Thursday, October 11, 2007

6. Secrets and News

So there I am, sitting in St Ann’s Square Starbucks while this Neil, a perfect stranger – not a psychopath, as Brenda and Jody worried, but an unthreatening thirtyish guy in jeans; friendly manner, actually really nice; pretty intent though – while this stranger insists on telling me a story.

This is the story:

It is 1952. A young Manchester woman and a young man not long arrived from India fall in love. They want to marry, but for racial reasons her family object. She defies them and the young couple run off together to London. Her family respond by cutting her off. They have children, but this fails to disarm her family, indeed their disapproval seems to intensify. Even when the young man falls ill with TB and dies they go on rejecting their daughter and her half-Indian children. Widowed and alone, she never sees her parents or her much younger sister again.

She was Neil’s grandmother, now dead.

And then he gave me a good hard look and told me this :

Her much younger sister, younger by fifteen years, was my nan!

Well, I’m telling you, I knocked over my Starbucks medium cappuccino with extra cinnamon, it spilled everywhere, all over his jeans and my leggings, and everyone was staring and a Starbucks guy came to help, and I didn’t know what to do or how to feel or what to believe, but somehow I knew it was true and I went kind of hollow inside and I started to cry, but then something else tugged inside me and I started laughing as well.

‘Nan!’ I said to her later, in shock and fury. She looked shocked too, but a bit sad and troubled and she didn’t deny it. Turned out she kind of half-knew it, but then she hadn’t really known it either, at the time she was very young and her elder sister had hardly ever been mentioned again.

‘Oh love!’ she cried when I took him to see her, and rushed forward and hugged him. ‘Oh love!’ cried my mum, and my dad, my nan’s son, hugged him too. ‘Good god!’ cried Ahmed when I told him, and I was so excited I forgot myself and I flung my arms around him.

Last night we all went for a drink, me and Ahmed – well yes, we are an item now – Jody, Neil my new relative, and Mike and Magda still wrangling about the news blackout in Burma.

I thought about suppressed knowledge. I looked out at the city with all its histories, some of them still secret, some of them exploded like ours. I watched the people passing and I thought of how much more closely our lives can be tangled with those of passing strangers than we imagine.

I focussed back on the conversation which had turned to Mick and Magda’s favourite subject, the class struggle. Magda was telling Jody that as a bourgeois she could hardly comment, and Jody exploded: ‘My dad might be a doctor, but my granddad was an Irish peasant!’ Magda looked shocked and then said wryly, ‘Well, yes, what do I know? In my country my family are the ruling class.’

Everyone looked at her in shock, and it was Neil who started laughing.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention: I asked Neil: ‘Why on earth did you decide not to show your face in the library that day?’ (The place, it turns out, where he looked up the records when he came here to work and tracked us down). ‘And avoided me for so long afterwards?’

‘I just bottled it. I was worried about your nan. Worried I’d just cause trouble. Well, what really got to me was that thing your dad was always saying about the family being English through and through.’

I stared. ‘How did you know he was always saying that?’

He grinned. ‘Well, you’ve not been very secretive. I’ve been reading your blog, haven’t I?’

The End

Many thanks to all the readers and voters who helped make this project a success, and especially to Elizabeth Baines, and the Manchester Literature Festival for their support. We hope to see you again next year!

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

5. Revolutions

My angels will guide me, says Joan, the Angel Therapist at the health-food shop where I work part-time. (She has to bob between the dangling feathery dreamcatchers to tell me). According to Joan there’s an angel for everything, even parking, but since parking is what she can never find in the morning I’m not too persuaded to call on the angel for Deciding What to Do about Ahmed While Being Swamped with Work for College.

As I’ve told Jody and ground-floor Brenda, an entanglement is not in my plans right now.

‘Oh, go on with you!’ said Brenda, giggling – a bit excessively, which made me wonder if the angel for Stopping Jim Tempting Brenda to Start Drinking Again is slacking.

Let’s face it, there are bigger problems than this one of mine with Ahmed – not to mention the crackdown in Burma, which Magda says proves her point that peaceful demonstrations are politically mistaken, which in turn made the anti-confrontational Mike furious, and has caused a serious ongoing row.

Well anyway, yesterday afternoon Ahmed offers me a lift into town, and I’m thinking No way! but hearing myself say ‘Hey, thanks!’ – but then you would, wouldn’t you, if someone was just your friend, nothing more, you’d be protesting far too much to say No? And once we’re in town I’m agreeing to go for a coffee, and then we’re wandering through Exchange Square, and the Big Wheel is turning so merrily against the silvery sky that – doom and gloom notwithstanding – we can’t help feeling carefree and decide to go on it.

