Football’s perennial disappointments – twice delivered with particular cruelty in the last week – were at least, for me, accompanied by some interesting experiences.
While my friends and family spent Saturday at Wembley, hoping for a miraculous turnaround in Everton’s fortunes, I was suppressing my anxiety in the airy bar of Freetown Aqua Sports Club.
We had been invited by a new friend, Marie, whose advice on raising children in Sierra Leone had been instrumental in our decision to come here.
The 50-year-old members-only club was originally the home of the city’s sailing community and now hosts affluent Saloneans for fishing, badminton and squash. Positioned on a headland at the mouth of Lumley Creek, it offers a stunning view taking in Aberdeen Bridge. Its seawater swimming pools must surely be the most picturesque places in the country for a quick dip.
And while its fees would be beyond most Freetonians, it was at least nice to see such an exclusive venue populated mostly by the wealthier locals, rather than the foreign NGO staff and businessmen who descend on other desirable spots around the city.
The Flump revelled in its playground – swings, slides and see-saws are a rarity here – and enjoyed being fussed over by older children fascinated by this pale little creature.
Meanwhile, the garden played host to the most extravagent birthday 5th birthday party I’ve ever seen. There must have been 80 people enjoying the feast, disco and bouncy castle, while little rucksacks replaced plastic party bags.
So, while one little girl enjoyed the best day of her young life outside, this jaded old fool was behind the glass doors of the clubhouse, trying not to embarrass himself by emitting the anguished groans that usually accompany football matches.
In such polite company I could only half-watch the FA Cup semi-final, although I did get drawn into Everton’s second-half fightback.
If only our manager had the guts to order that England’s best penalty taker should actually take Everton’s penalties, I might have sent the complimentary peanuts flying in celebration.
As it was, it felt like Manchester United’s injury-time winner had put us Evertonians – and, I would hope, the manager – out of our misery. Like a vet with an ageing dog, United perhaps did the kindest thing. And I made peace with the outcome fairly swiftly.
The same could not have been said about the most abject of displays in the Anfield derby three days earlier. But if my team let me down that night, a new friend did exactly the opposite.
Ahead of the game I’d contacted the only Freetonian brave enough to out himself as an Everton fan on Twitter, in the hope we might catch a game or two together.
Amjata Bayoh takes fanaticism to another level. Unable to source an Everton shirt out here, he set about making his own.
If its African style is a little “loud” by Premier League standards, it would certainly stand up well against some of Everton’s past away kits.
By building relationships with second-hand clothes dealers and British colleagues at NGOs, Amjata has since amassed five official Everton tops – that’s more than me.
On meeting him ahead of the game, I was delighted to find a clued-up character (though not smart enough to pick a winning team) with journalism experience, who’d done vital work to disseminate health information during the Ebola outbreak.
We immediately hit it off as he told me that his love of Everton stemmed from watching Mikel Arteta and Tim Cahill as a teenager.
“It’s hard being an Evertonian in Freetown,” he said. “So I used to pretend to support Arsenal, until the day I was old enough to declare my love.” It made me feel bad for thinking I had it tough in Liverpool.
I was keen to experience a match in the way a typical Salonean might, so we took a couple of cabs to his district of Brookfields. Taxis here work a bit like buses at home, running on set routes and picking up or dropping off passengers en route.
Climbing into one of them – “Flash” emblazoned across its back windscreen, with “turment dem” across its back bumper – felt like stumbling onto the set of a hip-hop video.
The driver wore shades and thick jewellery, sitting low in his bucket seat with one arm on the wheel as he charged through the traffic. Pulsing Afrobeats boomed out from a tablet computer fixed to the dash, alongside the most blinged-up tissue box I’ve ever seen. It was ace, although I’m not sure what Flash made of my uncoordinated foot-tapping in the back.
Only after spilling out of the cab, did I realise that Amjata had become something of a neighbourhood celeb for supporting such a trophyless team (these Africans might love football but they don’t know its history).
It felt nice for someone else to be getting the attention, with the novelty white man only adding to Amjata’s legend.
Shamefully, I failed to bring any Everton paraphernalia here and Amjata was forced to lend me his scarf. I certainly didn’t need its warmth in the confines of the Black Sugar cinema, which had the clammy feel of a shady nighclub.
A fee of 2,000 Leones (about 25p) gained access to the basement room, a little smaller than a five-a-side pitch, where rows of folding chairs were ordered neatly around several large flatscreen TVs.
Amjata headed towards the back, where he introduced me to several fans of That Other Lot. What, with me the only Scouser in the place, it felt quite an authentic Anfield derby experience.
My friend quickly launched into a loud and gutsy display of banter. (I gave up such exchanges as a bad job aged about 13, preferring the moral high ground of magnanimity on the rare occasions I get to employ it.)
However, in a triumph of hope over experience, Amjata continued to shout about the qualities of Stones, Barkley and Lukaku, which were to be notable only for their absence over the following 90 minutes.
“We’re going to give you four goals,” a friendly Kopite in the neighbouring seat told me. Had he meant as a head start, it might have made for a decent game. As it was, four unanswered goals was exactly what I got.
At first, the darkness and (to me) unintelligible Krio barracking was a comfort, letting me holler at the TV without feeling self-conscious. But I was soon sinking lower and lower into my seat, watching yet another inept defensive display through my fingers.
There was one moment of hope, when one of the two tellies in our part of the room went on the blink. However, my hopes of a total blackout were dashed when it was quickly replaced.
Thankfully, the new screen was tuned in to Manchester United’s home win over Crystal Palace, providing distraction in the noisy celebrations of the audience’s “Mancunian” contingent.
It was a great way to watch football, even if the match proved an awful experience.
Thankfully, it was followed by a really lovely one as Amjata invited me to the small and welcoming family home his father had built over several years.
We sat on the balcony overlooking the street, sharing a potato leaf stew prepared by one of his sisters and talking football, Freetown and the future. It was a really nice way to end the night.
The meal – smoked fish, spinach-like potato leaves and a blend of chillis cooked in palm oil – is a staple here and it was delicious.
I’m lucky enough to eat local fare most nights, thanks to an arrangement in The One With The Common Sense’s office. Every lunchtime, for 5,000 Le a head, a chop-chop lady brings hot meals: Cassava leaf stew, peanut soup (nicer than it sounds), black bean casserole and a cassava dumpling called foo-foo, all cooked with various types of fish and laced with chilli.
The One With The Common Sense pays extra to take away a portion for me, accompanied by a mountain of rice, which I gratefully gobble down cold for tea.
Low marks for presentation but once it tickles your tastebuds, it’s soon demolished
Our fish intake has rocketed, with beach trips accompanied by succulent and beautifully marinaded barracuda kebabs, or prawn skewers, served with fat chips.
Inevitably, we occasionally long for a taste of home. Fortunately that’s where Greenford’s Sun Mark factory – about a 15-minute trot from our old west London flat – comes into play, churning out home comforts from tins of “Lazer” beans to own-brand digestives for sale in Freetown’s Lebanese supermarkets.
We haven’t quite cracked shopping here yet. No single supermarket has everything you need, while fruit and veg is better bought on the street. General goods are cheaper in the little shops run by locals but, again, finding exactly you want can be tricky – especially when trying to keep tabs on phone, wallet and toddler.
There’s also the risk of items not quite being all they seem. One can of mosquito-zapping room spray I bought on the corner carries a suspicious aroma of furniture polish. It’s definitely accounted for a couple of cockroaches but I’m sure they ended their days with added sheen on their shells.
Maybe I’ll try it on the bannisters this week.