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Narrelle Harris – Women’s History Month

Not Quite Lost in London

I am a woman of many talents. To varying degrees of excellence (and in part depending on the attitude of the audience) I can write stories and I can cook; I can talk to anyone on almost any topic; I am a pretty good hugger.

There’s a glaring hole in my skill set, however. I am geographically challenged. I need to turn a map to face the way I’m walking if I’m to understand it. To this day I have to draw a little cross in the air to remember where the compass points are in relation to each other (like a secular, mirrored self-blessing).

My geographical blind spot extends to difficulties with public transport. I never know which exit is the exit I need on underground railways. I inevitably emerge at the wrong point and need to cross streets to get going the right way again. Once I’ve worked out what way round I need to hold the map to see where I’m meant to be going, that is. (And can I say right here how much I love and appreciate Google maps!)

Pre-smartphones, I’ve been misplaced in Rome when by myself – though not too lost. I didn’t end up in Naples or anything. In Victoria, I notoriously once got on the completely wrong train trying to get to Woodend on my own. Ended up heading towards Ballarat instead of Bendigo. I needed to Phone a Friend to work out how to backtrack. By the time I could get back to the city to change to the right train, I had to abandon the whole thing – went to bed, got over my rage-shame tears and successfully managed the trip the following morning. I probably should have worn one of those cardboard signs, like Paddington Bear, or those poor kids sent out of London during the Blitz, to make sure kind strangers could assist me on my journey.

So it was with some trepidation that I spent a week in London last year alone – without my sense of direction, which resides in my other half. He was taking his understanding of Directions and Compass Points and Transport and Exits with him to Europe for the duration. So it was me, the London Underground and that vast city, an unholy triumvirate, for seven whole days. I was going to need to cross myself with the compass points a lot, I figured.

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Some of you may be rolling your eyes at this point. What’s so hard, you ask? And to tell you the truth, I don’t really know. Maybe I just tend to defer to people who look confident with their directions, and so never really developed that confidence myself. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention because my head is busy with plot-knots I’m untangling, and get myself confused. Maybe I have simply talked myself into being awkward and easily lost, even when I have a map, so that it keeps on happening.

However it happened that an otherwise pretty smart woman ended up so convinced that geography is something that happens to other people that she regularly gets lost, it’s my life. So you can imagine I had some misgivings about this proposed week travelling about London on my own, even if it ought not to be that difficult, really.

My geographically gifted other half went over maps and timetables with me in the days beforehand, made sure I had the right apps and how to use them and did the best he could to prepare me. Then he reminded me that they speak a form of English there and I could always ask directions. My friend Wendy, who lives in London, said I could call her any time if I got lost and needed help (which resulted in a set of hilarious text messages from Hampstead Heath when the battery was running low and I was trying to find a loo!).

I was set, I was ready for the challenge and off I went and…do you know what?

I managed. I survived. I succeeded.

I used the trains and even the buses and didn’t get lost. I found the locations I was visiting to research a book every day and my hotel again every night. I planned and it worked.

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I did get lost once briefly, in Mayfair of all places, when the phone went flat and I lost my Google Maps, but I did find a lovely little library and they let me sit and read and recharge batteries both telephonic and mental until I was equipped once more to locate Green Park station and complete my day.
It may seem a small thing if you don’t suffer map anxiety and have a need to cross yourself with the compass points to remember that East is to the right of the North-South line, but it was a big thing to me. By the end of that week I was very proud of myself. I had worked out how to get around. I had departed from plans more than once because I felt confident enough that I could work it out and get home again.

I felt braver, and accomplished, and that I could do this again, in London or anywhere, if I remembered to take my time, to breathe through any anxiety, and to remember it’s all right to get a bit misplaced – there are all sorts of ways and means to backtrack, to push through, to find an alternative path.
And after all, that’s an attitude that I’ve used everywhere else in my life, from learning how to use computers Back in the Day to the meandering path of my writing career.

Maybe it’s something we can all remember for the parts of our lives that make us anxious. Prepare. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Know that there’s generally a way out of a fix. Feel the fear and give it a whirl anyway. Don’t let lack of confidence prevent you from trying, and, through trial and error, developing that confidence. You don’t have to become an expert – you just have to know that you can make your way in the world, one way or another.

And know that when you are heading for the wrong rural city, or wandering through a vast park on top of a hill in another country, there’s usually someone on the phone who’ll kindly use their own resources to help you find your way.

Narrelle M Harris writes crime, horror, fantasy, non-fiction and erotica (as NM Harris). Her collection, Showtime, is the fifth of Twelfth Planet Press’s 12 Planets series. Her Melbourne-based vampire books The Opposite of Life and Walking Shadows, have been praised for their fresh approach to the genre. Narrelle’s current project is Kitty and Cadaver – a novel about rock and roll and monsters, with music, art and craft components. Her most recent short story is A Paying Client, the second in the Talbott & Burns series of erotic queermance stories. Find out more at www.narrellemharris.com.

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