The Wrong Shade of Yellow - Sample Chapters

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Chapter 1: Bag Lady with a Bicycle


    I was cycling across Europe in search of Utopia, a place I believed was located somewhere in Greece. When I found it, I would start a new life there. It was my big, fat, Greek midlife crisis. But now I was having a crisis within a crisis. What on earth had I been thinking?

    I was middle aged and homeless, soon to be penniless, and really and truly no different from that bag lady sitting on the bench over there. I couldn’t jack it in and go home, because I didn’t have a home to go to anymore. The bicycle and the tent were now home. Wherever I found myself on any given night was now home. And that meant, for tonight, Genoa Piazza Principe Railway Station was home.


   The train from Ventimiglia to Genoa was going more slowly than I could cycle, and that wasn’t very fast. When it wasn’t crawling along at snail’s pace, it was languishing in sidings, and men in silly Italian railway hats were rushing around shouting and gesticulating.

   The men in silly hats weren’t doing anything useful that I could see and it was in spite of them, rather than because of them, that the train eventually crept into Genoa Piazza Principe Station. Seven hours late, just past midnight.

   I was riding on a train instead of on my bicycle, because I couldn’t get out of Italy quickly enough. Technically this was cheating, although, as my maths teacher pointed out all those years ago, the only person I was cheating was myself, especially since I’d have got much further and faster if I had cycled.

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   I heaved the bicycle out of the carriage, and noted with dismay that the platform was nowhere near the station concourse. This meant I’d have to unload the panniers, the handlebar bag and bedroll, and transport them in two trips down the long flight of stairs into the bowels of the station. Then I’d have to return for the bicycle, reload it, wheel it through the underground passage to the corresponding flight of stairs leading upwards, where it would be a case of lather, rinse, repeat.  

   I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. I was worn out, frazzled, more than slightly concerned about the lateness of the hour, and earlier I’d had a Financial Disaster of such epic proportions it merited the use of capital letters.

Now if I just nipped across those empty railway lines, I’d be on the main station concourse in no time. No-one would know. The platform was empty. The railway was deserted. The temptation was overwhelming. All I had to do was break whichever Italian law it is that said you weren’t allowed to wheel your bicycle across the railway lines.

   They appeared out of thin air, and there were four of them. It wasn’t hard to figure out what the word Polizia on their uniforms meant. And though I didn’t speak a word of Italian, it wasn’t hard to figure out they didn’t approve of people wheeling bicycles across railway lines.

   I stood there, humiliated and abject, apologizing in English, and wondering how many years you spent in an Italian prison for crossing the line where you weren’t supposed to.

   After they’d done shouting, and that took a while, I hurried away with my tail between my legs into the great railway terminal building. I was alone at midnight, in an Italian railway station, and I had nowhere to stay. You could say my day wasn’t going very well.

   Genoa Piazza Principe railway station was a vast nineteenth century structure built in the neo-classical style, all towering pillared arches, marbled walls and high vaulted ceilings. Against such grandeur I looked and felt like a lonely little ant. An ant with a bicycle.

   Due to some unfathomably petty railway regulation, I was not permitted to travel with my bicycle on any of the nice fast trains that would have got me out of the place, and the last of the small regional trains that did allow bicycles had long since departed. 

   My options had shrunk to three. I could venture into a strange city at midnight in search of affordable accommodation; I could dump the bicycle, and continue my journey without it; or I could spend the night on Genoa station.

   I wheeled my encumbrance to the great arched entrance and peered out onto the deserted piazza. There was no bright neon sign saying cozy, inexpensive accommodation this way. Instead the empty city looked threatening and sinister. The birthplace of Christopher Columbus was probably neither, but I was too low on Columbus-style initiative to venture forth and find out. There was nothing for it but to bed down for the night on the station.

‘Bed down’ is a misleading phrase. Genoa Piazza Principe may have been a splendid architectural edifice, but a desirable night's lodging it was not. I had a bicycle loaded up with camping equipment that was neither use nor ornament in this particular situation: I could hardly pitch tent on the station concourse. A bitter wind was whistling through the great arched entrances and there were no comfortable seats. The heated waiting room and cafes were all locked. There was just a single hard bench cunningly divided by armrests, to ensure stranded cyclists and other vagrants did not get a good night’s sleep. For spite, they’d even locked the toilets.  It was shaping up to be a cold and comfortless night.

