For once, mother-of-seven Naghmeh King is alone. She sits in an apartment overlooking the Mediterranean and closes her eyes, letting the hazy late afternoon sunshine wash over her.
Apart from the soothing back-and-forth beat of waves on the shore, there is silence.
A pile of novels she’s never had a chance to read are at her side – but owing to a major new upheaval in her life, Naghmeh is anything but relaxed.
In 2014, she and husband Brett triggered a manhunt after taking their son Ashya, then five and suffering from a rare brain tumour, out of Southampton General Hospital without doctors’ consent to seek pioneering proton treatment in Europe.
Ashya received proton therapy in the Czech Republic and is making an ‘amazing’ recovery. But now, six years on, there is a sad denouement – Naghmeh, 50, and Brett, 56, have separated
They feared the chemotherapy and radiotherapy he was about to receive in Britain for his aggressive tumour, a medulloblastoma, would at best plunge him into a semi-vegetative state.
At worst, they said, it would kill him. After two days on the run, the Kings were arrested for child cruelty in Spain and jailed for 72 hours.
Each twist and turn of their story made global headlines and, eventually, it ended happily. Ashya received proton therapy in the Czech Republic and is making an ‘amazing’ recovery.
But now, six years on, there is a sad denouement – Naghmeh, 50, and Brett, 56, have separated.
Naghmeh is staying at the family’s holiday apartment on the Costa del Sol but yearns to be reunited with her children, who remain with her husband in Milton Keynes.
Few relationships would be immune to the pressures wrought by their ordeal: the strain of caring for their desperately sick child, their brief life as fugitives, the draining legal battles.
In 2014, she and husband Brett triggered a manhunt after taking their son Ashya, then five and suffering from a rare brain tumour, out of Southampton General Hospital without doctors’ consent to seek pioneering proton treatment in Europe. They are pictured above with a lawyer in Spain
Yet having survived all this, it was religion, according to Naghmeh, that caused their 30-year marriage to unravel and was behind her agonising decision to walk out, albeit temporarily, on her family.
Like her husband, Naghmeh was a Jehovah’s Witness, but she reveals today that where once it was a common bond between them, offering succour, structure and meaning to their lives, in time it became a source of unbearable tension.
She also tells of Ashya’s progress. Today he remains cancer-free, but is profoundly disabled and faces many future battles.
‘He can go up the stairs by himself but he has to sit to come down,’ she says. ‘He can’t write properly yet, his hand shakes, but he is starting to read and do sums. He’s OK.’
The couple always maintained that proton beam treatment, which wasn’t then offered in Britain, was Ashya’s best chance. It aims radiotherapy directly at a cancer, minimising damage to surrounding brain cells.
The couple felt vindicated two years ago when a leading British child cancer specialist, Dr Juliet Gray, told them after reviewing Ashya’s brain scan: ‘I am pleased to say there is no sign of any tumour recurrences and there is nothing that requires any urgent interventions.’
If the couple hadn’t done what they felt was right, says Naghmeh, the outcome would have been much worse.
A study published in The Lancet Oncology journal nearly 18 months after the Kings fled confirmed proton beam therapy causes fewer side-effects in child patients than conventional radiotherapy.
But following Ashya’s treatment, Naghmeh says her husband grew increasingly obsessed and fixated with the possibility that the cancer would return. At the same time, she says, the ‘Jehovahs were dominating our lives’.
Founded in the United States in the late 1800s, the Christian-based group largely interprets the Bible literally and is best known for its door-to-door evangelical work.
The movement has a patriarchal structure, with the husband, as head of the family, the final authority.
‘Brett takes control of everything,’ says Naghmeh. ‘He likes to have his way over every aspect of life, including shopping. He decides what we eat, how much the children eat and when and where to eat.
‘I hardly had any say in what we did. And when I insisted that I had to leave the religion, they tried to make out I was mad, when the reality was that I just couldn’t take any more of it.
‘We were a happy couple when the religion was not involved, and united too. When Ashya was ill, we pulled together as a family and made sure we got the best treatment for him. But it was very much Brett who was the dominant one, insisting on what we were doing and where we went. I mostly just sat back and let him do the talking, even in media interviews.
‘It says it all that in our 2017 book called Saving Ashya, I only really appear in the first chapter.
‘Brett had complete control and he pretty much dictated the book to the woman ghost writer.’
Looking back, she believes the fissures in their marriage were unbridgeable, but it took Covid-19 to bring matters to a head.
Naghmeh says her husband believes the virus heralds Armageddon and claims their three eldest children, aged between 20 and 29, have sided with him.
‘They think it is the great plague God prophesied and they will only be saved if their belief in Jehovah is strong enough,’ she says.
‘The children are scared, so scared, and their father is being so strict. Do this, do that, washing their hands continually, making them say their prayers before every meal and repeat them after him every night.
‘I couldn’t deal with it and came here to Spain at the beginning of March before the travel ban.’
The three-bedroom apartment near Estepona is modestly decorated, its walls largely unadorned but for photos of the children. It was a terrible wrench to leave them, and Naghmeh had no idea at the time that the lockdown would last so long, but she talks to them every day and exchanges messages constantly on WhatsApp.
‘I simply cannot go back to that life again. I’m far happier living away from Brett, but the young ones definitely need me now and I really hope to be back with them soon,’ she says. ‘I’m missing them so much and I love them so much.’
