NINETEEN SEVENTY-NINE was coming to a close and the media was busy reviewing the year’s events. There was the exile of the Shah of Iran, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the gruesome discovery of Pol Pot’s atrocities, the revelation by Voyager 1 and many more. Personally, the end of 1979 opened a new chapter in my life in a new country, in a new role. I arrived at the crack of dawn on 20 December in Britain, which was not only in the grip of winter but also that of Margaret Thatcher.
Standing at the exit of the plane in my batik kebaya and an excuse of a cardigan, I felt the brutal force of the British weather smack on my trembling knees and as I gasped for air, out came a cloud of smoke not unlike the experience when you open the freezer. I nearly let go of my precious vanity case as my hands felt numb.
Home then was a warm, cosy room in what was then Coburg Hotel in Queensway on the top floor with a view of Kensington Gardens. The trees were bare and straggly and the sky was grey. Five days before Christmas, people were out doing their last minute shopping and we joined the crowd in Queensway moving towards Whiteleys, then the biggest and one of the oldest departmental stores in London, to get jumpers and gloves. I remember stopping at shops along the way, enjoying the blast of warm air at the entrance and feeling reluctant to go out into the cold again. Whiteleys provided a brief respite from the cold when we needed to go to Asiatic Store, our local halal butcher, or to Khans Restaurant, our favourite haunt until today.
It is a different Whiteleys today filled with shops from the high streets as well as cafes. Yesterday, we sat having tea at Costa Café, and I looked out to see what else is left of Queensway today. Gone is the cinema that we used to frequent at the top of the road. In its place is TGIF. Whiteleys has eight cinemas and the price is astronomical! Boots the chemist has replaced Underwoods at the corner of the road leading to the present day Malaysia Hall. Woolworth, a favourite store and a poor cousin of Marks and Sparks had long been replaced by one supermarket after another. By the first week of next month, all remaining chains will close down for good. Many shops came and went, but one is still standing proud. London’s oldest coin operated laundrette is still as busy as the day I took my laundry there twenty-nine years ago.
And suddenly what passed before our eyes brought us back to the here and now. Three lads walked past where we were sitting in Costa Café, temporarily obscuring our view of the laundrette. One of the lads was our son, out with his friends. He was born a year after our arrival, so Queensway is very much a familiar territory to him as we took him everywhere in his pushchair or perched high on his father’s shoulders.
Queensway couldn’t be a better place for someone so homesick even after a few months away. The Mara hostel was just a few streets away from where we were. Most days we'd bump into Malaysian students making their way to universities. The warden and wife were friends of my husband. In fact, my first temporary coat was a borrowed one from the wife. When they left, they gave us something which I have until today – batu tumbuk sambal.
Not far from us was Bunga Raya restaurant, another place we frequented in search of crab sambal. I remember the first time we had lunch there, I choked on my rice as I heard Sharifah Aini singing some of my favourites from a cassette player in the kitchen.
I remember my first leather jacket and knee high boots with heels that made walking such a painful experience, especially on icy roads. The husband has a knack of saying wherever we were going was only 5 minutes away. And I’d be ouching in my boots for half an hour before reaching any destination.
Sitting where I am today, feeling all nostalgic, I just couldn’t imagine that I could survive this long here. I can still smell the repulsive smell of smoked mackerels served in the breakfast room of Coburg Hotel, the equally nauseating smell of boiled cabbages that filled the corridors of the block of apartments where we lived temporarily along Queensway and also the sweet and inviting aroma of chestnuts roasting on open fires at street corners and carol singers singing jingle bells in front of Selfridges. I remember the disasters in the kitchen, the pangs of missing families back home and the expensive phone calls that temporarily cured the pain. I remember Mak's first visit, the search for jobs and the changing seasons.
There have been three Prime Ministers since Thatcher, the economy has gone up and down and down, Britain has been involved in several wars; some on her own home grounds. There were as many joys too to make this 29 years memorable; the children came in quick succession, we've sighted the Haley Bop and made many good friends.
I am thankful that I arrived in a Britain that was already familiar with the taste of curry, its music and songs influenced by the upbeat sound of reggae and its restaurants served halal kebabs and satay.
Today on 21st December, I remember exactly 29 years ago, my husband of hardly two weeks, tried to cheer me up by promising that the day would get longer by two minutes each day. And it did.
Kak Teh's walk down memory lane:
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Down Memory Lane