Back in the day - when all was fresh and green - and I was in my final year at Art School in Manchester, I lived very happily on Shaw Road, in Heaton Moor. It was hardly the ideal home, a small all-purpose attic room, at the top of two flights of steep and narrow stairs. This was the first place I could ever call my own. Being an attic space and just under an uninsulated roof it baked in the summer and froze in the winter. I shared the sole bathroom and toilet with the 5 other bedsits and their various occupants too - an arrangement which seemed quite normal at the time. It required tolerance of strangers' habits and smells; I don't want to go there again and completely understand why 'en suite' is so desirable.
Even now I can see this little room in sharp focus; the sun pouring in across a red Formica-topped table onto a plum-coloured carpet beyond a small square of lino. This carpet was sketched abstractedly with woven lines and squiggles in cream, lemon and grey. Looking back I see this was a fine and 'vintage' piece of floor covering - a sale-room acquisition as indeed was the rest of the furnishing. The lumpy bed, the curious match-wood dressing/table-come-chest-of-drawers and the period kitchen dresser with drop-down Formica work surface, rubbed shoulders with sink, geyser and gas cooker. In winter the gas fire roared and ate 50p pieces. It was then warm and blissfully my own.
I liked Heaton Moor too. This Victorian suburb retained an air of gentility, handsome houses stood in large gardens on tree-lined streets. Where Didsbury and Chorlton were succumbing to an influx of students which would see houses subdivided to provide accommodation, the Heatons - of which there were 4, had been slow to give in to the relentless march of progress. However, the glory days were going fast and a 6 bed-roomed house might be occupied by the sole remaining member of the family - in all likelihood a frail and elderly spinster, keeping up appearances. When the inevitable happened there were plenty of landlords and developers waiting in the wings, keen to snap up a bargain and make a fast buck. So here and there changes were taking place. A new block of flats rose where once stood a mansion - planners it seemed were clearly a push-over regarding architectural style in those days. Ugly tacky boxes replaced Victorian grandeur as multi-occupancy began to seem an attractive economic proposition.
(Bear with me - we'll get to the sewing box shortly...)
One house, clearly earmarked for redevelopment, fascinated me. It stood on the corner of Heaton Moor Road and Brownsville Road; in retrospect it was such a key building that's its subsequent demolition should have never been allowed. But they did things differently then.....
A locked gate, an overgrown garden and a hedge which overhung the pavement deterred the casual caller. Who would want to call anyway - it was patently unoccupied, the windows were boarded up and the doors shut fast. But were they? Walk round the back, dart in through the dank shrubbery and push gently on the blistered paint of the kitchen door and one was in - into a dank and musty disturbing world of dereliction.
Did I ever go there in the daylight? Perhaps - but most of my memories are of creeping around, feeling my way by the muted light of the streetlamps. Light which flickered as the trees swayed and thrashed against the boarded window panes. There was nothing much downstairs - a good layer of brick dust on the quarry tiled floor and the rank smell of soot; crumpled newspaper and broken lathes. Climbing the stairs needed care because for some reason treads had been removed, further up the decay increased. Floorboards had been prised from the joists.
Right at the top of the house, the attic floor was home to servants judging by the mean-ness of the accommodation. Here the windows were open letting the weather in. Rain too had come in through the roof where the flashing had been removed. Lead's a valuable commodity you see. Stacks of newspapers, neatly tied into bundles - the Manchester Guardian - lined one room. A narrow iron bedstead rusted in another. A store room, lined with shelves and with the sweetest oriel window, overlooked the street at the front of the house. I would look down on the traffic and passers-by below with detachment; they might have existed in another time, another place. Here, on paper lined shelves, was sheet music by the volume for the choir at St Paul's Church, jars of jam labeled by a crabbed hand, empty biscuit tins as well. This was the stuff not worth clearing, left to rot. Many years later I learned that this had been a fine house, home to a wealthy family and furnished with antiques and porcelain. A 'classic' car for motoring's early days was found in the garage. The house itself had been empty since its last occupant had been found dead there one day.
My curiosity drew me in - in a way that the house's 'spookiness' kept others away. I would slip through the back door into an other world. I began to unravel the lives of the family who lived there by the bits and pieces left behind. A treasure trove in the form of a work-box had been spilled between the joists of an upstairs room. Yards of delicate lace trimmings and silk scraps and handkerchiefs, an exquisite lace collar, embroidery silks, needles, pins. Snippets of correspondence tucked into the box revealed its owner - a modern young thing, the daughter of the house. She would be taking driving lessons. 'Yes, she would take care', she reassured her father who would be paying. The date? Probably sometime in the 1920s. In an envelope I found her gift to him - made as a child - and as bright as the day those little fingers sewed the words 'For my Dear Papa'. Why did it languish in her work box I wonder? Did he never receive it? Surely a loving Papa would have treasured this little gift of a book mark, used it or kept it safe.
I keep it safe now - although sadly, exposure to light has dulled it somewhat. I brought some of the lace away too - but mostly I brought memories of a fine but faded way of life before it was lost completely. I like to imagine a pretty young thing, dashing in from her driving lesson to sip afternoon tea from a Meissen cup. Only a few of us will ever know that she probably trimmed her silk undies with delicate lace, won't we?