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I don’t think about Jean-Paul that much anymore. He’s the man who I’m reminded of when I hear Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Jean-Paul’s the man I formed a first impression of, as a man to stand away from, a man I’d prefer not to enter into conversation with, even at a social distance. In his late 70s, he had a tanned, unwrinkled face. With bushy eyebrows at odds with his matted silvery hair, he looked like a retired physical education teacher, but Jean-Paul was one of Tahiti’s few qualified pharmacists from the French mainland.
I was standing a few metres away from him. It was the lifeboat security drill on the Aranui, our first full day at sea on this improbable and – by social convention – unwise journey.
“Can you please respect the regulations, you must wear your mask, not just for us, but for you too,” asked Anne, a Swiss passenger with shaded spectacles. Jean Paul leant into her closer. I didn’t catch what he said, but she didn’t look impressed.
I was already feeling jumpy. Ever since I ruminated on the bottom bunk of the cabin I shared with Mum as a kid on Channel crossings to France, I’d say I’ve feared drowning above any other outcome in life. I’d pray for weeks before I took family trips. Perhaps one root of this obsessive thinking was the 1987 capsizing of the MS Herald of Free Enterprise roll-on/roll-off ferry, minutes after it departed Zeebrugge in Belgium. It was one of my first real memories of absorbing the news when I was five-and-a-half years old. Hypersensitive, I replayed the image of the boat on its side in my mind’s eye; the different angles the ship was photographed from in the sky would stick and repeat, like a song on a scratched vinyl.
Throughout those first few weeks in French Polynesia, much as I felt thrilled by the foreign sights of sand crabs shifting left and right, I was sure I’d taken too many liberties during the pandemic. I told my partner, Mehdi, it was silly to come on a cruise. “It’s crazy enough that we’ve decided to travel here, why do something even crazier?” I didn’t protest convincingly. I didn’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud. There were subsidised tickets for people residing in French Polynesia and we were residing there during lockdown, weren’t we? Or so we comforted ourselves.
It feels incongruous listening to Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” in adulthood. When I first heard it, I was seven years old and blew on my multicoloured party blower as the number one hit was turned up loud at my cousin’s disco.
Possibly the song meant something else to me back then. I felt safe at the family party. Stevie Wonder’s pop classic was an echo of all these facts lined up in a row of dancing relatives. There were my family, all four of them healthy, young, and alive, legs akimbo. Mum was smiling, her two rows of teeth on show, and my sisters gleefully shook plastic maracas.
“I’m going to avoid sitting on this balcony, you know how I hate heights.” I pointed to the serious drop from our cabin terrace to Papeete’s industrial docks below.
“You’re hardly going to fall,” Mehdi responded, easing me into his bearish hug.
I felt lucky. After years of disastrous relationships, this was love. Coming on a cruise when you fear drowning is love.
As soon as I heard we’d been upgraded to a “superior” cabin I was hypocritically immersed in this peculiar floating world. I’d fallen for the Edenic ideal of the South Seas, the paradisiacal charms that had done for Gauguin, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Herman Melville.
The daily routines felt satisfyingly smug. We’d have breakfast laid on, after our temperatures were checked at the entrance to the canteen. Antigen tests would be taken every three days, and we’d breathe sighs of relief when negative results were returned. We arrived at low-lying Fakarava, an atoll in the Tuamotus archipelago, which lay there knowingly on our third morning. We opened our curtains and there was an unreal toothpaste blue hue to the ocean, with ribbons of turquoise and white spray, enticing us, drawing us into its upside logic, 12 hours away from anyone we would ordinarily call to say, “Look at us, we’re here, I just called to say, I love you.”
Mehdi and I enjoyed sitting at our socially distanced table in the Halloween-themed canteen, plastic pumpkins adorning the serving station on which crew members deposited dishes of chèvre salad, steak, and profiteroles for the mainly French expat passengers. Jean-Paul asked to be moved to a table one metre away from ours. When he sat down – his battered Sudoku books and biro pen in hand – he’d ordered what was to become his staple every night: a glass of red wine topped by San Pellegrino sparkling water.
On the eighth night of the12-night cruise, and dressed for dinner in his striped iris and bottle green rugby shirt, Jean-Paul grumbled something to himself, squinted, and concentrated on his puzzle book. I didn’t notice anything particularly amiss. I imitated his raspy voice, in a hunched conversation with Mehdi in a stupid school boyish way, nothing to feel proud of. He was out of earshot, but still, I shouldn’t have. We didn’t exchange words. That his eyebrows were furrowed was nothing abnormal. It’s only now I imagine in his eyes a sadness, a determined stare designed to hide away pain. After that, he’s a clay figure.
I imagined he was homophobic, but friends on the crossing suggested he might have moved to the table next to ours because he might have been gay, albeit not “out.” Possibly his repressed sexuality troubled me, but this would be venturing too far. The truth is, I think it was his solitude that creeped me out. I once feared becoming that man – older and single – and in some ways, I still do.
