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Lyrics and Life

By Caitlin Ward


Ferry Cross the Mersey
Gerry & the Pacemakers

Life goes on day after day
Hearts torn in every way

So ferry, cross the Mersey
’Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay

People they rush everywhere
Each with their own secret care

So ferry, cross the Mersey
And always take me there
The place I love

People around every corner
They seem to smile and say
We don’t care what your name is boy
We’ll never turn you away

So I’ll continue to say
Here I always will stay

So ferry, cross the Mersey
’Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay
And here I’ll stay
Here I’ll stay

He knocked on my car window. Said “hey,” rather loudly, and then laughed after I said “hello . . .?” back.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like HEYO,” he said.

I said it was fine. It was after midnight, though, and outside a 7-eleven, so I was a little startled.

He asked me if I had two dollars. He asked me if I wanted to hear a joke, and came out with something that had something to do with a million dollars and two dollars, and when I looked at him uncomprehendingly, he laughed again.

I was running out to pick up a chocolate bar for a cake I’d decided to bake at 11 o’clock that night. It was my friend’s birthday the next day.

I didn’t have two dollars. I rarely carry cash. Once upon a time in this situation I’d offer the fellow a cigarette, so I asked him if he wanted that. I bought a pack of Number 7 Reds along with my baking ingredients and went outside.

I worked out his name was Jordan — not because he’d introduced himself, but because he started telling me stories about himself, told me how his foreman told him not to pick up that 47-pound slab after his knee made that cracking sound.

“ ‘Jordan,’ he said. ‘Jordan, that’ll wreck your knee,’ ” Jordan said to me. He said that’s why he was out of work.

I kept trying to get into my car, but I ended up standing outside, right foot in the car and left foot on the asphalt, leaning on the open door, listening to him talk about how he didn’t like to live with his auntie because he didn’t want to wipe his nephews’ bums, how the doctor made him get an HIV test but he was clean, how the doctor told him he had the brain of a 50-year-old because he’d done so many drugs, how he didn’t like to drink but he thought he should get drunk because maybe he could stay in the Lighthouse tonight that way. He explained to me how to write a resumé, how to apply for a job, how to dress appropriately for your position.

I kept trying to say goodbye, but I couldn’t find a break in the monologue. It was only when he made a racist comment about Pakistani people that I’d decided I’d exit the conversation. I wished him a good night.

I’m notorious for having “a face like that,” whatever that means. When I lived in London people often came up to me, asking for change; asking me to help them phone the shelter where they lived; asking me to listen to them, more often than not.

My sister said I should come out to the small city where she lived. She told me it wasn’t like that there and if I wanted to sit outside and have a coffee I wouldn’t be approached.

The first time I ventured out on my own when I was visiting her, I sat outside a café, packet of cigarettes and black coffee. Within 20 minutes a man who looked to be in his 60s but was more likely in his 40s sat opposite me at the table. If the word “grizzled” were a person, it would have been him. A line of tiny crosses the colour of a ballpoint blue Bic pen were tattooed over his eyebrows. He cradled his left wrist, purple and swollen, clearly broken. He slurred his words. He sat with me for the better part of an hour. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember at the end of that hour he asked me if he could have 20p. I gave him a pound.

Lately I’ve been reading a memoir my mother introduced to me many years ago — a series of four books by Helen Forrester about growing up impoverished in Liverpool in the 1930s and during the Second World War: Twopence to Cross the Mersey, Liverpool Miss, By the Waters of Liverpool, and Lime Street Station at Two. Her family, living in the south of England, had been wealthy and feckless; when they lost everything in the 1929 crash they had no skills to rely upon, and fled to the city of her father’s birth, Liverpool. They couldn’t manage their money; they treated Forrester, as the eldest, quite cruelly. The family spent the entirety of the 1930s crawling out of destitution and constantly backsliding because of their parents’ shortcomings. In the books, the sense of physical deprivation is constant and palpable, and Forrester is very matter-of-fact about it. She is always hungry and always cold. Liverpool Miss opens with a description of Forrester taking her youngest siblings out in a baby carriage, and having to stand up very straight while she walked for fear that people on the street would realize she didn’t have any knickers — not that she didn’t happen to have any on. That she didn’t own a pair.

What underlies the narrative, though, and is not nearly as explicitly stated, is how lonely she clearly was. Her family was a greater source of frustration and sorrow than consolation. In all four books, only one friend appears regularly — a young woman she meets while working as an office girl at a charity. Cultivating friendships takes time and money and stability, all of which are luxuries in the Liverpool slum she inhabits. The friendliness suggested in Gerry & the Pacemakers songs, written some 30 years later, must have come from the stability of the welfare state.

In the end, what drives Forrester to the brink of a nervous breakdown at the age of 20 is not the constant hunger of the past nine years, not sleeping under a worn old coat and on balled up newspapers instead of under sheets and on a mattress. It’s the lack of dignity her mother affords her, the loneliness of her life, the unfairness of her treatment compared to her six brothers and sisters.

I will not pretend I can understand how any of this actually feels: the physical deprivation, the social deprivation, the feeling of profound instability. But these books by Helen Forrester, and that man outside the Costa in Cambridge so many years ago, and this fellow Jordan: they do make me wonder if for some people, listening for 10 minutes counts more than the change in your pocket.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at