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Times and Places

Tuesday evening in town, March or September

 – throughout all the pain and fear, all our dark days, yours and mine, there’ll always be Tuesday night, and the big secret of Tuesday nights,

 with just a little rain, but still quite bright somehow without a sun that you can see, and it’s not quite seven yet, and not many people about, because everyone’s home having their tea, but not quite everyone, people going somewhere, they’re starting to appear,

 and it’s not a frenzied carnival like Saturday, it’s so gentle and the city holds you and smiles and it’s all right, that’s the big secret really, that it’s all right and Tuesday will come back around again, normal Tuesday, with all the stories carrying on, ending and starting and normal Tuesday night in town, absolutely like every other one, big life stories walking quickly across each other’s path, like skipping stones across the flat grey river, down by the bridge on the island,

and you aren’t at home, not nearly, you’re a bus ride, a long walk away, somewhere that’s different and holds the shape of your face with the shopfront lights left on and that couple walking past, still in shirts and lanyards and shoes that no-one wears, because it’s Tuesday night in town and not quite dark yet and still time to work a little bit late and get home in time,

 and it’s all right, even when it sings paper cut sharpt in your chest and behind your eyes, paper cut sharp on the edge of the evening, it’s all right, and Tuesday night when no-one’s out, there’s music somewhere and it doesn’t matter about work tomorrow, because there’s somewhere to be that isn’t the end of the world,

so normal and so full of a magic that sings like wineglass song right through our heads, and the roads will shine a bit in the half rain and half light, and it’ll be full of an enchantment too big for any one heart alone.  Hold my hand tight my loves, and we’ll go walking, shiny second skins reflecting all the stars as they come out one by one.

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Times and Places Uncategorized

Last Quarter

I’m not saying anything new.

The light, the summer light, is losing its intensity.  I’ve talked about it a lot; the high calorie light of early August that takes on a sad paleness as the month fades.  I’m mixing metaphors, if you’re counting.  

There’s a little broken piece of memory that I have.  The last day of the summer holidays, a very long time ago.  Darkness rising all around, a clear sky and the first hints of cold, right on the very edge of perception.  My parents, wanting a walk, and we walked and walked, down silent streets that were the very essence of a Sunday night, all dereliction and longing and the dreadful aura of ironing shirts  (my family have very strong views on the horror of Sunday night).

And the stars were coming out, in my memory at least.  I don’t know where we went, just that it was somewhere that I’d never been before.  A suburban street, a good half hour from home.   And we went to see a streetlamp, because my dad worked for the street lighting department.  It was a gas lamp that had been converted to electricity, a little shiny white bulb when all the others were sickly migraine amber.  We looked at this streetlamp, then we went home again.  And I was sad because it was the end of the holiday.

 I’ve dreamed variations on that moment for about thirty years.  Dreams that end with the feeling that the holiday is now over, and I’ll never see my dream friends again.  

That’s my biggest fear and I’m writing about it here and now because writing about it is a way of dealing with it.  Saying goodbye to someone and it’s the last time, and you know it.  Didn’t someone define the meaning of hell as that precise concept?  Does that mean my personal hell is feeling sad looking at  a cast iron lamp-post?  ‘cause that’s quite on-brand, really.

September is pure magic, but part of that is the understanding that we are giving up summer and the long days.  Where I live, I can lie in bed and listen to drunken songs and laughter, the exact same sounds that have been heard on this road for over a thousand years now, perhaps much longer.  And they are summer sounds; they grow less as the year grows old, except around Christmas of course.  Those late falling nights (and for children and teachers, the long stretch of summer days) are what we give up, our little unknowable sacrifice.

Oh, it’s not like we have a choice, but still we give up on the idea of them.  A heatwave in late September feels horribly wrong, because we’ve allowed ourselves to let go of the summer, so that we can walk in colder mornings and under early stars, so that we can burn old wood, because we’ve been doing that on that very road for at least four thousand years.