   Had I been a young backpacker in my twenties, this might not have been such a big deal. But I wasn’t a young backpacker in my twenties; I was a dignified woman of mature years, and so it was a big deal, because dignified women of mature years don’t spend nights on stations with bag ladies.

   The bag lady was sitting on the bench to my left. She was well into her eighties and I think she was used to the facilities, because in spite of sitting bolt upright, she managed to doze fitfully through the night. Every now and then she’d wake and totter over to peer at the Departures Board, as if she had somewhere to go and a ticket to ride.

   But it was obvious she was waiting for the morning light, rather than a train. Two baggy holdalls overspilling with all her worldly goods gave the game away. I could not begin to imagine what set of unfortunate circumstances had brought her life to such a pass. She could have been my mother. She could have been anybody’s mother or grandmother. She could be me soon.

   To my right on the bench was a Romanian man with a lean and haggard face. He was a migrant laborer, he said, and waiting for a train to Pisa that was due to depart at 7am. There was an earlier train, but that was the express, and much more expensive. He had been working in Italy for several years now, but the work was occasional and poorly paid. He had a wife and three children back in Romania, but he saw them infrequently, a source of suffering for them all. He was hoping they’d be able to join him soon. I could just imagine them, lean and worn as he, living for the day he might send for them.

   In the second watch of the night the old woman woke up briefly, pointed to my bicycle, gave a toothless grin, and said “Bravo!” That was heartening because of the bad patch the bicycle and I were going through.

   I was properly fed up with the bicycle. I blamed it for my current plight. It was cramping my style and slowing me down. If I didn’t have a bicycle, I could get on a train and be transported speedily through Italy in no time. That’s what I’d wanted to do ever since arriving in the country just hours earlier, for I had taken a profound dislike to the place.

   If I didn’t have a bicycle I wouldn’t have to spend the night on Genoa station with a bag lady. I wouldn’t have to make my way across Italy on regional trains that kept breaking down, or spend four days cycling across it.

    Two things stopped me abandoning the bicycle to an unknown Italian fate. First, in spite of our present difficulties, the bicycle was now the closest thing to a friend I had. We’d grown attached in the early days of the trip. We’d had our honeymoon in Holland, had faced adversity together in Belgium, and we’d survived maniacal drivers in France.

   We’d developed a relationship. It happens to people and their bicycles on long-distance cycle tours. I had read of this phenomenon with scorn, convinced it would not happen to me. I would never lose sight of the fact that my bicycle was just an inanimate machine.

   But by the time we had travelled through the Netherlands, the bicycle and I had grown quite chummy. It began insidiously, with occasional words like “Don’t!” when the chain slipped off. Then occasional words turned into full-blown sentences, and before I knew it, I was warning it not to mess with me, or praising it for getting me up a hill. There would be something disloyal in abandoning it after all that.

   Also, if I gave up now, and ended my cycle tour before I’d even got to Greece, I would have come full circle: my life would be nothing more than a depressing round of failed enterprises.

    And since it was only once I started cheating that the bicycle turned from friend to foe, and since I wasn’t supposed to be cheating in the first place, none of this was the bicycle’s fault. I needed to get back on the bike, so to speak.

   There was a train to Rimini, on the other side of Italy, that was departing Genoa at 7.15am. I’d catch that, I decided, because I’d heard there were Alps in the way and I was keen as mustard to avoid those. But from Rimini I would start using it again; I’d cycle the hundred or so kilometers to Ancona, and from there I would catch the first available ferry to Greece.

   Everything would be peachy once I got to Greece. There’d be milk and honey flowing from the hills, and it wouldn’t matter nearly so much that now, thanks to the Financial Disaster—and more about that later—there were just weeks instead of months between me and starvation. 

