St Helena, and the art of losing your girlfriend on a boat

A few years ago I went to St Helena for the first time. They’ve finished building the airport now, so soon you’ll be able to jump across the south Atlantic in a couple of bored hours while flipping through an in-flight magazine, but for the past 500 years the only way to reach the island was by ship – five days on a wide horizon above the bottomless blue.

I had a berth booked on the RMS St Helena, the last working mail ship in the world. But it’s more than an adventure spending a week sailing to a small island, it’s a commitment, which is the rug upon which my best intentions so often snag their feet. I was travelling with my girlfriend. We’d been seeing each other for a while but we lived in different cities, which was the way I liked it. My previous four relationships had all been long distance too; when it came to love, I was like Einstein, constantly devising new theories about the relative importance of space and time.

I flew to Cape Town and we met at her house and drove to the harbour. I couldn’t help noticing that the RMS isn’t a large ship. She’s muscular and compact, like something you’d use to patrol the fjords looking for U-boats. There’s romance in a mail ship, but not much space. I felt a slight twinge of panic as we went below. Maybe it was an optical illusion. Maybe the ship was bigger on the inside than on the outside. Maybe the cabin would be…

‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Bunk beds.’

‘It’s fun!’ she said. ‘Look how cosy we’ll be!’

‘You don’t think it’s a bit narrow?’ I asked. ‘If I stretch out my arms I can touch both walls.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ she said. ‘It’s an adventure. Stop stretching your arms.’

We were casting off in an hour so she decided to take a quick nap. I sat at a narrow table in front of the small round porthole and looked out at the grey, drizzling Cape Town harbour. I felt like a submariner looking at the sky through a periscope.

I had never spent this long in another adult’s company before. Five days out, a week on the island, five days home. What would we talk about? Did I have enough things to say? Who was she, actually? Who was I? This was crazy! I couldn’t do it! The steel walls pressed in on me, I felt as though we were sinking. I was trapped and we were sinking! This was a terrible mistake!

I went up on deck and stood at the rail, trembling. What should I do? Should I just disembark and catch a taxi to the airport and never look back? I had to do something. She came up and stood beside me. ‘Hey,’ she said, ’are you okay?’

‘This is wrong,’ I said. ‘I don’t think we should be together.’

And as I said it I knew that maybe I’d done the wrong thing, and there was a good chance it wasn’t true, but there was a blast from the funnel and the ship pulled away. I looked at the green churning water opening between me and the continent and for a moment I wondered if I could still jump for it.

I don’t know how I would have reacted if someone had done that to me, but I can truthfully say it wouldn’t have been with her grace and dignity. For three weeks in close company she was the calmest and kindest of companions. There were no tears, no recriminations, no unpleasant scenes. We kept each other company aboard and we read side by side and she looked after me when I was seasick, and we hiked and scuba-dived and visited Napoleon’s house. We had a good time.

Three weeks later, as Table Mountain rose like a cloud out of the sea ahead of us, I told her I was sorry, that I’d been afraid of intimacy but a voyage reveals character and I knew now how lucky I was to be with her. And she smiled sadly and said she understood, but she wasn’t getting back together with me. Because it was good that I’d learnt something about myself, and that I’d learnt about her, but she’d learnt about me too.

Getaway, 27 January 2016