I’m in Gateshead High Street, and I’m lost. Lost, because my always questionable ability to read Google maps has once again led me astray, but also lost, because I am in a landscape that is both alien and familiar.
It’s an experience I have become used to over the last two weeks, since I returned, after a 20-year absence, to the town that spawned me, but if feels particularly acute today. Because while I have lived away from the North East for the best part of two decades (or three, really, since I only returned sporadically after I left for university), I have of course visited in the interim. But my visits followed a prescribed and narrow trajectory: city centre, my mum’s place, friends’ houses and, latterly, less happily, hospitals and cemeteries, but I haven’t set foot on Gateshead High Street in over 30 years.
While as a girl I saw a visit as a Saturday morning treat, I speedily abandoned it when the shiny new Metro opened (in 1980!), which made getting from Felling where I lived to the centre of Newcastle a fast and easy doddle. Since everyone else had pretty much the same idea, the high street went into rapid decline, and has only recently seen a bit of a renaissance, as money has been ploughed into regeneration on the Gateshead side of the Quayside and the ‘NewcastleGateshead’ brand is being ruthlessly marketed.
Some of the infrastructure has changed – the iconic ‘Get Carter’ carpark now only fodder for greetings cards and posters – but the Metro Station / bus exchange brings back a flood of memories; nights spent shivering in bus stops after a trip ‘into town’. It’s already a culture shock after London, as I just saw a couple of women who misread the arrivals board in the station and misjudged the time of their next train head back to the concourse, muttering, only to be stopped by a kindly Metro worker who points out, unasked, the next train is in 2 minutes, not 20 – they were reading the time for the 4th train – an interaction I can’t imagine in London. (This is not the first time I’ve seen this mistake happen: while the gaps between Metros are long enough to make a Londoner riot – 10 minutes between trains! – I have watched several people stomp off in a huff because they’ve read the screen that shows the 3rd and 4th train rather than wait for it to go back to 1st and 2nd. Is this a Geordie thing?)
I’m looking for an estate agents, to apply for a lease, and I’m lost. My mood isn’t helped by the fact my period – which has been on and off more often than a soap opera romance since I moved (Stress? Perimenopause? At my age, it’s a coin toss) takes this moment to kick in. Suddenly it’s the elevator scene from Cabin in the Woods in my unprepared pants, so I arrive at my appointment not only sweaty and hassled from my wandering, but wiggling like a duck wearing a wet nappy (you try radiating ‘I am a trustworthy tenant’ when you are hovering your arse above the chair as you fill out your bank details because you are too scared to sit down)*.
But the ladies are lovely, and as we chat I reminisce about the high street. Ah, Shephards, says one, recalling the department store that used to dominate the street. ‘I never did figure out how they did the Christmas sleigh.’ And instantly, I am cast back into a memory so vivid but weird it is almost hallucinatory: of my mum taking me to see Santa. But not just queuing to see a fat man on a chair in a grotto – no, you got into a sleigh, which took off, and you emerged in a winter wonderland. It felt so real and so extraordinary that, honestly, I thought I had made it up, that it was some dream I had solidified into memory, and to hear someone talk wistfully of the same experience is almost jarring, like she peered into my head.
I have a feeling it won’t be the last time this happens.
*If you are thinking, blimey, that’s personal, she shouldn’t be talking about stuff like that – wow, have you come to the wrong blog.
(Unrelated photo alert: the bar in Northern Stage. C’mon, I was having a period crisis. You think I stopped to take pictures?)