WRIT LARGE: Ch 16, Part 1
The Cure for Anything
As the helicopter heads away from the mainland and towards Tioman Island, the dense rainforest opens up to reveal turquoise waters fringed with creamy foam and, in the shallows closer to the island, glimpses of sea life.
Jeff, sitting in front with the pilot, has maintained a steady stream of inquisitive conversation about Malaysia, gleaning snippets of information as though preparing for an exam paper later in the day. It has left Olivia and I to enjoy the ride and anticipation builds in my chest with the approaching camping trip among a group of strangers. Some say that being an author is a lonely occupation and that we must all be introverts preferring our own company and that of fictional characters to people. I don’t consider myself an introvert, but only Ann understands the levels of anxiety that I experience prior to a book launch or interview, or more recently a zoom call, where you can criticise your own facial expressions throughout a conversation. Sleeplessness and events have always walked hand in hand for me.
“Look,” says Olivia. “Turtles!” She points at the sea just south of the island.
“Magnificent, aren’t they?” Jeff speaks to us through our headsets. “You’ll be amazed at the creatures you’ll see over the next couple of days.”
“It’s almost a shame to invade their space,” says Olivia. “Don’t you ever think that you should pack away your recording equipment and get the hell out of a place? Leave them be.”
“I get where you’re coming from,” says Jeff. “The human race has forgotten how to share the planet with other creatures and that offends me as much as it does you, but I console myself with the fact that when we depart, we leave it unspoilt and unharmed. We’re simply borrowing the wildlife’s home for a short while.”
I add that filming in such remote areas hopefully reminds people that there are still parts of the world that remain intact and undeveloped. The great powers fuelled by greed are not interested in a tiny rock of an island where turtles can still lay their eggs and coral can still breathe.
“The way I see it,” says Jeff, “is that there are so many beautiful places around the world, that most people will do nothing more than ever dream about. So, if we can bring a little sunshine into peoples’ lives, while they watch the contestants crawl over each other to win a few bucks, it’s worth moving in for a few weeks.”
I can tell that Olivia isn’t convinced, but she keeps her forehead pressed to the window drinking in the view until we land.
Departing the helicopter, we make our way to the Tioman Cabana Beach Bistro where we order ice-cold drinks which are served to us on the beach, complete with chunky slices of fruit perched on the rim of the glass, and paper umbrellas.
Olivia stands on the beach staring out at the sea, her toes scrunching the fine golden sand. When she turns to me, her cheeks are glowing, any remaining hint of a hangover having evaporated.
“Are you sure this isn’t called paradise?” She gestures to the wooden Bistro behind us where a few tourists are sitting barefoot at the bar with chilled beers in front of them. A young woman swings gently in a hammock, engrossed in a book.
“I might stay,” she says as she joins me at our small table.
I ask if she thinks she might get bored after a few months of paradise.
“Nope!” she says. “Not even a little bit.” She sips her drink and looks at me sideways, eyebrows raised. “I’d bring a laptop and write a book. Paris to Paradise.” She draws speech marks in the air around the potential title.
“Do you think it would sell?”
I assure her that I would be first in line to buy a copy and that I expect to be invited over for dinner occasionally too.
Jeff strides over and says that he has arranged for us to be fitted with snorkelling gear. He also points out that the Cabana sells swimwear if there’s anything that we need, and I inform him that Olivia intends to rent a hammock for a few months while she writes her book.
Jeff grins. “Gets you like that, doesn’t it? Makes you wonder why we choose the city over the beach. Stress over simplicity.” He shrugs. “I reckon they’d give you the hammock for free if you’re still up for it after the camping trip.”
Olivia laughs out loud. “It almost sounds like you’re trying to scare us,” she says. “I have sisters, Jeff. There’s nothing you can throw at me that will be scarier than that.”
After we finish our drinks, we are fitted with masks, snorkels, and fins, while the instructor gives us some beginner’s tips.
“Breathing through your mouth will take a little getting used to as we mostly breathe through our nose,” he says, checking that the masks are a perfect fit. “If it starts to fill with water, don’t panic.” He shows us how to empty the mask underwater and practice focused, relaxed breathing.
Jeff nods once we are kitted out. “Here they come,” he says.
A man and a woman are approaching us in comfortable beachwear, sliders, and straw hats. They offer us wide smiles and their hands in greeting.
“Our Survivor king and queen,” says Jeff. “Our only two-time winners, Tony Vlachos and Sandra Diaz-Twine. This is the famous author I was telling you about and Olivia, Bernard Arnault’s PA. They’ll be our guests tonight on our camping trip.”
“Hope you’re ready,” says Tony. “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this show it’s that you can never be over-prepared.”
“You’ve brought insect repellent, right?” Olivia asks Jeff.
“Ignore Tony,” says Sandra, smiling. “It’s his go-to strategy: scare the opposition. Every time he tells you to mind the snake, remind him this isn’t an actual episode.”
She digs Tony in the ribs with her elbow, and he holds his hands up in mock surrender. “Old habits,” he says.
Jeff and Tony begin loading our equipment onto a dive boat. They’ve also brought an ice box filled with food and drinks for the trip.
“Nervous?” Sandra asks.
“A little,” says Olivia. “I mean, you’re a pro, a survivor. I’m a PA to a billionaire businessman and can barely remember how to cook a poached egg.”
I nod and tell her that I’m an Australian who has learnt to respect that if a spider looks venomous, it probably is, and that if a vertical triangle is heading towards you in the ocean, you keep your arms and legs out of the water.
Sandra throws her head back and laughs. “Listen,” she says, “we all got it inside, that survival instinct.” She taps her chest with her fist. “Fight or flight. Been with us since caveman times. And this is only a location recce – no way Jeff would’ve invited you along if it was likely to be dangerous. More than his reputation’s worth. Enjoy it.”
Olivia glanced back at the Cabana. “Are you staying here?”
“We stayed last night,” Sandra says. “Pretty impressive, huh? I could get used to waking up to this view and the sound of the ocean in the morning, especially when I don’t need to find my own food.”
I’m struck by Sandra’s laidback attitude; it’s easy to see why she was a popular winner on the show. There’s also something maternal about her, an inner strength that comes so naturally, she might not even fully understand its potential. An image of Sandra parachuting into enemy territory during the war flashes through my mind, a force to be reckoned with, a woman you’d want on your side when danger shows its face.
“Me too,” says Olivia. “Much as I love Paris, I’d swap my stilettos in an instant for a beach life.”
Jeff joins us. “Let’s go, folks,” he says.
We make our way to the boat where Tony is waiting to help us aboard. His grip is strong. He has the physique for survival and there’s no mistaking his police force background, which shines through in the no-nonsense attitude, the eyes that seem to miss nothing. Olivia stumbles as she steps into the boat and he steadies her with one hand, while offering me his other as I climb aboard.
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I love what I believe is foreshadowing at the end when Olivia stumbled onto the boat. I can't wait to see her "survive" this adventure.