Why didn’t the sponge pudding cook properly? That sounds like the start of a bad joke but it isn’t. This is real life and a real enigma that I am forced to ponder over as my portion reheats in the microwave. I’ve only known this pudding to not cook properly once before and that was when I tried to make a chocolate version. Perhaps, I think, I should look over the recipe again- It’s an ancient, vaguely written thing on a scrap of paper and maybe I’ve misread the instructions. It should have cooked goshdarnit! The microwave pings and my portion of improperly cooked pudding (improperly cooked but still good) is done. It is 9:00 AM on a Wednesday morning and once I’ve had this (yeah, pudding for breakfast, live with it!) I have some birthday money to go and spend… I’ve thought about going out towards Chester to spend it but I am really not in the mood today. I’ll stay local instead. Local can be an adventure too!
The weather continues to be a pain. It’s still freezing cold despite being mid March and there’s a wind coming in from somewhere. Where is that wind coming from? Why is it so windy? I’m grateful for that pudding now actually. It gives me a nice warm feeling from the pit of my stomach as I‘m battered by the wind. Fruit might be healthy but it doesn’t warm you up on a cold day. Unless it’s cooked fruit in which case… Correction: Yogurt might be healthy but it doesn’t warm you up on a cold day. Give me the pudding on any day like this instead of the yogurt, that is what I say. As I cross the main road to the bus stop I start to ponder on when the warmer weather will eventually come back, if at all. I don’t expect heat waves in the middle of March but weather a bit warmer than this surely.
At the bus stop the saga of the electronic display board continues: Nope, they still haven’t fixed it and nope, they haven’t replaced the plastic timetable which got stolen by some chav. There are two people waiting at the stop and as I arrive I look up to see if the council have, by some miracle and after almost two years, fixed that blasted display.
‘It’ll be five minutes,’ one of the women waiting there tells me. Great! I smile and nod politely in response. How does she know that? She must be some kind of witch… She has the gift of foresight! Two minutes later a bus goes by on the other side of the road. ‘That one’s late,’ she says to no one in particular. More witchy powers of foresight or has she just memorised the bus timetable? The latter is probably more likely. Although the busses are never on time anyway so there is actually no point in memorising the entire table. It’s quite enough to know in which rough ten minute period they’ll arrive and this lady has effectively wasted her time. I do wish they’d sort that board out though. It’s been stuck saying that the next bus is arriving at 9:59 for far too long and seeing as they put that now stolen plastic timetable up the council transport department obviously know it’s f***ed up. So why don’t they, I dunno, fix it? I don’t have an answer to that question but I can at least say that the lady with the foresight was correct. The bus does arrive within five minutes. But for the expense of the bus ticket I’d at least expect them to plough some of their extortionate profits into sorting out the display board.
As I’m riding the bus I see an old building for sale, part of an old school hall, and I vaguely remember going to a party there when I was kid. I can’t remember anything about the party or what it was for or what it looked like inside (and I can’t find it on the usual property websites) but the party happened, I’m sure. The sight gets me thinking about change and how this one horse town just doesn’t, or not by much and not very often. That old school building has been shut up and empty for years and I doubt any sale will change that. Someone might knock it down and build a couple of houses there but I doubt it. It will probably just stay neglected for a long time yet, until it falls down is most likely.
Further around on the bus route there’s a leisure centre and I recall that before it was built there was an empty field and some circus camped out there for a week once. I have never been to a circus in my life but I can remember seeing the elephants wandering around on that field where now that massive leisure centre stands. Across from it is a community centre which they built in the late nineties. When they first opened it my school decided it would be a great idea to take us to a sort of ‘cross cultural’ event day there. People were offended when, during lunch, myself and a friend began singing an African folk song we’d been taught that morning. We sounded drunk! That was also the day I found out that I was absolutely cack at playing the drums. That community centre looks really old and neglected now. Closer to the town centre they’ve recently cleared an old waste ground so they can build a Lidl (even though there’s one like, five minutes walk away) and what used to be a pub is now a day nursery with a silly name. Other than all that nothing much has changed in this part of town for the last twenty years. Everything is as it ever was and seems to be as it ever will be.
