This Must Be the Place by Elle Griffiths
I LOATHE THIS PLACE. I’ve never understood it. But they kept telling me it had changed, now. There are bars with mixologists not ‘cheeky vimtos’ along with Pop-up’ burger places with food that comes in baskets and drinks that come in jam jars. Just like the capital but you can afford the rent… even live like a real grown up.
Heartbreak had recently struck – again – but the socially acceptable period of catatonic vodka day-drinking and listening to Neil Young on repeat had long since elapsed and with it- the patience and sympathy of my few remaining friends.
So when casual freelance work up in the decrepit Daily Mirror newspaper offices up north arose, I decided to go ‘home’ in search of the peace that home is supposed to bring. But it doesn’t work. And on a grey, May bank Holiday Monday at 7am I see glimpses of the city I used to know rubbing up against the new, and the hazy contrast of the familiar and the strange feels like being stuck in a dream I’ve had many times before. The comfort I seek feels more elusive than ever.
Victoria Station is to the north of the city and, like the name suggests, has seen better days. My grandmother had been pulling out of the station just as it was hit by a bomb during The Blitz in the 1940s. Or so she said… once. Victoria has always served the poorer suburbs and neighbouring mill towns, unlike its swanky sister Piccadilly station with its sea of commuters and half-hourly trains to London.
Short- sighted town planners have gutted most of the ornate exterior and appear to be replacing it with a monstrosity of a glass awning that has started to look dated before even reaching completion. Faded grandeur meets soulless, Netherlands- style minimalism.
Pigeons scatter as I walk across the concourse to the ‘metrolink’ platform, the city’s aging and illogical tram system that betrays my hometown’s attempts to convince outsiders it can lay any genuine claim to compete with London. At the platform, I am confronted with a sign littered with insincere apologies and the three words all Brits dependent on public transport fear reading – “Rail Replacement Bus”. Even though there is absolutely no one in the vicinity I let out a theatrical “Fuck’s sake!” and turn on my heels to follow the signs to where the dreaded bus is supposed to be waiting.
A lone girl in a hijab stands by a yellow sign saying ‘Metrolink replacement Bus to Oldham/Rochdale’ down a side street around the back of the station. She is distractedly thumbing at her phone and smiles as it becomes clear we are in the same predicament. We are slowly joined by more individuals until a small congregation of Mancunian misfits are stood around agreeing that the current situation is indeed ‘Fucking BANG out of order’, ‘taking the piss’ and that the Metrolink higher ups responsible for the state of affairs are a ‘shower of shit’. Every new arrival is recruited into the ranks with an angry repetition of this hymn sheet.
There are people coming off the night shift, people with saucer eyes and chewed lips from the bank holiday festivities and a minority, like me, getting progressively later for a day at work. I briefly find solace in a very British working class camaraderie, comforting myself with the cliché that no such scenes would occur in London- and that maybe I do belong here. But it is fleeting and I feel the emptiness return, hugging myself and shivering as though it is cold. It’s not cold, it is May. It isn’t warm either, just… nothing. I wish it were freezing.
Out of the corner of my eye, the latest member of our motley crew approaches the makeshift bus stop. Recognition is a strange thing. It is as though something more basic in your body twigs before your brain. This tattooed, sinewy man in dirty workmen’s clothing walking towards me; I know him. He is the father of my best friend from high school, Amy.
Amy lived on the council estate near my school but had been moved there from a much more genuinely deprived part of North Manchester-Harpurhey. Not long after we left school, her family had moved back and I realise her dad will be heading home there, presumably after finishing work.
Amy was the most fearless and tough person I’ve ever met. In my adult life, whenever I have had to act intimidatingly, it is her body language and swagger I still channel.
She was a tiny little thing with natural blonde hair and a pretty yet strange looking face; small eyes and huge bee-stung lips. I never fit in at high school and was bullied mercilessly for being ‘posh’, something I genuinely believed to be true until I left the area and was treated as some sort of fascinating relic from the 90s Oasis ‘mad fer it’ era.
Amy never fit in either, although seemingly because she didn’t want to. Together we formed a very odd but intense friendship, the first of many dysfunctional female bonds I would make throughout my life after my mother left me at the turn of the millennium.
It was with her I drank an entire bottle of my Dad’s gin followed by an entire bottle of my Dad’s amaretto and staggered to school at lunchtime where we fell off stools in parallel, separate lessons like some darker version of ET and Elliot before being, quite rightly, suspended.
It was with her that I took acid and walked around an industrial estate while we were supposed to be babysitting before lying in a single bed in her bare, undecorated bedroom having a bad trip and begging her to call an ambulance while she told me to shut up and sleep it off as her tiny baby brother shared the bed with us, giggling and pissing on me.
It was for me that she smacked and punched the living shit out of a 14-year-old bully in the PE changing rooms after the girl had pushed me into a breeze block wall and cut my leg for no reason. The sight of that nasty girl who I could barely muster the strength to look in the eye reduced to a bloody, snivelling mess as the teacher prized them apart will always stay with me. It was perversely, one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me.
Granted it wasn’t all such extreme stuff. Those are just the highlights I like to tell years later to shock and impress friends and peers who endured a more twee adolescence.
She also had a knack for good, old-fashioned mischief. The pair of us were once summoned for a bollocking from the deputy head master, for a reason that long escapes me. As this was pretty much the most feared level of telling off on the ‘getting done’ Richter scale, we were instructed to stand at opposite sides of a huge hall, facing the walls for added pomposity as we awaited a fate, generally understood to be worse than death. I was shitting it but Amy didn’t bat an eyelid. In fact, she found the situation absolutely hysterical and suddenly had the idea to ‘switch walls’ before the silly old twat came back, which I dutifully did.
