29 January 2019

The roundabouts


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There is rain and then there is snow. This is the end of January in Birmingham. I’m still running to and from work, like a breath that goes in and out. I cross the road at big roundabout by Asada and watch the cars coming round and time my run across and then I’m headed up the road, towards home. I say it all the time — this is what I will miss the most whenever I leave Newman, whenever that future finds me in years. I run to work, what better thing can be said about ones quality of life than you can run to work.

On Saturday, after days of bad news and the stress of waiting for the postman, who is actually a man, I am simmering a constant state of fear, that a letter will come through the door and say that we need to go. Or worse, that I have made an error in my application and I can reapply, but it will cost me. I want to start crying at all hours of the day — what does that mean. The paint is cracking now too on the new plaster and something about that, like a straw that broke the camel’s back made me want to just stand and beg god to take me now. I must have done something bad enough to be judged like that. Please. Do your worst.

The middle finger, in Pope Francis’ five finger prayer, is for leaders. Who is leading us, really.

22 January 2019

The word of God

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On Sunday night, the doorbell rang at ten twenty-three. A neighbour had been by earlier looking for a parcel, I thought it might be him again, although it seemed odd that he would come back this late. I turned on the front light and saw someone smaller than me through the glass of the front door. It had been cold all day, rain just barely falling until it was suddenly raining. I opened the door and there was an elderly black man, shaking, one hand full of one pound coins, and a cane in the other, and he said, please, I need help, and I, as quickly as I opened the door, shut it, walking backwards away from it. He didn't wait or protest, just turned around, I could see through the glass, and walked away.

I feel like a brain tumour has been removed and we're trying to figure out if I'll recover or not. Still waiting to hear the results of the biopsy. I had one last flourish of visa panic, the kind that is trying for everyone around me, the kind I create myself, but subsides whenever some new information comes to light and whatever it was I had worried might happen is proven to be irrational. The cold and perpetual Brexit hanging on has helped tamp everything down — everyone is depressed and moving slowly except the children who seem to be completely unaffected. One of them is crying, sure, devastated, but that's over her portion of chicken nuggets, not anything purely existential. I can laugh, it'll be okay sweetheart, do you want me to buy you some more, I can, we can do that.

The Pihlajas of Harborne all went to get our pictures and fingerprints taken at the Post Office on Saturday, the final piece in the immigration paperwork puzzle. The man with the perfect beard taking our money said, Are you really a doctor? and I said, Well, yeah, I have a PhD, yes, and he said, Oh, and I could tell that he was disappointed. We were there with another family, probably refugees because there are only visas for skilled workers and students and I couldn't tell myself a story where they were either. They had four small children and we smiled, feeling a kind of solidarity, but of course, what did we really have in common. I said to Yoko, this is just an inconvenience for us — there's no end to this story that isn't better than 98% of the people in the world. Ninety nine percent, really: we paid our ninety six pounds and left through Victoria Square up to Starbucks to get coffee. I let go of the stupid pretence I usually have about what they can and can't order — that thing parents do when they pretend spending ten pounds and making the kids get something they didn't exactly want is any different in the grand scheme of things financially than spending fifteen pounds and letting them feast. What does any of it matter.

I am eating like I do when I'm stressed, like I can't stop, like I'm drowning and eating keeps me afloat. I know I should drink more water, that I shouldn't work out as hard to compensate, I'm just making it worse. I go to bed and fall asleep almost immediately. Yoko said it's less than three minutes, but I don't remember. I heard a noise, it woke me this morning at 4:15 and I went downstairs ready to confront whatever addict had come back for our phones, or was caught in the cold and wanted something, but it was only my youngest daughter, using the toilet. I was surprised: could she get up by herself now and go downstairs? Only hours ago she was weeping about having to share a children's meal with her sister. She looked at me matter-of-factly like she was a teenager, and I felt old.

I decided not to go back to bed, started eating and meditated. I checked the bank account and did some quick maths, had another piece of toast and looked at a picture of animals suffering on the PETA Twitter feed. And then that's all. My coffee's gone cold. That man who came last night, I suddenly remember, the man with the coins that needed help and I shut the door. I imagine for a moment that he might be lying on Victoria Road, dead. Was he Jesus, did I fail my test to show compassion to the stranger. Or did I fail in opening the door and inviting the chance that he might stab me and kill my family. Did I fail in not helping him, or in thinking I could help him. I'm lukewarm, I'm waiting to be spit out. I mouthed no, as I shut the door, I remember this now. No. I'm sorry, but no.

