Orange Comfort

Songs in the key of another planet


in Features • Illustrated by Alex Hotchkiss


I started riding a bike again last year. It’s something I went back to during lockdown. It empties me, releases all the thoughts within as I concentrate on the lactic acid in my thighs and the voice of whichever podcast I’m listening to; I sweat and stain my clothes, and taste its sharp salty tang on my mustache. I poured waterfalls carrying a backpack full of books that I won’t read until I get to a large patch of unoccupied dry grass, where I will lay there with my hoodie as a picnic rug and Sonia Sanchez / Roger Robinson / Ocean Vuong to block out the summer sun. Until then, the weight of the books on my back gives me comfort. My shoulders ache with the burden of their beautiful knowledge. How do we seek comfort in winter, when it’s dark at 4 p.m., when we can’t meet our friends, when we can’t even sit in the park because of the cold? I was riding today, listening to a reading of Roger Robinson’s poem, “A Portable Paradise,” and thought, “What can I keep with me, during this winter, that is precious, that is winning, that couldn’t ever be taken away? Where can I always look for comfort in the cold unforgiving moments of early darkness during a lockdown, during zoom burnout, during the few sober hours when I ride my bike through the biting wind around Hyde Park Cycle? What can I put in my pockets, to cradle the edges and seek solace?” I watched the dead leaves blow past me, the autumn leaves gathered by road sweepers in piles beside me, I blew past the myriad of oranges and felt calm.

A cinematic fantasy: “me in a great orange wool coat, autumn-colored scarf on a bright red bike with a basket, full of soups, stews and slow-roasted lamb.”

In reality, I was in grey joggers and a large jumper, riding a black road bicycle. In the midst of lockdown, I wanted to pull something good from the leaves and thought about how orange brings us comfort, and how we can continue seeking comfort . . .

In this reverie of autumnal colors, my mind went to the Pixar movie Coco and its representation of the Mexican tradition El Dia De Los Muertos. I thought about the marigold petals that lead dead relatives to their yearly dinner. I thought about their pungent scent and rousing dance on the wind. I thought about Coco, and the music of celebration, music for the one they loved, who once lived, and it was a powerful life. I took out my phone, now completely obsessed with this notion of orange and its power, and scrolled through albums with orange covers and fell upon two quite distinct albums: Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key of Life” and Japanese Breakfast’s “Soft Sounds From Another Planet.” Stevie, barely visible with a stern but trusting expression emits a bright orange glow that ripples to the edges of the album cover, wave upon wave of comforting music. A woman bathed in orange looks towards the profile of another woman or herself, silhouetted behind an orange screen, who looks towards another hidden behind orange, their faces nearly meeting in the intersection of two screens. What would be my marigold petal? What would I hold within myself to caress the edges, slowly waiting for that small private moment to appreciate it? What would I call the skeletons of joy and care from my memory at every touch? What would be my blessing?

As I rode through the park, I listened to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in The Key of Life, his music moving with a smooth soothing trance that powers my legs and tinged Hyde Park with a warm glint. Stevie, with the smooth piano of “Knocks Me Off My Feet” speaks of a lost comfort, or a dreamt comfort, of a couple walking. I was able to witness Stevie’s dream, when my friend was ecstatic because he finally was granted the ability to stay beside his wife, knowing that he might bore her with all they could do, the ability to take a walk through the autumn leaves, to look at a wondrous seasonal London after being held back from doing so for such a long time. If that doesn’t knock you off your feet, know that I carried houseplants into their new home, I carried carpets and wardrobes into their lovely home. I don’t want to bore you with it, but the exact mundane details of moving house were charged with the love and affection I felt for both of them. I lifted tables and wardrobe fixtures, framed paintings and house plants, because I knew that forever the words “I love you, I love you, I love you” would be spoken throughout the house. I was happy to be part of that process, I was happy to be bored with the trouble of the details of where to put a chopping board in a kitchen because I knew love was ruling this household. It is such a strange thing that Stevie sings about boring his partner, but I found so many occasions to say “I love you” to friends during the year that it felt almost as if we were living in a pastime paradise . . .

