it takes all kinds.

As a blonde, I try to avoid ditzy moments – they certainly don’t help our reputation in the world. We all remember Miss South Carolina, after all:
But Saturday night while staying at the lovely Palmer’s Lodge in Swiss Cottage (seriously, I recommend it to anyone passing through London), it was my turn. I had just come back from the bathroom and was about to climb the two flights of stairs into my third-story bunkbed. Like every conscientious backpacker, I checked carefully, religiously almost, to make sure I’d put everything valuable into my locker before clicking the lock shut and heading to bed. And I had – everything, including the lock’s keys. Who does that? A surge of panic rushed through me, as well as a fury of unrepeatable words. I remembered every dumb thing I’d done in my life and thought, how do you plan on getting out of this one, Candace?

I crawled downstairs to reception, my face already red from shame, and asked, “This might sound weird, but do you have any metal cutters?” The girl on duty, whom I think might have been Spanish, stared at me for a bit. I began to demonstrate with large motions, as if clipping our backyard hedge. “We only have these,” she said, turning around towards the other side of the office. She held up a large pair of bolt cutters, exactly what I’d been looking for. I sighed with relief. “So I’m not the only person who’s ever done this?” I said desperately, looking mainly to disassociate myself from the types of Miss South Carolina. She shook her head and told me she’d be up shortly to take care of it.

On my way back downstairs later to buy a new lock, I ran into an Indian guy named Timir who’d checked me into the hostel the day before. As he gave me my change, he looked up at the clock – it had only just hit eleven p.m. – and said, “What are you doing going to bed so early on a Saturday? Go change and meet me downstairs for a drink.” I sighed yet again. He was right. Something good had to come out of this night.

Down in the Chapel Bar, I met up with Timir, another American guest named Jason and an Australian guy named Jeremy who works at a different hostel owned by the same company. Once Chelsea had properly dealt with West Ham, Jamie, the Australian bartender on duty, closed up shop and we headed – however regrettably – out to the Walkabout, one of a chain of awful, awful bars popular among the expat community from down under.

And so it was on our way home after about an hour that we walked through the hostel’s parking lot. Someone passed by us and Jeremy asked rather nonchalantly, “Did anyone just see the rollerblader?”

I looked again and corrected him. “You mean, rollerskater?”

When we came outside again in a few minutes, he was still there, sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette.

“What’s he doing sitting down?” I asked.

“We all need a break sometimes,” Jeremy said as we sat down on the hostel’s front steps. It felt almost like settling down on the couch as a classic film was about to play – you knew you were in for a good time.

As if he realized he now had an audience, the skater flicked his cigarette away and started up again. What I hope to make clear is that this wasn’t the idle skating of a middle-school field trip, but an intensely focused routine. He went back and forth from one end of the lot to the other, each time working on moves I recalled from Thursdays at “homeschool skate” in sixth grade: crossovers, quick stops, and a kind of side split where he spread his legs out wide before turning. It was nothing as complicated as a barrel roll or grapevine, but it was evident he took his art seriously. Before pushing off each time, he’d do a little dance on his tiptoes – looking remarkably like Mr. Tumnus the Fawn – which was to “gain speed” as he told me later.

But of course, the seriousness with which he practiced was in direct contrast to something else: he wasn’t very good. His side splits looked more like an awkward letter M, his flexibility obviously questionable and his balance often at risk. The fact that he was wearing plaid shorts with a horizontally striped shirt and oversized, white knee pads didn’t aid his credibility.

After watching him for a few minutes, I had to talk to him. His name was Matt and he told me he’s been roller skating for four months. Half-jokingly, I asked if he took lessons. “Oh, yes,” he said. “But I’m only training with the girls’ team right now. They’re amazing.”

He told us how they train in a small gym in their town, a place with mats on the walls like crash pads. One of the girls apparently slid under a radiator once and gashed her knee up. “But she wasn’t wearing any knee pads, so that was stupid.”

“What a rookie,” Jeremy said, and I almost lost it.

I asked him how he got into it. “Well, I work at the local movie theater,” Matt said, and he took a seat on the ground in front of us and began tightening his laces. The toes of his skates had been wrapped in duct tape and the tape was beginning to fray.

“About four months ago we were having a promotion for a new movie coming out on roller skating. Some girls from the local roller derby were there with sign-ups for people who were interested. I figured why not? And now I’m addicted. Before this, I had nothing. Now I don’t do anything else. It’s changed my life.”

This last point he reiterated several times, especially when I asked him if he was merely having us on, giving us a hard time for asking so many questions. “No, I’m serious, it’s changed my life.” I hardly knew what to say.

“Well, everyone needs a hobby,” Jeremy said, but we sort of looked at each other as if to say, this is far, far beyond that. We both agreed this was almost too much to understand and started to wonder if we weren’t on the receiving end of some practical joke the universe was playing on us. I could only marvel at the chances of being able to witness such a thing.

“Every travel writer dreams of stuff like this happening,” I whispered to Jeremy, “This is unreal.”

As a final question, I asked Matt if he knew when he could start competing. “Oh, not for ages. I’ve got heaps to learn.”

When I later told the story to my brother, he asked first if I’d taken a picture and then, when I said I didn’t have my camera with me at the time, why I hadn’t gone to my room to get it. It was a fair question but I then realized, as Jeremy and I had sat watching Matt, there had been no question of moving. It would have been playing with fate, the same as asking a leprechaun to stay put until we could properly document him. Slim chance of that happening.

And so the lock story, in the end, has little to do with Matt the Roller Derbyman. It is meant merely to show that sometimes, you have to be in the right place at the right time and that in life, sometimes it takes all kinds.


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