Charlie-Bob fire death: Mum's appeal
Blue and white plastic police tape is still stretched across the driveway. Wooden boards cover the front windows of the house.
More than a month since six-year-old Charlie-Bob Townsend was murdered by his father Chris, who then set fire to the family home in Long Ashton and hanged himself in the garage, it is as if time has stood still.
Paula Townsend turns the key in the back door, and we step into her new heartache.
Beneath a film of fine grey ash is the place that was once her home. The walls are streaked with soot. The stainless steel fridge freezer in the spacious kitchen is warped and distorted from the heat of the blaze. The smell of smoke is everywhere.
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Through the kitchen windows, now an opaque grey from the smoke, it is possible to see a large, lawned garden.
“I used to stand here, doing my ironing and looking out at Louis and Charlie playing,” says Paula softly.
Paula's grief at the loss of her youngest son in such terrible circumstances is tangible.
Yet while she struggles to pick up the pieces of her life, and attempts to help her 10-year-old son cope with the death of his brother, she has been unable to do anything about her fire-ravaged home.
Nothing has been replaced or repaired because nothing was insured. The property and its contents had been covered by insurance while Paula lived here, and she thought this had continued after she left with her two boys after her marriage broke up. Only following the death of her estranged husband did she discover he had not insured the semi-detached four-bedroom house, or its contents, or his life.
“I don't know what was going on in Chris's mind. I never will, because he didn't leave a suicide note,” says Paula, 39, a costume supervisor on the BBC drama Casualty, gazing around at the devastation.
“One of the dreadful things is that I keep getting this image in my head of Charlie trying to struggle and feeling very frightened. “He was a lovely little boy – so happy, never miserable, never down. He had a giving, generous nature, and always shared.”
Piles of ashes on the floor crunch beneath our feet as we walk towards the hallway. It was here that Chris, 51, a freelance set designer, started the fire in the cupboard under the stairs.
“He'd got rolls of fabric from the garage that had been left over from making curtains for Casualty, and put them under the stairs with towels and set light to them,” says Paula.
“I think it was all very well thought out, and he deliberately chose under the stairs to spread the fire most effectively.
“The more I think about it, he knew exactly what he was doing.”
The leopard print stair carpet – one of the many touches of Paula's bold flair as a designer that can be seen throughout the house – is now covered with black soot, and the banisters and spindles are gnarled and charred.
“It looks terrible but there are actually no major structural problems. It's mainly smoke damage,” says Paula.
“There's a lot of cleaning up to do. The kitchen has got to come out, the electrics need rewiring, and the whole house needs new carpets and floor coverings.
“My father and brother are both surveyors, and they have teams of builders, plumbers and electricians who have agreed to do the work at cost, which would come to about £30,000, but I just can't afford to pay them.”
Paula – who has launched a trust, the Sunflower Foundation, to raise money for the repairs – leads the way across a metal ladder that has been placed over the burnt stair treads. The landing window above has a network of cracks spreading across it, caused by the heat of the fire.
Many people might want to turn their back on this ruined house and all the memories it holds. But Paula does not want to – and, indeed, cannot. She has to go past the house, on the main road through Long Ashton, most days when she takes her son Louis to and from Northleaze Primary School.
She also knows that their future financial stability depends on repairing and selling the former family home.
“The house was put on the market for £535,000 about a month before the fire,” she says.
“Now it's probably only of interest to a property developer who'd want to buy it for next to nothing.
“But I can't afford to let it go like that. The mortgage is £300,000 and, even before Chris killed himself and Charlie, my legal bill from my marriage break-up was already around £15,000 because Chris would never contact me in a normal way, it always had to be through solicitors.
“I also need to repay my parents, as they had to re-mortgage their home to help me buy another house in Long Ashton for £193,000 for me and the boys after we left here.”
We walk along the landing, past doors on which the paint has blistered and blackened, into the boys' bedroom. Charlie slept here during access visits to his father after the marriage break-up. The access arrangements did not apply to Louis, Paula's son from an earlier relationship.
On one of the beds there is a single sunflower tied with a yellow bow. This was Charlie's bed, where he was found in his pyjamas by firemen.
Chris is believed to have killed him before starting the fire, following a court hearing on Wednesday, April 23, about changing access arrangements, after which he spent the evening drinking in a local pub.
Paula says of her youngest son: “He adored Star Wars, and was very cuddly and loving.
“We called him Charlie-Bob, but as he got older he said: 'I don't want to be Bob any more', so we were just calling him Charlie. “He trusted his father. It makes me feel so angry. However bad things are in life, you don't take it out on innocent children. I just don't know how Chris could have done it.
“After I left the house with the boys on August 31, 2007, Louis didn't want to go to stay with Chris because he was terrified of him. I really believe that if Louis had been there as well, Chris would have killed him too.”
How has Louis been coping? There's real pride in Paula's voice, as she replies: “He's been incredible. He wanted to go to see our old house the other day, so we came here. He wanted to go upstairs and see his bedroom.
“I think it gave him a bit of closure. He didn't just lose his brother – he also lost his best friend. He and Charlie were so close.” Elegantly dressed with fashionably bobbed hair, Paula conducts herself with remarkable dignity.
But she looks exhausted, and admits that the weeks since the tragedy have been incredibly gruelling.
“I used to wake up every couple of hours in the night, and I could hardly bring myself to get out of bed in the morning and face the day. It's a bit better now, I usually wake up at about four in the morning but then I can't get back to sleep,” she says.
“Every day I wake up feeling completely hollow. Then I have to try to get through the day, even though I feel as if my entire insides have been ripped out.”
Paula's eyes cloud with tears, as she continues: “There are so many things to remind me of Charlie. I find it hard when I drop Louis at school, as I have to go past Charlie's little playground and see his friends. I'm going to have to watch them growing up, wondering what Charlie would have been like as he got older.
