Austin and I flew to Australia at short notice in order to activate Austin’s temporary residence visa.
That evening we shared a bottle of champagne with my family in my mother, Carolyn’s, home. Austin met my mother’s partner, Joe, my sisters and my brother. I took Austin upstairs and showed him where I had written so many of my letters to him before we met, and we examined my collection of books on snakes. As the sky darkened, we packed our suitcases into my pale blue Nissan Pulsar GX and drove to Rouse Hill, where I had booked a cabin at a holiday park in which we would stay for the duration of our time in Australia. We had two weeks before Austin would be flown to Ecuador to film an episode on vampire bats, and we made the most of our time together.
I took Austin into Sydney city proper to wander around Darling Harbour, and we went to Sydney Wildlife World so that I could show Austin some of the Australian animals with which he was not so familiar. We then popped in next door to Sydney Aquarium and spent a couple of hours watching many different fish, sharks, and rays. We caught a ferry around the corner to Circular Quay, where the sun gleamed on the blue water and set off the magnificent Harbour Bridge and Opera House to best advantage. When the ferry docked, we walked around the Opera House and into the botanic gardens where we wandered among the flying foxes and sulphur-crested cockatoos until closing time.
I took Austin to all the major shopping centres to give him an idea of the cost of living in Australia, which was high in comparison to many other countries, and we had a great time exploring everything from clothing stores to electronics shops to pet shops and restaurants. Austin was frequently approached by his fans, all of whom were welcoming, friendly, and always delighted to see him in Australia. We went to the Medicare office to collect Austin’s healthcare card, a benefit of holding an Australian residence visa, and I introduced him to the basics of life in Australia, explaining the few street signs he did not recognise and the differences in procedures involved in such things as car purchases, registration and insurance that were a change from the ways of Southern African countries. We visited my father, Glenn, and I took Austin to see the house I grew up in and the schools I had attended as a child. We had dinner at the Mean Fiddler, Sydney’s most famous Irish pub, and listened to the Irish band, and my mother made us a roast dinner a couple of times each week. I was re-visiting all my old haunts, and driving the same streets I had driven for years, only this time it was all infinitely magical because I had Austin by my side. For the first time, he was able to see what my life was like before we met, and my descriptions over the many months we had been together finally fell into place.
We revelled in the wonderful service everywhere we went and marvelled at the way everything in Australia worked reliably after life in Africa. The feeling of safety and security we experienced without Southern Africa’s ever-increasing crime rate was wonderful. We were thrilled to finally be in Sydney after almost 18 months of planning and discussing such a trip, hardly daring to believe we had actually pulled it off.
All too soon, the date of Austin’s departure for Ecuador rolled around. We still had so much we wanted to do in Australia, and so many of my family members we still wanted to see, that having to be apart for the next three weeks was extremely frustrating. My mother kindly drove us to the airport where I waited with Austin until it was time for him to board the plane for the flight to South America. He hugged me close to him and we felt the all too familiar strain of having to be apart once again. Austin was exhausted from the hectic shooting schedule over the past 14 months and the strain was beginning to show. As the days leading up to his departure had closed in, Austin seemed drawn and tired, without his usual vigour and enthusiasm. I knew he needed a longer break than he had been given, but so many people were depending on the series being released on time that we knew it would not be possible for him to have an extended rest period. I stood with my arms around him and my head tucked under his chin, wishing we were anywhere but at the airport. I looked up and Austin showered my face in kisses.
‘I love you so much,’ he whispered. ‘You’re the best thing ever in my life. You don’t know how long I waited for you, my gorgeous. Stay safe while I’m away.’
‘I will. I love you too, more than anything in the world,’ I replied. ‘I’m so lucky to have you. I need you with me forever.’
‘You’ve got me forever,’ Austin said.
‘Be careful out there,’ I cautioned. ‘No rabies, malaria attacks or tick bite fever allowed. And no snake bite!’
