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Once upon a time, I travelled to Nashville to find Keith Urban. Instead, I found Holly, George W. Bush and the devil.
Squashed onto the cramped seats of a Greyhound bus bound for Nashville, stuck permanently in the semi-upright position, I was surrounded by three men with greying whiskers, their bellies hung over their tightly belted jeans. They talked of Elvis and nothing but Elvis, the way I’d heard the Arabs speak of the Prophet, which reminded me that old men are pretty much the same the whole world over. Did they have this album, had they seen that concert, and they threw out quotes and lyrics like they were passages of the Holy Book. Of course, some of them had been to Graceland, and they could look down on the ones who hadn’t (but dreamed of doing so before they died) and when they described Elvis’ bedroom, a cloud filled their eyes. If only he were still among us. They sighed and hitched their leather belts, shuffled in their seats. A silence would fall then, out of respect and because the conversation had run its course.
“Play something,” one of them said, nodding at my guitar and slouching back in his seat. “Play a toon. You know any Elvis?”
“I’ve been travelling for two days, I’m exhausted.” I’d been on the bus all the way from New York on my way to Mexico. Also, my feeble excuse for guitar strumming was unlikely to impress anyone from Nashville.
“That ain’t nothing,” a woman piped up behind me. Her hair was short on top and cascaded in curls at the back down to her shoulders. “I been riding the bus since last Toos’day!”
All around me were murmurs of agreement. “I been on the bus five days.” “Hell, I come from Salinas.”
The bus creaked its way along the bright lights of Broadway, a brash concoction of neon, Elvis kitsch and cowboy boots. Pianists thrashed out familiar tunes to a handful of drunks in the honky-tonk bars while soulful songstresses plucked guitars and rasped ballads in venues hidden in the net of back alleys in deeper darker Nashville.
I was met at the bus station by Holly, a demure thirty-year-old who drove me to her parents’ farm some forty minutes outside of the city. The farm was a large boarding house on a property stuck well in the middle of nowhere. I was Holly’s first-ever Couchsurfing guest—a website for travellers to find free accommodation with hosts around the world.
I was also soon to be her last.
She explained to me on the drive through the frostbitten woods of Tennessee that her parents were a little on the conservative side and she was happily surprised when they agreed to take on guests.
The farm was, in fact, a school inhabited by Holly’s parents and a dozen or so teenage girls. She let me in downstairs and we made our way through an activities room in the basement. A television in the corner was stacked with piles of DVDs aimed at children and surrounded by bean bags.
The walls held sagging bookshelves about sanctity and Christianity, and around them, every available space was cluttered with crucifixes, pictures of Jesus, Republican Party paraphernalia, Bible quotes, intermingled with American flags and the solemn gaze of George W Bush, who was no longer President.
I had arrived in the South.
Upstairs, the girls were clattering large pots and pans in the kitchen while others were setting the table, laying out plates and spoons. Aside from the rattle of the crockery, there was an unnatural silence for a group of adolescents.
Holly’s father and mother gave instruction and when they spoke, the girls answered “Yes, ma’am” or “No sir.” When all were seated at the table, they bowed their heads to pray.
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Prayer was the most consuming aspect of their days: there were Bible readings in the morning, again after lunch and before bed, usually consisting of lengthy passages from the Book of the Apocalypse followed by even lengthier explanations of how to deal with the Antichrist.
After dinner, I passed by the living room where the girls were seated on the floor, wide-eyed, before Holly’s father as he gave vivid descriptions of eternal damnation. He was the only man among this household of women and girls.
The next morning, we headed out to hunt for Keith Urban’s mansion because Holly, on finding out I was Australian, assumed that was my sole purpose in being in Nashville.
Three of the girls were squatting out on the gravel driveway as Holly’s car crunched over the frost, huddled in coats and gloves to stave off the icy cold, digging weeds from between the cracks of the stones with a trowel. When we returned several hours later, they were still there. I asked Holly why.
“They’re being punished for being bad,” she said, but offered no further explanation.
There were other punishments. The mother saw fit to listen in to their phone calls home to be sure that no-one spread lies to their families. The father would go out in his pick-up truck to bring home any girls who were so foolish as to try to escape into the surrounding woodland.
On my last night in Nashville, I took Holly to a honky-tonk bar. She knocked back a couple of beers and told me that the girls were sent to her parents to be “cured”.
“Cured from what?” I asked.
“Sin. The devil.”
Her parents, Holly told me, had been actively preparing for the coming of the Antichrist for twenty years. That’s when I realised that the girls weren’t just quiet—they were scared. They hadn’t come from broken homes—their own parents had decided they needed straightening out.
I hitched my guitar over my shoulder and boarded another Greyhound bus, casting a glance back at Holly standing a little sadly at the bus station.
For all I know, they’re still waiting for the Apocalypse.