…so normal and everyday, just a piece of the world that’s always happening, a mundane magic that calls through me like the song of a wineglass, and the roads shine in the last of the sun, and it’ll be full of an enchantment too big for any one heart to hold alone. So hold hands with me, my loves, and we’ll go walking, shiny second skins reflecting the stars as they come out one by one.
And then there’s the other side of it, the dragging silence of late Sunday. Full of school ghosts. It’s full of longing, if we’re fortunate, and regret if we are not. This is what it costs – the Sunday night trains that haunt me, the empty last bus, the traffic lights that change themselves over and over, remembering the crowds.
Do you know what it is to be yourself, to wear yourself in all your colours? How precious that is? Oh you do, you do, and you know it well, and it was dearly bought with pain and starlight. And still, it’s such a simple beautiful secret, so simple and so radiant that I want to rush up to each and every high street stranger, to see what light’s in them, to ask with a desperation that borders on mania, is this you? Look at us, look at this, you can shine, please, if what’s in you is the need to shine, then be radiant, because Sunday night is always coming and the best of times are just little splinters, tiny and bright sharp things, that get swept away before you even feel the scratch.
I want to put all the shards together again and build something new, something that holds the light
The absolute perfect silence of a Sunday morning and the cold that accompanies it, right through to the bones. The light that diffuses through strange clouds, taking forms of things never seen. This city becomes alien, but perhaps we start to reflect a little of that ourselves, maybe that fractured sunrise reflects in our eyes. Oh, and it’s a hard road back from the shores of night, we all know that, and it’s a steep harsh climb back to the oppressions of Sunday late dark; the empty house, the unmade silent bed, and more wineglasses than you’ll need till next time. But once I’d come to the beach and looked at the ocean, I never doubted the worth of throwing my heart into it.
There was this room or two, or a few more, long ago. Stank. You walked in under the red neon sign, and down stairs that were so slippery with rain and age and fag ends, so slippery, but you probably had heels on that you shouldn’t and who cared anyway? And it’s airless and damp at the same time and frightening, not in a safe scary way, but rather because someone might well try to split your head open. Scary, but in the only way that actually matters, when fear that is an exchange between ourselves and that which is not ourselves.
And we hand over our shaking nerves and self image and we get something new and hard to name in return. It looks at us from that godawful mirror, above the overflowing filth, and it smirks, eyes a bit too wide.
How can it be airless and damp in here at the same time? Everyone’s smoking, smoking for life. God, I miss smoking so so much!
Other rooms. They’re all the same really, I think? All the same night spaces. I can’t remember which was which. It’s always stairs, isn’t it? Usually down, into the oldest spaces, the cellars that were once the workshop basements or the stockrooms. Sometimes, it was up stairs, needle thin wooden creaking passages, so you arrived breathless and stayed that way, if it was a good night.
You know what I’m choking on now? Nostalgia. I need to open a window.
Dreadful thing, nostalgia. I created this space to be all about stealing haunted futures and here, all I’m doing is rolling about in the gutter past. If I’m stealing a future, it needs to have its roots here, maybe, in the colours, in the iridescent black. But the red neon, I made that up, so it’s something that is yet to come. Something I’m stealing back from the world that isn’t yet.
I want a future for this city, and I think I can see the shape of it, but it isn’t clear yet, it’s all shades of probability. I can see neon and Saturday night and glittering black, but the rivers of Saturday morning light too, and the sun on rainy Tuesday pavements when the clocks go forward. And that’s why I see the death that’s inherent in nostalgia, the voice that says that life is over and only the broken biscuits of memories matter, as if all that we are worth is a few moments around midnight once.
And that’s a lie: You, you reading this, I hope to god that you know that you are so, so much more than one long ago lost triumph, because I don’t always know that for myself, and it hurts to forget it.
And that lie can get fucked. It’s poison, and each generation gets it hard coded into them and I’m sick of it. The past needs to savage the present, it should be what drives us to our stolen dreamlands, not be reduced to the lullaby chant at bedtime. I want to walk till my feet bleed, and listen to every future getting born, and make this place be what it needs to be.
