Relaxed Reads: A Hampstead Afternoon

Illustration by LaQuann Dawson

Illustration by LaQuann Dawson

Seth Murray

I got off at the Hampstead exit. I couldn’t believe how far I’d come in the past week and a half since arriving in London. Taking the Tube from Enfield to Hampstead required multiple changes of trains, but by now it was old hat to me. I felt pretty good about this until Helen later told me that she’d taken the same route by herself when she was nine. Helen was back at her house doing homework now, that’s why I was off exploring on my own. I told her I’d meet her by Leicester Square at 7 p.m., her Dad had bought us tickets to a show.

I walked up the stairs toward the exit. Thank god this isn’t one of those damn stations that require you to ride an elevator up to ground level, I remember thinking. It was always hot in those, plus the wait was too long and you had to pack in tight with a bunch of strangers. The afternoon sun was still shining when I emerged.

I really had no clue where to go once I exited the station. I had the address, but Google Maps wouldn’t work on my American phone unless I had WiFi access, or unless I was willing to pay an absurd fee, so I decided to go back in and ask the station manager.

“Excuse me, sir,” I said. I had learned by now that you’d get nowhere if you weren’t polite. “I’m looking for the John Keats house.”

“Never ‘eard of it.” 

He actually said it in a Cockney accent. I would’ve laughed at the irony if I hadn’t been annoyed. But he wasn’t rude. “Let’s see the address, then.”

I showed him. He thought about it for a minute. I saw a middle-aged woman in an expensive brown overcoat glance at me across the station. 

“Yeah, right,” he said, coming back. “You’re gonna want to take this street down three lights, ‘ang a left, walk a bit, ‘ang a right, walk a bit more ‘til you get to another light, then another left for a block or so and it’ll be on your right, by the looks of it. You got all that?”

Uhm. British etiquette prevented me from saying I was actually more lost now than I had been before asking him, so I assured him I understood, thanked him and left. 

On my way out the woman in the brown coat stopped me.

“Excuse me,” she said. Oh my god, an American. “Did you say you were looking for the Keats house?”


“Well, so am I.” She looked at me for a moment. “Wanna tag team it?”

Relief mixed with apprehension. Part of me was grateful for the company, but another part wishing I had been able to find it on my own. Dr. Johnson’ house, a few days back, had been a real pain in the neck to locate, but I was filled with an odd sense of pride once I found it. That, and this trip was special. Keats meant, and still does, a lot to me, and part of me felt like a second party would somehow affect the purity of my pilgrimage. But she seemed nice enough, and I couldn’t just say no.

“Of course,” I said, and off we went. We remembered the left out of the station, and were presented with a long rolling downhill.

“Man. This means we’re gonna have to come back up on the way back,” I said.

She laughed politely. “Yes. Yes it does. I see you’re American.”

“I see you are as well,” I responded playfully. My habit of acting familiarly around people I had just met drove British people generally insane. The Australians I had met at the hostel a few days back absolutely loved it, but Brits reviled it. Americans were usually hit or miss, but I took the chance anyways. She rewarded me with a smile.

“Yeah. I’m from Boston. How ‘bout you?”

“Ohio. A small town I’m sure you’ve never heard of that sits a few miles outside of a small city you may have heard of. Youngstown.” This was a rehearsed line. We took the left at the light.

“You know, I actually have heard of it. My Dad was really big in the labor movement back in his steel mill days.”

“He’d get along great with my Grandpa — his dad was in charge of the local Union and I’m pretty sure they’re all Communists. Not that it matters. My Grandpa has all these stories about his dad meeting with guys over mill stuff in their living room, then a few days later he’d see their faces on ‘wanted’ posters for throwing pipe-bombs at the mill offices.” 

She actually laughed hard that time. “Brilliant. I love stories like that. Are you a student?”

“Yeah, I study English at Kent State, which I’m sure you’ve heard of.”

“Of course,” she said. “Neil Young.”

Yeah. Neil Young. ‘We’re finally on our own.’” I loved Neil Young, but was always annoyed that the only connection people outside of Ohio made with my university was the shooting.

“You said you study English?” We made another turn.

“Yes, mam.” Please god, no lectures on the job market, I prayed.

“I studied English, too.”

“Really? Where?” I asked.


I bounce back and forth between a sour grapes, anti-establishment disdain for people with a lot of money that went to nicer schools than me and an admiration for those people when I actually meet them. 

“Does it make you happy?” she said.

“It’s the only thing that makes me happy.”

“Then don’t give it up.”

That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. We walked on in silence for a minute or so, admiring the glow of the afternoon sun on the rooftops. Somehow we had stuck, roughly, to the station-master’s directions, and if he was correct the house should be around the next bend. 

“Why are you in London?” I asked.

“I hadn’t been since I was your age. And I never did manage to see John Keats’s house during my last trip, so I decided to come back out. My husband stayed back in the States.”

We came up on a normal-looking house with a tree in the front yard, the only one on the block with a tree, I noted. It had a low black fence and was next door to a library. We had arrived. I stopped for a moment to take it in. 

“Well, see you inside,” she said, walking in.

I remained outside for a few minutes, admiring the house. A man that went out of his way numerous times to act as a literary mentor and friend to me once remarked that Keats had saved his life. I wish I would’ve asked that woman if the life she lived had made her happy. 

Contact Seth Murray at [email protected].