Olivia Merriman and Jay Mukoro celebrated the marriage of their dreams last September 7 – “a humanist ceremony” – performed in the gardens of the Merriman home in Dulwich, London.
Finally the couple had sealed a five-year relationship sparked by a meeting at a BBC fundraising event. “We saw each other and as we started talking, there was a real intense bond. We just talked to each other in a very open, very honest way and I felt at that moment that I had really met my soulmate.”
Olivia and Jay’s dreams and plans for a long life together were shattered Easter Sunday when he walked into the sea at Accra Beach in Christ Church and disappeared.
It was a devastating end to a day that had begun with Jay preparing a scrambled eggs and beans breakfast for his wife. Afterwards, she said: “We walked down to the beach together and we talked about our lives and the future because it is a very special holiday.
“Jay has been working on a documentary in Glasgow so we have not been together for a little time. We have been living apart while he is working on that, so being in Barbados was a time to really connect and be in love and have a close time together, so we were walking and talking.”
Often drifting from present to past tense, Olivia went on to relate the events of Sunday.
“Jay went into the water, I watched him going in just above knee height. Then I read my book for a bit and then I looked up and I saw someone I thought was him and I carried on reading for a bit and then I looked up again and then I realised that the person I thought was him actually had a different build. It wasn’t him.”
“I felt a bit worried. I started looking a bit more and I couldn’t see him. Then I got up and I started pacing the beach feeling more and more frantic and desperate, just saying his name again and again and I could not see him anywhere. I was feeling frightened. I went to the lifeguard tower . . . and I told them what had happened and they seemed surprised because they were on lookout and had not seen anything.”
Thus began the frantic search for Jay including efforts by the Barbados Coast Guard, a search which to date has turned up nothing.
Olivia has since spent “desperate nights of having images of him in my mind and thinking of him coming to harm, being in the water alone, cold, frightened.”
“I could not sleep, I could not eat, I could not stop crying and grieving and holding on to hope that something might happen that we couldn’t understand; some miracle or something.”
Jay worked for the BBC as a television film-maker, producing landmark documentary series for the British television network. He recently got a promotion with BBC Scotland to be producer/director for a documentary on the 1986 Commonwealth Games and it was that assignment that brought him to Barbados to interview former Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Shridath Ramphal.
Jay 43, was born to Nigerian parents in Britain. Lapsing back to the present tense as though he was present, Olivia said of their interracial marriage “We are both quite aware of the fact that we are both from different racial backgrounds. It is something we talked about; we talked about having children and what it would mean to have mixed heritage children and how we would want to take them at some point to Nigeria so that they could have a sense of that part of their identity.”
“My family is white British, his heritage is Nigerian, so there are big cultural differences and both of our families have been really supportive. We have done quite a lot of travelling as a mixed couple and some places we went we were stared at more. Even some places in England, sometimes comments would be made . . . . When we travel, certain countries are less open-minded and are a bit more judgemental, so we have talked about those things, laughed about them and their silly aspects.”
With Jay’s disappearance Olivia has been left in a state of shock. “I don’t know what is going to happen. How I am going to keep on living my life because he is the biggest part of my life and my best friend. A wonderful person.”
Hardest of all for the grieving wife of only seven months is the thought of opening the door and walking back into the couple’s shared home in Battersea, London, alone.
“We had a lot of things that we were doing to make it a family home. We were working towards having a family together and so when I walk in the door it will be devastating because all our wedding photos are around, all his books, all his things will be around the house. I think at that moment when I walk through the door I will be hit by the huge, huge loss and I think that’s going to be my struggle for now, living without him.”
“Each day there will be things that we had planned. I had booked my trip to go to Glasgow to see him where he is working and another to Copenhagen to see friends. His birthday is coming up on the 14th of June, all these dates are going to be hugely painful,” she added.
As a psychologist working with the British health service the tables have dramatically turned and she finds herself having to walk in the shoes of many a patient she has treated.
“I work a lot with people who have been through trauma and I work a lot with people who have suffered bereavement and there are times when I think I should have done something differently that day. . . . At that time I have to remind myself what I would say in my role as a psychologist to other people who have been through such things. I guess I try and be that support to myself as I have been to others,” she said.
Olivia is leaning on the support she has been receiving from Jay’s family and hers, her parents and two of her sisters flying down to Barbados to be with her the moment they learnt of the tragedy.
“I always talk to people about how much they need to be carried by the people that love them because you can’t do it alone, so I am really reaching out, firstly to my family and Jay’s family.”
The prospects of being a widow at age 34 flash through her mind and allowing herself a moment to think of the reality she said: “It will be day by day living through that loss and trying to say to yourself there is life before Sunday and there is life after Sunday and there are two completely different lives.”
Yet she realistically said: “I have to really begin my life again because everything that my life was about has gone, really. It is going to have to be a new start for me and I am going to have to really try and reinvent my life. I will have a lot of support to do that and I will have a lot of Jay’s strength and support to do that.”
She is sure she will find further strength to go on when she forces her imagination back to “things he might be saying to me at difficult times to give me strength . . . his expressions and how he’d look at me now if he saw the pain that I am in and I imagine his face.”
“We have had a wonderful relationship and I still feel hugely lucky that I have had him in my life and I can hold on to that even now, but there is also this overwhelming pain of imagining the possibility without him,” Olivia said.
Still she plans to go on and “always try and celebrate the person that Jay was” and “hopefully if he is still out there somewhere, to be keeping his memory very much alive.