I can hold You to Your Word,
You’re never wavering,You won’t turn,
For I am sure, You are the Promise Keeper
I can hold You to Your Word,
You’re never wavering,You won’t turn,
For I am sure, You are the Promise Keeper
For Mag 246: Highway
A sense that Time has
Stood dead still, yet hurtled by;
This us, déjà vu
Driving into work on Monday morning, the sense is one of wonder at where the weekend went. Not so long ago – my knackered brain thinks – it was Friday afternoon, and thoughts of a restful weekend filled my mind but here, tottering on the verge of a return to work, the memory of the weekend already seems like a blur. Looking back, the two things that stand out are a cringe worthy gaffe, one occasioned by a particularly blatant reading of a certain situation on my part, and a head scratching conversation with S.
Later this week, the team at work has an away day pencilled in, one which it must be said the vast majority of us are not overly keen on. I suspect our collective irritation has not been helped by the instruction to come with two objects that symbolise the team for us – one for how it has been and one for how we would like it to be in the future. All sort of Zen-ish, feely, metaphorical stuff, but not being one for exercising my brain unduly over the weekend, I find myself fretting over what to take by the time Monday rolls in. One part of me wants to take a rotten banana in as my now object, given how dysfunctional I feel the team is at the moment. In the end I decide to leave the decision for another day, opting to buy a golf ball as my future object; in my mind a sphere and its surface to volume ratio is the closest thing to an efficient object I can grab at short notice.
By the time night comes around, that sense of disquiet has eased off slightly; an extended conversation with Sister #1 helps. Later as I lie in bed mulling over the events of the day and my conversation with S, what ifs and maybes loop continuously through my mind, not helped by the fact that the conversation with S goes far better than I could have hoped for, historical antecedents notwithstanding. Sometime between sheep number 4,597 and infinity, I fall asleep to a mercifully dreamless sleep.
I choose to walk into work on Tuesday, the nip in the day notwithstanding. Invigorated by the fresh air – or perhaps the copious amounts of green tea I down – I’m down to inbox zero by 10am. After that it’s a meeting with a service provider keen to sell some new-fangled technology to the team. That meeting, which ends just after lunch, goes like a breeze; the usefulness of the tech being pretty much self-evident for the application we require it for.
After lunch I am half way through some paper work when I get an email from the gaffer. It transpires that I have been volunteered for a trip offshore the next day; I am assured it will be a quick night’s trip only, and that a requirement for a slightly above average materials knowledge is the reason why I have been volunteered. The rest of the day passes quickly – briefings to come up to speed on the scope of the trip, check-in details and a quick chat with the chaps more familiar with the specifics of the situation. I finally manage to extricate myself from the mad house at 5.45pm, by which time I am rueing my decision to not drive into work. The silver lining is that the team away day which I was worrying about is canned, ostensibly to allow us focus on the pressing issues at hand.
At home, I debate the merits of driving the next day to the airport, decide it is safest to call a cab instead – traffic on the way to the airport in the morning can be a nightmare – and get it all set up with the City’s taxi rank. Such is my intense focus that is only at 11pm, in the middle of my night time catch up with B that I realise my passport is still down in London.
I wake up just before my alarm, set for 5.30am, goes off. Last night’s dishes are the first order of business. I battle a dense layer of charred rice for the better part of fifteen minutes before a semblance of cleanliness comes to my pot. I rush through my washing up, final checks to confirm I have packed all I need and a response to my email from last night about my passport. From the looks of it, I will need a dispensation to fly – better than nothing I guess. I drop my old passport in my bag just in case.
I hop into my taxi, traffic is not light, but it does move on at a fairly reasonable clip. The driver and I pass the time in light conversation, beginning with the usual suspects – where I am originally from, how long I have been in the country for, how long I’m booked to be offshore for, where I work and such. When I mention I’m due out for a day only, he laughs, unlikely for this time of the year he adds. I agree, not forgetting my luck with the weather (only once on my previous seven trips offshore have I returned as planned, no thanks to the weather.) .
The conversation moves on to other subjects as we head down Great Northern road towards the notorious Haudagain Roundabout. Falling oil prices, North Sea lifting costs per barrel and the potential impact on business in the city also get discussed as we inch along towards the airport. In between, I fire off an email to the gaffer, alerting him to the situation with my passport.