Remember what we burn?  Chipped with paint, fragments of things that fell apart, iron nails, splinters.  When August becomes September I can think about the nights when I look down on all the streets and see the maps of bonfires, every single one with an audience; no-one builds a fire and doesn’t let it hold their attention (or if they do, they learn otherwise quite quickly).    Every single distant speck of fire is surrounded by What Happened, be it hand-holding, or sadness, or being horribly drunk, or devilish excitement, or tears, or the utterly unexpected catch of the heart when reality gets theatrical and delivers a wild magic that doesn’t equate to explanations or words at all.

I’m not saying anything new, but I have a sadness tonight and that’s a beautiful thing, and I want to watch my summer’s end sadness by the last quarter of this August moon.  There will be fires and meetings and perfect frosts, but now is the end of August, a fine night for flying sadness like a kite.

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Built Things Times and Places

Unsociable Hours

I want to grasp at the edge of the story, of such large machines and cold, cold people trying to warm themselves in a world of floodlighting and hard edges.  

Once, I had a job that meant I had to stay up all night, in strange spaces.  A converted nineteenth century factory, all beams and echoing voids and three hundred spinning screensavers in each wing.  It was a place without obvious comfort where I felt so at home that I still have urgent dreams about it, in which the sense of loss is so concrete that it actually wakes me, like physical pain.  

This is beyond my understanding; I wasn’t really happy there, though I was there for a long time. I suppose it was the regularity and order of the place, the sense of systems and patterns that helped my autism feel less painful right then, in the face of some hard times.  But not just that, there was a feeling of a heavy history, of different palimpsest layers. It was always there, but at 4am, you could really feel it. Shadows in conference rooms that were the very definition of liminal spaces. The security guards spilling huge scandal over a rollup. Secrets and the baked air of dead meetings, but more, older, deeper, darker, shining like one single light left on in a huge block of still windows.

The recent layer, the surface. Rituals and conventions built over the ten years that the building had served its current use, inheriting some from the mythical Head Office far away, which had generations of this to draw on. Legends of days when people all in brown suits smoked at their desks and the Christmas party was a magic festival of misrule.  And don’t think for a second that I’m mocking this.  It’s a powerful spell, and I sometimes find myself regretting its loss.

Further down, further back, the steel and engineering companies rising from the postblitz years.  Offices and factory floors.  Small lives, spinning round each other, love and fury, coldly bored indifference, craving to be far away and deep warm security.  Small lives, and still bigger than Orion, faint lives, but shining bright as Polaris, and navigating by each other, finding their way home.  Each one, the biggest story in the whole world, and so long ago, and so unrecorded, lost again, but that’s how it should be.  The forgetting of whole lives.  

Back again, and it was the industrial revolution, winding metal round machines and wheels, dirty skies, and who knows what that world was like?  Perhaps it seemed like a frightening and wonderful new world, innovation and social transformation.  Perhaps it was awful, a steel horror story of sparks and slavery.  I wouldn’t know, but I know that every one of them knew that they were the centre of the world and every one of them was quite right.  So much importance, life or death, worries, joys, desire, dreams, love.  The biggest stories that the world has ever known, but suddenly, it’s a big empty hall full of screensavers flashing on, with the original oak beams preserved up above as a memorial to lives so large that they vanished from our sight in totality.

Forgotten, but that’s how it should be.

Before then, always the river.  My little office was on the edge of the river.  Always, the sounds of water, heron’s wings just for a second.  The old river, before it all and probably after as well.  And if you strained your eyes, you would notice that I sat and worked every day with a graveyard looking back at me from just over the water. The river water, from the Peaks, to the heart of the city, twisting turning. Sometimes it turns feral and takes lives, destroys. It has an old name, a goddess name. It doesn’t forget a thing, you just know it. This story is twenty years back in time; the little office is just a storeroom now, and no-one remembers the people who worked there, but I bet the plaster still cracks and shifts with the voice of the river, whispering that one day, even these heavy stones will fall.

