After the tunnel of darkness, there was finally light as the train pulled into the station. A sudden jolt thrust the passengers forward and inertia pulled them back once the carriage came to a complete stop. I was convinced we were lost. I had explained to him on the way how we were headed in the wrong direction. Now that the train had stopped I was not so sure. There were too many different color tracks meeting at this very stop. I was confused. So I said we needed to disembark and reset the course. He nodded. I took the gesture as assent. The doors slid open. A rush of bodies spilled out of the carriage and with it so did I. Terra Firma. I expected to find him right behind me. I looked over my shoulder, to the left and then to my right. I turned around and was aghast to find that he had remained behind on the train. I gesticulated to him to get out. People started boarding the carriage thus blocking my view of him. I shouted for him to leave while he could. He would not budge. In those few seconds as fate dangled from a shoestring, I beseeched God to compel this stubborn man to leave the train and join me on the platform. To my horror the carriage doors began to slide shut leaving me speechless. The voice of the conductor came on momentarily notifying the passengers of the departure of the train. Everything became a blur. I was in a stupor – catching a mere glimpse of him through the partition which now permanently and definitively separated us. The train jolted, pulled the passengers back a smidge before trundling forth, taking with it the only familiar face I knew in London. In the instant before disappearance, through the window of the carriage, I caught him waving at me.
As the last of the carriage snaked into the dark tube, the sudden backlash of displaced air delivered to my face a sharp slap – stinging my cheeks aflush . I hugged myself tight as if this act alone would prevent me from being sucked into the tunnel by the force of the wind – for I was a child of 12 – small and scrawny – a mere sapling.
Alone – on the platform at King’s Cross. The immediate reaction was total paralysis of flesh and sense. As part of my mind was taking stock for the best course of action to assure survival, the other part dove into fantasy for a brief retreat – conjuring up the image of a train that would magically return. “Turn back time” – my mind screamed, “Rewind the film, reverse it all, let the train reappear onto the platform, the doors slide open, the passengers move backwards out of the carriage, allow me to embark and this time remain by his side.” Logic denied me the dream. He was gone. Gone. The eerily silent platform with its stench of urine and smoke confirmed it.
Disbelief gave way to panic which paved the way for terror – all within a matter of seconds. Petrified, I fixed my eyes on the rail track, secretly cursing it for letting my guardian get away. From the crevices below, an ugly rat stared back at me with beady eyes – its nose and whiskers twitching madly – mocking me in my misery before it scurried into the black tunnel – leaving me in shivers.
I was glued to the spot as I watched people arrive at the platform for the next train. For a moment there I was convinced he was going to find some way to come back. Stay put I told myself. He will be back. Two trains came and went. He was not on either one. With the arrival of the third train and its subsequent departure, the truth finally sank in. He had abandoned me.
Naked fright prompted action. The mind set an orchestra into motion. The first rush of adrenalin sped up my heartbeat, thus sending a shot of blood to my head. My pupils dilated, my hearing passages became clearer as my nostrils flared up. The second rush – a moment later, gushed blood into my limbs and torso, thus triggering the glands which brought on perspiration despite the cold. Which instinct – Fight or flight? Flight it would be. I took my place among the passengers and made my way towards the yellow “Way Out” sign. I climbed the stairs heavy-heartedly with not so much as a clue as to what I was going to do once I reached ground level.
The central area was total mayhem. Hundreds if not thousands were coming and going from a myriad of tunnels, entries and exits – with their canes, umbrellas, briefcases, newspapers, shopping bags, books -all sporting gaunt and somber faces . Nobody looked at anyone – all simply intent to avoid each other. I thought to ask somebody for help but whom? A woman perhaps – a mother with a baby. I approached a couple of likely candidates. One look at me and they scurried past just like the rat had. I appealed to an elderly man sporting a chapeau similar to the one my Grandpa had, figuring his head gear to be a sign of respectability and kindness. He waved me away. No option was left except to walk onto the street. The grey skies greeted me with a torrential downpour. The heavens seemed to be lamenting my demise. It was then that I remembered our early exchange of the day. He had insisted on giving me a £5 note alongside with the hotel card. I had objected. Until the week prior when I had left Tehran, I had never carried any more than a few coins. I reached in my pocket for the crumpled note and took a good look at it. The Queen’s stern face glared at me. “I am your savior” the picture said. The Royal herself had come to my rescue.
