A voy­age round my mother

A last-minute call-up re­sults in a pre­cious op­por­tu­nity for bond­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - KER­RIN O’SUL­LI­VAN

THE long­est we are sep­a­rated is when my mother is at the hair­dresser’s. Or the sa­lon, as they call it on the ship.

Ei­ther way, dur­ing the 14 days we are cruis­ing the South Pa­cific, there are not many min­utes we are apart.

In foot­ball par­lance, I have come off the bench. I am the in­ter­change called in to ac­com­pany my mother when medi­cos ad­vise my fa­ther against head­ing to the trop­ics.

My mother, just months shy of 80 and a fash­ion model in her younger days, is the pic­ture of el­e­gance. She sweeps into Syd­ney’s Over­seas Pas­sen­ger Ter­mi­nal on high heels, her case swiv­el­ling on its cas­tors. The only thing that slows her is when the mar­c­a­site clip in her coiffed blonde hair sets the se­cu­rity bells ring­ing.

We line up to have our pho­to­graphs snapped for our cruise iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards. The purser scru­ti­nises our pass­ports, then our faces, and with im­pe­ri­ous de­ci­sive­ness hands my mother’s pass­port to me and mine to her (or Miss Dorothy, as he calls her). I am a lit­tle put out. Peo­ple say we are clones of each other but, crikey, there’s a three­decade age gap. My mother seems quite flat­tered by the er­ror. I re­solve to get a new pass­port photo or, fail­ing that, some duty-free wrin­kle cream once on board.

We fol­low the gang­way on to the ship and the of­fi­cial cruise pho­tog­ra­pher leaps out and snaps us. Lurk­ing rear of shot is a Wel­come Aboard ban­ner. On a voy­age that prom­ises re­lax­ation, the pho­tog­ra­pher is the only stress ac­cel­er­ant, spring­ing as he does from un­der gang­ways and be­hind pot­ted palms at var­i­ous su­per­hu­man an­gles to snap us into hol­i­day his­tory.

For for­mal night, Miss Dorothy slips away to get a ‘‘do’’ at the sa­lon, re­turn­ing hours later just a tad more bouf­fant. A swell is up and, arm in arm, we stag­ger along to din­ner, my mother a por­trait of style and glam­our. Cat­a­pulted into the din­ing room as the ship dips and dives, we min­gle among the tuxe­dos and tiaras, sidestep­ping the pho­tog­ra­pher, who is at­tempt­ing an art-house shot from floor level.

A smil­ing In­done­sian waiter links arms with my mother and the three of us lurch and gig­gle our way to­wards the ta­ble. It can­not be pos­si­ble she is nearly 80, I think.

The evening be­comes more bizarre: the band plays the theme from Ti­tanic while waiters dart back and forth jug­gling food trays, and our con­ver­sa­tion ric­o­chets from the re­lease from house ar­rest of Aung San Suu Kyi to the short­age of small green toma­toes for my mother’s pick­les.

We take shore vis­its on the lush isles of Van­u­atu, Fiji and New Cale­do­nia.

In Noumea our sight­see­ing cen­tres on Miss Dorothy’s search for a hair­dresser cheaper than the one on the ship. There are plenty but it’s Mon­day and not one is open.

On Wala Is­land I watch, life­guard-like, a co­coa-skinned tod­dler pad­dling. Miss Dorothy ap­pears, drenched, her hairdo now sort of shaggy-dog-meetsmon­ster-from-the-deep. ‘‘I was rins­ing my feet and a big wave knocked me over,’’ she says. Wher­ever from, I won­der, look­ing out at the mir­ror-flat turquoise la­goon.

I re­solve to take my cab­in­com­pan­ion du­ties more se­ri­ously and sug­gest a re­turn to the ship for re­pairs in the sa­lon. ‘‘No panic,’’ she chirps. ‘‘I’ve packed my hot rollers.’’

We savour warm trade winds and watch golden sun­sets over the rip­pling blue Pa­cific. Time seems to dis­solve. When the ship docks at Syd­ney’s Cir­cu­lar Quay, hair­dress­ing ap­point­ments aside, my mother and I have been to­gether for 336 hours. And what pre­cious hours they’ve been.

TOM JELLETT

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