In the days before we left, it shifted from being a statement (this will happen) to a question (how will it happen?) and a statement again (there’s no escaping it).  Even the fact that we were travelling to Vanuatu for a keenly anticipated wedding of two good friends couldn’t dissuade me from believing that on this trip I would die.  I was so convinced that I printed out my two main projects, putting the manuscripts in perfectly neat piles on the desk.  I made sure the ring-binders in which I keep copies of my short stories were up to date.  I even dusted my bookshelves.

We drove to Sydney – no problems there.  The plane took off and flew over the water and landed on Efate; all fine.  On the way to the resort, the mini-van didn’t have an accident, even though the Ni-Vanuatu drive on the right-hand side of the road.  When we found our friends, most having arrived days earlier, we discovered that some in the wedding party had been struck down with a stomach bug so dreadful that doctors had been called in and morphine shots administered – could that be what would take me?

We snorkelled (did sharks patrol these waters?), we kayaked (a heart attack?), and we soaked in the swim-up bar before deciding that it was like drinking in a large public bath and best avoided.  The wedding was everything the bride wanted – she ‘arrived’ by canoe, greeted on-shore by a string band – and no one died, even though some were now so sick they probably wished they had.

The next day, an ex-pat friend took He Who Enjoys Good Nosh and I out to Port Villa for kava and then dinner.  I avoided the kava – I didn’t want a bucket of dirty water to be the thing that did me in.  We sat down at a harbour-side restaurant’s outside tables, the waitress greeting us with ‘Bonsoi!’  We drank the local beer, Tusker it’s called, and then became transfixed by the strangest sight: a shifting black cloud in the water, an inky swirl going this way and that; it looked like the effect filmmakers use to show that a demon is rushing out of some poor sod’s mouth.  Apparently this was just a school of fish, though it seemed so menacing.

Our food arrived.  I’d ordered the T-bone steak.  And then it happened: a piece of the meat became stuck in my throat.  I tried swallowing, but that only made things worse.  I took a drink of water; no good.  I was in trouble – I was going to choke to death while holidaying on a tropical island.  I stood up.  The partner asked me what was wrong.  I couldn’t reply.  He asked what I needed.  I began to panic; this could end in only one of two ways.  He stood up and thumped me on the chest and back.  Out shot the water (over his meal) and my throat cleared.  I sat down, my hands shaking.  Embarrassed for the scene I’d just caused, I looked back to the harbour’s edge.  The shifty black cloud was gone.

It was W. Somerset Maugham who said, Dying is a very dull, dreary affair.  And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.

I wish.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 5 December, 2009)

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