When lovers first meet on a chance encounter, there’s usually a chain of random events unfolding up to that moment. The less likely, the more meandering the route, the more remarkable the story.
For my Uncle Chris to meet Auntie Rose, events conspired to involve a wrecked ship, being stranded on a coral reef for a month and making an emergency landing in an aircraft with engine failure. And when they eventually met, it was, where else, but in a park on a sunny Sunday afternoon over ice-creams.
It’s often something insignificant that sets off that fortunate chain-reaction of happenstance – for Chris and Rose, it was the moonlight on the waves. This is their story.
From the top of his blonde quiff to the soles of this polished shoes, Chris Corbin was an English gentleman through and through. He was born in the Second World War in Brighton, on the south coast of England, close to rolling green hills, known locally as The Downs; his was a well-to-do family, his mother was an actress and his father a RAF Spitfire pilot tragically killed in action when Chris was just three. It was perhaps inevitable that he would inherit a sense of adventure and wanderlust.
Rose was born Rosalyn Nongkhlaw in 1939 in a small village called Sadew by a large gushing waterfall in the rain-swept Himalayan foothills of what was then, one of the most remote parts of India, Assam.
When the Second World War started, an army garrison of British and American soldiers camped in a forest just outside Sadew where they performed training drills; in the evenings the soldiers would watch movies from a rattling film projector that lit up a silver screen made from sheets and made the pine trees glow a luminous blue.
Little did the soldiers know that Rose and her friends would be watching the film from the other side of the screen, sitting cross-legged, getting their own private viewing of swashbuckling giant actors, but in mirror-image.
From an early age Rose was used to simple interactions with people who looked visibly different to her and came from faraway lands. From those early exchanges, getting sweets and pencils from soldiers on their way to the Burma front, she started to learn English and grow in confidence.
Her family spent their heard-earned money educating her brother, so as a teenager she started work looking after the officers’ children in the garrison.
She was petite of frame and had glossy black hair which fell down to the small of her back; one day her mother realising her independent and worldly spirit, told her, “you will leave these hills to a faraway place for ever. But you’ll marry a good man,” she added.
Chris spent his teenage ages in the outback in Australia with his two brothers, mother and step-father. He was always a studious teenager and loved science and while his brothers played cricket or with the dogs in the unbounded expanse of dusty scrubland outside their wooden house, he had a fascination for building radios, model boats from balsa wood and random structures from Meccano.
When he was 18 they returned to a 1950s England which must have seemed drab in comparison to the sunny outback; England was a nation recovering from the war, a place of rebuilding, recessions and rationing.
Being a Brighton boy at heart, he felt the beckoning of the sea and decided to apply for the Royal Navy but during the pre-joining medical tests they discovered a problem: the vision in one of his eyes hadn’t developed correctly and the Royal Navy demanded perfect vision. Undeterred, he joined the merchant navy where he learned to use radios, telegraphic equipment and became a dab-hand at morse code.
By the age of 19 he became the Radio Officer on the world’s largest refrigerated cargo ship, the 171 metres long, steam powered, SS Runic. In February 1961, the Runic sailed from Brisbane in Australia to Aukland, New Zealand, to pick up a cargo of apples and lamb when she hit the wake of a tropical cyclone.
One night, when they were 400 kilometres off the shore of Australia, a huge thud resounded through the ship followed by a juddering from the hull; vibrations reverberated through the bulkheads; cutlery and plates smashed in the galley; sleeping crewmen were thrown from their bunks; the panic klaxon went off with a shrill blast. The ship had hit a coral reef in the dead of night.
At sunrise, as he walked the deck, Chris could see the precarious situation: a quarter of the ship had run aground on the top of the coral reef. In contrast, the view, a pretty crescent shaped coral atoll with a blue lagoon, the Middleton Reef, was idyllic.
Quite why the SS Runic was off course is still to this day a matter of speculation. Some say cloud cover blocked the sun and made navigating harder. The waves that broke on the reef, should have given a warning to the helmsman that shallow waters were near; that night an apprentice came to the bridge to report seeing breakers ahead but was told not to worry. It was ‘just the moonlight on the waves,’ he was told.
Whenever Uncle Chris spoke about being marooned, his eyes lit up with a certain fondness for that month in his life on the SS Runic, sitting on top of a reef, circled by hundreds of hungry sharks – a unique time for the 69 people onboard, it was a time in his life when the exuberance of youth outweighed fear.
