by Kate Feld
Location: Gullivers, Oldham Street
Marie had been looking for cowboy boots for a while, so when she spotted a sweet pair of red ones in her size, just battered enough, for £10 at Age Concern, she was pleased. She was going to a gig that night and she decided to wear them with her black skirt. Look at my boots, she’d say, and tell the story of looking for the boots and finding them. Then everyone would admire her for being so good at buying things.
The boots made her feel strange. Maybe it was the way you had to walk in them – leaning back, viewing the action from a slight recline. It was like she engaged the world on different terms wearing these boots.
Marie walked into the pub and spotted her ex sitting at the bar. This was a man she’d carefully avoided for five months, moving through rooms as if he wasn’t there. But tonight the boots walked her up to the bar right next to him, and ordered a double bourbon.
Huh, the brain thought. It was intending to get a beer.
The boots turned her to face him, and before she knew what was happening, they were talking. They were always so good at the talking. It was the other stuff they weren’t any good at, and the brain, increasingly alarmed, tried to bring this knowledge to her attention. But the boots were not interested.
When it was time for the band to play, the boots hurried her legs ahead of him to the stairs, so he’d have plenty of time to admire the boots – and what was inside them – on the way up.
The brain was mortified. Oh God, are you kidding me with this?
Of course, the boots made sure they sat next to each other. While the two of them watched the band, the heels of the boots drummed impatiently on the floor. The boots were restless. These boots wanted to dance. These boots wanted less talk and more action.
In a panic, the brain flicked back through its memory banks, calling up images. The text messages fired at phones like missiles. The drunken fighting, the tears, the jealous rages. The worried face of her best friend saying why can you not just stay away from him? You’re no good for each other.
The boots just laughed. And? they said.
The brain decided: it was time to shut this down. Marie stood up and walked quickly to the door. The beat of her boots on the wooden floor was furious. Louder than the music. The band trailed off and everyone at the gig turned around to watch her walk out the door, down the stairs and out of the pub.
On Oldham Street, the sound of her boots on the concrete was a sound that could eat up the whole night. The boots stalked down Dale Street, then crossed Newton Street without waiting for the light to change.
As Marie walked, her brain was getting the measure of these boots. The brain was adding it all up and coming to the conclusion that maybe they weren’t such a bargain. So very quickly, before the boots could do anything about it, Marie walked to the edge of the canal, took them off and hurled them in.
Quiet came down on the city. She took a deep breath. Then with the soles of her feet cool on the ground, she walked the rest of the way home.
Nobody saw the boots emerge from the canal ten minutes later – first one red cowboy boot, then the other – and stomp down the pavement after her.
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.
by Sarah Jasmon
Location: Mitchell Street
I spiral in with my research, because, by making my approach in this way, I will catch the facts by surprise. You have to not want it too much. If I pretend not to care, then maybe secrets will come tumbling out at my feet, as if I have pulled the winning arm on the fruit machine of history.
So. Wikipedia. Roots.com. The Library Archive Online. The turn of the century feels like a good place to begin. My hidden background is a story of industry, of narrow streets crammed with clogs and shawls and factory bells. I hover, unseen. If I look hard enough, my great grandfather might come into view, but the air is dirty and clouds my view. And, anyway, how would I recognise him?
I click and lean and pore over these pages. I am from mill country and, from this virtual world, the mill chimneys rise up to inspect me. The Mills: a widespread family. Murray Mill was the first, and then Victoria Mill and all the little Millses:
The Wellington, the Brunswick and the India mills.
Lonsdale, Phoenix, New.
Lloydsfield and Sedgewick, Paragon and Pin.
Cousins and aunties in every back street. My birth name was Victoria and, for a moment, I feel a sense of kinship. I too was born within sight of the mills. This is where I come from, I am part of this family. They just don’t know it. They will never know it.
It’s time to zoom in a little, so I scroll on through the decades until I reach the time between the wars. On the way, I meet Mr Francis Crossley, my godfather if you will, who makes his money in engines. He founds a mission for the souls of his workers, refashioning a dance hall for his conversions. Star Hall. He hopes, no doubt, to turn the eyes of his men from carnal embrace towards words of the Lord. Within those plain walls, though, the heat of hot skin and music must linger. A maternity hospital is built alongside. The home for unmarried mothers crouches behind. The paternal Mr Crossley is covering all the bases.
