Red Flannel In Whitechapel

Allie Marini Batts

 

Rachel's first trip to England didn't go as planned. No one had thought to tell her about the difference in voltage, so the first thing that she did after checking into the residence hall in South Kensington was to simultaneously burn her hair and short out her flat iron. It was not a promising start to the semester abroad. The smell of ozone and singed hair would be what she associated with central London, rather than the remainder of her 3-week study course. Those smells were redolent of failure and isolation. Her first trip off-campus involved an unplanned-for haircut and the procurement of an adaptor. Right from the start, the trip was expensive and made her feel like an ugly American, who hadn’t even put enough thought into her trip to realize that the electricity flowed differently, like everything else about the city, the culture and the schools. The course she’d chosen, The Reading and Writing of Short Stories, was exactly the same as any course she could have taken back at Western Michigan; the only difference is that she would be in England. And for Rachel, being somewhere that wasn’t Michigan sounded like something that was important.


She’d had the idea of writing a collection of short stories about Jack the Ripper since high school; it was something that she’d toyed with throughout her undergraduate work in the English program at University of Michigan. Every creative writing class that she took created what she only semi-jokingly referred to as “workshop hell”. Her writing, though strong and well-researched, was decidedly lacking in authenticity, which she attributed to never having been further from home than Toledo, Ohio. It was also the deciding factor in her decision to finish up her bachelor’s degree in English instead of creative writing, finishing her undergraduate studies a semester ahead of time. She used that extra semester to go back home to Cedar Springs and work. She tired of the Red Flannel town quickly, and in a fit of what she now felt was ill-advised bravery, she applied to both the creative writing master’s program at Western Michigan and the AIFS Study Abroad program. She was accepted into both. Prior to her first fall semester at Western Michigan, she bought a plane ticket she couldn’t afford on a credit card that she didn’t like having, and went to England to explore Whitechapel and write short stories that she hoped would now be more authentic, because now she would be writing about somewhere that she’d actually been.


Armed with her historical notes, a map, a black-speckled composition notebook and an Oyster card, Rachel set out to discover the squalid "Dickensian" London she’d been morbidly fascinated by for most of her admittedly short adult life. She had hoped that seeing Dorset Street first-hand would help her capture the filth, the danger and the suffering of the branching warrens of narrow, dark streets in a past that seemed part fiction and part mythological beast. She hoped that the streets themselves would transmit the stories of endemic poverty and the desperation of the women of the abyss who had bled out and become symbolic of real monsters, lurking in the dark. What she found instead was a thriving art district, a hub of political activism, anarchist booksellers, punk shows, plates of curry, and a heretofore unknown affinity for tea over coffee. What she discovered, while looking for the authentic voice of the desolation of sub-standard housing and homelessness, the numb drunkenness and prostitution in a bygone era was a homesickness she hadn’t expected or planned for. The criminal rookery of the foulest and most dangerous streets of the metropolis was only to be found in historical texts and sepia tone daguerreotypes—what she found instead were the colorful characters of modern Whitechapel and its public art, the smell of sizzling onions on the air and a sleepy delta thrum and flickering lights on the Tube. She took notes and photos, developed a taste for aloo gobi, became addicted to the citric tang of bergamot in tea uncorrupted by milk or sugar, learned her way around London Underground and judiciously avoided the Texan roommate who made her presence known by bellowing out, “What stanks in hurr?” upon her arrival. Armed with an adaptor and a lithium-ion battery, Rachel spent her days in bookstores and Wi-Fi hot spots, crafting stories that were not about the Whitechapel she’d come to London to find, but instead, were about the red flannel shirts, snow that only looked soft and the stillness of the cedar trees she’d left behind in Michigan.


When she came home, everyone, even her mother, agreed that her new haircut made her look older and framed her face perfectly.

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