Discover more from Unfamiliar Comforts
To my surprise.
Heaven is full of... Daleks?
Before we jump into todays story about a cat on a train and how life is a surprise. You may have noticed that the name of this wee place of my writing has changed from Picture This to Field Notes to An Unfamiliar Comfort all in the space of 3 weeks. Identity Crisis? All 3 names have had something I liked about them and as with most things, I’m probably thinking about it too much. Am I? An Unfamiliar Comfort takes its name from an old project of mine back in 2017. As discussed here. I also feel that it nicely reflects the sense of what this space is for me. It’s unfamiliar for me to be this frank and open with my writing and to share it publicly, but is oddly comforting. For now!
Anyway, I’d appreciate feedback on the names. What you think works best and what doesn’t. It might help me to settle.
Now, onto the story.
To my Surprise.
The carriage is nearly empty, just me and one other person sitting a few rows ahead. I see a man making his way along the platform as the train pulls into the station. With him - a bengal cat, tucked neatly in the safety of his arms. The cat looks less overwhelmed than I do when waiting on a busy station platform. I wait for the man to take his seat on the train, the cat too. Then I open my bag, pick up my camera and begin to make my way down the aisle. I have to photograph this. I know it will be one of those “I regret that” situations if I don’t. I’m all too familiar with those situations.
The cat is calm, even when being approached by a strange person with a lens for a face. It remains perched on the head of the seat as the owner fumbles through his pockets to show the ticket inspector that they have paid to be here. Around its neck is a blue tag with the words “service animal” on. The owner tells me that the cat can’t be left at home alone because it starts to pull its fur out. I’m wondering if the man should have a tag too - “service human”. Me and this cat are sort of parallels. I hate public transport and my anxiety leads me to want to pull out my hair, I’d much rather stay at home.
The other passenger further up the carriage shouts “did you know he paid £15,000 for that cat?”. Evidently this is not the first time they have met this man and his cat. I want to believe them, but I fear that the man is quite generous with his stories. After all, he did just tell me that this cat is a big Manchester City supporter. I want to believe that too. In fact, I have chosen that I do. His truth is all that counts to me, not my version of it. The owner wanted to show me the cat walking so decided to take a walk up the aisle and into the next carriage. Perhaps I scared them off? After they have left, I watch through the window of the door that divides us. Their entrance sparks a buzzing of intrigue from the passengers in the next carriage. This man and his cat bring joy wherever they go. I am seeing it through the window as though it were an out of body experience of what I went through just minutes prior. There is a German Shepard sprawled out across the floor just a few rows ahead of them and I hope that it’s comfortable in the company of cats. Man City supporting cats. Perhaps the dog is a Man United fan.
I am in Lancashire visiting family and I decided to take my day out to visit the nearby seaside town of Southport. I’ve been here 3 times before. All when visiting mum. The first time I visited I was instantly enamoured. A seaside like this in England is nothing like the fishing town in the North East of Scotland that I now call home. In Southport - the sea is an after thought. The beach with more litter than people. Back in Scotland, I am used to the sea being the star of the show. It’s echo of blue and turning waves paint a feeling in you that you struggle to comprehend. In Southport, the sea is in the distance. You have to navigate your way through a clutter of colour and vibrancy to find it. I lived in London for 10 years before moving to Scotland, so I thought I’d be used to a kaleidoscope of colours. But lately the only colour I see is blue. Here in Southport are pinks, yellows, oranges, the brightest of whites and a technicolour of energy. It’s overwhelming. I had a similar reaction when I first moved to Scotland. It was overwhelming. A sudden vastness of views alerting me to life beyond the city. People live like this? I live like this? Eventually the shock didn’t rattle me and life in blues, browns and tones became ordinary.
As I exit the train I am immediately thrown into the centre of everything. The station sits amongst the shops in the centre of the town, one of the first sights you see is an old BHS building now abandoned. Haunted by Seagulls and Pigeons that trespass through the smashed windows. I walk through the town with an aim to get to the pier first. Telling myself it’s better to make my way out to sea and come back to shore. As I approach the pier, I notice a big sign on the white walls temporarily erected at the entrance, “CLOSED”. I had my camera flung over my arm like some kind of weapon, ready to fight my way through the crowd along the pier for the victory of a successful photo, so what was I to do now? “Fucking closed?” I whisper to myself as I look side to side at people who aren’t there.
