I gave Liverpool so little time during my first venture outside of America—twelve hours out of a month spent in England. I don’t regret that minuscule time block, not exactly, but one year out, I find that I miss being that younger girl, sleepy-eyed and train-bound with a headache one fine morning because I refused to go to sleep early the evening prior, even when I knew I had to travel.
My arrival at Lime Street Station found me with a pound in my pocket and nothing more. My wallet ached, my hands were shaking, and the Costa coffee I’d bought three hours before had burnt my tongue so badly that I couldn’t taste my own spit. I let Liverpool guide me downward—its rolling city that leads weary feet towards the water, and while never let it be said that the young are weary, I was more than willing to let gravity do my work for me. I moved through crowds and past statues of the Beatles; libraries and museums and lawyers’ offices. Nearing the water, I decided to skip the Tate Liverpool—not my worst idea, but as a tourist, a questionable one. All the same, I strolled past it and down Albert Dock towards a marvel of boats lined up by era. They were paraded one after another, surrounded by restaurants and shops on all sides like an elementary school time line. I, ever a caffeine addict, decided that this time-traveling still life was the ideal spot to sit, stare at the water, and wake myself up.
I met a philosopher in a nearby Costa, a sixty-five-year-old who needed a seat at the café’s heavily-ladened tables. I listened while he talked to me about Brexit, and he listened to me worry about the US elections, and we pretended that our experiences were comparable. The metal chairs by that café left imprints on my thighs, but I stayed long after I had emptied my cardboard cup.
My stomach ached for food. My philosopher friend pointed me towards Ziferblat, a bit prophet-like and a bit knowing (and like the city, I know I’ve come to romanticize him, too). I ran my fingers over the pound in my pocket and took him at his word, walked into that pristine lobby, and wondered what it was that makes this place feel like home.
Ziferblat was and remains unique in that instead of paying for the food eaten there, patrons pay for the time they spend inside the treehouse-esque establishment. There are several of these liminal spaces scattered across Europe, but for me, the only one that exists is in Liverpool. My lone pound got me an eight-minute time block.
I set my timer.
Ziferblat’s croissants tasted a little bit like freezer burn and the soup was too hot to eat quickly; I was awash, instead, in petit fours, brownie slices, and fruit bowls. Swallowing became a bit of a chore. It was an exercise in necessity, though, a harmless display of hunger, despite the half-seen background that I missed: spread out puzzles, dog-eared books, empty mugs, and people. I lost all opportunity to linger, and I regret it. Just a little. Because before I knew it, my eight minutes were up, and I was back in the lobby, listening to the girl behind the counter laugh at me. I strutted back onto the dock with the taste of a lemon bar in my mouth and nothing left in my pockets.
Sated, I wandered. I listened to dock-side violinists. I went on the Beatles’ tour for the sake of the nostalgia my father imbued in me, and when I was worn out by John Lennon’s bleached-white Imagine, I settled down on a bench by the water. I tried to memorize the number of locks swaying on the metal guard rails between me and the river; they were hardware-store quality, a mimicry of a practice that takes place in Paris. It’s a curious thing to consider, now, how many keys must rest at the bottom of the River Mersey.
One year out, I tell the story of this bench most often. It’s a simple thing: I just—fell asleep. I wasn’t wearing sunscreen, so when I woke up forty-five minutes later, half of my face was bright red, not to mention my arms, and the pain of it stung until I got stateside again. I’m not bitter about it—it was a good souvenir. And it was free!
In an attempt to recover from my rising sense of shame, though, I moved along, down to a bar called the Cavern, my last stop before I returned to London. The air in the bar was stagnant and too warm, even though it was underground. I sat in the corner with a free water and watched two men flirt with a woman about my age. They left together, the three of them, and in the distraction of their amused glances my way, my philosopher friend reappeared. He didn’t look out of place in the dark, and he paid for a soda when I asked him for a drink. When I asked him just how young I looked, he just laughed at me.
I call this man my philosopher friend not solely because of his age (but he was the type to tease, so it does seem fitting). Sitting in The Cavern Pub, listening to Beatles’ karaoke, he did his best to advise me. His own life had been full of political unrest; in face of the changing world, he could only see more of it coming. At the time, my future seemed much clearer than it does, now—the world seemed not safer, but as though it had havens to hide in. My philosopher friend advised me, in The Cavern Pub, to seek those places out, and if I could not find them, to create them myself.
I couldn’t tell you how he left; I can’t quite remember. What I know is that, once he’d gone, I stayed in The Cavern for longer than I should have. When I emerged, the sun was setting, my sunburn was screaming, and my heart was full.
Marching uphill towards the train station was so much harder than rolling downward, so in leaving The Cavern, I took ages to get back. I followed the flow of the thinning crowd of tourists, then received misguided directions to the train station from a toothy teenager. He pointed me back toward the harbor, and I was struck by longing. Still, with a playful snort, I turned away.
I tried not to touch my aching burns as I took the steps up into Lime Street Station. Instead, I waited for my train with my hands at my sides and tried to hover in the wakes of passing people, hoping that they’d cool me down.
That burning is my memory of Liverpool: a little bit painful and impossible to ignore. Even Liverpool’s residents are a certain kind sunburn, just a little “fuck you.” The city is ambitious, throwing its children out into the harbor to see how well they can swim. A twelve-hour visitor like myself shouldn’t come away from the city with salt on her skin, but I did, as evidenced, now, by my utter inability to shut up about my time there. It lingers in the back of my throat and in my ear, the tick of a clock tower, or tea on my tongue. I miss it. In this tumultuous time, my memory of Liverpool is my own little safe harbor, a city of could-have-beens and yet-to-bes.
Celia Daniels is pursuing a Masters in Literature at the University of Toledo. More of her travel writing can be found in Road Maps and Life Rafts; with other publications appearing in Entropy, The Molotov Cocktail, Timeless Tales, Claudius Speaks, and more.