All at Sea

All at Sea

by Decca Aitkenhead


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On a hot, still morning on a beautiful beach in Jamaica, Decca Aitkenhead’s life changed forever. Her four-year-old son was paddling peacefully at the water’s edge when a wave pulled him out to sea. Her partner, Tony, swam out and saved their son’s life—then drowned before her eyes. When Decca and Tony first met, a decade earlier, she was a renowned journalist profiling leading politicians; he was a dreadlocked criminal with a history of drug dealing and violence. No one thought their romance would last, but it did—until the tide swept Tony away, plunging Decca into the dark chasm of random tragedy. Exploring race and redemption, privilege and prejudice, All at Sea is a remarkable story of love and loss, of how two people changed each other, and of what a sudden death can do to those who survive.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101912331
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/11/2017
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 385,328
Product dimensions: 7.90(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

DECCA AITKENHEAD is an award-winning journalist who conducts interviews with leading figures in public life for The Guardian. She lives in rural Kent with her two young sons.

Read an Excerpt


The thing to remember about this story is that every word is true. If I never told it to a soul, and this book did not exist, it would not cease to be true. I don’t mind at all if you forget this. The important thing is that I don’t.

My three-year-old son asks me to tell him the story almost every day. “Tell me the story about how Tony died-ed again,” he says. And so I do, until he knows the words and can join in, as if it were a well-worn nursery rhyme. He needs to hear the story to make it real for him. But the ritual makes it sound more like Little Red Riding Hood to me—just another fantastical fairy tale.

The first time I read the story of Tony’s death, it was a news report in the Guardian, my own newspaper. I love newspapers. I have been a journalist for twenty years. Even as a child I was a compulsive writer, but only ever of diaries, letters, lists—never fiction. Where would be the point in making up a story, when the truth is by definition always more interesting? And so for twenty years I have been reading and writing what I thought of as the truth. Then I read about my own family’s tragedy in my newspaper, and the only thing I could think was: they can’t be talking about me. They can’t mean my family. This could never happen to me and my family. This is something that happens to other people.

“This happens to other people” is a recurring cliché of the random tragedy survivor’s experience. I have heard it countless times in my job, from stunned interviewees recounting a bolt from the blue—and to tell the truth, I have always found it puzzling. What do they mean? Why would they imagine that other people are any different from them? Now here I was, thinking exactly the same thing: this happens to other people. And slowly, I began to see why.

We read about freak disasters every day, knowing perfectly well that the news is not fiction. And yet, deep down, what we are reading must feel to us made up. Why else would we be so incredulous when they happen to us? Even the journalists who report them must be in the same boat. I have been writing about real people for all these years, and apparently had not grasped that they were real.

Back in the early Nineties, among a particular type of London media sophisticate, something called postmodernism was the height of fashion, and dinner parties would routinely be ruined by some cultural studies graduate boring everyone to death about the absurdity of constructs such as “truth.” At the time I wrote it off as a fad for pseudo-intellectuals hoping to look clever. Now I wonder if they weren’t onto something after all.

Because it isn’t really possible to write about a real-life event without turning it into a form of fiction. Once an accident of chance has been organised into a narrative, it can be honest, and accurate, and illuminating. But it is only an edited version of a partial perspective, not the same thing as the truth.

So now I am afraid that by writing this story, I will make it untrue. Chapter headings and syntax and punctuation will elbow all my tears and grief out of the way, until the catastrophe has been reduced to just another piece of work, and my memories of what happened have been replaced by this printed version, creating a safe distance between myself and the horror.

Of course, in many ways this is enormously appealing. If I take control of this narrative and become its author, I will steal its power over me; I can detach myself from my own story, and escape. Who wouldn’t want to do that? And yet, that is also the very thing I fear most.

For most of my life I have known how to control my feelings. I found that if you can control your feelings, you can pretty much control your whole world. It’s amazingly effective. But Tony’s death was beyond my control—and now, for the first time, so are my emotions. Tony always used to tell me to think less and feel more, but I never could. Now that that’s all I can do, I can see he was right—and if feelings are his gift from the grave, I’m afraid of taming them into words.

