– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would like to chart out the path of a night, to describe one possible navigation through from dusk till alarm clock.
So much for the statement of intent. Along the way, I’ll talk about media and memory, but I have one other strong feeling here; it’s one that I’ve mentioned previously, but a repeat never hurt anyone much. Whilst I’ll touch upon nostalgia, I’ve no interest in living for, or in, the past. For example: a few minutes ago, I read some tweets to the effect of “the world was better when Bless This House was on” and my mood went straight to the teethgrit.
The medium these thoughts were being expressed in, the very mechanism that allowed that person space for that debate wasn’t even a dream when the Abbot family were around. For god’s sake, Sid James preferred the film version anyway. As well he might, it’s got Robin Askwith and Peter Butterworth in it.
My ethos has always been set out; this is a collection of writing about haunted futures. Whatever I stir up, must stir up the world as it is, not as you imagine it to have been.
So it gets dark.
Straight away I’m in a fix. I could write forever on this, which is a shame, because there are very few people willing to read me forever. But which version of getting dark? Do I mean winter dark, before work has even finished – When the lights come on at four at the end of another year as Larkin once wrote, probably staring out at the Humber or something, I dunno – or do I mean the weird never-dark of midsummer? Both have their charms.
Early sunset, especially at the weekend, is filled with terror and excitement, a sense of urgency, of getting back home to the warmbright (and I’m going to assume a level of privilege here, that very few humans have ever had access to). Late dusk has a feverish laziness to it, a slight sense that everything has been permanently delayed, yet a comfort and a swathe of safety.
And both kinds of nightfall get redefined by rain or snow or fog! Going to bed in daylight at the age of nine, with golden shadows all around the room, is a very different set of memories to lying listening to silver rain and the enchanted drabness of an evening completely emptied by the weather. In winter, remember that sound, the cold sound, a shifted tonality, crisp chill noises? My house had no real heating that worked. I had blankets and duvets and sleeping bags as armour.
One accepts light evenings and the slow sunsets with an element of reluctance, keeping curtains open as long as possible, drawing out the day. At the other end of the year, we close up as soon as we can, get the lights and the heating on, thick curtains and thick socks most probably.
And I think about all those kinds of lights. Big light*! Lamps, Christmas tree lights, the TV. And not forgetting the scary forbidden light we weren’t allowed to look at, which I’ve just built up impossibly, purely to let you down when I explain that it was the beautiful warm orange from the CRT at the back of a valve based TV set. On no account were we to stuff our faces up close to this. Orange radiation. And, y’know, massive electric shocks and that.
Let’s use winter then, for the moment. More evocative. Easier for me to write about. The summer memories are more abstract, filled with faraway voices and faded longing that’s just an echo of an echo now. Summer belongs to the time when you’re old enough to enjoy it, to run in the streets and grow up unexpectedly one evening, around half nine. Summer really belongs to you when you’re old enough to not remember afterwards.
I will write about summer though. But it’s not about the night, so let’s leave that for later. More next time.
*Big light: UK phrase, often associated with the north. Means the overhead light, as opposed to a standard lamp or uplighter. You put the big light on when you’ve lost the back off an earring, or there’s a spider.