An accident at sea… no-one knows where you are!
What happens next in this tumultuous ten-minute thriller?
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“Tell Me This Isn’t Really Happening”
By Stephen James
When confronted with life’s most challenging proposition of all: “Am I ready to die yet?” Is the answer yes or no? A rhetorical question, perhaps? But… what if I do have a choice about my decision here? Try to imagine a circumstance so dreadful — that it is simply the most unbearable place on Earth right now, and… “I’d rather be dead, than living right here, right now!” This would really test a person’s resolve, would it not? The following story is based on a true one and it tolled on my imagination bell. In it, the hero, a certain Mister X was exactly that. The characters are friends of mine, but I have rattled the plot and changed a few details, including their names. Their privacy is important.
The gusto of the drama still remains the same…
The pair had originally met in obscure circumstances. A young spirited couple, thrust together like two world’s colliding, as quoted in INXS’s famous song; ‘Never tear us apart’. A hard worker, Ronauld was never shy of contacts. At home in Brisbane he knew what to get, and where to get it. He was the go-to man. Liara, on the other hand, was from another universe to most westerners. The wild heartland of enormous Borneo island — home to the Dayak race, has been well documented over the decades. Pretty-faced Liara was born of Dayak parentage and she was proud to be one. Here, thousands of tiny islands strewn their way around its extensive coastline. Now in the new millennium, it still remains somewhat untamed. Kalimantan, as it is officially called by its inhabitants, can be as dangerous as it is beautiful. They had first met here, some time ago, and were returning for an even greater and more widespread tour of her homeland for him to experience — open his eyes.
In no time, they had a six-week tour of Indonesia booked. Two people, two rucksacks, two strong personalities, two searching hungry minds. Ronauld and Liara couldn’t wait for the flight’s day to arrive. Finally, the day came… they boarded. From the aircraft’s window, a thousand islands scattered like blotches of forest growing from the ocean, sprawled out, littering the blueness as far as the eye could see. They were close… then, at last, the tarmac…
With her prehistoric escarpments rising from the unstable sea floor, Indonesia lay her forests and small-town marketplaces down as a gauntlet of challenges to be met. The first two weeks went so swiftly by, Ronauld and Liara could barely catch their shadows and Liara showed him a much greater depth of her homeland. The young couple’s budget was not on limits anymore. In this country, your money is worth ten times more. But they were not so foolish as to waste. Their souls grew closer. The arguments, well, practically non-existent. The pair openly confessed their love for each other in front of all who joined in on their merriment. Their reliance upon each other became solidarity. Each called the other a pillar of stone, facing back, so strong and dependent.
This would very soon be put to the ultimate test. A boat trip was planned…
Liara and Ronauld, who seemed to make friends with everybody that they came in contact with, boarded the first stage of their island-hopping five-day tour. A ferryboat to cross the span of water from Lambo Laoosutre to Papo Djkartrahn Island. The mid-sized vessel’s name was The Lady Senwiggi. This ferry was old, rusty, and very basic, with extensive passenger overcrowding.
