Kathleen is about to be ‘deported’ after spending the six-month allotted time for foreigners in the United Kingdom. But she doesn’t want to leave, and worse, doesn’t know where to go or what to do. She certainly can’t go back to the unsatisfactory existence she left behind in Canada.
In this excerpt from Lost and Found in London Kathleen’s chance encounter with a stranger brings about unexpected change and self-reflection at a time of crisis.
It was one of those life-changing encounters that could so easily have been missed. All it took was the lift doors not doing what they were supposed to do — stay closed.
I got on alone, pushed the button; the doors shut tight, and I prepared to descend. But didn’t. Instead, the doors suddenly opened again, and there he was — a dark stranger, looming.
“Oh,” was all I could say. Then I rallied and added — wittily, I hoped, “I guess there’s room for one more.”
“How fortunate,” he said, smiling.
The stranger stepped into the lift, as I shuffled slightly to one side.
This time the doors stayed closed and we began our short trip down. That’s when I recognized him from the conference on 21st Century Issues I had just attended — one of many events at the London School of Economics that inspired the writer/activist/wannabe-intellectual in me.
He was the rugged, yet distinguished-looking — always an intriguing combination — leader of a dynamic workshop on war and peace I’d participated in. Under his smooth direction, words like internationalism, disarmament, and sustainability had been tossed about with impressive ease.
And later, during the general assembly, he had interrupted the Chair to stop him babbling. “Jeremy,” he’d said from the back of the lecture hall, “I think it’s time to give someone else a turn to speak.”
Daring man, I thought. Obviously, he wasn’t new to the gathering — as I was.
More to the point, he’d been right. Well-intentioned Jeremy had begun to bore us all.
For about five seconds, this striking fellow and I stood side by side in the lift, surrounded by the uncomfortable silence typical of the British in close, public spaces. Then he spoke. “I liked what you said in the workshop …about valuing others.”
I laughed awkwardly, taken aback because he recognized me, too — even though my contribution had been quite modest. The lift was beginning to feel tiny, almost filled, by the tall human being next to me.
“I guess I’ve always been a people person,” I responded, a little too chirpily. “Even when I was a toddler, I’d say ‘Hi’ to everyone we passed in the street.”
“I can see that,” he said.
It was tempting to add that being outgoing wasn’t as easy as it used to be. Too many men think you are flirting. Of course, that didn’t prevent me from chatting there and then with someone I barely knew.
“It’s a welcome change in this city,” he added quietly.
“Oh, I find most people here quite friendly. Very warm and generous.”
“Perhaps they’re responding to you. My name is Chris.”
By the time we reached the ground, we had agreed to head to the nearest wine bar. Continue the conversation. I suggested a charming, historic spot two blocks away -clearly impressing Chris with my intimate knowledge of his city.
“I thought I knew every building in central London, but this one is new for me,” he said, ducking his head to climb down the narrow stairs leading to the dimly lit bar. “Thanks for expanding my horizons.”
We found a quiet nook under the low, almost-claustrophobic ceiling in the back and soon our words flowed easily and openly, as if we were long-lost chums. We gossiped about people who had either delighted or irritated us at the conference with their views on war, peace, human rights, climate change — and were pleasantly surprised by how similar our reactions had been.
This person’s comments were silly. Yes, I thought so. That one’s were brilliant. They certainly were. Anyone watching us from afar would have seen two heads nodding vigorously — and frequently.
Halfway through the second glass of wine, I heard myself telling Chris that I had been given a deadline to leave the country. In little more than two weeks, I had to go into what felt like exile — because I had stayed the maximum time allotted (a mere half year) for foreigners.
On top of that, the flat where I had lived for the past few months in the lovely area of Hampstead was, within days, no longer available.
“My new London world, which I’ve struggled to create, is falling down around me,” I confided. “I don’t want to go back to Canada where I’ve spent too many years spinning my wheels, as they say. To make matters worse, I have no idea what I’ll do when I get there.”
I could feel tears pushing their way into my eyes. What was it about this person that made me want to tell all — or almost all? He was a few years older, but was he wiser?
“I guess I’m a lost soul at this midpoint in my life. Not something to be proud of.”
With some degree of self-respect, I spared him the confusing details of my latest unsuccessful relationships — one across the ocean, the other in London itself.
A look of real concern flashed in Chris’s pale eyes, as he tapped his wineglass against mine.
“It seems like you could use a little guidance from a life coach about your future,” he said with a sympathetic expression. “That would probably make you feel better prepared for ‘exile.'”
“I’m open to any advice people can pass my way,” I admitted. Was I too whiney? Self-pitying? Neither was a winning tactic on a first “date” — which, of course, this wasn’t.
But this was first-impression time, and I was doing everything the experts warn you not to do — complain, sound lost, reveal all. Wasn’t I old enough to avoid such relationship pitfalls?
“When you move out of your home in Hampstead, why don’t you come and stay at my place by the tracks in Wimbledon,” Chris suggested — completely out of the blue. “I call it the Railway Tracks Hotel,” he laughed. “I like to think of it as a refuge where people can adopt new ways of thinking, get on a different track.”
“Do you mean a kind of therapy retreat?” I asked, finding it hard to believe his audacity — and my immediate, genuine interest.
“Exactly. I have some expertise in Direction-Finding Techniques and so on, and would be more than happy to share it with you. You appear to be an open and honest person.”
I thanked him for his kind words while mulling over his refreshingly straightforward invitation. Certainly, some practical guidance before dragging myself to Heathrow Airport and beyond was tempting.
A timely gift from wherever.
Maybe the universe was “providing” — according to certain increasingly popular theories I’d read about and rather liked. Had my anxious thought vibrations actually summoned this benefactor to me from across the city?
If so, nice work!…
This excerpt is from Lost and Found in London: How the Railway Tracks Hotel Changed Me. Reprinted with permission.