Dead end street, W2. Number 34. The carpet has recently been replaced. A bad job. There are gaps here and there. The odd nail exposed, bright silver dots in a deep-red sea. The sound of squeaking and creaking makes it feel like the floor is sinking under me. Still, it’s nice to walk on plush, brand new carpeting. A small pleasure in a house that is otherwise falling apart.
Bruno unwraps a chocolate bar and, with his huge fingers, begins to fold its packaging, carefully and with solemn precision, until it’s the size of a stamp. Perfectly folded around itself like some kind of origami trick. He tenderly places the wrapper button inside a tiny shoe and yawns.
Bruno thinks that this building was a third-rate dump not that long ago. The kind of cheap motel where one could find refuge at the end of a messy night. The walls are tired and sweaty, and seem bored to death by the lives of those living within them. They have witnessed hordes of nomads passing through, coming and going every few weeks or months. They are walls that never ask questions, patiently performing their role as sympathetic allies.
The cream coloured wallpaper maintains a glossy shine, but it’s peeling away around the edges, up where it meets the ceiling, slowly exposing the bugs that live amidst the mould. Bruno lives in one of the rooms downstairs. He works as a housekeeper supervisor at the hotel. All he does is sitting at a desk in the basement, assigning rooms to the cleaners. Every now and then, and always without warning, he turns up in my room with whatever lost property he’s found that day. Discarded gifts from the inhabitants of the big hotel where we all work. Cheap toys or souvenirs made of plastic or cork. Unopened chocolate boxes. A bottle of expensive wine. Maybe some sweets from one of those fancy street markets. Whatever’s been left behind by our flush guests.
We hang out for hours, drinking and laughing, speculating about all the weirdos in the house, and listening to his latest musical acquisitions. Japanese editions of classic albums on CD that I play on a discman plugged into a pair of cheap speakers. Mostly instrumental stuff. Jazz, or guitar music.
I sit on the floor and Bruno positions himself on the bed like a totem. He is contentedly silent for the most part, occasionally exhibiting his Argentine cynicism, accompanied by a big toothless grin. He would stay up all night if it was up to him. The night only ends when the sun comes out. Or when I fall asleep on the floor, at which point he quietly leaves.
Bruno is a strange character. Sometimes inscrutable, occasionally intimidating. There’s a certain Italian shade to his character. Controlled anger. Passion. A sense of humour that most people would find inappropriate.
He does not lead what you would call an ordinary life. His shift in the hotel begins at 4pm and he leaves his post, promptly, at midnight, immediately heading to central London, where he works all night as an illustrator and cartoonist for a huge film production company. He gets back home around 7am and then goes to sleep. He says that this pattern helps him stay sane, after all these years in London. Night softens the rough edges of the city, he says. It puts everything in its right place.
Bruno told me that no one knows about this part of his life except me. He claims to be behind some of the biggest animation movies of recent years. Which doesn’t seem ridiculous to me. His drawing skills are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, while we drink wine together, he starts scribbling away on the corners of used tissues or in my sketchbook, creating, with just a few traces, perfectly animated little creatures that move gracefully as you flip the pages.
A couple of vintage coin-operated phones are located on two separate floors. Which means that Bruno is probably right in his guess that this was once a cheap hotel. There is no Internet in the Staff House, so these artefacts are still of good use here. Sometimes I hear people talking to their families in some unknown language for hours. International time differences mean that these loud conversations end up burbling away all night, deep into the early hours of the morning.
But the best thing about the Staff House has to be the roof top. For some reason I’m the only one going up there. It’s a liberating feeling, climbing up that narrow staircase, opening that heavy metal door, and walking into that open space. I sit there for a good couple of hours, gazing into the London skyline, beneath an orange sky. Watching the sun do down over a sea of roof tops, chimneys and satellite dishes. This makes everything fine.
This is the Staff House, tucked away at the back of an attractive row of regency town houses in a tidy cul-de-sac just off Notting Hill Gate. The grandiose entrance suggests opulence and luxury, a far cry from the reality behind that door. But despite all the inconveniences, this is an okay place to live. Maybe we’re lucky to even be here, mixing with the well-to-do residents of Notting Hill, where I’m told the average renter forks out several hundred pounds a week.
Here, surrounded by the wealth, urgency and anonymity of central London, an odd mixture of individuals have found their home. Strangers in a strange land. Temporary for many and a decades-long home for some, this house of homesickness and solitude fosters strange eccentricities and memorable stories. For these are the kinds of people that keep the engines of the city running, and their tale sometimes goes unnoticed.