Monday

Australia - my land of miracles.


Continuing excerpts from my memoir Dear God.  
Two months after Henry's death, I ran away to Australia for six weeks. When you don't know if you want to live or not you might as well take an adventure as stay at home. I had two friends travelling round the world but back in the days of no mobile phones and little internet it was going to be a bit hit-and-run when we met up in Cairns, in the Northern Territory. I arrived there on April 25th 1990.

I awoke on my birthday morning, hung over and depressed. There are only so many circuits you can do around a town centre in the rain. The previous night’s brief injection of life-force had dissolved and I had hit the ground of depression with a resounding thud. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. It didn’t help that there was only so much you can do in Cairns on a wet day.
Wandering aimlessly, I passed the ships going out to the Barrier Reef four times before the possibility of getting onto one of them pervaded my brain. In a previous life I had liked snorkelling and it would, at least, be something to do.
I had been planning to wait for that particular adventure until Sarah and Pete arrived but the day was so dismal that I couldn’t even face being nice enough to wait. After all, I could always go twice.
The ship that took us out to the reef was crowded with Japanese tourists so I managed to hide quite neatly in a crowd that was speaking a different language. I stared out over the water and, over the cacophony of chat, tried to listen to the announcements on where to swim and where not to go.
‘Just avoid the deep water,’ said the announcer. ‘You’re perfectly safe in the shallows and we keep an eye out for you. No one’s ever been hurt in the shallows but you must stay there because there are sharks in the deep water and two divers were badly hurt by a large barracuda only about six weeks ago. That guy wasn’t within 20 miles of here but it’s best to be sure.’
Into the water we all went and I floundered around for a while, hating it. For everyone else it was a magical time; snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef is an incredible experience. But my mind wasn’t able to deal with the others’ delight or the shouting, giggling and photograph-taking all around me. When you’re depressed, other people’s happiness just repulses you. I thought I would just swim around the boat for some exercise and then get out. I had completely forgotten what the announcer said and it never occurred to me that the reef stopped right there where we were moored. I swam out into the deep.
The giant barracuda was right there; lurking; probably about 30 feet down in murky blue water. It was enormous, with great black marks like portholes down its side and teeth that made me shiver. It was side on when I first saw it and probably 50 metres away but it flipped in less than a second to face-on and came upwards towards me so fast it was like a blur.
It is true that time slows down in a crisis. I remember the terror – and I also remember thinking very clearly ‘I want to live.’
Something opened up in my head. Yes, I know that sounds daft but it was like a door unbolted itself. I had made a decision instead of running on automatic.
A voice filled the space very clearly. It was neither male nor female and it was more like words written in my mind than sound that was spoken.
‘Swim forwards and make as much noise as you can,’ it said. ‘When you get near, hit it on the nose with your fist.’
There wasn’t any question of disobeying. After all, what other choice did I have? I took a gulp of air and dived, swimming straight at the barracuda, roaring sound and air bubbles under the water.
It flipped away before I got to it.
I stopped swimming and floated back up to the surface watching it as it watched me. It was stalemate. I wasn’t turning my back on it and it wasn’t going any further away.
Then the voice cut in again. I’m pretty sure that it had a slightly resigned tone.
‘You could swim backwards,’ it suggested.
Really? I’d never thought of that. It turned out to be true.
So I swam backwards while the barracuda watched me and, after what seemed to be an unbearably, long time bumped into the side of the ship. Which hurt.
The barracuda began to move away.
It was over. I knew that in my bones.
Being a journalist ­­­– and afraid that no one would believe me – I took a photograph with my underwater camera. The voice sighed, ‘Get out of the water?’ it suggested.
I turned and swam round the ship as fast as I could. Out of the water, I vomited with fear and shook like a leaf.
I didn’t tell anyone on the boat; I was too scared of being told off and there was no one else who was about to be as stupid as I had been. But as I sat, wrapped in my towel, on deck, shivering, I knew that I wanted to live. Henry’s death was not the end of me and I would survive.
I have the murky, slightly out-of-focus photograph of that barracuda on the desktop of my computer to look at whenever I’m feeling small or scared. It helps because it makes me remember that something spoke to the little, afraid and uncertain me when I needed help. And the help it offered was swift, effective and, above all, practical. There was no pink fluffy stuff about love or even about what I should be believing in; it was all good sound sense.
Was it God? Was it my inner self? Did it matter? Yes, to me it did.
Dear God, are you there?

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