I had planned my whole trip around the pier. I had convinced myself that I would turn into some kind of Martin Parr when walking along it, creating some critical work on English seaside culture. With no option but to deal with it, I find myself strolling along the esplanade. The beach is scattered with a few people and their dogs, scurrying around the flotsam as though they are all pieces of different puzzles meeting on the sand. A kite dances erratically in the distance. Seagulls scream overhead, I tell myself they too are gasping “fucking closed?”. The pier soon becomes another past and I am quickly thrown into the mechanisms of my camera.
I find myself crawling along the shore. Thousands and thousands of shells lay dead and waiting. I crush them as I walk by. Two ladies sift through the rubble and salvage what’s left. As I move further along the beach, I notice a boy in a superhero costume and a yellow mask over his face. I can’t make out the exact superhero, but the trope of the costume isn’t lost on me. It isn’t every day that you see someone in a cape and mask. The flash of the yellow and red costume against the dull empty beach behind is a picture waiting to be taken, ‘Click’. I’ve taken about 100 pictures since I met the cat. The cat was the first picture and still the only one I am thinking about. Often when I am out making pictures I spend half of my time thinking about them, sitting there waiting to be looked at.
I am exhausted by the beach and its nothingness, back home in Scotland the tide at least comes in to surprise me. I make my way back towards the town centre, choosing to avoid pulling out my phone to look on maps. If I turn my back to the sea and walk in a straight line then surely I’ll make it to civilisation? I have no plans now other than food. I remember a cafe I went to with my mum when I first came here a year ago so I decide to go to there. On my way I turn down a road that I’d hoped would lead me to the high street. Before I could find out that it doesn’t, I pass a book shop. The window is filled with books of all genres, the face of the building scratched and dirty. I struggle to find the name of this mysterious place, but it looks sort of old. I make my way in expecting to find a small room filled with books (obviously). Only to realise that I’ve made my way into heaven? How did I not realise those black gates unfolded either side of the entrance were the gates of heaven? Had I died at the beach with those shells and tide? Is Southport where things come to die?
The bookshop has 4 floors and a log burning fire in the first room behind the till with an elderly lady waiting to take my money. The air is filled with a slow jazz playing sweetly from a radio tucked neatly between two books on a shelf out of sight. The stairs are rickety and clung to bannisters that have a deep mud colour that has been smudged by the hands of dreamers like me. One of the rooms has an “open” sign stuck to the door. I make my way in to find myself stood between the bookshop owners desk, another log burning fire and a library of first edition arts and culture books. How could this person get any work done in here? Then I remember that their work is books.
The cat is now a distant memory, the memory of my hunger is closer than before. Unperturbed by the rumble of my stomach, I tiptoe my way into each room of this heaven on earth. I find two people similar to my age stood around a big antique table in the middle of one of the rooms. They are looking at vintage sheet music. He doesn’t waste time to speak into the open that he is a pianist. As I stand opposite them I am scanning the contents of the table like some kind of literary iron man. I notice a pile of “Weekly Illustrated” papers from the 1930’s. Their covers adorned with black and white photographs. I make my way through the pile and pick out two copies I like best and gently tuck them under my arm ready to hand over the £4 total. I hope these will survive the journey to Scotland. They survived World War 2 so it would be unjust for them to perish in my bag on the 8 hour journey home. I leave the bookshop feeling confused. Its existence felt like a secret, To find it you would have to look for it. Rather than think of it as a secret, I’ll see it as a surprise. Though I suppose at some point in time every surprise was a secret.
In my dizziness, I forgot about my hunger. Now stood out in the street and the jazz-less air, I am confronted by the tightness in my stomach and need food quickly in order to keep my energy. There could be more to find and I would need the energy to find it. The cafe I have in mind sits up a flight of stairs above the main high street and directly opposite the abandoned BHS building. I like it there because its not changed its decor in 30 years or more. The seats are booths with lamps above them. Sandwiches are pre-made and plated before being suffocated by cling film and laid to rest on the counter for you to choose from. I’ve only been to Los Angeles once but this cafe is an English equivalent to an American Diner. It was the perfect place for food after the day I’ve had. McDonalds would have just been an insult.
