Letter from London: Strange Meeting

The Death of Wat Tyler at the hands of Walworth, Mayor of London, with the young Richard II looking on. Source: Library Royal.

Last week I was in the middle of a run when to my right with one hand pushed flat against an old brick wall, an elderly man in a brown suede coat and neatly checked tweed hat was trying to attract my attention — he was more out of breath than I was. I came to a halt and asked if he was okay but he shook his head. ‘No,’ he said, wiping his mouth. We were right by the heath, some distance from people. I noticed him wince at the clouds moving fast across the sky, grimacing even more when I said I would call an ambulance. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Please don’t.’ He was adamant about this, telling me he had already been to hospital. Then he uncurled his finger and pointed to the small undressed wound on his forehead tucked beneath the brim of his hat. ‘Looks painful,’ I commiserated. He muttered something unintelligible about trying to kiss the pavement, and was still out of breath. I looked for a seat. There weren’t any. I suggested he try breathing slowly through his nose, before exhaling also slowly through his mouth. This seemed to help. He stood up straighter, briefly. He was taller than I expected. I also noticed that he was taking care not to trample on the hare’s foot clover by his foot.

‘I don’t know what it is right now,’ he said to me, ‘but every time I try to do something these days,’ he now looked at me warily, ‘it always goes wrong.’ Then he asked if I could point him in the direction of a well known area of London where he said he needed to go. ‘How are you going to get there?’ I asked. ‘Walk,’ he shrugged. ‘But it’s miles,’ I warned. He filled his cheeks with air and I asked if he had an actual address, so I could look it up for him. All he could say was that he would recognise it once he saw it, which was a bit of a red flag for me. He then placed both palms against the wall. ‘Let me check on my phone for the best bus routes,’ I said. I found one. Unfortunately, the bus stop was a distance away. ‘It’s probably the best option,’ I said, hoping a sense of purpose might boost morale. ‘I’m Peter by the way,’ I added. ‘I’m Teddy,’ he said. We set off with fresh resolve. My new companion looked dapper in the afternoon light but kept leaning forward too much and I had to work hard to stop him stumbling over.

At the same time, I noticed all this glorious pink-purple vetch growing among the grass. Dozens of crows nearby were pecking at the ground, ten or so meters apart. These crows were well regarded for knowing how to jump up and down so the worms thought it was raining and then coming out. Teddy remained quiet. I wanted to believe it was the coconut-scented golden-yellow gorse intoxicating him but suspected he was wondering where the hell he was instead. I tried everything to engage him. I even mentioned the Peasants’ Revolt, telling him that Wat Tyler brought together over 100,000 anti-poll tax rebels here. ‘In 1381,’ I said. He looked at me as if I had a crossed a line. ‘That’s not very nice,’ he said. We must have stopped another ten times. Would he ever catch his bus, I wondered? I had misgivings about leaving him at a bus stop, let alone putting him on a bus. I asked if he had problems with memory. Endearingly, he said he couldn’t remember. Then he looked at me as if I was being too personal again. Or maybe he was just being private. Many English people are private. No offence is meant by this. ‘Are you sure I can’t call an ambulance?’ I said. ‘Please don’t,’ he repeated. A line of cars moved between us and the bus stop, which was now only just visible in the distance. ‘Not far now,’ I said.

Even when we dig beneath the injustices of the world, even when we clear away the resentments and sometimes odious routes to power, ill health is waiting for us, I was thinking. As we crossed the road, I asked where Teddy was born. ‘Elephant and Castle,’ he said, promptly. He nodded as if agreeing with himself, like Stan Laurel, but he seemed energised all of a sudden. ‘Because of Hitler’s bombs,’ he said, ‘our mother moved us to a place in the countryside.’ There was no mention of a father. ‘A nice little village near an RAF base which made us an even bigger target than at Elephant and Castle!’ he laughed. Elephant and Castle, it dawned on me, was not so very far from where he had said he wanted to go to. His eyes remained fixed on the bus stop. ‘I’m thinking of lying low a few days,’ he said, ‘until this whole thing passes over.’ Like Hitler’s bombs, I was thinking. It struck me that what I was watching could be someone’s last stab at freedom. Just then, I spotted two people in the distance walking a small black dog. They were the only other people on the heath until I saw the two young people by the bus stop. ‘Nearly there,’ I said to Teddy. I said this with mixed feelings now, as it dawned on me I could be making a terrible mistake, abandoning him like this. It also began to spit with rain.

To our right, an elderly woman in a thick white fleece cut across the grass towards us. She was one of the two women walking the dog. Was she lost too? Had I come across some kind of weird Bermuda Triangle on the heath? I was actually hoping she was going to wave a magic wand and sort everything out for us. ‘Do you know this woman?’ I asked Teddy, through the corner of my mouth. ‘Never seen her in my life,’ he said. She was close to us now. ‘Have you been on one of your ‘things’ again?’ she said loudly, advancing right up to Teddy. Teddy pointed with pride to the scar on his forehead. I told her that I was about to put him on a bus but when I told her where, she hit the roof. ‘That’s not where he needs to go! He needs to go five bleeding miles in the opposite direction, love!’ she said, pointing behind her. It turned out Teddy was from a care home and this woman actually worked there. It was sheer coincidence that she happened to have been in the area. ‘He’s done this four times in the past week,’ she said. She shook her fist at Teddy, but smiled. ‘Right,’ she said, looking at him, ‘I’m going to get my car and drive you back.’ I don’t know what happened to the other woman. After she left, Teddy and I waited on our own in the rain. ‘Maybe this is where every time you try to do something,’ I suggested to Teddy, ‘it all goes right.’ The car appeared. It was a struggle getting him in at first. ‘He’s got dementia, love,’ whispered the woman, as she walked back round to the driver’s seat. Dementia. That was it. I thought as much. 55 million people in the world currently live with dementia. It is the leading cause of death in the UK. Maybe he had been trying to get back to Elephant and Castle to that time with his mother before all the bombs dropped. As they drove off, the woman in white honked her horn and waved. Teddy, as he passed, saluted. I never did finish that run.

Peter Bach lives in London.