Boxing Day 2004 is drummed into my mind like an Army tattoo.
The enemy struck us with ten-metre high waves -- would have obliterated the Manor House, except it was set back on high ground with an overwhelming view of the tragedy. We were sitting in the sunroom overlooking the garden.
A nice day for bridge...
‘Three no trumps,’ I declared, looking hard at Delcie, my partner — we roped in Richard and Hannah (both reluctant novices) after breakfast to make up the four. Up a few hundred rupiah, and when I made the contract -- I had no doubt -- another rubber to us. I blew a cloud of smoke in Richard’s direction.
‘It’s your call,’ I said.
He shook his head, scowled. ‘No bid.’
No bid from Delcie and then the same from Hannah completed the auction.
Richard led the queen of clubs...
An uneasy stirring in the air, and the sunroom window exploded in a shower of glass. Hannah screamed, Richard fell off his chair like a spineless raw recruit, and Delcie’s face turned white. She was shaking as water poured in, and I led the way as we half stumbled, half waded back to the safety of the stairs.
‘Bollocks,’ I said as I helped Delcie climb up. ‘It was an easy make.’
A frown crossed her forehead -- a shallow crease -- and she gulped like a freshly caught salmon.
‘Steady on, old girl... Everyone’s okay.’
The frown deepened. ‘Where’s Richard?’
I pointed to the landing below. ‘Downstairs. He can take care of himself. Bit wet behind the ears, that’s all.’
‘Where’s Hannah? I’m soaked to the skin.’
I sighed. ‘I’ll do a recce.’
She clutched my arm. ‘Oh my God. Angelique and Celia are out there. Charles, do something.’
Her voice hit home like the Last Post from the front line. I needed several deep breaths to resist my rising blood pressure.
‘Keep calm. No need to panic. It’s going to be all…’
A strangled shout from below and Richard’s head popped into sight. His hair was dripping wet, and his eyes bulged like he’d seen a ghost.
‘Look out the bloody window, man. Look out the bloody window.’
I exchanged a glance with Delcie; enough to uproot us from the spot. We rushed to the nearest bedroom window.
‘Oh my God,’ whispered Delcie. Her voice rose as the reality enveloped her. ‘Oh my God.’
She collapsed in my arms, and I carried her to the bed to recover. My legs weakened, and I sat down in the nearest chair to compose my thoughts.
Celia and Angelique. They were alive -- they had to be alive.
More deep breaths and fresh blood pumped into my legs. I jumped up, and back at the window I assessed the tragedy. Maelstrom stretching to the horizon, yet indeed we were fortunate; the waves traversed the grounds to our right -- we missed the head-on impact by a whisper, and so did our neighbouring mosque. God must have spared us both that day.
Otherwise, a valley beyond the House -- full to the brim with swirling floodwater, misshapen trees, corrugated tin roofs, and wrecked fishing boats. I watched deformed shapes whirling amongst the debris. Pack horses, pigs, dogs — and people. I remembered Tennyson’s poem; ghoulishly fitting, somehow.
Into the valley of Death...
Lifeless bodies, arms held aloft as if seeking Allah. Hundreds.
We never found Celia or Angelique again; not a trace, not even a wisp of their clothing. Three weeks later, even Richard gave up all hope of their survival. Their bodies were never recovered. That hurt us the most.
We never played bridge again.