by Hamour Baika
The first time I accidentally came to look at the world’s most famous clock, it took away my breath. Not because I was awe struck. Rather, I found it hard to breathe as I tried to swallow my sobs. I was tired. And hungry. And cold. I’d come to London to go to school, with full scholarship and stipend. But it came long after the deadline to apply for school accommodation. I hardly made it in time to register for classes. Upon landing, I left my big suitcase in storage in Heathrow, took the Tube to Holborn, and went to the Student Services Centre. Within a couple of hours, I had my first stipend cheque in hand. I found out I could go to some cheap hotels with shared rooms, called hostels. All I had to do was to cash the cheque. It went downhill from there.
“How do I cash this?”
The woman at the Financial Support Office looked at me sideways. “Have you heard of a bank account?”
I guessed as a Middle Eastern guy, I looked to her like a savage creature, unfamiliar with modern institutions. I didn’t ask anything else.
As I rehash this memory, I pat my back pocket, touching the thickness of my wallet. It’s still there.
“What’s wrong?” He asks.
“Nothing. All good.”
“Is this reminding you of… your hard times?”
He grabs my hand and pulls me, walking away from the Westminster Palace.
“When we get to LSE, I wanna check if the bank is still there,” I suggest.
On my first day at the School, I noticed that NatWest sat next door to the Old Building. I entered and told the teller I wanted to open an account. In hindsight, I should have asked if I could cash the cheque. But I didn’t know better. The teller said my debit card would be mailed to my address in two weeks. Two weeks? My $120 had turned into a meagre £75. I’d already spent six quid on the Tube. You want me to live on 69 pounds for two whole weeks? I had to calm myself down. Be cool! Nobody likes a hysteric Middle Eastern drama queen. Don’t be a stereotype. I didn’t have an address. No pre-arranged accommodations. I begged some guy who I had noticed earlier at the Student Services Centre to let me use his address. He took pity on me. And boom! I got a bank account. To become active in two weeks!
And that’s how I ended up temporarily sans domicile fixe. When the library closed that day, someone told me the computer lab in the Old Building was open 24 hours. I searched on Craigslist, found the cheapest shared room possible, and took down the phone number.
“I’m calling about the room.”
“The bed? Yeah, it’s in my room.” The guy had a foreign accent. “The bed, well, it’s a couch really. We share the room, but it’s perfect because it’s not pricey at all. Water and electricity included. Phone is extra. There’s a chair and a desk. Five guys in the flat. All students.”
“Yeah. You saw the location, right? It’s pretty good. Access to everything. Banks, grocery shops, laundry. We just ask one thing: no gays. Nothing against gays, but you’d share a small flat with five guys. No one should have to feel uncomfortable.”
“Yeah, of course.” I could still pass, right? I didn’t think I was that obvious. “Sounds great. When can I come and see it? Tomorrow?”
“OK. Call before you come. Don’t forget you have to pay first and last month upfront.”
I hung up. My one-pound coin fell into the belly the phone. I had £68 left to last me two weeks. No need to look for a place. I couldn’t afford to pay for the first and last month upfront. I went back into the computer lab. An old guy wearing some sort of uniform walked up to me and asked for my student ID. He looked at it and walked away, not asking for anyone else’s.
After I wrote to my mom that I was staying at a hostel tonight until my stipend is processed in a couple of days, I took my bag and went for a walk.
Soon I found a grocery store. I found large bags of “crisps” for 73 pence. When I was ready to go back to school, I realized I didn’t know the way. I asked a policeman. He told me to make a right and go straight for several blocks. I turned right and after one block, I faced a fork. Which way is straight? The one on the left or the one the right? The key to whole city was called an A-Z book. £5. That was my food ration for a whole day.
I spent the night at the computer lab, pretending to be writing emails to folks back home. By 5 a.m. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. So I went for another walk. I found a street along the river. The same one we’re walking on right now. When I saw the lights in the Houses of the Parliament, the sky was still dark blue. I looked at the buildings and hoped I could just go back home.
By gods’ intervention, I found a McDonalds on my way to school. Surely it couldn’t be true that a Big Mac cost only £2! That was the first good news I got in London.
At the Old Building, I found a “loo” with only one toilet and sink. One could lock the door to the whole thing. So I locked myself in, washed my socks and lay down on the ground. Not sure how long I slept, but my socks were almost dry by the time I had to wear them and go back outside.
I discovered that there were showers in the basement. The hot water treated me well. I spent a long time under the hot water. Some days, I would soap my body twice. Three times. Just as long as I could stay under the hot shower. Until one evening, someone else at the showers noticed how long I stayed there.
“I’m sure you’re pretty clean by now.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be creepy.”
He came out of his shower. The drops of water looked like pearls on his olive skin, dripping off of his long hair as he ran his fingers through them. He looked like a Bollywood superstar. And he was talking to me.
“Siddharth!” He extended his hand.
I told him my name and shook his hand, afraid my body was going to display my instinctive attraction.
“You’re already clean! Me, I like it dirty,” he winked and walked away.
I had to turn on the cold water before I could leave the shower. I guess it took me too long because he was nowhere to be found when I went into the hallway.
Maybe he’ll show up the same time tomorrow. I showered there at the same time, the next day, and then the next day. On the third day, I lost hope.
For two weeks, I napped in the library and the computer labs. Sometimes, I would walk all night.
We reach the Somerset House. The fountains spray particles of water onto our faces.
“I was so stupid then,” I confess. “If I looked nice and I flirted a bit, I could go home with people. I could have slept on their beds, eating their food for breakfast. If they were nice, I could even ask them if they could pay for my Tube ride.”
“I must admit I am happy that my husband wasn’t a former sex worker though.” He squeezes my hand.
“Not really a sex worker. I was even a virgin at the time. I could’ve at least dragged it out with you so that I could sleep in your bed a few nights before I let you… So stupid!”
“You were stupid! Not that you should’ve been sleeping around with anybody willing to take you home. But you should have told me. I would’ve invited you over.”
“I didn’t wanna look like a needy loser.”
“Needy winner,” he corrects me. “You won my heart!”
“Charmer!” I push him towards one of the fountains. It wets his jeans and one side of his shirt.
“What the hell!”
“Thought you like it dirty!”
He pulls me toward himself and kisses forcefully my lips. I’m now also partially wet.
I gaze into his shiny brown eyes. “I love you, Sidd.” My hidden treasure.
Hamour Baika is a Middle Eastern author in the making. He wrote his first novella around the age of 12, an ET fan fiction. A series of migrations has led him to the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, where he’s grown roots. You can find his work here.