By: Emma Bennison
The ship’s horn blasted long and loud as the majestic Pacific Jewel picked up speed. The sun glinted brilliantly off the clear waters of Sydney Harbour. Jason heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, his holiday could begin. He had been looking forward to it for so long, but up until now, it had been impossible to get away.
He taught year 6 at St. Luke’s Primary in Townsville, where he had lived all his life. He enjoyed the older students best, found he related to their young adult humour. He appreciated the fact that their passion and determination were strong, but that they were still kids at heart.
He relaxed, gazing out at the water, pleased with his decision to watch the sail away from his balcony. He wasn’t one for the dancing and loud music that would be in full swing on the pool deck. Jason enjoyed silence. He’d become used to it in recent years. Reading helped to fill it, he was an avid reader.
Just as he was beginning to feel synchronised with the gentle rocking motion of the ship, a piercing siren jolted him out of his reverie. It reminded him of the requirement for all passengers to participate in a safety drill. Damn, he had forgotten all about it and he didn’t appreciate the interruption. He couldn’t understand why they hadn’t gotten it out of the way before they set sail as was the usual practice. There must have been some kind of delay.
A large crowd of people blocked the entrance to what was usually a piano bar, but had become a muster station for Jason and about 300 other people. They squeezed inside and set about demonstrating that they knew how to put their lifejackets on. A young girl of about thirteen Jason guessed, caught his attention.
“Mum,” he heard her pleading to her frazzled looking Mother, a tanned petite blonde woman in her thirties, “It’s too noisy, I need to get out! The lights are so bright!”
Jason watched, transfixed as the young girl kept putting her hands over her ears. The memories threatened to overwhelm him, but he wanted to help. He thought for a minute. “Excuse me. But if it’s OK with your Mum, you can borrow my phone. I have Angry Birds. It might distract your mind.” The girl took it and quickly became absorbed in the game.
“Thank you so much, said her Mum, looking very relieved and a little embarrassed.”
“We forgot to bring her phone with us. Christy is autistic and sometimes it’s the only thing that calms her down in environments like this.”
“That’s no problem, said Jason. “I understand exactly what you mean. My son was the same, always on his phone.”
“I really appreciate it. I’m melanie Richards by the way.”
“Jason Whitely. Lovely to meet you Melanie.”
“Is this your first cruise Jason?”
“No, my fourth.” “I used to cruise with my family, but I’m here on my own this time.”
Jason suddenly felt his face redden. He had given too much away. He certainly didn’t want this stranger to pry. He’d come on this holiday to escape people’s sympathy. He needed to leave. But how could he. His phone was keeping Melanie’s daughter from having a meltdown. He’d just have to hope she wouldn’t ask him
any awkward questions.
“Do you plan to do any of the shore tours?” Jason asked Melanie, desperate to get the focus off himself.
“Yes, we’re going zorbing in Vanawatu,” she sounded excited about that. “Christy loves anything fast and furious.”
“I’ve never tried zorbing myself,” said Jason. “I’ll be interested to hear what you think of it.”
Finally, the piano bar/muster station was beginning to empty out. Their lifejacket prowess had been pronounced adequate and they could leave at last.
“Thanks again for lending Christy your phone Jason,” Melanie said gratefully as she returned it to him.
“Why don’t you come and have a drink with us. I’d like to repay you somehow if you’ll let me.”
“Thanks Melanie, but I’ve had a long flight down from Townsville today and I’m exhausted. Perhaps another time?”
“Sure. I understand. Thanks again.”
Jason returned to the welcome solitude of his balcony, feeling as though he’d missed yet another opportunity to opt into his future. But how could he ever really move on from his past. The guilt was overwhelming.
He ordered a sushi platter and a bottle of Australian red from room service. He was pleasantly surprised at the cost. Then he went to bed.
As usual, the nightmare woke him at 4:00 the next morning. Clearly it hadn’t received the memo that he was on holiday. It was always the same. Jason running, trying to drag Aaron back, but not being able to reach him in time. Then he would wake up in the midst of a full blown panic attack.
This was no way to live, thought Jason as he stepped into the tiny shower which rocked back and forth like an amusement park ride. He had to find a way to work through it. Though he’d tried everything, he thought ruefully. Cognitive behaviour therapy, hypnosis, eye movement desensitisation. The fact was that he hadn’t reacted quickly and now his son was dead. His wife had died a year later of a drug overdose.
He had considered doing himself in on more than one occasion since then. His students were the only thing that kept him going, but it was getting harder every day.
Right. Enough self-pity, he thought as he rubbed his body vigorously with a soft, fluffy towel. What he needed was some fresh air. There was a jogging track on deck 10. Sea air, then caffeine, that would solve everything, for now at least.
The walking track was deserted. Not surprising Jason reflected, given it was only just after 5:00. Most people would only just be going to bed, given the bulk of the passengers aboard this cruise were under 25. He walked purposefully and breathed in the cool morning air. He could taste the salt, feel the gentle sea breeze brushing his skin, hear the rushing water. He felt lighter somehow.