There wasn’t a lot of food, for they hadn’t resupplied in Brisbane so through the split-open hull they caught shark using cables as lines, roasted them over make-shift oil-drum barbecues, and ate them staring out at the sea. Surplus sharks were wrapped in table cloths and placed in neat rows in the huge fridges, in the ample space which had been assigned for apples and lamb. They spent time sunning themselves beside the crystal-clear aquamarine waters of the Coral Sea.
There was a rescue attempt to refloat the ship, transferring anchors and tackle through the night, but all to no avail. Another tropical cyclone span in, like a whirling dervish, stirring up 15 metre waves over 3 deafening days that pounded the hull, smashed portholes and ripped off lifeboats.
On the 26th March 1961 the order came to abandon ship and a sister ship called the Arabic rescued the castaways. The crew were put up in Sydney before boarding a flight heading to London where their news had hit the national papers.
In India at about that time, Auntie Rose’s father said he would treat her, his eldest daughter, on a short holiday. He bought her a suitcase from the Police Bazaar in Shillong and told her to pack; they were off to one of the grandest cities in India – Calcutta. Soon arrived at Howrah train station, and were enjoying the sights, visiting wide open gardens, buzzing streets filled with noisy taxis, clattering rickshaws and lines of lit-up shops, a world away from her little village.
On his BOAC flight from Sydney, via Darwin to England, they encountered engine trouble over the Bay of Bengal. The captain shut down the offending engine and radioed for an emergency landing in the nearest big city: Calcutta.
There, he had a few days to kill while engineers undertook the repairs. Again he fond himself a man of leisure, taking strolls down shady Park Street, visiting museums and shops. One sunny afternoon sat by big field the Maidan, the lungs of the city, where people flew kites and played cricket.
He must have been conspicuous: a 6 feet 3, blonde Englishman in a white shirt. Her father struck up a conversation and introduced Rose, and they chatted in the shade of a big leafy banyan tree. He asked Rose if she would like an ice-cream, and he bought one for her father too. He had already started to win them over and they spent the following day together, as the plane’s engine was being repaired, enjoying the city, in fast yellow taxis.
He left for England but promised to return and over the next year, their love for each other bloomed over a series of letters that took over 30 days to reach each other. The catalyst of absence had pulled on their heartstrings. Chris returned to India the following year to marry Rose at a small civil ceremony in Calcutta and they rented a small ground-floor flat while the formalities of moving to England were being sorted out.
He met her broader family for the first time who were elated to see him, but there was one major concern: they feared that they might not see her again.
They were both in their early 20s and despite their divergent backgrounds, were head over heals in love. They made a set of promises to each other. They would look after each other, always share everything. Such trysts are normal in a marriage but in a mixed nationality marriage there were more promises to allay the family’s concerns: he promised her that there would always be enough money in the bank so she could visit her family back home.
Newly married, they took a train across India from Calcutta to Bombay, where they sailed on the RMS Caledonian to Liverpool Docks, followed by a train to Brighton where they lived for a few years with Chris’s family who helped her integrate in to British society.
Their marriage lasted over half a century, filled with devotion and caring for each other. They were the loves of their lives, and best friends to boot. Chris’s career progressed, he moved on from radios, to mainframe computers and then geographic information at the governmental level. His love of science and curiosity for its unfolding secrets never waned, but she was always the backbone of the relationship providing him with support. As he had promised, they made frequent trips back to India to see Rose’s family.
When Rose was 70 she had a stroke and soon could only walk with a frame. Chris had retired by then and was able to look after her, cooking her meals and tending to her needs.
His cancer came quickly, and throughout his chemo and the pain of an operation he continued to look after her in her frailty. He always talked of maybe going back to see the SS Runic one final time and joked of diving to see if shark meat was still in the fridges. But alas it was not to be. In December 2015, Uncle Chris died after a brave battle with stomach cancer.
I visited Auntie Rose at the care home just outside Brighton for the last time on Boxing Day 2016; her dementia seemed to have brought on a pleasant imagining for she still talked of Chris as if he was still alive and visiting her with plans to take her back to the hills of north east India.
That was the thing about their love – even after minds have faded, bodies twist and falter, love floats; and unlike the rusting hulls of ships like the Runic, whose funnels are the home for copper wire nests of sea eagles and are all that remain above water, sometimes love is unsinkable.
She died in her sleep in March 2017, just over a year after Chris passed away.
I’m sure she was waiting for that one day her ‘good man’ would come striding in to the TV room in the care home, in his double-breasted naval uniform, and lift her up and whisk her away, to fly home one last time, where they might look down to forests, hills and over seas with moonlight on the waves.
With thanks to Leon Middleditch and Colin Harrison for their online posts on the grounding of the SS Runic.