Josephine Galvin

Going Downhill

Town please’, Lisa offered her five-pound note to the bus driver. He didn’t meet her eye; they didn’t tend to anymore, except possibly to question why this professional-looking woman in her smart red coat and leather gloves used public transport so repeatedly. Not that long ago a couple of familiar drivers would let her off the fare, indicating as much with a pronounced wink. It used to make her nervous – not the intention – just the worry of explaining it to an inspector.
Actually, that memory was older than she first thought.
Sorry?’ she was trying to steady her small flight-case. Despite being purchased only this week, and deliberately for this occasion, it appeared to have a wonky wheel.
You coming back today? Day rider?’ He was speaking slowly as if unsure of her mental acuity.
No, sorry, I’m not. Single please.’
The bus jolted forward. She steadied herself with slightly less aplomb than she usually practised, although she was not normally so encumbered. The bus, already thinned from the commuter crowds, boasted a few scattered passengers. Eyes flickered up from phones, and arms stretched out protectively over shopping bags, or uni back-packs, guarding the seats alongside them.
Lisa picked a seat on the left-hand side. She always did. The left-hand side boasted more to watch on the otherwise predictable journey, although it hardly seemed acceptable to use regional disintegration, and the decline of small businesses, as a way of alleviating boredom. This was a district considered economically challenged, or known locally as ‘going downhill’. But she liked to spot the odd optimistic start-up, to glimpse someone fixing up a new sign in a plucky attempt to play against area decline and there was something hopeful in the curious temporary trade that popped up in premises clearly not their own.
More recently, a mix of multi-cultural enterprise had brought vivid and fast-changing displays of unfamiliar goods out beyond their shop fronts. New worlds to old, shabby towns. Gorton could now boast African foodstuffs; browned bananas exposed on pollution heavy pavements in brave attempts to attract incoming communities. Their sub-let enthusiasm trading in the shell of defeated businesses; old world commerce surrendered to vape shops and second-hand outlets.
Looking for the most recent changes, she noted a hybrid repair/ money transfer enterprise squashed together into narrow premises. Two men slumped against the darkened glass, smoking. And a new discount ‘warehouse’ which, despite being the size of a small shed, should be credited at least for retaining its ambitious vision.
Her phone pinged in her bag. She didn’t look at it. It would be Rick. Same message every day: Have a good day darling Love u. Sent when he had his first coffee in the office, he would assume she would already be in one of the stores. He neither expected nor needed a reply.
The bus moved slowly past the Victorian houses. Impressive buildings, if the window was misted or grimy; shabby and crumbling if your vision was clear. The once grand family homes long since converted into flats for the transient community: bed and breakfast, emergency housing. Multi chimneys leading into bricked-up fireplaces in faceless rental rooms.
Occasionally, incidents overflowed onto the main arterial road. Figures emerged, inarticulate with fury; their anguish made incomprehensible by drink or drugs.
Once, when Becky was young, they had been walking to an early morning dentist appointment when a row spilled out from the flats into the street. A young woman emerged, dishevelled and angry, shouting at a similarly aged male who bolted across the dual carriageway and into the overgrown bushes on the other side. When her words no longer reached him, she caught Lisa’s eye.
You fuck off an all.’ In that moment a missile whizzed close to her ear. As it landed, liquid fizzed from the broken can.
To the east of the houses, there was the brown sign advertising the marvels that the city had to offer: The City of Manchester Stadium; The English institute of Sport, Cycling, Tennis. Welcome to Gorton. You’re hopefully passing through to somewhere more enlightening.
The bus shuddered to a halt at Reddish Bridge and her brand-new case thudded heavily against her shin; it would be a likely bruise, but thankfully Rick wouldn’t see it. They had hit the roadworks traffic and a predicable hum of discord broke out amongst the passengers. Forced from solitary scowling, they were keen to share opinions on the road widening scheme that was causing so much disruption. Being a frequent commuter, Lisa had heard every possible opinion from time-anxious office workers on glum grey mornings, and their work-worn counterparts on the soporific, spluttering journey home.
