Crossings

Main_street_in_fog
From Granta:

I was standing in front of our old house: 168 Atomic Drive, Uranium City. The street numbers just visible next to what remained of the front door. Up close, our house didn’t seem so ominous, not like the day before when I’d stood on top of the hill across the street and had the sense of being actively warned away. It had been like peering down into a cold dark pool, our house and all the other houses on our street down at the bottom. Now there was just an aura of strangeness – a lingering hint of menace – like a membrane I had to push through.

I noticed things I hadn’t when I’d come back a few days before and seen our old house for the first time in nearly twenty years: the spruce tree with four branches growing out of what used to be the crown; the sidewalk, running up to the side door and then around to the backyard, where it had been devoured by a hedge that once separated garden from lawn and now covered both; the stillness contrasting sharply with the bright fall yellows of the saplings and small trees dominating every yard, their limbs tossing about in the breeze like sea plants writhing on the ocean floor.

Even after five days of entering empty houses, I still hadn’t gotten used to how easy it was, like I still expected someone to appear in the doorway demanding to know what I was doing. I pushed inside, breathing sharply inward as I always seemed to do when I entered one of the houses. Someone had scrawled cunt is good in foot-high letters by the steps to the basement. Rubble covered the floor of what had been our dining room, glittering with glass from the shattered windows. Holes had been punched and kicked into the walls; cupboards, a dishwasher and even a toilet tank had been ripped from their moorings and strewn about the hallway. Here and there touches of familiarity: yellow and black patterned runner carpet covering the steps to the basement where my bedroom had been, wallpaper with yellow and lime stripes on the dining room walls. Normality broke through in unexpected places, patches in a photograph that had mostly discoloured and faded.

Water dripped steadily from the ceiling in the living room, trickling down from that morning’s rain. A mound of grey material on the floor, moulded by the water into a miniature volcano. Possibly asbestos – our house, like most houses built here in the late 60s and early 70s, would have likely been lined with asbestos panelling. Or maybe just some unknown substance, the detritus of modern life as it starts to decay. Wind, rain, snow enters abandoned house so easily, erasing the boundaries between interior and exterior, man and nature. These spaces had a kind of final emptiness, stale air and a cloying, oppressive silence.

Read the rest in Granta

Misfits

Mists over Vancouver Island

 

Published in Urban Graffiti

The camp was at the end of a dusty logging road, a hundred kilometers up from the highway. The only other settlement was a tiny Indian reserve, just visible through a stand of trees from the road. The camp consisted of four portable trailers, each a city block long, and two smaller trailers, one for the administrative office, the other for the cook shack, the whole lot plunked down in the middle of a clearing shorn of all vegetation down to bare earth.
It had been a tough season, the worst I’d had in the four years I’d gone tree-planting, and I thought the camp would be a good place to go into myself, read the books I’d been meaning to read since I’d gone into the bush, prepare myself for the transition back to the city. The loggers weren’t due back for a few weeks, and we were all given our own rooms in one of the long trailers. The rooms were bare but comfortable, and the steady hum of the generator out the window blocked out the sound of my fellow tree-planters yelling back and forth in the hallway, or playing guitars in their rooms. I found the camp beautiful in a way, an echo of the Northern towns I’d grown up in and almost totally forgot about when I was in the city. The smell of oil and exhaust mingled with the sylvan-sweet scent of fresh-cut timber, and broken logs stuck out of the mud like the remains of a building after an earthquake. Next to the railway cars, a tractor with a claw the size of a small house shifted logs in and out of a twenty foot pile, while fully-loaded logging trucks appeared regularly at the opposite ends of the clearing, sending up plumes of dust, their tottering loads of freshly-skinned trees glistening in the sun. It was like a giant factory dropped in the middle of the woods.

I’d been mildly depressed for weeks. Part of it was how much tree-planting had changed since the year before: gone the free-wheeling travelers, the misfit hippies and punks that had been my solace in other years. The students were taking over, and their bright faces, so sure of their future and their places in it, gave me the horrors. In the morning, they played Van Morrison’s ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ in the truck and at night they gathered for hippy sing-a-longs in the cookshack or even the hotel room, hauling out bongos and guitars. When they started in, I usually went off somewhere to get drunk.

