Monday, February 12, 2007
More Island Tales.
After the dramatic sadness of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”, it’s time I returned to relating happier, uplifting moments of my life on Hinchinbrook Island.
Air Whitsundays’ Grumman Mallard, as pictured above, flew guests to the island, departing from Townsville airport and landing in the waters off to the left of the island jetty. Wide-eyed guests alighted from the door at the rear of the aircraft, as a couple of staff members and I protected the punt from the Mallard’s fuselage. Depending on the seas on any one day, this could, sometimes, be quite an effort. The Grumman Mallard was an amphibian aircraft that could land on either land or water, a flying boat with wheels. It was a cumbersome old aircraft but so very beautiful. I loved flying in the old girl. The Grumman Mallard was first produced in 1946. Only 59 were built. It was rumoured this particular aircraft was once owned by the Aga Khan. Upon landing on the ocean, water would leak through the top of the plane into the cabin. This, of course, caused a certain amount of consternation to the passengers. One story we often told the guests after they’d settled in to the island way of life, while they enjoyed a drink around the bar, was about an elderly lady who boarded the Grumman Mallard at Townsville airport, only to land on the waters off Hinchinbrook. No one had thought to explain to her this would happen. On the verge of a heart attack or nervous break-down, she downed a bottle of scotch upon reaching the island bar!
A new group of eager, albeit stressed, guests arrived. Amongst them, a reserved, shy, bearded young man of around 36 years of age. He placed himself outside of the guests circling the bar the first evening, preferring to watch and listen and not partake in the merriment. On the second evening of his stay, I joined him at the end of the bar, coaxing him to converse. His speech was slightly impaired. Quietly, we spoke at length. After a while, he relaxed and told me about his past eighteen months. He had suffered a stroke. The stroke was the reason for him growing his beard as a disguise for the disfigurement to one side of his face. He was a lawyer in Sydney. He told me of the shock caused from suffering a stroke at such a young age. Richard was his name. Richard told me the hardest part of all after his stroke was looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person staring back at him. Also, that he had to learn how to speak and eat again. For some time after the stroke he had to use a straw as he couldn’t chew food. His holiday to the island was his form of therapy to get his life back on track. His reticence in joining the other guests was from his lack of confidence in himself and his appearance. I assured Richard there was little wrong with his speech and that he was easily understood. I also assured him, what he called his ‘disfigurement’, was hardly discernable and that people could care less…and if anyone did, then they were not worthy of the generosity of his company and time. That night I dined with some of the guests and insisted that he join us. I told him I would make it worth his while and tempted him with a bottle or two of Henschke’s “Hill of Grace”. Those of you, who know your Australian red wines, will know that “Hill of Grace” is almost on par to Penfolds Grange Hermitage. In those days on the island, I always kept a case of “Hill of Grace” ‘out the back’ for special guests and moments. I believed this was one of those moments and that Richard was a special guest. He was a special fellow.
As things happen, on the Sunday night of his stay, everyone was in a very happy, partying mood. Spontaneously, a party broke out amongst the guests and the staff. I raced over to my house and grabbed some cassettes to add to those in the restaurant. Everyone was laughing, talking and dancing together. Again, Richard hovered around the outskirts of the group. I took a couple of my staff aside and asked them to go to the laundry room taking the guests with them to commandeer the guests into dressing in togas made from some of the older, floral sheets we seldom used. Without any hesitation, the guests followed my girls in high hilarity.
Soon, they all reappeared. In not time at all, ‘toga party’ was under way. I grabbed a spare sheet, threw it at Richard, who had no other choice than to wrap it around himself,over the clothes he was wearing. I didn’t heed his protests as I clutched his arm and dragged him over to the rest of the dancing party. His protests were quickly drowned out by the singing, dancing, laughing group of people. Before too long, he forget his reserve, his shyness and any affliction he ‘thought’ he had. The other guests took him under their wings and he was high-kicking higher than them!
Someone, I forget who, lead the merry group out onto the deck and, of course, soon thereafter everyone was in the pool. It was a wonderfully, happy, unexpected harmless evening, one that re-affirmed the greatness of people, and one that restored the joy of life to one young man.
The day arrived for Richard’s departure. He had spent seven days and nights on the island. It was an emotional time. My staff, other guests and I were sad to see him leave, but happy knowing we had made a difference. I had tears as I bade him farewell at the end of the jetty. He asked if he could take a photograph of me. I said, “Sure…as long as I can take one of you!” We took one of each other, taking one of each other! I still have the photograph amongst my Hinchinbrook Island memorabilia.
About two weeks after Richard’s departure, I received a letter from him, in which he wrote that he felt renewed and rejuvenated in a way that no amount of professional therapy could have done. He was now ready to face life with confidence. He thanked all of us on the island for helping him. Without us, he said, he would still be battling the demons. Tears fell as I read his letter, but I felt proud, not only for what he thought we had done, but at having the opportunity of knowing Richard. I often wonder how his life progressed after his holiday on the island. I wished him well, and I still do, wherever he may be.