The glint in her eye
Belies the set of her jaw
Lovingly, she leaves
For the first few days, all it is a mesh panel fence, one which cordons off the central area of Castlegate. Given my path to work takes me past it everyday, what it is or is not intrigues me to no end. By the time I am heading into work on Wednesday morning, its purpose becomes clear. It is a tent for staging Aberdeen’s version of Oktoberfest, the all out celebration of all things German beer related, which is back in the city between the 12th and the 16th. As I make my way back home just past 6.30 on Wednesday evening, I can just make out the silhouettes of people milling about inside it, music and the sounds of people having a good craik. For what it is worth, despite not being a beer person – my choice of beverage is a gin and tonic – the sneak preview tempts me a wee bit, but the need to keep a clear head for work the next day keeps me straight. I make a mental note to check again on Friday evening, if it still catches my fancy.
I suppose the timing is fortuitous; the Scottish Autumn school holidays mean that perhaps parents and grand parents can afford a longer lie in the next day rather than worry about getting kids prepped for school. Scores of people have clearly taken advantage of all that, judging by the distinct lack of cover at work due to holidays and Union Square being filled with folk milling about. The situation with bodies milling about only worsens on Thursday evening when O and I meet up for our monthly catch up – even he has three days off work. In a sense it falls us on us wife-less, kid-less folks to keep things ticking, until a sense of normalcy returns. O does have an interesting theory about the timing of the holidays – it is a relic from the days when Scotland predominantly farmed, and all hands were required to pull in the harvests, young child or not. How much truth there is in that I do not know enough to tell, make of that what you will.
Of all the known and unknown things, none is perhaps more certain than that Summer 2016 is well and truly gone. As a consequence of my fairly steady morning routine, I cross Palmerston Road on the way to work at about the same time as a gaggle of people, disgorged by the trains bringing them into work. What has intrigued me is seeing how the light windbreakers of spring which morphed into slim fitted shirts and the odd tank top have come full circle, now being replaced by proper winter jackets. Highs of 11 deg C, wet weather and the attendant bone chilling wind will do that to any sane person, even though all that is a matter of degree I suspect. For what its worth, I have held off on the heating at home, even though wearing a jumper into work does have its advantages, chief of which has to be the ability to hide a crumpled shirt (and save on precious morning prep time). The downside though is that my running streak has come to an abrupt end, not helped by the break imposed by being offshore a short while ago. I’d like to think I can find a way to work around that, unless as my friends insist it has all been an elaborate search for a big excuse.
Sometime ago, not without some misgivings I must add, I moved desks at work, all part of the new re-stacking policy designed around optimising our use of space. Following the move, I went from a desk which looked on into the central corridor with my computer facing away from the door to one where my view was the bus station across the road. The view was decidedly an upgrade, what came with it though was a sense of being blinded to people milling about behind me and coming in to meet me, particularly on the occasions when I have my head phones plugged in to maximise my concentration.
Enter the weirdest – but most useful gift – I’ve ever been given; a mirror which stuck to the top of my monitor resolves the blind spot around the things behind me. Given to me by the previous occupant of my desk, it now means I have the best of both worlds, a decent view and a significantly lower risk of being blindsided by people door stepping me from behind. Bliss.
S and I share an inside joke from time to time, centred around ageing – gracefully or otherwise, depending on which of us the joke is on. Things like falling asleep in the middle of a conversation, emoji related faux pas, or particularly weird and wonderful auto correct generated communication mishaps bring the joke up; mostly at my expense given my penchant for WhatsApp typos. The latest instalment of this long running joke was precipitated by a typo in a long string of text I sent, Dear somehow becoming Deer. To her credit she waited all day till the evening to point it out, the conversation which ensued taking a different tenor, one which went down the lines of pondering the etymology of names lovebirds call themselves rather than focusing on my latest foible.
It is an interesting subject, I think, given what the range of the literal meanings to the ones I pick up from conversations around friends and their significant others can be: defenceless objects which need protection (baby, doll?), unhealthy sweet things (honey, sugar, candy?) and objects of worth (gold, diamond, precious).