Following the removal of his tumour, Ashya suffers with a condition called posterior fossa syndrome, which initially reduced him to a vegetative state. The syndrome affects up to 40 per cent of children following similar surgery. Symptoms include problems with speech and motor skills and he may not make a full recovery. But neither Naghmeh nor her husband has any regrets.
‘Travelling in the car as we took him out of hospital and left England was an intense time,’ she says. ‘I had to feed him through his nostrils, he could not swallow anything or even drink water. He was totally paralysed.’
Upon discovering Ashya was missing, doctors at Southampton General said his life was in danger, so Hampshire Police issued an international arrest warrant and a 48-hour manhunt ensued. It ended in a Malaga hotel on August 30, 2014, when two policemen knocked on the Kings’ bedroom door.
Speaking later that year, Mr King recalled: ‘I said to my family, “Don’t worry, we’ll sort this out. We don’t want to run any more. Only bad people run.” So I let the police in.
‘I thought once the world saw Ashya was in good shape, everything would be OK. I didn’t realise there was an arrest warrant. We had no idea what lay in store for us. An ambulance arrived to take Ashya to hospital but when my wife tried to get in with him, the police wouldn’t let her. They started arguing among themselves. One officer said, “What sort of world do we live in where you take a sick child away from his mother?” ’
Much was made of the Kings being Jehovah’s Witnesses – followers often decline blood transfusions for religious reasons. Many assumed they had interfered with Ashya’s treatment because of their faith, though nothing could be further from the truth.
As she speaks, her eyes are drawn to Ashya’s photograph on the wall. ‘I’m sure the kids will eventually come back to seeing me again and understanding my decision,’ she says. Of the future, she’s unsure but hopeful. Ashya is pictured above
Recalling happier times, Iranian-born Naghmeh, who moved to Britain from Tehran to study A-levels, says her life changed aged 18 when she met Brett, then 24 but already a bank manager with a sideline property business, at a Portsmouth nightclub.
Against her parents’ wishes they married a year later and moved to Milton Keynes in 1988.
Around this time, Brett began to demonstrate an interest in religion and ‘would say the Lord’s Prayer before meals and before going to bed’, recalls Naghmeh. One morning, the couple received a knock on the door from two Jehovah’s Witnesses and Brett immediately took an interest.
‘Brett found their magazines interesting and they persuaded him to go to the local Kingdom Hall for a meeting,’ she says. ‘I refused to go – I was not interested and kept throwing the magazines out. I told him they were simply brainwashing him.’
In time, almost inevitably, her deep reservations subsided. While she disliked the endless meetings and the way the elders sometimes treated her children, she immersed herself in the religion’s teachings.
At the same time, the couple built up their business renovating and selling homes in Milton Keynes. They started a family and bought three houses on the Costa del Sol, eventually moving to Spain ‘to lead a simpler, holier life’ in 1999. Brett worked as a gardener before landing a job at an estate agent and for the next decade they continued adding to their brood. Ashya is their youngest.
Naghmeh’s enthusiasm for her religion diminished over time. ‘I sort of put up with it and we had to go to church two or three times a week – we couldn’t celebrate birthdays, Christmas, Halloween or Easter – and they kept telling us that in the next few years Armageddon would happen and everyone would die,’ she says.
‘It is a joyless religion – they want you to believe that the world is a terrible place.
‘Now I just want my children back. I want them to come over and live with me here in Spain and I have been looking at bigger homes to rent, and Brett could come over and live somewhere nearby.
‘Brett and I have not really discussed it, but I don’t want to go home. I can’t go back and live with him again.
‘I keep telling him we should sit down and discuss it, not allow other men in a church tell us what to do. Why should these elders be allowed to dictate my life?
‘Brett’s been telling me about divorce. He said if I’m not part of the religion, he won’t allow the children to talk to me. I really miss the kids and want to see them as soon as this lockdown is over. But I just can’t live in the same house as Brett. We can’t live under the same roof. I can’t bear the religion any more. I’ve broken free and cannot get sucked back in.
‘I’m adamant that Brett should not make the kids pray any more in the house. We shouldn’t be forced to live under that regime.’
As she speaks, her eyes are drawn to Ashya’s photograph on the wall. ‘I’m sure the kids will eventually come back to seeing me again and understanding my decision,’ she says.
Of the future, she’s unsure but hopeful. ‘The next chapter in our life can’t be as tumultuous as the one we’ve just gone through.’
Mr King declined to comment yesterday.
Speaking in 2018 after the MRI scan showed Ashya was in remission, he said: ‘A tumour is like a weed in your garden. You try your hardest to get rid of it, but one day it can just grow back.
‘So children are still dying up to two and a half years after their treatment. After the three-year mark, though, the chances of it coming back are much less, so we’d been hanging on for the results of this ninth scan.
‘The hardest thing was knowing if there was a regrowth I had no one to blame but myself.’
Mr King acknowledged that, while most parents trust doctors to deal with their child the way they feel best, he and his wife played an active role in Ashya’s treatment.
‘We came up with a plan and the judge approved it, so the doctors just went along with what we wanted,’ he said.
‘We firmly believe if he’d had the treatment the doctors wanted to give him he wouldn’t be around today, but I have a conscience, so of course I had that nagging doubt whether it was the right decision.’