On September 10th 2011, Judith Tebbutt and her husband David (Director of Finance at publishers Faber & Faber) had arrived at Kiwayu Safari Village on the Kenyan coast, following a fabulous holiday on the Masai Mara. The plan was to luxuriate in the peace and solitude of their 'banda' on the beach before heading back to the UK, where Judith worked as a social worker in a medium-secure psychiatric hospital. Despite some careful research the solitude was slightly more than the couple had anticipated... they were the only ones staying at the resort at that time.
What happened next was well-reported on the national news and in every newspaper...
Pirates from Somalia landed on the beach and stormed David and Judith's banda in the early hours of September 11th. In the ensuing struggle David was shot through the heart and died instantly, whilst Judith was being dragged down the beach by her kidnappers to a waiting speedboat that would take her to Somalia and six long months in captivity.
Now sadly kidnappings are not unusual in the news, and whilst I take note I can't say I remember dates, or feel any particular affinity beyond acute sympathy for those involved. It can all seem a long way from the Tamar Valley, but I did take note of the Tebbutt's and for several reasons.
Firstly September 11th is our wedding anniversary and I remember thinking how utterly devastating for such a thing to happen to any couple. On a day when we were celebrating being together here was a couple brutally set asunder.
Secondly, I had spent some time that year at Faber's offices in London. I had several meetings to talk about books various and to plan the Team Edward Thomas reading project on here, and we were planning a meet up with author Matthew Hollis and a visit to the Faber archive the following month. One thing that I had learned, as I met and chatted to people at Faber, was that it was a small but very close-knit publishing community, it seemed like a happy workplace. I was even introduced to a very nice chap called Stephen Page who had wanted to meet me...and then sat in his very nice office nattering about books and dovegreyreader scribbles for ages before asking what his role was at Faber. Chief Executive... the framed pictures of T.S.Eliot and other Faber luminaries should really have alerted me. When I heard the news of David Tebbutt's murder and Judith's kidnapping I knew they would all, as of one, be devastated, and I sent 'Thinking of you' messages.
Thirdly, I couldn't stop thinking about Judith Tebbutt.
Judith was just a year younger than me and all I could imagine was the terror and the grief, and how I might have felt in a similar situation. You know me, I'd be rubbish without Bookhound, hopeless without a hair dryer, so how could I possibly even begin to imagine, but I doubt a day passed until I heard news of Judith's release when I didn't think about her, and momentarily paused to send her some positive vibes, hoping somehow that she knew she hadn't been forgotten, even by complete strangers. I kept thinking about her twenty-five year-old son Oliver too. How on earth was he coping... how would my children cope if this was us.
The newspapers went very quiet, there was absolutely no news whatsoever. Other hostages were dying in Somalia and all that could be hoped for were cool calm negotiations behind the scenes, and I remember being overjoyed when I heard of Judith's release whilst still thinking of all that grief she would still have to face when she walked in her front door again.
Things went quiet, very little in the press, my publicity contact had moved on from Faber, which along with a summer of gardening for me in 2013 might be how the July publication of Judith Tebbutt's book A Long Walk Home just passed me by until recently, when I heard a radio interview, and then saw three people pick the book up in W.H.Smith's in the space of about two minutes.
When my copy arrived (thank you Faber) I dived in the same day and barely drew breath until Judith had been set free and reunited with her son Oliver, before making a start on reacclimatising to her life as a widow and a survivor.
The account of the kidnap is harrowing, coupled with the fact that it was several weeks before Judith learned of David's death. Thinking he had survived, and kept going by the conviction that he would be busy negotiating her release, it's hard to imagine the day that Judith was handed a mobile phone to be told by Oliver, in a restricted three minute call, that David had died. With David's killers in the room who can know the power of Judith's restrained but well-directed hatred and anger when she confronts them afterwards....it only takes a jabbing finger to see them leave.
The captivity, like most, is mind-numbingly monotonous. Day after day in a small, dark, insect-ridden and very hot room. Primitive washing and toilet facilities, minimal food and clothing and Judith has to call on very ounce of inbuilt resilience and psychological strategy to survive. Madness must beckon at every turn and reading of Judith's methods for staving it off I could only marvel at her fortitude. Illness would have been my greatest fear but Judith takes a firm grip on her self and those fears and rarely gives in to self pity. I often wondered how I might have coped, would any of those skills we are armed with for helping others when we are in the caring professions be of any use on ourselves when called for. Judith delves into her tool box and finds plenty that is useful.
The sequalae on release seem almost as punishing and far-reaching as the captivity....
I felt like half the person I had been. Physically I had shrunk. It was clear to me I had lost as much as 50lbs in weight. (Later I would discover that I weighed a mere five stone.) But mentally too, I felt I had used up a lot of capacity in captivity, never switched off, never sleeping properly. That too had taken a toll.'
My eyes welled up constantly and my heart was actually pounding as I read of the tense moments leading up to Judith's release, her reunion with family, her flight home and that moment when she sets foot once more in the home she had once shared with David. Their bags had arrived back from Kenya long before and can there be anything worse than having to face a suitcase full of your deceased loved one's holiday packing.
In many ways Judith's long walk home continues. Initially a reference to her daily regime of walking around her 'cell' hourly each day, the walk home to wholeness goes on, the losses have been profound and by Judith's own admission her life will never be complete without David at her side. Reminders ambush unexpectedly, the scars of the old traumas translate into new fears plus she was unable to return to her job, but determined not to let the kidnappers take any more of her life from her Judith is approaching it all with admirable and courageous determination...
'My life won't be the same, but it is life itself, and its value is clear: it is all that we have and all we ever can have, and it must be cherished, respected, never ever taken for granted.'
I don't often read books like this, but here I felt something of a sense of closure too. I am guessing that Judith Tebbutt might describe herself as an ordinary person to whom the most tragic and extraordinary things happened, turning the final page I sank back in my chair and wished her gentle days ahead, and realised I had read a remarkable book about a very remarkable and courageous woman.