But mostly I was depressed about Molly. We’d been together a couple of years, ever since I’d met her in Vancouver hanging around the punk rock bars when I’d come down flush after my first season. She’d just come back from England and a month after we’d met, she’d wanted to go back, and dragged me to London, introduced me to a whole world of squats, traveling, the London and Europe punk rock scene. We toured all over Europe, staying in hotels and squats in Paris, Madrid, Berlin, going back to London when our money ran out to join up with our pals in the squatting scene, make enough money so we could travel again. We were always in some kind of drama: we both liked to drink, and we’d fight, break up and get back together again, sometimes a couple of times in one day. We had a lot in common too: parents from the old country we didn’t talk to anymore, a couple years on the street when were kids, the right, through those same parents, to British and Irish passports. The desire to leave Canada, to move ever forward. Yet part of the reason I’d come back in the intervening years, discarding my leather jacket and Doctor Marten’s for lumberjack shirts and cork boots, exchanging the ancient grey British and European streets for a mouldy tent and cutblocks of gnarled and rotting logs, had been to get away from her craziness, to remind myself of who I was. That winter had been the worst. Not just drinking, but dope. No longer on the periphery of our scene as it had been in other years, junk moved ever closer until everyone we knew was using and we were smoking off the foil to bring ourselves down after drinking too much.

For all that I missed her, missed our life together. I couldn’t shake the feeling that coming tree-planting had been an enormous step backwards, a part of my life that no longer fit. Yet now that I was in the bush, I was scared of what would happen when I hit Vancouver, this time to no Molly. I wasn’t sure where I’d end up, if I could even go back to London without her. After awhile it was easier to lose myself in work, not think too much about what might be waiting at the end of the road.

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Youth

Urban Glow, Downtown Montreal

Published in Urban Graffiti

She was striking, with high Indian cheekbones and olive skin and long brown hair she’d tied back in a ponytail with an Indian braid, and an athletic dancer’s figure which she’d wrapped in a ankle-length leather greatcoat. As she said hello in turn to everyone on the porch, I noticed that, unusually amongst Bill’s friends, she was French.

She’d noticed me as well, because she stopped right in front of me, taking me in with amazing diamond eyes. Up close, she looked familiar though that didn’t mean much: in the month I’d been back in Montreal, every street, face or overheard conversation – whether in French or English – contained some association with a set of vaguely remembered persons or memories. For this and other reasons, I didn’t like to go out much, but that afternoon was special: Bill and his wife Sarah were having a baby shower for their daughter Gisele, who had just turned one.

Sarah, just two years off heroin.

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Uranium City Return, Back to Edmonton

published in Urban Graffiti, December, 2011

Jasper Avenue, Edmonton AlbertaI hadn’t been back to Edmonton in nearly 20 years, not since I’d passed through with my parents at age 15 on my way back to Vancouver. I took the airport shuttle downtown to the bus station then checked in at the Grand Hotel across the street. The hotel looked rundown, but the wooden awning out front and the cowboy bar on the ground floor lent it a frontier feel, made it an apt jumping off point for the journey that would take me to Fort McMurray and beyond to a North I hadn’t seen since just before I’d last seen Edmonton.

Except for a guy who tried to bum five bucks off me in the hallway, the hotel was empty and quiet. I was tired from getting up at dawn and catching the flight from Montreal, but when I lay down on the bed, I was too agitated to rest. I felt my childhood all around me in the quiet streets stretching out beyond the window, the brilliant blue sky directly in front of my line of vision that just seemed to go on and on. It was more a shock than I’d expected to be back. For most of the time I’d been away, I’d suppressed my memories of Edmonton. Or lost them, I’ve never been sure which. I’d been thinking about Edmonton in a roundabout way, as part of that whole first 15 years of my life that involved the North, rebuilding it all piece by piece in my mind until I felt like I could enter it at will. Now here it was, memory made life. If I shifted position, I could just see the neon red CN logo, atop the hi-rise with the vertical black and white lines running down its sides. The CN Tower had been my favorite hi-rise when we’d lived in the city, and just seeing it again felt like a minor miracle and made me as anxious to walk Edmonton’s afternoon streets as I’d once been, in my drinking days, to hit the bars as soon as possible whenever I arrived somewhere new.