Well, the man shuts the door and locks it and that’s when I remember I don’t like heights. No chance I’m saying that to Ahmed though - I’m trying to keep things casual and lighthearted, right? And then we begin to move and rise to let the next few cars fill up, and I realize the glass walls curve in beneath the seats. I look down and see receding streets and matchstick people directly below, and I look up again quickly and daren’t look down again. And there we are in a tiny glass bubble, edging upwards and suspended, and as we get higher we start swaying in the breeze.

‘Wow, what a view!’ says Ahmed as we rise towards the top. I daren’t look. I don’t shut my eyes, but I just don’t look, I cling to my seat and concentrate on believing there’s not really just a curve of glass between me and the drop to the concrete city below. Ahmed turns in his seat to look around, and the capsule swings, and I could almost die, I hate him for it - I hate him, I’ve decided.

And then we’re properly turning, we’re swinging down and the buildings and streets and people come in close once more, but then we’re up again, a lens zooming slowly away, and those details disappear and the shape of the city emerges white and gleaming when it must once have been smoky with factories and mills, spreading out in blocks and swirls and filling the wide plain inside a blue rim of hills

I’m looking now, and Ahmed opposite me is grinning, and no, of course I don’t hate him...

We’re on the third revolution when my mobile rings.

A male voice I don’t know. Nervous. ‘Er… Hi.’

I’m hung like angel with vertigo over the city. Somewhere down there in that city is my mystery caller, the guy called Neil. And his voice is in my ear, and he’s asking if I’ll meet him and hear what he has to tell me.

Voting has now closed. You decided that Cat herself would be the most shocked by what Neil has to tell her.

The end of our Manchester Blogstory will be read live by author Elizabeth Baines at the Manchester Blog Awards event at 7pm Wednesday Oct. 10, at Matt and Phred's. Then we'll post it here the following day. Many thanks for reading, and for your patience with the vagaries of blog poll freeware.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

4. A pub, a club and Nan

I had to try and do both – get over to Nan’s party in Salford well before seven and get Ahmed to pick me up in his car after not too long.

The party had swollen: Nan had invited all her friends and so the venue had changed to the pub. And there they were, she and her buddies in their sparkly tops with their gins and tonics, and all Grandad’s pub mates from before he died, and it wasn’t long before they’d started a sing-song, and the pub was booming with ‘Matchstick Men’, and a guy with an earring who was standing just outside and wasn’t one of the party stepped in each time between the lines and shouted, ‘Alley-alley-oh!’ with a grin.

Well, Ahmed was very late: someone had let his tyres down – again.

Of course the family had wanted to know why I wasn’t staying. I thought they might worry like Brenda and Jody if I told them about the mystery, so I just mumbled about meeting someone, and it sounded so feeble I got all guilty and embarrassed, and guess what, it had given Nan the wrong idea. When Ahmed finally arrived – with oil or whatever on his pants and hands – Nan shrieked (she’d had a few gins by now): ‘So this is your boyfriend, Catherine!’. Well, I went bright red (why in heaven’s name did I go bright red?) and Ahmed looked so awkward I was no longer torn but just glad to be gone.

By the time we’d parked the car it was ten-fifteen. We cut through a bit of Canal Street under the trees festooned with blue lights, and tangled with girls in lit-up bunny ears and people in pirate costumes and a bald guy with a full glass who stopped us to ask if we were having a lovely evening and announced beatifically that he was having the time of his life.

The whole of the city partying as if there was nothing wrong anywhere in the world, or as if things are so beyond help, what with wars and global warming, there’s really nothing else to do…

The session was done, but there was the guy I was looking for, whom Ahmed said was called Tom, still in his stripy hat and finishing packing up the van with his band. ‘Hey!’ I called. ‘You gave me a number and no-one answers!’

He looked dismayed to see me. He even seemed to retreat from me.

He said, ‘I think he lost his phone.’


‘My mate. Neil.’ Neil? Who did I know called Neil? No one.

‘Well, what did he want to tell me?’

He looked strangely panicky. ‘I’m sorry, it’s not for me to say.’

I was furious, I guess I got aggressive. ‘For god’s sake!’ ‘Come on, mate,’ Ahmed appealed to him, ‘Can’t you see this might be freaking her?’ But Tom shook his head and put up his palms and then started getting in the van. I said, ‘Well give me his new number and’ - scrabbling in my bag for pen and paper - ‘here’s mine.’

He took it and jumped up without giving me a number in return, and the van started up and was gone.

I couldn’t believe it.

