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Short Story: Departures

Short Story: Departures

Short Story: Departures

When Jim and Audrey board a round-the-world cruise in the UK, they decide to visit their son and his young family in New Zealand. Although it’s the trip of a lifetime for Audrey, she is harbouring a terrible secret.

The sun was rising over the horizon as Jim stood at the bow of the ship. If he was younger with a beautiful young redhead in his arms, he could pose like DiCaprio, but recently turned 60 and alone, he felt a bit of a twit, dreaming of such a romantic gesture, so he stared at the volcanic majesty of Akaroa and was content. The cruise was his gift to Audrey out of the remains of his redundancy, after paying off the mortgage and upgrading the family car. It was luck that the first cruise available when they went to the travel agent, was one that stopped in New Zealand. Their only son, Neil, lived there now and this would be their first visit.

Jim wasn’t comfortable with the cruise scene, forced to mingle with strangers, listen to their complaints about the food, the quality of the complimentary toiletries. Audrey, however, was in her element. ‘Happy wife, happy life’ as the saying goes, even if a temporary blip. Jim supposed she had always been a bit of social climber but it had never bothered him before, grateful for her hostess skills when promotions were on the horizon. Not that they had helped when redundancies were being discussed. Now she had a whole set of new best friends, all retired, well-off, with too much time on their hands. Jim went below deck to check that Audrey was awake. Breakfast was being served and they should eat before the liner docked at 9.30am.

Neil and Sheila, his partner, had emigrated five years earlier. Initially they had moved to Australia but found it too hot and dry; the dust bothered Sheila’s contact lenses. They crossed the ditch to New Zealand and settled in Christchurch. The climate suited them better, seasonal like home but with a shorter, warmer winter and an almost guaranteed summer. Two years ago, a grandson was born and another child was due any day now. Neil wanted his parents to stay for a couple of months, his mother to help with the newborn, but Audrey insisted she was not a babysitter. This was her holiday, not to be spoilt by dirty nappies and playdough. If Neil wanted her help, then Neil could pay for flights. Jim would have loved to get to know his grandson, but hated an argument.

They would meet in Akaroa for lunch, and be on their way. Next stop: Sydney. Neil wasn’t happy with these arrangements as it meant him driving for two hours and no alcohol. Neil always found that alcohol helped soften his jagged relationship with his mother.

Neil and Sheila were expected at 11am. Lunch was booked for 1pm at a small auberge chosen by Neil. There was no point booking lunch any earlier as his parents would need time to digest the cooked offering they ate every morning when on holiday. He knew that Jim would have done his research and be aware of the French history of the town.

When other families had taken advantage of cheap package deals to the Costa del Sol, Jim had preferred the short ferry trip across the Channel to the quiet beaches of Brittany and Normandy. Jim was passionate about history and Neil supposed that this was where his interest sprung from. Neil had hoped there might be time for a quick wander round the local museum, too.

Jim was looking forward to every aspect of their reunion. Audrey, on the other hand, wondered why they were eating French food when Sheila couldn’t eat brie and, as Neil was driving, no wine would be drunk. Audrey had given up alcohol when she reached 50 as the hot flushes she suffered were worse under the influence. Jim had also given up alcohol as Audrey was in charge of doing the weekly shopping.

At 10.45am, Jim and Audrey made their way down the gangplank to the ship’s tender. The short journey to the wharf played havoc with Audrey’s shampoo and set, the wind unwinding the carefully coiled curls created yesterday to the strains of Simon & Garfunkel in the ship’s salon.

Audrey had been besotted with Paul Simon in her younger days, and had sung along when she was certain no-one would hear her. Audrey never quite knew how to describe Sheila. She disliked the term partner as she didn’t want strangers to think her son was queer, but as they weren’t married, she could hardly refer to her as daughter-in-law.

Audrey found herself apologising for her son’s lack of commitment when the hairdresser asked her about her plans for the excursion to Akaroa. Now the damage done by the wind and seaspray, made her feel the afternoon had been a waste of time. Appearances were important to Audrey and she always tried to look her best, whatever the occasion. She worried that Sheila would think she hadn’t made an effort. Neil, Sheila and their grandson were waiting on the wharf. Jim spotted them first. There was no mistaking the curly red hair on the toddler in the arms of a very pregnant young woman. Neil had shaved his head in an effort to disguise a premature balding and had given up wearing glasses after laser surgery to correct his myopia. Jim was worried that he was ill. Living so far apart, there was a tendency not to bother each other with trivia. One person’s trivia was another person’s worry.

When he got closer, however, Jim realised that he actually looked younger. He reminded Jim of his own appearance when he did his National Service in 1959, how he looked when he met and married Audrey. After much hugging and a few tears, Audrey pulled a teddy bear from her bag and gave it to her grandson. Neil recognised it immediately, his favourite when he was a child. Embarrassed at this display of sentimentality and link to his past, he gave his mother that well-practised look that, even now after 38 years, made her feel like a failure. Jim, over-familiar with such scenes, pretended not to notice and walked the length of the wharf with Sheila, the toddler swinging between them.

