The library has closed, jobs have dried up at the factory, and everyone has an opinion about life in this northern town. In this short fictional story, based on the writer’s hometown of Ellesmere Port, a bunch of old school friends reunite in a local pub. Have things changed too much or too little? And what hope is there for the future?
This piece of creative fiction was originally written as a response to one of the themes of the Writing Human Rights module at the University of Warwick. The module confronts human rights themes and develops creative responses to them in writing. Students have free rein to choose the topic and style of their stories. They have written pieces of journalism, short fictional stories, sci-fi, screenplays, comment pieces, podcast episodes and TED talks. We have worked with students to develop the best examples of their writing and publish them on Lacuna (find them here). Sam recently finished a three-year BA in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. Following graduation, he continues to write about the people and places often forgotten by both the literary world and society.
First face I see is familiar, standing over at the fruity. Ron in his hi-vis, as always, drinking a pint of Guinness, as always. A hacking cough before every sentence. The floor of the pub has that same sticky pull on my shoes, the same lingering staleness of cigarette smoke from a time I never knew.
Still works at same factory he started at fifty odd years ago, Ron does, though course he knows now what he didn’t back then, that what he’s breathing is killing him, drying out his lungs. But goes anyway,
cos that’s me lot.
The corners of his eyes are crinkled and closing and soon I don’t think he’ll be able to see no more. Some reason it annoys me, I guess cos most of what those eyes have seen in their sixty-five years is the fifteen-minute bike ride down to the factory. The factory that he can just about see from his back garden, when he sits out there on a nice Saturday afternoon listening to Everton get beat.
how they doin’, the Toffees?
shite as usual, glad I can’t afford going games no more cos they’re bloody hopeless. Never going to be like it were in the 80’s like.
For him, I wonder what had changed, aside from Everton being shite, since the 80s. The 60s.
Nothing much has changed down that dank lit street called the town centre.
Takeaway, takeaway, charity shop, barbers, takeaway, goods for cash, bookies, beauty salon, charity shop, bookies, takeaway. Like some sicko sightseer I peer into them, as if they’re display cases at a zoo or museum. Anything new, anything different? The regulars at the bookies and the grey kebab meat in the takeaways stare back at me, all looking older, looking tireder, like them fading wax statues in London, a million miles away.
It was over there, between the pool table and the toilet that we had our first pints, hidden round the corner from the bar. Must be for the nostalgia that Harry had picked here to meet. I thought getting married was meant to make you look ahead, not back. I snorted into my half-empty drink. Where were they all? It was past 4.
how long that new bus station been up in town?
’bout six months, summin’ like that. Waste of money isn’t it.
think it looks nice to be fair.
tsst, yeah, for miserable people going to work to enjoy. Round million quid they spent.
million, on that?
same as always, init. Local council common sense at its finest. Got some of worst schools in area, but oh well, let’s build a spankin’ new bus station, yeah. Bollocks, mate.
He sees it as the cue for him to get up and join me. I’d forgotten to never get one-on-one with Ron. That was your night gone.
fuckin’ council, government, Tory bastards, lot of ’em, ain’t got a clue. Sent ’bout dozen letters or summin’ to Peter Trevors I did –
our MP, and he’s done nowt.
ain’t he Labour?
You vote for him?
yeah, and I wish I hadn’t, cos he does fuck all for this town. Hear on news that there’s this drive to get kids readin’, so they go close the library in town, don’t they, so now the closest one is five miles away, out in the sticks. Guess the news meant all kids ’part from ones here, probably cos most of ’em ain’t ethnics or immigrants so they’re meant to do everythin’ by themselves.
well, dunno about that like but yeah, is shite library closed. Loved it in there. You remember that old vending machine they had, made a right racket when you bought something.
oh, nah, nah can’t say I ever went in much.
There’s a rattle at the door. I smile as soon as I see Joe’s got a shaved head. That hairline had been embarrassing since Year 5.
Friday afternoons after school I’d go and pad down them corridors of fantasy and thriller, then onto books I shouldn’t’ve been allowed near at that age. I’d come out, bag full of my weekend, and get these looks from the chavs smoking by the entrance and the old bloke prowling round town centre cos he had nothing else to do. No words, just the looks that said
what you doin’ in there? Books? Go smoke, go drink, go play footy, go get laid. You bent or what? Having your nose up a book’s arse ain’t what life is about round here, kid.
