I have been looking forward to seeing old friends in Newcastle since the day we finalised it. Sadly, they are just far enough away to preclude a practical day trip and weekends for us both are somewhat hard to co-ordinate. However, the school holidays and a little alignment from the Stars meant 2 days together.
Looking back at my time in Newcastle, hindsight is the problem. When I left, I thought a particular set of things was true, that my time had been life’s normal ebb and flow of ups and downs. Stopping at Wetherby services on the way up is similarly laced with memories. It is where I bought my Wife a soft toy to cheer up when she had gotten lost following me home after picking up a car I bought, and the smiles walking back to my car somewhat worried where she was. On the other hand, I had stood there and can remember that hours after standing in that spot my life would change forever, and overwhelmingly that would be for the worst.
Yet, I am going to see two people who stood beside me, who felt frustrated by the physical distance but who offered me a sanctuary should I need one. If I had walked away and left it all with just what I could have carried, they would have put me up and helped me back on my feet again. They knew the truth and endured until I saw it too. Because I literally had no idea that my life wasn’t normal. Marriage ran like my childhood, so it was all I ever knew. Hindsight tells me the truth. They didn’t only not believe the lies, they said they were lies. Of course one was my best man, of course, we stay in regular contact, and I miss them sorely. Travelling up reminds me of the great times I had with them, the other friend I am visiting and the supporting cast genuine caring people who made the good times.
The saving grace of the situation is that I was able to enjoy the great that I had while I had it, which maybe is why the loss hit so hard. Being a full-time parent and part-time everything else was a blessing and a privilege. An amazing gift I got to do not had to do. The downside was other people’s attitudes towards me, from the, it’s your day off/ time with assumptions, to the, you must play Xbox all day assumptions and the general feeling that I did nothing, had no job and merely grudgingly did minimal necessary babysitting duties when I had to. I was proud of how I kept my little council house, proud that the family was fed, clothed, warm and looked after even when 10 days before pay day I had 2.50p to do it with. Proud of my hustle that kept an extra income coming in without stopping me being the best Dad I could be. 9 pm to 12 pm or beyond working and up at 6 am. Our house was tidy, clean and welcoming, clothes were clean and ironed, I laugh at how I used to spray my wife’s clothes with a little fragrance, so her drawers and cupboards smelled sweet. Even if she never noticed or said, I knew. My son I spent hours together, he would watch me do the house stuff, cook meals, clean, but then we would always have our playtime, be it our soft play date every Wednesday. Or going to the park before picking mum up from work, he helped pick shopping and sort clothes, we watched the shiny show before the evening work run, and when I was at college, we sat and ate breakfast at McDonald’s before we went as his treat. Philadelphia Bagel with milk, and because we had over an hour to kill, all the time he wanted in the world to eat it or get it on his cheeks. I would learn he would play.
I was not Xbox dad, and I am still proud of that, and still treasure the times we had. Divorce has rewritten that, of course, the lies obscure, I will always hold the truth in fond regard. And so I drive on familiar roads, to show off my new life and catch up on the year.
When I sit in their lounge, my sadness is that I have not sat there more. Their boys have grown up just as mine are too. The welcome is warm and authentic, I could have been away a day or a year or ten, nothing has changed much, the bond the same. I am keen to share my happiness, and they share theirs, all along I am aware that the details have been washed away by the tide of time, the smiles and laughter of my everyday just a single jest in a story. Much of the time we sit and talk, indeed, we sit and talk until it is late. We depart, warm and full to our hotel, their house already full. The next day they joined us to see my favourite place the Baltic Mill Contemporary Art Gallery, then coffee and lunch at a little café on a street rich in memories of mornings with my eldest son when he was my only son, breakfast and motorcycle shops on Westgate Hill.
The morning goes too fast, and it is time to catch one more friend before we leave. All the while of this trip I have commentated on the places we go, putting them in the context of my life and why they are so dear to my heart, or not, of course. Our time together so short, I leave and sit in my car, small tears refusing to be held. We say nothing, departing on a familiar journey, my heart sadder each time I do. One time I left here full of optimism and hope, twenty-four hours later I would be holding my mother’s hand in ICU.
