It was a black and white photograph that drew me back to this town, one that had seen better days, mirroring the photograph taken at random on a night out with friends, who some became lovers, of all now, except for me, are either dead, or long since found out the hard way that we are the children whose parents were the product of meaningless catchphrases or suffocating intoxicants designed to blot out us of their forged, forgotten dreams.
Even as the train pulled into the station, one that towered and looked down upon everything else for miles around, I could see that so much had changed, so many new houses, new families with history that stretched back perhaps just a few years, no memory of those times in which our now despised generation fought hard, played hard and died a thousand times rather than be seen to be anything other than real; whether that was down to the lack of anything else to do in a town with no cinema, no picture house in which to idolise and imagine kissing the leading lady, brushing our lips softly against the sepia, the monochrome and glorious Technicolor whilst all the while having our dates whisper in our ears the pay off line in which to trap and return us to a different dream, well who really knows.
So much had changed, the outline of the town, its womb like buildings and sitting rooms, the small back bedrooms in which we played records at a volume to annoy our parents as they soaked in the reverie of late night easy television, the cans of cheap off licence approved lager and the odd sherry forgotten since Christmas, these were no out of sight, the meadows in which so many of us lost a powerful innocence and replaced it with furtive glances across the school assembly hall, the knowing odour of sex brushed up against the inside of a ready to lay concrete drainage system, soon to be underground, buried with our virginity and often respect, these were all now too far away to be seen. Instead of being able to walk around the outskirts of our town in a couple of hours, now with the adoption and consumed villages in which others used to feel privileged and safe to be part of, all being part of this bigger picture, hours became meaningless.
Row upon row of fancy driveways, four bedrooms, all the size of a window box, a driveway laid down with an eye of perfection and yet death instantly prayed for if a blade of grass should errantly appear uninvited or stray beyond the borders. Commuter town now, not a place in which dreams were the foundations of home, too comfortable, a shopping experience where we played, drank, smoked, cheered and fought for the right to be considered a king for a day, the retail village consuming more land where once there was but a path to Wendlebury and the desire of third year love.
I was the first to leave, dragged away by someone else’s ambition but the town never left me, a black and white photograph kept in my pocket as I rejected consumerism and the urge to move up the ladder and instead felt melancholic virtue in thinking of you as I took step after step in a country that wasn’t mine to call home.
Home, I was once taught by a musical lyric that it was where the heart lay, that it wasn’t where you were born, it was where the memories lingered on into middle age of your first kiss, the first album you bought, the first fight with someone who wasn’t a friend, the bloodied face that was greeted with abject horror within the embryonic household but which guaranteed a sly look of respect from the crowd the following Monday as you walked in with your debut black eye; this was home, a place in which black and white blended with the honest driven glare of colour, where your heart was broken and you dreamed of running away.
Home is nowhere, the comfort of a partner’s shoulders may entice you to believe otherwise, but go outside of the building in which you dwell and you are, like the villages, whether made up of old farmhouses and tall tales of trampled down fields of wheat or the unfamiliar sounds of tills barking at six o’clock when the working day should be all about walking between pubs, consumed by the urge to tear it all down, this plastic edifice is no longer a beating heart but one where people come and go, where people dig in for territory, where to share a happy memory is to feel a cold shudder. We have become the embodiment of that meaningless catchphrase and we bond with our children over the small and inconsequential.
Where did you go when you left this town? We all come back at different times now, rarely together despite all that passed between us, I walk down what was once the way into town from the east side, past older houses, ones that would look gloomily out in winter and yet be full of heartfelt appeal during a summer storm, past the first public house that led either to a night of damnation or a week of self discovery, a friend’s record high score on machine well past its sell by date, no doubt still leaving patrons scratching their heads at who APB was.
I loved this town, I adored its ghosts and I relish the chance to shake hands with the spectres of stories I told as I walked from New York’s 77th Street and the firing of a gun outside the windows of a party to a beach in New Jersey, the scatterings of joined up writing leaving a trail that fused this small town to a world in which running away became a habit. I loved this town, I nearly lost the sight in one eye here, I purchased the first of many loves in the record shop that was under lit and in semi darkness, hidden from any natural sunlight by the covers of seven inch singles, all old before I was born, all ancient before I had taken my first deep breath inside the smell of must and unpolished memorabilia. It was a place I loved more than other aside from the park at the other end of the long road that divided the town’s old shopping area in half. Once cars drove down this road, buses stopped and passengers weary of self inflicted travel departed and melted away into the night as others believing that salvation lay in the city beyond the price of a pound took their place, the dead and recently relieved on the bus roundabout from outside of Woolworths.
There are always memories to be found, the smaller the town perhaps the more intense the memory. A big city is alive, it is flesh and blood, always moving, pumping the system onwards, there is no time for stagnant dreams, no motion is accepted unless it is ever onwards and with the potential to destroy in the name of progress. It was always a big event when a shop ceased trading when I was a teenage ghost walking down this street, the pubs off limits, the night time strangers just walking wounded soldier, carrying their diseased limbs in bottles of wine and the carry out Chinese takeaway, what we saw was a gradual change in the way town changed, subtle, exciting, would there be a new book shop, a place in which a teenager might be left alone to be moody and magnificent in equal frustration, the call of the Saturday coffee and the longing for milkshake and chips, curly fries objected to by the baby boomer brigade. Now it was all change, this shop gone, this family displaced, this road didn’t exist, this is where, this was then and nothing in between to form a solid memory at all.
