A walk through England’s plague village

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This essay was first published on Medium, 6 July 2020.

A photo of Kaitlyn (tall white woman) standing between a red telephone booth and a red post box, her hand resting on the top of the post box. She's wearing a long brown coat with a fur-trimmed hood, a scarf tucked into her coat, black trousers, tall brown boots, and a grey tweed cap. It's a wet day. In the background you can see the Eyam Tea Rooms sign.
The author in 2008, grinning next to a red English phone box and a red English post box, around the corner from Eyam Tea Rooms. Yes, I’m wearing a tweed cap. | © Kaitlyn Blythe 2008

2008

I’d never heard of Eyam before I visited Derbyshire one late autumn, glorying in the russet, gold and green of the changing trees by the River Derwent. I was driven around by a friend, a Derby local who’d grown up sledding down those hills when they were covered in snow. I was only in northern England for one day so she was trying to show me as much as possible. After we’d seen Chatsworth House (at my insistence — it was Pemberley in 2005’s Pride & Prejudice!), my friend showed me the rest of the local sights.

It turned out Derbyshire’s tourist attractions were a bit less Mr Darcy and a bit more grimdark. As we tootled along tiny leafy lanes in her car, my friend pointed out a seemingly average cliff above us: “That’s Lover’s Leap.” A romantic name. She continued casually that it was notable because in Georgian times people would try to die by jumping off there. Oh. We drove on to our next stop, which I was informed was “lunch at the plague village”.

Eyam is a cute place — I’m sorry to the descendants of tough grizzled lead miners, but it’s so cute — nestled in rolling green hills, rustling trees and pale stone walls. It could literally be the village from Untitled Goose Game. You’d expect to see a groundskeeper in a flat cap chasing a horrible goose who’d stolen his prize tulip. It was jarring, then, to see on the side of the cottages lists of names, families who had died there. The village is pocked with green plaques reminding passers-by of the sacrifices that were made.

1665

During the summer of 1665, a London merchant sent a package of cloth samples to Eyam’s tailor. Within weeks, everyone in the tailor’s household had sickened and died. 1665 was the year of London’s Great Plague, when the Black Death wiped out a fifth of the city’s population. We now call it the bubonic plague, and we know more about what causes it and how it is transmitted. The cloth sample probably had infected fleas from London folded into its layers, carrying the disease. 1600s England did not have the benefit of this knowledge. Eyam’s residents were not sure how, but they knew a deadly contagious affliction had come to their village.

A two-storey stone cottage with white square windows and grassy front yard. A large green plaque with white writing on it says “PLAGUE COTTAGE”.
A plague cottage in Eyam. | © Kaitlyn Blythe 2008

Eyam famously agreed to quarantine themselves to prevent any further spread of the infection. By the time their outbreak was over, almost a third of the village’s population had died. Families were wiped out. After the stonemason passed away, people had to engrave their own headstones. One villager, Elizabeth Hancock, lost her six children and husband within one week. There was no one left to help her bury them. She would have tied rope around their feet, to avoid contact with the infectious bodies, and dragged her family members one by one to a nearby field, digging the graves herself.

Eyam is embedded in myth for its 17th-century sacrifice. Its border stones — set up in a perimeter about half a mile out from the village — are now a tourist attraction. A detail that stayed with me years after my stroll through the village’s history was the holes in the stones, and the vinegar. During the quarantine, Eyam residents had relied on food parcels delivered by people from surrounding villages, who would drop the packages at the border stones. In return, the quarantined would leave coins soaked in vinegar, which they believed to be a disinfectant, in holes bored into the stones. Somehow, amid the stories of horrific death, it was the leaving of the disinfected coins that stuck with me the most — the payment for what should have been charity, and the attempt to protect their benefactors from contamination.

Eyam was in lockdown for fourteen months. For over a year, they had no crops from their farms and no income from mining work. Without outside help, those who survived the plague would have died of starvation. It’s possible that Eyam’s neighbours didn’t have purely selfless motives for leaving parcels of meat and grains; they presumedly did not want starving plague carriers escaping the village in desperate search of food. There is a story of a woman leaving Eyam to travel to the nearby village of Tideswell, and being met with ire once people realised where she was from. The Tideswell residents “pelted her with food and mud, shouting “The Plague! The Plague!””, wrote Eleanor Ross for the BBC. You could take a cynical view that Eyam’s and their neighbours’ actions were purely driven by selfish motives: Eyam feared retribution and their neighbours feared their contagion. If the coins hadn’t appeared at the border stones, maybe the food parcels would have stopped coming. But the vinegar, to me, speaks of Eyam’s higher goal: to protect. To contain the infection. Fearful Tideswell merchants could have sanitised the money themselves once they’d received it, but the boundary stone exchanges tell a more wholesome story: of an understanding that their fates were interconnected and equally important.

Eyam’s quarantine measure was not imposed by a militarised force or guarding presence; it was achieved by a public health leader (Mompesson) allying with respected community leaders to explain the situation and gain social acceptance.

