There is no Christmas tree with twinkling lights in Martin and Tara Cosser’s Surrey home — and no other festive decorations either.

‘I can’t even turn on the radio, as there are so many happy Christmas tunes,’ says Martin.

His wife feels the same. ‘It all feels wrong, because Charlie should be here with us and he’s not,’ she says.

For Charlie, known as ‘Cheeks’ because of his infectious smile, lost his life this year at the age of just 17 after being stabbed four times at a house party. He died 48 hours later after a desperate fight for survival in intensive care with his devastated, disbelieving parents and siblings by his side.

His loss means Charlie, the Cossers’ middle son, joins a grim roll call of statistics: Home Office data shows there were 282 deaths involving knives and broken bottles in the year ending March 2022, a number that has risen exponentially in recent years. Behind each one of those numbers is a broken-hearted family.

Yet what stands out in Charlie’s case is that he did not die in an inner city postcode or in one of the deprived neighbourhoods within which these tragic deaths so often unfold, but at a £1.5 million farmhouse in the heart of a prosperous village in Sussex.

Charlie, known as ‘Cheeks’ because of his infectious smile, lost his life this year at the age of just 17 after being stabbed four times at a house party

There is no Christmas tree with twinkling lights in Martin and Tara Cosser¿s Surrey home

There is no Christmas tree with twinkling lights in Martin and Tara Cosser’s Surrey home

‘When you think of knives you think of gangs, of a world away from the one in which we lived. Knife crime wasn’t Charlie’s world,’ says Martin, 48, a self-employed insurance broker.

‘He was such a gentle soul, he didn’t even like raised voices. But since Charlie died, I’ve done lots of researching and I can honestly say knives are becoming an epidemic.’

Martin and Tara’s disbelief still looms large today when we meet to discuss the almost fathomless impact of their loss. Five months after their world was ripped apart, both remain in shock about what they call the ‘single act of violence’ that took away their son.

While they live every minute with the terrible reality every day, in some ways it still hasn’t sunk in that their laid-back son, a talented footballer with a keen sense of humour, is not going to walk back through the door of the family home in Milford, near Godalming, Surrey.

In some ways they don’t want it to sink in, which is why Tara still sends her son WhatsApp messages he will never read: she cannot bear the thought of his name disappearing from her phone screen.

‘We tell him we love him and we miss him,’ says Tara. ‘I don’t ever want to scroll down my phone and not see his name…

‘From the moment we got the knock on the door and opened it to a policeman it has been a case of old world, new world.’ That knock came at the end of what was otherwise an ordinary summer Saturday in late July for the Cossers, a close-knit family which also includes eldest son Adam, 28, who lives away from home with his girlfriend.

The relationship between Charlie and his sister Eloise, who was just 15 when her beloved brother was killed, was particularly close and characterised by the kind of affectionate teasing familiar to most parents.

Charlie had been working as an apprentice groundsman at the nearby Charterhouse School, having decided that college was not for him, and was looking forward to his first ‘boys’ holiday’ abroad after finishing work the previous day. ‘He was so excited about it,’ recalls Tara.

‘All his euros were on the side and I’d packed his first-aid kit for him. I remember putting in some extra paracetamol as I thought he might have a hangover or two.’

That night he was attending an end-of-term house party thrown by 18-year-old triplets in a village near Horsham, West Sussex, after being invited by a friend.

‘He wasn’t going to see his friend for a while so decided to go to the party with him,’ says Tara.

‘He didn’t really know many people there, but from what the police tell us, it was a very well organised party where people were having fun. The mum was on the premises. There was no reason for anyone to think that there would be any risk or danger at all.’

‘It’s a one and half million pound farmhouse in a tiny village,’ says Martin. ‘Charlie had originally been talking that night about going into Guildford town centre and we’d have been more concerned about that. You naturally worry as parents, but we weren’t worried about this.’

Charlie, then 9, with his sister Eloise, 7, on her first day of school

Charlie, then 9, with his sister Eloise, 7, on her first day of school

Martin recalls watching his son walk down the driveway to his friend’s waiting car at 7.30pm that Saturday night, little knowing it would be the last time he would see him conscious. After piecing together events from fellow partygoers, they now know that Charlie had chatted to lots of fellow teens in the series of party marquees dotted on the farmhouse land and was having fun.

But at some point around midnight he was stabbed four times.

The first Martin and Tara were aware of the unfolding horror was in the early hours of Sunday morning when they woke up to hammering at the front door. When they opened it, it was to a policeman telling them the worst news imaginable.

‘He said: ‘I’m afraid your son Charlie has been stabbed and he’s critical.’ ‘ Martin shakes his head in disbelief.

The family, including Eloise, jumped into the back of the police car to be taken to Brighton’s Royal Sussex County Hospital, praying there had been some mistake.

‘I remember just whizzing through these country back lanes, holding onto Tara for dear life,’ says Martin. ‘I was in such shock that I was retching out of the window. Eloise was in bits.’

‘My first feeling was that Charlie would be OK,’ adds Tara. ‘It was a case of ‘this doesn’t happen, this doesn’t happen’. I kept telling myself he was going to be fine.’

