This Must Be the Place

I loathe this place. I’ve never understood it. But they kept telling me it had changed. 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 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 didn’t work. And on a grey, May Bank Holiday Monday at 7am, I see glimpses of the old city I used to know rubbing up against the new and hazy contrast of the familiar and the strange feeling of 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.

My sister had recently come back for a visit from her new life in South America and, seemingly more left-wing than ever, had bemoaned the state of the once beautiful, if shabby building and the sacrilege of the development. I hadn’t listened much at the time, but she was probably right.

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 looking at her phone and smiles as it becomes clear that 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. However, it is fleeting and I feel the emptiness return, hugging myself and shivering as though it’s 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.

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Read the full story by Elle Griffiths in Sheriff Nottingham’s next issue – coming out August 26th!

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