Little has changed in Michael Ross’s home since his wife, Jacquie, was murdered 13 years ago. There is the same orderly attention to housework: kitchen surfaces shine; the table is set with cakes for tea and a scented candle burns in the cosy sitting room.
Outside, flower beds are weeded and dug in readiness for spring and from the front garden, constant and eternal, the glorious vista of the Strines Valley in Derbyshire spreads up to the peaks beyond.
‘You can see quite clearly on the other side of the valley the wooded area that hides the Peak Forest Canal where Jacquie was attacked,’ says Michael. ‘You can also see the road the murderer ran up and the side street to his parents’ house.’ He points to a distant spot.
Some have wondered how Michael remained in the house — its outlook an ever-present reminder of his wife’s brutal death — and his reason is simple: he chooses to focus on the beauty of the place. He will not allow blissful family memories to be usurped by the horror of what happened to Jacquie.
Jacquie Ross, pictured with sons Oliver (left) and Ben (right) in 2004, was murdered in the Peak Forest Canal
Thirteen years later her husband, Michael Ross (pictured with sons Ben (right) and Oliver (centre)) has spoken about how he raised his two sons by taking on the role of mother and father
‘I look at the view regularly: the old viaduct, the green rolling hills, and I think of all the happy times we had as a family walking through the woods and valley in different seasons, and I take it all in and appreciate how lovely it is,’ he says.
And, he reasonably points out, why ever would he move from a home so redolent of the wife he loved when it is the only one their sons — who were just four and six years old when their mother was killed — have ever known?
Today Ben, 19, runs his own fitness business while Ollie, 17, is studying photography. Both are personable, polite young men, immaculately dressed just as their dad is. They are sons of whom their mum would have been so proud.
After Jacquie died, Michael took on the role of both parents. He has brought up the boys single-handedly ever since.
They are a family — just a different sort.
‘When Jacquie was unconscious in intensive care in hospital, I held her hand and, hoping my words might get through to her, said: ‘You mustn’t worry about the boys. I promise you I’ll always love and look after them,’ Michael remembers.
‘I kept my promise,’ he says. ‘I was there for their baths and bedtime stories; I went to all their school plays, all their sports days. I remember Ben being a Roman soldier with a cardboard sword that kept flopping over, and I was really proud of them when they won races.
‘When Jacquie was unconscious in intensive care in hospital, I held her hand and, hoping my words might get through to her, said: ‘You mustn’t worry about the boys. I promise you I’ll always love and look after them,’ Michael remembers (Pictured: Michael and Jacquie Ross introducing Ben, 2, to new brother Oliver in 2001)
‘On sunny days we’d go on picnics. There was a mossy bank where we’d set up a barbecue, because I’d read somewhere that picnics are in the top ten happy events of our childhoods.
‘And I’d always make a gooey chocolate brownie cake — the only cake they really like — for their birthdays,’ he smiles.
Jacquie was blonde, vivacious, lovely — ‘she was the sort of person other women liked because she was kind; a good listener’, says Michael.
She ran her own business — a nail salon — and was not only mum to Ben and Oliver, but also step-mother to Aidan, 31 (Michael’s son from a brief, earlier marriage), who now lives in Manchester where he works as a film director. All three boys were equally loved.
The Ross family, from High Mills, Derbyshire, were embedded in their local community where Michael owned and ran a couple of hairdressing salons. Popular and gregarious, they had a wide circle of friends.
By contrast, Jacquie’s killer was an outcast. A reviled member of a criminal family, inveterate offender Ben Redfern-Edwards was not quite 21 when he was convicted of battering Jacquie to death with a rock as she went on an early morning walk with the family’s pet dog.
Jacquie (pictured) was blonde, vivacious, lovely — ‘she was the sort of person other women liked because she was kind; a good listener’, says Michael Ross
Her killer had just been released early on parole from a young offenders’ institution, and had celebrated with an all-night drink and drugs binge when he encountered Jacquie by chance and attacked her.
She died of her injuries in hospital nine days later.
The killer was said to be turned on by violence towards women and is now serving a 22-year jail term for her murder.
Michael remembers every detail of the morning, in January 2005, when the contented routine of his family’s life was shattered for ever.
