The Other Things That COVID brought…

Not a day seems to pass without my having a staring contest with a cat. What has been most intriguing about this is all the very different places I find them: the bus stop at 6 am, outside the main shop at 4 pm, during my evening walk at 9 pm and most recently out in the plant, in the middle of nowhere. Their languid, fearless manner suggests they are as much at home in these spaces as I am, and have probably been for quite some time. There must be a story I am oblivious of, of abandonment perhaps (the French are top of the charts for that apparently), of having outlived their usefulness as rodent control or maybe they are just being cats out and about enjoying the warmth like I am. No doubt with time I’ll get to know the reasons why, but in the interim – cats apart – I have been grateful for the brisk breezes in the morning and the cloud cover that means that the day starts and ends in the low thirties, not the high forties which cause the heat to hang like a wet blanket around one’s head.

Besides cats, masks are also ubiquitous out here. Mandated since the early days of the COVID pandemic – with none of the pussyfooting and political posturing that has plagued their adoption back in the ‘West’ – everyone has been required to have one outside the confines of your own home. Gloves and temperature checks have also been required when going into shops and other closed spaces. Their usefulness or otherwise is a rabbit hole I would rather not go down (isn’t it interesting how folks end up for or against them depending on their ideologies?) but the biggest discomfort for me is how my glasses steam up, making things rather interesting given my less than adequate unaided eyesight.

More importantly perhaps is a point my friend U, who by the way is most certainly not socially awkward, makes as to how the eyes seem to be working double-time to compensate for the lack of facial expression. It is something that has been on my mind a lot over these past few weeks of work, particularly the lack of a facial frame of reference for the new people I’ve met. Being one of only two black chaps in the building – of similar build and both needing help to see properly – has made for some interesting conversations where I have been confused for the other person as he has for me. All of this rather leaves us semi-blind people facing the double jeopardy of losing even what little help we could get from our eyes. I can only hope the peculiarities of the situation are not held against me when my inability to connect names to body shapes shows up now and again.

On a sadder note, I had the opportunity to join in an online service to bid W* farewell recently. I first ‘met’ him virtually at the beginning of April thanks to Alpha which had gone online largely because of the COVID-19 lockdown. Having recently moved down South from the ‘Deen it was an interesting coincidence to be added to a group that featured a large contingent of folk from north of the border. I got to hear dribs and drabs of his fascinating story over the course of ten weeks and some, as the pandemic raged outside and I wrestled with the weight of wondering if this move would happen at all. I remember one of the early nights in which we mulled over the question of what we would ask God if we met Him face to face. H was very much on my mind at the time, as was the question of why bad things happened to good people which made for a very entitled spiel from me. With the benefit now of knowing a little about his story and how much pain he was in at the time, the scale of the sacrifice he made to share so much of his final days with the group is now apparent. My gripes at the way the world is seem fickle by comparison. I didn’t come away with any epiphanies from the course but the personal stories I heard underscored for me that perhaps the most incontrovertible evidence for faith is the changed lives of people who truly believe. In many ways W epitomised that: someone who believed, was genuinely grateful for prevenient grace and was ready for the end when it came. I can only hope my Prodigal journey reaches as satisfying an end…

*I hope it is obvious W was not his real name…

A Lift off of sorts…

Image Source: Rajab Guga on Unsplash

**

According to the Book of Proverbs King Solomon, who knew a thing or two about hope and despair once said – whether in despair or merely noting in a manner of fact way – that Hope deferred makes the heart sick, and for the last three months and some I feel like I have known just that; lurching — sometimes several times a day — between the delirious joy of looking forward to an adventure and the deep depths of despair. COVID-19 was the culprit, as were the not entirely unconnected issues of an oil supply glut and oil price wars leading to sub-zero oil futures pricing. That there was a clear cause-effect relationship did little to tame the perennial desire to find wider meanings in things that is our forte as Nigerians, cue warfare prayers from my near and dear ones, a la Mountain of Fire and all.