While there were external inducements to stay inside their boundary, Eyam’s quarantine was by all accounts a group choice. BBC’s Eleanor Ross wrote, “Although some villagers tried to leave, it appears that most of Eyam’s townsfolk stoically accepted their plight and made a pact with God to remain.” It was newly arrived rector William Mompesson who identified the necessity for quarantine. However, he could not convince the village on his own, being so new to his post. In an “uneasy alliance” with the very man he’d replaced, his ousted predecessor Thomas Stanley, Mompesson was able to convince the village that they had a duty to prevent spread of the disease, accepting a high death toll for themselves in the process. This didn’t occur as soon as the plague hit Eyam — they had a season of sickness, then a month-long lull in plague-related deaths. It was what we would now call “the second wave” that spurred Mompesson into action, as local Eyam historian Francine Clifford explains:

“It was June [1666] and the deaths started to go up again … It was then William Mompesson realised that it was going to get a heck of a lot worse before it got better. He knew if he didn’t stop people leaving the village in panic, it would spread to the villages and the towns. If it got to Sheffield or Manchester, it would be back to the London proportions.”

Eyam’s quarantine measure was not imposed by a militarised force or guarding presence; it was achieved by a public health leader (Mompesson) allying with respected community leaders to explain the situation and gain social acceptance. The rector did use his privileged position to send his children away before the village locked down, but he also stayed and faced the same fate as the people he’d guided into quarantine. (Mompesson lost his wife to the plague during the lockdown.) The boundary stones were markers that any person with the ability to could have walked past. But the villagers didn’t. They stayed in place, listening to the death groans of their neighbours and knowing they could be next, only walking out to the boundary stones to leave coins soaked in vinegar.

2020

I can’t help but think of that vinegar while I soap down my groceries. I’ve been in self-imposed (at first, then later government-mandated) quarantine in my apartment for about four months. So far, nothing on Eyam’s fourteen-month stint, but it’s anyone’s guess how long these measures will be necessary. I self-isolate out of fear for my health, but also out of fear of unknowingly transmitting COVID-19. I need grocery deliveries to survive, but I regularly ask myself if it’s ethical to sequester in safety while demanding that delivery drivers put themselves at risk. At least we have online payment so there is no need to touch money. I tell myself that, if it came to it, I would soak coins in vinegar (or rather, isopropyl) for those drivers. I wonder if I would have had the strength to stay in Eyam.

While we shelter from this coronavirus (in my case, in Melbourne, where people are already returning to public life despite no halt in infections), it’s tempting to think of this as a brief anomaly in our lives that will soon be crushed by the might of modern medicine. Like the Black Death that plagued Eyam in the 1600s, this will also disappear eventually, right? Well, in researching this essay, I was met with a gruesome surprise: the plague never fucking went away. The disease known historically as the Black Death (more scientifically as a bacillus named Yersinia pestis) is still killing people. It still infects 1,000–3,000 people worldwide every year. In 2017, Madagascar’s Ministry of Health reported 2,348 new cases of the plague to the World Health Organisation. Tests found Yersinia pestis, the same plague that, in the 14th century, wiped out a quarter of the world’s population. The same bacteria that plagued London and Eyam in the 17th century. In fact, as I publish this, a new outbreak is being reported in Inner Mongolia. Most patients survive now, thanks to antibiotics and better sanitation, but people still die of the plague.

When I was a kid in history class, we were taught about the Black Death as a historical anomaly, spread by rats in gross medieval conditions. Then it was updated that we’d blamed the rats a little too hastily — it was actually the fleas riding on the rats. Now, due to newer evidence excavated in the past decade from an old English plague cemetery, scientists believe that the disease had to have been airborne to have spread so rapidly. (Most likely helped along by the fleas and the rats, so they’re not entirely off the hook.) The plague takes three forms: bubonic (the most common form, with the tell-tale buboes), pneumonic (transmitted through airborne particles, and the most infectious), and septicemic (infecting the bloodstream). This information, added to the fact that I’m now living through a new pandemic, has given me greater empathy for terrified, confused medieval villagers. They had no idea what the plague was or how it was spreading. Spirits? Acts of God? Medieval doctors thought the plague was caused by corrupt air, and since the Black Death was at least partially airborne, this is as close as you’re going to get to a modern understanding of contagion for a society that hadn’t heard of germs.

Apparently some medieval Christians would kill cats, thinking this would prevent the Black Death because cats brought the Devil in with them. Their reasoning was superstitious, but we know now that animals can transmit the plague, so breathing in airborne droplets from a cat’s breath could indeed have infected people in the Middle Ages. They actually weren’t that far off, it turns out. In current-day United States, Yersinia pestis is common among mice, squirrels and other wildlife. Colorado residents are often warned about plague outbreaks in local prairie dog colonies. In May 2019, a couple died of the bubonic plague after eating infected marmot meat from the Denver area. The plague wasn’t even brought to North America until 1900, on rat-infested steamships — the same year it hit the shores of Sydney, Australia, via shipping trade, leading to the municipal response of killing an estimated 44,000 rats. Australia then saw 12 outbreaks of the plague over the next 25 years. So, rats do actually have a lot to answer for.

Whatever its precise cause of transmission, the Black Death has been infecting humanity (and other species) for thousands of years. For several centuries it resurfaced as an epidemic every few generations. It never died out — just diminished and became a part of human life. We developed antibiotics and better hygiene practices, minimising the disease’s harm. But the plague still survives and spreads, taking two new continents as recently as a century ago. And there I was walking through the village of Eyam in 2008, comfortably thinking the Black Death was from a very different and faraway time.

Viral epidemics are not left behind in our past (as we now know too well), nor are the self-sacrifices of villages locking down to prevent further spread. Reflecting on Eyam’s history in the context of the COVID-19 virus, The Telegraph (UK) writer Joe Shute remembered the bravery of West African villagers in the face of the Ebola virus:

“In late 2014, I visited Liberia during the height of the worst Ebola outbreak in history which ravaged West Africa, claiming more than 11,000 lives. As well as the capital, Monrovia — placed on lockdown like cities in China — I visited villages where whole families had quarantined themselves in their homes to protect the wider community, and one by one were gradually succumbing.”

