1: William

A few weeks ago we found ourselves sharing a room with an old Australian gentleman called William who had been “travelling for 50 years” and thought Sydney was a “scumhole” where people thought “Keats, Shelley and Byron were types of cheese.” He said he was a Dubliner but we could hear no traces of the Irish brogue. The first thing we noticed about William was that his hair was obviously bleached – when posed, he explained that he had to dye it because decades ago, “the Australians used to racially abuse me for my dark hair, thinking I was Italian.” He was also carrying an amazing ancient camera (we learnt at some point that he used to own an antique shop.)

That evening, William went into great detail on his life and experiences. I wish I could remember all of them but we talked about the Greek philosopher, Epictetus, who professed that everything ‘external’ is beyond our control and to fight the uncontrollable creates suffering. 30 years ago, William was told by his doctor that he would shortly die of cancer if he kept on smoking. He is now 66 years old and still smokes.

William strongly believed in an afterlife and/or higher power because logic cannot comprehend Death being the end of everything – life, for that matter, can have no justification or purpose if it has to end. His reasoning was confirmed by one near-death experience that I haven’t forgotten (and I wrote down straight away):

I was sailing on my yacht when a freak wave knocked us completely over. I was trapped underwater and panicking – when you feel the end approaching you have the strength of 50 men… but it’s not enough. I remember telling myself repeatedly to stop panicking because it was the end – I was dying. Do you know what the worst thing about drowning is? The cold water filling your hot lungs… it’s the most painful sensation… and when I let go I blacked out.

Then I remember being pulled up by strong arms onto a beach. Someone was carrying me. When I awoke there was not a drop of water in my lungs. The beach was deserted.

William said a guardian angel saved him.