I kept asking myself why. Why was I going back? Would you? Will you? Why?
The M1 and then the M6, mile after mile, and this question kept nagging me, like a lingering hangover, or teeth set on edge by a cold.
Going back – was it something everyone wanted to do or did? To relive the past, for what it was worth? It wasn’t as if anyone I knew or had known lived there anymore.
I parked at Woodside; now a vast empty space for the wind to rampage around like a hooligan on Saturday night, and the familiar salty smell gusting off the river nearby greeted me like an old friend. Woodside, the trees long gone to make ships for King Henry, had been a station once. A huge cathedral of a station, high-roofed, a whole history book of journeys, vacations, evacuations, soldiers, many leaving, not so many returning, and holidays with my aunt in the South, packed off on my own. The age of steam: the smoking, towering engines that had terrified and captivated the small boy with their fiery smell, their sudden, unexpected belches of steam. Trains that ran for a hundred years between Birkenhead and London, and then stopped – for progress. Nothing left but an invisible past and the cinders of the unmade car park that crunched unceremoniously beneath my feet. Spilling carelessly out of their car, some hooded youths hurtled past and sped down to the pier head, their laughter stinging like an insult, steaming in the cold air.
The Pride of Birkenhead: it was a ferry I remembered, well past the end of its life, aching and shuddering as it churned away from the pier, its haul of passengers heavy with their thoughts and themselves, and instantly forgettable impressions of the moment.
A subdued and sombre River Mersey returned my gaze – no use looking for the ocean-going liners, no more ships bringing sugar and tea, having discharged their cargoes of slaves on the other side of the world – this once great port of Liverpool had been on the dole for fifty years and was still looking for work.
The ferry docked. I was in Liverpool. I had been ferried across the Mersey, once again, and not a guitar in sight.
Arrogant and unrepentant, the profit of empire and exploitation, the city’s majestic buildings loomed high above me as I progressed past the Liver building, the banks, the department stores, the Walker Art Gallery, St. George’s Hall, Lime Street Station until I reached Beyond.
Beyond was a residential slum, in various stages of being pulled down. The City of Culture 2008 was rebuilding itself. Putting on a new face. But it had missed a bit – the terraced street I was looking for, and finding now: the madeleine in the tisane, raising associations of my father and his friend, Mr Hobbs, the watch repairer.
It was late afternoon – and noticeably autumnal. The street had that tired-of-waiting-are-we-there-yet-look. You could sense the frustration suspended between the houses like washing left out too long, greying and taking on a rancid smell, giving back to the wind. And soon, the street seemed to close in on me, like a gang of thugs emboldened by the fading light, poised to pounce.
Here and there, unable to stand any longer, a house had been taken away. On either side, the patchwork of wallpaper made a show, like a domestic scene. In tatters. Would-be mechanics fiddling with a car in someone’s lounge, followed me with furtive eyes.
Now and again, there would be houses boarded up and waiting to go; or others, the front door wide open to the street, emitting intimate smells; and the drooling dog with a bark from hell; its bloated bull of an owner snarling from the back room, in a greasy vest, “Looking for someone, pal?” Fearing even no answer might provoke him, I would hurry by, pretending not to have heard, dodging the dogs’ mess and holding my breath past the piles of uncollected rubbish, abandoned by the latest strike.
Mothers on doorsteps would eye me tensely, as if I bore bad news like a telegraph boy, then would look to their children, the shrill shrieks of warning echoing down the street.
Suddenly came a yelp of “Goal!” from a group of youths as their burst football was belted furiously against an end wall, as if ferocity alone could fashion their future. Or give them hope.
Likewise, on another wall, the graffiti, grafting girl to boy, forever.
The happy hours I had spent in Mr Hobbs’s house, and afterwards the going home with my father, back across the river – time had moved on – the house had gone. There was a gap.
Hesitating with age, the yellowing street lights flickered and came to life, with their deceptively comforting glow.
Time to turn and make my way back across the river.
Deal with another nagging question. Or just deal.