Loss, heartbreak - and living on in the aftermath
British journalist Decca Aitkenhead married Jamaican ex convict Tony Wilkinson against all the odds, then she watched him, the love of her life, and father of her two children, drown on a Jamaican beach. The year after, she was diagnosed with cancer. She speaks to Julia Molony about survival
Published 02/05/2016 | 02:30
Decca Aitkenhead is one of the UK's most respected journalists. But when, two years ago, her name appeared across the press in the headline rather than the byline, it was a sign things had gone terribly wrong in her life. She had found herself, like so many people she'd interviewed over the years, as the bewildered and shell-shocked subject of a national news story.
Catastrophe struck out of the blue while she and her partner Tony Wilkinson were on holiday in Jamaica with their two young sons. They'd had a stressful few months juggling work, children and the ambitious renovation of a farmhouse in Kent when Decca suggested they return to their favourite holiday spot in the Caribbean. Early one morning, Tony and the couple's eldest son, Jake, went for a beachside stroll, leaving Decca to her yoga stretches. From where she stood outside their hotel room she caught a glimpse of her four-year-old's head bobbing in the surf. He'd been pulled out to sea and his father went in to save him. She raced down to the beach and could see that Tony, who was not a strong swimmer, was struggling to bring Jake to shore. She went in too, and all three were caught in a powerful rip-tide. Decca eventually managed to get to shore with Jake and expected Tony to be right behind her. Instead, as she looked on in horror, he was dragged further out to sea. By the time a rescue team had got to him and pulled him out of the water, it was too late. He died in front of them on the sand.
When the unthinkable happens, the journalistic reflex is to provide an account. And so Aitkenhead has done so in her new book, All At Sea. It is a lucid, gripping and heartbreaking memoir of her love story with Tony, and the terrifying and abrupt manner in which she lost him. When he was alive, Tony often badgered her to write about him - he was convinced that his life would make a brilliant book. But it was only after he died that she realised he'd been right.
A lot of people in extremis would find it hard to summon the presence of mind to sit still long enough to write, but Aitkenhead didn't struggle to concentrate on the task. She has said the book was written in an agitated burst, like "running over hot coals". It was only afterwards she became aware that the act of writing had been driven by a hidden impulse - one tied up with denial.
"At various points, I discovered that I actually, somewhere subconsciously, thought that he was coming back," she says. "One of them, funnily enough, was when I finished writing the book. And I realised when I gave it to the editors and the editors said lots of amazing things about it and they were really happy, and I thought: 'Well, why am I not feeling any sense of achievement? Or why is nothing good coming in with their kind words?' And I realised that somewhere along the line I thought that if I was really good, if I wrote a good enough book, it was going to bring him back."
We are in The Groucho Club for lunch. At a glance, Aitkenhead blends in with the well-groomed arts and media crowd here - another tall, glamorous creative professional. But in fact, the thick blonde mane is not her own hair, and the perfectly arched eyebrows are tattoos. Last year, just as she and her sons Jake and Joe were finally starting to emerge from their fog of grief, disaster struck again. She was in the shower when she found a lump in her breast and a biopsy soon after confirmed she had cancer - the same disease that had killed her mother when she was 39, and Decca was just nine.
It was, quite simply, the worst possible luck. "I've been a compulsive planner all my life," she says now. "I love plans. And I had a fairly clear idea of where I was going to go to university, what I was going to study. I knew I was going to be a journalist when I was about 12 years old." But now, with her family ruptured by tragedy and her body recovering from chemo, the idea of future plans holds little concrete meaning. "It's absolutely bizarre now to be 45 years old and have less idea about where our life is going than I did when I was 15," she says. "And I hate it. I hate it. Because on the one hand I think, 'Instead of just feeling crippled by a sense of loss, how about trying to reinvent the experience as a kind of freedom,'" she says, explaining how she reels from one day to the next, between different, and equally unlikely, possibilities for her family's future, thinking one minute of going to live in San Francisco, or "going to live in a yurt, in a commune and knit yogurt". But in truth, it's about imagining them all into a different reality, anything other than the exquisitely painful one they are living through right now. "Meanwhile, all I'm actually trying to do is get through the day. . . I thought I knew who I was going to be bringing my kids up with, and we'd found the house where it was all going to happen, and then it was a complete illusion," she says.
Though she likes order, Aitkenhead has always had little interest in convention. Which explains how she ended up in a relationship with Tony. She was in her early 30s and married to the press photographer Paul Hackett when they first met. She and her husband had moved to a new house in Hackney, and Tony was a neighbour. A tall, commanding, dreadlocked local who knew and chatted to everybody, he lived a few doors down with his Californian wife and their young daughter. For the sake of appearances, he ran a property development company, but in fact he was a career criminal and wholesale cocaine dealer.
They started out as friends - Tony would drop in regularly to Decca and Paul for cups of tea and chats. With her reporter's nose and interviewer's skill, she eventually drew out his life story. Born as a mixed-race kid to a white British teenager, he was given up for adoption. He spent a stint in foster homes, where his early experiences were of emotional neglect until, by chance, he was adopted by a stalwart, lower middle-class couple who, despite his increasing delinquency, never wavered in their love for him. Though they always stood by him, the Wilkinsons couldn't control their son. As a teenager, Tony ran away to London and became a Soho hustler. Soon after, when his prostitute girlfriend was abducted by her pimps, he shot them. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison and served five.
