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Outside the A to Z

Once, about twenty-nine years before the day on which I’m writing this, I lived in one room of a four story Victorian semi in a massive city in the north of England. And I loved it, for a very short space of time, before the experience became so frightening that I still have nightmares to this day.

It was near a park and a football stadium. It rained a lot, sometimes inside the house, as the roof was not exactly in perfect condition. The landlords were respectably shady, comfortingly menacing. An old lady and her angry son lived next door. My room was the first on the right as you entered. It had three huge windows and two outside walls, and, had I not moved quarters by November, I think I might actually have frozen to death.

Seven of us lived there at first. Smokers every one of us, drinkers too. The furniture was not fireproof and the only heating was a series of small gas fires installed in every room. We had a lot of plastic mugs and we drank a lot of tea. There was a cellar with a dozen rooms and an incongruous bath plumbed in right at the centre of the maze.

No-one went in the cellar, except to show people the strange bath, or the meat storage room with hooks still hanging from the ceiling and a stone slab cutting table. Sometimes the cellar would flood and I’d sneak down to look at the little black waves. But I wasn’t always able to do that; after the first time someone tried to get into the house via that route, we dragged a cupboard in front of the door.

But I loved it there, those first few months. Walking through the park, perfect autumn sun, and the knowledge that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The raised voices, laughter and rage, the screaming roads and crammed restaurants, windows that seemed far too bright, cheap neon, cigarette end illuminations, dark woods alive with alien movement, crumbling building sites, chains of buses snaking into town – I’d grown up on the edge of another city, where the night seemed to go on and on, out into farms that stank of three hundred years ago, the empty cold of deserted dual carriageways and derelict airfields. But if this place went back anywhere, it was only as far as about 1975, and it screamed with life and a sickly strength, a determination to manifest something not altogether wholesome, but with a bit of blood in it, or on it, at least.

It seems odd to remember thinking like that. Now, I choose to live somewhere that’s near silent and has been occupied for about four thousand years, but then such things felt like fading out into the emptiness and loneliness of history. There, I couldn’t stop smiling for the first few weeks, grinning with wild joy at the all night cafes and brutalist precincts, the record shops and vintage stores, the steam of industrial chimneys turned to flame by the sodium glare of the streetlamps. A million lights, a library of possibilities. I was a tourist, in the worst possible way.

And best of all, no-one could find me. No mail, no visitors, no phone. They’d rebuilt this district years ago and our little street had been cut off from the rest of itself, amputed by a carpark and a row of maisonettes. We weren’t in the A-Z or the streetplans. We didn’t exist. Should have been a warning, but what did I know? Lacking the self awareness to see that becoming invisible is an appalling crime against love, against identity, against becoming something brighter?

I could tell stories and I might do, just to record them somewhere. I can’t find any of those people I shared that space with, so otherwise, each story will be forgotten and that makes me anxious somehow. But for now, I want to record this; that room, the sun setting, the house silent for once. Sunday or Monday night perhaps. No light, the electricity has run out again. Sitting by the unsteady orange light of the gas fire, wrapped in an army coat. Curtains open, view of houses, lights, movement. Clear sky, a rarity. Cold excitement. Distant calls. All the space for anything to happen. It did.

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