To read the rest go to Urban Graffiti 

Uranium City Return – An Excerpt

Published in Sensitive Skin Magazine, Fall 2011

At the end of the road, an airstrip appears, as unexpected as a landing pad for aliens. Instinctively, I look for the Eldorado Mine and the company town of Eldorado that stretched around the lake behind the airstrip and am startled to find nothing but hills and trees and a muddy black field. The plane lands and pulls to a stop on the edge of the tarmac. No one is there to greet us and we get out of the plane and wait. Behind the airstrip are the familiar hills – as rounded and smooth as hills on a golf course, and covered with pine, spruce and budding poplar – so familiar that I listen instinctively for the old rhythms and sounds. Though neither town nor mill were ever visible from the airstrip I can already sense the difference; knowing that I can cross these hills and see only more hills and more lakes makes the silence heavy and oppressive. For a moment it feels like we have shifted dimensions and landed in another time, the turn of the century say, and that the present and even my own past and the past of the town is still in the future and there is nothing here but the rocky hills, the stands of poplar and jack pine and spruce, the warm afternoon sun beating down on the tarmac.

Tim Beckett, Uranium City

The woman and the pilot unload her trays and boxes from the plane, handing things back and forth without many words as if they have been through this routine many times before. At first the woman hardly registers my presence then, when I help her with a few boxes, she opens up a little.

“So you like living in Uranium City?” I ask. Her judgment matters less now that I am actually here. She smiles with the slight trace of irony that I remember as a Northern trait and shrugs her shoulders.

“I don’t know. My mom’s here so I guess I like that.”

A mini-van blazes up the road and stops at the foot of the airstrip, and a woman and a man and two teenagers spill out of the doors. They seem slightly unreal against the stillness. They appear to be brothers and sisters of the woman I came in with. The man is thin and wiry and sports a broad moustache; he takes boxes from the plane and into the van, talking with the others. His speech has a curious native inflection – heavy consonants, thin syrupy vowels, sh for s – as if he learned to speak on a reserve. I help him and the others unload but he doesn’t greet me or acknowledge my presence in any way except to take the boxes from my hands. If I look at him he looks back guardedly, eyes blank, anxious to retreat into the familiar world of his family.

After everything has been unloaded it transpires that the rest of the family is flying back to Fort Mac and the blonde woman is going to drive the van into town. A commotion erupts – no one, it seems, has a key for the airport fuel tank and there is not enough fuel in the plane to get back without a stopover in Fort Chipewayan, a reserve on the far edge of Lake Athabasca.

“I don’t want to stop at Fort Chip!” the man with the moustache says brightly as the whole family points at the fuel tank and the plane, shrugs their shoulders and shakes their heads. Their voices rise and fall, cushioned by the emptiness, and their arguing has a circular frenetic quality, and the more it continues the more helpless they seem, as if any obstacle at all reduces them to bickering and inertia. Watching them I get the disquieting sense that this argument could go on forever if it was allowed to.

A blue Ford pick-up pulls in and a very thin man with slicked back hair gets out, holding a set of keys out in front of him and grinning, as if this too has happened many times before. The truck looks brand new, hardly dented or covered in dust. I recognize the man: he is Jackie Garret, proprietor of the Garret Motel and U-Drive, one of the town’s few remaining businesses, and an old-timer from the town’s other life. We’d talked on the phone before I came up. Jackie greets everyone and everyone greets him, relaxed now and laughing as they board the plane and, relieved that the arguing is over, I hop into the truck and presently Jackie gets into the driver’s side and we pull onto the highway for the seven kilometer ride to town.

At first the view is so exhilarating, I don’t want to say anything. The highway follows the arm of a clear open lake, then cuts between the two rock cliffs where they’d dynamited right through a hill the year before I’d left. Lichen-covered rocks flow from the road, and dusty blue hills float along the horizon, as serene as extinct volcanoes. Every sway, every dip and peak of the skyline slips into place as soon as I see it, so that I feel like I’ve last seen these hills only a couple of days before and this is home and I’ve never really left.