In the end, I dig myself out of that hole by referring S to the Songs of Solomon; that provides validation of deer, and the parts thereof as a metaphor for love. 🙂
They board at West Silvertown, they being a little girl and someone I assume must be her older brother. She is dressed in what looks like her school uniform, and has a bright pink backpack with some child super hero of some description on it. He on the other hand has huge beats headphones on, and an iPhone in his hand, clearly listening to something. Once aboard and settled in – it is standing room only – she tries to peer into whatever it is on his phone, an act he prevents by moving his phone outside her reach. That attempt at playful, sibling bonding on her part, and an insistent aloofness on his part is a pattern that repeats itself as we chug along towards Ilford where we all disembark. My tired, cynical mind – work, a flight up from the ‘Deen to London City and then this train ride have taken their toll – goes to work analysing the situation, the conclusion being that he has been tasked with getting his little sister home, a task he considers an intrusion on his own plans and space. Not quite content with that, she being the energetic, doting little sister wants his attention but his phone and whoever is on the other end are more important in the moment.
With time, I suspect that he will learn that family trumps the heady heights of young love, and that in ten, fifteen or twenty years time she will still be kicking about in his life, the person on the other end, most likely not.
Sometime last week, I found myself waiting in what was wet, grey and windy weather – typical summer fare for this part of the world – waiting for a taxi I had requested. As I had arrived downstairs a few minutes after 8.30 am when I had ordered the taxi for, I was a little uncertain as to if he had been and left or was yet to arrive. He turned up at 8.40 am, by which time I had come close to phoning the taxi company to confirm if I had missed my ride. The cab ride which followed – all 45 minutes of it – was spent in a gloomy silence, the tension in the taxi palpable. I’m sure he meant no ill, much as I didn’t either but something about the circumstances under which we met seemed to have soured our taxi driver-passenger relationship. That he had all sorts of weird tattoos on his arms, drove with only one hand on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead didn’t help break the ice either, I suspect.
Due to a variety of reasons, I spend a significant amount of time in cabs these days. The main driver for this is having to support multiple projects and gather input from a number of vendors and suppliers across town. This allied to my ‘refusal’ to drive during the week means a lot of my work related travel during the week is by cabs. There isn’t a philosophical point behind not driving during the week; there is a practical one though. Not driving allows me avoid the hassles of trying to find city centre parking on a weekday as well as ticking the thirty minutes of exercise a day box. There is also the small matter of the extra cash my employer gives me in support of my ecological choices as an incentive. 🙂
In the main I find that cab drivers can be great talkers; keen to share their knowledge of the city and the ‘shire, and how those have changed over the years. More often than not, those conversations end up centred around the weather, football and past and future holidays. Politics, mainly the slagging off of politicians, makes an appearance on the odd occasion we decide we want to engage in less fluffy stuff. These make for an often congenial, if conspiratorial atmosphere with off colour jokes often excused. Swearing is almost a given in these conversations, particularly where football or other road users – deeply emotive subjects from the sounds of it – are involved.
Thankfully, the two other occasions I needed to take cabs last week panned out much better. On one occasion, I got a boisterous Hungarian for company for the drive up the A96 to Blackburn. There was plenty to yak about – the fallout of the Brexit vote (he was worried about his fate as an EU National who had lived in the UK for less than 6 months), the weather (apparently it was in the high twenties in Hungary whilst the thermometer barely touched fifteen degrees out here), football (Ferenc Puskas perhaps the first true football great was Hungarian) and the global war on terror (his mate back in Hungary who is a military reservist had been called in for exercises). On a personal note, he recommended a holiday in Debrecen to me. The selling point? Hungarian women like foreign men..
The other occasion featured a once-retired IT Engineer who had built a business selling copiers in the early 90’s before selling up and retiring. Bored with the retired life, he had taken to taxi driving as a side gig to keep himself busy for when he wasn’t traveling to visit what sounded like a large extended family. It turned out he was headed to Bulgaria on holiday in a few weeks, which was the cue for more Brexit focused natter. The slow cab market, following the decline of oil did make an appearance. The decidedly pedestrian performance put up by the Aberdeen football club in Luxembourg the other day, resulting in a skin of the bum 3-2 aggregate win was a sore subject with taxi driver number two, particularly given the fact that last season seemed like a missed opportunity as Celtic limped to a title they seemed keener to throw away than wrap up. There’s nothing like good football based natter to lift the soul – everyone this side of the pond has an opinion on all things football related after all.
All told, by the time the week ended, my faith in the taxi driver as a source of information and great banter was restored. All’s well with the world again.. 🙂
The quote above had only been posted to a Whatsapp group I’m part of for all of an hour before it set off a firestorm. The bone of contention was Anais Nin’s body of work, (probably rightly) deemed inappropriate for the context in which it was posted (it’s a group filled with the super spiritual folk I serve alongside on my church’s tech and media team).