‘It was 8.30am. I was still snoozing in bed; our boys were fast asleep. Jacquie was up already, dressed for a power walk with Rosie, our dog. She leant down, lightly kissed me on the cheek, and whispered: ‘Love you, see you later . . .’ Those were the last words she ever said to me.’
Michael got the boys washed and dressed, prepared their breakfast and waited for Jacquie’s return. As the minutes turned into hours, his anxiety mounted. Had she fallen? Was she injured? He called her mobile repeatedly. No answer.
Finally a male voice answered her phone: it was a policeman’s. ‘My heart missed a beat,’ Michael remembers. ‘He told me Jacquie had been injured and had been taken to hospital.’
Her killer, Ben Redfern-Edwards, battered Jacquie to death with a rock as she went on an early morning walk with the family’s pet dog (Pictured: Jacquie with one-year-old Ben in 1999)
In a blur of panic he dropped the boys at their godparents’ house and rushed to Jacquie’s bedside where she lay unconscious. He was convinced she’d had a terrible accident until a consultant told him her injuries were inconsistent with a fall.
There was shock, disbelief, numbness and then the leaden weight of grief. Jacquie’s life-support machine was switched off, and she died on February 9.
‘I told Aidan before Ben and Oliver,’ recalls Michael. ‘We both cried and cried. We stood hugging each other for what seemed like an eternity.
‘Then I told Ben that a horrible man had hit mummy on her head, and although the hospital had tried very hard, they couldn’t save her and she’d died peacefully and gone to heaven.
‘He sobbed and sobbed, then just looked at the floor. Then I had to tell Oliver. I sat him on my knee and cuddled him and told him a scaled-down version of what I’d told Ben. Then I said: ‘Is there anything you want to ask me?’ and he said: ‘Can I play on my PlayStation now?’
Both boys struggled with the concept of death.
‘We were so young when Mum died, we didn’t know what death was,’ confirms Ben. ‘I thought only a few people died. Ollie and I wanted to know when Dad would die and Dad’s answer was great. He said that everyone died eventually, but not usually until they were much, much older, and that reassured us.’
In those early months without Jacquie, Michael was so preoccupied with the practicalities of lone parenthood, with running his business and then attending the trial, he barely had time to grieve for his wife.
The killer was said to be turned on by violence towards women and is now serving a 22-year jail term for her murder. That morning in January 2005 changed their lives forever (Pictured: Michael and Jacquie Ross two weeks after they met in 1991)
‘We were so young when Mum died, we didn’t know what death was,’ confirms Ben. ‘I thought only a few people died’ (Pictured: Ben, Michael and Oliver)
But each day he made sure he was home from work in time to make his sons’ dinner, bathe them and put them to bed.
‘I knew how to cook already,’ he says. ‘And I was a practical dad. I knew how to mend, stitch, to make a bed, to iron. And of course I could cut hair.’
He raised his sons with love, attention and consistency. He recalls the ritual of their night-time stories into which were woven messages of hope.
‘I’d snuggle down with them and I’d read them a story about a larva that becomes a dragonfly. Although he can’t get back under the water to tell the other larvae about his new life, he knows they’ll become dragonflies and join him one day.
‘And right from day one I was determined we wouldn’t remember the day Jacquie died, but would celebrate her birthday instead. So we’d take balloons to her grave, we’d always talk about her and keep her photos in every room. Her smile is everywhere.’
Ben has only a scant recollection of his mum; Ollie cannot recall her at all, which is a profound sadness.
‘We made memory boxes and the boys chose what to put in theirs — the perfumes she loved (Diorella and Amouage), lipsticks, lovely scarves and hats. Hats always looked good on her. And we have her voice on the answering machine from her salon.’
Ben has only a scant recollection of his mum; Ollie cannot recall her at all, which is a profound sadness (Pictured: Michael’s son Aidan, 9, Michael, Jacquie and Ben, one, in 1999)
‘To start with I looked at my memory box all the time,’ says Ben. ‘Then it became once a week, then every two weeks, then about once a month. And now I look at it on Mum’s birthday and Mother’s Day — which is good.’
‘If they were looking at them all the time I’d be worried,’ puts in Michael. ‘Dad made it a happy childhood, despite Mum not being there,’ Ben and Ollie agree. ‘Although in the early days it was very hard for him to see us crying.
‘But he’d say: ‘Mum is happy in heaven and safe. She wouldn’t want to see you cry,’ and that helped lots.’
