It seems so long ago

It seems so long ago…

It was absolutely freezing but I was well bundled up; and my maxi coat, although very wet round the hem and with clumps of snow attaching and then dropping off, was proving to be an excellent purchase!  My grant cheque wouldn’t go far, and had to last all term, my long brown, very warm coat had been a bargain. The only trouble was it took such a long time to dry, that in fact it never did really. There was no chance in our tiny bedsit, deceptively called a flat by the crook of a landlord who’d rented it to us; we only had a two bar electric fire and one of the bars didn’t work.  So at college, along with everyone else, we had our coats over the backs of chairs up against the radiators in the lecture rooms, steaming gently and adding to the fug of fags.

I can’t remember now why I was on my own, but I was slithering along Palatine Road heading towards our flat, my feet losing all feeling as the icy slush penetrated the split seams of my boots, my head beginning to chill as the damp fog seemed to settle on my woollen scarf and gradually seep through. Having long hair helped, but not that much. I was so busy concentrating on not falling over, keeping next to the wall and the straggly privet hedges so I didn’t lose myself in the fog that I wasn’t really looking where I was going. Manchester fog, almost a smog, was different from what I’d ever experienced, and I sort of delighted in it; it had a Dickensian feel and as we were reading Bleak House it brought the novel to life.

Suddenly someone was there in front of me and we both jumped back.

“Maggy!” I exclaimed as she said “Allie!” and it was only afterwards when I replayed the whole thing that I wondered about it… looking back, which is never very reliable, it seemed she had spoken almost in horror – but of course it could be that what I was soon to discover cast a different light over the whole incident.

“Allie, I need your help.”

The fog was very thick, the orange street lamps cast such feeble light and we were standing between two, in the outer reaches of their illumination so I could barely make out her face, let alone her expression.

“What is it this time, another spider in the bath?” I joked remembering when she had woken us, ringing our bell at three in the morning because there was a monster in the bathroom. I’d had to get up, go with her through the dark streets, into her flat and rescue the thing – or rather rescue her.

“I really need your help,” she repeated. “I’ll show you.”

It must sound strange, this story, since you didn’t know Maggy; but if you had known her, and known what I was like then, such an innocent, so naive and trusting you’d understand. If someone was my friend I was absolutely loyal, maybe stupidly so.

She turned and headed back the way she’s been coming from, rushing along as if she had x-ray vision so I had to call out to her to slow down. I was tired, it was late, I’d worked hard in the study rooms, copying out chunks from the books I’d borrowed from the library. The heating had gone off and I was already cold when I left, and as the union had closed I’d had nothing proper to eat except a meat and potato pie at lunchtime. I knew we had a couple of tins of baked beans in the flat, and I was looking forward to warming them up on the Baby Belling.

“We have to cross the road here!” she urged and stepped off the kerb as I stood listening to hear if there was any invisible traffic approaching. I’d already nearly stepped into the path of a looming SELNEC bus; it had been creeping along almost silently and its orange lights were eaten up by the fog. It didn’t slow as I hastily jumped back and I guess the driver, inching down Oxford Street hadn’t even seen me. That’s why I’d been almost clinging to the privet hedges when I bumped into Maggy.

I shouted to her, as I teetered on the kerb and her voice came eerily, nothing was coming, she called, it was safe to cross. Her voice sounded funny in the fog, distorted and a little spooky. I felt as if I launched myself off the kerb and hurried blindly across, tripping over the opposite kerb and almost falling.

I followed her down a side street, then we turned off, and somehow I was totally disoriented, and although I knew Withington well, I’d mainly only stuck to the roads, and hadn’t explored these little streets. I had literally no idea where we were, passing by red-brick terraced houses with no front gardens, glimmers of light through the closed curtains,

She turned suddenly down an ginnel. I’d given up asking where we were going in such a hurry or why. There were weeds and brambles and rubbish, half bricks, broken bits of wood, old tins and bottles. As we walked we kicked things and once something scurried away and I pretended I thought it was a cat.

We suddenly came out by the canal, so suddenly that I was lucky I didn’t step into it as I’d stepped into the road. The fog was so thick here I could barely make out Maggy even though she stood beside me.

She took my arm and pointed. There was a pile of rags in a heap on the edge of the canal and my brain caught up with itself. Maggy had strange – not exactly obsessions, but something like that, and a few weeks ago it was ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ and we’d been nagged by her to pick up rubbish in the streets and put it in bins, For some reason I thought she’d dragged me here to clear the towpath… until I realised it was a far more humanitarian reason – it wasn’t a pile of rags, but a person.

“You’ve got to help me, Allie!” Maggy whispered.

“I don’t know anything about first aid! I’ll try and find a phone box and ring for an ambulance – do you know where we are – ”

“No, no, you don’t understand!! You have to help me!! We have to get rid of him!!”

I had no idea what she meant and thought I’d misheard, and definitely misunderstood.

