As a small child, after my dad bought a car, we used to go on various jaunts and, of course, to visit our grandparents in the nearby towns. I would be slumped in the back after an evening at my Grandma’s house in Little Hulton, full of prawns and salad cream and Tunnocks teacakes as a general rule. My grandmothers were not great cooks, it must be said, a fact brought about by World War and a lack of ingredients rather than a lack of skill. My grandmother’s go-to family tea was a table groaning with celery sticks, iceberg lettuce, prawns, tinned ham and salmon all to be drowned in the tangy vinegar splendour of salad cream. There would be butter to slather over crusty bread though never when it was ‘too new’. My grandmother had an odd dislike of fresh bread. There would be pop, a beverage which she always referred to as ‘mineral’. Cream soda and dandelion and burdock were my favourites. Tea. There was always a pot of tea and white tea cups.
We didn’t always have tea there. Often we just drove over for an hour or two to visit. My paternal grandparents lived nearer, eventually moving to live at the bottom of the road and we would also ‘pop’ in there, my dad reading the Bury Times as my grandma attempted to out talk the budgie, Joey. Other times we would be in the car returning from a trip to the cinema or the theatre, Bolton Octagon being a favoured haunt of my childhood.
As we drove up Heap Brow, a steep incline towards home, there would be a small road sign stating that in that direction, pointy bit indicating right, we would find ourselves firstly in Pilsworth and then Indian East. We never turned towards Indian East, our route lay with a left turn towards home.
I would always look out for this sign and on my more daydreamy evenings I would ponder what Indian East might be like. I didn’t know anyone at school who lived there. And when we had travelled that route sometimes there was nothing very interesting, some fields, the warehouses and yards of the industrial estate and a lone pub, whitewalled and stranded. I would forget about the existence of Indian East then, taken up with the view from the car window and thinking of other daydreamy things. Only when we passed the sign did I recall ‘Oh yes…Indian East. I must have missed it.’.
It was a shining beacon of a place, harbouring all my childish hopes for a town. Green space and old buildings, possibly half-timbered, on wilder days they had turrets. The streets of Indian East would be higgledy-piggledy and you had to walk there because if you drove, well, as the years rolled by it appeared to me that the road broke its promise and seemed not to take you there. There must be a turn off that I missed. There was magic in this idea, that this place could only be reached on foot. It was hidden from view. It was quiet, the silence only broken by the song of birds, the whirr of a lawnmower, someone singing as they hung out the washing. The Indian aspect of its name puzzled me. There were plenty of Indian ladies in Bury. They clacked around the market in their glittery golden sandals, their jewel like saris bundled under heavy winter wool coats. Occasionally you might glimpse a soft, brownskinned midriff as a lady bent to tend to her grandchild in a pushchair. They were colourful, like fairies to my child self. They had long hair, plaited like Rapunzel and elaborate earrings.
Perhaps, I thought, Indian East is like that. Everywhere in Indian East is colourful and gilded. I had an idea that there were boats, something like a gondola, which might transport people along the River Roach from the centre of Bury. If there were unicorns then you’d find them in the stables at Indian East. Fires there were obviously lit by dragons.
Food of choice in Indian East would be cake, Battenburg probably because it had the colour scheme. I had it all worked out. An eco-system all to itself; it would be sunny in Indian East when it was not in Heywood. They had a lot of thunderstorms too, when the sky would turn bruise black. My favoured weather system. They also had more snow, ten feet deep at least when ours was only slush because Indian East was hidden in a valley, hence its lack of visibility from any of the major roads.
One day, I thought, when I’ve passed my driving test, I will drive to Indian East. Clearly we never got there because my dad was never driving there, we were always heading elsewhere, even when we turned in the direction of Indian East. We were on our way to Pilsworth Road or out towards Heaton Park.
One afternoon in the 1980s the truth of Indian East was revealed to me. It was, literally, a revelation. As a child I had read the sign, very clearly, from my seat in the back of the car. Indian East. I had never questioned my interpretation of this road sign. The words had conjured up the place, with its every last letterbox. I had no reason not to believe in the existence of Indian East. It was on a road sign. They didn’t make road signs to places that did not exist. I had built a city on the back of my reading skills.
I was having driving lessons by then, scooting around the environs of our town in Mr Purvis’s Mini Metro and we stopped at a junction on Pilsworth Road. Mr Purvis gave his usual careful instructions; he was a Geordie man, very patient. As he imparted driving knowledge I looked up at the road sign in front of me. There were two places listed. Bury, right and to the left Ind. Est.
Wait a moment. Ind. Est?
I looked around, at the warehouses, the tarmacced yards and drives, the high security fencing and the sets of traffic lights that Mr Purvis liked us to practice going through, junction after filter after cross hatched junction.
In one moment a city fell. The spangled ladies of Indian East vanished in their market coats, shooed into the gondolas and skiffs by the burly chested security guard from Industrial Estate. They had no place here, no place anywhere. The sign had never read ‘Indian East’ at all except to my childish eyes and I had never corrected the mistake.
To say I was heartbroken, would not be hyperbole.
I stalled the car. Mr Purvis waited patiently, puffing on his hundredth cigarette as I sorted my gears and started the engine.