As he rounded the last corner before heading back the way he’d come, he spotted something shiny on the ground. He bent down and picked the object up. It was a bracelet. On the inside the names Mum and Christy were engraved in gold lettering and a single charm, a grand piano hung from it.
It was too much of a coincidence, he decided. He was pretty sure he had noticed Christy wearing a bracelet. Though he had to admit to himself that most of his attention had been focused on her Mother.
He took the bracelet down to the reception desk and asked whether they could find the cabin where a woman named Melanie and her daughter Christy were staying. They did so and though they wouldn’t give him the cabin number, they said they would return the bracelet to Melanie and Christy. He asked for a pen and paper and wrote a note:
“Hi Melanie and Christy. I found this bracelet on the jogging track and thought it might be yours.” He thought for a minute about how close to the edge he had felt earlier and how the definition of insanity was doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results. Hurriedly he added: “If you’d like to catch up for a drink, call me. My cabin number is 1012. Enjoy your day. Jason
PS: I’ll have my phone for you Christy and we can go somewhere quiet.”
He wanted Christy to know she was welcome and that her needs would not be overlooked. Come to think of it, he wanted Melanie to get that message too.
It was while he was having breakfast in the Waterfront Restaurant that a waiter brought the phone to him. “Call for you sir,” he said in a thick accent which Jason couldn’t quite place. “Thank you.”
“Hi Jason, it’s Melanie Richards here. Thank you so much for finding Christy’s bracelet. She’s been beside herself!”
“No problem. It’s beautiful.”
“It is. I gave it to her as a present for getting an A on her piano exam last year and she’s worn it non-stop ever since. It must have fallen off when we went up there yesterday to try the ice-cream, which is delicious by the way.”
“Really? I’ll have to try it.” Jason hesitated, not sure whether to mention his invitation. Melanie seemed to sense his uncertainty.
“We’d love to catch up for that drink with you Jason.” He loved the way her voice caressed his name. He was so taken with it that he almost forgot to respond.
“That’d be great. How’s 5:00 on my balcony? That way it will be nice and quiet for Christy.”
“That’s perfect. See you then.”
Now that the initial shock of what he had done was subsiding, Jason felt quite pleased with himself. He still didn’t think he deserved a social life, but he was just having a drink, it meant nothing. Maybe it would be enough to keep him going for the rest of the year at least. He owed that to his students. He spent the rest of the day lying under an umbrella on a very comfortable sun lounge by the pool, reading the latest Nora Roberts romance. They were his guilty pleasure. He found himself distracted quite frequently though. Thoughts of Melanie’s shiny blonde hair which fell like a curtain to her shoulders kept intruding, and that voice, he couldn’t get the deep, sensual sound of it out of his mind.
Punctually at 5:00, Melanie and Christy arrived. Jason took them out on the balcony. Melanie accepted a glass of white wine and Christy requested a coke. The three of them chatted easily whilst drinking in the colourful sunset over the pristine blue water. Melanie and Christy wanted to know all about his teaching, so he regaled them with hilarious stories of his students’ antics. Christy had a fantastic personality and a dry wit which she had obviously inherited from her Mother. Like most people, he had always assumed that autistic people were withdrawn and silent most of the time. It was not until Aaron had been diagnosed that he had realised how misguided he had been.
Melanie told him stories about her life as a GP and Christy told him about her Dad who was a famous concert violinist. He and Melanie had divorced amicably when Christy was three. Eventually, Jason became aware that the air was getting cool and the light had faded. “Goodness, it’s 7:30. Would you like to stay for some dinner?” It occurred to him that he must be enjoying himself. He didn’t experience the usual pang of anxiety about social interactions that had plagued him for so long.
Melanie looked questioningly at Christy, who nodded.” “Sure,” she laughed. “We’d love to.”
Jason had a suite, so they ordered room service. Rib eyes for he and Melanie and pasta for Christy. The wine flowed, along with more coke for Christy. Conversation and laughter continued easily over dinner. Once they had polished off the chocolate mousse Jason had ordered for dessert, Christy asked her Mum if she could go back to the cabin and watch TV.
“Yes, of course you can. You’ve done really well and I know you’re tired now.”
She’s delightful, said Jason after Christy had left them.
“I think so, but I’m biased of course.”
“Another glass of wine?” asked Jason.
“Just one more, otherwise I’ll be under the table.”
They took their glasses and sat close together on the couch. It was surprisingly comfortable, considering it was a sofa bed. Jason reached out tentatively and gently touched Melanie’s hand. She didn’t pull away, so he held her hand lightly in his.
“Jason. This has been so lovely. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed an evening this much in a very long time. Thank you.”
“I feel the same. It’s been very pleasant. Thank you for coming.”
