from Lost Tides

‘All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.’

—Toni Morrison


We are standing face to face on a green plateau, circled by mountains and sky.   A ring of ancient stones surrounds us.  We stare into each other’s eyes, separated by an invisible membrane.  My every cell strains to swim through the divide, to merge back into him, to press my forehead against his.   We have been at this impasse for hours, for days, for weeks – until time streams endlessly out into the wilderness, before us and after us. 

I close my eyes, press my palm to the ethereal wall, and mouth the words.  I love you.


 ‘The past is not a package one can lay away.’

              —Emily Dickinson

The most treasured four possessions remaining in my world are so well disguised that I almost toss them into the rubbish bag.  Four years ago, on a winter’s day in December, they’d been carefully placed in their sarcophagus – an opaque storage box.  Seizing them to my chest now they are found, safe, reunited.  Wrapped in an Aboriginal design t-shirt that‘s faded to a stone-washed hue of Australia’s red centre, the dotted kangaroo still bounds across a desert sunset.  The weight and size of the package is unmistakable; four black diaries that have been sleeping, waiting, harbouring.  I sit on the stone floor, feeling the cold seep through my jeans and into the bone, breathing clouds into the air. 

When stepping down into this cellar of our Yorkshire home, I’d shone a torch and trailed my fingers along the flaky white-washed wall to steady myself in the dimness.  Reaching above the door jamb I‘d probed for the key that I knew he must have placed there.  My fingertips ran the dusty ledge once, twice before they bumped the jagged metal tip.  Yes, as reliable as ever.  I closed my eyes – thankyou, thankyou.  He would have stashed it there on his way out, before joining me in the taxi; before heading out on our most recent big adventure together in Cambodia. 

The diaries were just a memento then, stored away for some time in the far distant future, when our hair would have whitened and our knuckles would have knotted.  When one rainy Yorkshire afternoon, we would open a dresser to remind ourselves: what was the name of that guy who won at the cane toad races in Queensland; of the guide leading us into the Sacred Valleys of Peru playing his flute; of the driver of the white Oxford in Rajasthan – the one that drank copiously and one morning emerged with stripy pyjamas poking out from under his suit…?  Or maybe they’d be shared with a niece or a nephew who’d be embarking upon their own adventure.  In any case, they were intended for some time in the far distant future – not for now.  Not after these few short years.  

Now that he’s gone even the smallest things take on significance.  Nondescript objects have become monumentally important to me – everything he owned is vital, anything once touched  lovingly by his hand sacred.  So, these diaries are the greatest treasure of all, holding as they do, so much of him.  Hours and hours of him…

In the faint light, I haven’t noticed to my right a big black bag with zipped compartments at each end.  Edging the zip open, I catch the glint of a tiny silver christening cup and a cylinder opens up in my stomach so raw that I picture the dust-lit air moving straight through me to the other side.  There’s a row of army medals awarded to him as a kid soldier in Northern Ireland and later for his work assisting the troops in Iraq.  Prizes that his army friends would jape about through the years, especially the British Empire Medal which had given him letters after his name, but which they thought hilarious.  Awarded to someone supporting the troops from the safety of his military office.   Danger lurking behind every filing cabinet! 

I lift these treasures and place them on the stone floor revealing underneath a package of tightly packed bundles.  Everything seems wrapped in something else.  Pulling them apart, memories billow out; faint white wisps swirling upwards like smoke eager to escape.  Instinctively, I lean back to avoid being smothered in ghosts.

A woolly running hat, ski salopettes, khaki gloves, a Velcro travel wallet.  And there, just tucked underneath, a Perspex compass.  I hold its sharp edges in my palm and peer closely for true north, expecting that maybe the needle has frozen, or the poles resettled askew now that the world as I know it has vanished.  Maybe I hope that the faithful instrument will signal the way back to him, like some sort of spiritual water diviner.  Then there, six small square slide-film boxes, an antiquated sight that surprises me.  A shoeshine kit, a nail-clipper set, his grandfather’s gold cufflinks.  And an oval wooden hairbrush, its spongy centre harbouring the odd strand of his precious DNA…

I re-zip the bag deciding to leave whatever else lies there just be.  This is no store for paperwork which is after all what I’m searching for – his Last Will and Testament.  Four weeks after he left this earth it is still surreal; the very notion that I could be back here in England without him, searching alone in this dark cellar.   That after all the journeys we’d taken over the years, the risky transport, the unstable countries, the tropical diseases, it would be a short last-minute trip to the wilds of Borneo that would be his final destination.  Still unbelievable that his generous, bounding heart had simply just stopped.       

