First Published on Griffith Review webiste in Januay 2011 the year of the Brisbane flood.
A Daisy Chain of Good Will – A Motorcycle Adventure Through the Queensland Floods
By Krissy Kneen
On the morning of Friday the 14th of January I knew my motorcycle wasn’t going to behave. Three days earlier, the day of the first high tide of the Brisbane floods, I decided to move the bike to higher ground.
We live on the ground floor of a tall apartment block right on the river in New Farm. Glenfalloch was one of the first high-rise apartment blocks to be built in Brisbane. In 1959 it was a pretty impressive sight towering over the single story riverside houses. Even today it has a certain retro charm if you are fond of Eastern Block architecture or have a fetish for hospital buildings. The residents who survived the ’74 floods are fond of the story about how the building was saved from almost certain destruction by an ingenious system of wooden slats, heavy plastic and sandbags. If water got into the foundations of the building it would compromise the entire structure. My motorcycle was parked outside my unit. It had been raining solidly for days, not just ordinary rain, but rain so heavy that it obscured vision. During the heaviest falls we could barely see the houses across the river. A wall of grey marching in waves across the city. Through all of this my bike had sat, unused, outside on the street, sucking up the water into every hose and pipe and bolt hole. The tank needs re-sealing and I was certain that it would have taken some water. It was low on petrol too. It didn’t surprise me that it took a while to get the engine going. The thing revved tentatively, popped, stopped, started again. I bunny-hopped the bike up to the top of the hill and abandoned it there, trudging back to my apartment to move our most precious possessions up to the 8th floor.
My friend Colin’s house is built on the lowest point in Ryan Street West End and was one of the first places to take water. On the morning of the 11th, the property was waist deep in water hours before the river broke its banks. There is a storm water drain at the back of the house and the rising river discovered this outlet, filling their garden as if their house alone had been targeted by the rising tides. Colin worked tirelessly to save everything he could from the place, carting boxes as he waded through the water, joined at one point by Kevin Rudd who looked a little out of his element, a pale office-dweller startled by the twin terrors of hard physical labour and the rising tide.
Colin called me on the mobile, his voice so high and loud that I could almost hear the adrenalin pumping through his body. At the time I didn’t realise he had been up all night carting his family’s possessions through water side by side with the former Prime Minister of the country. At this time we were hours away from the first high tide.
“Get your stuff up to Ben and Scott’s unit now!” He was shouting into the phone.
Ben and Scott’s unit is up on the 8th floor. We have the spare keys to their unit. Ben was away in India at the time and Scott, a producer for local ABC radio had moved into a motel near work so that he could work around the clock to keep Brisbane listeners informed. We had already taken several loads of our own possessions up to the 8th floor when the power was cut to our area. The lift relies on power. We made two more trips, straining under the weight of boxes of books and computer equipment, trudging up 8 flights of stairs in the sweltering humidity before deciding that our possessions weren’t actually important enough to save. I told Colin this but he was adamant, and threatened to drive across town to help us move our stuff upstairs. Soon after this the bridges were closed and we were supported in our laziness by the rising tide.
The next time I spoke to Colin his house was under water. He and his mother, Silvia had visited the building, rowed out into the street by a man in a dingy.
On Friday 14th I picked up my helmet and my jacket with a sense of foreboding. The river had risen, done it’s business, displaced thousands of residents, ripped the Riverwalk out from under our feet, torn out the ferry stop behind our apartment, and then slunk back into it’s home within its banks. This was just a taste of the kind of apocalypse we saw often enough in movies and on TV. People roamed the streets, mostly on foot or on their bicycles, with a dazed expression on their faces. Most of our neighbours had been up for several nights wondering if their houses would be inundated and then trying to contact friends and family. Many had lost possession. I was reminded of “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and wondered how long it would take for us to turn to cannibalism in a completely catastrophic event.
The flood didn’t reach the expected peak. It certainly would have taken out our unit and much of our street if it had. My motorcycle would have been covered in mud if I had left it parked where it usually is. When Colin called that morning I had a vague sense of guilt that my flat had been spared when their house had gone under.
“We could really do with an extra pair of hands,” he told me.
I stared at my motorcycle parked at a lean at the top of the hill. I was determined to make the thing start. There were no busses running between New Farm and West End, two flood affected suburbs divided by the river, and although I lived in New Farm, my heart was in West End. I work on the main street there and my dearest friends and all of the customers I have come to love live over that side of the river. I would get over the river even if it meant I would have to walk for hours.
Surprisingly the bike started first try. I did, however, notice a little red light warning me that there was very little petrol left in the tank. I started out in the direction of the nearest petrol station, down near Fortitude Valley. There were streets cordoned off with police tape, workers out and raking mud. The bike sputtered and stopped on Brunswick Street and I switched over to the reserve tank. The bike rolled to a stop outside the petrol station, more police tape, no lights on in the place, and now I was further away from my friends than when I started the bike in the first place.
One last try. The bike started, reluctantly, hopped forward, reared out into the traffic. I turned into Ann Street, starting, stopping, running out of steam each time I had to slow down for the traffic. Finally the engine died completely and I rolled the Virago down a side street and came to a stop outside Brisbane Mini Garage.
