A sad and bitter Joshua Nkomo, the last "king" of Matabeleland, was quietly "thinking about things" in a simple two-bedroom apartment in a fancy London neighborhood a few blocks from Hyde Park.

Three doors away is the haberdashery where he shops for the size 56 "big-man's clothes" he needs for his 300-pound frame after fleeing Zimbabwe secretly two months ago with only the clothes he was wearing. Other than a few shopping forays, he rarely ventures out of his fifth-floor Westminster apartment, neighbors said.

These are bad times for the 65-year-old "Father of Zimbabwe." After a lifetime fighting for independence for the southern African nation, the opposition leader slipped away in the night March 8, saying Prime Minister Robert Mugabe had ordered the Army to kill him.

Now he sits in lonely self-imposed exile in London "writing down some things to remember," according to an aide, largely ignored by the politicians and journalists around whom his life revolved for more than three decades.

In the course of a desultory, hour-long conversation, he repeatedly told a reporter, "I belong in Zimbabwe. I've got to get back there. I'm not a Briton."

Yet he showed no sign of preparing to return to Zimbabwe, where in recent months Mugabe and his Cabinet ministers sharply attacked him.

With his flight, the tense political atmosphere in the country has perceptibly eased, and reports of Army attack on civilians allegedly harboring dissidents in his Matabeleland tribal homeland have come to an end, at least temporarily.

It is likely that Nkomo has done exactly what the Mugabe government wanted, and it may well hope he stays in London indefinitely.

His secret flight allowed the government to paint him as a coward. Meanwhile, the government has shifted from using confrontation tactics against his followers to attempting to win their loyalty, subtly using the fact that their leader has abandoned them.

By saying he is welcome to return but refusing to talk to him in London, the government has defused the possibility of his painting his self-exile period as an attempt at reconciliation. After a brief flurry of press coverage following his arrival in mid-March from Botswana, the British media have generally ignored him.

Nkomo has the added disadvantage of apparently being under wraps for fear of alienating his embarrassed British hosts, who are interested in maintaining good relations with Zimbabwe.

So Nkomo sat in his tiny living room during a recent interview, engulfed by an overstuffed couch, and playfully sparred with a reporter seeking a hint of his plans.

The most he would say publicly was, "I wanted to get out and think about what can be done . . . to help straighten out the country."

"What will I do? I cannot tell you" because that would hamper any chances of success, he said coyly.

It appeared, however, that he has few plans and less options.

If he were to stay in London, he would continue to wither as a political figure.

If he returned to Zimbabwe, he could well face eventual arrest. Under emergency powers, the government last month redetained indefinitely some of his key followers just minutes after a judge had acquitted them of charges of treason and stashing weapons for use against the government.

"The government embarrasses all Zimbabweans when it rearrests people after a court acquits them," he said.

"I want to help retrieve the country. If I can't, it is up to Robert," he said shrugging. "If it becomes hell, so be it, but I don't want it to become hell." He would not say where his financial support comes from, but it is believed to be provided by his former multinational backers during the seven-year guerrilla war. He was forced, however, to move out of his expensive hotel owned by one of them, R.W. ("Tiny") Rowland.

His apartment is within sight of the expensive Rowland-owned hotel where Nkomo and his large entourage stayed in style during the four months of negotiations in 1979 that resulted in an agreement to bring war-torn Rhodesia to independence as Zimbabwe.

Around the corner at Cooper's Allsize Clothing a salesman boasted about the store's ample supply of Nkomo's size 56. The shop stocks sizes 34 to 65 and claims to have clothes on the rack for 7-footers.

The day after his arrival in London Nkomo bought a large assortment of outfits because he had been wearing the same clothes since fleeing to Botswana a week earlier. He paid cash, the salesman said.

Some of the spark had gone out of Nkomo, and it appeared during the interview that he had gained weight since arriving in London. An aide helped him to rise from the couch where he was reclining halfway between a sitting and prone position because of his size.

He apparently sits for long periods because the couch was permanently creased. Aside from his aide, named Ernest, there were two men in a bedroom who seemed to be bodyguards.

Nkomo denied being bitter, saying, "With bitterness you cannot survive," but his words belied the remark. He said Mugabe's party has not been telling the truth but rather "is playing politics."

"We have been taken for a ride," he added.

He spoke poignantly of Zimbabwe, saying, "It is the one spot on earth where I have a God-given right to be.

"What gets me is this: I fought against Ian Smith," the white prime minister who went to war to prevent black rule. "Smith arrested me and threw me in prison for 10 years. I got that independence, then I had to flee my own country," which he has often described as heaven.

What is going to happen after his death, he pondered.

"If I get to Heaven, they won't want me. If I get to Hell, they won't want me either."