Forgotten lives, because that’s how it should be.  Clinging to memory, trying to record and claim every second, perhaps giving in to fear, that’s one craving that I have. And also, allowing myself to just be a memory and allow the possibility that the memory of me will fade and be gone one day.  And I’m happy with that, but that’s the deal; if, in my own way, for the right people, I can be bigger than Orion and bright as Polaris today, I can be happily forgotten tomorrow.

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Built Things Times and Places

I’ve never been here

This story has to be about lots of things.  Some of them seem important, but some of them seem so very small, so small, in fact, that they might almost get lost.

We were walking around the side of the building and someone said “I’ve never been here” and I saw that the benches were ten years old and completely pristine. No-one had ever been here. And it made me think of a sort of story.

This story needs to be about white skies and rainy silent afternoons long ago.  It needs to be about grey concrete and moss and the places where no-one is walking right now.  It’s a story about spaces and gaps in the structure.  The void zones (they are usually labelled as such on caretaker floor plans), the walkways and glass bridges, the places that we pass through.  It’s a story about the afternoons, as I said, the silent afternoons, when workers and pupils are locked away and everything seems to hold a new shape, a different shape and sound and taste, just for now, just for the afternoon time.

1991 anti(C) DeeanaViolet

But that time is long gone, long, long gone.  And that’s the way it felt; those places and moments, they’re all about the days when life felt like a memory from far in the future.  And I could almost see the shape of it and listen the voice of days, telling me all those stories about dust and concrete and raindrops, about quiet roads and the sound of pale skies, and always, always the rain again. 

It has to be a story about the small things, because the big things are unseeable, at least they were then, to my eyes.  My brain and senses don’t work according to the standard model.  Not seeing the big picture is the phrase that the neuropsychologist used, but I rather like to think of it as seeing the big picture but only in the smallest of things.  

Writing is a fantastic exorcism.  The very effort of these paragraphs has rid me of a creeping nostalgia in the space of ten minutes or so.  As I sit in the warm and dry, I am now reminded of all the times when I was cold and wet, or hungry, or addicted to something, be it eating, spending, drinking, smoking, or starving myself, for that matter.  How on earth can I feel such longing for the cold grey places, when I was so lacking safety or perspective?  

Because the rain.  I can’t explain it easily, but that’s the thought I get.  Because the rain.  

Perhaps as I write, I’ll come to understand my own explanation.

(Raindrops fall, millions on millions, out of an infinite sky, small and forming from clouds that are unfathomable, that are patterned on physics beyond everyday understanding.  They fall and they land and they are rarely perceived, rarely observed or noted.  They are us, falling from one form to another; travelling to a new life in a new city, to a new job, relationship, house, feeling in charge but ultimately at the mercy of dynamics that we can scarcely comprehend.  And every one of them is part of the same rainy day, but they haven’t noticed, because they are only concerned with their falling, and because they are raindrops and lack the capacity to notice most things.)

When I write here, I would really like – I would love – to take my readers, that’s you, on a tour of a past and present that isn’t quite either.  Something liminal, or maybe something in process of becoming and never quite getting there.  And there are boots that keep the damp out, and a old gas fire that starts with a blue flame and slowly grows orange, and something about the roads that we don’t notice until it’s much too late.

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Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Writing on things

If you drive out of the city, through the suburbs and up the hills, the greenwood starts becoming clear and the houses get a little space between them and the architecture takes on the form of an afternoon.  Lazy gaps, quieter; I suppose the packed in, built up areas that you’ve left behind are the busy mornings.  This is afternoon space.    

As you travel, notice that things are less and less friendly for anyone not driving.  Invisible underpasses beneath unexpected dual carriageways, baby motorways trying to get bigger.  Pavements are sometimes narrow or sometimes just empty – perfectly usable but clearly pointless.  There’s not even litter here sometimes.  Then it’s the fields and the odd tiny estate, often disastrous and visibly falling apart, lost in a state perfect isolation and disconnect from the heart of the Town, slowly being eaten alive by fields that were first cultivated before the printing press was running.  