   In the third watch of the night, the bag lady, the migrant and I were joined by a woman wearing just a towel. She livened things up no end, because the only entertainment before that was the announcement board ticking over, telling of trains I wasn’t allowed to catch, and even that ceased around 3am. The woman in the towel hopped about a fair bit, but seemed very happy, a good deal too happy given the conditions. It was freezing on that station even with the benefit of clothing, and I never did find out why she wasn’t wearing any.

   Every hour the four-strong patrol of railway police with whom I had had the earlier encounter emerged from their cozy heated office and stomped up and down. The first few times I was worried they’d throw us into the night, but they took no notice at all and I suspect this was because we looked like a travelling circus rather than terrorists.

   When a welcome cold dawn ended a night that had seemed to last forever, the Romanian man pulled some oranges from a shabby rucksack. He shared them with us, his fellow flotsam of humanity thrown together for a single night on Genoa station.

   I had read that Genoa was a spectacular city; it was dubbed “the Superb One” on account of its architecture, art and gastronomy. I couldn’t have cared less about any of that. I’d had more than enough of Genoa. I wanted to continue my midlife crisis somewhere else, anywhere else so long as it wasn’t Italy.

   But Italy wasn’t done with me yet. It was a spiteful country, was Italy. I don’t understand what people see in it, or why they want to go and live there. Someone told me once that you either love Greece or you love Italy, and that it’s simply not possible to love both. Loving both would be a bit like being Catholic and Protestant at the same time. It’s just not possible. This was an interesting claim, and one with which I heartily concurred, although I grant that two opinions fall a little short of a full statistical sampling.

   This was not my first time in Italy. I’d been there before, in my early twenties. That time I had been travelling in the opposite direction, leaving Greece and heading north for France, and Italy was spiteful even back then. I’d gone to the Post Office to change some traveler’s cheques—this was back in the days when that’s how travel money worked—and the woman had cheated me. I hadn’t checked what she was doing because this was the Post Office, and I trusted her. It wasn’t as if she was a dodgy back street money changer, and if you can’t trust the Post Office who can you trust? When I realized what had happened it was already too late and my relationship with Italy never recovered. It’s not that I’m unforgiving, but nothing ever happened in Italy afterwards to erase that early negative impression.

    The ticket office opened at last at 7am. The train to Rimini departed at 7.15. I had just fifteen minutes to explain to the surly ticket seller (who didn’t or wouldn’t speak English), that I needed a ticket to Rimini for myself and one for my bicycle, for in Italy bicycles are issued with their own train tickets. Aware of my urgency she immediately went on a go-slow, her revenge upon a world that had decreed she be a ticket seller.

   By the time she had printed out the tickets, I had just minutes to heave my bike and gear down the three flights of stairs, through the underground passageway and up the other side onto the railway platform, since of course the train for Rimini was on the furthest possible platform, and nipping across the railway lines was now out of the question. I could have caught the next train, departing a few hours later, but I was filled with an irrational and overwhelming desire to escape the scene of my night’s lodgings.

   In Italy, you don’t simply purchase your train ticket and then board the train. That would be too simple. Italian Rail thoughtfully provides little boxes at the entrance to each platform, where you are supposed to insert your ticket—and your bicycle’s ticket—for a date stamp, before you board the train.

In the panicky rush of it all, I forgot to date stamp our tickets, the bicycle’s and mine, and rushed past the machine without even noticing it. It was an honest, and you would have thought fairly common mistake for a foreigner to make, one that could easily be rectified at the next station, or overwritten in some way or another.

   The train conductor, a tiny cartoon caricature of an Italian man, complete with Garibaldi moustache, thought otherwise. He seized my unstamped tickets and rounded on me in a torrent of angry Italian, of which I understood not a word. Then he wrote the sum €35 on a piece of paper and thrust it under my nose, uttering his one word of English, a word he had clearly practiced a lot: “Pay!” 

   I protested. At first I did not understand what he was shouting about, and then I remembered the little machine that I had neglected in my haste, and it dawned on me that the demand for €35 had something to do with that.

   “Pay!” he said again, more loudly this time.

   I shook my head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was a mistake. And no, I am not going to give you €35.”

