He walks. He walks every morning. He walks the same route; Top Locks to Bates’s bridge and back. About three or four miles all in all. It takes him about two hours at his usual plodding pace. He walks to distract himself. He walks to forget yet in attempting to forget, all he does is remember. He sees ghosts. He hears voices. The ghosts of his youth. The voices of the dead. Sees things as they used to be, as they never will be again, back when the Bridgewater Canal was bustling with narrow whackers loading and unloading their goods at Top Locks. He walks through history, he hears his grandparents…
William John Nolan. Born 1901.
Anne Margaret Jones. Born 1900.
Alfred Thomas Palin. Born 1898.
Hannah Darlington. Born 1904.
He walks as if they walk with him. He walks as if they are guiding him. They point out the old shops;
Ahab Sayle’s butchers
Wiiliam Griffin’s chandlers
Isaac Speakman’s chemist
Franklin Goforth’s wine merchants
Grice & Sons saddlers
Eliza Brimelow’s fishmongers
Arthur Riley’s bakery
George Parkinson’s barber shop
Ellwood Smith’s tea merchants
And all the old pubs….
The George Inn
The Holyhead Harbour
The Stanley Arms
The Queen’s Head
The Derby Arms
All gone now. He walks up Cawdor Street, along Brindley Street, under the arches of the railway bridge and through the subway where the Welsh Chapel used to be and up onto the towpath, opposite the Waterloo, where they film Two Pints Of Lager. He watched the first episode out of curiosity just because it was filmed in his hometown, in a pub where he once played for the pool team. He never watched it again. He walks past the RAOB club – The Buffs – where he celebrated his 18th birthday, past Top Locks garage where he used to take his car for repairs, under the bridge approach road where the pigeons shat and squabbled in their filthy recesses. Then a little further up he walks under Doctor’s bridge where he got his first wank, past the now derelict job centre where his mam used to work, past the Scala bingo hall where his ex-wife met her mum for a game every Thursday and Sunday night, a huge gaping hole in its once proud art deco roof. Left to rot, left to the pigeons and the rats. He tries not to think about all these things, tries to bury them under fresh memories but there are no fresh memories with which to displace them. Not now.
He stops at the Brindley, the fancy new arts centre built with Lottery money, built from exploitation, from need and greed. He never did the lottery, never bought scratch cards, never placed a bet or played the bandit. Never had. He just saw it as another con, another way to part the poor with whatever little money they had. He lights a ciggy. Ghosts. Voices.
The ice has covered the canal in a thin, pock marked skin, the textures forming strange abstract patterns, criss crossed here and there with regularly spaced indentations, too regular to be accidental. They remind him of the raised lumps of flesh on his neck, where the stitches from the bottle wound had been removed. He studies them for a few seconds, follows their apparently random paths and realises they must be footprints. Ducks probably. The ducks always gather here under the footpath bridge waiting for the usual cranks and weirdos to chuck bread for them. He often wonders how they filled the canal, this one, all the canals. Did they re-direct water or pump it from rivers or just let it fill up with rain water?
There are tree branches and lager cans, pizza and kebab boxes, bottles and bricks on the ice. The weather has been freezing for almost a week now and the weekend revellers and the danger loving kids have left their debris scattered along the cut. He takes a deep drag on his ciggy and watches as the smoke drifts up in a vertical plume above his head, sees it swirl and disperse in the clean, cold air and remembers a time when he still felt connected to this, connected to his family and his friends and his town. It’s one those mornings, the kind of morning that make you feel, if not exactly ‘glad’ to be alive, then at least glad to have been alive. There’s a solitary strip of cloud in the bright, blue sky, a sky so bright it hurts his eyes. The cloud tapers away in a long, thin spine like the fossilised remains of some long-lost reptile. It’s only on days like this that you notice how many planes there are in the air at one time. He counts four, the cocaine vapour streams crossing here and there and the distant metallic glint of a plane as it catches the sun recalls the times he’d travelled to Spain, to Greece, to the Canaries, with the lads, with his kids. It seems so long ago now. He throws the cigarette onto the ice and feels guilty, adding to the collection of human shit collecting under the bridge. When the ice melts it’ll sink to the bottom and add to the existing layers of mud and shit. Shit and mud.
