9HDU

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By David Cooper:

Outside, beyond the guanoed glass, was the place that I’d left two decades earlier. Each day, for three full weeks, I looked out to get a purchase on the city that, however long I’ve lived elsewhere, will always be fixed as home. Every so often, though, I adjusted my focus so that I could see the reflection of the room on the surface of the window. In the glass I was reminded that, behind me, my Dad’s failing body lay flat on a bed.

During those three weeks, I thought a lot about places. Inevitably, I thought about the places in which my Dad had spent his life. He’d always lived in cities. The first five years of his life were in Cardiff. Later on, he spent much of his twenties in pre-gentrified New Cross, just around the corner from Goldsmith’s. Nottingham, though, was my Dad’s city: the place that he spent most of his childhood and adolescence. Growing up, we listened to his stories of summer days spent fishing on the Trent and of Saturday morning meetings by the lions on Slab Square. In our house, the suburbs of Arnold and Mapperley, Carlton and Hucknall, were edenic elsewheres.

If Nottingham was a remembered place, Liverpool was an always-emerging present: the city where my Dad lived and worked for most of his adult life. Looking out of 9HDU, it was impossible not to worry about the politics of this place. Up here, from the ninth floor of the Royal, Liverpool seemed to turn its back on the rest of England. In the past, I’ve always felt a more-than-slight embarrassment with Liverpool’s narratives of exceptionalism. Yet, on 9HDU, unease was replaced by approval: I respected the city’s ambivalence towards establishment ideas of Englishness; I admired the apparent disinterest in the visions of Albion being pedalled by Rees-Mogg’s aristo-vaudeville act 200 miles to the south in the Palace of Westminster. Here, on the rim of the Irish Sea and looking towards north Wales, Etonian England seemed a long way behind us. But, of course, Liverpool is only ever semi-detached from the rest of the country and its political landscape. To the right, I could see the docklands whose transformation owed so much to European funding. Closer still was the shell of the new Royal. Originally scheduled to open in March 2017, building work on this hospital stalled early in 2018 as Carillion collapsed.

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Sitting, hour after hour in a punishing plastic chair, I also thought about the relationship between the worlds inside and out. In the day, the contrast was marked. Indoors, 9HDU was a zone of measured hyperactivity. The nurses – countries of birth: India, Italy, the Philippines, Portugal – danced between the beds with choreographed care. The doctors – countries of birth: England, Nigeria, Sri Lanka – monitored, reflected and, recorded. This sense of activity was acoustic too. Throughout the day, the keynote was the rhythmical beeps of the dialysis machines scattered across the unit. As my Mum put it on Day 12: ‘you tune into their music after a while’. In contrast, the world outside seemed serenely still. Although we looked out across the city centre, we couldn’t – through a geometric quirk - see any road traffic from our vantage point on floor nine. From here, then, the city seemed a static space. Over time, we got our eyes in and began to read the undulations on the Mersey in the middle-distance. We had to work pretty hard, though, to pick out such surface movements. For the most part, the ward window provided a frame for a motionless panorama; an updated version of Ben Johnson’s acrylic painting of the city a decade on from its year as European Capital of Culture.

The dark, however, brought a reversal. Towards the end, we spent a few long nights alongside my Dad in the hospital. During ‘the hours of hush’, the strip lights were dimmed and 9HDU morphed into a soothing space. This strange stasis was juxtaposed with the dozens of dots flitting across the autumnal darkness outside. Looking down, tiny lights progressed slowly up the Mersey and out into Liverpool Bay. Looking up, more lights flashed as planes followed the arc of the river when coming into land in Speke. At night, we were reminded that this is, and always has been, a city of comings and goings.

9HDU seemed to be hermetically sealed. If I shifted the plastic chair into a particular spot, however, I could feel cold air entering the room through a gap around a window that, absurdly, could only be opened through the nurses’ use of a stained silver tea-spoon. For the staff working on 9HDU, that gap was a practical problem as well as a constant reminder that the new hospital remained not much more than an architect’s fantasy. The only solution, to prevent the cold from getting in, was to shut out the city by pulling across the disposable curtains. I felt differently, though. I wanted those curtains to be yanked back so that my Dad, lying flat on the bed, could see the spikes and sandstone of the city’s two cathedrals. I wanted the cold air to come into the room and to flow towards him.

