05/12/11 - Manchester. When Chanje calls, I answer and do the typical train station thigh of twirling round in circles trying to find her before she finds me. She wins. We hug in the slightly awkward way you'd imagine strangers might knowing the night would be spent together regardless of if they'd get along. Down the escalators, we find her car and our nervousness dissipate as we drive through Manchester's cold wet streets. It is warm in her car and she speaks fondly of her sister Miselo who is at home carefully cleaning the house for tonight. We reverse-park safely in her drive, walk in and meet her son Nayah.
I have taught a fair few 9 year olds in my time, but none as bright and vocal as Nayah who grills me on the world wrestling federation, name checking The Undertaker, Hulk Hogan (who was way before his time). He has his favourite wrestlers scribbled on his slim forearm starting with Jeff Hardy and ending with The Rock. We drive out for dinner and in the car Nayah, has his mother and I cackling like witches. At one point he claims to be a mutant with the power to make water gush from his hands. I offer to grant him this gift on the condition he does something to help humanity, what would this be? 'I'd make it rain in Congo, in parts of Africa where there's no food' he says thoughtfully, and I'm won over. Over the hot meal of rice, peas and goat curry in the local take away Caribbean place, Nayah grills his mother and I in mathematics asking 'What's a quarter of 37?' I bat questions back and he get 99% of them correct, we leave, enter the corner shop and Nayah and I discuss which of the lottery draws is a better option: £40,000 a year for life, or £1mil. He opts for the million, says he'd build a house in Zambia, one for his mum, and maybe for me. The shop keeper is charmed by Nayah and gives him a bar of Galaxy chocolate, which enterprisingly, Nayah says he will sell.
We get home and wait for the folks Chanje has gathered to arrive. Andy comes first, then Valeria, a Jamaican lady full of poise and punctuality, she talks excitedly of completing her memoirs, looking for a publisher. Laura, Keisha, Elmi, Segun Le French - an old friend of mine, Alexandra, Ekiel, Yusra - another friend and her son dressed in Spiderman costume (the second I have seen on this tour) a couple more, and we begin. We trade stories, Keisha's eyes sparkles when she talks of working for Apples & Snakes' Shake The Dust Olympic project. We trade poems and I try to select ones from the book that'll reflect their work. Elmi, who is Somali reads a delicate poem about poverty and famine, and a funny poignant one about his grandmother - I choose to read 'Dear Tina' for him. Chanje and Segun read and when they have finished, I have selected poems and begin in the living room. The warmth deepens, there is silence, there are held breaths, laughter, that good everyday-greatness-kinda moments and brightening faces I look for, and we are done.
I sign books and Elmi speaks quietly about his decision to be a writer instead of a doctor, and his childhood among his father's books, reading War and Peace as a child... there is a settling, controlled wise passion and confidence in him I wish I had at his age. Miselo, Chanje's sister shows some of her stunning photography work on her phone, the night climbs towards the 11th hour and it is time to go.
The living room is empty, I clear up, move wine glasses to the kitchen etc, Chanje and I sit to talk and I discover that she is a single mother who left home at 16, who owns the house she lives in and runs her own business. There are other stories she tells, other lives she has lived, other hurdles... such that the phrase 'God doesn't give to us what we can't handle' becomes the theme our stories dance around. I am humbled by her strength.
In the morning, over slices of toast, Nayah, awake and dressed for school says casually, 'Mum mum was given a medal for bravery by the Queen. She was held hostage by this man who threatened to slice her throat cause she'd wrapped a jumper around this woman he had stabbed' I know enough of Nayah to believe he would not lie, but I can't believe the story, I ask Chanje and she laughs as if she is embarrassed, as if she'd forgotten, struggle for a moment to recollect the deatils, then confirms briefly what happened. Nayah points to the Bronze Medal for bravery and it is there on the table beside a half drunk glass of milk, old poetry flyers, the laptop, loose coins; another lump of engraved metal.
Pam Singleton who works at Hopwood Hall college had invited me to her school to talk with her students and I hug Chanje, thank her for inviting me to her home, enter the taxi and drive to the Middleton Campus of the college. There I read poems from the 'Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars'. I talk about how I got into this game of words, sell and sign books and Colin, a trainee teacher offers to drive me to Manchester's Piccadilly Station. Colin is studying poetry, has written a play - a Welsh response to one by Shakespeare - and he speaks of focusing on writing. I ask what he did before and he says smiling, his eyes focused on the road, casually, he used to be a wrestler, a WWF type. One day, we was walking down the street and someone stabbed him, randomly. A guy who had just left prison, could not face the real world and wanted to go back in. 'Why didn't he just rob a bank?' I ask 'Who knows' Colin says, it was the best thing that happened to me though, I realised what was important, it made me focus on writing...