Our lives changed on 1 March 1996. Prior to that date, life with Malcolm Campbell Irvine had been like living in a golden bubble, where we were treasured and protected. My sons and I were the centre of Malcolm’s universe, surrounded by his love. We knew it and felt it, always.
Early that day Malcolm had set off from Mulberry Down, our Surrey home, to board his yacht Mulberry, moored at Port Solent, Portsmouth. He was smiling broadly and was armed with a fresh batch of his favourite homemade cakes, joyfully anticipating the weekend ahead. Malcolm was always a very private person and normally undemonstrative in public, so I was pleasantly surprised when he doubled-back to the doorway and kissed me firmly goodbye before leaving.
Malcolm was planning to step back a little from the arduous hours that he worked in the family business and he hoped to spend some of his newly anticipated free time giving sailing lessons on board the Mulberry, to young people less fortunate than his own children.
He had already passed his Yachtmaster’s Certificate but had chosen to repeat it this particular weekend with Clare and Bryan, two of his regular young crew. He wanted to ensure that his qualifications were first class and totally up to the mark if he was to be responsible for youngsters.
It was a warm spring day. I remained in Surrey and was out for several hours with friends enjoying it fully before returning home in good time to collect our youngest son, Duncan, from school. Golden rays of sun poured through the conservatory windows, lighting the blooms I was arranging in a vase. As I placed the final piece of greenery, the doorbell rang …
Moments later, our protective bubble burst and our glorious family life was shattered. Clare, Malcolm’s sailing companion, was at the door. Intuitively, I knew that something was very, very wrong and that she had come to give me dreadful news. My initial fear was that Malcolm had drowned.
But he hadn’t drowned. While still full of anticipation for the weekend ahead, Malcolm had suffered an aortic heart aneurysm and died that morning on board his beloved yacht. Clare explained that Malcolm, the instructor and the crew had been enjoying coffee and cakes, chatting together, while sailing through the Portsmouth Harbour entrance. Never one to make a fuss or complain, Malcolm had suddenly said, very quietly, “I have a pain in my chest. It really is quite severe.” He then slumped to the cockpit floor.
The instructor leapt into action and within minutes a helicopter and crew from Royal Hospital Haslar, Gosport, were in attendance. Malcolm had the very best possible attention but nothing could be done. He was dead. From that moment and yet, completely unknown to us at the time, the colour of our lives was being washed from gold … to grey.
Brave young Clare had insisted on telling me herself; she couldn’t bear the thought of me receiving such news from police strangers. She had driven past Mulberry Down several times that day waiting for my car to reappear in the driveway. Finally it had.
Inexplicably, there were no tears from me. A deep, deep sadness filled me from the very core of my being but there were no tears. There was an immense feeling of calm, of logic, and most definitely, being ‘in charge’. A great, long list of things to do was clicking into place in my brain. It was as though I was being told ‘not to waste time on tears but to get on with the job in hand’. I was being pushed, gently, from behind …
I couldn’t understand it at all but was powerless to do anything else but follow the calm, quiet orders I was receiving. It made sense to do exactly as directed at that time. I immediately rang Malcolm’s brother, Ian, at the office. Clare stayed with me. I ensured that Ian was alone and asked him to close the door and sit down before I told him the news.
The next priority was Duncan. He was twelve years old, still at school, and needed to be collected. Clare offered to do this for me and brought him home. Then I took him into the lounge and told him, as gently as I could, the devastating news. “My father? Not my father?” he repeated several times as the awful reality sank in.
Knowing that I must travel to Charles and Alastair, at school in Canterbury, I rang my stepdaughter Karen’s mother and explained what had happened. She was distraught but I asked her to speak to Karen on my behalf, as I couldn’t possibly be in two places at once.
By this time, Bryan, the other crew member, having returned from re-berthing the Mulberry, had joined Clare, Duncan and I in Surrey. I telephoned the housemaster at King’s Canterbury saying that I needed to visit in order to speak urgently to my sons that evening.
We hastily packed overnight bags and set off for Kent. Bryan drove my car. Clare sat in the front and I remained in the back with Duncan. The shocked silence was tangible and the awful enormity of the situation threatened to chip away at my calm façade. I knew I had to remain resolute. I could not dissolve. My sons needed me to remain strong, dependable, and reliable. Breaking down was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
On arrival, Duncan and I were taken to the matron’s office and shortly joined by my two bewildered-looking sons, Alastair and Charlie. Telling my sons that day of their father’s death was one of the most difficult and horrendous tasks of my life. The colour drained from their faces. They were stunned but they too kept calm, as we all silently clasped one another in a much-needed family hug. They returned to their dorms to pack and then, with Clare and Bryan, we travelled to Mulberry Cottage, our home in Kent, where we spent that night.
I arranged for my brother, Stephen, to call the next morning. There was still this inexplicable influence filling my mind with calm and logic but there was also a crushing sadness that reached every part of me. It was as though I had ‘stepped outside’ my own body and was watching my actions from a different perspective. I felt like a puppet with an invisible puppet master.
Stephen arrived and explaining what had happened to him was a daunting task as he was a very close friend of Malcolm. Together, he and I drove the short distance to my parents’ home where I repeated the awful news once more. Watching my beloved parents’ faces crumple as I repeated the events of the previous day was heartbreaking. They loved Malcolm like a son and bringing this pain to them equalled my own despicable sadness.
Little did I know at the time that I had only just taken the first steps of what would prove to be an incredible journey of realisation and proof that life continues after death. And, as we later discovered, we would not only have to deal with Malcolm’s death, but also cope with a long court battle with his brother over the family business.
‘I flourish in light and in shade’ is the Irvine family motto. That is what we, Malcolm Campbell Irvine’s family, tried hard to do. Love can be glorious, wonderful and enthralling. It can be deeply painful too. But, as I was about to learn, love can be stronger, far stronger, than anything else seen or unseen.
The names and identifying details of some individuals
have been changed to protect their privacy.