The call to suit up and boot up came out of the blue late one Thursday, which set off a series of throat swabs, trips into central London to hand in passports and pick them up and all the not entirely fun stuff of packing up a life and moving continents in a week. Part of me wondered if it was entirely sensible to be jumping onto a flight, cooped up with others for six hours and some, but given I had waited three months for this chance, I was not about to let it slide over the small matter of a lengthy flight. I felt like a guinea pig through it all – one way systems at the airport and all the rigmarole that came with those, unseasonably warm weather, and lengthy queues. Thankfully, I had my friend O for company, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer to slather my hands in. It might have been the weather, or plain old tiredness, which made someone drop in a faint was our queue slowly inched its way towards the check-in desk. We all had to physically check in our bags, which made for an interminably slow and painful process, exacerbated by the fact that people were flying with tons of bags, returning home after being stuck away from home I guess. Once through security and on to flights, it seemed like the plan was to send us through as quickly as possible – a quick turn around in Dubai and then onwards to our final destination being the plan. On arrival, we were whisked through security, on to the meet and greet folks and then in a taxi towards my final destination, reached at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, at which time I was barely lucid.

The price to pay for moving to the edge of the world in these difficult times has been to self-quarantine for 14 days, days which alternate between speeding past and dragging on interminably. The glorious gift of the internet is not something that is bestowed on us out here without any strings, so one has had to make do with a mobile wifi device and a pre-paid plan, a far cry from the unlimited fibre-optic broadband I enjoyed for the past three months. As such mindlessly watching Netflix or Amazon Prime has not been an option. Shades of living in Nigeria in the dark days before proper internet arrives you could say.

For food, I have had to ping WhatsApp messages back and forth with the chap who manages the camp diner, iteratively arriving – via pictures and explanatory texts – on a semblance of dinner. Bread and eggs have been a salvation of sorts. The downside to all of that though is the blandness of everything which led to me retching over a toilet bowl one afternoon after one too many meals comprising of bread and eggs. The small Nigerian community did come through several times though, bowls of soup turning up one weekend, rice on an another and then two trays of salah meat to cap it all off. Weight is something I am refusing to look at at the moment, not helped by the heat discouraging any attempts to running outdoors.

New routines are needed for this new life. One had best get going.

The Diary: Jacqueville By The Sea

This has been sitting in my drafts for several months, so I thought I’d try to finish it off and post it here as a means to making use of the time I have on my hands.

**

If there is a silver lining to being a terrible sleeper it is that I usually manage to wake up in time for things, typically before my alarm rings. The blips on that record are increasingly regular –  and spectacular – like this past weekend when I slept through multiple alarms. When I finally woke up (having failed to do so to the alarm on my phone and on my watch), it was ten minutes before my taxi was due, cue half-brained rushing about to splash some water on my face, brush my teeth and grab my travel bags. By the time that was done, there were already two missed calls from the taxi driver and the company on my phone. There was, I thought, a hint of irritation on the driver’s face when I finally emerged. All of that disappeared once we were on the way, and speeding, to the airport.  The usual chit-chat revealed he had passed through the corner of West Africa I was headed for many years ago, and that he was Latvian, not that anyone could have guessed from his near-perfect Aberdonian accent. Scrambling for change at the airport, he waived the additional £1.20, helped me with getting my bags out of the car trunk and then promptly disappeared for the next gig. Bag drop and security took ten minutes at that time of the morning, by which time I was barely lucid and grateful for the cup of black coffee I poured myself once I was into the lounge. I was the first of my work party to arrive, which gave me some time to settle in and breathe a little, before the incessant chit-chat and mindless prattle began. It was a good thing I managed to catch my breath because the chit-chat, when it began, focused on the prospect of my leaving for greener pastures – being a traitor to the cause was the good-natured accusation thrown about. In those days before the oil price tanked, there were stirrings of growth and opportunities and I was only the latest in a long line of folk who had either left or were in the process of leaving. To cut costs, we had somehow engineered a tight connection at Charles de Gaulle, our turn around time being a grand total of ninety minutes plane to plane which left us hands full, running almost full pelt through the airport. We made it with some time to spare in the end and were delayed by a further hour for reasons unknown to us, all of which left me internally cursing the necessity of the awfully early start. We found out in the end that the delay was due to a deportation order being served on someone, cue police and immigration and all the malarkey that comes with those.

