LIZ STEWART sits on a miniature chair, at a miniature table, watching three blonde-haired children play at her feet.
In a nursery bursting with toys and learning charts, they laugh and chatter as they play with the building blocks, Bratz dolls and plastic animals dotted across the floor.
Liz cannot laugh with them. The tiny seat opposite her is empty. There is one person absent from the colourful room in which she sits.
Entirely out of character, the dedicated childminder – Scotland’s Childminder of the Year 2007 – is teary, red-cheeked and frustrated. She keeps raising her hand to her head and saying: “Why? I don’t know why . . . I just don’t understand it.”
It has been over a week since five-year-old Leon Weston and his mother, Michelle Stephen, died in the most tragic of circumstances.
Incomprehensible to those around her, the doting mother apparently killed her son before suffocating herself at their home in Sighthill’s Parkhead Grove.
Newlywed Michelle, who married husband Barry in November, found it difficult to cope since the death of her much-loved father, Jimmy Weir. He died from cancer in January.
Liz, 56, describes how she has lost her “star”. She has lost her “little helper” – a young boy she describes as “a well- mannered, happy, confident child”.
She doesn’t understand, and can barely take in how things have unravelled in recent days. All Liz knows is what a loving pair they were – and that she was one of the last to see Leon and Michelle alive. They were two people she considered to be part of her extended family.
Michelle’s relatives, her husband and her ex-husband Kevin Weston are too distraught to talk right now, but Liz is determined to put the record straight and pay tribute to mother and son.
On Monday evening she recalls a “happy, completely normal” Michelle had picked her son up from Liz’s home. Michelle told Liz that she and Leon, a pupil at Murrayburn Primary School, would be attending a childminders’ day out in May, she talked about celebrations for her 32nd birthday – which would have taken place this week – and she talked about a holiday to Mexico the family had booked.
A despairing Liz says: “I looked after Leon for four years, way before he went to nursery, when he was just a baby. He grew through all of his stages in front of me. I’d look after him during the school term, I’d walk him to school and collect him, and I’d look after him until Michelle got back from work. Michelle gave herself a hard time, saying she didn’t get to see his school plays [Michelle worked at St Augustine’s RC High School as a clerical assistant] but she would spend every holiday with him. Everything Leon had was the best, she couldn’t have been a better mum.
“On Monday, everything was fine. His mum dropped him off in the morning, and she was fine. I took him to school, looked after my Monday group of younger children, and then picked him up at 2.45pm. We had a snack, then played Picture Lotto, then we read a book.”
That final book was a story designed to help young people cope with the death of a loved one.
“I have a story sack, called a bereavement sack, which has stories that are designed to help children understand when a family member or a friend passes away. I would read Badger’s Parting Gifts [by Susan Varley] to Leon, and he would compare the ‘dependable, reliable’ badger to his grandad Jimmy. I’d tell him ‘You’ve got to remember the good things your grandad did, like this’. Leon understood; I think it helped him.”
She continues: “When Michelle came by at 3.30pm, she was chatty. She talked about the future, her birthday. She acted like she’d see me tomorrow. If I had had any reason to be concerned, I would have done something. From the outside, there was nothing . . .” she says, trailing off.
“The next day he should have been here for 8am, but I had other kids arriving and I didn’t think about it at first when he didn’t show up. Then I went to my phone and I had a text saying Leon was sick and he’d be off school. There was nothing else. That’s it.
“Barry showed up at 4.45pm looking for Michelle and Leon, but I said I hadn’t seen them. I said Leon was off sick, and suggested perhaps they were at the doctor.
The next thing I knew, I had a parent on the phone saying ‘Tell me it’s not true’. I haven’t seen or spoken to Barry since. My door is open for the family if and when they want to talk.”
Today is Liz’s first day back at work. The three children contentedly playing around her are Leon’s friends and the other children she cared for daily.
“I’m back because I have to think about the other children,” she explains. “They’ve not noticed the change as such, but I am without my little helper. Leon would change the calendar for me every morning, but today I told another boy, Liam, that he would have to be the helper from now on.
“Leon was a very sociable boy who loved to be around all the other children I look after. He would set the table for snack time, hand the snacks out, help in the garden when we did some planting and tidy the toys away.
“Leon was all about the firemen. He wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up and his favourite activity was counting the fire engines we would see on our way to and home from school. The other seven children and I have a big hole in our hearts at this time, but we plan to make a memory book to remember the happy times we shared.”
Remembering Michelle, Liz adds: “She was a big Hearts fan. But most of all, she was happy and so proud to be a mum. She had all the time in the world for him. Every day she would burst in, saying to Leon ‘Hello, how are you? How was school?’ She was always so pleased to see him. She was so happy, just married to Barry. They were a lovely couple. Leon loved him. ”
But as well as Liz knew Michelle and Leon, she cannot answer the question many people are asking. Why?
Wringing her hands in frustration, Liz admits: “I don’t know why. Why? I keep asking myself that. Why? We did talk. Michelle was a friend. She could talk to me. I’d offer all my support. I knew she was grieving about her dad but I told her there will be good days, and there will be bad days, but you will get through this.
“I don’t understand. I don’t know if we will ever get the answers. I don’t think we will ever know why.”
Classmates gather to pay tribute to lost friend
CHILDREN at Murrayburn Primary School have paid tribute to their classmate in a special assembly.
Two memorial services – one for P1 to P3, a second for P4 to P7 – were held for pupils at the school, which allowed the children to share memories and leave personal messages and pictures for Leon. Each person made a paper link and these were assembled into a large chain, which was placed around a tribute book set up in honour of the five-year-old.
Poetry and prayers were also read to remember their classmate.
The assemblies follow a public memorial service held for Leon and Michelle on Monday night at St Nicholas Church.
Around 300 family, friends and members of the Sighthill community gathered to release helium balloons and Chinese lanterns into the night sky. Around 250 were sent into the air to the sound of a fire engine siren.
A slideshow of Leon and Michelle’s best pictures was shown on the night, some of which are printed in today’s Evening News.
The photos include Leon enjoying his fourth birthday party – complete with Fireman Sam cake – Leon playing in the snow last winter, and Leon enjoying nursery at his childminder Liz’s house.