I love a story with a big question. The kind of questions where you’re forced to ask yourself, what would I do if . . . I were on board one of the Titanic lifeboats or found a suitcase with a million pounds or faced the choice of saving my life or protecting another?
We went a-touring one of those big question stories at the start of the Easter holidays. On an aptly grizzly grey day (before the sunshine arrived), my family and I visited Eyam in Derbyshire. Otherwise known as the notorious ‘plague’ village. Growing up down the road in Sheffield, it’s a place I know well from many a school trip or family ramble, but it’s also a true story that’s always gripped me.
The story Eyam is known for starts in 1665, when a bundle of cloth arrived for the village tailor – and, unknowingly, within it, the bubonic plague. Soon after, the plague started spreading fast through the village, taking lives and destroying families. It was the village, rector, William Mompesson, who quickly recommended that – to save others – they quarantine the whole village to prevent the plague spreading outside its boundaries. This meant, save for a few lucky children who were sent away, everyone who lived in Eyam was trapped there until the plague departed.
The plague lasted for over a year. And by the time it left, it had taken the lives of over 270 villagers of a total population of around 350.
The story is an incredibly tragic one – as well as a tale of great bravery and sacrifice. But partly what has always gripped me, is the question – what would I have done had I been one of those villagers? You see, not all the residents followed the rector’s order to stay put. Some (most notably one of the few wealthy village families) stubbornly ignored the quarantine and left, most probably causing a spread of the plague, and deaths, elsewhere.
I like to hope I would have stayed put – and placed others’ lives before myself. But I’m not sure it’s that easy an answer. For one, imagine seeing the symptoms of the plague (pretty barbaric by all accounts) or facing the possibility of your loved ones’ demise. Or what – like one poor girl – if you had a lover in the next village and could flee there (she didn’t, though she waved at him from the boundary. Before she sadly died). Or if all of your family had died and you wanted to find comfort in other family members outside the boundaries? (One woman lost thirteen members of her family and fled to be near her last remaining son in a neighbouring village).
Or what if you simply wanted to take your family to where there was better healthcare? Or if you knew you didn’t carry the disease and so now was the time to leave before you caught it?
A big question has so many potential answers lying within it, scores of personal motivations and paths to take; so many shoes you need to slot your feet into until you can truly know what you would do – and even then it’s hard to find a definite answer.
But that’s the fun and intrigue and horror of stories that raise questions about yourself, about those parts of you that will never get tested.
So what would you do? Would you stick to the quarantine and sacrifice your life for the greater good? Or would you save yourself, and run?