V is for Visiting
I’m writing a story which is based in a town very like somewhere I know well, but haven’t been to for many years. A couple of months ago I was about 70 miles from this town for a meeting and visiting some friends. I was going to the theatre that night to see a play. I was quite excited about this and also dreading it. On paper it read quite like the theme of this novel I’ve been working on for years. I’d decided to go, on my own.
I had an afternoon spare and a hire car so on the spur of the moment I decided to drive the 70 miles and visit this town. Check out some of the locations, walk the streets and go to the shops my main character goes to.
It was a sunny afternoon which seemed to bring everyone out. My main character arrives in the town by bus after an absence of 20 odd years. There used to be swarms of school children pouring off and on buses on this main street at this time of day. But there were none now. A few streets away I found a new bus depot. I say new, but it looked a bit shabby as if it had been there for a while.
I went to the area where I imagined her living. There were a lot of boarded up houses and new developments. Where she went to college was partly demolished. There was no sign of the hairdressers or shop she worked in on Saturdays. OK - I have to come clean: I lived here as well for a while. And when I was writing the first draft of this story the town was clear there in my mind. The slight hill on the main street, the bad corner where you have to look several times before crossing. The smell on Wednesdays as it was market day with local farmers bringing in their cattle. It was a Wednesday and the cattle market was all closed up.
I walked around feeling a bit distraught that so much had changed. I went for a coffee and an ice cream as I tried to re-arrange my thinking - was this a good or bad thing? Did it matter that so much had changed to the fabric of the town. In fact I was wanting a bit of distance and didn’t want to name the town anyway.
I sat and watched and listened to the women with children who ran about playing pretend families as their mothers drank coffee. The school girls beside me didn’t say much just texted and showed each other what they’d written. Giggling and excited. A group of boys walked in - different school uniforms. Two of the girls rushed to the toilets for a high level conference. Obviously the texting had worked, what to do next? They were flummoxed, the boys - they had potential - now they were here they weren’t sure what to do, so they ordered ice-cream.
I loved watching this little scene unfold before me, hearing the accents and the turn of phrase so familiar to a time and helpful in placing my imaginary cast here. I could see the bus depot from where I sat. A small crowd was gathering, a police car arrived - no sirens, they got out, left their doors open, put on their hats and went to investigate. It wasn’t anything serious, nothing to disrupt the groups of girls and boys or the mothers and their children. Just an ordinary day in an ordinary town that has dominated my imagination for the past couple of years.
I had another walk around and then decided I should leave, to beat the traffic and I was also getting a bit nervous that I might bump into someone I would vaguely remember, who might wonder what I was doing in town. I didn’t have an answer.
The play was good and not, as I worried, too similar to my story. What did surprise me was how it fired something in my head about one of my other characters. It made me reflect on my earlier visit to the town and how things may change, but it’s how we remember them that’s important. How having your senses open to the familiar and unfamiliar and spending time on your own walking around a place can challenge your perceptions and have some interesting and unexpected results.