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Built Things Times and Places

Down and Up

Station platform: meeting people or leaving or arriving, it all feels so sharp. I can’t be there without remembering the times I set off, filled with fear (I have a phobia of travel) and exultation (paradoxically, I love seeing far away cities). Or arriving back alone again, save the ghosts of Sunday night. The times I met people (I can never find the right platform or the right door on the train). The times I said goodbye (I never knew, but some of those times were forever).

Once, about thirty years ago, the rivers came out of nowhere and the tracks became canals. In those days, I used to go the Leadmill, and god knows that this is a cliche, but before it was its current form, when it was largely funded by the local authority, and had a teak clad TV in the bar that we used to watch Blind Date on at about 8PM with the bouncers. It was a bit of a family type thing back then. So when the river rose here in the cellars too, it felt like a personal attack. My warm and oddly homely drunk space, normally cigarette warm, was suddenly dank and altered. If teenage Saturday night wasn’t safe, what was?

Clawing dark and dirty waters. Old words that they repeat, each year, a daughter or a son.

The river is hidden below the station. There are tunnels and passages down there, Victorian arches, sometimes cathedral high, sometimes too low to move in any way other than a crawl. And the rivers, many of them shifting and mixing below the streets, below platform five.

Fragments of the city catch there, in the dark. Half a pair of scissors, an electric iron, a toy car, a number plate, a twisted length of lead. Some of them get placed deliberately upon little ledges, ornaments for the bats and pale ghost crayfish. Some of them wash up on altars shaped by the current, the islands that form in the odd burst of daylight, green scrabbling for a grasp on the day, odd scarlet weeds highlighting, as though the mud and patchy grass were text, lost language of the undercity.

I live almost as high as one can live here. Up the hill where it snows before anywhere else. There’s a high mast here, a transmitter pylon that you can see from the other side of the valley, from miles away, a landmark. The sheer mountain weight between here, at the cold electrical height and the river cathedrals down below, the enormity of it, the stories that space has consumed over thousands of years. They used to call this place the Winds of Heaven (advertising campaign for the houses nearly a century ago). Air and Water, elemental balance, yet even here, as high as you can get, there’s a spring, breaking the ground, contained under iron plates, but loud and making its way back to the wider, faster waters, haunted as they are by time and ruins and memory.

There’s no point to any of this, except that there are springs and rivers and tunnels and pylons, and the wind on the hillside, and bats below the earth, and, now and again, little weird found families, and goodbyes at the station and joyous all encompassing greetings that burned with love and friendship and the need to just hold all our people really close, just for a moment, because all these things are true, true as old city stone in the dark, truest stories of all.

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