Ghost Town, Halfway Home

MikeachimEngland9 Comments

He points the gun in my face.

I’ve no idea how to react. I fall backwards on the grass, not because I’m scared (it’s all too sudden for that), but because falling over is about the only thing I can think of doing. Down on the ground, it occurs to me that if this was a movie, I’d now be in prime position to kick his legs away – but I just sit and look at the gun pointed in my face. It’s an unscratched silver revolver – I don’t know my guns so I don’t know the make. Like all real guns, it doesn’t look real. I later discover it’s loaded.

He grins. It’s a stupid grin, not (a lizard part of my mind whispers) the grin of someone who knows how to wave a gun without it accidentally going off. The grass is cold against my hands.

Then, smirking, he helps me to my feet. This is the last time I’ll speak to him. Four years later, he’s in a fishing-boat that goes missing in the North Sea, all hands. The gun belonged to his dad – stolen for the day, to impress his friends, to scare his enemies, and to wave at people like me who were neither friend nor enemy, just to see what we do.

Most of us fall over.

The old saying says that you ‘can’t go home again’. When it comes to this place, I sincerely hope that’s true. I’m back in the town I grew up in, a seaside town recovering from a protracted period of decline, its sea-front still holding amusement arcades grimly clinging to the previous century, its town centre marked by a shop-front construction project that’s currently shifting from something as unnatural-looking as a sticking plaster into something that merely looks new.

Thanks to pavements widened to accommodate foot traffic that’s yet to materialize, the main road has an arteriosclerotic look about it, and most people park their cars halfway over the kerb. Town planning remains eccentric. I remember coming back here for a few days half a decade ago, walking though our front gate just as a construction crew were fitting a new streetlight across the road. They finished the next day, but it didn’t light up at dusk. The day after that it was gone, and they’d filled the remaining hole with tarmac. Thanks for that, guys. Great job.

It’s also a town with many of the old edges filed off it. When the railway tracks to Hull were ripped up in the 1960s (Beeching’s Axe), the line remained – a coke-covered track punched through trees and across roads, Roman-straight. I used to ride my mountain bike along it at weekends, seeing if I could beat my previous record for distance in the time I had before I had to turn around in order to get back before “Knight Rider” came on. (Don’t…don’t judge me too harshly). My mountain bike’s tires made a delicious hissing crunch through pulverised coke , the grip of it failing just enough to get a really good skid when I stopped – but I never did, I just went faster and faster, and part of that thrill was the terrain of the track, low hummocks transformed by speed into heart-gulping ascents and dives. Occasionally trees reached in on either side, a mass of leaves billowing out like ink dropped into water, and I did my bit for path maintenance by speeding up and bashing through them, tearing off as much as I could with a free hand. (One time the “greenery” turned out to be nearly all branch, and I wrapped myself around it, my bike carrying on without me).

Then it was cleaned up and turned into part of the Trans Pennine Trail. The humps were flattened, the path was widened, the coke was tarmacked over, and the steep, crumbling sides of the cutting that was my way up onto the line were turned into winding shallow-inclined tracks – little more than pavements with some earth under them. Everything was made safe. There had never been any serious accidents along the line, but that wasn’t the point, was it? Now it was even safer. (Much more importantly, it was now accessible to all).

Walk along the sea-front and at certain points you hit cliff-top caravans, the town’s unofficial border markers. They’re still there, and spreading.

I feel plenty of ghosts.

It’s 11 at night. What the hell?

He stands there in my hallway, distraught. Not having a clue what to do.

And then he explains, and now that’s two of us without a clue. He explains he’s been illicitly seeing the fiancée of one of my friends, one of his friends, the close-knit, ragged-edged group of us that had been hanging out after school for nearly a decade, playing video games, watching the very worst martial arts films that we could hire on VHS from the local film rental shops (picked by the awfulness of their covers). A group of us that, I was sure, would still be getting together to rib each other and discuss video games and Bad Film Night when we were in our 40s and beyond.

Looking in his eyes, I could see he knew he’d stepped away from that future. I didn’t know what to say to him. With my inexperience of such situations, I couldn’t see any way it could be fixed. I still can’t.

We both stood there and talked for a while, while he got more and more upset, and around midnight he left. We know he left town (I can’t remember who told us), but that’s all. None of us know what happened to him. Maybe we never will.

I’m not really back here to renew a fond acquaintance with a place filled with happy memories. While in one sense this is just a town, a place as neutral and open to interpretation as any other, it’s also a place I struggled to leave for all of my teens and a lot of my twenties, and a place I’ve grown accustomed to being unfairly rude about. If you’d asked me to return here for any length of time during my first few years in York, I’d have laughed in your face. I was getting used to feeling settled somewhere else, exploring a different kind of rootedness, before travel blogging started pulling those roots up in my mind, rewiring my sense of belonging.

And yet here I am. For a short while at least. And I’m finding I’m absolutely fine with that. This isn’t the town I left (“for good”) a decade and a half ago, and I’m not the person that left it. I also haven’t moved here – I’m protractedly passing through on the way to I-haven’t-decided-yet, using it as a place to get work done, save money, find clients for a new business, hone my public speaking skills and pitch like crazy for freelance work. Shockingly, it seems to be working. (A plan of mine that works? Holy hell. Time I threw away my rulebook).

And the reason is that against all my expectations, I’m in a good place for doing just that.

If anything encapsulates the way this town is changing, it’s the transformation from bargain bookstore & toy-seller Cusworth’s to the “DNA Wine Bar & Coffee Lounge”. First time I entered, a month ago, it was….

Well, it was as surprising as having a gun pointed in my face.

I sat and worked, sipping my good, cheap coffee, and occasionally I sat back and let the past drift down over everything, lining the walls with shelving and filling them with books, model airplanes and tractors. They’ve knocked everything through – I didn’t even know the shop went this far back. And they’re opening up the garden as well! (Mad with power).

So, there are ghosts to be negotiated. But there’s also the energy of change – enough to feel like this is a place that won’t hold me back if I try to pick up some speed here, branches whipping at me…

It’s new enough, and I’m new enough.

It may not be home – but it’s never felt more welcoming.