The flight itself was unremarkable, except perhaps for the opportunity it provided to catch up on some sleep and a small moment of which I am ashamed in which I relocated a very pregnant woman’s bags to ensure I’d have access to mine during the flight. Not my finest hour I’ll admit, though I’d point to my being less than mentally optimal from the loss of sleep. There was food, some movie of some description to pass the time and then podcasts to drown out the noise around. The Bamako pitstop was just that, though it added an extra hour to our travel, meaning we arrived at Abidjan just after 5.30pm local time. Customs was a breeze, the one advantage of arriving on a flight that disgorged the majority of its passengers in Bamako, which meant in just under an hour we were through customs bags in hand searching the gathered crowds for our assigned driver. H and I were at our hotel by 7pm and having dinner by 7.30pm, before turning in for our early morning helicopter flight offshore. That set the tone for the week: early starts, late nights and plenty of helicopter flights, meetings, getting frogged on and off remote platforms, and largely being visible. By the time Thursday came around, the days had begun to blur into each other, the situation not helped by terribly slow internet which was the result of issues with undersea cables off the West African coast.

These trips take me down memory lane, to a time and place in which I was the young, exuberant national engineer with expatriate advisors doling out dollops from their vats of wisdom. Back then, I felt like I was kicking against a glass ceiling and would never really hit the heights I wanted to. There is after all, a perverse incentive structure here; the expatriate is by definition highly paid – better remunerated than in his (and it typically is a he in these parts) own country, waited on hand and foot and holds a lot of power by virtue of his perceived expertise. His approval is thus something of great significance in the local power structure, and when given sparingly can drive behaviours of subservience in the local engineer. There is also the small matter of the expat boys club and the propensity to err on the side of supporting the hegemony in the event of a potential threat to that power. After all, every member of the club benefits, and the more the perceived requirements for their expert service persists, the more the local engineers are made to feel and look incompetent. Nationalisation schemes attempt to address the skills gap by demanding quotas for nationals in these companies – whether they work is a different matter altogether. The irony is not lost on me though, I too am out here because of a perceived superiority of expertise – I too have become part of the White-Saviour industrial complex, to borrow a construct from Teju Cole.  I can only hope that with time, at least some of the bright, young people I meet on these trips can hit the heights their exuberance and energy deserve, and opportunities to grow and learn come their way.

We spend the last day back on land, a day visit to Jacqueville being the objective. It is one of those little outposts big (or medium-sized oil in this case) manages to find, the small pump station on the edge of the town being the most important thing of economic significance in the area. The road there, usually impassable in the heights of the rainy season, has recently been graded and is thus somewhat passable. Graded or not, it is a bumpy ride, our convoy of 4×4’s leaving dust in our wake as we bounce along the final stretch of earth road. Palm trees line the earth road, tricycles dot the roads and in the distance, boats bob about on the sea as fishermen go about their daily business. At our final destination, we carry out an impromptu inspection of some work which is planned for completion in early March with several strong words exchanged at the state of preparedness (or not). Part of it is a manifestation of that industrial complex, and the resultant lack of agency of the national engineer in charge. Lurking beneath the surface for me is that it is my last time out here. Although, I have been involved in this place for all of three years. I’d like to think I’m leaving it in a better state than I met it. Even out here, in the middle of nowhere, plastic shrouds the roots of the trees.

