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DECIBEL: PERFORMING ARTS SHOWCASE

BIRMINGHAM

BIRMINGHAM BOOK FESTIVAL

DEVON

OLYMPIC 2012 TORCH RELAY

Speak to Strangers took place outside London for the first time at the Decibel Performing Arts Showcase 2011 (12-16 September) in Manchester.

#1

(10:30, Cheadle Hulme station)

Because of an overhanging tree, our train is held at a station nine miles from Manchester. It's Monday morning and the quiet carriage has been dozing, sipping tepid tea or scanning headlines in the Metro, Telegraph and Guardian while the countryside zipped by. Now, passengers direct their concern into smartphones, line the carriages in energised anticipation of their exit. Official in your navy jacket, you say we can exit through the front doors, show us where the gap is and to mind it. Pained smile, homely voice; you are most obliging as you direct your colleague to carry my bag.


#2

(13:30, Northern School of Music)

In the queue for lunch, we immediately find common ground recalling a place we both know, of travellers' sites in Bedfordshire and tragedy in Kenya.Ź You have a wonderfully confiding manner, leaning in to talk, drawing back to laugh. We lose each other in the battle for sandwiches and salad but later I think of you and how people are infinitely various, infinitely interesting and if this city Š with old mill buildings turned glass- fronted restaurants called Giuseppe or Bruno and with the silent slow approaches of trams that tinkle their arrival Š will find a way to embed itself within us.


#3

(21:00, Deansgate)

Single rows of coloured lights are hooked from building to building along the way: taking in lanterns; all you can eat Chinese restaurants; an oriental supermarket; Long Legs bar; and a place for Thai massage with pastel floral curtains hanging neatly in the windows. I choose a shop and find you inside, naming all your relatives to convince a colleague to join you for a family gathering. I ask for a small carton of milk as the other girl laughs and says, It does sound quite nice. She's agreed and then you're both back to stocking up the chiller cabinet.


#4

(11:00, Portland Street hotel)

We speak through a door because I'm still in my pyjamas and can't let the world see me so. You call 'Room Service' and also 'Housekeeping,' which feels rather vintage. I could be in a James Bond movie, living espionage and concealing my secret tools in lampshades and behind picture frames, while everything is high colour and high action. I say, 'Not now'! Frantic, slightly. Then, 'Please come back later'. Which is fine, you say. When I leave, I see you hovering near my door (thick dark fringe, heavy lidded eyes, cheeky face) with your compact cleaning bucket and sprays.


#5

(13:15, Contact Theatre)

At the far end of Whitworth Street, lined with lofty warehouses decorated with glazed terracotta vertical sliding-sash windows, are a series of graceful brick railway arches. In the distance, a contrasting set of modern developments; glass, steel and designated parking bays. I am filled with joy: this city is astonishing. But then I check my map and realise IÕm walking away from my target. Later, at the theatre, there are two of you with tight curls and broad smiles. You guide me into the auditorium, not commenting on my tardiness as the actress says, It's good to make connections sometimes.


#6

(22:00, Oxford Road)

I approach you without my name badge, so you look a little startled. I explain our Decibel connection and we compare notes on the dayÕs performances. Everyone's favourite is the show I managed to miss. (IÕm sorry Brian). In Manchester, pedestrian crossings have an obscured green man, hiding at hip level as we look up for him. You and I negotiate the streets together, both marvelling at the Victorian gothic architecture, the cotton trade buildings, the red brick and auburn,Źand the regeneration. While in the side streets, fans blare out air and spill a mist of fried food surplus.


#7

(14:40, Subway on Oxford Road)

There's an unexpected break in the afternoon, so I take a walk. I note a stretch of buses queuing for passengers, a big cloud where the sun has been, a business school, noodles on offer and desperation plus terrifying want on a woman's sad face. In the cafˇ, I scan the menu and see on offer only different scales and styles of generic meat (the only minor key of the day), so I ask for coffee and for it to be strong, black, grande. You make it with slow, emphatic gestures and we discuss how I would like to pay.