As I look at the Tyne, I have no idea what to feel, as I tour, I am talking about the great and the good times of the places I pick out. I feel the contrast with the tour of where I spent my childhood. Perhaps my friends Toon pride is infectious, but this is deeper, I want to remember Newcastle fondly. Growing up, I cannot bring myself to see it as anything but how it was, a place to escape. Yet, I was glad to leave Newcastle, I never wanted to live there, mostly, I believed, because I keenly felt the fact I was an outsider. With the life I have now, it really doesn’t matter, but then, with a son and the necessities of my life as it was, it made me restless. I was longing for a home when I was in a place where I was also feeling the most at home.
Of course, while I was and always would be an outsider, and in any place that makes you unwelcome to some, I was welcomed and accepted. People went out of their way to draw me in and include me, to prevent my isolation (which didn’t go down well). My longing to be home was not the place, I had no idea what home felt like yet, and it would be years after leaving Newcastle that I would finally feel at home on my own in a little house.
Driving home from the past, another stop, at a too familiar service station, not so fond, I got food poisoning of a sandwich from here one time, and then home. Yes, home, to reminisce about what could have been, never was, and what is. I look back and my time could have been so much more of the good, but really that is a lie. Without the circumstances that got me there, I would never have been there or met the people I did in the places I went. The good and bad happened because of each other. That hurts, I desperately wish that was not true. I want the good of that time to be cut out from the past in which it is embedded.
Sadly, this applies to so much of my life. The good times are so much clouded with the shadow of the other, the bad things. This sadness, is one I cannot escape, that looking back, so much will be seen not only in the light of hindsight which is harsh itself, but the long shadow of emotional control and abuse, and the knowledge that what made times good was ignorance as well as circumstance.
December view of the River Tyne from The Baltic Viewing Terrace
The top 2 photos are the raw shots and the bottom one has been edited so the beautiful City and River Can look their best.
It is just a place, me and the other grubby children with dirty faces playing down the park or on the green. Stopping for cars, our little junction serving as our centre court had few interruptions and rain only stopped play when our mothers said so. We ran, rode our bikes, never new but often shiny, played football badly and dreamed of stadiums somewhere with posh sounding names. We talked with walkie talkies till they got out of range, we ran to the shops round the corner our pocket money jangling along. The treasured haul that didn’t last the hour.
We paid no attention to those faceless streets, the endless same of council dreary that has not changed in twenty years. Back then it was a blank canvas on which we painted our dreams for so short a while. We laughed and chattered; busy little bees, no idea that the place, was not our toy or precious painting, but something rather insidious instead. As time passed, we played less and less, the walkie talkie batteries never replaced. My best friend moved away after he was not allowed to play with me. I never found why and he never gave his walkie talkie back either. Someone said it was because he was Catholic, but I really never knew what that meant or why I didn’t get my walkie talkie because of it.
As I grew older my mother kept me in, set rigid curfews and precise boundaries. I went to places I shouldn’t but I always came back on time. I thought it rather draconian and I learned to stay inside, going out became a fight. I am glad of the days no mobile phone or I would had to check in regularly as well. It wasn’t just the leaving, the endless questions surrounding the when, where, who and intention of my departure. Hanging out was not even close to a good reason, that got you home by 8pm latest did that one. 9pm was always it, or as it came to be, just when something interesting might happen.
House arrest got easy, a computer and games. TV, like going out, was fraught with danger, watch the wrong thing and no TV, no TV meant no games. My mother thought a week was a short time too. I got the message loud and clear, I flicked on and was trying to work out what the program was, when my mother looked in, instantly recognised a banned program, and it was gone. Today I wonder how she knew, and why she thought I would watch it with my door open right in front of the stairs so you could see when you came up? She never said, and I knew not to ask or argue, that only made things worse. My father, bless his heart, got it down to just a week from the month it had been. He never told me, I never knew he had my back like that.
Locked away, watching the sea of back gardens from my window, reduced to set places and set times, known routines and familiar places. The estate where I once played took on a menacing air. Across the road became darker and fraught with danger, the park, my football ground, with makeshift hosepipe swing over a little brook, became off limits and out of bounds. I looked in and wondered some days, even when the fence was nothing more than posts in the ground, I never stepped in not once. I missed a lot perched on my little island. The place never changed, nothing changed. The dull dreary sullen bricks indifferent to it all, a life or death equally insignificant to those cold and damp council walls. The houses frowned, and I joined in, head hanging down hoping no one would see me. Those kids who once made up another team, or the Indians to our Cowboys never spoke a word, I learned silence.