The Diary: The Joy In Small Things

***
Seemingly like in the blink of an eye – like play like play in the pidgin English of my youth –  we are somehow at the end of May!  Summer is finally here, bringing in its wake the realisation that if I had stayed up North, the first of my Nine Fridays of Summer would have just gone past. As it is though, I find myself in an intermission of sorts, loitering in the space between a past life and the future in which an adventure in the sun hovers just out of reach, 70 days late. There are of course worse things than swapping grey granite for verdant green or being cooped up with family, like dying or very nearly dying like so many people, including a few closer to home for me, have over the past few months of this pandemic.

The reality of the lockdown first hit on a personal level sometime in late March, when my flight out was cancelled. My initial reaction is to take it as an extended holiday of sorts, cue extended hours of Football Manager but as time passes, each day blurring into the next, I find life without the tether of routine somewhat disconcerting. Its the first time since the autumn of 2009 that I have been in this place where there is plenty of time on my hands. Six weeks of a creative non-fiction writing course and National Poetry Writing Month do provide some structure and help mitigate the sense of floundering, the result of decisions taken earlier in the year as part of fleshing out what My Year of Delving Deeper would look like. It is thus only in May that the desire to stay creative and productive kicks in, no thanks to the reminders of the supreme productivity of Newton and Shakespeare in similar times from the Twitter productivity gurus.

One of the bigger impacts of all the time everyone suddenly has is a significant regression in the quality of my Whatsapp messages. Being Nigerian, with loads of older, Christian folk in my contacts, I find my inbox something of a ground zero for conspiracy theories of all flavours, from the 5G one peddled by a certain Nigerian MOG through a raft of others suggesting it is all a ploy to foist some religious or moral imperative on the rest of us. Elsewhere in my wider (Pentecostals) network, the miracle of hindsight manifests itself in various names – both well known and lesser-known lights – claiming some sort of prescience or other in having prophesied that a pandemic of such a nature was coming. What those who forward those messages on to me fail to answer is why, if these prophets were that certain, they didn’t shout louder for those of us at the back as Nigerian Twitter likes to put it. Those who cling to conspiracy theories do so as an attempt to find certitude and assert control of what is fundamentally an uncertain state, at least so says Skye Jethani who is a lot more clued into the Christian sub-culture than I am.

In retrospect, the things that stand out from the past 70 days – and some – are the little unplanned things; a picture from 2016 which brings back memories of Lagos and hanging with the old gang, an impromptu WhatsApp video call which segues into a three-way call that drags in A, I and C and dredges up fantastic memories of life, youth and friends that have become closer than brothers as it were.  I find myself measuring time in the small things and new routines, Mondays as bin days, Wednesdays as my Alpha Online days, Thursdays for joining the line that snakes around my local Tesco to stock up on food and water and Sundays for lengthy phone calls to friends and family around the world. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays have become portals of exploration, as my runs take me along paths which weave their way around the River Wey navigation paths. The bucolic sights that greet one’s eyes these days belie the fact that as recently as the 1960’s these were functional navigation routes. Private boats and yachts now line the waterway in places, a nod to the relatively well off folk who are our neighbours out here. Even those lie quietly, all furloughed in their own way, more than a few clearly showing signs of age and disuse, a metaphor for pausing to smell the roses and to enjoy the whispers of nature the world would otherwise have drowned out.

This is what my days have boiled down to; Reading, Writing and Running, and finding Joy in small things.

On Leaving

Of the many conversations I have had over the past few years, one sticks out in my mind, not for its length or its importance but for how odd it felt at the time. As I recall it, a travelling salesman and I had just finished a meeting and were heading to the kitchenette at work to drop our coffee mugs off when he asked: “How did you end up here?”.

Given he was white, and I am very much on the darker side of brown, it seemed at least to be somewhere between insensitive and provocative. That he needed my say-so to get his product approved only made the question, and its timing, even more interesting. Years later I would find out that he was Zimbabwean born, and that he took every opportunity to return there especially over the winter months. His question thus reflected more on the city than it did on me and my ‘rights’ to be there. As I sit here now with the benefit of time and some distance from my sojourn in that city, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit that question.