Shuddering, I turn my attention back to the diaries.  Unwrapping the t-shirt, there they are: four black books, A5 in size.  I hold them up to the fluorescent strip-light above, dangling precariously from a rusty hook on a beam.  Opening each one, I see that they are placed there neatly in order.  Of course, they would be. Each a section of our world trip embarked upon in Brazil in January 2003 and finishing in Sri Lanka in April 2004.  Our halcyon days together, days that would also change the course of our lives.

I leaf through the pages, once so familiar and so vibrant but now that he’s gone, I’m peeling back layer upon layer of sadness rather than joy.  The life of these diaries evolved over time and became mini scrapbooks of our journey.  Tickets of every type, peeled off labels, pictures from flyers.  Even scraps of our favourite togs that had become too ragged to take up precious space in our rucksacks.  There, a piece of purple silk sarong, from Bali.

Opening the first diary, there it is, tucked amongst the pages; the photograph of Rich, our motorcycle driver amongst the idyllic villages of Battambang in northern Cambodia.  Perhaps aged 16, he stands awkwardly in the image, gazing to one side.  On the cave wall to his right is the iron ring bolted to the wall where, he told us, small children were hoisted up and left to die.  To his left, the entrance to the marriage cave, where young lovers were lured to be secretly married, before being secretly slaughtered.  I could hear the words that Rich had murmured, ‘Your governments knew, but no-one came to help us. Where were you?’

We’d ridden back through lush fields, children squealing and thrusting flowers into our hands, but an hour later in the hotel I’d lain nauseous and confused, my psyche shaken into pieces of a kaleidoscope.   We’d been tricked and tripped by Cambodia, shown the highest and the lowest points in our journey so far, all in one day.  Maybe, in those small hours, the restless spirits of Battambang had slipped a translucent loop around my ankle; one that would pull me back to that bitter-sweet land.  But that would be some years later…

We never did settle back into our home life after that long trip.  Following the Asian tsunami of December 2004, we were compelled back to Sri Lanka to work as volunteers in that small, ravaged country.   I enrolled for a masters degree at East Anglia University, as a rather mature student and we entered into a new life together, living and working in developing countries with victims of violence, disaster and trafficking.  It was no coincidence that we chose Cambodia as our new place to live and work.  Through the years Chip and I had often talked about Rich, speculated on what the future may have held for him, but we never returned to find him.  We mused about repeating parts of our trip ten years later in 2014. But where would we go, there were so many characters and locations that we longed to revisit?  Looking for Rich was a given, but should we also look for Gede, the eldest in the family struggling to survive in a country where tourism was recently shattered by the Bali bombing; for the Sri Lankan colleagues and friends that we’d been forced to leave, who were helping to rebuild the lives of those destroyed by the tsunami, while the country around them slid slowly back into civil war?  What happened to them over the last fifteen years?  Did their dreams come true?  Had they at last found themselves living in a better world?

In January 2014, the ten-year anniversary of our first journey came and went and the dream to revisit those people and places remained on some future wish list.  How could I know that just a few weeks after that anniversary Chip would be gone?




The heart is an organ of fire.

                                                  – Michael Ondaatje

It is lunchtime in Phnom Penh.  Reaching for my bedside tablet, I scroll to the meditation music that has become a daily routine since I came back to my overseas base here.  Without him.  A post-lunch ritual to combine a short nap with some soothing words and sounds, in the hope of drowning out the constant grief and confusion.  Today the loops of negative thoughts have been harder to detangle myself from, so I search the web for different permutations for healing.  I’m surprised to see a video pop up with the words trauma and grief overarched by a rainbow.  I hesitate slightly before clicking on it. 