Eyam’s official website says of its history, “The action of the villagers in staying in the village is almost unique and makes the village the place of significance that it is.” In 1665 England, the Eyam residents’ foresight and courage was remarkable, and arguably what prevented the country’s northern regions from seeing the same devastating scenes happening in London at the time. At the height of Ebola, West African communities saw the same incredible bravery, only six years ago.

On 15 March 2020, three days into the current coronavirus pandemic, The Guardian wrote, “Eyam’s story remains a powerful example not only of how diseases are transmitted — then as now via trade routes and centres — but also of how successful social immobilisation can contain outbreaks.” Social immobilisation remains one of the few tools humanity has against viral epidemics. Quarantine may have been what finally slowed down the Black Death in Europe. Stopping a pandemic is a community effort — if one person had broken Eyam’s pact and transmitted the plague outside the village bounds, the Black Death could have claimed thousands more lives. They were protecting the north, like fantastical watchmen on a giant ice wall. Except the story of their heroism contains no dragons or aristocracy, only exhausted villagers watching their loved ones sicken and die around them.

When I visited Eyam, I was twenty-two years old. I had three worst fears: that the severe neurological illness I experienced in my teens would return; that there would be some kind of global apocalypse; and that I would lose my family. I am now thirty-four. The neurological disease I’d feared returned a few months after I walked through Eyam; perhaps it was already growing in my body while I shivered at stories of historic sickness and death. I’ve been disabled and chronically ill since. And, while perhaps not quite final enough to be apocalyptic, the Global Financial Crisis hit weeks after I learned about those vinegar-soaked coins. Main streets shuttered while stock markets crashed. Autumn of 2008 turned out to be maybe the last time I was even a little bit carefree. As for family — a little over a year ago, I watched my father die a painful, drawn-out death after years of surgeries, radiation and chemo. The rest of my family: estranged. So, not to be too dramatic, but it sort of seems like my worst fears came true. I’m frankly astonished to still be here. Life since I walked through Eyam has felt regularly world-ending.

This year we are facing loss on a global scale. Most crucially, loss of life — but also loss of health. Loss of family. Loss of prospects. Loss of stability. Loss of safety. It might feel like your world is shrinking to fit inside suffocating walls. In May, the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s emergencies director Dr Mike Ryan said: “[T]his virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away … HIV has not gone away — but we have to come to terms with the virus.” In the same video conference, WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove advised, “We need to get into the mindset that it is going to take some time to come out of this pandemic.” COVID-19 is here now and we have to change to accommodate it. There may never be a vaccine. The Black Death didn’t go away with a vaccine — it actually never went away at all — but it was controlled with changes in lifestyle, rapid diagnosis and administering of antibiotics, and careful monitoring of outbreaks. It doesn’t wipe out a quarter of the world’s population anymore (although I feel like I’m tempting fate by saying that). As I write this, global COVID-19 cases have exceeded 11 million, and the pandemic has killed half a million people (that’s confirmed cases; the numbers could be much higher). The loss is overwhelming. There has never been a coronavirus pandemic before, and there is so much we don’t know about this virus or how it transmits; COVID-19 was only discovered six months ago. I still feel like a 1665 European: bewildered, terrified, not sure whether petting neighbourhood cats is safe or if microwaving my mail is something I should be doing.

Sometimes I’m tempted to cope with this overwhelming situation by imagining my quarantine as noble, like Eyam’s, with myself and my friends as protagonist survivors covered in glory at the end. As if there will be a happy ending to this struggle, as if there could be winners. But a pandemic is only tragedy. Eyam knows this, with its solemn plaques on the sides of houses, remembering heroism by listing the names of the dead. We remember because without them, who knows how many more mass graves could have been buried across England. I wonder, in a year, if their sacrifice will still seem uncommon.

Finding Eygpt in the weirdest places

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Ever lose track of where you are? You’re walking along, face in the breeze, and the matter of which city you’re in becomes momentarily academic? This happens to me kind of frequently. It’s a bit worrying, actually – when I can’t remember if I’m in Perth (where I spent most of my life), or in Brisbane, the place I’ve made my home. They both feel like home to me now. Sometimes I think I’m going to turn a corner and see my friend Alexis peering through the window of a vintage clothing shop, or run into Daryl going for a coffee. But they live 4336km away (I looked it up) (this is a factually accurate blog).

One time, I actually did see a Perth amigo on George Street, while I was on the phone at a bus stop. She was strolling with a colleague, in Brisbane for the day on business. But I didn’t know that. So, at the bus stop, next to a Pie Face, while my bus squealed into the stop next to me, I had a very delicate meltdown. “Oi!!” I shrieked at her, pinwheeling my arms, while yelling down the phone, “HOLD ON, DAD,” and instructing the bus driver to “WAIT JUST A MINUTE! HOLY SHIT”. Internally, my mind was all jigsawed: “WHERE ARE WE? EAST OR WEST? I WAS SO SURE THIS WAS BRISBANE: THERE’S SO MANY BATS!!”

In case you’re wondering, yes, it probably was my proudest moment.

