‘This decaying fabric, this unknowable terrain has become my biography, the euphoria then the anguish, layers of memories colliding, splintering and reconfiguring’.
Laura Grace Ford
Do ghosts exist? Yes, they do. I know this because I’m being haunted. The ghost stains the air around a stretch of pavement next to the park on Roman Road. Roman Road is in Easton, an urban neighbourhood just northeast of Bristol’s city centre. It is a short one-way street with not much going for it really; a mishmash of flats, shuttered shop fronts and graffiti. Overflowing Biffa bins and haphazardly parked delivery vans line the narrow pavements and pounding bass throbs in waves from passing cars. It’s around the corner from the golden glass dome of the Bristol Jamia Mosque, situated at the end of the recently regenerated and rebranded ‘cultural and culinary hub’ of St Mark’s Road.
St. Mark’s Church sits opposite the start of Roman Road. It was gutted and converted into sheltered housing in the 1980s, after dry rot bloomed and took over its wooden interior. The builders dug up a stash of gold coins as they excavated the foundations in 1848; three bowler hats full, apparently. It was called Roman Road because it formed part of the route between Bath and the Roman settlement of Abona, where the northwest edge of the city meets the Severn Estuary. Roman Road is a place destined to be a cut through on the way to other places. A site for secret stashes of gold to be buried and left behind.
I live just over the other side of the motorway from Easton. When the ghost started haunting me, I avoided walking along Roman Road for a while. Instead, I stuck to the logical paths through the city that guarantee an efficient passage from Place A to Place B. But that’s not how ghosts work when they haunt the city you call home. There’s no escaping them, and they can’t leave, either.
‘I read the past everywhere. It’s like an overlay to the city, two maps, two cities – past and present – and you can always switch your view, walk through the streets a ghost, with you as if you were a spectre.’
The Place of the Bridge, Jennifer Kabat
Bristol has been a port city ever since Abona was established. It’s a city of hills, basins, bridges and gorges built on migration, movement and slavery. Many of the neighbourhoods in Bristol are named after saints. Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, the labyrinthine city of marshland, lagoons, offshoots and dead ends, has his name imprinted over Easton’s streets. Water and earth rub up against each other amongst Venice’s networks of canals, bridges and squares. The footsteps of past, present and future residents overwrite each other along its walkways. All of this creates fissures and in-between spaces where ghosts can appear.
More than twelve rivers and brooks run through Bristol’s valleys to the docks, into the Severn Estuary and out to sea. As in Venice, these waterways circle around Easton and cut it off from the rest of the city. It can sometimes feel like an island. Many of the rivers have been culverted; the River Frome is one of them. It flows from its source in the Gloucestershire countryside, passes through the town I grew up in and then skirts around the edge of Easton, buried under concrete. It’s easy to forget it’s there most of the time but, even though the water is hidden, its influence can still be felt if you pause and linger. A quiet pull, a whisper.
Ghosts need straight lines to move through a place freely. Centuries ago, all over the UK, pathways called corpse roads, lych ways, coffin paths or bier roads wound and weaved their way for miles across the rural landscape. They linked villages to their parent churches and often took the most barren and remote routes. Mourners who couldn’t afford a hearse would carry their dead on foot along these designated paths to be buried. They never took a direct, logical route. Our ancestors believed that if they were straight the spirits of the dead would find their way back to haunt those left behind. They also believed ghosts couldn’t cross water. Corpse roads often cut across streams, rivers and marshland to further ensure the dead didn’t return home.
Many of the straight lines evident in Easton’s streets have been overwritten over the years. This might explain why the ghost that haunts me is stuck on that stretch of pavement next to the park on Roman Road. It’s tangled up in the rows of Victorian terraces interspersed with mid-century cul-de-sacs and tower blocks that make up the urban geography of Easton. It’s stranded on an island. It couldn’t escape even if it wanted to.
