It must have been the early hours when we staggered upstairs to your flat because all I remember is the cloaking feel of your bedclothes, the ice cream pink of the walls.
Remembrance Road CV3.
At the time remembrance wasn’t something I knew much about, life was a journal waiting for inscription, leaves turning blankly into the future. I thought you could rip pages out, scratch mistakes into unintelligibility, I didn’t know then that some things ripple indelibly across the decades.
You took me to a Brutalist pub with concrete reliefs outside. The reliefs were pagan and energetic, communicating directly with a world beyond shopping and commerce. Abstract figures sprung from comblike ridges, everything bursting like a Lammas rite.
We were in an enclosed yard, at least that’s how I remember it, with a surge of your mates around us. It was a nervy, hybrid scene. Techno was reaching in, insinuating itself into the city’s subcultures with its machinic tendrils.
You were telling me about a club on the outskirts of town, Sky Blue Connexion, where Grooverider and Derrick May were playing the following week. You said the parties had been going on for a while, that the music was aligned to Coventry because of the car factories. We talked about Detroit, and I imagined a vista of ruins, the acoustic resonances of stalled machines.
The jukebox was playing Primal Scream’s “Come Together.” It was 1990 and the track was everywhere, a resonating psychedelic current. Long haired boys were playing pool, casting moody glances through bands of cigarette smoke.
You’re the only one left now, the only one I know who can access those places. When I met you I’d jettisoned my old life, by which I mean, I’d left home and had nowhere to go.
And now, in Bull Yard, you ask if I remember a concrete relief with Aztec formations, and I can say this time that the artist is William Mitchell, that the whole precinct and all the murals are in jeopardy, about to be sundered for the sake of a new “retail district.”
It was August, a time of ripening brambles and sweet, stinking buddleia. We walked through the town center, dodging the men lurching from racketing boozers in nimble pavement dances. The sepia spatters that led the way were blood from the weekend before.
There was a nightclub called Silvers on Trinity street. From the outside it looked plain and innocuous, a three-story pub with dark brick walls and blistered paintwork. I followed you into a black room vibrating with bass. I suppose there must have been ten of us. There was a boy called Michael who worked in that revolving cafe in the lower precinct. As he leaned in to talk to me I caught the scent of vetiver on his skin. His accent was unmoored, an amalgam of Coventry and Dublin. I remember his cropped black hair and angular face and the way his shoulders looked in that torn T-shirt. You told me, when he went to the bar, that his band was getting famous, that he was suddenly everywhere.
And now, in the Coventry Cross, you’re cagey at first, scanning the bar to see who’s in because there are people you want to avoid. The yard at the back is listing and uneven with broken parasols and collapsing furniture and hundreds of little flies.
When you strip off your denim jacket there are tattoos: dice, angels, the names of your sons. You tilt your phone towards me and show me photos of them now, big men with tattoos and kids of their own.
Your face is still heart-shaped and sweet, but anxiety makes dents and dark shadows like an underpainting. You dither when you look in your bag, your hands are trembling, and when I go to the bar I feel bad for leaving you alone.
I rub kola-kube scented sun lotion into my arms, and you say it reminds you of holidays, being taken to Spain when you were young. The memory makes you happy, and the shadows in your face scud away for a minute.
Your mum and dad were Scottish but met here in the Peugeot factory. You have memories of a town just outside Glasgow, a modern flat reeking of braised beef and cabbage. They took you every summer and left you for two disorientating weeks. You describe dark hills and gray houses, a sky that never seemed to brighten. And once, when they came to collect you, they took you to Spain, where colors exploded in a way you’d never seen.
Both your parents are dead now. Your sister lives near you in Willenhall, and your two sons are close by. The eldest got a good job at Rolls Royce, but there’s always talk of redundancy, the other is working as a marshall in a flammable tower block. He has a walkie talkie which is how the bosses listen to him, which is impossible to shut off, so that even in the early hours of the morning he’s unable to talk on the phone, or listen to the radio, or speak to anyone at all.
You look younger than you should, it’s your slight frame, the pink visor pulled over your eyes. You mess about with your empty glass, spin it on the table as if we’re about to play some confessional game, and I realize you’re unable to buy a round.
When I go back in, Sky News has taken possession of the bar.
I ask about the clubs we went to, who you still see. Names that half resonate attach themselves to a series of tawdry endings. The settings are always bedsits by the ring road, or a shared bathroom in a hostel, and I brace for news of Michael, because he’s the only one who still has an outline.
Then there are the souls who drifted so far out they couldn’t find their way back. You talk about a boy we knew who’s hemmed in by his voices, who’s so medicated that he shuffles down the street like a penguin.
And the others, the ones like you, you don’t mention, because this is normality now, to be physically diminished, weighing no more than a child, without a penny in your pocket.
Someone I loved described Coventry as psychically blighted, and I wonder if he meant because of the Blitz, or the loss of industry, or something else.
The modernist precincts are cluttered, obfuscated, as if someone you know intimately, someone impossibly gorgeous, is forced to wear cheap sunglasses and Primark clothes.
Your flat was in a 1950s block. I remember waking up in your room, both of us folded primly in your queen-size bed. We were drinking Nescafe and watching your black and white portable. We must have needed the long, thick sleep because Pebble Mill was on when we came to.
Our piecemeal recollections of the night before were interrupted by a bloke shouting in the neighboring flat. You told me you couldn’t go out on the balcony because it adjoined his, that if he wanted he could just lean in and grab you. Sometimes there’d be crashes, his entire weight slamming against the partition wall.