From down near the water’s level, the island’s perspective is distinctly different than the view from the air. Needless to say, once filled to beyond her maximum capacity, the rudimentary relic-of-a-ship steamed off towards the horizon. It was mid-afternoon, the sunset’s colours would be majestic soon. The excited crowd were soon overlapping one another’s privacy. As the port disappeared out of view for the passengers, a dozen different dialects crisscrossed the fundamental ferryboat’s decks and covered seating areas. Several hours into the voyage saw a change in weather conditions, which raised some concern. Like an unwelcome sea witch, a hot north-easterly began to pitch the waves to an uncomfortable level. They collided in episodic fashion. Her tonnage was not high, and her keel sat rather shallow in the water. The Lady’s stability was not cooperating with the unpredictable cross-current wind very well. The vessel began tossing and turning, which caused some passengers to stumble and fall. Women grabbed their children from anywhere near the railings. Some had already fallen overboard. Nature had thrown them a curve ball, with everything she had. In a heartbeat, the sunset cruise across a seemingly tranquil passage of water had turned into a nautical nightmare…
The Lady Senwiggi started to falter, the constant listing eked the ocean into her hull. Every portal to the daylight was a potential drain into her empty belly. The bilge pumps were suffering under the strain. She sat dangerously low in the water. A freak wave surged below her troubled hull. It hoisted the rusting vessel up like a paper cup and pounded her spine into the blackness of the depths. She groaned like a tortured metallic sea creature, fighting in deep water. The majority of passengers became dislodged from their seats. They lay across tables and on the floor. Many sustained heavy bruising. Again and again, the swell lifted the old steel ferry, as passengers, bracing for the impact, glared into each other’s faces with the raw gasp of drowning filling their eyes. That eerie weightlessness point at the very apex of the wave, then, the freefall to instantly come to a stop at the bottom. Any person who had been managing to hold on to something, now wasn’t. Screaming figures careered down the alleyway between the seats, their heads crashing into one another, their bodies ravaged by on-board debris. With such aggression did the ocean pound the humble ship, it broke the spine of her, then, flipped her onto her back like a drowning cockroach. In a moment of luck, perhaps good, perhaps bad, Liara and Ronauld had decided to have a restroom break several minutes before the weather had angered. In this particular vessel’s restrooms, one single large room branches off to both separate sets of cubicles. Ronauld was waiting in the larger room for Liara when the largest wave had struck. The Brisbane boy stood clasping a stairwell pole attached to the deck above. After the ship was thrown back into the catcher’s mitt, he felt his entire body rotate around. It had saved him on impact. He scanned some horror-filled faces. But where the hell is Liara?
Ronauld felt the gushing surges of water rising up past his knees. Most streams were pouring from above, emptying from her lower hull. He could feel the suction of air rushing past to displace it. In an instant, he knew the ship had been inverted. To him, the burning question was; how long did they have? He made his way to the ladies’ cubicles, continually calling out loudly, “Liara! Liara!”
The sickening screams of terrified injured passengers scrambling along on the ceiling surrounded them. Like panic-stricken human-sized drowning rats, kicking, scratching and fighting, they squeezed through every available crevice. After a minute’s delay — her distressed voice called back, “Ronauld, is that you? I’m in here!” The water continued to rise.
He grappled toward her voice, in the near-blackness, past bedraggled furniture and scurrying people. Many were children. A half-full drink bottle bobbed in the water. He grabbed it. Again, he shouted. “Liara! I’m coming in to get you! Are you hurt?”
Another enduring minute lapsed before her voice became clearer. He fought against the swirling obstacles and rushing water, the doorway was still a metre-or-two away. He heard her. “I’m okay. Just shaken! Hit my damned head on the door!”
At last, they saw each other — but the light was nearly all gone. He helped her to her feet and showed her the way out. The water was above waist-high, soon they would be swimming. Now in the larger room, it became apparent that the exits were completely blocked by the twisted remains of furniture and cargo. It was jammed in like a beaver’s lodge. An explosion of loud calls for help had returned nothing. Liara and Ronauld also now realised that they were the last remaining two inside. They could not hear any voices in the water outside either. Suddenly, a haunting silence fell. All the demonic weather had calmed, and the sea also began to settle. With salty water now deeper than they could stand up in, forcing them to tread water — nothing felt settled where they were. The distressed pair began looking for a weakness in the lodge. The sea-level was ominously close to the deck above their heads. The pair hustled about in heavy wet clothes, to exhaustion, eventually finding a couple of large floating wooden boxes. They climbed aboard one each and reached out to link the other’s finger’s — preparing to die. It felt cold and was now pitch-dark. Each could hear their own breathing. Trapped like this, when she did sink, they had nowhere to go. Hours drifted past. They fell asleep. Both minds hopefully questioning; Perhaps the fatigue will act like anaesthetic?
But it didn’t go down…
Morning brought with it her joy of sunlight— and with that light, an observer from the air could now identify the situation. Their entombed rear section of The Lady Senwiggi had come adrift, leaving behind the ship’s sunken main structure. This self-contained pod of air and buoyant debris had carried on a current. It was miles from anything. Liara’s eyes opened and initially, her mind remained in confused disbelief. Why am I not dead? Was that a horrible dream? The external sun was so bright that it managed to illuminate the water and allow a glow, just bright enough to see by. She saw his silhouette and paddled over. “Ronauld. Wake up, Ronauld!”