Time is a machine of havoc, if you see the same thing every day you don’t notice the difference at the gradual sprawl which can knock you sideways, my black and white photograph now an anachronism of faded glory, whitewashed by the quick bite of Time, snapping at heels, making me move quicker, making my regret seem rageless and inferior to the point of this journey into the half known and frighteningly unhappy.
I had left because of an ambition, I had returned to fulfil a promise, an assurance to a friend who was trapped between the seconds and the tick and tock of the town she born, raised and soon become forgotten inside. Trapped by the road map cast in the shadow of a grandfather clock, the noise, the screams of release and freedom drowned out by the loud boom of a machine designed to be heard throughout the womb of the house and leaving others in doubt of its importance, the people of the womb terrified by the approaching hour, every hour, swelled anticipation by the mockery of the fifteen minute interval and the half hour last post.
Time, I still had time, I never liked grandfather clocks, I never put up on my wall a timepiece, crystal and silver out of place on my mantle, time had no meaning, not when you have run away from it all. I had time, I walked past the Market Square and the flood of the smells from a chip shop that had once been the scene of house price frenzy, past the old supermarket which the heroic APB had introduced his friends to the delights of cockles and the intensity of crab sticks, and onwards towards the park, my feet remembering the beat of climbing the wall late at night, of goals scored inside the realms of Maine Road, Villa Park and White Hart Lane whilst never once leaving the park, the brick built shelter and the trees that still would their secrets till we all finally gave in to our last terminal wish.
Time was, I held my breath as I walked through the gates, the once stately feel of the gardens, the unbreakable bond as we became brothers and sisters in blood, the swearing off libraries, the fingers crossed by all when each girl and boy swore that they would love each other forever but knowing full well in years to come that person would be their go to image when the staleness of middle age affected their performance in bed.
Time was, this was my happiest place, here I saw trees I was kissed by you underneath, time was, I was still here, in the folds of your arms, the stolen perfume you wore, sometimes your mothers, sometimes whatever you found you could fit in your work shy denim jacket as you made small talk with the bride of cosmetics in the big city shops, the one with patches covering the seams and your own black marker pen design, Picasso like scrawls filling in the spaces in between. You were an exhibition of bands you never saw, a museum of thoughts that you never attended and I loved you for it, your dreams were on show as much as your burgeoning youthful breasts and each time I wanted to kiss you, I knew I was touching the memory of a lyric you would never hear live.
A black and white photograph drew me home, was this where my heart had once lay down in the dusk and shade of the tall willow tree that still slept like a giant in the far corner of the park, the swings echoing the welcome back call I could hear in my mind, the smell of half smoked Embassy cigarettes or Players No 6, half dangling, half inhaled, made to look hard because aside from it all, there was nothing else to do in this town. We smoked, we drank, we hid from parents on the search for us, we lied, we cheated, we argued, all of who found this refuge in Time, had the same experiences and our memory lingers on.
Time was, it was dying, I have the feeling that I may never come back here, that the road I was on has been interrupted, for a short while by the melancholy and your last request, the black and white picture an oddity in amongst the greyscale, the amusing, the photos of cats and dogs that hog the limelight, the guarantee of the odd like in social media whirl, a dominant force that would have destroyed our idyllic, if stunted lives in which our ghosts now run a mock. Time was dying, I wanted to walk back up towards the train station on what was once the edge of town, a touch of anxiety, the feeling of failure and fear, I had pledged to you a forever love and I was willing for a time to renege upon that deal. Time was, a cowards call, you had given me life at a teenage turning point and I should say goodbye and rejoice in what you were, a Comrade in pursuit of the unobtainable, of a nightmare I avoided and which you embraced till it took you, woman, teenager, child, now but memory underground.
The shelter no longer exists, this was a shock, I thought, like you, it would be in these grounds forever, that we would hear the resounding echo of a football banging against it till the end of time. Our heartbeats captured in that thump, thump, thump, the pulse of a childhood hammering away as others looked on in quiet solitude or the fondle of a leg or the brush of excitement that would never be felt again.
So many gone, those that moved away, scattered and now wondering where their own hearts still beat, those that passed into another story, their heart’s silent.
I took the photograph out of my pocket and stared for the last time, black and white, a day since gone, forgotten by all now, we came as heroes into this world, ready to change the future, our generation vowing to not be the ones to whom so little would be achieved and now we are eclipsed, we have embraced the worry of the baby boomers, the dread of the pre-war survivors and we have the morals of the terrifying Victorian era breathing down our necks and mocking us for all we were once worth.
It is quiet now, our hearts stopped somewhere between Greenham Common and the boom of invisible stocks and shares, caught in the headlights of greed and the memory of growing up with anarchy by our side.
My friend, I shall, now as to your last instructions to me which were written with love and detail were explicit made clear, take a lit match to this photograph which I have carried into bars and lover’s bedrooms since it was first taken and I shall burn it underneath the willow tree, I shall renounce the past in which you were the last of us to feel any type of anger, and I shall walk away, leaving the ashes to mix with the soil as some other teenager’s night time dream becomes reality on a wet day when there is nothing else to do.
I miss you, I missed your last day, I missed your time as I was too caught up in running from the pendulum that swung with bitterness in my direction. I say farewell, for there is no other way to remember you now; the black and white photograph is awash with flame of living colour.
Ian D. Hall 2017