The past also teaches us that the living haunt us as well. Processions of sprites, luminescent corpse candles and wraiths were rumoured to travel along corpse roads after dark. But once a year, in April, on St Mark’s Eve, apparitions of the living, those who are destined to die during the next year, make their way from their homes to the closest burial place. In the past, villagers would gather at lych gates at midnight and wise women would watch over the corpse roads and churchyards, to see whose ghostly figure would pass.
My steps have scored Roman Road’s paths so often that something of me must also remain for other passers-by to spot in unfocused moments. An occasional flickering glitch barely visible to the naked eye. Flesh and bones are transient, but ghosts remain to reappear again and again. I mostly drive straight through Roman Road nowadays, not leaving a mark. On my way to somewhere else in a rush, navigating the parked delivery vans or stuck behind a mum in an SUV reversing into a too-tight space, dropping her children off for gymnastics.
It’s easy to stop noticing even the most solid of things when you see them every day. In the middle of Roman Road, sandwiched between Anstey Street and Barrett Street, is a large red brick building that dominates the streets around it and houses Hawks gymnasium. I’d rarely notice it when I passed it every day. The building has lived many lives before, of both industry and dissent. Built in 1897, it was first a corset factory, then a laundry, then a storage space for engine parts used by British Aerospace. It was left empty for years until 1987, when it was squatted briefly before being gutted by a fire in 1989.
‘The time is out of joint’
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
I started noticing Hawks gym again after I had children. It has a reputation for being one of the best gymnastics centres in the Southwest; it’s probably the only reason many people from the more affluent areas of Bristol ever venture to Easton. Ava went to gymnastics there when she was six or so, but stopped after a term: ‘It’s too boring Mummy, we repeat the same things again and again.’ I secretly felt proud of her rebellious, independent streak. To be honest, I was also relieved not to have to drag myself out of the house early on a weekend anymore. Every Saturday morning, I’d peel myself out of bed and pile Ava and Joe into the car, both sullen and complaining, before driving over to Easton.
In my memory, every one of those mornings was grey and wind whipped, dragging Joe and Ava through the park opposite Hawks by the arms of their coats, their sulky bunched-up fists wet and cold. Head down, red wine hangover stinging my synapses, horizontal rain bursts slapping my face. Crossing the road, running up the steps, ushering Ava into the fusty, crowded reception. Since then, sometimes when I’m passing, I catch a flash of my back pounding up the steps to the entrance, Ava’s chubby fist in my hand. I am rubbing shoulders with the fainter ghosts of the corset factory and laundry workers pouring out of the double doors at the end of the day. Mothers rushing somewhere they don’t want to be, gymnasts’ feet hitting the mats in the same spot over and over, the clack clack clack of rows of sewing machines.
Hawks gym is clearly visible from the M32 motorway, a swath of Brutalism that sweeps past Easton, elevated on concrete pillars. It provides a constant background roar of traffic; the sound that has lulled my children to sleep since I moved back to the area in 2013. Work began on the motorway in 1966, a safe distance away from the gentle crescents of Angela Carter’s bohemian Clifton. The M32’s construction embodied the promise of a new, more dynamic future for Bristol. It cleaved through the streets of Victorian terraces which housed the city’s workers, rupturing the green parks and cutting Easton off from the rest of the city. The route planned for the motorway intersected with the River Frome just upstream of Easton, so the river was redirected and culverted as it passed Easton’s western edge. The river’s natural course through the city has been altered and forced underground so many times it no longer flows freely. There is a cycle track you can take from Easton to the city centre that follows the motorway, a short corridor of grass, tarmac and graffiti. If you walk along the path and look closely you can catch glimpses of the river stagnating in the dark through metal grilles set in the concrete.