We round a curve and pull into MASL, the seaplane base on the edge of Martin Lake. There is a sign with faded letters: ‘Welcome To Uranium City’ and a number of houses around a giant white seaplane hangar. The houses are abandoned and fading to grey and the hangar is bolted shut, the white paint on its flanks peeling off, exposing grey wood underneath. Subconsciously I’d expected to find these buildings inhabited and still in use and seeing them abandoned shocks me a little. But the shock is mitigated by obvious signs of life – two seaplanes sit in the water in front of the hangar and further up the lake is the old Kiwanis Beach looking pretty much as it always had: swings on the shore and children’s slide in the water; rocky hill rising behind the sand and water sparkling in the northern summer sun.
We cross a bridge over the river that runs along the edge of town. One more turn and we will be on Uranium Road, the main thoroughfare through the city.

“It’s a hundred times worse than you could ever imagine it,” Jackie says abruptly, “you won’t believe what’s happened to this place.”

He is right.

There are some experiences so profound, so monumental, that you cannot even try to predict what they will be like before you go through them. Despite reading Deborah Foster’s article, despite being fascinated my whole life by ghost towns and derelict buildings; despite being well aware that the town I am about to see would have little in common with the town I left behind, I am completely unprepared for my first view of Uranium City.

Uranium Road leads up a short hill and disappears around a corner. There are the familiar outlines I’d recorded through the undiscriminating lens of youth – the green stucco mass of the old hotel, the yellow cinder block cube that was the bakery, the two-story concrete building that used to be the car wash. But what I had recorded as a young man was open windows, vehicles, people, movement – now there is only parched brown earth and an eerie oppressive stillness. But for a yellow backhoe parked in front of the old car wash the street is completely deserted; even the windows have been blocked by lengths of greying plywood. Disintegrating concrete steps lead to the hotel’s main entrance; the awning has fallen away and the single steel door has been sealed firmly shut, a giant ‘EH’ spray-painted in yellow across the metal surface. Already there is a sense that this is a place that has not seen much movement for a long, long time.

The hotel is particularly hideous. It reminds me of a set of housing projects I saw once in Newark, New Jersey that had been torched and gutted in the sixties and then just left. It radiates the same sullen negativity, an emptiness that spreads to everything around it.

The Garret Motel is a sparse collection of blue and purple trailers decorated with white trim directly across from the car wash. A ragged Métis man stops Jackie at the front door and asks him for ten dollars. Jackie gives him the money then, when the man has shuffled away, he says, “Better take your bags inside while I check you in.”

“Lot of thieves around here?”

“No, not too bad. But if you leave them long enough they might just grow legs.”

In Jackie’s office the curtain are drawn over the windows and a single desk sits in the middle of a carpeted room. Papers and assorted debris cover the desk and the floor and the single couch in the corner – a road map of the USA takes up one wall. I sign for three nights; almost $250 in total with tax and Jackie gives me the key and tells me where my room is. There are eight rooms in all but as far as I can tell I am the only guest. The room is bare but comfortable, with a small bathroom, a double bed, a TV, and a lamp on the single night table. On top of the TV are two Bibles, open to the same page and stacked one on top of the other. In the centre of both pages is a passage from the book of Ezekiel:

“Thus says the Lord God, ‘When I shall make you a desolate city, like the cities which are not inhabited, when I shall bring up the deep over you, and the great waters will cover you,

“then I shall bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of old, and I shall make you dwell in the lower parts of the earth, like the ancient waste places, with those who go down to the pit, so that you will not be inhabited; but I shall set glory in the land of the living.

“I shall bring terror upon you, and you will be no more; though you will be sought, you will never be found again.”

I study the passage for a minute, wondering who would have left the Bibles open like this and whether it is meant as some kind of message. Then I open the curtains to let in some light. Just beyond the window is a pile of wrecked cars, some sitting upright, some on their sides or piled upside down on other cars as if some massive accident had taken place a few years before and everything had just been left.

Too restless to sit still for even a minute, I put my bags on the bed and step back outside.

