King Billy on Horseback by Caroline Middleditch

Today has been eventful.

I had to go to the big hospital in the nearest city of Trivandrum for scans. Dr D asked another inmate called Teresa, like the Mother, to accompany me. I was mega excited to escape for a couple of hours, so I rushed to select an outfit from my charity shop bonanza. My enthusiasm ripped off a wardrobe door. I think it was held vertically by one rusty screw but all the same I felt like Goliath. It now hangs in wait at a jaunty angle for my bare toes beneath it.

I was given my instructions and paperwork and off we went. Freedom! The drive was fascinating – worn-out buildings and half constructed new ones, peppered with shacks and tent houses like we used to make as kids by throwing a tartan blanket over a sagging washing line, men huddled in social groups whilst women cooked in huge aromatic battered pots on pavements. Drawing closer to Trivandrum I recognised ‘shop like’ buildings. It’s possible to buy anything from a kiosk here. Old mobile phones and un-plucked chickens hang side by side. The traffic was treacherous with whole families on one moped, including mum hanging off the side holding baby. Autocars, like tuc tucs, vibrated around us belching fumes accompanied by constant tooting of exasperated horns.

We got swallowed up by a sweltering crowd that would have been impassable on foot. Our driver, I named Levi on account of his shirt, explained it was a demonstration about the land rights of farmers; I could see barricades and riot police in huge heavily armoured vans alongside swarms of waif like protestors with their spindly wee legs dangling down from their skirts like a forest of toothpicks. Vendors exploited the captive audience crawling up and down in a cloud of coconut oil with their fried banana chips.

We ventured deeper into the soupy exhaust fumes and crowds shading beneath tattered umbrellas that were doing their best. Levi parked in the tightest spot, as near as he could manage to the hospital and beckoned us to follow as he got out of the car. The heat was incredible and rather than billowing beautifully in the breeze as anticipated when I bought it in the charity shop sale, I was wearing my bubble gum pink full length skirt like a festering top layer of skin around my legs.

I had to ask Levi to slow down as Teresa, like the Mother, couldn’t keep pace and I was afraid we’d lose her. The clamouring crowds grew denser and every so often we came across someone on their soap box giving it all. I felt a definite about turn in atmosphere as it dawned that Levi had led us into the heart of the demonstration because the hospital was directly beyond it. And that’s when it all kicked off. It’s hilarious now, but it could have taken a nasty turn for sure.

The first explosion was quite exciting and neither Teresa, like the Mother, nor I, really understood it, in fact she started trying to take photos the dafty. We knew it was a deterrent and it certainly gave us a fright because it landed reasonably close to us, but not close enough to make us panic. The same couldn’t be said for the protestors closer to the barricade though, they had turned on their wee spaghetti legs and were suddenly pushing our way. With the second crack we understood why. We were consumed by tear gas; I was quickly blindsided. The third crack came much faster and by this time we were both being swept along by the crowds. I could hardly breathe. We didn’t stand out as the two milky bar kids anymore as we were gobbled up.

Levi did a sterling job of weaving us through to the opposite side of the heaving street into a pharmacy where a kind man bathed our eyes and rinsed out our noses and mouths with bottled water.
People scrambled for cover and tried to get their hands on water to rinse. The crowds pushed past shouting and cheering. I was fine, Teresa, like the Mother, who I’d assumed might have seen worse being the Mother and all, was terribly upset. Levi was sincerely apologetic bless him. From the pharmacy we took refuge in a hotel next door until it was safe to continue to the hospital on foot. I went mental and had a soda water with a slice of fresh lime in it, but Mother Teresa behaved like the Saint she is and abstained.

On our return the doctors were concerned about me inhaling tear gas straight after treatment, but I assured them I’d held my breath because I’m from the West of Scotland and accustomed to Orange Walks where tear gas was all the rage, so I know the drill. They believed me! All that was missing, I told them, was King Billy on horseback.


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