There are days that begin with an immediate sense that you are racing against the clock. Days where you find yourself more than once, more than twice, more than three times, reminding yourself that everything is ok because there's just a slight sense of overwhelm. I often get this kind of feeling at the end of a school holiday, when the laundry basket is spilling over with clothes soiled from holiday adventures. When dishes are piled up in the kitchen from the night before and left abandoned so that we can watch films or play games after designated bedtimes or so that we can head straight out after our second breakfast because it's the holidays after all. There are the moments when your childless friends pop round unexpectedly and all you can see is the dust that has gathered and very much settled, untouched, sitting proudly upon mantelpieces and the top of the tv and dvd player, right in front of you, right before your eyes. You find yourself challenging yourself, how could you not respond to this obvious call to attention, you who prides yourself on attention to detail? You become suddenly aware of the smeared and mucky finger prints on glass, the random clusters of 'special fings' in strange places that you have promised not to move. All at once you're conscious of it all and you cringe at your own need to mention that 'it's not always like this! ' followed by your nervous laughter which you witness like an out of body experience.
As the busy half term days progress, I notice little finger tip drawings appearing in the dust. This is what tells me that those that I live with have also noticed the dust. Sometimes that littlest of mine tells me unselfconsciously that 'it is very dusty!'. His older brother, who is perhaps a little more sensitive or who perhaps has experienced my wrath for three years longer, stares at his younger brother for a while and whispers although loud enough for me to hear the words, 'don't say that, it's rude, mum's not our personal slave!'
So on Sunday when I was feeling that sense of overwhelm and feeling that back to school feeling, when hubby took charge of our offspring and I found myself alone in the house of dust and debris, I quickly set to put things right. Just like the episode of Little Miss Tidy that I loved watching as a child 'everything spic and span and in its proper place'. Clean P.E kits and school bags set out ready for the next day, clothes selected and set out, rooms tidied and house vacuumed and dusted. Dusted. Dusted well. Suddenly, I could see that it was manageable. It wasn't so overwhelming, it was all in reach and my jobs were done and my sweaty brow attested to this. So, that monthly event that I have attended only once before, the one that makes me feel like an Artist once more. The one that if I think about too much I could easily convince myself to not attend. The one that I had already, much earlier in the day, decided that I wouldn't be attending because it starts at 6pm which is crazy timing when you have kids. But then, I could see that it was possible and that infact it was crucial that I attend because there's a momentum building and if I don't pursue it, I have no idea how long it will take to gather this pace again. Note that I describe it as pace and not speed, I am not up to speed as yet, I'm simply pacing and that's just fine for now, here and now.
So I send hubby a message asking for early release and I am indeed granted it and not long after I bid my three farewell, and I set out for my second attendance at my new but also old event. As I am about to leave I decide that I should attend to my boys night time hair routine because I can't face the triple whammy of monday morning, after a school holiday, with children with hair sorted out by their dad the night before. Finally I am ready, a quick check of the time - 5.10pm. Still time, I don't want to be early since this time I am attending the event alone and don't want to have to schmooze. I set out and after walking past three cars on our side of the road, I realise I've forgotten my phone and I return shouting quickly as I open the door 'I forgot my phone but I'm going straight out again!' in a desperate bid to forewarn the children that I am not once again available just because I am temporarily physically present.
In a declaration of independence, I had decided at the same moment that attending the event became a possibility, that I would catch the bus to the city centre and not get a cab. A kind of challenge to myself because ever since watching that first series of Luther back in October, I've really not liked the idea of ever walking alone after dark. Truthfully, I've not just not liked the idea, I've been quite sickened by the idea. Luckily I don't have much of a night time social life and so I haven't often found myself walking alone after darkness to meet friends. When I say after darkness, of course this is the UK and darkness has every likelihood of setting in any time from 5pm and let's face it, at times that's optimistic. After a ten minute walk to the bus stop, I am feeling invigorated. I have after all managed to leave the house, before feeding and putting the children to bed and I am on my way to an event, one that satisfies my interests only. It's all about me! I check my watch and time is progressing and my bus isn't due for ten minutes. I hate being late, frankly it's just rude and unless something horrible has happened worthy of an episode of Luther, then I'm that person that's just going to judge you for lateness, worst still I may judge you in secret which is even worse I know. Since I have this sick side, this irritable flaw I sense that others might also and so I am anxious, I do not want to be late. So I begin to feel the feeling of overwhelm once more, the feeling of 'it's once a month to attend this event and I can't even get this right more than once!' feeling, I quickly begin rationalising that even if I'm late and can't make the event, I will at least face the challenge I have set myself of walking in the city after dark. There is a small, small, teeny weeny part of me that recognises this as ridiculous but still a greater part of me takes the lead smothering the sense out of a teeny weeny me.
