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MANCHESTER 1987

by

Mark Dawson


Nathan and I met in 1986. We were both in the second year of the law degree at Manchester University. This was the year Challenger blew up and Chernobyl melted down, the year Reagan bombed Tripoli.

I remember the atmosphere was sweaty and fevered but, spending my time in study and the pub, the troubles of the outside world seemed remote. I was diverted by more immediate concerns: The Smiths had just released The Queen is Dead and it was competing with the new Jesus and Mary Chain record for time on my turntable. I had more leisure time than I knew what to do with and my biggest worry was where the fifty pence for my next pint was coming from.

The second year was the best of the three I spent in Manchester. None of the uncertainty of being away from home for the first time. None of the terror of a third year spent cramming for finals. I'd fallen into the habit of attending the occasional morning lecture or exam and then spending the afternoons outside, drinking, cadging fags off mates and listening to music. Revising was something to be done at the last moment, wired on whizz and strong black coffee, whatever it took to pry my eyelids open throughout the night.

The first time we met was during one of these long afternoons. It was early summer and the weather was scorching hot. I was in the park that ran alongside Oxford Road, smoking a joint with a couple of friends. The heat was heavy in the air and the grass was flat and browned. The smell of scorched earth, the sweet fragrance of hash, the acrid tang of sweat. Discarded beer cans, newspapers and other trash were strewn all around. We were sluggish and torpid, talking about Mandrax and Dexedrine, watching kids from Moss Side and Hulme idly kicking a plastic football around. Ten feet away, a couple were necking enthusiastically, ABC's The Lexicon of Love blaring out of an AIWA cassette recorder. Martin Fry singing “Poison Arrow” competed with the discordant jangle of an ice cream van, parked up next to the main road, a straggle of ragamuffins trying to persuade the vendor to give them free Mini Milks and Calippos. The dope had given me the munchies and all I could think of was a cornet with a 99 flake. But I’d spent my last cash on an ounce I’d bought from a shady Manc the night before and now I was broke.

The last exam of the year – contract law - had finished three hours earlier and everyone was nicely chilled. The term was grinding to a halt. Soon the students would empty out and the campus would become a ghost town. There was an almost palpable sense of relief around the Faculty as students looked forward to a summer lazing at their parents' expense. Belongings would soon be packed into the family estate and within days the thronged pathways around the library and the union building would be deserted and the excited hubbub would be replaced by dull silence. I was staying on to earn extra cash for next year as a paralegal in one of Manchester's dowdier law firms and I wasn’t looking forward to the loneliness that I knew was fast approaching. I was renting a room in a hall of residence although I'd resolved to spend as little time in it as possible. I had two months of working and boozing laid out in front of me; any excuse not to go home.

I was lying on my back, with my hands clasped behind my head, looking straight up at the icy blue chill of the blue sky, not a cloud in sight. A jet from Manchester airport laid out a trail of fluffy white vapour behind it. The sun was toasting my bare arms and legs but I didn't have the energy or inclination to cover myself. As I watched the jumbo pass across my gaze the trail gradually degraded, losing its firm consistency until the wind gently stroked it apart. I sucked down the last of the spliff and tossed it. I rolled onto my side to see if the next was being rolled and noticed for the first time that we’d been joined by three others. I vaguely recognized them as fellow lawyers. I was stoned out of my mind and words were hard to find, but I grunted something that passed for hello.

I was introduced to them: a pretty dark-haired girl, her boyfriend, and Nathan. They'd brought a twelve pack of Fosters with them and were happy to share it. I sliced off the plastic wrapping with my army knife and shared out the cans. The other couple took ABC out of the cassette player and replaced it with Madonna’s, Like a Virgin. I thought of Madonna on the cover, lying on the bed in lace.

My interest was initially snagged by the girl, a red-haired looker in a tight top taking hungry gulps of the joint as it was passed around. She had one of those yellow stickers with a big red sun on it - Nuclear Power, No Thanks! - stuck on her canvas knapsack. She smoked languidly; toking on the spliff, letting the smoke drift out from between her lips and then sucking it back in again. She reminded me of a French actress in a movie from the fifties, Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo, effortlessly haughty and sexy as fuck. But any prospects with her were dashed when I saw how she was loved-up with her boyfriend, a Teutonic lug who played centre-forward for the law soc footie team. She held the smoke in her mouth and gave him a blowback that became a long kiss, his hands sliding down onto her arse. After finishing off their beer they unrolled a tartan blanket from a duffle bag and started a low, intimate conversation; it was obvious that they had no desire to involve the rest of us. Eventually, inspired by the heat and the dope and the example of the couple nearby, they started to make out.