Opposite Hawks gym is a rank of shops. There’s Pak’s Butchers and Star Cash and Carry with its silver bowls of bruised fruit on display outside. Above the cash and carry, a small flat with a grubby closed-eye window remains unchanged since Katie lived there during the long, stifling summer of 1995. We’d both just moved to Bristol and I’d walk there some evenings from my house on Easton Road. We’d smoke a joint with her flatmate, and when we got bored she’d pull her trainers on and we’d run to the pub giggling, Katie still wearing her pyjamas. We’d pool our change on the bar for a pint each; nineteen and fearless. I often think about Katie and her flatmate when I walk along Roman Road. He ended up on smack; I wonder if he got clean.
Two doors down, on the corner opposite St. Mark’s church, is No.12, the new cafe that opened a few years ago. It’s conspicuous in its sophisticated blandness, like it’s been ripped out of a Sunday supplement and pasted over the takeaway that used to be there. Remains of the building’s previous life are still visible if you know what to look for, like a palimpsest. You can see it in a flake of white masonry paint above the new fascia revealing where grey stone used to be. Or in the long, low sill that still runs along the large windows, where a row of people would perch every evening, waiting for their orders of pizza or kebabs. Windows dripping condensation, softening the harsh strip light glitch and buzz inside.
The first time I sat in the courtyard of No. 12, it had already been open for four years. It was a hot, bright Saturday morning in 2018, the summer after I met O. He’d visit most weekends and I’d sometimes meet him off the train at the station opposite St Mark’s church. That day I’d got there early so I was killing time. I sat listening to the coffee machine puffing and screeching inside, nondescript electronica floating through the air. At that moment the café felt flat and calcified; nothing left to be added to its serene occupancy. In direct contrast, the street outside was a constant overwriting of footsteps and noise; the rich busyness and unfolding of an always shifting and building geography. I remember feeling suddenly complicit in the othering of the Easton on the other side of the courtyard’s high whitewashed walls, just by being there doing nothing with my expensive cappuccino. I quickly drained my cup, returned my book to my bag and stepped back out onto Roman Road.
I walked the long way to the train station instead, past the shops and through the summer-humming park. Before the park, unseen behind bricked up ghost doorways, are the backyards of a row of fixed up cottages. Their front doors face onto Albion Road, which runs parallel to Roman Road, like they are politely turning their backs on it. My friend Greg bought the middle cottage for £26,000 in 1999. I rented a room there for a couple of years not long after. A mossy red brick path weaving through tangles of jasmine and green led to the front door. Inside, the rooms were covered in wall hangings and full of cheap furniture, and on weekend mornings empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays left from an after-party the night before. Greg and my close friend Helen, now his wife, lived there until recently with their two boys. They sold the house for £399,000.
‘You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming.’’
For the Sake of a Single Poem, Rainer Rilke
My old bedroom window looks out over the high wall onto Hawks gym, and I always glance up at it when I’m passing, but the blinds are usually down. I remember telling O they were happy times living there when we passed one time and paused by the peeling green park railings to look up at the window, but now I’m not so sure. Too many sleepless nights, whether drug or anxiety induced. Too many people passing through, not enough time spent still.
One scene comes to mind looking up at the window. I am lying on my side in bed propped up on my elbow on a dull, white-skied Sunday afternoon, with last night’s makeup still on. I’m watching a film and passing a joint back and forth with Louie, who is sat leaning against the wall on the other side of the bed. The smoke curling and mugs of hot, milky tea soften the jagged edges of our hangovers. Then the sound of drumming starts drifting up from the street outside. We both get up to look out of the window in time to see a procession passing along Roman Road. A joyful, proud collective heading from the Sikh temple on nearby Colston Road dressed like jewels. The men and boys wearing white kurtas, orange turbans and elaborately patterned coats, the elders at the front carrying blue and orange flags, the younger drummers jostling behind. The procession briefly fills the road and pavements. They are gone in a minute or so, heading in the direction of St Marks Road, leaving nothing behind except the fading sound of drums. I pop my head out of the window to try and follow their route, then I ease the sash window back down and we return to the TV. Louie moves closer, wrapping his arm around me, squeezing my shoulder and settling in next to me.
