I'm in a cafe in Manchester, one I've never been to before, but have walked past it hundreds of times. Big fat raindrops are sobbing down from the sky, and most of the people I've seen have been dressed in black or grey. A song is playing on the radio - I've already heard the same one three times this morning, and it's only 9.30a.m. A repetitive, urgent bassline, and a man's slightly mechanical voice lamenting over the top. It's annoying, but comforting, somehow.
If Manchester is a song, sometimes it sounds better in my head than it does in real life. Whenever I come back here I catch traces of what the city meant to me, but the deep yearning I had for it is a bit faded now. After all, it's not only the place but the people that draw you back, and apart from a couple of close friends who still live there, many have moved on.
Living in a city makes up so many different layers of people, and so many layers of feelings in a person. You end up with an imprint particular to that place. Cities are people, after all - great big, dusty, smelly, sweaty, noisy, stunning muddles of people. In Manchester, everywhere I went I felt nostalgia, an almost overwhelming sense of the past doggedly pushing itself into the future, and an underlying sadness, like a sickness that comes from being in love. Tall old buildings cast their shadows over you, as though aware of you, but deliberately ignoring your presence. 'We belong here and we always have done', they say, as they slyly watch new structures emerge, always certain of their influence. The old boys of the city, determined not to lose their grip.
I didn't like Manchester when I first arrived. It didn't match up to what was in my head. Everything felt wrong - the course I was on, the places I went to, the people I met. My second year there was messy, when for loads of reasons - or for no particular reason at all - I had a horrible and confusing breakdown. It took a while to shake out of it, as I went through a lot of stopping, starting and reversing - but when I went back to University in the third year, I started to feel differently about the city. Maybe because I felt happier, I let it charm me.
Manchester isn't about the clubs on Deansgate, it's not WAGS or football, not the Trafford Centre. It's not even about all the trendy bars in the Northern Quarter or the Hacienda - and yet every one of those things are important. I'll probably never find the city it used to be to me again - it'll always be something different.
Manchester to me is the rain, and then the sun occasionally, and thankfully, piercing through the clouds; the decay, and yet, still the sense that it's too strong to ever really decay; it is the leafy parks, the trees. It is discovering new places on my bike, or on foot, when I used to run for hours to deliberately get lost in Chorlton water park or the sprawling suburbs. It is Heart FM, the horoscopes in the Metro, the streams of buses every day, every hour, every minute. It is rivers of cars flooding up and down Rusholme on Eid. It is women working every single day to the same clock, the same cigarette break, the same time out of bed every day. It is people pissing on the bus and falling asleep. It is rubble and rats. Norlander bread. Withington Baths. It is everywhere by bike. A city that is perpetually grey and thrives under a layer of damp cloud. It is grime, filth, darkness, beauty, railway tracks, alleyways and steam, underpasses and the rush of a train going by. Making a grey place colourful. It is light in the morning, and the huge, great sky that you never really see. It is youth and old age all at once. It gets under your skin. And stays there, like a tattoo, written all over your insides.
I've warmed to living in Brighton now that I've got a good circle of friends there, the course I'm doing (almost over), and a job I generally like. All of that gives me more access to the city. But I don't feel rooted there. Most of all, I don't feel as though I want to be rooted there, although I am happy. Brighton seems to represent fresh starts, newness and change to me, whereas Manchester is a memory that I'm all tangled up in but need to make peace with. Move on and get a new song stuck in my head.