I stood quietly for a moment, my bodies’ senses detecting a slight cool breeze which made me shiver slightly. I breathed in the cool air, my nostrils detecting a faint smell of smoke wrapped up in the early morning air. It was wonderful to breathe real air once again, although I guess as I was technically dead breathing wasn’t what I was doing.
Opening my eyes, I saw the very familiar shape of the Clock Tower in front of me. The towns icon. It stood proud. Like the tower of an ancient castle, the stonework topped off with turrets at the top. It wasn’t however a bygone relic from medieval times but a timely reminder of our war strewn past. Erected in the 1920’s this was a monument to those who fell during the brutal and wasteful conflict that we came to know as World War One.
As a kid I’d thought it was the remains of an old castle and I’d scrambled around its base imagining I was a soldier repelling the hordes of invaders. I didn’t realise at the time why my parents had dragged me away from the tower and told me it was wrong to play there. To me it was a place to play, not to be revered as a monument to the dead. The bright red flowers didn’t look like offerings to the past but a colourful addition. That day I found out about the true horrors of war and understood the sacrifice these had made.
I wandered down the steep hill, the unevenness of the road making my stumble at times. At least that was something that hadn’t changed. I looked up the drive to the scout hut smiling at the memories it evoked in my mind. In an instance I was travelling back in time to the day I’d met Sinead. Little did I know what impact she would have had on my life. The words at the side where we’d lit fires. I could almost smell the wood smoke in the air, the smell of burnt sausages. In my mind I heard her laugh. Sometimes it’s the little things in life, or death, that you miss. Memories flooded back overloading my emotions. I wiped a tear from my eye.
The church loomed above me, the mock gothic structure standing proud among the building. Another building paid for by the town’s ‘benefactor’. If he wanted to be remembered forever he certainly spent his money wisely. Two huge structures at the very heart of the town erected in his honour, well his money at least. The walls of the church were patinaed with the smoke and pollution of the past 200 years a more fitting memorial. For years the steelworks that were the source of his money spewed out the dark toxic smoke which coated every old building in the town like a dark shroud. In contrast the stained glass in the east window sparkled in the rising sun. Red, yellows, greens, blues like a wonderful gemstone peeking out of the raw ore. Beauty hewn out of utility. I stood and watched the colours changing as the sun rose higher in the sky. The kaleidoscope of colour eventually coming to an end as the sun illuminated the rest of the town, nulling the effect of the light.
I walked down the street towards the old mill building. It had changed around here in the past few years since I’d be gone. There was a cleanness to the area, a newness that even made the air seem fresher. The clean bright sandstone contrasting with the normal darkness. The normal narrow road leading towards the mill was wider, a tree of two here and there adding a touch of green to this oasis.
New shop fronts on the left opened out and in the back the old mill loomed overhead, Even that looked new, the stone having been cleaned. The rows of large windows shone in the light flooding their interiors with a cheap source of light. The roundabout in front made me stop in my tracks. Plonked in the middle was a statue, but not like anything I’d ever seen in a street before. It wasn’t your usual statue. Green, maybe to give the idea of weathered copper, it was a caricature of a fox, dressed in a suit and hat. In an outstretched arm an umbrella was clutched pointing towards a new complex. I smiled, it was like Disneyland had been planted in the middle of the town, you couldn’t help but smile.
I turned my gaze in the direction of the umbrella. This was a new bit of town; one I hadn’t seen before. A clean, stark arcade leading towards a cafe at the bottom. The shops lined each side facing outwards. The shop front colours designed to entice us in. I took my time wandering down the aisle of shops, looking at the array of goods available. Behind the glitz and newness there was the reality that there really wasn’t anything new, just a new way of showing it.
As I came down the end I caught the whiff of newly brewed coffee wafting down towards me, like an invisible finger slapping me in the face and guiding me towards the café. Mixed up in that heady aroma was the smell of warm croissants freshly baked. My mouth watered involuntarily at the thought of devouring a breakfast. Music played lightly in the background and I could hear a waitress humming as she set the tables.
Tearing myself away from temptation I retraced my steps down back towards the roundabout. In spite of the newness and inviting shops, the whole place was kind of soulless. As if they were trying to create a town centre all at once. There was no age or reassurance about the place. A town centre needs to build slowly over the years, establish it’s place in the town, in the hearts of people. This new centre was just a way of making money, not of serving the community’s needs. Sighing I left, smiling at the fact that loads would disagree and like this new edifice that had materialised in the town.
