I know my city deeply, I know its stink.
I know the parts where the air is thick, quiet and still sorry. Like the exhausted market where a child was stolen and tortured near by, by other children until dead. The flower park that I used to walk through every school day, where a boy I knew was chased down and murdered by other boys because of colour of his skin. Or the bottom of a certain side street where the late night taxi drivers go to shit on the doorstep of my friends art gallery and whatnot.
I know my cities stunning beauty.
Formby beach with its red squirrels, Hightown’s Owl House overlooking the marshes, the view from the top of the Anglican cathedral or from anywhere at all on the coast towards Ireland. My city’s culture drips out of incredible crevices… The Kazimier, JumpShipRat, The Palace, Quiggins and MelloMello (now all long gone). City music thumping under cobbled foot from the famous underground Cavern on a Saturday night and other such basement hotboxes. Homegrown creatives are starting businesses in the bum ends of town and the city is expanding both ways, clever Southern folks follow. Classic and modern museums call to families from family homes full of loving people of all colours. It has everything for everyone. If you can imagine it – it’s happening there. People come to see it from far far away because of that band, that football club and that big event. Robert was one of them.
“Nicóla?” Robert said to me in shock.
“Yes Hi, Roberto?” I said “It’s nice to meet you.” I said as I held out my hand to him on Fairclough street. Robert, from Italy, had contacted me about his trip to Liverpool, and as he wanted to be proactive for a few days he asked me to teach him English too.
“I thought you are a boy! Nicola is boys name no?!” he said in fight with himself, backing away a step and also extending a hand, eye brows raised.
“Not in England sorry” I apologised, for nothing at all. Turns out Robert hadn’t travelled alone, his Professor wife was speaking at a conference in the city. I could see he didn’t like the idea of exploring a new place with a woman who was not his wife, understandable.
This wasn’t the first time my name had caused a reaction. I once taught 30 Italian students for two weeks and when I introduced myself with my name in big letters on the whiteboard there was histerical uproar. In warmer countries, being named Nicola is level with being named Leonard, Walter, Russell or Stanley – I like it.
English lessons are a bag of fun… when you do it my way.
I believe that grammar is secondary to vocabulary. I think that expression is more important than accuracy. I see no point in giving someone white A4 papers with ‘exercises’ on them, word searches and such to be thrown away. I built lessons to reflect that where we talk, walk, adventure and laugh like old buddies.
I love being responsible for people feeling comfortable, smiling and growing. Growth can be uncomfortable too though at first, so I need the right person who accepts they won’t get to spend all their time in drab coffee shops, quiet libraries or rented grey office rooms. No, I want them to learn in a real way, a human way, a colourful way. I want them to engage with local people, people of time and the city. I set tasks and day missions to complete around town that involve asking strangers questions, reading signs, navigating and learning new slang words. They report back to me and over dinner we laugh loudest.
“What are your passions in life?” I ask to find out what tasks to give him, how to push him an grow him.
I don’t accept vague answers like, ‘adventure’, ‘family’ or ‘love’ so after some time I got to his four big obsessions. He was a very passionate guy, like an athlete he spoke with purpose, direction and enthusiasm. He was warm, friendly and funny but also frustrated because his brain understood what I was saying perfectly and at speed – but his mouth was too slow to give an answer in a normal flow, his eyes told me this was why he needed me, not to learn from but to practice on. I told him this observation and he was amazed I saw him under his stutter and hesitation, trusting me more now we began our main task, to simply just talk.
A typical and good one to one English lesson would be a nice long stroll around an art gallery – formal enough for a business person to ‘fit in’ and vast enough for them to peep out as a human being. Talking about the form, emotion, movement and tone of a piece gives great excuses to use adjectives, nouns, proper nouns, the infinitive, gerunds and so on, depending on what I ask them.
But I see my city as a living, bustling, interactive gallery and once I knew what Robert was into I could plan a route around it to where we could see, smell, touch, hear and taste what he loves.
- Cycling – he said he needed to ‘feel the burn in his….’ thighs (he didn’t know the word) to feel he’d had a good, complete day
- Street art – this is something he seeks out, stops for and takes photographs of, he sees the artists love in the work and absorbs it whilst standing still
- Piano – he has one or two at home and loves to play the blues
- David Bowie – this one we share together
Serendipity, poetry and fresh paint
Outside was a huge graffited wall, best in the city. I gave Robert instructions to meet me there and when he did he, proud of himself and I of him – thought that was all the hubbub and we’d soon leave, but I took him inside.
This place ticked off everything Robert sweated over all at once, I couldn’t have planned it better – these were meant for him, these few moments. Once you rolled back the shack door and walked down the sloped entrance, you were confronted by a raw artists residence. Smells of fresh paint, oil and chemicals mix with dirty hands, dusty floors and bright coloured walls.
Steve lived there like Peter Pan in a home-made attic bed, eight feet high in the sky, it tilted to one side. He ran the cycle shop it floated over. He was a true artist, he galvanized birds in flight on to old handlebars via a car battery and painted up old wrecks to one-off prize possessions. His place crossed three rooms all at different heights, there were hundreds of bicycles around, every one of them different in age shape and functionality. His own artwork was up on the walls, oversized and strange, and strange people created strange new things in strange corners. A real hidden hive. Roberts face was a picture itself, of awe, walking down that slope towards that memory he’d never forget.
In this bicycle limbo, a beat piano stood in the centre of the main room with its back to us, it looked lost because Steve had only bought the night before for £20 from a friend. Robert, answering its call for attention placed his fingers on the almost white keys carefully, thought for a pause and then played ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Once he finished we were all beaming, it was the pianos perfect premier performance in Peter Pans pad.
A white chopping block with pink words oozing like blood caught Roberts eye
Once he had come back from Mars he lifted his gaze and saw it next. An Italian poem written in salmon coloured graffiti was a step from the piano. Amazed to have something so easy to read so close by, yet in a place so far away, he read aloud. I had no idea what he was saying, but it moved me with its rhythm and goosebumps popped up all over my body. As he read, Robert touched the block tenderly with the fingertips of his left hand, crouching down, he covered his mouth with his right as he read on down and down. Within ten words he was sobbing, Steve and I close behind. Asking him afterwards he became my teacher, and he told me it was the most beautiful poem he’d read about love and death, remorse and innocence, dreams and emancipation. Steve told us a pretty curly-haired girl had written it without a word once and moved on out the city the same day. Robert did too, and Steve and finally myself, but before that I was given this note: “Thank you very very much for the two amazing days you gave me. They will remain in my memory for ever like a graffiti. Roberto”.
The poem, chopping block, complete memory and gallery are all now lost to time. Maybe it’s better that way, this was for Roberto anyway.