Whilst eating my bacon and egg sandwich, I sit flicking through the copy of Weekly Illustrated that I got from the book store. It’s strange to read a newspaper printed before World War 2. There’s an article about a number of Yugoslavian families that came to England and set up a camp in Chelmsford, Essex. The article features pictures of the family with captions depicting their roles in the camp. They have 5 monkeys, two of which are pictured. I look at the families held in black and white ink and stained by the passing of time and wonder what they thought would become of these pictures and this story. I doubt they would expect someone to be sat in a cafe in Southport in 2023 looking at them.
I keep an eye on my watch during lunch, the trains are every half an hour so it isn’t much of an issue if I miss one, I would just rather get back before the rush hour commute. I’m not as confident as the cat. Before my train takes me back to life before Southport, I decide to take a walk around the town and shops, maybe I’ve missed something. Maybe another bookshop. No, I’m still tired from the first.
The high street offers me nothing more than Primark and Costa, both full to the brim with kids spending their pocket money and parents trying to escape them. I suddenly realise how quiet it was at the beach and in the bookshop. The town has an out of sync beat every where you turn. The street has a playlist of The Kinks, Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse being screamed through a microphone by a busker. My eyes can’t keep up and my ears want to stop working. I notice a door into a courtyard of shops ahead of me, maybe this is heaven? Even just for half an hour! I skip over and fling the door open. Immediately in front of me are two life-sized Daleks. (I’ve never met a real Dalek to compare these ones to for scale but assume that these ones are life-sized). Heaven is full of… Daleks? Nevertheless the photographer in me would be offended if I turned away from a scene like this.
The shop specialises in vintage games, ephemera and movie paraphernalia. Not my usual party but one I’m happy to have a drink at. In the window just left of the Daleks is a hand sculpted bust of Batman. The likeness is difficult to describe. I stand staring at it for what feels like too long until a shiver suddenly slithers up my spine. Actual goosebumps! The shivers were likely kickstarted by the unhinging smile that this bust is so confidently dressed with. Why is Batman smiling like this? What is going on? When is my train?
Inside the shop on the counter lays a bag of cheerios being sold as “donut seeds”, another bag with a “left handed screwdriver” and another for right handed folk. Beyond the counter on a small shelf is an ear with a card underneath it saying “Van Gohs ear”. I want to laugh at these things but I’m riddled with confusion so instead just let out a little ha. Fearful of the extent of a comedown I would endure from all of this, I make my way to the train station to call it a day in Southport, and what a day to call it!
I hadn’t expected these things when I left for my train in the morning. But then, what should I have expected? By having expectations we are taking risks. Every new day should be a shock. Even with meticulous planning and months of preparation for meetings, weddings or funerals, the day always comes with added extras. Every corner of my life has come with surprises. People I don’t know stood behind doors I will open, waiting quietly to jump out and make me smile. Deals. Car Crashes. An egg that isn’t runny. The rain. Comebacks. Dogs in the road. Cats supporting Man City. Bookshops with fireplaces. A closed pier. Someone who loved you, letting you go. Life. Death. All of it a surprise.
Days like these are a lesson. A lesson to accept my life as a surprise every single day. To wake up and see the bedroom ceiling and be surprised to have it there for me offering shelter and keeping the warmth in. I had become complacent in Scotland with my quiet scenery and endless blue. Complacent to a degree where my life began to feel less and less of a surprise. I expected my days to unfold in the way they did. The skies would always be impressive, the sea would always be there. Walks with the dog on familiar routes in air I could enjoy. The very permanency of those special things in my life started to make them feel so ordinary. It’s all extraordinary, every last bit of it, every corner and every surprise.
I don’t like to use the term ‘never forget’ because there are few things that memory can hold onto for so long, especially forever. Instead, it is a day that I will remember more than others. That’s enough for me. Perhaps one day in a distant future, the memory will creep up on me and open a door and surprise me with all its might and feeling.
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