Her phone reminded her she had an unopened message. Retrieving it from her handbag, she muted the volume. She wasn’t going into work today; she had arranged a period of unpaid leave. Fortunately, and with only vague intention at the outset, she had been setting aside money for a couple of years. This, together with her personal savings, meant everything was paid for. It was all carefully planned and her team were fully briefed. For that reason, she had chosen a Friday. Rick believed she was travelling to Liverpool after work for a weekend at her daughter’s house. Becky wasn’t in on the plans. She didn’t want her to implicate her, neither did she expect her to lie. The surprisingly good relationship between Rick and his stepdaughter had inhibited their sharing of confidences. This was, therefore, an easily discovered falsehood but after today that wouldn’t really matter.
What would he think if he knew? Once he had recovered from the shock, he would probably be relieved. They been together for almost 13 years and she had only just learned the power of keeping secrets.
As they passed Thornley Park she visualised a young Becky walking Skipper, teaching him to fetch and sit. Their first house, for just the two of them, was a small terrace on Ash Road, bordering the enclosed green. Old photographs help preserve those years but they also taunt her with her own youthfulness: the clearness of her skin, her casual freedom.
She met Rick when she was 38. Despite having an adequate social life, a reasonable circle of girlfriends, and pleasant work colleagues, she allowed herself to be persuaded to try online dating. Confiding in Alan, had brought disapproval but she had chosen to overlook his reservations. As well as being her childhood neighbour and oldest friend, he was an honorary uncle to Becky in the absence of her father. He was also a reliable babysitter. But there was a vacancy. She had begun to glimpse oncoming loneliness, a concern for her older self, isolated in a life still aimed at couples.
Rick was the first and only date she went on, although she wasn’t his. He’d been very charming and, she believed, extremely attractive. He’d picked her because she was naturally beautiful, he said. His younger girlfriends had been tedious, glamorous, high maintenance; she was shown the proof on his phone. He was ready for something more serious. And she still looked amazing, he said, hard to believe she was over five years older than him. He didn’t want babies – or to date anyone who had one – although grown-up children were acceptable. Over dinner in China Town, he joked about being unable to share; he wanted someone to love him entirely. Lisa was determined to be that person.
She met his friends for the first time, in Mr Tom’s Chop House. He was keen to show her off, he said. Wear something slinky. She had no reason to lack confidence then. After years of working there, the city was her natural domain. She selected over-the-knee suede boots, tight jeans.
She’s a Clarins girl’ he shouted over the din in the crowded bar, somehow making it sound faintly lecherous.
I’m their brand manager,’ she’d corrected, smiling, pushed up against the mix of workers and party goers, ‘I manage the team across several outlets.’
They promote them all when they get older…’ He was laughing, unguarded. They laughed along with him, dribbling beer down shiny shirts.
Later, he appeared horrified that he’d upset her: made a fuss, a floral show of penitence. He loved her; they had something worth preserving. Didn’t she agree? She did.
The bus lurched forward again as if suddenly startled. If she looked to her right, she could just spot The Wacky Warehouse hidden behind the trees. How much she had enjoyed this plastic haven when Becky was young; its success credited largely to accessibility. It was somewhere they could walk to, it had a child’s menu and a ball pit, and it served large glasses of Pinot Grigio. Years later she’d revisited with a friend’s child in tow and was nauseated by the smell of socks, sweat and sick.
The bus was still shuddering. Breakdowns were rare, and there was always another one close behind. She didn’t have to be there until two. She gazed out at a small gang of pupils lingering outside the chicken shack. The peeling yellow laminate on the window looked weirdly like feathers. This place was a magnet for teenagers who clearly should have been in school.
After the wedding, they sold both houses and bought a large old town house in Dane Bank. It was the first time she’d lived with someone and she was determined to do it absolutely right. It was spacious for three, with a capacious kitchen that was perfect for entertaining, although neither she nor Rick had any other family. At weekends, a Sunday roast proudly was produced for Rick’s friends, hers too, but mostly his. Young city salespeople, trailing girlfriends, then different girlfriends, faces refreshing. Alan came once or twice in her clumsy attempts to introduce him to new women.
Mum – he only loves you,’ Becky chided, ‘it’s not kind’.
Basking in Rick’s pride, she even learned to make desserts; the kind of desserts that people saved room for, complimented. Until one Easter, when he pointed out, in the midst of a gathering, that she was getting quite a middle. Horrified at his accuracy, she’d watched her diet ever since. It was only sensible. She monitored her own portions, joined classes, struggled back to nine stone.