Just before you arrive at that space though, there’s a pub, a big late 60s ex-Harvester, the sort of place that’s there because it’s on a big spare corner at the ends of normal living space.  First one to get a huge TV in 1989.  A wide open car park, because people come here to have a burger after the shops, not to get drunk, or not much.   We aren’t going in.  There’s nothing wrong with the place really, but we aren’t going in.  

Here it is.  Right where the car park meets the pavement.  Slightly paler smush of concrete surface.  Details that are so small that they aren’t ever accounted for – a change in texture out front of a dull pub.  I can read it though, literally, because there’s a fragment of writing still there; it says L84 which I know because I was standing next to L in 1984 when they wrote it with a stick, in the first month of secondary school.

Fragments of writing hanging around, like the dark blue stabbed phrase in the subway about WOODS which was a testimony to someone’s power and control.  CONVICT BEATS in whitewash on the quarry wall for forty years.  But I can’t shift that moment from my mind.  Standing in the half sun in Autumn, near the bus stop.  And then what we make stays still in place and we get older and wander on but those words stay where we left them for a little while and anyone who sees them meets that version of us, the writer who was.  

Even when the writer isn’t any more.  Not in some dramatic and tragic manner, just in that we aren’t concrete.  We aren’t even wet cement.

Oh god, we must leave our stories, we must, we must.  Every word that we can, because even your name and the year is glorious, shining in memory and saying yep, something happened, there was Something, and maybe there’s not any more, but it doesn’t matter, any more than it matters that some words in the ground got bulldozed over again, or words on a wall that got demolished, or painted on a quarry that’s a supermarket now.  

None of it stays forever, and that’s alright too.  

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Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Straight Track

Warning: you can’t follow this. It doesn’t work when you’re awake.

It starts in the woods.

There aren’t any woods anymore, so we’ll have to move back a few decades. When we are going to be, there’s a tower block unexpectedly in a clearing, with a sacred tree before it, growing in image of the dead. A tragic fall late at night. A story lost and filed in time until it’s only half recalled in quiet moments, as we are now, amongst the woods all round.

Follow the winding path to the white manor house, skirt the edges catch glimpses of faces watching, magpies thieving from windowsills. Leave the forests and cross the roads; your path will bisect them over and over until suddenly, you find yourself winding in circles and then the road runs with you and you’re following the long track.

It will take you a time and it won’t follow the straight road for a while. House upon house upon house. This is territory of big space, heavily inhabited and no-one around. You could die out here, no trouble. Keep walking; would be terribly unlucky for the sun to to set on you here. Keep looking, we need to find our way.

On and on, but here the houses shift upwards and become twisted with age and poverty. They become fractal, one big house becomes seven tiny houses, all creaking with the weight of Victoriana. Don’t step off, we need to keep out of the nineteenth century today, it’s much too respectable and has far too many buttons to undo. Keep walking.

Suddenly, the cinema. The seats are too small and will crush your hips, and no-one will stop you drinking, smoking, shouting. The screen worn soft with light for sixty years. I suppose we’ll lose some of you here, and not even halfway yet.

Suddenly, it’s busy, pints and hasty words, the epic solemnity of pubs in the daytime. Pass through, don’t stop for long, we can’t risk falling asleep, we might never find our way back. Long tables, and scattered faces, clean, too clean in fact. It’s only calm because it’s waiting for everyone to get out of work or university or school, and water down the afternoon crowd, half asleep and half maddened as they are, for the mood to turn frantic and for the endless nameless laughing to begin.