By the time we arrive the wheels have started churning, a flurry of emails ends in my getting a dispensation to fly with a copy of my passport. There is still time for Google Drive to nearly prove my Achilles heel. Having shared a copy of my passport with the lady at the check-in desk via Google Drive, it turns out she can only view it with a goggle account. In the end I have to log on to her machine, download a copy and then send it off to her office printer before I get checked in. Thankfully I am at the end of the queue and don’t hold anyone up. On this evidence, a return to Dropbox as my default cloud storage is required.
I arrive offshore at just past 11.30am, listen to the site induction, get introduced to the high and mighty and hop off to my lodgings. The agreement is for us all to have a huddle after lunch to kick off the program of activities which has dragged me offshore this time. The meeting goes well; short, quick and frank, after which I get asked to provide an ‘expert’ opinion on the subject at hand. I offer as much information as I have and then leave the rest of the team to it. I spend the rest of the evening catching up with the offshore team, given it’s my first time out here.
The plan is to have a wash up meeting with the work party to discuss findings and then break up to prepare for the return trip. Just after the briefing, I hear I’ll have to spend an additional day. It is for a good cause though as the chap who’ll be taking ‘my’ seat has a holiday lined up.
Out here boot covers, ostensibly to ensure dirty boots don’t get worn within the accommodation modules, are the rage and I end up running through quite a few as I walk about the plant. In between, I get more conversation time with the various supervisors, running over data collection for a different project I have on the horizon. The conversations about me that I over hear are good, helped perhaps by the fact that I’ve worked with a couple of the guys on a different platform before; my we’re all in it together spiel also helps I reckon. The chopper eve mind set kicks in at some stage – all I can think about is home.
Overnight it feels like the platform is rocking a lot more than I have grown accustomed to. The next morning, my suspicions are confirmed when the Planner who seat next to the desk I have commandeered shows me the weather report, with wind speeds in excess of 60 knots. Outside the wind is howling, and the waves at the cellar deck crash with increasing regularity.
We still go through the motions – bags dragged up to the admin office, checked in and safety brief watched – even though it is clear there’ll be no flight given the conditions. I spend the time at the desk catching up on email. The disillusionment is palpable. A couple of the guys are due off on Monday, the potential impacts of my not getting off on schedule are not something they want to consider.
Morning brings bitter sweet news – the weather has improved enough for a flight to be put on, even though it’s a shared one The slightly bitter news is that a medivac situation is the priority.
We check in, watch the safety brief again,and head back to the offices to get the day started. This time, remembering that I’ve got the Kindle Cloud Reader set up on my portable Chrome version, I fire up John le Carré A Delicate Truth. It’s a good, if cultured read – far more nuanced than the swash buckling Nick Carter/ James Bond-esque sorts I gobbled up growing up. I enjoy it so much that I am up till 11.30pm reading. In between I have lunch – a dubious mix of chips, roast turkey and chili beans; and then dinner – more of the same topped up with a plum and apricot flapjack tart with custard that tastes heavenly.
My on-off flight out is back on, apparently. When the heli-admin tells me that, I tell her I’ll believe when I see the helicopter coming in. She laughs. Far more seriously my paltry five day stint is far less critical than a number of people who are nudging the three week mark.
We go through the routine again, this time getting interrupted as we watch the helicopter safety brief by a general platform alarm. We go the full hog – from mustering to getting counted off and then wait whilst the OIM speaks over the tannoy to give us information. About twenty minutes later, we’re stood down and allowed to return to our various endeavours.
Sometime after 11am, the chug of the in bound helicopter rises to a din as it hovers above. We – the three of us joining this flight – drag our bags upstairs and get led into the helicopter for the ninety minute flight back to the ‘Deen. Thankfully, sleep takes over after a few minutes, the rhythm of the rotor blades and the bland monotony of the never ending water all around lulling me to sleep.
Thankfully, the sun is out in Aberdeen when we arrive, small mercies given that out here, summer (and sunshine) lasts for two days only.
For Mag244 – Passing Time,
The delightful linger
Of last Night’s Dreams
Down deserted streets.
