The Diary: The Paphos Files

The first bits of Cyprus we glimpsed as our flight began the descent towards Paphos were wind turbines slowly turning in what must have been a slight evening breeze, and houses which from the height looked like small, matchboxes  pressed into the sides of the hilly terrain below us. Although it was only 5.20pm local time, it was quickly growing dark, which at first seemed odd until I realised just how much closer to the equator we were here, than in England from where we were arriving. This trip to Cyprus was at the instance of S, ten days in Paphos being her idea of a honeymoon. The hope was to get the chance to catch our breaths after what had been a whirlwind three weeks in which we had managed to get hitched without losing our minds; the pressure of a large Nigerian wedding notwithstanding.

Having the main events on the other side of town in rural England – as far removed from our usual haunts as could be – added a layer of complexity to everything, that in retrospect we could have done without. The miracle in all of that was that friends and family rallied – some at particularly short notice, and braving the worst of the M25 and Dartford crossing traffic on the day – to be part of the events and support us. As we headed into Paphos, the overwhelming desire was to kick back and de-stress from all of that.

Before all of that kicking back and chilling could begin, there was the small matter of navigating passport checks and customs. Although I had the requisite approvals in my Nigerian passport, it still took in excess of ten minutes – and a couple of phone calls by the fellow at the desk – for my passport to be checked and then stamped. Only then could S and I head on to the baggage area and pick up our bags; she being British had no such problems. It was a warm 22 degrees C even at that time of the day, and importantly dry, with none of the chill from the wind that had hastened our arrival and helped claw back some of the lost time from our flight from Gatwick being delayed.

Bags in hand and through customs, we found our designated driver – he had our names on a card held high above his head – waited a bit at a Costa Coffee for the rest of our party to arrive and eventually headed out into town. That allowed me take in my surroundings at the airport, the overwhelming sense being one of being somewhat pleasantly surprised by the absence of any of that in-your-face first world glitter that airports around the Western world often portray. Our hotel, the King Evelthon, was a relatively recent addition to the Paphos holiday resort scene and just beyond the city limits – sculptures of the Greek letter ρ marking these. From arrival to the hotel and then dinner took all of two hours, including the wait. Not bad, given we needed to tuck into dinner having steadfastly refused the prodding of the the cabin crew to pony up the extra cash required to buy a meal on board.

***

Having finally managed to get out of our travel soaked clothes and then get some sleep, we woke up to the sight of glorious sunshine already streaming in. Looking through the doors into the pool – we had been upgraded to a swim up room – the sense was very much one of being a holiday resort, complete with all the trappings. In the distance, the lonesome hulk of a rusty brown ship loomed. I would later find out that there was some history to it, it being the MV Demetrios II. When we finally dragged ourselves out of bed for a hearty breakfast and were ready to head out, we hopped onto the 615 towards the Paphos harbour for a bit of sightseeing.

We found the harbour area a beehive of activity with buskers, hustlers and traders all keen to interest us in their wares. In the end we plumped for a glass bottomed boat ride around the harbour and picked up a flyer for the wave dancers suite of cruises from the Paphos Harbour. The glass bottomed boat ride ended up a damp squib of sorts – there was nothing of note to see besides the ruins of the Vera K – but the 90 minute trip around the harbour gave a good view of the coast line all the way up and down. Trip done, we found an ice cream place down the road where we took a much needed toilet break and three scoops of ice cream each, for the heat. We – read S – liked it so much that we returned on three other separate occasions for ice cream there. A hop-on, hop-off open bus tour topped off this first day, the whistle-stop tour putting Paphos and its size  – or lack thereof – into perspective.

***

Our time in Cyprus was organised around three main all-day events; a jeep safari, a gourmet tour and an all of Cyprus tour. Being the last of the nine passengers to be picked up for the jeep safari, meant we had to make do with being sat apart, S in the middle seat at the back and me perched on the edge of the back seat alongside the others, an older Italian couple , an English couple from Birmingham and three young men from Hungary. Our version of the safari tour took in a drive through banana plantations,  old Turkish and Greek villages, as well as pit stops at a number of other landmarks. In spite of the obvious pride the locals had in their banana plantations it turned out they were neither big enough nor straight enough to meet EU export regulations.

