A Morning Expedition


Believe me, it doesn’t look anything like this good from ground level

It’s a change, I suppose.

There’s a lot of this city that I just don’t see any more, because I don’t have private transport any more. Buses are inconvenient, unreliable, inflexible. It takes too long, I can’t necessarily get to where I want to go, I can’t stop off on the way if an interesting looking new second hand bookshop catches my eye. Buses are only useful for destinations. Today, mine was Trafford Park.

Someone from whom I’ve bought an item off eBay chose yo send it by UK Mail. They tried to deliver it Thursday afternoon when I was at work, it was too big for the letterbox. The card led me to an online facility to rearrange.

But a date for re-delivery was just for weekdays, with no means to specify even morning or afternoon, so that meant collection from the depot on Saturday, before 12.00. It was in Trafford Park.

This is mainly an Industrial Estate, or rather a whole bunch of them crammed together, all long straight roads, not hot on bus routes or stops. This required planning. Now Transport for Greater Manchester‘s Journey Planner, which replaced a perfectly good, user-friendly, accurate system, is worse than fucking useless. It surveyed the entire panoply of public transport, buses, metro and trains and offered me one option: walk it in three and three quarter hours.

A Google search offered me the more helpful route of the 203 into Piccadilly, a 33 towards Worsley as far as Humphrey Park Metrolink station and a walk of 1.1 miles. But Paula at work rubbished that: get an X5 from Stockport Bus Station, straight to the Trafford Centre. The walk from there was 1.3 miles, but I’d be there far quicker.

Which much was true. The X5 takes 49 minutes from Stockport Bus Station. Unfortunately, it only runs once an hour, on the hour, which was twenty minutes away. A 23A would take twelve minutes longer but leave eleven minutes sooner.

It was a long route, through several of those places I no longer go to, and rather a lot of memories.

First there was Didsbury, and its Village. It’s changed out of all recognition, and I spent years watching most of that change, living on the fringe of it, then working on a different fringe of it. I haven’t been here since that last impromptu long-way-round bus back from Manchester City Centre when I discovered that their Pizza Hut, the one I’d taken John M to for dinner the day he helped me move into my first house, had been closed.

Then Barlow Moor Road: long, straight, unending. That’s where I saw that intriguing bookshop. Part of my learning to drive was in the side-streets and awkward corners round the back of here. I’ve walked down it, driven down it, backwards and forwards, hundreds of times. Alan and I would walk out here on Saturday evenings, sometimes, turn up Burton Road to the Canadian Charcoal Pit where I had my first burgers.

Where’s the Shady Oak gone? It was a big pub, set back in its own grounds, just across the Parkway. We’d come here for the Saturday night discos in the big room at the back, when I was still drinking cider. Here was the first (and only) time I asked a girl I didn’t know if she fancied a dance, though the ‘relationship’ didn’t last longer than the length of the song (which was ‘Ms Grace’ by the Tymes). When did they knock that down?

Next up is Chorlton. The novel I entered for NaNoWriMo 2013 had as its central character a lady living off this section of Barlow Moor Road. I got a bit too clever going into the final third of the story, broke the narrative, needed to rethink and rewrite. It’s still there, and I still intend to finish it. That and at least three others, if I last that long.

Chorlton Village. Back in the Seventies, when I was still determinedly clinging on to my reel-to-reel tape recorder, the number of places you could buy new tapes was rapidly diminishing, but there was one here, on the east side of the Village. I would walk it, an hour each way, summer mornings, from the south side of Burnage, almost a dead straight line throughout.

On the west side of the Village, when I was in practice in Altrincham, I had a good client who owned a Family Butchers here. We got on all right, and I got on well with his son, Pete, who was younger than me and who was going to take over the business when Jim retired. The year United rebuilt the North Stand, dramatically cutting capacity, and I was scrabbling for tickets all season, Pete sorted me out for one early season game on his Dad’s season ticket, whilst Jim was fishing in Ireland. He was full of this story from Football Focus, or whatever it was called that year, just before he came out, about the non-League guy who’d set an FA Cup record for the fastest ever hat-trick, three goals in two minutes and twenty seconds. Had I seen that? No, but I’d seen the bloody goals, because they’d been scored against Droylsden!

