Fat Balls & A Lost Wedding Ring at a Sheffield Retail Park

LOCATION: Sheffield

WORDS: Gareth E. Rees

My third book Car Park Life is forthcoming on Influx Press – details here – described as “A retail park Heart of Darkness” (John Grindrod)”.

To celebrate this, and also the pronouncement of my divorce yesterday, here’s a piece that’s not in the book, all about a trip to Sheffield in 2015 in which, ominously, I lost my wedding ring.

Sheffield University is my alma mater. I studied English Literature there from ’92 until ’95. It was a period of great disruption. The Supertram was under construction, tearing up roads in the city centre and leaving formerly buzzing student areas abandoned.

Of course, you build your own city-within-a-city when you’re a student. We found corners with good jukeboxes, pool tables and cheap beer. We constructed fruitful lines of transit between the English department buildings, boozers, and wherever we lived. We had fun.

Twenty years on, I am back for the launch of Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography, a book for which I’ve contributed a chapter. After the the post-event boozing, I sleep deeply in the Premier Inn and awake with a notion that I should visit a retail car park while I’m here.  

I shove my stuff into my knapsack and embark on a long walk through the city, past the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield Hallam Uni and The Leadmill until I reach a giant inflatable T-Rex which welcomes me to Queen’s Road.

This road runs south alongside, then over, the River Sheaf, which gave the city its name. Sheaf comes from the Od English word for boundary and the river was once the border between the Anglo Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria. In medieaval times, corn mills were built along the river and, after the industrial revolution, works for forging steel for cutlery.

In 1905 the Queens Road works opened, where they built the original Sheffield trams, grand buildings guarded by two stone lions, which were demolished in the 1990s, at the same time as the city brought back – at huge cost – the tramways it had abandoned decades ago. The road now combines small Victorian worker terraces on one side, with old brick factories and warehouses on the riverside, interspersed with newer retail buildings like B&Q and Asda, each with their attendant car parks, gates and access roads.

I notice that the Big Yellow Storage company now offer to store students in their facilities over the holidays, which I imagine is convenient, though uncomfortable for the students.

To get the measure of this road, I keep walking along the river, stopping every now and then to read steel tourist information plaques with embossed details of the city’s official history. Eventually, I reach an area of independent hardware stores, mechanics garages, prohibitive-looking pubs and dank furniture warehouses, where the smell of sizzling bacon fills the air and burly men come and go.

This area is known as Heeley Bottom, once a major shopping centre, with a train delivering visitors to Heeley Station from Derbyshire. It feels like a relic, a museum of retail long gone in a time before cars and road networks dominated the flow of commerce and rails and rivers were the conduits connecting hubs of community.

On the road behind me is a second hand car dealership and a shabby, closed shop plastered in posters, two of which implore the viewer to VOTE ZOGG, related to some psytrance event four years previously. The top floor of the building is painted a dismal black with a sign that says: The School of Holistic Therapy: Total Quality Within, which sounds like it should be a song from The Fall’s 1990s output.

This is more like the Sheffield I remember. But it’s not nostalgia I feel. More a sense that what has been overlayed in recent years….the shiny slab of gourmet café culture in the city centre… is fake somehow. Temporal. A delusion. Behind that façade is a darker truth, suggested by this closed shop front.

Below me, on a red brick wall at the River’ Sheaf’s edge, there is a poem in white chalk. The text on the left obscured by buddleia, but here is what I can make out. 

…MASS INTO ILLUSION IS TO SLEEP 

…DESTINATIONS WAKE ALONG THE PRE 

…CHANNELS OF A CYCLICAL STREAM; TO 

…ISOLATION’S TRUTH IS TO BELIEVE 

…THING NOT DROWNING FOREVER 

…THE TRANQUILLITY OF DREAM 

The person who wrote that must have been standing waist high in the water at the time, or on a vessel small enough to navigate the narrow, strangled channel. Such is the urge to create site-specific literature, a poem about a stream in a stream, purely to be read by anyone who happens to chance a look downwards and take the time to read. 

I instinctively tap railing with my wedding ring finger, and am surprised it makes no sound, for there is no wedding ring on my finger.

I am absolutely positive I was wearing it yesterday, as I wear it pretty much every day, though I take it off sometimes as it’s a bulky gold band that gets sweaty and until I got married I had never worn jewellery of any kind. For the first few years of marriage I was painfully aware of its presence. The discomfort of the ring was symptomatic of newness, uncertainty, trepidation. But seven years on I was more aware of when it was not on my finger than when it was, representing a phase of comfort in the marital skin.

