'Lovely Eliza died a heroine, but we miss her so much'
Ten years after Eliza Ward (18) was murdered while heroically saving the life of her boss in Belfast eaterie Cafe Society, her mother Alana (46) tells Gráinne McCarry of the family's enduring anguish
Cafe Society was Eliza Ward. The customers who came to dine at the trendy eaterie, just a few steps from Belfast City Hall all said so.
The beautiful blonde-haired manageress with the magnetic personality always had a friendly word for everyone. Happy and smiling, her bubbly personality was infectious.
But it was in the very cafe in which she adored working where the 18-year-old died in a remarkable act of bravery that saved the life of her boss, Rene Scott Lea from a knife-wielding work colleague. It was a heroic, selfless act that left her family and all who knew her broken-hearted.
And time doesn't heal that sense of loss. Ten years on, her devastated mother, Alana, says the pain of her daughter's death, is intensifying, especially as she watches Eliza's younger brothers and sisters grow up without her.
"The grief slips in when you least expect it," she admits. " Eliza's always in my thoughts. Some days it's too much and it leaves me feeling physically ill ... the fact that she's not here. I don't think there are any tears left."
Alana and her husband John were holidaying with six of their eight kids in the Costa del Sol, Spain, when the awful news came through that their daughter had been murdered.
The trip abroad had been part funded by their hard-working eldest child, Eliza.
On that fateful night of July 17, Eliza had rushed to her employer's aid after hearing her screams. Rene lying in a pool of blood on the floor. She had been stabbed by the newly employed kitchen porter, Gerard Patrick Stewart.
He had helped himself to a cocktail of alcoholic beverages from the cafe before stabbing Rene with a six inch boning knife. Then, he pulled the knife out of her back and plunged it into Eliza, stabbing her through the heart and twice in the back. The young girl staggered down the stairs crying out 'Please help me' before collapsing.
A customer in the cafe, Irene Waring, tried to administer first aid, but it was to no avail. Eliza died of her injuries in the ambulance taking her to hospital.
Stewart received two life sentences in 1999 and was described by doctors who had assessed him as a secondary psychopath who fantasised about attacking people.
Had she survived the brutal, unprovoked attack, Eliza would have celebrated her 28th birthday earlier this year on April 7.
"There's always that part missing, always the feeling that Eliza should be here whether it's her birthday or Christmas or a family event ... she should be here," says her mum. "But, she's not and it's always going to be that way."
Her birthday is still honoured in the Ward's Short Strand home, just as it has been every year since she died.
Among those blowing out the candles for the beautiful sister they never met were younger siblings Monica, nine and Robert, eight, both of whom were born in the years after she died.
"They feel like they know Eliza because we keep her memory alive," says Alana. "We always talk about her and mention her. She's talked about in the house like she's still here. We got a cake for her birthday and let the kids celebrate it for her.
"Eliza enjoyed everything in life, she was always happy, always smiling. "
Alana sees similarities, too, among her children, which one imagines must be a comfort. Monica, in particular, she says, is very like her big sister.
"She's very similar to her, she is always happy. She was born smiling," she says.
When Eliza died, she left behind sisters Angeline, Constance, Emma and Alana and brothers John Michael, Marco and Jason.
Eliza was also godmother to Angeline's daughter Georgia, who was a baby at the time of her auntie's death. Constance is now a mother, also, to a son Jamie and a daughter Jordan.
Ironically it is exactly those kind of happy events that also always serve as a poignant reminder of the one person missing from the family snapshots.
"She would get so much joy out of being an auntie to them," says her mum. "When the children are talking, laughing and carrying on I can imagine hearing Eliza laughing along with them in the background. She had such a wonderful laugh."
The Ward's living room is filled with pictures and pencilled portraits of the children. This is a household where family is important.
"Eliza was great with her brothers and sisters, she was a bit bossy and loved being the eldest," continues Alana. "She was very close to them all, but especially Emma who was six when she died. Eliza and Emma were never apart."
When her sister closest in age, Angeline, got married last month, Eliza was, once again, missing.
"It was a lovely day and the whole family really enjoyed it, but there was always the feeling in the background that Eliza should've been there," says Alana. "When the rest of her brothers and sisters were standing side by side, she should have been part of it with them."
Eliza should have been the first of Alana's children to marry. Instead her fiance Jimmy Farmer attended her younger sister's wedding with his new partner. The Christmas before Eliza died, her boyfriend Jimmy had proposed to her and she accepted.
