Where I’m from, you don’t have to travel very far for the towns to peter out and the hills to start bulging from the ground. I have become very interested in these edgelands, zones where the urban meets the rural, in particular, areas where brown belt land has at some point transitioned back to green. A country park I often walk around, for example, was a former hub of industry. Its mill ponds now house cormorants, mandarin ducks, geese and gulls, and I’ve been made privy to the sleek outlines of unknown creatures easing into the liquid fathoms beneath the trees, to rogue ponies and men with cameras, all of it overshadowed by a working viaduct that’s subject to the vagaries of a witch’s hex. Count the arches and be damned, you drunken teenager, you aging rambler.
The North West is full of such places. A motorway will span a river, and beneath it dangles a rope swing. A sluice gate that fed a weir that fed a bleach works, now stands in a field while a scrambler bike drones by, racing the tram. It tends to rain so the roads are always foxed with damp and the habitually littered waysides are tangled with briars. Things hide here; obliterated roadkill, kids’ dens and signs of fire, roving tracks the edges of which might be illuminated by the bare glow of a petrol station, the corvids rooting out coloured metal beneath nearby pylons as black and temporal as any thought.
The people here are often blunt and romantic, bolshy. They just about keep themselves amused, these strangers. They’re quick to laugh and quick to chat, quicker still to judge, many of whom in my experience seem to endure a frictional dynamic, bound by the kind of ‘false coalitions’ that the late Denis Johnson wrote about in his story, ‘Two Men’, where the narrator is out on the lash with a pair of ‘good friends’, who he actually hates, ‘group[s] based on something erroneous, some basic misunderstanding that [hasn’t] yet come to light’.
I keep finding myself writing about relationships like this. Mismatched folk clinging to one another, friends who aren’t actually friends: people who let outrageous behaviour slide because the perpetrator’s ‘a mate’. I suspect we’ve all had someone like this in our lives at one time or another, maybe more than one – I know did. One in particular I met when I was sent to my fourth and final school in the Rossendale Valley, aged thirteen. This boy, let’s call him Craig, was in my year group, another form. We caught the same bus home together, both felt isolated from our families at the time and had few reliable friends, so after it became apparent that we also shared an interest in filling our pockets with booty from the local Asda, I started going round to Craig’s after school.
He liked to play games, the games he knew best. Goldeneye, Mario Kart, Craig had their topography memorised. Every map he knew, every level. One Goldeneye level Craig insisted we play featured a golden gun that could kill you with just one shot. Craig knew where this mighty weapon resided and would seek it out immediately then await me in a convenient alcove so he could murder my avatar the moment it blundered past. Time after time my friend did this. Time after time I vainly raced him to the golden gun. Craig and I grew up together, and over the years he stole CD’s from me – I found them in his room, questioned him about them, accepted the lie – put me down in front of girls I liked, looked the other way when I was punched in the face behind the bus station for looking at someone the wrong way… you get the picture.
And so the antagonist and their victim are persons of interest. As I drafted ‘Waddington’ it evolved to become about this unique human tension: the tang of complicity in difficult friendships, their delusions and their very real magic. The story is about the loaded pleasures of growing up young in an old place. It’s about unrequited feeling in our desperate north.
James Clarke is a graduate of The Manchester Writing School. His debut novel The Litten Path will be published by Salt in August 2018.