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9th March 2019

How to save a city from heartbreak

Relationships are rooted in the locations we share. Alice Crowley writes a love letter to Manchester, the city which kept her safe through a tumultuous break-up.
How to save a city from heartbreak
Photo @ Alice Crowley

I got back to Manchester on Sunday, climbed the stairs to my flat, unlocked my bedroom door and was instantly greeted by last year’s Valentine’s Day card and a few Polaroids of him on the wall. Erghhh. I mumbled several expletives and reached for my phone. Then, I texted Will, asking him to come round as soon as possible. I needed someone to ‘desensitise’ my room. Seconds later, I received the response: “I’m coming now”.

Surviving heartbreak “takes a village”, says Lindsay Holland, and I am inclined to agree.

I had been at home for a week at my parents’ house, to sort out the mess of the break-up. I had very little intention of going back to Manchester. Home was safe. I did not have to explain myself to anyone, nor did I have to maintain my weekly routine. That would do, I thought, at least for the foreseeable future. I thought that was what I needed. But that week, I knew my mum was skirting around the big question: “When are you going back to university?”

A lot of friends would ask me that in the following days.

One friend did when she took me for dinner the day after it all ended, repeatedly telling me I was putting myself first and how great that really was. She made a promise to come up to Manchester the following week, knowing I needed encouragement. That same day, I received a text from Will: “Let me know when you need/want me and I’ll be there… Just come home when you are ready.”

But Manchester had not felt like home. The relationship had been a long-distance one. I was in Manchester, he was in London. I had spent the last two years as a ball in a Manchester Piccadilly/London Euston table tennis grand slam. Continually, I had shot across the bleary English countryside, back and forth, charting the gap between North and South more times than I care to mention. I had spent more of my weekends in London with him than I had in Manchester. If called upon, I could describe the interior of a Virgin train in excruciatingly fine detail and I am now even certain of my favourite seat combination.*

(*Forward-facing window seat — and a proper window, not the corner end — without a table, and close to the baggage racks. Ideally situated in coaches D or E, but this could be forgiven.)

I regularly deserted the city I had once been so desperate to be a part of. I would leave Manchester Piccadilly carrying guilt along with my weekend bag. As the train pulled out from the station, I would find myself half apologising to the tops of the Principal Hotel or the Hilton strutting out in the skyline. I had promised to stay longer this time, to get to know them better. But he had work commitments and I agreed to go down to London this time. And the next time. And the time after that. I would keep my head sheepishly lowered until I made it safely past Macclesfield. I was cheating the city that had accepted me.

When I was not neglecting Manchester, I was sharing it with him. I never considered whether it wanted to be shared, or whether I was meant to be forging and nurturing my own relationship with the city. I made Manchester a permanent third wheel as I paraded him around The Lowry, Affleck’s or Salford Lads’ Club. The relationship was complicated from all angles.

Will arrived at my flat in the time it took me to take the Polaroids down from the wall. I shoved them into a drawer (they’re too expensive to bin) and I shoved the card into a black bag. “Is that it? I was hoping for something a bit more dramatic,” he said, slightly disappointed.

But it did not need to be dramatic, or damning. I was out the other side of it the moment I stepped off the train. Manchester had flicked the switch. He was not to blame, and nor was I. We had coped, but we were not happy, fighting from opposing ends of the M1.

In all this time Manchester has never changed, but I see it differently now. Now, I can go to The Lowry entirely consumed by the landscapes of the city without thinking of him. I can pass Chinatown without wincing at the memory of a particularly bad argument we had on the street outside a karaoke bar. (I should have known it was over as we shouted above a tone-deaf rendition of Queen’s ‘I Want to Break Free’. Or at least seen the signs, perhaps.) Now, I can laugh. Particularly when I pass the same lit-up joint late at night, as a friend proclaims: “Karaoke sucks, doesn’t it?”

I still take the train from Manchester Piccadilly but instead of heading south, I go up: to Leeds, York or Durham. I’m learning to nurture the North. I have strikingly little time left with it now. Right now, I am in my final semester of final year, and I need to absorb the grandeur of the Principal Hotel and marvel at the city from the top of the Hilton before I go.

I respect him, but I respect my city more. It wrapped around me, it protected me on long walks home alone late at night, it accepted me back after each and every time I deserted it.

Lindsey Holland was almost right. Surviving my break up didn’t take a village. It took the city of Manchester instead.

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