In pride of place in Belinda Steiner’s kitchen is an enlarged photograph of her four children which shows them nestled alongside each other facing the camera, their chubby young faces beaming with delight.
‘That’s my favourite,’ says 51-year-old Belinda of a snap which captures the bond between her then three young sons and daughter by her former husband Tim, 52, the multi-millionaire founder and chief executive of online supermarket giant Ocado – best known for teaming up with middle-class favourites Waitrose and Marks & Spencer.
Yet visitors would search in vain for recent pictures. Those children – Toby, 21, twins Ben and Josh, 20, and 18-year-old Fifi – are now grown up, yet Belinda has had no contact with any of them for ten years.
She has neither seen nor spoken to them in that time and no longer even knows what they look like. ‘I don’t know how tall they are. I don’t know what they’re studying. I don’t know anything, other than that they hate me,’ she says, her eyes filling with tears.
Their estrangement is absolute – and what’s more, Belinda blames Tim, who she believes wants to remove her from her children’s lives wholesale.
While Tim now lives with his new partner, 32-year-old Polish model Patrycja Pyka, Belinda says she feels as though she has been portrayed to her children as someone with addiction problems who could not be trusted with their care.
Belinda Steiner has four children with her ex-husband Tim Steiner, who is the tycoon behind food giant Ocado – but has not seen them in more than ten years
Tim (right) now lives with his new partner, 32-year-old Polish model Patrycja Pyka (left), photographed here in London in 2015
The reality, she say, could not be more different: while Belinda admits to alcohol and prescription drug dependency, she says they were a coping mechanism in response to the breakdown of her marriage. She has now been sober for nine years.
‘Tim didn’t just want me out of his life, he wanted me erased,’ says Belinda today in this, her first interview about her plight. ‘I am told the children refer to me by my first name, not mummy. I have been obliterated.
‘Sometimes it feels as if I am the walking dead, like he has cut part of me away. At the same time I have to be strong, because that is the only way I can get my children back.’
Certainly there is no doubting the toll the past decade has taken on Belinda. While articulate and intelligent, she cries repeatedly throughout our meeting, and at times has to pause to gather herself, unable to proceed. She insists she would never have chosen to make her heartbreak public and is doing so only because she believes it is the only avenue left open to her.
‘It’s extremely difficult, but I am doing it because I have tried every other possible way to reach my children,’ she says.
‘I’ve had friends, lawyers, professionals try, I even had a rabbi try. I have thrown myself at Tim’s feet and begged him to help me to see them. I’ve nothing to lose. My children already think I’m a monster.’
Of course, there are always two sides to any story, and never more so than in the event of marital breakdown, but Belinda’s tale raises troubling questions about parental alienation and whether more should be done to help in such cases.
In 2014, a judge ruled that Belinda be given access to her children, but the verdict has never been enforced. Belinda says that, at the time, she simply lacked the strength to press her case.
Other than in cases where there is a genuine risk of child endangerment, can it ever be in the interests of a child to be so categorically separated from their mother?
‘They are the true victims here,’ says Belinda. ‘They are the ones deprived of their mother’s love.’
Yet it is impossible not to see Belinda as a victim, too, no matter how she insists otherwise, not to mention a poignant reminder of the way that family dysfunction traverses all class barriers.
Today Belinda, who is independently wealthy following her acrimonious 2016 divorce settlement, lives in an airy four-storey house in a smart London neighbourhood not far from what used to be her marital home.
Yet material possessions mean little to her. ‘I would live in a shack if it meant I could see my kids,’ she says. ‘Tim was always the one who was obsessed with making money. I would give away all my material wealth in a heartbeat if only I could be a mum to my children again.’
The daughter of a successful half-Swiss, half-Iranian art dealer, Belinda was raised in financial comfort in North London and attended one of the city’s top private schools before moving into fashion and beauty PR in her 20s.
She worked for some of the top names in the industry, among them Jenny Halpern.
