1. Eastwards

As I stand, satchel slung across my shoulder waiting for the call to board the KLM flight from Schipol to Lagos, I think back wistfully to a similar scene just over three years ago, when I stood within the Departures Lounge at the Murtala Mohammed Airport making the transit in the opposite direction. Then, as with now, it was a wedding – that of Sister #1 – that had lured me across the miles, outside the safety of what had been a year of near total insulation, back to Nigeria. In truth, the time and the distance have been mere blips on the timeline of life, but so total has the lostness been that it almost feels like I need to be reacquainted with everything all over again.

The six-hour thirty minute flight from Schipol to Lagos passed eventually – aided by flitting in and out of sleep, watching (very) old episodes of The Big Bang Theory and How I met Your Mother and failing woefully (in my admittedly half-hearted attempts) to catch the eye of one of the air hostesses; an almost otherworldly beauty with small lithe hands and an almost permanently plastered smile. Although the flight was reasonably full, I somehow had the luxury of having an aisle seat with three empty seats either side of me. Surprisingly, given my preference for being left alone on these jaunts, I found myself feeling the aloneness a little bit too keenly at times, like being marooned on my very own atoll. The captain’s voice over the tannoy announcing descent into Lagos for the final thirty minutes of the flight jarred me out of any lingering bouts of sleepiness or self-pity, and ensured I was quite alert by the time I lugged my satchel and ambled on through the walkway through to passport control.

I joined the steady stream of people ambling on towards passport control. At the end of the walkway, there was an immigration officer, kitted in the dull brown uniform, directing us with animated hand gestures into two lines.  “Nigerian passports, here; foreign passports there”he kept saying as each new wave of passengers poured out of the walkway into what was a small waiting room with barriers. Just ahead was a suite of three desks; each manned by two immigration officers. Two of those desks serviced the line for Nigerian passport holders which had quickly swelled and snaked all the way backwards.

Close to the head of our queue was a man dressed entirely in white, his flowing galabeya contrasting with the black shoes peeking out from beneath them. He was standing to one side of the queue and speaking into his phone when I attached myself to the end of the queue. Soon after he finished someone, dressed in the brown of immigration but with a lot more colourful adornments than the people at the desks in front of us, walked up to him, conferred a little and then extricated him and what must have been his bag boy from the queue.  With a curt nod to the officials at the desk he swept past them with his bag carrier in tow, heading for the priority luggage carousel.

As our line continues to inch along, I notice a little cluster around a man in front of me, where our line doubles back on itself for the final time before terminating at the desks. His face looks vaguely familiar, and there are quite a number of handshakes and poses for photographs going on. My suspicion that he is a Nollywood persona is confirmed when in reply to a young woman gushing over him and proclaiming him a star he insists – in that slightly disinterested, studiously self-deprecating style of faux humility – that he is no star, just Kanayo O. Kanayo. The woman who has offered the ‘star’ moniker is left to stutter and move on.

Three people ahead of me, two men are engaged in an animated conversation about the merits and demerits of traveling light. One – a pudgy looking gentleman with a protruding stomach – insists his preference is to always travel light, although his wife usually has other intentions, never passing up the opportunity to stuff his luggage with the last clothes she’s acquired. The other – dressed very casually in shorts and a sleeveless vest shares his secret magic bullet for navigating that particular peeve – leaving the booking of his flight till the last possible moment. Some how I get the impression these are not two people who have been previously acquainted, but are people who think there might be longer term benefit in staying in touch. Mr. PodgyBelly asks for Mr. HipWannabe‘s phone number. Replying in a tone of voice a tad bit too loud, he replies – “I haven’t been back here in a while, I’ll have to give you my United Kingdom number. That’s fine isn’t it?” They exchange phone numbers and then continue yapping on about some other subject. Behind me I hear a muffled hiss. The young woman behind me has as much time for that little bit of showoffishness as I do, precious little.

When my turn at the desk arrives, the first of the officials takes a cursory look at my passport and hands it on to the official seated next to him. He opens it too, flips through a few pages and asks me what I am doing outside Nigeria. “Studying”, I reply. My cover on these trips – useful to avoid the inevitable ‘any thing for us question’ – is to insist that I am a poor broke student. On this occasion my bushy hair and my school boyish satchel slung across my shoulder appear to satisfy him and he waves me through. The girl behind me, with whom I had shared a snicker at the behaviour of Mr HipWannabe gets a far more thorough grilling, involving a question about Kwara State, and where she is from within the state.  It takes me a further twenty minutes before I spot my checked in luggage chugging along on the carousel towards me. All told in just over forty-five minutes, I am all clear and heading out towards the gates for a cab.

The one essential skill I have never mastered is the art of haggling. That war of attrition, an often slow laborious dance of offer and counter offer towards an amicable centre from two usually widely differing starting points, often seemed to me like a pointless waste of time. Two counter offers in I give up, accepting his (at least to me) highly inflated price of four thousand to run me into the Opebi area of town. I console myself with gaining five hundred naira;  less than his initial offer. He must have sensed I felt I had been had – or I had truly been had and his concience wouldn’t give him rest – because all through the trip he ran a monolouge of how hard the country was and how he was having to eke out a living. The cornerstone of his argument? The fact that at a relatively early 8.30pm there was already a clutch of scantily dressed women close to the Allen Roundabout getting their hustle on early. That was one argument I had no answer for.

