The storm swallowed all that was left of the light outside the pub. There was no balance now. Even the soothing sound of the logs, cracking in the fire retrieved little calm back from the chaos outside.
He shivered as he downed the rest of his scotch: “do you know what thunder is?” he asked
The Bar Man didn’t answer. It wasn’t that he didn’t know, he felt a break-through coming and didn’t want to upset the pace.
“It’s the sound of all that pressure. All that, all that manic heat shattering the air around the lightning bolt. Lighting strikes, the air explodes. We don’t always get to see the lightning. But god damn it, we all have to endure the thunder.”
The Bar Man looked down to refill his glass. “Collateral damage”, he murmured thoughtfully. Nodding slowly as he poured.
“Yes. Yeah.”; he said with a half laugh. “Collateral fucking damage.”
October was quickly turning out to be a monumentally heinous month. And it was about to get worse. Much.
In the midst of my personal dust cloud, the family (or maybe, just me) were caught out by the sudden need to do a Visa Run. Our old Visa’s had to be cancelled by my old company 2 months earlier, and the temporary, Tourist Visa we had been residing under, was about to expire.
Being a business owner in Dubai entitled me to a new Residence Visa, under which I could sponsor the girls. I’d started the process in good time, but it was taking longer than usual. Or was it? ‘Usual’ was an abstract concept in Dubai. The ‘Leave All Expectations At The Door’ sign at the airport is conspicuous by its absence. Nevertheless, we were running out of time and needed new stamps to avoid fines and other such pernicious consequences.
For Expats without a Resident Visa in the UAE, the infamous Visa Run was a necessary evil to remain in the country, with any semblance of legality. It simply meant leaving the UAE, and coming back in with a new Tourist Visa stamp. I’m not sure if there is any official limit as to how many times one can do this, but if there is, it was rarely, if ever enforced. Many of my friends lived (live) in the UAE for several years, rotating on Tourist Visas.
All cultural peculiarities aside, it was actually quite a simple process, and could normally be done on the same day. Either by flying to Oman (or Qatar) on an immediate-return flight, or driving across the Oman border, turning around, and driving back in with a new Visa. On this occasion we decided to drive. It was 2 hours there, 2 hours back. The financial implications of flying didn’t stack up. This needed to be quick and efficient.
Upon reflection, it was a famously stupid thing to decide to do. Despite going mid-week, the second of the Eid Celebrations started on the subsequent weekend. Which meant a mass exodus to Oman by would-be adventure seekers, family weekend-trippers and the thousands of others simply looking to escape the hoards of Saudis, who were already making their way into Dubai. Both to celebrate the Eid holiday, and see how much money they could spend in the Dubai’s retail casinos. (The ‘white wave’ is a tri-annual phenomenon. Exceptional for the economy. Disastrous for Dubai’s residents.) To seek out a few extra days of R&R, most people would take some holiday leave and head out a few days earlier. Making Oman, and its borders, a a highly chaotic place to get into.
We set off early under another sweltering, October day. The atmosphere between Emma and I hadn’t improved much since the disappointment of the Doctor’s visit, so the experience was already laced with a tense and uneasy atmosphere. Thankfully, Ava loved the car. Had we had a frustrated in-car toddler, we probably wouldn’t have made it out of the City.
The drive was long, hot and painfully quiet, but for the hum of the engine and the machine-gun bouts of my filthy, hacking cough. I was feeling physically and emotionally spent, and prayed repeatedly along the way for a quick and easy ‘Run’. Privately hoping that ticking the box of another few weeks security, might help lift our domestic clouds a little. But when we eventually reached the brow of the hill that looked down on the ramshackle collection of dusty old prefab huts, that represents the UAE’s border control facility, any hope of a that quick and easy ‘Run’, swiftly evaporated.
The huts were surrounded by hundreds of people, in what looked like scenes of total chaos. The closer we got, the more chaotic it looked, like a frenzy of maggots weighing in on a rotting carcass. I dared not make eye contact with Emma. The tension was palpable. We both knew this was going to get as close to hell as we could get. The smart play would have been to exercise an immediate U-turn.
Glancing at Ava in the rear view mirror, and then briefly across at Emma, that inner-voice of anger and shame sneered up; “You idiot, how the fuck did you allow us to get here?” The shame of the situation, along with the physical exhaustion and pain I was trying to tolerate, was almost unbearable enough to stop the Jeep there and then. Run off into the surrounding mountains, and hide under an olive tree until it all went away. But, we were there. And it was urgent.
It was 9am, 32 degrees, with zero shade around any of the huts. And from initial calculations, it was going to take at least 2 hours to get this done. Worse still, if it was busy here, it would be three times as bad at the turn around point, at Oman customs.
We parked up, and trudged towards the maelstrom. There were several queues snaking out from the six service windows in the huts, all going in different directions. The further back they went, the more unruly they became. People sliding in at different points to join friends or relatives. Holding up young children as if they were fast-track tokens. Worst of all, blatantly trying to chance their way in, by pretending not to notice the queue at all. Thankfully there was a very noticeable absence of any humour whatsoever amongst the frustrated mob. Anyone seen trying to jump the queue was loudly and immediately reprimanded, and marched to the back.