I was dressed in my shoveling-mud-clothing, Motorcycle boots, old jeans tucked into them, a threadbare singlet top. The Mini Garage is a very 'New Farm' business. Shiny cars parked inside an immaculate showroom, a top of the range espresso machine, cans of soft drink in a little refrigerator beside it. I must have looked a little like one of the rats racing to higher ground to escape the rising tide. When I told the sales assistant that my bike had run out of petrol I may have been close to tears. The air conditioned luxury of the showroom with it's plush leather lounge chairs and gleaming little cars was such a contrast to my experience of the last few days. It seemed that this place had been plucked from a time before the floods and preserved like a time capsule of things now extinct. I told the man I was looking for a petrol station within walking distance. I would have no chance of getting help from the RACQ with so many vehicles being towed out of the mud they landed in.
He told me to sit and grab a cold drink from the fridge. I would have loved a cold drink but for some reason I felt too embarrassed to take a soda from the cabinet. I sank into the soft clean leather and waited, nursing my helmet, feeling like I was somehow messing up their place. In a few minutes he returned with a jerry can and a funnel and the kindness of this act would have made me tear up if it hadn't been for the woman in the Mini Garage uniform who walked into the showroom in tears herself. The man raced to hug her and she explained that she was just really, really tired.
I filled the tank and made it to West End, the bike struggling through a carburettor full of grit from the dregs in the tank.
Colin and Silvia's house was covered in mud. Two stories full of river sludge mixed with the back wash from the sewerage system thoughout Brisbane. Colin had saved a lot of their possessions but there was still furniture that had been floating in toxic water for two days. Inside waterlogged boxes I found photographs, personal documents, and, heartbreakingly, funeral notices, letters and postcards from friends who had passed away. It would have been easy to to cry for their losses, but there was a carnival atmosphere on Ryan Street West End. Young hippy girls patrolled the street offering people muffins and cookies from wicker baskets. Friends and customers appeared from nowhere with shovels and brooms to help us clear the top floor of mud. A group of pretty young Christian girls mopped up downstairs, flirting with strapping neighbourhood boys with bandannas tied across their brows. Someone turned up with a Gurney and everyone cheered. Kevin Rudd came back to the site of his awkward evacuation of a few nights before and handed me some hand sanitiser. The army marched into the yard and removed debris. Someone set up a barbecue at the end of the street. There was tea. We mucked out mud and joked and cleaned and no one cried and there was a sense that we were actually achieving something useful. We trooped home, exhausted but elated to friends houses - the ones that still had power. Friends who had been working at their day jobs pitched in to cook us all dinner and crack open bottles of wine.
The thing that stuck with me was that first act of kindness. I woke the next morning, sore but happy in my powerless flat with a plan to go back over to West End, finish the job we had begun and a burning desire to buy a nice bottle of wine for the man at the Mini Garage in the Valley.
Another day of cleaning. When the street in West End flooded with hundreds of volunteers, we drove out to friends at Graceville though kilometres of destroyed suburban houses. Graceville looked like a war zone and when we arrived there was nothing to do but destroy the Gyprock walls with a cricket bat and shovel the debris into piles on the footpath.
Because it was a Saturday my husband had the day free to help out and he had heard me harping on about that bottle of wine for the Mini Garage man for most of the day. The closest wine shop to the showroom was at James Street, an exclusive shopping precinct where I feel underdressed shopping in my best clothing. Covered in mud and smelling like someone who had just climbed out of a toilet bowl I braved the ladies who lunch and waited at the counter to be served. I asked the sommelier to find me the best bottle in my price range and explained that it was for someone who had helped me in the flood. He nodded and smiled, a sympathetic smile, one that I had seen several times that day. Yes, his smile told me, I understand how difficult it is to shovel mud. Yes, I understand how exhausted you must feel. He set a bottle of wine on the counter and two bottles of Grolsch beside it. "And there's your discount." he told me.
I had to leave the shop quickly. That teariness I had experienced in the Mini showroom had returned.
"My motorcycle girl!" The man seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I thought for a moment that he might give me a hug.
I pressed the bottle of wine into his hand, said a quick thanks and left just as quickly.
It is the small acts of kindness that undo me; the jerry can full of petrol, the two icy bottles of Grolsch.
All around Brisbane acts of generosity were gathering momentum; the two people from Sandford who quietly walked into the house at Ryan Street and began to clean the bathroom from top to bottom; the man with the Gurney who turned up to blast the walls; the people who fed us three nights in a row when we were busy cleaning other people's houses; the couple we didn't know who worked tirelessly until one of them fainted and the other got a bloody nose. All of these small acts of kindness, and yet under the pile there is that first gesture of generosity that will stay with me.
That evening on Facebook I was so overwhelmed by these acts that I uncharacteristically missed the opportunity to make a lewd joke. 'A circle of kindness' I called it, later amending it in a note to 'a daisy-chain of good will'. My dear friend Christopher upgraded it to a 'circle-jerk of generosity' which made me laugh when I dearly needed to. Whatever you call it, Brisbane is currently drowning in a pool of it. Some people call it the Brisbane Floods, but I prefer to call it the daisy-chain of good will, a time when friends and strangers found their moment to shine, and they glowed with an almost unbearable brilliance. I think it will take us many, many weeks to adjust to the light.