The Flight from the Fire

I could say that I was in London, but—new to Europe, just arrived from my African river town—I didn’t really know where I was. I had no means of grasping the city. I knew only that I was in the Gloucester Road. My hotel was there, my friend Nazruddin’s flat was there. I traveled everywhere by underground train, popping down into the earth at one place, popping up at another, not able to relate one place to the other, and sometimes making complicated interchanges to travel short distances.

The only street I knew well was the Gloucester Road. If I walked in one direction I came to more buildings and avenues and got lost. If I walked in the other direction I went past a lot of tourist eating places, a couple of Arab restaurants, and came to the park. There was a wide, sloping avenue in the park with boys skate-boarding. At the top of the slope there was a big pond with a paved rim. It looked artificial, but it was full of real birds, swans and different kinds of ducks; and that always struck me as strange, that the birds didn’t mind being there. Artificial birds, like the lovely celluloid things of my childhood, wouldn’t have been out of place. Far away, all around, beyond the trees, were the buildings. There you really did have an idea of the city as something made by man, and not as something that had just grown by itself and was simply there. It was so easy for people like us to think of great cities as natural growths. It reconciled us to our own shanty cities. We slipped into thinking that one place was one thing, and another place another thing.

In the park on fine afternoons people flew kites, and sometimes Arabs from the embassies played football below the trees. There were always a lot of Arabs about, fair-skinned people, real Arabs, not the half-African Arabs of our East African coast; one of the newsstands outside the Gloucester Road station was full of Arabic papers and magazines. Not all of the Arabs were rich or clean. Sometimes I saw little groups of poor Arabs in dingy clothes squatting on the grass in the park or on the pavements of the streets nearby. I thought they were servants, and that seemed to me shameful enough. But then one day I saw an Arab lady with her slave.

I spotted the fellow at once. He had his little white cap on and his plain white gown, proclaiming his status to everybody, and he was carrying two shopping bags of groceries from the Waitrose supermarket on the Gloucester Road. He was walking the regulation ten paces ahead of his mistress, who was fat in the way Arab women like to be, with blue markings on her pale face below her gauzy black veil. She was pleased with herself; you could see that being in London and …

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