So I’d go home, shove me nose right into the book so I didn’t have to know what life was about round here. The smoking and drinking that came later seemed special to me, cos I did them for fun, not out of necessity. Where we ended up moving, our new library was bigger, better stocked, and yet the books more meaningless.
how old were we, seventeen or something, when we had our first pint here?
Joe’s drinking some bitter ale I’ve not seen before. He says it’s the cheapest. Goes down a treat and all.
yeah, around that I think. Harry threw up after two didn’t he.
oh, shit yeah. Fanny, he was probably on Dark Fruits and all. Wish I could say he’s gone soft since becoming site manager and his bird, but truth is he’s always been soft.
you met his bird then?
Suppressing a burp, Joe looks at me, confused.
you not seen her no?
nah, first time back here for like year or two init.
ah, fair enough then like, guess you wouldn’t have met her. Yeah she’s pretty sound like, not from round here like but by er … you know like if you go past the car plant, keep heading up, come to that new estate, the nice one?
yeah, yeah, that was there when I were still around. What d’you mean, that is round here.
nah, yeah, sort of but not like round, round here.
Am I still from round here? Is there a time limit like there is a distance limit?
Joe is getting through his bitter quick.
talking ’bout the car plant, you hear what happened to it?
I shake my head.
closed didn’t it, sometime in summer.
bloody hell, mad that. Must’ve hit town hard like mustn’t it, all them jobs.
nah mate, most them who worked there weren’t from round here. Came in from all over the area, mechanics with degrees or whatever. Couldn’t get a job at that place for the life of you, too high requirements and that. I applied four, five times.
Used to be that a young lad could turn up at the plant and have some shitty job within ten minutes. Spend long enough there, and you had a job for life.
Joe’s shredding up the beer mat.
people got enough work round here then though yeah?
oh, mate, there’s jobs comin’ out every hole in the town. Problem ain’t jobs, it’s getting people doing them. Lazy round here man, telling you, no one bothered ’bout working. Get enough from benefits, as much as me, and I’m labourin’ every day.
come on man, that ain’t true. People only on them benefits cos they need them.
Joe slams his empty glass down.
remember Carla, from school, yeah? She pretended she had mental health or summin’, doctor signed for her cos they don’t care, so then she claims disability benefit. In between all this she’s popping out kids left right and centre to get on that child benefit. All ’em with different dads and that, yeah, and then she got the cheek to come moanin’ to me other day ’bout being a single mum, that she can’t control all her kids, that there’s nothing or no one for her to turn to. Where’s her accountability mate, where’s her brain at, that she’s got some responsibility. Complainin’ that she have to feed her fuckin’ kids from a free fuckin’ foodbank? Gimme a break.
I’m past town and near the estate now. A graffitied concrete bunker watching over some asphalt pitches finally sprouting some green. More weeds ain’t what this town needs. Both pitches and youth club closed when we were fifteen, left to the birds to roost in and the smack heads to shoot up in. Council or whoever pulled the plug on it cos it cost too much, so now what’s there to do for kids round here on a Saturday? I went a few times, mainly to watch the five-aside, for Year 10s to (roughly) 18-year-olds only. For some though, like Joe and Tom and Harry, it were all they looked forward to, out of school and out of home.
Got only a year of playing in that five-aside before it was gone. We’d got promoted, then a week before the leagues were going to start again, it were over. Most likely funding got cut to pay for a new car park or something. I remember Joe crying into the Man U shirt his mum had saved up months to buy him to play in.
Was about this time my parents realised they were done with being from round here and started to look beyond the car plant.
It had been some team, I thought as I walked on, kicking a half full can of Carling in reminiscence, the beer sloshing on my shoes.
Gav, our pill dealer keeper, eyes half glazed every game, shouting obscenities at the defenders, Joe who was overweight, Harry who was always late and I was here, there, trying to be everywhere, patch up the damage done by Tom, the Monday night Roy Keane.
A hand slaps my shoulder. A round bearded face grins at me.
alright Tom, lad, what’s happening?
Tom sits besides me, going the Ron route with a pint of Guinness.
not bad mate, getting by, you know me. What you saying about Carla, Joe? She still not banged you no?