But if I don’t write about him, I am afraid I will forget too much. I was almost ten years old when my mother died, and I can remember someone telling me at the time to write down all my memories of her. What a daft idea, I remember thinking. Where would be the point? I’m hardly likely to forget anything about her. I remember all that very clearly. Unfortunately, however, within a remarkably short time I found I had forgotten almost everything else. She had been my mother for one week short of a decade, and before I was even in my teens I could barely remember a thing about her. I lost most of a decade of my life.

Tony drowned just a few months before our tenth anniversary, and I am frightened of losing that decade too. So I write because I don’t want to forget.


“Just having coffee down on the beach,” Tony calls over his shoulder, as he strolls down the garden path towards the gate. Still half asleep, he treads languidly, flip-flops flapping faintly on the soles of his feet. Our three-year-old son, Joe, is playing inside in his bedroom, but I can’t spot his older brother. From the front deck of the cottage, I call down to Tony.

“Have you got Jake?”

Tony settles on the edge of a sunlounger, his back to me, gazing out to sea. “Yeah, got him here.” I look again, and there Jake is, in his navy blue pyjamas, playing in the sand between Tony’s feet and the water’s edge. It is just after 8 a.m. on a cloudless Caribbean morning.

We arrived here ten days ago, for a holiday that feels not so much recreational as medicinal. Tony and I have two small children, two full-time jobs, and the usual unmanageable levels of exhaustion and stress. Twelve months earlier we moved out of London and launched into renovating a sixteenth-century farmhouse with the naïve excitement of a couple who had no idea what living in a building site with two little boys would be like. After an interminable winter of dust and rubble, we are frazzled. The holiday had been my idea. I know we can’t afford to go away, I had said, but perhaps we can’t afford not to either? I put the trip on a credit card, telling myself it was not an extravagance but a necessity.

I first came to this scruffy little fishing village on the south coast of Jamaica almost twenty years ago. Too remote and untamed for the package-holiday market, Treasure Beach is not a resort but just a dusty muddle of potholed lanes and driftwood shacks clustered around two bays, Calabash and Frenchman’s. To the east and west, the coastline is wild and deserted. On the hillside overlooking the ocean, farmers grow scallion and melons in blood-red soil.

I was first sent here to write a travel story about a new hotel called Jake’s. Back then, in the early Nineties, Jake’s was nothing more than a few artfully rustic cottages nestled in a rocky cove between the village’s two beaches. But it is owned by a family of celebrated Jamaican filmmakers and artists, and over the years evolved into a boutique spa hotel with a boho hipster reputation among fashionable types who find St. Barts and Barbados a bit bling, and prefer not to be bothered by paparazzi stalking Simon Cowell. Treasure Beach’s other guesthouses attract a more hippyish backpacker type, but even in high season tourists seldom outnumber the battered wooden fishing boats on the beach.

Almost two decades later, Treasure Beach feels more like home to me than anywhere else on earth. I have been coming here every year, beguiled by the discovery of epic melodrama concealed beneath its sleepy surface. This tiny Caribbean community contains more comedy and intrigue than I have ever managed to find in London. In 2000 I rented a house in Calabash Bay for nine months while I wrote a book, and some of my oldest and most precious friendships belong here in this village.

After all these years, Calabash beach is as familiar to me as my own reflection. It is a slender curl of sand between two rocky points no more than 300 yards apart, dotted with just seven cottages and villas. Over time I have stayed in all but one of the houses, and for this holiday we have rented the cottage at the eastern end of the bay, close to the corner where the fishing boats lie upturned on the sand. It is the cottage where Tony and I stayed the very first time I brought him here.

