The Ikea in Ashton can be seen from space
By Adrian Slatcher
Location: Ikea, Ashton-under-Lyne
In all the time he’d lived in the town, moving, bit by bit, down a ladder that he didn’t even know was there, Ray had remained oblivious to his surroundings. Northern towns were uniform in their design; the rows of terraced houses, the Sixties tower blocks, the one-way system with its graffiti-covered piss-smelling underpasses; the old town market in the shadow of the Victorian town hall’s flaking grandeur.
Once he’d slipped out of the manual work that was the only thing he’d been qualified for, and the doctor had accepted his cocktail of ills – a respiratory disease not helped by that manual work, nor by his continued smoking of roll-ups; a weak heart and poor circulation, not helped any by his habitual afternoon drinking; even the few mental episodes that had come on him after his wife had left – it had been the easiest thing to slip further down. The council flat had given way to a workers’ B&B, the B&B to a men’s hostel, the hostel to the park bench and the underpass. Ray had fallen slowly, so that every step down was hardly noticeable.
He would look up every now and then, and be surprised there was still some sky there. But this was Ashton, and whatever the season, the sky was likely to be this grey. After a while, you chose not to look up at all.
Nothing new ever came to town. There would be an occasional billboard proclaiming that some part of the centre was now a ‘regeneration zone’, but it would soon go the way of everything else in the town. So when they began building the new retail development, Ray hardly noticed. Its steel frame grew above the town, reminding Ray of nothing so much as the giant spiders in the Dr Who episode that had sent him scurrying behind the sofa as a child, where Jon Pertwee had been replaced by Tom Baker.
Ray had come into a little money, an inheritance from an uncle who had no children but plenty of nephews and nieces. The few hundred pound wasn’t much to any of them, but to Ray it had been an incredible pot of gold. With it, he’d been able to get a place in a housing association block, with a furniture pack from the Methodists. For the first time in years his days included such unfamiliar activities as cooking and shopping.
It had been Ray’s bad luck that the fire that ripped down the market had spread a plume of smoke as far as his block, and they’d been evacuated for days and weeks as structural checks were made. The return to the B&Bs and hostels he’d accepted as inevitable, and when he’d at last been let back into his flat, he could only look at the smoke-stained furniture with dismay. He handed in the keys the next week, mumbling to the social worker that he’d stay with a sister in Scarborough.
He went to Scarborough for a few days. You could draw your dole there as well as anywhere, and out of season you could get a room without much money. But the sea hadn’t suited him. The pubs weren’t the ones he knew. He’d only gone to get away from the questions he might get asked. ‘Go to Yorkshire and nobody in the North West will bother you anymore,’ an old lag had once told him and the advice had stuck.