Kicking off the Christmas Silly Season and a difficult conversation of sorts

***
Over the past few weeks, temperatures have slowly crept lower and lower, dipping below zero on occasion and leaving the city centre sidewalks crunchy and slippery underfoot at times. The leaves that the trees – once leafy and full but now stark against the light of the reluctant mornings – shed haven’t helped the state of affairs, trapping moisture which turns into treacherous ice once the temperatures dip below zero. All of that, and being this side of Halloween, means that it is the beginning of the Christmas Party silly season.  This year, I have just the two to attend, a far cry from the halcyon days of $100 oil. I suppose this belt-tightening regime can only be a good thing, given it underscores a more prudent, sustainability-focused outlook for the industry. Tight belts or not, there is a certain bluntness which alcohol engenders, that is one of the things I am looking forward to witnessing.

Speaking of uninhibited truth-telling, I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of sitting next to a somewhat inebriated gentleman a few days ago on one of my recent flights down south. Very clearly in the mood for a natter – in spite of the fact I had headphones on and had a book in hand – he proceeded to interrogate me for most of the flight, all whilst being apologetic about intruding on me. Questions about where my parents were originally from ( I am visibly black), if I had been subjected to racism in the past, Brexit and what I did for work were a few of the potential banana skins our conversation navigated. A few years ago, I might have taken umbrage at his line of conversation but I am learning that context is everything. In this case, it turned out that his wife is a black South African.  It also turned out that the book I had in hand, Bassey Ikpi’s I’m telling the truth but I’m lying, had played a part in encouraging him to engage, particularly the essay I was on provocatively titled ‘Becoming A Liar’. Slippery grounds apart, our conversation eventually turned to mental illness, which is part of the focus of the book. Given the stigma around mental health issues, particularly amongst men, I suppose anything that prompts conversations about it is a good thing. Silver linings then I guess.

Of Cross roads…

Image Source:  Lachlan Donald on Unsplash

***
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about crossroads  – the metaphorical kind of course – points in one’s life where decisions with the potential to change the trajectory of one’s life are foisted upon one.  The triggers for this latest bout of thinking are varied but the one common thread is a sense of dissatisfaction which has simmered below the surface for most of the year. Turning forty is certainly part of that, particularly as in its immediate aftermath, it felt like I had reached the top of a mountain only to find there was nothing to be seen there. There is also the desire to head down south for good for family reasons, which perhaps has declared open season on everything I have done for work over the past fifteen-ish years. In the rarefied atmosphere in which my thought experiments exist,  everything is an option: from a complete pivot away from oil and gas into something more tech-related, through a less severe move away from being the (siloed) technical specialist I have spent the past few years evolving into becoming more of a generalist to a gap year, travelling the world.

10 years ago if you asked me, I would have sworn off getting into the world of managing people and the (in my opinion) the murky world of office politics but I am finding my revulsion for that less iron-clad than it once was. Truth is when it all comes down to the brass tacks, the things which drive my decisions are the things which drive us all: family, financial security, flexibility and opportunities to get ahead not some rose-tinted version of reality.

Of course, desires are one thing, but they only materialise when desire meets real-world opportunity. Time is also a factor, which is where I find myself now with irons in the fire taking however long they will take whilst I ponder what viable options remain.  The option to cut ties and sail off into a different vista is one my friends M and O have taken over the past few months, as have a steady stream of people in my wider cycle. If all goes to plan, I may not be far behind them. Fingers crossed.

Coming Up For Air…

water-water

It has been that sort of month since I was last here, the sort where the only possible response once the worst of it has passed is one of navel gazing self congratulation, at having survived without too much out of kilter, like a slight limp instead of a compound fracture…Between two trips offshore, a sore foot which required a pitstop at A&E and busyness multiplied exponentially, the past three weeks have sped by like a blur. My continuum? 12 hour work days, deadlines coming thick and fast, and weekends spent trying to catch up on the week’s backlog in time for a fresh load of things to chase for the new week.