The memories of lost days
Are all that we have left,
Distorted by the Edge of Now,
As it pales
Into the grey haze
Of accreting history
Here, on the edge of
Reality is a sense
Of treading water,
Of marking time
Of trawling a parched,
Bland land, Of War
And peace, and silence
And of Endings
They say this
Is what it is:
Waiting for the delight
Of coming Night
We pine for the relief
Of New Dreams-
In saecula saeculorum
Every day I rise
I wake up to find
You’re surrounding me with endless mercy
You renew my mind
You’re bringing me to life
The things with kids – at least non-Nigerian ones, if my experience was indicative – is that they do not hesitate to call BS-ing adults out. In a moment of subtle pressure – and not for the first time – the unofficial God daughter got me to agree to take them for a meal to the Frankie & Benny’s across the road from mine. At the time, I was only slightly worried – it was late August, and the school holidays were not till October. I assumed that the kids, being kids, would have forgotten by the time October rolled along. My bunch didn’t, which was how I ended up dragging two children – with a third, the chief instigator, planning to arrive after a birthday party – through the doors at just past 12.30 on a Saturday afternoon; as far removed from my typical Saturday as could be. No gym, or light cleaning or an early Cineworld movie to look forward to.
Having managed to get everyone seated, and settled in at our assigned table which thankfully was tucked away from the hustle and bustle, we ordered our drinks – a diet Pepsi for me, a Tango for their father, fruit shoots for them; and then food. The peace and quiet that came with their intense concentration on food lasted no more than a few minutes, the first toilet break the precursor to a game of me too in which both V and M alternated toilet breaks. It didn’t help that the adjoining table was chock full of excitable children either, whose craned necks and general restiveness captured the attention of my crowd, once they had downed their meal.
F, who has evolved into a precociously talented – not young, her words not mine – nine year old, joined us an hour later. Being the bundle of energy she is, she lit the place up like a banshee, getting her usually more reserved baby sister a lot more agitated in the process. I think we did OK – between her father and I – also managing to catch up a few key issues deferred from our last proper catch up a couple of months ago. All told, we were pretty much done in two hours flat, bar last minutes requests for ice cream instigated by F, and channeled through her baby sister. In fairness to her, she did pick up toilet escorting duties after she’d downed her meal, allowing the adults a bit more catch up time.
Plenty of positives all round, if I say so myself, not least of which was my Favourite Uncle creds surviving in tact for another season. Labouring up the stairs to my house having bade all and sundry goodbye, with my jacket fitting a bit too snugly from all the food, the one niggle at the back of my mind was a sense of slight unease. If the strategic five year plan comes together, this – without the get away clause and with the potential for diapers and late nights – could be my life. That, is still more than a wee bit scary.
Only a few days ago, the sun was out – weakly warm but out regardless, even though the first day of autumn was officially past. As I made my daily lunch time walk from the office to the Boots Store at the back end of Union Square, the sense was one of making hay whilst the sun still shone, enjoying the final blast of warmth, before Autumn took hold. An old lady, bless her heart, bumped into me as we waited for the little green man before crossing the road into the parking lot adjacent to work. In fairness to her I had my nose in my phone – make of that what you will – but that little bump did create the context for a short quick chat whilst we waited. Not so long ago, the arrival of spring, and the warmth it portended was the focus.
Summer ended up a damp squib of sorts, bifurcated as it was by the events of last July – that made July pretty much a month to forget. August fared little better, the bright spots in an otherwise dreary existence being a milestone birthday and B’s first hop into Aberdeen. September and October fared slightly better with four books downed in quick succession, the kid brother completing his MSc in and then preparing to take the next steps on the journey to his Canadian dream with his first job. As I found out, impromptu trips are more than a little expensive, my bank balance doesn’t look like it will recover from this summer any time soon, with the prospect of a quick hop into Canada to come. Comfort eating returned also – Pizzas, Nandos, and the odd KFC providing sustenance to the detriment of all the weight lost from last year.