As I sat there, I thought about the wind moving towards us. It came over the Clywdian Hills and across the flatlands of the Wirral. It travelled over the Mersey and snaked through the city’s streets and alleys, squares and churchyards; it picked up pace as it headed past Lime Street and up London Road towards the Royal. I imagined that something of the city came with that wind as it crept through the gap and into 9HDU. The city flowed into the room, and into my Dad, as, at the last, he struggled to breathe back out.

***

Three months on, I spoke to my Mum on the phone one evening. It was getting dark outside but she told me that didn’t want to shut the curtains in the living-room at home. ‘We used to close them to tuck ourselves in’, she said, ‘but I can’t feel tucked in anymore’. Those curtains have remained open.

***

David Cooper is a Senior Lecturer in English (Place Writing) at Manchester Metropolitan University whose research concentrates on literary geographies. David on Twitter.

Am I Alone In Dreaming Of Rubble

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By David Lewis:

I am walking through a blunt triangle of empty terraced streets, dominated by a long low red brick church, closed and boarded up; a hole in the boards allows local children to once again play in the church porch.  It is starting to get dark.

Twenty years ago, in a period of deep, isolated research, I began to have dreams about Liverpool.  I was studying the city’s churches, curious about how they define the city; how their spires contribute to the roofline, how their architecture dominates a street, how the city is changed on the date of their demolition.  I worked alone, spending weeks in the city’s Records Office poring over memoirs and old street plans.   Days were spent immersed in the stark and beautiful photographs of Liverpool in its Victorian prime, and in the dark and destructive 1960s when many of the city’s older churches were demolished.  I took many long journeys to find the sooty, bruised survivors, only to discover that this destruction was ongoing.  In some cases I arrived only days after the final clearance, to a raw slash in the urban landscape, a sense of wounded stone and dust settling.  I began to see all buildings as temporary, as part of a rolling history of the fabric of the city.  Lines began to blur. 

And I started to dream.  Carl Jung famously dreamed of the city; mine were more prosaic. They have always been short and in black and white, and fall into two categories.  In the first, I can see small details of the city - street corners, ruined walls, unnamed streets reduced to fields of rubble.  Some districts appear time and again; Edge Hill, Toxteth, Netherfield Road, places that have been in a radical process of decay and regeneration since the 1960s. I started to record the dreams as accurately as I could, in a staccato, notebook style.  Sometimes they help me remember more detail; in other cases they are all that is left of the dream. 

Unknown derelict dockland streets, ironwork, weeds, tall closed warehouses.  A steep cobbled street called St George’s Place, behind a railway station. Early morning. 

The dreams were fuelled by the photographs, but I came to realise that they were also reviving memories.  The Liverpool of my childhood was a city partly in ruins, and blitz-memories were still strong.  Older people talked of evacuation to north Wales, of nights in air-raid shelters, of bombers over the city.  The destruction continued after the war, when in a spurt of self-loathing the city demolished with a frenzy, and on car journeys to visit relatives in the northern reaches of the city I saw miles of cleared terraced streets.  In those days all gaps in the landscape were known as ‘bommies’, a word which meant bomb sites but also bonfires; urban folk memory overlapped urban function.  I had a recurring dream of a large square black building in the middle of a demolished city, a composite view of the boarded-up churches and barely-open pubs I saw on the disappearing streets of north Liverpool. 

In the other dreams, I see residential areas associated with my grandfather’s family.  Vincent Lewis was born in 1904, and grew up surrounded by family in the working-class streets of Liverpool 8.   As a child I knew many of the streets with family connections, and as an adult it was these places that began to appear in different dreams; sometimes in ruins, sometimes full of people, sometimes just streets of alleyways and tall brick walls. 

Cockburn Street in the early morning.  There are no cars and the street is deserted but I can see down another cleared street to the Mersey below me, gleaming silver.  Tall walls behind me. 

I came to realise that all these dreams, these blurrings of old photograph and old memory, are a creative response to the demolition of my grandfather’s city.  The books I have written on Liverpool are an attempt to understand and articulate the Victorian city that is gradually disappearing.  Yet the pace of urban evolution is so quick that one day all our familiar places will have gone or been radically changed and everyday memories, however commonplace, will have become history.  I still walk the vulnerable city as often as I can, exploring and recording amputated streets, stretches of cobble and redundant warehouses.  Often after these long walks I dream once more of the city in ruins, feeling now that our rubble dreams tell us more than we know.      