I approached one of the black cabs. He put his window down. “Where will it be luv?” In my best English I replied “Please take me to Cromwell Road.” I handed him the hotel card. “You have any money, darlin’?” I showed him my creased, and by now, partially wet £5 note. He gave a wide grin: “Right, ‘op in then lass”. As I settled in the back seat, my heart paused for a rest – I sneezed with relief. I marveled at the rain – coming down in sheets – soaking everything in its path; the old red brick buildings with their slanted rooves, the tired statues atop equally tired grey pillars, houses the size of postage stamps. Letter boxes, phone booths and buses all awash in tomato red – a sea of umbrellas, raincoats, galoshes and scowls. As the cab driver took me through the narrow winding streets, I experienced, for the first time, at the pit of my stomach, a gaping hole. This I later learnt to have the name – homesickness – a malady I became only too familiar with over the course of my years away from my Iran.
I was awakened from my reverie by the driver’s voice heralding our arrival at the hotel. True to his word he had delivered me safely. I recognized the whitewashed pillars in front of the building – Apollo Hotel. The fare was £1.50. He extended the change to me but I did not bother taking it back. He could not believe his luck “Coor’ Blimey – ta’ luv” – frothy spit spraying out from in-between crooked teeth. I neither understood nor cared what he had to say.
I collected the key from the hotel reception and headed upstairs. En route, the musty smell of old wood mixed in with the rising damp and a faint aroma of overcooked cabbage made my stomach churn. I sped into the room, heading directly for the bathroom where I doubled over and retched. Once my inside was emptied, I threw cold water on my face before making my way to the bed whereupon I collapsed in a heap of uncontrollable shivers and sobs.
He arrived a while later with a big smile and food to eat. That very moment I tasted hate for the very first time. I nearly attacked him. I did not have the voice nor the energy to call him on this most callous and cruel act. “How did you get back?” he asked softly. I shot back, hurt “How do you think? I got a cab”. “How much did you pay?” He demanded gently but firmly. Is this all you care about? How much I paid? I don’t know – I gave the driver the note you gave me.” “But you could have stayed on the train as it circled around and saved yourself the money”. More sobs – angry ugly sobs. I wanted to smash his face. “You left me on the platform – why?” “Listen young lady. Lesson number 1: If you insist on your own word, then you had better be prepared to face the consequences. Plus, I wanted to see if you could make it back by yourself. I see that you did. Good. Next time think before throwing money away. Lesson number 2: Don’t EVER rely on anyone to bail you out. Come on now, stop this nonsense. Go wash your face – let’s eat. “
35 Years on
She came to me late in life – a gift I didn’t truly deserve but was bestowed nevertheless. I cherished her. Every month of her first year saw us traipsing to the photographer for an official picture. And every year since her fifth saw us visit a new place. For her 9th birthday, I had booked a table at “Altitude 95”. We were on our way up on one of the fast moving elevators. I was telling her a little of the history of the tower and its architecture. She was all ears and awe. We both stepped out of the elevator together, the crowd enveloping us. I looked heavenwards, momentarily, taking in the Paris sky; silently thanking my stars for granting me my wish. When I looked down she was gone. I figured she was playing hide-and-go-seek, tricking me. She couldn’t be far I consoled myself. She must just have stepped aside to let the crowd through. Maybe she was behind that man, or perhaps that other woman. A few minutes passed and she did not materialize. I sensed a gradual panic rising to my throat as sweat started to lace my skin. Déjà vu. If only I would stand still, but I could not in body or in mind. Within the next minute or so, I played countless scenarios in my head and none were good. I saw her picture flash across milk cartons – did they even have those in France? A red alert highway sign? Maybe it was a kidnapping – by one of those street peddlers – the one who sold her the trinkets – Ebony skin, perfect yellow teeth and Creole accent. That’s it. He must have followed us up, snatched her and stuffed her in a sack. He was probably on his way somewhere to sell her – her wavy locks were going to be cut and sold as was she to some two-bit pimp on the Left Bank. The same beautiful Paris sky of a minute ago turned into a patch of hades as my mind raced from one dramatic scenario to the next. Before I knew it I had her turning tricks in Pigalle to feed herself, sleeping under a bridge somewhere, panhandling and shooting up by day – streetwalking by night. I‘d have to call her Dad soon enough, I thought. And how would that conversation go? “Hello – I just called to let you know I lost our daughter”. I could hear his bitter rebuke before the cardiac arrest knocked him down, turning us both, in the finality of her loss, into the walking dead. A lifetime of chastisement and self-flagellation lay before me.
