The joy of flash fiction

Recently I have discovered the genre of flash fiction. I particularly like the category of creative non-fiction, where you re-imagine an actual event. Usually you have a tight word count, say 500 words, and at first I found this really difficult but now I like the challenge and I think it’s improving my writing and editing skills. Why use 5 words when 1 will do?

Here is a story I wrote today about that moment 30 years ago when Mum and Dad took me to Liverpool University, said goodbye and left me in my room all alone…

Liverpool's famous waterfront skyline

Ilona

On an overcast October day, there is an unusual amount of activity in Chapel Street because it’s time for my parents to take me to university.

Liverpool will be my home for the next three years, while I study geography and prehistoric archaeology. A large, bustling, grimy city, it couldn’t be more different to the reserved village I grew up in, where there is one bus on a Sunday and even the neighbourhood cats have nothing to do.

I prepare myself for this adventure eagerly, going into town to buy some new clothes: denim jacket, jeans, a couple of stretchy mini-skirts and some red leather ankle boots. Then I childishly label all my new stationery and books with my name and room number and get my hair cut.

Dad gives me his late mother’s trunk. Light brown, with bands of reinforcing leather, it’s slightly squashed at one end where it was stored upright in Maggie’s garden shed for decades, and covered in labels from long ago trips to European destinations. I love it instantly and fill it with my clothes and bedding. A new kettle and mug set that work colleagues have given me are also packed, along with my books and rickety bike. I’m ready.

We climb into the blue and white camper van and set off along the motorway. Arriving at the leafy campus hours later, the first thing Dad does is haul a yellow box of apples out of his van that came from work and look for someone to give them to. Spotting a second year student called Jez, he walks over and asks if he’d like them.

Jez is unfazed by this unexpected question and accepts Dad’s gift, saying “Yeah they’ll eat,” while I cringe and avert my eyes.

My room is on the top floor and we struggle up several flights of stairs with my luggage. Single bed, desk, chair and sink make up its utilitarian furnishings and the walls are scuffed. But the sun shines through the double doors which look out onto the leafy quad and it quickly becomes home.

Mum and I unpack and then she keeps asking me if she can do anything else. I say no repeatedly and finally realise that she doesn’t want to leave.

“I think it’s time you left. Supper will be on soon and I need to go to the dining hall,” I say impatiently.

We hug. Mum sheds some tears, Dad looks sad and then they’re gone.

Feeling tense and wanting to get the first hurdle over, I persuade myself to go downstairs. “Come on! You’ve been desperate to leave home for months. This is your chance to start again,” I tell myself.

I brush my hair, grab my handbag and lock my door. As I make my way to the stairs, another door opens and a slim blonde girl walks out. We exchange hesitant glances and then introduce ourselves. Her name is Ilona and she becomes my first friend.

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Ode to Liverpool Part One: A Young Girl Arrives

Way back in 1987, a young girl, green in the ways of the world, left home to go and start her university course in Liverpool. She was barely eighteen and didn’t know a great deal about life, having grown up in a middle class family in a small village in Kent but she had a strong sensible streak that she knew would get her through whatever university was going to throw at her.

Why Liverpool? Fate. She’d applied to lots of polys and universities but Liverpool University and Oxford Poly were the places she got the grades for. She thought long and hard about going to Oxford but decided actually, she’d prefer to go to Liverpool. Liverpool was much further away, so there would be less pressure to go home for the weekend and they were offering her a place in a Hall of Residence which Oxford weren’t. She just wasn’t ready to be living in a shared house with lots of other people. Living in Halls was the ideal stepping stone between living at home and full independence.

Well of course it’s me I’m talking about and I remember vividly going up on the train to have a look around Liverpool. We went on a coach tour around the university and along Princes Avenue to the Halls of Residence. A road full of huge Victorian houses which were by then faded and sad, shadows of their former selves. All bedsits, with ill fitting curtains and grimy windows. Cars on bricks in the driveways and dirty mattresses, broken toilets and chairs frequently littering the front gardens. The person who was leading the tour advised us never to walk down this road late at night, as it was dangerous. I remember thinking “Hmm, Liverpool, why did I choose to come here?” And that’s what everybody else said! “Liverpool? What do you want to go there for?”, with a horrified expression on their face. You see it wasn’t that long after the Toxteth riots in 1981, when the poor, fulled by anger and frustration about the lack of job opportunities in their city, vented their fury on authority and Liverpool burned. When I arrived in 1987, the city was deep in depression, a shadow of the thriving city it had once been. The docks were quiet, there were many derelict buildings, unemployment was high and poverty was everywhere.

