Private Lives: A Family Affair - I need to bury my daughter

One stormy night in 1988, Helen McCourt disappeared. A man was convicted of her murder, but her body has never been found
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The Independent Culture
Marie

"Michael was determined to find his sister. And I'm thinking, what if something happens to him?"

Helen phoned from work, saying she was leaving at four to come home and get ready for a date. By seven she still wasn't back. It was a very windy night and I heard on the news that trains leaving Liverpool were delayed by a tree falling on the line. I rang the railway station and was told that trains to St Helens were not affected. I began to panic and rang Helen's work, friends and hospitals, before setting out in the car to look for her in Liverpool. I went to the police station and they said I shouldn't be worried. I continued to ring the police every hour until four in the morning when two detectives turned up at my house.

The next day Simms, the barman from the local pub, was taken in for questioning. I was hysterical. The pub was less than 250 yards from our house and I remembered seeing smoke coming out of the pub and thinking he'd burnt her. It was totally irrational of course. I knew something dreadful had happened, put two and two together and came up with 40. The police brought round one of Helen's earrings in a plastic file for me to identify. At this point I knew that Helen wouldn't be returning home alive.

The court case was distressing. I was convinced that once Simms had absorbed all the evidence he would admit where Helen was buried. But he has always denied the charge. I wrote to him about three years later. I begged him to tell me where Helen's body was. His response was nasty, violent, abusive and threatening.

When Helen went missing Michael was only 19. I think it took away his youth. He lost his best friend as well as his sister. For a long time we couldn't grieve like a normal family. Our emotions were put on a back burner while we went through the court case, the appeal and continued with the search. Michael was determined to find his sister. He crawled through sewers and ditches, and into open cast mines that had been sealed off. All the time I'm thinking what if something happens to him? I didn't want him to do it, but couldn't stop him. We still go out looking for her but not as often any more.

We never had time to talk about what was happening; the house was constantly filled with people. If you are never on your own you can't think straight. I'm proud to see Michael is getting on with his life. In spite of everything he's been through, he's coping. I worry about his job as a police officer, but I respect and admire him.

It's hard for me going through all of this. I find the media really hurtful. In some people's minds it's like we are responsible. It's painful when people say that my daughter must have been on drugs. Simms dealt in drugs, although this never came out in court. Helen hated drugs. My child went to work, she had a lovely personality and a kind nature. She always told me what she was doing.

On the outside I may look well, but something will happen to remind me. I'll go into Helen's bedroom and break down crying. It all feels like yesterday. I need to bury my daughter so I can start looking forward. I want to be able to place flowers at a headstone that acknowledges my daughter's short life.

Michael

"I didn't let Mum know how I was feeling. I didn't want her to feel any worse. I bottled up a lot inside me"

The night of my sister's disappearance, I'd been working late at the factory. I got home at seven o'clock to find mum panicking. I wasn't concerned at the time: with it being bad weather, I thought she might have just stayed on at work. When Frank, her boyfriend, came up at about eight she still wasn't back. Mum rang the hospitals, phoned her work, but no one seemed to have seen her.

I heard the news on the local radio station the next morning and really panicked. I thought something could have happened to Helen, but never expected anything as serious as this. The day that it really hit me was when the police asked members of the public to assist with the search. About 3,000 people arrived, too many for the police to cope with. That day I went down to the shop to get The Liverpool Echo. The headline on the front page read "RAF in search for Helen's body". I just stood there in disbelief. When I went back to the house, I didn't tell anyone about the paper.

Me and mum didn't really talk about what was happening. I didn't let her know how I was feeling. I didn't want her to feel any worse. I bottled up a lot inside me and I think mum tried to keep things from me as well. At that stage I wasn't really listening to what people were telling me. I would walk around in a state of shock, or just stay in my bedroom, not wanting to speak to anyone.

I spent the first two or three months going out looking for Helen with my uncles and cousins. Thankfully, my boss said I could take off as much time as I liked. After three months I decided to go back to work. I knew I had to start getting on with things. It was hard, people didn't know how to cope with me, they were uncomfortable. When I did go back I was constantly phoning home to find out if there was any news. Helen was the closest person in my life and, with her gone, it was as if there was nothing else left. When I was 22 I joined the police force. It wasn't that I thought I could solve Helen's murder, but it was something I'd wanted to do since I was young. It was only after speaking to officers involved in Helen's case that I realised that it was a job I would be able to do.

I have learnt to try and cope with what has happened. I won't ever get over it. But you have to try and get on with your life. It's like a game of snakes and ladders, one little thing happens and you're back to where you started again. It can be the least little thing, like a song on the radio.

`The Long Goodbye', BBC2's series on bereavement, will feature and Michael McCourt on 13 May

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