After that final weigh-in, she’d treated herself at House of Fraser: a slinky peach teddy. Something that showed off her long legs. Rick had been suitably impressed. Afterwards, as he’d held her, he traced her face gently.
You’ve done marvellously darling. Incredible body…. It’s just a pity you lost weight in your face at the same time.’
She had cried then and he had been baffled. He wasn’t trying to hurt her it was just a factual comment. It was hardly his fault. Why was she so sensitive? Was it her age?
It was already nearly 11 and they were only just crawling in a tailback caused by temporary lights. It was a good job she set off in plenty of time. She could have got a taxi of course but she didn’t want questions, or conversations, preferring the anonymity of public transport. She held onto the handle of her case for reassurance. Yes, he’d definitely be relieved. The bus pulled up parallel to the second shop fronted area where tacky broken signage advertised its temptations to a disadvantaged community. A fast food outlet offering its version of Canadian grills, sizzlers and shakes, a refurbished phone shop with patchy cellophane windows, and a 24-hour massage room in an attic under broken skylights.
The second of the three retail stretches, this was by far the most neglected. Grey grubby shutters and steel bars made nonsense of a same-day dry-cleaning claim. A couple of hairdressers: the more vibrant of the two exhibiting a selection of braiding on plastic heads. Half-drawn blinds protecting products behind yellowed glass. A long-deserted Post Office defeated by persistent theft, and yet another food mart with over-ripe fruit in buckets. A convenience store that contradicted itself with its heavy chains across its boarded-up front. Laminated posters for out-of-date items. Decay seeped into her soul, she witnessed it daily. And it looked back at her in the mirror every morning.
The bus pulled up at the disused church to collect an elderly lady with a walking frame. The ramp hissed downward and the driver released his cab door to assist her, with professional politeness, into a front seat. That’s the attention that awaits you; the time you get noticed again. Lisa didn’t think she wanted to live that long.
The church, of indeterminate denomination, was architecturally beautiful but grimy and neglected and shaded by mosses. Blackened by age and withstanding environmental assaults, it was structurally impressive, despite its sallowness, and no doubt it would have been some kind of insta-backdrop in a different area. So many of life’s significant events must have occurred here and now it stood unnoticed. It had lost its battle against time.
She used more face creams. She was certainly best placed to trial each copywritten miracle. Ever more frequent supplies were secreted in from work: her brands, other brands, miracle creams off the internet. Decanting hope from seductive packaging. Each new potion sparkled with luxuriant radiance; each fragrance a subtle promise.
One night at the dressing table she was conscious of Rick watching her as she covered her face in a new-brand cream, smoothing it into fallen contours. He stood behind her and stroked her hair. ‘You’re beautiful. I am very lucky.’
She smiled at him in the mirror, flushed. Why couldn’t she believe this? Placing the cream down, she reached to touch his hand.
Don’t forget your neck darling. That always needs it most.’
The bus was waiting for someone running alongside it. This driver was patient; many appeared to take pleasure in pulling away just as a thwarted passenger arrived breathless at the doors. You’re too late; you should have planned your time better. Once inside, the still-wheezing man fumbled to locate his travel pass as on-board muttering gathered momentum. The vehicle pulled away and began its crawl past the second of the three pubs on this route. Although she had never been inside it, it was a regular feature on local social media, sometimes for quiz nights, other times as the scene of some fracas, some complaint. Next to this building, a commercial van company in which rows of identical white vans gazed impassively through railings. Although advertised as ‘new’ she suspected they’d been there for years, masking deterioration behind wax-polished veneer.
Looking across the bus to the right, she noticed fresh signs had emerged for a fast-build housing development. Tiny homes impressive only in their newness. How restrictive they would be when families moved in. The signage, shiny and optimistic on litter-soiled concrete. The new build was positioned next to a much older row of terraces. Some existing residents had clearly tried to compete, to add improvements on the old housing: a tiny porch, a plastic archway, a brightly painted windmill by the front door. Was a Velux window on an old roof escapism, or just kidding yourself ?
Alan fitted windows. They’d grown up on the same street, attended the same school, and he had been her default Saturday night drinking partner for years. Her late mum had loved him, and she had been liberal with her advice.
Marry young, that way you always remain youthful to your husband. Mum had married at nineteen, regarding this as her achievement.
For a happy life, only marry the man who thinks you’re too good for him.
Alan had come to the wedding, wished her well, and told her how lucky Rick was. She knew she was the lucky one.
