Paul Stewart

 

Remote

I like the elegy. It suits me. It allows for longer sentences, for one, in which a slide of decline, from energy to rest, from rest to inertia, can be traced. It allows for sentences like that. Let me say, so as not to forget, that the elegy is possible because Nottingham is dead.

The Greek by the White Horse is gone. The window upon which, in large blue letters, his return to the chip shop was announced has been all but bricked in; the necessary renovations for student flats. But then Raleigh has gone too, the Raleigh I knew, with swooping handle bars and thin spokes, crested with a bird I had down as a Phoenix. The Narrowboat has gone; cleared for development, its beer-stained carpet and red-plush benches wrenched up and chucked out, its warren of corridors above rationalised for cubicled offices and the Via Fossa, a new place that flaunts its newness even in the appropriation of the ancient and the dead in its name.

I have gone too, long ago. My accent, never of the strongest, took a while to die, but it went, leaving only the trace in an odd sharp or guttural vowel, which would be excused because I was bright and the regions must be supported educationally. My memories long gone too, but for the trace of a chip shop, a bike, a pub or basement, of houses in which teenage years were eked out and lost.

There was one whose trace is strong still. A house now remote, and remotely, I access it, calling onto the screen in my office a map upon which I track with my finger the long artery that runs between Clifton and what must now be called the campus of Nottingham Trent University. Each fingernail must be fifty metres, if not more. That finger's journey I recall, but the metres are blurred by the steady sprawl of grey semis and green privet hedges. I am travelling south, as if to the M1, and when the grey houses end, the finger turns to the left, runs a while, and turns right into a later Lego-land development of red brick houses leaning against each other as if the architect had been taken by the beauty of shanty towns on a holiday the inhabitants of his work could never hope to take.

In one house in the corner of a mew I sit out of it. The mother and sole parent made me a cup of tea before dragging the younger children, two young boys, to whatever they had to be dragged. She told me I could wait, that she was late, but wouldn't be long, that I knew what she was like, but the heating was on and help yourself to whatever, and how have you been, and your parents, will you get your shoes on, and how was college going, come on will you, good, and we'll be back in a couple of hours. The tea's gone cold since then, and, cold, I stare unseeing into the dusk of the estate; the red houses growing browner as darkness comes.

She is late, but carries a bottle of wine with her, which she uncorks as I sit on the bench at the pine table of the kitchen. I sip the wine, which is not good, from a glass that is a tumbler. She tells me of her days. I forget her days. To be frank, I forget much. The wine, the pine and tumbler, for example, are not remembered but invented and written to look like a memory, to serve as substitute for living memory for which there is no word in English. So there is wine, tumblers, a table and her and these shall be the memories now.

She is beautiful. My memory will have it like that. No; she is, with deep, almond eyes above high cheek bones, with short-cropped hair which I imagine scandalised my mother at some stage. My hair is also short, but then it has never been anything else. She sits opposite me, her hand in mine as she tells me of her days.

If I were a writer I would give her a life now, would I not? I would say if she held down a job or studied, characterise her beliefs, hopes and fears, give a sense of her voice, deep or high, rasping or mellifluous, provide a thumbnail sketch of whatever hardships she suffered and suffers, describe her feelings as she sits there looking at me, my hand in hers and hers in mine. Such life would be alien.

By a circuitous route, the finger traces its way back across the Trent, skirting the bottom of the Lace Market and rests upon Canal Street. In a pub on the left, now gone as said, I stand at the bar with its porthole mirrors and place a pint of Guinness upon it. The white bubbles rise to fill the sip-gap my mouth has just left and restore the even cream head. It is my third this afternoon I fancy and I have money enough for three more or more perhaps. The barman is not my friend, but he smiles because his colleague is and he has seen me standing here, reading The Guardian of all things, three times now this week. I am visiting.

My fourth pint sees my friend arrive with his lank, tall body wrapped about in an overcoat lacking buttons, his long black hair, which never scandalised my mother at any stage, falling to his lapels. He has a pint of Guinness too, and the two white heads in our hands bob as we walk to a table tucked into the corner, not too far from the bar. I will buy him drinks if need be.

The catch up conversations are done with. He filling me in on what has not been happening, because nothing ever does; I not filling him in on what has been happening because it is a life, as such, with no picture and no point for him. The unearthing and interring conversations have now begun.

—Yes, as I reset the glass, I know you saw her in London then. You have told me before, as well.

—Have I?

—Yes.

—It was just a drink one night really. He drinks and resets his glass, the white bubbles no longer rising.

—One night.

—Yes. A couple of hours up in Hampstead.

—A nice area.

—Had quite a nice chat. She's a nice girl.

—And she always liked you.

—Well.

It must have been something like that. A word used too often without commitment, it standing on the lip and tongue too long to be convincing. It would not have taken much, for, whatever else I am, and I do not know, I have an ear for nuance. Let me be frank again; I have always been an audience, at best. And I wonder now, with the pub gone, and the friend I trust not, but where he might be I know not, and I remote, whether I did not make all that up also. For there is this about memory; it is easily fooled. So perhaps I invented it as well, to give the sense of an ending, of a dying fall, to give that slide of decline I want. To make leaving all the easier.

The webcam claims to be live. It is updated every three minutes to capture and transmit the comings, goings, and comings of the roundabout at the end of Maid Marian Way, the swirl of motion redirected towards Upper Parliament Street, or to the Castle, or up Derby road and out of it. It is not live. The red car, fixed in a blurred turn, is simply no longer there three minutes later. I cannot watch it move around the roundabout, indicate and exit. It is there and unreal, and it is gone and unreal still.

This is not live. Fixed in a curve of a moment of want, or of a dull ache to understand, no matter, there is no movement. Fixed on a screen, or in black ink inscriptions, its parcels of history which may or may not be real, I forget, are no more real than a picture of a car in motion thousands of miles away. We only assume a driver, because we must, but that does not mean there is one.

It all was there once, or was not. I was there once, or was not, or there but not as I would have had it. For this is an elegy for a reluctant corpse, written for that which should be gone, yet will not go, which I must needs bury to eulogise and erect a monument. So,

Nottingham is dead. It has now been written, and being written, dead.