He walks on. Under yet another bridge, where the narrow boats are moored; Laughing Tam, White O’Morn, Cheshire Lad, all painted in that quaint, almost childish manner favoured by the boaties. The only time he’d ever been on one of these things was during a school trip when he was nine or ten.
The teacher had explained how the narrow boats were pulled by shire horses and how, when they went through a tunnel, the horses were taken over the bridge and planks had to be placed across the boat. Two people had to lie on these planks either side of the boat and push it along using only their feet against the tunnel walls. Way up the canal, further than he’d ever been, by Preston Brook, the boat went through a long tunnel and they’d all had a go at lying on the planks and pushing it along themselves. It had stuck with him, that dark, silent, musty tunnel, the smell and the heat and the feeling of claustrophobia, of being trapped and it scared him because something told him this was what death felt like.
He walks to calm himself down. He walks to stop thinking too much about litter, about trash, about trash and litter, the trash and litter of his town, the trash and litter of his life. He passes the man on the bicycle in the Hi-Vis jacket. He passes the man on the bicycle in the Hi-Vis jacket most mornings. He thinks he’s Polish or East European at any rate. There were lots of Poles and East Europeans in the town now. He heard the old ones moan about them, how they even had their own shops but he had no beef with the Poles. They kept themselves to themselves. They were only trying to make money, trying to raise families. Give the poor fuckers a break. Small-minded people from a small-minded town. You can’t hide in a small town. Everyone wants to know your business, everyone wants to stake a claim on you. There are no secrets in a small town. He knows this from experience.
He always cracks onto him, the man on the bicycle in the Hi-Vis jacket. The man on the bicycle.always half-smiles back but it’s always a hesitant half smile, the kind of smile that says ‘don’t ever try to speak to me.’ Even Poles and East Europeans gave him that look, the same look he got from a lot of people these days. The look that says ‘You’ve lost it!’ but lost what exactly? He could see it in their eyes, that look of contempt, of disgust, of pity, of fear. He didn’t care what they thought, what conclusions they jumped to. It wasn’t that he couldn’t communicate just that he’d given up communicating. Withdrawn into himself and severed every connection with the outside world. What do they know about him, his thoughts, his life?
He turns the bend and notices the thin ice has thawed in the shade of the glass factory’s high, red brick walls. As he walks three moor hens comically fly from the bank and enter the water, thin red legs trailing behind them. In the branches of a birch three four or five magpies squabble, their Battle of Stalingrad rattles ringing out above his head. He hates that sound but likes the sneezing noise moor hens make when they’re alarmed. He’s noticed a rapid increase in their numbers lately. When he was a kid you only saw a few but now they nested all along the bank for miles. Swans too. Moor hens were timid things, ducks would wait until you almost got up to them before nervously waddling into the canal but swans, swans stood their ground and hissed menacingly. As if you were infringing on their fucking turf. He hated swans. You couldn’t eat swans. That’s what his mum told him when he was a kid. Swans belonged to the Queen. Only the Queen could eat swans. He’d always felt a simmering sense of resentment at this culinary elitism. He wanted to eat a swan just to fuck the Queen off. He imagined swans were pretty fucking tasty too, a bit like duck or goose perhaps. There was even a cormorant coming down to the canal. It gave him a sense of hope somehow, to watch this elegant seabird keeping company with the black headed gulls and the mallards and the moor hens and the swans.
