26 February 2014


Nothing to write about now but the coming and going in the morning, or the bike ride up to the University of Birmingham, the red brick clock tower a kind of guide through the streets of terrace houses. There is an International grocer on Harborne Park Road with sunflower seeds and all things Polish. Then you come up on a bike lane, past the hospital, past the station, and you are on campus.

The other way, you ride down to through the valley and then up the hill to Bartley Green and the university there is on a hill. Even in the early morning, when I am out running past it, the lights of the library are on and the whole place is glowing. The days are starting to stretch out bit by bit and when I go home at night, it's not as dark as it was in January.

The talk inside of buildings here doesn't want to be written about: it's all the silence of the day in between my coming and going that I want to tell you about. How I rode my bike in my jeans and new desert boots across town. Or the silence of the University of Birmingham library, where you pull a string to make the lights come on in book stacks. Sitting, reading about narrative, I look out and watch the rain start and then stop and then start again. I should go home for dinner: the clock tower chimes like Big Ben.

If Malaysia, if last year was about confrontation, of waving cars off while crossing the road, this year is about none of that. There are no cars in the road ahead of me — I run down the middle of the lane. Naomi and I hold hands, walking to have coffee together in an old church turned cafe. She sits across from me, looking away at the cupcakes, and I ask her if she is having a good time. She is still only six: I haven't wasted my time with her yet. She still loves me, still wants to be held sometimes and carried. Fathers think about this when we look at our kids. We wonder when they will grow out of us and their need for us.

I stop typing and hear nothing. No one is in Oxford Hall with me. There is a rejection letter telling me things that I need to do to be a better writer and scholar, but there's no reason to hurry towards that. I am alone and the sun is going down. I can walk or run home, it doesn't matter. I will come back tomorrow and the day after that. And next week and next year: nothing is obstructing me.

20 February 2014

The body without organs

Following a running schedule is easy if you don't think about it. You wake up, you see the number of miles you are supposed to run, and you run them. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes you are tired, sometimes you aren't. You get cold and hot; you get wet from run and sweat. You watch the sun rise and people wake up. You learn which streets are well lit and which ones are not. You just run and run and run and run, when you want to and when you don't want to.

The University of Birmingham still feels like the centre of my universe in some way, and today I rode my bike from Newman to the Main Library, cutting through back roads, looking up to the bell tower for direction. From the library at Newman, you can look towards the North and see all of this half of Birmingham in front of you: the University, Queen Elisabeth Hospital, and the skyline beyond it. Looking out the window in the corner of the humanities room, I looked out past the rain on the window to the clock tower and thought, This is a red brick university.

And then a week passes, or two weeks or three. I've forgotten how long it's been since we've been back. 

07 February 2014

Running fast


The first month in the UK ticked by without any celebration or notice. The visa application went in and then we went to have our photos and fingerprints taken. Then, on Thursday, the 30th, the residence permits came: five cards with five photos, each one of us looking grim and serious. Like that, all the nervousness I had felt about the process was gone. Of course, it wouldn't be an issue. Of course, they would accept it. In retrospect, nothing seemed up to chance or fate or luck.

The girls quickly settled into their school and their new friends, Naomi chasing a little girl through the playground yesterday while they both giggled. Mei made a birthday card for her teacher, Mr Oakley, who is 25 — no, 26 now — and Mei blushes when she says his name with a bit of melody. Today was bright clothes day and after a discussion about what could or could not be categorised as 'bright', we all — Naomi, Mei, and I — walked up Tennal Rd to the school, laughing and chatting and talking about the day ahead of us. I will come home in the evening to shouts of 'Daddy, daddy' or no shouts at all, if they are playing upstairs, the house on Victoria Rd taking on a sense of place for us all.

In the midst of the settling, the bits of British life that I had to cast off while in Malaysia are coming back. On Sunday I ran for one hour and forty-five minutes in the early morning, the sort of run where you are fifty minutes into it by the time there is any natural light. You have endless imaginary conversations with the people in your life, your mind working like an old Rolodex, flipping from thought to thought, person to person. By the time the sun came up, I was near the University, on the road coming past the reservoir and I hit my stride as you do around that time, listening to the gulls on the water while the wind blew in my face.

There's been little else to say: my mind doesn't seem to want to reach back yet to Malaysia, to make sense of 2013. I look at pictures and can't remember the heat at all. It was so hot, wasn't it? I can't even remember.

On Wednesday night, I ran home from the University as I do now three days a week. Twenty two minutes, if I am running on pace. I stopped at the roundabout at the bottom of Victoria Rd and went into the fish and chip shop to buy two kebabs for dinner. Doner and mixed on naan, nine quid. I stood outside in the rain after ordering to cool down and look up at Harborne, the terrace houses spindled off the roundabout. When I imagined British life as a 19 year-old reading Virginia Woolf, it looked more like this than anything I have experienced. The streetlamps feel incandescent and warm, not harsh like the light in Taman Sri Minang. I looked up while stuffing my sweatshirt and jacket into my bag and felt for a moment like I wasn't falling anymore, like I had been caught without knowing it. The children are right there, warm and waiting for me to come home. There's nothing else that I have to do.