Although it is only September, there has been a certain nippiness to the last few Aberdonian mornings. If I believed the weather app on my phone – and the state of my ears when my brisk twenty minute walk ends with my bum at my office desk suggests that this is the case – it has barely been warmer than 7 deg C on each of the last few mornings I have walked in to work. Besides the early morning chill, fall has remained frustratingly true to type; too warm to warrant breaking out the full shebang of a knee length winter coat, but yet too cold to be out and about with only a wind breaker for protection. If how many people already sport winter coats is anything to go by, I’m up there in the upper 10% in the hardiness stakes. When it slips out in an unguarded moment of banter with my mother, she thinks it is silly. I suspect all it will take to prove her right is coming down with the flu, if history is any judge, a clogged nose awaits me in the not too distant future.
One of those days, on my way back from work, I make a detour to the Co-op on Union to grab some mid-week groceries and end up running into an old acquaintance from a previous work project who has since moved on to other things. Hands filled with bags of fruit and all the other things a culinarily challenged single bloke stuffs himself with on a Thursday night, we stand just outside The Monkey House and chat. We eventually end up talking work, the people changes in my current neck of the woods and the prospects of pastures new further afield, and with almost his last words before he hops off in pursuit of his bus, he leaves me with a statement which is both true and depressing in equal measure; more depressing because a few weeks earlier a departing member of my work team – and there have been quite a few over this summer of discontent – had said something similar in pretty much the same words.
Saturday brings some respite from the fall weather, and the sun peeks out long enough to brings some cheer and warmth. Encouraged by that, and enticed by the opportunity to eyeball dolled up bridesmaids, free food and hang with the lads, I make my way to the Music Hall to attend a wedding reception. The lad signing away his freedom is a friend from work, and if what we’ve heard is true, it promises to be a pretty massive celebration in the Egba tradition. After a close to two hour wait, we eventually gain access to the reception venue and find out I have the ‘misfortune’ of being sat at a table between my friend O, his friend K and two very married women with children. The closest thing to eye candy is a full table away, and is involved in a very animated conversation with a dapper bloke in a black suit and a bow-tie. When the party gets started it doesn’t disappoint. Each dignitary and family member introduced is led to the ‘high table’ with a song and a dance – the mother of the groom dances in from a side entrance to the rear of the hall before dancing all the way back up front and then onto her seat, flanked by her not inconsiderable entourage. The bride and the groom dance in too, eventually, sashaying to a selection of songs topped off by the apt, if the worldview implications do not rile your sensibilities that is, P Square song Chop my Moni. The rest of us with severely limited dancing abilities watch from afar and applaud the contortions and the agility with which they are performed, in what precious little space the various photographers and an iPad wielding family member afford us.
Food and drinks arrive in due course – catfish pepper soup chased down with apple juice and then a buffet of epic proportions containing rice in all shades and forms and – rumour had it – pounded yam and egusi soup for those in the know. The best man might have had a little too much to drink because when he kicks off the toasting his ramble segues into decidedly dodgy territory, the groom’s prior relationships and liaisons taking centre stage. He does recover gracefully though and completes the toast without spilling any salacious details.
It is a few minutes past seven pm when I nod my goodbyes to the people I have shared a table with, collect my things and head out on to the still relatively busy streets. There is a slight chill beginning to descend as sunset approaches and I stuff my hands in my pockets to keep them warm; my choice of a simple blazer proving not quite as wise as I’d thought at first. As I walk briskly down Union towards my simple lodgings, the one thought I have been trying to retrieve from the dark parts of my memory finally surfaces – it’s almost a year to the day since, running into today’s groom at a house warming party, he’d excitedly mentioned he’d met the One. As I recall, I had smirked inwardly at the time.