17 January 2019

I love you, stay with me

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But here is an artist. He desires to paint you the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape in all the valley of the Saco. What is the chief element he employs? -Moby Dick

Harborne High Street, the Blockbuster video that has been deserted since before we arrived now some posh shop selling a five hundred pound accent chair in the window, was grey and miserable on Monday morning, and a man in a gold Mondeo, a Ford, an American car, didn't see me running. He didn't see anyone on the pavement, but had to stop to get let in. I walked out in front of his car when he finally made eye contact and I held it as I walked by. He was incensed, slammed into the street and leaned out the passenger window, shouting at me, 'You think you own the road, you fucking wanker! I'm gonna run you over!' That first part I don't remember exactly, what word he used, but it was something about ownership or privilege and he definitely called me a fucking wanker. I stopped and looked at him and shrugged, like what did he want from me, did he want to fight me, like it was some sort of farce, some complete stereotype of the person I hate, so British, so entitled, so white, so angry. He started to pull over and then slammed on the accelerator again, swearing and speeding off. 

There is another man, or two or three of them, homeless on this same street, under sleeping bags and looking up for change, on drugs the people from church tell me, and two women who sell Big Issue in front of Waitrose and Holland & Barrett. They say, 'Big Issue, please', and I try to place their accent, the structure of that request which makes sense, but is the opposite of what it means as I think about it. I go in and pull out my self-check Waitrose scanner and check to see what vegan wines I can buy now that I'm becoming even more vegan and still want to drink wine. I want to say Traveller or Romani, but question myself without saying it aloud, or lowering my voice, because I'm not sure what word we should use. Waitrose is now full of vegan foods and wines and ways to eat with a clean conscience without thinking about how we exploit the female reproductive system in the consumption of cow milk, an argument I heard for the first time last week and seemed plausibly convincing. I bought carrots in plastic bags, feeling guilty about contributing to that part of the degreation of the world like the hypocrite I am, and then avoiding eye contact with the woman selling the magazine as I left the store — I'm sorry, I don't carry cash anyway.

I've been waiting for years to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain in this country that these other people on Harborne High Street have found themselves through no fault of their own. On Tuesday I was standing in HR and they gave me the letter I needed. I read it and there were no errors. I went back to my office and double-checked my application, and found a small mistake — I had found two the night before when I checked it, and I wondered if I should check it a third time. I clicked through to the payment page, took out my debit card and entered the number. The page froze and I panicked, clicked continue and I was back to the site asking me for the payment again. I checked my account and it looked like the money had not gone out. What had happened, what happens when you make two payments for £11,940 in a row, surely the algorithm has to start blocking things. I refreshed the page and a payment screen appeared — payment successful, your application has been received, print out this form and return it with your documents. There. Done. Print these out and take them to the Post Office and have your photos and fingerprints taken. There. It's done. The money is gone, don't think about it. I went to the Post Office and mailed it all by registered post, the most secure way you can, I asked, and bought my father a birthday card and tried to write some message in it. There. Done now. 

The worry was supposed to go away with the papers, but I immediately replaced it with another series of potential problems that could happen now. I felt nothing but hate in my heart for the man in the Mondeo, for doing this to me, for making me feel so badly. For taking all this money off of me, and for not having clear instructions on the government webpage. For voting for Brexit without understanding the Northern Ireland issue, like the idiot he is, like the smouldering abusive hateful racist that he is. I want to beg him to hold me while I cry — could I just cry a bit over all of this, could you forgive me and stop hating me. I finish my run and shower and the girls come home one-by-one and I can't explain any of this, can I. I'm worrying them, I'm worrying my wife with my Google searches about qualifying periods and explaining a series of irrational fears in broken Japanese. This was supposed to end, the fear was supposed to end. So it's not okay? No, it is okay, it just doesn't feel that way. It might not be, I don't want to hear anyone else tell me it will be okay. I'll stop now, I promise. I promise I'll stop now.

08 January 2019

Fear itself

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At some point on Saturday morning, the A&E ejected most of the sinners, and what was left were the illnesses that made it through the night, but couldn't keep going. A teenager in a bathrobe and pyjamas and two-tone shoes laid on his mother's lap, his father sitting uncomfortably next to them. The father's face said something I read as scepticism or annoyance, a lack of belief, and the mother, if she felt anything other than sympathy, was not showing it. Sat on the edges of the waiting room, other miscellaneous unfortunate cases didn't seem to have as clear problems. I caught myself judging the ones that seemed to be fine, using some pious criteria for assessment to conclude they were not genuinely ill, but the sorts of people abusing the system, whose own bad choices brought them there. The sorts of people, I tell myself, who complain about the Chinese and the Poles using the NHS and don't recognise that the good will of people like me — my tax revenue and NHS surcharge — is holding this whole damn thing up. Me, at my classist-worse; me, angry and bitter, having learned all the middle-class euphemisms, the things you can say in polite company and everyone knows what you mean. An old woman came close to collapsing, and I suddenly felt a kind of claustrophobia, like I shouldn't have come there with the kids, that there was illness all around. We should leave now before we are sucked under too.