To begin, I have to return to my first days there, the enduring memories of which are of stiff upper lips, heavy overcoats and bitterly cold evenings with winds so ferocious they seemed to find their way through multiplied layers of clothing to torment my skin. What daylight that managed to penetrate the thick fog which sometimes rolled in from the sea overnight fell on dour, grey buildings, built in the main from the granite which was plentiful in the area.

After sharing a flat with a colleague for a month, I moved into the 13th floor of a council tower block, Spartan lodgings shared with a graduate student from the University a mile away, one of two which made the city a destination for students from all over the United Kingdom. Council tower blocks being what they were, it was not uncommon for the lifts to stink of stale cigarettes, for fights to break out in any one of the flats which often required the police to attend and for there to be someone stationed, permanently it seemed, on the benches next to the smoking area asking for spare change. There was a stabbing somewhere in the area, which prompted the police to visit with flyers appealing for information. Even the Receptionist at the Medical Practice I registered at made a point of warning me to be careful, once she’d seen my forms indicating I lived there.

On the plus side, on the days when the fog lifted, I could just about make out the sea in the distance, the number 13 bus stopped a few feet away from the entrance to the block which made getting about easy, and there was a football stadium a short distance away. They used to be good and counted themselves as one of a select few Scottish football clubs to have won a European Cup, thanks to the stellar talents of future Manchester United legend Alex Ferguson in the early 1980s.

I told everyone who cared to listen that this was merely a pit stop on my journey elsewhere. I was here for work and work only. “A year or two at most” was what I told The American when she DTRed our budding romance.

***


Tethered as it were to the sea, water and war have shaped the City’s identity over its more than 8,000 years of existence, enabling it to evolve from two tiny burghs at the mouths of the Dee and the Don Rivers, into its current status as Scotland’s third-largest city. Picts, Scots and the English all held sway over the city at various times and fought for it. Even the German Luftwaffe came visiting during World War Two, with unexploded ordinance being retrieved from its international airport as recently as 2018.

The sea though is not especially forgiving to those who depend on it for sustenance, the vagaries of weather and fish stocks sometimes combining to create extended periods where the catch is poor and thus food less plentiful. That and long, harsh winters which are not conducive to non-essential, frivolous activity perhaps place into context the people’s reputation for being grim and miserable.

Oil – also inextricably linked to the sea – has come to define the city to outsiders more than anything, as does its reputation for terrible weather, stark, grey granite city centre buildings and gruff people. All of this makes for interesting conversations with outsiders, who are wont to consider it a backwater of sorts saved only by oil revenue, the nouveau riche of cities perhaps.

To reduce the city to oil though is to do it a great disservice and minimise the tension between the old and the new which are visible beneath its façade. Wandering through the city centre, it is difficult to miss this in the smell of processed fish and the old derelict processing plants towered over by gleaming office blocks along Palmerston and Poynernook streets. Even the Torry suburb across the Victoria Bridge with a reputation for being rough has ceded significant swathes to the new, most recently a new housing development which replaced Craiginches, the now-closed, notoriously overcrowded prison. In pivoting to oil and gas the city has merely traded one fickle source of sustenance for another, big oil’s boom and bust cycles meaning periods of significant purse-string tightening and job losses are always around the corner.

To sense and understand these tensions is to take the first tentative steps in falling in love with the City for which I had The American to thank. We split up in April of my second year there, which made me accept that my lot was firmly tied to the city for the foreseeable future and opened my eyes to all the ways the City had been reaching out to me. I discovered a church family through the one person I knew in town and met a few others from work.  We still only grabbed lunch somewhere in the only decent mall we had, Union Square, or went out for evening drinks at Malone’s, an Irish bar just down the road from the office but what was clear was that a sense of being in it together was slowly building.

I learned to make small talk: gripe about the weather, the latest failing of the local football team and the ineptitude of the city council. I learnt to enjoy a full Scottish breakfast, dig into haggis with gusto, down a neat Scotch and to ken the difference atween smirr, dreich and drookit. Even the sea and the fog it brought was useful, lengthy runs by the beach became a staple of my exercise regimen.

