The dead pigeons have gone from Carlisle station. Once when looking upwards in the station you would see slumped in nets, little flumpy bodies, wings waving in some gross parody of flight as they gently rotted-not rotted to oblivion, there were no pigeon skeletons, this was fresh, lively decomposition above thousands of unsuspecting heads and I found it rather upsetting being officially the only person in the world who likes pigeons. It also threw up lots of questions as to why there were rotting pigeons in the air at Carlisle station, who cleaned them up and when, do bits fall on people and were their (pigeons) deaths deliberate or a result of net/wing entanglement and other enquiries of a morbid pigeon related nature? I used to tell myself not to look up but the second I alighted the train, my head would ping upwards desperate to be upset and revolted, all the better if I could draw some unsuspecting commuter’s attention to the fluffy mid air carnage. It wasn’t quite as exciting this time without the lofty suspended graveyard above Café Ritazza.
There were no police either for a change. I start to regret my £17.50 train fare. There are often lots of police to be seen lurking vaguely around the vicinity of the train station giving a further sense of danger and excitement to this border town but the somewhat prosaic reason for their absence is probably to do with the lack of a football match today, a cold rainy Tuesday at the arse end of December so the cosy little charity shops filled with what can only be described as landfill are closed, crowds are searching out bargain bounty with frightening intent and everyone is wearing a nice new coat.
Carlisle is grimly pretty with utilitarian antiquity. It is old, it is grey (with red overtones)it has a battered bloody past and a somewhat wild west reputation but The Aga Shop nestles near boarded up buildings, swish bars rub up against cavernous poster bedecked pubs where most of a cow can be fried and consumed with chips and a pint of Stella for the price of a ramekin of olives somewhere further south and quaintness and cobbles vie against B&M Bargains and Soviet concrete.
Around by the cathedral, is all MR James territory, sightless arches half buried in manicured grass, spotless yet ancient church dwellings cluster serenely-there are cobbles and a smattering of shivering tourists with cameras smiling bravely through the dim cold light.
Down little Dickensian Abbey Street where a yellowing England flag flops in the window of a formerly grandiose house, gleaming overly wide doors of solicitors are housed in Georgian splendour and we arrive at Foxes, a wonderful shambolic boho and oh so cool café/bar where harps, pianos and gold paper-mache pigs lie effortlessly around its fairy light lit interior. Last time I was here, I drank cocktails and red wine and luxuriated as the sky turned dark outside. This time I am pregnant and have chai latte and toast, yet still feel snug and tranquil in the cluttered interior listening to a man with a full fry up, a glass of wine and a copy of the Daily Express (was there ever more a microcosm of little England?) berate a posher old man for not using a bus pass. I feel like I am on holiday and yearn too for a full fry up, a glass of red wine and rather concerningly a copy of the Daily Express. I will come back here when I am not encumbered by baby and sink into a sofa with a bottle of wine I promise to myself. I know it is unlikely to happen.
Then a tumble into shopping hell, brash overcrowded overheated chain stores, where I feel old and whale like, blocking the narrow aisles of cheap nylon and sequined frills with my enormous black clad bulk. There is a smattering of more individual shops and businesses in the area, resolutely middle class and attractive looking but I can only afford something tarnished and mass produced, mauled by vultures and with a ten pound red label adorning its hanger. I queue for half an hour to purchase it and wonder why I am doing this when I could have immersed myself in history by visiting the grimly stoic castle, bussed to Hadrian’s Wall through frosty unknown countryside, visited the museum and buried myself in a battle scarred past. It has such cute little pockets though.
The TK Maxx is quite splendidly, terrifyingly anarchic, strangely perched above the market and arranged with no rhyme or reason, freshly reduced red labelled Christmas produce toppling over on shelves, already so archaic and ludicrous looking on the 28th December. The market itself grins somewhat toothlessly with so many stall owners presumably away doing something old fashioned like actually spending time with family over the Christmas period. Or maybe they too are baying for reduced calendars in Calendar World, queuing in Game Station and eating chips like most of Carlisle seems to be doing. Chip shops hold prominence in the centre of town and their alluring smell permeates the streets. I don’t recommend the ‘cheese and onion fry-it’ though. Trust me on this.
We are made of better things and seek the finest fare Carlisle has to offer. At a reasonable price. So I am dragged past the place, which has a menu full of exotic looking fripperies like marmalade foam and into the bustle of La Mezzaluna’s happy hour, one of the Italian restaurants clustered near the train station.
It is cheap (asterixed meals on the laminated menu at £4.75 all day) friendly; there is not an Italian accent to be heard and a huge somewhat un-Italian painting of a chalet in the snow dwarfs our table. My garlic and cheese mushrooms are obscenely rich, like something Jamie Oliver would shake his head over in a self-regarding documentary before admitting how good they are in some pathetic attempt to show how hey, he’s just like one of us really. My pasta is fresh, creamy and calorific and I am excited by my first ever viewing of an electric Parmesan grater. My boyfriend’s pizza excitingly has potato on it, which feels very daring and glamorous but could just be because they like their carbs up here. Customers are asked as routine they would like salad or chips and the chip option reigns supreme.
A missed train and the sinking feeling of abandonment and rootlessness it brings. We sit in Bar Solo opposite the train station and listen to varying degrees of accents, loudness and inebriety intermingling as the cold rises and the night closes in on this town on the periphery.