A Town Not Called Malice

Sometimes I feel a longing for the coast. Or perhaps somewhere more rural, away from the built up concrete confines of my city. This occasionally intensifies into a desire to move to such a place permanently. These are idealistic episodes and don’t normally last too long, for roots are important to me.

But even when traveling through less scenic routes I get curious about other places. It is easy to get superficial, inadequate views of the towns that we pass through, and in our ideals wonder if they could hold an appeal.

Recently I was on a train heading to Manchester from Leeds. Passing through the train stations the landscape began to open out. There was space between the fixed points of these two urban sprawls. The sky, for once blue, lifted the spirits, and there were jackdaws—always jackdaws, scattered upon the fields.  These birds have become something of a personal totem to me, and these familiar friends accompanied me along the way.

We rolled into Hebden Bridge.  This place always looks charming, though I have yet to explore it. There was only a handful of people waiting to board the train here. They looked like walkers ( hikers, I mean, not zombies). They got on board and we moved on.

The next station on our linear amble was the market town of Todmorden. I have wondered about this place also. From my limited views it looks like a nice place to live, but as I said earlier, superficial views are inadequate to get a true feel for a place.

Then, from my window I saw this sign, set back upon a hill:

image

The letters stood there like a miniature version of the famous Hollywood sign. I didn’t know why it was there, but it felt refreshing to be greeted by a (literal) sign of positivity. I searched on Google and found a news reference to it. It seems that some of the town residents were erecting these signs to counter the news that hate crimes throughout the country were on the rise. What a great idea, providing a bit of balance by nailing their colours to their provincial masts.

What noble endeavours, what admirable gestures. Who wouldn’t want to settle in a town that salts its perimeters with the grains of compassion?

image

Meanwhile, In The Men’s Toilets

This morning I took our new Swiss student into Manchester, showing her the route she will have to use and the landmarks to look out for. It’s ironic, when you think about it. I’ve been lost in London; in Rome; in Stockholm; in fact I’m collecting capitals. When I have acquired them all I will start on the lesser cities.

Being my home city, though, I think we should be safe.

After safely depositing her in the Academy of English, I headed over to Waterstones, where, with the help of collected points, I was able to purchase two books for the princely sum of sixteen pence. Sixteen pence! That should appease the wife when her eye should fall on yet more additions to my library.

I read one of them in the Royal Exchange with a coffee, quiet and rehearsal-free. I am returning here in October to catch A Streetcar Named Desire.

image

Caffeine goes right through me these days, so on my way to the bus station I called into the public toilets. I don’t know what exactly I had just missed, but there was a guy in there who was telling all and sundry in a very loud voice:

“Unusual smells set off my nose!”

Maybe the men’s toilets aren’t the best place for him, then.

I caught the bus back home. The last time I made this journey I came up with a whole story which I immediately wrote for inclusion in an anthology. This time around, I just had a random, unsolicited thought:

It’s about time we got used to the idea of death.

It is, perhaps, the only absolute in life,

but even then we are confronted with choices.

I’ve never been a happy traveller.

 

Year End Gusts

The year seems determined to depart in a rail of rain and gusts. The night is fractured by the crashing sounds of unknown objects, untethered and unaccounted for. There is an angry howling around the eaves, but the house stands firm.

not by the hair on my chinny chin chin

The pale dawn reveals a community of resigned routines, a northern expectancy of more to follow, raised on a staple of storm and flood

a good day for ducks

or

to fly a kite

There is a woman bearing a ‘can you believe this’ grin, a hand placed protectively upon her scarf-covered head, even though it is knotted tightly beneath her set chin.

The kids have given up on snow, blinking back stung tears in the wind, laughing at the firm hand on their chests, pummelling and pushing, tempering their flight.

Throughout the town there is a weary shuffle towards the end. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve.

Still we batten down.

Bus Journey Dialogue

(Upper deck of a bus travelling from Manchester to Bury. I was sat two seats in front of a man journeying alone, having a telephone conversation while wearing the largest headphones you ever saw. I suspect he was belatedly trying to crack the Enigma code. From his accent I decided that he wasn’t a local.)

Man: “I can’t wait to see you. I’ve just got on the bus now. It’s red hot, and I’m dying for a piss. Manchester bus station charges you to go in the toilet, what’s that all about? What . . . who is that? Tell him I’ve got sharp teeth to bite his ears off. He will look fetching without ears.”

(I don’t make a habit of eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, inspirational though they may be, but he was speaking very loud, and that statement about his teeth got my attention.)

Man: “Erm . . . I’m not sure where I am . . . we are passing a bridge . . . I have been on the bus for about ten minutes. There is some numpty on a motorbike spraying a car full of mud. Is Manchester a rough place?”

