Spring Gardens, London
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - May 2, 2020 - 12:00am

I was terribly hungry when we reached Victoria Station. Ursula and I bade goodbye to each other after the turnstile. The station was quiet and cavernous. I walked faster when I saw a food stall. Instinct told me to ask for Sarsi and Skyflakes from the man at the counter. I stopped momentarily, shifting time zones, changing places, in my mind. When the gears had locked in place in my mind, I said, ‘Could I have Coke and biscuits, please?’

The man’s forehead furrowed. ‘We have Coke but biscuits?’

I was hungry and did not want to think any more. ‘Could I have those chocolates over there instead?’ I pointed at the chocolate bars, counted my coins carefully, and then sat on a bench. Suddenly it was like a silent film by Charlie Chaplin, the men in pin-striped suits and the women in blue, well-cut dresses running after their trains. I just sat there, sipping my drink and munching at my chocolate bar, marvelling at how quickly I had been transported to another world so vastly different from mine.

I looked at my watch. Eight o’ clock. The British Council office at Victoria Station must be open by now. I stood up, pulled my luggage and entered the British Council office. It was quiet, as usual. The man at the counter smiled at me, asked for my name, and then called the driver over. He was young, obviously a postgraduate student like me, working part-time to pay for his bills. He carried my luggage and deposited them at the boot of his black car.

I opened the van’s right door. ‘Oooops, wrong side,’ I said, when I saw the driver seated there. I walked to the other side and opened the door, but I did not know how to strap the seat belt.

‘Could you help me with this?’ I asked the driver. He looked back and when I saw the unspoken question in his eyes, I said, ‘Of course, we also have seat belts in my country. But we do not use them.’ His jaw dropped. But he recovered quickly enough, smiled, and soon, our black car was nosing out of the garage.

The streets were wide, much wider than in Manila, and the people on the sidewalks walked fast. There was traffic but it moved. And nobody honked on their horn. When the driver saw through his mirror that I was looking at a big building, he said, ‘Oh, that is the Buckingham Palace.’

I saw a grey building and so I asked, ‘But where are the tulips? And the guards in red? I saw them in the postcards.’

He smiled. ‘Perhaps in an hour the guards will be there,’ he said, ‘and the tulips, well, they are still bulbs now, but they will bloom in a few weeks.’

Soon we reached Trafalgar Square (flocks of pigeons, those elegant fountains) on whose centre stood Lord Nelson’s monument. Finally, the van entered the garage of the British Council in Spring Gardens.

I thanked the driver, got off, and then I waited at the British Council office. I watched a stream of African students, postgraduate fellows like myself, walk into the building. Their clothes made of cotton always brought summer to my mind – bursts of iridescent colours, harbingers of light.

Then I stood up and asked the receptionist, ‘Do you have a comfort room?’

‘I’m sorry?’ she said in an accent that I would later on learn was middle-class and South Londonish. In a clinical a way as possible, I explained to her what ‘comfort room’ meant, standing so upright even if my bladder was about to burst. ‘Oh, you mean the lah-vah-tree!’

‘Yes, indeed,’ I said, and she politely gave me directions.

After I returned, I was ushered into the British Council office for my orientation. A woman with an assistant in tow (‘she is training for the job, I hope you don’t mind me bringing her along’) handed me a sheaf of papers containing information on immigration matters, student visa renewal, monthly stipend – and a brochure on AIDS as well as several packets of condoms!

When the woman saw the shocked look in my eyes, she said, ‘Oh, we give these to all of the British Council Fellows who study in the UK.’ I was surprised because it was so difficult even to find condoms in conservative and Catholic Philippines during those times. And here, they were being given freely, available everywhere, like a chocolate drink or salt-free crackers in the vending machines.

I then went to the cashier, encashed my cheques and mapped out my plans for London in the next two days. I decided to return to my hotel to get some sleep. The woman who gave me the orientation and her assistant helped me put my luggage in the boot of the black cab.

‘Where are you going, sonny?’ asked the old driver. I wanted to say Gloucester Road, but I was too tired and worried that I might pronounce it again incorrectly. So instead, I just gave him the sheet of paper with the address of the hotel. The black cab began to move. With its mostly white knuckles, London was rubbing the fog from its sleepy eyes.

*      *      *

Fifteen months to the day, and when I was already back in Manila, an English friend would write me a letter. Angela apologized for ‘what the British are doing to Iraq during the Gulf War’. Within a week, a rich student in the Philippine university where I taught would put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. His blood brains would splatter on the white walls of their beautiful mansion in the suburbs. Another would be mauled to death by his fraternity brothers in a hazing ritual, first attaching electric rods to his balls and cranking up the battery, and then beating him up with wooden paddles until parts of his skin had turned completely black. And a bomb would explode right in the heart of Victoria Station, during the peak of the morning rush hour. Ten people would die. Hundreds would be wounded, would run screaming out of the train station on the cold ash-grey of morning.

Then I would put my knuckles to my eyes, rubbing them hard, wishing that this bombing would be the first and the last act of terrorism in the world, and that everything was just a short nightmare.

(Danton Remoto is the Head of School and Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN LONDON VICTORIA STATION
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