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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Friday, February 7, 2014

London I - Based on a True Story

Of all the things my parents have taught me, the lessons I actually follow have a way of canceling each other out. For example, I always remember my “please” and “thank you”s, and can be polite to a fault. This has led me to ignore other advice they’ve given me – namely, not to hang out with strange men by myself even if they have a very friendly pit bull.

The semester before this, I studied abroad in London. It wasn’t my first time living there. When I was two, my family stayed in the city for a few months. One of our favorite places to visit was Battersea Park, so I decided to head back there to see if I could jog a few memories.

I think anyone who knows me can vouch for how much I love dogs, so when I saw two playing in a grassy area near the sidewalk, I had to stop and watch. Eventually I got to talking with the two dog owners, a sporty-looking woman and a man who was somewhat disheveled. Enough time passed that the sky grew dark and the woman decided to finish her walk before the park closed. I was still talking to the man about his dog, so he invited me over to a bench to continue the conversation. Though I wasn't sure I should, I agreed for the sake of politeness.

At that point I began to feel a little nervous. I didn’t know anything about this man except that he had a dog, was most likely homeless by all the possessions in the shopping cart, and that he had that certain bite to his scent that usually indicates weed. He didn’t pay much attention to the park staff who warned us to leave, exiting only after I convinced him that I didn’t want to get in trouble while I was studying abroad.

Still, his dog seemed pretty happy, so he couldn’t be too bad, right? (I have a habit of judging people based on how good of care they're giving their dogs. Maybe I'm a little biased.)

I ended up mentioning to him that I hadn’t had fish and chips yet while I was in England. He decided that had to be fixed ASAP, so we walked over to a small take-out restaurant and got fish and chips and mushy peas. For those who’ve never had them, they’re exactly what it says on the package. Though I was still wary, he showed a lot of compassion toward his dog. When she momentarily ran into the street, he panicked and even began to lecture her for endangering herself like that. Plus I'd seen a friend of mine escort a homeless man into an IHOP to buy him breakfast, so I figured I could do a good turn of my own.

We ended up eating the fish and chips sitting on the steps of an old church. While we were talking, he told me he’d been to the States. He got tired of living there and got himself deported back to London by throwing a chair into the window of a Nordstrom’s. That concerned me. I tried to focus my attention on getting his dog to eat some of the meat from the fish we’d bought. Then he said that they’d been closing the park down early for a pre-Guy Fawkes night fireworks show, and that we should go and see it from across the Thames. I still wasn't sure about hanging out with this man after his latest story, but he was insistent.

My politeness was wearing out. As we were walking back toward the park, we passed a store advertising cigarettes. He asked for money to buy them. I told him I wasn’t comfortable doing that, expecting him to get angry.

He didn’t – he accepted my answer and we kept walking. He even gave me his jacket when I said I was cold. It still smelled like weed, but when I told him I didn't want to take it from him on such a freezing night, he said his sweater was enough for him. I couldn't make up my mind about this guy.

We waited for almost an hour outside the Thames in November. The fireworks hadn’t started on time. Wind battered our faces, and his dog almost jumped over the railing. I told him I had school the next day, and if we didn’t see the fireworks in half an hour, I’d have to leave then.

Five minutes later, we saw lights over the trees. Then I said goodbye and thanked him for the time, and he said the same to me. And while I've never been back to the park since then, I have a feeling he's still hanging out there, taking care of his dog.

- Lindsey West


Battersea Park 
Homelessness in London
Guy Fawkes Day


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