“So you’re coming back?”
“Have you told…”
“Have you heard about the..”
“What do you think?”
“I’ll think about it when I get back, I’ve got to get a job first.”
“Ok, we’ll see you though?”
“Yeah, I’ve got my room from the 11th.”
I rang off, relieved.
It was the 11th, a few days later. The train drew very hesitantly into the station, moving jerkily along the bottom of a great trough of stone. I had forgotten the drama of the approach. I enjoyed it now; the walls of mixed brick and grey-green spars of stone. The moss and slime and dribbled rust. It felt like an ancient place.
The others began to murmur. It was still strange, after having been abroad, to overhear with ease. They muttered and shuffled and stood. The train hissed into the bright station. I waited, and walked alone up the platform. It was not as I remembered, but when I got outside with a rush of feeling I saw the old streets, the old ways to places. I went back into the station and left my suitcase at the desk. It was 11pm. I started walking.
At the old docks, the wind extinguished the sound of wave against wall. No ships came in here anymore. It was January and the place was icy and silent. I stood by the side of a deep square pool and looked down. The streetlamps cast orange shapes onto the shifting water. A rusting ladder descended, waves lapping its legs. I leaned over the rail defensively as a couple passed, laughing.
Back towards the city and its dirty glow. Nervous now, because what had I really come back to? I passed a row of derelict warehouses, and another. In the back streets the cold air beat with sound from the clubs. The stark neon, the steamed up windows, the takeaways leaking their heavy smell. The bad part of town. A famous piece of graffiti art, with one of the boards stolen. There were brothels down that street, a friend of mine had been approached.
Then suddenly, the curving rows of townhouses, with their glossy locked doors and, at this hour, switched off lights. The boarded up windows, the inhabited doorways, melted away. The good part of town. So many long streets. Private doctors and dentists, art galleries and cafés. There had been a bookshop I had recognised a few minutes ago. Before that, a restaurant I had eaten in once. The modern cathedral rose on my left, the other at my back. But I was now a little lost.
A light drizzle began. Then, crossing one of the silent streets, I saw a red neon sign, out of place in this district. It was the theatre, and I knew my way. I smiled, and a passing stranger stared. Going down the basement steps the red tiles underfoot and dark walls were the same. At this time, it was almost empty, the late night café beneath the theatre, a closed in shadowy place, all alcoves and arches. I approached the two men behind the counter, and said “coffee?” to the one on the left. He said “milk?” and, almost grudgingly “sugar?”, and then I sat, watching the man who hadn’t served me wiping tables. I realised that I knew him. He was in fact an old friend. I did not want to talk to him tonight, with the key to the attic rooms cold in the pocket of my coat, with my bag left at the station. I had not seen him in a year, and I was unsettled, unsheltered, sipping at my very hot coffee and turning a little away.
He showed no recognition, and it was not a snub but a piece of pleasure that I examined, watching him. I did not want to be known. Through him and the other man I experienced myself as a stranger. We had lived together once. I recognized now in his face, glancing covertly, his insomniac look. The sunken eyes, the taut skin of his face greenish-pale, the movements of his hands a little uncertain. Would he be there tomorrow? It was not only me, returning to a room I’d rented for six months once, like it was home. It was most of us. I watched him rest his elbows again on the counter, and then, with a slight alleviation of my sense of shame, I left.
Finally, the door. I unlocked it and began to climb the stairs. Outside number three I walked into a cloud of incense, on the fourth landing hung an unpleasant fried smell. The ninth door bore a long scar in the paint that I did not remember. Inside, I slid home the bolt, and pulled a cord. The light was very yellow, very bright on blank walls, cheap pine. Everything was sparse, the same. Then voices, outside the door. A woman with the local accent and a high-pitched laugh. There was a thump against the wall, and then I heard their footsteps on the upstairs landing. I was beginning, despite my best rationalizations, to feel depressed, detached. The city was unwelcoming. I had not spoken to another person for three days. Three days I had been wearing the closed face I wear for strangers. I tried to stretch my mind towards others. A Russian man. A girl I’d known since I was four, come back from London. The man I’d seen before. I imagined them now, in this city. Working in a bar, sleeping, talking, shutting up that café beneath the theatre, because it would be shut now, it was early morning. It was odd, the coming-back feeling.
I put my bag on the bed and walked towards the window. It looked out on the older part of the city, narrow streets and uneven rooftops. Above them, the hunch of the old cathedral, lit from below, revealing the reddish stone, the long arches. I could not seem to summon up a single thought. Unpacking was impossible, as was making up the bed and getting into it. So I walked around, remembering. I looked at the headboard on the bed, slightly askew, at the crack next to the lock of the bathroom door. My first recollections were the obscene and the painful. I sat down on the bed and laughed, and stopped because the sound was sharp, darting in the empty rooms.