Clapham South, London, Revisited

REMEMBERING WESTBURY COURT

On September 27, 2013, three days after we touched down in London, Samad and I headed for Clapham South. From our hotel, the Berjaya Eden Park at Inverness Terrace, Bayswater, we took the Central Line underground at Queensway and changed at Tottenham Court Road for the Northern Line.

When the train pulled in at Clapham South, we exited the station and gazed upwards at the building that sat above it – Westbury Court, a large, five-storey apartment block with its familiar reddish-brown stripes. And my eyes welled up in tears. The memories came flooding back. I felt myself being pulled between past and present.

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I could clearly see apartment number 26, on the first floor, our home for four years in the late sixties. It was not spacious but met all our needs. The bedroom, next to the living-cum-dining room, had a TV parked at the foot of the bed. I slipped money into the kitchen coin box to operate the gas stove. On arctic winter nights it was a joy to soak in the long bath. We put our large balcony to good use only during the summer months.

Samad would huddle up close to the living room heater on cold winter nights, a blanket thrown over his legs, to pore over his books, the diligent Lincoln’s Inn Law student. He studied part-time while working at the BBC Far Eastern Services at Bush House on the Strand. India House, next to Bush House, had a great Indian restaurant, I remember!

I would be in the bedroom, reading, or, more likely, with my eyes glued to the TV. It was as if I couldn’t have enough of the remarkably entertaining BBC drama productions. I recall the series called “The Wednesday Play”. I remember thoroughly enjoying “Talking to a Stranger”, four plays in which four members of a family recounted the events of one weekend. The young Judi Dench excelled in the role of the daughter.

MALAYSIAN STUDENTS DEPARTMENT

Each morning I’d make my way to Marble Arch station and walk to the Malaysian Students Department (MSD) at 44 Bryanston Square. My job was to seek places at Colleges and Universities in the UK for the growing number of Malaysian students who wanted to study there. I was always filled with a deep sense of satisfaction when I managed to place them at the best universities.

My colleagues were Mustapha Ma, who kindly showed me the ropes, Wan Baharuddin, an elderly gentleman of imposing appearance and impeccable manners, who’d long made London his home, and young Ibrahim MZA Ariffin, who charmed his way to Angela’s heart. Angela worked in MSD’s Administration Department. They were married when Ibrahim relocated to Malaysia.

When I started working there, the Director was Samad Yim. Dato’ Wan Mansor replaced him after a couple of years. They were both very approachable and supportive of our efforts.

SATAY PARTY

I remember that Lina, Rahman and their kids, Mona and Raphil, occupied apartment 16, round the corner from us. Kaniz, Yunus and baby Ameen lived one floor above us. On other floors were our friends Elaine and Mow Lum, Farhad and Shahwar, and Gulshad and her husband, whose name escapes me.

How could I forget the satay party we had for Rahman and Yunus and their families, our place being too small to accommodate everyone we knew at Westbury Court.

Now satay required pressed rice cubes, easily come by today. But I had to improvise. I filled two clear, sealable plastic bags with very soft rice and kneaded the rice to smoothen it before laying the bags on a flat board and placing another board on it. I then plonked my heavy rice bin on top. After several hours I could produce very good looking rice cubes!

Samad hurried back from work and, before he could shed off his jacket and tie, helped me grind peanuts for the all-important satay sauce. No satay meal could be enjoyed without a good peanut sauce so I gave my all to producing the best sauce I could. My skewered and grilled beef and chicken turned out looking quite delectable, I thought. I sliced some cucumbers and onions and we were ready for our guests! I’d like to think our first satay party was a success. Everyone did justice to the food.

FLEET STREET

I vividly recall travelling all the way to distant Fleet Street late one night because Samad wanted to buy the first issue of the London Times as it rolled off the presses at about 4 o’clock in the morning. It would carry the final Bar-at-Law exam results, the results that would determine his future, Samad felt, rightly or not.