As is my wont it seems, it’s the people in my life who have suffered most from the pressure; being relegated to the will-get-to-when-I-get-to category as opposed to being a priority; a point brought home forcibly when my friend Des managed to tie me down to brunch on Saturday morning, where it turns out – when I ask about her daughter – that it has been nearly four years since we last met. The daughter I was asking about now has a younger sister who is almost three years old.

The one lull so far has been weather imposed, downtime occasioned by bad weather meaning that I spent the entirety of Monday at the airport waiting to fly. Thankfully, that has allowed me finish Ian McEwan’s The Children Act – book number 13 for the year, a full two months since I read the last one.

Speaking of the weather, Abigail has caused havoc in my corner of the world, leaving power cuts and school closures in her wake. That, coupled with 4 degree C weather, is an apt reminder of winter’s coming, and the christmas silly season looming on the horizon – I have passed up on one shindig already, opting to spend my Friday evening at home rather than plying myself with gin and tonics and pointless natter.

Not a lot otherwise has happened, my year of living earnestly has been far more bluster than substance as yet. Hopefully with a semblance of normalcy, and the chance to do life at a far more respectable pace for the next few weeks, I can begin to reflect upon just how that life might look in a year’s time. Thankfully there is the framework from a year ago to direct my thoughts.  I suspect the plan, when I get the time to build one, will be focused around 30 day challenges as a means to bedding down the associated habits.

Fingers crossed then – one must make hay whilst the sun shines, taking advantage of the opportunities this small lull offers.

Of trains… And being curious

[Source]

They clamber aboard at Upminster – they being man, boy and girl – eventually ending up on the seat opposite us. We are on the C2C service from Ockendon towards London Fenchurch Street, the first leg of what we hope will be an uneventful train ride into town; towards Tottenham Court Road for a pitstop at Dominion Theatre for Hillsong. Of the trio who disrupt what peace we’ve had so far, the girl ends up by the window, the man by the aisle and the boy – who can’t have been more than 2 or 3 – in between them. The most noticeable thing about the man is his rather tight shirt, one which his stomach strains at ever so slightly and his flip flops. If I were a betting man, I’d place him as some sort of  suburb dwelling city slicker, kicking about with the family on a weekend, slightly overdoing casual in the process, perhaps as his way to compensate for being cooped up in a suit and tie all week.

In the little maelstrom generated by their arrival, I decide to move one seat over, upon which the girl gestures to someone behind me, just outside my line of sight, someone she calls mum. From this I surmise that they are man, wife, very young son and teenage daughter. The buggy ‘Mum’ has beside her strengthens my belief that the boy can’t be more than two or three; that and the excited curiosity with which he engages his father, firing off question after question at him with no respite. The green arrows above the door (magic door his father says), the yellow lights which flash around the main door controls at each train stop and the picture of the dog on the wall (an ad for the RSPCA) are all my memory picked up from the litany of questions asked.

She  – the sister that is – for her part, once all are settled in, and the train is off again, picks up some notes and begins to pore over them. In the twenty or so minutes we share space as our train chugs into town it turns out she is studying for an exam, one she can ill afford to not pass, if her studious, furrowed brow of concentration, is anything to go by. The contrast between her and her brother can’t have been starker – he infinitely curious, free and inquisitive, she intensely focused on not making another misstep on the exam that looms for her.

Life shit happens they say; and between keeping up with the roles and duties we assume by nature of our place in family and society at large, and the expectations that come with them, curiosity and inquisitiveness can take a back seat to all the serious, mature things life demands of us. Watching the little boy and his indulging father left me with the thought that maybe sometimes the journey itself is as important as the destination. Quite rightly perhaps, one does have to focus on the wheres,  the end goals of life and its constituent phases. The journey though will throw up interesting and sometimes difficult sections which we will have to work around, with wide eyed enthusiasm and curiosity. Or maybe not?

