Dani is sat in a train unsure of whether he is doing the right thing or not. You see, the thing is that Dani never does anything merely half thought of or only one foot in but recently he has been possessed with the spirit of trying to reach for something.
Three days ago, his world started to spin and felt so small and claustrophobic. He was confused because he had had this life for eleven years and it had fit. What caused this change? ‘I need to get out of this place, this life’. That was the first time the voice had spoken to him. From that growing discontent and restlessness, he got his laptop from the bed, sat on his desk and on the whim sent in his two week notice. ‘The government can always find another nerd’ the voice said. On LinkedIn, there was a lecturing job he had seen a while back and looked away. He looked for the opening and thankfully it was still open. The role was at a university in a town up until this point he wasn’t sure was real. He sent in his resume knowing he was more than qualified. ‘Two masters and two phds, come on any university would be lucky’. The recruiter reached out within the hour and that is why Dani is on this train. He is going for an interview to teach astrophysics in a small-town university after leaving a six figure government job. Some may pronounce him possessed.
Possessed or not, Dani knows one thing: he wants so much more than what he has fooled himself into thinking is enough. Sat in the train, he brings out his iPad trying remind himself of astrophysics outside of practice. He is determined to make an impression strong enough to get the job and this feeling is new to him as in his entire life, he has not ‘tried’ for anything. He was just always enough to remain in anything he found himself. Not outstanding, not horrendous either, just there. The train ride feels longer than it actually is because Dani can feel his existence stretching. The restlessness is itching him to near combustion. He narrows the cause of this restlessness to the fact that he has mortgaged his life. At the end of the day he believes he would either have everything or would have lost everything. He conflates this interview with misplaced and heavy ambition like most of us do.
To distract himself, Dani reviews everything he has felt a spark for in his life and the mind cassette returns empty. The only thing playing is how bland he is, how bland his life is and he knows he can only blame himself. He comes from a modest family. His sister is a doctor who manipulates brains daily but somehow finds a way to play with her indie band on Thursday nights somewhere up North. His older brother works on the rig and supplies half of the world with energy. He and his wife spend their spare time teaching displaced children music. His parents still dance in the kitchen to Nina Simone no matter what is dying or burning around them. Everyone has found the beauty in their lives except him. He has always been so petrified to do a little living. This gloom injects him with a need to stir the pot, move the variables and see what comes of it. He is determined to pour some magic into his immediate life. ‘There has to be more than this’, he repeats to himself.
The train stops and Dani gets off in this new town. It is a cold November morning and there are people smoking just outside the station. One whiff of tobacco and feels like this is a town he can live in. Google maps helps him find a walk path to the school and the Travelodge he had booked three days ago. He heads to the lodge, checks in and 25 minutes later, he is about to bargain to change his life at the university.
He starts to feel nervous when he is sat in the general building waiting to be called in so, he steps out to light one. As he puts the cigarette in his mouth about to light it, someone says in the most European accent a person can muster with English, “could I get that lighter, please?”
Dani lights his stick, looks up and smiles at this stranger before passing the lighter. They smoke in silence until he starts to feel restless again. With his head still facing the floor, he smiles awkwardly and mumbles his desire to return to the waiting area.
“This town sucks doesn’t it?” The statement stops Dani in his tracks. ‘What the actual fuck?’ he says under his breath. On the outside, he raises his head slightly to ask the stranger to expatiate on that statement but it’s just him and now he’s wondering if he dreamt the stranger up because in truth the last 36 hours has been a fever dream. He shakes his head and heads back to the waiting area.
As Dani reclaims his seat, he put his face in his palms to remind himself of all the confidence he’s supposed to have and the voice he’s been hearing tells him to trust his showing up.
‘Have a little faith in me Dani, I’ll lead you right where you’re supposed to be’
Dani mutters a soft okay conceding that truly maybe he’s possessed but there are worse fates.
“Mr Dani Brown?”
He looks up and by the look on the woman’s face, he knows it’s time for his interview. He heaves and follows her. In his mind, he’s imagining what would have happened if this interview was the first one he attended the year he left Nigeria. It was 12 years ago, and he had just gotten into a school in Wales for his master’s degree. He was young, quiet in a valuable way, and he was ready to make sacrifices to prove that he could go the distance. But that bright eyed 21-year-old boy has been subdued by survival. Survival turned to settling and soon an initial part time government job sponsoring his work visa after his master’s felt like salvation. In gratitude, he sacrificed tomorrow on the altar of today. He stayed until his salvation had now become the hell he needed a trance to escape from.