You’re safe, now go back to the moment directly before the trauma.  You see a bright light, in the distance…   The reference seems so clichéd that I stir on the sheets, tempted to switch to another track, but before my closed eyes I’m dazzled by bright light.  I’m walking down a wide backstreet, shielding my eyes from the glare of midday sun.  I recognise the scene.   This is Kota Kinabalu, in Sabah, northern Borneo and it is the very last day that I will spend with Chip.   A woman leads the way, swinging a bunch of keys.  She is escorting us from one hotel to another  and I’m conscious of Chip striding beside me, his strong hand in mine. 

I stir on the bedcover, swallow hard, will myself to calmly stay with it, not to break the moment.  I resettle as the scene darkens, and I know this is later that same day.  We’re again walking down the street that leads back to our hotel, but we’re alone this time, returning after a sunset dinner overlooking the sea.  Chip’s hand feels softer in mine.  Then he stops and utters words that I’ve never heard him say in our 23 years together.  

“I need to sit down.” 

We rest a moment on a nearby bench.  Sweat is bubbling on his brow, far more than the heat of the night demands.  “Let’s stop here, just a minute.”  He breathes in deeply.  “It must be the seafood.  I feel awful.”  Putting my palm to his forehead I notice a line of taxis parked straight ahead of us.

“You don’t look good at all.  Let’s get to a hospital, these guys here’ll know where to go.” 

“No, it’s OK.  Really, I just need to lie down.”  He gathers himself and we take it easy the few blocks back, both of us speculating that the culprit must be the seafood platter he’d just tucked away at dinner.  On reaching the hotel reception, Chip steadies himself in the doorway.

“I just need to go to bed, I’ll be alright.”

Realising we have no water in the room, I hesitate and decide to dash out to the Seven-Eleven, a short hop away.  I put my hand on his arm and check the door key is in his front pocket, as he takes the handrail to climb the one flight of stairs up to our room. 

“I’ll just go and grab some water, see you in a mo.”

He nods and I think it looks like a nasty oneI’m so glad I don’t eat shellfish, never have been able to.  Turning away from him, everything slows down.  I’m pushing through heavy water, passing through the fluorescence of the reception hall and into the fading light of the street.  How could I know that I was abandoning him to suffer his last unbearable moments alone?   This scene I will replay before me, in weeks and months and years to come.  Those few vital seconds will stretch out forever, but the decision I made, to go and fetch water was only what either of us always did for the other when a bout of sickness struck.  After nursing each other through attacks of vomiting and diarrhoea throughout our travelling years, we knew that a sickroom without clean drinking water would add up to a grim experience.  

I’m in the Seven Eleven, a bottle under each arm, but there’s a queue and I really don’t want to wait and so, again, as if turning slowly in deep water, I set the two bottles down and head for the next place, a few doors along.  Through the rat-run aisles, I’m stepping over boxes, then there it is- right by the door all the time.  I grasp two in one hand, balancing to search for ringgit notes in my back pocket.  I’m sprinting back, bounding up the stairs.  The door is ajar, the key rests half in and out of the lock.   Oh, he never does that, he must be feeling desperate.  And as I push back the door some odd version of him is propped up on the bed… and life in that moment changes forever.

Somehow, I’m pressing on his still chest, against his pink Billabong t-shirt.  Counting one, two, three, but as I tip back his head, part his mouth, I know he is gone.  I try a few times, pressing desperately, searching for a pulse, at his neck, at his wrist.  My  own body is pounding with adrenaline, my own heartbeat thumping so loudly that I cannot feel anything.  My fingers cannot tell.  

I rush to the stairs, taking a few steps down and yelling over the bannister for help, before returning to press and breathe, press and breathe.  The receptionist ventures in, letting out a scream that alerts the whole hotel to our crisis. 

“Ring an ambulance quick.  For God’s sake, quick.”  People are stepping into the room, tilting their heads curiously.  “Get out, get out!”  One, two, three, and blow, one, two, three, and blow.   Whispering now, “hold on, hold on.  They’re coming. I’m working mechanically and counting and praying.  Come on, come on.  Oh, please God.  Please.