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

Letter to a Stranger

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By Shawna Bethell:

The thing I didn’t tell you was that I met your brother on the ferry. He was looking for you. Your father wanted you home. To this moment, I’ve never told anyone that I met either of you. I felt it would be a betrayal of sorts, though I didn’t even know your names. But I knew your stories, two parts of a whole, none of us expecting I would cross both your paths. Yet I did, within a half-dozen hours or so. Harris is a small island, after all.

I was sitting alone on deck watching grey waters when your brother approached and asked to sit. Together we watched sleek arch-backed porpoises rise and fall as they swam alongside the ferry. We watched a low sweep of rock appear in the distance, growing until it became an island large enough for a port, a village and a road up the coast that would cross a narrow isthmus to another stretch of gneiss known as the Isle of Lewis.

Eventually, he started talking. Told me more than he probably should have about your family, but he spoke with earnestness, and I couldn’t help but listen. He had tracked you to that slab of stone sprawling in the distance and hoped you were still there. In time, we disembarked and as I walked away, he asked me to dinner. I declined and wound my way up the hill, unknowingly, to you.

It was later that evening, in a hostel full of travelers, when our paths crossed. I was rummaging in the kitchen when you came in and I asked you where to find a knife for my vegetables. You were a large man, with long blonde hair bound back by a leather cord and gold wire-rimmed glasses that framed blue eyes. From the leather sheath on your hip you pulled that gracefully thin filet blade with a round wooden handle and passed it to me. I still remember how caught I was by its elegance. Casually, you also opened the cupboard and offered spices from your cache saying I’d likely not find anything but salt and pepper in the communal kitchen. Then you quietly paced the cramped space, crowded with washer and dryer and Formica table, while I sliced in silence. When I returned the knife, you left.

That night, as a woman from Skye cranked open the window above our bunk and slept comforted by familiar cold air blowing in from the sea, I was left sleepless by the same damp chill, so I took my laundry back to the warm kitchen, made a cup of tea and sat down with my journal.

I hadn’t realized any one else was around when you walked in from the TV room and spoke. As before, you paced the perimeter of the room past the washer and dryer, along the counter and back before pulling out the chair across from me to sit.

You said you were from Finland and had worked a lucrative desk job as expected by your father until a few months before. Then, with no word to anyone, you left. You landed on the island and hired on at a fish cannery off the rocky shore. You said you liked the physical labor, liked the men you worked with. You said you weren’t planning to stay on the island, but had no plans to go back either. 

We talked a lot about family and expectations. I told you about the Midwestern United States, where people were rooted by generations of family loyalty, a pull so strong that I felt my choices in life were abdicated before I was old enough to know I had choices to make. I loved my family, but when I finally left the Midwest, it was with a sense of escape. I landed in a mountain town in the western U.S. populated with out-of-work miners, scientists, artists and travelers. It was a place where people accepted you as the person you presented yourself to be, and it was where I gained the freedom to be the writer I wanted to become.

In the dark early hours of morning, you put on your jacket and went outside, cigarette in hand, and through the window I watched the orange tip burn as you paced the walk out front. Shortly you returned, explaining you had to catch the ferry for work in only a few hours and needed to get some sleep. I don’t remember that we even shared a ‘good-bye.’ You just walked away through the drafty, concrete-block hallway, and I was left to pull my clothes from the dryer and stuff them into my pack. Then I followed the hallway to my own side of the dorm where I fell easily and unexpectedly to sleep.

By daylight you were gone and I caught a ride north, jotting a quick ‘thank you’ and tucking it into your spice cache before I left. We never did exchange names. It didn’t seem necessary, I guess. But I still think of you, and I wonder if your brother ever found you. I wonder if you ever went home. I did, eventually. For better or for worse. Sometimes, I’m still not certain. But that strange triumvirate of love, loyalty and obligation will call even the most wayward of us back.

Wherever you ended up, I hope you went there by choice and without regret. I hope you found the life you wanted. I wonder, though, if you ever knew, if either of you ever knew, if you ever talked about that woman you both happened upon, who carried two men’s stories back out to sea.

Shawna Bethell lives in the central Midwest of the US. Her work has appeared in the Denver Post, The Mountain Gazette, High Desert Journal, and This Land Magazine among other publications.