In keeping with the safari theme, much of the driving was on bumpy, rocky roads on which we in the back seat bounced about. The trek up the Avakas Gorge was the first real physical activity I had undertaken  since my last 5k on the 18th of October; that showed in my lack of fitness. The trek itself – ours was the abridged version – took in a number of rare bushes and flowers and a number of tiny rivulets; smaller now at the end of a long summer than they would be in the rainier, wetter winter season. Other interesting pit stops along the way were the Aphrodite baths (where Aphrodite used to bathe according to local mythology), the Adonis baths and the blue lagoon where a few of the less intrepid swimmers dove in for a leisurely swim. As we made to leave the Adonis baths, an interesting exchange ensued between the caretaker and I.  He called me a chocolate Adonis, warning S to be extra careful overnight, his point being that my brush with the very essence of Adonis at the baths had upped my virility. That made for a few awkward moments between him, S and I, although no offence was meant or taken.

***

Over the course of the remaining days we managed to fit in two more all-day tours. The first of these was a gourmet tour that focused on highlighting the food, art and craft of Cyprus, the intent clearly to show case a rustic Cyprus where life was lived at a leisurely, laid back pace. Pit stops on this tour included a winery where we got to taste a range of locally brewed liquids, an all female factory where a range of Cypriot sweets were made and  a factory where roses were used in everything from chocolate to wine in addition to the usual suspects of perfumed body care products. Elsewhere on the tour we got to see the Holy Cross church in Omodos and fraternise somewhat with the local silver and glass makers. Also on the gourmet tour, we discovered Carob, which became the bane of my existence over the next few days, as S tried to score bottles and bars of the ostensibly healthy stuff. The other tour – an all of Cyprus tour – went along similar lines, the highlights being a visit to the capital Nicosia and the view across the green line into Turkish controlled Cyprus from the top of the  Ledra observatory and the church of Saint Lazarus (the fellow who died twice).

In between the full day tours, we managed to get three 7k-ish runs in, possible in part because S is a running enthusiast who needs her running fix, and the presence of a coastal path which we learned is a fairly recent addition. The ruins being excavated at the harbour area and the Wave Dancer half day BBQ cruise also help the time pass.

***
By virtue of its position at the junction of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Cyprus has had a long and checkered history, with ownership and control changing hands several times. Greeks, Ottomans, Venetians, The French, the Romans – and a few others I can’t remember – have all at various times laid claim to the island, leaving their marks in various ways. Greek culture predominates, as does the Turkish military presence in the Northern third of the island, a self declared Republic which is recognised only by Turkey. There was an opportunity to cross the Green Line and explore a bit of it, but the situation with my Nigerian passport made me wary of crossing any more borders than I needed to.

What I found surprising was a strong undercurrent of Russian influence – like London one of our guides joked  on one of the days. I suppose the shared religious history enables this – both the Russian Orthodox and Church of Cyprus are part of the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, making it easier for devout Russians to integrate, and providing a driver for them to visit shared holy spaces – as does the official passport for investment program which provides access to Cyprus and by extension the rest of the EU for €2million.  A different guide took great joy in pointing out which of the palatial, stately homes were owned by Russians.

The British influence was more expected, and obvious, given the recent colonial history and the long running interactions with the island going back to Richard the Lion heart’s invasion in the late 1100’s. The language and the sunshine does make it one of the prime destinations for Brits looking to retire by the sun and the sea, that they’ve arrived complete with their own little micro communities complete with English and Irish pubs suggests there is some impact to the local community, particularly in a town as small as Paphos with 75,000 inhabits.