Brisbane must really be ‘Australia’s New World City’, because I come geographically unstuck here quite a bit. (Side note about the ‘New World City’ thing – are we talking Pocahontas New World? Is Brisbane claiming Queensland as some kind of wild frontier? I guess it pretty much is, I mean, Bob Katter, right? Or is this a freshly minted World City? Hasn’t Brisbane been in the World for a while? I guess if we’re continuing with the Queensland satire, then the answer is ‘no’. Nya ha ha.) Brisbane City reminds me of a lot of other cities (I guess metropolitan life’ll do that to you).

I wrote a poem about this kind of feeling, and the lovely editorial staff at The Suburban Review published it: ‘There’s Cairo In This City’ appears in Volume II of their gorgeous zine. My copy came yesterday!

Zine mail is the best kind of mail (after Harry Potter merch).

Zine mail is the best kind of mail (after Harry Potter merch).

I’ve also recorded myself reading it out, because yolo. It’s up on my SoundCloud (I had to put something on there eventually).

I had a great experience working with the editors at The Suburban Review – and they pay for print submissions! – so I can recommend submitting to them if you’re a writer/artist/photographer. Between figuring out which city you’re in, of course (is it just me??).

Live from the Denmark Festival of Voice: bucket list TICKED.

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This weekend I am writing to you from the Festival of Voice in Denmark (not the country). Denmark is a lovely little town tucked away in the south-west of Western Australia, nestled amongst forests – the perfect place to wander around listening to choirs, bands and singers (and even a poet or two).

Down by the river in Denmark, WA.

Down by the river in Denmark, WA.

I’m here with my friend and fellow poet Kate Wilson; we are both performing in the festival, so I am very lucky to get to share my first solo-festival-show experience with a close friend. I also get to emcee her show tonight, which is a pretty great honour!

This weekend I have ticked two major things off my bucket list: I performed my first solo show in a festival (at the Denmark RSL Hall, rock ‘n’ roll). Secondly – and more terrifyingly – I sang. A song I wrote. In public. For actual people. And I survived, hurrah!

I’m selling merch here at the fest – it’s a little zine of one of my more popular poems, ‘What Is She’ (pictured below). I’ve hand-written each stanza of the poem in typography, inspired by kinetic poems. They’re also available for sale online – DM me on Twitter (@kplyley) or leave a message on here if you would like to buy a copy. They’re only $4 each! (Free postage within Australia. International peeps – message me and we can work something out.)

Festival program and merch.

Festival program and merch.

That’s all I have time to write, as there are still more shows to see, gigs to emcee, and deadlines for more future projects coming up … Exciting things! See you back in Brisbane, blogosphere.

We can be heroes

Transports of Delight

Transports of Delight

I remember thinking, I don’t want to sit near them. They stink of cigarettes and stale clothing. I move further up the bus, perching on a seat high up the back. I can see the only other passengers riding with me today: those two down the front (the smokers) and an elderly woman sitting in front of me. I settle in for the bus ride, gazing out the window, no more thought for my fellow commuters.

A lazy fifteen minutes later, my attention is jerked back into the present when someone in the bus starts yelling. At first, I can’t tell who it is; I can only see the backs of heads. Then one of the stinky people – a man in a dirty grey shirt – shifts as he yells, belligerent, moving his chin up and down. I’m not sure who the target of his abuse is … Until I notice the soft whines coming in response to the man’s abuse. They’re coming from the person sitting next to him. I almost didn’t notice her – I think because she wants it that way. She is a big girl but she is hunched right down in her seat, head down, bowed before the the filthy stream of language the man is spewing at her. I catch some of what he’s saying to her:

“You’re a dumb bitch. You’re a dumb bitch. You’re a dumb bitch. It’s women like you – no, it’s women like you – who fark it up for everyone … MAKE THE CALL. MAKE THE CALL … So he raped you, so make the call. You’re so farking stupid. What about my daughter, eh? What about that? You don’t think. Dumb bitch.”

The girl rises in her seat and scuttles away from him, into a seat across the aisle. He meets this show of defiance with sarcastic laughter. “Oh, oh! And where are you going?” She makes another whining sound, which he brays over.

My fingernails are digging into my palms. I feel the flush rising up the back of my neck. This is one of those moments that will pass, and later I’ll think, “I should have done something”. I rise up, out of my seat. Take a couple steps towards the front of the bus. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get there, but my temper is up and that is such a rarity that I’m curious. What could I do? Could I step in? Maybe we can be heroes … (Okay, I need to stop repeat-listening to Bowie.)

What actually happens when I reach the back of Dirty Grey Shirt’s seat, is that the bus pulls into its final stop. The doors open next to me, and I automatically turn to exit. I don’t know, if we had pulled into the stop a few minutes later, would I have found my voice? Would I have done something heroic? I strode down the busway, thinking, Coward.

Dirty Grey Shirt exits the bus behind me, still bawling out his girlfriend. I walk faster, teeth clenched, and head for the lift. I don’t want to listen to another second of it. But as the lift arrives, I get in and turn around. And there they are: Dirty Grey Shirt and his battered looking girl, shuffling into the lift behind me. I hesitate, aware that I am now trapping myself in a small metal box with them. But something says, this must be faced.

It’s just the three of us in the lift: the girl is cowering in a corner, and Dirty Grey Shirt is eyeing me (well, slightly south of my face). He moves his bulk (beer gut and all) into my space, intimidating. I hold up the flat of my hand and say, “You need to back up right now.” He dances back a little, bulk wobbling, still murmuring in what he evidently believes to be a charming tone.

“You’re not a movie star, are you,” he says to me.

“No,” I grind out.

“Yeah. You don’t look like one.”

