I escape from work on the seedy Fallowfield thoroughfare, shamefully avoiding eye contact with the homeless denizens of this decaying district. It’s all well and good being told not to ignore people. They’re human beings. But I’m saving up and I’d rather ignore somebody than offer a smile, build up some hope and then evaporate at the mention of Queen Lizzy. You let them use the toilet when your boss wasn’t looking, so you’ve already been earmarked as a Samaritan. You convince yourself that it’s justified. You can’t buy dinner for one and not the rest. Times are hard, and there isn’t a clean conscience in this city.
6pm in mid-October and the sun is beaming. Manchester does what it wants. One perk of working in Fallowfield is its proximity to Ladybarn. Bernie lives down that way and Cantonese Hot Pot is on the menu this evening. The usual gang are in attendance; older, sadder and just as greedy. You ponder the fact that you are attending a dinner party in the playground of your more irresponsible years, and suddenly feel your age. The obligatory bottle of vodka has been replaced by three meagre cans of overpriced hipster piss. But its fine, of course it is. You wouldn’t want to have a headache in the morning anyway. What’s the point?
You slowly amble past the Friendship beer garden in a deliberate and yet uncertain way. The pub’s name is almost appropriate in that it contains two clear factions (students and locals), somehow co-existing peacefully in a kind of resigned stalemate. For years, this place presented a daily examination of your mental fortitude. A sun-soaked, improbably reasonable Premier League powerhouse. A willpower botherer. Nothing has changed, and it probably never will.
Autumn favours Egerton Road. A wide, snaking boulevard of brown leaves flanked almost exclusively by lanky domiciles of student misdemeanour. Imagine Greenwich Village minus the delusions of grandeur. Lena Headey’s ‘Girls’ with less histrionics and far more noise complaints. Forget the Meatpacking District, the Fresh Meat house was situated on this very road. For its fellow residents, there could be no greater accolade.
The thing I love about Ladybarn is its understated spirit. I think that the name helps. It sounds like a pretty, delicate insect. Or a Bronte family retreat. Aside from perhaps being called Ponycottage, no name could further distance a place from its boisterous, urban reality. It is Fallowfield’s less showy, cooler younger brother; The Kieran Culkin of the situation.
Local legends abound. Imagine my delight when I stumbled into a house party, only to happen upon the fabled Egerton Road ‘Bank Vault’. The HEAT-obsessed little boy in me had always secretly prayed for the plausibility of this myth, and an over-eager occupant obliged by showing me the vault itself, with delirious intensity. Student folklore had become reality. Santa Claus was real, and good lord that party was something.
There were plenty of them too. The steep-staired, ramshackle basements saw to that. And yet parties merely scratch the surface of this tiny, carefree suburb. The unmistakeable sense of true freedom permeates powerfully throughout the student community. Fancy watching Scorsese’s filmography within 2 days? Why not. Learning to play the xylophone? Fill your boots. Optimism is rife, and perfectly demonstrated by the trembling trio huddled around a disposable barbecue in their lifeless front garden. A collage of basketball Jerseys, Brazilian flip-flops and redundant Ambre-Solaire, their goal is unshakeable. They are eating sausages in the sun if it is the last thing they do, and the purity of purpose is inspirational.
The Egerton/Mauldeth Road crossroads signify the real heart of Ladybarn. A small array of takeaways does its best to engage, but struggles to compete with the nocturnal opening times of the big-hitters of Wilmslow Road. You pop into Michael’s Fish and Chips to see if he is still around, only to realise that they have changed owners. You suddenly feel conned. Were you ever actually speaking to Michael? Or an adoptive stooge, preying on his predecessor’s glories? Come to think of it, he didn’t look like a Michael.
Next you head into the Co-Op, and are startled to see that sideburnless geriatric Anthony is still manning the checkout. The years have not diminished his mistrust for the youthful, as he warily surveys a group of pyjama-clad girls clutching frozen pizzas to their chest. I am of course not-so-young, and the flicker of recognition from regular service all those years ago seems to elicit a kind of shameful insecurity, where he retreats into himself and acts like he’s never seen me before. I understand that he is just embarrassed by his inertia, and don’t take it personally.
The Café In ‘N’ Out stands proudly as ever. A green cage of culinary horror, where the daily opening times are as loose and indiscriminate as the allergens folder. In the opposite direction you have Ladybarn park, a godsend to people that actually use parks as parks, as opposed to festivals. It is the yin to Platt Field’s yang, a place where a pensioner can walk their dog without being skittled by a football, doused in BBQ smoke or, worst of all, subjected to the lamentations of a tipsy student with an acoustic guitar. The grass is short, the vibe is placid and the undergraduates are nowhere to be seen.
Slightly beyond the park lies the elusive and enigmatic Mauldeth Road Station. It seems to hide in plain sight, a Diagon Alley for those truly in the know, the privileged, the off-the-beaten-trackers. Imagine a world where it takes 7 minutes to reach the City Centre, and rejoice the fact that you are privy to this insight.
I continue through to Bernie’s and ring the doorbell, simultaneously pondering how much and how little has changed. I always enjoy this journey, but it invites cynicism. A literal walk down memory lane albeit with the odd tinge of bittersweet self-evaluation. Have I grown up enough? Am I really doing alright? Will I ever be that happy again? Right on cue, Bernie opens the door with his trademark welcoming grin. It tells me all I need to know for now.