The day finally came when my parents drove me up to Liverpool in their trusty VW van. Two hundred and sixty five long miles later we arrived at the Halls. They were pleasantly arranged in parkland around a quad, with a pond in the middle and lots of trees. Mum and Dad helped me to carry all my stuff up the stairs to my room. “Isn’t it small”, they remarked, remembering Dad’s rooms in Cambridge. I thought it was fine actually, there was space for everything I needed and it had a full length balcony door which made it sunny and bright. They helped me unpack my stuff and carried on helping me, until eventually there was nothing left for them to do and I realised that Mum didn’t want to go.

I turned to her and said, “Mum, I think it’s time you went now”, my impatient, eighteen-year-old self not wanting her to hang around, destroying my street cred. She had tears in her eyes as she hugged me goodbye. Now a parent myself, I can understand exactly how bereft she felt; I’m dreading the day when I take my eldest to University.

At the time I just wanted her gone, so I could get on with living by myself; something I had longed for over the past six months. During the previous year, life at home had become difficult. Mum and I rubbed each other up the wrong way constantly and tensions were high. There was also the added pressure of studying for three A levels and two music exams. I was definitely ready to stretch my wings, experience life differently and have some fun.

By the time they’d gone it was time for dinner. As I was heading down the stairs to the canteen, I saw a slim, blonde girl coming out of a room a few doors along. I stopped to wait for her and said hello. Her name was Ilona and she was studying marine biology. We were grateful for one another’s company that night, as we went downstairs to a room full of strangers.

The following day I had the fun of getting the bus into University, not knowing which bus to get or where to get off. I packed some stuff into my bag – notebook, pencil case, money, room keys and followed everyone else, with a map shoved in my pocket. With his thick Liverpool accent I couldn’t understand a word the bus driver was saying and he couldn’t understand me either; after several humiliating attempts I finally made him understand where I wanted to go and boarded the bus. Eventually I found the lecture hall where I was supposed to be and was given a long form to fill in.

I couldn’t help noticing that the girl sitting next to me was going to be on the same course as me, Geography and Pre-historic Archaeology.

“Why are you looking at my form?” she asked, not unfriendly but a bit taken aback.

“Oh hi, my name’s Becky and I think we’re on the same course”, I replied by way of introduction.

Her name was Sam, a pretty, dark-haired girl from Todmorden and we became inseparable during our time on the degree course together. We spent all day at University together and often socialised with one one another during evenings and weekends. We also told one another everything; our views on parents, siblings, course work, boys and inevitably sex. Together, we devoured that 70s classic “The Joy of Sex” and wondered how we were supposed to do what the hairy couple in the pictures were, giggling all the time.

When I was growing up, I wasn’t like other teenagers. Life consisted of school, after school music clubs and homework, with very little else. There was definitely no underage sex, no partying and not a lot of drinking either. Life was quiet and boring and I knew I hadn’t experienced much of it. All that was to change when I went to Liverpool.

After the first, hectic few weeks, life settled into a comfortable routine of lectures, a little bit of homework and a great deal of socialising. I loved living in Liverpool, absolutely loved it! It is the place where I spent my formative years and finally grew up. Even though I left 20 years ago, I will always have a soft spot for it in my heart. Growing up in a quiet village, where I depended upon my parents or a train ride to get into the nearest town, I adored the hustle and bustle of the place and the ease with which I could get around. From my Halls I could get plenty of buses into the city centre at a cost of 50p, or if I was going for a night out with friends, we would share a taxi and it was the same price as the bus. Fantastic! I loved that I could walk down into town after a lecture and there were all the shops and cafes I could possibly need.

I loved the character of the place. After London, Liverpool has the highest number of Georgian houses anywhere, despite huge quantities being demolished in the 60s, and I loved them, even with their peeling paint and filthy windows. They had beautifully proportioned doors and windows and radiated simple elegance. I liked the way that I would suddenly come across a square of these houses, with a little park in the middle and wondered what they were like 100 years ago, when they would’ve been inhabited by the well-to-do of the city. The University owned a square of these houses and the rooms inside them were lovely.

Then there were all the magnificent buildings on the Pier Head, built when Liverpool was at the height of its power as the pre-eminent port in the land and the beautiful Walker Art Gallery and St. George’s Hall, marooned amongst the traffic, further symbols of the city’s immense wealth. They were amazing and generally unappreciated by everyone. It was invigorating being by the sea as well. There is nothing like the wind in Liverpool, when it bowls along the streets that run up the hill from the Pier Head. Some days it can almost knock you over.

Last but not least were the people; so friendly, who would do anything for you. I loved that complete strangers would start a conversation with you in the bus queue or a shop. All this time later I still miss the camaraderie and their wonderful black humour.

