It was so long ago, now, yes? I am 98 years old in just a few days, so I’ll try to get all the details right. Memory isn’t the most reliable thing in the world. If it were a car, it would have been made by British Leyland. Perhaps you don’t know about that, young thing, but like so many good ideas, it was a car company ruined by, I don’t know, a lack of diligence? All those years, all those people, always trying to go in different directions but never getting very far. Astonishing waste, you know.
So I want to tell you a story about the time I was shipwrecked. Seems to be a theme this year. I guess that’s why this story came to mind. I was so young then, not yet 50. No, listen! Perhaps you think that is not young at all. Almost 100 now. 50 seems very young. I was full of vigour. I could bicycle for over 10kms without getting puffed and I could concentrate. Oh, concentrate! I used to sit for hours writing stories at a stroke. I used to love writing stories.
We used to have something called the Internet. It was truly amazing! I tried to explain it to my grandmother when, oh, I must have been about 30 when all that came about. ‘It’s like a big library,’ I told her. She was quite mad and easy to turn nasty, my nana, but we would chat for hours about politics and economics and gender identity. Always the best conversations with her. Never knew how much she hated people like me until after she died, though. Glad she kept that to herself.
Maybe somewhere all my stories are still there, in that big library. Don’t know who would have kept that thing running, or how. All those stories lost, perhaps. I wanted to tell you a story when I got lost. It was a terrible time! The world was turned upside down, not for the first time, but definitely one of the worst. There had been some awful things happening. Do you know about the atomic bomb? Maybe not, then. Not to worry.
So, it was just a few years before I turned 50 and I had lived in Japan for 20 years. Lovely place of the most peculiar people you could ever meet. So reserved and distant but once the mask comes off, the most friendly and warm folk. Excellent cooks. So very, very clean. Imagine a city with enough people to fill a country but every road and every gutter clean. Never stopped amazing me. Very polite and hated people like me. I wish they’d kept that to themselves.
Back to the story, yes? I had planned to move to Canada and swing by Italy for a few months on the way. One night in Istanbul. Desperately exotic. I packed up my home, said all my good-byes and was ready to go except for one small flaw: one week before we were due to fly out, the first wave of corona hit and all the borders were shut. Took the wind outta my sails, I can tell you! So there I was, no job, no apartment, a couple of suitcases and nowhere to go.
Not one to repeat past activities, I decided that trying to restart in Japan would be too much of a tedium and returned to Australia. Probably the worst mistake of my life. But, then again, I’m 98. Still alive and kicking. Took two weeks for a plane to become available. All the flights were cancelled and usually on the same day you tried to book ‘em. Lost thousands of dollars. All the airlines had to get bailed out after a few months but even then had nowhere to fly. Ridiculous! No refunds, either.
Eventually I found myself on a plane back to Brisbane. Outside the crew, there was only one other passenger whom they sat on the direct opposite side of the plane. Hardly at capacity. Nevertheless, just as we flew over the Barrier Reef, there was an enormous bang from the right engine. Is that starboard or, what’s the other one, port? We carry our ports in our left hand, so I guess it’s the starboard side that blew up. We went down. Couldn’t hear a thing so I don’t know if anyone screamed.
I woke up on a beach. Sand in my mouth and eyes and nose. Waves lapping at me. Funny thing, memory. The human mind has all these built-in safety systems to keep us functioning. Even waking up on that beach is like looking at a rat-eaten photo. Do you know what a photo is? Old technology, way before the Internet, to be sure! I used to have photo albums, where you would stick all the photos you had processed into a book. Odd thing to do, really. No one else is ever interested in looking at them. Maybe that’s why we don’t have ‘em any more.
It was nighttime. I remember that much. Not cold. Queensland rarely gets cold that far north. Stars. Always loved the stars. As a child, oh, so long ago! – as a child I used to wander outside at night and marvel at the Milky Way. If you look on a clear night, you can see the emu looking back at you. All those campfires far, far away. Listen carefully and you can hear them singing. Hey, put some more wood on our campfire. Let’s stay warm while you listen to my story.
I know you’ll think I’m fibbing but this is just how I remember it. The plane went down, couldn’t have been too far out to sea, but down it went. My mind blanked out the worst of it. Almost all of it. Then I woke on that beach. Just for a moment. There was nothing to see so I guess my mind turned itself off again. I have just a glimpse of sand and stars, the feeling of waves and the breeze in my ears.