I bite back any response. Won’t do to provoke him when we’re in such close quarters. Grey Shirt keeps trying to pull me into a conversation, but I look over at the girl. She meets my eyes from under that mess of black hair and shapeless beanie, and for a moment we just stare at each other. I can’t remember ever seeing such naked despair, so close to me. Not just the misery, but the hopelessness. I have an impulse to put an arm around her shoulder and lead her gently away. But something tells me she wouldn’t accept it.

As the lift doors open, Dirty Grey Shirt grunts a reprimand at me, “Well fark, thanks for being so farking friendly.” And I let my temper snap.

I turn on him. “I don’t appreciate hearing you–” finger jab “calling her horrible names on the bus and speaking to her that way.” Jab, jab. “Treat her a bit better!” I shout that last bit at his back as he shambles away, unperturbed. Other people on the concourse look embarrassed. (My protest looks pretty lame when written down in text, and let’s face it, was probably pretty lame when I said it.) The girl has skittered away in front of Dirty Grey Shirt, clearly wishing to avoid a scene. As if there would be a scene. Even my rage-fueled diatribe was polite and carefully worded. I can’t believe that, in moments of righteous anger, I still lapse into the same patterns of speech I used when working in childcare. Starting with how I feel, using specific examples of inappropriate behaviour, and delivering a positive directive for improvement. Sheesh.

I can tell you, in my head I was using all sorts of foul language on him. In my head, I was giving him the serve of a lifetime. But it occured to me that he’s used to that; swear words have lost currency with him. I’d hoped that a relatively polite dressing-down might get through to him. But it obviously didn’t. The despair that I saw in that girl’s eyes – I don’t know how to touch that. If any of what Grey Shirt was ranting about was true, then she’s going through hell. I wanted to be a hero, but I didn’t know how to save her.

I hope she’s okay.

What Is That Sound?

Posts, Transports of Delight

I discovered something interesting on the weekend. I have a high level of emotional intelligence.

There’s a test you can take to determine this, and my Emotional Intelligence Quotient scored pretty high. I am, in fact, probably more emotionally intelligent than you. I am definitely more emotionally intelligent than my boyfriend (who also took the test) – and I will make sure he never forgets it.

In fact, I am so emotionally intelligent – so very much so – that I knew exactly how to handle an uncomfortable situation on the bus today.

The bus was trundling toward the city, and I was sitting down the front, enjoying my window seat. It was a cold, sunny day in Brisbane today – the type that’s beautiful with a cruel, glittering kind of beauty. It was warm inside the bus, so I was content. As we plunged beneath the city, into the subterranean busway, I started to hear a small noise coming from the back. It was a faint, staccato sound, repeating every few seconds. A small ftss.

Ftss.

Ftss.

I did not turn around. The sound was getting more insistent as we swung past the Queen Street Mall bus stop and up towards daylight. There it was again.

Ftss.

I supposed we had a sufferer of Tourette’s Syndrome on board. No worries – we had someone with Tourette’s in one of my lectures at uni. Once you got past the fact that someone to your left was grunting ‘Hup!’ over every third word the lecturer said, it became nothing more than lecture hall ambience.

Now the sound had gotten out of its seat and was moving towards the front of the bus, becoming more audible.

Ftss. Fksk. FKSK. FUCK’S SAKE!

The sound belonged to a smartly dressed young man with far too much gel in his hair, who evidently wanted to disembark in the city. But this bus didn’t stop in the city – it passed right through on its way to the eastern suburbs. Now Pointy Hair had realised this, and was approaching the bus driver.

As the bus cruised through the last set of traffic lights before the motorway entrance, there was a quiet conversation. It suddenly became loud.

‘I NEED TO GET OUT HERE.’

‘I CAN’T LET YOU OUT ON THE ROAD.’

‘LET ME OUT!’

The bus driver – a tough, middle-aged woman with beefy arms and an operatic voice – yanked the bus vindictively over to the kerb. She leaned on the steering wheel and glared at Pointy Hair.

‘THIS BUS DOES NOT. STOP. IN THE CITY!’

The young man was much calmer now that the bus had stopped. He tried to swipe his Go Card to tag off, but the machine hadn’t registered the stop.

He asked, ‘Could you please turn your machine on?’

‘READ THE FRONT OF THE BUS!’

Meanwhile, two other passengers stood up, the ones who were also on the wrong bus but had chosen to bear it with dignity. Now they were rushing the doors with relieved looks on their faces.

The bus driver was livid. ‘AW LOOK,’ she thundered at Pointy Hair, ‘NOW EVERYONE’S GETTING OUT!’

‘Could you please turn your machine on.’

The bus driver finally switched on the machine, and Pointy Hair and the others quickly tagged off. They exited the bus followed by the bellows of the bus driver: ‘READ THE FRONT OF THE BUS! READ THE FRONT OF THE BUS!’

As the shell-shocked survivors of her wrath scattered on the sidewalk, the bus driver threw a foul look into her rear-view mirror – as if daring any of us to ding the bell – then heaved us back onto the road. We rode onto the motorway in a silence that could’ve combusted. I kept waiting for her to shout at us like a pissed-off teacher who’s just sent the naughty kids to the principal, but still needs to vent. I was waiting for, ‘THAT’S WHY YOU ALWAYS READ THE FRONT OF THE BUS!’ But it never came. It was probably saved up for whoever was waiting for her at home, god rest their soul.

