The fat lady sings
By Jeff Dell
Saidpur's small and very tidy regional airport is fronted by a well-tended tropical garden. I reckon I've flow in about twenty-two times but this will be my last. It's winter here in Bangladesh and the day is bright but tinged with a chill, rather like a pleasant spring day in England. I make associations with childhood, the smell of freshly cut grass on the playing fields of primary school, a sense of well being. This is my memory and not someone's that I've borrowed and made my own, nor is it one that I've plagiarized from elsewhere, from literature or the media perhaps. I have lots of those too, but this is certainly mine. I'm feeling nostalgic and a little sentimental because I'm going home and I have mixed feelings about it. I'm here for my last visit to the programme in the north of Bangladesh.
Mutiur is waiting for me at the airport. He puts my bags in the microbus for the two-hour drive to Kurigram. My seatbelt isn't working. I roll my eyes but think better of saying anything. I'd made it a policy that all our vehicles should have seatbelts and had even checked that they'd been fitted. It's no small thing up here; the odds are that if anything is going to happen to you it's going to be an RTA. I'm leaving soon and I don't want to die now, not like this. The windscreen is wide and inviting. I see myself flying through it, losing the top of my head on the way out, calling "baaaaasssstarrrrrrd" on my final journey. I picture my funeral: it's a dull grey day in Bushey, my boys are crying. My coffin is lowered into the ground. The kids wail, my wife has to be restrained, there's an ululation from the back as my Eritrean mates sing me off with a song of death and redemption from East Africa. "We return this son to..." Christ boy, get a grip, get a grip!
I trust to luck rather than Mutiur's judgement. He drives too fast and the Bangladeshi countryside is littered with overturned vehicles. Poor village women in overwashed, sun bleached saris dry rice on the sides of the already narrow road. Groups of men sit having a smoke, playing cards, shooting the breeze, killing the unproductive time that is the occupational hazard of the underemployed poor.
We avoid any vehicle bigger faster or more reckless than ours. Concern for any other detail is pointless pedantry. Mutiur sits on the horn bullying the cyclists and rickshaws with the implicit violence of our microbus. Some dismount, others wobble a bit and pull over onto the grass verge. Buses thrash through at top whack, horns blaring, drivers stoned on phensodyl. One child making a dash for it across the road and it'd all go pear shaped. Please, do not let me be killed. Not here. Not now. It'd take ages to get my body back to Dhaka and find a slot for it in the morgue. And I know the doctor who'd have to pronounce me dead, and though I like him heaps I don't want word to get round Dhaka that I wear Captain Marvel underpants. I don't need it, I really don't. We slow down, pull to the left and let the bus fly past.
I'm making my last visit to the programme before my departure to London. What is the exchange? I'll miss the blue skies and the sun but I shan't miss the humidity. I'll miss balmy evenings but not the mosquitoes. I'll not miss Dhaka City or the drive to work. I'll miss the freedom my job offers but not the constraints of a conservative culture. I'll miss some good friends, but not the expatriate merry-go-round that has them leave the moment you realize you like them. I'll miss the warmth of Bangladeshi people but not the theatrical throat clearing and raucous gobbing that I have allowed to drive me mad. Silly, really. I'll miss our house - the largest and most comfortable house I shall ever live in - but I shan't miss the unease that is the price of relative wealth in a dirt-poor country. I'll miss household help, but not the awkwardness I feel at the gross disparity of income that divides us.
And what of mother England? I look forward to London but not the tube from Liverpool Street. I look forward to the concept of public transport and to a decent pint in a decent pub. I yearn for anonymity but not the existential anger of solitary city folk. I look forward to my house but not the clearing up after seven rented years. And old friends - Blind and the Wicked Uncle. And the postman, privet hedges, The Guardian, the Today programme, Jonathan Bumblebee, the flicks, my red DMs and Timberland leather jacket and the French beret that I bought in an army surplus store in Lausanne. Telephones that work, theatre to die for, pork pies and mustard in my favourite Soho pub, jazz, Camden Lock, my old LPs - Hatfield and the North, Curved Air, Junior Walker and the All Stars, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. People who say 'allo mate' and 'wotcha'. And my books, among them Darwish's poetry for a dispossessed and much maligned people: ("there in the sunshine, do they not feel our shadow"?). God that kills me. The Sunday papers and a cup of tea in a steamed up kitchen in London. Men who say 'alright?' and think they've had a conversation. The word 'bloke'. Bacon sarnies.
And I look forward to football, and dear old Watford, though perhaps not to the closing weeks of the calendar. But then there'll be the close season and the beginning of the next, the real beginning of the football supporter's year. Transfer news, terrace talk, hot sweet tea out of melting plastic cups. No, not that, scrap that. 'When Saturday Comes', the walk up Vicarage Road, buying the programme, Simon the Social Worker, Greene King, Real Ale. And more: coal bunkers, showers that don't work properly, cold frosty mornings, brussel sprouts and parsnips, lino, net curtains, Ford Anglias, scarves, thermal underwear, chilblains and 'real effect' coal fires. Well, OK then; Sainsburys. The Wye Valley - Haye. The Brecon Beacons. The Brecon Jazz Festival, Suffolk, Lavenham, the Swan, Uncle Bunko, people saying 'do me a favour' and 'do what?' You'd like that wouncha. I mean! You went there, dincha. Weekends away.
When I left it, home packed its bags and buggered off without leaving a forwarding address. Knowing its trick I took some with me when I left and now I prepare to unpack it again. So this is what it is: an ensemble of memories (some your own, some borrowed, some invented), a few fixed objects within which they can be located, a touch of nostalgia, a soupcon of wistful imagination, a grain of truth, a handful of mates, a few photos and some dusty LPs. It is introduced with the sentence "do you remember the time...". But, like freshly ground coffee, the taste is never - quite - as satisfying as the smell. And so I'm going home. For now.
And this then - and here I get to the point - is the end of the Bangladesh Watford Supporters' Association. I'd like to think it will stay on without me, but all three members are leaving at the same time, and it won't. I'd like to say it's changed people's lives, but that would be absurd. But it cheered me up when I was low, and for that I'm really grateful. Thank you Bangladesh, and so long.
Hello London; I'm back!