I woke up as a (very) recent university graduate with a familiar feeling of purposelessness. Two jobs for the day: fix my bike and see an old friend.
I walked through Clayton-le-Moors with my boyfriend towards his beloved Accrington Stanley with my old bike rattling alongside me. We got to the point down the main road where the grim smell of a huge local landfill fills the air. It was a humid morning, so the air was particularly still and putrid. It can’t be healthy to be breathing in these toxic fumes and sour stenches all day every day, but I looked around and saw most of the houses in the long rows of terraces had their windows open regardless. You must get used to it, I guess. I thought about the uneven impact of COVID-19, the persistent widening health inequalities in the UK and felt angry.
We got to the pop-up bike repair shop set up in the car park of the football stadium. There was a bored man leaning against a small van with a little gazebo attached. Cycling isn’t very common in East Lancashire. The frequent steep hills (and potholes) make it quite an impractical way of getting around these parts, so it is no wonder that the bike repair shop was empty. Despite us being his first customers of the day, the mechanic didn’t seem particularly pleased to see us and rolled his eyes at the rickety sky-blue road bike. “Bloody ‘ell, this is an old ‘un. You’re gonna need some new cables ‘n’ tyres on this. Be about an hour.”
In the absence of any nearby coffee shops, my boyfriend and I walked into Accrington town centre to kill time. As we walked down the steep hill to the former industrial town, we saw hundreds of terraced houses snaking up the valley in all directions: the connected roofs carved out the landscape. Jeanette Winterson’s vivid descriptions of Accrington in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal sprang to mind. When you look above the houses and beyond the town, you can see the beautiful rolling hills. Despite the close and muggy weather and beneath the grey skies, the hills give a sense of space and perspective. Whenever I am away from East Lancashire, apart from friends and family, it is the hills I miss the most.
Before lockdown, probably one in every three shops in Accrington was shut and empty. Now I would estimate it is nearer two in three. The shops, cafes, and other businesses that have survived have been allowed to open for a couple of weeks now and people are slowly getting used to the new regime. Hand sanitiser in every doorway and yellow and black tape marking out 2m distances is stuck down at irregular intervals.
My boyfriend and I made a beeline for Greggs and bought a brew and two vegan steak bakes. It was our first Greggs in four months, so we savoured every mouthful. It felt great to witness and experience a bit of ‘normality’ again: seeing people shopping and chatting, yet most with masks and an under-current of awkward caution. We sat on a bench, watching the world go by, revelling in nostalgia. I grew up in Blackburn, the next town along from Accrington, but being surrounded by Lancashire accents again brought back many memories from childhood. My boyfriend and I both left the North of England to go to uni and now, having graduated, are back for one last summer at home before moving away in September to start jobs elsewhere. Probably London – that’s the usual direction of the ‘brain drain’. This might be our last summer Up North at Home for a while, but we don’t dwell on that too much. We plodded back up the hill, collected the repaired bike, and headed home.
I put on mascara, which felt like a momentous event considering I had worn it maybe twice since lockdown began four months ago. At first, having nothing to ‘get ready’ for other than going downstairs or out for a daily walk was a nice break – my skin cleared up and I enjoyed wearing only trousers with elasticated waistbands and baggy t-shirts every day. But now it’s got to the point where I kind of miss dressing up. Putting on the perfect playlist whilst doing my makeup and deciding what to wear before pre-drinks was a fun ritual, so I was glad to have something to get ready for again now, even if it was just meeting a friend for a hot chocolate.
I got a lift into Blackburn to meet my old school mate. It was so lovely to see her again and catch up properly face to face – it’s just not the same through a screen. It is such a weird time because the last four months have been extremely eventful, but at the same time it feels like there is nothing new to talk about. Not much is going on and the days, weeks and months have all blurred into one another, but it is comforting that this seems to be a relatable feeling for most people at the moment. Then again, I could go thirty-odd years without seeing some of my friends to be reunited with “You done ‘ewt?” “Nah not really, you?”.
On the way home from Blackburn I felt content. It was good to be out and about again in public and it was reassuring how well (most) people were adhering to the social distancing guidelines. There was something very comforting about being back in Blackburn and Accrington – it is hard to explain the feeling, but I think heightened nostalgia sums it up well.