And yet I am not wearing the ring today in Sheffield, and I don’t know why, or where the ring could be.

I rummage through my backpack several times. Check my pockets vigorously. Nothing. Gripped by a mild panic, I consider returning to the Premier Inn, but I have car parks to explore in this brief window of opportunity before I return home to the South.

I dismiss thoughts of the ring and enter the southern entrance of the Queens Road Retail Park where three superstores share a car park, bordered by low wall and a sea of topiary, sprinkled with falling leaves, the first signs of autumn. Dreams: The Bed Specialist has an appropriately sleepy car park with the sum total of one car parked in it. 

Nearby, pale blue bollard posts surround a hole in the tarmac where a tree must have been. The dream of I tree, I suppose.

Next door is Netto, the Danish discount supermarket, bought by Asda in 2010, with its luminescent yellow signage and a bizarre logo of a dog drinking from cup with a straw, plastered in every window. Among a small display of pot plants outside the automatic doors is a stack of what are described as ‘COUNTRYSIDE FAT BALLS’.

I’ve never been to a Netto before. It could be something lost in translation from Danish culture, but it feels like it’s taking the piss. A slogan on the window reads:  

‘nice things in a nice shop at a nice price’ 

There are many more cars parked outside Magnet, the kitchen showroom. Two gently flapping sail signs with the shop name on them are weighed down with sandbags. Next to them is another sign that says:

WHERE IS YOUR WEDDING RING, GARETH?

As I take a few pointless photos outside Poundstretcher, I am mocked by two men loading carpets into truck, striking saucy poses and cackling loudly. I give them a fuckoff smile and move out through the main entrance onto Queen’s road, which is guarded by two statutes: the Mad Hatter and Queen of Hearts.

It’s a piece of public art that was created in a retail unit in this location by Vega Bermejo in 1994. On the other side of the road behind me are boarded up shops in the Victorian terrace, a mobile phone card shop and a new store called WHERE IS MY FUCKING WEDDING RING? 

I enter a new area of the retail park with KFC, United Carpets, B&Q and Asda. There’s a dead space to the left of Asda, between the flank of the store and the hill up to the railway bridge. The emptiness is bleak. I wonder where my wedding ring is and if I’ve lost it forever.

Forlorn , I climb up the steps onto road and look down at the B&Q car park by the railway, dotted with autumnal brown trees and scored with faded white lines, empty of cars, except for a cluster of white vans.

There’s a desire path by the bus stop in front of me, cutting through a steep verge littered with butts, wrappers, cans and bus tickets. People must get off the bus and crash straight down the slope into the car park, like someone elated at finding a lost wedding ring, or chasing after a wedding ring thief.

I follow the desire path, joylessly, like a man who has no wedding ring, then into the car park, along the high mesh fence by the area where they sell logs, plants, garden sheds and products of that ilk. Someone has written ‘trouble makers’ on the wall.

A Perspex walkway leads me to the store entrance, lined with black-and-orange bollards, some bent, others smashed. Presumably this has done by those heavy weight trolleys that customers get in B&Q. 

It’s even worse at the base of the orange steel pillars that hold up the roof, swathed in gaffer tape. More trolley damage? A car crash perhaps? Does anyone really care?

And where’s my wedding ring?

My best chance is that it’s in the hotel room I vacated this morning, which means that the cleaner has hoovered it up, half-inched it, or handed it in.

Really I should go back.

Further on, I reach the B&Q trade outlet. Men in paint-stained trousers. A sound of squeaking and grinding gears from a van juddering backwards, doors open, long plank of wood jutting out like a proboscis.

A sign on the wall says, B&Q Plc accept no responsibility for loss or damage to vehicles or property in the car park.

I bet they bloody don’t. This would be the worst place to lose a wedding ring. The worst. 

I take the long trudge back to the Premier Inn, idly scanning the pavement for wedding rings, just in case it fell off my finger. In reception, I explain the issue and they tell me the room hasn’t been cleaned yet. They’ll phone up. Five minutes later a cleaner comes down and nonchalantly hands me my wedding ring.

“There you go.” 

Relieved, but annoyed now that I have wasted the past hour thinking about it instead of focusing on car parks, my true love, I slip it into my finger.

It’s a lucky sign. Despite some recent set-backs, everything is going to be okay with my marriage.

We’ll be together forever.   

I’m sure of it.

Car Park Life is out in October, published by Influx Press. To pre-order a copy, click here.

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