On the ninth day of the cruise, heading back towards Tahiti, we heard a breathless announcement. The ship’s Tannoy crackled with static.
“Bravo, Code Bravo, all crew members, this is not a trial run. Bravo, Code Bravo.”
Horns sounded an intuitive alarm from my listing stomach. An announcement came through. Jean-Paul might have been missing since late at night; we were told we were going to retrace the route we’d charted for 200 or more nautical miles.
We stepped outside under greying skies and passed the pool. Its water sloshing about, it was a miniature sketch of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” There were shoals of Tahitians going about their daily work, taking orders at the bars, mopping communal toilets, avoiding all talk of drownings or death.
All the emphasis seemed to be on preserving a cultivated sense of calm. The public emphasis on dying, states Robert I. Levy in Tahitians. Mind and experience in the Society Islandsis “Don’t get too upset and get over it quickly.” There can be a drive to act as though things are normal, and although I wasn’t expecting histrionics, I also wasn’t expecting one of the crew to reach for her guitar.
They say the Tahitians don’t like the ghosts of mischievous spirits, but I’m the one revisiting. Jean-Paul’s not haunting me. It’s me who wants to bring him back from the dead. I dismissed him, an older man, a man I should have sympathised with, with his desperate eyes and, who knows, homosexual leanings.
My senses heightened, I listened to the swishing sounds of the Pacific. Where were we exactly, I wondered? Surely nowhere a man could be located. Had one of the younger passengers gone missing – a husband accompanied by his wife – who knows what wailing would be taking place, but instead we heard the strumming of strings.
A day later, “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was playing on a stereo – I suppose to calm us. Stevie Wonder’s lyrics jarred in my ears, and then, the passenger relations manager entered the salon.
“We’re sorry to say that despite the Captain’s best efforts, we haven’t been able to find Jean-Paul. C’est triste. It’s sad.”
Husbands’ heads turned in tandem as if engineered by their wives.
The passenger manager didn’t utter the words, “Jean-Paul is dead.” No one did. Neither did she or any of her fellow crew switch on the Stevie Wonder track again to encourage a false sense of cheer, but they might as well have. There was no body on which to perform an autopsy, nor any witnesses apparently to confirm his fall. No crew members were visibly dressed down for dropping their guard. Passengers weren’t rounded up and questioned.
We were left instead with a simple stated fact, or was it an opinion? Jean-Paul going missing was triste. I couldn’t help wondering: What would have happened if it had been me or Mehdi gaily walking on the deck one night, or more likely, on our cabin balcony, and then one of us slipped?
A documentary was hastily screened by crew members: a tale of Makatea’s solitary place in the oceans, a sceptred isle, sometimes thought of as the “missing island.” These banalities itched like the bites of the Marquesan nono flies. Was I the only one who found evening banjo renditions of Polynesian songs awkward and oafish? What were we all so keen to celebrate?
Normality was only interrupted by the briefest of silences – a memorial service to Jean-Paul where all of us were invited to toss Tiaré tahiti, ivory-coloured gardenias, beneath a skyscape as silvery and slippery as the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick. The memorial felt like a question mark placed at a curious position halfway through a question; there were no answers, just uncomfortable looking mourners. Anthropologists write about the lengths the living will go to deny the realities of death when it interrupts a small community. Here we were, a cult in a sense, determined we must go on enjoying our expensive cruise, that not even Jean-Paul was allowed to ruin with his inconvenient death.
Hindsight rarely tells you anything about the causes that drive people to go missing or specific motives they might have had in mind. In a 2017 article titled “Britain’s Escalating Missing Persons Problem,” Francisco Garcia highlighted how, in the UK, 180,000 people are reported missing every year. Someone goes missing every 90 seconds, according to figures Garcia quoted from the charity Missing People. Speculation is all I’m left with.
A few days after docking, I phoned Dad and told him, “I love you.” I reflected on how unwell he was and how determined I was that he should reach his 76th birthday and receive his vaccines against the coronavirus. I often have a sense that something must go wrong in life; the conviction that around every corner misfortune waits. It would be glib to suggest this fatalistic outlook coincided with Mum’s terminal illness. It won’t end when Dad passes.
We returned from Tahiti, and the lush rainforests metamorphosed into darkened Parisian street corners decorated with Christmas lights and paper icicles. The last croaking sounds of the roosters finally disappeared, and so with it our memory of Jean-Paul faded. I’d search for news reports on Jean-Paul but very few column inches were filled. The longer articles – the ones hogging headlines – were filled with the incalculable damage of COVID. The story of one man’s death hardly warranted attention, it seemed, let alone a man who sat down for dinner each night on his own.
I didn’t like Jean-Paul, not on first appearances, and it’s nonsense to imagine any of us on that boat could have loved him, but Mehdi and I could have called him: by his name. I could have crossed the one metre divide that separated his table and mine. He could have been encouraged to look up, perhaps just the once, from his solitary sitting position filling in his battered puzzle book.