An Afternoon at the Abbey
Priya changed countries often as a child, moving from Zambia to Saudia Arabia to England. She was required to wear brown lace-ups at her English boarding school. They were on her feet when, at age 13, she was selected out of hundreds of students to recite the opening line of the Prayer of Peace at the Commonwealth Day celebrations at Westminster Abbey before the Queen. Now she feels grounded in Canada and realizes she is a child of the Commonwealth.
At the age of eleven, I left home and daily life with my parents for the first time. My mother, my brother, two years older, and I flew six thousand miles from Al-Jubail in Saudi Arabia, where we lived at the time, to our British boarding school in Croydon, 15km north of London.
Our school uniform was not as horrific as the peach and brown of the public school down the street. We had a handsome maroon blazer emblazoned with the school emblem, grey skirts and striped white and grey long-sleeved cotton shirts. In the winter, we were afforded maroon sweaters and tights. No room for self-expression. Save the shoes, of course, but even they had to be brown, laced and have heels of no more than one inch in height.
My poor mother ran all over London looking for a shoe store that sold E widths in brown lace-up shoes with low heels. Resourceful as she is, she found a suitable pair and these round-toed beauties, with little perforations like gills flanking each side of the laces, navigated the halls of Royal Russell School on Coombe Lane for the ensuing years of home-sickness, teasing and puberty.
I was decent at biology thanks to our likeable Polish teacher Mr. Szuman, but terrible at math. I disliked sports – except for tennis – and excelled at English. I took piano lessons but never practiced and, therefore, never progressed. Singing lessons in the school chapel frightened me because it was supposedly haunted. I was, however, dramatic. I was awarded a speech and drama scholarship after a reading I did at Christmas from the book of Luke 1, verses twenty-six to thirty-three. You know, where the angel Gabriel comes to give Mary her famous news.
It was for this alleged talent that I was selected out of hundreds of students to read a line from the prayer of peace at the 1989 Observance of Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey. I was thirteen years old, and I convinced myself that it was no big deal to get through it. I couldn’t mess up in front of the Queen of England and the world’s media. I walked around pretending not to be too excited so that other students wouldn’t pick on me. I was encouraged to spruce up my general presentation for the auspicious occasion, but I refused to get a new pair of shoes. I was adamant that the Queen had better things to do with her time than disapprove of my reassuring worn leather shoes.
I tramped off to London and the stony grey, mysterious Westminster Abbey in my brown lace-ups. The prayer, by someone named Satish Kumar, went like this: “Lead me from death to life, from falsehood to truth; Lead me from despair to hope, from fear to trust; Lead me from hate to love, from war to peace; Let peace fill our heart, our world, our universe.”
Four students split this prayer, delivering one line each. One was from Trinidad and Tobago, another from India, I from Zambia. The origins of the other slips my mind, though I remember we were all girls. I was the youngest and the shortest. This is why the organizers made me read the first line. For the cameras present, the heights going up in a gradient made far more aesthetic sense than a line of uneven heads. Luckily for her, the Trinidadian girl got to read the last line. I was jealous because it was much more dramatic than mine. Had my three-quarter of inch heels been higher, I might have had a shot at delivering the prayer’s anchoring line.
Anticipation began buzzing in my leather-clad toes and tingled up to my flushed cheeks. A hush settled over the Abbey.
When the Queen made her entrance, she walked right by me as I was at the end of the row by the aisle. She wore a red hat with a black and red candy-cane striped pattern on the rim and a red jacket. I remember her shoes. They were black, sturdy non-patent leather, compact and comfortable looking. Unadorned with buckles or decoration and slightly boxy, the shoes covered most of Her Majesty’s foot with conservative heels that made no sound when she walked.
I would end up being on BBC world radio. My parents heard and recorded me in real-time, far away in Al-Jubail. Now I realize that in many ways, I am a child of the Commonwealth. Born and raised in the former British colony of Zambia, schooled in England and living in Canada.
“Let peace fill our hearts, our world…our universe.”
PRIYA DEVALIA immigrated to Canada the summer she turned fifteen. She taught English in Japan, served as Assistant to the Consul-General at the Consulate-General of Japan in Toronto for four-and-a-half years and now enjoys a thriving career in the banking sector while writing creatively on the side.