Yet even as they raced to the hospital, their police car was diverted to a lay-by after the driver learned the ambulance had had to stop to perform CPR on Charlie, who had gone into cardiac arrest.

Charlie made it to hospital and was immediately taken in to theatre for surgery, which his family were told he might not survive.

After an agonising four hours, they were told he had pulled through, but his condition was critical. When they were finally able to see him — now joined by Adam, who had raced from his home — it was to be greeted with a sight they hope no one else will ever have to witness: their beloved boy surrounded by bleeping machines and attached to myriad tubes.

For the next agonising 48 hours, the family willed their son to survive. ‘He fought so hard,’ says Tara, blinking back tears.

On day three, his exhausted parents and siblings — who had barely left his bedside — were told that Charlie had swelling on the brain, which required emergency surgery.

‘I remember they told us to say our goodbyes as they had to operate straightaway,’ recalls Martin. ‘Adam had gone for a walk and I begged them to wait for him to come back, but they said there was no time.’

When the surgeon returned, it was with the worst possible news: their son had sustained irreversible brain damage from the swelling which can occur 48 to 72 hours after cardiac arrest. The machines keeping Charlie alive would now be switched off. ‘We had to go back and tell all the rest of our relatives who were gathered in Charlie’s room. Everyone was just wailing,’ says Martin.

They were then taken to say their final goodbye to their beloved son. ‘They had taken the machines away and we handed him this little fluffy teddy…’ Martin breaks down, unable to finish his sentence.

Barely able to comprehend what had happened, the family had to return home to the devastating reminders of a son who just a few days before had been on the brink of adulthood, his whole life before him. ‘I remember seeing his shoes by the door and trying to quickly move them so Tara and Eloise wouldn’t see them,’ Martin recalls. ‘Tara was hysterical, just hysterical.’

In the bewildering days and weeks that followed, the family had to face any number of devastating milestones, from Charlie’s funeral — attended by 700 mourners — to the heartbreak of his 18th birthday in October, upon which Charterhouse School asked to plant a tree in his memory.

‘It was a comfort to us that even in just the few weeks he was there he had obviously made such an impact,’ says Tara.

Long-lost friends have also got in touch to share their memories. ‘We’ve got lovely stories of him when he was young, the kindness that he showed,’ says Martin.

‘What’s been really sad, but beautiful, is hearing the stories about him and knowing that the friends he had were lovely boys and girls.’

There have been other, less welcome unknowns: unable to work, Martin’s income has dwindled to a trickle and there is little in the way of financial compensation. They will also have to navigate the trauma of judicial proceedings: in May, a 17-year-old boy from Chessington, who cannot be named for legal reasons, will go on trial for Charlie’s murder.

It will be another ordeal for the family, who are now asking that the accused’s anonymity be withdrawn. ‘We had no choice and while we are trying to use our voices for good we feel it is unfair that our whole world is out there and yet no one knows the name of the man accused of taking Charlie’s life,’ says Martin.

Amid the ongoing devastation, there has been comfort in sensing their son’s presence.

‘When we came home from the hospital, Tara walked into Charlie’s room and suddenly just stopped crying,’ recalls Martin. ‘She said ‘I can feel him’, and I could, too. It was a really strange feeling. That same day I went outside and begged Charlie for a sign he was OK and a shooting star raced across the sky.’

They subsequently derived more comfort from walking at a local beauty spot known as the Devil’s Punch Bowl, only to later learn from friends that it was a favourite spot of Charlie’s, too.

‘It’s high up and we both feel close to Charlie when we’re there, as if we’re close to Heaven, that’s the only way I can explain it,’ says Tara. ‘We had this strange sense of comfort every time we went, but it was only later we learned that Charlie loved going there with his friends after work.’

Both have also worked hard to remove the near-paralysing ‘what ifs’ from their world — what if he hadn’t gone to the party? What if he had left the party earlier? ‘Because there are no answers, and you drive yourself mad,’ says Tara.

Yet, undeniably, the family has been ripped apart. ‘Tara and I grieve differently and that has been tough for both of us,’ says Martin, who admits he struggles to be among people after having previously been a sociable soul.

‘I understand life goes on, but it’s hard to hear people complain about what to us now seem trivial things,’ he says

Tara by contrast, takes comfort from being among other people.

Both find solace in the promise that Martin made to Charlie as he lay on life support. ‘I whispered the most important promise I will ever make into his ear, which is I would make it my life’s work to talk in schools and to young people about the devasting impact of knives on families,’ he says.

To that end, Martin and Tara, who have already set up a fund in their son’s name, are in the process of establishing a charity called Charlie’s Promise, which will be launched in the spring.

‘If you’re like us, when you think of knives, you think of cities, of gangs. But this was not Charlie’s world. He had dreams and aspirations, he was so loved, and if we can stop one other family going through what we are going through, then that will mean the world to us,’ says Martin. ‘I will make it my life’s work.’

‘We have to believe there was a reason for this,’ adds Tara. ‘Because otherwise how do you carry on living?

‘No one deserves to die the way Charlie did and the message that we want to get across more than anything is if it can happen to Charlie, it can happen to anybody.’

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