“How much to Fallowfield and back, please?” I asked him, slightly breathless.
“That’d be £3.20 please, love.”
He had a kind face, and his strong Manchester accent took me aback slightly, it was far friendlier than the snobby London accent I was so used to hearing in Mayfair. There had been a time when I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid, and perhaps would have even spoken with a slight Northern twang myself. It sounded so familiar, and I realised I’d missed it. I fumbled in my pockets for some small change, and handed it to him, before crawling to a window seat and cringing at how out of touch I was, that I couldn’t even remember the return fare on a Stagecoach bus.
The minute Liam and I had arrived at Manchester Piccadilly station for a long weekend with friends, I had felt like I’d come back home. The many memories of standing on Platform 5, malnourished from too many university pasta dinners, waiting for the London Euston train via Milton Keynes Central to arrive to take me home for a long weekend with Mum, quickly came back to me. I gripped Liam’s hand as we walked along the platform, half listening as he talked about which of our usual haunts we would head to for lunch, and then my mind wandered to the last time we’d been here in Manchester together. It had been in the station. He’d left with his huge rucksack on the train for three months to travel around Peru. I remembered how I had run alongside the train as he’d smiled and waved from the window. I thought that if I ran fast enough I could delay the last moment I would see him, and it was only when his train became a dot along the tracks, amongst the sky rise buildings and overhead wires, that I had let myself cry.
As my bus bumped and hissed its way to the junction, I opened up my handbag and searched for something like a mirror. Pulling my phone out, I used the reflection to apply a slick of pink lipstick. I was meeting Liam in Platt Fields Park in Fallowfield; it was where we’d visited many a fairground, firework display and sat together amongst the long grass and frazzled in those rare moments when Manchester had seen the sun. In the hot stuffy bus, I squinted at my reflection in the dark black screen. I didn’t think I looked too much older than when I’d first met him in our first year university halls, all fresh-faced and nineteen.
We’d pulled out of the station and were trundling down Portland Street, passing Kro Bar, where I’d always treat myself to the best marshmallow hot chocolate or the wedges with chilli and sour cream dip. As we passed China Town, I recalled the day I spent there with my friend Helen, at Chinese New Year. We’d brought paper dragons, jade trinkets, and clapped at the street performers. The rickety bench just on my left was where we linked arms and huddled together, picking at a punnet of chips.
The bus took a sharp turn around the corner at the Palace Theatre, and we passed the Cornerhouse Cinema, where Liam had taken me to see ‘Che Part One’ after I’d had an operation a few years back. I’d spend the whole time giggling, all drowsy and dosed up on strong painkillers. Trying to focus on the subtitles, I eventually fell into a light Tramadol invoked sleep; having psychedelic dreams involving jungles and firearms.
We pulled into a bus stop. A couple of people got on, flashing their paper passes at the driver before they found themselves a seat. No one seemed rushed, no one pushed or tripped up on other peoples feet. The guy to my right had scruffy trainers on and was reading a large text book, which had been highlighted and underlined in many different colours. I’d put money on him being a student and getting off at the next stop.
The bus drove past our rival university, Manchester Metropolitan. You could guarantee the Man Met students would always dress more fabulous than the typical University of Manchester student. Hair tied up in coloured scarves, bright red lipsticks and angular cut fringes. I’d always slightly envied them for having chosen more creative degrees and would often wander into their student union to look all the art materials up for sale in the union shop, scribble my name with the felt tip pens and wish I could find a purpose in my degree for a A3 Scrapbook or a scalpel and cutting mat.
In a moment, the students were gone, replaced with cafes and shabby newsagents, just before they too whizzed past me and I saw my university coming into sight. We pulled up and stopped outside the grand arches I had posed under with my family for photographs the day of my graduation, and I remembered the beautiful bunch of peonies and lisianthas Mum had given me. We passed where I’d stumbled up the middle of the road after the Summer Ball in my first year, at five in the morning; my face painted with butterflies and singing Bon Jovi tunes at the top of my voice, my best friend Natalie under one arm – a squished cheesy naan bread under the other.
We drove up the curry mile- Rusholme- the only place in Manchester that you can guarantee the shops will have changed owners and signs since the last time you went that way. I smelt the usual waft of spices fly in through the window, and my tummy growled in appreciation. At first glance, it looked more run down than usual, but upon a closer look, I saw the glitzy saris in the shop windows, Indian gold bangles draped across velvet and people laughing over baklava and a shisha pipe in the cafes. I laughed as I remembered the 3am stop offs after boozy nights out for a curry in Al Nawaz; the only curry house on the mile which has goldfish in tanks swimming under a glass floor.
As we neared Platt Fields, I stood up and pressed the red button waiting for it to ding! loudly. The bus pulled up and I hopped off, thanking the driver, who smiled and nodded at me. How personal. How different from London. I was only a couple of miles from the city centre, but it was quiet, with only a few cars passing on the road to my right. Crossing the road, I walked into the park through the the big iron gates, taking in the open space, and the hot sunshine beating down on my head. There was a little park bench up the way. I remembered I used to stretch my legs on it when I had that burst of enthusiasm in my first year to go running after I'd got a little pot belly from too many beers. I'd brought some trainers from JJB Sport especially, but unfortunately my burst of enthusiasm had only lasted a few weeks, and the trainers are still in a box under my bed somewhere.
I lay down on the bench, pulled my knees up, and rested my head on my suitcase. It was comfy. I listened to the sounds around me, zoning out a little; the birds chirping, the rustle of trees and the occasional jogger who breathlessly passed me by. Children were squealing somewhere in the distance, but it didn’t bother me as it usually did. For a moment I could pretend I still lived here. In the city I loved, where I’d built up so many happy memories. I closed my eyes, until I heard a familiar low wolf-whistle coming from behind me. Squinting into the sun, I peered over my suitcase, to see Liam walking up the path towards me, grinning, looking almost exactly the same as when I first met him, those five years ago, just 100 metres down the road.