“Hello Mr Brown, we’re so happy you could speak with us on such short notice.”
Dani smiles to ease the tension in his chest and continues,
“Yes, thank you for having me.”
“So, your credentials are very impressive, why did you decide to pivot to teaching at this point?”
He doesn’t know why. He is hoping that the voice that has been speaking to him has the answer but he, he adjusts his glasses and swallows saliva.
“I came to teach because I think the brightest minds need to be moulded by the brightest”.
It is that kind of cocky but effective statement the voice uttered throughout the interview and by the time it is over, the job is his if he wants it: he has forty eight hours to decide.
Dani walks out to the smoking area where he met the European before the interview hoping to ask a question that would ground him. To get him to recount his earlier statement of it sucking. He wants someone else to validate his faith, that he didn’t mortgage his former life for a town that sucks.
“How is it really like here?” He practiced in his head.
A very watered-down version of ‘should I uproot my entire life for this place?’
He was about to put his life in the hands of a stranger.
Leone hates his life. He hates waking up every morning to go teach a bunch of rich children what it means to be alive. He hates it more because the children are snobs, but they are creative with their insults as one of them had called him the dead poet of the society. It hurt because he is the textbook pretentious person and all the insults they were hauling at him were accurate. He loves dead poets’ society, he writes a blog, he drinks Sauvignon blanc in a mug that says coffee on it. He likes romcoms and believes that ‘we need to bring back real films’. He believes that capitalism is the worst thing since Hitler and sometimes he is able to deceive himself that he doesn’t care about money. All these are obviously a distraction from the fact that he is always restless. On this day he had woken up discontent and longing to run away. His blue passport could buy him three months in any country in Europe until he charmed his way into another profession. Maybe he would write for TV to make satire that other aloof members of society would rave about and form a cult following. Exciting times, happy days! Leone is good at hatching escape plans, he has always been good at running away.
He always smokes before going into the admin building. It calms him before facing Tina at the front desk whom he is tired of telling off. Being handsome is a curse he often says to the mirror while basking in his vanity.
At the smoking bay, cigarette in mouth he realizes he has no lighter, but he sees a man just light one so,
“Can I get that lighter please?”
The man smiles lightly and gives it to him. From the man’s demeanour he’s nervous about something. He is thinking, ‘what in this place can intimidate anyone enough to be nervous’ but hey different strokes and all that.
Returning the lighter, he has a flash thought to be mischievous and mess with the man.
“This town sucks doesn’t it?”
For dramatic effect he disappears into the admin block before the man can look up so he can have plausible deniability in case he has just ruined someone’s life. But no, he is not a bad person. He smirks and says to all the demons inside his chest;
“We are good people men; I am a good person”.
Tina is smiling at him and this time he actually appreciates the validation even if it is misplaced.
“Hi darling, you’re looking very fit today”.
He smiles at her, she blushes and asks for the reason of his visit. He hands her the letter containing his one month notice and dashes to the garden on the opposite end so the man he just lied to will not find him.
He sits in the garden trying to convince himself he hasn’t thrown away another job. His father cannot be right. He is not flighty, he is not impatient. He is something more romantic: unsatisfied, unfulfilled. He is waiting for something to happen to him and then he will stay.
“Hello, I am so glad you are not a figment of my imagination”
Fuck! there goes his plausible deniability. It is also alarming how fast the hours went by.
“Hello mate, sorry I ran off like that, I was on a clock. The names Leone, you?”
“Dani. It’s alright I had an interview either way”
Both of them shake hands and Dani takes a sit beside Leone.
“Oh, how’d it go? What role?”
“Professor of Astrophysics and I got it, now I have to decide whether or not I want it. Earlier you said this place sucks, is that really true?”
Crap, Leone now has to either be a supportive colleague or liar.
“Let’s find out, people think better when they’re inebriated, there’s a pub five minutes away, I’ll pay”. Leone is doing his second best thing, evasion.
“Oh- Uhm I’m sure we can share the rounds. Forgive me, however, don’t you have a class to teach?”
“Yeah, they’ll be fine. If we’re splitting, then we can have more rounds. It is a good day after all”.