Thankfully, it wasn’t peak season so places like the beach were not filled to the point of bursting at the seams, which made me wonder how this must feel in peak season.  I doubt the locals find the influx of tourists as disconcerting as the Barcelona locals do but I got the sense of a mild irritation at times – the eye roll and shrug I shared with an older lady at a shop within the Kings Avenue Mall at a couple rowing over a can of beer at the till being one such.

For all its history, I did get the sense that some of the places we visited over the course of the ten days were not particularly remarkable or deserving of the hype (It might have to do with my lack of culture or just an overt focus on looking to chill and de-stress). That got me thinking of just how much Nigeria could benefit from a concerted effort to clean up its hinterland, make it safer and easier to travel in, and market some of the natural features and historical artefacts. I remember visits to the Obudu Cattle ranch many years ago being the highlight of a team building session at work. Places like the Ikogosi springs, the Ososo tourist centre and carnival come to mind as ones which with a little more focus could be developed further.

***

All told, the ten days delivered on their promise of providing a place to disconnect from the real world and chill, which is perhaps why the enduring images of Cyprus for me will be narrow roads draped around towering mountains like ribbons – thin, flimsy and barely there, edged on the one side by the faces of the mountains themselves and on the other by vertiginous drops. The irony of this is not lost on me; without the roads, much of these parts would be inaccessible to the wider world which would lose out on all the treasures and delights we had the privilege of seeing over the past few days, but building the roads cannot have been a trivial experience given the terrain. A lot of hard, back breaking work was clearly required.

That  – the delights just out of view over the horizon and the hard work required to get there – is very much like marriage, S says, on the eve of our return to our new shared life; all the proof I need that she is indeed a wise one.

PS: For more pictures from Cyprus, go here.

The Burden of Grief

One of the lingering effects of H’s passing is that four times a year, I go through a phase where I especially struggle for words to share with my father. Although triggered by four specific days – her birthday (the 8th of July), their wedding anniversary (the 11th of November), the day she passed (the 19th of July) and the day she was buried (the 8th of August) – these tend to be long drawn out affairs affecting the days leading up to and the days after these days. The struggle takes various forms primarily centred on whether to call my father or not, and on the days when I manage to call him, what to talk about – to keep things as normal as possible or broach the difficult subject of H. He and I have never been the best of conversationalists – we’re much too similar for that – but these days make that tenuous relationship an even more difficult one, so much so that on most of these days, I have opted for not calling him in the end.

H’s passing does still feel especially raw, even though her’s was not the first of which clear memories still remain. For that I have to go all the way back to 1988 and G, the ones the genes took. I distinctly remember the events which led to it; the battle with a crisis and the ensuing hospital admission, and then the knowing once I was called out of my class to Mrs A’s office where the neighbour’s orange Volkswagen beetle was waiting to whilst myself and T home. The others in between though covering a range of family members – paternal grandparents, my maternal grandmother and a couple of uncles – are comparative blurs in the landscape of my memory. Distinct memories of G’s passing notwithstanding, I do not remember the same sense of grieving with her that still lingers with H. It is difficult to define completely the interactions of time, space and connection which make both experiences of grief so markedly different, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would offer up the fact that I was much younger then and that there had been a sense of inevitability to it, given the situation with the genes. I imagine others across a broad spectrum of locations and contexts still feel the weight of the grief with H as keenly as I do, given she interacted with a lot of people across the various interests and causes she supported.

This, the intersection of ‘griefs’, complicates grieving in the context of ongoing relationships. With my father, these key dates trigger a remembrance – and a reinforcement even – of loss, driving the conundrum that I wrestle with around these dates. Outside these dates, I feel like we have reached a new normal of sorts, one that accepts the reality of loss but focuses on getting on with life as much as possible. These dates disrupt that new normal for me, and drives the sense of there being a disjunction between living normally and remembering. In my head, by refusing to speak to my father on the day – and hence removing the need to speak about H – I am removing an additional trigger of remembrance from him. That at first glance sounds like a good thing but somewhere in my head, I wonder if it is truly as altruistic as it sounds. Not having the difficult conversation is a good thing for me, whether it is for him, and if this stance adequately honours the memory is a different matter altogether. It is this, the balance between living in the new normal and respectfully remembering and honouring the one who has been lost, that is the primary burden of grief, at least in my opinion.