These days, leaves litter the ground, a carpet of glowing reds and golden browns a reminder that Summer is well and truly a thing of the past for yet another season. The last brush with Summer too has faded, leaving us with the far more typical wet, cold and windy weather that is our lot up here. There is a very real counting-down-to-the-end-of-the-year feel to everything, not helped by the spate of Christmas party invites which kick off the Christmas Party silly season. In a sense, the change in the weather feels like a beginning in reverse; an opportunity to, like the trees shedding their leaves, hunker down, shed the excesses and focus on the key things through the coming winter months. In the end, change is the only constant they say – birth, growth, spawning new life and death continuing in an infinite loop, like the seasons change, and yet stay the same. Not there yet then – with respect to finding a new normal – but a large part of the journey feels complete. Progress then, if slow and steady rather than quick and painless…
A few of the interesting bits and bobs I’ve stumbled on over the last few days
Somehow last Friday, I found myself at Nandos. Somehow doesn’t quite tell the full story given it had more than a hint of conscious effort to it, and my history with the darned place. I suspect it had more to do with a sense of longing than anything else seeing as the last time I was here was in early July. Then, the closest thing to the distinctly autumnal chill I now felt was the distant memory of spring’s tail as she ambled past, urged on by our nearly – but not quite summery – summer. I managed to score my regular table, number 11, proceeding to order the self-same meal I have ordered on each of the 100 + times since May 2012 that I’ve been here – half a chicken in lemon and herb, and a mixed leaf salad.
Extra hot sauce and cutlery in hand, I managed to navigate the maze of tables and chairs to my seat before that odd feeling of being watched compelled me to look up, upon which I caught the eye of an old friend I hadn’t seen since his short sojourn in Norway back in 2010. Dropping all, I made my way to the table he was sat at, where his wife and children were digging into a bowl of olives waiting for their own order.We shared a chest bump, to the consternation of more than a few onlookers.
This man! You still dey do this your Voltron moves abi? It was a reference to my gift of invisibility. Enquiries with more than a few mutual friends had failed to turn up my current whereabouts. In my defense, the one friend who might have known was offshore, and had been for the better part of three weeks already. We made small talk – interspersed with regular rather loud handshakes – during which it transpired he had been in town for a couple of weeks already, holidaying with his family, taking the opportunity to escape from the bedlam that is Nigeria, most especially the old motherlode I used to work at. In the space of five minutes or so, I’d caught up on a lot – a steady stream of exits form the old mother lode, which expatriate was back in the country as a contract consultant and what high flier had earned a move to Houston, and of course the developing Ebola story.
The Scottish referendum – I am as yet still undecided – came up too. In theory, I’m in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote, but neither argument has been put forward particularly compellingly enough to me so far. His take was a cautionary tale – based on his experience of Norway – about high taxes, and the North Sea oil numbers which depending on who you talk to might not be so secure after all. That the SNP which has made a big song and dance of protecting the NHS actually has underfunded it, or so the fact checkers say, hardly builds any confidence me that they’ve got a clue. All done and dusted, we swap phone numbers with a promise to catch up properly before he heads off to Nigeria, leaving me to reflect on my way home on just how small margins of coincidence can be. Nandos does have a reputation for being the defacto Nigerian embassy in Aberdeen, at least so says Tolu Ogunlesi. One suspects he should know, even though some would disagree.
The theme of running into old acquaintances continues over the weekend. Sorting out my groceries at my local ASDA after my Saturday morning gym session, and the movies to go see Into the Storm, I run into another old chum – this time an old school mate from Nigeria. He wants to chat a bit more and offer commiserations, aisles at the mall chock full of people are hardly the place for that, and I am neither keen nor remotely interested in being dragged all the way back so I speed him up and move on with a promise of a phone call to catch up properly.
By the time I am headed home, my weekend has pretty much ended. All that is left is for me to settle in with my copy of Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, and while away what is left of the Saturday. By and large, it is pretty much back to regular programming at mine, not quite perfect but an ever more stable, new normal.