Nathan regarded his friends with an almost embarrassed shake of the head.

"Sorry ‘bout them," he said, loud enough for them to hear. And then, more quietly, he added, "Suzy's leaving for home tomorrow. Three months. You know how it is."

Nathan was dressed in stonewashed jeans, Primitives T-shirt, second-hand Oxfam cardigan, NHS style specs and scuffed eight-eye DMs. His hair was shaped into a huge quiff supported by scoops of wet-look gel. My own floppy thatch was already showing the signs of thinning, an unwanted bequest from my father, and a few months later I would begin to shave it close to my scalp, just I do today. I was in my usual get up: paisley shirt over New Order T-shirt, turned-up jeans and Converse trainers.

From his appearance, I guessed Nathan was a Morrissey fan, like me. Within moments we were discussing the new album and how it compared with Hatful of Hollow and Meat is Murder. We swapped our favourite tracks; like the pretentious students we were, we both chose B-sides. Mine: “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want.” Nathan's: “Oscillate Wildly.” After exhausting The Smiths, we switched to the other singers and bands we were listening to: at the time, I was into Gary Numan, Iggy Pop, Joy Division, New Order. Nathan's tastes were more eclectic: Soft Cell, Hendrix, the Cocteau Twins, the Fall, Spacemen 3, My Bloody Valentine.

As the afternoon slowly unwound the wind picked up and brought a sudden darkening of the skies. The couple listening to Madonna packed up their picnic and left. The temperature dropped and then, presaged by a clatter of thunder from the direction of Didsbury, the skies opened. Beneath makeshift newspaper umbrellas we sprinted across the suddenly-slick grass for the shelter of the Whitworth, our local, a pub once frequented by Hindley and Brady and now by students pissing away their grant cheques. The bar was busy, a clutch of sopping kids from the park sharing our idea.

Nathan ordered us two pints of Pedigree bitter and two packets of cheese and onion crisps and we sat down in a snug to continue our chat. In our rush for cover we had become separated from the others but by then we were friendly enough to do without the props of familiarity they had provided us with.

We exchanged histories. He was from Southwick, a small coastal town on the East coast of England. The port was famous once for its fleet of trawlers but now, since EC fishing quotas, most of the boats were gone and the remainder were left to rot in the harbour. The area survived on the back of European grants, a threadbare tourist industry and a couple of enormous food processing plants. His bloodless description of the place reminded me of the town on the outskirts of London where my parents lived, nothing more than a dormitory for the hundreds of city workers who filed in and out of the railway station each day. It was a dead end and, together with my parents' constant bitching, the reason I was always keen to avoid returning for the holidays.

Nathan had found life difficult in Southwick. It was a traditional fishing town full of quaint ideas. It wasn’t used to militant teenagers in paisley shirts and duffel coats strolling through the cemetery trying to memorize Wilde, Keats and Williams, modeling themselves on a picture of an awkward, gangly boy standing outside Salford Lads Club. Despite his status as an outsider, and the lack of friends his outlandishness encouraged, Nathan sailed through school, a straight-A student all the way. He turned down Cambridge because he could see that there was more fun to be had here. (I’d managed to get an interview at Trinity Hall but my faltering performance did not inspire the tutor and he turned me down; I found it difficult to ignore the pang of jealousy that Nathan had been able to turn the tables on them and tell them where to get off.)

He’d chosen law, he said, because it seemed like the natural choice. Whether it was reforming zeal or a wish to make money that had prodded him down this path was never obvious to me, but then motive was irrelevant. He studied with a single-mindedness that put me to shame, and, as I would later come to learn, he was perhaps the best lawyer I’ve ever known.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Dawson was a DJ at the Hacienda in Manchester in the early 1990s. He now works as a lawyer in Soho, London. His first novel, The Art of Falling Apart, is published by Macmillan. His second, Subpoena Colada, will be published in June. He is currently working on a third, from which "Manchester, 1987" is extracted.








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