   “Pay!” He screamed. And then he screamed it over and over, “Pay! Pay! Pay!”

   It is not pleasant when a small, but very scary Italian man sticks his nose two inches from your own and screams “Pay” repeatedly at the top of his voice. Especially after you have just had a terrible night sitting upright on a hard bench on a freezing station. When he saw I was adamant, for in light of the Financial Crisis €35 was an awful lot of money, he revised the asking price.

   He scribbled again on his piece of paper. He crossed out the €35 and amended it to €5. This did nothing for his credibility. If there was indeed an official fine for forgetting to stamp your ticket, the sum would surely not be negotiable.

   So I shook my head. He really lost it then, and was soon quite literally jumping up and down on the spot, screaming “Pay, Pay, Pay.” The other occupants in the carriage looked on with mild interest to see who was going to win the battle. 

   Eventually when he threatened, by means of gesture (and the gesture, which was unmistakable, was that of throwing the bicycle off the train), I capitulated, and gave him his €5, making it clear what I thought of his tactics, what I thought of him, and what I thought of Italy. And then I burst into tears and cried the rest of the way to Rimini.

   The effect of this encounter was to intensify the desire to depart this land of surly ticket sellers and men in railway uniforms who shouted at me. Everything would be better in Greece. No-one would shout at me in Greece.

   But there were still 100 kilometers to travel from Rimini to Ancona and the most I had cycled in a day thus far had been sixty. A train would have taken me there in just over an hour, but I was well and truly done with trains. Nothing would have induced me back into another train station and onto another Italian train.

   So I spent that night in a little hotel in a village near Rimini, because it was cheaper than the gaudy and overpriced camping ground. Then, grateful for the flatness of the terrain, I set off for Ancona at breakneck speed the next morning, and managed my best day’s cycling to date.

   The road from Rimini to Ancona confirmed everything I already suspected about Italy: it was the land where everything had a price. On my left was the beach, and I wanted to stop for lunch and sit there for a while, eating my bread and cheese. But no, the beach was carved up and claimed by the endless strip of hotels, restaurants and bars on my right. Each appeared to own the piece of beach opposite, with the start of new ownership signaled by a different colored set of deck loungers and umbrellas. If you were a patron or resident at one of those establishments you got to use that particular strip of beach. If you weren’t a resident you paid. So either way you paid. Pay! Pay! Pay! It was becoming a familiar refrain.

   I hadn’t realized that beaches could be anything other than the public property of all, there for all to enjoy, and found something deeply offensive in this arrangement. Next thing, I thought, they’ll be trying to sell entry into heaven itself. And then I remembered they’d already done that, back in the middle ages, with the sale of indulgences, and that Martin Luther had taken a similarly dim view of that, his protests so effective the entire history of Western Christianity changed forever.

   But at least they didn’t carve up and sell the beaches of Greece, and that was a thought that lent wings to feet that were pedaling harder than they’d done before. Perhaps if I made Ancona before the last ferry sailed, I’d not have to spend another night in this terrible country.

   But Italy still wasn’t done with me. It was 7pm when I arrived, exhausted and desperate, at Ancona's deserted ferry terminal, a vast and confusing place. There was a maze of flyovers all offering different options, none of which made any sense at all. Each road was signposted with an identical picture of a ferry and something unhelpful written beneath. Thus one of the roads led to the “New Ferry,” another to the “Tourist Ferry,” and yet another to the “Car Ferry.”

    I had no idea which ferry I needed, but thought Tourist Ferry seemed the most logical. I had overlooked the fact that this was Italy, where the connections with logic were tenuous at best, and the correct ferry terminal for tourists was in fact the Car Ferry.

   So, after wasting an hour trying to understand Italian signage and setting off in the wrong direction in search of the Tourist Ferry (which I never found), I finally arrived at the correct terminal. And there, just pulling out of harbor, sailing joyfully in the direction of the promised land, was the last ferry of the day.

   The terminal building was still open, but it was empty; everyone else had escaped from Italy, and the next day’s sailing schedule was displayed on an electronic board. There were stacks of free brochures outside the booking booths, with pictures of happy passengers, headed for the promised land, sitting around in comfortable lounges and coffee bars, attended by friendly Greek waiters.