There are also other non-time based triggers which set off the same sort of feelings. The most recent example was in the middle of a conversation with S’s parents a few weeks ago. Being the incredibly perceptive people they are, they picked up on how I had studiously managed to bring up the subject of H in the over three hours we had spent catching up at the time, which prompted the question. The uneasy silence which followed my explanation suggested it was a topic they would not have brought up if they had known the context. Perhaps – in typical J fashion – I am overthinking the exchange, but this unease exhibited by others when the subject of H comes up is another one of the burdens of grief. Not only does one have to deal with loss, one also has to deal with the reaction of others to loss.

There are no right or wrong ways to carry these burdens. I suspect that time will continue to chip away at the intensity of the grieving of loss which in turn might lessen the burden it places on relationships. If the last few years are an indication of how the next few might pan out in this regards, it is fair to assume that it will not be as simple as that.

Currently listening to: Mandisa – Lifeline

The Way The World Ends: On Loss, and Lostness

LHR

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.

Bait and Switch…

icn_heroimage-1

My father, very much like me, is not a great talker- the sum of our conversation over the course of the year is little more than fifteen minutes. In the main these – 3 minutes here, 2 there, and 5 there have mainly come about as intermissions, snuck in between typically lengthy conversations with my mother – if her constant probing and interrogating can count as conversations. When I wake up to find a couple of missed calls from him on my phone , a whatsapp message from my kid sister, and a BBM message from my brother – all relating to the fact that my father has been trying to get hold of me- it sets the alarm bells in my head off. After arriving from my weekend trip to the middle of nowhere (link) I ordered the largest, most decadent pizza I could from PapaJohns – with a barbecue chicken side- devoured it and promptly fell into my bed for sleep, which was how I ended up oblivious to the clamour for my attention.

Resigning myself to whatever it might be, I call him, bracing myself for whatever it might be. It turns out, it has to do with a conference down south he wants to attend- he wants guidance on visa applications, money transfers and all the associated arrangements required to smoothen his first trip out of Nigeria in a while. it was from my. Not quite any of the urgent, life threatening things my mind had invented then. we chit chat, a bit after that, work at mine, failed driving test and all get a mention, and then an uncomfortable silence. My unease increases exponentially.

So…. He begins, have you called K yet? I haven’t and really don’t intend to. She is the doctor daughter of a friend of a friend of Mum’s whose folk perhaps as agitated by the lack of visible progress towards marrying as mine are have somehow dreamed up this match.

I explain, I’ve had a lot on my plate- offshore, work, eyeing a job change and the like. I assure him I have it on the front burner though..

My father disagrees, by his estimation, if I had even a hint of seriousness, I would have placed the phone call to K, and or being on a flight to nigeria already. He thinks I’m overly focused on progressional development .

You know, people are worried too, they ask me what’s happening all the time.

By now my irritation has built up a head- the people who are worried won’t be in a marriage with me I interject. I may have overdone my curt ness as he falls silent, our little attempt at detente dying as quickly as it rose…

The resignation in his voice is palpable. It’s alright, just call her, OK?

I mumble a response back, just before I terminate the call… Bait and switch, classic…. My folks are getting better at this!!!

Facebook Fail

I woke up to five missed calls on my phone. I had felt, rather than heard its insistent buzz deep within lalaland but sheer tiredness had kept me from waking up. Instead, the phone’s chirpy ringtone somehow ended up blending itself in with the background to some weird dream I promptly forgot on waking.

Of the five missed calls, three were from my mother, one from my father’s phone and one from a private number. This has more or less become her standard M.O. – when she feels I am intentionally refusing to answer her phone calls that is. That she’d called five times suggested it was important, so I groaned inwardly, punched in the numbers for my calling card and made the phone call to Nigeria.