Her companion shook his mind into consciousness. “Amazing… Liara my love, we made it! We made it!” He passed her the drink bottle and they surveyed their wounds. If he could just find a way out, they could spend time on the flat section of the hull above them – perhaps flag down a vessel or plane. But his celebrations were short-lived…
A complete underwater search of their portion of the ship revealed precisely; four more full drink bottles, some unlabelled tins of food, a large knife to pierce the tins, several backpacks — none of which were theirs, and some wet cigarettes. As for managing to force their way out, Ronauld could see through the murky depths that large segments of the debris were the very thing keeping them afloat. Masses of it were wedged under the decking between the railings, like outriggers. Besides being impossible to remove without a tool of some kind, if too much was removed, they could go down without knowing what was outside. A good guess would be a huge expanse of seawater — somewhere in the middle of the Celebes Sea. Another important thing about the hull’s current integrity, was that air was finding its way in from somewhere and he daren’t disturb its entry. Hope was the only thing they had. They sensed help wasn’t too far away now. The pair saved their strength and took care of each other until the darkness took everything away.
The next day unfolded in much the same way. The tins of food had been ravioli soup, braised steak and vegetables, peaches, and peas. They conserved water and discussed plans about what they would do when rescued. Swept along with the current, their entombing life raft began to slip further and further off the map. The sound of a light plane roared overhead but it was miles away.
Four more days dragged by, but with no more passing planes. That constant drip, drip, dripping sound that had been with them since the start. The mental side of things – a serious challenge for both. Although shielded from the blazing Indonesian sun, the interior elements were beginning to break down. The stale air was hard to breathe. Their salt-infused skin was dry. They were trapped like a pair of chrysalids waiting to pupate, slowly beginning to dehydrate, but had to keep positive and believing. Don’t worry, we’ll be all right, once we are saved.
Days turned into nights, into days and into nights and back again…
By the eighth day, to Liara, it felt almost prejudicial that she could actually see, because, vision is hope — but she no longer had any. “Tell me this isn’t really happening…” she pleaded, astounded to still be alive. She paddled over to him. “I no longer want to go on. I’ve had it… I’m losing touch with reality. There is no way out—” her words faded into tears.
Ronauld also felt the pressure-cooker situation. The food rations had finished yesterday, and they were down to the last two-litre water bottle. Both had become terrified from loneliness and the fact that they most likely will not get rescued. Neither wanted to confess to the other. The harrowing ordeal had garnished more tax than it deserved. He took her hand. “Now is not the time to quit on me, Liara. And besides, where are you going to go without me?” She forced a fake laugh.
The non-stop sound of dripping water was incessant. As was the monotonous ocean lapping around the walls. This was a living hell, in constantly damp clothes that were now rotten and threadbare. Their limit was surely not far away.
Three days of thirst and hunger later, and, like the water — her laughter was well-and-truly all used up. “I cannot go on any longer. I mean it! Like this, it could take weeks to die. Ron, should we commit suicide? Is that an option?” They held each other’s faces. She’d never seen him cry before.
He hated hearing her words. It was bad enough that his own mind kept rolling the same headline, Ronauld did not want her to help him make the same decision. “No. Don’t even suggest such a thing!” His voice sharp, almost unsupportive.
She couldn’t help it. “I have heard of people who knew it was the end… They… they hugged each other so tightly that the other couldn’t breathe. In a way, it would be a beautiful way to go… embraced together.” She wept. “I am hating every minute of this. It is like waiting to go slowly.”
“Do not speak of death!” He knew that voluntary simultaneous drowning would also be a very difficult one to pull off.
Her eyes met the knife. “Let’s cut our wrists then!”
“I know someone will come. Hold on darling. Just hold on for me.” Earlier, he had caught a fish which was one of several that had found its way inside. He’d killed it with the knife. “Here honey,” he gave it to her to eat raw. “The nutrients will work wonders—” She ignored the food – death now her only friend.
“Please, Ronauld, die with me now, quickly. Or watch me do it in front of you…”
“Don’t make me have to make that choice, Liara!” He watched her wrap somebody’s leather belt from the knapsack tightly around her chest. He sobbed. “I’ll only do it — if I absolutely have to.”
“Then, I shall choose for you! I can’t even feel the sea’s motion anymore,” she said, weak from the elements. She expelled her air, buckled the belt, and jumped in, near the deep stairwell area.