   The dismay I felt at being stuck in Italy one more night was quite disproportionate to the reality of the situation. What difference would one more night in Italy make? It would only be my third, counting the one on Genoa station. I’d be out of this dreadful country tomorrow.

   It was tiredness that was my undoing, I think. I mounted my bicycle, exhausted, trying not to cry, (yes I am a cry-baby), and set off in the direction of the town.

   I did not notice the sunken railway tracks embedded in the concrete of the ferry terminal. The front wheel of the bicycle got stuck in one of these and stopped moving. I, unfortunately, did not.

   I hit the concrete on my right side with a sickening crunch, unable to move and unable to breathe. I thought I was dying. I thought I was on my way to meet Jesus. I thought I had punctured my lung and that I’d be dead in a matter of minutes.

   Somehow, many minutes later and still not dead, I managed to raise myself to a sitting position. The tearing pain in the region of my ribcage intensified a hundredfold. Across the concrete terminal, on the other side of a high wire fence, and across a busy road, a group of Italians sitting at a café table had witnessed my fall and were now all standing up, watching curiously. I managed a feeble thumbs-up and a shouted “I’m okay,” and they returned to their coffee.

   But I was not okay. It took an eternity to stand up and reload the bicycle. My panniers and handlebar bag were scattered about the concrete. I worried about the fate of my laptop and camera and hoped the padding provided by the surrounding luggage had sufficed as protection. 

I wheeled the bicycle slowly back through the maze of exits and flyovers to Ancona’s station square, around which were clustered a selection of unappealing, but inexpensive railway hotels. Every movement was agony, so this was no time for shopping around and I took a room in the nearest of them. It was seedy, and there was no ensuite, just a communal bathroom down the passage. Still, it was cleanish, there was a little balcony and the hotelier seemed a decent man for an Italian.

   I checked the laptop, and found it had fared better than I. Being one of the first laptops ever manufactured, it had been built to last. I lowered myself gingerly onto the bed and opened a bottle of cheap Italian wine I had bought earlier with which to celebrate the leaving of that country and that had somehow survived the fall. In so doing I discovered just how difficult it is to uncork wine with broken ribs. (I was in no doubt that I had broken at least one of them.) And then I anaesthetized myself against both pain and dark doubts with cheap Italian plonk.

   Was my big fat Greek midlife crisis over before it had even properly begun?  


                                                     Chapter 2: Big Fat Greek Midlife Crisis


Six Months Earlier


   I used to do time at the Ministry of Human Misery in New Zealand. Then I had my big fat Greek midlife crisis and everything changed.

   The Ministry of Human Misery was not, of course, its real name. It had a proper name like Labour or Education or Taxes, but I had signed a piece of paper swearing me to secrecy. I didn’t read it because it was boring, and since I have no idea exactly what it was I agreed to, it is probably wise to err on the side of caution and not say which Ministry it was. Besides, Ministry of Human Misery more accurately conveys what we did there: we made as many people as possible as miserable as possible and got paid for it.

   I didn’t choose to become a briefing paper advisor there. I was tricked into it by Raymond, a devious civil servant, which is probably a tautology. A temp agency sent me there to fill in for the previous incumbent, who was recovering in a mental hospital somewhere.

   As far as I was concerned, the assignment couldn’t be temporary enough, and so when Raymond asked me if I’d like to apply for the permanent position, I didn’t even have to think about it.“I’d rather be boiled in oil and eaten by a tribe of savages.”

   Raymond smiled and while I didn’t understand at first why he did so, all was revealed at morning tea a few weeks later. Morning teas were extravagant affairs, their exorbitant cost hidden under layers of clever accounting and paid for by the tax-payer. A week’s morning teas at the Ministry of Human Misery would have released at least one small African nation from the grip of famine.

   The thinking behind them was that they pacified the workforce, ensuring we did not, like lemmings, throw ourselves out of the windows. There was perhaps a more effective strategy in place ensuring we did not do this, and that was there were no windows. The Ministry of Human Misery was just a large concrete box, painted hospital green and lit with bilious strips of florescent lighting.