I came to be the place I grew up, there but not part of anything, sullen and detached from what was real and was makebelieve. The world of suits, careers and briefcases in another world from mine. Like clean windows and brand new cars, work was rare and never lasted long. Whatever a career was, it could be, if you were lucky, a ticket to somewhere better. Not sure where better was, how to get there or what it looked like. It had to be good because they never came back. I had no idea what drugs were, but they sounded fun, I was told of prison, but it didn’t sound that bad, they seemed to get meals they chose and allowed outside. I heard stories that people got jobs when they got out too, I wondered why school was considered such a great option quite a lot as well. Rules and constraints.
I stood outside my house, where the skip that took my childhood away once stood. Thankfully the new owners were out, like when I left the gate wasn’t fitted, and the grass could have done with a cut and tidy. The Hedge seemed neater and the little walkway to the front door had shrunk from the wide expanse of those childhood days. The windows had changed, and the front door too, but they still frowned and looked familiar to those that I drudged home to so many times. You never ran, late was late from one minute to an hour. And hour was better, you had a better time and you could say you misread the time, rushing in 1min past meant you had tried it on. It got easier to stay inside, no internet, no people, no pressure.
Going outside was not only navigating the barrage of questions when you wanted to go out, it was the interrogation when you returned. Where had you been, what had you done, what had you said, and I learned that a simple account was not enough you had to know why. Staying home was easy, reading a book was easy, sleeping was easy. I was like my house, just enduring, staying the course not out of any conscious will but because I was made that way and so had no choice in the matter.
I am standing on my old drive, I am 12. I can stand where my Dad hit me, I can stand where my mother dressed me down. I can stand where I wasn’t good enough and where I had let everybody down. I can stare at where all hope was lost and my dreams were dashed. I can stand where laughter became tears, and friendships disappeared, I can stand where triumph turned to dread, I am standing where the skip that took my childhood away stood.
Like the place, I am standing where I grew dreary, weary of life just after it had started, and it was quiet. As a child sirens had never wailed, when you heard one it was always barely a whisper, and it was the same that day, nothing, no birds singing no dogs barking, everyone knows to be quiet here. The police never came to where I grew up, and the buses stopped when it got dark as long as I remember. I drove down the road I had walked on all those school days, completely different with the park gone and the houses now generic and the same, but I knew where I was, it felt the same. Driving to that house my heart grew cold and I braced a little out of instinct.
Worse happened in other houses, the walls they didn’t care. The roads sauntered on past, indifferent to us all like those they carried.
I stood in the place, the place I grew up, it was never home. People called it home not out of belonging or pride, more from a sense of the alternative, homeless. I stood there with my wife, and she stood knowing much more than I realised about the little boy of 12 still standing there not knowing why. The place speaks, like it speaks to everyone, no one here is home. This place was just that, a place. A station platform, only the homeless stayed, everyone else moved on, either back or forward, but no one chose to stay.
At 16 I moved away and by 17 in my own flat a long way from the little street of my childhood. I broke away and so I went to school, but never hold a job for long. Moved around, had jobs and money, lost jobs and money. Owned a house and had a mortgage once but the Council estate brought me home. This time most of the country from the place where I grew up, a dreary house on a faceless road, different but same. So familiar, the distant sirens, the roads that didn’t care and walls that could speak of horrors but like the people didn’t dare. There was a broken telly, and grass that needed cutting, something felt familiar. I stayed there for 5 years, the longest I stayed anywhere.
One day, in that foreign land, I stood, inside, and looked out across the river, to houses just like mine, just as dreary and equally as weary in a place I called home.
I looked at you; the magic path I crossed to escape,
For some, you are a tourist attraction, architectural wonder,
Engineering accomplishment and international landmark,
Spanning the generations like you cross the Tyne,
Everyday the people stream in and out, ants or bees,
From my distance looking happy going home,
Best of all they were not me, trapped and bound,
I crossed you to get away, not freedom but free,
Any place that didn’t hate me for being me.