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One fine morning a long long time ago I decided to take a trip to Oxford. Not the street where all the top brands are found, but the place where the world famous university is located.
It had been one of my childhood dreams to go study at either Oxford or Cambridge University one day. Among several high profile career plans that I dreamed about while growing up, the one held on to for the longest period of time was to become a scientist, with maybe a Noble Prize or two under my belt as well.
Unfortunately my career plans did not actually unfold the way I had hoped they would and I never did get to attend the great universities of the world but since I was in London, I figured that the least I could do was to pay my dream place a visit, especially when I found out that the city of Oxford is about an hour's train ride away from London.
I was staying at Sloan Street with family friends and the nearest train to Oxford left from Paddington Station.
On the day of the journey I packed some sandwiches for myself before heading out.
It was a beautiful sunny morning, the kind that brightens up London. Instead of taking the fast underground route, I walked all the way from Knightsbridge to Paddington, taking a short cut through Hyde park, even sitting down on a bench to feed the crumbs of my sandwich to the birds in the park. I was in no hurry. It was a lovely day and I was enjoying my walk.
The day went went reasonably well. I bought my ticket to Oxford at Paddington station and spent a leisurely day roaming around the streets of Oxford, taking in the beauty of its centuries old college buildings and lush green meadows.
Sometime in the afternoon before it started to grow dark I decided to conclude my exploration of the charming little town and head back to London.
Although the hour was not too late but it was dark by the time I got back to London. Luckily I knew enough of London to not feel uncomfortable navigating through it at night time all by myself. Knowing the efficiency of London's underground system, I figured, I would be home in less than an hour.
I could not have been more wrong.
Just as I reached my desired platform an announcement was made over the public speaking system which went something like "all trains to Knightsbride have been cancelled"
What was even more disappointing was that had I reached the platform even ten minutes earlier I would have been able to catch the last train that left from there.
"you are going to Knightsbridge?" That is when I heard a male voice beside me.
I would have thought that was pretty obvious considering that I was standing on the platform from where the train left for Knightsbridge.
Whenever I go abroad I generally wear western attire but for some reason that day I was wearing a Shalwar Qameez. Judging from my eastern looks and choice of clothes it was not difficult for the young man standing next to me to correctly assume that I was not a regular Londoner.
"where are you from?
I am sometimes asked this questions when I am in eastern garb so I was not surprised by it.
I also readily tell people where I am from to keep them from assuming that I come from India which they do about 90% of the time.
"Really? How interesting. I am from Iraq, my name is Jasim. What is yours ?"
I tell him my name out of politeness as I ascend the multiple levels of the London underground transit system amongst a throng of equally disappointed commuters who will have to look for alternative means of getting to their destination now that their train had been cancelled. All the while, Jasim going up the stairs next to me is throwing a volley of questions my way.
His curiosity is not appeased by just knowing who I am and where I come from.
I am an extrovert person and fall into conversation easily but providing complete strangers with information like how I like London and how long is my stay going to last etc is making me feel uncomfortable so I answer as vaguely as possible even evading a few with out being impolite.
Soon we were out in the open and before I had a chance to walk away he threw another question my way. This time a totally unexpected one.
"Do you want to go to Disco ?"
I must confess that my mind was on trying to figure out how to get home since my most preferred and most convenient mode of transportation was no longer a viable option. So to say that his offer at that point took me completely by surprise would be an understatement.
"I said I would like to take you to a Disco"
"No thanks. I don't go to Discos."
"Why not ? You think it is Haram ?
This question baffled me even more than the first one .
"I don't know. I have never actually thought about it as being either Haram or Halal."
"Then why won't you come?"
"Because it is getting late and the people I am staying with are expecting me to get back home on time and will be extremely worried if I don't."
I am making up excuses that are sounding lame even to my ears. Surely he can sense that I am trying to shake him off.
Apparently he can't.
"I am leaving London tomorrow."
I gave a reply which was partly true. I was planning to go to my uncle's place in Manchester, though not the next day but within the coming week. But I was not going to tell him that.
I decided to put an end to this chance meeting along with its conversation which was getting too lengthy and too awkward for my liking. I told him that it was very nice meeting him but now I was going go call my uncle and aunty, the people I am staying with, and ask them to pick me up from here.
Instead of bidding adieu as I headed towards a red phone booth nearby he followed me instead. He also dug into his pocket and took out coins for me to make the call.
"Thank you I have change for the call", I declined. Accepting money from strangers, even those who irritatingly latch on to me, is out of the question.
"No take these" . He insisted thrusting his palm forward.
I dug my own hand into my pocket and took out twice the amount of coins he had in his hand.