I have literal dreams of this city, of the future it will be made of. In those dreams, the sun rises and I’ve never seen more blood red light in my life; the buildings are jagged and black, and they belong to us all, above roads that have become canals and studded with hidden codes in streetlight patterns. And I wake up so happy, because if you can imagine something huge and terrifying and so, so good, then it’s already started to arrive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
People keep telling me this (I knew already, but I am very biased). They often tell me when they visit for the first time. “Big sky”, people say. They are quite right, and it is the sky that I remember most clearly from childhood. Two very particular visual memories in particular seem to dominate. A plain whitewash sky, a cloud layer so smooth that it seems like paper. Bright, and lacking any colour at all. Saturday sky, teatime sky.
And the other one, the dirty orange one. The same smooth surface but now lit up by cheap sodium streetlamps, each one with light that managed to be simultaneously warm and cold. Welcoming, and yet utterly comfortless. Perhaps I am old enough to remember the light of steel furnaces adding to the burnt tone of the clouds. I’m honestly not sure, but it would fit.
Out here, where this is, the moors and peaks form a jagged circle enclosing the lights. Thin ridges of colour stretch out desperately grabbing other towns across the night. That fact, always within reach; you can freeze, die of exposure out there on the hills, within sight of the town hall lights. Driving back at night, the orange glare was very, very reassuring, reflecting off the cooling towers and bridges. Brutalism as a fortress against everything that winter and politics aimed at us.
Always the clouds though, in memory! Why don’t I remember sunny blue skies? There must have been some, but the happiest pictures are of white skies and shining dark stonework running with water, glazed and mossy. This town is built around rain, and sometimes we get that balance wrong and the rivers come out to claim it back. I remember the last great flood, seeing the road tear open in front of me with the pressure of water below.
We used to build tunnels here. It’s in our instincts to do so. And it is the structure of the city that generates that, because there’s no great ancient mystical genetic bloodline here, just lots of people coming for work or art or because the climbing is good, or their old home is destroyed and burning. So they come into the rain, but generation on generation built tunnels and went underground. Mineshafts and secret escape routes in folklore, and sometimes folklore escapes into reality when they turn up a archway in the foundations of a new building.
The tunnels are always there, except they officially aren’t, which is a bit of a laugh because you can see them if you know where to look. Gargantuan Victorian drainage systems run in chambers underneath the city, and the entrances are right there, if you know what fence to look over, which culvert to follow, though if you do, you might well die. The air down there can be foul, and don’t forget about those irritable rivers that can change in an instant and sweep everything away again.
And that’s an official one, but there are legends too. Linking cellars and running to the old castle, for ridiculous distances. Everyone seems to know a story, though they are wearily explained as old sewers or bits of mining left over. But if you ask, people will tell you about the dark chamber with the archway that ran on under the city streets, and the ghost stories attached to it. You can ask me if you like, I was shown a hidden tunnel entrance deep below the city about twenty five years ago, and I’m sad to say I never explored further (I needed the job that I would have lost by doing so).
We built a huge network of tunnels in the late 60s and early 70s. They linked the shops; you could enter and leave through basements. The only one I’ve seen like it was in Kyoto, part of the station complex there in fact, but this was very different to the bright and regulated centre there. This one was all about hiding from the rain.
That’s where you went, avoiding the traffic and the damp. Concrete running wet and smeared with millions of dark wet footprints. In the centre, a huge dome open to the sky, to let everyone hurry under back into the tunnels, kiosks built into the walls, bright lights against dark patterns. Ask anyone of a certain age and listen to them talk about it like a long lost home, even though it smelled a bit and you could get murdered at night. Humans are strange like that.
When they built it, they cut through old tunnel routes. The people in the travel agents said that something walked through at night sometimes, following the path.
They filled the tunnels in. They blocked them up and if you wanted to stay out of the rain, you had to go to the mall out of town. Anyone you talk to about this will tell you that nothing was ever the same again. I hate useless nostalgia and the championing of the past just because it’s the past, but for once, this is true. The underground time was full of dreams and phantoms; there was a drive to make everything clean and understandable, to rationalise. It didn’t work, but the ghost stories died down. Perhaps that was the point.
Except people still tell you about things glimpsed underground. A forum post about looking over a security fence and seeing a thing like an underground station exposed by building work. Mentjon of rail lines running underneath a demolition site. A mysterious vault deep beneath the library building, itself covered in arcane symbols. Rumours of deep shelters and unknown systems.
We’re still tunnelling, into myth and stories. Loving the sound of the rain, and keeping dry.