The full repertoire of grunted, fairly redundant greetings done, she proceeded to the core of the reason why she’d called.

“So ‘Seni, I hear you young people now find wives on facebook”

“Mummy”, I reply in best son voice, “where did you hear that from? Facebook is just a website for staying in touch with old friends”

“That’s not what I heard” she replies before she launches into a ten minute tale. Some distant friend of the family, who I had met two or three times at most, who is now retired had scrapped his savings together and sent his son abroad to study at one of my former Universities. Post graduation, he’d found a job in London and was doing quite well by all accounts until he found a wife “off Facebook” my mother insists and got married to her.

A year later, he’d lost his job, it turned out she had been a fraud of sorts (she’d lied about where she worked amongst all other things), and he was back in Nigeria trying to find a job. Somewhere in between talk of having visited some medicine man in an attempt to suss out the cause of his misfortune and all the other ‘spiritual’ sleuthing a traditional Nigerian does..

My mother’s point – important enough for her to try to call me five times in quick succession – was that one wrong move such as finding a wife off face was dangerous. And I needed to be warned/ have my ear pulled to remind me… When it had all wrapped up and the telephone conversation had ended. I sighed and returned to whatever remnants of sleep I could eke out.

It was only 8.30am

Pimping Mrs P

The woman clutched my arm. The first wave of feeling that hit me – when my mind frozen for an instant by the brazen grab – was fear, and then confusion, as she peered intently into my face with not even the faintest hint of recollection bouncing about in my head.  She wasn’t wearing the flowing robes of an aladura prophetess, thus ruling out a smash-and-grab prophesy as the reason for her intrusion. Something about the deeply lined face, the light grey hair peeking out from underneath her tight head wrap and her uber thick lenses left me positively unsettled.

You don’t remember me, she asked; her iron clad grip loosening as her face retracted to a safe distance, a hint of disappointment at the lack of a flicker of recognition in mine showing on her face.

Vaguely familiar, was all I could mutter as she finally let go of my hand as one who had suddenly discovered she had been hanging on to an eel.

Bala, Mrs Bala, she mouthed her name several times as though by dint of repetition her words could penetrate my thick skull. It might have done just that because from the name, a whole avalanche of memories came rushing in, connecting the older, more lined face thrust out of the blue into mine on the corner of a very business market street with five years of history.  She had taught sunday school at the church I attended intermittently back in my undergraduate days – when my parents had succeeded in dragging me along – before I discovered the ploy of escaping to University on Sunday morning pleading the need to close out piled up assignments. Now convinced this was no precursor to a kidnap attempt I must have loosened perceptibly because the next thing she did was to offer me a hug, which I accepted, and then to quiz me rapid fire about life, work and the inevitable wife and children banana skin.

We heard you got a job at XCorp. You be big man now O, so tey you come forget us! Me, Mrs Bala? Na sooooo?  Tricky recollections navigated, she had lapsed into a less formal,  pidgin english based lingua.

I tell her I left XCorp in 2008, grabbed a masters degree, am weighing up the next move to yet another far flung corner of the world and am yet still unmarried.

Where be this place sef, ehn OJ? Shey dem no still dey comot people head for there? I don’t know if it is concern or just plain ignorance. I explain the little I know. It’s not the bastion of liberal, self-indulgent, cosmopolitan life that’s New York’s Queens or London’s West End but its no battle scared, devil’s romping place either.

Wetin you dey go find for there sef?  She sighs in resignation.  Your mummy is happy with you going there? This time it IS concern, her forehead had developed its now familiar crease of worry.

I nod in the jaded, beaten manner of one who has had this conversation one too many times for the past few days. She shakes her head and then suddenly as though awoken by a synapse firing she dips into her bag and begins to rummage within it, eventually coming up with her cell phone.

Ehennn! Back to pidgin English, I sigh inwardly thinking I may have finally escaped here. She has her eyes fixed on me intently now.

