“Wakey, wakey, Bin Head!”
It was mum or dad that said it, I couldn’t be sure. Jolted from dreams, I looked onto a rain slicked road. Covid confinement had taken its toll, and I had fallen asleep against the living room window. Bin Head. Something about the old nickname reminded me of our trips to see family in Bolton. In any normal year, whatever normal is, we would have seen them at least twice by now. Cheek pressed against the cold glass, I imagined our car journey northwards.
I’ve never been good at reading maps, so the route between our southern home and Bolton is mapped by landmarks of my own designation. The perennial plains of the New Forest begin by the pencil-thin house mounting the dual carriageway. When kites replace buzzards circling the sky, I know Oxford is near. Modern megaliths exorcise boughs of cloud at Birmingham, where chimneys dominate the horizon. Beyond that is sleep shuttered. As the car crawls through city traffic towards Greater Manchester, an internal compass wakes me. Nearly there. Unfamiliar landmarks no longer blur beyond the boundary. Now, sites of interest pin-pointed in my mind’s map come into focus.
Groups of men gathered by a bus stop. The elders chatter, occasionally pointing up and down the road. Behind them, abandoned brick buildings have been converted into places of worship. Towering above them all, the gold dome of a new build. Mosque Road. What its real name is I do not know, but it is used by my family to navigate the addresses of cousins and great aunts.
Lighting a cigarette, someone rolls down the passenger window near St Mary’s. The peal of bells and sickly smell of snowdrops and bluebells. Against the dark brick of the church, I see a small girl in purple satin. Myself as a child, hitching my skirt to avoid the ants as my cousin, the bride, sneaks a cigarette of her own behind a bouquet of sweet peas.
The pub where dad and the uncles gather to play boules rounds into view. White walled, black beamed. As the men down pints and mock each other’s play, cribbage is dealt by the aunties. My mouth waters. Someone will have bought pasties and pies from the baker. Wrapped in a white carrier bag, they emerge golden and piping. My deepest secret? I prefer these pasties to the ones we get down south.
Next stop, Bury Road. Lifting my head from the backseat window, I look beyond the glass. We park outside an identical row of terraced houses. Each flat-fronted and featureless, except for one protuberant window and an awning that spreads over the doors of the adjoining house. Separated by vast red brick, the windows of the upper floors are as close to belonging to their neighbours’ home as their own. Looking at them from the road, each wears a wide-mouthed grimace.
In the narrow doorway of 585, apron folded down to her skirt, my grandmother stands. Her grey hair gleams at the edges and, dressed in pink, grey and powered blue, she shines against the dull russet of the smog-stained brick work.
After family, it is the bricks that fill my head when I think of Bolton. It is a red I cannot find anywhere else. Not in winter gloaming, before the sun melts into the horizon. Nor can I find it in the hue of a ripening bruise or the speckle of drying blood. Mills, churches, schools. All built by bricks now housing hierarchies. They laid themselves down as foundations so man-made mountains could court the clouds. The Empire State and Blackpool Tower.
My mother’s head turns towards number 585 from the passenger seat. She repeats the story of a Christmas years ago when, ignoring my gifts, I fashioned a hat from a metal bin. Trying to remember every detail, I can only conjure the carpet and dark stairs. Grandma isn’t there anymore, you see, but remains the most vivid landmark in my memory.
She smelt of the warmth at the back of an airing cupboard, and of time worn second-hand books. Her hands were soft. When I miss her, I stretch cling film over my own to mimic their texture. The skin on the back of them was crêpe paper thin, and the blue veins beneath spread into her elegant fingers like the roads on Dad’s AA map.
“Wakey, wakey, Bin Head!”
Cheeks pressed against the glass from within the walls of lockdown, I imagined 585 Bury Road. Grandma isn’t there anymore, but we’ll drive along that red-bricked road again, and I’ll see her in the doorway once more.