We got there well before 4am so decided to catch Stanley Kubrick’s newly released “2001: A Space Odyssey” at a nearby cinema at midnight. I was intrigued by the encounters between the humans and the black monoliths and asked Samad what he thought about them. And about HAL 9000, the computer that controlled the spaceship’s journey to Jupiter. While his future hung in the balance, mysterious black monoliths and journeys to Jupiter understandably held no interest for him.

We rushed to the Times printing office to find a slew of people already scrambling for the paper. Samad grabbed a copy, scanned it carefully, and gave me a huge smile, his face beaming with happiness. He’d made it! He was now a Barrister-at-Law. It had taken him close to four years.

All around us people whooped and cheered and hugged each other joyfully. The nearby pubs were soon filled with people celebrating their success in the exams. Apparently, the unlucky ones who didn’t make it also gravitated to the pubs, to drown their sorrows.

We were saddened to read in the Times, a day later, about the failed student who had leapt into the Thames to end it all.

MR AND MRS MUNDY

Amir was born at the South London Hospital for Women, located across the road from Westbury Court, two years after I arrived in London. Suddenly our lives changed. We were the proud parents of a very dear and precious little baby. (See Blog titled, “Baby Amir’s Diary” for more on Amir’s first two years).

When he was two months old I had to resume my work at MSD. Fortunately I found Mrs Mundy, a trained nurse, who was willing to look after him. She lived at Gaskarth Road, a short distance from us. She also looked after two-year-old David and Baby Anusha.

Every morning before going to work, I’d push Amir in his pram and leave him with Mrs Mundy. She loved the outdoors and never tired of taking Amir along with David and baby Anusha, to Clapham Common or to a playground near Poynders Road which had a little pond. Sometimes her ten-year-old son Adrian would go with them. Amir thrived during the years he was in Mrs Mundy’s care.

Just before Amir turned two, we left for home. But more than 40 years later, we had journeyed all the way back to Clapham South.

As we looked around us we saw that Westbury Court had weathered the years well, its reddish brown stripes still in place. But almost everything else had changed. Modern apartment blocks lined the main road. New shops and fancy restaurants had sprung up, among them a large Marks and Spencer Simply Food, Sainsbury, even an Internet cafe. We had delicious lamb briani for lunch at the Chatkara, an Indian restaurant that wasn’t there before.

The South London Hospital for Women was no more. In its place, a handsome new apartment block. But Clapham Common, opposite Westbury Court, where we had spent many happy times with baby Amir, was still there, as large, fresh and green as ever.

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We just had to see dear Mrs Mundy again. Would she remember us after all these years? When we rang the bell at 25 Gaskarth Road, a lady who certainly didn’t resemble Mrs Mundy, opened the door. It was Pushpa, their neighbour. They’d gone to the hospital but would be back momentarily, she assured us. We left the small gifts we’d brought, some wine, boxes of chocolates, biscuits and sandwiches, with Pusha, and left for lunch.

On our way back to Gaskarth Road we ran into the Mundys who were making their way home. They had just gotten off the bus.

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We were amazed! Although Mr Mundy had turned 85 and his wife 83, they looked just as we remembered them all those years ago. Mrs Mundy, wearing a pretty red dress and a pink cardigan, smiled radiantly and greeted us ever so warmly. Soft spoken Mr Mundy was a little shy as usual. A lot of hugging followed and then we walked back to their home together.

We installed ourselves comfortably in the living room and chatted about old times. Mrs Mundy’s hearing was slightly impaired and her memory was less than sharp. But she was as forceful, lively, chatty and warm as ever.

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Mr Mundy brought out a bunch of photographs of Mrs Mundy with the children she’d looked after for many years, to show us. Tucked among them was one he asked us to keep. It showed baby Amir sitting in his pram, nibbling on a slice of bread, probably, his hair blown by the wind, surrounded by Adrian and two other kids, one of whom could be David, with Mrs Mundy in charge, at Clapham Common.

It is a picture I will treasure along with my dearest memories of Westbury Court.

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