03 January 2019

Begging indifference

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And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.
The cold snap in the UK reminds us that winter is here and has been here and will be here for the foreseeable future. It's a nice distraction from Brexit at least, to read news about the failing NHS and some migrant boats we're all meant to worry about. The cold feels less oppressive than it has in the past, with the house on Victoria Road's new boiler and freshly plastered walls. The fifty-five inch LG TV glows in the dark and like how we imagine a normal British family would, the five us of sit together watching some inane American reality show. The girls and Yoko do a puzzle on the floor and look up occasionally to see if whatever made-up drama around which the show revolves has been resolved or not. I'm absorbed in my phone. On New Year's Eve, Mei and I stayed up to watch the fireworks in London and counted down to 2019, the first time I had done that in years and years. Yoko and Naomi came down after midnight and we hugged and kissed and went to bed finally, with nothing to do in the morning but wake up. On New Years Day, I didn't dress until one and then finally, when the sun was setting, lumbered off to the High Street with the excuse of buying some crisps, the last day of the holiday. I wandered around Harborne, drank coffee, and ended up buying popcorn for the girls and a one hundred and eighty seven millilitre bottle of red wine for myself, that I put in my coat pocket and from which took small sips as I walked through the cricket grounds, stopping to take a photo of the sky.

After eleven days of holiday, the structure of work feels euphoric, like someone placed their hand on my shoulder while I dug through the pantry and said, 'It's time.' I'm a fat man, and I dread Christmas. My regimen of eating and drinking and exercising only works when my mind is occupied for some substantial part of each day; that is, when I'm always working. The holiday comes closer and finally sets in, and I become unmoored. An undercurrent starts to draw me out. What have I eaten, what am I eating now, what will I eat later. In the first two or three days, I try to keep track and then realise how pointless it is for an app on my phone to tell me I've overeaten several thousand kilocalories, and if I were to do this every day for the next five weeks, I would weigh fifteen kilograms more than I weigh now.

On day four, I've entirely given up, lost sight of the coastline. I'm not eating anything I wouldn't normally eat, of course, I'm just eating four or five times more than I normally would. Like a rice cake with several, upwards of five, tablespoons of natural peanut butter on it — high in protein, only sustainable palm oil, and good fats. To offset this, to see if I can placate the app, I also try to run when I can, to keep up my exercise, but waking at five AM and setting out in the dark makes little sense when there is no rush to do anything, does it. I fall asleep trying to meditate on the new sofa and wake around ten, wondering why it's still so quiet.

You can punish yourself for this particular mix of sloth and gluttony. I know because I've regularly done it. These are easy sins to identify and hate in yourself, particularly when you spend the rest of the year hating them in other people. I ate half a loaf of sourdough bread that I bought after it had been reduced to forty-three pence, and then I drank the last two hundred millilitres of whisky in the house — if this isn't what a sinner looks like, I'm not sure what does. Gluttony is this exactly, isn't it, to keep eating and eating despite how you feel, like if you keep eating, you might feel full. Of course, it has nothing to do with feeling full, so the feeling never comes. I stop for maybe two, two and half hours and then start at it again. The kids wake up and it's like I've been in a manic state all night despite having slept hours and hours later than I normally would — where are we going today, does it matter, can we leave the house.

And then, just like that, when Wednesday came, and my Garmin Vivosmart buzzed me awake, the spirit of gluttony had been cast out. It must have happened some time in the night because I was suddenly aware: the man dressed normally while the pigs charge towards the sea, possessed with whatever had possessed me. I drank some water and made coffee and had a banana, one banana, and one piece of toast with one tablespoon of peanut butter and one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses. I turned on the meditation app and could meditate again. I found myself writing emails and running on the gym treadmill again, bloated, sure, but someone I could recognise. It was bitterly cold outside, but that didn't matter like it had mattered that exact same time two days ago.

I logged back into my email and waited, and am indeed still waiting, for a message or series of messages that will let me finish my application for Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK. I've looked forward to this day for years now, more than nine years I told someone, as I thought back on all my talking about the future, the potential places we might or might not go. That feeling that it might not happen, that we might get free from the Home Office, from the tyranny of the twelve thousand forty one pounds it will cost to stay, has waned in the last few years. The girls get older and as I listen to stories from school about cliques forming and dissolving, I wonder to myself: what, will I really uproot us, drag us across the channel to Scandinavia, to a longer, deader winter because I'm fed up gathering paperwork. I look in the mirror after I turn the light on, after the spirit of gluttony has gone out, but my face is still bloated like I'm nineteen again: of course not, don't be absurd. You have other things to worry about. You need to stop eating and focus. Pick up where you left off. Go meditate and have a glass of water. This is actually the future now. There never was any future.
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