The personal price of public grief: Tim Parry's parents have campaigned to keep his memory alive. Now others are questioning their motives. Suzanne Glass reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'I HAD this dream about Tim,' says Colin Parry. 'His hands were sticking out of his grave, still white and perfect and I went to clip his fingernails every week. On this occasion, the earth around him began to crack and he sat up and smiled at me. He said, 'Dad, I know I'm dead, but I don't want you to be upset.' And he held out his arms and let me cradle him. It was as if he was telling me everything was OK. He approved of the way Wendy and I were dealing with losing him.'

Colin leans back against the wall, exhausted by the emotions of the dream, exhausted by a hectic schedule to promote his book, Tim, an Ordinary Boy, and depressed, because for the first time since Timothy's death 18 months ago, a handful of people have begun to question his fierce campaign to keep his son's memory alive, to have him remembered as a symbol of peace.

Over the past few weeks Colin and Wendy have been fund-raising for an international youth centre in Warrington, as a memorial to Timothy and to three-year-old Johnathan Ball, also killed in the bombing. The fund-raising had led to considerable coverage in the local press. Warrington Council had promised them an old derelict building. The Parrys had the support of the Duchess of Kent, of local clergy and of several MEPs. No one told them that the Heritage Trust had been planning to use the building to display historical artefacts. They had not been prepared for local opposition, for several nasty letters criticising their project, or for one in particular which read, 'Just how many memorials to Tim do you think you can have? Why don't you just shut up and go away?'

'Maybe these people were just sick of the sight of our faces in the papers because of the fund-raising campaign,' says Wendy Parry, sitting very close to her husband on the living room sofa. 'Maybe they just turned the page and thought, 'Oh no, not them again.' But it hurts, when people treat you like that. You get a physical pain just here,' and she holds her hand against her stomach.

'The worst,' says Colin, 'is that people should question our motives. That they should even ask things like how much money we're getting for the book and what we're going to do with it. It's none of their business. They wouldn't ask me how much my mortgage was or what I was having for my tea, would they?'

The problem is that all public figures become the butt of criticism at some time or other in their 'careers'. Colin Parry chose to become a public figure and then again he didn't. Yes, he held a press conference at the hospital immediately after he had been told that even if Tim did survive, he would have very little quality of life. He and Wendy did agree to do a Panorama programme in Northern Ireland three months after Tim's death. He did agree to radio interviews, television talk shows, and to writing a book linking Tim's murder with the peace process. But he only did it because the IRA had killed his 12-year-old son, and because it seemed to him that the alternative to a public life, to doing things in Tim's name, would have been unbearable. 'We would have turned in on ourselves,' says Colin. 'Every single moment would have been spent agonising over Tim and our loss. Our friends would have got sick of us in the end. I would have resented the time I had to spend talking to them about holidays and the price of meat, when I could have been talking about Tim.'

When I first met the Parrys, almost a year ago, Colin pointed to the now well-known picture of Tim in his green school uniform, hanging in the hallway of their home, and said, 'Say hello to Timmy.' The picture is still there, together with tens of other smiling pictures of Timmy and his older brother Dominic, now 16, and younger sister, Abigail, 13. Timmy's pictures still line the stairway and still fill the lounge of the compact four- bedroom, detached house just outside Warrington. 'I don't know whether Dominic and Abbi resent the time we dedicate to remembering Tim,' says Colin. 'We ask them and they say no. But maybe it's just easier for them to say no than to articulate their feelings. I don't know. I just don't know.'

The loss of Timothy, the grieving process and being in the public eye have turned the family upside down, but they have stuck together. 'It could have been different,' says Colin. 'The shock waves could have broken us up.'

On my last visit, Dominic had walked into the room, a big burly teenager, and announced he was going out. Colin had said, 'You will be back in 20 minutes.' No ifs, no buts. Just a clear order. 'I worry about him,' Colin had explained. 'He's playing up at school and everyone keeps coming up to him and saying, 'You're Tim's brother aren't you?' I think it's affecting him badly.'

Today Wendy and Colin are less concerned about him than they are about Abbi. Dominic has settled down. He has dealt with the loss of his brother in his own way. 'But Abbi worries me sometimes. She has become so withdrawn, monosyllabic even. It is difficult to know how much of that is the normal process of becoming a teenager and how much is the pain of Tim's death. Tim and Abbi were very close. He used to tease her. He used to pin her down on the floor and tickle her. Tim was the joker. Tim was the mischievous one. He touched us all in a different way. Our family has become a lot more serious without him. There has been so much change.'

