The Writers Voice
One square mile of dilapidation, degradation, filth and trepidation on the periphia of Manchester. Buried under a constant blanket of polluted smog that steadily spewed forth from the numerous steel mills. An area known, (and avoided by many), as Arcane.
The cobbled streets were lined with rows of crumbling, grimy, red brick houses and at night were dimly lit by sentinel gas lamps.
I made my unwanted entrance to this world at number forty, Rosamund Street in November 1945. At the age of six weeks I was moved to 21 Flag Street to be brought up by an Aunt Grace, (who wasn’t an Aunt), and an Uncle Edward. As years came and went, Uncle Edward moulded me into his sort of child, mainly with his fists, sometimes with his belt.
School was the great escape, I loved school, however I had to leave at the age of fourteen to find work in order to help Aunt Grace and Uncle Hurt, (that was my pet name for him), with the housekeeping.
Snaking diagonally right through Arcane was a feeder stream to the River Mersey. The banks of this stream and the stream itself were host to a much and varied wild life, most of which was dead. As kids, it was our play area, where cowboys slaughtered Indians, where explorers sailed in search of new lands on primitive rafts, to lands where the natives would not allow them ashore. It was where we learned to smoke, drink, swear, fight and generally groom ourselves into adulthood.
This was of course in the distant past. For 40 years I have followed a career as a librarian in East Anglia. Arcane is no more. I revisited once, one Summer, ten years ago and the whole area consisted of a university set in enormous landscaped grounds. The stream and its banks were teaming with living wild life. Hundreds of cheerful, relaxed people strolled or just sat around talking, laughing, living and savouring time as it arrived then passed them by.
This past week I’d spent managing the reference index section, it was a techy upgrade thing. Today I leave the building at 1pm for lunch; same time every day, I’m a creature of routine. No eating today though, it’s Saturday and Saturdays are charity shop days. Sometimes one can find new old stuff that people drop off early weekends.
One of the staff greeted me, “Morning Mr. Maycaster.” I pointed out that it was afternoon, was about to remark on the weather, as one does… when I stopped mid stride. There was a book section, situated in the far corner from the door, that was a natural attraction to me. Even from that distance I spotted this particular flimsy and tattered paperback. I strode over, picked it up, held it as if it was a treasure, which indeed it was. Emotions swept, ebbed, stabbed and embraced, the author was totally unknown to me, it was the title that fed tendrils of passion and sentiment into my very being. ‘THE STREETS OF ARCANE AND IT’S HISTORY.’ I paid a pittance for it and left.
I called in sick and spent the weekend devouring, savouring, every word. It was a time machine, whipping me to my roots, however decayed and rotted they were. When good times are rare and so infrequent they are easily unlocked from our subconscious, we just need to discover the right key. This was the key to many doors.
There was even a detailed map that the author had apparently drawn from memory. If I could have covered just the street names, I could have named them all. Rosamund and Flag Street came alive, over shadowed by the smog, damp, dirty – but then – I repeat myself. There were also extra golden nuggets, that had been buried deep since childhood.
I have never been particularly religious but there was mention of Father Murphy and his church at the dead end of Bell Street. Either my natural family or Aunt Grace, (surely not Uncle Hurt), must have had Catholic connections. I remember attending two separate services, each time holding Aunt Grace’s hand and each time they were funerals. After one of them we returned to our house with a few guests. Uncle Hurt was on his best behaviour, except when no one else was looking, I would receive silent threatening stares and he would shake his fist at me.
A whole chapter, (about two pages), were devoted to Rasputin. To us kids, Rasputin or the Mad Monkey, was a comical friend, a mystical hero, a dangerous man from Mars, a gentle giant. To picture him now, I see a man of about forty years of age, dressed as a tramp, always in a long flapping grey coat tied around his waist with rope. He was very lanky, with wispy, wild strands of hair and super long arms. A favourite sport of ‘our gang’ would be to hang on to the tail gate of the occasional passing mill lorry and ride it for the length of a whole street. Mad Monkey would appear from nowhere and ride a lorry with one arm and one leg sticking out and displaying a slash of bad black teeth. We never heard him speak, he probably couldn’t.
Down by the stream where we played the games I mentioned, Rasputin would materialise with an almighty splash, swimming downstream with the dead animals. We stood and stared after him until he disappeared around a bend, we too were speechless at those times. Then there was the time Chas fell out of the old oak that stood guard at the gates of the cemetery. Whilst considering the tree as a suitable platform for a tree house he suffered a fit, fell like a stone, crashed to the ground unconscious. One leg pointed at a sickening angle. We thought he was dead but the gentle giant climbed down from the heights of the tree, picked up Chas, cradling him in his super long arms and loped off.
Only now am I wondering why the Man from Mars was up the tree in the first place and how come Chas was back at school, as right as rain, the following day but not remembering anything of the previous day’s events.
The chapter in the book didn’t mention these specific events, rather it concentrated on the fact that Rasputin was known by all in Arcane and yet he was also unknown by all in Arcane.
Finally I read about the Tappet Man and then I saw and heard the Tappet Man…
I, along with most kids of that era never forget the lighter man, (who appeared every evening pushing his bicycle with a ladder strapped to it), to light the street lights. We remember tin baths in front of the fire. Frost on the windows, inside. Mangles. Dolly tubs. Water pumps. Stone hot water bottles. Bread soaked in hot milk. Goose fat smeared all over us and then getting sewn into our clothes, so we wouldn’t catch a cold. Empty fireplaces.
If anyone does, then only kids who lived in Arcane would remember the Tappet Man.
As the mills rose from the ground, so did the streets surrounding them. It was work, continual work, round the clock, never ceasing, double the labour, shift work, extra income. The very nature of this meant that grown ups sometimes had to clock in at the mills at four in the morning.
I remember seeing the Tappet Man at least a couple of times, when or how I saw him I cannot recall. He always wore a black suit with tails and a top hat. His face, I remember as a floating moon. He carried a long stick and he would sometimes walk into Flag street at four in the morning. Sometimes he would stop outside our house and hold his stick in the air. The handle of the stick had what looked like a fishing reel and he would start to wind it. As he did there was a ratchety sound echoing down the length of the street and the stick would grow longer and longer and longer. At the tip of this huge stick there was a sort of rubber hook and he would tap tap tap tap on Uncle Hurts bedroom window at the front of the house until he heard Uncle Hurt cough, spit and curse. Then the Tappet Man would rewind his stick and walk to his next early morning call.
At long last, I closed the book, realising for the first time in adulthood, that Arcane had at one time existed outside of my imagination. There are not many people who remember Arcane and those that could…don’t want to.
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