‘I had a really big career and I loved it and I was really good at it,’ she says. She met Tim at the age of 24 at a barbecue thrown my friends. Then working as a bond trader at Goldman Sachs, Tim, who had been educated at the prestigious Haberdashers’ Boys’ School in Hertfordshire, appeared a world away from the ‘bad boys’ Belinda had previously dated.
‘He seemed clean-cut, stable and reliable,’ she recalls. ‘I wanted to change my pattern so while I didn’t fancy him at first, I went on a few dates with him.
‘He charmed me and I ended up falling madly in love with him.’
Their relationship was not plain sailing. Tim’s job took him to a posting in Hong Kong and while, reluctantly, Belinda gave up work to facilitate their long-distance relationship, Tim was equally reluctant to commit long-term. ‘He kept promising we would get engaged, then letting me down, but I was so besotted that I couldn’t walk away, although I tried,’ she says.
But when Tim was posted to New York in 1998, Belinda finally issued an ultimatum. ‘I said, ‘Listen, I’ve had enough. I’ve followed you to Hong Kong, I’ve given up my career; I’m not coming with you to New York unless there’s a commitment.’ He took me to Thailand and proposed while we were there.’
She says immediately afterwards he took her to celebrate in Bangkok’s notorious red-light district.
While Tim now lives with his new partner, 32-year-old Polish model Patrycja Pyka (pictured), Belinda says she feels as though she has been portrayed to her children as someone with addiction problems who could not be trusted with their care
The couple married in May 1999 at Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue in a lavish £100,000 celebration Belinda describes as typical of her husband, whom she describes as ‘money-driven’.
‘I would have married on a beach with ten of my friends, in flip-flops,’ she says.
The following year Tim, along with Goldman colleagues Jonathan Faiman and Jason Gissing, resigned to launch Ocado, which would go on to transform the face of supermarket retail and is today the world’s largest dedicated online grocery retailer. Last year its net profit was £185.7million.
‘Once Goldman Sachs went public, he knew he was never going to get the big money and it was a case of now or never,’ she says.
‘It was a risk but I supported him completely.’
Soon afterwards, Belinda fell pregnant with Toby, who was born in December 2000, and six months later she discovered she was pregnant again, this time with the twins. Daughter Fifi came along just over a year later.
Despite the chaos of raising four children under three years old, on the surface life appeared gilded: home was a £15million mansion in the leafy London enclave of Highgate, and the couple owned a chalet in Courchevel, an expensive French ski resort.
They enjoyed a glamorous social life, attending events with celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet behind the scenes, it was a different story. With Tim working 12-hour days to build his company, Belinda was left to cope with the demands of parenthood alone as her husband’s punishing working hours meant that he left home before the children woke up and arrived home after they went to bed. One of their children also had health issues at birth that put Belinda under huge additional pressure.
‘The reality is I did everything with my children, everything. I took them on holidays on my own, did every single school run, every single football match.’
Meanwhile, Belinda says she sometimes found her husband controlling. ‘If one of my nails was chipped, he’d go bananas.’
Belinda Steiner arrives at the High Court for the settlement hearing in her divorce from Ocado boss Tim in 2016
Ocado boss Tim Steiner arriving at the High Court in London with lawyer Fiona Shackleton for the settlement hearing in his divorce hearing with wife Belinda in 2016
‘After I had the twins, I remember visiting Mum and saying that I’d made the most terrible mistake of my life marrying Tim. And then I felt so guilty afterwards, I phoned her the next day, and said I was hormonal, I didn’t mean it, and we never discussed it again. But the reality is that I should have left. As it was, I ploughed my energy into trying to keep the family together.’
Further pressure was placed on the family when, aged ten, Josh suffered a brain injury after falling on to a concrete staircase which left him temporarily blind and disabled.