I made a spirited attempt at defending the value of her body of work – risque subject and bohemian lifestyle notwithstanding – a position which left me just short of getting my knuckles rapped. I started typing a lengthy response in the group but did the sensible thing and backed off, taking the time to ponder what I felt was a wider philosophical question: can an artist’s lifestyle be decoupled from their body of work? Or even certain elements of that body work?
I think the answer has to be Yes. I’m a firm believer that one can learn from anything; good, bad or indifferent. This is perhaps never more obvious than in the context of words which can – and should be taken on their own merits, untainted by the trappings and baggage of their author. The test of the validity – and usefulness of words for learning – should be if they clarify any objective realities and are true in any sense of the word. Sometimes, the learning value can be unintended but the point has to be that by drawing a line and proscribing certain works because of their authors, we lose part of the vitality of a robust conversation. For what it’s worth the biblical Solomon lived as wanton a life as could be, one so enamoured of the female body that he warehoused a thousand of them but did manage to contribute two books to the bible, both which are replete with absolute gems which shine a light on human behaviour. His enduring quality has to be the cynicism and candor with which he reflected on life.
Lesson learned – to always consider the wider context and the audience before sharing stuff – I have lived to fight another day 🙂
That my relationship with Nigeria is somewhere between strained and non-existent is something I have made no bones about time and time again. That sense of lostness rather than easing with time has only become stronger, the key events in my life over the last few years – Newcastle, the bookend to a horrendous year of work and the somewhat forced decision to not return to the bedlam and then H – all chipping away at what bonds are left, leaving them increasingly tenuous.
H’s passing cast a long pall over the last time I was here, so much so that by the time it was all done and dusted the sense was very much one of reeling and sinking, waiting for rock bottom to hit. The hope, as perverse as it might sound, was that hitting rock bottom would be the jolt to initiate a search for a new normal. There is the sense that a new normal of sorts has taken shape, somehow emerging without much intentionality on my part from the bits and bobs of life and duty that I have had to deal with. A significant part of that new normal for me has been very much work focused, part of why it has taken this long to plan a return here; the opportunity to take a week off work only presenting itself now that I have managed to shift perhaps my biggest work deliverable on to its next phase. The objectives for this trip are a lot happier than the last time – a wedding in Lagos (someone I claim somewhat loosely as a protégé) has thrown up the intriguing prospect that I might run into people I haven’t seen in far longer than I care to admit. There is also the opportunity to catch up with very special work mates whom I haven’t seen since 2011 and the niece I’ve never seen, #4, who is all of seven months old.
Everyone I tell I am going to Lagos has a cautionary tale for me bar L (whose opinion I suspect lacks any real objectivity). Mrs O, the latest in a long line of naysayers, regales me with tales of long queues for petrol, the near absence of power and the heat. She should know first hand as she has just come back from a 17-day sojourn. At work, G jokes that he’d be glad to be rid of me forever if I get kidnapped. We laugh it off at banter but when in speaking to my sister she mentions in passing the kidnap of yet another not so well off, but publicly visible person, in the area I grew up in, I wonder if it is indeed the right thing to be doing. In the end my self belief in my ability to blend in wins – I am sure I haven’t changed so much as to stand out like a sore thumb. That my pidgin English still remains impeccable and I intend to turn up in jeans and a very crumpled t-shirt all add additional layers of comfort around my decision.
– – –
In keeping with the desire to minimise the disruption this trip brings to my new normal, my entire strategy has been based around flying with only carry-on luggage. That informs every decision I make; from buying a new cabin sized travel bag, to restricting my gift buying to 10 Peppa pig books for my nieces, and the plan to turn up at the wedding in jeans and a blazer. When I tell C the latter, she considers it the latest in a long line of fashion faux pas. I ask the twitterverse for a second opinion, but quickly give up on that as the consensus that is reached only confirms the need for a proper suit. That is how I end up getting fitted for a suit at 5.30 pm the day before I am due to fly.
Between arriving and leaving over £210 lighter, I get to hear of the sales assistant’s Nigerian connection – grandparents who ran a franchise of saw mills in Sapele, and a dad who spent time between the ages of 7 and 18 in Nigeria. We swap stories about the great home brewed liquids and reminisce about just how different Sapele is today from the one his father knew as I run my card through the card reader and pay. So completely taken in by everything am I that it is only when I get home I realise that this jeopardises my 2 bag carry on allowance. I spend the bulk of the evening googling furiously, ending up watching YouTube videos which purport to show us how to pack a suit in carry-on suitcase without ruining it. In the end I decide to take my chances.