The path narrows at this point and the trees give way to fencing, most of it vandalised and left unrepaired. The busway – a town-wide road reserved for busses once regarded as a modern public transport marvel in the 70s – passes alongside at the intersection with Bridge Street and as he passes the shelter, he hears the excitable chatter of schoolkids waiting for their bus. They’re late. He deliberately walks after they’ve all gone so he doesn’t have any of the usual stuff; the name calling, the ritual humiliations. He’s relieved in a way that his kids, Jay and Laura don’t live here anymore, that they don’t have to see him embarrassed and ridiculed by kids their own age, asking them ‘Is that your dad?” Last week he’d passed an old fellar stood behind the shelter having a piss, at least he thought he was having a piss. He could’ve been having a wank. Either way, the old man thought he couldn’t be seen and he passed him without comment, just another example of a world where self-discipline and self-control meant fuck all. Save your piss, old man, save your spunk till you get to a place with a toilet.
Perhaps he was being unfair. There could be any amount of reasons the old fellar could’ve been caught short. For all he knew the poor bastard could have prostate cancer and there were no public toilets anymore, so what was he supposed to do? Excuses! He excused the old man just as he excused himself.
The new so-called ‘luxury’ apartments stand where the Egerton Arms used to be, the Edgey, his first local boozer. Named after Lord Egerton as were many other alehouses in these parts, the man who cut the first sod for the Manchester Ship Canal. Dukesfield, the collection of narrow terraces beyond the old railway bridge where he lived was named after the Duke of Bridgewater. Known as ‘Dukey’ the land belonged to the Duke of Bridgewater or the Duke Of Westminster, Lord fucking Grosvenor, one of those cunts who laid claim to stolen land. All these dukes and lords and kings and queens commemorated in streets and pubs and buildings; they could all fuck right off because no hand can claim ownership over his town, his street, his house, his life.
He was fourteen when he first started bevvying in the Edgey. He looked at least two years younger. He had a quid pocket money and back then a quid bought himself and Fat Sean a pint of bitter each. Sean was three years older than him but younger too in many ways. He’d sneak in the corner of the pool room and Sean would get the ale in and he’d try to sup it before the landlord collared him. Sometimes the older fellars would attempt to shield him, lambast Dave the landlord for lashing him out, they’d taken a shine to him, they admired cheek, they saw their own youth in his eager eyes. Some of them terrified him; Big Pat, the Irish hellraiser, a caricature of the drunken Paddy brawler. Junkie Tony, the rake thin spikey haired John Cooper Clarke lookalike. Spazzy Ann, the old brass with the withered leg. All dead. Long dead. The type of people his ma warned him to avoid but who he always found good company, despite their utter selfishness and devotion to hard boned sensuality. Beer, speed, whiskey, smack, sex, weed; oblivion. Deadening, self-defeating, delicious.
F.A Lake Solicitor, Clerk to the Runcorn Improvement Commissioners.
Richard Lea, Ironmonger.
Thomas Sharrocks, Currier and Leather Dealer.
Thomas Williamson, Grocer & provision dealer.
J.W Woodland, Printer, binder, bookseller, stationer, Newsagent.
George Slater, family and shipping butcher.
Singer Manufacturing Co – Sewing Machines
William Davies Joliffe, Solicitor
Bethesda Congregational – chapel and burial ground
Ellen Stoll, music seller
George Christie, dressmaker
Under Delph Bridge the sandstone slabs and elegantly curved roof provide more shelter for the pigeons, their shit frozen thick along the path. He can hear them croak and flutter yet can’t see them, only the noise and the shit gives their presence away. He touches the pockmarked sandstone blocks and the smooth brickwork. He feels that by touching the stone he can connect to the past, touch the same stones they touched. A woman passed him once as he was feeling the stones and gave him that look. He didn’t care anymore. His body became one with the bridge, his energy and passion locked into the atoms of the iron and rock. It was a physical and a spiritual communion every bit as significant as the taking of the wine and water, not that he’d been to mass for twenty years or more. He walks on.