She was glad there wasn’t the same expectation for the young today. They had more valid reasons to be proud. Six months ago, Becky had made junior partner in a Solicitors’. Celebrations had been scheduled, and they had travelled this route together for a planned shopping day in town. The trip was fruitful: a navy Reiss dress for Becky and a shot-silk Coast dress for her mum, all rounded nicely with Cava in the champagne bar in Kendals. Her new colleagues had arranged a meal in her honour, at Panacea, for the following Saturday night. Lisa and Rick were invited.
Rick had been late home on that Friday with an agitation that had not gone away. One of his team was leaving and he had been for a drink. He was prickly, withdrawn and he slept facing away from her. Lisa was not sure he had ever turned back.
Tensions eased as they got ready for the meal. He loved the wine slim-fit shirt she’d bought him; he acknowledged this with a swift kiss on the top of her head. With a sense of well-being she slipped into the new dress. Black, above the knee, with a subtly jewelled neckline.
Do you like it?’ Tentative, confidence crumbling.
No… yes – I mean, sorry. Dress is lovely, I’m just not sure about…’
He made a wiggling motion with his upper arms.
But if you’re ok with it, ignore me.’
She stared into his retreating back as he whistled his way down the landing. Then he turned with what appeared to be an afterthought:
or maybe a cardigan, darling?’
Smiling through the evening, she relied heavily on professional composure. The chosen venue seemed unusually loud and bright; it was a struggle to follow conversations. Rick seemed to be laughing a lot, telling a story she didn’t recognise. She was newly uncomfortable, newly aware of the how young her daughter’s colleagues were. And the restaurant staff – they must surely be filling in between magazine shoots?
Later, in the toilets, Becky’s kind words jarred: ‘Gosh, they can’t believe you’re my mum as you look so young.’ The compliment unravelled her composure. She had been ridiculous, crying over the communal sink, her daughter humouring her. Wary diners stretching round her to use the soap.
I’m too old for him now, Becky.’
Becky did a convincing job of incredulity, claiming it was obvious how much he loved her, how it was tangible. How often he bragged about her.
Not any more – the age gap – it’s widened now. I feel like leaving him before he becomes completely repelled by me.’ She choked through ugly sobs, relieved to speak of it but appalled at her timing, her loss of self-control. Becky had wiped her mum’s face with a square of toilet paper.
Where has this come from? Everyone knows you’re stunning. Rick certainly does – but mum, that shouldn’t be what matters. It’s really not.’
The ignominy of being lectured by her own daughter, with her perfect skin and tight jawline. But youth could indulge the luxury of that opinion, whilst it was still on loan to them.
She leaned her face onto the misty window. The bus was collecting a group of women clearly heading to lunchtime bingo. They bustled into the aisles, crinkling in polyester, creased faces in going-out make up. A continuous spool of chatter. Was this happiness?
The vehicle pulled out past the second hand furniture ‘emporium’. Two sofas, a nest of occasional tables and a scuffed sideboard sprawled out confidently, making living rooms on hard pavements. The young traders splayed unselfconsciously across cushions, engrossed in their phones.
Building up speed, they passed the perpetually deserted Showcase, and on towards Mecca. The ladies, still giggling, huffing, grasping handrails and each other, as they manoeuvred their way off to their afternoon of designated entertainment.
It was just over six weeks ago when she began planning today. Although she had doubts, there were also so many indicators that Rick was falling out of love with her. She had read somewhere that the reverse of being loved is not hate, it’s indifference, and she wasn’t ready for that yet.
The bus gathered speed as it passed the final row of grey brick housing. Daffodils lined the narrow strip of communal grass, waving bravely in colourful distraction. They were nearing the Apollo now. In 25 years of travelling this route in different seasons and at different times of day, she was always surprised by the ugliness of this building. How grimy and worn its exterior. Yet how many wonderful nights she’d spent in there with friends, and on work nights-out. It was after a comedy night there, when only half-drunk on warm beer that Rick had asked her to marry him. On that night, no building could have appeared more Utopian. Waiting until the bus moved forward, she craned to look for the exact spot where she had kissed him, where she had said yes. The A-frame advert stand that still marked that place had been knocked sideways, and lay amongst the detritus of an earlier event.