Ignoring Tom’s laughter, Joe gets up and heads the bar.
salty as anythin’ that lad. Pretty much only one from round she hasn’t been with.
he was telling me she has a few kids.
never heard seven be called a few but there you are.
how’s your kid doing? Alex.
he’s alright yeah, growing fast like. Got another little one on the way haven’t I.
oh, shit man, congratu-
well, it weren’t meant or nothing. I ain’t with Rose now, got some other bird knocked up.
I take a long swig of my drink.
what you working at now?
got a job at Ron’s factory, just packaging stuff, piece of piss. There’s talk of it shutting, though, so I’m bricking it ain’t I mate. Need the job for Alex, then now for this other one. Nightmare lad.
heard ’bout the car plant shutting so maybe they’ll leave off closing this one. Fair few work there don’t they?
too many probably. They’ll lay off the older ones, like Ron. Harsh like, but just means they can pay us young ones for cheaper you know. Amount of immigrants coming in which’s fucked up wages and that, all the Polish and Romanians who work for nothing.
be alright lad, Joe was saying there’s pure jobs round here.
dunno ’bout that man, it’s … but yeah, no, I’ll be sound. Here’s to Harry anyway, whenever he’s gonna get here.
We clink glasses. I don’t want to look at Tom and see Ron, Ron with his closing eyes and cough. My beer suddenly tastes vile. Do I think I’m better cos I’m not from round here anymore? Better than old Ron, Ron with his bottomless tab here, better than Tom with his two kids? Better cos this town ain’t my problem anymore?
was saying to Joe before, remember our first pints in here yeah?
haha, yeah course. What were we, sixteen?
The offy is still here of course, just round the corner from The Bull. Was a time when bunch of people thought old Mo was gonna sell it to some chain and we’d get a Local or Metro or whatever. Sprayed ‘paki’ on the walls and threatened to brick in his window if he did, so he stayed and served them their usual Lotto tickets and 20 ciggies and 4 pints of semi-skimmed. Us kids were happy, cos there’d be no chance of getting served at one of them proper shops. Harry went in on his fourteenth birthday and somehow got some spirits: vodka or whiskey or I don’t wanna know what. We all ran off back to the park, laughing about getting one over stupid old Mo. When we woke up, clothes damp from dew and covered in congealed regurgitated chips, it were clear he’d got one over us.
There’s a shout from the doorway as Harry gets bundled through by Gav.
’bout fuckin’ time,
Joe mutters into his pint. Harry engulfs me in a bear hug. I look for Gav, but he’s not there.
long-time no bloody see,
Harry booms, and I laugh.
yeah mate, been too long. Had to choose this place to meet didn’t you.
course, no place like the Bull. Fifteen we were, weren’t we, sat over there having our first pint. Had to come here for a few before hitting the town. Few new places up there you know.
didn’t see any of them, everything just looked the same to me. Shit.
nah mate, not in old centre, they’ve moved things about, things happening here mate, it’s pretty decent.
oh, right. I saw the new million quid bus station and heard the library shut, that about it. Can’t say it sounds too great for the place.
yeah but who needs the library. I’ve never read a book in me life, and I’ve got a Land Rover and a mortgage on a five-bed detached before I’m twenty-five. Come on, what’s your poison?
Gav pops up at the bar, fiddling with his nose. We catch up in the time it takes for three pints to be drawn. He’s back at his parents, uni didn’t work out, and that’s about it. Back at the table, Tom and Joe argue about jobs. And immigrants.
what, so the government just meant to go like, ah, don’t worry, no, no, you don’t have to work love, nah you just sit and shoot smack or smoke weed or whatever and cash your cheques. Don’t bother to get up to work cos we’ll just bring over some half-starved foreigner to work, and then you and all your town can bitch about immigrants taking your jobs.
reason why people just claim benefits is cos the immigrants have taken wages down round here, Joe. And you talk ’bout there being jobs – it’s all just grunt work a monkey could do. Brainless.
the principle though of working Tom, where’s that gone, why’s there this sudden entitlement to have everything put on our plate without lifting a finger for it?
let’s leave the politics bollocks out of tonight why don’t we lads,
Gav says, clapping his hands to stop Tom answering Joe.
we’re here for Harry and, more importantly, to get absolutely plastered.
We all laugh or grin or grimace and settle back into how we were that time we had our first drinks, like nothing’s changed, not us nor this town, not knowing what to do with it or ourselves, just like we did when we were just kids.
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