Friday, 28 May 2010

Wok the Line

Slow down Joanna:

The enthusiasm with which the ladies of the night greet me in Cape Sierra village ought to be embarrassing, but it makes me smile. I will pass over the telephone call that reached me in the Freetown City Council Chamber, where I was in earnest discussion with the members of the City Health Committee. I must impress on my young friend Mamood to be careful whose telephone he borrows to ring me.

I had arranged to meet Mamood at 6pm to run along the beach as usual, but he was nowhere to be found when I jogged into Cape Sierra village tonight. He does not have a watch. I waited outside the cafe, with the ladies and the little brown baby Frankie. We discuss the night’s work ahead, the bars and restaurants they will visit. "I don't envy your job", I offer, rather gallantly I hope. "We don't like it either," is the reply, "but life is very complicated." The proprietor keeps her eye on us. Somehow I imagine that she is my chaperone, her comfortably padded form guaranteeing my fidelity to Mrs M.

No sign of Mamood, so I jog off down the road to Aberdeen Circle, and onto Lumley Beach. It’s a good two miles from here along the gentle curve of the bay to the Atlantic Bar at Lumley. If the Atlantic's loudspeakers haven’t been fully wound up, you can relax in the big cushioned wicker chairs.

Otherwise, my preference is to use the plastic chairs on the beach where the staff get sand in their shoes to bring your Star Beer or Schweppes tonic water. I like to sit just above the high tide, somewhat smarter I fancy than Canute, watching the light fade into a thick humid sky, feeling the "fresh breeze", that everyone likes here. Between mouthfuls of tonic and free popcorn, I say “fresh breeze” over to myself. I try to copy the lovely soft Freetonian French “r”. It cools you just to say it.

It’s a run-walk-run session this evening. It takes me an age to get to the big “Africell” mobile phone advertisement billboard that marks the half way point to the Atlantic Bar. I think this must be the hottest and most humid time of the year. The rains are still just an occasional downpour, though we had strong winds last night, bringing down trees and advertising hoardings. We will have to wait till July before the gods open all the taps. Then everyone who has a house just has to sit inside till the rain stops, or till the house gets washed off the hill or into the sea.

There are empty coconut shells on the beach, but I have yet to locate someone who sells them, so settle for a coolish Fanta from one of the vendors outside the Atlantic. Nobody would mind if I pranced into the Atlantic in my “Stockport 10” running top, but, over the last 19 years, the 3Ms have instilled an iota of shame in me. The funny thing is that Mrs M has taken the opposite tack: once prone to raise a well-trained eyebrow at a misuse of the word “pardon”, she may yet dance naked in the garden beneath a full moon. It is better to travel hopefully, they say.

Wok Tok

Mamood intercepts me on the return journey to Aberdeen. He has been doing his laundry. He says he has not been to wok since I was last here. Between puffs of warm air I explore the significance of this wok. It seems that the Chinese frying pan in question refers to some form of paid employment on the beach, which he does when he is not in school.

I conclude that Mamood is keen to tell me that he has been going to school, and I share his pleasure in this. I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but for the price of two shrimp kebabs at the Barmoi Hotel, I was able to settle the unpaid portion of his school fee on my last visit. As I hope to be coming here for up to three years -  what joy for a freelancer is such a prospect! - I thought I’d at least be able to keep in touch with him, so we can see how it goes. I feel a bit sheepish about this, but my colleague Lance tells me he has four boys in Malawi, where he worked for many years. They are now all adults. He talks of them as fondly as of his grandchildren, and of his other favourite subjects, which include the opera and Premier League football, the latter more useful for small talk here than the first.

Mamood is studying twelve subjects, he tells me in the walking bits, but maths is difficult. Outside the oddly named bar, Family Kingdom, a motorcycle has left a convenient tyre track in the sand. I draw markers across it with my finger: a circle for Aberdeen Circle, a bottle for Atlantic, and the Africell Billboard in the middle. We put numbers underneath, and a zero under Africell. The ladies come past in a taxi, on their way to Roy’s, and stop to say hello.

Mamood and I play hopscotch along our number line. +2 -1. What’s that? +1-2. What’s that?

"I have never seen that thing," he marvels. "They have never taught me this." It is possible that he has realised that I am mad. I say that the number line is the greatest thing in mathematics, and the zero in the middle was invented by an Indian. I don’t know these things to be true, but they are good enough for now.

Mamood says he will come to bring me his maths homework. Not now I hope. It is past my bedtime. We leave early tomorrow for Port Loko.

A freelance is the happiest of men.

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