It’s like being born again. With no artifice. No fanfare. The howl of burning rubber announces the start of a new chapter. I’ve scrapped the previous one, twenty years of cute, harmless little events.
None of it really matters at this point. There’s a new world ahead of me now. It’s gonna change me, challenge me, surprise me, bore me. I am alone, but not afraid. I am curious. I am ready for whatever comes next.
Dead end street, W2. The carpet has recently been replaced. A bad job. There are gaps here and there. Shiny nails popping out from every corner. 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.
Bruno does not own a mobile phone. Never has. He is a true solitary man. Despite having earned some of his confidence lately, I know nothing about his past. But others have told me that he’s been here in the Staff House for about ten years. Ten years in the Staff House. Ten years in a room that’s about the same size as mine – a box room of about 80 square feet.
There’s 15 of these rooms in the house, some slightly bigger than others. There are two two communal toilet facilities, one on the ground floor and one on the top floor. I’m halfway between the two, so I have to either go up or down two floors. No one looks after the toilets. With a little practice, you get used to the filth. Generally, the one upstairs is slightly cleaner, although a severe blockage and subsequent flooding has rendered it unusable for a few weeks now.
The layout of the rooms is similar throughout the house. A single toy-like bed is tucked against the wall in one corner, often near the window. A narrow wardrobe is usually placed by the door. It might also function as a storage space for whatever you don’t want to keep on the floor.
A gritty old sink is conveniently located next to the bed in every room, a multi-use facility of sorts which, on lazy nights, works as an improvised urinal when the communal toilets feel too far away or too menacing. The sink is a key component of the room. This is where you wash, shave and clean. When it’s filled up with water you might even use it to keep certain items cool.But the sinks can be problematic. Sometimes they refuse to drain, and, as we all soon learn, there’s no over-the-counter chemical that can unclog them. Until some guy from the hotel maintenance team is free to come over to the house, you may have to spend several nights sleeping with your head in uncomfortable proximity to a combination of hair and unidentified residue, floating in a stagnant pool of dirty water. A grotesque baptismal font.
Due to the lack of space, chairs, desks or tables are rare. I have only seen one in the whole house, in Giuseppe’s room upstairs. This means that all the entertaining, socialising, eating and drinking happens on floors or beds.There is no communal kitchen in the Staff House, and no real facilities in the rooms to make a hot meal. Any cooking in your room is frowned upon. Hotel management strongly encourages us to eat in the hotel’s staff canteen, a 10-minute walk from the building. This a measure designed to stymie the spread of mice infestations in the House, and avoid triggering our hyper-sensitive fire alarm.
Eating in the hotel is free but not many tenants care for it.Microwaves and kettles are present in every room, often positioned in the most unlikely of locations. Any free space will do – under the bed, in the wardrobe, or simply on the floor by the door (often the only place where there’s a socket to plug them in). Fridges are more rare, since the rooms are not big enough to have one, and the small ones are too noisy. So I keep basics like milk and white wine in the sink – filled with cold water – or, in winter, outside, on the windowsill.
When you’ve been limited to a microwave and a kettle for an extended period of time and you’ve had your fill of pot noodles and 4-minute lasagnas, you will start to devise brilliantly innovative ideas to improve your cooking. A few days ago, Giuseppe showed me how he often pours boiling water from his kettle into a thermos flask filled with soup pasta, leaving it to cook for a few minutes. The thermos should be able to keep the water boiling hot for a good 10-12 minutes, enough time to ensure that the pasta is edible.
Of course, all this unauthorised cooking causes the fire alarm to go off every few days, often very late at night, or in the early hours of the morning, when the night workers come home from the hotel. When the piercingly loud siren goes off, we all have to leave the building in our pyjamas until someone, usually Bruno, climbs up a step ladder and resets the alarm with a ballpoint pen.
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. 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.