When Edsel was with me we had a couple of wonderful evenings to say goodbye – at both Annie’s Place where a special buffet was put on, and at the Wellington House with a sit down dinner. I was slightly taken aback that so many people with whom we had worked had come to spend time with us and give us a rousing farewell. Saints are like that, not just the excuse for a party, but a feeling they want to support people they believe have become friends.
When the time came the next day to go down to the wharf and head to the RMS, a surreal atmosphere seems to take over the whole island. I experienced it alone the first time, just a visitor to St Helena on the edge of society there able to observe. And I was almost crying when I swung on to the launch. On my second trip, and Edsel’s first, I warned him that he was to see some poignant scenes and he should be ready. He mocked me and said, “Yeah man, you think I’m going to cry”, and feigned wiping both his eyes. I said in a low voice, “just watch what happens”.
There is routine in the boarding process, cases often have to be down at the customs shed well in advance. Tickets are checked, and you are given a time to be ready for embarkation. When the time comes for embarkation we headed down to the car park on the wharf, and found a few hundred people there, not just the passengers waiting for their launch, but whole families, friends, colleagues you have worked with. We were always accompanied by one of the NT people, but once down on the wharf we would find so many people we had interacted with, and there was a handshake, a hug, a kiss as we exchanged a few words of friendship. People we had drunk within the Rock Club, danced with in the Consulate, walked with on the trails, or just wave to every time we drove round the island, would have a word for us and wish us bon voyage.
But for the families, Edsel noticed what I had been talking about. He hung around the Benjamin’s. Sandra and Ray were heading back to Ascension, but Ray’s dad was also travelling with us. He had been diagnosed with cancer and was heading to the UK for treatment. So many of the Benjamin clan were at that waterfront saying goodbye, huge smiles, lots of cheery words, but this masked what their faces were struggling with. The trouble with being on an island where the only form of transport only passes through maybe every three weeks or so, and being up to a seven day trip from the UK, and costing a fortune every time… people who lived away did not travel to St Helena very often, and vice versa. And when you said goodbye to someone as they boarded the ship, you did not know if you would see them in a year, two, or even ever again. And the circumstances for the next time you see them may not be happy. As Ray’s dad was helped towards the launch, you could see the agony in the faces of those left behind, who hoped for the best, but dreaded the worse. Were they saying goodbye for the last time?
Edsel took me aside and we leant against the railings on the promenade. “Man, I can’t get this. This guy is leaving the island to die”. He almost choked on the last word. “Yep, I said you needed to be ready for this”. Both of us had moist eyes and broken voices.
So much love, so much heartbreak. Another steely part of the Saint’s character is their ability to experience, share then deal with the reality of living so remotely from members of your family and your friends.