I’m being jostled along with the rush hour crowd towards the ticket ends. The jabs are sharp, the cries of excuse me, loud and impatient. I feel unwanted.
Was I longing for home?
‘I am home,’ I remind myself but the voice persists. Why do you go looking for the smells and tastes you left behind?
I step out into the cool night air and join the sea of commuters walking down King’s Road. The air here is different, almost scented. But still bleak. Prejudice, albeit of a different kind, still hangs in the air. I look around me and then at me in the glass of the million pound storefronts, I pass.
I stop walking and look up. The sky is the same as back home but something feels different.
London is not my city and never will be.
Alone in the crowd, I watch faces, perfectly still and expressionless, hands carrying Blackberries and Burberry, restless fingers typing away.
Because London is not even a city.
As the people drift past me I think, like a patchwork quilt, it is a series of countries within a city, bursting at the seams and held together by the sheer will of its people. Almost as if Tooting was a country with its invisible boundaries that contain the immigrant breeds, Chelsea is another such realm. It is a tight circle with limited access to those who could afford it. To live here, you have to be born into it or work very hard to get in. And even then, you can only look and not touch. You will always be the outsider.
By you, I mean me.
Later, as I board the No.22 bus, a man in blue glances suspiciously at the packet in my hand and then at the cardboard box which takes up half the space on my seat. Ignoring the distrust in his light eyes, I focus instead on my book. He sniffs the air and pinches his nose.
I smell foreign and unfamiliar, even to myself.
Hunching my shoulders, I slouch deeper into my seat. The little booklet in my breast pocket is tight on my heart but even its smooth caress can not soothe the unease.
A boy boards the bus and sits down next to me in the tight space. He is dark enough to be Black but light enough to be something else. He wears a white T-Shirt with a black logo, Alien Nation.
‘Alienation,’ I read quickly.
Suddenly, I feel as if everything is illuminated. I find myself laughing. ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ I say to the boy who moves away to another seat.
I close my eyes and think that this is where I’ll be when I open them again. At this very same spot from which there was no going back and no way further, either. I no longer belonged in a world wrecked by fury of those who felt persecuted, nor did I fit in this new world, which had opened its doors to me but was indifferent to my existence.
What had I become?
‘I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!’
The bus moves slowly in the descending darkness, steady and serene, like the eye of a storm in the middle of great chaos. The lights dim at the High Street and I look out at the fishmonger who’s just closing shop. I wonder how far the fish have traveled to be sold here. The fish stare back, their eyes cold, their mouth frozen in a surprised O.
The bus halts at World’s End estate and people at the back of the bus get off. There is a smattering of Oyes and Inits and boys with hoods and girls with tightly pulled back hair and silver loops for earrings board the bus. A hooded figure with sallow skin and hollow eyes runs past me and up the stairs.
The Driver hollers, ‘You boy!’
Nobody moves. He shouts again in a heavy Nigerian accent, ‘Da Bus not moving till I see yor teecket’.
We wait patiently till the boy comes down and mouthing a Fuck Off Paki at the driver, jumps off. A young Bangladeshi mother huddles close to her three children. A Chinese man closes his eyes. He reminds me of a cat.
The bus moves.
I look at the people around me. They remind me of tiny pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together but never form a picture. A whole of things, yet incomplete. People paused in a frame, as if waiting for someone to unclick them.
Hybrids or freaks?
The bus driver brakes roughly and a dog barks at me through the frosty glass pane.
‘We come and go,’ I whisper to myself and to the dog outside. Somewhere in the dark a Busker is strumming a guitar and a woman is singing.
‘I’m like a bird…’‘I don’t know where my home is…’
‘Where my home is…’ I hum along.
I look out and notice the sky is lit up with stars though it is not yet night. Amidst the twinkling of stars, a wane sun peers out from layers of thick white clouds.
Only in London, can the sun and moon shine together.
I close my eyes and listen.
Only in London.
So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.
Sabyn Javeri is an award-winning short story writer and upcoming novelist. She has won The Oxonian Review short story award and was shortlisted for Meridian, Leaf books and the first Tibor Jones South Asia Prize. Sabyn holds a Masters with Distinction from the University of Oxford in Creative Writing and is currently a PhD Scholar at the University of Leicester. Her debut novel, ‘Nobody Killed Her’, which is set in Pakistan, is expected to be published next year.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story was first published in The London Magazine (2006).