After some time, there’s a commotion in the hall downstairs and a small guy sweeps into the room lugging metal apparatus with a dial.  More faces peek and strain from the doorway as the medic hooks up a monitor. 

“Don’t worry, Madam.  He is going to be OK.”  A flood of relief hits me but I’m puzzled.  I’d been unable to see any signs of life at all, none.  I push past the onlookers into the hallway. 

“Get away!  Oh god, oh god.”  I squat in the corridor, try to calm myself. 

Soon there are two other men with a stretcher, and we are hurrying downstairs.  I am running alongside Chip, continuing to pump at his chest, the best I can.

 “Yes, that’s a good idea, you keep doing that.”  But I wonder for a split second, why aren’t the medics doing this themselves?  Why aren’t they continuing the CPR?   We pass crowds on the pavement, surrounding the awaiting ambulance.   They seem to be stacked one upon the other.  Maybe some are standing on a wall to get a better view?  I remember only the swing and sway of the ambulance before we’re in an emergency room, bordered by beds on three sides.  Each prostrate figure is attended by a blue gown and it is surprisingly calm considering that this must be an emergency ward.

There are three gowns surrounding Chip now, taking turns to press on his chest, calmly at first, then more urgently.   I hear myself shouting, “Where are the things?  Get the bloody things!”  But the right words swim elusively in the chaos of my brain.  I’m miming with two hands held high, slamming them down, jerking.  “You know the things, the pads.”  Then finally the words emerge, “the defibrillator, get the fucking defibrillator!”  I’m pacing.  “For god’s sake, you save my husband.  You bloody well save him.”  I’m holding on to a sort of small reception counter, steadying myself.  Sniffling, muttering. 

 “Please sit down, madam, sit.”  I see myself briefly through the eyes of those around me; a foreign woman behaving inappropriately, without dignity.  Still standing, I do what most would do faced with such desperation.  I screw my eyes shut and call in the help of any spiritual being that might be in distance.  God himself, our spirit guides, Buddha.  It occurs that Allah, may be in closer range, here in this corner of the world.  The primeval need to call out to a higher being for help when is crisis, kicked in strongly.  No filters now, no human cynicism at what may lay beyond this life, or not.  Just pure instinct.  Just one small speck on the earth calling out beyond, for help.  My whole body is thumping as I try to steady my breath.  I enter a vortex and am surrounded by the gravelly rush of pebbles washing in and out on a long shoreline; the sound we’d awakened to in our beach hut that very morning, and on the last few mornings.  I concentrate hard, willing the steady swoosh of the waves, in and out, to force his breath back into his body once again.  In, two, three – out, two, three.  Shouting out loud in my head Come back to me, don’t go, don’t you leave me.  Come back, you can do it.   At that very moment a cry rings out behind me.  “We have something!  OK we have something now.”   I spin around, am rushing to the bay where all three are stooping closely over him.  I’m ducking around the blue gowns to see for myself, but cannot get a look in.  

“That’s it,” I shout.  ‘Come on, I’m here, I’m here.”  But just as quickly, the action slows.  One of the gowns floats towards me from the bedside, taking me by the arm.  

“Please, come, sit down.  It is nothing, there is nothing there.  Sorry, but it happens sometimes.  We thought for a moment that it may be a chance, but it was just the heart settling.  Afterwards.  We had to try for so long.  We had to make sure that there was no chance at all.”

I shake him off, running out of the ward, rushing past lines of glum faces hovering above metal chairs.  The hot night air swells around me.  Perching on a pavement edge amid parked ambulances and the reek of gasoline.  I’m murmuring, praying, beating my forehead with my palms.  Please, I’ll do anything – just bring him back, bring him back.  I’m rocking back and forth, snivelling, shaking my head.  A low whine vibrates through my throat.   Don’t leave me, don’t you bloody leave me.’   Then calmly and more bizarrely I think, we didn’t see the orangutans yet…

When I return to the ward one medic is drawing the short sheet up over his head, exposing his brown ankles and feet.  Some days later, it would be stated clearly on the death certificate that the hospital had found him Dead on Arrival.  The coroner would inform me that in accordance with hospital protocol they had to try to revive him for one hour and fifteen minutes.  I always felt that he was gone right from the moment I’d returned to the hotel room; that I’d been placated by the emergency crew who had assured me that he was going to be fine.  Were they just saying the kindest thing to me, or keeping the situation calm at the hotel for the sake of the residents?  Or had they genuinely believed that he could be holding on, that they could bring him back?  All I knew then, and would ever know, was that Chip loved his life so avidly that if there could have been the slightest hope, he would have fought fiercely.  If, that is, there had been any fighting left to be done.

