Interminable gloom enveloped the small passenger ferry as it ploughed towards the island. Choppy grey sea melded with overcast sky and even the whitecaps seemed soiled to eyes accustomed to turquoise Queensland waters. The sombre atmosphere persisted inside the cabin; all I could see was a host of pallid faces heavy with winter’s long shadow. A cacophony of howling wind and clamorous engine made conversation impossible, so I sat back in my seat and waited patiently for journey’s end.
The ferry crested a wave, then plunged into a deep trough, evoking cries of alarm from numerous passengers. Beside me, a young woman clutched her stomach, making me thankful for a lifetime of sailing. Even as a small child, I had never succumbed to seasickness on the odd occasion when Dad misjudged the weather and we were caught in a storm far out in Moreton Bay.
‘Look to your left and you’ll see the island,’ shouted Martin, the young staff member from Eden College. I had met Martin that morning in the small Pembrokeshire village adjoining the harbour, where some of us had lodged overnight after arriving late from Heathrow.
I peered out of spray-covered windows, noticed a grey shape shrouded in mist.
‘Pity about the weather,’ he added, ‘there’s a glorious view on a sunny day.’
‘They have sunny days in Britain?’ my bilious neighbour bawled in a thick European accent.
I smiled but made no attempt to answer her. The vagaries of the British weather were of no consequence at this stage of my personal journey. Three months’ freedom stretched before me, a welcome break from the pressures of juggling work and home, the demands of husband and children—student would be my only role at Eden College.
I almost threw the college brochure away. We received so much junk mail at the suburban Brisbane bookshop where I worked as manager, the bulk of it was consigned to the waste paper basket without a second glance. What caught my eye that day, was the photograph of an old stone church set in the middle of the purple cover like an oval brooch pinned to plush velvet.
Intrigued, I opened the brochure and read an advertisement for a twelve-week residential Spiritual Development course to be held at Eden College, an ecumenical centre situated on a small island off the coast of Wales. The contents appealed, stimulating topics interspersed with photographs of a windswept landscape and joyful students singing. Out of the question, I thought and tossed the brochure in the waste paper basket.
In the middle of processing invoices, I remembered my forthcoming long-service leave. I had considered taking my teenage children, Stephen and Penny, to Europe over the Christmas holidays, convinced they would benefit from a hands-on history lesson, but when I mentioned the idea to my husband Brian, he had pointed out the absurdity of travelling during the European winter. Residents of a sub-tropical city, we didn’t possess warm clothing; the children would complain constantly about the weather and half the hotels would be closed. European plans discarded, I had decided to postpone my leave until Penny finished school at the end of ninety-four. By then, Brian, a senior manager in a state government department, would be eligible for his second period of long-service leave. The problem of destination remained. Brian favoured sailing around nearby Pacific islands, while I envisaged walking the streets of Paris, Rome and London. We always spent our holidays on the boat.
My hand strayed to the rubbish bin as I envisaged twelve weeks away from demanding customers, moody adolescents, dull suburban life. If only, I mused, reaching instead for another invoice.
During my lunch break, I walked away from the bustle of Brighton Road and headed for the sea, where I sat on a bench reading the crumpled brochure from cover to cover. I knew Brian wouldn’t object to my spending three months away, a quiet unassuming man, he never interfered with my spiritual life. Although he didn’t attend church or profess faith of any flavour, he was supportive, looking after the children when I had church meetings, cooking dinner every Sunday to save me the trouble after evening service and taking part in social activities I’m certain he found tedious. As for Stephen and Penny, at eighteen and sixteen, they were more than old enough to fend for themselves.
When the time came to return to work, I stood for a moment watching wavelets dribble over mud and seaweed. Ebb and flow, ebb and flow, continual motion erasing yesterday’s pattern. This bay, this island continent I called home had contained me for forty years, but now another island beckoned. It was time to venture into unfamiliar seas.
Salt spray decorated my hair as I stepped from the ferry onto a small wooden jetty. Ancient timbers creaked, coils of wet rope slumped at the base of thick bollards, fenders smacked against ferry and dock. Along with several others, I helped Martin to unload the luggage and pile it onto a strange contraption resembling a trolley, which he pulled along metal tracks embedded in the jetty boards. By the time we reached the foreshore, an old truck had materialised out of the mist, so we gathered around to reload our suitcases.
‘This is the only vehicle on the island,’ the young driver remarked, jumping down from the cab. ‘Here at Eden College we do our bit to reduce harmful emissions.’ He walked around the truck to open the rear doors.
‘What about a tractor or a motor mower?’ asked an elderly man with an American accent. ‘I understood the college grew most of its own food.’