I'm still waiting at the bus stop when the first person stands too close behind me. Irritated, I wait an acceptable amount of time before moving, feigning looking at the electronic bus timetable, but using this as a quick ploy to identify the mental state of the standing too close guy. I decide that he isn't crazy, he's just one of those studenty types that isn't a student anymore but still looks like one (yes, I'm very judgey at the moment). He's wearing headphones which has left him with one of his senses not operational hence the fact that I could temporarily hear his exhaling loudly very, very close to the back of my head with the occasional and subtle half hum along to his music. The bus comes. I reach the city centre. I step off and immediately begin power walking. It is four minutes to six and the event begins in just four minutes. My left foot hurts and yet I don't slow down although I do suddenly picture the podiatrist who is currently treating me and I make a mental note to do more calf stretches the following day. I don't really have any idea why I'm rushing, or why this is all so important but I carry on. I reach my destination, I look again at my watch and decide that I am eight minutes late because to make it ten minutes ... well that would just be unforgivable. I find a seat and manage to do so quietly and painlessly. I've done it! I'm here. It now doesn't matter what happens from here, whether I hear words spoken or stories told, it matters not, I made it, I've shown up for the second time and this means a lot.
Over the next twenty minutes a number of people turn up late, like myself. I consider judging them and then wonder what it's taken them to arrive at the same destination. Three mobile phones go off over the next slightly less than two hours (I was late, remember?) and I judge each of those people although I do not do the head turn followed by a tut like a few other front rowers do. Is it that hard to remember to turn your phone off or to silent? I will find this out next month or the month after I am sure. At the interval of the event, I decide to go to the toilet. Not because I really need to go but as I mentioned before I am alone and at an art event and I do not want to schmooze. I really don't. I encounter the school run ten times a week, this is enough schmoozing. No more. As I am making my way down the stairs I hear someone say 'excuse me' and I turn. She is beautiful with hair similar to mine but much much nicer. She asks me something and I don't hear. She asks again and I don't understand. I feel a little embarrassed as I ask a third time and slowly my brain catches up and I realise, she is not from around these parts hence the accent that was confusing my easily tricked brain. I smile an apologetic smile hoping that she will not judge me. She wants to know if I am from the area. She wants to know if it is safe to walk around by herself. She wants to know if it will be safe to walk by herself in an hours time when the event finishes. I assure her that it is safe, at the same time I ascertain that she is a very attractive, young woman, not from this part of the world with a map of the area just visible in her coat pocket and them BAM!!!! Flashes of that horrible, horrible episode of Luther and suddenly I feel responsible for this girls life. Suddenly I wonder if it is indeed safe for me to return home alone? I wonder if I should accept defeat and get a cab home. At this point I suggest that she could catch a taxi if she is worried and she vehemently shakes her head and utters 'verrreeee uxpenseeeve'. I decide that by giving her the option I have exonerated myself but also make a mental note that there will be CCTV footage of me now and later as crime watch ask 'who is this woman that let a young girl take a long walk across the city alone ?' She thanks me, she is still a few steps behind me and I smile and say goodbye and head to the toilet. When I come out of my cubicle, she is washing her hands and readjusting her hair which is is mostly tied back with a small section of spirally dark curls swept to one side and tucked under more curls. I glance envyingly, so similar to mine but so different, would mine make a bid for freedom if I tried that? Probably I conclude, as I decide that her hair is probably the texture of a mix of my boys, that soft and funky afro-european fusion kid of hair, if you get what I mean. We begin chatting, she explains that she is from Mexico although she is currently studying in France. She decided on a whim to make a trip to England for half term. She has visited a friend in Cardiff, other friends in London, she spent a rainy day in Oxford and she is headed to Edinburgh tomorrow to join another friend but she has spent the day in Birmingham alone.
