That same Tuesday that I went cavorting around St. Mary’s with camera in hand, I got hungry. Wow, totally enlightening about my personality right?! A girl’s got to eat and not only is my boyfriend is used to living in permanent bachelor mode (that is, until I came in and stocked his filing-cabinet-sized fridge with goodies) but he’d also recommended that I take a stroll into the village to a little sandwich shop called Webb’s. So, after I was finished with the church I headed in that direction, only taking a single wrong turn (hmmph!)
As I entered the cramped, low-ceiling shop–through the wrong door, I found out later–I found a table and sat down alone. On my way in I’d seen a well-dressed, white-haired old man laboriously climbing off his motor scooter, leaning heavily on his cane–and entering through the right door. I didn’t think much of it, and tried to ignore the looks my bright blonde hair seems to attract in this country while I waited for the waitress. The old man I’d seen outside sat down at a table across from me, also alone.
Suddenly, an idea crossed my mind. An idea that made me sweat a little bit and something I knew my girlfriends would think I was crazy or stupid for doing.
I was going to go sit with the old man.
Truthfully, I almost didn’t do it. But then I thought, WWJD? No, not “What would Jesus do?” but “What would Jonas do?” Jonas is my high school English teacher who I almost solely credit for my love of writing, and also one of the few people I’ve met in my life that seems to have lived to the fullest. I consulted him before embarking to Europe, and he told me that I needed to really experience things while I was here. So I listened. I almost chickened out, but I listened.
I got up from my little wooden table and stepped over to his. “Are you eating alone?”
“What?” (He was a little hard of hearing)
“Are you eating alone? Do you mind if I sit with you?”
“Oh yes, of course. You can sit here.” He had a proper British accent and up close, he reminded me a bit of an old wizard–with his wiry grey eyebrows and white beard. His face was kind and etched with wrinkles.
“I’m Chelsea,” I said, stretching out my hand.
“Oh hallo, Hugh,” he said, taking my hand.
I noticed a pin in the shape of a small airplane on his lapel and I asked him about it. Turns out, he worked for the British Royal Air Force when he was younger–in Communications, the same job that Jason has–except Hugh dealt in Morse code rather than radios. Morse code! I asked him if he still remembered it, and he said that “funnily enough” he did.
We ended up eating our meal and drinking tea together and talking for more than two hours.
(The shopkeeper kept coming by and joking that “Father Christmas” had a date and waggling his eyebrows at Hugh, who of course, was properly indignant. And, as it turned out, who was actually Father Christmas during the holidays for the little kids).
He told me all about his life and what he did in his youth. He’d not only served in the BRAF, but also had worked for Rolls Royce and gone to art school. He still paints and told me about the art classes offered down the lane at Jubilee Hall. He was orphaned as a child and he told me about his years as an altar boy for the Catholic Church, after he’d left his foster home at an early age because of a domineering step-mother. He told me about the free “football” matches he used to go to because he friend worked for the Chelsea soccer team–which helped him remember my name.
He told me about the night that he went to a boxing match in London and the entire sky was alight with red fire across the horizon, because that was the night of the Blitzkrieg in Britain. He simply called it the “blitz.” (“Blitzkrieg” is German for “lightning war” and was a period between 1939-1940 that the Germans were bombing Europe by air).
It made me think about how one day I’d be explaining to my grandchildren that I’d been alive (if not present) when the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place–just like when my great-grandpa told me he remembered reading the newspapers alerting the public that the Titanic had sunk. Amazing what living relics of history that the elderly are, and how we unfortunately forget that.
He told me about his wife, who’d died of cancer a decade before. (He was still wearing his ring). And his fashion-designer daughter who’d died a few years later. Both of “the Big C” he called it.
I asked him to tell me the story of how he and his wife had met, and he said it’d been through a church outing he’d agreed upon going on because he “hadn’t anything else to do that weekend.” He remembers uncharacteristically singing along to road trip songs with his friends on the train to the countryside and a “pretty girl” (he raised his tufty eyebrows) sitting next to him. They talked all the way there and played games together once they’d arrived.
On their way home, after getting off the train, she linked her arm through his and he thought, Oh, well this is quite nice… and that was it. He said they took a long time to get married, because things were hard during the Depression, and even after marriage they were forced to live with her parents for six months. That is, until they were unceremoniously kicked out by his crotchety mother-in-law.
And so they began their life together.
“Oh, that’s so nice! I’m such a sucker for a good love story,” I said.
He laughed and said, “Oh, aren’t we all?”