Wrapping up the Christmas Party Silly Season

marcliffe_road

Each year, my Christmas party silly season kicks off earlier than the last – this time on the 24th of November – the venue being the soon to close Marcliffe set in the lush woodlands of the Royal Deeside. We are there at the behest of the black and minority ethnic engineering association, for an evening of music, dance, networking and speeches to celebrate the fabulous year they have had of making engineering sexy to BME kids across the ‘shire. My initial response of excitement when news of the gala breaks segues into one of trepidation as the day draws near, the black tie dress code nothing like my far more typical jeans and t-shirt fare. On the day, just before leaving my house, I find out that I have somehow failed to spot the one key fact, arrivals being scheduled for 6.30pm, not the 7pm I have planned for, cue a rushed final phase of preparation and a quick hop into my old banger for the drive across town. I arrive almost forty five minutes late, thanks to a wrong turn and some traffic down Great Western road. In the end, it turns out I really shouldn’t have been that worried, people are still arriving at 8.30pm, african time I guess. The event itself goes well – overly posh food aside – I get to prance and pose for pictures with a few old chums, and a wide range of people; current students, professionals across a range of Engineering professions and a number of industry stalwarts. By the time I sneak off at 11.30pm, there is no doubt in my mind it has been a thoroughly engaging evening.

***

stage door

The Friday afterwards, I am at the Stage Door off Rosemount for a far less formal event, invited out by the team I work with at the motherlode, work being used very loosely here given how little face time I actually get with them. Plan is to kick things off with drinks at 5pm and then a set meal for 6pm. By the time I arrive at five minutes to six, my crowd is no where to be seen, still loading up on the brew. The first few people begin to show up at five past six, with very nearly a full complement by six-thirty by which time I am ravenous. D somehow ends up lost with a dead battery across town, which provides plenty of comic relief material. Meal done and dusted at very nearly 8.30pm, the younger crowd – and quite a few older ones too – decide they want to hit a couple of pubs to wrap up. Seeing as my day started at 5.45am, I am in no state to join in and plead tiredness, to quite a few raised eyebrows. The small silver lining is that on my way out, I get hit on by a somewhat  attractive woman – never mind she was a bit woozy, clearly having had way too much to drink.

***

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Gig number three is the Young Adult’s group party at D’s. It turns out a damp squib of sorts, the turnout being far less than I recall for a long while. I suspect it being sandwiched between preparations for our show piece holiday event, the Christmas Carol service amongst others, and a slew of stalwarts who have elected to take an early Christmas are to blame. Plus side is I get to take away several packs of rice, gizzdodo and pepper soup when I leave at just past 10.30pm on the day

***

fandB

For the 15th and 16th I am away in Manchester, swotting for  – and then writing – my final exam of the year. Having had to work full pelt on a number of emerging issues at work right up to the day before impacted my ability to create time to study, so understandably I find the exam itself iffy. I help myself to one of the works omelettes at Frankie and Benny’s to help myself forget, just before hopping on to the tram for Piccadilly gardens. Fortuitously, at Cornbrook, I find out that the tram line extension to the airport is now in place, and hop on to that, halving my journey – and leaving a few friends and family cross at me – in the process.

***

I’m into work the next day, back to the hurly burly that has been December, getting just enough done to show up with an element of credibility to a meeting on the 18th. That turns out to be the last credible bit of work I do on the day as it’s also the day for our traditional christmas lunch as an Operations Team. Drinks start off at 12 – I have a gin and tonic to get myself into the groove (number 10 I reckon) – followed by a set lunch. I have chicken soup as a starter, Turkey as the main and cheese cake for dessert. Beyond the food which is typically passable, the highlight usually is the raffle, and the opportunity for expressing the typically acerbic Scottish variant of British humour it provides. At lunch I end up next to one of the bigger wigs; as we chat it turns out he does have a proper engineering background – a technical PhD as opposed to an MBA – and I get to gush a bit too much on rust and my future plans – to my chagrin in retrospect, blame the gin and tonic. We all have a good laugh, helped along by a free bar. For my ten pound investment in the raffle I win a bottle of whisky.

***

I toy with not attending the church’s tech team meet up on the 19th – yet another late day at work and meetings nearly putting paid to my participation –  but a few sternly worded comments from F give me the kick up the back side I require. I miss the bowling though, arriving just in time to sit in for dinner. Venue is the Frankie and Benny’s close to my house, a brisk walk and the nip in the air clear my head sufficiently enough to not be a grump of epic proportions. Loads of meat balls, and great conversation later, it’s a proper Friday evening of chilling and friendly banter – a fitting end to the week and a slew of christmas gigs for the year.