Martin smiled. ‘That’s right but we use horses to plough the fields and a hand mower to cut the lawns. The lorry is only used to transport luggage and older people to the house.’
The elderly man grinned and climbed into the truck’s passenger seat, while I sighed at the thought of a long walk in unsuitable shoes.
Suitcases loaded, Martin led us away from foreshore pebbles and windswept bushes into a stand of tall trees. We walked in single-file along a gravel path littered with sodden leaves. Dark moist trunks leant towards the path, raindrops dripped from overhanging branches, plopped onto hair and jackets. Listening for birdsong, I heard only the wind moving mournfully between trees. The absence of sunlight disturbed; the dank trees appeared to edge closer, compressing my flesh. Looking down at my saturated shoes, I shuddered with cold. Then, all of a sudden, we were out of the trees and walking on lush lawn dotted with golden daffodils.
‘Wow look at those flowers,’ exclaimed an American voice behind me.
I turned around, smiled at a tall African-American woman. ‘Yes, they’re wonderful. I’ve never seen daffodils growing before.’ I fell into step beside her.
She returned the smile. ‘Hi, I’m Donna Jones from New York City. Don’t see many flowers at all where I come from.’
‘Pleased to meet you, Donna. I’m Julia Mitchell from Australia. Spooky back there in the woods, don’t you think?’ I shivered even though the breeze had diminished.
‘I can’t say it bothered me. I was just grateful to be outa that boat. Several times I thought my end was near.’
‘Surely not, it wasn’t that rough?’
‘Well, I’ll be real happy to stay on dry land for the next three months.’
‘Not me, I’d love to explore this coastline. Martin said there are sheer cliffs on one side of the island and tiny coves on the other. Perhaps I could borrow a boat?’
‘I don’t imagine the staff would let a student use one of their boats.’
‘Why ever not, I’m an experienced sailor?’
‘Well I wouldn’t count on it. Remember what it said on the last page of the application form.’
I tried to recall details from the sheaf of paper I’d filled in several months before.
‘We signed up for three months,’ she continued. ‘Kinda like the army, except God’s the commander here. We can only leave the island in an emergency.’ Throwing back her head, she laughed mischievously. ‘We’re here for the duration, Julia, captives of the Lord.’
‘Yes, I remember now. Three months away from the world it said.’
‘Sanctuary from a society out of control,’ she added, serious now.
We resumed walking at a leisurely pace towards a large house resembling the Victorian mansions I’d seen on BBC documentaries. Three rows of sash windows set at regular intervals, alleviated the monotony of reddish-brown brickwork, sturdy chimneys rose like sentinels from a grey slate roof dotted with seagulls, while at ground level, garden beds filled with spring-green shrubs extended either side of a wide paved entrance. Students milled around open wooden doors.
‘Come on you two,’ Martin called from the doorway. ‘There will be plenty of time later to look at the garden. We’re waiting to serve lunch.’
‘Comin,’ Donna shouted back and began to run.
A cold wind swept across the lawn, agitating golden daffodils. Shivering, I raced after her to the shelter of redbrick solidity.
In the entrance hall, signs directed us to the dining room, a welcoming space filled with rustic wooden tables and benches. A vase of daffodils decorated each table, the glow of seasoned timber and yellow blooms creating a warm friendly atmosphere, reflected in the faces of those already seated. Donna gestured towards empty places near a window, so we hurried across the room, delicious aromas drifting past our noses. As we slid along a bench, I felt an urgent need for food. It seemed days since my last decent meal.
Conversation ceased abruptly, and I looked up to see Martin standing near the servery, arms raised above his head. ‘Brothers and sisters,’ he began, spreading his arms wide as though embracing the whole group, ‘welcome to Eden College. May your stay with us be fruitful, remember the seed of faith grows strong in fertile soil. In this special place, apart from the world, you have a unique opportunity to give your lives over to God. And by so doing, you will be open to whatever you’re called to do on leaving the island.’ He paused. ‘Now let us give thanks for a safe crossing and for the food we are about to eat.’
Head bowed, I made my own small petition, thought momentarily of home and an empty place at a pine table tucked in the corner of our kitchen.
Steaming soup served with crusty brown bread followed by cheese and fruit satisfied my hunger, but throughout the meal I ate as though sitting alone at the table, barely raising my eyes from bowl or plate. Around me conversation hummed melodious and unwavering; strangers became fellow-students as future friendships birthed, but I could only listen and observe. There were too many names to absorb, too many voices, too many faces. I wanted time to assimilate, time to savour each tiny detail, let eyes and ears attune to a different environment.