"I am leaving London tomorrow and all these coins will go to waste if I don't use them so I might as well". I picked up my previous lie and built upon it by purposely implying that I was not just leaving London but England as well the next day.
He did not insist any further after looking at my palm full of change but did stand out side the phone booth as I made my call.
My uncle, at whose place I had been staying, was not only one of my father's colleague and close friend but also, at that time, Pakistan's Defence Attache in London. My trip, unfortunately had coincided with the arrival of a very important delegation from Pakistan and both my uncle and his wife had their schedules overbooked to include playing host to the dignitaries and escorting them all over London.
One of the regrets that both of them expressed profusely almost every day was they had not been able to give me the attention or time that I deserved. I had assured them that I had been to London before and was perfectly capable of enjoying the city's delights on my own, hence the packed sandwiches and daily single excursions.
My phone call to their residence in Sloan street only enlightened me to the fact they had still not returned home.
"They are coming to pick me up". I lied to Jasim as I came out of the booth.
It was time to get rid of him
"I will wait till they come"
"No need. They will be here soon. I am going to be fine. Just go."
"Are you sure"?
I felt a little guilty openly lying to him like this because he genuinely looked concerned.
To my utter relief he finally obliged and started to walk away.
I saw him cross the road and walk around aimlessly for a minute or so, probably looking for someone else to take to the Disco. Somebody who would be more willing to go.
He was a young man somewhere in his mid twenties, not too bad looking. Chances are he probably did find somebody.
Strangely enough, the possibility of him being a predator never occurred to me at the time or for many years afterwards for that matter.
I waited till he was out of sight before heading towards the next underground station. I still had to figure out how to get back home.
There were a few traditional black London taxis standing nearby but I did not want to ride them. Firstly, I was not comfortable going in a cab alone at night and secondly I figured they would be expensive, which they are. To be honest, the expense part weighed more heavily with me then the safety part. I guess I needed to have my priorities straightened out back then.
The route through Hyde park that I had used in the morning was equally impractical right now. I realized that the moment I came out of Paddington Station when I got back to London. The entrance to the park was right in front of the station exit and the same park which had appeared lovely and cheerful in the morning looked dark, gloomy and sinister at night. To cap it off, on top of the Park gate there was a sign that warned people to avoid going through the park after dark for their own safety.
I consider myself to be pretty gutsy most of the time but not gutsy enough to ignore that very clear warning sign. Going around the park was also not doable. Diagonally cutting across the park in the morning had not taken me too long but circumnavigating half of it from one corner to the other on foot was next to impossible. Anyone who is familiar with the length and breadth of Hyde park would know what I am talking about.
I entered the top level of the second underground station. It was full of hustle and bustle the way stations are. In one corner two railway worker wearing their workers' uniform were standing talking to each other. One of them was a slightly portly middle aged guy of Asian origin who looked at my Shalwar Qameez, and then at me, with interest. Though not with the same type of interest as Jasim.
I bee lined towards him.
I am also not a person who panics often and even when I do panic I don't let it show a lot but something akin to panic must have been on my face because I was greeted by the good natured Asian gentleman with a large smile a very jovial, "haan jee , kiy ho gaya"?
(what is the matter? what has happened ?)
Something about him speaking in the same language as my own made me instantly calm down. It made me feel like I was already half way home.
I told him my problem and he crushed all my hopes by informing me that all trains heading towards Knightsbridge and its adjoining areas were indeed suspended that night from not just one but all the stations.
So much for London's dependable and efficient underground railway system.
He then did something for which I will be eternally grateful. He took out a few brochures from a rack nearby which had London maps and bus routes printed on them and proceeded to tell me what number bus from which point will take me to my destination.
I could have kicked myself for not thinking of this excellent and not to mention economical mode of transportation earlier.
Needless to say I got home via bus service safe and sound that night, though with the heavy London traffic, even the bus journey took over a hour and a half .
I had started my return journey from Oxford a little before 5 p.m. figuring I would be back home by seven or eight at most. It was infect well past nine by the time I finally reached Sloan Street. My uncle and aunty making it back themselves almost at the same time.
We had a very nice and cosy dinner together during which my aunty asked me if I had bought anything for myself that day. I think I gave her a shock when I explained that the Oxford I had mentioned visiting in the morning was not Oxford street but the city of Oxford outside London. I doubt if she had been as comfortable letting me wander off on my own had she known in the morning that I had planned an out of city excursion .
Well I was back safe and sound so she could not say much. All is well that ends well.
I think I did tell her about the unfortunate cancellation of the underground train service but left the rest of the details out of it .