We pull into a parking bay, the driver cuts the engine and sings out, ‘Drummer Street Bus Station’. I join the flow of passengers filing off the bus and emerge into a long, grimy perspex tunnel that bears no resemblance to the open air terminus I remember, where pedestrians would duck and dive between manoeuvring vehicles. But then it is getting on for 40 years since I was in Cambridge: things are bound to have changed. Certainly the route the bus had taken, between vast swathes of raw-brick, new development, had all seemed alien to me.
The journey into town had been one of the rituals of my childhood: on Saturday mornings, while Dad took my brothers off to football practice, Mum and I would ride the bus into the city centre so we could change our books at the lending library in the Lion Yard. That done, we’d chase each other down a long wide ramp into a traffic free street that took us to the market square where we’d shop for fruit and cheese and fresh-baked bread from open stalls laid out in avenues under bright stripey awnings. ‘Our girls together time’ Mum called it; just the two of us alone, doing our own thing without those pesky boys in tow.
Today I follow the streams of people alighting from buses to a walkway between modern glass-fronted shops and an ancient stone wall, neither of which I recognise. I seem to remember that the route Mum and I took went through a narrow passage into a courtyard lined with little shops, but that, like the chaotic, open air bus depot, seems to have been re-developed out of existence. The path I’m on today does however come out on what looks like the same sidewalk we used to access from that little old courtyard, albeit further along the street. In fact, I’m standing directly opposite the ramp of pavement that leads up, along the side of a church towards the white arched entrance to the Lion Yard.
Arriving at that archway however I scarcely recognise, in the cavernous covered space ahead of me, the little L-shaped mall I used to know. The huge red lion that stood on top of a column at the apex of the precinct has vanished without trace. That corner is now a crossroads in a vast cathedral of consumerism; tiered galleries of shops and escalators leading off in all directions. There’s even a shop selling jewellery where the big glass doors used to be, through which we’d pass to get to the wide concrete stairs that led up to the treasure trove of fantasy that was the library. Don’t say the library’s gone as well. I do hope not. It still could be up there, I guess, somewhere within the anonymous soaring structures above. But how to access it if there is no entrance?
Disappointed I turn my feet towards the other part of our Saturday ritual; chasing memories down the long sloping ramp towards the street that led to the market square, where, if he happened to be in town that day, we would meet up with Snowy Farr.
Snowy, Mum would tell me, as she slipped coins into my hand to drop into his collecting tin, was a “famous Cambridge character” who had raised thousands of pounds for guide dogs for the blind. It wasn’t Snowy’s charitable endeavours that impressed me though: to my junior-school self, the twinkly old man with flowing white whiskers and a bright red coat was something akin to Father Christmas. He may not have come with reindeer but there was invariably a real live cat perched on his tall top hat and a skitter of white mice running round the brim. He’d have mice in his pockets too, or beetles or a grass snake. Sometimes there would be a dove perched on his shoulder, or a rooster, or a rabbit tucked beneath his arm. The amazing thing was that the animals that swarmed all over that old man appeared to live in perfect harmony. Even natural enemies, predators and prey, seemed to inhabit a wonderland of peaceful co-existence, and they placidly accepted the attentions of the humans, adults and children alike, who would flock around to pet them. You cannot believe the thrill it was to join that throng and stroke whatever creature came within reach of my outstretched fingers.
More animals were to be found on board the old man’s tricycle. That had an enormous red and yellow box fixed between the wheels, with bull horns mounted on top, and plastic flowers, and banners that fluttered overhead. There were grilles along the sides so you could look in and see … a lamb perhaps, or ducks, or new-hatched chicks. You never knew what would be in there. Snowy and his magical menagerie is one of the most treasured of my Saturday memories, but I guess that he too will have passed into history by now. I used to think of him as being a hundred years old, although there was no way he could have been; not if he could pedal his rickety contraption all the way from whatever enchanted land he lived in, right into the heart of the city, to stand for hours with a collecting can. He’ll have made his century by now though - if he’s still alive - but that is hardly likely. I guess he must have been in his sixties when I knew him, or perhaps an agile septuagenarian, but that was way back, when I was rising ten, before our family emigrated to The States.
It had been inevitable, when a letter arrived on my desk in Houston, inviting me to speak on developments in binomial analysis at a conference to be held at Homerton College, Cambridge, England, that I would accept; just as it was inevitable, on the one free afternoon during the proceedings, that I would pass on the recreational excursions that had been arranged for delegates. Tours of historic sites, boats on the river, tea in an orchard; all were activities I’d have cheerfully subscribed to in any other place. But in this, the city of my birth, the thing I wanted to find was my own past.
That is turning out to be an elusive quest.
I guess folks are right when they say you should never go back.
I meander on, past the sort of shops I could see on the streets of pretty well any major city, anywhere in the world. This is not my Cambridge.
Then the vista opens out. Ahead, I can see the awnings of the market square and here, on the corner right in front of me, the corner where old Snowy used to stand, surrounded by a throng of giggly oriental girls wafting smart phones and selfie sticks is a ………. a thing …..….. a stack of outsized jelly beans in white and red and bronze and orange supporting a black top hat that has a glossy white cat on the crown and a skittering of bronze mice around the brim.
I stop, and stand, and stare.
As do other passers by.
I catch snatches of their conversations; the question ‘what is it’ incessantly repeated.
Responses fail to answer ….
‘… off a fun fair.’
‘…… no plaque to explain ….’
‘I’m surprised the city fathers would allow ……’
The nearest approach to a valid reaction to the crazy structure comes from a child in a stroller who squeals and laughs and stretches out both hands.
An academic-looking man – you know the type: eyes on the pavement and head on some other planet – emerges from between the market stalls, but stops at the kerb, looks up and blinks. Then, as if recalling something he’d forgotten, he diverts towards the thing on the corner, stretches out a hand and pats the shoulder of the big bronze bean.
He knew what he was looking at.
As do I.
As do two neatly dressed women who approach, solemnly, side by side, and gently stroke the beans.
I follow suite.
Observing the ritual.