For a split second I was startled beyond belief. For a longer while, maybe about a minute, I must have stood still with my mouth agape with disbelief at what I was seeing/watching, but deep inside recognizing that it was no illusion. But in London! In its very heart!! Right next to its artery – Tottenham Court Road!!! And that, too, at around 10:30 in the morning. With the city's citizenry of all colours and ethnicity, citizens and temporary residents like yours truly, alike, going about their businesses like it was nobody's business. And it was nobody's business really. Except that it was a spectacle right in the heart of London with teeming public milling around or bustling about the small patch of land that, among other things, was a platform leading to the Goodge Street subway station. And, plumb on the slightly decrepit square space leading to the station entrance stood a woman, and she had the immediate surroundings all to herself, a master of all that she surveyed, with none to dispute her right!
The people were all avoiding the space around her, a circumference of one square meter or so, either giving her a look of disgust or disdain, or throwing just a frosty stare in her direction, and then quickly moving on with nose in the air. Most were distinctly not amused. So very very the proverbial British, stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on! Not that they were all white; there was a smattering of people of colour and ethnicity. Including me, of course! A very few did snicker, or broke out into a shadow of a smile, but I stopped dead in my tracks.
I was going to go to my destination via one of the subway trains that made a brief stopover at Goodge Street station. I was walking up from my place a short distance away and had reached the back of the commercial building that stood above the underground station. This place was a bit dank with little sunlight to keep it warm, bright, and cheerful, and people quickly crossed it to get to the sidewalk of the venerable and famed Tottenham Court Road or to get around to the front of the building to get down to the subway station. Really, not at all a remarkable little space. Ah, but that day it was! And I was staring
at the rather large black woman who was standing still. The day was distinctly dry on a high summer day. But the area around the woman looked like it had just been visited by a short sharp shower. She was of medium height, with substantial girth, and curly black locks of hair that stopped at the nape of her neck. And, yes, she had on what appeared to be a cotton dress with floral print, and was either carrying a handbag, or had it slung from one of her shoulders. The patch of ground was plastered over with concrete, rather dilapidated with the endless number of footwear trudging over it, the water found its way through the cracks in the area and down it, which the pedestrians tried their best to avoid.
I was so transfixed by the spectacle that I only moved once the woman (whose face I only fleetingly glimpsed in profile as she moved), having dropped her watery load, herself nonchalantly moved on, and disappeared around the right corner of the building. It was all so rummy. I wondered how people in other societies would have reacted if they had been confronted with a similar situation. Anyway, my trance was broken, and I quickly went around the left side of the building to get to the subway.
That was Goodge Street station from the rear of the building. Then there was this curious encounter in front of it. I had successfully completed the Summer session at RADA, had returned to Bangladesh for a short duration in order to change my visa status, and returned to London at the onset of autumn to try my luck at getting acting work, and being with Heather Ryon, an American actress who trained in another section of the Summer programme. That is another story for later telling. I was lucky to get a room at the John Astor building where I was lodged as a RADA student. Strictly, I was not supposed to be housed there once my RADA stint was over, but it was a bit of naughtiness I could live with. Oh well, as the next regular session began, I was politely asked to find another lodging. I did, but only after the second Goodge Street encounter was history.
Since leaving RADA, I had been there only once, having been concentrating on landing myself an agent in London to facilitate my getting into the world of professional acting in Great Britain. It just so happened that I was returning to my lodging from that one visit to RADA when I had that encounter. I crossed Tottenham Court Road and was standing in front of one of the establishments housed in the building next to the entrance to the Goodge Street underground. I had noticed it before, but RADA kept me so busy that I did not even have the urge to explore the unusual (for me, at least) name of the establishment: Scientology (I forget the prefix and/or suffix to it, though “Church of…” could well have been there).
I was wondering about this strange nomenclature, and tarried a bit in front of the establishment when out walked from within a very attractive woman who headed straight towards me with an angelic smile, and uttered the heavenly words, “Can I talk to you?” Hell, yes, and went inside a room with decidedly subdued lighting and, for a fleeting moment, I was not sure if I had done the right thing. She was petite, with long black hair falling to her waist, a slender waist asking to be held with tender loving care, flashing large dark eyes, and a sparkling smile enticing with parted cherry red full lips and dazzling white teeth.
“My name's Roya, and I am from Iran,” brought me back from my dream world. What was this Iranian vision of beauty doing with a phenomenon called Scientology? Well, she said that Scientology was a Christian church which catered to human welfare and was an establishment I could be interested in. And, proceeded to give me a fifteen or so minute speech on why I should join. I said I would have to think about it, but that young lady was smart. She got my drift, mentally checked the time spent on me, and handed me a few pamphlets, not forgetting to add that they were for me to read and make up my mind, but, whatever my decision, the Church would be grateful for a donation of 15 pounds for the literature that was for me to keep! To cut a long story short, I paid up the next day. And that ended my Scientology adventure although I passed by it each day, at least twice coming and going.
You would think that a postscript to the Scientology experience would not be a bad thing. And, sure, there was one! Another afternoon, I was approaching it down Tottenham Court Road, when I spied a familiar face. You guessed it! Roya, no less! Only, this time it was Roha (Roja, in Spanish)! She did not become aware of me until I was almost upon her, as she was engrossed in talking to a young Hispanic-looking man and introducing herself to him as “I am Roha (that was the pronunciation!)” Then she spied me, was visibly nonplussed, but only for a moment, and recovered to greet me with a distant, “Hi, how are you!” I got the hint, and gallantly wished her before hurrying off. I still managed to get a glimpse of the young man who clearly did not care to have me around. Best wishes, fellow, and au revoir!
Shahid Alam is a thespian, and Professor, Media and Communication department, IUB.