An opening in the chaos, a hushed silence.  I’ve been alone here, how long?  Then I notice him still there in the open bay, on the metal trolley.  I approach and place both hands on his middle and smooth the sheet outwards, towards his head and knees. I close my eyes, kiss his hair; whisper thanks for everything we have shared, for our beautiful life together. 

“You still here?”  A passing orderly swerves over to usher me on.  “You need to call yourself a taxi.”  I stare, uncomprehending.  “Madam, you need to go now.”  I remember only that after some time a slightly familiar face arrives – the manager of the hotel.  We’re guided into a large quiet room crowded with heavy furniture and are seated on a black faux leather sofa.  He knew straight away which couple we must be when he had been called over to the hospital.  We must be the ones that were older than the other travellers, who’d come in from the island that day.  The staff had laughed together, he remembered, after we had refused the room with single beds – one big bed only we’d insisted.  They thought it so funny, that we must have been together for so long now.  They thought it was sweet.

It’s his duty now, he explains, to make sure everything is done correctly.  We must wait for the police to interview me before we can go; this is usual I’m told in these circumstances, in order to rule out foul play.  We were after all foreigners in this land, one husband and one wife.  Questions must be asked.  I was conscious that my recently acquired status of ‘wife’ could prove important in this situation.  If we hadn’t plumped to marry at last, just a couple of years ago, I wondered how I’d be regarded in this traditional land, as a woman merely accompanying a man who’d suddenly passed away.

When I finally return to the hotel room in the early hours, the strewn bedsheets and whiff of medical liquid send me reeling.   I return to reception, push two armchairs together and draw up my knees.  Exhausted but still wired, I pull the computer out of my bag.  It’s strange to reflect on what one does in times of crisis; what one turns to.  But I do remember calculating the time difference with the UK and calmly Skyping a few family members.  I’d thought I was delivering the news in the best possible way, but the words strained and jumbled.  In an attempt to be clearly understood, I reported the tragic news mechanically only to be met by gasps and tears and sometimes a stilted silence emanating from the other end.   

I’m in Borneo.  I’m sorry, but I have to tell you.  I’ve lost him, Chip’s gone.

OK Jan, just sit down, think carefully. You’re in Borneo eh?  You two really do get around.  Where did you last see him? 

No, no that’s not what I meant.  He’s not lost.  Chip’s gone.  He’s dead.

And so, news of the tragedy rippled out unceremoniously to our loved ones, thousands of miles through the skies and across the waters.  

At some point I must have dozed off, crossed an earthly threshold, for a huge tiger is pounding towards me.  Paws thud, head dipping as its massive haunches and tail rise and fall behind.  Over and over.  Wet nostrils, spit shaking from its jowls.   It runs faster and faster, like a flickering movie tape.  Looking on curiously from my small vantage point I know, somehow, that even this formidable beast cannot expend such energy forever, that eventually it would reach its absolute limit.   Stop.     

It is early the next day and I’m shouting.  “I told you!  I told you I would only do it if I could see him through the window, from outside the room.  You knew that, you bloody knew it.”  Two men in white shirts stare back, non-plussed.  ‘Why do I have to identify him anyway?   I was with him for God’s sake.  Don’t you think I’ve seen enough already?”   I feel tricked, furious.  They had placed the steel trolley half in the room and half out with his feet jutting through the doorway, so that I would have to go fully inside, squeeze alongside to witness the taut skin of his face – somehow mottled green and purple now.  The pigment seemed to have seeped from his hair.  I’m shouting as I flee.  “Of course its him, you idiots.”   I rush past white closed doors with steel framed labels, to a dead-end where I slam against the wall.  Briefly, I see myself from above, smearing mucus and tears up my arms, as a nurse glides past. 