   “I have an announcement to make,” Raymond said with a smirk, while I shoveled down chocolate éclairs and tried not to think about throwing myself out of a window. “Let’s have a big round of applause for Margaret.” 

That got my attention.

   “I am delighted to announce Margaret has been successful in her application for the permanent post of Briefing Paper Advisor,” he said and everyone clapped.  “Human Resources will be sending the paperwork down later.”

    Since I could hardly resign from a job five minutes after my appointment, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. It felt like God was having a laugh.

   To the uninitiated, the life of a ministerial advisor might even sound quite exciting. I got to rush around with important-looking papers, saying stuff like: “The Minister needs to know what’s going on right now!”

But the reality was traumatic, rather than exciting. I was caught between two opposing forces with nowhere to run.    

   On one side were the ambitious manager types, people who had got to be managers by sticking the requisite number of knives in the requisite number of backs. They spent all day shouting:  “Where the hell is the briefing paper?” or “This briefing paper is crap – send it back and get it rewritten.”

   On the other side were the producers of briefing papers, pouring forth all their excuses why their papers were late, or why they were crap.  No-one ever produced briefing papers on time or of adequate quality because a) everyone hated producing briefing papers;  b) they were too busy improving their Free Cell averages; or c) they simply weren’t there.

   And the reason for c) was that the Ministry of Human Misery had one of the highest rates of absenteeism in the country. This was generally blamed on the building. “It’s a sick building,” people would say. “There’s Legionnaire’s disease coming in through the air conditioning.” 

   So epidemic were the outbreaks of this unidentifiable but virulent illness, the powers that be even arranged for health and safety technicians to come out and do tests, but they never did find any hard evidence of Legionnaire’s disease. I suspect the cause was more sinister and ultimately less solvable. People got ill all the time because that’s what happened when you spent your days making other people miserable.

   In sum, it was the worst job I’d ever had. It was even worse than the job in another government department, which I shall call the Department of Nagging, just because I can. There my function was to spend all day on the phone, ringing small business owners and nagging them to return some or other nitpicking form.

   These unfortunate business owners had all won the booby prize in a sadistic lottery devised by the government, requiring them to fill in about 20 pages of forms, once a month, for the rest of their lives. Everyone who’d won this lottery hated it, no-one ever bothered filling in their forms, and so the Department was forced to employ full-time Naggers, of whose number I was one for a period of three weeks. That is about as long as any human being can be expected to last as a government Nagger. After spending a whole day nagging, I would go home completely unable to speak.

   The briefing paper advisor role was worse also than the middle-of-the-night job I’d once had cleaning a bakery that was always covered floor to ceiling in sticky icing and jam, and worse than the job where I’d sat at a reception desk, ruling lines in an empty ledger all day. If that doesn’t sound too bad, try ruling lines in an empty ledger for just twenty minutes and see what it does to your sanity.

   Nevertheless, not everyone at the Ministry hated it there. There were even a few who found the business of making people miserable quite satisfying. These were the lovers of process, folk who found meaning and satisfaction in implementing decisions in a paint-by-numbers fashion.

    If the answer to question 7 is no, go to question 12. If the answer is yes, go to  question 8. If the answer to that question 8 is no, print out and post rejection letter number 3. If the answer to question 8 is yes, print out and post rejection letter number 11. If the answer is don’t know, print out and post rejection letter No. 5.

   But for the large majority, of whom I was one, the Ministry of Human Misery was pure purgatory. We all died a little each day. We were the ones who started watching the clock at 9.20 am, after we’d sidled, late again, into our desks, hoping no-one had noticed. (Someone always noticed.) We were the ones who spent as much of each day as possible improving our Free Cell averages, or writing novels on the sly.

   Please get me out of here, I said to God, but God didn’t seem to be listening.

   And then I woke up in the surgical ward of Wellington Hospital. This was not quite what I’d had in mind when I’d said, Please get me out of here, but it was certainly effective. The mysterious ability of the building to make people very ill indeed had had its way with me also.