Pete was tickled by that. A few years later, our wonder season, he came to the penultimate match, bringing his Natalie Imbruglia-like girlfriend. He had a great time, told me he’d been talking with his Dad about getting involved here, like we had. he’d have fitted in well with the Pace Stand Mob, and the rest of the Mob wouldn’t have objected to his bringing his girlfriend along each time. But he never appeared again.

The last time I was in the shop was to collect a big book I’d won off eBay from someone who worked there, of all places. That’s disappeared too. I wonder what happened.

Stretford brought back a sobering memory. I know it well from all those visits to Old Trafford, up the road, but the route took us past Stretford Cemetery, and that brought back Debbie Noone.

We had a string of office juniors at our office in the City, all of them genuine ‘finds’ who went on to better things with us. When a slot became free, they’d come up with recommendations among their friends, equally as good. Debbie was part of that string, dark-haired, bright, lively. She loved UB40, especially their recent hit, ‘Don’t Break My Heart’.

Then, in the middle of the morning, the senior Partner came walking down the corridor, calling us all into Reception where, his voice shaking, he told us that Debbie had collapsed at the bus stop, coming into work that morning, and had died of a brain haemhorrage. She was 18.

The office closed for her Funeral. We all went. She’d been Roman Catholic. She’d been saving up for a holiday abroad with her boyfriend, that summer. We walked round the corner to the Cemetery. The other girls had clubbed together to buy a small commemorative stone for her grave: “Nooney  Our Friend Forever”.

And I haven’t thought about her in forever now, but it came back, the way some memories do, unblurred. Whitey’s voice, struggling against breaking down. The girls, some crying, others just sat there uncomprehending. Going back to my office, shutting the door, sitting at my desk, unable to think or feel. She’d have been 50 last year.

Beyond Chester Road, I was in foreign territory. I started tracing the route in an A-Z so old it still shows the Trafford Centre as ‘Under Construction’. Depending on which roads the 23A takes, I shouldn’t need to go as far as the Centre itself. It was impossible to tell from the A-Z where bus stops were, or whether these big straight dual carriageways have anything so mundane as pavements, or if I’d have to make some wide and time-consuming diversions.

Making a calculated guess, I dropped off in Lostock, but at least one, if not two stops short of where I could have gone. The big roads turned out to have pedestrian ways, but it was nothing but a trudge, with nothing to stimulate the eye or mind: just cars and lorries belting past, the backs of manufacturing and storage units, and one dull canal.

The last roundabout was being buggered about for the construction of a forthcoming Metrolink extension to the Trafford Centre but an elaborate pedestrian way linking the various exits was cordoned out by metal barriers. I nearly made the mistake of trusting to my visualisation of the A-Z to decide which exit I needed but, at the last minute, decided not to be a pillock and check, thus saving myself a long and useless diversion.

The first thing I saw on Ashburton Road West was a bus stop, but it had no Services on Saturday, no Services on Sunday, and no Services on Monday to Friday for that matter. No alternative to trudging on. This was already my longest sustained walk since the last time I wandered back from Central London to Euston Station, and my knee was already making pointed comments about it.

When I finally turned into Richmond Road, the first thing I was assailed with was seagulls, wheeling and crying above the unit roofs. No, I hadn’t suddenly become deranged, this part of Trafford Park is close to the Ship Canal, as the seagull flies, that is. Though if this lot have followed the trawler because they expect that sardines will be thrown into the sea, they’re widely off beam.

My arrival at UK Mail coincided with that of a young couple who arrived by car. They asked me if I’d been here before, if I knew where the door was. Well, it only had four walls and the door had got to be in one of them. It was, naturally, on the opposite sides of the building.

My parcel was big, thick, flat and rectangular. It contained a single issue of the Eagle, which struck me as overkill. It was far too large for any bag, so I tucked it under my arm. Cheekily, I asked the couple if they were going anywhere near Lostock on their way back: the guy had never even heard of it. Was it in the vicinity of Manchester Airport?

So I set off back. The first thing I noticed was that all vestiges of spring had gone from my step. Now I’d met my deadline, my insecure subconscious was no longer driving things. It didn’t matter how long it took me to get back. At least I knew the way, and could mentally split it up into sections, the completion of which made me feel I was progressing. Actually, it went by quickly, because I was mentally compiling most of this post up to this point.

