It is a hot summer afternoon in London. The kind of heat that keeps your throat perpetually dry. I am not sure if it is just the heat or the heat combined with the high pollen count that has zapped my last shreds of energy, but I am feeling more than mildly irritated because I am also stuck southbound on the A12 trying desperately to leave London via the Blackwall tunnel.
London is one of the cities that seems to suck you in and refuses to spit you out. It always seems to take twice as long trying to get out of the city than commuting around it. I am trying to go to Kent but have opted to go via the A12 and then the A2, rather than the M25 orbital.
I am in my black Mini Cooper listening to Pharrell Williams’ song, Happy. I’m nodding my head and willing myself desperately to feel the sentiment of the song but I’m hot and frustrated. Not happy. Still, they say that if you repeat something enough times, your brain starts to believe it and then it eventually becomes true. For instance, if you fake a smile, your brain can be fooled into believing that you are happy so that it eventually produces feel good chemicals that actually make you smile for real. Well, it doesn’t seem to be working today because I’m still thirsty, hot, and frustrated. I switch off the air conditioning and open up the window because I feel that the air filter in my car is clogged with pollen and petrol fumes.
‘This city is going to kill me one day’. I say out loud. Then I notice something from the corner of my eye: it is insignificant at first. An old plain blue, Honda Prelude with an ‘I love Bradford’ sticker on the lower right corner of the back windscreen.
‘Bradford? Really?’ I think. ‘Still, I suppose there are worse places to love; after all I have been in this city for twenty years!’ I laugh out loudly as I realise that I have now become a true Londoner who views other cities with disdain. As I laugh at myself, it occurs to me that perhaps Pharrell Williams’ song actually is working.
I level up with the Bradford Prelude. We are both going the same direction on the A12. I’m on the inner lane but going just as slowly. The traffic news comes on. There are emergency road repairs on the A12 which means that journeys are taking almost three times as long. It looks like we are going nowhere fast. A Robbie Williams song comes on and I’m wondering why the DJ is playing Millenium when this is 2014! I think I’m grumpy as well, and back to being frustrated and hot. I wind up my window and turn the air conditioning on again. I’m going to die of something one of these days, if it’s from hayfever or asthma brought on by London traffic fumes, at least I will die in relative comfort. It is better to be cool and frustrated than hot and frustrated.
I feel like I’m being watched. Not the same kind of feeling of being perpetually watched that you get living in London. I mean really being watched. Scrutinised even. I look to my left. And then I see her.
A pair of strong hazel eyes piercing through my skin from underneath a niqab. The glare is so strong that I temporarily take leave of my senses and almost forget where I am. I am mesmerised for a moment and I forget that the eyes belong to an actual human being. The car behind me honks and I immediately come to and step on the accelerator to move my car another three feet before I am forced to stop by the solid traffic. She is temporarily out of my gaze, but then the Bradford Prelude reappears as it catches up and is side by side with my Mini and I can see her again. She’s still looking at me. The driver of the Bradford Prelude looks at me, then looks at her, and she immediately lowers her gaze and looks into her hands. He glares back at me with irritation. The spell is broken again temporarily. I inhale sharply and try to assess the bizarreness of the situation. The Bradford Prelude driver is an Asian male from the Indian subcontinent. From the looks of it, he is a devout Sunni Muslim. He has a full beard and is wearing a white kaftan and a white circular cap. The front seat passenger with hazel eyes is looking at me again. She has jet black skin. The kind of skin that my West African friends refer to as five-to-midnight. Five-to-midnight because that is presumably the darkest part of the night. I cannot see her features but from what I do see, she is African in origin. Like me, only much darker. I can see the bridge of her nose; it is wide. I can make out the outline of her nostrils from underneath the niqab; it is wide. She is definitely African.
She is looking at me again. There is something in her eyes that I’m trying to read. She’s not gazing into my eyes. She is looking into my life. She’s looking at my car, at my clothes, at my hands on the wheel. She is gazing into my life; a snap shot of my life. The Bradford Prelude driver looks at her again and catches her staring. He jabs her sharply with his left elbow. She lowers her gaze and stares down at her palms on her lap. I cannot make out any rings or henna, just really jet-black skin from the back of her hands and lower right arm.
The traffic is moving again and the Bradford Prelude driver is indicating right. I allow him move into the gap ahead of me, then I indicate left and move left so that I am where he used to be and he is now in my space. It also means that I can get a better view of his passenger with hazel eyes.
I’m now side by side with the Bradford Prelude and side by side with Hazel Eyes. Traffic is at a standstill again. She’s looking into my eyes and looking straight into my soul. For a split second, I feel sadness in her heart, it seems to be asking me ‘when could I ever be like you?’
I’m staring back at her and willing her to telepathically speak to me.
‘Who are you? Where are you going? What is your story?’
Beads of sweat are forming on her forehead. I’m not sure if a tear is forming in her left eye or if I’m having a sensation of swimming in it!