Going Back to the Old Hotel

Uranium City Hotel, Uranium City, Saskatchewan

published as ‘The Hotel’ in the Evergreen Review, Jan 2013

Weeds rise from the cracks in the underbrush along the edge of the parking lot, reaching up the concrete steps to the hotel’s main entrance. In the fog, the weeds look febrile, like they are about to crawl right up the walls. I climb the steps, pull on the steel door that once opened onto the lobby. Locked tight, as they’ve been since 1982, when the hotel closed. Up close, even the yellow ‘EH?’ that decorates the front and back of every road sign the seven kilometers from town to airport, looks faded, like it was painted a decade or more ago. Even the steps are crumbling: a few more years and they will collapse altogether.
Yet pull back a few feet, and the hotel looks as impregnable as a fortress, a block long three story building of green stucco, so monumental you expect it to remain standing long after every other building has collapsed into the ground.
The door to the Zoo bar on the ground floor is just below the big ‘Welcome’ sign carved into the concrete slab behind the parking lot, black letters painted on a white background, the first thing anyone sees after they turn the corner into town. To my surprise that door opens without resistance, and as I step inside I want to believe that despite the outward signs of abandonment, inside the hotel will still be functional — the bar and café, just as they used to be, maintained and frequented by townspeople who never left – who file in through underground tunnels to drink beer or shoot darts in the bar, or gather in the upstairs café for coffee — a parallel existence, cut off from the rest of the town by the boards over the window, the hotel’s menacing stillness. Stepping inside, I almost expect to see lamps or candles, hear music, hear a voice from somewhere deep within, shouting out a greeting.
Or a warning.
Stale air hits my face like a liquid wall. The door slams shut behind me and everything is dark until my eyes adjust. A shaft of light reaches through a broken window at the back of the bar. The bar is much smaller than it appeared when I stared through that same window, waiting for a miner to get me and my girlfriend Willow a six-pack. Hardly big enough for a hundred people. The little round tables that cluttered the space have been taken away, and lengths of wood cover the floor next to the single beer counter which has been kicked over on its side. The bar fridge, still protected by a half-dozen heavy glass doors, sits against one wall. A Carling Old Style box, cardboard warped with age, lettering faded white with yellow borders, sits in front of one of the doors.
The air is as heavy as the air in a cave — decades of rot, of mysterious man-made substances vaporizing in the stagnant air. That fake wood paneling on the walls like some ’70s basement den. I can almost imagine how it would have been, even if I was too young to ever actually get inside. Cigarette smoke hanging below the drop-down chipboard roof, country music wailing off a battered jukebox, plenty of drunks, white and native. Maybe some greater sense of transience than the average small-town bar, with the miners coming in from the bunkhouses, the natives by truck and skidoo from the reservation towns fifty, a hundred miles away. The fights spilling out into the thirty below cold with the northern lights crackling overhead like signals from a distant planet, the taxis pulling up outside, depositing miners, people from around town. She’d taken me down to see it, many times. It was like a carnival, electric and a little dangerous, faces brighter in the lights and the cold. Then the announcement that the mine was closing and for a few weeks everyone in town coming to the bar wondering what the hell they were going to do, how they would fight the powers that had torn their lives apart, until one February afternoon the moving vans pulled up off the ice road to that barren parking lot outside.
Light, fainter than from the back window, slants through the door that leads upstairs to the hallway and I follow it until I am standing at the bottom of the stairs leading to the second floor, next to the men’s bathroom where I’d scored pinners of bad weed when we couldn’t get weed anywhere else. The hallway looks as if an army of looters has run amok, scattering acres of debris over the industrial carpet which still covers the floor, knocking holes in the paneled wall. The trash seems almost incongruous, since the three kilometers of abandoned houses outside are mostly empty, denuded of the furnishings that must have been left in great abundance when the town was abandoned. It’s as if all the refuse, all the artifacts, from the rest of the town, has been swept up and dumped here. The carpet is buried; I can’t even make out its original color, and in places the debris is ankle deep. The air smells of mold, plaster dust, a sulfurous decay that could be anything from rotting asbestos to corroded pipes.
It is too much to handle, so I go up to the second floor, an area I never saw when the hotel was open. Light, muted by the fog, streams through an open window and into the hall, so that the rooms at the end of it appear to glow. Like downstairs, the walls have been kicked in, the floor covered in trash. I bend down to look at it. Newspapers from late 1981, the first months of 1982, beer cans with whitened logos, indecipherable plastic bottles, some papers with the town council letterhead on them, copper pipe, electrical wire, lengths of wood; refuse too decayed or fragmented to identify.
The ceiling here is only a foot above my head, the rooms off the hall too narrow for more than a bed, a night table. Must have been a hell of a place to stay, with the brawls spilling out into the parking lot, the local girls coming up to hang out with the miners, the parties continuing in the rooms until the early hours. The floor buckles as I walk down the hall, enough to make me cautious about each step. Some of the walls between the rooms have been bashed in, and in the back of the building entire sections of the exterior wall have been smashed out. The ceiling sags until it reaches the end of the building where it’s collapsed, exposing the rooms to rain and wind. Graffiti runs across every wall: ‘Laureen sucks cock!’ ‘Fuck you whore!’ — the same graffiti kids write everywhere. The dates on the walls start at 1985, and run right up to the present. So the kids keep coming here, year after year. Do they come at night, carrying flashlights and cases of beer? Do they kick in the walls during the day, ignoring the adults on the street below who in turn ignore them? The holes in the back look like they were knocked out with two by fours, steel beams. One room has been so badly damaged it opens right onto the lot behind it.