‘Hey Julia, you ok?’ Donna asked, reaching out to clasp my hand. ‘You’ve hardly said a word.’
‘Bit tired that’s all. I guess the jet lag’s finally catching up with me.’
‘Why don’t you have a nap this afternoon?’
‘I’d love to, but I must try to stay awake. It’s best if you can sleep at the right time after a long flight, helps to regulate the internal clock.’
‘Well, I’m gonna take a nap. I’ll unpack later. I don’t imagine there’s much planned for today.’
‘Don’t forget evening service,’ a middle-aged woman opposite remarked. ‘After supper in the main lounge. It’s a special service to welcome new students. Martin has organised some distinctive music.’
‘Thanks, I’ll be there,’ I replied, and noticing the badge attached to her shirt pocket added, ‘the badge is a good idea. I’m terrible at remembering names.’
She smiled warmly. ‘You’ll find a badge in your room. We suggest you wear them for the first week. I’m May Gordon, New Testament tutor.’
‘Pleased to meet you. I didn’t realise you were a staff member.’
‘Think of me as fellow seeker. We’re all travelling the same road here.’
My room was situated on the third floor at the end of a long corridor. It had two windows, one facing a small lake, the other looking out over a lawn to tall trees. For several minutes, I stood staring at ducks and reeds, wishing my room were on the opposite side of the house where the sea could be glimpsed crashing against rocky outcrops. All my life I had lived within walking distance of the sea, I loved the sound of waves breaking, gulls cawing, sea-wind singing in the trees.
The lake shimmered in a burst of sunlight and a spring chorus arose from nearby. No, I decided, this room is right.
Despite airline weight restrictions, my clothes soon filled the small wooden wardrobe. Old-fashioned and shabby, it had a rounded top, forcing me to store my empty suitcase under the bed. All that remained to be unpacked was my new backpack, a gift from Brian. Lifting it onto the old wooden desk in front of the large window, I unzipped its numerous pockets to extract pens, pencils, exercise books, prayer book and bible. In a side pocket, I discovered the tiny koala Penny had given me at the airport. ‘To remind you of home Mum,’ she’d said, rubbing the furry toy against my cheek. Smiling at the memory, I placed the koala in the middle of the desk, but it kept falling onto its face, so I propped it against the bible.
An inside pocket held the small envelope containing family photographs I had included to remind me of home. Carefully, I placed familiar images on the desk: Brian on the boat, Stephen larking about with a couple of mates, Penny elegant in the blue dress I’d made for the school formal, Dad opening Christmas presents. A pang of homesickness hit me as I picked up the nearest photograph and turned to pin it on the noticeboard adjacent to the desk.
Colour photographs neatly arranged, I opened my wallet to retrieve the faded black and white print I always carried—my mother, hollow-cheeked, her thin pale arms folded against a bright summer dress. She never met Brian, never held my babies in her arms. I pinned her photograph beside the others and quickly dismissed past sorrows.
A knock on the door jolted me awake and for a moment, I wondered why I was lying fully clothed on an unfamiliar bed.
‘Julia, Donna here. Are you coming down to supper?’
‘Come in, it’s not locked.’ I sank back on the pillows.
She bounced into the room. ‘Get up sleepyhead or you’re gonna go hungry.’
‘I didn’t mean to sleep. I was just trying out the bed. Now it’ll take forever to get back on track.’
‘Give it a few days, you’ll be fine.’ She glanced at the noticeboard. ‘Family?’
‘Yes, that’s my husband Brian on our boat.’
She nodded and began to study the other photographs. ‘Four kids, you must be run off your feet.’
‘Four? Oh no, my Stephen’s the one in the middle, the others are his mates.’
I thought so too, accepted the compliment with a smile, ‘Have you got any kids, Donna?’
‘Yeah, two little devils, twins going on twelve. Robbie and Jamie, they drive me to distraction.’
‘It must have been difficult to leave them for three months.’
‘Oh, Mom understood. She’s great and the boys love being at her place. She spoils them; heaps of candy and home-baked cookies.’
‘Did your husband mind your going away?’
‘I haven’t seen him in ten years.’
‘Don’t be, he wasn’t worth having.’
‘It must be tough being a sole parent?’
‘Oh, it’s not so bad. Besides, I don’t remember it any other way. Anyhow, I’ve got Mom, plus loads of help from folks at church. There are plenty worse off.’
‘I guess so.’
A bell rang in the corridor.
‘Supper bell,’ she cried, grabbing my arm. ‘Hey, this is just like school. Come on Julia, let’s go eat.’