– 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.
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.
Iwant 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last one left, even if you aren’t alone. Everyone’s gone. There’s only the lingering sense of emptiness, because this feels unmistakably like an act of transgression. Even if we never leave the houses, even if we never leave our seats, we have begun to explore, to trespass in the fields of night. The sense of dreamers has passed; they’ve gone too deep to listen to now.
Cold dark and a need to talk, to talk so much. If one is alone, insomniac, abandoned, this feels so sharp, so very sharp. Talking to ourselves at 3 am, “fitfully, inarticulately”, half afraid of hearing answers. Ghost houses, alone, exhausted mind screaming for dreams, weaves shapes and patterns right up the wall, spinning faces out of plaster and paint. Turn the lights on, sickly and bare. An analogue land line isn’t your friend right now, but everyone should try this at least once; lift the receiver, look around and listen to the dial tone for as long as you can bear it, convincing yourself that there are voices on the wire.
Or there are real people there, or more obviously real people at least. And you talk, talk, never stopping, all of you knowing that if you let the pace slacken, you’ll begin to lose it and sleep will take hold. Hours and hours. Less frightening, but with a sense of desperation; don’t let go of the night! It’s ours and right now, it feels like the last night ever, and we mustn’t waste a second of it. Talk and despair and fall in love that won’t even last until breakfast, born out of the need for sleep and dreams, a story improvised out of absences and the night. Cut by dawn.
The cruel cuts of first light. The sickened feeling of exhaustion and sour taste of too many words. Guilt, because we went where we shouldn’t and sunrise noticed.
Then you pass into the edges of sleep. Perhaps not your own. Take a moment, and you can feel the shape of the sleeping minds all around you. Something more than the quiet, something in addition to the single motor noise and the nearly muted televisions. Get up and look out of the back window. Lights going out one by one. It’s there, within the range of a sense that doesn’t have a name, the sense of sleeping. Ghost time.
Why shouldn’t it be? Dreams can get out and wander around at this time. Past and future smudging each other like charcoal on clean paper. Fear and longing rattling chains at midnight, as you slowly turn the lights off, make your nightwatch rounds of the house, checking doors and windows perhaps, looking nervously at the stove to be sure that it hasn’t turned traitor on you since dinner. But only perhaps. You might stay awake a while, all night maybe.
Time takes on a taste into the later and later. A thin and lonely flavour, but worth relishing.
Once you’ve closed the curtains, you establish a boundary. Inside and Outside. You could sneak behind the curtain and press your face to the cold glass. And all the car lights passing by outside, the secret other world on the other side of the curtain. Huge and dark and full of mysteries, a fairground of the imagination. But I don’t want to get into personal anecdotes, much, anyway.
Remember, though? You have your own stories. In the Inside world, we have heating, light, rules. In memory, we had TV in there too, now we’d have a thousand different distractions. In the Inside world, we had homework waiting and bedtimes. As I’ve said, if we were lucky and privileged. And not everyone will be.
Noises in the evening, the watershed times. Distant voices, unexpected cars. Train sounds, very very far off. And as you try to grow up, you try and find ways out into the night. Most of us make it upstairs, just a little way out of the lights, into your own world (again, not everyone’s experience). Some of us actually escape, sneak off. Sooner or later, almost all of us make that leap. And then, in the dark, it’s us who make the weird noises, us who are the figures walking past the bright cold window. Going further out. Burnt orange streetlights and bus sounds, fox bark. Smoke taste.