The lingering smell of must has to be one of the most ghastly smells out there. I could make a list of the ones that get my goat but here’s one that aces the list. Since morning I have been trying to rid my hands of the must from a malodorous dish scrubber – with generous dabs of lavender soap and cream – yet the whiff of it. As Italians sum up such emotional situations in two voluble words, mamma mia… enough of my diatribes, I should get on with collecting my thoughts and putting them down here before the must of time takes over them.
Like that cold and grey day in early 2013 when we stepped into the fresh market square of Northampton. The prelude to it was a warning from Adi: ‘Northampton does not have much going for it’. Now the joy of my life has a tendency to undersell places. When I went to Lincoln with him, he had warned me similarly. That there was nothing much to it till I chanced upon the cathedral city that can live only in a quaint English dream. The crux of it is that busy as he gets with work, he leaves it to me to be his eyes and ears until he finds time to double up as my fellow explorer.
The wind was whistling in our ears when we saw the rows of stalls in the ancient market square of Northampton with their stripy red and white awnings selling fresh vegetables, aromatic coffee beans, books, antique somethings, sizzling reindeer meat, hot dogs and burgers all coming together to add the perfect sensory touch to that day when we were shivering under the onslaught of an icy wind, the lingering aromas of meat frying luring us for a bite. The butcher on his podium hawked slabs of meat over the microphone.
The beauty of the old square lay in the traditional way of tending to business. The grocers engaging you in banter, my favourite of the lot being the bespectacled grocer with his shock of white hair and hair sprouting out of his ears, going about his job with plain ol’ vocal cords at his disposal, no microphone needed there. ‘Strawberries for 2 pounds, come ladies and gents, come one, come all’… stuff like that. The boom of it reached your ears across the far end of the square. During the course of our many conversations in the future it would turn out that he was a travelling hawker who put up in Travelodge hotels around the various counties. I had never met a travelling grocer before.
Then there was the woman rustling up spicy noodles in a food truck by the square – who eventually became a friend, announcing with pride to her customers – that why ‘here is my writer friend’; the white-haired man with the stoop, one of the noodle guzzlers, executing the funkiest jigs you have seen and appropriately dubbed ‘Dancing Joe’; clumps of teenage boys and girls dressed in Goth make-up, funky hair dos in place and wearing ominously long leather coats, kings and queens of darkness perchance in their own heads; the 18th century Shipman’s Pub in The Drapery famed for its in-house poltergeist; bunches of men holding their pints, spilling out of The Auctioneer pub in the market square. And capping the bustle of it, the small turquoise dome of All Saints’ Church at one end of town.
Northampton on that day was engaging.
I remember turning to Adi and exclaiming, ‘Whatever did you mean?!’ Anyway, we scouted a few beautiful houses and started putting together home in a condominium about five minutes’ walk away from the town centre – the central delight of it was that we could see the spires of four churches from our cosy living room. The one right in front was the spire of the round church, one of the few left in England and a legacy of the first earl of Northampton after he had returned from his crusades in the 1100s. Where I wandered around in the cemetery one evening, a disgruntled Adi in tow because he does not get my fascination for reading epitaphs and found a particular commemoration that made me go misty-eyed.
‘..et a little while and all shall be fu…
And then we shall meet our beloved who is gone before.’
There I became a recluse, learnt to find bliss in my own company and my lover’s, and yet made some unlikely friends. The concierge who sat at the entrance to our building who prompted me to take Adi for a run too because he liked pumping iron himself, the guys at Costa Coffee who along with coffee handed out words of kindness for my changing hair styles (in those days I was experimenting with a pixie look with gusto), the golf shop owner near the park where I jogged and who executed a little salute as I ran past his shop, the joggers with whom I shared the perimeter of the park’s soothing green stretch, irrespective of the season. Soon we had a group of friends with whom we partied in Wetherspoon every weekend almost for a year till we were wrung out of energy and the band gradually dispersed. But oh what stories came out of those nights – the kinds that would make my mother do double flips. If one can execute those out of alarm.
So many memories couched in the town of cobblers. Where I came upon the famed shoe makers and their old factories quite late into our stay. In fact, the first time we set eyes upon the fine leather shoes of Northampton was in the Swedish city of Malmö where we both fell in hopeless love with their expert craftsmanship. It was hopeless because we did not buy them. The price had to match the skill that reflected off the leather pairs – they started somewhere above £800. Yet there it was. A piece of home in Sweden.
And here we are miles and miles across the Atlantic, trying not to be overwhelmed by the preoccupation of fitting in. Not letting the memories of Northampton go because how can you and why should you let go of home, your first home together, quite so easily. It is a cacophony of emotions, you realise, that descend upon you when you travel. As one of the best writer-bloggers I know, Osyth puts it, ‘the world is a double-edged sword for those of us that travel it a little or a lottle’.
As I carry on with the business of life, moulding myself to this environment that slowly grows upon me, I leave you with a few (sometimes grainy) images of Northampton which holds my heart in its clutches.
I have missed out many memories and places and people, and yet there it is, years of our life fitted into a long drawn-out post, as if tucked into one scrapbook for life.