Now, because of my heightened emotional intelligence, I was able to handle this situation very well. (Clearly these EIQ tests are extremely accurate.) When presented with a highly charged atmosphere and a conflict situation, I reacted with the grace and style of someone who has aced the emotional intelligence test.

I ducked down in my seat and tried to stop the tears from coming.

Yep. Watery eyes and a trembling bottom lip. Frightened of the bus driver. That’s the mark of an emotionally superior being, right there. Boom. Take notes everyone, ‘cos this is how we do.

 

A crazy couple of weeks

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There was no blog post last Sunday, and I’m very sorry about that. Between study, travel, and illness, I haven’t had any space in my head for this ol’ bloggy blog.

Blog posts are probably going to be a little sporadic for a while – I’ve just started a very intense Graduate course, and it’s kicking my arse. It’s made me its punching bag and is throwing right hooks like it’s mad at me. So, it’s a shame but, when everything gets mental, the blog is the first to suffer. (Actually, that’s a lie – the hygiene of my flat is the first to suffer. The blog comes a close second.)

However, I WILL be posting a new story here this Sunday, I promise! Photo courtesy of Yarn

And, if you’re in the Brisbane area, you can come and see me perform a story, live! I’ll be one of the storytellers at Yarn: stories spun in Brisbane on Thursday 16th August. 6:30pm @ Dowse Bar, Paddington. The theme of the night is ‘In Transit: Stories of Going Nowhere’. Gee, I think I can relate!

Right. Back to study …

The apparition of these faces in the crowd

Transports of Delight

It’s early morning at the station, and I’m standing with hordes of other commuters waiting for the train. It’s one of those dark, chilly mornings where the mood is bleak; everyone’s heading to work or to school, when they’d clearly rather be tucked up in bed. The train arrives and we silently file into the carriage.

It’s packed inside; full train. I get pushed down to the other side of the carriage, shoved in between some businessmen and school kids. Over near the priority seats, I see a guy I kind of know. Shane, the brother of one of my high school friends. I only met him a couple of times, years ago. Even then I only knew him as my friend’s autistic brother – mainly because every time she mentioned him, she would say, “You know, my brother, who’s autistic?” He sees me, and we wave at each other.

There’s that ‘bing bong’ sound that means the doors will be closing. Just then, we all see a schoolgirl desperately pelting across the train platform, running towards our door. Her rubber-soled shoes are thack-thacking on the pavers. Somebody presses the ‘open doors’ button in a futile gesture, but we know she doesn’t have enough time.

The doors begin closing. The schoolgirl is still a few feet away from the train. Oh, this is going to be heartbreaking – she’s going to hit the doors just as they close, and we’ll all feel sorry for her. But wait, she’s picking up speed, she’s launching herself at the doors – oh lord, there’s only a sliver of door left – but she’s through! The girl dove through the carriage doors just as they closed. That was amazing. Indiana Jones could not have done better. The girl stands panting, just inside the doors, red-faced and very pleased. She grins, like “I did it!” But then her face changes.

I watch her realise that her backpack is stuck outside the train.

The girl made it into the train, but her backpack did not. She’s still wearing it – the pack is still strapped to her back – but the doors have closed over it, trapping it outside. The train starts to glide forwards, and the girl begins to panic. She can’t move, she’s held in place by her enormous backpack. She wriggles and makes squeaky noises. No one in the crowded train moves to help her. Except one man.

It’s Shane, my friend’s autistic brother! He hollers, “KAITLYN! HELP ME!” as he pushes his way through the motionless commuters. His voice is loud against the hush of the crowded carriage. I spring to life and elbow my way forwards. We reach the girl, and Shane begins pulling on her backpack with all his might. I tug at the doors, trying to pry them apart. The girl strains forward on the shoulder straps, and all three of us struggle together. Finally her backpack pops free. Girl, backpack, Shane and me all tumble apart like bowling pins.

The girl whispers a quiet thanks while she adjusts her backpack, embarrassment already spreading over her cheeks. I know she’ll want to pretend that nothing ever happened; that’s what I wanted when I was a teenage girl. Shane and I move back to our respective spots in the carriage, our roles as hero and sidekick now finished.

The train glides along, uninterrupted, in its usual peak-hour austerity. Shane disembarks a couple of stops later, then the girl. I stand, packed in amongst the other sardine-people, keeping my balance as we sway around the bends. It’s a quiet, desperate morning. I try not to grin too much.

Empire Service (Part III)

Transports of Delight

I’ve spent a fair chunk of this trip alone. I’m nineteen years old, and five months ago I booked a round-the-world ticket and jumped a plane out of Perth, Western Australia. I was elated to be leaving my hometown. Trip of a lifetime! I trekked through a few different countries before I got to the US, where I picked up a job as a camp counselor. Working on a New England summer camp is one of the best things I have ever done. I can’t even begin to explain why. I can only recommend you do it and see for yourself. When the summer ended, there was a huge diaspora of camp counselors toward New York City. We descended on the town in busloads, tanned and dirty, singing camp songs and bursting into Hebrew. We tumbled into hostels and cheap hotel rooms and commiserated the end of our golden summer together.

We held huge dinners in downtown Manhattan, saying goodbye as we all dispersed to the next steps on our journeys. Some of us were going home; most, like me, were hitting the road again. Counselors from different camps joined us, and shared stories from their summers. It sounded like our camp was one of the lucky ones; other counselors told horror stories of spoiled brats and boring activities. One girl, a fellow Aussie named Ro, dolefully told me how she spent the whole summer standing in a barn. Apparently none of Ro’s campers had been game to have a go on the horses, so she spent most of her time at camp alone. I winced, and tried to downplay how freaking awesome my summer was.

