Sea legs

A bit over a year ago, I suggested to my aunt, JE, who is childless and lives on her own in rural Western Australia, that we should speak by telephone once a week.

What I had in mind was a rather short conversation of the sort I now tend to have with my father, since widowed and living alone in Canberra. It’s the fact of the conversation rather than its substance that is important.

That suits me and my father.

JE has different expectations of the telephone. Although JE no longer works off a written list of topics, it is rare for these conversations to last less than 40 minutes and they frequently last for more than an hour. Any attempt on my part to bring them to a close earlier causes offence.

JE recently told me this story.

In the early 1950s, JE travelled by coastal steamer from Perth to Adelaide to visit my parents. At the time JE was a trainee teacher (they called them monitors – teaching and studying part-time at the same time) and was paid £5 a week. This was sufficient for her to support herself away from home. The fare (return I think) was £35.

It was the Christmas break and JE travelled by car with my parents to Melbourne, where they had lived for the first year after they were married. This was a bit of an adventure. I think it was also a celebration of my parents’ newly purchased little Renault (a Morris Minor was first choice but there was a lengthy waiting period for it).

Afterwards, on the return voyage from Adelaide to Perth, there was a big sea in the Bight. In the dining room the table-cloths were soaked in water to stop the crockery sliding off. Most of the passengers were indisposed.

Also on the ship was T, a Dutch man who had spent the war in the merchant marine. Twice he had ended up in the sea when his ship was sunk by enemy action.

Somehow T had ended up in Australia. T had been about to leave Sydney and head for the USA when he was told “Oh, but you must see the West.”

JE was unaffected by the sea. T was likewise unafflicted. Maybe they met in the dining room but at any rate conversations continued until late in the evening in the bar. Within a year they were married.

Back in Perth, JE wanted to take a trip with T to Rottnest, the small island off Fremantle famous for not very much apart from the small rodents found there. A holiday at Rottnest is an institution for anyone who has grown up in the West.

T was unwilling to go. He said he would get sea sick.

JE could not believe this. Had T not been a sailor? Had they not met precisely because of their shared fortitude against the sea? JE insisted and the trip was booked.

Not long after they set out to sea, T broke into a sweat, and became green about the gills. He had been telling the truth.

T had not been seasick when JE boarded at Adelaide because he had already suffered on the earlier part of the trip from Sydney. He had already found his sea legs.

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