Denmark Street 

A place to make a mistake

I’m not sure why I take the turning, which adds minutes to my walk, furthering the possibility of missing the bus. But my senses need refreshing, a change of scene to knock me out of my homeward routine. So I take a wander down Denmark Street.

They call it the ‘West End’ in the tourism leaflets but you wouldn’t know it. When I reach the junction with Unity street, there’s nothing but apartments housed in an imposing red brick buidling. Then, out of the darkness emerge the great temple-like doors of the Wah Yan Hong Chinese supermarket. The smell wafting out of the door is familiar, the same one that always seems to surround far eastern food stores. Is it the freezers full of seafood or some ubiquitous spice?

Next door is an extravagant Chinese restaurant, decked to the rafters in lanterns and dragon statues. The overall colour scheme is black, however, giving it the kind of air where you might expect a local Triad meet to take place.

Across the road the stage doors of the Hippodrome are open. I glean a look inside as an usher welcomes a group into a  red-curtained room. Articulated lorries block up the kerb, and there’s a stage hand sucking on a rollup in an unlit doorway.

Blink and I’d miss the steps that lead down to Harvey’s Cellars opposite, blue fairy lights illuminating the old wine racks. It’s the oldest establishment on this stretch by at least a century and still sells the Sherry for which it was founded on in 1895. 

I think about wandering in and feigning a party booking just so I can explore, but instead I decide to take a look in the magic bar next door. It’s a fairly unremarkable boozer decked out in traditional fashion, but with a secret theatre in the back just big enough for 50. It’s empty when I look in but the bartender assures me that it comes alive when the table candles are lit and a show is underway.

A downtown sidestreet such as this wouldnt be right without a seedy side and Shadows massage parlour is there to provide. ‘Shadows in the night’ as far the clientele are concerned or is it the girls who are ‘shadows’ of their former selves?

The whole facade is mirrored and there’s a handwritten note about a daytime offer stuck to the wall of the entranceway. It’s also right next door to a tattoo removal clinic, which would appear to compliment each other well; a place to make a mistake and another to rectify one.

Up on the wall is a red neon sign advertising Bombay Boulevard, a plain looking Indian restaurant. The red glow reflects in the empty windows above making me wonder if there’s any less conspicuous parlours along this stretch.

The thick scent of pure, unadulterated grease, fills the air from a chip shop. Two middle eastern men are behind the counter, their oily faces bantering with customers. 

A sickly-lit alleyway adjacent offers the ideal spot for a late-night urinal or something a little more tawdry. 

Encountering the crest #3

I stopped at the edge of the water and looked across at the pathway snaking up the hill.

“I’m not up for it,” I said.

Jon was staring at something indiscriminate in the foreground while Simon lay across his pack, sunning his bare chest.

“I know everyone’s tired,” replied Rich, “but it was always going to be a long day.”

Only because you made it that way, I thought. What if we simply couldn’t carry on? We’d have to change the plan.

“When it gets like this,” Rich continued, “you just have to be in the moment. One foot infront of the other.”

A refute began to churn in my gutt, fuelled by my aching back and legs. Then, Simon got to his feet.

“If we’re going to do it then let’s get on with it,” he said, in a typically impatient manner. Rich nodded, looking satisfied and we set off round the lake.

The path soon reared up, great blocks rudely thrust in our way. I pushed up them, exhaling with every step and could barely contain my irritation when I heard Rich carrying a tune from the back.

“How can you whistle?” I said between breaths.

“Just trying to keep the mood up,” he replied.

Well it’s not working, I thought. Perhaps you should have considered that before you made us climb two mountains. Okay, so that wasn’t quite true, but it might as well have been. An ascent of Snowdon in the morning, followed by a 2-hour scramble across Crib Goch and then after we’d finally made it down to solid ground, another uphill climb over said ridge. All for an idyllic camping spot.

Midway up the path, my legs gave in and I collapsed against a mound of rocks. The others crumpled nearby.

“You’re not my friend anymore.”

I grinned at Rich, playing with a momentary half truth. He grinned too, but at the sky as he swallowed water. Suddenly, I was thrown back to our Australia trip, ten years earlier. Even then, our convictions butted heads. His steady and resolute. Mine, brooding and impulsive. Most of the time, his would win out, but only through a steadfast reasoning that was too exasperating to contend with.

We got back to our feet, keen not to let what little momentum we had fade away. After a quarter of an hour we finally surmounted the climb and soon found ourselves passing through green fields littered with the remains of abandoned slate mines. Our feet rolled down layers of spongy grass and bog, thighs barely taking the strain until we reached a level setting.

I threw my pack off and slumped to the ground while Rich was straight away busy with setting up the tents. The sound of water led me and Simon to a stream and we stripped off, dunking ourselves in a bath-like crater and instantly feeling rejuvenated.

By the time we got back to camp, sunset was casting its colours across the hillside. The first meal-in-a-bag was warming on the stove and Rich was cursing at a cloud of midges hovering around him. I smiled, my animosity washed away downriver. We were just old friends together again in the wilderness.

Encountering the crest #1

It must have been 6am when I unzipped the tent, or thereabouts, judging by the grey light that draped across the mountainside. The two bodies that were crammed in next to me lay motionless, matted hair sprouting from the top of sleeping bags.

I slipped on my boots and staggered out into the cool, morning air. Whether it was the noggins of whisky from the night before or the rolling view that made my head swim, I couldn’t be sure and I headed for a nearby shelf of rock to steady myself.

It was then I experienced one of those moments where sleep still has enough of a hold to prevent the usual noisy thoughts from breaking through. I let my senses fill the void and soon became aware of the shrill calls of sheep bouncing about the horseshoe curve. I spied their white shapes, shuffling across the farthest reaches of the slopes, as though they were all trying to outdo each other in their quest for the next tuft of grass.

Meanwhile, their bleating rebounded down the valley towards a golden light that had only just broken across a neighbouring peak. Then a muffled groaning broke my meditative state as the camp began to stir.

Writing 101: Be Brief

I arrive at the beach and stare down its vacant stretch; my familiar walk to nowhere. All is greys and browns, except for a fluttering piece of yellow. A paper, caught between the stones of the seawall. Its a letter written from a fearful heart, the woes and wishes of the universe, compacted into its pages.

‘If you feel the same way,’ it finishes, ‘meet me at the last bench on the promenade. I’ll be waiting.’

I crumple the edges, nearly screw it up in resentment. How can someone else know my pain so well?. Is this some kind of a trick? But then I wonder if the sea breeze has finally heard me. Whoever it was written for must never have wanted it. Instead, it fell to me.

I look down the long line of benches that face the bleak horizon. A few bodies are perched on them, mostly the elderly from nearby retirement homes. But is that a girl amongst them? A spark of trepidation, an element of possibility that I haven’t felt forever, spreads like heat in my chest. I pick up the pace, wondering how to explain that I understood the letter, that I have seen all those things, been to the places where uncertainty thrives and loneliness is king.

But as I reach the end of the stretch, I realise nobody is waiting. Just a cruel trick of the senses. I sink on to the bench and look for some evidence of her presence, an after note perhaps, crying out for an answer to her abandonment. But the wind has removed any such gesture. It’s cold again.

Writing 101 involves twenty writing exercises over twenty days. See here for more info.

Over Steps and Stones

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I’ve just finished the last chapter of my project, exploring and writing about the Christmas Steps area of Bristol! You can read it and the rest of the chapters here.

I’ve got more urban journeys lined up for the Spring including a trek down the Avon Gorge and an amble around the new business district that calls itself The Enterprise Zone, so stay tuned!