The Voyage Part One —Brian and Carol
I’m going to tell you a story about four people. Two of them you already know, and many like them. Brian and Carol Sharp, your garden variety comfortable middle class Australians. You see them at shopping malls, resorts and cruises, have them to dinner, go to clubs with them, have a few laughs over drinks, and earnestly discuss kids, the cost of living and how the super fund is going in these tough financial times. Thoroughly decent people. In their case, married for thirty years, two adult children, big house in the northern suburbs, well off financially, still fond of each other and fairly tolerant of their respective faults. I imagine their situation as gently sailing along in a little boat in calm waters. And why not, they have worked hard to get where they are, Brian in particular, and like others you all know, they deserve a peaceful life and a bit of fun, don’t they.
Maybe not. Because they are going on a voyage. Not a nice cruise, but one through unfamiliar waters and over choppy seas. The voyage will not be smooth sailing; their little boat may tip and almost capsize at times. But I’m earnestly hoping they will finally reach a distant shore safely and discover their little boat is all the more seaworthy, and the voyage was worthwhile.
Another couple will join them on their journey. I doubt if you know them. You have certainly seen them on the news, read insightful articles and discussed them and their strange country with friends over dinner. You will have listened to politicians take sides and probably have developed strong opinions about their situation, but you aren’t quite sure what to believe. You will have seen them walking down the street, on buses, and in shops, but you don’t really know them. They are Rashid and Samira, a Muslim refugee father and daughter from Afghanistan.
They arrived in Australia in a leaky boat, after a long and stressful journey, enduring incredible hardships on the way. However, unlike Brian and Carol in the big empty house they are living in the soulless Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre, which believe me is not a pleasant place. They are quaintly titled “Irregular Maritime Arrivals”, and are patiently waiting to be processed, hoping to be given permanent visas and the chance of a decent life in our great land. This is just a glimpse of this couple, but don’t worry, you’ll learn more about them later.
I should introduce myself, as I play a modest role in the voyage. I’m Brian’s mate, but also your mate and in fact everybody’s mate. My job is to help the boat finally reach safe haven, in particular to help Brian make the voyage safely, and as you will see, this man certainly needs my help. I’ll be in the background, gently steering the little craft, trimming the sails and even working the bilge pumps if necessary. Depending on your preference, think of me as the narrator, the fixer, the engineer, the facilitator, the guv’nor, or just everybody’s guardian angel. You won’t see me, but I’ll be there doing my best to stop the boat sinking.
Let me explain a few things about Brian and Carol. Typical empty nesters. Their offspring, Chloe and Adam had left home a couple of years ago, Chloe to a unit in Brunswick with her partner and Adam to Collingwood with a couple of mates. Carol liked meeting both of them in their city territories for decent cafe coffee and interesting conversation. Brian would enter their territory if there was a reason such as a birthday and then under sufferance. He didn’t like the druggies on the streets, and there was no place to safely park the big four wheel drive Ford. The big house with the pool, tennis court and home theatre was a cause of friction. Carol would have liked to downsize to the city after the kids left, as the house was really too big for just two people, and was a nuisance for her to clean. But Brian insisted on staying – he had his huge garage, or as he called it his superior shed, had a large veggie garden and it was handy to the local RSL and bowling club where he was a loyal and longstanding life member. He was proud of what he had achieved and liked entertaining his mates in the rumpus room with plumbed in bar and big pool table, swapping stories about their Vietnam days.
Carol coped by reading more, sometimes doing extra shifts at work, taking up Pilates and yoga classes or any interesting sounding courses. She spent more time with Chloe and began Buddhist meditation classes, trying to achieve a peaceful mind and make sense of her life. Basically she tried to get out of the big house during the week and out of Brian’s way on the weekends. Sometimes she would wistfully reflect on where her dreams had gone, but would put these dangerous thoughts away and find another course to distract her from a growing dissatisfaction with her lot.
I’ve just realised that I may have misled you earlier by painting the picture of Brian and Carol as calmly sailing along. If you suspect that the marital tapestry is still intact but a few threads are untangling, you are correct. In fact while on the surface and to their friends they were a close and comfortable couple, underneath the calm surface there are some underlying swirls of a potential nasty current gaining momentum and with the potential to swamp the marital boat.
While I think about how to sort this out, let’s hear more about Rashid and Samira. Carol met them at the Footscray Refugee Resource Centre. After seeing a documentary on refugees in detention centres she started volunteering as a case aide, but I suspect this was an excuse to get out of the house and her own refuge from Brian. Rashid and Samira were attending the centre on day release from the hostel and she became interested in them and their history. They clearly didn’t want to talk about their history or trip to Australia and would change the subject. She only knew that they were in Australia under a three year Temporary Protection Visa and were striving to gain permanent residency. They were desperately unhappy living in detention and wanted to live in the community. She took on their case and finally discovered the Immigration Residential Housing Scheme, which enables refugees to live in family-style housing while still formally being detained and while their permanent visa applications are painfully processed. Best of all, rental assistance was provided. Carol realised this could solve her and Brian’s predicament and help her new friends.
Now, Rashid and Samira’s problems are obvious, but what predicament could the Sharps have in their tranquil life. Brian had the big job and salary, was planning to retire in 12 months and cash in his super. Carol’s nursing shifts were tucked away into super. They had a financial plan in place, and the future looked comfortable and secure. But suddenly an ugly double ended spanner tightened up their lives – one end global restructuring and the other the global financial crisis. Brian lost his job and their financial plan fell apart. He couldn’t access his super until he turned 60 – a long year away. Their investments were slashed and because of hospital funding cuts, Carol’s shifts were drastically reduced. I picture this as a huge wave suddenly crashing over the bows of the boat, threatening to swamp it. Maybe it’s time for me to disappear below and start bailing out.