BY OLOYEDE MICHAEL TAIWO
I slid into my tracksuit and made for Peterborough train station; walked past blokes auctioned to dereliction by insidious frivolities as they loitered the streets and scrambled to share drinks in the middle of the road. My ears caught the husky yelp of a young boy reprimanding his friend for drinking to stupor at an event and carving out instructions to help him maintain decorum at subsequent events. The boy, embroiled in sobriety, kept prancing and cussing out about being treated like he was a child; walking towards the Orange street light at Queen’s gate bus station, his flannel coat dangled in the night wind. He refuted the instructions and promised to be shrewder the next time. They assuaged each other’s resentment with sporadic nods and shook hands. I quickened my steps to catch the train so I could rest my eyes long enough for the over two hours’ journey. My bag tailed my crustacean bustle. I settled into reels of stops from the announcement system and housekeeping rules before we would terminate at Gatwick station. A group of folks with curls of tassel hair, all in same age bracket, chatted about a myriad of issues. Their loud chatter spilled into my somnolence. I darted them a cursive glance which made them nod in acquiescence of being abreast that their chugging piqued my ease where I was popped, in that corner of Thames links coach A carriage, but would have me bear their grating howl to the last terminal. The man across my table had lips impaled by age, and kept nodding like a bluenose; lending verve to my apoplectic shrug. His indiscriminate and intermittent coughs, without covering his mouth, made me wondered if he was oblivious of the basic hygiene protocols we were force fed in the lull of the pandemic. I hid my face in my hands to avoid flying microbes. One of the train officials meandered the aisle and reeked of aftershave. His beards were near smooth. He paused for a while and stood like clothespin then tilled the pockmarks on his face and walked past me. I looked back and could not see my bag on the luggage rack; I left my seat and saw him pushed it into a cubbyhole. He had had to adjust the position of my travel bag for supposed ease of traffic and had messed up the rollers. I could not but grin and repositioned my bag after fixing the rollers. He quizzed to check my ticket, scanned it, and cheeped something like a compliment. I dismissed his pedantic sway and was too locked in thought to query him about the rollers of my bag. I staggered to my seat as the train jerked from tremor; nestled my head against the window slide and watched rails, plains, trees, and under-growths swing past us as the train trailed the glistening flickers of sunlight to different stops. I drew breaths in fives and twos and let my thoughts flutter the incandescence of celestial bodies and the amazing straggle of manicured landscape. The man opposite my seat placed his head on the desk before us, his partner snuggled him and pressed warmth on his frosty skin. She shared a shallow smile with me and moved on to pester him with containerized questions. She switched to me and asked if I am Nigerian; I gave a nod and asked how she could decipher my nationality. She chuckled and cried about the kidnappings in Botswana for ritual purposes. How she sent money to an undercover guy on Facebook to trace the kidnappers and report those caught to the police. I repaired her scowled face with silence and a flustered visage. My thoughts ran over the troops of terrorist attacks; the selective media tropes and other atrocities of the rule and their acolytes in my motherland – and I could not but bless the heart of every striving, underserved proletariats in the system. Her man flung out of sleep and she turned her attention back to him. To my wide angle view, other passengers took a snoop at their phones, tablets, books and variant devices. Wiping brows, hands across collars, chitchats, surreptitious sneak at odd incidents of tickets not sorted or collected at designated points, and a long duel of retributions.
‘This is Stevenage’, a sonorous voice tweeted.
I mumbled the subsequent lines of caution in synchronism as I closed the book-vaults of secrets by Olukorede Yishau – I had hitherto placed on the desk. Tucked it in my overcoat, yawned and stretched. At each stop, passengers were unequivocally enjoined to mind the gap between the train and the platform. I reclined and studied the nuances of passengers embarking and disembarking from the neat train that squelched the rail tracks like an automated metal millipede; skidding us all to different stops where efforts divulge in this solar system of dream-gaps.
We were now a few minutes to Gatwick. I had read online that London Gatwick became an aerodrome back in the 1930s, but the present airport was officially opened on 9 June 1958 by Queen Elizabeth II. And over the last 60 years, the airport has grown from just 186,000 passengers to over 46 million passengers in 2019. And that Gatwick is part of the Oyster and Contactless payment network, which implies that rail passengers can benefit from seamless connections to and throughout the capital on London’s ticketless transport network.
I touched in on a yellow reader to access the North Terminal and walked straight to Costa Coffee shop; ordered a double dose Expresso and sat at the wooden curvature; awaiting the ethereal poet, Efe Paul Azino, billed to perform and panelist at the James Currey Festival, Oxford University. My phone chimed and I bolted for the South Terminal in a mono-rail. His face shone with laughter but spent from exertion and a truckload itinerary. We made for Oxford University.