“No way!” He followed but with lungs full of air. Grabbing her tightly as they bottomed out. She began to crush him in bear hug style. He was not prepared and blew the lot out in a festoon of bubbles. Her grip was determined. It was as if she had saved just enough strength to do this and kept them under. Ronauld stared up at the last three minutes of his life, disappearing above his head, in a wobble of silvery bubbles. He hugged back, beginning to think about death and stopped kicking. His mind kept waiting for that moment when you could no longer hold nature back. That moment when your lungs give in to the fight and instinctively inhale. All that liquid rushes in and shuts the whole system down. It’s the wrong thing but it’s too late now…
Then, he thought about the last thing she’d said. There was no movement of the sea. They were no longer drifting. Their personal lagoon had been a spirit level for the entire eleven days, but he detected a distinct angle. He wrestled her free and burst to the surface, took a huge gulp of musty air and dove back for her. Ronauld unbuckled the belt despite her resistance and hauled her to some oxygen. Liara sucked it in so hard, it sounded dreadful. She’d been seconds away from inhaling the sea. He pushed her back on her box and ordered, “Wait!” Ron manoeuvred over to a spot where you could now climb down and stand up with your head just above the water. It was the most illuminated area. “I think we’re run aground.” She watched his elation grow.
He dove down into the water, trying to peer through the maze of debris. Turtles caught his eye. The murky water was too difficult to discern much else. Then Ronauld saw what he’d hoped for. He surfaced for another valuable breath. “If I’m right…” He dove during her answer.
He peered through the weakest debris, noting which pieces would need to be removed and observed sand washing into the superstructure. They were in fact, ashore. He could take the risk of digging them out. If they lost the ship now, it didn’t matter. He surfaced holding a steel bar. Her question was ready:
“Ronauld! Tell me what the hell is going on?” It took all her strength to be angry.
“I can see silty sand coming in through that side section. I’m going to keep diving until there is a clear hole, big enough for you to try and swim through. Now eat your fish!”
He dove with robot-like precision. Carefully retrieving articles one by one. Explaining to her between rests. Ron persisted for hours without fear, ignoring the fatigue. A turtle swam in through his passage. It surfaced near Liara. She knew he must be close. In the end, he’d carved a twenty-metre underwater swim through the debris. The weight transference inadvertently caused a huge list sideways, which suddenly triggered a heavy cupboard to fall. It landed in the escape route’s way, on an angle. Beyond it lay seaweed, sand, and safety. Ronauld wrestled with it. The steel bar was positioned as a prop which held the item at bay. The gap seemed just wide enough to fit through, if you expelled everything your lungs had got left. Your next breath would have to be freedom. If you ran out before then — it would be voluntary suicide. She’d get her way…
He went back for her. “Let’s go, Hon!” he barked from the water. “You’ll only get one chance, okay? If you fit through the hole without expelling, I would suggest you do it. She’s narrow — but it’s all I’ve got to offer.”
Liara rolled in and he guided her through the underwater maze. She kicked gently. The seconds ticked. Liara trusted Ronauld, she had to. However, the petite Dayak could hardly believe that a few hours ago, she was ready to give in — her threshold had been crushed, and now she must do the swim of her life — in order to save it. When they got to the cupboard, she squeezed through first without expiring her air. She turned to help pull his substantially larger frame through. She watched his bubbles vanish and hoped to God he would fit. Liara pulled on Ronauld’s hands so tightly that he felt her true inner strength and resolve. He squirmed, wrestled, and fought. With a badly lacerated chest, and lungs already bursting, he made it and swam on to the next section, with nothing on board. Ron had reached the same oxygen-void point, as she had before — when he had ripped the belt off in order to save her. He now knew what it felt like to be that close. His mind had gone blank and his vision faulty. They kept going. Two entangled decaying corpses, that didn’t make it, stared emptily back at them. He fell hopelessly, coughing and spluttering from inhaled water. The exit finally appeared. Liara helped him to his feet. The lovers staggered onto the gravelly beach. All around was perfect. It was nature in the raw. Not a soul in sight. But where? A jaded walk to higher ground showed the desolation of their tiny island. Merely a slightly larger prison…
What will happen? Will their fate be predetermined? Or, will the fist of temptation, once more, knock loudly on their door of doom — inducing them, in order that they may they succumb to the easy way out again?