Dani didn’t expect to be in a pub by 3pm but here he was asking the bartender if they could have their 5th round: it was his turn to buy. Social anxiety never lets Dani allow people do things when he’s there, he needs to contribute. As if that’s what entitles him to partake in any form of communion. He isn’t ready to unpack his life just yet, that’s seventh round behaviour. For now, he is struggling to hide how much he is vibing to Calum Scott on the Jukebox. He and Leone had gotten two rounds of lager, you know start light, then pints of ale and the round they just finished was a glass of bubbly. ‘Anticipatory celebration’ Leone called it. Leone had said that whatever decision Dani is going to make is the right one! He grabs the glasses of cosmopolitan and heads back to where Leone is sat waiting, staring. He smiles awkwardly before he sits facing Leone. The garden is empty and quiet.
“Ouu I didn’t know you were this fancy. Cocktails by 4pm”
“We’ll it’s 5pm somewhere”.
“It’s even 4:44, it’s almost 5pm here. We’re in the clear”
They laugh and Leone cocks his head to the right before starting,
“Okay for real, why did you choose this town. It’s so small and hot. Nothing happens here”.
Nothing happens here. This phrase echoes in Dani’s inebriated stream of consciousness and he wants to argue against it even if he hasn’t been in this town for too long. Before now they had spoken about lighter things, music they like, movies they like, dates they had been on and other things that allow us know a person without asking too much, small talk.
“Surely that’s not entirely true. It has a university’.
Dani isn’t the person to wade off with the ordinary, he is textbook ordinary so maybe he’s coming home and that’s what might spark the magic in him? The voice inside his head keeps whispering, tell him it feels like home, tell him you were drawn to this town, to the life you can have here.
Dani clears his throat and leans towards Leone noticing that he has turquoise eyes. He wants to compliment them but that’s never been his strong suit.
“Do I have something on my face?”
“Uhm no, well not if we don’t count the turquoise, but if we do count it then yes”.
“Aha! My mum used to love them until she started seeing disappointment in them”.
Dani doesn’t know how to be this casually truthful, that is why he’s also suppressing what the voice wants him to really say. He only knows evasion and quietness. It is this quietness he had gotten sick of until the voice started speaking to him.
“I’m sure it’s not all she thinks”.
“No, you need to meet her mate and you’ll see that I’m the worst 30 something year old in England”.
“No way, I’m right there”.
Leone starts laughing and Dani joins in unsure of whether the joke was even going to take. He is glad it took.
“Okay Dani boy, we’re off to our next stop, the children’s park”.
“Dani boy isn’t sticking”.
“Don’t worry you have all night to come up with one for me”.
“All night? I think at some point I would like to go to bed”.
Both men get up from the bench and head out through the back gate opening to a crammed street with cars parked on both sides. Double parking out the window.
“Lead the way Leone”.
Both fall into synchronized steps, Leone feeling like the dusk surrounding them is the warmest he has felt in this town. He is inebriated, he is sure that’s the reason.
“Do you want to leave this place?” Dani inquires.
“I think so, I mean I already put in my notice but where’s to go is the real question”.
Dani’s heart sinks at the thought of Leone leaving but he has no right to a stranger’s movements so instead he does the less direct thing, he inquires again.
“What don’t you like about it?”.
Dani has both hands in his pocket, trying to embody a softness he doesn’t feel often. He wants his questions to bring answers. He wants to stretch those answers into a balm for the nudging that has been tearing him from the inside. He wants to know if this place will offer some salvation for him.
“It’s too small, it feels like I am growing out of it too quickly, but I worry I will always feel like that anywhere I go and that is the real bitch Dani boy”
“I don’t know what that’s like, I barely fill up the moulds in front of me, talk less of outgrow them, I feel inefficient every time”.
“I feel that too, inefficient. I think we feel this heavy thing at two different ends of the spectrum. I feel it like something is wrong with me in the way I can never perceive satisfaction with where I’m at and you feel inefficient in the way that you think you fall short of your entire life”.
The voice in Dani’s head has been quiet the whole way from the pub and now he is trying to conjure it to fill this vacuum of intimacy in their conversation, but it has left him. It is now just him, Leone and the unbearable frailty of their humanity.
Leone sensing the stiffness in the air, looks at Dani’s face for some words that may have halted before making their way to his mouth. There are none so he does the second thing Leone always does, he stretches.
“We are almost at the park Dani boy, we can smoke there if you’d like, I also never asked: where are you sleeping tonight?”
“I’m up at the Travelodge, it was closest to the school, do you live nearby?”
