On Christmas Eve, Maureen Greaves will set her table and get her presents ready as usual before going out to a special service late in the evening. The congregation of her church are gathering for midnight mass a little earlier than usual this year. The service will take place outdoors, at the spot on a pavement near her Sheffield home, next to the green railings of the local park where her husband Alan was murdered on the same day last year.
There will be a minute’s silence at around 11.20pm, the time he was attacked, and Greaves, 63, in an extraordinary act of forgiveness, has asked people to use that time to pray, not only for Alan and her own family, but for the two men who killed him.
Alan, 68, who was the church organist, had been on his way to provide the music for the late-night service, walking alone for 10 minutes or so along the road to St Saviour’s church, when two local men picked him out at random to be the victim of an unprovoked and brutal attack.
Alan died in hospital on 27 December of the horrific head injuries he had sustained. Maureen, his wife of 40 years, his two daughters, two sons, grandchildren and their close extended family were left “utterly heartbroken and bewildered”.
At Tuesday evening’s commemoration, led by the bishop of Sheffield, candles will be lit, a wreath laid, and a new carol, The Bethlehem Star, will be sung. It was written in memory of Alan Greaves by Bob Chilcott, one of Britain’s foremost choral composers and conductors, who had never met his fellow musician but was deeply moved after reading about his death.
“Soon after we heard of this, I happened to come across a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Bethlehem Star, that affected me in the light of this tragedy. I decided to set it [to music] in his memory,” said Chilcott.
Even before the carol could be printed and distributed, the music publishers Oxford University Press were inundated with requests from choirs who wanted to sing it this Christmas. To cope with demand, Chilcott allowed the printed music to be made available as a free download, meaning the carol can now be sung at midnight masses up and down the country.
“I was just overwhelmed to hear that Bob Chilcott, a man who had never even met Alan, had done such a wonderful thing,” said Maureen Greaves. “If only Alan could have heard it, he would have loved it.”
The piano in the couple’s bungalow now lies unused. “It’s very silent in here now. Alan was a wonderful musician. What happened to Alan is one of those rare things in life,” she said. “It’s not normal. It’s not stopped me walking on the street. I have never had any fear and it hasn’t made me more fearful. When I first went out after Alan’s murder, people would cross the street to come and see me and ask me how I was. Alan and I were the sort who didn’t mind walking down the road hand in hand so people had a sense of how close we were. In my work [as a lay preacher], I find a lot of people carry pain and if there is a positive around Alan’s murder it is how many people have felt able to talk to me about terrible things that have happened in their lives too. I think that’s helped everyone.”
Alan Greaves had taken early retirement from his job as a social worker to help his wife with her work as a lay preacher for the Church of England’s outreach group, the Church Army. Three weeks before he died, he had seen one of his pet projects, a food and furniture bank for the needy, open after years of storing donations in the couple’s garage.
A year can be no time at all where grief and loss is concerned, but as the first anniversary of the attack approaches, Maureen Greaves is keen for people to focus on what she says she has already achieved – forgiving the killers. Ashley Foster and Jonathan Bowling, both 22, were convicted in July this year, Foster of manslaughter and Bowling of murder. It is startling to hear Greaves talk of them by their first names.
“Yes, well a murder investigation is a bizarre thing. Very strange. You hear them being talked about all the time, then you are in the same courtroom as them, you’re sitting next to Ashley’s girlfriend and nodding to his mother. Ashley’s family just live up the road. They are real, not evil. They are men who have done an evil thing.
“I don’t want anyone to think I pity them, or that I didn’t want them punished. I just think they are two men who did an evil thing. I don’t know why and I don’t think they really know why.”
Neither of the men gave any explanation as to what led them to attack Alan Greaves that night with a pickaxe handle and a hammer but his widow’s faith has given her a certain freedom from seeking an answer, she said.
“I never used to go with him to the midnight mass. That started from when the children were small and I’d stay home with them and it just became the thing. But I’d wait up for him. When I heard the door I thought he must have forgotten his wallet or something. Even when I saw the police officers there and they told me Alan had had an accident and hurt his head, I just thought ‘Oh he’ll be wanting to get home as soon as he can’. Our daughter had just arrived from Mozambique and we hadn’t seen her for two years. I drove to the hospital thinking I could bring him home.”
His head injuries were so bad, she said, that “I looked at his hands to check it was Alan”.
In hospital, Maureen Greaves found herself at her dying husband’s bedside thinking of forgiveness, a good two weeks before the police investigating the case had even made an arrest.
“I remember my face was raw and dry from crying so much. In the hospital I couldn’t hug him or hold him at all. All I could do was hold his fingers, so many tubes and wires. I remember I started to pray, I believe I can talk to God, that he’s my father, so I talked to him.
“Then my thoughts turned to the person who had in effect killed Alan and I thought gosh, it’s Christmas Day, a holy night, and I thought what would Alan have done. He was better at forgiveness than me.
“When he found out I was someone who could bear a grudge he used to say to me: ‘We mustn’t give ourselves permission to act like that, Mo.’ And I thought Alan would forgive them. It’s Christmas Day. I didn’t want to carry the anger, all that destructive anger, in my life. My family said they felt I’d helped them with the way I choose to deal with it. That’s what matters in the end.
“I’m not saying I don’t want justice for Alan, I did. But I had to carry myself in a way that would help my children. Forgiveness means you are not seeking retribution or vengeance. Forgiveness is recognising that we are all in the same boat, we’re all the same, not perfect.
“I’m not saying I’m as bad as murderers but I’m imperfect. I loved Alan with a passion. We argued and I sulked, I can be a terrible sulker, but we were two people who had found the right partner in life. I don’t go to bed with those men on my mind and I sleep well.”
On Christmas Day, Maureen Greaves says she will try to have as normal a time as she can.
“We’ll go to church, we’ll have a Christmas sherry, have dinner, play games,” she said, then looking at the closed lid of the piano, she added: “Every day, every day, I’m conscious of his absence. I miss him shockingly.”