During the giddy days of courtship not much thought was given to what life had in store for me as a newly wed in a new country. All that mattered then was I was going to be with him and we could be surviving on fresh air and love for that matter and it would be fine. If there were ever any moments of doubts, his favourite song “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell would drift back to reassure me:
“So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind …”
But, oh, moments of loneliness were aplenty and even Ralph McTell and his delicious rendition couldn’t do anything about it. When he went off to work in the mornings, I’d be left alone to explore London – the London which I only knew from his letters, from the news items that I read in the local papers and from cousins and uncles and aunts who had been here. Indeed, I did have two uncles and their families here and a cousin way out in Kent. But London can be a lonely place.
Where we were, there were indeed a lot of Malaysians and a lot more Arabs, rich Arabs. We arrived at a time when Arabs carried wads of notes in one hand and the tasbih in the other. You held the door open for them as they arrived back to the apartments with maids in tow carrying in their shoppings from Harrods and Selfridges and you’re tipped £10! Such was the flow of money from the oil fields.
My mother need not have worried about me not meeting other Malaysians in London. Before Margaret Thatcher’s increase in foreign students’ fees and Malaysia’s retaliation to buy British last, Malaysians were everywhere; certainly in Oxford Street, Portobello Market and Knightsbridge. On Sundays, among those hecklers at Speaker’s Corner, you were bound to find a few Malaysians.
Those you don't see, made their presence known in other creative ways. Once, while waiting for the District Line train I read some very entertaining graffiti on the wall. I nearly jumped out of my shoes when I saw some familiar angry words in Malay, referring to parts, which will not be mentioned here, belonging to our mothers. I sometimes wonder about this Freudian tendency to link mothers to certain parts of the body. In any language, in any culture, anger and swear words find their way to the mother’s anatomy.
Anyway, keeping true to his promise to take me by the hand and show me the streets of London, I then found myself in the seedy area of Soho, an area where no respectable person would want to be seen when the sun goes down for the skirts and other things were bound to go up. But we were there in the name of getting to know London. Looking at the skimpily clad belles outside certain doors, I wondered when they’d succumb to pneumonia. Tired of Soho we then decided to go for the much talked about movie at the time – Ai No Corrida – Nagisa Oshima’s brilliant piece of work that would have put him in Freud’s good books. It was a love story, but not without sacrifice, one that is X rated, but with a message and one which had every male in the hall crossing their legs and cringing in sympathy with the male antagonist.
Suffice to say, I looked coyly away as any new bride would, and we decided to leave the cinema while it was still dark as the credits rolled, so no one would see us and cast aspersions on our reputation. Being found in Soho was bad enough, but being discovered watching Ai No Corrrida?? Oh no! Anyway, our attempt for a quick exit was hastened by a voice, so loud and clear behind us: “Celaka betui, dia potong binatang tu pulak!”
Like teenagers about to be pounced upon at a blue movie, we giggled and scrambled out of the cinema into the cold night air.
For someone whose overseas trips consisted only of Penang and Singapore, London was indeed an eye opener. There were many things that puzzled and at the same time amazed me. I was in awe of the patience with which people queue. They queue everywhere and God help those who attempt to jump queues. The same goes to buying fruits or vegetables. You just point and indicate how much you want. After learning from my mistakes never to pick and prod a fruit, as my mother would to a mackeral at a market, I then indicated with my two fingers that I wanted two pounds of oranges. The face of the initially friendly stallholder suddenly froze and he icily barked: “Same to you!” Apparently, I had unwittingly given him the two-finger salute.
What amazed me most about the people here was that, they all seemed to be attached to each other at the lips. What we only watched on TV or on the movie screens back home, here they do it freely everywhere; in the tube, by the roadside, at cafes, standing in queues, smooching and exploring each others’ throats. I thought it must surely be a good way to share body heat. At first, I must admit I didn’t know where to look and took to reading adverts on the walls or menus in the cafes.
As time went by, I too became quite an expert in telling the political affiliation of a person, by the newspapers that he or she read in the tube. People hardly talked to each other. Instead, they delved into their reading material with such seriousness if only to avoid eye contact or conversation with the person seated next to them. Only once a while, you’d hear a person breaking the ice with what else, the weather! “Awful weather, isn’t it?” To which you just reply, “Yes, isn’t it” and go back to your Times or The Guardian.
It took a lot of adjusting; not just to the weather, the people and the food, but also to the person who had just become my husband. The novelty of becoming a lady of leisure soon wore out, and I was itching to work again. Getting a job, when unemployment was hitting 2 million, was certainly not an easy task. And to my despair, getting pregnant wasn't that easy as well.