Liverpool, nearly 30 years ago, was nothing like it is today. Now it has undergone a huge renaissance and is an up and coming, happening place. Back then, the city centre was relatively small and compact. Church Street and Lord Street were the main shopping streets, with their solid mix of Victorian and 20th century architecture. Bold Street, once the premier shopping street, was a shadow of its former self. Its beautiful Georgian buildings blighted by boarded up shop fronts, with empty rooms above and peeling paint. The only reason for venturing there was a pleasant coffee shop at the top end, with dark wooden tables, books, tasty cakes and real coffee. There was also St John’s market, a hideous 1960s shopping centre, that had stalls of cheap meat, cream cakes and vegetables, and shops selling cheap clothes and household goods. Very down at heel and not a place I often visited. There were no really good restaurants or five star hotels. The huge Adelphi Hotel, once the premier place to stay, struggled for trade and the other hotels were utilitarian and uninviting.

There was always something going on in Liverpool though, night clubs, bands, theatre; I could’ve gone out every night of the week if I’d wanted to. During that first year, I probably went out every Friday and Saturday night and often Thursdays too. It’s just the thing that we did. Young and on our own for the first time, who wouldn’t take advantage of everything the city had to offer? Sunday mornings didn’t exist. They were always spent in bed, sleeping off the night before, after we rolled into bed at two or three in the morning.

One of the very first parties I went to was in what can only be described as a mansion; one of those beautiful Victorian houses that border Sefton Park, long ago split into flats. A load of medics lived in this one. They were renowned for holding the best, wildest parties back then. One of the first things another student said to me was, “Don’t drink the punch. The medics have spiked it with something”. It was too late by then, I’d already had a glass but I don’t remember it having an adverse effect on me.

Unfortunately, I attracted the unwelcome attentions of a dark-haired, sweaty, teenage boy, full of hormones and lust, who was determined to get me into bed. He followed me back to my Hall room, although I didn’t want him to and I firmly slammed the door in his face and locked it, feeling frightened by then about what might happen. He hung around for a little bit afterwards knocking on the door but gave up pretty quickly and left. I felt very relieved and suddenly sober. It was a salutary lesson in being more careful.

Snakebite and black (lager, cider and a dash of blackcurrant squash) was the drink of choice then and got you drunk extremely quickly. Some bars wouldn’t serve it to you anymore and you had to buy the constituent parts and mix them yourself. I couldn’t even contemplate drinking it now; it’s disgusting! There were far fewer nightclubs in Liverpool then and only three or four that the students frequented. We preferred to be with our own kind, I guess.

We occasionally went to the one by Lime Street Station that was also frequented by the locals. Boy it was a cattle market; you really had to watch yourself in there. The dance floor was on the ground floor, as you came into the club, and up above, all the way round, was the balcony, where single blokes on the pull used to stand, looking down at the talent. Mini skirts as short as you dared, full make up and 80s perms were de rigeur and the music was full on Stock, Aitken and Waterman. Kylie, Bananarama, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley. One time I was in there with a group of friends and accidentally knocked over someone’s drink. He was a huge bloke, the kind you just didn’t mess with and my boyfriend, looking very nervous, instantly bought him another drink, not wanting there to be trouble. I saw a few fights break out in that club, fists and beer glasses flying; you just kept out of the way, or even better, left.

We frequently went to a night club called The Blue Angel. God it was a dive but we loved it in there because it played the kind of music we liked (R.E.M., New Order, Blondie). It had no windows and the walls used to be damp; I don’t know what with, the joke went that it was sweat. You never wanted to sit down on the floor either, as it would be sticky with beer. I’ve spent many a happy night with friends in that place, singing and dancing until the early hours.

Liverpool was where I discovered my love of dancing, my inner groove. I would get on that dance floor and pretty much be on there all night, even if nobody else was. I didn’t care, as I would be lost in the music, often as not, shoes flung in some corner, dancing in bare feet. There were also plenty of boys to go out with in Halls and I took full advantage as most of us did, never being without a boyfriend.

Coming towards the end of my first year, it was time to make a decision about where to live the following year. Stay in Hall or move into a house with a group of friends? It wasn’t cool to be a second year in Hall, so that made the decision for me. A couple of friends wanted to share with me, so we scoured the adverts in the Student Union looking for rooms to rent. We found somewhere off the Smithdown Road, which is where most students ended up living. It is one of the main roads into the city, bustling with shops, pubs, cafes and buses. An area of solidly built, red brick Victorian terraced houses, with small back yards and dirty back alleyways. The heart of student land. During my second year I would really learn what it was like to live independently. Paying the rent and the bills beckoned but before that it was the summer holidays and I was off to Canada with a friend; the first time I’d ever been abroad without my parents. I couldn’t wait.