I lost Consciousness on Monday. As you may imagine, I’m not quite sure how it happened. I think it might have been in the morning, in the gym, which is a lean-to beneath some mangoes, with a view of the Nile through the somewhat grubby plastic awning.
The gym’s got a working exercise bike, with a little fan to wave away the mosquitoes. I’m sure I had it then. Then, the next thing I knew I was in bed, looking for something to send me to sleep. That’s when I found I’d lost it.
I do recommend to you the Oxford series of Very Short Introductions. Last December, M1 was supposed to be doing an essay on the French Revolution. I’d long since lost track of my Pelicans on the subject. For all I know they are even now growing an ever-deeper bloom in the dungeons of Mandallay. Too lazy to search under the record collection and various nick-nacks from afar, I ordered The French Revolution: a Very Short Introduction from Amazon. It was a delight to read, and I was very gratified that the author regarded the texts I was meant to read in the Remove as good “modern” history. Perhaps I’ll dig them out, but probably I’ll take his word for it.
Mrs M barely blinked at my pretentious request for the Very Short Introductions to Linguistics and Consciousness as Christmas presents. Linguistics was a very dry mouthful, but Susan Blackmore’s Consciousness has pictures. It has been quite entertaining. It’s only taken me six months to read the first 20 pages, and there are barely the same to go.
But now I’ve lost it. I left it on the exercise bike I think.
My youngest sister is a Buddhist. She wrote out a short passage, with a coloured-in crayon drawing, for another sister (I have many of them) on the subject of mindful washing-up. It now hangs framed next to the sink. I think it’s all about being in the moment with the washing-up brush and the scouring pad and the bubbles.
Losing Consciousness has not quite made my life flash before me, but it has made me wonder. When, for instance, did I become content to skate so lightly over the world’s surface, when I sally forth as a freelance? I used to want to try everything, to learn languages, to smell wood smoke and sweat on damp clothes, huddle on the back of a truck, chew food on the street.
Well, alright, I’m still partial to a goat.
But by and large, I’ve become a bit of a Holiday Inn-er, riding between the office and the hotel. And nowhere more than here in Juba, a capital city next door to South Sudan, but nothing, they tell me, like it. And the ministry is only next door to Juba.
I once heard tell of a consultant who entertained his colleagues all the way through a two week assignment in Zimbabwe with his concern as to whether the Harare Sheraton would credit his frequent flyer card with Tier Points towards his Platinum Card, or Non-Tier Points.
He is not one of the Bridge’s Happy Band of Mercenaries.
There again, travel is not what it was. I am not against all travel guides. I won’t hear a word against the Latin America Handbook, which gave me many hours of entertainment when the BBC World Service on short wave had filled my head with a surfeit of snap crackle and pop. But the Rough Guide and the Lonely Planet are oxymoronic. Thanks to them, the planet is no longer quite so rough or lonely as one might like.
No, the road less travelled is surely the washing-up. Or if, as so often happens to the itinerant freelancer, someone is doing it for you, the washer-up may hold a key to the mindfulness of the ministry that is the freelancer's elusive holy grail.
My ministerial pre-fab is cleaned by a lady I know as Elizabeth. When I was given a desk, she came and washed, then dried, the desk-top.
We are getting to know each other. She cleaned the windows one day, and I helped her reach the bit at the top behind the mosquito screen. Then she came in with a tin of sweets to celebrate the fact that her cousin has just got the top job in the ministry.
The kitchen is just the other side of our thin metal wall. When we stop talking and typing, we hear her humming resonate the biscuit tin that is her domain. I am not the only one who comments how happy Elizabeth sounds in her work. Every day, she is the first to arrive, and the last to leave. She brings us hot water and clean Pyrex tea cups, and sometimes I bring her a cake from the hotel.
One day I mentioned to a Sudanese colleague that Elizabeth had gone to fill the flask with hot water for tea. “Who’s Elizabeth?” he said. He knew her by another name.
Next day, Elizabeth gave me a sheet of paper with two other names for herself. It reads
Akongo => it means Alcohol
Angieh => " " Cold
She said that her mother died soon after her birth. Her father was a drunk and died two months later. Her aunt gave her these names.
“I do not like these names,” said Elizabeth Akongo Angieh.
Before I could do anything, I was assailed by a large and fictional lady crashing into the office in a small white van. Before I could stop her, Ma Ramotswe herself of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency had bounced off the highway from Cape to Cairo to take posession of my soul.
“Then I will call you Blessing,” I heard myself say.