Love In A Storm

Spirit

I had been unhappy in my marriage for some time. I can’t actually quantify it or clearly define when I started to feel that way as the past 10 years just seem like a blur. Sure, I had been extremely lucky in life in so many ways, and each day I try to thank God for the life I have, especially compared to the majority of the world’s population. I live in a reasonably luxurious four-bedroom home in Castle Hill, Sydney, Australia. I have two wonderful children who have become my life. Michael is 18 and Kate is 16. I have a great job – I’m a high school teacher – and I absolutely love it. As a family, we want for nothing. My husband of twenty years, John, is a scientist working with the CSIRO. And two years ago we won a National Geographic lottery that delivered us a brand-new home on the Gold Coast. But, for all that, I felt totally dissatisfied with my life. The wedding was almost perfect, everything I’d ever dreamed. But I soon realised that after the perfect wedding comes the imperfect marriage.

Menopause had hit me relatively early at 42 years of age, and it was so draining. My appetite for sex just disappeared, and John and I haven’t made love in almost two years. I completely dried up and was just not interested. I think he resents me for it, particularly when he occasionally raises the subject and I close down. I wouldn’t blame him if he had an affair. In fact, sadly I guess, I wouldn’t even mind.

Then two months ago my parents died within a short time of each other. Mum’s arthritis became so bad that she could no longer care for herself or Dad properly. Mum had been a full-time housewife from the day she had my eldest sister, Helen, some 48 years ago, Dad was a hard worker and wonderful provider, but there was no way he could look after the cooking and housekeeping, let alone give Mum the medical assistance she required each day. So they moved to a nursing home. None of my sisters was prepared to take them into their homes. I thought about it, and every day my husband would say “Joan, we owe it to them”. John is a good man like that. But, in the end, I agreed with my sisters. Dad absolutely hated the retirement village, and he just gave up. He died two months after moving in. Mum lasted but a further two months.
Losing my parents made me question everything in life, and think about my own mortality. And, in my grief, John wasn’t the support I needed, and I knew he wouldn’t be. Increasingly I turned to my oldest friend, Carol, who I’d known since our school days. She was fantastic. One day while having coffee together at Gloria Jean’s in Parramatta, I opened up to her about my misery. Carol asked me if I loved John. “Yes”, I answered. “Is he making you happy?’ I paused for what seemed like an eternity, before saying “No”. “Do you want to leave him?”  I told her I didn’t know. I had thought about it, but wondered if maybe I was the problem and just needed to wake up to myself. But she certainly left me with something to think about.

The following week Carol rang me and suggested that we go on a short holiday, just the two of us. I hesitated, but at the same time felt a huge relief, as though this was something liberating that I had not felt in so long. Carol suggested we go in the upcoming school holidays, when she would take a week off from her work at the NSW Railways. And she further suggested that we head to Tasmania for the week. Last year, Carol and her husband, Bob, had spent a magical week at an historical village called Evandale, just 18kms from Launceston. I jumped at it. Carol made all the arrangements, booking us passage on the Spirit of Tasmania, and accommodation at Greg and Gill’s Place that offers self-contained accommodation in the historic town. I was so excited. That was in the year 1999. When the day came that I was to leave, John asked me if Carol and I were going on this journey so that we could somehow escape. And why, for the first time in 20 years, I wasn’t spending his birthday with him. He also asked if Carol and I were looking to have affairs. He was correct about the first point, it was an escape, But Carol and I were in no way interested in “picking up”. Or so I thought.

The drive to Melbourne was fairly boring aesthetically. I wished we had the time to go via the south coast and maybe spend a night at The Entrance on the east coast of Victoria, one of my favourite places. But Carol’s company was exemplary. We spent a lot of the time telling jokes and exploring the basic differences between men and women. Eventually, we lost count. The further we drove, the better I felt. We reached Melbourne at 5:00pm and headed straight for the Spirit of Tasmania terminal at Port Melbourne. The ferry was to depart at 8pm and arrive in Devonport the following morning at 7am. But we didn’t make it. In the most traumatic time of my life, the ferry came upon a monster storm. As I learned later, in 1985 the Tasmanian government introduced the first ferries with both bow and stern doors. The vulnerability of that structure was that if the doors were forced open by the power of mother-nature, they could not be shut. And that meant that the ferry would quickly take on water. And so it happened.

Dressed to the nines and gambling in the on-board casino, we were in the company of two very charming gentlemen we had met earlier, Carol and I were having a ball. I found myself strangely attracted to one of them, a man named Kevin. We were all having such a wonderful time when suddenly the ferry dipped and then lurked to the right, and many of us fell to the floor. A siren rang out and then the captain was telling us that we needed to evacuate the ship. Very soon after, confused and disoriented, I found myself in a small life boat with five strangers, madly paddling away from the fast-sinking ferry while battling to somehow keep the raft afloat in the pitch blackness of night and a very angry sea. I had no idea where Carol was. And I was the most afraid I had ever been in my life. I remember thinking “Is this it? Is my life over? Will I never see Michael and Kate again? And why haven’t I once thought about John? ”

My clothes were dishevelled to the point that I was basically in my underwear. I was so cold. I could not stop crying, thinking about my children, and worried about Carol. Now I was truly alone for the first time in my life, apart from these five other individuals who I’d never met before. But I got the feeling that my destiny lay well-and-truly in their hands.