P* sef never marry. She was around three months ago. She has a masters too, from abroad. She throws that in, perhaps hoping that some shared experience might help circumvent my perceived ‘pickiness’. She goes on to extoll P’s values – head screwed on right, solid job at some Lagos auditing firm, and most importantly someone whose familial antecedents we both know very well. She scribbles some digits on a sheet of paper somehow exhumed from her purse and thrusts it in my face.

That’s her number. Call her o!! God might have orchestrated this meeting for this purpose.  She is back in her stern sunday school teacher/ up and coming Mother-In-Israel mode. I nod respectfully, push the folded sheet into my shirt pocket and return to my humble boy pose – head slightly bowed, eyes averted and hands clasped together at my back. She smiles one last full toothed smile, waves and continues on her journey, leaving me wondering what just hit me.

A few paces after I’ve escaped her clutches, the piece of paper with the phone number has morphed into a crushed ball of wet mush and nestles in the gaping mouth of a broken sewer pipe. Unless God now specialises in the business of breaking up marriages for single blokes, there will be no dice with Mrs  P

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless handheld from Glo Mobile.

Baby Birthdays, failed détente and motherly ultimatums

In what must be a first for me, I get invited to a birthday party over WhatsApp. Truth be told, there were mitigating circumstances. Although the parent in question and I have some tenuous familial connection – my grand father and her grand mother somehow managed to get entangled in the far distant haze that is a few generations ago – she and I haven’t stayed much in touch, in spite of us living the the small matter of the length of Union Street apart. I suppose the invitation was one last hopeful punt in my direction. If it was, it worked, the twin attractions of something to do on a Saturday afternoon and proper Nigerian food proving too strong for even I the quintessential recluse. Izzy, the kid in question had just turned One, and her parents keen to celebrate the milestone were putting together a small get together for the guys; for that I was very much a willing eater.

I arrive at fifteen minutes past the hour. Given our Nigerian predilection for African time, I have figured that this is a considered compromise between not being the first bum on a seat and not keeping the hosts waiting. It turns out I have timed my arrival horribly; the only other person besides the chief host by the time I arrive is a Caucasian woman and her two children, with the next person strolling in leisurely at thirty minutes past the hour. Arriving early does prove useful though, as I am pressed into service putting finishing touches to the placement of cups and drinks on the tables.

It turns out to be a fairly well attended event. There are quite a few people I have not seen in a while, each with their children in tow. Both parents have connections to my alma mater and it shows. I end up sharing a table with yet another distant family member, one who was also a contemporary of my youngest brother. He has his girlfriend on his arm when he breezes in just after 2pm, and a few handshakes and a quick swig of Don Simon later, he plumps into a seat next to me. We talk, about Nigeria, about Aberdeen and the looming winter, about work and future plans. He thinks he’ll head off to Nigeria in the next three to five years, I think that elusive PhD needs putting back on the front burner.

The one blot, on a personal level for me, is an extended encounter with the brash tactlessness of a friend of a friend. When he finds out we all went to the same University but that I graduated two years before he commenced studies, he straight away asks which of the children chasing birthday ballons near by are mine. I reply I have none, and am not married, which is his cue to waffle on about how I am wasting time. I am minded to give him a telling off, but given the context and the fact that our host would most assuredly come down on his side, I hold my peace and move off to grab some food instead. In that little six minute and some exchange is all the background and proof that has typically driven my avoidance of these events.

On the subject of my mother, the last few weeks have been somewhat frosty. In a sense she has been feeling the absence of the kid brother who’s upped sticks and headed back to full time study in a different country. Being the fairly accessible ear, she has tended to dump on me. Her mood has not been helped by my uncle down south and his ongoing meddling. True to type, and perhaps influenced by all the things I have going on in my life at this point in time, I opted for withdrawal and managed communication to limit the opportunities for irritation. This weekend I decide to try to mend fences by initiating a call and allowing her unload. Needless to say, she does a lot of the talking, and manages to add an ultimatum at the end.

Mothers! Sigh.