I can feel the change in the household since my visit last November. Then, Wendy had sat in the lounge by the log fire and had said little. She seemed shy, lacking in confidence, unsure how to deal with the intruders thrust upon her, through tragedy and because Colin needed the media as his therapy. This time Wendy was different. You can still see the hurt in her eyes and in the tightening of her facial muscles when a memory becomes too painful, but she has gained in confidence. 'At the beginning it was for Colin I did it this way. I didn't need the journalists. I would have grieved in a private way. But Colin needed this. If Timmy had died in a road accident, Colin would have gone out and campaigned for safety on the roads. Now I can see it made sense. We have done something positive in Timmy's name.'

In November I had wondered why Wendy had agreed to go to Northern Ireland for Panorama if she didn't really want to, why she agreed to go to Boston to talk about the IRA, why she didn't rant and rave that Colin spent so many hours alone in his office with his memories of Timmy. Why had she agreed to meet with ministers, pop stars and heads of state if all she wanted to do was grieve the loss of her child in private? Now I can see that, corny as it may sound, she did it for love of her husband and en route she seems to have gained in strength.

She has assumed a public role and kept her family together without cracking. She has had the late John Smith for tea and sandwiches in her front room, chatted to Princess Diana on the phone, and at the same time, mourned her son and carried on her job as cook at a local school. 'Sometimes I thought Colin resented me for being able to maintain a semblance of normality. He was surprised I could carry on doing so much, but I was just trying to keep things as normal as possible for Dominic and Abbi.'

Now it is Colin who looks low and downtrodden. The last time I met him he seemed somehow buoyant at the thought of all he had to do in Timothy's name. He was sporting a leather jacket with a picture of Timothy on a badge pinned to his lapel. This time he seems more depressed. He looks tired. He has dark circles around his eyes and his complexion is grey.

He has achieved an enormous amount in the last year-and-a-half. When he says, 'They announced the ceasefire on the eve of Tim's birthday, September 1st. I wonder if it was just coincidence,' there is an unspoken suggestion that his campaigning in memory of Timothy may have contributed to the peace process. But now the book is completed. There is a glimpse of lasting peace in Northern Ireland. As Colin's public role wanes, the loss of Timothy may seem even greater.

'No, Wendy and I haven't been for counselling,' he says. 'We tried one session, but I just couldn't take it. She was so ethereal and wistful. I felt sorry for the poor woman. But maybe there will come a time when I will try again.'

I ask if he has kept any of Tim's personal belongings. He opens a drawer and removes a green fluorescent wallet, with TIM 4 HILLY written on it, a lock of Timmy's hair cut off by Wendy in the hospital, and a Valentine card written to Timothy shortly before his death.

'We've kept his sports gear, his electric guitar, his pyjamas. All these things that remind us of him. We've still got his bike in the garage, but, yes, everything's different. Have we changed? I can't really answer that question. Why don't you ask Wendy's Mum and Dad?'

Wendy's parents are sitting in the kitchen. They have come to take care of Dominic and Abbi while Colin and Wendy continue their book tour. 'Yes Wendy's changed,' says Beth, her mother, shaking as she speaks. 'Sometimes, I feel like I haven't just lost Tim, I've lost her as well. She's been hurt so much, she's had to develop this hard outer shell. Nothing's the same anymore. Nothing. And we hardly ever see them on their own now. I went into the toilet just now and there was a strange man in there. It was the photographer.' She breathes in deeply to control the tears. Her husband, Timothy's grandfather, is less restrained. He says, 'I still get upset every time we talk about him,' and rushes out of the room.

'I was looking at this picture of Colin from just before Timothy died,' continues Beth. 'He looked like the cat who had got the cream with his family round him. He never looks like that now. None of us do.'

It may seem extraordinary that the Parrys have grieved so publicly. But then they are extraordinary people in other ways, in their warmth, their hospitality, their total dedication to their children. But when it comes to the anguish thrust upon them by Timothy's death, they are just very ordinary parents dealing with a tragedy. However they choose to do that, by shouting from the rooftops or by shutting out the world, is nobody's business but their own.

'Tim: An Ordinary Boy' by Colin and Wendy Parry is published by Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 14.99

(Photograph omitted)

Comments