No way this kind of damage was done by kids. Not small kids anyway. Maybe it was someone I know, one of the native guys we used to hang out with in the parking lot on those winter nights, one of the native guys who stayed behind when everyone left — coming here during those hard years when it became obvious that no one was coming back, and nothing would ever happen here again. What a relief it must have been, in the face of that knowledge, to come up here, drink beer and smash holes in the wall until you saw the whole town spread out below you and the phosphorescent sun glowed through walls and ceiling and warmed your flesh.
Back downstairs, I am a little shaken. Even if I understand the violence in the abstract, it freaks me out to think of someone I know coming here to tear this place to pieces. The hotel was the center of town, and I wonder just what happened in those dark years when everyone who was still here was stranded. The hotel is less menacing than some of the other buildings, where you feel angry forces seething in the darkness; here it is just eerie, as if, despite being at the heart of the still occupied center of town, it is that much further removed from the town’s living history. Downstairs, the rooms seem to go on indefinitely, opening onto black holes, burrowing deep underground. Somewhere down a hall is the old Chinese restaurant, the Stope bar, a respectable drinking place to offset the bedlam in the Zoo. In the darkness these rooms appear without form, denuded even of air. And perhaps after so many years of being sealed away, the oxygen has gone, so if you did venture back there, you would slowly asphyxiate and never come back.
At the end of the hallway, light creeps in through the cracks and holes in the plywood that covers the windows, illuminating the lobby in multiple shafts of grayness, like the light in the depths of an old stone church. The lobby ceiling is at least fifteen feet high, and the front desk where the old Chinese manager used to stand, toothpick in the side of his mouth, is virtually intact, as are the rows of boxes for keys and mail. Even the windows here, unlike in virtually every other abandoned building in town, have been preserved, protected by the plywood that went up when the hotel was closed — as if they expected to come back, pull the plywood down, open the hotel up again like nothing had happened. And I can almost imagine it: the hotel coming back to life. The foggy light streaming through the tall windows as it did twenty years ago on fall afternoons when I came here with Willow after school. Watching the breeze scatter red and yellow leaves across the intersection. The first snowfall, wet flakes spiraling out of dark grey sky and landing against the windowpane, the metal door banging shut every time someone came or went. Mrs. Mercredi, the daytime waitress, emerging from the gloom, coffee pot in hand, taking us in with that knowing smirk as we edged into one of the booth tables in the cafeteria.
But even if the plywood did come down, the steel door would still be sealed shut, the floor covered ankle deep in garbage. The air would still taste stale and faintly poisonous. And this place would still give me the chills. Even if the lobby is relatively intact, there is a sense of being completely removed from the rest of the town. I can feel the ghosts lurking in the darkness at the back of the building, where the cafeteria and the lounge used to be. I sense that if I stay here too long, I will be absorbed into the cold air, the trash decaying on the floor, the indefinable film that coats every surface. Like the debris, the ghost presence that lurks everywhere in the empty town seems concentrated here, as if the lobby is the place where the spirits gather before spreading out to their posts in the abandoned town. Even the emotional twists that have yanked me to and fro for the five days it’s been since I got town seem concentrated here, so that even as I stand stock still, I feel alternate forces of fear, longing, elation; overwhelming and crushing depression.
I turn to go, glancing back at what had been the cafeteria. The booths, round counter seats and even the counter have all been ripped out, leaving a row of plugs on the laminated floor. It looks so ghostly, so absent, I can’t bring myself to cross the barrier of the doorway. I wonder if she ever came back, in the year or so after the mine closed, when the town had yet to completely empty out and the hotel was still open, when it still seemed by some miracle that the town might be saved. I wonder if she sat at one of those booths staring out at the winter dusk, looking on the fast-emptying downtown, sinking into the shadows that must have already been creeping in.
I step carefully to the back of the hallway, suppressing the urge to check behind me for the figures I feel there in the gloom – to run, gasping for oxygen, the steel door banging behind me as I rush back onto the silent street. It feels almost sacrilegious to be here now, as if the hotel had become a tomb. And perhaps that’s exactly what it is – a tomb at the heart of the town.
Outside, the air tastes cold, fresh, alive. I release the metal door and it taps closed, the sound muffled by the fog. The street is so still, I can feel my heart beating, like the echo of a metronome, ticking away in the gloom.
I won’t go back inside. The hotel, of all the buildings in town, deserves to be left alone.
My footsteps crunch on the gravel as I walk to Main street. The Robinson’s Drug Store, the CIBC bank, the MacIntyre shoe store, the pinball hall. Everything boarded up, bushes pushing from the concrete. Charred beams, distended pipes sticking out of vacant lots. No one around, even the Athabasca, the town’s only remaining restaurant, locked tight. Fog cloaks the end of every street, and as I continue down Main Street, I feel as if I am walking through an abandoned cathedral.
A single fire hydrant pokes from the weeds at the end of every street. Even if every building in town were burned off the face of the Earth, and trees and bushes overtook the lots, the fire hydrants, the odd sign or foundation would remain, covered by the very forest they supplanted a half century before. A century from now, an explorer, ignorant of the area’s history, could stumble on these remnants and wonder what had been here before the forest closed in. I wonder if even then he would feel the presence of the spirits, still lingering about the foundations and the rusted plugs of the fire hydrants – spirits of a town that had wanted, desperately, to live.