The Bradford Prelude driver catches her staring. But this time, she does not avert her gaze. She keeps looking at me. I see what looks like a smile. It is hard to tell under her niqab, but I think it is a smile. I smile back. The Bradford Prelude driver is saying something, he’s straining his voice but I cannot hear what he is saying as their windows are wound all the way up. He’s jabbing her but she’s still looking at me. I have no idea if she speaks English or not, but I mouth the words ‘Be strong, follow your dreams’, and smile again. The Bradford Prelude driver is getting more and more animated as he shouts. He’s not jabbing her anymore. He raises his left hand as if to slap her but traffic is moving again and the man behind him is honking his horn loudly, so he is forced to lower his hand and change gears in order to move. He glares at me and immediately starts indicating left.
I have been within 2 miles of the tunnel for the last hour and a half. Traffic is moving faster now. I think we may have passed the bottleneck. A song by The Spice Girls is playing on the radio.
‘Not today!’ I say out loud as I switch the radio off.
The Bradford Prelude driver is still side by side with me and still indicating. I can see the entrance to the tunnel. I’m having mixed emotions. I am happy to be escaping the traffic, but I’m also left feeling heavy about Hazel Eyes. I allow The Bradford Prelude driver to pull up ahead of me, then I gently manoeuvre my Mini into the right lane. I know what he is doing, and he knows what I’m doing too. He immediately starts to indicate right but we are at the entrance of the tunnel. This is my city, I know that everyone stays in their lanes in traffic congestion inside the tunnel. He will have to drive side by side with me for the approximately four thousand feet we would need to cover to clear the tunnel. I smile contentedly. It looks like he is cursing. Hazel eyes is no longer looking up. She’s looking at her hands. Her shoulders are hunched and she has that resigned look on her face. It’s the same kind of look that I had when I was shouted down by my boss. It’s not pretty. I’m feeling hot again but I switch off the air conditioning and keep my windows wound up because I’m now in the tunnel and my paranoia of breathing gas fumes from the tunnel is more compelling than the heat I’m feeling.
I drive side by side with the Bradford Prelude through the tunnel. I neither look at Hazel eyes nor the driver and I don’t feel the burn of Hazel eyes’ glare on my skin anymore.
Just as we are exiting the tunnel, the Bradford Prelude accelerates. In a split second, Hazel Eyes looks up at me, smiles and waves her left hand, and the Bradford Prelude is gone. It disappears just as suddenly as it appeared. I’m not hot anymore, nor am I irritated; I’m driving my mini almost transfixed in the moment. I have more questions than answers but what burns strongest at the forefront of my mind are those hazel eyes and a simple question: who is she?
I look at the prayer beads hanging on my rear view mirror, pull my scarf down over my ears and say a prayer for her: Bismillahir rahmanir rahim……
In the final third of last year, I got drawn into the Gratitude Challenge by a friend on Facebook.
It entailed listing three things I was grateful for, everyday for 1 week. And then challenging three different friends to take it up everyday.
The idea behind it was that people would find things to be grateful for where they hadn’t noticed previously. I think it worked for me. In fact, it worked so well that I decided to live everyday with an attitude of gratitude.
People are not born lucky; it is your positivity that draws people your way. People bring with them opportunities, and your positivity in turn compels you to take on new opportunities.
This is my excerpt from day 7:
So today is day 7, the final day of my gratitude challenge. During the day, I made a mental note of all the things I wanted to be grateful for but I’ve forgotten most of them now. So I think I will have a bonus day of gratitude tomorrow.
But for the ones I can remember, I’m grateful for
1. My resilience: I had very difficult years during my early adulthood and had struggled with depression since my teen years. I’m not sure at what stage I rose above it, but I had to decide to choose happiness each day in order to. Nowadays making that choice comes very easily but I’m aware that not everyone is able to bounce back. I had a friend who committed suicide some years ago due to depression amongst other things. I still miss him terribly but I’m glad that I’m able to be a part of his son’s life, but more so that I am able help people bounce back. The human spirit is indomitable and resilient but each person needs to recognise that in himself.
2. The sound of laughter in my house: I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal but I love that we can all laugh at ourselves and amongst our selves. My nine year old was a bit of a cry baby when she was a lot younger. It wasn’t until she was 4 that she developed a great sense of humour. My 6 year old was born laughing and has always had a ‘wikid’ sense of humour. It makes life soooo much more pleasurable.
3. My father in law: I went to school in Abuja where’s there’s a 725m monolith called Zuma Rock. It’s just after the northern edge of the city but visible from just about every part of it. My father in law is a bit like that. Not as foreboding, but constant, solid and always there. Kinda like a compass that always tells you where you are and where your true north is. I had a few struggles with various in laws (and outlaws) in the first 6years of getting wed; but my father in law kinda came through and always made it right. Not that he ever got involved in the madness, in fact he never really did. He rose above most of it and just showed the way.