And that was when Ahmed put his arm around me. As if there aren’t enough complications without Ahmed letting Nan put ideas in his head…

Voting has now closed. You decided that Cat should be uncertain of her feelings for Ahmed; we'll see how this plays out in next week's chapter of our blogstory, posted on Tuesday morning.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

3. The Film

Well, I started to forget about it all. I got busy: Jody and I are gearing up for college, we’ve got a pile of reading to do (and the flat is littered with exploded dolls’ houses, Jody’s sculpture based on her fears that our landlord is about to kick us out). And then Ahmed asked the house if we’d like to be extras in a film he was working on.

Even Brenda was up for it, and Magda said she’d come too, and on Saturday afternoon we all set off variously into town.

Summer at last, although it was meant to be autumn, and the city was like a huge playground, or a theatre: Albert Square had been turned into an athletes’ racetrack with spectators cheering; outside M&S a grinning crowd was watching girls dancing with the drum band; the big wheel turned above the massed drinkers outside the toytown ancient pubs moved wholesale for redevelopment like a living stage set. In the square behind Urbis some girls were dressed for some reason as fairies, in luminous colours. A vast crowd of kids was hanging out on the green there, which Mike pointed out was the very location of diabolical nineteenth-century slums. Brenda added that before the bomb it had been a car park, and they went on describing the different ways it had been in Manchesters Past, which made the current one seem pretty flimsy, and you couldn’t avoid the feeling that we were in a film already, a film of the present.

We’d met up in Starbucks (Mike had refused to order on political principle), and now it was time to leave the crowds and go to the modern footbridge across the Irwell which looks like the deck and mast of a ship, and where all the film directors like to get shots. Ahmed waved from his mixer over the other side of the bridge. The film was about a couple of cat-and-mouse business rivals, a man and a woman, who solve their rows by falling in love and setting up a monopoly instead. We had to walk onto the bridge towards the actors playing them and pass them in the middle. The first time we did it, the sound wasn’t working at all. The second time it wasn’t right. Halfway through the third, a drunk homeless man on the riverbank shouted up to all of us filming, ‘Fuck you, you wankers!’

We were about to do a fourth take when I froze. Someone strolling by on the far side, someone in a stripy hat, had stopped to speak to Ahmed. The guy from the library! The friend of my mystery caller… And then he strolled on and was gone. For a moment I wondered if I’d really seen him.

But Ahmed knows him! Or rather, he knows him slightly: he knows he’s in a band, and that they’re doing a gig next Friday evening, an early session. Ahmed said he’ll go with me if want.

And then I switched on my phone and there was a message from my mum: Don’t forget, it’s Nan’s birthday Friday.

Turns out they’re giving her a party, seven o’clock, way out at her house. They’re fully expecting I’ll go.

And I want to. This is me, right? Cat Smith, loving granddaughter. And Nan would be so disappointed if I didn’t.

But I also really want to talk to this guy and find out what’s going on...

You voted for Cat to try and do both things: go to the gig with Ahmed and to her nan's birthday party. Tune in Tuesday morning to see what transpires.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

2. The Library

Next morning, sober and triumphant, Jim said with stunning precision: ‘Saturday, four o’clock. Café in Central Library.’

Brenda frowned, and Jody said if she couldn’t stop me going she was coming too, and Mike said he’d be there if I needed him – Brenda and Jody exchanged an amused and cynical glance – he’d be in the Social Sciences reading room.

But when we came down the library basement steps, the place was empty and the café had just closed.

We hung around a bit, but no one came, and as we went back up to say hello to Mike, I had the feeling of having been hoaxed.

That circular reading room foxes me every time: you think you’re still walking away from the point where you entered when you realise you’re approaching it again. There was Mike at the end of one of the long radiating tables, and Magda, who’d been shopping and was leaning towards him over his book about the Chartists and her many chain-shop bags and informing him in a hiss that no, he couldn’t count the Welfare State, we British had never known true revolution because in order to be effective revolutions had to be violent and quick. And – she put up her hand imperiously to stop him - he destroyed his own case to cite Peterloo, the classic mistake of a peaceful demonstration which only results in further suppression, and what better symbol of this than the building now sitting on the site, a capitalist hotel.

Mike was mad. They weren’t whispering any more. I said ‘Ssh!’ though actually there was a louder group on the opposite side, hidden by the circular central desk, and the librarian was setting off to quieten them.

Jody had been distracted. ‘Listen!’ she said. As it happened, the other group stopped talking too. Somewhere close was a loud sound of tapping, yet when we looked round there was no one nearby. She pointed upwards. The tapping was coming off the dome above. Somewhere to our left someone ripped a sheet of paper, and then above and to our right the sound echoed, magnified. Like a whispering gallery: the other voices I’d been hearing had been our own.

