Alex's stories · January · lost

Seeing Clearly

by Alex Townley

alex lostTHE fog descended in the spring of 2017.

It began as a sort of haze that could vaguely be seen hovering on the horizon over Birmingham. Longer news bulletins briefly made mention of it as their second to last item, but generally journalists (notoriously based in the capital) were uninterested, and so the rest of the country sleepwalked into a new era.

By summer the Midland haze as it was affectionately understated, had thickened so that even on what should have been a clear day (according to the national weather forecast) one couldn’t quite see as far as the university campus from the top of the Lickey Hills, a distance of less than 10 miles and usually easy to spot.

Meteorologists mentioned climate change in that embarrassed tone they saved for conversations where they knew they would be ignored, and sure enough further meteorologists stressed that one event such as this couldn’t be looked on as an effect on the climate as a whole, but by Autumn several people were killed on the M6 and M5 in accidents blamed on the fog.

The haze also spread north as far as Stoke on Trent, and east over Leicester, which seemed to push it further down the news agenda rather than up, possibly because it was no longer new, and possibly because, as the Midlands residents suspected, it was only affecting the parts of the country the media would rather forget existed anyway.

Of course all of this is told through the filter of my mother, who I suspect had a chip on her shoulder about the way her home town was viewed. I was only five years old in 2017. By the time I knew anything was different about where we lived we were a forgotten land dividing the north and south of the country. The fog was so thick it had seeped into buildings, blurring the edges of anyone and anything on the other side of rooms.

No-one dared drive anymore, the death toll on the motorways had risen to off-putting levels, and people travelled generally by foot. Things were serious enough that someone had the idea of installing rope cordons along footpaths and pavements to help people find their way in certain neighbourhoods. I say installed and that makes it seem official, but my childhood was far from official. With the arrival of the fog, everything took on a shambolic, homemade, cobbled together feel.

My grandad called it a pea souper. He started out proclaiming he’d seen worse as a boy in ’52, in the Great London Smog, when thousands died, but gradually as our fog refused to leave he quietened down as if its whiteness muted even him.

When it became clear that the fog was settling in, many people left their homes. Some frustrated that they couldn’t see clearly to drive to their jobs, others put off by officialdom’s inability to sort anything out, the growing weeds on the streets, burst water mains going unattended.

In the thickest areas of fog no-one could successfully call out any kind of repairman, so people learned to live with their breakages, or began to fix things themselves.

The fog was also, obviously, made up of water particles and not some surreal stage effect, which living inside it, was impossible to forget. Wallpaper slowly peeled from lounge walls, and mildew was everywhere. My childhood was nothing if not chilly and damp, and neighbours used to call in at our house for dry wood for their fires.

Dry anything had a value, and my dad, my hero, was good at finding things with value, and then selling them on. He established a shop, little more than a shed really, over at Kinver on top of the Edge above the fog line, and made quite a bit of money. He paid for my university fees off the back of it.

We children learned the power of our parents’ voices, Mum’s high pitches instantly vanishing into the white, while Dad’s booming low voice seemed to travel the length of the street at tea time.

Dad sealed all the electrics in the house with candle wax, and so we listened to the radio, we read wavy paged books and dreamt of distance and warm dry places where damp didn’t linger in the air. We generally divided into two groups of stay-at homes, not daring to play outside, or those who played hide and seek like ghosts disappearing into the white in games that lasted hours and hours. I fell happily into the second group.

The official line, my mother told me, was that nowhere was cut off, no-one was being cut off, and in any case there was housing available for any that wanted to move, but practically, the Midlands were lost, we were a no man’s land of grey.

With my family a newly formed fog mafia, I mastered my city. I could spot one of the slow moving buses at the end of the street, when to others it was still a looming shadow, and know from its own peculiar fixes and rusting repairs, which number it was likely to be.

I ran fearlessly through neighbourhoods endlessly into the unknown, enjoying the clatter of my footsteps on strange pavements, damp curtains twitching in a Mexican wave of nerves.

I was undaunted by the fog, it cushioned me, wrapped me up and trailed its tendrils after me wherever I wandered.