I wandered up the old high street, the boarded up shop fronts telling their own story of the new development. A few places clung on to life but the proliferation of fast food eateries had increased. The polystyrene boxes and paper strewn outside and in overflowing bins gave the area a grimy run down appearance. A few flower tubs tried to liven the area failing miserably against the onslaught of paper cups strewn among the flowers. Was this really the town that I loved, the place that was home?
I walked on past the sixties library building, dark brick and glass windows which at the time had seemed modern and now just looked cheap and municipal in appearance. I loved the place though. So many memories of a child on a Friday evening working my way through the books in the children’s section, those wonderful stories that filled my mind with other universes, other cultures and diverse thoughts.
The town was built in a valley with the housing more of less placed on the southern hillside, protected from the harsh winds in winter but usually in the shade. Passing Sinead’s street, I paused. It was one of the few built on the north side of the main street. I remember the shop at the ned where she’d stand waiting for me to pick her up. I saw in my mind’s eye her stood there now, her little wave of recognition at me. Then it faded away in the breeze. I thought of going down and seeing if I could spot her family, but I couldn’t bring myself to put myself through that torture.
I turned up the hill. One disadvantage of the town was the steep hills that led up to the houses. My street was no exception. As a kid I’d thought it was Everest and imagined pulling myself up to the top, crawling up the steep bits as though was clinging to a raw cliff edge. The road snaked its way up before reaching a flat spot. I stopped hearing the crickets in the grassy area to my right. It was a wasteland, much beloved by the local cat population where they hunted the mice and voles that lived in the grassy wilderness. For years they’d been plans to build houses on here but it seems they were still plans., the wild flowers still clung on.
Over the brow my house came into sight. I hadn’t known what to think about seeing it again. It wasn’t mine of course now, eerily it still looked the same. A new car was parked in the drive, new occupants. New curtains hung in the windows. I saw someone flit across the windows. At first I thought it was my parents, but they were long gone, the accident taking them away from me. This place held so many memories, so many images stored in the recesses of my mind. I thought about all the good times, not the bad, the love and care flooded my senses.
I felt something move past my feet. Looking down I saw it was Yoda, my cat. Somehow I could sense he could see me even though I was invisible to the rest. He meowed and I longed to hold the ginger fur ball but I couldn’t, not in this state. I cried uncontrollably not just for the lack of physical contact but the emptiness of this world for me.
I sat on the wall and stayed until Yoda got bored, like he usually did and trotted off in search of mice and adventure. I decided to walk up to the top of the hill. I took the path and was soon in the fields that led to the moors above. Sheep grazed seemingly unaware of my presence. The greenness was a contrast to the greys and blacks of the town. The air felt fresh and alive.
I made it to the other side of the field and stood under the tree. In the trunk I saw my initials and those of Sinead. Our mark for eternity, the place we’d first shared that first awkward kiss. A place we returned to again and again in the years. I caressed the letters feeling part of the place, trying to read them with my fingers. Everywhere I went were reminders, no more so than here.
Carrying on over the stone style, skirting the dry stone walls where moss clung to its edges protected from the harsh winds in winter. Moss that made the stone look like a living entity rather than the cold dead objects they were. The going getting tougher as the slope increased. Death hadn’t improved my athletic prowess.
The bench of the top gave me a chance to rest. The woods behind me led to the moors but I looked instead to the town sprawled before me in the valley below. The view from here included five counties and I always thought you might see the sea seventy miles away if you could stand on your tiptoes. However today my focus was on the town. The valley contained it, not letting it spew out of the mouth. The industrial buildings that housed the modern steel works filled a fair proportion of the bottom but you could make out the older building, the mill, the new development, the clock tower.
I could see Garden Village, the model estate with its tree lined avenues. Built in the 1930’s to provide houses for the workers in the steel mill, the white fronted house contrasted vividly with the red brick of the others. Here in this microcosm was my childhood, my life for many years. The place I called home, yet now it seemed to be an alien place. One of those places that reminds you of the past but has no real relevance in your present life. All that it held dear to me had gone, now dust in the street of life. So many memories. I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t want to go back.
I must have been sitting looking for hours as the sun made its slow progress across the sky, changing the view as it did so, illuminating another area. An ever changing picture before my eyes. I was vaguely aware of the occasional walker with dogs in tow that passed but my mind wasn’t in the present, it was wallowing in the past, trawling through the memories. I barely heard the words uttered.