Were it not for the pandemic, Neville Lawrence wouldn’t have been in London when he received a phone call he had long been dreading, inviting him to a meeting at Scotland Yard.
Having resettled in his Jamaican homeland 18 years ago, he flew to Britain just before lockdown in March to see his three grandchildren.
He had intended to return to the island last month, to perform a duty that has become a summer ritual. ‘I was planning to go back to repaint Stephen’s grave,’ he told me, referring to the son who was murdered by racist thugs.
‘The white stonework tends to get dirty at this time of year because rain soaks the overhanging trees and it gets covered in sodden leaves.
‘I always paint it myself. It’s one job that I won’t allow anyone else to do.’
Because Virgin Atlantic has grounded its Jamaica flights indefinitely, however, Dr Lawrence can’t fly back to the secluded Caribbean home that has become his sanctuary.
Instead, he is marooned at a cousin’s house in South-East London, a place where the unspeakable events that unfolded that night in 1993 still haunt him on every outing; and where — having been threatened with reprisals for his courageous justice campaign — he never feels secure.
For poignant reasons which he explained later, Neville was not with his former wife, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, when he was summoned to the Yard a few days ago.
Only his solicitor accompanied him as he met with Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick and Chris Le Pere, the latest detective tasked with catching every member of the five or six-strong gang who set upon Stephen.
Ignoring the proffered tea and biscuits, he listened with mounting anger as the pair outlined every fresh avenue of inquiry that had been followed, and explained why they had reached a dead-end.
Why, with just two of the five or six murderers — Gary Dobson and David Norris — serving life sentences, they had rendered the investigation ‘inactive’, effectively conceding that their accomplices would never be brought to account.
‘I had already guessed why they had called me in because what other reason would they have?’ says Neville, now 78, sounding wearier than I have ever heard him during countless conversations over the years.
‘They went through all the material they’ve gathered, the DNA, the clothes, and listed all the people they’d interviewed.
‘But they said they couldn’t find any substantial evidence that would stand up in court. As I was listening, I was thinking, “but you had the information on the night after the murder, and you didn’t use it as you should have done. What you’re telling me now is a result of what happened 27 years ago before you were even working”.
‘Because, if you remember, a woman came to our house [soon after the murder] with the names of the killers written on a piece of paper.
‘When Doreen gave it to the officer in charge he threw it in the bin…so, I was thinking, “if only you had done your job properly we wouldn’t be sitting here now. Your officers were the ones who made mistakes, so you put them right”.
‘This might be the end of the line for them, but it certainly isn’t the end for me. There’s no end of the line until they put all Stephen’s murderers away.’
With an unflinching determination I have come to recognise down the years, he added: ‘As long as I am alive, I’m not going to accept this is over. I’ll carry on until I draw my very last breath.
‘I’m 78 now, and I was 51 when Stephen was taken from me. I’ve waited for this long [to see justice done]. I can wait a while longer.’
As Dame Cressida and Le Pere continued their briefing, solemn-faced and apologetic, Neville says he stopped listening to the minutiae. His thoughts drifted back and he found himself reflecting on the course of his life; how it had been irrevocably changed by one brief act of evil bigotry.
The savaging of an 18-year-old boy who was just standing at a bus stop, on his way home after seeing his friend. A boy who had never harmed anyone. A kindly boy who mentored troubled pupils at his school and who planned to become an architect.
The first son he had longed for, and cherished so dearly that, when Doreen brought him home from the maternity hospital, in 1974, he would stay up all night to make sure he was still breathing.
What Stephen’s killers will never comprehend, he says, is that in taking his life they had also caused ‘27 years of misery and chaos’.
On the morning of April 22, 1993, the Lawrences were an everyday family with hopes, joys and occasional difficulties.
Having built a thriving house renovation business, Neville was struggling for work in a recession; Doreen was training to be a teacher; their younger children Stuart, then 15, and Georgina, 11, were happy, well-adjusted kids.
This family life was all their father had wanted since arriving from Jamaica as a teenager, in 1960.
Then the white youths engulfed Stephen, a long knife flashed, and as his life ebbed away on the pavement an entire family died with him. Alerted to the attack by a neighbour, Neville went out to look for his son. Doreen had been away on a field trip.
On her return they went to the local hospital, where they found him. Nothing could be done. From that moment, the couple —who had been married for 20 years — never touched one another again. Not even a hug. Though they slept in the same bed, he says, they lay side by side ‘like statues’.
Whether through a mutual sense of guilt or recrimination, they never discussed what happened to Stephen. It is a remarkable and tragic fact that, almost three decades later, they still haven’t.
Within six years they were divorced. Neville retreated to Jamaica, where he now lives in the town of Mandeville.
Even so, it comes as a shock when he tells me he and Doreen haven’t spoken one word to one another for ‘five years; maybe six’.
When he asked her, after the divorce, whether they might become friendly for the children and grandchildren’s sake, he claims she refused his olive branch.
He remains on good terms with daughter Georgina, now 37, who works for a London pharmacy, and enjoyed being with her and her children, aged nine and 16, before lockdown intervened.