My eyes darted here and there until I spotted a uniformed guard. “Mademoiselle – Pardonez-moi – Mon enfant – Elle est perdue. Noticing my rusty French she responded in broken English – “What she look like Madam?” I pointed to my shoulder, “Hauteur comme ça”, dropping the hand to my waist “Des cheveux bruns bouclés, ici à.” I desperately searched for the right words to describe her eyes “Les yeux – la couleur du miel. Elle a 9 ans. Elle parle Anglais et un petit peu Persan”. “Comment s’appelle t’elle Madame”? “Roya – Elle s’appelle Roya.”
I had gone berserk, running around the place searching. She was nowhere to be found. I returned to the security guard who was busy paging her team. “Code Rouge” – she was blurting into her walkie-talkie. This was more like Code NOIR. “Stop the world. Find her.” I collapsed in a heap of remorse on the 95th floor of the grandest structure in France – The Eiffel Tower – a hysterical mother wailing senselessly– J’ai perdue ma fille – J’ai perdue ma fille – Je suis perdue. Je suis perdue . Oh, the scene of that dreaded platform at King’s Cross – which I had obliterated from my mind all these years, attacked me anew with vengeance. The tears I had not shed then now drenched me – the panic, the terror, utter desolation. Hopelessness pounded my whole being with a thud – I started hitting myself over the head. “Kojast? Kojast? – Bache az dast raft”. A tourist approached to calm me down. I would have none of it. I was beyond despair. An ungrateful belligerent child I had been – a useless careless mother I had become – head up in the sky – all the time – daydreaming – leaving or being left – my entire life summed up in one – big – abandon – after – another.
I lifted my head to the gentle voice of a Spanish lady with charcoal black eyes and a sweet smile, offering me a glass of water – “Senora- tu nina esta alli jugando con la mia. Esta bien y segura. Por favor, toma algo de agua.” I caught a glimpse of her sitting cross legged behind a table away from the maddening crowd, playing patty cakes with the Spanish lady’s little girl. I lifted myself, took a giant leap towards her, shaking still like a leaf as in the aftermath of a tragic event. She looked to me and smiled. “Mommy”. She jumped up and ran into my arms. I held her close.
Once calm returned, she sheepishly admitted to having lost the money and the hotel card I had given her that morning.
Baker Street, Great Portland Street, Euston Square and finally King’s Cross. I hold her hand tightly and when the doors slide open, we step out of the carriage together. On the platform we stand back making way for the incoming and exiting crowd. The doors slide shut. The voice of the conductor comes on momentarily notifying the passengers of the departure of the train. I am calm and collected. I circle my arms around my 12 year old holding her tightly against my chest as the train makes its way out of the station. The gentle breeze caresses us both as we bid the last carriage farewell. Silently, wistfully I watch the rear lights fade into the dark tunnel taking with them the ill will of four decades. I forgive my father.