Before our boys were born, holidays involved late nights in local bars, sleeping until noon beneath the cool of a ceiling fan and lazing afternoons away in a hammock. Those days are long gone. Dusk falls fast in the tropics; it is inky black by 7:30 p.m., and on this holiday we have all been in bed not much later. Most mornings I have been on the tennis court at dawn with my friend Annabelle, a ballsy six-foot motorbiker, while Tony wandered down to the fishing boats with the boys to see what the night catch had brought. We have been laughing at what an unexpectedly wholesome couple we appear to have become.

“Isn’t it funny,” Tony had remarked after the first few days, “how this is actually more fun than everything we used to get up to here?” We are slowly beginning to unwind, to feel almost normal again. I am even going to give yoga a go. For years everyone has been telling me to try it, and at last I am about to; my first lesson starts at 9 a.m. at Jake’s. Feeling self-conscious about how creaky I have become, I had been stretching on the deck when a friend appeared in the garden, passing by on his way into the village.

Shugoo is a chef, and one of Tony’s closest friends in the village. A great mountain of a man, he is practically round, and on first impression can appear rather solemn—even Buddha-like—for he tends to move majestically slowly, and is at ease in silence. But when Shugoo laughs, he explodes into peals of schoolboy giggles, and he and Tony are usually helpless with laughter within minutes together. The kettle had just boiled, so Tony made coffee, and the pair wandered down to the beach to leave me to my stretching.

The only yoga move I have ever tried is something very basic called a sun salutation. A friend showed me it years ago, and I’m pretty sure I don’t do it properly, but I bend backwards and begin. Sunlight dapples the deck through the tangled branches of an overhanging calabash tree. I straighten and lean forward to touch my toes. Any second now our son Joe will emerge onto the deck and demand we join the others on the beach, but for now all is quiet, and in the rare calm my mind drifts.

As I straighten a few minutes later and stand, my eye catches something in the sea. A head is bobbing in the water. The swimmer is clearly out of their depth—but how is that possible? The swimmer can be no more than 10 feet from the shore. On a normal day you can wade out 30 or 40 feet before your feet no longer touch the bottom. It must be a child, I think idly—a very small child. I scan the beach, wondering where its parents can be.

The waves on Frenchman’s beach can often be fierce, but Calabash Bay has been like a millpond since we arrived. We have spent hours in the ocean most days, the boys astonished by the crystal warmth of glassy water. “Dec, it’s like a giant bath!” they would squeal. “Look, Tony, we can see our toenails!” They call us by our names instead of Mum and Dad, and it makes others on the beach laugh. We had planned to move to another cottage around the headland for the second week of our holiday, but this beach is so perfect for the children that we cancelled the other booking and decided to stay put here.

The villa to our left belongs to friends, and when guests had left the previous day the owners had let our boys use the pool. Jake is four, and on the cusp of learning to swim; he had spent the whole day in the pool with Tony, splashing about without his floatation vest. Tony had taught him how to tread water, and Jake was elated with his new buoyancy.

That afternoon, while they had been in the pool, I had glanced out to sea and saw the current had shifted. The bay was still fairly calm but a little choppy, no longer glassy. To anyone unfamiliar with these waters, the change would be imperceptible, but I understood its significance. Beneath an apparently benign surface, a treacherous undertow builds, doubling the depth of the water and sucking anyone in it out to sea. I have been caught in one a few times here, and the force can be startling. “See how the current’s changed?” I had called to Tony, gesturing out to sea. He had cast a brief glance, but could see nothing, and had turned back to Jake. We had this lovely pool to ourselves, so it seemed unimportant, and soon drifted out of my mind.

Now I take another look at the head bobbing in the water. It is only seconds since I spotted it, but already it has moved further from the shore. I scan the beach again, looking for Tony, when a sudden idea shocks me. My gaze snaps back to the swimmer. That can’t be Jake, can it? Surely not. No, Tony would never allow him into the sea by himself. Besides, without his floatation vest on Jake can’t swim. I stare again. Bloody hell, it is Jake. Is it? I squint, shielding my eyes from the sun. It can’t be. But yes, I think it is.