On the opposite side of the canal he notices a fresh barrage of lager cans tipped over the side of the wall on Halton Road. Must be a hundred of ‘em, all cascading down the bank and, at the bottom, deflated balloons celebrating somebody’s 40th Birthday hang miserably from the branches of a tree. A pair of mallards swim in between the cans and plot a course between other detritus; a plank, a tyre and, close to the bank, a discarded wheely bin that protrudes through the weeds and water like some strange sea creature coming up for air. He’d seen the heron perched on it during the summer, as if it was some natural platform or resting place.
He’d studied it for at least twenty minutes, watched it as it regally surveyed the murky, grey water for signs of movement. It hadn’t moved from the spot until, startled by a bus beeping at a car across the road, it flew away, its huge wings silently flapping across the roofs. He felt some kind of kinship with this solitary animal and envied its power of flight, its ability to escape. Yet it remained here. He saw it all along the canal, sometimes by Delph Bridge, sometimes further up or down stream. Such a beautiful creature. Of all the places in the world it could fly to, how had it ended up here, amongst this filth?
He gets all Stalinist about it; get the bastards on work gangs, force them to pick their shit up, clean it all up, dredge the canal, tidy the paths, the bushes, the trees, clear their shit, generation upon generation of shit, layer upon layer of shit. Get them off their bone idle arses, their disgusting litter tipping, tree graffiti-ing arses and beat some civic pride into em. Although he knew that, as someone who’d been on various incapacity benefits for the past seven years, he’d be one of the chain gang himself. He was self-aware enough to know that he was one of the bone-idle, the unemployable, the dead eyed denizens of doctor’s waiting rooms and library internet desks.
Past the Navigation – the Navvy – a pub that once served as his pre-match watering hole, stood as it was next to the old Canal Street football ground, the home of non-league Runcorn AFC. The land had long been sold off to developers for the same old houses, the same old houses that had popped up on every available scrap of land during the past fifteen years or so. Boom-time for the new breed of homeowners, the backbone of New Conservatism, New Labourism, didn’t make any difference to him. Mortgaged up and kept in line, slaves to building societies and interest rate fluctuations. He despised them and, now he wasn’t one of them, his contempt only magnified, fed on itself. These spineless bastards were what he once was, what he perhaps longed to be again if he was being honest. Normality. He craved it yet had settled into a half-life of boredom and prescription paranoia.
We’ve got Barry, Barry, Barry, Barry Howard on the wing, on the wing!
These were his heroes. Not Kenny Dalglish. Not Bob Latchford. Not Stuart Pearson. Not Pele. Not Cruyff. Not Beckenbauer. Timmy Rutter who mowed the grass for the council. Stevie Hipwell who collected rents for the council. Real people, not remote stars.
He’d volunteered to scythe down nettles around the floodlights and the long, weed strewn terraces every Sunday for a few months. He dreamed of one day getting inside the director’s clubhouse above the snackshop behind the goalmouth. That elevated position where the tannoy fellar announced the team and they’d throw bags of ripped up papers in a pathetic yet deliberately ironic emulation of Argentina’s Stadio Monumental. The ground sloped dramatically in between the Bridgewater and the Manny Ship. At the bottom end of the ground there was no terracing just a patch of grass and soil bounded by a stretch of cheap fencing. During the odd game he and his mates would be distracted by a passing ship, silently sailing up the ship canal to Salford docks or Eastham. When one passed during a night game all you’d see was the eerie glow of the light as it passed and the distant slap of the canal as the water was dragged out under the vessel then the backwash of the waves against the bank. Passing through, always passing through apart from the Guinness Boat that offloaded its precious cargo on Wiggs Island, where they collected the stinking residue in pop bottles to drink in secret dens in the undergrowth.
Runcorn had won the Northern Premier League back in 76, the same year Wimbledon won the Southern Premier. They almost won promotion into the football league but their ground wasn’t considered good enough even for the old fourth division. Wimbledon went onto win the FA Cup against Liverpool whereas Runcorn faded from once proud non-league champions to struggling nonentities with only the odd FA Cup third round tie or FA Trophy semi final to excite the town every few years.