“Yeah, just behind the park”
“I do feel short of my entire life, that’s why I tried to change it by coming here for this job. It is an attempt to pour some excitement into it and when you said nothing happens here, it sort of uprooted everything I was feeling up until the train station. Hearing you want to leave it also makes me feel misplaced”.
Leone’s face falls flat because he is now very aware of the impact people who live in a place have on foreigners, some of which are ready to alter their lives at the drop of a word. Thankfully, they are now at the park and Dani makes for the swing set. He sits on one and starts rocking gently.
“I haven’t been on one in a long time, and I used to love them. My brother would push me on them when we first moved to England. We moved here together then my sister did the next year and my parents came five years ago”
“Where did you move from?”
“Nigeria, in 2012. Now it feels like that was the beginning of my dysphoria. Moving felt like starting over but I was already behind, and I never caught up. Sure, I ran the race, but I always finished last when everyone was done clapping”
“I also sort of moved, my parents are French and German, so we were always rotating the countries. England stole me when I got this job out of sheer luck. I enjoyed the moving because it gave me an excuse to be bad at everything. I didn’t give it enough time, so it didn’t flourish, this has been my tactic”.
“It must beat giving something all your time and still being mediocre at it, that’s me, I worked the same job for eleven years and nothing really changed. Nothing got better, I only got promoted once out of longevity meanwhile I am trying. Sure, I did well at school, two PHDs and all that but it feels like in the real world, I am not being seen, not being heard, not going anywhere. Just background noise”
The men are sitting beside each other on the swing sets and Dani brings out his packet of cigarettes and a lighter. They both light one and Dani draws his longer than usual.
“How are your lungs still so strong and in November”.
Dani laughs and replies,
“I think by some magic I am finally beating mediocrity”.
Leone smiles and stops rocking his swing.
“Earlier you said, I uprooted everything you felt, what did you feel at the station?”
“I felt like I could be something here. Escape mediocrity, be seen, be heard, like I could build a life, fit in, have something and have something good happen for me”
“Ah I see, it’s enthralling that a place can tell us these things but I don’t think anywhere has ever spoken to me so clearly”.
Dani looks at his wristwatch.
“9;19pm, I should start heading to the Travelodge I think.
“I -, I think it’s the right thing to do. It’s getting late”.
“Late is a comparative term, what are you doing tomorrow”.
For some reason Dani feels small at the question. It presents a scrutinization of his affairs that he dislikes and is trying to escape. So, he lets an irritation climb into his chest. It shows in his shoulders twitching.
“Well, I was going to accept the job at the uni and go back to my house and begin moving my life to the place nothing happens”.
“Fine, I apologize for squeezing your dreams but you should really take things at surface value sometimes Dani boy”
“But you’re a local! You should be aware of this responsibility”
“The only responsibility I am constantly aware of is to live and say my version of truth. If you’re having cold feet, be honest about it and stop piling on me, I was a stranger to you some hours ago”.
“I should be honest? you’re the one who isn’t honest about why you keep running away. You hide behind your beauty and foreign accent and just glide through life. You have never sat in water”.
“Was it professor of psychology or astrophysics, I forget now with all this reading you’re doing. And I haven’t sat in water? what the fuck do you think this is Dani? a Kaminsky recital? Get out of your head, life sucks and this thirst for more and more always haunts us, it haunts everyone. Some of us are just weaker in carrying it than others. So, accept this job or not but don’t make it anything bigger than what it is. A job, in a town”
Leone realizes when he is done speaking that Dani had struck a nerve with this assertion of responsibility. Leone has been called irresponsible his whole adult life and invoking it is the fastest way to rile him up. Dani shakes his head and gets up from the swing, he is defeated, and his ambitions haven’t been met. But he knows Leone is right, he was asking too much trying to shadow his faith. He feels heavy especially now that the voice has left him. He makes his way to leave the park but Leone reaches for his hand and draws him back to the swing set.
“I am sorry Dani boy. That outburst was about a lot more than your question, I hate being called irresponsible because I am not. Non-chalant sure but its charming. I am responsible, I just refuse to assume a responsibility that isn’t solely mine and I don’t think I should be sued for that”
“I see, and I am also sorry, I should not have imputed you with that responsibility. You are right Leone, I am scared about uprooting my life because I never do anything this brave. I am looking for some collateral for my display of bravery”.
Leone sighs and shakes his head vigorously to mean feign exhaustion at the concept of Dani’s mannerisms.
