Mutley Plain on a wet Tuesday night — puddles reflecting buses, bus windows reflecting traces of lustre.
This is the student strip — café bars, Internet drop-ins, fast food outlets and charity shops. It possesses its own logic, lives well on limited means. It contains more sheer human beauty than any other part of the city, but its hangover's permanent, as if it were always eleven o'clock on a Sunday morning. And, in bedsits, boys and girls with shadier futures shoot up out of sight, reach into cars to make more, in a week, than I can make in a month from my job. I lavish my spare cash on books, CDs and travel tickets — their spoils are exchanged for anaesthesia. Nobody's correct in the long run — all are condemned by the same-coloured cloud. Living there, as I might have done, would make me feel both much older, and much younger, than I actually am.
The rain won't stop, it feels as if it's gone on for weeks. I tuck into an all-day veggie breakfast at Goodbody's, I ask for the egg to be taken out but it comes to me nonetheless. I take a chance and fortunately, it's hard. I'm watching Sky News on a trio of televisions, when someone zaps the remote and the sports report segues into Golden Hits of the Nineties. A black-and-white video of a singer whose name I promptly forget redeems this intrusion — it is set in Prague and makes the most of Old Europe for the sake of an all-American power ballad. I take the Charles Bridge statues with me on a two-minute walk to Somerfield, my glasses prickling with raindrops.
There are always flags on display at the college where I work, allegedly to welcome overseas visitors although, at times, the selection's implausible. Have there really been Croats on campus for the last few months? During the tourist season, the flags of some of the members of NATO are displayed, on the Hoe, as if by way of a personality test — the flag you sit under tells you who you are, or want to be, especially if you don't recognise it. On Mutley Plain, however, there are the miniature flags of the cut-price telephone companies, each of them plying their wares to an army of exiles. Cheers Africa, Europower, Eastern Europe… it's all but impossible to choose, and the small print only confuses the issue.
But the cards connect this acre to the wider world, a world that answers its calls and imagines their makers in a place it may never visit, as my parents, speaking to me over a period of several months when I was abroad, no doubt equipped themselves with a picture of where I was, and as I, passing an African who gazes abstractedly at the stir-fry sauces in Somerfield, wonder what other place he is comparing with this one and whether, in the end, I am jumping to conclusions about him in any case. All I do know is that, when I pick up the phone, I want the whole world to answer, by way of connections as potent as the whole world's water which, in microcosm, comes to ground in a puddle in Mutley Plain on a cold wet evening like this.
from Strangers’ Goods — a Plymothian sequence