Austin smiled indulgently. ‘I’m always careful now I’ve got you. We promised each other we wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks; that we’d always be there for each other. I’m not as gung-ho as I used to be.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘It’s not you I worry about. It’s things that are outside your control, like something distracting you at a critical moment, or someone else making a mistake…’ My voice trailed off as I realised the futility of warning someone like Austin of what could potentially go wrong. ‘I trust you my love,’ I said. ‘Just get back to me in one piece.’
‘I will my luscious thing,’ he said. ‘Love my lush.’
‘Love my gorgeous, handsome man,’ I whispered. Then his final boarding call was announced, and we reluctantly separated, mouthing the words ‘I love you’ and blowing kisses to each other. I stood behind the boarding line and we waved to each other until we could no longer see one another. A few seconds later, I received my first text message from Austin, and we continued communicating this way until he was seated on the plane.
My mother drove me back to her house where I stayed for the three weeks that Austin was in Ecuador. I spent the majority of that time packing all the remaining things she’d been storing for me in preparation for the move she was about to make to another house a couple of blocks away, and I visited family members.
Austin called me on the satellite phone whenever he could, and each time he sounded terrible. Not only were the jungle conditions in Ecuador extremely difficult, his health was beginning to trouble him with worrying gastro-intestinal symptoms that he could not account for. A week later he suffered a severe malaria attack, a recurring condition he had tolerated for decades, and his digestive problems rapidly worsened. The production company booked Austin in to see a doctor in Canada after voice over recordings before he flew back to Australia, but no tests could be conducted in such a short time. When Austin and I were reunited in Australia, I was shocked by the amount of weight he had lost in only three weeks. His clothes hung on his slender frame and he looked completely wiped out. I made an appointment for him the very next day to see a General Practitioner near our holiday park, and the GP, Dr Thomas, ordered a CT scan to try to find the cause of the problem. We made an appointment at the medical imaging centre that afternoon, and instead of continuing with our plans to investigate the possibility of finding a base in Australia, we found ourselves sitting in the cold, clinical atmosphere of the imaging centre waiting room perusing indemnity forms for the procedure ahead. The radiologist would need to give Austin an intravenous injection of contrast dye to aid in the later interpretation of the CT scan images, and this carried with it certain risks beyond the relatively high dose of radiation Austin was about to be subjected to. We weighed the risks against the need to find the cause of the problem, and completed the paperwork. Austin was required to drink several glasses of a fluid preparation given to him by the nurse at predetermined times over the next hour, so we tried to distract ourselves by reading magazines, but our surroundings were never far from our thoughts. Then Austin said the one thing we’d both been thinking but had not voiced.
‘What if the scan shows something terrible?’
‘It won’t,’ I said with more conviction than I really felt.
‘But what will we do if it does?’ he persisted.
‘We’ll do whatever is necessary,’ I replied, ‘but let’s not assume anything. There’s a chance everything could come back normal. Perhaps your frequent and extreme changes in diet every time you visit another country are the cause of your symptoms.’
‘Maybe,’ Austin said. I squeezed his hand reassuringly and hugged him so he would not see the doubt in my eyes.
When Austin was called in, I remained in the waiting room and was finally able to admit to myself how worried I was. In all the time I’d known him, I’d never seen him looking and acting so unwell. The scan itself took very little time and Austin sat beside me again to wait for the results.
‘How are you feeling?’ I asked.
‘Fine,’ Austin said. ‘No problems.’ I smiled and snuggled in next to him, and we waited another fifteen minutes for the results.
‘Mr Stevens?’ the nurse called out. She stood with an envelope in her hand that contained the films from the CT scan and the radiologist’s report. Austin went to her and took the envelope, while I gathered our things and prepared to leave. When I glanced at Austin he looked pale and concerned.
‘She said I should take this to my doctor immediately,’ Austin said, showing me the envelope. ‘That can’t be good.’
Oh no, I thought, what did they find?
To be continued in Chapter 41, in which we receive some concerning news…