I arrived in Wakefield at what I assumed to be Westgate Station. It had been a null journey, the train leadenly clunking over the flatlands in the faint autumnal sunshine. The franchise on this route seems to have been acquired by East Coast, but the carriage I was in had that absurd Grand Central livery: the blown-up photos of Marilyn Monroe, the chessboards painted on to the tables. Really, the last thing you want when you’re heading for West Yorkshire is to be reminded of the existence of Manhattan. Not, I hasten to add, because there is anything wrong with Wakefield – it’s just that the Grand Central decor is decentring: it makes you wonder where the hell you are.
Anyway, on this trip I had no intention of being where I was. Travel for work is like that. Sometimes you find out about the locale, you sally out from the hotel having asked the locals where there’s a good place to eat, or you visit some artisanal undertaking, ancient structure or beauty spot. If you’re going to be there for a while you might try to pick up the local lingo, take part in a game or pastime peculiar to the region, and congratulate yourself as you begin to find your way around. But other times you make a decision: it’s too much effort orienting yourself in space as well as time, you’re too tired and harassed to care about the cheese-rolling festival, all you want to do is get the job done and go home.
The station seemed to be largely wrapped in plastic sheeting and the approach road swarmed with bollards. A friendly man saw me doing what people do when they have decided not to be where they actually are – footling with Google Maps on my iPhone – and took me in hand. It transpired I’d arrived not at Westgate Station, but at Kirkgate; luckily, though, Pete was heading the same way as me and he became my Virgil, guiding me through the hellish circles of pound shops, payday loan businesses and balti houses clustered along the arterial road. We headed up Kirkgate, which seamlessly elided into Ings Road and the sought-after Westgate, then past the cathedral. Pete had been living in Stroud for the past 25 years, but he was about to move to Wakefield. “For work?” I asked, and he replied, laughing, “No, for a woman.”
Pete said that although the town centre was pretty run-down there was a new shopping mall, the Trinity Walk, and that’s where all the moneyed folk were, consuming pizzas and enlarging their pectorals. I made a mental note to give it the swerve. He dropped me at my hotel, the York House on Drury Lane, just down from the Theatre Royal. I could see immediately that York House was an odd establishment – aspirational, certainly, what with its electronic locks, halting lift and motion-sensing corridor lighting, but, for all that, the spirit of the old provincial railway hotel smarmed along the brown-painted wainscots. My room featured a quarter-acre of tufted, puke-coloured carpeting and a large four-poster bed without canopy or curtains. In lieu of a bedside lamp, there was a standard one, comprising a fasces of aluminium rods topped off by diodes. Cosy. On the wall was a large photograph of Paris by night. Disorientating.
Later that evening the people I was working with began talking about the area – try as I might to steer the conversation on to less topographical matters. They spoke of the decline of the coal industry, and how it was that while Wakefield was graced with two railway stations, nearby Ossett had none. Then they spoke of how Ossett had grown rich by recycling the leavings from the wool industry to make material known as mungo and shoddy, the latter giving rise to the slang term. I tried to suppress this knowledge, just as I blanked the location of the Hepworth Gallery and the intelligence that it had been designed by David Chipperfield with a view to creating a “sculptural experience”. I wanted to scream at these friendly folk: “Shut up! I’m not here!”
Still later the same evening I ate alone at a Chinese buffet restaurant in the Trinity Walk shopping centre. It was empty except for me, the staff and a portly couple who returned again and again to the chocolate fountain, where they slathered mini-donuts in sickly brown goo. Rain spittled the plate-glass windows; through them I saw more plate-glass windows, and behind these a man was oscillating on a fitness machine.
I paid my bill and strolled back through town. Blue light flooded from a nightclub called Qudos; I could see a single young woman in a red cocktail dress jerking to the drum machine. I looked in an estate agent’s window. A nicely spraunced-up, two-up, two-down terraced house was going for £80,000 – chump change down south.
I began to fantasise about my new life in Wakefield: suppers at the Chinese buffet, canoodling at Qudos, weekend bicycle rides on the shoddy trail to Ossett. I was sitting smoking on the balcony of York House when a legless man in a wheelchair joined me. He said something incomprehensible, I grunted a reply. It was as if I’d always been there – or, should I say, here.