On on on on on

The bike shop, with it’s shifty forms half glimpsed within, shadows that terrify the man who obsessively grows nettles in his front garden to smoke and make bitter, bitter tea from, whilst he thaws cows’ hearts in the sink as a treat for the cat. Who can remember these shops, that sell such fancy and valuable nothings?

More towers and shapes here, but the territory runs thin now and you might want to start watching your back a bit, because this is where they beat the bus drivers for pulling in a bit too swift. Keep walking, but keep walking fast, and no, we aren’t nearly there yet. Just over there? House of cold. Stone cold, bitter through and through. Mice and beetles. You have to fight to stay warm, I mean it quite literally.

Hear that noise in the distance? Every inch crowded with images; that kid on the bus with the hair there reading Oedipus, reading about Teirisias, it means “he who delights in signs”, he’d have been well in here. He hit two snakes with his staff and turned into a woman, but the daft bugger turned back again seven years later, not knowing when he was on to a good thing.

Busywork, constant movement, don’t stand still, there’s a battle against entropy to be won. If you reversed this voyage you could gain speed and overshoot onto the plains, land by the radio telescopes watching the universe achieve a flatline dead stability over trillions of years. Down here, at the sharp end, everyone fights that flat balance every second. Till you get to the park. There’s the house that doesn’t exist, just behind the supermarket, the missing map place.

There’s the park, we’re passing it now. Blood shed, desperate young man shouting in breathless fear as wild eyed children threaten him, he’s running now, he got away, but no-one knew what to do until it stopped and we could move on. Magpies flying around, one for sorrow says the boy with the guitar at the bus stop. He’s just seen the other face of the place.

Don’t catch the bus, that’s cheating. Keep walking.

White stones now, huge and elaborate memorials to dead scientists and travellers. There’s a tattered television star on the steps; there’s a young couple in their finest getting turned away from the guestlist. Quicken your step, this can be hunter’s ground, especially by a bomber’s moon. That man shouts the time at you and tells you he’s filled with hate. Steps wind up, a wild collection of angles. Below them is a bar so dark and lost that people only go there in their dreams, which means the clientele is inclined to the less obvious meanings; every conversation is symbolic, mathematically, psychologically, semantically, inevitably. All you have to do to get past the bouncers is to be home in bed fast asleep.

Pass through, pass through. Peaceful retro future hidden here, turn the corner, frozen 1981, the movie posters are still up, even for those of us not dream-tripping right now. They never sold this place, at least not awake. Keep walking out and down the other side. Keep going, follow the line. There’s a bullet hole in the wall of the green tiled building (there’s not, but I once wrote that there was). New builds and redbrick now, in honour of queer martyrs, plugging the wires together that build thoughts out of impure silicon and leading the way into biology. Turing, eating an apple of temptation, destroyed by a serpent that wore a demob suit and offered him conversion therapy. Keep walking.

Crossing the river. You can feel it, just after the basketball courts under the motorway bridge, beat of the water right down deep below, getting into your bones, washing through decades of silt and fag ends. Down there there’s underground bridges from the sheep fairs, slabs of ancient wood, bats and spiders running halloween rampant. Screams of the city, louder you scream, faster we go, here we are. Oh! This is nearly the end. If we ran further, there’s a dead woman wrapped in carpet right out in the open behind the car park, but they won’t find her for twenty years yet. And over there, the cold war gate that leads down into the secret city, the municipal afterlife that waited impatiently. Lift shaft hidden in a simple yard behind the Odeon, with a neat sign “Enquiries 0236 0430” – secret code in plain sight, though the razor wire is a bit of a giveaway.

On, but now you’re running into a dead end, the conclusion, the temple that balances the woods. The great hall, the Library, to return the books we borrowed and it feels like heartbreak to reach the end and I know I want to travel it again and again, leaving more of myself in the stories each time until I’m just a ghost whisper down the Road.

Or a part of me does, but that’s not why we’re here today, did I not say?