It is sometime after 5pm – between chomping down on a very meaty beef burger and swigging from a can of apple juice – that the call comes in. Up until then, I have been having the exact weekend I had in mind when I dragged myself away from work to catch the 727 to Aberdeen Dyce airport a few days earlier: go-karting and then a BBQ, with the prospect of Lakeside shopping with B. to come. The scene is one of self-indulgent relaxation; two grills fully stocked with burgers, chicken drumsticks and barbecue meat on the go, little children running about, wives and girlfriends munching on burgers and sharing intimate gossip moments, and men standing around the grill sipping from cans and surveying the scene – wife, 2.5 kids, picket fence and a few hundred quid to burn on a splurge in tow. It takes a while – probably the better part of ten minutes – before the gravity of the news begins to sink in. When I return to the three-way conversation I was having before the call, B senses there is something wrong. In response to her quizzical look, I motion for her to break out of the conversation and explain what has happened. All told, twenty minutes after hearing the news – give or take – my mood has morphed from indulged, self-congratulation to inner turmoil as I attempt to digest the news in the relative quiet of B’s.
It is nearly 10pm before my brain wakes up. I fire an email off to the team leader at work to let him know I’ll be out for a couple of weeks, ask the TwitterVerse for pointers to quick tickets for Lagos and call M. for an update on the situation and how A.’s holding up. Twitter delivers – I end up grabbing tickets for a return flight on Arik, as well as get an email from the work asking to be kept in the loop as things evolve. By the time B. hauls me off to my hotel, it is nearly 12.30am – seven hours and some after the news broke. Things are still very fluid at this stage, what is becoming clear is that the next few weeks will be a long hard slog.
The hours between getting the news and reaching a semblance of acceptance pass like a blur, largely in silent contemplation whilst I run over the last weeks’ worth of communication with H. The last time we spoke, our conversation had been one of those ones where skirting seriousness was more important than the conversation itself, with barely a nod to the multiplied elephants in the room. It was only the second time we were talking after a big row – certain things we had come to regret had been said – hence the extreme carefulness. With the reality of loss beginning to sink in, the overwhelming feeling is one of lingering regret. With the benefit of hindsight, the time we had – limited unbeknownst to us – would have been better spent focusing on all the things we shared rather than our issues of significant dissent.
I finally get home – after navigating massive delays on the M25, a 90 minute delay on my flight out of Heathrow and having to buy my own toilet paper at MMA to – to pick up on meets and greets. They come in their numbers – an endless stream of people – some come crying, some with choice sound bites in tow, others sit in respectful, contemplative silence.
The numbers passing through are something I struggle with. I have always believed that loss is intensely personal and private, something which has guided my interactions with people in the past. As such whilst the meet and greets are great, my initial reaction to them is one of irritation, considering them a distraction of sorts. When we as the immediate family have a first quick chat to define the expectations for a program of activities, I am in favour of a quick, simple sequence, focused on us and a few good friends. Unfortunately I am in the minority, the consensus that we arrive at is for a program spread over three days with multiple requirements to provide food and refreshments for people who will attend. That seems counterintuitive to me – wasteful even – given the expense involved.
Over the course of the next few weeks my position would soften somewhat. The sort of life that H lived – with interactions across multiple spectra – meant that there were loads of people genuinely feeling a sense of loss. That helps me come to terms with the expanded program being proposed. Others’ grief is every bit as real, if less intense as mine.
Looking back, 2014 has been an interesting year in deaths so far. Of the trio of friends A. had in his St John Bosco’s College days, he alone remains alive. Of H.’s trio from undergrad, Aunt L alone remains. For those who had not succumbed to the ineluctable call of death, the passage of time is etched in their very bodies – faced deeply lined, sagging body parts and lumbered with aches and pains of varying descriptions. Even the little kids, barely out of their diapers I took care of many years ago, have all morphed into near teens and adults. Placed in the context of my upcoming birthday a few days after I have planned to return, the underlying narrative is one of transience and the inescapable fragility of life.
Being part of planning and executing H.’s final journey allowed me to take a long look back. What was incontrovertible was that H. left a significant legacy. The outpouring of grief, the support in cash and kind that rolled in, and the emotional tributes that were given were proof incontrovertible of that. Her story is one of succeeding against the odds by dint of perseverance and trail blazing – multiple scholarships and prizes academically, noted contributions to world class work over a 34 year career, and a life that was lived in consonance with her Christian worldview. Somewhere in between she met A., who credits the heights that he reached in his own career to the stability she brought to the home front as she kept things running smoothly in the background.