I dared other children to leave the relatively cosy suburbs of the city for woodlands where the fog made 3D shadows of tree branches, endlessly crisscrossed and intertwined like the forest of thorns in Sleeping Beauty so that every dark shape threatened to be solid and you lost all sense of direction, making most people, even hardened fog-dwellers avoid it like the plague.

When I was 14 I noticed people disappearing into the white and never coming back. Older brothers and sisters of friends of mine. It seemed to be an unspoken agreement that as soon as they were old enough they were better off somewhere else. I told myself I’d never leave, this was my home, but it turned out that idea was ridiculous. There were no jobs in the fog to speak of. Everyone got out eventually.

I finally moved down to London when I was 18, and you could tell down there who had started out where, you could spot the children of the fog.

We were quieter, as though we muted ourselves, we looked up at the sky more often, stared out into the distance.

People talk about mist shrouding places, and there’s something in that. My childhood had a quiet deferential tone, as though the fog stripped us of our anger, our passion, our urge to shout. It softened us around the edges.

But I was determined not to be obvious, I was determined to find my way.

I stood next to strangers on tube platforms and launched into conversation, ignoring the fact that it sounded like bellowing in my head.

Occasionally they talked back, and I could tell in the way the volume of their voice shocked them and they tried to hide it, the way they never asked ‘so where are you from?’

True Londoners muttered loudly, grumbled about the weather.

My favourite line.

“Bit foggy today isn’t it. Like living in the Midlands.”

That threw them, complaining about the weather, mentioning ‘The North’, that implied I couldn’t possibly be ‘one of them’. That made me feel as though I’d mastered the game.

By 2033 I had been in London for three years. I had grown louder, brasher. I moved quickly through crowds, I had a room in a rented flat in Golders Green which was small, but warm and snug and dry. It had extractor fans fitted in the bathroom that automatically switched on with the lights so that nothing stayed damp. I had a boyfriend who came from Barnet and laughed at my stories of when I was younger as though I was a mythical creature.

Work gave me free membership to a gym, with a steam room, which never failed to make me smile, people paying to sit in the mist.

I sat under clear skies, and moved in the tides of pedestrian traffic on the underground and disappeared into my new life.

I can remember the moment I saw it mentioned on the news, the footage of the overgrown M5, camera crews edging their way north into undiscovered country, and I knew what I was looking at, even though I’d never seen it before.

The fog finally lifting.

I bought my train ticket with shaking hands, I sat staring intently out of the window from Euston to New Street, waiting for the transition, where the world would start to fade, where the fog would envelope us. I waited for that inner sense of stillness to return. But there was nothing.

I walked home from the station, which wasn’t a small distance, but everywhere was disconcerting, familiar and not quite familiar, it all needed retreading. I could close my eyes and walk these streets, I could leap the solid shadows of the telegraph poles like a champion hurdler, but I found it hard to stand and stare.

My house seemed small and ridiculous, with its bare walls long since stripped of decoration, its make do and mend furniture and waxed electrics, my dad’s dry cupboard exposed as just a cupboard now. Washing surprising itself by being hung outside in the sun. My mother out in the overgrown garden startled in the middle of a gin and tonic, dressed in a bikini at four in the afternoon.

She stood up, arms spread wide. My mother, my softly-spoken mother.

“Oh my God. Look who’s here!”

We went inside, her voice sounded too loud, as though she didn’t know how to stop it from filling the space.

I’d never hugged her dry, I’d never sat in this lounge on upholstered sofas or brushed against the walls without regretting it immediately.

Despite her protestations, her cries that I should stay for lunch, the echo of her joy at seeing me, I had to get out into our street, our ghostly hide and seek street. I needed to breathe in the mist, but it wasn’t there. Everything was altered, the world was off kilter. I felt as though I might fall over.

The sky was too tall, the edge of the world was too far away.

After a childhood spent easily navigating a world of white enclosure, and feeling the mapless master of those streets, having the grey cracked pavements, shabby residents and crumbling red bricked houses, our hand-fashioned cordons and our own particular wayposts exposed in the light of day, I didn’t know how to find myself.

©Alex Townley 2016

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2 thoughts on “Seeing Clearly

  1. Amazing story with some cool metaphors throughout. I liked how you analysed how the rest of the nation underestimate the cultural and historical richness of the Midlands, and the understated environmental message of the piece. Very well-written.

    Like

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