Since then he has met them at a distance just twice. However, he seldom speaks to Stuart, 42, who, he says, ‘sides with his mother’. This makes it difficult to see his other grandson, also aged nine.
Though Stephen’s parents have both fought his cause relentlessly down the years, they have followed divergent paths.
While Lady Lawrence is now a prominent political figure, currently leading a review on the impact of coronavirus on black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, he has striven to keep a lower profile. ‘I wouldn’t want that kind of lifestyle,’ he says flatly. ‘I have got an OBE and a doctorate in law [awarded by Portsmouth University in recognition of his justice campaign and work to promote racial harmony]. But I value my privacy and I just want to be an ordinary person.’
As his family broke apart, he says, he became solitary and unapproachable, unable or unwilling to entrust anyone with the pain he was suffering. However, an epiphany came when he met Esther Brunstein, who lost every member of her family in the Holocaust.
From personal experience she taught him the power of communication. He then enrolled for a counselling course in London and, though it will never be complete, the healing process began.
It was while he was attending these seminars, in the early 2000s, that another door suddenly opened. Neville has never spoken of this before, but, he tells me, he formed a close relationship with a woman and for a while it seemed he might remarry. Whenever I have broached the possibility of this happening with him in the past, he has always dismissed the suggestion.
The women he met either wanted to smother him with sympathy, or be with him simply because of who he was, he once told me.
However, this time it was different. Born in Barbados and living in London — where she worked in a solicitor’s office — the woman concerned had the sort of troubled background that allowed her to understand how he felt.
She had given birth to the first of her three children at 14, been abandoned to look after her youngest child, and was suffering the trauma of a turbulent marriage.
‘When I got divorced I was looking all the time and some women I met seemed OK,’ he says reticently. ‘But it’s not so easy to be with someone like me, because there are times when I have mood swings — and who is going to put up with that? When I met this woman, I thought I had found the right one.’ As their friendship grew, Neville suggested she should move to Jamaica and marry him.
She agreed. First, however, they decided that she should visit the island. At that point fate intervened and Neville’s house was ruined by fire. This forced them to stay with a friend in Jamaica, marring the trip.
His girlfriend was also taken aback by the way she was treated on the island. Neville cites the example of a visit to the bank, where the service was off-hand and she was forced to queue for hours.
All this led her to reconsider his proposal, and, though they remained friendly, the relationship fizzled out.
There will never be another. ‘I’m too old for all that now,’ he chuckles.
Perhaps so, but, his chronic asthma apart, he seems fighting fit, staying in shape with long woodland walks in lockdown. And he certainly isn’t too old to keep fighting for Stephen.
He has been a powerful advocate for non-violence and integration in schools and lecture theatres all across Britain.
But with his straight-talking, impatience for incisive action, and an intolerance of glib promises — plus his long absences in Jamaica — he can find it difficult to work within the establishment. In 2018, he was appointed to co-chair the new Violent Crime Prevention Board, an advisory group set up with Home Office support, but last year he abruptly resigned.
‘I left because they weren’t doing the things I wanted them to do,’ he says. ‘They were supposed to be concentrating on measures to help the police reform, and I don’t think they were doing that. But I felt that I didn’t have a voice.’
I ask him whether he accepts Dame Cressida’s assurance this week that the Metropolitan Police were no longer ‘institutionally racist’, as Sir William Macpherson famously averred following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.
‘Well, I respect Cressida because she was one of those who kept the murder investigation going, and drove it on, but she can say what she likes: the reality is completely different,’ he says. ‘Why are black MPs [he is referring to Labour’s Dawn Butler’s recent experience] still being stopped just for driving through the streets?
‘How can you tell me that is not the same police force that existed in 1993? That it treats people equally?
‘It is still behaving the same way 27 years later. In fact, it is even worse now, because they got this blueprint to change from Macpherson. He made 70-odd recommendations.
‘But how many officers today could tell you what all those recommendations were and how many were put in place? I don’t think you would find very many.
‘So how can you claim you are different from what you were if you don’t even know the rules and regulations you are supposed to follow?’
Many will take a very different view, of course, arguing that if anything positive came from the shameful handling of Stephen’s case it was the catalyst for more sensitive policing methods.
Soon, Neville will sit down with his legal team and begin plotting the next move in his unending struggle.
When the Met announced their decision to shelve the investigation this week, at least three vile racist murderers were doubtless celebrating in the belief that they have finally been let off the hook.
Yesterday, one of the former suspects — Luke Knight, now a 43-year-old father of two who works as a roofer — was already feeling brave enough to emerge from his South-East London bolthole.
Hitherto a reclusive figure, he sauntered down the street with a bagful of shopping, bare-footed, wearing a flat cap and checked shorts and sporting a grey-flecked beard.
This shabby, middle-aged man bore little resemblance to the Knight we last saw, scurrying away from a Macpherson Inquiry public hearing, as protesters pelted him and his cohorts with eggs.
Knight’s pathetic decline was a reminder of the long years Neville has spent on his quest for justice.
Yet, if anyone thinks he will ever give up his noble struggle, they have reckoned without his iron resolve.
As he says — ‘until my very last breath’.