At Ease In The Urban Forest
On a Thursday evening, enveloped by imaginary fronds, I ghost-step the side-streets of King’s Heath and Moseley in a nostalgic daze. It’s so hard to deny that I’m here again, crossing from the Jewel in the Crown to the Prince of Wales, on a Thursday evening towards the end of the Eighties with the Potsdamer Platz in ruins and the end of history still unheralded. Moeen Ali goes past me in a pushchair and, of course, I can’t predict his cricketing exploits. I’m with the counterculture, passing on spliffs not quite inhaled but the smell sticks to the roof of my mouth. The city remains uncanny… it’s a red-brick forest in which I can keep on walking without reaching the end. With Balti after Balti, I measure out weeks whilst taking refuge in a studio flat with a black-and-white TV and a record player with boxy speakers. Someday this will end is a thought that never occurs. Thirty-two years ahead is a thought that never occurs. I am at ease in the urban forest, feeding on scraps of information. And then I wake up in my sagging chair and am thirty-two years older. There’s no way back to those red-brick streets and the unknowable adventures ahead.
There’s no way into the movie from here. One of the lads is leaning against the façade of a closed-down bank – I work this out from the sign that reads ʹBank Chambers 1898ʹ – and appears to be holding a cigarette in his right hand. He wears a sky-blue top, with a logo that I can’t decipher, and a navy jacket. His companion, assuming that they are known to each other, is crouched in a doorway beneath a blue-and-white checked blanket. That’s all I can tell, no matter how dark or strange their stories.
It’s hard to discern the time of day, although ʹessentialʹ shops are open – Nifty Crafts is closed, but buckets and plastic stools outside Bargain World create a zone of garish surrealism. In Tower Square, opposite a Town Hall with a Star of David window under reconstruction, a man stands at the entrance to Coral counting his fingers. Further on, another man in droopy trousers clutches an oatcake from a nearby shop and stares at the camera. There’s no way in here either. They’re trapped behind glass, as soundless as fish.
I suppress an urge to get on the last train this evening – although it has almost certainly left – so that I can be in Tunstall tomorrow morning in person, checking if all these characters are still present. Risking capture myself, on a permanent Tuesday morning in the poorest part of the Potteries, behind the same glass wall that I stare through now.
At least the sign on the window of Muscle Hustle – clearly the go-to shop for bodybuilders - is unequivocal. ʹCome in for a free consultationʹ it says. ʹAchieve your goals and feel amazingʹ. So how can I resist? But there is no place for me here, and the silence of these images compels me to silence.
To think that it was really me, on a Saturday morning in February 1984, travelling to Nottingham from Leamington Spa for the second Saturday in a row to watch football. Last time it was Forest, this time County. I change buses in Leicester and travel north on a long straight road across the Wolds… open country, mile-wide fields, no settlements to speak of. Nottingham appears as suddenly as a mirage… passing the cricket ground, I cross the Trent and disembark at the southern end of the city centre. So what is to be done in Nottingham? The Mushroom Bookshop with its Situationist pamphlets. The view from Nottingham Castle, Arthur Seaton a middle-aged man in a cap by then. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem… a quick pint in a cave carved into the rock. Then the match itself, in a Victorian stadium with barrel-roofed stands, a lingering aroma of rust and pitch and randomized security fencing. Bizarrely, Watford win 5-3 after going two goals down in the first ten minutes. The crowd are civil and sedate, unlike at the boisterous City Ground. Even in an age of football thuggery, I could cheer the opposition and only be tutted at. After the match, I walk through The Meadows and return to Leamington on the bus, stopping off in Leicester for imam bayildi at a Turkish restaurant near the intersection of the principal streets. Another day in my life concludes with a walk to my rented room in Quarry Street, as really me as I am really me this evening.
This is also the day on which I cross Maid Marian Way and come within a second of being hit by a fast-moving car whose presence I hadn’t registered. Thirty-seven years, one month and thirteen days of after-life since have brought me to this page, this day… to this precarious frisson of relief that I will struggle to shake off for the rest of the evening.
Copyright © Norman Jope, 2022