With loss, I find that I swing between three responses. An initial stage of denial where I struggle with accepting the reality of loss and absence, and then when that is no longer a plausible position, I attempt to find a new normal. In tandem with that there is a desire to make sense of our loss, given our, and H’s worldview. That life as we know it has changed forever is not in doubt. A. seemed a lot more gaunt than I recall when I first saw him. His eyes were rheumy, and bloodshot – not a lot of sleep and loads of private tears to blame for that. Life as he has known it for more than 40 years has involved H. in some capacity, I worry as to what the new normal for him might be.
With death, ‘normal’ changes irretrievably. The equilibrium, if one is ever reached, is a new, radically different, dynamic one one with new behaviours, modified expectations and present realities. Someone was, and then is not, the facts are what they are and no equilibrium can change that. For me, finding a new equilibrium revolved around four things – immersing myself in planning for the funeral, spending quality time with the sisters and their children, catching up with B, and reading. I managed to wrap up three books – Paul Carter’s Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss.
One morning as we took a breather from the hectic, gruelling pace of planning, my Aunt S stepped into the room which had evolved into a sanctum of sorts for me, my one oasis of quiet amidst the turmoil. There she proceeded to initiate a lengthy conversation around marriage, or more specifically my delay in closing it out. That was a scene that would recur throughout the weekend. Mrs E. put it a little more subtly – hinting that our new normal needed to include a celebration to get us all excited again. In their own way, these were attempts at coping – by attempting to focus their energy and attention on a potential future event, rather than the particularly difficult one at hand.
In tandem with loss in this case was a sense of lostness. My earliest memories of growing up are inextricably linked to H; her bowls of soup and Sunday afternoon cooking marathons the most lucid reminders of how she kept two homes ticking along steadily in two different cities. Given the events of the past few years, and my ever increasing isolation from Nigeria, H. was an essential link to Nigeria. With her gone, there is a sense of even more Lostness. That sense was never more obvious than in my interactions with the extended family, my less than stellar language abilities making difficult conversations even more awkward. There was a sense of nakedness – being thrust out of a protective cocoon into bright, harsh light. What tenuous links that remain were even more weakened by the dysfunction on display. The frustrating, harsh reality of working in the medical profession in Nigeria (by some weird coincidence some two thirds of the family gets their bread and butter from the field) was a subject of numerous conversations. Unlike me, most of the others seemed quite keen to tough it out. The final nail in the coffin of patriotism was delivered on the morning of the funeral. For a chance to take control of the 2,000 naira ‘bathing fee’, the head of the team of morticians at the morgue somehow contrived to lock up the items we had delivered for preparing the body for burial, preventing the nightshift team from completing the task. That two thirds of the family worked in the self same teaching hospital, and we had made multiple trips to ensure there were no hitches on the day counted for little. One wonders how those without family members working there fare.
The question of loss and what sense there could be made of it was one we wrestled with all through. The biblical narrative suggests that life on earth is infinitesimal compared to life beyond it. Within that context, death is merely a passage to another life, a portal into another space-time continuum. That much was repeated in varying forms over the course of my three weeks by various people. The reality of loss though is a lot more personal, time does blunt the keenness of pain – and helps promote a return to a new normal – but I suppose until time does her work, no amount of philosophising will suffice.
I found the three weeks of conversations, mourning, planning and burying a huge strain. By the time it had all been wrapped up, all I wanted to do was to get away from everything, and begin to breathe again, hence the plan to leave straight after event number three – a thanksgiving service in church. When time to leave finally came, I found it difficult to up sticks and just leave. Three weeks were the most I had spent bonding with my family in more than ten years – since before my UX5 days. Nearly an hour behind plan, I was eventually in a cab speeding towards Benin and the airport. Beyond that was Lagos, sleep overnight and then a return to Aberdeen via London.
This is only three weeks in – by no means have we reached our new normal yet. A large part of what that will become is still up in the air – A still has work in the city, I plan to make Aberdeen the hub around which I ‘do life in a great church and a great city’, there is a lot of paper work to sort out before some semblance of real normalcy can be restored. What is not debatable is that life is incredibly fragile – birth and death its epigraph and hypograph. If visions of cold lifeless forms strewn over tables in a morgue – which remain seared in my memory – are anything to go by, TS Elliot put it most succinctly:
This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang, but with a whimper.