This town has lived on past glories for too long, glories that aren’t even glorious, just mediocre achievements, half-realised ambitions, mundane aspirations, the drab dreams of just another collection of streets, people and families. He’d bled for this town, defending its honour on those terraces, he’d been bottled, stabbed and slashed in order to protect this abstract notion of community. Maybe to some of his mates it was just macho posturing, working their way up the only power and prestige hierarchies available to them, but for him it went much deeper than that. The glass he took in the Navvy against Northwich, the knives he took at Hartlepool and Stockport, he fought on behalf of the town, on behalf of strangers, a town that polluted him, strangers who despised him.
He looked across to the old Co-Operative Terrace on the other side of the canal at the end of Halton Road with its year of construction, 1898 boldly imprinted on the brickwork; the Runcorn Co-Operative Society Limited and underneath, above the doorway of the end house more bold lettering; Branch No 3. That end house used to be Aband the angling shop where they’d mooch around before the game. Kenny and Baz were into fishing but he never saw the point of it. They’d buzz off the latest rods, floats even maggots. Which ones to use for perch, bream, the usual smallfry bounty hauled from the Bridgey on their weekend fishing trips. Boarded up now. The Co-Operative Society? What co-operation? What solidarity? It was a myth, it always had been a myth. Thatcher was right ; there is no such as society, just people. People like him. Alone in the world. Alone through circumstance. Alone through choice. Either way, didn’t matter.
In the nineties, the ground was sold off to developers to pay off debts and the team had to play in Northwich at Witton Albion’s ground until the council allowed them to play over the water in Widnes’s specially built rugby league stadium. The ultimate insult. What is a town without a team? What is a team without a ground? It was depressing, insulting, pathetic and he used to get angry about it. Angry enough to……..he didn’t want to think about it.
His ancient trainers were getting worn. He needed a new pair. The sole had begun to come away and if it was wet, then his socks soaked up the water and he returned home with a chapped foot. He looked a state, he knew he looked a state and yet that was the least of his worries. At one time he lived for his clothes, spent a fortune on the latest gear. He was well known for it, celebrated even. They all waited to see what new trainers he was wearing, what new labels he’d endorsed and they followed suit. Fucking sheep! Now clothing was purely functional, a shield against the elements, a protective skin against the world.
Unsworth Bros – tailoring, special premises, 24 & 26 High St,
Unsworth Bros – clothing, special department, 47 & 49 High St
Unsworth Bros – Outfitting, special department, 47 & 49 High St
Unsworth Bros – Hatters, special department, 47 & 49 High St,
Unsworth Brothers Hold The Largest Stock In The District
Samuel Coventry – Practical, Clerical and Livery Tailor; thoroughly shrunk; perfect fitting, latest styles, Most Reasonable Prices.
W. Blythe – Practical Tailor & Clothier ‘fit and style guaranteed’
A young lad came into view, just ahead walking at speed. He’d seen him before, around this time but usually passed him further along the path, around the bend opposite the old RNA. Today he was about to pass him by the Quayside pub, a relatively modern alehouse that still has its Christmas decorations, a couple of reindeers and a jolly Santa lightshow attached to the flat roof above the entrance. It was half way through February which told you what kind of alehouse The Quayside is.
The lad never acknowledged him, just walked past, dead eyes straight ahead. He was usually smoking a weed or drinking a can of lager, sometimes both. This route was a favourite with scallies, ne’erdowells, moochers and misfits of every description. It served as a method of avoiding scrutiny and as a potential escape route. This lad trod the same path as he did but for different purposes, or perhaps the same purpose. What was the real difference between them, apart from age? The lad was maybe nineteen, twenty, a good twenty years younger than him and yet, he too looked as lost in the world, as dislocated from the rest of society as anybody could. He had time though. If nothing else, he had time.