What Michael regrets most acutely is the multitude of milestones in the boys’ lives that Jacquie is not sharing.
‘When I dressed Ollie for his first day at primary school I thought: ‘Jacquie should be here,’ and when he takes his driving test soon, she won’t be celebrating with us when he passes. When the boys get married, it saddens me that she won’t share that either.
‘There is satisfaction and pleasure in seeing everything that they’ve both achieved, but I’m sad for the lifetime that we haven’t had together.
‘But I do believe I’ll see her again. And I still ask her questions. When Ben was at junior school, he became disruptive and that wasn’t like him at all. The headmaster was talking about getting a child psychologist involved.
‘I thought: ‘What would Jacquie do?’ and I knew she’d say ‘Just talk to Ben’, so I did.
‘He told me they’d sat him next to a boy who was taunting him about the fact that his mum had died. The boy was moved and everything was resolved.’
There was no thought of bringing in experts: ‘I never considered the boys having grief counselling. I didn’t feel that it was needed,’ says Michael.
Today Ben, 19, runs his own fitness business while Ollie, 17, is studying photography (Pictured: Michael, Oliver, and Ben, with their French bulldog Bella and cockerpoo Ruby)
He made a conscious effort not to be too stern a disciplinarian; to develop a ‘softness and sensitivity; to think like a mum would’.
So if one of his boys grazed his knee, he’d cuddle them rather than brusquely bandaging them up and telling them to be brave.
The boys were his life; the axis around which his whole world turned.
‘They were always my priority,’ Michael remembers. ‘People used to say: ‘Do you realise your wheelie bins go out more than you do?’ They went out once a fortnight. I didn’t. People bent over backwards to help, but I wasn’t interested in going out. I treasured the time with my sons.’
Starting another relationship has not been a priority for Michael either. He is, quite simply, happy to raise the boys on his own.
Sometimes, though, he floundered without Jacquie’s advice; when the responsibility for household shopping overwhelmed him.
He dithered over buying new duvet covers for the boys: ‘Jacquie was not there to ask, ‘Will it go? Will the colours work?’
On one shopping trip to buy a new cooker hob he ended up comforting a sobbing sales woman after she’d asked Ollie about his mum and the little boy had replied: ‘My Mummy’s dead. She’s an angel in heaven.’
Michael bought a star which they named after Jacquie and the boys would scour the night sky asking which was their Mum.
‘Dad thought there was nothing wrong with crying and sharing our thoughts,’ says Ben. ‘He never said: ‘Be brave. You mustn’t cry,’ and sometimes we’d cry together.’
Friends and family were unfailingly kind, too. Michael remembers how their next-door-neighbour, Annie, who was 99, baked an apple pie for them every week.
Starting another relationship has not been a priority for Michael either. He is, quite simply, happy to raise the boys on his own (Pictured: Jacquie with wheaten terrier Rosie in 1992)
Michael said: ‘People used to say: ‘Do you realise your wheelie bins go out more than you do?’ They went out once a fortnight. I didn’t. People bent over backwards to help, but I wasn’t interested in going out. I treasured the time with my sons’ (Pictured: Ben, Michael and Oliver)
‘But there are only so many apple pies you can eat,’ he says. ‘So we’d freeze some, and take some to fetes. Eventually I said: ‘Thank you so much, but I think we’re all right for apple pies now.’ And then she started making us strawberry pies instead!’
He laughs. Their home is a warm one, full of love. Michael is the consummate host and he makes sure I have not left without a vanilla slice for tea.
It is clear that he is the bedrock of his boys’ lives. ‘Dad is the person I’d go to in any situation. I’d ask him anything and know he’d sort it out for me,’ says Ollie.
‘I moved into my own flat and became self-employed last year. It’s a big thing,’ adds Ben, ‘and I knew I could always pick up the phone and talk to Dad about any problem I had. He’s always got time for us.’
They boys transitioned through their adolescence without turbulence or rebellion to become quietly self-assured, well-mannered, hard working young men. Both of them have girlfriends whom Michael has welcomed into the family.
He has found a way of living with his loss. ‘The worst thing that could happen has happened to us,’ he says. ‘I don’t really have any problems any more.’
Just Five More Minutes: A True Story Of Children, Love And Murder, by Michael Ross, is available on Amazon.