(I looked out of the window to see someone on one of those off-road scrambler motorcycles, spinning around and around on a grass patch beside the road, purposely spraying mud all over the bonnet and windscreen of a car that was stuck helplessly at a traffic light on red.)

Man: “Idiot. I shouldn’t be long. Do us a bacon butty, I’ve had nowt since I left. Do you have lots of chocolate in your house? Yeah? I’ll have a dirty Crunchie when I get there.”

(I suspected that this could be a euphemism.)

Man: “Will you come and meet me? Or are you gonna direct me over the phone? I’m not sure . . . there is a posh house . . . and some trees . . . some more houses . . .trees . . .”

(I came to the conclusion that giving descriptions to ascertain his whereabouts was not his strong point. I turned to him.)

Me: “You are just coming into Middleton bus station.”

Him: “Oh-I’m arriving now! A very kind gentleman just told me. What? Oh- that is who you have paid to kill me, is it? Remember my sharp teeth.”

(The bus pulled into the station and he got up, giving me a thankful nod despite being weighed down by those colossal headphones, as he went down the stairs. I hope, if he made his rendezvous, that he enjoyed his dirty Crunchie. If you know what I mean.)

 

 

 

City Escapes, In Starbucks

Today was a good day.

I spent much of it in Starbucks, in Manchester, drinking spiced pumpkin latte and reading accounts of adventures in such far off places as Tangier; Haiti; Ischia; New Orleans.

Sitting directly opposite me, oblivious to my mental escapes, was a young woman, wearing a blouse of long, black-laced sleeves, locked in an insular world with her bespectacled beau. She looked comfortable enough in their interactions, but had enough self-conscious affectations to suggest that their love story was still in its infancy.

Whoever they were, they weren’t local, and their story had brought them here.

Perhaps they were from Tangier, Haiti, Ischia or New Orleans. You know how sometimes coincidence plays itself out.

Sometimes I find myself people watching, wondering, creating, until I realise I am in danger of becoming the Shopping Centre Creep and shake myself back out of my reverie.

I plunged myself back into my book, next wondering if Hollywood is still a childless city. And how empty and lifeless such a city would be.

My travels went on, and on, then, in the evening, as the coffee ran dry, Manchester itself began to wind down:

image

When In Manchester, Nog

I was sat in Starbucks last night, thinking of tax, and people watching.

I had time to kill before meeting up with my wife outside the Apple shop to assist her in the attempted resurrection of her seemingly deceased phone.

Sat to my left were four Asian men, perhaps holding a business meeting or family conference. To my right was an amorous, touchy-feely couple, possibly Latin American. Surrounded by unfamiliar languages, in the safe knowledge that they would hold no distractions, I pulled out the cheap second hand book I had just picked up from Paramount.

I do love those second hand book shops, a lot more than Waterstones. The books smell dusty, show signs of being loved and caressed by strangers hands. Some have notes scribbled inside which you try to decipher and imagine probable cause.

When I’m out and about and see other people reading, I am filled with an abiding curiosity to know what they are reading. I try to steal sly, surreptitious glances at the covers. I get tempted to ask, but I am wary of other people’s boundaries and hate to initiate small talk.

I began to read my book, unfamiliar tongues dancing around me and circling my Americano. After only around ten minutes I became aware that one of the Asian guys, middle aged and not discreet, kept sending curious glances my way. Was he weighing me up, wondering why I would be sitting alone and radiating silence? Perhaps he was gauging how much coffee I had left-maybe there was another, fifth member to arrive and he wanted my seat?  Surely he wasn’t trying to decipher the text on my book cover?

To my right, love’s young dream continued oblivious.

Then, after a studious few minutes, the man asked me:

“What are you reading?” 

There-he just came out and asked the very question that was so often on my lips but had never escaped. And it would have to be when I was holding a book like this-when I had only just started and there were no easy answers.

There may even be the problems of a language barrier.

I could just give the title and the author-Nog, by Rudolph Wurlitzer. But that might come across as a bit curt, a little cold. There was the quote at the top of the book, by Thomas Pynchon:

The Novel of Bullshit is dead.

 

No, I wasn’t going to risk that misunderstanding. I turned to the blurb on the back,

In Wurlitzer’s hypnotic voice, Nog tells the tale of a man adrift through the American West, armed with nothing more than his own three pencil-thin memories and an octopus in a bathysphere.

 

An octopus in a bathysphere.

Maybe the other two quotes on the back would help?

Jack Newfield, Village Voice:

Nog is to literature what Dylan is to lyrics.

 

Or what about good, dependable, Newsweek:

Somewhere between Psychedelic Superman and Samuel Beckett.

 

He held my gaze as I thought it over. I took another gulp of coffee.

 

image