Extract from The Elastica Principle
by Sian Cummins
Location: Mayfield Station
Once my resignation is irreversible, I take myself for a solo pint or two. Stomach acid is gushing around me from what I’ve just had to do and I promise myself a fry-up later. I go to a Spar shop for the ingredients and add a what-the-hell four pack to my basket. Four shining, cold Strongbows, to celebrate in the house. With the ghost.
In this louche mood, I decide to get a train home. With my carrier bag of goodies twisting my hand to sausage meat, I walk across the footbridge towards Piccadilly Station; bright glass and steel but unable to shake off a carbuncle of badger’s-arse roughness around the main entrance. Truly this is the centre of the city – the first sight for many newcomers but somewhere permanent residents rarely go. I swing round to look at the orange brick tower of the old fire station, the distant university buildings and the curve of Piccadilly down among the pigeons and charity muggers – my own first sight of the city. My bag clips someone’s bike and they call me a ‘silly cow’. Really, it’s time to be gone from this town.
From the platform for local stopping trains, you can see Mayfield Station. It’s a mirage most sober Mancunians can’t see. It looks like a derelict warehouse but is a large disused train station, metres from Piccadilly’s 16 platforms and once used to take its overspill. Once you’re looking you can see that the warehouse-shaped building has a long viaduct extending from it. Here there are closed train lines, high up out of sight. Manchester is so thick with railway bridges and industrial leftovers that hardly anyone does look. There aren’t many places from which you can see into Mayfield and no one cares anyway. This is a city that can let something like Mayfield Station remain undetected, paces from its busiest terminal. There have been mentions in the press occasionally– a coach station or luxury flats floated – but nothing ever comes of them, even in this development-happy town.
It’s a decision of moments to leave the station and make my way to street level. Mayfield sits, psychologically, on a road out of town. No one passes it on foot but prostitutes, indie kids on their way to the Star and Garter, and people who work in the few units under its arches. The main roads either side lead to poor suburbs, or onwards, into arterial escape routes. Anyone who passes Mayfield passes with their head down.
I circle it with my shopping bag. I find you can get right behind the main building through a detached section of corrugated fence. I’m on a little embankment alongside the canal and soon I’m stumbling over bottles and bricks. I don’t care, because I’m a bit pissed and I’ll soon be on my way to Seattle.
At chin level there’s a roller shutter pulled halfway down, bunched and rusted at an angle. Under it I can see the interior stretching into textured shadow and pillars of sunlight. I put my carrier bag on the ledge under the shutter so that my bacon and eggs can experience being partly inside Mayfield. I reach to retrieve it and it clatters forward and out of sight. In another time I’d just have left it, but I stand on bricks and pull myself onto the ledge. I have to lie on my stomach to get under the shutter and I can’t see the ground on the other side. I pivot, and lower myself backwards over the ledge. My feet touch ground about a metre and a half below and I find my bag. I tidy the spilled groceries back into the bag and look around the inside of Mayfield.
I’m in the booking hall. Most of the green tiles are still on the walls. There’s evidence of urban explorers in a blogspot address stickered to a pillar. There’s a strong smell of charcoal. An arson attack took the roof out earlier this year. The sky is blue above me and it’s very, very quiet.
A steep staircase ascends into a broad blade of sunlight and I obey my animal preferences for height and light. There are a lot of stairs and they’re rusty and covered with damp soot. The ornate handrail has been deformed by the fire. There are ferns growing, as tall as me, out of the steps.
Upstairs, the platforms are intact. The buffers are still there but there’s been nothing but grass on the line for forty years. I shuffle off the platform edge on my bum and walk along the place where the tracks used to be. I’m up in the sky. There’s a student hall being built to my right but it hasn’t yet risen to a vantage over Mayfield. The grass is thick and soft and it’s as quiet as it was in the station building but, here, I feel more at ease. I find a place to sit in the open air, beyond the platform canopies, and I check my eggs. I lay them on the grass next to the bacon. One cracked, five survivors. I crack open one of my cans of Strongbow, slightly dinted.
A tall brick wall shields me from view of Piccadilly Station, metres away. I can just pick up the bong-bing-bong of its PA, then it’s drowned out by a train on the mainline. I’m in the centre of Manchester, sitting on a railway line drinking Strongbow, and no one can see me.
All four cans later I realise it’s no longer summer and this derelict place is becoming dark around me. I need to get back down into the silent booking hall and out on my stomach under the shutter. I’m seven pints pissed and there are chunks of glass and iron bar waiting to trip or impale me in the twilight. That, and I can feel people gathering at the bottom of the stairs. Ghosts from another era. Ghosts here, ghosts at home.
I break up the plastic from the cans so no animals can be strangled, and wrap the empties up in the carrier bag, which I take with me. I get to the top of the stairs and look down into the shadows. I take hold of the handrail, close my eyes to a slit and guide myself down to the booking hall. I panic. I can’t find my shutter. There are many chinks of light, darkening by the minute, from broken windows and impassable exits. I hear something in the Fairfield Street doorway. A pigeon. I walk purposefully in the direction I think I came in and then I see the gap under the shutter. It’s harder to get up from this side and there’s that sound again, too heavy and close to the ground to be a pigeon.
I graze my belly on the way out and land without dignity on the embankment outside. I jog to the open section of fence and keep up that pace until I reach my bus stop. I’ve been inside Mayfield Station. I’ve said a momentous bye-for-now to Manchester. I only realise later than my eggs and bacon are still neatly lined up on the abandoned railway tracks.
Sian Cummins is a writer, editor and reviewer living in Levenshulme. Follow her on Facebook here.
This is an extract from her novel The Elastica Principle. It was read during Manchester Histories Festival in 2014 as part of Ruined: Short short stories about long lost places, which took place at Blackwell’s Books.Stats: