It was Val and Jacob’s first cruise together, 40 years after getting married. They had looked forward to this with great anticipation over the years — the hard years, paying off the mortgage on a three-bedroom house and raising five children.
It made them proud that this seven-day voyage had been paid for by themselves — not the children, all of whom are now independent working adults and all of whom offered to contribute towards the expense.
With a sense of determination and a little sacrifice, the two of them set aside little amounts each month that, over the years, despite the inflation and rising costs, helped buy them this dream vacation.
Four of the children and a smattering of grandchildren were at the departure terminal to wave them off as the two of them waved white handkerchiefs in return from high up leaning against the rails of Deck Seven.
It was a special moment — tinged with equal parts nostalgia and apprehension — as the huge cruise ship made its graceful way under the Harbour Bridge, rounded a bend and set course for the wide endless watery expanses ahead.
Now a week later, they are back, both flushed with excitement and bursting to share details of the trip with the others. The usual backdrop for such occasions — a family barbecue — is already under way at the back of the house.
Jacob, it transpires, “lost his legs” almost as soon as the ship left shore. The dipping and rising of the horizon didn’t sit well with his land-born sense of steadiness. The food rose in his stomach and he rose shortly thereafter from a deck chair to shakily seek medical refuge in a course of travel-sickness pills which, having no effect a day later, had him knocking on the ship doctor’s door for an injection that cost a few hefty dollars but set him right.
“At that price, anyone will make a speedy recovery,” jokes Jacob, now fully recovered and capable of looking at food without wishing to throw up.
“Mum,” enquires one daughter, Emily, “did you take ill too?”
“Your mother, need you all be reminded, is made of sterner stuff,” Jacob reminds the others, amidst laughter.
“Still, poor thing, it couldn’t have been great with you having to nurse dad,” says Emily. Val shook her head. “Not a bit, dear. On the contrary, I had a lovely time. Your father was mostly asleep, knocked out by the medication. So off I went to enjoy all that was on offer — various classes, seminars, quiz competitions, entertainment shows, even a fancy dress evening with a Hawaiian Pacific theme. Pass me that tea towel,” says Val.
When it is handed to her, she proceeds to fold its corners and tuck them in at different angles until, presto, she’s turned a square checked piece of cloth into a cute bunny rabbit. Two of the grandchildren are delighted. Val asks for another tea cloth and shapes this one into a frog. Soon with more towels she has created more animals — a snail, a snake (the easiest) and a kangaroo.
“You think you’ve seen everything, you’re mistaken. Your mother’s going to show you another one of her cruise-learned skills. Show them, Val,” urges Jacob, sipping contentedly from a cold can.
“Nah, they’ll all think I’m showing off,” says Val, with delayed modesty.
“Not a bit. Jerry go into the dining room and bring that watermelon,” Jacob instructs a grandson.
When the watermelon is brought, Val sets about carving it up until she has three gorgeous red roses that appear to be sitting on a dark green lake.
“And how do you like that? She was always the talented one,” says Jacob proudly, giving her a hug while the others cheer and whoop.
Emily tells one of the sisters: “That’s so like mum. Always picking up something new.”
Val, one suspects, has been raised on a variation of the Sophoclean saying: “Always desire to learn something useful.”
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.