***

In the days before I leave the city for the last time, it seems only fitting to revisit the people and the places it brought my way in my time there.

V, the precocious six-year-old who I have claimed as a God-daughter, bursts into tears when her father tells her I’m leaving town. I met them when I lived in the flat after the squalid council block in a season of loneliness and enjoyed their hospitality on many a Christmas day. The entire family and I spend a leisurely Saturday at the only amusement park in town. We have dinner together after which I get a handmade card as a memento. There are more tears and then a group hug and picture.

R, with whom I shared an office for six years, and I meet up for lunch the day before I’m due to fly. Between handling vendors and packing up my life into boxes, I arrive two minutes late just after he has fired off a typically acerbic text message wondering where I am on my phone. It’s our first face to face meeting in over a year but slightly more grey hair and slower movement apart, not a lot has changed for him. In many ways, he embodies my relationship with the city; simmering not sizzling, steady but close, more curmudgeonly grandfather than delectable damsel of interest.

Between sips of Turkish beer and bites from the koftes we order, we muse over the past ten years and our lives before that. “It’s the longest I’ve been in one place,” he says and then proceeds to reminisce on his life before coming up to Aberdeen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland all come up, and it shows in his accent which I imagine is a unique amalgam of all these places. Although retired, he’s opted to remain in the city even though somewhere warmer is ostensibly an option. “Aberdeen feels like home now”, is his explanation for not exploring other more exotic locations. Elsewhere for him, there are only vague, tenuous links to extended family to cling on to.

There is a faint nostalgia in his voice that I can relate to, seeing as I have now spent just over a quarter of my life there. This is a city that grows on you. At first brush, there is little of note to see but with time the city clasps you in a tight embrace. You get to know the city, delve into its innards and fall in love. It becomes home. And in leaving I find myself feeling like a prodigal turning his back on home, trading it for the lures of a far country.

I’ll be back.

On Returning to the City of Red Earth

With NaPoWriMo done and dusted for this year, I’m getting the chance to catch up on other stuff. The fifth (and penultimate) assignment for the Creative Non-Fiction Course I started in February was to describe a city and the feelings it engendered in us during our last visit. Here goes: 

***

In my more nostalgic moments, I call her the City of Red Earth, but that is as far away as possible from what I feel as I drag my bags towards the check-in desk ahead of heading back out there. The last time, H had just passed, and the three weeks which followed were consumed by the busyness of dealing with the dead. Everyone I tell about this upcoming trip shares cautionary tales; of the power industry grinding to a halt, the spiralling crime rates, and the rapidly disintegrating roads. Not to seem too dismissive, I smile and nod at their concerns whilst inwardly telling myself I’ll do a good job of passing; after all my pidgin English – lightly accented as it is – is passable.

The first few days after I arrive pass in a blur: taxi rides on congested roads, visits to the local malls to indulge in local delicacies and the odd phone call with the groom-to-be filling my days. With the weekend comes the wedding, and the chance to finally catch my breath. Afterwards, we head East.

What first hits me when we arrive is how little the city of red earth has changed. A layer of red dust covers everything, the remains of the clouds that trail the steady stream of old creaking vehicles sagging beneath the weight of humanity as they head to the local market. The old woman who hawks her wares at the side of the road – still ensconced in the makeshift stall she has for the past four years – waves excitedly when she recognises my brother. That she can spot him at the distance is not the only miracle of sorts; her stall, with a sheet of tarpaulin wrapped around four bamboo stems to form three sides and roof, is still standing.

Everyone who spots us, waves and stops us for a few minutes of commiseration, a small human gauntlet of sorts. Mild irritation apart, I suppose it is refreshing to see the small community in which everyone knows everyone – and in which you were as likely to get a reprimand from the neighbour two houses down as your mother for a public indiscretion – has stayed the same, whatever pressures of globalisation there are all around.