This time, don’t slow down.  Keep walking, let it merge into running.  On on on on, faster, run straight at the temple to end the road, let all the accumulated speed of years fill you like lightning, on until you can orbit around the curve of the building round and round faster, gravity well, swinging around with delirious velocity until the weight of time turns into speed and we fly, off into stars and free, planet diminishing behind us, out into night and sky forever, onwards, on on on on.

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Times and Places Uncategorized

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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Times and Places Uncategorized

Sunday Tracking

It’s night nearly, dusk, the shadows are almost complete and I’m moving onwards, over and over.  I couldn’t begin to count how often I’ve been there.  So many times, following the pattern; you drive or get the train on Friday evening, you travel back in Sunday dusk.  

The train, then.  Getting the train just as the darkness starts, then two, three hours of Sunday darkness.  The movement, the sensation, swaying.  The Friday train is full, thinning out over time, but the Sunday train is often almost deserted, bright lights and the taste of instant coffee.  It’s a cellophane journey.  The morning’s paper rammed into the back of the seat in front.  Old news.  

Each town swings around into view.  The car parks and retail estates, all empty, all locked up.  Optimal Sunday train time, four pm, closing up time.  Some places locked since Friday, that turned the alarms on when I was shuffling for a ticket leading out into the wide world, when my bag was full of outfits and ideas, not just laundry.  Look out of the window and learn to see past your own reflection, stare into your eyes until you can see the streetlights of somewhere unknown.  Empty voids, closed up cafes, glimpse a wrecking yard, a bridge, the rush of water passing, only there in waves that steal the light, out into the country night, nothing now, fleeting village station lamps to break the self portrait.  We don’t stop there.

There, you can see the fields, Sunday afternoon fields, dog walkers and kids running free, but now utterly impassive.  Everyone’s gone home, the shoes are getting shined and the dread of an ironing smell fills the space.  Kitchen lights on, upstairs bedside lamp, rush past, what dreams?  What are you scared of, what are you dreaming of, whose eyes are they that you see as you look out of your own train, at your own track paling away into the unknown horizon?  Who is it you long for, rushing on towards a morning destination?

I hope they will be there to meet you from your train.  I hope you run into each others’ arms and I hope that the day you have arrived at is the one you needed.  I hope the eyes you see are only your own when you need them to be, and I hope that when they aren’t, they shine for you, bright lights of warmth, of contact, windows on a place that’s more than getting ready for another day.

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Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Underground Aeronauts

There are two small parks not far from here. One is neat and clearly holds the shape of its Edwardian origins, down to the small bay in which an ornamental cannon was once mounted. There’s a perfectly square boating lake (lacking boats this century), some ornamental flower beds, and a little playground which could well be the most modern part.

A busy road forms a boundary line, and there starts the other park. This one is wild, unplanned, open spaces, unexpected corners. Never fully in view. You could get lost and I imagine people have, though it seems to be nothing more than fields and trees. Here, there’s houses and flats and shouting late at night.

But it’s only two parks above ground.

If you could find a way into the underneath world – and I’m not saying that you can, because I don’t want you to die on my account – you could see that. There might – and I’m not confirming anything – be a whole other world down there.

The story is, it’s where they used to store barrage balloons. One doesn’t ride around in a barrage balloon, but this isn’t real, so in my mind, it’s the kind of balloon that you can travel to Paris in. Except, underground. In the subterranean park. How much space do you need to store a balloon like that? It seems like there’s a lot of room down there she says, based on nothing whatsoever. I think they were – are – inflated, perhaps even floating gently in huge ink dark spaces. Underground ballooning.

I might have done the neat park a disservice. It’s a beautiful place and you can hear owls there at night. Yes, the boating lake has no boats, and it’s a perfect square, but how deep does it go down? Every side is sentried with warning signs; it’s deeper than you think. How deep, exactly? How far down? Once I made a map of it, and drew undines at the edge, singing sirens in the municipal depths. Yesterday morning, there were swimmers where I placed water spirits, determinedly blanking the DANGER NO SWIMMING DEEP WATER signs, and the geese.

