This miserable town. Boredom, hopelessness, despair drip as condensation down its every surface to deaden the skin and the eyes, light up a thousand cigarettes. Defeat’s miasma curls wood, strips paint, shatters windows, repairs them again with superglue and uneven squares of plexiglass. Or leaves them jagged stars. Watches beautiful buildings sag and fall in a slow moaning plea for new use, truncates facades gawping at the sky, metals up entrances as it sends roofs slowly collapsing into the mildewed black holes beneath. Closes up all but the cheapest pubs, strip clubs. Ensures anger and violence always simmer just beneath the surface, marks couples by angry words, makes bodies spread wide or condense into hardened addict knots of wasted flesh. Faces too old.
Here and there a brave effort tries to rise above it. One holds knock-off china of a poorly-executed traditional pattern and cakes no one will ever eat embalmed in its windows. There are no bookstores. There are many people who do not embody poverty and despair here as foil to the rest, but they will not be found walking here after five. They disappear in cars to pockets of relative prosperity after picking up groceries at the giant Asda, carefully avoiding its predecessing poverty-stricken brutalist arcade next door. The two buildings together must have claimed a large section of the city center.
It is as miserable in the heat as it was in the rain and December’s freezing chill.
I hoped to escape, to find a mountain I walked up a broad paved path through a park, garbage winking at me everywhere beneath a welcome cover of riotous summer growth. It was isolated, trees and high banks to either side, beautiful old trees. Defeat running through their sap, their leaves keening. This is no safe place, there is nowhere to run but a preordained forward or back. A shuffling figure ahead of me, zombied with spice, dragging something from the bushes. Forward or back. Forward. No fear. It is some kind of jacket left here some time ago, he has dragged it into the middle of the path. Forward, he tries to see me but his eyes can’t focus, his lips can’t move to shut the gaping mouth over rotting teeth. His skin is mottled, I would not recognise him again because there is little of him here. It must feel like hours between thought and jerking steps. My heart breaks. Three others up ahead. Two young and one old, none of them have many teeth. All way too fucking thin, sinews standing out, anger simmering, arguing. Still walking with purpose, intent. Homemade tattoos stand out against white flesh. Only the old (prematurely old) one sees me, at my nod he makes way. ‘Sorry, love’ he says. I like his smile.
And then I am on an estate. A wide sprawling one, semi-detached houses that have all seen better days. Nothing else here. A sense of barrenness. Isolation. No plants, gardens. A place strangers never come, I can tell by the way cars slow with their music blaring, by the curious gazes of the children. I feel myself curling up inside because there is nothing about me that belongs to this place. This is somewhere so long cast out from belonging they belong only to each other. I am familiar with these places, knowing one makes you no more welcome in another. The mountain is getting closer. I swing my way through stares like wet concrete.
I approach what I suddenly realise is a motorway. No way over to escape to the mountains, you must go under. A fucking underpass, here. No way to walk alongside the road. No way to safely cross it. I can already smell the underpass. There is only forward and back. The air is horribly sickly sweet but underneath is human waste. Two fires have been lit here, I would guess to burn the sum of someone’s meagre possessions. Charred shapes rise from the ground, they feel alive, malignant. The underpass is actually a series of bridges. I stared, you cannot see from this place of safety what lies beyond. The tunnel that must be there.
Forward or back.
It was back. Had to be.
Past the same eyes, wading through the same concrete for the worst of it. I did manage to bypass the ‘park’ and instead curved down another road that opened up views across the valley — I had no idea how high I had already climbed. It should have been beautiful, but wasn’t. Down I went.