The house on the corner of 39th street also looks the same, only dustier, which perhaps is the clearest indication of H’s absence. Some of my clearest memories of her are with a duster in hand driving clouds of dust off the furniture. That is something we’ll never see again.

Otherwise, it is clear there is a new normal slowly settling in. Thankfully none of the feared things materialises – we survive without any incidents – and leave just in time to be on the right side of the line between being August visitors and ones who have overstayed their welcome. Three days are all it is this time. There will be a time for lengthy swims in these waters, but for now, a dip seems sensible.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

***
R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #1: People Watching

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Last week was about thinking about the underlying reasons for writing, this week was starting off on the journey towards sharpening our powers of observation, the idea being to hone our ability to find stories in the quotidian.  A city-centre eatery late one night was my muse.

***
It is a little after 8.30pm when the smell of French fries wafting in through the door draws me in. The first thing that strikes me as I stride through the door is how empty it looks, the bulk of the two-storied structure being cordoned off, with only the small section to the right of the counter open for use. I find the emptiness surprising given it is next to a major bus station and right in the centre of town. As I wait for the chance to order, I find myself behind three people, all decked out in the garb of people dressed to brace the cold, with the brightly coloured logo of a food delivery service gracing the insulated bags they hold.

A few feet away from the space I find for myself and my tray are three men with youthful faces, chattering away in a language which is not English, possible South East Asian if I were to hazard a guess. Their half-eaten burgers suggest they’ve been here a while, given how much of their time is spent in conversation interspersed with raucous laughter. When they are finally done, one of the three gathers up their trays and proceeds to empty them into the bin and then they leave, taking their mirth with them. Clearly close friends, or people connected by a shared lived experience I suspect.

Apart from them, the only other people in the room are a group of much older people – 2 men and 2 women occupying the central tables and someone sitting alone, sipping from a cup looking out onto the streets. Of the four, the woman who looks the oldest is slouched in her seat, hands folded together in her lap, two shopping bags beside her, listening it seems. Across from her a younger man with hair the same ginger colour as hers sits, leaning in, several discarded sachets of milk at his elbows, gesturing wildly. Between the accent and my hunger, I can barely make out what the subject of their conversation is but the name of the suburb to the south of the river comes up several times. Maybe a family squabble then, or given the reputation the small town has for being a difficult place, maybe an appeal to the matriarch of the clan for an intervention. All I can see of the fourth person are feet clad in streaked sneakers, the upper body obscured by a heater.

When I steal a glance at the group on my way out, I find the fourth person is fast asleep. Maybe, I have misread the situation after all.

Lights, Lines, December

***

It’s that time of the year again in which light, or more correctly it’s absence, defines everything out here; the wet, cold, barely light mornings morphing into grey overcast afternoons which in turn become dark evenings just in time for the trek back home. I, like everyone else out here, am finding that I have little energy to be out and about, the lure of spending time indoors, bar dragging myself out to church and back, proving too strong. The lethargy extends to my running, as it has for each of the last three years according to Strava, the 30km I clocked in November being a far cry from the 100km+ highs of the summer months. From the comfort of my duvet, I wonder how folk out here survived back in the day. I suppose that is why there is a rich tradition of the literature of immigrants, those who bear the shadow of elsewhere  – to borrow a turn of phrase from Elif Shafak’s  10 minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World.

The opportunity to catch up on reading is one of the silver linings from this season of being a couch potato. Over the past month, I have managed to get through Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (which at the risk of sacrilege I didn’t like) and the afore-mentioned Elif Shafak book. I am also halfway through Nassim Taleb’s Skin in The Game. Interestingly, all three books are ones I borrowed from my local library, thanks to it being a relatively short brisk lunchtime walk away.  The other silver lining to the dark evenings is that they are a good backdrop to the other lights, the reds, whites and green lights stretched across the streets celebrating the upcoming Christmas season. Given how grey everything is out here, colour is a sight for one’s sore eyes.

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.