“Sarah, is there any chance of you taking a teenager on a tour tomorrow?”
My heart spiralled downwards. As a born and bred Londoner, I’d taken many children round the city but was tired of doing the same old things, seeing the same old sights.
Michelle spoke into my silence. “Please, Sarah. Just one more. She’s with a group from Reach for a Dream in South Africa. Sophie’s taking the rest of them out but this girl has a specific list of where she wants to go.”
Even worse. I hated seeing children with terminal conditions. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s a Down Syndrome case with congenital heart disease. Doctors estimate she has a year at the most and her parents want her to see London before it’s too late.”
I collected Beth from her hotel the next morning. She was short, slightly stocky and had thin blonde hair that just touched her shoulders. “Hello Beth, my name’s Sarah. I believe you have a special list of places you want to see.”
“Sure do.” Her speech was thick and indistinct and I noted blue tinges round her lips and nail beds. “I wrote it myself.” She presented me with a crumpled paper.
“This looks really exciting. Are you ready to go?”
She whooped and thrust a stubby fist into the air. “London, London, London!”
“People don’t use cars in the city.” I told her as we walked to the subway entrance. “There’s too much traffic so we use the Underground and buses and taxis.”
Beth was effervescing with excitement. “I know the names of some stations: Paddington, Westminster, Charing Cross, Oxford Circus, London Bridge...”
I think she would have kept going but was distracted as I purchased a ticket and showed her how to feed it into the automatic ticket barrier.
“Cool!” she exclaimed as her ticket popped out.
“So we’re going to the London Eye first.” I confirmed as the train hurtled through the tunnels. “That means we get off at Westminster. Will you help me look out for it, Beth?”
I think the whole carriage knew when we’d arrived. “Here, Sarah! This is Westminster!”
She was even more excited when we reached the top of the Eye. “Awesome, awesome, awesome!” I had my camera with me and clicked off some shots of Beth in the centre of the capsule, hands raised in excitement. Her enthusiasm was contagious and although London was so familiar, I began to see it through new eyes.
“So what’s next Beth?”
“The queen’s house. We catch a black taxi to Buckingham Palace.”
“Will you help me hail a taxi? We need to stand near the side of the road like this.” I stepped forward. “And then if you see a taxi, lift your arm like this.” Within two minutes, Beth had secured our transport.
“Buckingham Palace.” She requested in her thick nasal voice.
Outside the palace, I led Beth to the gates where she gazed through the rails.
“We have the same name, you know. My name is also Elizabeth but Mommy and Daddy call me Beth.”
From there we followed Beth’s list and I gained a whole new appreciation of my city; the buildings drenched in history and the beautiful surroundings.
We visited the flower sellers where she fell on her knees and buried her face in buckets of roses and lilies. “Come on, Sarah. Come and smell.” So I did.
We stopped by Big Ben, just on noon and Beth counted the chimes at top of her voice, punctuating each with a clap.
We climbed on a double-decker bus and drove round London for an hour, Beth revelling in every moment.
We walked over to Piccadilly Circus. “Look Sarah!” Beth shouted as the massive wall of neon flickered and gleamed. “McDonalds. We have McDonalds in South Africa too.”
At London Bridge she insisted I join her in singing the nursery rhyme and we stood together, unashamed.
That night, my heart was full of tenderness as I sat down to print photos and compile a report for Beth’s parents. Your daughter is an amazing person. I wrote. So full of zest for life. I’ve shown hundreds of people around London, but I think Beth enjoyed it the most. In fact she’s given me a new love for my city. She’s a very special girl and I’m grateful we had today together.
Later, I added a note to the copy that would go to Michelle. I’m available any time. Just call.
Reach for a Dream is an organisation in South Africa that aims to fulfil the wishes of children with life-threatening illnesses.
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