19 December 2017

The signal and the noise

Cameron Highlands

Winter came down hard for two days last week, closing all of Birmingham and locking the Pihlaja family together in the house on Victoria Road for several days. The girls were ecstatic about the snow, running back and forth, across the roads and in the garden, like they had been infused with some magic natural drug that made everything new and unknown. After school opened up again, I sorted through the things that had been cancelled, feeling fat and lethargic having missed a couple of days of running. I wanted to meditate on Wednesday, to binge on emptiness, but found myself instead on a bus headed to a couple of schools. I was meant to advertise English degrees, but didn't do well at it, feeling awkward in my long grey coat and American accent, the one you can't hide in front of teenagers. What can you say about the future that isn't a lie, I thought as I sputtered through some nonsense about following your dreams.

This heavy, foreign feeling comes back at surprising times. I sensed it when I got off the bus in Sparkbrook on my way to one of the schools. The snow and ice hadn't been cleared and there were Aunties in the row houses, some hanging out of front doors and some clearing the ice with a battery of different tools. One had a small axe and hacking away at the pavement looked up when I walked through, surprised and apologetic. I smiled, and she smiled and the other Aunties smiled and I walked carefully past them.

The ice finally had its way with me a couple of days later. I went to Newman on Friday morning to mark a presentation and retake my staff photo. After it was done, I got on my bike and was headed back towards town, to meet Yoko for our weekly sit down. As I approached the intersection, my bike suddenly went out from underneath me and I fell back, landing flat on my ass. I went to stand up immediately, ignoring the pain to try and announce to whomever was around that I was okay. But I couldn't, I was twisted around the bike. I saw now that a car was directly behind me and two people, a man and woman, were looking on concerned. It was all ice, I could see, the whole road.

The fall turned out to be an omen — that night, news came of a failed funding bid. I got the notification as I was leaving to take Naomi swimming on Friday night and instantly regretted looking again before the weekend. We, of course, knew we were likely to fail, but then it happened, and I sat sulking in the stands at the pool. I sent seven or eight e-mails, muttering under my breath and quickly trying to turn it into something positive, the way you pull yourself out from underneath your bike when you've fallen. I'm sorry I fell, I'm not hurt, it's okay. You feign optimism and lie to everyone around you about how you're coping just fine. There's nothing acceptable about self-pity.

Sunday morning, when it was warm enough to run and I got out earlier that I would have normally. I ran slowly and was just coming down the Birmingham Ring Road when I saw there were police everywhere, a tape pulled across the whole of the dual carriageway. I pulled out my headphones and shouted to the cop on the other side, Can I run through? and he shook his head no. There was a black cab I could see, on its side, and another cop up further with a surveyor's tripod. I turned around, being careful because there was still ice on the path.

Four years go quickly, it must be said. We were just, a moment ago, standing in the tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia. The air was so dry and it felt like we had come through the clouds to some world above the sweaty depression of the city, the paycheck-to-paycheck bus rides out to the the university. It would all be over soon, I should have known, but I didn't. I didn't know. Yoko and the girls were so happy, the windows rolled down and everything fresh and clear, just waiting.

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