Once in the centre the weather seems to have warmed up a little and my first stop is the bank to drop a birthday cheque into my account. I curse whoever thought it would be a good idea to get rid of the humans in this place and replace them with machines. I am struggling to release the slip from my paying-in-book and the machine is beeping at me, demanding that I hurry up and alerting everyone to the fact that I am absolutely useless. It isn’t just here, in this one branch, this rise of the machines is happening though. It’s all over the place. Almost all banks are now doing it. If this is what they call progress then I don’t want it. Bring back the cashiers!
I leave, disgruntled at the rise of the machines, and go off down the street. The shops might have changed a bit over the years but this dark and dingy street where the bank is is still more or less the same as it ever was. Woolworths is now a pound shop and there’s a gaming store across the way, plus a few more that have sprung up, closed down, or moved elsewhere but my five year old self would be familiar with everything here. He’d even recognize the end of the street which was all spruced up and pedestrianized about fifteen years ago. They pedestrianized it to look ‘modern’ but these days, although it isn’t all grubby or falling apart, it doesn’t look so much modern as what some idiot in the late nineties thought modern was. It’s all featureless plastic pillars and concrete. I hardly pay this place any attention. I walk on by and turn down another street going towards the market, a road that hasn’t changed at all with the single exception that Stationary Box is now a Cash exchange place.
Up at the market there’s another change taking place. They’re remodelling this area completely, planning to knock down the current market building and replace it with a shiny and new communal shopping square thing, which includes a new market. It’s one of the biggest changes this hick town has seen in all my twenty six years on this earth. The last time they did something this big was ten years ago when they rebuilt the bus station and extended the nearby shopping mall at the same time. They removed an entire road to do that. This time they’ve already flattened a whole block of old seventies/eighties buildings and there is more to come. At the present moment in time the old building is still open for business though. This worries me a bit actually because the old market is one of the best around (and that’s saying something because it still isn’t good.) There aren’t many good markets left, and I fear that when they rebuild it will be reduced, tiny and insignificant like so many other places. Not that I should care because by the time they open it I’ll be long gone, touch wood.
I’m here to look for one thing- No, not Jerusalem Artichokes. They’re out of season and I know that I won’t find them here anyway. I’ve checked before. In my opinion Jerusalem Artichokes are like the Holy Grail of vegetables. They’re impossible to find. Today I’m not looking for the Holy Grail as I say, I’m looking for the Ark of the Covenant- Rhubarb. The supermarkets aren’t selling any fresh stuff, just tinned, and what I want is fresh. It’s right in the middle of the season and I’m not too far from the area known as the ‘rhubarb triangle’ so, theoretically, I should find some. I wander around the fruit and veg stalls, searching, and am about to give up when I see it, insignificantly tucked away… RHUBARB! RHUBARB! The fact that I am in public is pretty much all that prevents me from lifting it up to the sky like it’s some kind of religious relic. I buy a bag full and for the rest of the morning I am wandering around and holding onto it for dear life like someone is going to come along and steal it from me. You’ve got to be really careful about rhubarb muggers these days.
Actually, I think we should change the pronunciation of that wonderful fruit. Instead of Roo-Barb (as in Kangaroo) why don’t we pronounce it with the H, so as Rer-Hoo-Barb! Add an apostrophe to the spelling as well so people know how to say it as well: R’hubarb. Rhubarb is a funny word as it is but r’hubarb is even funnier. I shall spell and pronounce it as r’hubarb from now on I think.
Clutching my r’hubarb I go off to do what I came here to do in the first place: spend my birthday money. I could do with a new jacket as mine is getting on in years. I’ve had it since first year of university and it is well past the time for replacing it. First though I need to pop into Boots and get a new flannel. They don’t have any I like so I move on, looking for somewhere that might sell a jacket. A brief check of the literary competition in W.H Smith’s and Waterstone’s is what happens instead. I am tempted to buy yet another Graham Greene book (I know, I have a problem) but I refrain. A few other books catch my eye. One group in particular is only a pound; a series of mystery novels by Ann
of Cleeves. The one nearest the front, Too Good To Be True, is the one that most interests me. I pick up the one to the left of where I am standing (that detail is important- remember that detail later on) and have a quick flick through. It seems like it might be ok… It isn’t very long but it’s cheap so that isn‘t a problem. I put it back and decide against buying for now, leaving the shop.