When I think about living there I also think about the black cat. Sometimes I’d feel a hint of soft fur sweeping across the back of my calves as I ran up the stairs, or I’d catch a glimpse of a black cat’s tail curling around the corner at the bottom of the stairwell as I walked back down. It happened enough times that I started to believe in ghosts. We didn’t have a cat until two or three weeks before I moved out. A stray tortoiseshell cat had turned up out of nowhere one day and would sit motionless for hours on the red brick garden path, staring at the house with intense yellow-green eyes. One day she strode into the kitchen as if she had never belonged anywhere else.
In another scene, I’m lying in bed again, but this time it’s late at night; one of the last nights I spent living in Easton. I’m in bed with the stray cat, who jumped in and curled up next to me a few minutes before, lapping her rough tongue over the back of my still hand. I’m staring out of the window at the streetlight outside Hawks, half-packed boxes surrounding me. It is silent and the height of summer. I don’t want to move out of the cottage anymore, but I’ve accidentally made myself homeless. I was meant to be moving to London to live with Louie. Greg had already found a replacement tenant, who was moving into the room in a week’s time. Louie had rung me a couple of days before to announce that he didn’t think me moving in was the best idea anymore.
I decided to take the stray cat with me a week later when I moved into the flat I’d found at the last minute. It had newly painted white walls and pristine polished wooden floors and was on a leafy, quiet street two miles away, on the other side of the M32. It was called a clean slate. When I moved there, the quiet sometimes deafened me, but the cat filled the silence with her warm weight across my feet at night and loud miaows at the door during the day. As I unpacked boxes and filled kitchen cupboards, I made myself a promise that, from then on, I would stop believing in anything that didn’t seem completely solid. The cat disappeared a few weeks later. I was inconsolable, but still couldn’t see the absurdity of the promise I’d made to myself.
‘Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.’
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
From the first time he came here in 2017, O seemed like he was sucking the streets dry; collecting the sights, sounds and contours of the city, then storing them away in a private, locked collection. He didn’t want to go for walks through nature reserves and parks on Sundays. Instead, he preferred to traverse the underpasses and back streets, scoring a line past the skatepark under the M32 with its sunken, burst sofas and upturned bins. Sometimes I’d wake on a Sunday morning and he would already be sat on the edge of the bed pulling his socks on: ‘I’m popping out for a quick walk’. We’d walk most Saturday nights as well, me talking, him listening, moving between gigs, friends’ houses, clubs and bars. When I walked with him Bristol felt like a new city. His presence breathed life into the tired streets.
A few months before I last saw O, he messaged me on a Wednesday afternoon to tell me he was coming to Bristol after work and would get the last train home. It was unusual for him to visit during the week, but he told me he was bored and fancied the trip. All I heard was that he missed me. I rang around for a babysitter and met him in the pub by the station where Katie and I used to go. We sat in the beer garden wrapped in big coats under fairy light garlands and rolled cigarettes in gentle silence and smiles.
After a while we decided to head to Ricardo’s who lived a few streets away. Roman Road was unusually still, bathed in orange light, April sky full of stars. Past No. 12 and Pak’s, past Katie’s grubby closed-eye window, past the bricked-up doorway and closed blinds of Greg and Helen’s. As we walked alongside the park, he stopped in that spot and pulled me close and kissed me out of nowhere. We rarely kissed in public. We kissed for a long time, me marvelling at his solidity, his here-ness, then I pulled back laughing:
‘What are we? Teenagers?’
He laughed as well and pulled me back into him tightly and kissed me again:
‘I just can’t let go’.
We carried on walking, wrapped up in each other, paying no attention to the streets. Later, on the last train home, he messaged me with links to one-bedroom flats in Bristol on Rightmove. All I heard was that he wanted to stay.