‘All the dynamics in the family changed,’ says Belinda. ‘For a time Josh became like a baby again. The kids were very good for a while, but it’s very difficult to understand a brain injury. It was huge pressure on all the family – we didn’t know how long it would take to find out whether Josh would be left with permanent damage or not. We were told he would probably never go back to mainstream school. In fact, he proved everybody wrong and he is a miracle.’
The pressure was enough to drive Belinda to a nervous breakdown and she admits that she turned to alcohol and prescription drugs to cope. ‘It was an emotional, not chemical dependence,’ she says now. Either way, by the end of 2012 she had agreed to seek treatment for addiction at a rehab facility in the US. ‘The agreement was that Tim would bring the children out at least twice while I was there to see me,’ she says.
‘But once I went to America he stopped all the phone calls and all contact. He told me he wanted a divorce over the phone while on a conference call with my psychiatrist.’
When she returned in June 2013, she discovered that Tim had applied for a residency order preventing Belinda removing the children from the family home – from which she had been barred – or his care.
‘It was if I was a monster,’ she says. It was, she says, the start of several lines of attack. Yet there are no court rulings against me for anything like that. And I don’t have a criminal record.’
It was the shock of the dramatic separation from her children, says Belinda, that led her to have a severe epileptic fit. She went on to develop epilepsy.
‘At one point I was having 30 to 40 seizures a day and I had to be hospitalised for a month because they thought I was going to die,’ she says. ‘And all the time I was in hospital, I was getting emails about settling the financial side of our divorce. I refused to engage – I wasn’t interested in the money. The children were all I cared about.’
In 2015, says Belinda, the courts ruled she could renew contact with the children. By then, however, it seemed to be too late. Sadly, a planned first meeting with the boys did not take place. She believes they refused to see her. A meeting with Fifi was also cancelled.
‘They were so little when I was dragged away,’ she reflects, sadly. Belinda was further devastated when she learned that Patrycja was now playing the role of mother to the children she was not allowed to see. ‘She is only ten years older than Toby,’ she says.
On a fundraising page created by Tim for Josh to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he was treated for his brain injury, it is Patrycja, not Belinda, who was pictured alongside Tim.
‘I physically carried my son to hospital because Tim was at work. He just about made it to the Whittington Hospital hours later,’ says Belinda.
She was not invited to the 2015 bar mitzvah of her twin sons and was later horrified to learn that it featured performances from topless female cage dancers writhing around wearing little more than body paint.
‘There were legions of pictures all over social media including one of Fifi in a cage,’ she says. ‘She was 11. There were five-year-olds at this party.’
The following year the couple were embroiled in a ferocious courtroom battle over Tim’s estimated £100million fortune, of which Belinda was ultimately awarded half. It allowed her to buy her own home, although her lifestyle remains modest.
‘I have never been driven by money – unlike Tim,’ she says. ‘After the divorce he offered me almost double the money to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] and I told him I didn’t want his money. I will not be silenced – my voice is not for sale. All I have ever wanted is my children.’
Yet, six years after their decree absolute, she has still not had contact with any of them.
‘I’m blocked,’ she says. ‘Josh is the only one that reads my messages, I’m blocked on everybody else’s. I don’t even have any pictures. The last picture Tim sent me was in 2016, and it was of one of the children with a ski helmet on and goggles. I had to reply to ask him which child it was,’ she says, her eyes flooding with tears.
There is no doubting the fierce depth of Belinda’s love and whatever mistakes she may or may not have made, few could feel anything but sympathy for her plight.
‘It is like a living death,’ she says. ‘Knowing they are there but I cannot see them or clutch them to me. The saddest thing is they are losing out, too. If I believed that not seeing them would make their life better I would do that for them, because it’s my job as a mother to take all that pain and suffering away along with my own. I’d do anything for them. But how can it be good for them to be deprived of a mother’s love?’
It is why she is speaking out, determined to show she will never give up. ‘All I can say is that if you had told me this time 11 years ago that I would be in this position, I couldn’t have imagined I would survive it,’ she says. ‘But I am here, and I will fight for my children to the bitter end.’