Next up is Debenhams to begin my search for a new jacket. I hate how in every Debenhams they have the perfumery department right inside the entrance. I always feel the staff giving me dirty looks as I pass by, dirty looks that say I shouldn’t be in their department. Well I’m sorry but if you insist on putting the perfumery in the entrance then I’m going to have to walk through it to get to the menswear section, alright? Five minutes later I have to face those stares again, empty handed because although they had a couple of nice jackets they were beyond my price range.
T.K Maxx follows. Like Debenhams they have no reasonably priced jackets in my size and also, for some reason, some thuggish looking middle aged bald guy following me about the place. I hasten it across the mall to Burton’s where I find a jacket that I almost like… But it comes with a really ugly shirt and there ain’t any way that I’m wasting my money on that thing. They have a similar one without the shirt but it is ridiculously priced… At least double what it costs with the shirt. Sayonara to that one then. I try a few more places but nowhere has any jackets that I like. Disappointed, I finally end up in HMV… The same HMV that closed down several years ago only to be replaced by another, less good music shop. That closed down just before Christmas and they replaced it with this HMV. I don’t see the logic in that one. To cut this short, instead of a jacket, I end up with The Monuments Men and the Spooks movie.
Gnawing at me is that book by Ann Cleeves… Only a pound… Worth it just for the price, right? Yeah, got to be… Back to Waterstone’s it is, back to that table with the mystery books. I stand in the same place as before and pick up a book on the right of the table. Had I bought this book earlier I’d have picked one from the left. Now, for some reason, I end up picking one from the right. I don’t bother skimming through it again. I just take it to the counter, pay my pound and then go off in search of a flannel. And not only do I get that (from Wilko… And please stop me going in there because ninety percent of the time I come out having bought a cheap cookery implement) but I also buy this year’s bean seeds and some lettuce seeds whilst there. Buying Jerusalem Artichoke tubers does occur to me but they don’t have any and I don’t have the room to plant them right now anyway.
I honestly thought I had a tenner in my wallet but as I come to the counter in Wilko I realize it is just a measly fiver and after paying for my assortment of goodies, no cookery implement this time, I come to the revelation that in order to get the bus home I am a pound short. Return to the bank… Tenner out… Slide into Thorntons on the way to the bus station to exchange it for some change and some chocolate.
I then realize that the whole town centre is swarming with pensioners. It’s the middle of the week so I shouldn’t be surprised… But their number is above and beyond the number you come across in Morrison’s on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many pensioners all in one place before. And they’re all going in the same direction. Are they gathering for something? Is this is the long touted pensioner uprising? They’re literally crawling out of the woodwork of the shopping mall, and it scares me, until I finally reach the bus station where the average age becomes much lower. The girl sitting opposite me is vaguely familiar. Did I go to school with her? As such I avoid her like the plague. Best not to interact with anyone I went to school with.
I call this town ‘Hell.’ I call it Hell because it is a nothing, nowhere, commuter splodge somewhere outside Manchester. It’s a hick town, a one horse way station with a few decent shops and not much else. Many of the people here are idiots, thugs and fools. I never reveal where it is because those fools will take offence and probably beat me up for the derogatory things I say about this place. It has changed very little over the years and overall I’d much rather I had ended up stuck somewhere more interesting. But every once in a while Satan offers his denizens a glimmer of happiness- The r’hubarb for instance. I wouldn’t have got it in a town without a market. And when I get home I open up my Ann Cleeves book and I get a surprise and if I’d have gone for the book on the right I would never have had it. I might even, eventually, have passed the book on to a charity shop or something. But I went for the one on the left and as such I got it. As the book was only published this year, though not a first edition, it will stay with me in as good a condition as possible, receipt tucked into the front cover as proof of when I bought it. I know it will never be worth a fortune but it is still pretty cool all the same…