After dark, the sea grew angry, boiling and raging and tearing at the beach as if it was trying to drag us into the turmoil.
The fishermen wanted my mother and I to get into their small boat, to sail around the island searching for my father who had not returned after many hours, from the walk he set off on after lunch.
My mother was distraught, something I had never before witnessed and I was disturbed to see a tear on her cheek. But I could not be coaxed into that boat. I was terrified by the thought and my mother apparently was not much more sanguine herself at the idea of being in a tiny craft on that savage sea. Neither of us could swim, after all. Neither could we speak Khmer, but we knew how to say “no”, just as the fishermen had communicated, by pointing to the us and to the boat and gesturing sailing around the island.
Instead, we huddled on the beach, beneath the palms, which offered no protection from the storm. Inland was overgrown with jungle and there was nothing there for us but more terror.
The day had started out as a happy excursion from the beach at Kep, to a small island in the bay where you could enjoy a pristine beach all to yourself. Local fishermen were happy to take you there in one of their hand-crafted wooden boats.
We waded out and clambered inelegantly aboard and then sat on the flat deck while the fishermen raised their sail, which was made of woven palm fronds. I can still hear the sound of the wind against that solid sail. It carried us, in 2 hours across to the island, a very pleasant way to spend a morning.
The beach was pure sand with a gentle drop into the sea which made it comfortable for a youg non-swimmer to paddle and splash about. My mother satisfied herself with paddling in the gently breaking waves looking for shells, while the fishermen prepared our lunch.
They had found a large conch shell that they presented to us and they prepared a sort of stew of which I did not partake. My parents may have, but I would have preferred to see the shell put back in the sea. I think my mother had also brought food from the rest house.
After lunch, my dad announced that he intended to walk around the island. He was a keen walker and it seemed a good way to spend the afternoon. We planned to sail back to Kep in the late afternoon, before sunset.
We were actually guests at the time, of an American who had become acquainted with my parents. She had rented a rest house and it was large enough for all of us, but she did not accompany us on our island excursion.
By nightfall and with the storm, our acquaintance became quite worried thinking we may have become victims of the wild, raging sea. But there was little she could do. There was no-one she could contact for help even if there had been a telephone, which there was not, as far as I know, in the whole of Kep.
My mother progressed through anxiety to anger as the hours dragged on. It was the first of many times I saw her become furious and embarrassed by my father. What must our American host be thinking? How could my father be so inconsiderate, how could he treat her this way?
My own emotions proceeded through terror, at the idea of being forced, in a storm, aboard the fishing boat, to the misery of being wet and cold and itchy from the salt water and sand, to total boredom. I don’t recall any anxiety for my father. Somehow I think I assumed he would turn up.
Which in the end he did, of course. When Mum and I refused to board their boat, one of the fishermen decided to go after my father on foot. He set off, hours after my dad had left, and in the same direction, so I have no idea how he managed to catch up with him, but somewhere close to midnight, a light suddenly appeared at the opposite end of the island and two figures eventually honed into view.
I remember that the fishermen had no flashlights, but the man who went after my dad had constructed a light somehow. Memory tells me he used a large flower, perhaps to shield a flame? It was red, I know. One of those questions I wish I had asked my parents!
Dad was looking a little sheepish. My mother was overcome with relief while at the same time in a fury. It was fairly obvious that she was not pleased.
“Well”, said my father, “the island is a triangular shape and much larger than I realised.” He had walked so far, he assumed it would be better to keep going than to return, but then he came to a place where mangroves grew out into the sea, making his passage more difficult. It all took time!
That was his happy story. I think he was pleased with himself for having accomplished his circumnavigation, although my mother threw rather a lot of cold water on his success and the following day he was in considerable anguish from a bad sunburn. I remember that his ankles were particularly afflicted, making it hard for him to walk. He didn’t get a huge amount of sympathy.
The storm had passed long before my dad’s ignominious return and the sea had become like a mill pond. With not a breeze to propel us, our moonlit passage back to Kep was very slow and as I recall, it was very silent, but perhaps I fell asleep on the deck.
There followed a rather wet traipse, through the dark, back to the rest house where lights were on and we were greeted by our anxious American acquaintance, my mother mortified with embarrassment, my father merely wishing to retire for whatever remained of the night.
In retrospect, I sincerely hope the fishermen were adequately recompensed for their efforts and time!