When O first left, his ghost haunted my house. Over time, it appeared less and less; the frequent apparitions slowly written over by the constant traffic of domesticity. New memories are painted over the old. But all ghosts reveal themselves occasionally; they can never be fully deleted if you know what was there before. Occasionally O’s frame would flicker at the kitchen table in the corner of my vision when I was draining pasta at the sink and a song he loved came on the radio. Or sometimes as I woke and opened my eyes, especially on bright, crisp, winter mornings, a long, freckled back might materialise on the edge of my bed, caught in time pulling on a sock again and again. These ghosts always disappeared when I turned to them, with my mouth full of unanswered questions.
Although the traces were faint and glitchy at home, there was still a ghost’s stain that was vivid, trapped over the other side of the river. Shortly after O left, we entered the first 2020 lockdown. I would sometimes drive through Easton and in my memory the same thing happens each time. I see myself rounding the corner past the church and No.12. There is a white delivery van stopped with its hazard lights on outside Pak’s, the open tailgate door showing skinned carcasses hanging from hooks inside, staring blindly from clouded eyes, the driver nowhere in sight. I stop and drum my fingers on the steering wheel whilst I wait, sometimes for so long I end up turning the engine off. Cars start pulling up behind me, beeping impatiently. Reggae is blaring from somewhere. I see an old man in a long white kurta and topi feeding the pigeons in the park. My eyes, against my will, are pulled to that stretch of pavement and railings that separate the park from the road. That’s where the ghost is, entangled with the street’s tarmac and air. A stratum usually concealed from view. A garland of orange marigolds slung over the railings appears for a second before disappearing. A glitch; a symbol of union and mutual trust marking a sacred spot. Or an offering slung over a portrait of the dead. A point of access shimmering between presence and absence. I wince and turn away and look over towards the gym. Eventually, the butcher in his blood-stained white overalls lumbers into view, pushing a supermarket trolley. He is following the delivery driver, who is on his phone, and slowly starts unloading. When he has finished, the driver jumps back in the van and starts up the engine. As the road clears, I exhale, relieved, and pull away.
‘Beneath all the cities we don’t recognise are stacked all of the cities we do.’
Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London
At the start of the millennium, just before I Iived in the cottage on Albion Road, I lived in Barcelona for a short time. When I arrived, the city was laid out before me unspoiled. No layers of memories, no roots from which to untangle my feet. For most of my time there I walked. Like O, I wanted to suck the streets dry. I walked like a tourist who wants to take the essence of the city home as a souvenir, from the port and beaches next to the old city across to the very top of Montjuic. I walked between cafes and galleries, through secret, crumbling squares. I listened to the echoes of my footsteps in knotted networks of narrow, gothic alleyways that the midday sun never reached. I stopped to watch locals parading dead-eyed, jewel-coloured papier-mache Gegants on sombre, grey Sunday mornings. I walked alone along the wide, crowded thoroughfares that cut through the city, rain showers briefly slicking the pavements before evaporating. I’d inhale Barcelona’s heady, sweat-spiked petrichor deeply, marvelling that I’d never smelt anything quite like it, knowing deep down I never would again. I fell in love with a city.
Then, after a while, I started walking out of loneliness. The people I crossed paths with felt distant and unreachable. As I sunk deeper into depression, the actual bones of the place felt increasingly threatening and the people in it casually cruel. I started resenting the city and everyone in it. One evening I mapped the streets of the barrio around where I lived in looping, unravelling circles for hours. My restless steps echoed the heavy agitation I felt running through my arteries. I couldn’t stop but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was unable to return to my flat, turn the key in the door and admit the affair was over.
After that night I left as soon as I could.