From the Apollo onwards, the journey becomes more hopeful. The roads open up and the Hilton dominates the urban horizon. This year, yellow cranes, with the distant perspective, appear to equal its height but bow to take a lesser place on the skyline. Life regenerates outside small towns. She can breathe. Proud signs offer up the Bridgewater Hall, the MOSI, the Central Convention Centre. We have space in Manchester; we have culture, heritage and new developments. Home theatre, New Islington, the Village, this was her city. She needed to make changes, to improve her opportunities, before life handed her bingo on a walking frame.
Looking across Mancunian Way, straight roads run vein-like down to world-class Universities. Signs indicate the Ring Road and dazzle visitors with choices and opportunities: Birmingham, Liverpool, the Airport.
Sometimes it’s just small things, seemingly inconsequential if inspected in isolation, that cumulatively topple a whole structure. Six weeks ago, he had been home first and was preparing stir-fry in the kitchen. He had set the table with prawn crackers, condiments, even dessert spoons.
She faltered…’Darling, you remember it was my team lunch today? I wasn’t for tea…’
His hand stilled; the knife suspended over the broccoli head.
Sorry, I will have a little though, it smells wonderful’ she offered.
Without looking at her, he continued to chop. The action seemed a little harsher, his stirring a little more vigorous. His shoulders set in some parody of restraint. She nibbled on a prawn cracker by way of apology, searching for neutrality.
Oh darling, I saw Tony in Prezzo. He was with his new…. with his wife, Myra…Maya? And a young crowd from your office.’
Tony had once been a regular at their house but had dropped away when his marriage broke up. Lisa had been friendly with his wife.
Yeah – that’s Tony’s new team. And yes – Maya, she’s gorgeous, isn’t she? You really can’t blame him, can you?’
She hesitated, unsure of the correct answer.
He put down the pan and turned, appearing to appraise her.
Did you have your hair like that?’
Her hand went to her ponytail, checking in momentary confusion.
Er yes I think so. Why?’ Her voice was weak.
Oh.’ His sigh was heavy and emphasised and laden with disappointment.
Nothing… you just look a lot better with it down. I’ve told you. But ignore me – you do anyway.’
The bus was now in the City. The Macdonald hotel, the scene of last year’s rather strained anniversary, was to her right and she blurred the memory of that night. The brightly lit restaurant he’d chosen, in which so many of her inadequacies found no soft focused comfort. The stains of earlier upsets evident under her expensive new foundation.
Almost in Piccadilly, the bus headed on towards the building that had always been her favourite. A major refurbishment was in process. The old fire-station was cleverly hidden behind a mask of its previous appearance. This unique example of Edwardian baroque had been lovingingly wrapped, whilst behind the façade it was cleaned, repaired, restored. The faded red brick and terracotta was at this moment being washed, polished, returned to its natural beauty. What an enviable solution. To be able to disappear behind a flawless copy of your former self, at an age of your choosing, whilst behind it you were worked on, renewed, made good.
She checked her silenced phone, discarding Rick’s text, an O2 update and a topical joke passed on by Alan. She assembled her belongings, handbag, gloves, case and buttoned up the front of her coat. Once she alighted, she would get a taxi from outside Debenhams. City taxi drivers tended not to pry.
She searched through her bag for the address, fighting the sense of panic that threatened to overwhelm her. Her stomach was laden with acid. She needed to compose herself, to go through with her plans. Rummaging in her swollen make-up bag she opened the gold fronted compact and looked at her face. Her mind distorted the image that looked back at her: lined eyes, slack spare skin, loosening jawline. It’s either this, or romantic abdication. Please don’t turn back. Look how unhappy you are. Look, until you cannot bear it any more.
Transport converged here from all outposts of the region. Coaches crossed Metro lines, pedestrians dodged cyclists, and taxis decanted tourists tangled in cameras and baggage. Business travellers, strode with confident speed, juggling laptop cases and issuing instructions into phones. People were busy, beautiful, and needed somewhere.
Rick had stopped finding her attractive; that was natural and expected and not a fault of his. Putting away the mirror, she unfolded the letter with the admission time, the procedural instructions, the aftercare. The outlined weeks in the recovery process for this extent of aesthetic lifting. And this was just the start. There were unlimited glossy improvements and enhancements available.
The bus reached its destination outside ASK and the newly opened Pret and she felt her breathing ease. She was a city girl, and the city was always changing, updating, remaining fresh.


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