I met JP in Melbourne when I auditioned for a women’s band she was playing in. I was terrified. They were looking for a keyboard player but I was classically trained and didn’t think I could improvise.
After I got there I had to wait an hour and a half because JP, who was the drummer, hadn’t arrived. She eventually bailed in with her drumsticks and high-hat. According to her it wasn’t her fault she was late but she has since demonstrated to me she’s not the most punctual person in the world.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight but six weeks later we were together, three months later we were living together -“ you know, the lesbian thing -“ and that was 18 years ago.
When I was working with The Australian newspaper I was offered the post of South East Asia correspondent based in Bangkok. JP had a very successful business in Melbourne as a dog walker but she loved the idea of moving with me.
She came to Bangkok and didn’t work, while I was always flying from one country to another, chasing terrorists and bombings and interviewing prime ministers. So for the first time in our relationship we both had very disparate lifestyles. I was finding it hard, and fairly early on became the victim of a sexual assault that rocked my foundations, and I didn’t really cope very well in the aftermath of that. I was very strung out, became angry easily and it was compounded by the fact I had this very high stress job.
So we had a few tensions in our relationship even before the tsunami, and the tsunami came and exaggerated all of that.
We’d built a holiday house on Golden Buddha Beach, off Thailand’s west coast, and were there when the tsunami struck. Maybe it was symbolic, but for some reason we were not together when it hit. We had been together when we saw the warning signs, when we saw the waves coming. She ran off down the beach to try and warn the Thai people, who generally didn’t know how to swim -“ in the end it didn’t really matter whether you could swim or not, but at the time that’s what she was concerned about. Everyone ignored her because they were transfixed by the oncoming wave, like rabbits in the headlights.
I ended up going up a little hill on a peninsula at the end of the beach, not really because I was alarmed but because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Maybe it was a guardian angel guiding me, I don’t know. I do remember thinking people would think I was a scaredy cat for doing that. So from up there I got to watch the whole thing unfolding beneath me, not knowing where JP was.
She was fighting for her life in very horrific, ugly water, not knowing where I was. She had been in the wooden clubhouse on the beach when the waves hit -“ and there were heaps of waves, one after another and they got progressively more powerful. She got out of the building just before it collapsed, and she was in the water struggling when she heard a friend calling her name from a tree. Again, I don’t know if it was a guardian angel, but the water took her toward the tree and she somehow climbed up.
When the water finally subsided she came down off the tree looking for me. I didn’t go looking for her. She finally came up the hill and found me and, despite all of the things I’d witnessed, I still hadn’t comprehended how big it was. When I saw her all I said was, Oh, look at you. She looked so bedraggled and worn out. I hadn’t imagined she’d been drowning. I realised she’d been in the water but was so distracted I automatically went into journalist mode. It was like my brain couldn’t fit any more in. That was the moment where it should have been a great reunion, a great intense moment, but it didn’t happen. That compounded her hurt.
In addition to that I then started trying to file stories for The Australian and find information and travel around, and she told me we had to stick together so she ended up coming on assignment with me. Which was a crazy thing to do because it exposed her to a whole lot of unnecessary visual and emotional scenarios, like the dead bodies everywhere. I didn’t pull the pin on it soon enough because I wasn’t in any state to comprehend it.
In the months after I felt I made the wrong choice. When I should have chosen my partner, my rock, my life, I chose my work, Rupert Murdoch, News Limited. JP is an incredibly loving and forgiving person, and she doesn’t blame me for it, but she was also very hurt by it and rightly expressed that hurt. I had to face up to who I was and what my priorities were in my life, and what was important to me and how committed I was to my relationship.
We returned to Australia a few months later, in July last year, and I just totally fell apart. I felt no one here understood, there was no one I could talk to. Everyone was worried about trivial things like graffiti on trams and terrorism fears. I thought, try living in a place where people really do get bombed, like southern Thailand or the Philippines. On the other hand I also thought that if there was a terrorist attack in Melbourne I would have to cover it, and I don’t know how I would cope with that. I had a breakdown. I couldn’t work for three months, I was just emotionally distraught.
I returned to Golden Buddha Beach on the first anniversary of the tsunami last year and the moment I arrived I felt completely at peace. Everybody else who’d been there came back too and I didn’t have to explain anything to anybody, we all just understood. I went back a few months later to the beach to write my book about the tsunami. It was a very healing time.
JP and I will definitely go back again. We’ve got the house there, and it wasn’t Thailand’s fault. Thailand is still the same beautiful country it always was. We often laugh about the fact she’s the one who nearly died and I’m the one who had the breakdown. She just rolled with the punches. She’s very, very resilient. She’s an incredibly amazing human being. I’m constantly inspired by her courage.
Interview: Myles Wearring
Out Of The Blue: Facing The Tsunami by Kimina Lyall, published by ABC Books, is available now.