I click on an image. By the time of this photograph, Crossley’s baton has been handed to the Salvation Army. They, too, keep the dance hall’s name. Star Hall. There it is in front of me, with red brick walls that push at the limits of their triangular plot like a flat iron dealing with humanity’s creases. Behind crossings of tram wire, the flat front edge is chimney tall. It holds words. The Salvation Army. Entrance. An arrow points to the left, jaunty feathers speeding us in. The and Army are set on an angle. Salvation runs downwards. You can’t fit salvation across a narrow space.
The maternity hospital is a legitimate enterprise, so most of the babies use the front entrance in Pollard Street . They enter held within the triumphant swell of a belly and leave, blanket-wrapped, to be welcomed by all of those aunties and cousins. I come across a story I like. An expectant father causes so much disruption as he waits that he is given an oilcan and sent to oil the hinges on the hospital doors. Imagine being the cause of such joy.
I, however, was one of those who was sneaked out of the back door: I followed the hidden route for secret babies. My birth certificate tells me that I was born at No. 15 Mitchell Street. No photographs remain of this entrance. It wasn’t the place to pose for a snapshot to be pasted into the family album. My mother must have passed the mission hall as she left, empty-armed. I stare at the picture of Star Hall, until the screensaver covers it up, then I move the mouse and stare again. I was here. I feel numb.
I contact the Sally Army Archive at their London headquarters, but my mother has disappeared again. Demobbed. Out on Civvie Street. I like to think that she is still alive. Does she remember my birth date every year? The birthdays of my own children can be slippery. I have to stop and think when I am asked to fill in a form. But then my children are here, in three dimensions. I buy them cards. I will, one day, make cakes for my grandchildren. I turn on my computer to look again at Star Hall, and this time I click on the button and fill in the numbers to order my own copy.
It’s in my hand today, now, as I make my way to the place where I was born. I am alone, but all around are my shadowy adoptive siblings. We come to the place on our birth certificates like divers feeling their way down a rope in dark water. I have to press against the weight as I walk out of Piccadilly station. Turn right down Store Street. Keep going onto Old Mill Street. Paving stones look the same wherever you are: grey, offset, and dappled with old chewing gum. My breath is almost gone as I cross over the canal. Star Hall has also gone.
I knew this already. Google was its efficient self, it gave me the bare bricks of the dance hall’s fate. I knew this, but still expected, somehow, to see…something. The hospital is gone as well. The home for unmarried mothers has been rebuilt as a refuge for the homeless, the dispossessed of other things. Mitchell Street itself no longer exists. Where does that leave me? Have I been born at all? I stand on the empty corner, imagining that the arrow from Star Hall is above my head. It points, not to an entrance, but to home. I am outside, not inside. In the air, not under water. The tram lines remain, and they run into the distance. I take a picture of the space where Star Hall once stood, and I turn away. I don’t need to be here anymore.
by Sarah Butler
Location: Coverdale Crescent, Ardwick
Everyone said it was shit. And it was – sure it was. People hated it so much they stopped calling it Coverdale Crescent and started calling it Fort Ardwick. The thing is though, a fort is basically a castle, just better. Plus it was where I lived.
Nobody liked it, but then nobody liked me and I was okay – just people looked at me and thought I wasn’t. I saw them – still do – holding their bags against their stomachs, bringing their elbows in – I’ve never hurt anyone, me.
They said it was shoddy, thrown up, not enough care taken. The concrete panels weren’t made properly – the holes didn’t quite line up. You know what it’s like – you’re putting a flatpack cupboard together and something’s not in the right place but you just bodge it instead of sending it back, starting again, because you want the cupboard up and you’ve got other shit to do.
They had to get these consultants in, after they’d finished, to rebolt all the panels or something , so the whole thing didn’t fall down. Cost a bloody fortune my nan said, and that’s our taxes. And even then the rain got in. They’d put straw between the concrete, which sounds a bit medieval to me, and no-one wants wet straw walls, right? Cockroaches and rats and mould and that.
My nan remembers when they knocked down the terraces. I remember when they knocked down the fort. And maybe they had a point about it being shoddy, because soon as the diggers got their claws in, the whole thing fell to pieces, like it was made out of cardboard and bits of sellotape, not concrete and glass. A fort one week, a pile of rubble the next. No-one wept for it, they say.