“The other day I was waiting for a bus and I saw these two boys walking along who were about the same age at Louis and Charlie. The younger one had blond, sticky-up hair like Charlie. I just couldn't look at him.”
On a neatly arranged shelf of toys and books in the boys' bedroom, there is a toy yellow plastic fireman's helmet that has melted. Further along, a toy Dr Who Tardis and a plastic alarm clock have also warped in the heat. The curtains at the window are ragged from the fire, and the walls are streaked with smoke. “The firemen said the house had become so hot it was only a matter of seconds from turning into an inferno,” says Paula.
“The first I knew about it was when my neighbour banged on my door at about 6.15am saying that my house was on fire. Louis was staying with my mum and dad because I was working, and it's a long day when filming is taking place.
“I got my car and drove to the house, and there were police and fire brigade everywhere. The first thing I saw were the burned curtains in the window of Charlie's room.
“I was saying: 'Where's Charlie? Where's Charlie?' All they'd tell me was that he'd gone to hospital, so I went there. When I got to the hospital, I saw a paramedic in tears. I just thought: 'No …'
“I had to wait for about half an hour until I could see a doctor, and then all my worst fears were confirmed. I went to see Charlie, and he was still warm. He had tubes and things in his mouth, but he didn't look as if he was dead, he just looked as if he was asleep.
“I stayed in hospital every day with him while they did two post- mortem examinations. I think I was there for nearly a fortnight. Charlie was in somewhere called the Rainbow Room, and I came in every day and took clothes for him, and read him stories. Being able to spend that time with him was a great comfort to me.
“For the funeral I bought him a white shirt and waistcoat to wear with his school trousers, and I bought the same for Louis. My mum had bought Charlie a Star Wars light-sabre, and we put that in his coffin, and some Star Wars toys, because he was so into it.” Paula had met Chris about eight years ago, when they were both members of the production team of a film being made on the Isle of Man.
She says: “I was working in costume, and he was in production design. He seemed like quite a fun person, although he was well-known for his temper and ended up getting fired because he was very abusive to one of the producers, who was female. “We lived in London to begin with and then moved to Bristol, when Louis was five and Charlie was nearly two, to be closer to my parents, who live in Stockwood.
“Chris found the house, which needed complete renovation. We did it all ourselves and gutted it and redesigned it. It was a really personal thing.”
However, while the house was coming together, Paula and Chris's relationship was disintegrating.
“I began to realise that he was very controlling,” she recalls.
“The move to Bristol was really good to begin with. Everyone got on really well, and there were family parties and barbecues, but after a couple of years Chris had completely isolated me from my friends. They wouldn't come to the house if they knew he was here, and my parents wouldn't come round if they knew he was here either.
“It was a gradual thing. I don't know if Chris had some kind of breakdown, but we had these increasingly bitter arguments. He'd say things to me like: 'I'm going to destroy you – I'm going to destroy your career'.
“I began to realise what a temper he had. He was physically violent and the police got called to the house a number of times. The boys were on the Child Protection Register as they'd witnessed domestic violence.
“On the weekend that I left, I wanted to take the kids to the Kite Festival. I thought Chris might be difficult about it, so I asked him what his plans were for the weekend and he said that he and the boys had been invited away, but refused to say by who or to where.
“He got very aggressive and pushed me over in the garden and threw a bucket of water over me. Then he picked me up five times and threw me across the gravel drive at the front of the house like a rag doll. I managed to call my mum and the police arrived. I got myself and the boys into her car, and my mum took us away.
“I came back later and just packed a few bags for us. I left with no furniture, nothing. It had got to the point where the safety of my children was more important to me than a building – the house was just bricks and mortar.”
A divorce had not been finalised, but access arrangements had been put in place, whereby Charlie was supposed to stay with his father every Wednesday night, and also every other weekend.
Paula recalls: “I was very anxious every time Charlie was away because Chris would never answer his phone to let me speak to Charlie.
“Charlie would come back from visits more and more upset. He'd say to me things like 'I don't want to go to dad's, he's cuckoo'. It was very difficult for him.
“When we went to court on April 23 for a review, I said to my barrister that I was very concerned about these Wednesday overnights because it was becoming too much for Charlie.
“I was willing for Chris to still see Charlie for long weekends, and to pick him up from school on Wednesdays and take him to judo and then take him home for supper, but I wanted him to be able to come home and sleep in his own bed.
“I wasn't trying to stop access, I just wanted a bit more stability for Charlie, but Chris lost his temper and became so agitated in court that the review was adjourned.”
Paula says she had been paying insurance on the house until she left.
“I sent Chris a text to tell him that he needed to pay it, because the only way we communicated was by text. “I wouldn't dream of having no insurance, but that's what he did. He had no buildings insurance, no contents insurance, no life insurance against the mortgage, no personal life insurance.
“He hadn't worked since October 2007 and hadn't paid the mortgage since December, although he did make one payment in April.
“The mortgage is with Northern Rock. They gave me a three-month grief holiday from the mortgage payments. My solicitor managed to get it extended to six months, although I had to take pictures of the fire damage to send to them, together with death certificates.”
As we walk back through the house, the damage caused by the fire cannot obscure the fact that this was a beautiful family home, with its four bedrooms, a playroom, and a huge 30ft reception room leading into an open-plan kitchen. We go out into the garden, which is 200ft long with a tree house and hammock at the bottom.
“The boys used to love playing together here,” says Paula.
“Charlie and Louis used to love lying in the hammock.” The hammock is now empty, and the grass is overgrown. But Paula's dream is that one day other children will run around in the garden. “I'd like to restore this house to what it was, and then sell it to a family,” she says.
“Someone can be happy here – I'm sure they can.”