It took the wind right out of his sails as he pranced into the room and began to bellow at us only to suddenly stop with a confused, comic timing you couldn’t nail in the best- directed sitcom.
I’ll never forget my shoulders shaking from laughter as a middle-aged man screamed in my face and the invigoration it gave me, at fourteen, to be able to stand up to someone so quite patently ridiculous.
Amy just had trouble in her veins. Her family was poor and her house was always chaotic, but her living conditions were not as dysfunctional as mine. From what I could tell, her parents were loving- even strict. She just didn’t care. She was always grounded, yet it appeared impossible to enforce and I once watched her climb onto the roof out of her bedroom window as the man who now stood in front of me came climbing out after her, pulling her back by her hair and ripping the hood on her red Hooch coat, angering her incredibly. She punched him twice in the face and shimmied down the drainpipe before coming to sleep at my house. She always called him Peter, which would be disrespectful enough except it wasn’t even his name. It drove him crazy. He didn’t understand the joke. Neither did she or I which just made it funnier…
I watch now, nearly fifteen years later, as Peter lights a cigarette. He looks old. He was a young Dad, having had Amy has a teenager, meaning that he must still be in his forties. His eyes briefly scan over me with blank indifference and no sign of recognition. I consider jogging his memory and introducing myself but remember that any parental obligation to be polite to his child’s friends has long since passed. Now we are just two adults waiting for a bus, obscenely early in the morning.
Instead I try to attract his attention by announcing to the group that I have ‘tweeted’ metrolink about the delay.
“Tweet ‘em? I’ll fucking twat ‘em,” Peter says to no one in particular as he smokes his cigarette and paces.
“Shut up Peter, as if you could twat anyone,” Amy replies like a reflex in my head and I grin to myself with warm nostalgia. My smile, the first genuine one in a while, lingers, fading only as the bus finally pulls into view. There is a further revolt as the bus driver announces he won’t be stopping at all the stations on the route, but the daydream zones it out and I cannot muster the pretence to be annoyed that I am late for work anymore. Eventually, it seems the driver capitulates, as we pile on. I take a window seat on the top deck, close to Peter, as we roll off out the deserted city centre, bus barely an eighth full.
We are heading towards the satellite town of Oldham, where a small outpost of the Daily Mirror newspaper lives in an old converted mill. The perfect northern contrast to the skyscraper in London’s Canary Wharf, where the paper is based.
But to get there we must take a detour through the no-mans land of Monsall, Collyhurst and Harpurhey. Inner city areas of North Manchester that are purely residential.
I instinctively reach for my phone to absent-mindedly pass the time but a strange feeling descends over me as I start to take in our surroundings. It is a feeling I recognise from travelling the US; of passing through Chicago’s Southside or North Philadelphia by train and being simultaneously enthralled, yet baffled and intimidated by the grating poverty. But this is home and I am not a tourist. Fuck. The tram would normally spare me this round the houses route, but this rail replacement bus demands that I confront a part of the city I have not seen in years.
Was it always this bad? Is this the Tories? Amy and I had gone to Monsall once, to see a childhood friend of hers and to go to the local market. I hadn’t remembered it being so utterly, disturbingly deprived.
It doesn’t even really look like anyone lives here, anymore… almost post-apocalyptic.
However, as I look hard enough I see signs of community clinging to life amidst dilapidated high rises and boarded- up terraces; the go-to symbols of urban decay.
I’ve now lived in London for years, but the poverty is different. London poverty is multi-cultural, busy, frenetic… and, dare I say it, ‘cool’. The scene I am looking at is Soviet Russia. Nineties war-torn Balklans, a Ken Loach film. It is sad.
Maybe there are parts of London that look like this. Maybe I know absolutely fuck all about anything.
I feel flustered and naïve and am suddenly glad to be alone, lest the jaded street cred I have spent years cultivating be shown up by my slack jaw. Brief vindication of my disbelief occurs when I look up most deprived areas of England on my smart phone and discover that I am, indeed, travelling through the winner, or loser, of that dubious accolade.
I doubt anyone else on the bus is doing the same. Peter is yawning, rolling a cigarette and fiddling with a model of phone he could have had the last time I saw him.
This is Manchester. Yet it is as alien to me as the pseudo -hipster places I scoff at down south. Come off it, you twat; more so. This is where someone I once called my best friend was born and raised.
I am on a poverty safari. And I feel guilty. But I don’t look away.
Facebook came in stages. I was, smugly, one of the first studying, as I was, in America in 2006. Then came the British University students. Then the ‘full time mummys’ and the ‘u alright hun?’ brigade, much later. But Amy never surfaced. That fact leads me to a bleak inference that I try to ignore.
My access to the old-fashioned rumour mill expired a long time ago, but snippets filtered through in the years before. The last I heard, she had been seen by a girl who was now a nurse at North Manchester General Hospital with half her ear bitten off in a fight. I was also fairly sure she had at least one child by our late teens. I wonder if even Peter knows where she is now.
I watch from the top deck as he gets off the bus, lights a cigarette and breaks into a stride across a grassy knoll leading to a tower block. I turn around and strain my neck to watch him for as long as possible as we set off again until he is just an orange-reflector jacketed dot on this very depressing landscape.
As soon as he is gone from view my reverie abruptly ends. It is 2015. I am late for work. Yet all I can think is… I want to go home.
Read more nostalgic beauty in SN7: Women’s Day – available on Amazon!