As her marriage began to flounder, Decca found herself spending more and more time with Tony. As a couple, she admits, they seemed an utterly implausible match. She inhabited arts and media circles, he sold drugs on council estates and was "heavily addicted" to crack cocaine. But there was something about Tony's outsider status that appealed to her. She'd grown up in "genteel poverty", the daughter of radical intellectuals who regarded the cosy certainties and bourgeois values of middle-class life with contempt. "I could never just have quite seen myself living with somebody who got up in the morning, put on a suit and tie and went to work for the London Review of Books and gave speeches at Chatham House in the evening. That person would be really interesting, but I just can't quite see myself in that emphatically middle- class life," she says. "It's so much to do with class. Because I never really belonged to the middle classes. I just couldn't see myself as a fully fledged member. I just couldn't. Whereas Tony's completely heterogeneous approach to the world meant that he was friends with people from all walks of life, and barely noticed that they were from different walks of life. That was part of it. It was in no way contrived on his part whatsoever. Not at all. The only thing he really noticed was race. That was the only category distinction that he noticed between people."
Initially, her family were horrified at her new relationship, and for a long time she was estranged from them. But Tony defied both typecasting and expectations, and, after meeting Decca, steered his life through an unexpected plot twist worthy of a Hollywood script. When, after six months together, Decca left him because of his addiction to crack, he went to Narcotics Anonymous and started therapy. He never took crack again. Soon after, he stopped dealing drugs and went back to education, getting his degree and eventually a job with the now-defunct charity Kids Company as an outreach worker, mentoring troubled teenagers.
"Lots of people have been very curious about how I could have fallen in love with a man who had a violent history," Decca says today. Especially as she's been a committed pacifist since she was a teenager.
"One thing that I would say, and this comes under the context of my difficulties about not really fully belonging to the middle class, one of the things I've always found deeply alienating about the vast majority of middle-class men, and particularly middle-class men who live in London, is that I realise that they are physically scared of men who live on council estates and don't wear suits to work and don't talk like them and don't read the newspapers that they read. . . . And that upsets me so much - that they have a physical fear of them, almost as if they are wild animals or something. I find it really alienating, because I think you can't on the one hand talk a good game about not looking down on the lower classes, you can't claim to be this liberal person who believes that they are no better than everybody else and everyone is equal. That's not true if when you see someone in a hoody on a night-bus, your first instinct is that you get an animal response that that person represents a physical threat to you."
For her part, Decca has never been someone much bothered by fear or anxiety - she's got to the age she is now without succumbing to the contemporary tendency to catastrophise. So she was horrified when, in the aftermath of Tony's death, she found herself fearful for the first time ever.
"What had happened in the course of my relationship with Tony was that without me noticing, I had become used to there being somebody to protect me. And in the early months after he was gone, I felt absolutely naked and frightened, and I thought 'God, is this going to be who I am? How do you know if this is now a permanent state of affairs or temporary?' And I'm so relieved that it was a temporary state of affairs," she says.
It was harder still to witness the crisis of confidence that followed in her sons, particularly the eldest. "I felt towards the end of the first year [after Tony's death] to some extent their fearlessness had come back, and then when I got cancer Jake became very anxious and fearful, and that was unbearable. I thought they can't withstand two disasters and retain their robust fearless relationship with the world, and that's impossible to ask of them. But I have had a sense in the last month or so, with both of them, that they do have some of their old boldness back. And I'm eternally grateful that I'm not still panicking . . . I wouldn't have known who I was. That's someone that I don't ever want to be."
The only thing, she says, that she can be hopeful about is that her sons can get through the terrible upheaval without losing confidence in the world. "I'm not Pollyanna-ish. I don't think, 'Ooh, let's look on the bright side.' It's not really in my nature. I think if they've learnt resilience from this, then they're going to be stronger. Because the whole time you are worrying, are they going to be broken? Is this going to define them forever? Or are they going to have a sense of perspective, and empathy and resilience. Of course I pray that it's the latter. But again, it's going to be 20 years before I really know the answer." In the meantime, both she and Jake have been seeing therapists. For Jake, the idea was to help him deal with the survivor's guilt he'd been wrestling with in the aftermath of the accident. In her case, she explains, it was prompted by the huge responsibility she now carries as the single parent of bereaved sons. "If two little children are depending on you, then you can't make them pay the price for anything that's wrong with you, and they will if you don't get it sorted out." She finds it useful to have a professional perspective on how they are managing. "When you live with a partner, or you have a partner, somebody is noticing what you are like. A lot. Because it really makes a difference to them. But if you don't have a partner, even if you see lots of people all the time, you are seeing them for lunch, or for school pickup, these are discrete meetings that you organise, which isn't the same as this open-ended period of exposure. I think we all underestimate our reflex to perform. But nobody can perform for their partner. Or for your children. And so, because I don't have a partner, there now [is no one] who knows what I'm really like, then the only people that will be noticing it are the kids, and they won't be able to tell me. So for them I think it's probably quite helpful if I'm seeing somebody."
It's tempting, she admits, especially when shaping life's messy chaos into a narrative, as she did for her book, to succumb to our need to upswing at the end, to tie things off neatly on a positive note. Of course, it is never that simple. But there are, nonetheless small, important signs of green shoots. She's back at work again, and physically, there is improvement every day since she stopped cancer treatment at the end of last year. "Six months ago I felt I had the body of an 80-year-old, and gradually it's coming down by decades," she says. There is a "sense that everything is going in the right direction - nothing is getting worse; my hair is getting longer, my tiredness is receding, my scars are healing."
'All At Sea' is published by Fourth Estate, €22.50. Decca Aitkenhead will appear at the International Literature Festival Dublin on May 22 at 2pm at Smock Alley. See ilfdublin.com