Entertaining Angels Unawares

In which The Author learns the true meaning of Christmas

Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Hebrews 13:2
I first saw Jamila’s face clearly across a lecture hall on a Tuesday morning. Until then, all I’d seen of her was her back and a glimpse of her side profile. My attention had been drawn to a short, slim, young black woman in a short jacket, tight jeans, black boots and a grey woollen hat. She had been making her way up the hill to Glyntaff Campus of the University of Glamorgan, quite a distance ahead. I got a glimpse of her as she turned the corner at the top. I remember thinking then that I wouldn’t have minded getting a closer look at her.
I got my chance soon afterwards. Siân, Emma, Sammy and I were one of many little groups in a huge lecture theatre for our first session on Forensic Odontology. It sounds quite arcane, but it encompasses the legal application of bite-mark analysis, the role of dental development in estimating the age of individuals, and the use of dental records in identifying disaster victims. (If you watch NCIS or similar TV shows, you’ll know the sort of thing I mean.)
At the end, while we were gathering our stuff together, I glanced around and spotted the Girl With the Hat a few rows behind us. She was beautiful, with golden-brown skin, lovely features and a huge smile which she flashed to some of the others as we headed our separate ways. Oh yes, I thought to myself, she’s definitely my type!
As we were doing two modules in common, we crossed paths quite regularly whenever I was at Glyntaff, but we didn’t speak until a practical session on fingerprint development and analysis a week or so later. She was working on the bench behind me. We were processing prints using cyanoacrylate (the fancy name for Super Glue), and at one point I turned round to see her staring wistfully up at the fume cabinet. I say ‘up’ because the whole thing was mounted about six or seven feet off the ground, well out of her reach. I smiled at her, said, ‘Shall I give you a hand?’, and opened the cabinet so that she could place her sample inside.
Richard P., the module leader, spotted us and said mildly, ‘Jamila, Stephen – I like to encourage people to be independent.’
I replied, ‘That’s all very well if you can reach the damn thing!’ Even if Jamila had stood on the set textbooks for the module she’d have been lucky to reach five feet in height. Some of the others chuckled and I closed the door. She thanked me quietly in heavily-accented English and we went back to our respective workstations. A little while later I retrieved our samples and that was that. I could understand her shyness. Going to university away from home is quite unnerving anyway. When you’re in a strange country as well, with English as a second language, trying to settle in and make new friends must be a real ordeal.
On a Tuesday lunchtime a couple of weeks later again, I’d come from the morning session and piled into the refectory in the main building. It was crowded, as always, but I managed to grab a small table not far from the servery and sat down with the crossword. A few minutes later I spotted Jamila paying for her lunch and looking around for somewhere to sit. By now, there was hardly any free space in the room, so I caught her eye as she came from the checkout and gestured to her. I cleared a space and she sat down next to me (or possibly opposite me – it was a round table, so technically it was both.) I introduced myself properly and we started chatting.
Jamila was originally from Nigeria, studying the full Forensic Science degree and spending virtually every day at Glyntaff. (I was only doing two modules, so I was there two days a week.) During term-time she rented digs in Treforest, and spent the holidays with her family in London. Nigeria is a fast-growing economy, although not without its political and social problems. She talked about it at length, and I was keen to learn more.
Her family were very wealthy by any standards. Her father is well-connected, from the sounds of things. Jamila liked music and dancing, and was a huge fan of Beyoncé’s. She also followed Chelsea FC – although that had more to with Didier Drogba’s presence on the team than with any London loyalties. It hadn’t occurred to me that she was a Muslimah until she exchanged her hat for a hijab a few weeks into the course. It made no difference to either of us – my friendship with Shanara and her sisters (which isn’t a little-known Bollywood homage to Woody Allen) had shown me that we have more in common that most people tend to think. (Also, like Shanara, Jamila is a real chatterbox.)
I do remember that one of our first conversations was about the great Welsh weather. It hadn’t stopped raining since Jamila had first come to live in Treforest, and she asked me if it ever did. I told her that she might see a couple of nice days in April if she was lucky. When we did eventually have a decent day I emailed her to ask her what she thought of Wales now. Typically, she was out of the country at the time!