Salvation

It was easily the worst night of my life, the most horrific I could imagine. For five hours, in this inflatable life dinghy with five people I didn’t know, in the middle of Bass Strait in pitch darkness and a raging storm, we together battled to survive. One of the people in the raft, Gary, a youngish guy with a soft voice, talked to us about what we needed to do to stay alive. He told us that he was both an experienced sailor and a navigational officer on The Princess. Firstly, he told us that our main priority was to keep the raft afloat, despite the huge seas. He showed us how to cling to the rope that encircled the perimeter of the raft, how to wind it around an arm so that we remained attached and how to effectively use our weight to ride the waves as we were tossed about. I could tell he wasn’t a natural leader, but he seemed to instinctively understand that he needed to help us in any way he could.

At times over the last ten years I’ve had moments where I couldn’t really care whether I was dead or alive. But now I clung to that small raft with a determination and resilience I’d not felt before. All of a sudden life seemed vitally important. And that determination showed on the faces of most of my fellow passengers Most, I empathise. I stared at each of their faces, one by one. Apart from Gary, also on board was a young Asian guy named Lee who didn’t speak much English and therefore didn’t have much to say. Next was a young, pretty blonde female that I finally realised was Samantha Seymour, a big soapie star on commercial television. Sam looked lost and bewildered, as if this was all just a bad dream. Next to her was a lady in her 60’s, Henrietta, a would-be socialite with a real “it’s all about me” attitude. She just wouldn’t shut up. And then there was Joshua, Samantha’s half-brother apparently. What struck me about him was that he looked a lot like my husband John. And, amazingly, they were both merchant bankers. Josh’s face was blank, it gave nothing away except, sadly, resignation.

Three times within the next two hours we were swamped by huge waves. Each time we managed to keep the raft afloat and upright, but each time that meant some of us were flung into the icy waters. Gary’s instructions about how to remain attached to the rope were our saviour and we managed to safely scramble back aboard the first two times. But then tragedy struck. Henrietta had done nothing but complain the whole time about her ripped dress, the loss of one of her earrings, and a lost shoe. Each time she would tell us how much they had cost. Inevitably, someone snapped. Joshua rose, stood erect, and moved directly toward Henrietta. He ripped off her one shoe, followed by her remaining earring and threw them into the water. “You won’t need these then”, he shouted. Henrietta screamed as she stied to stem the flow of blood running down her cheek. Just then the third wave struck. By the time I managed to get back on board Joshua had disappeared. Samantha was screaming. Everyone else was crying. While still clinging to the rope with one arm, the five of us held hands. I prayed for the first time in so many years, to whom I’m not sure. But I thought if there was a god that I should at least give it a try. I prayed for my own life, and those of us left aboard. I prayed for the others on the ferry. I mostly prayed for Carol. But I also prayed for Kevin, the gentleman that I had been attracted to in the casino before the storm. He was so warm and funny. I suggested that we all pray together, out loud. Gary volunteered to lead the prayers.

Then one by one, we told our stories. I had never spoken publically with such honesty before. The others asked questions about my family, my feelings, and my hopes. For some reason none of us felt threatened. Nobody was judging anyone else. It was like we were family. In the end, I realised that the one thing we all seemed to have in common was the fear that our lives weren’t meaningful, that we were just going through the motions, that we were ordinary people pretending to be special. And that one day we would be exposed as frauds and held accountable. Our mutual fear, it seemed, wasn’t as much about dying, but not having lived, and not having been true to ourselves. Even Henrietta dropped the façade, albeit briefly. I had never felt so close to any other human beings other than my children, Michael and Kate, and that included Carol
The storm abated almost as quickly as it had come, and the waters were still. There was complete silence for what seemed like hours as we drifted. Then the sun rose and, along with it, the silence was broken by the sound of a helicopter. It hovered overhead. Through a loudspeaker a man told us that a navy rescue ship was on its way. Gary again led us in prayer, this time in thanks for our salvation and survival. We talked openly again about the experience and how it had affected us. We all agreed that our mortality, the tenuous nature of our existence, and what was actually important in our worlds had become so much clearer. “Life is so short, and our time so precious”, I offered. Everyone agreed. Then we vowed to remain friends for as long as we lived.

Soon after we were alongside a huge navy vessel and each of us was lifted onto the deck. We were all given blankets and water to drink. I looked around and saw there was a large audience of people also draped in blankets, fellow survivors from the ferry. Then I saw her, Carol. She rushed to embrace me. For all that had happened, I was so thankful. As I unfolded from her embrace, I noticed standing immediately behind her was Kevin. He hugged me warmly. I asked him if his friend was aboard and Kevin just shook his head and dropped his eyes. There was silence once again.

Carol and I didn’t make it to Evandale, not together anyway. But I have actually lived there for the last twelve months, with Kevin. I have been back to the mainland several times, the first to confront John and my children, and the subsequent visits to see my children and, of course, Carol. Both Kevin and I work in Launceston. Carol rings me at least once a week. Now, when she asks me, “Does he make you happy?” I respond with “more and more each day”.

Geoff Mooney