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Four Minute Exposure by Marita Grimwood

I know the canal is near but the alley that leads there, although not blind, is blinkered – at its end, just tall slivers of office block, then sky, are visible. Aloneness holds me back. We build our own cities, making habits of pathways that tell us who we think we are. Like a computer game where you must find the secret route from room to room, a few steps in a new direction can take you through a portal. I walk up to a crossing, planning to double back - to take the alley anyway. But here a sign points to a more salubrious pathway, the steps down to it squashed between high wall and water, and that’s the way I choose.

In one sense, unease was unneeded. The canal, a strip of reflective blackness edged in stone and stretching straight ahead, is overlooked – boxed in by many floors of windows on both sides. The buildings are of industrial revolution red brick or – more often – modern tiles and aspirational steel balconies. Beside these, the canal itself seems both irrelevant and obsolete. On this bank, the red-brick tow path that I follow is at first a slender space between high walls and deep water. Then the walls on the far bank fall away, and there’s a car park, with a border of climbers and shrubs that spill over to touch the water. A little way further along, residents have claimed a section of the bank as private, with ‘no moorings’ signs. They have paved a small arc of waterside space for barbecues. Wayward, irregular trees in pots form the fragile defences of gentrification. A miniature strip of garden, three metres by one, features brambles and a brightly-painted duck house with no ducks.

You can say there is an edge to a place. This is a place of edges, unresolved: shifting, not somewhere I want to stand still. Something internal and instinctive wants me to click into flasher-proof, hassle-proof mode – walking quickly enough to show I’m slightly late and will be missed if anything should happen. There’s a foul smell of dogs, so their walkers must come here, but there are none here now. Instead, this is a space for young men, singly or in pairs. There is one in the car park, carefully groomed, and alabaster-skinned, standing on the far bank. He is staring down the alley I’d refused to take, trying to catch someone’s eye. The car park ends where a spur of the canal leads under a bridge. Here, two more young men in jeans and anoraks stand, talking, by the flight of open steps from bridge to towpath. The steps shelter a micro-colony of one-man tents – bold as the duck house, and more fragile. Meanwhile, on my side, two others, wearing black and a sense of purpose, sit down on a bench. One registers me in a curious half-look.

I reach some black-and-white-painted canal locks. Two grey-haired women in waterproofs are closing one of them, seeing their barge through. They are the only other women here, visibly passing through. Or did they hire their boat in rolling Cheshire to come straight here and spend a week meandering Manchester’s backwaters?

Back on the far bank, beyond the locks and under some trees, geese camp out like protesters under immaculate office windows. Their activity gives me a reason to pause and to watch. I force myself to linger but it feels like holding my breath. I manage no more than a minute before my muscles twitch instinctively into action and I start back the way I came.

The groomed young man is still in the car park, but my second passing is too much. He moves back and in two steps has vanished with practised skill. He can’t have gone far but now I see how carefully-placed he was. Standing there, he is on view to anyone looking up the alley from the street. Behind him, a bridge and bushes offer multiple discreet exits. Who am I to him? In only four minutes, I’ve made an unwelcome mark. We transgress each others’ limits constantly, criss-crossing unknown others’ cities to occupy in passing the places they inhabit. For just a moment, now, the truth of this is visible. I climb back up to street level, back to a path that’s mine.

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