– – –
I toy with the thought of calling a taxi for a 5.00 am pickup given my flight out of Aberdeen is at 6.45 am. In the end my inner
gambler miser drives the decision to take my chances with the 727 from Broad Street. The next morning my alarm goes off at 4.00 am, by which time I have already been up for half an hour. That is not enough to prevent me from missing the 4.30 am bus. By the time the next one comes around at 5.05 am, I am biting my nails and kicking myself for gambling. In the end I manage to make it through security by 5.45 am, aided by the fact that I do not have any luggage to check in.
Safely through, I chase down a flapjack and a coffee to wake myself up properly. I am in the middle of that when a woman approaches me to share the seat at the corner of the airport I am plopped in. I suspect she has chosen to come my way because I happen to be the only visible black face in the not-quite-filled airport at that time. I nod a greeting whilst trying to swallow as she sits down, hands folded in her lap, bags in front of her. When she senses I am able to talk – flapjack downed – she asks if I am headed to London. When I reply in the affirmative, I sense that she is relieved, more so when she finds out I am going all the way to Lagos. We end up being travel companions through to Heathrow and until we board the Lagos flight. Her enthusiasm for the trip is palpable – in the various conversations we have she lets on that it has been her first time in the ‘Deen, helping her daughter out with her new born baby for all of 5 months. Her memories of Aberdeen this time are the cold and the boredom. Her expectations for Lagos and what lies beyond that for her contrast with mine – she is very much looking forward to reconnecting with the family members she left five months ago, I am largely ambivalent.
Whilst boarding, I pick up a Glaswegian accent from one of the cabin crew. I ask him is he’s Scottish, to which he beams widely, replying in the affirmative. I let on that I have travelled on from Aberdeen and share a quick joke about how both Glasgow football clubs – Rangers and Celtic are a bit long in the tooth. Another member of the cabin crew – as prim, proper and English as could be – hears us yakking on about Celtic and Aberdeen and jokingly retorts that the Scottish are taking over. Great banter which sets us up very nicely for the rest of the flight.
The only blot on that is I end up sat next to a very vocal Arsenal fan, with the scarf from the 2015 FA Cup Final around his neck. Like most Arsenal fans I know, he is all talk and bluster, somehow managing to ignore the fact that I have my headphones plugged in and have my phone in hand trying to select a playlist – a painful reminder of what lies ahead I suspect. Thankfully, the fellow in the seat behind us – and the Glaswegian – are more than happy to talk football with him; that I suspect is part of what makes the trip that bit more bearable for me.
– – –
No amount of mental bracing ever quite prepares one for the shock with which the humidity and heat hit. That, and the almost sudden metamorphosis of a regular, fairly well controlled crowd into a seething mass of jostling, aggressive personalities, is all the proof one needs that this is indeed Nigeria. To be fair, my walk through Immigration is a comparative doodle next to what I remember from the last time; but then memory is notoriously fickle, particularly mine. Perhaps the much mooted change is beginning to trickle down after all.
Once through immigration, my first order of business is to grab and register a SIM card to allow me get in touch with the contact I’ve been given to pick up keys to the apartment I’ll be staying in. My peculiarly spelt surname – thanks to my grand father it contains a ‘Y’ and has made people guess my nationality as Polish, Czech and Cameroonian until they meet my very Nigerian self. I field a few questions – Mother’s maiden name, house address amongst others – and leave with a registered, functional SIM card for the journey that lies ahead.
Away from the airport, over 30 minutes of walking pace, bumper to bumper traffic ensures it is 8.30 pm before I pick up keys and can then begin to breathe a little easier. The only thing on my mind – when all that has been sorted – is a cold shower and food. By the end of the day, two things are clear in my head: the next week is going to be a long, hard slog and this thing, this love-hate relationship with Nigeria is one that will not go away anytime soon – tenuous bonds or not. Thankfully gala, real meat pie, pepper soup and suya are proven coping mechanisms; I am beginning to relish this.
Gate crashed. The perfect response to the wet, windy zero degree April weather. Bonus was getting to hang with the cousin and his family.
On my return to my favourite eating-out place for the first time in just over a month, I find I am served by a face I don’t recognise. The accent is also one I can’t place which is why after I place my order, my curiosity gets the better of me. It turns out he’s from New Zealand – he describes his accent as having the Australian twang and the South African heft.
Apt I suppose, but perhaps more important for me is how much that conversation is an indicator of just how much I have evolved over the past year. Natter, of any sort with a complete stranger, has never really being my strong suit but perhaps this is evidence of progress of some sorts? I’d like to think it is.
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