The taximan was from Africa and it was his eyes in the rear view mirror that captured me as we drove through Birmingham.
Initially I couldn’t find him or the white Toyota I had booked with Uber. I was walking in the wrong direction at the Airport until he tooted the horn from a distance.
“If my good wife had been here she would have corrected me,” I said, apologetically. “I’m always going in the wrong direction. She steers me right.”
“That is the value of a wife,” he laughed. “They steer you.” And he showed me his wedding ring and said he was 25 years married; and that’s when I noticed his eyes in the mirror, like an ocean of joy.
I was in Birmingham to attend a birthday party and meet relations, so I lodged myself in a small hotel on the Coventry Road and went shopping.
“Would you have a waistcoat in black,” I asked the attendant in a clothing store near Sparkhill. He sized me up and said, “You will be a 44,” and then instantly produced a garment that fitted perfectly.
I said, “I am so pleased; all I need now is something to eat; I’d love to taste some spices from Pakistan or Afghanistan.”
“Go to the Kabul Darbar on Ladypool Road,” he said without hesitation.
Which I did. I sat in the corner, while a family of nine commanded a table beside me, presided over by an elderly gentleman in a Pakol hat, who kept a close eye on me.
I ate a mighty stew of lamb and spice with naan bread served on a hanger that stood on the table beside my plate.
The family ate joyfully too; the adults taking photographs and the children licking their fingers and the elder still watching me with the eyes of an old lion.
I left the premises with a glad heart and rested not far away on a bench where I met a woman from Nigeria. And it was her eyes too that I noticed first, as she approached.
For no particular reason I greeted her in Irish and she inquired as to what the language was.
“Irish,” I replied.
“Hausa is my mother tongue,” she said. “But I was born and reared in London.”
Her eyes were as sad as two small lakes on an autumn afternoon.
“Do you often visit Nigeria?” I wondered
“No,” she said; “It is my home but I was there only once, seven years ago. I didn’t like the mosquitos and I got ill. But I liked the village; it was very slow.”
She spoke the word ‘slow’ slowly and with unbearable nostalgia.
“Where I live is like that too,” I said. “Leitrim is slow.”
“Slow is good,” she said. “I come to Sparkhill for avocados and to pay my electricity at the Paypoint.”
“I’m here for a party,” I said.
“It was a long way to come for a party,” she thought. And the more I told her the sadder she became.
But the taxi driver on the way back to the hotel was great fun.
“I am from just outside Islamabad,” he declared.
So I said I was “from just outside Drumshanbo”.
“We are all the same,” he concluded; “we all live just outside somewhere.” And more than anyone else that day he had beautiful eyes.
Before closing the door of his car at the hotel I said, “You laugh a lot; you must be happy”. And he said “yes,” and he laughed again.
I tried on the waistcoat in the hotel bedroom and that evening I wore it to the ‘do’. The music was country and the dancing was wild and I jived with relations and strangers until late in the night.
And the following day we reconvened at noon, to watch the Sligo v Cavan match on the television. People tucked into Sunday lunch, and pints were flowing and when the game was about to commence everyone stood up for the national anthem, and a woman beside me who knew all the words sang it out like a lark and the entire pub joined with the television.
The walls were lined with photographs of Irish dancers in their costumes and curls and the players on the screen began chasing the ball and it was as if everyone there, content with their dinners, had been suddenly gathered into one single village.
But all I could think of was the woman on the bench and the look in her eyes when she spoke about home.