Sitting alone in his surf shop as rain pours down outside, Ben Panangian misses the lover he has supported through 11 years of heartache, strife and frequent separation.
But Ben’s recent parting from Schapelle Corby is the worst to date.
Since his partner was deported to Australia on May 27, he has no idea when – if ever – he will see her again.
Their farewell, at Schapelle’s Kuta Beach home on the morning of her departure, was agony, trying to share their most private feelings surrounded by family, friends and the clamour of waiting media outside.
‘It is lonely with her not here,’ softly-spoken Ben, 36, exclusively tells New Idea. ‘I really hope we can see each other again in the future, but we don’t know. It’s all uncertain and so it’s difficult to make any plans.’
As a convicted drug smuggler, Schapelle is unlikely to be allowed to return to Indonesia. And Ben, who has two convictions for marijuana possession, probably would not be welcome in Australia.
‘We dream of getting back together,’ says the Javanese-born university graduate, who now runs his own stand-up paddle board business. ‘But we don’t speak of marriage or children. Once we know if we can see each other again, we can talk about it.’
The couple met by chance 11 years ago at a church service in Bali’s tough Kerobokan prison.
She was serving 20 years for drug smuggling following the discovery of 4.1kg of cannabis hidden in her boogie board bag at Denpasar Airport.
He had been sentenced to three-and-a-half years’ jail for marijuana possession.
‘I made a bad choice in my life,’ he explains simply. ‘I was smoking socially with friends at the beach – we were arrested.’
Bumping into Schapelle during his first week behind bars in mid-2006, Ben was drawn to the former Gold Coast beauty student, rapidly discovering they shared a love of the ocean and similar family values.
‘She was very friendly and I also thought she was very beautiful. I looked forward to going to church to see her, and she was happy to have someone to speak English with.
Getting to know Schapelle better, if she seemed down- hearted he would pick flowers from the garden beside the prison church and send them to her cell with a little note.
Once he was released, Ben visited Schapelle weekly and supported her through suicide attempts and battles with prison-induced mental illness.
When she was at last paroled on February 10, 2014, the lovers were reunited. At first Schapelle moved in with sister Mercedes and her niece and two nephews.
‘She tried to spend a lot of time with the kids,’ says Ben. ‘Mainly we just went out with the family and stayed very quiet.’
After Mercedes returned to Australia, Schapelle and her brother Michael stayed on together in the tourist mecca of Kuta, with Ben living in his own place just around the corner.
‘We used to surf, swim, cook, go fishing, walk Schapelle’s dogs Luna and May,’ he sadly recalls.
‘We loved being together, but sometimes it was difficult because people would stalk us and take photos, which upset us both. We are very private and we liked to live quietly.’
And Schapelle, who celebrates her 40th birthday on July 10, remains private and quiet. ‘Since she has been back in Australia she seems the same to me,’ says Ben.
‘She has not changed.’
For the full story, see this week’s New Idea – Out now.
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