After the goodbye dinners, everyone started to peel off in different directions. Some of the boys rented a silver convertible and set off for the southern states. The English girls went to California, to top up their tans before going back to Ol’ Blighty. My boyfriend went to visit relatives in Niagara Falls, and I took my pre-booked trip up to Nova Scotia. The gang had split up; I was travelling solo again.

A couple of weeks later, I came back down to New York from Nova Scotia, and began the great train journey west. You already know the story of my inability to follow simple directions to a train station, and you know what happened on the train to Niagara Falls. I’d already collected some pretty weird experiences on my travels. But what happens in Buffalo is something I will never forget.

After visiting the boyfriend at Niagara Falls, I am back in New York State, catching a cab through Buffalo. Buffalo is right near Niagara Falls, and it is from here that I will be catching my train to Chicago. I should be excited to see Chicago, but mostly I’m just cried out. I’ve said goodbye to my boyfriend (again), who has ended his trip and gone home; I don’t know when I’ll see him next. It’s hard being alone again. I miss my camp friends like crazy, and I’m already exhausted from shunting my enormous pack around. (Travelling light is not a trend with me.) I drag my bags into the Buffalo train station, in the pitch darkness of night. My train doesn’t leave until midnight. The station is deserted; everyone else has the good sense to travel at a decent hour. This is going to be a long night.

As I enter the station, I feel miles away from everyone I know. Australia seems like a world away. No one knows I’m here, except my boyfriend, and he just flew back home. I am completely, sadly, anonymous.

“Kaitlyn?” Says a voice, incredulous.

“Ro?” I exclaim.

Sitting on one of the cold, metal benches is Ro, the Australian camp counselor I met in Manhattan. She is staring back at me. We’re both having trouble taking in this situation. A month after camp finished, in a deserted train station, in the middle of the night, in a random town in the United States of America, the only other person catching the train is someone we know. It’s insane. It’s amazing.

We laugh hysterically for a while. Then Ro immediately heads for the restrooms.

See, there are things that I didn’t think about when planning my first solo backpacking trip. Like going to the toilet in a public place. When you’re alone in a train station and you need to pee, do you risk leaving your humungous backpack behind in the terminal? Or do you try to stuff it into the toilet stall with you? This is the dilemma that Ro was faced with before I turned up, and she was getting desperate. But, when there’s two of you, everything is easier. You just take turns.

Unbelievable as I find it, Ro is also heading to Chicago alone. Neither of us knows anybody in Chicago, so our meeting is perfect. Now that we are travelling together, I’m feeling way more hopeful. We chatter about Australia and camp and wait for the train to show up. I’m especially glad to have run into Ro when it is announced that the train will be two hours late. We won’t be departing until 2AM. A long night indeed.

The next morning, Ro and I peel ourselves out of our train seats and wander, zombie-like, in search of breakfast. We find the dining cart, relieved to see tables and tables of happy, eating passengers. The train lurches a little as we curve around a bend. Ro and I stumble towards the tables, but something blocks my path. It is a large, bosomy, grinning kitchen lady. She hollers something at me and points, but I can barely understand her accent. In my bleary haze, her Southern jolliness is too loud, too Southern. I look down at my battered Converse shoes. The red novelty shoelaces that I picked up in Canada are trailing limply behind my feet. I stopped bothering to re-tie them several states ago. I look back up at the kitchen lady. She grins and booms, “YOU GOTTA TUCK ‘EM OR TIE ‘EM, SUGAR!”

She and the other ladies hoot with laughter. They shriek and pound their thighs.

I feel near to tears. Why won’t she let me have breakfast? Please, lady, just let me sit down and have breakfast. I spent the night on a train, not sleeping, while children kicked the back of my seat with the energy and precision of an A-league soccer team. (How did those children stay up all night? Surely children will sleep anywhere? My little brother used to fall asleep in helicopters, rock concerts, heavy machinery … In fact, he still does. Okay, that could be narcolepsy.)

But then, I look across at Ro. We both start to giggle.

It’s good to know I’m not in this alone.

My Wicked Week

Transports of Delight

This week, I road-tested a form of transport that I’ve been hanging out to try for years – a Wicked campervan. Man, I couldn’t wait. I’ve wanted to hire one of these ever since I first saw one on the highway, trailing the fumes of exhaust and embarrassed parents.

You know, Wicked campers. Backpacking institution. Painted with crazy artwork, break down at the drop of a hat? Anna Bligh called them racist? You know the ones.

Wicked vans are awesome for their cheap price and rebellious paint jobs. But the thing that really struck my fancy was the handwritten graffiti all over the inside of the van. It seemed like every backpacker who’d passed through that van had scribed something. There were at least five quotations signed by a Pouick, and my boyfriend and I seemed to keep finding more. For the whole week, one of us would be firing up the barbecue or doing the dishes, and the other would yell from inside, “I FOUND ANOTHER POUICK!”

Pouick and Pouick-related graffiti.

This Pouick was clearly a backpacking epigrammatist of the highest order, whose wisdom has been immortalised on the ceiling of the van. Sage advice such as: “Rain is not a camper’s friend.” “Slow down camper, you will see that koala.” And perhaps the most enigmatic of Pouick’s quotations: “No, Meaghan, don’t look at me. Look away. Don’t look at me!!!”

