It is odd, after a long journey, to see which memories last the longest.
It’s been an entire year since I spent a summer in London, working as an intern with a financial company in King’s Cross. I fell in love with the city immediately, exploring the cobblestoned streets as often as possible. I went to plays, museums, pubs, concerts, events, parades — even spotting Queen Elizabeth II twice as I made my rounds. I exhausted myself in the fruitless attempt to see “all” of London, spending far too many pounds on plays, gaining far too many pounds on all the steak and ale pies I consumed, and making many wonderful memories.
But oddly enough, the memories that come to mind most frequently are not necessarily the ones I would expect. I often remember the magnificent castles I toured, the landmarks I visited, the museums I entered; but more often than that, I remember the people.
I’m not talking about the famous people, like Queen Elizabeth II and her royal lineage. They were memorable, yes — but quite unrelatable in their memorableness. When I say people, I mean the ones who were like you and I. Like the antique seller I met in Soho, who owned a small, dusty-smelling shop somewhere in the vicinity of Carnaby Street. He wasn’t interested in trying to sell me antiques; instead, he wanted to hear my opinion on the status quo of American politics. We talked for nearly an hour, during which I learned of his previous stint as a standup comedian (it didn’t go well) and his recent vacation to Florida (which also didn’t go well) .
Or if not that person, perhaps it’s the millionaire entrepreneur I met on the train from Vauxhall Station to Gatwick Airport. A heavily-bearded fellow, he had started his own beard cream company and sold it for a small fortune. And now? He was traveling the world purely for adventure, soaking in the luxuries of Europe.
The list goes on and on — the down-on-his-luck chap who tried to sell me tickets to a cricket match outside Lord’s, the posh bookseller in Bloomsbury, the older gentleman at Windsor Castle who served for a brief spell as the queen’s private guard — when it truly comes down to it, it’s the people that I remember, not the places. Maybe it’s the writer in me, or maybe it’s the same for everyone. But when I think of a trip, an adventure, a journey, I tend to remember all the people I met along the way. Those people have stories too, pasts and memories that are unique to their experiences. And when we meet those people, for a brief moment in time our stories merge.
Two other people come to mind when I think of London. Every morning, to commute to my internship, I would walk the two blocks to Vauxhall Station and board the Victoria Line to King’s Cross. And every morning, as I entered the station, I would see a young woman begging for money, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she huddled on the bottom step of the cold stone stairs. She could only have been 25 or 26, and I often wondered about her story. How did she get to that point? Even then, in what many people would consider to be an unfathomable circumstance, she still had a story to tell.
There were many times when I felt the urge to stop and talk to her. And each time, I made an excuse — I’ll do it another day, or I’ll be late for work. I never stopped, and now I wish I had. Her story will never be known now.
It was often my habit to walk along the streets of London at sunset, watching as the last golden rays of light vanished over the beautiful city. I would often walk down Albert Embankment, along the River Thames, and pass over Vauxhall Bridge. I would sometimes stop on the bridge and lean over the railing, watching the barges and passenger ships that churned through the dark, swirling water. Big Ben stood tall in the distance, hidden by thick, black layers of scaffolding. And to the right was the London Eye, and even further on the towers of the Financial District. It was a beautiful sight, truly breathtaking to behold.
My route would often change, but usually I looped around to Lambeth Bridge or Westminster Bridge, or on occasion I would turn left at Victoria Station and return on Grosvenor Road, which runs into Pimlico. There were many pretty houses in Pimlico, mansions adorned with cream marble and white trim.
On this specific day, I took the Grosvenor Road route. I was walking along the street sidewalk, admiring the houses on one side and the tempestuous Thames on the other, when a young man in dark jeans and a black jacket approached me. He was about my age, maybe a year or two older, with tanned skin, dark hair, and piercing green eyes.
“Hello, Mate,” he said in a heavy accent. “Do you have a pound to spare?”
I tried to sidestep him; he stepped with me. “Sorry, I don’t have anything.”
“I saw that you’re a tourist, and that’s why I came over here. You must have something. Just a few pence would do,” he told me.
I looked in his eyes, and he stared steadily back at me. There was a story there — an immigrant, maybe? Or maybe he was just playing the part? Whatever it was, our stories had merged. My past, his past — for a fleeting, brief moment, our pasts, our stories, were connected.
And so, feeling rather guilty about myself, I fished a few coins from my pocket and handed them to him. He took them and smiled at me, whispered, “God bless you, Mate,” then began walking away.
I shrugged and continued walking down Grosvenor Road, still hearing his footsteps on the road. Then, as I stared into the sunset, a thought came into my mind.
“Hey!” I turned, shouting after him. “How did you know, just by looking at me, that I was a tourist?”
I could have sworn that he turned and smiled at me, or maybe he just shook his head slightly. But he was already far away, the last remnants of golden sunlight shining on his back as he walked down the wide London street.
© Aaron Schnoor 2019