I looked back down. A slim thirtyish guy with a wispy beard and a stripy woolly hat was coming round the central desk towards me, holding out a slip of paper. ‘From my friend. He’s sorry he didn’t show today.’ Someone else touched my arm and I whirled around, but it was only the librarian, who’d found the source of the noise at last. I looked back towards the guy and he’d gone.

Nowhere in the reading room, nowhere in the corridor.

Even I was a bit spooked then. And how did he know it was me, and where to find me just then? And get this: there was a scribbled mobile number, but whenever I ring it I get the voicemail service.

It’s like Brenda said yesterday: you just don’t know what’s what any more. She meant different things, actually: summer turned into autumn, ice caps melting, friendly fire, victims turned suspects (she’d just bought a paper plastered with photos of the McCanns).

But I mean: whoever this person is, is he looking for me or hiding?

Voting has now closed. Readers voted for Ahmed to play an important role in helping solve the mystery. Tune in on Tuesday to find out how.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

1. The Caller

I always thought my life was too boring to blog about, but something weird happened today.

We were all in the hall, everyone from the flats in our house, along with Jim the ex bus driver who lives next door. Most of us hadn’t been in very long. I’d just arrived, and so had my flatmate Jody - coming down the road from work in opposite directions, me from the health food shop and her from what she savagely calls her crappy telesales. Jim had been on the doorstep ringing ground-floor Brenda’s bell and he’d followed us in. Brenda was there, coming to answer the door with her hair in a towel, and Mike the basement student had come up with his rubbish. Ahmed, the freelance sound guy who lives at the top, was going through the mail.

And, Jim, seeing us all together, still drunk from his lunchtime session, lifted up his finger slowly and slurred: ‘Oh yes. I saw Archie when I came back from the pub. He said someone came looking for one of you today.’ (Archie, the old guy across the road who sits out on the wall as if he’s still in Jamaica, even through this freezing summer, and sees a lot of the comings and goings.)

Everyone turned to Jim and it was obvious what some of them were thinking: Brenda that her bastard psychopath ex had found her, Mike the student that it must have been the guy he owes money, Ahmed that this was the Knock on the Door he says he has to live in fear of now, in this age of the War on Terror. Jim, oblivious, was grinning at Brenda in what I can only call a sweetly lascivious way. You can’t say it’s uncomplicated between Jim and Brenda – she’s fifty-odd and a one-time lottery winner with nothing to show for her winnings but being ex-alcoholic. She prompted him. ‘Jim?’


‘Which one of us?’

Jim pointed at me. He said, ‘Oh yes. There was a message,’ but then he was stumped. He scratched his head with a surprisingly loud bristly sound and beer fumes filled the hall. ‘It’s coming back… Wait…. That’s right. There’s something you should hear, something that concerns you.’

They all stared at me, and no wonder: what would anyone have to tell me that concerned me and that I didn’t know already? Me, Cat Smith from Chorlton, twenty-three years old, dead ordinary family to which nothing ever happens - stamped English, as my dad says, like a stick of rock right through - part-time student of art working in a shop, and leading, let’s face it, a boringly transparent life.

‘Well, who was it?’ I demanded.

He didn’t know, Archie didn’t say, and I couldn’t ask him it turned out, he’d since gone off with his suitcase to visit his sister in London.

Brenda turned to Mike the student. ‘You’ve been in all day haven’t you? Didn’t you hear the bell? Didn’t you see?’

He shook his head. He’d be lost in his thesis, Manchester: The City as Prism and Lens, and, as he pointed out, the bushes above his window block any view and it’s time we got the landlord to cut them down. At which Jody came in hotly with her usual worry: ‘Huh! When he does he’ll be clearing the flats altogether in order to develop them and triple the rent, and we’ll be out on our ear!’

Magda, Mike’s girlfriend, had now come up from the basement and said: ‘And this is strange to me from my country, this capitalist system of living accommodation, but very interesting for my doctoral thesis,’ and everyone looked at her blankly, not knowing how to react.

Jim put his hand on Brenda’s shoulder and steered her (wobbling) towards her flat door. He stopped and slowly turned back to me. ‘Oh yes. There was more. If you want to hear this information you should go…’ He stopped. We waited. He looked sheepish. ‘No, it’s gone.’ And Brenda thumped him.

Though she and Jody say I’m better not knowing, it’s bound to be a nutter – not leaving a name or any contact number. But then I’m dying of curiosity and hoping that Jim will remember. Well, wouldn’t you?

This poll has now closed. Readers overwhelmingly voted for the meeting to take place at Central Library. So tune in on Tuesday for the next chapter!