated wearing her favourite pink pyjamas and slippers. I brought her ashes home, talked to her all the time. 

‘I’ve brought you out in the garden,’ I’d smile, putting her green urn on the deckchair. ‘You always loved the sun.’

Five months later, Houssam appeared at the Old Bailey charged with murder. He denied it, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter, claiming my daughter had provoked him by making a racist comment.
‘All lies,’ I hissed. ‘She didn’t have a racist bone in her body.’

After he’d killed her, Houssam had callously taken her valuables and sold them on the street. Credit cards, phones, telly, even little Harry’s Wii – Jackie hadn’t even got round to giving it to him, she’d saved hard to buy it as a surprise.

When Houssam had bumped into a friend in the street, he’d even boasted that he’d just killed his girlfriend.

As he was found guilty of murder and jailed for life, to serve at least  15 years, the whole gallery of Jackie’s friends and family cheered.

My girl’s been gone eight months now. I’m dreading the day when Harry, four, asks me what happened to her. 

It’s funny how some things just tumble out of your mouth without you thinking, isn’t it? 

Jackie wanted to tell me something that fateful night. Was it that she was scared of her boyfriend? That he’d turned into a religious nutter, who wanted to control her life? If only those words had tumbled out of her mouth – maybe then I could have saved her. 

Angela Barrett, 57, Kentish Town, London