#8

(18:55, Contact Theatre)

I knew what you were thinking as if I were standing there myself, my hands flattening your pale hair, my thoughts in your mind as you assess the situation. My face has your strange half smile that comes and goes. Having struggled with the toilet roll dispenser, I offer you my wisdom when you share the same difficulty. Awkwardly, I choose this moment to discuss a recent dance performance. You admit the first half was excellent; then it lost its way. You shine when you confide, a radiant look amongst the white tiles and tissue-less cubicles. We're all pals, here.


#9

(20:45, Manchester University Student Union)

These things happen: A girl in heels too high links arms with her boyfriend, uses the other to tug her too short skirt, while men look on thinking either she is too young to dress that way, or it's too good to turn away. A chap with a pink rock of a face offers a Big Issue, uses the opportunity to talk about Manchester, while taking my coins thinking, She doesnÕt know I have no magazines. A couple, tourists with cameras around their necks, seem to follow me all the way home. The city stands here like an open door.



#10

(11:05, Town Hall)

I'm doing circuits. I've completed this route three times now and smiled at all the same people. I'm contemplating a sun salutation in the aisle. Glossy marketing materials, chocolates or DVDs are offered to delegates. You, however, are wearing a sky blue magician's gown and your wares are hand-woven books and wooden frogs, which double as percussion. Our principal subjects are India (travelling all over), novels (nice to write) and jelly sweets (no thanks). I say, You're different from everyone else here. You don't disagree. Meanwhile, two weary women sit in two identical chairs and answer two separate telephone calls.


#11

(16:00, Lever Street)

Falling at the first hurdle, I push the automatic door and press against the pull sign. Entering the building, you are welcoming and wonderful. I wait in the industrial reception area, while you talk about a day when a photographer made staff members perform with fruit, frilly cuffs and a still pose. You inhale the story suddenly remembering even more details, trying to memorise each element of the story, to make the journet from that moment to this as long as possible. Like watching an empty bus slowly fill with all the people, seat by seat, your retelling is captivating.


#12

(18:45, Bar in the old Deaf Institute)

At the bar, one girl apologises to the other on repeat. She is broken on the last setting; living the rest of her days speaking the same phrase: IÕm so sorry, I'm so sorry about this. Serving me next, you pour drinks and charge a price that I can present in coins. You say something and I wince ever so slightly. ItÕs an accent I can't understand. Pardon? You cover the same ground and this time I make out a few words. I nod and mumble but you are incomprehensible to me and I canÕt bear to be broken too.


#13

(12:30, Manchester Art Gallery)

I find a Lowry at the gallery; enjoy his low tone street scenes and occasional use of red. I take in Sickert, Bacon and Freud, sidestepping the schoolgirls using the pictures as imaginary mirrors, flicking their collars and applying invisible lipstick.Ź I think of them as adults redecorating cavernous houses, painting the walls and watching them dry, noting down ideas that strike them as they swipe brushes upwards. I don't doubt it will keep them occupied. You, Miss O'Brien, tell them that the worksheet is not compulsory but you'd like them to try their best to complete the task set.


#14

(14:15, Princess Street)

This story begins and ends with a car door. I get in the taxi and ask for a guided tour of Manchester. You turn down the radio, look alarmed but I convince you to show me your favourite spots. Note the sense of anticipation in the air. Radio switched off, you begin with the college where you learned English (you're now studying immunology), the ringroad, a prestigious hotel, and the nightclubs. Watch how his body relaxes, how the buildings change from brown to red to yellow and how the light fades. And hereÕs the car door again, open this time.


#15

(14:40, Zion Arts Centre)

At school, you were one of the tallest boys and you didn't like to tuck in your shirt. Like the others, you had a thin burgundy tie. You needed to shave every day. You started puberty earlier than most of your peers, which brought with it an unexpected glory. Girls rubbed their fingers on your stubble. Boys wanted to be your friend, hoping their own bodies might follow your manly example. You cultivated a slouch and wore your rucksack low. Now, twenty years later, you wonder if you're still that person, as you wheel my suitcase to the reception desk.