Vices, Spices and A Question of Identity

Photo by Timothy L Brock on Unsplash

**

For all S’s protestations to the contrary, it is my contention that there are far worse vices than playing Football Manager. On the odd occasion, when I am caught off-guard, I’ll admit the arguments for this can be tenuous at best but I sincerely believe there is a cachet attached to being this particular brand of a connoisseur.

Home, families and when spouses and children will get moved out here are typical subjects of conversation whilst waiting for the bus, which was how I ended up having such a conversation with a fellow commuter a few days ago. Time zones and staying in touch were the twin topics of interest on the day. My two-hour difference is hardly the sort of stuff to sweat over but in his early days, he had an eight-hour time difference to manage, difficult given the need to balance that with getting enough sleep and waking up in time to be on the bus at 6.00 am. Things were a lot simpler for him now he said, thanks to his family’s move back to their home town of Plovdiv. Perhaps my eyes lit up with recognition at the name, but somehow he figured out I recognised the name. I did, of course, thanks to some obscure Football Manager save, in which I ended up taking Brentford from the English Championship to the Champions League group stage via a two-leg qualifier against Botev. Inspired by all the football kicking about of late, I thought I’d reinstall it and have a few turns. The 821 hours I have apparently spent playing the 2015 version was an awakening of sorts (refusing to upgrade is the one act of self-discipline I have allowed myself in this regard). 821 hours seems like a lot of time to spend in a make-believe world of pretending to be Klopp, Nagelsmann or whoever is the latest managerial wunderkind, but on this evidence, some real-world value is there to be had, the geography of weird and wonderful places.

One question I get asked a lot is where I am from. The most obvious answer is the United Kingdom, but quite a few people out here know enough about its structure to want to delve deeper. Therein lies my conundrum. I feel a real kinship to Newcastle and consider myself a Geordie at heart, never missing opportunities to hop on the train, going back at least once a year in all my time up in the ‘Deen. I did spend most of my time up in the ‘Deen though, and the oil industry being what it is, there are several connections and connections of connections out here which has sometimes made it expedient to flout my ‘Aberdeen links. The three months I spent down in Surrey during the lockdown endeared that part of the country to me, its shaded forest paths, canals and running spaces all adding up to a very pleasurable, becalming experience. I am from there, therefore, in a manner of speaking.

Most people default to asking if I am Nigerian, aided I suspect by the reasonably large number, and visibility, of Nigerians everywhere. I am that too of course, even though my relationship with the country is very much that of an errant prodigal. Being fortunate or unfortunate to have grown up in the corner of the country that I did, I have come away with the sense of being a minority in a minority state, and therefore feel no real kinship or connection to it. What news that filters through hardly fills me with any real confidence that my relationship with it, fraught as it is, is heading anywhere good anytime soon.

Twice, whilst self-isolating when I arrived here, bowls of extra spicy rice and meat turned up at my door from people with Nigerian connections who very kindly took it upon themselves to help the new guy settle in. It was a relief to take a break from sandwiches and all the other bland fare my Whatsapp tennis with the local diner delivered. One of my first acts, when I was finally free to go out was to head to the local shop and buy as much pepper as I could lay my hands on, without looking like someone who had lost their mind. I may or may not be many things, but I am learning that one thing is incontrovertible, I am an eater of pepper.

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.

First World Problems

Thirty odd people, myself included, cluster around a table in a somewhat private corner of the Monkey House. Once a quarter, the guys and girls from work all pile in here to de-stress, and let our hair down. Rumour has it that after enough beers have gone around, fortuitous slips centred around what certain bosses actually think about certain staff have been known to occur. Usually, the evening starts with a few beers and nibbles – fish fingers, spring rolls, and all the other light food we’d collectively call small chops  in my other world, the small matter of a few thousand miles away.

Three beers in, I find myself somehow wedged between two women from a different group within my larger team. Besides the odd ‘Hi’ tossed across the hall way as I have passed them on the way to the shared printer, or the even more occasional chit-chat at the coffee machine, these are not people I would consider myself particularly well acquainted with.

In allowing myself to be stuck at this end of the table, I have perhaps made my most grievous mistake. The conversation that begins around my being single – uncomfortable enough as it were – eventually segues in to the even less comfortable territory of botched spray tans, gelish application and removals, and endless harping on about a perceived slight; a contractor had used one of the ladies’ parking space without asking.

It takes all of my will power to not physically run, but I survive, long enough to seize the arrival of a fresh platter of nibbles as an escape clause.

Phew!!!

Baguette days

 

unionsq_sunny_post

Given the decidedly appalling weather we have had out here, the very first signs of sunshine returning are enough to tempt people out of their various hiding places on to the public spaces again. Walking down my usual route back to work  – after a quick lunch hour detour into town – I notice the forecourt at the Square is a lot busier than usual. There are people seated on the wooden benches,  others standing in little groups and more , like me, passing through,  all united by the desire to soak up the rare sight of the noon day sun.

I make my way to my baguette place and order the usual – a freshly baked baguette stuffed full with plain chicken, crispy bacon and mozzarella cheese. I add a bag of potato chips and a coke and then join the queue slowly snaking its way towards the till. It is one of the regulars manning it today.

 – I think you not come anymore today, she says. She is Polish, speaks English in a decidedly belaboured manner, and smiles a little too enthusiastically at times.

 – Had things to do in town today. Totally forgot the time, I say shaking my head for emphasis.

 – No sauce for you?  Her tone is flat, almost listless, delivered in that half-question half-statement tone that masks resignation at the fact that I am short changing myself – or so she thinks.

Nah, I reply. You know I like it dry.

 – Your money, four pounds, she says.

I rummage in my wallet, find a five pound note and hand it over to her.  She unlocks the till, finds  two fifty pence coins and hands them over to me.

 – Tada.  That is the one Scottish quirk of language that is default out here. Even she, knows that.  I nod her my reply, grab my stuff and head out the door.

Outside I find a spot on a bench,  settle in to attack my greasy carb fest and soak in the sunshine. Knowing this city, there is no telling when the next opportunity will come.