For once, I was half an hour early and that afforded me some time to buy not one but two mushroom croissants and hot steaming tea for the more than 3-hr journey to Manchester Piccadilly. The 0731 was still not ready for boarding and the early morning passengers all stood around, craning their necks looking at the departure board, waiting for the platform number.
The fare to Manchester Piccadilly was £62.00 a hefty sum that burnt a hole in my pocket. Even while most of London was still stirring in their sleep, I had already parted company with £16 for a minicab ride to the station. London is expensive, I kept telling myself.
I found a comfortable seat with only a Nigerian woman and her newborn in her sling sitting at the next table. Hubby had suggested I brought along my new laptop anyway in case I needed to finish some work and I readily agreed. By the end of the journey, I had finished about 10 games of Spider Solitaire – won four and lost six! Damn!
It seems a little strange that I had been in UK all these years and yet my journeys to Manchester only started about last year.
After the loss of the first game, I remembered the first was a visit to a friend’s house. Her mother-in-law had passed away after just a few days’ visit. Then there was the trip with my sayang mama. We stayed at a posh hotel and we were treated to Manchester Utd Vs Inter Milan. It was a very educational trip, football-wise, making my third trip, a lot easier when I watched Manchester United vs Blackburn Rovers.
But most of the time, as the train snaked its way through the British Midlands, I found my mind meandering back to the late eighties, for that was the first time that I had actually come face to face with him. It was the summer of 87, but summer in Vienna was like spring in London. And my heart was racing at the thought of meeting him in the city that inspired The Third Man, the city which evokes thoughts of the Vienna Boys Choir, grand museums, concerts and long street names such as Mariahilferstrasse.
I remember the hurried walk with one child in a pushchair and the other walking two steps at a time trying to catch up with mama who wanted to work and be a mama at the same time. My husband had called to say the man was ready to meet me and hubby would take over the children while I went to the conference room to do the interview. It wasn’t a good first meeting. He was not well and his answers were monosyllables. Rumours had it that he was nursing a flu and the good doctor was prescribed roti canai.
I was so nervous that I forgot to check the level on my tape recorder and my fumbling with the machine that the BBC provided me for the assignment left him quite unimpressed. You usually know from his facial expressions that he wasn’t impressed and after years of following him around, I can safely say, that was one unimpressed look.
One week in Vienna and the Malaysian contingent were already wilting from missing rice. And Pak Non found a restaurant – Rasa Sayang that not only served rice but also sambal tumis and kicap. He very kindly made reservations for all of us on the last day of the two-week conference so that we could all eat to our hearts’ desire. For that we were grateful.
One winter, it was in Paris. According to schedule he was to have only a 20- minute meeting with Jacque Chiraq at Élysée Palace. While he was having a tet-e-tet with the president, the temperature outside had plummeted and we stood in sub zero temperatures, our legs frozen to the ground. He emerged 40 minutes later and was driven to his hotel room where he was to brief us about his meeting. But true to form, when we finally defrosted our tongue and asked him questions, he said: Why can’t you all wait for me in Norwich tomorrow? (for that was where we were to meet him the next day). And how do you answer that?
One warm summer it was Budapest. And Budapest in summer is beautiful, with its enchanting architecture that tells stories of its rich culture and its embittered history, and gypsies playing their violins as you walk along the riverbanks running parallel to the Danube. It would have been more beautiful had it not been for work, at the end of which, he looked at the troop of hacks, looking more like fallen soldiers and asked the obvious: Aren’t you all tired of following the PM around?
Only one of us dared answer. Someone from the back of the room said: Kalau PM tak penat kami tak boleh penat, he lied.
But most of the time it would be London and once or twice in Cambridge or Oxford. Once it was during the rumoured fatal fall from riding in Argentina, and then when he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera in London, which was quite funny, actually, watching him being made up and powdered.
But yesterday, we met up again in Manchester; clued up as ever, very much focussed and very much missed. And very much Tun M.
The Somali minicab driver who had taken me to the station earlier, took me home and was very impressed that I met the man. “Ooh, you are very lucky. Everyone in my country knows him and would love to meet him”