I left a piece of me in Sheffield
Updated: Jul 11
In Sheffield, the bruise is the darkest and the nostalgia is the deepest. What happens when you return to the scene of the crime?
The city is an open wound; cut into the countryside, cut into seven hills, cut into me. The last time I got the train here was more than three years ago. It was a heart broken journey back following a breakdown. Still, I never imagined that we would be in a new decade by the time I visited again.
The I love you bridge, 2017.
I wrote so much poetry about these streets, imprinting them in my brain so, even now, years later, I dream of them with regularity. I know I was just another insufferable southern student in a northern city stumbling in and out of nightclubs and doctors’ appointments trying to gather meaning from these steep streets, lip-cracking cold and foreign Yorkshire friendliness.
In Sheffield, where I wandered the city in thrifted coats and all the nervousness of youth. Where we walked back from The Leadmill singing ‘Disco 2000’ to stay warm. Where we climbed up to Park Hill amphitheatre at 4am and you touched me for the first time, later saying it was the boldest thing you’d ever done. Where my feelings run as deep as Crookes Valley lake, where a young man drowned the day I got back here. Where I am, and you are not.
It’s hard to write about the city without writing about the love and it’s hard to write about the love without writing about the drugs. The city was our jewellery box until it wasn’t anymore. Then it was a medicine cabinet; only sparkling when we had taken something to create the illusion of sparkle, like pushing on a door to find out that it is just a wall. When I got low, I saw that the streets were not really gold.
“The city is your jewellery box,” became sort of like our, “I love you.” I didn’t write it. You didn’t either. It was from ‘Sheffield: Sex City.’ Everything was from ‘Sheffield: Sex City.’ An imitation. A copy. But we felt like we were inventing something anyway because first love is the invention of love.
I would spend hours in the cathedral and botanical gardens, seeing weekends in colours and poetry in misery and writing about the city as though it were my lover. Jarvis Cocker wrote about Sheffield as a lover too. I played that song so many times I even memorised the order of suburbs breathlessly whispered and Candida’s opening monologue about hearing other people fucking. I’m staying near where Jarvis worked at a fish counter as a teenager, washing his hands with bleach to get rid of the smell before parties.
The pain from breaking up with the city is as sharp as the pain from breaking up with the one I loved here. I can be superficial and romanticise the wrong things. “You’re too much of a romantic,” you said as we rode the bus back from the cinema in January. I gazed out the window and wanted to cry. This was one of the most stupid arguments we ever had.
When I exited the train station, I sat down and smoked a cigarette looking up at where the I love you bridge used to stand. It is not the I love you bridge anymore. Now it is just a bridge. I suppose that is poetic in its own way. I always thought that ‘streets in the sky’ sounded like a line from a poem. Close up you can still see the shadow of the word love.
I love you will u marry me? Would I marry this city if I could? I do still feel a certain loyalty to it even though I have been wildly unfaithful by now, moving into places bigger and better, daydreaming about a future of romantic terraces and flat streets and world-famous monuments. Nothing about Sheffield is that famous except the people who left it. The week that 'Tranquillity Base Hotel & Casino' came out, graffiti reading, “you’re not from San Francisco, you’re from Hunter’s Bar” appeared on Ecclesall Road.
On the day I moved into halls, I went to a poster fair and heard someone complain that Alex Turner wasn’t from Sheffield because he didn't grow up in the city centre. I am not from here either, not in any sense of the word, but ‘from’ is an empty syllable when we are all a collection of people and places who have come before. I miss the fountains down the road, the wicked wind and how all my poems were a jumble of other people’s words.
The feeling that describes it closest is love. Not the love you might feel for a sandwich or an outfit, but love for a person. A city can’t love you back but that doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you. Memory is as oppressive as endless rows of concrete flats. This trip was either very brave or very stupid. I had a line in my head from ‘Explaining my Depression to my Mother’: my happiness is as hollow as a pinpricked egg. My happiness, it seems, is dependent on geography. The dream is youth and the content of the dream is love.
I wandered for hours, getting drunk on the sun and tins of premixed supermarket gin and tonic. The whole city getting stiff in the building heat. In the morning I go to Steam Yard. Patti Smith. Steve McQueen. Our first date. A coffee and donut has gone up by 50p. I light a candle in the cathedral. I light it for these memories, of the things and people I lost somewhere between Crookes and Broomhall. The crypt – where I lay down hesitant scribblings then lay my lips on yours – is filled with light and music. The fire of the foundry. The fire of God. The fire of us.
I meet a friend for a drink and she tells me how Hallam Towers is being turned into luxury flats. I remember when we went there and were disappointed that they’d recently boarded it up. From the roof you get a beautiful view of the city, you said. The city is your jewellery box. Then a student died there, and it was demolished.
We did get onto the roof of Park Hill though. I remember the first and last time we went there. It is fenced off now so I will never go without you. I always wanted to sit on the amphitheatre sharing a bottle of prosecco to say goodbye to the city before we graduated, but I moved away and never did it.
Monday is ‘freedom day.’ Clubs reopen for the first time in two years. I go to West Street Live alone for nostalgia's sake and to people watch. Is it freedom or has the cage just got bigger? The menu isn’t on posters anymore and they serve their cocktails in fancy glasses. Memory is a cage. I thought about going to Leadmill, but I was feeling too much already. I’m not in love anymore. It’s not been easy. These two facts stand beside me. Faceless and reeking of time. Memory is a cage.
My biggest fear was that I’d come back here and feel nothing, that I would realise a city is just a collection of buildings and roads and parks. But it was never just buildings. It was love and trauma and sadness and all the emotions in between.
I left a piece of me in Sheffield. I walk around feeling like something has been scraped out from inside me, your absence like a phantom limb, my maturity like leaves dying in autumn. I went to your old house then to my old house. I don't know what I was looking for. Maybe for some evidence that we were once there, that once we were in love.
My friend says she's moving to Walkley with her boyfriend. After all, the city isn't ours. You can't own a city like you can own a jewellery box. We were just another pair of lovers passing through, turning steel into softness, innocence into experience. I left a piece of me in Sheffield and I can't get it back but maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe that’s ok.