“You don’t need it Dani, you just need that annoying premonition that we can pour excitement into our lives that you already have, let me re answer your question, so please ask me again”.
They look at each other smiling and the air between them even on a November night is warm. Leone tilts his head and Dani’s eyes follow him. He is aware of the motion. They are both very conscious. Dani catches himself, clears his throat and lets out a chortle.
“Uhm, yes, ah what’s it like here?”
“Well Dani boy,” Leone starts, reaching for Dani’s shoulder, “It gets cold in November but it can get very bright in May. Theres a church on the next street that has the most beautiful choir. Their carols put me to sleep every night last December. A woman went into labour in this very park and her partner tore himself into bits to make sure she was okay. The students at the uni are mostly like me, rich pricks but sometimes one of them writes a poem about falling in love and they become a tad bit human”.
Dani laughs and Leone continues,
“There are six pubs here so you can always alternate your source of inebriation. The one we were at earlier has a jukebox with all the radio hits so that’s nice as well. On Saturday, the market opens on the hill, and you can buy something from six decades ago, giving you the opportunity to partake in the joy someone experienced a lifetime ago. The pub closest to the bus stop makes a wonderful full English and some days yeah, a plate of sausages, toast and hash browns answers all my prayers”
“I make a good English too, but I make the eggs like we do back home”.
“I bet you do Dani boy! Maybe if I stay, you can make it for me sometime.” Leone’s smile invokes Dani’s.
“What else did I leave out? Ah yes, there’s a beautiful mosaic two streets from here done by a couple to commemorate their marriage. They thought a ceremony too fleeting and they wanted a real timestamp: a punctuation in life’s events, a testament of their love and mutual happening to one another. It’s the most beautiful thing I have seen here. Oh yes! Jojo Balara grew up here, you know the woman who wrote that book series that got made into a Netflix anthology ‘The pub waking’ I think it’s called. So sometimes she comes back for a rest or something and she holds a chat session in the uni. That’s always awesome. She sort of brings the big world back here. Inspiring to the students who think they can become writers. If jojo could, we can too. There’s also an old cinema just before the hill, three streets before the bus stop. They show all the new ones but sometimes old films. I mean, sometimes it’s just nice to see a film on a Sunday evening. Doesn’t even have to be anything critically acclaimed like ‘The Shining’, sometimes it’s ‘Before Sunset’ and you see the familiar face of Jason and Celine and you go ‘oh, Julie’s in it’, that’s nice. Theres a fountain in the heart of the market, people leave wishes there and in Christmas there are lights, it’s really beautiful. And there’s a student house just beside this park. Sometimes the students who live there have impeccable taste. They could on Saturday mornings or evenings play a song on their speakers that reminds you of fondness, nostalgia or some emotion that’s easier to hold and it brightens your day a bit. In June, the queer students at the uni put on a play and that’s always fun to watch. Finally, there’s an open mic night in one of the pubs once a month and you get to hear some of the most wonderful indie music you’ve ever heard. People not looking to be anything but heard, like you”.
Dani is smiling and Leone chortles then continues,
“Would you look at that, I proved myself wrong, something does happen here. I even learned them but I guess I took them for granted. I wanted something big but something warm is constantly touching me. I think where we are is always more than we give it credit. This town is no exception, our lives are no exception and if we stay Dani, I think something warm and good will happen to us too because beauty haunts all of us and life unfolds for us. If we stand still enough, they will catch us”.
Leone has a serious look on his face, he has just put himself through a lifesaving monologue. He feels full and he knows there that he is no longer running, he is standing still waiting to be caught by the beauty he has always outrun. Dani takes the cue and speaks.
“I think I want to drink to that” He raises his hand to imitate a toast, he smiles with his eyes and continues, ‘to beauty catching us, amateur films, marriage commemorations, Bluetooth speakers and standing still”
“Yes, and to my foreign beauty and turquoise eyes” Leone boasts with a wide smile and his hands also imitating raising a toast.
In that sea of confronting emotions and laid out truths, both men sit. They rock gently on the swings, smiling drunk on their own truths, varied alcohol, tobacco and gratitude. Leone’s hand still firmly placed on Dani’s shoulders while the November air pricks them. In that quiet, they can hear someone in the student house playing imagine dragons on their speakers.

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Pencilmarks and Scribbles Magazine was founded in 2017 by Clara Jack to be a home for African writers, asking them to come as they are and giving them room for growth. The publication aims to give back to the Nigerian Literary scene for the things it has given us.