We converse very comfortably for the duration of the interval and she returns with me to where I was seated and as the interval adjourns she says she will return to her seat a few rows from mine and then I invite her to join me. We smile at one another and laugh at the same times as we listen to people telling their stories one after another and when the event draws to a close I ask her where she is headed. She describes a destination that I do not recognise, she tells me that she is infact travelling by bus headed to Edinburgh tonight, something that I had misunderstood due the the occasional language barrier. At this point she takes the map that I mentioned earlier from her coat pocket and I quickly realise that she is needs to get to Digbeth coach station. I say that it's not far from where I'm headed, we can walk together and then I'll point out where she needs to go. This is perfect I think, it's God's amazing timing, I'm scared, she's scared and now neither of us has to walk alone. We continue talking, she is friendly and buoyant and charming and young, very young and whilst I don't mean to be condescending I realise that I am beginning to think that she is young enough to be my daughter and my feelings towards this lone traveller are maternal ones. Suddenly I am no longer afraid, I am no longer thinking of that episode of Luther in the same way and when she confirms my theory telling me that she is twenty-one, all I can think of is her mother in Mexico City and I decide right there and then as we walk past the third group of young men hanging about, that I will walk her to Digbeth. Suddenly, I know exactly why I had a bizarre sense of purpose about attending this event. I know why I persevered and walked on through the pain in my left foot when I began to think that I should surrender, grab a coffee and head back home. These kind of encounters are magical, wonderful, almost of another time, dream like. I question whether it's really happening this eventful, simple, non-event. Her name ended with 'ita'. It could easily have been Buenita, she is gorgeous, an effortless beauty with golden skin, like a girl-woman out of an Almodover film. I quickly do the maths and I decide that yes, she could be my child and she is very much how I have imagined a daughter of mine and I realise that when I do imagine a daughter of mine, she is always at this kind of age never any younger. I briefly consider what my pschotherapist friend would make of this and then I pull myself back to the present, the here and now. I smile and feel at peace as I see her relax at the news that I will take her to her destination. I mention it casually, I tell her that I can catch my bus right outside the station. I tell her we're not far and knowing that we have little time left of our encounter to savour, we exchange family histories.
I tell her that travel is the greatest sacrifice of my current circumstances, limited by time and finances and commitments. I tell her how exciting it is to hear of her plans, I tell her she is brave, that she already has great stories to tell. She tells me that I am doing an important work, being at home with my children. She tells me that her mother did the same. I smile and accept her words and I do not judge her as I might others that offer the same words. She asks me if I look for work, I suspect she is slightly disappointed, she wants me to more aspiring. She is 21, female, intelligent and brave, living in a country whose mother tongue is unfamiliar to her. She is a political science student from a small village two hours outside of Mexico City who longed to live in the epicentre of the great city of Mexico. She accomplished that and quickly craved more, more adventure, more risk taking, more, more, more.
We talk and it can't be for more than 25 minutes and yet it feels like a lifetime in another sense. I consider giving her my contact details and decide that unless she offers hers first, that I will let this bird fly freely. We kiss and I wish her a wonderful adventure in Edinburgh, back in France and also for her return to Mexico. She wishes me the same, 'happy times at home with your children, now and always'. I watch her walk through the automatic doors and just as I set off again, she turns and flashes me one last happy smile. The sort that I recognise from my own boys, the sort that says thank you without words and I think of her mother once more.
The beauty of this encounter, of this moment is briefly stolen by the reality of being stood opposite Digbeth coach station. I'm immediately aware of the faint smell of urine, of the noise of passing buses and impatient cars with drivers and passengers tense with the arrival and departure of travelling people. I can feel the tension of families being re-united and as I watch a car aggressively mount the pavement not far from the bus stop and I watch the middle aged man's reaction to the car, the middle aged man whose had a few drinks yells and is wearing the scent of guinness like a cologne. He angrily shouts out a swear word or four in his strong Irish accent and I continue watching. I watch the driver emerge, the one that's almost knocked the Irish guy over and he is stressed. He opens his boot and motions for his relatives of whom there are many, all carrying large suitcases and large bags, even the children and the bags are specific. All at once I am transported to Kotoka International Airport in Accra and I am flooded with memories of arriving and departing relatives with those same bags! They're what I call ethnic bags, they're the blue, white and red large check bags made from recycled plastic with a zip. They are very popular amongst Africans, Chinese, Asians for purposes of travel. My Aunt gave me and my hubby one full of home made african staples to return to the uk with on our last visit. My dad used to fill one with yams and mangoes and pineapples for my granny when he would return to England as a locum. When my dad's youngest brother, my Uncle John would visit from England, I specifically remember the abscence of the ethnic bag. Uncle John was very suave, he would emerge out of the airport with slick, black leather hand luggage looking like a rock star!
I see a flash of orange and I make out the number 50, my bus is here and I remember that I am not at Kotoka International Airport, I remember that my dad and Uncle John are no longer in this world, I remember that tonight I met a girl from Mexico and finally I remember that I still have to reach home safely. I pray the whole length of the long ten minute walk from the bus stop and finally, I make it home. I decide that next month when I attend the event, I will catch a cab, both ways. I vow, like I did back in October, that I will never watch Luther again and instead I will re-watch The Wire in order to appreciate the work of Mr. Idris Elba! I will not pretend to have the bravery of my twenty something foolish self and I will accept the cautious 'what if' mentality of my fast approaching forty self. I fit my key into my front door and feel a sense of relief. I look at my watch and it's says 8.39pm and I no longer feel overwhelmed.