An altogether forgettable weekend – and at my age they all are – is bookended by a pit stop at Union Square for lunch with a friend of a friend. A random conversation a couple of weeks ago about (yet another) mutual friend and my lack of proactivity had ended up in a challenge of sorts being issued in my direction. Three phone calls later – with a few text messages thrown in – I end up making my way up the stairs towards the safe bet that is Nandos for a quick bite and chat. I arrive early – knowing Union Square, getting a table can be a hassle on sunny Sunday afternoons – the added advantage being that I get to see her first, and the satisfaction that she fits the image I have of her in my head. We order simple food – lime and herb flavoured chicken with a mixed leaf salad for me and a ratatouille for her and bottomless drinks and make small talk over the course of an hour and a half. All told it is a pleasant afternoon, and but for the fact that I have dodgy genes, and family history I would already be inventing scenarios involving white picket fences and 2.1 kids in my head. 🙂 Given the choice, I would most certainly like an encore by all accounts.
My friend O arrives at my house a few minutes after I get home. His wife has visitors from church – all women- and he takes the opportunity to make himself scare. Being just around the corner from him, I end up being the default host. We settle in to catch up, and the subject of Nigeria inevitably comes up. The shambolic showing at the Olympics gets our juices agitated especially, and we end up throwing in the mis-use of federal character and the educationally less developed state criterion to water down academy entry requirements in Nigeria. The one thing that this guarantees is that it leaves us unduly agitated and down right depressed at the cesspool that is Nigeria.
All too soon, between grocery shopping, church and marathon football manager saves, the weekend runs away and it is 8.30pm on a Sunday night – inevitably bringing the spectre of Monday morning front and centre to my mind. It’s the second week since the paths of Ms Bitchy Boss from my Nigerian assignment and mine have crossed again, almost five years apart. It turns out that I am not the only one with whom she has history. It has been a quiet return so far, deep down in my mind, her return is just another more incentive to take that PhD search a tad bit more seriously.
I struggled to not slip into an overly pessimistic, dystopian view of Nigeria with all its troubles. In the few intervening years I have been away, the Nigerian tragedy has hit close home. As with most other people, it turned out that the Dana air crash had claimed a fairly recent acquaintance of my father’s as it did a couple of friends of friends of Sister #1. It also transpired that she – whether by some quirk of fate, divine orchestration, or plain old chance – had resigned from her poorly paid job as a doctor in the police officers hospital the Friday before the Monday Boko Haram’s bloodbath hit the IG’s offices. One day late and that could have gotten really personal.
The kidnap-for-ransom scourge has also hit close home. Only a few months before I popped into town, a friend of the family had been snatched at gunpoint and whisked to an unknown destination. Thankfully, the small matter of a few millions helped salvage his life, and avert what could have been a major disaster. Around town, I was baffled by the long queues at the ATMs in my little corner of the world, until I was told that the banks had been hit by armed robbers so many times they had scaled down to maintaining only skeletal services. Apparently, the ATMs were the only functional banking facilities left in town.
Uncle P, usually the unequivocal great Nigeria apologist, was a lot more mellow this time, conceding that we (minorities in a minority state) seemingly had little place in the ongoing evolution of Nigeria. Apparently a few changes at work had opened up his eyes to the harsh reality of just how ethnically fractured, and political, working in Nigeria really was.
I would be remiss to think that portions of my family were not part of the problem. My last morning at Aunt G’s house she, typically the quintessential dedicated teacher, was still sipping her cup of Earl Grey’s by 9.00am. I didn’t have the heart to issue a scathing rebuke in respect of her slipping work ethic – in the harsh brightness of the morning light, the grey in her hair and the lines etched by years of unrequited hard work were very obvious. I got the impression she had simply given up working hard whilst waiting for a reward that may or may not only be in heaven. My unwillingness to take her up on that might also not have been unrelated to the hour long grilling I got on the subject of the failed dalliance with F.