The inside of the van was patchworked with doodles and scribbles. It was like the walls of a ladies’ toilet in a university arts building – but less insane (Pouick excepted). Instead of diatribes or weepy confessionals about sexually confused boyfriends, Wicked campers wrote heartfelt messages of love, advice on cool places to visit, and personal jokes from their trip. After a week, it felt like my boyfriend and I were travelling not just with each other, but also with a gang of cool new friends who had shared their memories with us. It was a beautiful and warming thought … Until my boyfriend started wondering aloud if Pouick might actually be living secretly inside the van somewhere. After all, we kept finding new Pouick quotes that we could swear weren’t there before. Then I wondered if those scratching noises we’d heard all night weren’t really possums, but the sounds of Pouick’s ghost trying to get back in. It was hard to sleep after that.

But still, I had a great time in our Wicked van.

Home sweet van.

So, here’s to the ghostly crew that kept us company during our Wicked week. To Major Jiggle, the three English girls, Jeffy + Jilly, Team Boobies, and the prolific Pouick, thank you for your words. The boyf and I have added our own, so that future campers can travel ensconced in our fond memories. And thank you, Wicked, for such a fun camping experience. I don’t care if your vans rattle and the mattresses are so thin that I couldn’t lay on my side for fear of bruising my bony hips. We paid for an experience, and that’s what we got. (We also got to and from our destination without breaking down, so BONUS!)

Since writing that last bit, I’ve found out more about our campervan. Some of the graffiti informed us that it was used in the shooting of an upcoming Brisbane indie film called Dark Are The Woods. Guess we were sleeping inside a former movie prop! It was exciting to think of seeing the van we hired in a movie, but that was before I looked up the movie online. I’m really glad I didn’t see the teaser while I was still spending nights in the van. It turns out Dark Are The Woods is some kind of B-grade torture porn flick, all about backpackers getting killed and eaten by incestuous bush-dwelling cannibals. And there are strippers, for some reason. Uh, yeah. I’m glad I didn’t know I was ensconced in the memories of those minds.

Hmm. Maybe next time I’ll just ignore the graffiti.

Skaters Gon' Skate

Transports of Delight

Apologies for the quietness lately. I started a new job, which has been taking up much of my time. This job is a bit special, because one of its perks is limitless ice skating. That’s right, ice skating. In the middle of Brisbane, Australia. Ice.

At first I was terrified of setting foot on the slipperyness. I’m not the kind of person who is known for their grace. I trip over thin air. So, I figured I had no chance at all on ice. But, dammit, I was going to give it a shot.

And I did not fall over! Not even once!

Granted, I was leaning heavily on a sled (a sled designed for toddlers who are still learning to walk).

But I kept my balance! And eventually I graduated to skating without any kind of crutch. It was a proud moment. I wish my parents could have seen me.

I actually do wish that, because my folks grew up in America and always had their own ice skates; some of my earliest memories are of family holidays in the States, with my parents trying to convince me to enjoy sliding around in the snow. I was a child of tropical north Queensland – I did NOT like this cold stuff. Wearing all those layers confused me; why couldn’t I walk around in my underwear all the time? We did back home! Cold climes were not for me.

But luckily, people change. Now I quite like the ol’ ice rink. Sure, it still feels unnatural to strap blades to the bottom of your feet and skitter around on them, but I’m learning. Perhaps this will be my new favourite way of getting around.

In some places, ice skating could be a legitimate mode of transport. In Holland, for example, they all seem to be born with their feet on the ice. I was in the Netherlands a few years ago, visiting a friend for a week. I just happened to arrive in the midst of headline-making Dutch weather. The canals had frozen over for the first time in 12 years. For over a decade, no one had seen that much ice. Then, suddenly, EVERYTHING was frozen!

Edam, Holland. 2009.

That’s a lotta frozen.

All the locals in Edam, where my friend lives, were ditching work and grabbing their skates. People were skimming along the narrow waterways that run through the fields, their hands clasped behind their backs. My friend and her family kitted me out with some spare skates and dragged me to the nearest lake.

I was terrified. That thing about me not liking the cold? It was kicking my ass. If my friend hadn’t pulled me bodily along the ice, I would have just crouched in the middle of the frozen lake until it melted. Images of terror-stricken people falling through the ice were tearing through my head. Even the mental vision of Bear Grylls doing naked push-ups to demonstrate how to survive in arctic wilderness wasn’t doing it. And that image usually solves any problem.

After a while, my friend suggested we skate to the riverbank for a rest. (She was probably tired out from pulling my dead weight up and down the lake.) The ice looked much thinner near the shore. I nervously hung back and watched her casually glide to the edge of the frozen part. Under her weight, the sheet of ice we were standing on suddenly plunged downwards, and water whooshed up from underneath, spilling across the ice and the riverbank. I whimpered in fear. My friend merely prodded the dark ice with the tip of her skate blade and said in her charming Dutch accent, “Okay, here is good.”

She walked right off the ice and sat down on the grassy bank. I quivered after her. Other Dutch people were watching me while they unwrapped their lunches. They were smiling slightly, as if I was the weird one. They were picnicking on a snowy riverbank! Meanwhile, children and toddlers skated dreamily past me.

I didn’t understand the Dutch fascination with ice skating. I thought it was a terrifying and needlessly dangerous leisure activity. But now that I’ve had some more practice, I can appreciate how beautiful it is to glide around on an expanse of glittering white.

Now, if Queensland ever experiences some inclement weather and the Brisbane River freezes over, I’ll be ready.

I’ll be ready.

Edam, Holland. 2009.

Standing completely still with no help: An achievement.