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Dad was a boy at the time, just five years old. It was the Blitz, but he stayed in Battersea. His mum wouldn’t send him to the country when the other kids left. His Dad was off fighting, somewhere in Africa. There must have been an older sister around, but he never mentions her when he tells his story, the one about the lion.
[private]The details vary a little each time, especially now that he’s old. Essentially, it goes like this: May 1941 and the Germans have been bombing London since September. One night, a train winds its way through Battersea, Lambeth, the south of the city. This train carries a strange cargo: a circus. The tents, stalls, staff and animals – everything. A bomb hits the tracks. The train crashes, its carriages split open. The animals escape. They are rounded up quickly, but not the lion. Nobody will go near the lion.
So the lion makes its home in a bomb-site behind Dad’s house. His mum won’t let him join the onlookers, but it doesn’t matter – he can see it all from his bedroom window. Sometimes he catches a glimpse of the lion, occasionally he hears it roar. But all the time he can smell it. The way he tells the story might be different each time, but it always ends the same: “I will never forget the smell of that lion,” he says.
Did it really happen? I was always sceptical. Why would there have been a circus in London during the Blitz? The city was being bombed every night. Who would have gone to the bloody circus? And there was rationing, too. How would they have fed the animals? And even if the part about the circus and the train crash was true, if a lion had escaped, they would have caught it or shot it. They wouldn’t have left it wandering around for a few days until … well, what? The fate of the lion was never part of Dad’s story.
It used to annoy the hell out of me. The fact that he’d tell the same old story again and again. I did a little research into it once. I think maybe I was going to confront him. But I didn’t get anywhere. I just lost interest.
His problem is that, given the quiet life he’s led, he doesn’t have a big stock of anecdotes to draw from. Work, marriage, kids – not much else. Those things that happen to everybody. It’s different for someone like me, of course. I’ve travelled the world expenses paid, met famous people – all part of my job. I’ve stood at a crowded bar and told my stories glass in hand. I’ve seen him smile from the corner of my eye. But all he’s got is his lion.
When mum died, he went downhill fast. It happens. Dad found it hard to look after himself. We did our best for him, I think, but his mind started to go. Sarah, that’s my wife, she said he might come and live with us. But it would never have worked out, I told her.
Last time I visited, a nurse wheeled him into the garden. It was early summer. There were flowers all around. We talked about the weather and the food they were giving him. Mostly we sat in silence. I sneaked a look at my watch. I had a meeting. I think he knew I needed to go.
He said to me then, “Did I ever tell you about when I was a boy, about the lion?” For the last God knows how many years, whenever he’d asked me that question, I’d always given him the same answer. But not today. It was a big meeting for me. Instead, I said, “Yes Dad, you did tell me.”
He turned to look at me and said, “I can smell it now.”[/private]
Neil Baker works as a freelance writer. He studied creative writing at Birkbeck College, University of London, for two years and lives near Rye, in East Sussex, with his young family and his dog. He grew up in South London.