They came level just before the flyover. He shuffled to his left in order to avoid the lad, who appeared more intense than usual, more aggressively tied up in his own head down mission and hadn’t appeared to notice him at all. His attempt to avoid contact was too late though and the lad’s arm banged into his side, knocking him a foot or so off his stride. He ignored it and walked on a few steps then heard the lad growl;
“Fuckin’ watch it y’prick!”
He turned to face him. The lad’s face was contorted, flushed almost purple under his tatty, two sizes too small black Lowe Alpine hat. A thin, badly rolled spliff hung from his prematurely yellowing fingers and dried mud covered the bottom of his black tracksuit bottoms. That was the uniform these days, the standard scally wardrobe of defiance, a quasi-paramilitary army of skunk addled nihilists. The type who spray ‘Fuck You All’ on tree trunks, the type who lash kebab boxes and Pils bottles onto the ice, the type who spit their impotent rage, as this lad now spat his onto the barren soil of a long forgotten trade route. He felt like apologising. He didn’t want conflict, violence, he’d had enough of that to last him a lifetime and yet, today, today on this path, on this day, in this town, in this life, today, he’d had enough of cunts like this.
The huge concrete pillars supporting the road over the canal that lead to the bridge over the Mersey in one direction and to Warrington and rural Cheshire in the other, loomed above them, dwarfed them as the early morning traffic roared past, escaping this pass-through town, this piss-stained, plastic place. The noises of the traffic intensified and soon, all he could hear was the head splitting rumble of the lorries and the cars as they sped overhead and he found himself staring at the lad, a lad a good three or four inches taller than him, a good stone or two heavier than him and from somewhere, without even feeling it, or even thinking about it, he punched the lad hard, hard on the side of the face and down the lad went. Now he heard nothing, nothing at all but a pure white hum, the old noise, that split second between action and reaction, slow motion, the gut rush thrill of adrenaline and excitement, the dormant energy that had been suppressed these past fifteen years, kept at bay by pills and potions, tranquilisers and pacifiers, these quack remedies used to sew together the fragments of a life, to protect others from him and to protect him from himself. For – he didn’t know how long exactly but probably only twenty, thirty seconds, a minute perhaps – he transcended this landscape and this timeframe and he was at one with whatever force was flowing through him and he felt whole again and he felt strong again and he felt happy again and he felt – as he booted and booted and booted that motionless, suddenly flimsy body in his knackered, cheapo trainers – he felt JUSTIFIED.
Where the lad lay, still and silent, un-moving, lifeless or so it seemed, on this spot once stood Puritan Tannery, where his grandad used to work. When he was a kid, his grandad Palin would tell him how he worked at Puritan for almost forty years and how Runcorn once supported four major tanning factories; Camden, Astmoor, Highfield and Puritan. His grandad’s arms were as strong and leathery as the ox and cow skins they imported from Europe, the Americas and New Zealand along with all the other essential materials :
Mimosa from South Africa
Quebracho from South America
Myrabolans from India
Sweet Chestnut from France and Italy
Valonea from Turkey
Sumac from Cypress
The last tanneries closed in the 1960s as leather goods were replaced by cheap synthetic substitutes in a cheap synthetic world. Runcorn supported so many of them because of its location close to the docks of Liverpool and a fresh water supply from North Wales. Yet the town’s position as a base for these factories was really enhanced, so he’d discovered, by the fact that the tanneries could pump their effluent, their waste, their shit straight into the local waterways without treating it. More poison. More filth. Layer upon layer of shit, generation upon generation of shit.
Solomon Shepherd – Boot & Shoe Maker
Elizabeth Lydiate – boots and shoes
James Haynes – Boots and shoes
Henry Stone – boots, shoes and clogs
W.L. Croley & Co – Boot and shoe maker
William Travers boots and shoes
William Page- boots and shoes
Tyler and Sons – boots and shoes
Today he wouldn’t get to Bates’s Bridge. Today would be the last day he’d walk this path.