About Town: Journeying to the Middle of Nowhere

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I get the call late – sometime between 5.00 and 5.30pm on Monday evening –  as I drag my bone weary self homeward, plowing a lone furrow down Guild and up Union through the masses of people heading home in the opposite direction.  A sudden change of plans on The Project has thrown the curveball that is being the designated short term relief in my direction, and being the young, unmarried bloke on the team I get first dibs at the possibility of catching a 9.30 am flight the next morning. With the prospect of performance reviews due in a mere two weeks, I’m not exactly keen to refuse an opportunity to demonstrate my ability to ‘handle changing priorities’, so I shrug inwardly, accept my lot and grumble all the way home.

It is nice and bright – and atypically sunny day for this time of the year –  when I drag myself into a cab for the drive to the airport. By the time we navigate the final turn into the airport; the weather has taken a decidedly chillier tone. I find the departures lounge empty, save for a somewhat plump, dour woman, huddled over one of the terminals that line one side of the building. I clear my throat to attract her attention – and stammer a greeting when she looks up. She peers at me – the whites and browns of her eyes peeking out from the gap between her face and the glasses she has perched on almost the very tip of her nose.  I mention I am due to catch a flight out. She asks for my details, but midway through attempting to phonetically spell my surname, I give up and fish out my company ID from the innards of my knapsack. It takes at least a minute of uncomfortable silence before she looks up again and confirms I’m on the passenger manifest. It turns out I have arrived a full ninety minutes before check-in for my flight is due to open, and I will have to come back in an hour’s time. I thank her again, shrug in resignation and head back out into what has become a howling wind.

I scan the terrain looking to find somewhere to set up shop whilst waiting – there are only the bus shelters and a couple of smoke shacks around. I chose the bus shelter which proves woefully inadequate protection. From the corner of my eye, I see more people head through the doors, ostensibly get the same response I got and head back out in short thrust.

There must be at least sixty people in varying stages of repose, slouched in the long red seats which fill the tightly packed waiting room by the time I return and manage to navigate the check-in. We all await the announcements of our various flights and the invitation to watch the safety video before that. The overhead screens have Sky News on – the continuing debacle that is Rangers going into administration gets several minutes, as does the endless analysis of the US Presidential elections, previews of the upcoming Champions League football, and all the other things which make up ‘news’. There is some pattern to the clustering –  old friends and colleagues swapping loud stories of their off-work shenanigans, people leafing mindlessly through the newspapers and one person reading from his kindle. It is only my second time passing through this place but it is already becoming easy to spot the obvious first time flyers with their youngish faces, nervous hand motions, quieter dispositions and blank stares into the infinity of distance;  far removed from the usual brash, borderline uncouth crowd that is more typical.

That context undergirds communication and modifies meaning is never more obvious than on these jaunts. In my time I’ve run into quite a few ex royal marines, members of the merchant marine, and techs who have come through apprenticeships at manufacturing companies. That, and the penchant for giving and taking banter that comes with knocking back a few brews at the local pub –  and passionately following a football club –  means that language that would make my chocolate dark mother blush is commonplace. One is as likely to get called a fat turd as a f*cking wanker in these parts – and four letter expletives are as commonplace as the faded blue jeans that appear to be the kit of choice amongst us all.

Underneath the crude talk, the borderline sexist language and the impression of crassness that you first get, over time I have gotten to know there is a softer, paternal, dare I say more responsible side to this lot. The last time out here I shared a quiet moment with Mark* as he ground his own coffee and kept an eye on the television who was genuinely worried about his son and his desire to protect him from the influence of three generations of cousins and uncles who have never worked. There was Brian* the opera aficionado, married for nineteen years, who was looking forward to his annual anniversary celebration which usually involved a trip to catch an opera in Vienna, a reenactment of his how-we-met story.

It is nearly 12.20pm before I get the call to board. The first leg of the trip is a forty five minute jaunt by fixed-wing aircraft northwards into ever more worsening weather to the windswept bareness that is SCATSTA; a World War II RAF base awakened from its post war coma by BP and North Sea oil. The flight is bumpy but sweets, coffee and biscuits help to ease the ever louder growling of my stomach as it protests yet another skipped breakfast. SCATSTA turned out to be a quick ten minute turn around, before the call to suit up, don a life jacket and clamber aboard the helicopter for the final forty minutes of my journey outwards came. My final destination is a rig on the very edge of nowhere, straddling the border of the UK and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea with nothing but grey skies and water all around for company.

I manage to snag a window seat on for this final leg, but the ever thickening mist that swathes us makes it impossible to see anything of note. Somewhere in between, lulled by the steady chugging of the helicopter’s rotors and the bland sameness of the view through the window, I nod off to sleep, like three quarters of us already have. I wake up with a start to the sound of the pilot announcing our final descent, and a warning. Gusts of wind reaching 35 knots are predicted for this sector, we will have to be careful whilst disembarking. I check my carry on items – a book and my wrist watch in my knee pocket – are secure and brace myself for the landing. In the distance the bright orange of the hull of the standby rescue craft is barely discernible in the mist. Around us, there is water everywhere…