Later, the hotel manager and I sit before the coroner in a crowded corner of the hospital complex.   I’m shaking my head.   No, I don’t authorise them to carry out an autopsy.  I don’t want him being touched again, cut and pulled at, he’d been through enough.   It seems, though, that the question had been a rhetorical one – an autopsy must be performed here in this country, under these circumstances.  To explain the suddenness of it all, for the accuracy of the death certificate, and again, to rule out suspicious circumstances.  I’m silent, wide-eyed as the coroner describes in detail exactly where he will make the incisions just here and here.  Where the blade will saw.  I’m sobbing now and the coroner raises his eyebrows in surprise, reassures me that I will not see it when they present him in the open casket.  It must be open as is customary here.  And they must do the autopsy right now as the cremation has to be within 24 hours.  

Then I’m speaking to a funeral director.  They can perform a Christian ceremony, but I’ll need to go out and buy him a suit and tie.  Oh, and some good shoes so that he’ll be properly presented.  Again, I hear that it is how things are done here.  Somehow, in the midst of all of this, I gather the strength to rise up, to dig my heels in.  No, I can’t do this alone, in this strange place.  It’ll have to wait until someone can be here with me.  I decide to contact a dear friend of mine who lives and teaches in Penang, just a few hours flight away.  To ask her to fly over urgently, to be at my side when I finally say goodbye.  The room bristles with disapproval but finally it’s agreed; they can wait one more day for the funeral service. 

I don’t remember signing any papers or being formally read the results of the autopsy.  There’s a scene somewhere buried deep where I sit sobbing opposite the coroner.  He’s speaking slowly, kindlier to me now than when he’d been describing what the procedure would entail.  We know now that his left ventricle was 80% blocked.  He had no chance of surviving it – the heart attack had been massive.  Only an angiogram would have detected the disaster awaiting, and as he seemed fit and well, there was no need for such a test.  He’d passed recent health checks with flying colours so there was no reason for anyone to have expected anything different. 

I would be told often by friends and well-meaning professionals in the dark times to come that it wasn’t my fault.  My last act for him that evening, as I walked out that night to fetch water, was one of kindness.  I was trying to help him.  Nobody could have known what was to come.  But believing those words would prove a very different thing.  In the need for me to keep it all together after I lost him, for me to make funeral arrangements, repatriate his ashes and organise more memorials and ceremonies over the weeks to come, it would take some time for me to comprehend the enormity of what had been taken from me that night.  Not only had I lost Chip, but my whole life as I knew it.  

Proof of the funeral, that it really happened, exists today as a set of snapshots on the computer hard drive.  Empty rows of chairs in a tropical garden, a simple wooden coffin set on a metal table.  The Reverend stands reading from a bible.  I stand small between my loyal friend, just flown in, and the local British Charges de Affairs who’d appeared when the legal paperwork became necessary.  I’m dressed in a white robe that I’d bought in the town earlier that day and shortened with a pair of scissors in my room just one hour before the ceremony.  I’m grasping a bunch of orchids that I later realise mirror the orchids chosen for our wedding just two years before.   I’m puzzled now why I’m holding flowers at the funeral; photographs taken on the two occasions are strangely similar.   

A few days later, back in England, I’d soberly select some of these photos and have them printed out on the High Street.  I’d intended to pass them around among Chip’s family members when I was reunited with them.  Without him.  I’d intended that they could witness his scant funeral ceremony in Borneo, maybe even experience some sort of closure.  But by the time I arrived back in England with the green stone urn containing his ashes weighing down my backpack, I’d completely lost my voice.  There was little for any of us to say anyway.  He had gone.


Jan Robinson-Wood is a debut writer and author of the unpublished manuscript Lost Tides, a journey of healing grief through travelling several countries. 

Over the years Jan has practised the craft of writing in many exotic locations, with the help of online courses, the Arvon Foundation, Stirling University and The Skyros Writers Lab.  She has worked for many years as a humanitarian worker specialising in gender-related issues in South and South-East Asia. 

Jan has recently endured the culture shock of returning to the cooler climes of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, where she now continues her work and writing.  

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