I didn’t cry, but I stood at the end of the street and watched the diggers pawing at the walls, ripping the place to bits, our old kitchen wall gone and the cooker and the cupboards and the crap plastic clock just there for everyone to see. Except there was no-one else looking.
I went down the library and looked up the word fort. It had all the usual stuff – fortified, defensive building. Blah. And then it said that the phrase ‘hold the fort’ meant: to act as a temporary substitute, cope with an emergency. And I thought yeah, that’s about right.
Sarah Butler‘s debut novel Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love is published by Picador and in 15 other countries around the world. She runs UrbanWords, exploring the relationship between writing and place through projects and writing-residencies. Follow her on twitter: @SarahButler100
Image copyright Sarah Butler.
This story was commissioned for Manchester Histories Festival in 2014 as part of Ruined: Short short stories about long lost places, which took place at Blackwell’s Books.
by JP Daly
Location: Piccadilly Gardens
It was starting to get dark and cold but we persisted with the concrete around Piccadilly Gardens and the last bottle of wine.
‘It didn’t always look this shit,’ I said. ‘Didn’t look great, either, but didn’t always look this shit.’
She snorted. ‘At least it’s got a wheel. That’s how they define cities, now, you know, used to be cathedrals and universities, now it just needs a wheel and it’s officially a city. It’s true.’
‘There used to be a lunatic asylum here. Part of the hospital, should have got them to design it.’
She snorted again. This was going well. I was making jokes about Piccadilly Gardens and getting a laugh. I was a Mancunian comic doing local knowledge gags to tourists. I was Peter Kay with truth.
‘The city’s changed in the last decade or two. Everyone will tell you it’s because of the IRA bomb, it forced the change the city needed but my mate Frank says it’s something else, he says the city found a surplus of glass below the Printworks and had to use it all up before the EU took it away to one of those glass mountains you hear about. So that’s where Selfridges came from. Dunno if he’s right, but makes you think, doesn’t it?’
My laughing tourist friend seemed less keen on this insight into Manchester, and I began to realise I had little to offer in the way of concrete evidence about the city. I was floundering, my historical knowledge of my local area was over. I knew Marx had been here. Or was it Engels? Or both? And the Industrial Revolution! I knew that. But what about it? Take her on a tour of Ancoats and point at every old building saying, ‘Mill, mill, mill, mill, overpriced apartments, mill, mill, church, mill, mill, mill’? The idea was starting to seem appealing. I was caught, I’d have to continue, show my prowess as Top Manc.
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves because Manchester said it was wrong. We all signed a letter saying it all seemed a bit off and he said, ‘fair enough, no more slaves.’
The world’s only ever swing aqueduct is on the Manchester Ship Canal. I knew that one. I’d always thought, everyone raves about the aqueduct, listed building, feat of Victorian engineering, blah blah, but no-one ever built another one. ‘Wow, this cheese sandwich is amazing, I will never eat another one, though.’
She seemed to be believing it. It was going well. Maybe these were true. They weren’t completely wrong, but not quite right either. Exaggeration and half-memories, that’s what the stories about the city are, anyway so I’m just being traditional. Everywhere you went there was some story, some first, some moment where everyone stopped and stared at the same place, and then promptly reimagined it in their own way for their own telling years down the line.
The 40 people at the Lesser Free Trade Hall that became 2000, all remembering where they weren’t when ‘music changed’.
Me spilling wine down myself from the cheapest bottle in Spar, surrounded by men in suspiciously large coats and concrete, slowly forgetting the lies I’ve been telling and preparing the images for the story in a few years of the park benches, the champagne flutes and falling head over heels for a laughing tourist who has a vaguely untrue knowledge of Mancunian History. Just like the rest of us.
JP Daly is a short story writer from Manchester, he is generally interested in very little. He is one part of Manchester ‘collective’ Bad Language, who host regular nights around the city and can mainly be found at The Castle Hotel at the end of every month. On Twitter: @jpmdaly and @badlanguagemcr
This story was commissioned for Manchester Histories Festival in 2014 as part of Ruined: Short short stories about long lost places, which took place at Blackwell’s Books.