Midway through Sister #2’s wedding, as the hall swelled beyond its capacity, I took the opportunity to give up my seat to one of the Professors whose sense of African time was impeccable and headed outside to get some fresh air. I ended up sitting at one end of a wooden bench with the kid brother on the other side and the niece in between. I should have known being in such an exposed location was an unwise move – an error of judgement I paid very dearly for when I was cornered by an old teacher of mine. She was quite excited that I had managed to make it home – she had studied at Newcastle very many years ago and was keen to swap observations on the city. I did my best to sound measured and intelligent, as did she, before our conversation eventually segued into the present and what we were all up to. She was keen to understand my motivations for leaving the job I used to have – I gave her my usual seeking a technical challenge answer – which didn’t exactly convince her as I could see. Her boys, all three of them had been contemporaries of mine; one was now stateside and was married with three children, the middle one stilled worked at my old company in Lagos and the little one was now chasing a PhD in Wales. He had been a headstrong, unruly teenager the last time I saw him, keener to hang at the local game arcades that were springing up at the time than to study. She, like almost every one else who cornered me, wrapped up her little ‘homily’ by tossing in a reminder that as all the women were now gone, it was up to us lads to provide the next wedding.
My trusty old blackberry – packed almost as an afterthought – ended up proving the saviour on many a bored day, so much so that I was sorely tempted to switch to a BB plan on my return. Commonsense, and all the reasons I retired it in the first place eventually won over any nostalgic attachments to the device.
In a sense this wasn’t about chasing the abstraction of closure, rather it was about re-memory and reacquainting myself with the past in all its reiterations and reinventions. It was about time, and its passage, and how nothing seemed to have changed visibly and of how only when one looked back at the past from a sufficiently distant future reference point was it possible to see that life had evolved. I do not remember, but I suspect I once read somewhere that:
‘Time passes, and in it’s wake leaves no marks as to its passage – but in the faces of the ones that we have known for the longest of times we see etched in the wrinkles and the receded, greyed hair lines that time in passing has lulled us in a false sense of sameness, but in the births and deaths, we find that life reinvents itself again and again.
This was something that I learned over and over again.
You know that the bride’s wedding gown will be ultra conservative as will be those for the bridal train. There will be no low cut, cleavage accentuating,
eye candy-ish, strapless nonsense, and the hems will be at least an inch below the knee.
You know that there will be at least ten different preachers – each with the belief that he is a colossus in his own right – and where both bride and groom are PKs, they might be nearer fifty than not. You know that the program will be tweaked to provide an opportunity for every one of them to do something – give a word of admonition, pray, or lead the reading of the vows, or take a thanksgiving offering. You know that every speech and every prayer will be interminably long, as though there were an unofficial contest with a prize for the longest, most colourful speech. You know that it will be baking hot, and dry, because the powers that be have ‘decreed’ that there will be no rain.
You know that there will be a whole lot of non-subtle symbolic references – the bride and groom feeding each other will be reinvented as a holy communion, and the first dance will be a thanksgiving dance, not just a dance.
You know that the Mothers in Israel will be visible, and not just for the intricate whorls and loops of their obstructive head gear. You know that there will be oddly timed shouts of hallelujah, accompanied by hand clapping and the garish sounds of tambourines gone berserk. And when every one lines up to dance out to the front for the offering they will hold up the line by their unbridled dancing.
You know that the lead Bishop will arrive late, sweeping in with his entourage of bible carriers and anointing oil holders. You know that it will be as though someone pressed a big reset button, and oblivious of the baking heat he will insist on laying hands and praying all over again.
You know that the two hour service will stretch into three, and only some quick thinking will prevent it from extending even further. You know the picture taking session will be a full event in and of itself – the youth choir she once led will want a separate picture, as will all of the spiritual heavyweights who have ‘sown into her life’.
And you know, that somewhere on row 76, in the crevice formed by the junction of the half open side door and a disused speaker, there will be a bloke slouched in a chair, his unruly hair the least of the oddities around him, alternately squinting and then stifling a yawn, and every now and then scribbling frantically inside his little black book.