Strangers you meet on holiday …

Seven years ago, wandering along a sunny Cretan beach, I was approached by a striking duo; the mother, an elegant American with curly, white blonde hair and her sophisticated daughter, a tall and poised twelve year old with a mane of equally curly, brown hair.  This was their first holiday since the woman’s husband and father of the girl, had died suddenly the previous year and they were looking for friends. What could be more natural and appealing, especially since we had a daughter roughly the same age? We struck up a conversation and a friendship.

Today the mother, Sheila von Weise Mack, is dead, battered and bruised to death, her half naked body dumped into a suitcase. Heather, her daughter, now 19, and her 21 year-old boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, have been arrested in conjunction with the murder but not charged. The threesome had been on holiday in a luxury hotel in Bali, Indonesia.

Ever since I heard the tragic news I have thought of little else. Our two families had dinner together that night and, I rather imagined, that would be that – a holiday friendship lasting as long as the holiday, especially since the two girls had little in common. But, as soon as Sheila heard I was a writer, she craved deep discussions about literature, especially Saul Bellow, her particular passion. He was one of her teachers while she was researching for a PhD at the University of Chicago and obviously had had a huge influence on her. When she heard I was coming to the US that Autumn to promote my forthcoming book on Winston Churchill’s American mother, Jennie Jerome, she immediately invited me to stay at her luxurious home in Oak Park (a house stuffed full of memorabilia from her late husband, US composer and arranger, James Mack) and insisted on organising launch parties and book groups for me to address in Chicago. She was as good as her word and generously produced one of the most lavish launch parties I have ever been given. Some of the friends she introduced me to that night are still my friends and it was from one of them that I first heard of Sheila’s untimely and shocking death.

After that launch, we kept in touch occasionally with Sheila trying to arrange further meetings in London or Chicago.  Christmas cards were never a simple greetings card but a package of photos and news about Heather, a stunning girl and talented ballerina who, it seemed to me, Sheila idolised and devoted her life to. Whenever I was in the US she begged me to stay. She wanted to give me a literary guided tour of Chicago to show me the Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright homes. When I was researching Wallis Simpson, my next book, she offered to help with research into the family of Wallis’s first husband, Win Spencer who came from Highland Park in Chicago, another wealthy suburb.

But something held me back which I could not identify at the time. Much as I liked her, I sensed a deeply troubled and needy individual but, until yesterday, I could never have guessed quite how troubled.