An orange hoodie / a bowl of pumpkin soup lashings of balsamic vinegar split its surface / an orange lampshade / sweet potato mash

. . . speaking of a pastime paradise, I witnessed another paradise made with another couple I’m friends with. In the summer they called on me to help move, when the morning rain decides that she will be gentle and plays a rhythm, when the stupidly attractive couple who decide to finally make their life together, with brilliant music taste and brilliant literature taste, I spent most of that arranging my friend’s books, loving his collection of Deleuze and Octavia Butler. I knew then that I live wonderfully, vicariously through these beautiful people creating momentous points in their lives. I think back to all the times when these two helped me, I think to the moments in Mercallo, Italy, when I stayed in their Airbnb, listening to the soft sounds from another country, from another planet, vibing fully with them, laughing because he “had to” make a detailed driving plan of our route the next day, and realizing they will never let life hurt me, and maybe with them, I can have it all.

Jollof rice in front of the fireplace / hot toddies and orange slices / pumpkin pie with the thanksgiving takeaway brought to my door in lockdown

What does it mean to be a witness to the growth of love? I find myself captured by the slow indomitable growth of romance and affection between two people, in some ways quite unnerving, I witness it and have to act accordingly. I used to be a Jehovah’s Witness where “witness” means to treat every action, character, word, gift, emotion that you revealed as the defense and praise of the Most High, to make everyone believe because of your actions in the excellence of Jehovah God. Despite leaving, I carry this idea of witnessing and take this position in the witness of the love of my friends, that I shall act in such a way. In this writing, I hope I provide witness, in the comfort of my friends’ new abodes, new lives, and possible futures. My heart burns hot enough for all of you.

A berocca to heal the hangover/ orange hoodie / a modern penguin classic

When we revel in our comfort we have to recognize discomfort. On a late evening, a week before the third lockdown, I went to a live theatre show with friends, I broke out my orange hoodie. I walked to the Bridge Theatre with a melancholic chill, waltzed through the back streets to the bar my friends were waiting in, walked into the auditorium, and sat by myself with my friends scattered safely through the hall, and we listened to Inua Ellams talk of his experiences as an immigrant. Inua Ellams hasn’t been granted citizenship, he’s had three hit plays run in the National Theatre, he’s won an Edinburgh Award, and he’s a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, but the UK government doesn’t deem him fit to be British. They would rather leave him in discomfort, in the fear that he might be ordered to return to Nigeria. The UK hates the fact that one can claim to be British, with evidence, with contribution, with life, with poetry. They only want to award citizenship, on arbitrary values because a man like Inua should be hailed as the most British of us. They want all immigrants to live in fear, to hold citizenship from people they don’t deem worthy to be “awarded” of it. I remember listening to Ellams, leaning over the balcony, watching him read his sublime poetry, speaking of African schooling, the long orange hood ties swinging in front of me, the amber glass of beer steady in my hand, I swooned at his words and delighted in his history. Ellams in all his troubles found comfort in comics, poetry, hip hop, and the bounce of an orange Spalding basketball. He decided to create art, striving for goodness while the cruel men might be winning now, but hopefully not for long.

Orange body warmers on police horses / the high visibility jacket of the security I nod to every morning

Now, it is nearing spring, I ride to work and am bathed in the orange glow hitting the tall buildings of London, I am thankful for the memories that flowed through this orange glow, I feel only that when summer is gone, it spreads its joy through the clothes, the flames and the glow that comforts us in the winter. It’s the warm duvet, it spreads over us so that in spring it can rise again in a bright summer dress and remind us that comfort is always there, we should only look for it. These memories are my light, my lamp that I shine “like the fresh hope of morning.” I carry these memories, too abundant for words, but perfect in my pocket, a portable paradise. I’ll stare at it when I sleep.

And baby that’s you, you, you
Made life’s history
Cause you’ve brought some Joy Inside My Tears


Labeja Kodua Okullu is a Ghanaian-British writer who lives in London. After studying English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, he went on to complete The Novel Studio writing course at City, University of London and is currently working on his first novel. Labeja has published poetry with Forward Poetry and the Rattle:Poetry magazine and has contributed a poem to Interior Realms published by Theatrum Mundi. He co-edited the flagship research project publication Urban Backstages Theatrum Mundi. He is also the programmer for Theatrum Mundi presents, an artist moving image film event that highlights new artists and their short films.