You seemed to know everyone on the estate. You introduced me to a gang of boys who were jeered and attacked by men they’d known since childhood. One of them showed me the residues of a black eye, the tracing of a chipped brow bone. All of them wore eyeliner, all of them were beautiful.
The night we met, you were wearing a tie-dyed dress and oversized Filas. You were tanned from all the festivals. I wasn’t expecting to see you again, the email you sent was a surprise. You worked out how to find me, and now we’re here, and I try not to think too much about the way your rib cage shows or the way you walk with your arms folded in front like a barricade.
We move slowly through an arcade where multi-hued slats illuminate the concrete floor.
A shop with crystals in the window. You say let’s go in, because we used to love places like this with their polished stones, their properties and promises. I want to buy one for you, to mark our reunion after all this time. You choose a blue one because it sparkles. It reminds me of a blacked-out city, particles of light escaping from a navy blue expanse.
I think about what it means to have a flagship Primark in the civic square. You remember a big store you had to be smart to go into. Your mum would brush you with a lint roller before your Saturday trips to town, your patent shoes gleaming like beetle carapaces.
In Primark, instant gratification is the bait. Just as Claire’s Accessories is pitched at pocket money splurges, so Primark is set up for disability living payments and zero-hours wages.
In the estates beyond the Ring Road, Beverly Hills lifestyles radiate from flat-screen TVs. The sculpted and the contoured spill into rooms furnished by Brighthouse and Wayfair where everything costs ten times more for you than the punter who pays up front. It used to be called the Never Never, a furtive affair of officious men with notebooks and rustling net curtains, now everyone’s juggling money from different pots to hold off hired thugs.
Primark sells clothes that, photographed and filtered, might pass on Instagram for something better. The viscose and polyester, the zips that don’t work, can be hidden under a solar flare. There’s always a long queue of those whose time is deemed worthless, idly handling trinkets designed to take their last few quid.
In the ruins of the old cathedral we touch the relics of trauma. We know that Coventry is synonymous with suffering. The ruined cathedral is a crater never to be filled, a place to contemplate forgiveness.
Forgiveness, a radical act, one that is supposed to shed the perpetrator like a sloughed skin. But how do we forgive those who wage war against us? In the city center, with their crutches and drug-ravaged bodies, Coventrians limp in its aftermath.
You say you haven’t been in the new cathedral for years, not since school. You were astounded by it then, you felt that you were floating. I ask if you want to go now, and the idea startles you. You look down at your scuffed Nike trainers, your ill-fitting jeans and say you’re not dressed right.
The scale is overwhelming, the vaulted ceiling is a net cast into the heavens. You stare in awe at the miracle of its making, the powerful columns floating inches above the ground. How do they hold it up, you ask, how do they bear the weight?
The vast stained glass windows pull us in, and it’s like the untethered sensation we used to get in the clubs. The panes are the green of the woods, the yellow of the sun, the blue of a summer sky, as universal and innate as a child’s drawing.
Our voices surround us, speak back to us, each circular chapel is a mimic, a ventriloquist. And I remember that place beyond the ring road, where sounds decelerated and the sense of connectedness was just like this.
From the other side of the nave, a woman is fixing us in her sights. I see her before you do, because you’re already hypnotized and dreaming, a sense of elevation pulsing through your body. And in that suspended moment I’m like a child with a popped balloon because it wasn’t easy to get you to come. She’s bustling in our direction, waving a leaflet, then she’s here, avid-eyed and breathless, saying Sorry ladies, I need you to do track and trace. And you’re back to before, nervous and apologetic.
We were driving to the club you told me about where DJs had been flown in from Detroit. The place we were searching for was a remote hangar near Coventry FC’s training ground. The smell of burning stubble fields drifted into the car. It was dark in a way I was unused to with blank, indiscernible patches settling at either side of the A45.
A lane where half-timbered houses sunk into woodlands and orchards, a pub called the Blacksmiths Arms where we drank bottles of overpriced beer and congregated in the car park. Regulars came out to hector us, with mockery first, then warnings. We were a sediment of Englishness they didn’t want to see.
I remember a confluence of motorways, a sign saying Ryton on Dunsmore. The club was lodged between a slew of junctions and service roads. It was like one of the retail barns that had started appearing across the country, and I was deterred by its utilitarian coldness. I wanted the labyrinthine center again, the Windmill pub you took me to in Spon Street with its tiny tap rooms and snugs.
A stream of vehicles disgorged girls in crop tops and baggy jeans, boys in sun hats and oversized football shirts.
We split a little pill along its fault line and laughed as we placed the halves under our tongues. And I remember the smell of wheat, the trees beginning to rust, the sun-baked earth.
We were hurried in through a fire exit. The first thing that hit was the heat, which was soaking and humid like a tropical city.
Then the juggernaut sound.
The music was familiar from the factory I’d worked in before: an abrasive beat, a metal armature, a cage containing stifled, irrepressible dreams. Inside its grids and girders were spacey promises, little bursts of heartache. And we fell into it, all of us enclosed in the same four-on-the-floor beat.
I imagined sliding under a jacquard loom, seeing the replicating diamonds.
And that boy Michael, his hands looping, his mouth on my neck, a nimbus around him like a harvest moon.
Then the sub-bass, a shuddering descent, the track decelerating as if the machines were breaking down, as if someone was sabotaging the line.
And in those skewed spaces, radiant blue light.
We were in a deep ocean, adapted like amphibians, swimming up and up toward the sun.
And I remember someone I loved saying Coventry was psychically blighted.
And the MC shouting Come Alive.