We steered into the zeitgeist of panelists at Sir Victor Blank Lecture Theatre, nostalgic about the tortuous strait of creative enterprise in the country – and the thankless nature of such enervating endeavor as froths of apprehension spurted from the faces of some of the speakers.
We were later racked up to laughter during the session by the modish director of festival, Dr. Onyeka Nwelue, taken aback by the assertion of a Nigerian parliamentarian who had told him point black that not all promises must be kept when he had asked him to redeem the pledge he made during his book launch – as a young author -and had carted some books away.
At lunch, we had discussions about the state of our country in all ramifications and how there seems to be a glimpse in the crystal ball from a growing movement. A versed scifi-writer, Nkeiru, enunciated the misery that awaits the teeming populace if the shenanigans of our current economic-cum-political rascality should subsist contrary to the ingrained culture of benevolence and stewardship in saner climes. The clatter of tourists rummaging the Weston Library cut into our heartfelt discussions. I walked briskly to the bookstand helmed by a jovial vendor whose wedding fell on my forthcoming birthday. Beaming with awe, I congratulated her in advance and bought different copies of available books before going for the incisive lecture by Pa Ikhide in the cosy hall of Oxford Martins school. His lecture was hilarious, visceral and traversed the verities of literary works and cultural catalysts. After his lecture, we set purpose to the Heat African Restaurant. The place shimmered with interspersing disco lights before the occasion was flagged off with poems by the delectable Dr Ifeanyi-Odinye Ifeoma after a sterling introduction by Dr. Adaaku followed by my performance that was accompanied by the energetic strum of Tomiwa’s guitar strings.
In the spirit of amity, our Sci-Fi writer and Czech friend, Jan Kotouc, dared to have a taste of our local cuisine, which he did; swooning in the aftershock of its piquant sensation. He promised to write a poem about his experience which we still await the ground breaking work till this day; and as the night unfurls to peak, an Oxford alumnus hailed a local taxi that bolted us back to the pristine façade of Wadham College.
The next morning, pumped and geared up for the activities of the day, I wiped the crust of sleep off my eyes and set out on my morning meditative walk. While trotting the paved alley of the shipshape school, I bumped into Leye Adenle, a distinguished novelist; we struck conversations and veered into the dining hall for breakfast. Sat in the entrails of the architectural masterstroke and ate to our fill; we bared opinions on the lively portraits that peered at us hanging on the walls of the magnificent hall as we scoured the rafts of problems ravaging the world and the incursion of Ukraine by Russia, the burden of neocolonialism in the tropics, climate change advocacy and social contract atrophy in most African states. I thought about the entropy in our electioneering and the tension of being locked between Scylla and Charybdis if things were left in the terrifying swing of these hapless, grizzled party blocs. Then the book cover of Toni Kan’s Carnivorous city rose to my face in a plume of thoughts. I rehashed some of the gut-wrenching anecdotes in the book where Abel who later became a teacher like his father, realized that the profession had lost its allure. And how the text about his missing brother, Soni, tested his values and revealed his mercurial proclivities. My review of the work is that Lagos reeks of the duplicitous posture of most people in our country towards money and we seldom extol the dignity of labor except the labor has the panache we crave or churns the kind of funds to salve our numerous wants and stoke our flame of vanity.
I set gaze on the great hammer-beam roof and the Jacobean woodwork of the entrance screen to the dining hall and clicked my teeth at such architectural sophistry. My lips dragged the last line in Invictus, one of the formative poems of Williams Ernest Henley; but my mind kept fluttering the socio-economic cum political topography in my motherland.
The blare from the announcement system in the train about minding the gap between the train and the platform tingled in my ears again – and a little bird told me that in this great future of my home country, we have to mind the gap of nepotism, tribalism cronyism, rapacity, myopia, superfluities, wastage, calumny, sycophancy and the creed of oppressive wealth accumulation,if we care to disembark safely from the train of this seminal dream of a great nation to the platform of radical realization so that our posterity can have a claim to the corporate prosperity of our great nation.
The crunch of footsteps throbbed my ears as we walked the innards of the artefact strewn edifice to the Weston Library for other sessions and later left the hall to grab my luggage from the modest room in the dormitory – and floated past the Bodleian Library, the fine early 17th-century quad, to the stretch of Oxford Street that was Tyburn Road in the past; grafted from the buried Tyburn River which runs underneath it. In its gloomy history, the road was journey’s end for the prisoners of Newgate Prison. Prisoners used to be hanged on the Tyburn tree– but the place is now etched in stone. According to statistics, Oxford is visited by more than 100 million people every year and 10 billion dollars’ worth of goods are sold every year. I picked a souvenir from one of the busiest shopping place in the city center under the soft glow of the evening light and then Siri blurted that I had about five minutes left to catch the train; so I bundled myself lickety-split to the train station to avoid stories that touch.