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Slices from Life

Moving from the Podium to the Helm

By Meredith Stephens

For many years my preferred pastimes had been reading, writing, drinking coffee and avoiding exercise. Admittedly, I did cycle to and from work and between my office and classrooms and I had a weight routine that consisted of carrying books up and down stairs. I was proud of having built my exercise routine into my daily movements rather than having to go out of my way to get fit.

It was February and the Japanese winter was dragging on. My office faced north, and it was already dark even though it was early evening. I had a sudden desire to return to Australia earlier than planned to catch the end of the summer and be reunited with my adult children, Emilia and Annika. I made a quick call to the office to let them know of my plans, and then logged on to the airlines and brought my flight forward a week. Little did I know I would continue in Australia not only that summer but also the following summer.

I found myself arriving in Adelaide shortly before the outbreak of a global pandemic and the closing of international borders. I landed bedraggled after my eighteen-hour journey. I descended the escalators to the carousel and waited for my baggage. A short wiry man was staring at me from the other side of the carousel. I averted my gaze, but he walked towards me and stood squarely in front of me. I met his eyes and stared at him for thirty seconds. Gradually, I saw the face of the teenager he once was.

“Are you Alec?” I probed.

I hadn’t seen Alec for twenty years or so since my undergraduate days. His piercing pale blue eyes were unchanged, but his mop of shoulder-length dark curly hair had turned grey and was now neatly trimmed.

“Yes, Meredith,” he acknowledged.

He told me that he had just returned from the UK where he worked as a merchant banker, and that he escaped the northern winter each year to the sail in the Australian summer. We exchanged news about our life events over the past twenty years. I looked up and noticed the other passengers had vanished, and there were only two suitcases moving around on the carousel.

“Let’s catch up again while you are here. Can I have your number?” Alec asked.

I gave him my number and exited the terminal. The sunlight was blinding, and I pushed my suitcases to the kerb and waited until my daughter Emilia drove past to pick me up.

A few days later, Alec sent me an email inviting me to a cafe in Norwood. He picked me up in his dark green Nissan Pathfinder and drove us there.

“I used to have a crush on you at university,” he confided as we exited the car and walked towards the cafe. I was taken aback. Alec had always been so focused on his studies and I could not imagine that he would ever have been interested in anything other than academic topics. I continued feeling stunned by this admission and looked away. I had always admired his quick questioning mind, not to mention his dark curly hair and pale blue eyes, but I said nothing.

Since leaving university Alec had taken up sailing, and he even preferred the sea to the land. He invited me, Emilia, and Annika to sail with him and his sister Verity to Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide. We eagerly accepted, and soon we found ourselves on his boat heading to the island. Emilia and Annika position themselves at the front of the boat.

Alec liked to keep his use of diesel on the boat to a minimum. Once out at sea, he set the sails and turned off the engine. I was not sure how to help him with the sails, but I did my best to loosen the rope in the winch as he called out instructions to me above the sound of the wind.

Alec had carefully planned the menus for the trip. Because of the panic-buying of milk in the supermarket, there was no cow milk left and he had bought goat milk. He made an espresso coffee for me. I had never had coffee with goat milk before but it was tasty.

Emilia and Annika remained at the front of the boat, and soon Alec summoned his voice to penetrate through the wind to pronounce ‘Dolphins!’ Soon the girls spotted a school of dolphins accompanying us at the front of the boat.

As we sailed along the north coast of Kangaroo Island we passed Smith Bay. Alec informed me that there was a plan to develop a port there. He mentioned that pine forests had been established twenty years ago even though there was no way of getting the wood off the island. The proposed port would provide a means of exporting wood chips. Alec was opposed to this plan because of the threat to the local marine ecosystem, not to mention the dolphins.

We continued west to Dashwood Bay where we anchored for the night. I slumbered peacefully in my cabin as it gently rocked from side to side. Alec had promised to take Emilia and Annika to snorkel with dolphins in the bay. In the morning I was woken by the light penetrating through the cabin window. Alec ushered Verity, Emilia, and Annika on to the dinghy, and took them to the shore.

I remained on board, content to enjoy snorkeling vicariously. I did not miss out, because as I sat at the stern the surface of the water was broken by splashes when dolphins passed by. Finally, the party returned and Alec set sail for the mainland. We farewelled a landscape devoid of human activity apart from a single homestead and a single car parked on the beach.

Alec and I shared the helm for a while but he was feeling tired from the morning snorkeling so I took over. I didn’t expect it would be so cold in the middle of summer, and my left hand slowly became numb. I scanned the horizon for small fishing boats which may not have satellite systems to notify them of our presence. I imagined being distracted for a moment and colliding with one of them. Alec noticed how tense I was and relieved me of my duty. I returned to my cabin and enjoyed the bouncing motion as we crossed the waves of Investigator Strait at a ninety-degree angle on our beam.

It took a pandemic to force me away from my lifestyle of cycling to work and ascending and descending stairs many times a day carrying books. Border closures led to a sequence of events in which I found myself sailing for the first time in my life. I caught the look of wonder in Annika’s eyes and thought we might be dreaming. I closed my eyes and imagined myself once again working in Japan. However, when I opened my eyes we were still on the boat. The pandemic had brought about a revolution in my lifestyle, but one of the few continuities was that my pastimes continued to be reading, writing, and drinking coffee. Even if it was with goat milk.

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist in Japan. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Blue Nib, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ MagazineReading in a Foreign Languageand in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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