Once I was off the final roundabout and onto ‘real’ roads again, it was time for my subconscious to reassert its anxieties, which a picture of the bus rushing past me on the way to the stop, but this time it was thwarted. There was actually one almost due, and I didn’t even get to sit down for more than 120 seconds before it arrived.

In the quiet bits of the journey back, when the bus was at rest or at least not racketing about too badly, I managed to scribble out most of the First Draft of this, until it was time for my other stop. I’d come home Friday to find another card through the door, another parcel too big for my letterbox, but at least this one was Royal Mail and the 23A obligingly passes by the Sorting Office at Green Lane. As usual, the queue was outside the door, but for the first time in all my visits there, they had three on the counter and I was rushed through in near-record time. This parcel was a white cardboard envelope a bit thinner than the first one, but otherwise of the same dimensions. I tucked both under one arm and set off back to the bus stop. This time, my panicky subconscious was reinforced by a bus ruushing by, but the next one was only about two minutes after.

By now, I was knackered and my knee sore. I wanted just to go home, but I also had a pressing need and nowhere at hand to satisfy it. So I caught the free bus over to Tescos (another wait of less than two minutes). On my way in, I passed my former team-mate Brian coming out. He looked shocked, asked if I was coming from work (I don’t do Saturdays). I explained my movements and told him, “My knee is killing me, I desperately need a piss and I’m going to get some food.” He laughed, loudly.

Though the Tesco’s Cafe does have healthy options, I just plumped for the all-day breakfast: double egg, double bacon, double sausage, chips and beans, for a fiver. This rapidly went where all good cheap food goes, making me feel much better. Unfortunately, by this time my knee was seriously sore, but there was room on the bench at the stop, and I had another ten minutes drafting time, taking me up to Green Lane, before the bus came.

First thing on getting in was the next painkiller. The last hour has been spent in typing this up, whilst cross-checking the football scores in passing.

This has been my latest ‘day out’. Please, any of you out there who may be on the point of selling me anything on eBay, please do not send the package by bloody UK Mail! That place is a human wasteland…

6 thoughts on “A Morning Expedition

  1. Love this Martin. Rich autobiography in a walk through space and time to collect a parcel. Quietly brilliant. You could develop this into something bigger. Don’t ask me what or how, but it has a real resonance. The Debbie story is very affecting. The same thing happened to a lad I was at school with. He was an athlete and the least likely person you would imagine something like that would happen to. Same diagnosis. Tragic and unsettling because it seems so brutally random.

  2. Much appreciated, as always George. I hadn’t thought about Debbie for such a long time, but the moment I realised we were passing Stretford Cemetery, she was there in my head, and most of the other girls (and Whitey’s nicknames for them, like calling Madeleine ‘George’ because she looked like Boy George, and Andrea ‘Ugly’, because she certainly wasn’t).

    I don’t know what else I could do with this. It skates across the surface of some memories, especially of life in and around Didsbury. And maybe I’m not as good as a writer as I hope I am, or maybe it’s today, but I would be too self-conscious of ‘using’ Debbie if I were to take her story into any kind of fiction. She deserved better than me.

    One of these Saturdays, when my knee is up to it, I’ll visit that bookshop I saw, wander round Didsbury, bring back a few more memories. Or go look at Chorlton again. They’ve a decnt looking bookshop. And a Pizza Hut restaurant. A bit less walking, I hope…

  3. Indeed. I suppose something about it seemed to echo Robert MacFarlane’s notion that walking ancient footpaths is a journey of the imagination as much as a journey of the feet, and they are populated as much by ghosts of what has gone before as much as the here and now. I liked the idea that it works in a personal urban setting as much as it does in a wider rural one.

  4. Ahhhh. That reminds me of something, a few lines I once wrote, about a couple who used to be in love. One of them was me. It took seconds to find it…:

    “When love dies, does it leave its’ ghosts in the places it was strongest? Do unsuspecting lunch-time pedestrians on Regent Road march through the spectre of me, prowling his little beat, anxiously turning at the corner to see if you’re yet visible on the long approach up Market Street? Do the expressions on our faces live that long, or were the only ghosts of love the ones we carried to bed with one another that last time we slept together?”

    That’s another memory. It’s been a day for them.

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