In the morning, I woke surrounded by these strange people. They were all slightly translucent, as if they might fly about or flop over. They stood tall, regardless. Quite unsure where I’d arrived as I’m sure you’ll not believe a word, but this is in my memory. I remember them all very clearly: pointing thin little fingers at me as their mouths moved about on the faces like drawings on a page. They certainly were not friendly!
It took a while to come to my senses. My mind kept drifting off, wondering where my shoes were, what happened to the other passenger, and why I hadn’t received the in-flight dinner. Muddled, completely muddled up. Their mode of speech was not smooth. Perhaps that is what jolted me into paying closer attention to my surroundings. I could not grasp the angle of their conversation.
‘Corpulent!’ said one.
‘Grotesque beyond belief!’ said another.
‘Foul smells. Rotting?’ a third muttered.
‘Revolting. The Cross must decide. Not my responsibility,’ a fourth noted.
The sun in my eyes was variously blocked by clouds and these paper-thin folk. ‘Hello?’ I mumbled. They flapped backward as one, their drawn-on eyes agog, mouths agape.
‘Speech?’ the third queried.
The first approached and prodded me with a foot. ‘Corpulent beyond words!’
My mouth clamped shut. Grains of sand crunched in my teeth and scoured my throat. I was quite sure I needed a shower and some water. Not salt water, mind you, had enough of that already! Definitely a shower would cover both. However, judging by the activities of these paper-folk, I was not sure I’d be getting one soon. I struggled into a seating position.
‘It’s a man!’ the fourth brayed, much like a donkey. Have you ever seen a donkey? In real life? They are just as obstinate as people and certainly as ill-tempered. This is why most people prefer horses which are terribly compliant, usually, at least. For the rest of my time in those lands, I called this fellow ‘Donkey’. Turns out it’s true: first impressions last. He was useful in the same way donkeys are, too: close-minded and prone to tantrums but very hard working, when all is said and done.
‘Just smells so disgusting,’ hissed the third, licking his lips. Like tasting the air. Like a lizard. Or a snake. Yes, a snake! Once, long ago, I went to a dance near Byron Bay with a fellow. The party wound down about 3am which left us 4hrs drive from home and at least an hour’s drive to a motel. We decided to rough it. Finding a nice spot in the sand dunes, we fell asleep about half past. However, we weren’t to have a good sleep.
About quarter to 5, this fellow suddenly yelped. A crab had wandered up the beach and snipped at him! Hardly believable but it is quite true. Groggy and unsure, we relocated where, not 20 minutes later, I felt a light tapping on my right forearm. I opened my eyes to a snake not a few centimetres from my face. It tapped my forearm again. My brain finally processed this circumstance and I leapt backwards. I could almost hear the snake say, ‘And don’t sleep on my path again!’ as it slithered on up the dunes. True story. No, it really is true!
Where was I?
Oh, yes, that beach. I’d sat up crinkly and dry like an old parchment with these people deciding what to do with me.
‘He must be processed,’ the second spat. Yes. He actually spat on the ground. It was a small black globule which I gather was ink. Would only make sense, considering.
The fourth crept up. Little black eyes. Tight little mouth. Three spots on his forehead made him look like a spider. His deliberate movements and stare put my hair on end. Venomous and repellant. Peered at me in stony silence.
‘Excuse me, sirs, but where am I?’
As one they closed ranks and backed away.
I clambered upright.
They didn’t quite come to my torso in height and I wasn’t bothered by their physicality but I was quite sure they could slice me to ribbons. Crinkling lightly in the breeze, barely making an impression on the sand, I’m sure they viewed me as nothing other than a threat. Devoid of manners, they were, too!
‘The Kingdom of Matilda!’ Donkey neighed. Complete indignity. ‘You have no permit?’
‘I’m sorry. I seem to have arrived without my luggage.’
‘“Only the weak make excuses,”’ said Spider.
‘It’s your own fault for not preparing. You should have been more careful than to end up like, like this!’ Snake was definitely strangling the point.
‘Take him to the Cross. I’m not taking any responsibility for this debacle,’ said the Camel. ‘This way!’
I was not really thinking about what a ‘Cross’ was as I was entirely captured by their movements. Being as thin as paper, I expected them to flit from step to step, but they carried all the weight one would expect of a person that tall. It was the most incongruous sight! Their long feet even left imprints of some little depth in the sand as we went. Donkey and Camel led the way as Spider and Snake brought up the rear. I hadn’t noticed that different types of paper could have such different sounds: rustling, crinkling, rasping, bowing, folding, scratching, slicing. Astonishing!
