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

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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.

Winter’s first salvo, waiting for Ally and a curious case of begging..

The much threatened snow storm finally hit, and when it did it was an anti-climax of sorts. Rather than the promised chaos and long tail backs, there were only mild disruptions at most. I suspect the winter has a lot more sting in its tail, but its first salvo has been under-whelming at worst. Given the town’s penchant for gory, frightful winters, I’ll take under-whelming any time.

One evening, I am standing just inside the doors at Union Square – earphones plugged in with The Script on repeat, hands in my coat pockets and looking out – as the maelstrom of humanity just belched out by the 18:17 train from Dyce sweeps by. I am usually at home by this time – heaters fired up, warm drink in hand, catching up on re-runs of NCIS – but I am out today waiting to pick up a friend whose train should have arrived a few minutes earlier. He and I haven’t met up in at least three years – I suspect it’s probably more – even though we have kept in touch via email and the odd phone call here and there. He has been holidaying, taking in the sights of Europe and gate crashing one party too many whilst checking yet more places off his places-to-see-before-I-die list. A chance conversation a couple of weeks before helped make up his mind to toss in a sleep over at mine – the final pit stop before the train that is his holiday hurtles on to Nigeria and a return to the drudgery of work. A quick glance at the arrivals board at the station alerts me to the unfortunate fact that his train has been delayed by a further fifteen minutes.

Out of the corner of my eye I see a man – I reckon he is at least 6-2 as he has at least a head on me – hovering around in the manner of one either lost or a predator lurking, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. Instinctively, I shorten the straps on my knapsack and hug my coat a little closer until I sense the reassuring touch of my wallet with its assortment of cards on my hip. Such is the ingrained fear of pick pockets in me that I immediately tense up, half expecting to lose something. I casually turn a little, hoping to get a clearer line of sight to him – in my mind my counter espionage skills rival those of Nick Carter – N3, agent extraordinaire at AXE. My manoeuvre unfortunately is one that plays into his hands. Realising he has my attention, he begins to amble in my direction.

Whatever complacency is left in my inner Nick Carter is driven off when he speaks
– Bros, he begins, you be Naija shey?

I ponder the ramifications of answering in the affirmative for a few seconds and then decide to humour him by replying in what I hope is a sufficiently brusque – Yes.

Seemingly heartened by my answer he proceeds to download a spiel about how he’s been up to TheBZ to visit a business associate who has ended up duping him. The cliff notes version is that he is 30 pounds short of the total amount required to get a train ticket to head back to London.

 – I am a family man you know, he adds, it is just sad that my own Nigerian brother will do this to me. He speaks with the affectation of one who feels broken and used.

Maybe I am in a good mood, or it is the spectre of Christmas looming large at the back of my mind, but for once I decide to humour him, especially as I have a few minutes to kill before the train bearing my friend arrives.

– 30 pounds, you say, I ask him again to make sure. He nods, a little too eagerly I think. I motion for him to follow me, explaining that as I do not have cash on me, I will have to buy the ticket with my card.

The disappointment on his face is clear for me to see. Apparently he had been hoping I would complete his fare by cash. I firmly explain that I do not have any cash on me. He insists, if I can’t give it to him by cash, he’ll pass and wait for someone else who can. Somewhere in between, he turns abruptly and walks away from me. I shrug, walk back to my vantage watching spot and resuming waiting for Ally’s train.

In truth, I could use the 30 pounds myself, what I don’t understand is what happened to beggars having no choice?

Winter’s first blows, 2010 and other random thoughts…

Winter has struck its first tentative blows – two successive days last week we woke up to see our world carpeted with a thin layer of snow. Karla – Benny’s wife who has lived all her life in this town – swears that this is the first time she’s seen snow fall in October. Considering last winter was one in which several firsts going back thirty years were bested, that singular piece of news leaves one with a sense of dread. Those who should know better also swear by their instruments that this will be yet another long, hard, harsh winter. In anticipation – and I should add as usual – the gas and power suppliers are inching the rates upwards. Not since 2008 has there being such a significant hike in prices. Predictably there is discontent at huge profits, pay for executives and other such perceived signs of exploitation in the face of price rises. One paper goes as far as saying ‘Christmas will be ruined’ – for an annual average increase of a princely seventy pounds or 67.2 bottles of Becks premium lager…. The days when we bemoaned twenty-six degree weather seem so far away now..

Amidst the sound bites though is the glibly overlooked fact that the coming of winter is not all gloom and doom. Winter, and by extension snow, is a harbinger of more things than cold, slippery weather. The city centre is already replete with decorations – decked out with bunting in anticipation of Christmas, radio DJs are already announcing their end of year raves, and furniture deals for Christmas delivery are already being advertised. Most importantly perhaps is the stark reminder that 2010 – like an athlete on steroids – gallops to an inexorable close and the long lists of plans , programs and good intentioned activities which we all swore by need delivering on. In other words, it is the end game for 2010, and I for one need to knuckle down and close out the last bits..

All told, its being a pretty decent year… A few more days of gloves, caps, knee length coats… A few more tasks to accomplish and it might yet be a great year….