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.