Melanie took a sip of her wine, replaced it on the coffee table, then turned to him earnestly. “Do you mind if I ask you a question Jason? It’s been nagging at me since we met.”
Jason’s stomach began to flip flop. He had a feeling he knew what was coming. But when Melanie spoke again, she surprised him.
“You seemed to understand what Christy needed very quickly yesterday. How did you know? I could tell you’d worked it out straight away and that’s rare. Most people have no idea how to respond and give us a wide berth.”
“My son was autistic,” Jason whispered. He could hardly get the words out. His throat had gone dry.
“Jason, you’ve gone pale. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. Let’s talk about something else.”
Jason tried to respond but his voice wouldn’t work. He knew where this was going. He couldn’t have a panic attack in front of Melanie, the one person who had made him feel like he might have the right to a life again. He just couldn’t. But he also knew that once a panic attack started, it was like a freight train and he had no hope of stopping it. He needed to run. He had to get out now!
He stood up so suddenly that he knocked the wine glasses off the coffee table. Melanie jumped and gasped. Wine spilled everywhere and the glasses shattered on the tiled floor. Melanie tried to reach for him, tried to calm him down. But he was in another world, unreachable. Reality had completely receded and he was outside his body, watching himself from above.
He ran out of the cabin and down the corridor. Tears were streaming down his face now, making it difficult for him to see where he was going. His breath came in short, shallow gasps, like a dog panting. His chest became so tight he couldn’t get any more air into his lungs, but still he ran. finally, he reached the end of the corridor where a heavy fire door blocked his way to the stairs beyond. He leant on it, trying to force it open, but it was locked. Totally exhausted and sobbing, he collapsed, still gasping for air and curled up into a ball. Then, nothing.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in his cabin. Melanie was sitting on a dining-room chair next to his bed, holding his hand. As he became more aware of his surroundings, he realised this wasn’t his cabin at all. It had the same painting on the wall opposite his bed and similar lighting, but this was a different room.
“Where am I?” he croaked.
“You’re in the hospital on the ship. You’re safe,” Melanie reassured him, offering him some water from a cup with a straw.
“What happened? I don’t remember. We were having such a lovely evening.”
“You had a panic attack. But you’re OK now. You just need to rest.”
“Oh God. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to see that. You shouldn’t have had to deal with it. I’m so sorry you had to experience it.”
“It’s OK. It wasn’t your fault. I’m very glad I was there. Do you have them often?”
“At least one a day.”
“Goodness, you must get very drained. I have anxiety myself, but I don’t know how I’d cope with one a day. Anyway, this one was totally my fault, so it’s me who should be apologising. I took you to a place you didn’t want to revisit.”
“No, it’s not your fault. Actually, you’ve done me a favour. This is the kick up the arse I’ve been needing to force me to go on medication. I need to be able to talk about what happened without it triggering a panic attack and I need to stop the nightmares. It’s time. I’ve resisted medication because my wife took anti-depressants after our son died and eventually she overdosed on them. But I’m not her, so it’s time I got past that.”
“Jason. I don’t think you realise how strong you are. You’ve been through hell but you’ve kept going. Taking medication isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’re ready to give yourself the best chance of recovery. That’s a good thing.”
Three months later, sitting on a secluded beach in the Whitsundays, Jason felt ready to tell Melanie the whole story of how his son had died. JASON and Aaron had been going for a walk to the park on a Saturday afternoon. Aaron was only four. He had been frightened by the sound of a loud sander someone had been using on their boat in a front yard a few blocks from where Jason and his family had lived.
Before Jason had time to take in what was happening, Aaron had run out onto the road in an attempt to escape from the loud noise. He had been hit by a four-wheel drive. Desperate, Jason had run onto the road to try to pull Aaron back, but he had been a split second too late. He told Melanie he could still hear the dull thud of Aaron’s body connecting with the car. AARON had died at the scene.
Melanie held Jason as he cried and told her how guilty he felt and how he always suspected his wife had blamed him, even though she never said as much.
It took a long time and a lot of patient reassurance from Melanie, but Jason finally began to recognise the tragedy for the terrible accident it had been. Twelve months later, they set sail once again on the Pacific Jewel, but this time, it was for their wedding. It was an intimate, quiet, but joyful celebration. Christy and her Dad played a beautiful duet for violin and piano that Christy had written especially for her Mum to walk down the aisle to. Melanie’s sister Bianca was bridesmaid and Jason’s best friend David flew in from Canada to be best man. Both were thrilled to see how happy Jason and Melanie were together.
Late that night, the newly-weds were finally alone. They sat cuddled up together on the sofa bed and drank wine. They laughed about the last time they had sat there and Jason reflected on the fact that it had been months since he had had a panic attack. Later, they went to bed and made passionate love, the ship rocking rhythmically beneath them. As they lay there, content in the silence, Jason thanked God he had found that bracelet and that he had made the decision to opt back in to his life.