Just seven months later he watched helplessly as the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with was laid to rest at Milltown Cemetery.
"They were saving up to buy a house together and Eliza was taking driving lessons," says Alana.
"She was quite a sensible child, a workaholic. She began working in Cafe Society at 16 and was promoted to manager by the time she was 17.
"Eliza loved working in the cafe and she was very popular with the customers. After she died they didn't go back. The cafe was reopened, but it wasn't the same. It was bought over - there's a Mace shop there now.
"Jimmy has always kept in touch with us. He was Eliza's fiance and was part of our family then and still is today."
Just like the Wards, he had been left to pick up the pieces of his shattered life and forge a new one.
"He came to Angeline's wedding with his new fiance, Jennifer, and they make a lovely couple," says Alana.
Family photographs of Eliza show a stunningly attractive young girl with looks that would not have been out of place on the film screen.
"Her fairness she took from her father, and her good looks she inherited from her mother, of course," laughs Alana, through her tears.
Her beauty aside, her mother says it was Eliza's personality that drew people to her.
"To this day, people still talk about Eliza. She got on with everyone and she made such an impression on people. She was very kind-hearted and was always willing to give people a chance. She found the good in everyone."
Christened Eliza Jo, she was named after her great-grandmother Eliza on her father's side. Jo was added simply because her parents liked it. "When she was 12, she dropped the Jo. She thought it wasn't grown up enough because she nearly a teenager," her mother recalls.
She attended St Matthew's Primary School and St Joseph's Secondary School and was a fun-loving and popular individual.
"She enjoyed everything in life," says Alana.
"She was the type of girl that tried anything that was going. She was very outgoing and involved in a lot of sports at school.
"Eliza was very blessed. She had a lot of friends, four best friends in particular, Martine, Jacqueline, Julie-Ann and Joanne and they have always stayed in touch with us. They never miss her birthday or anniversary.
"Joanne's first child was a wee girl and she named her Eliza Jo after her best friend."
Years passed by before Alana could bring herself to venture anywhere near the place where Eliza was killed.
"For the first few years after it happened, I couldn't do it ... it was unbearable," explains Alana. "Then, a memorial was erected in the grounds of the City Hall to Eliza and I took Monica and Robert down there so they could see it. I pointed across to the upstairs window where it happened and told them that was where their brave, big sister died."
It wasn't the first time Eliza's brave act was honoured. The previous year, 2001, John and Alana made the journey to Buckingham Palace with daughters Emma and Alana, then 10 and eight, and Eliza's aunt Catherine Walker, to receive the prestigious George Medal on behalf of their courageous girl. The award honoured 'gallantry of an extremely high order and acts of great bravery'.
"It was a bitter sweet occasion," recalls Alana. "We were grateful that Eliza was recognised for the sacrifice she made. It's a wonderful memory for her brothers and sisters to remember her by - the fact that she sacrificed her life to save another. At the end of the day, though, we would rather have Eliza."
Speaking about the award, Rene Scott Lea said at the time: "Eliza's life was sacrificed so needlessly which is a cross I have to bear for the rest of my life."
Rene attends Eliza's grave regularly and leaves flowers for her on her birthday and her anniversary. And every year, a card arrives in the post from Irene Waring, the Cafe Society customer who phoned for the ambulance on the night Eliza lost her life.
Alana says: "Irene sends us a card to let us know that she is thinking of us. She was the last person to be with Eliza as she lay bleeding on the ground."
When asked about her thoughts on her child's killer, she says: "I don't know what I feel anymore. I know that he should stay in jail for the rest of his life ... because that is what he has left me with ... the pain and emptiness. He should stay in there for the rest of his life.
"Angeline and Constance still have nightmares about him and what would happen if he got out."
Constance sits with her mother during the interview in the family home. Her father John and siblings enter and leave the room intermittently as we talk.
"I definitely feel it more now," says Alana. "I find it very hard to speak about her. In the beginning, I was able to talk about her all the time." She continues, her eyes brimming with tears.
"My kids talk about her as if they know her. Jordan told me the other day that Eliza was a good dancer ... she used to do Irish dancing.
"I'm older now and I wish she was here so we could do stuff together as sisters. We could all go out together, swap clothes."
Alana adds: "There's lots of happy memories of Eliza but this isn't the way it should be. Eliza should still be here with us today."