Snow on the Heygate

                                          Photo: Johnathon Gales

A couple of new photo essays of the Heygate have turned up in my google news feed, taken during the recent snowstorm in London. The above photograph, taken by Johnathon Gales, is of my old home, Claydon House, with the new ‘gateway to the Elephant’ the Strada Tower, rising up behind it. His blog, thoughts not thoughts has more photographs.

   What was most striking, aside from the empty windows, was the desolate quality of the Strada. At first I wasn’t even sure what it was – the tower was still at the foundation stage when I left last year. From this angle it looks like a giant American flag . . .

Also, more haunting images from Dan Tassell at  Captured City: the bleak beauty of the Heygate Estate

                                          Photo: Dan Tassell

Apperently, some people still live on the estate. These images remind me of one of my last entries when I still lived on the Heygate: Endgame One More Step, when I wrote:

How will it be when the whole estate is empty but for one or two holdouts? How would it be occupy a single flat in a building this vast, to feel the emptiness spreading out through the building at night, to walk down gangways past sealed off flats, knowing no one else’s steps will tread the concrete stairwells – to know the building will soon be rubble?

I wonder how that feels to occupy these hulking empty buildings now . . .

    

Valentines Day on the Heygate, 2009.

Found this on Youtube this morning:


Mostly old folks gathered in a community hall – I”m guessing the hall behind what used to be the doctor’s office, now the office for the Heygate Tennant’s Association. Probably the last time people got together like this on the estate.

It says a lot that in the six or seven months I lived on the Heygate, I was hardly aware that this older, white working class still existed. The faces I saw were mainly those of immigrants – Africans, South Americans, East Euros. This, I”m sure, had a lot to do with the fact I was an immigrant myself, albeit of a different kind. But it does say a lot about the alienating power of the estate, when you can’t even get a sense of the people who live around you.

Where are these folks now, I wonder?