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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

What Didn’t Happen That Day in London

In the mid-1980s I was given the assignment of taking a small group of students from my university on a summer term study abroad. The first few days of the trip were something of a fiasco as I dealt with the university travel office not having exchanged our money until the exchange rates soared; the coordination of schedules for my students who were not all traveling together so that I had to arrange how and when they were to meet me in London; and finally the one very absent-minded student who kept misplacing important things, beginning with leaving her jacket and umbrella on one of the airplanes.

We were staying on the corner of Queensway in Bayswater, and I warned the students about not leaving their windows open, not leaving anything in their rooms when they came down to breakfast, and generally being very careful about their passports and money everywhere we went in London.

So what did absent-minded Reba do? She left her passport, money, traveler’s checks, and everything important except her university card on her bed when she came down to breakfast, and of course it was all gone when she went back up to her room. She couldn’t understand it. I was exasperated with her.

We were scheduled to leave immediately after breakfast to begin our study abroad program of seeing literary sites around London. Fortunately my great friend Sari, who had been with me as a fellow student on a study abroad in London a few years before, had decided for fun to take my class as a graduate student, so I turned over the program and the rest of the students to her and took Reba with me to make the rounds of Officialdom to reinstate her identity and funds.

We went to the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, and there we were made to feel like fools for not having first contacted the police, or at least the hotel manager. (You may remember that my paint story had left me leery of dealing with Bayswater hotel managers.) Since we were already at the Embassy, we filled out all the necessary forms and applications, and I swore to Reba’s identity and she swore to the validity of her information.

We trekked back to the hotel and asked if the passport had been turned in at the desk. It hadn’t, and the management was somewhat predictably livid with anger at us for having gone to the Embassy before having told them. We apologized and felt more than ever like some sort of criminals rather than victims. We asked them to call the police for us, which the manager did, glaring at us all the while. He handed the phone to me, and the voice on the phone told me to come to this address at 2 p.m. sharp. I wrote everything down.

There were two hours to go, so we decided to get the traveler’s checks replaced at an American Express office. We went to the Midland Bank because we couldn’t find the American Express office I thought I knew of. The Midland Bank directed us to one that directed us to another that was straight across the street from the Embassy—we had not noticed it in coming out of the Embassy earlier. But that one directed us to another office, and then we were sent to the one in Haymarket Street, Picadilly. We were told that everyone knew that the only place to replace American Express traveler’s checks was the main office in Picadilly. We were not “everyone” until then.

While Reba faced the red tape there, I sat down in an alcove and began to compose a sonnet on a postcard to my friend Karen P. back home. I could hear Reba talking with a man in the queue, exchanging stories about how they had lost their traveler’s checks. Meanwhile, his friend came over to the alcove where I was and sat down to wait. I kept writing.

The other man came over and sat with his friend, and one of them began to question the other about a blind date he had been set up with: did she like classical music? Did she read much? Did she know art? Could she talk—did she have conversational skill? My pen stopped. I had never heard such young men talk like this about an unknown woman without mentioning appearance first, last, and everything in between. I wondered if they were rehearsing a play or something of the kind.

Then Reba had finished her business and came to find me. She greeted the young men and they began talking with her again. She introduced me. The one young man was from India, and obviously very rich. His tailor was the right tailor. The other was just about as good looking, but not quite as obviously rich. He said he was here with the American Bar Association convention. We all talked about travel and restaurants. They recommended a restaurant they knew in our home town, one that we had only just heard of and had not been to yet. Small world!

We told them the rest of our story and we heard theirs. For whatever seemingly rash reason, we both felt comfortable accepting a ride from them when they offered to drive us to the address of the police station. The car was chauffeur driven. And it turned out it wasn’t a police station at all when we got there. For an alarming minute I thought the young men, Natarajan and Roger, had duped us, but the address definitely matched the one I had been given on the telephone. It was in an alley where a lot of men with spiked hair and chains wrapped around their bodies were hanging out, smoking and looking at this car with not-nice looks.

We all looked at each other. Natarajan and Roger were swiftly changing to leather jackets as they told us stay with the chauffeur and lock all the doors while they went warily inside. Never had I actually seen two guys go from innocuous-if-rich looking to dangerous in a few seconds, certainly not outside the movies. It was unreal to say the least. Reba and I waited a few terrifying minutes, but the guys emerged quickly and we sped out of there without incident.

They were half laughing, half unnerved. They wouldn’t tell us what was inside. They just said, “Who gave you that address?”

We explained again that the manager of our hotel had handed me the telephone and it was supposed to be the police on the other end of the line. As we drove around London we discussed the problem from every angle of conjecture. Finally, they dropped us off at Kensington Gardens so we could walk back innocently and tell the manager, Mr. Sharom, that we had missed the police appointment somehow. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a telephone kiosk and called the police ourselves, making an appointment for the next morning. As we neared our hotel, we were still screened by the bushes of the park when we saw Mr. Sharom outside the hotel passing a packet to a man with a bread delivery truck. It looked very odd.

We jumped to the obvious conclusion: we were about to help undercover agents nail a passport ring!

The truck roared away and we crossed the street to the hotel. Our story of the missed appointment annoyed Mr. Sharom, but not too much, we thought. He seemed busy, so we didn’t tell him about our new appointment, and he didn’t offer to make another appointment for us. We went upstairs and found our group.

They wouldn’t believe our story.

The next day we kept our appointment at the police station, where we were again made to feel like fools or minor criminals for not reporting to them before anything else. We picked up Reba’s new documents at the Embassy and were able to join our group for a Dickensian pub crawl and Lincoln’s Inn tour. In the course of the tour we encountered seemingly hundreds of members of the American Bar Association, and among them, our friends Roger and Natarajan!

They greeted us warmly—“Hello! Hello! Did everything turn out all right? Enjoy your holiday! Don’t worry about anything anymore!” to the amazement of our group, who frankly had believed in neither them nor the details.

We were partially vindicated.

Truly, only a little of the middle section is not what actually happened!
See another incident after the official part of the trip was over: a Scottish adventure.

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