***

One of the more head scratching – and truth be told happy – things that happens to me does on the 24th. I catch the 727 at mid day to the airport, enroute Heathrow for a catch up with B. At the security screening desk it turns out there are more security folk than fliers, the irony of which is not lost on us travellers. For good measure, no thanks to forgetting to remove my watch, I get the enhanced pat down, and my phone swabbed, which in the end ends up being fortuitous as it delays me enough for a certain portly gentleman to slide up to me. Quite the cheerful bloke, he says the one thing we have all noticed but haven’t vocalised, about the security team out numbering flyers. On a whim, he offers to buy me a beer. When I decline, and upon being pressed by him, I accept a coffee instead. At the bar, he flirts so charmingly with the bar tender she is beetroot red by the time we grab our drinks and head off to a table. In a different life, and a different skin he might have been my friend S, from under grad. In the thirty minutes we spend together, we manage to drag four other people into our happy bubble, get to swap war stories about our various professions and he gets snogged by one of the guys, all very love actually-esque.

London goes by quickly; hanging with B, food (loads of), dish washing and meat chopping duties as assigned, and yet another Xmas party number – a far more family friendly, lower key event than the lot I’ve been dragged through up here in Aberdeen – help the time pass quickly enough until I am being sped all the way to Heathrow to catch my flight back to my version of civilisation.

A Week’s Worth…

Monday
starbucks_
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.

Tuesday
meeting
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.

Wednesday
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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.

Thursday
shoes
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.

Friday

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.

Saturday
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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.

Sunday
returning
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.

Brunch…

brunch

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.

Finally, Fall…

autumn-in-madeira jacek yerka

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…

About Town – Conversations, Nandos and Catching Up on Reading

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.

About Town: 172,800 seconds of summer…

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If you accept the recurrent narrative – regurgitated without so much as a bated eyelid by everyone from office mates to cab drivers – summer out here lasts a mere 172,800 seconds; two days. Making my way home, by way of the ASDA superstore, it is not hard to accept that as fact, given there are scores of people milling about, or seated in the outdoor stalls the pubs on Castlegate – most notably Black Friars, Carltons and Sinatras – have managed to set up. The two recurring decimals are pints of golden brew and bare arms of all shapes and colours; the sun deigned to shine in all its glory today, and we its doting worshippers have come out to play.

At the store, I find myself stuck in a line which is only inching along slowly, even though it is a tad shorter than the others. When it is my turn, I find that the till keeper is not dressed in the normal green garb of the ASDA check out assistant, but rather in a pair of unofficial jeans and a t shirt. The cause of the delays soon come to light. It would appear that he is not someone who normally mans the tills, he has to receive guidance from the attendant in the booth next to his from time to time – a much younger kid than he is by all accounts. Shopping done and dusted, I leave wondering if I have just witnessed first hand the teething pains of re-skilling, or more likely the floor manager stepping in to help get the queue moving.

With time I am finding out that there is a certain method to the madness of banal conversation. Drilled down to the bare essentials it is largely about feigning just enough interest to appear engaged –  uhhms and ahhs inserted into the dialogue at the right times – whilst steering very well clear of any difficult subjects  that might break the thin veneer of enforced civility, the point being to ruffle as few feathers as possible. I suspect it is that acquired reflex that makes me – not entirely out of context – bring up the JayZ song, Hard Knock Life when our Friday afternoon office lunch time conversation segues into the far too serious territory of death, faith and the afterlife. It does achieve the intended effect as we are drawn from the brink of an entirely unnecessary conversation into the safer realms of an argument around who the credits for the line should go to. I eat humble pie in the end – blame my tv starved childhood- when wikipedia confirms that the refrain from what is universally accepted as JayZ’s seminal rap song – is actually a sample from Annie the Musical. So much for my pretensions to being cultured. The positives though are well taken – saved from the brink of another difficult conversation.