I returned a year later with Louie, a few months after we first met. I felt the urge to revisit and forcibly overwrite my complicated memories with new, simpler ones. We stayed a few streets away from my old flat in a grandiose but down-at-heel pensión filled with huge blooming succulents. We gorged on expensive food and I fucked him noisily day and night. We drank cocktails in bars hidden from the street behind heavy velvet curtains until we stumbled home through the gothic quarter in the early hours. I didn’t tell him, but as we walked I was searching the streets for traces of what I’d felt when I’d inhaled Barcelona’s after-rain smell. But I couldn’t find it. Nor could I fully exorcise my ghosts.
‘Find a way out | Through a memorial garden | A wilderness of roses.’
Savage Messiah, Laura Grace Ford
Not long ago, I found myself walking back along Roman Road on a steely grey February afternoon. Life had shrunk since mine and O’s Saturday night wanders had ended. For the last ten months, I’d stuck to walking the same established paths during our allotted hour a day of outdoor exercise. In the depths of the first lockdown, I’d walk with Joe and Ava up to Stoke Park along the pathway that climbed through the woods behind our house. As we reached the top of the hill, we’d stop and look out over the city spread before us, pointing in wonder at the empty motorway gliding silently past below, high above the roofs of Easton and St Pauls.
When I find myself walking through Easton again, it feels freeing to cut through the city streets on foot once more. As Hawks gym and the peeling green railings of the park come into sight, instead of following the logical, more direct route home, I change direction and walk along Roman Road. I want to know if the ghost is real or is just a by-product of malignant nostalgia left to grow unchecked throughout the lockdowns. I want to see if the garland of marigolds is still there or if it was just refracted light bouncing off my windscreen.
Just before Hawks gym, I reach Paradise Fashions, which has had its shutters down for as long as I can remember. I cross the road and walk slowly along the pavement. A gaunt man in a shiny black Adidas tracksuit sits on the park bench cradling a can of Red Stripe. His gaze is fixed in the direction I am walking from, but he seems to stare straight through me. I don’t see the garland of marigolds as I approach but I can tell as soon as I stop that the ghost is there. I sense it as a swirl of solid, dark energy and hear it as a crystalline snatch of song suspended in a cold April starry sky. A corpse candle halted, flickering mid-air. The ghost still feels brand new, and as gentle and kind as silent smiles in a pub garden, but it also feels raw, and as cruel and shocking as fresh grief. The spectre of an imagined future that failed to materialise. Caught in the city’s in-between spaces, unable to extricate itself from its surroundings. No one else knows it’s there, but it’s now as much a part of Roman Road’s geography as its bricked-up doorways, concrete, grass and air. I hurry away, paying no attention to my surroundings. Past the back of the row of cottages, past Katie’s window, past the rank of shops. A young boy of around ten or eleven comes out of Star Cash and Carry as I pass; I almost bump into him and have to step aside to let him by. He stops to tip a plastic tub of food scraps onto a knotted black bin bag resting on the curbside. His stare makes me feel like an outsider. I follow behind him as he turns and walks back through the shop door.
I decide to return a few weeks later and I swear the man in the Adidas tracksuit is sitting on the park bench again, but the ghost is very faint this time. The marigolds have yet to reappear, although I know they are still there. The ghost and the marigolds are as solid as chubby fists in my hand, the turn of a key in a lock, a black cat’s tail, a river running under concrete. The marigolds remain there somewhere, buried like a stash of gold coins waiting to be dug up in the future.
KERRY MEAD IS A BRISTOL-BASED NEW WRITER, SEASONED MOTHER, AND CURRENT STUDENT ON BIRKBECK UNIVERSITY’S CREATIVE AND CRITICAL WRITING MA. HER CREATIVE NON-FICTION HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN MAGICAL WOMEN. KERRY HAS WRITTEN EXTENSIVELY FOR THE EVERYDAY MAGAZINE, WHERE SHE WAS CHIEF CULTURE EDITOR UNTIL JULY 2022 AND IS CURRENTLY A MUSIC WRITER FOR GOD IS IN THE TV ZINE. FIND HER ON TWITTER AT @KERRYMEA AND AT HTTPS://ALLLIFELESSORDINARY.