Jamila and I got on really well, and often had lunch together as well as meeting up in lectures and practicals. We once spent a good half hour after lunch trying to add each other as friends on Facebook, after it had become even user-hostile than previously.
When we had our lecture on Forensic Soil Analysis (see, there’s nothing they can’t use to track people down these days!) I sat beside her and gave her a whistle-stop introduction to the UK Ordnance Survey mapping system. During a very heavy snowfall on the Friday before Xmas, I texted her from the pub and asked if she was enjoying the weather. If never-ending rain had got on her nerves, the snow must have really pissed her off! I told her it was the sort of day where the Welsh valleys and Brecon Beacons look at their absolute atmospheric best. I’d have loved to have given her a grand tour, so that she could appreciate it for herself. It was just a pity that we’d have needed a 4×4 or a helicopter to get around in it.
To give her a hand over the language barrier, we worked together on preparing one of her assignments. I’d already helped a chap named Robert Z., who was originally from Uganda, to knock one of his essays into shape. I think it was the experience of working alongside my African friends, along with Florence’s suggestion of going to work in Uganda, that steered me into studying TESOL in my second year. It seemed that their world had so much more to offer than mine did (see Out of Africa.)
As I didn’t have to visit Glyntaff Campus any more, Jamila and I didn’t see very much of each other. We kept in touch, of course, exchanging silly comments on Facebook and texting each other frequently. I did mention her in a TESOL lecture one day, when Rhian W. was explaining the assessment criteria for the IELTS exam. It’s divided into four parts: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. I commented, ‘I think my friend Jamila got 11/10 for the last part.’
One day I had an email from Jamila, who was panicking over an assignment for Forensic Psychology and looking for moral and practical support. We ended up spending several afternoons in the Students Union bar, one (very) late evening in the computer room just across the corridor, and an hour or two in the Learning Resources Centre on Treforest Campus. The chap at the food counter used to dread our going up to order, because Jamila would go off-menu and the orders got really bizarre and confusing. We always ended up having a good laugh whenever we were in there.
At one point, we were in the bar and looking for volunteers to help with our research. We started chatting to a couple of students from somewhere in East Africa (it might have been Uganda, I’m not sure.) It was quite strange: sitting around a table in the bar were one West African Muslim girl who was drinking J20, two East African Christian girls who were drinking pints of lager, and an Irish-Welsh lapsed atheist who was drinking Coke because he was on painkillers. It sounds like the lead-in to a joke, doesn’t it? But it was just four people doing what people do best when they’re left to their own devices: making friends and talking.
Our late stint, that same week, was the night before Jamila’s birthday in late November. We’d been crunching numbers all afternoon, and she’d gone home for something to eat while I carried on looking at the results. Something had gone wrong somewhere. It had been many years since I’d done any statistical analysis, but in my gut I knew the figures didn’t tally.
She returned to the bar with a Tupperware container. She’d cooked an extra portion of fish, rice and vegetables and brought it for me to snack on while we revisited the raw data. It was an unexpected, delicious and very welcome treat. We worked on until she noticed that the time had marched on. She grabbed her coat and said, ‘I have to go and pray!’
I winked at her. ‘Say one for me while you’re there – we’re going to need it!’
The Prayer Room is only a couple of minutes’ walk away from the Union building, so Jamila was back fairly quickly. We decided to leave the data analysis until the morning, to see if anything occurred to us overnight, and carried on preparing the presentation instead. When we left the bar I headed for the station and Jamila headed for her taxi. As we parted I gave her a hug, wished her a happy birthday, and told her not to panic about the assignment. I was fairly sure I’d get to the bottom of the problem the following day. (I did. Once I’d constructed a spreadsheet and run Student’s t Test again, it turned out that we’d transposed two sets of figures, giving a negative value at one point.) We finished the assignment, Jamila submitted it, and texted me a little while later to say that she was happy with the mark she’d gained. I was happy too. It’s what friends are for, isn’t it?
A few months later, Jamila roped me into helping with an essay on the psychology of religious extremism and terrorism. I found a couple of useful papers which we could draw on, and persuaded her to come to Aberdare on a Saturday morning so that we could use a computer in the Library.
