Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Generosity From A Stranger

Our meeting at the mansion in Arkwright Road over, my union colleagues and I adjourn towards Hampstead High Street in search of a hostelry. I briefly split from the group, telling them that I'll catch them up, and hurry along Church Row. Into the rustic yard of St John, pausing briefly to pluck a wild daisy, I find the chest tomb in the corner, iron railings protecting it, the names of Maria and John Constable still visible on its side. I toss the daisy onto the slab and turn, leaving the artist to his eternal slumber as I direct myself back to the High Street.
They've chosen the 'King William IV' public house, and have split into two groups. The larger group hovers at the bar, the smaller has commandeered a long table in the garden. I make for the garden with the rest of the social pariahs and light up my first cigarette of the afternoon.
I soon notice the elderly gentleman sitting at a table in the corner of the garden. He is dressed in tweed, sups a beer and smokes continuously. Over the course of the next hour, he drinks pint after pint. He carries himself with a frail grace, his face deeply lined and full of character.
A trip into the bar finds me face to face with a surprise visitor, the General Secretary of the union, holding court and buying everyone drinks. He is clearly plastered. I accept his offer and surreptitiously order an extra Fosters.
Back in the garden, I deposit the round with my nicotine-stained cohorts and carry the extra pint to the corner, where I place it on the table in front of the old man. He looks up from his paper, blinking in astonishment.
"This is for you," I smile, "courtesy of ASLEF."
He is overwhelmed by the act of generosity from a stranger, and allows me to sit and chat. I explain that I've watched him quietly drinking, smoking and reading on this fine Autumnal day, and that when I reach retirement I would love to do exactly the same!
His name is Bill. He moved down from Glasgow half a century ago, and the burr is still faintly noticeable in his soft tones. Soon he has to leave, an appointment waiting for him at the local art gallery.
"Are you an artist?" I ask, the memory of the daisy on Constable's tomb still vivid.
"Bless me, no," he chortles, "although I've done some engraving in my time. No, a young lady stopped me in the street the other day and said that she would like to photograph me, because I looked interesting. That's what it's about."
Bill certainly is interesting. Try to imagine how John Hurt will look if he reaches ninety, and you have a fair approximation of this gentleman. Later, as my colleagues and I, somewhat unsteady, descend into the bowels of Hampstead Hill to reach the Northern Line, I wonder if our paths will ever cross again.
Probably not. But I wonder if I ever visit that art gallery, will I see Bill's expressive features gazing back at me from inside a frame, a part of Hampstead's history? And will I then go back to the pub, buy myself a drink and raise it in silent salute?

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