He didn’t take his vest down to the beach, did he? He must have. But he was still in his pyjamas. And Tony let him go swimming by himself? Tony is normally quite jumpy around water; he has never been a good swimmer, and is easily panicked when the boys are in the sea. I wonder what they can be up to. Vaguely uneasy, I turn and glance around the deck. Swimming costumes and beach towels and sarongsare slung over backs of chairs. I see suntan lotion and straw hats scattered on the floor. I spot Joe’s swimming vest hooked over a branch of the calabash tree, where I had hung it out to dry the night before. And then I freeze. I am staring at Jake’s vest. He cannot be wearing it, because it is right there next to Joe’s in the tree.

I’m flying down the garden path to the beach before my mind has time to calibrate the drama. That is Jake out there in the ocean, and he cannot swim. The panic flooding me is unlike anything I have ever known. But even as I sprint I can’t quite seriously believe in my own fright. Surely this can’t be a genuine emergency, can it? In real life, emergencies always turn out to be false alarms—and this one is palpably implausible. Jake is still only yards from the shore, after all. We are on holiday. I know this beach inside out.

But I don’t stop running. Within seconds I am through the gate and onto the sand. I don’t take my eyes off Jake. But then I see that Tony is already ahead of me, ploughing through the water towards him. Within moments he has our son in his hands, and lifts the spluttering child out of the waves above his head. Jake coughs and chokes, catches his breath, and relaxes in Tony’s arms. The crisis is over. Tony wraps an arm around Jake and starts to head back to shore.

As I sink onto the sand to watch, the relief makes me giggly. Oh dear, I think, we are never going to hear the end of this. Tony is such a drama queen about water, he’s going to blather on about this all day. By teatime he will probably be claiming the waves were 6 feet high. Tony loves an anecdote, and this one is right up his street. Oh well, I smile. It may even be the highlight of his holiday.

But something is wrong. Tony and Jake are now vertical in the water, facing each other, submerged up to their chins. Although not far from the shore, Tony is already out of his depth. Waves are breaking in their faces; they are struggling to stay afloat. What can be the matter? And then I see. Tony can’t manage to swim holding Jake. He can barely keep both of them afloat, let alone get them back to shore.

I leap to my feet and scramble into the water. Within moments I am out of my depth, but the swell is gentle and it doesn’t occur to me to feel anything other than purposeful calm as I swim. Because really, what is there to worry about now? They are not terribly far away. I will just take Jake, swim him back to shore, and once Tony can use both arms he will follow.

If anything, what I feel as I swim towards them is mild embarrassment. I hadn’t considered pausing to undress, but sprinting into the ocean with all my clothes on now strikes me as mildly melodramatic. I hope no one was looking. The only other person I’m aware of on the beach is Shugoo, and he will probably tease me all morning about my Baywatch antics.

Tony and I say nothing to each other when I reach them. We are both focused on Jake. Tony passes him to me, I flip him onto his back, twist onto my back beneath him, cup his chin in my left hand, and with my right hand begin to swim for shore. It’s surprisingly easy. My chief memories of school swimming lessons in the Eighties recall the shame of ill-fitting swimwear, and the malice of our swimming teacher. But now I find that I can also remember the basics of lifesaving. It is thirty years since I was shown the ropes, and I have had no cause to practise since then, but evidently it must be like riding a bike. I will have Jake back on the beach in no time.

There is a nervy moment when Jake wriggles out of my arm. “I want to face you!” he protests, twisting onto his front, and at once we start to sink. Suddenly I am as helpless as Tony had been. “No, Jake! You have to lie on your back! This is not a game!” I don’t know if my scream frightened him, but he flips onto his back obediently, and once again we are swimming.

I am not sure how long we have been in the water when I turn to see the beach, but it feels like quite a while. A surprisingly long time, in fact. Surely by now we should be there? I twist my neck to look—and cannot believe what I see.