I took my copy of Cite Them Right (the student’s very own Holy Book when it comes to referencing) so that she could borrow it to finish off the essay at home. I met her off the train (needless to say, it was raining) and we walked through town together, catching up on gossip. People should have been used to seeing me around with non-white female friends, but I’m sure we got several strange looks as we made our way through Commercial Street. Once we finished in the Library we headed back to the station. Jamila had forgotten to tell me that she was afraid of heights until we got halfway across the bridge. She clung onto my arm and didn’t look down until we were on the other side. Also needless to say, the train we were heading for was the Ghost Train (see entries passim) so we walked back into town – this time, using the Pelican crossing!
I suggested picking up The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which had been in one of the charity shops for ages, as first-hand source material for the assignment. We looked in, but it had been sold a couple of days earlier. We walked over to the Market, but Barbara didn’t have a copy either. That was Sod’s Law in action. As we passed another charity shop, Jamila spotted a top in the window that she liked. We went in for a look around, and she ended up spending £28 on clothes, shoes and jewellery. That’s probably an average morning’s takings for that place. Once again, she told me afterwards that the assignment had gone in on time and under-budget. We were Team Fabulosity, as she named us one day.
I haven’t seen Jamila since I finished University. We’ve kept in touch via Facebook, of course, and I was really pleased to learn that she’d got engaged a while ago. I was even more pleased to learn that she passed her degree and is currently doing her MSc at Nottingham. I haven’t spoken to her since my old phone, with all my contacts, was stolen back last year. I’ve thought about her a lot, wondering how she is and what she’s up to (no doubt, cursing the East Midlands weather just as much as ours.)
Last night I had one of those encounters which serves to remind you how valuable true friends are. I’ve only got myself to blame for this, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult to deal with. Several of my friends have helped me out financially from time to time, and when I’ve offered to pay back the money they’ve waved it aside. Last year, one very old friend (no names, no pack drill, no typos!) lent me money to pay off my mortgage arrears while the DWP were sorting my claim out. But this came out of the blue. Yes, it’s true that Kath let me run up quite a large bar tab when she had the White Lion, and I’ve been paying it off in dribs and drabs (mostly drabs) as I can. But still it’s a lot of money and I couldn’t settle it all in one go. Last night, I had words with the guv’nor, who wanted his cash immediately. He was in no mood to talk rationally. It left me wondering how the fuck I was going to get my hands on that sort of sum. Short of selling a kidney, or robbing the Bookie’s around the corner (and I wouldn’t want to put poor Joanne through that ordeal for a second time!), I couldn’t think of a way out.
This morning, out of sheer desperation, I emailed Jamila. I very briefly outlined my predicament and asked her if she could possibly help me out. Within about twenty minutes she rang me back and I explained over the phone. Standing outside Aberdare Library in the pissing rain, I remembered the morning we’d spent there together in similar circumstances. It turned out that she’d been in Wales earlier this week, for her graduation ceremony. I wish I’d known in advance, I’d have tried to gone along and caught up with her during her flying visit. I’m looking forward to seeing her photos when she posts them on Facebook.
Without any hesitation, Jamila agreed to transfer the money and asked me to send her my bank details by return. I told her that it would take me a good while to repay her, but to my utter amazement she told me that she didn’t want the money back. She said that after she leaves the UK at the end of her course, I wouldn’t be able to send it to her anyway.
‘I lost your book,’ she said in embarrassment. ‘I can compensate you this way. It will be my Xmas gift to you to thank for all your help.’
For once in my life I was literally speechless. I nearly broke down in tears at this totally unanticipated display of generosity and thanked her from the bottom of my heart. I even told her that, not wishing to run the risk of blasphemy, that she was an Angel walking amongst us. Thanks to Jamila, whom I haven’t seen for well over a year, I can settle my debt (well, one of them, anyway!) and not have to worry about it.
Even now, typing this out, I feel utterly overwhelmed that such kindness and selfless friendship still exist in the world. To think that it all blossomed from a casual helping hand in a Chemistry laboratory is almost beyond comprehension. I’m not a religious man, but I’m becoming increasingly interested in spiritual matters as my fiftieth birthday looms on the distant horizon. Maybe, as the epigram to this piece suggests, that wet Tuesday lunchtime in the refectory back in October 2009, I really was entertaining an Angel unawares.
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