The Man in Parliament Square
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
I didn’t think I would find him again.
So I took my time coming out of the Westminster Tube station. I took a few more pictures of Big Ben and walked the long way around Parliament Square because one of the closer crosswalks was closed.
As I walked by the tall gates around Parliament, jostled by the crowd, I kept telling myself not to get my hopes up. It had been over a year. The chances that he’d be there in the exact same spot, on the exact day I decided to look for him, were slim to none.
Let me back up.
When I met Ian, it was my first time out of the U.S. and I’d been in Europe for less than 72 hours. My grandmother and I were in London before my semester abroad started. On that particular day, we toured Westminster Abbey and had afternoon tea at the adjoining café. We were supposed to meet a family friend across the city that evening, so we headed toward the Tube station and walked through Parliament Square on our way.
And there he was. An old man wearing a newsboy cap, bundled up in a big coat. His white hair stuck out from under his hat in tufts, and there were bags under his bright eyes.
We found him sitting in the shadow of the statue of George Canning with his easel and small Union Jack flag. He was working on a watercolor painting of Big Ben.
Just as I snapped a picture of him, he turned around and saw us. He said “hello,” and we started talking.
His name was Ian.
It was cold, and Ian kept wiping his watering eyes because of the wind. At one point, he stood up to smoke a cigarette while we talked, a habit he told us he just couldn’t kick.
The conversation was just like one we’d have with any kind stranger back home in the U.S. We talked about how he couldn’t understand his email, the state of his health (which was surprisingly good, considering the smoking), and his suspicions about why his wife hadn’t gone to bridge that night. He joked that she might be plotting to kill him.
Ian reminded me of my grandpa, who passed away just a month before I left.
When Nana and I had to go, Ian wished me luck in Luxembourg and told me to come and see him again if I was ever back in London and he was still alive. I left with one of his watercolors, with a penciled time on Big Ben’s face, and it’s been hanging on my wall ever since.
I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.
Then I found myself in London a little over a year later, and all I wanted to do was find Ian. I planned on going to Parliament Square to see if he was there, every afternoon if I had to.
As I rounded the last stretch along the backside of Parliament Square, with every intention of looping back around and getting on the Tube again, I looked over toward the statue of George Canning, expecting to see nothing.
But there it was.
A small Union Jack, waving in the wind, attached to an easel. Ian’s easel.
I panicked and sat on the ledge along the sidewalk. My mind started racing: Did I have enough battery life in my recorder? What was I going to say to him when I walked up? Why hadn’t I figured that out sooner? And why on earth didn’t I bring a printed copy of the article I wrote about him last year?
I really hadn’t expected to find him at all — and certainly not on my first try.
Finally, I gathered myself and walked over. My legs felt like jelly. Just like the year before, I snuck a picture as I walked up.
He said hello as I approached.
“Hi,” I said. “I have a really weird question for you.”
“Go on then,” he replied.
“Is your name Ian?”
“Yes. How’d you know that?”
“I’ve met you before.”
“Really?” he asked. “When were you here?”
“Last January,” I said.
“Good god,” he said. “Well done, well done. You deserve a present.”
“I was hoping to run into you again.”
Then I told Ian about my podcast, which he didn’t completely understand. After a few minutes, I sat down next to him and we started talking.
He asked me if I was going to be a journalist. It wasn’t an uncommon question — I’d been getting it a lot, actually. But when Ian asked me, it was different. I told him, “Yes, something like that.”
He told me he was an architect, which I remembered from before. But then he talked about how he’d drawn cartoons for one of the London papers for about six years. He said he’d give me some contacts if I wanted them.
We kept talking for about an hour.
Ian told me about how he got into architecture, then somehow ended up chatting about everything from funerals to teaching, resumes to how his son works for a company based in Cincinnati, where I’m from. I found out that he hates musical theater, had a short teaching career himself, and was on Swedish TV during the London Olympics.
We watched as a large tour-group walked by. The guide, who was shorter than every adult she was leading, jogged away from the group momentarily to say hello to Ian. She’d been taking tours on that route for five years and said she hadn’t seen him in his spot recently, and worried something had happened to him.
Ian took out a cigarette and started smoking, so he eventually told me to move to the other side so the smoke wouldn’t make my hair smell.
And then, a few minutes later, he told me the great secret in life.
He told me that I needed to make a career out of my hobby, that no one ever knows what is going to be successful, and that I can never predict where something will lead me.
Then he shared a story about Pablo Picasso painting Guernica, the famous depiction of the Germans bombing Spain before World War II — I didn’t follow it completely, but I got it. He was saying that no one ever knows what’s going to become a masterpiece.
We said we would make plans to go to the Monet exhibit, or some other art museum, the next day, and he’d let me formally interview him then. The plans fell through: Ian never answered my text messages.
I meant to get another one of his paintings. I had hoped to get his home address so I could write to him. I desperately wanted him to read my article.
But I never saw Ian again. I went to the Monet exhibit the next day and waited outside in the rain, but he never showed up.
As the sun went down and the chill in the air increased, Ian packed his art supplies and got ready to leave.
“Let’s see what the weather’s like,” he said. “And text me between 9 and 9:30 and we’ll take it from there.”
“Okay. I’m glad I found you.”
“I don’t believe it,” Ian said. “Britton.” He looked at the nearby tourists, then back at me. “Alright, let’s go. Because otherwise they’ll be asking for photos or directions.”
“Which way are you going?”
“I’m going over there to the bus,” he said.
“Oh well I’m going that way, too,” I said.
We walked together until he got on his bus, even though I didn’t need to go that way at all.