There’s no obvious water on the other side of the road. Never means it’s not there though.

According to legends, people often got into the Underneath. There were secret hatches, passages, unexpected caves in the bushes, ways In and Down. Lit by thin falling sunbeams from far off inspection hatches, it was party time down there after dark, despite the fact that one of the most popular routes in consisted of a climb down a disturbingly long steel ladder, descending a shaft into the earth, looking for balloonland. Candles propped in wine bottles, everything running from 9V battery packs, and smeared with that grime of dampness that fills such spaces.

Apparently. I wouldn’t know.

No, really, really. I wouldn’t. I’ve never been there. I’ve spent many hours in the two parks, but never in the one park, the one down there. I know the ways in, or I know where they might be, but they’ve been cemented and welded over many many times now, perhaps finally. Or maybe not. I don’t care. I love the idea of underground balloons, and I’m happier with the dream than the reality.

Also, why would anyone store balloons in a huge underground facility? Perhaps it’s not that huge. Don’t care. The legend is better.

This is where the ghost zeppellins float dreamily on in the dark, lit by candlestars. Ferrying the council undines back and forth under the road. Of course, to one side there’s a tower where you can ride the Paternoster (another story) and over there is the aerodrome hidden by a ring of factories (another story). The sun rises dead on a line with this place, straight down into the district named for an Egyptian city, just over from where they used to take us to see the Egyptian sarcophagus (another story).

They built a huge university building right next to the neat park this year. And then they pulled it down again. It was sinking into the earth, vanishing into the underneath.

Categories
Times and Places

Once

People you used to know. It’s such a slippery world, this one, the way that people just glide out of your life. So horribly easy to just let someone vanish away. It doesn’t take any effort, and despite what songs will tell you, you don’t even have to stop returning calls; you let the time between them grow until there’s just silence.

Suddenly, decades have gone past. People I knew thirty years ago could be dead or transformed totally, or just the same as they ever were. I can only navigate their absences by using my own life as a map. I was once like this, now I am like this. Thirty years ago, I was barely conscious, of myself, of my emotions, of others and their complexities and desires. And I wasn’t a good person, or a particularly good friend; I was cruel and thoughtless, and when I was kind, it was so foolish and badly attempted that it was seen as threatening or sinister. Perhaps this still holds true, though I sincerely hope that I’ve managed something of an evolution in three decades.

It’s the city that does it. On nights like this, after a day when the light has taken on that pale bright September edge, and the sunset is like the tide coming in, when the traffic after dark sounds clear but distant, then I think of you, every year.

When I drive the old roads, when I look down on the whiplash lines of streetlamps, or at front room lights shining through thin curtains, I wonder: what became of you? Where did you go afterwards, how did it work out? When were the good days, the travels, the loves, the times you don’t want to think about? Ego flares up: do you ever think of me?

Much of my life has been spent on trains or on long night drives, from place to place, usually alone, passing homes and families; might one of them be you? And did we used to sit and smoke together in the sun when we were children who thought we weren’t children? Was it you that I walked home with, shared dark thoughts with? Oh, but those adolescent crushes (the desire so sharp and unformed, and hopeless), or friends, or just the someones you had a laugh with one dark night round town, before there was so much to be done.

None of you will ever read this, and you won’t recognise me even if you do. It doesn’t matter. I think of you when the nights come back at the end of summer, every year. I think of you in those autumn mornings, when there seemed so many ways that we could go, and I think about you on those winter nights when the wind had a knife’s edge and we ran through the dark just to keep warm. And then I cry a bit, and carry on with the here and now, with the battles and triumphs and people of today, with the ones that are at the end of the phone right now, my wonderful wonderful chosen and blood families.

But I wanted you to know that I still think of you. And sometimes I dream about the adventures we had in the autumn so long ago.

I wish we could have one more race against the dark.