After a while, we rounded a bend and there a stream appeared. At last I could wash all this salt off me and refresh! I gathered forgiveness would be easier to ask than permission from these four, so without a word, I dashed to the water and leapt in. Oh, it was wonderful! I gargled for at least 10 minutes. Have you ever been caked in salt? Horrible. I took my shirt and jeans off and gave them a thorough rubbing. Got all the salt out of every crack and crevace. Luxurious.
All the while, my escort stood agape with terror etched into their faces.
‘Oh! I am sorry! I just had to rinse off. Was that ok?’
My light-hearted tone did nothing to assuage their shock.
‘Sinner! Evil! Tainted!’ Spider continued ranting in that vein for several minutes. I took the opportunity to flap my clothes out and struggle back into them. It was a hot day and I’d be dry within the hour. I wondered whether Spider would stop his cartwheels by then. I also figured clothing would offer protection lest these folk take a slice out of me.
‘You, you got wet!’ Camel spat, again.
‘Indeed I did. Was quite necessary. I’m not designed to be assaulted.’
Humour was definitely at a premium in this ‘Kingdom of Matilda’.
A kookaburra laughed in the distance.
My wit was singular.
Camel gestured to the path and spat black ink again. Donkey roused himself to action. ‘Back here, now!’
‘Sorry to have bothered you all.’
We continued up the path for a good 30 minutes or so when, around a hill, we came upon a town. All seemed to be made out of cardboard. It’s true! This is what I saw! I know you don’t really believe me, but this town, this city, was fantastic! Like every cardboard box you played in as a child. You did play in cardboard boxes when you were a child, didn’t you, yes? Well, I did. Often with friends or my brothers. They’re quite fun when you get into them. Join some together and cut out windows, use blankets for doors and make them cozy inside. Well, that is what I saw when we rounded that hill.
And it was full of paper people rustling and fluttering about. Oh, it’s true! Don’t moan like that. There were no cars and no animals, which made me wonder, but it was all busyness. The white noise from the streets louder than a normal street of traffic.
My entourage marched me up to a building with a large wonky ‘X’ above the front doors.
‘Inside!’ Donkey yapped.
I got down on hands and knees and approached four more paper people behind a counter. They each bore a remarkable similarity to Donkey, Camel, Snake and Spider. An ominous scent wafted over me.
‘Permit!’ barked Donkey Mark 2.
‘I’m sorry, but I have lost my luggage. I—‘
‘So, no permit supplied,’ Snake Mark 2 hissed.
‘It’s your own fault for losing it,’ Spider Mark 1 said.
‘Name.’ Donkey Mark 2 said.
Snake Mark 2 made a sucking noise as he tasted the air. ‘No such name exists in all of the Kingdom of Matilda. You are playing games with us.’
‘If only I could—‘
Spider Mark 1 crept up to Spider Mark 2 and whispered noisily, ‘He went into water, WATER, I tell you!’
At this point my mind seemed to crunch into gear, like when you haven’t pressed the clutch in enough. You have used a manual transmission? No, then again, no. I guess you were born after that era of cars ended, well and truely. They don’t even have gears anymore, do they? They go forward and back but you don’t need to change gears, you young things just press a button now, yes? Well, in that case, the clutch disengages the drivetrain from the… er, no. I guess you’re not interested in all that.
The point is, I suddenly realised that I had to plan my escape with a minimum of fuss.
‘Surely, good sirs, you have encountered the likes of me?’
Donkey Mark 2 glanced at the others at the bench, then at the Mark 1s. ‘We have been made aware of beings such as you, that frolic in water and eat and smell. We have never yet met such as you face to face, though now that we have, you shall be purified.’
‘What does that mean?’ How does paper become purified, or cardboard? What steps would that involve? My troupe’s reaction to my being in water indicated that this purification may not be to the best of my health. I squirmed.
Spider Marks 1 and 2 stood to either side of me and motioned toward the doors. On hands and knees, it was now my head which came only to their torsos and I did not feel quite so threatening as I had before. My discomfort grew at the building’s forecourt.
A throng of paper folk had gathered. Each a variation of Donkey, Camel, Snake and Spider. My mind lurched at the limited range of possible conversation topics. Abject boredom fringed with death by a thousand paper cuts, I sighed.