“He has to go into the canal before anyone finds him! I can’t do it, he’s too heavy!”

“Into the canal?” I repeated stupidly, thinking that I’d still misheard or misunderstood her.

“Yes, you have to help me get rid of him!!” she was speaking in a hysterical whisper as I tried to get my head round what she was saying.

“Is he hurt? What happened? Did he fall?” I was still not able to process what she was asking me to do.

“He’s dead!!” she hissed. I’d become hot running in my big maxi coat through the fog after her, but now my perspiration turned to ice and I began to shiver as I understood, without her saying more, what had happened.

My flat mate and I had been worried about her knife. Maggy had bought it in a weird shop in Fallowfield and we’d thought she might harm herself, even wondered whether we should try and steal it from her for her own safety, but we hadn’t and time went by and we forgot. Now I knew without her saying anything, or me being able to see her face in the fog and the darkness, that she had done something terrible to the heap on the towpath.

“I can’t get him into the canal, you have to help me!”

“No, Maggy, no – we have to get help – I’ll run and call the – ”

“No!”

And I had a sudden real shiver of fear. What had she done? What had she done?

“He tried to rape me, Allie, he would have killed me, you have to help me! Please, Allie, you’re my friend, you have to help me!”

If you’d known her – and if you’d known me then, what I was like, such an innocent, so naive and trusting you’d understand. If someone was my friend I was absolutely loyal, maybe stupidly so. Maggy was my friend.

“We’ll find a phone box and ring the ambulance, and just say we found him. We were walking home in the fog and we just found him…”

Suddenly she screamed and made me jump with real fear – she’s traumatised, she’s been raped, the police won’t understand, they hate students, maybe she’ll use the knife on herself and that will be my fault…

“Maggy -” but she had spun round and dashed away disappearing into the smog.

I ran blindly after her, down the ginnel but then got lost, blundering about into dead ends, tripping over rubbish, bumping into dustbins, trying not to cry, until I saw a misty orb of a street light.

I had no idea where I was and I don’t know what might have happened to me or where I might have ended up but fortunately I ran into a phone box, literally. As usual it stank of fags and pee, but I snatched up the receiver. Surely I wouldn’t have to put any money in, I had no change in my pocket except shillings for the meter. No, I just had to dial 999, and I sobbed to the operator that I needed an ambulance, there was a man by the canal, I thought he might be dead, and no I didn’t know where he was or even where I was, I was lost, lost, lost, somewhere in Withington.

***

I was taken to the police station and they were very kind, seeing my distress and when I sobbed out that I was a student, it was my first year here and my family lived in Bristol, they were very understanding.

My story was simple; I’d got lost in the fog and ended up by the canal, I had no idea how I got there, and then I saw the man collapsed on the tow path.

A fatherly sergeant told me the man had been stabbed and when I went faint and dizzy, he sent a police woman to get me a cup of tea. He asked to see my hands and my coat and afterwards I realised he wanted to see if there was blood from the stabbed man.

He organised a police car to take me back to the flat. I climbed the stairs up to our attic bedsit; my flatmate was already in bed and asleep – it was too cold to stay up late. Without undressing I got under my blankets and tried to sleep.

I didn’t go into college for two days, I felt so ill, and so frightened. I woke on the third day and a wintry sun shone through the sky light, patterned with icy swirls and whirls. The fog was gone. My flatmate made me a cup of hot Bovril, we couldn’t afford milk and it was cheaper than tea bags. I’d not told her properly what had happened, just that I’d got lost in the fog and a policeman had driven me home. I’d asked her if she’d seen Maggy over the last two days, but no.

We caught the bus into town, getting off in Piccadilly and walking through to college. She went off to Spanish and I got in the lift to go to French. The doors were just closing when Maggy suddenly dived through them. We were on our own and I burst into a flurry of questions.

She looked at me in the inexpressive way she sometimes had. Then she raised a finger to her lips. The lift stopped on the third floor and a load of Jewish students got in with their long coats and sidelocks. They didn’t look at us, they never do, and they didn’t speak and we didn’t either.

The lift stopped on the sixth floor, and unexpectedly Maggy got out, and I was trapped by the tall silent men. I got out on the Humanities floor, and waited by the stairs for Maggy, but she didn’t come. In fact I didn’t see her again. She just disappeared, left college. My friends and I asked the tutors, but they said she’d decided she was struggling and had left. We went to her flat, but she’d left there too. We went to the Central Reference Library and tried to look up her parents in the Leeds telephone directory, but there were too many people with her surname and we didn’t know her father’s first name or have her address.

We never saw her again. Did she do something terrible to the man by the canal? Had he attacked her? Or had she just come across his body slumped there? I don’t know and will never know. I never told anyone about that night in the fog, it seems so long ago, but sometimes I dream I’m walking through a miasma, keeping hold of a privet hedge, almost overwhelmed with a feeling of dread.

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