This can’t be possible. The beach should be just a few feet away. But we are nowhere near it; we’re not even halfway there. What is going on? I remember the undertow. Of course, that’s what’s going on. How could I have forgotten? We are trapped in its current. But it is nothing like any undertow I have ever known before. This feels more like the force of a gigantic magnet sucking us out to the horizon. And yet, even now, it does not cross my mind to panic. I will just have to swim harder, I tell myself, and it is going to take a little longer than I had thought.

It still has not occurred to me to worry when I spot another head nearby in the water. The head turns and I see that it is Blouser, a fisherman I’ve known for fifteen years. He must be in his forties by now, but is still lean and fearsomely fit; his home is a tin shack on the beach near our cottage, and he more or less lives in the sea. We have bought fish from Blouser most days on this holiday, and Jake and Joe have been dazzled and fascinated by him, for he can sometimes seem more amphibian than human.

I open my mouth to call to him, but his expression silences me. Blouser looks frightened to death. He stares back at me across the water, his features rigid with terror and exhaustion.

What is going on? Why does Blouser look like that? What has happened? “Blouser!” I shout. “Are you okay?” He struggles to nod. “Can you take my hand?” I yell, and he does. We swim together for a few yards, until I see his features relax. “Blouser, are you standing? Are you in your depth?” He nods faintly, head tilted back, straining to keep his mouth above water. I swim on another yard or so past him, searching with outstretched toes until at last they touch wet sand. Hoisting Jake above my shoulders, weak with fatigue, I carry him out of the waves, lower him to his feet, and together we fall to our knees.

“Are you alright?” I gasp. Jake blinks back at me and grins. “Yeah, fine.” Brushing sand off his pyjamas, he shrugs away the adventure as if it were nothing.

As I kneel and catch my breath I’m inclined to think he is probably right. There were a couple of dicey moments out there, certainly, and I am very glad it’s over. But nothing significantly dangerous happened. Jake just got out of his depth, and needed help getting in. I don’t know why Blouser looked so panic-stricken, but now that Jake is safely ashore he must be fine. I stand and turn to look for him on the beach, anticipating a hug and rueful smiles.

But I don’t see Blouser. I don’t even look for him. As I stand and turn, what I see makes me forget all about Blouser. Tony should be wading onto the beach by now; at worst he should be back in his depth. But Tony isn’t anywhere near the shore. He isn’t even where I left him. He is further out to sea, much, much further, 50 feet off shore, and isn’t even trying to swim.

Reading Group Guide

1. In the prologue, Decca writes that “it isn’t really possible to write about a real-life event without turning it into a form of fiction. . . . it is only an edited version of a partial perspective, not the same thing as the truth.” What do you make of that assertion? How did that idea guide your reading experience?

2. Decca writes about being a parent to young children whose parent has died, and also about being a young child whose own parent has died. How do these two perspectives inform each other?

3. Decca refers to herself and Tony as “the most implausible couple [she has] ever known.” What drew Decca and Tony to each other? Does their story remind you of any love stories in your own life?

4. Decca writes about how Tony would list off the reasons why his crack use was different than that of a common addict. In what ways did his inability to see the truth help him? In what ways did it hurt him?

5. What aspect of Tony’s life story did you find most inspiring?

6. After Tony dies, both Decca and her son Jake confront deep feelings of guilt surrounding the drowning. Did you expect this reaction? Have you experienced a similar reaction to grief?

7. Tony’s death was quickly covered by London news outlets. How did the media coverage complicate the grieving process for Decca and her family? Were there advantages? Disadvantages?

8. One of the most emotionally charged aspects of the book is how Decca helps her children deal with Tony’s death. What did you learn from reading her account of this process?

9. After her mother’s death, Decca’s family “organized a system of bereavement in which anything as chaotic as anguish could be reasoned away. . . . [and congratulated themselves on their] superior analysis of death.” Eventually, however, she finds that “it is a middle-class fallacy that if only you’re clever enough, you can find a way to save yourself from common misery.” How does Decca’s family’s “system of bereavement” compare to your own?

10. All at Sea begins and ends at Treasure Beach, the location where Tony died. What effect did this have on you as a reader? What effect did it have on the book as a whole?

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