There was no easy way into it. You could see the start and end of each line, but they all converged in a mass of multi-cultural sweat and multi-lingual frustration in the middle. So we chose the line that looked the least hectic and hoped for the best.
After 15 minutes, the speed of proceedings made it apparent that it was going to take a lot longer than I’d expected. Soon after, Ava started over-heating, and became increasingly agitated. Which meant Emma, who had to shoulder the burden of carrying her, quickly followed suit. And to finally throw our unhappy trio firmly under the proverbial bus, whatever was smouldering away inside of me, suddenly became dramatically unable to deal with the heat, to.
Without warning, the world around me began rapidly shrinking towards the end of my nose again. I tried to blink and breath it back into focus, but ended down on one knee with my head in my one hand, frantically grasping for balance. I couldn’t, wouldn’t feint. Not then. Leaving my wife and daughter in such an appalling predicament.
Without saying anything I managed to clamber over to a shaded patch by the side of the hut, and sat back on concrete block with my head hanging between my knees. Sweat pouring down off my forehead. My entire body sonorous with warning sirens.
When I finally managed to look back up at Emma, she was looking down at me, shaking her head slowly in utter disbelief at the temerity of what I appeared to be doing. But she didn’t know, no-one could have possibly known, how bad and terminally fragile I was feeling.
When I felt the threat had passed, I re-joined the queue and feebly attempted to explain what was happening. But after about 15 seconds, gravity started failing again, and I had to fall back into the shade. After the fifth or so whitey, it became abundantly clear we weren’t going to make it. The heat was unbearable, progress too slow and both Emma and I were falling apart. She emotionally, I physically. White flag, time to leave. Nether life nor marriage was worth risking over a stamp. And under those contemptible conditions, I felt that both were genuinely at risk.
The next few hours were heart breaking. Like any normal couple, Emma and I squabbled from time-to-time but it was never deep and it never scarred. Red-lining back to Dubai, however and all that changed. The slow roasted nightmare of the failed Visa Run seemed to be the tipping point for several weeks worth of anxiety, frustration, anger and resentment to come boiling to the surface. Ava, thankfully, slept through most of it.
It left Emma and I utterly shattered. We weren’t use to such confrontation. It was shocking and painful, and created a profound and abrupt sense of loneliness. As the late Irish Poet John O’Donohue once wrote: “Sometimes a friendship turns, and the partners fix on each other at their points of mutual negativity. When you meet only at the point of poverty between you, it is as if you give birth to a ghost who might devour every shred of your affection.”
24 hours, a last minute return flight to Oman and way too much heavy lifting later and the Visa nightmare was over. After uncoiling under a hot shower, backed up with a fighters measure of good Scotch, the consequences of it all began creeping into my consciousness. Bite by bite, like the teeth of an ice-climbing boot, the Pain made its way up and across my lower back. Emphasized ten-fold with every cough. I sat on the edge of the bed, head hung in abject surrender to it all. The Villa was eerily quiet, with only the sound of the occasional passing car on the street out front, to remind me that I was alive.
“Every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent or greater advantage”.
The famous Napoleon Hill quote floated up into my mind out of no-where. I admired its timing, but was in no mood to indulge the sentiment.
“What good is there in all this?” I rebuked, easing in to bed.
“What possible good is there in any of this?”
Feeling the drugs kicking in, I slid into bed and stared up the ceiling. The relief seemed to free up some patience to ponder the question again. But I couldn’t find a single positive thing. Which was very unlike me. I just couldn’t get past the unfairness and pain of it all. Not just for me, but for Emma, Ava and everyone else that was getting increasingly worried about my condition.
“What possible good is there in all this?” I whispered again.
That evening was the first time I felt my spirit starting to suffer under the weight of everything that was happening. And it scared me. The body, most of the time, can be fixed. But it needs the winds of a strong spirit to help it along. Without it I would be severely handicapped against the fight. I couldn’t and wouldn’t let that happen. I’d spent years developing as strong a spirit as I could. Perhaps, unknowingly, in preparation for a time such as this. I couldn’t let it fail at the first sign of serious trouble.
“What possible good is there in all this?” I took the question silently in, and closed my eyes.
“What possible good is there in all this?”
“What possible good is there in all that has, and is happening to me?”
And then it came. A voice, or something like a voice, floating up from the darkness;
“You need to wake up.
Where have you been?
All this resisting. All this fighting back. The pain and suffering.
Reconnect and ask for help.
Remember, Agents Of Calm…”
It was right. That inner-voice that answered me back that evening, was right. I had forgotten. It had been weeks since I’d meditated, or done any sort of spiritual work whatsoever. Nothing. I’d been so wrapped up in the immediate physical discomfort of it all. Wallowing in shame and guilt, and stressing about what it could all mean. I’d completely abandoned the Wizard. And, I’d forgotten about Agents Of Calm. An idea that had found me several years earlier, that had worked itself deep into my psyche ever since. Demanding occasion. One day. One day.
It had been a testing few days. But with the Visa Run behind us, and now this timely reminder to reconnect with both my spirit, and Agents Of Calm, a renewed sense of hope, stirred in the darkness.
I closed my eyes, breathed deeply again, and asked for help.