The long curve of the beach splits the town of Akaroa in two, the auberge was in the half furthest from the wharf. By the time the party of two pensioners, a toddler and an expectant mother-to-be traipsed after the energetic Neil round the shoreline, stopping to look in several gift shops on the way, the museum was no longer on the itinerary. Jim didn’t mind, happy to have his family together, even for a very brief time. The auberge was quaint and the food tasty, but lunch was a stressful affair. Conversation was too polite and the toddler, strapped into a highchair, threw a plate of French fries onto the floor.

Jim offered to take him for a walk on the beach, allowing Sheila to enjoy the remains of her meal. He was grateful for the excuse to see more of the picturesque town and spend some time on his own with the youngster. Jim took off their socks and shoes and they walked barefoot on the sand. He drew stick pictures of animals in the damp sand, then helped his grandson gather shells and pieces of driftwood. He scooped up a mound of sand and sat by while the boy decorated it with their treasures.

The boy squealed with delight as waves washed over the animals and threatened to return their handiwork to the deep. Jim was reminded of Brittany beaches with Neil at the same age, same red curls and same chubby toes. He was unaware of their audience until the boy stopped and pointed to the group of stiff onlookers on the promenade.

Sheila sat on a wooden park bench, her face pinched and pale. Neil and his mother had been bickering. Audrey couldn’t help herself. Once she’d had high hopes for Neil, their only child. She was overjoyed when he was accepted to study medicine at Glasgow University, the first in either family to go onto higher education. Neil, only too keen to escape her ambitions, had embraced every aspect of university life, some aspects more than others. He’d flunked first year and ended up doing a course in child psychology, an arty-farty subject in Audrey’s opinion.

Disappointed, she had never reconciled herself to a psychologist in the family instead of a doctor. Couldn’t bear the embarrassment of telling her friends about his failure. Neil had almost redeemed himself by settling down with Sheila, an accountant with a big firm in London. Things were going smoothly until they decided to emigrate. Jim took the decision in his stride, after all, he had travelled with the army. Audrey did not.

“It’s not like it used to be,” Jim explained. Once upon a time, if someone emigrated, it was as if they had died. Telephone calls were not so expensive, they could even talk on the computer and see each other. But Audrey could not be persuaded to visit. She could not be tempted to learn how to switch on the computer, not even when she became a grandma. It was luck that this cruise stopped in New Zealand an hour from where Neil and Sheila now lived. Good luck rather than good planning.

Sheila let out a sudden yelp and clutched her middle as her body was wracked with pain. Neil bundled the boy, the teddy and Sheila, doubled over, into his SUV. There was no time for extended farewells. Neil promised to phone with the news and rushed his family back to the city. Jim and Audrey were again on their own.

Jim would have liked to stay, be there to welcome the new addition to the family but Audrey insisted that they continue the cruise. Their insurance cover was for theft and injury to them, not someone else’s labour. Jim, not wanting to rock the boat, sighed and agreed. They ate ice cream on the bench recently vacated by Sheila and watched as the setting sun turned the white cruise liner a rosy shade of pink.

“Thank you, Jim,” Audrey said. Jim squeezed her hand, ever in love with his overly domineering wife.

Sydney was everything the brochure promised: the harbour, the bridge and the magnificent Opera House. The cruise ended with a gala dinner and dance, and phone numbers and addresses were swapped, none of which Jim intended to use. When they arrived home, a message on the answerphone announced the arrival of Sarah, 7lbs 4oz, mother and daughter both well. Jim was delighted. Audrey, disappointed that her granddaughter was named after the other grandma.

After a week of unpacking and laundry, Audrey told Jim about the lump. She’d noticed it a while ago but didn’t want to spoil the trip to see Neil. A visit to the hospital confirmed it. It was breast cancer.

Audrey’s decline was swift and she died within the month. Neil flew home for the funeral and cried frustrated tears. Jim, without his rock, sold their home of 40 years and joined the rest of his family in New Zealand. He bought a cottage on Rue Jolie in Akaroa, joined a croquet club and became a Friend of the Akaroa Museum. Neil, Sheila and the grandchildren visit regularly but mostly he spends his time alone.

Often, he goes to sit on a particular wooden bench where he eats ice cream and watches the ships in the harbour.

About our MiNDFOOD Short Story author: Eileen Palmer

Eileen hails from Dumfries, Scotland. She studied Russian at the University of Strathclyde and spent a year in the then Soviet Union when Gorbachev ruled and Chernobyl exploded. She married Marc and from the proceeds of their first home, they travelled the world including a first visit to New Zealand. They decided to emigrate when their two children were young, back to NZ which “seemed like a great place to bring up kids”. Their roots are now firmly planted in North Canterbury where they live on a lifestyle block. Eileen writes when time and her imagination allows.

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