The Bedsit People. Part 1.

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Dead end street, W2. Number 34. The carpet has recently been replaced. A bodged job. There are gaps here and there and the odd nail exposed – bright silver dots in a sea of deep-red. Excess carpet rests against the wall in every corner. The sound of squeaking and creaking makes it feel like the floor might seek under me any minute. Still, it’s nice to walk on plush, brand new carpeting. A modest luxury in a building that’s 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 in some kind of origami trick. He tenderly places the wrapper button inside a tiny shoe and yawns.

Bruno reckons that this building was a once a cheap motel, the kind where one could find refuge at the end of a messy night. The coin-operated phones located on two separate floors support his point. There is no Internet connection in the Staff House, so these long-service machines are still of good use here. Sometimes I hear people using them, 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.

There are approximately 20 bed-sitting rooms here in the Staff House facility, all occupied by employees of a big hotel around the corner – one of the many that populate in this area of London.

Throughout the building, the cream-coloured walls still maintain a glossy shine – its wallpaper peeling away around the edges and up where it meets the ceiling, slowly exposing the bugs that live amidst the mould. These walls must have witnessed hordes of nomads passing through this place over the years, never asking questions, patiently performing their role as sympathetic allies of our strange lives.

Two toilet facilities in constant state of disrepair are located on separate floors. On-going blockages and subsequent flooding often renders one or both unusable for days. The hotel maintenance team is responsible for fixing issues like these at the Staff House, although this seems to last of their priorities.

The amenities are the same in every room. A single bed is tucked against the wall in one corner, often near the window. A narrow wardrobe is usually placed by the door. A gritty old sink is conveniently located next to the bed. The sink is a key component of the room. This is where you wash, shave and clean. When filled up with water you might even use it to keep certain items cold. The sinks constitutes a multi-use facility of sorts which, on lazy nights, can work as an improvised urinal when the communal toilets feel too far away or too menacing.  

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 sort of grotesque baptismal font.

Due to the size of the rooms, 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, eating and drinking happens whilst sat on the floor or on the bed.

There are no kitchen facilities in the house or in any of the rooms, and any kind of cooking in the room is highly frowned upon. Hotel management strongly encourages us to eat in the hotel’s staff canteen, located a 10-minute walk away from the building. A vague rule, imposed by the management when you first move in, advises against any ‘hot cooking’ in the rooms, a measure probably designed to stymie the spread of mice infestations and avoid triggering the hyper-sensitive fire alarm.

Despite the fact that eating and dining in the hotel is free for employees, not many of us care for it. Microwaves and kettles are still present in most rooms, 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). 

Upon moving here I was quickly told by one of the veterans that, unless you could afford one, fridges are luxury items that you only inherit if you stick around the Staff House long enough. Most rooms are too small to have a heavy and loud fridge in them anyway. I often fill the sink with cold water and keep the bottles of milk there or, if it’s cold enough 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 5-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 inside boiling hot for a good 15 minutes, enough time to ensure that the pasta is sufficiently cooked. 

Of course, all this illicit cooking causes the aforementioned fire alarm to go off every couple of days. This often happens 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 alarm goes off, we all have to leave the building in our pyjamas until someone, usually Bruno wearing his grey tracksuit trousers, climbs up a chair and resets the alarm with a biro.

Bruno has been living in his tiny bedsit here at the Staff House for more than a decade, and he therefore knows the building more than anyone else here. He works as a housekeeper supervisor at the hotel. His job at the hotel consists of assigning rooms to the cleaners. His office is in the basement, a window-less room that smells like a laundrette – that stuffy but comforting mix of detergent and tumble-dried air.

Most late evenings, and always without warning, Bruno turns up in my bedsit with whatever lost property he’s found that day. Discarded gifts from the guests of the big hotel where everyone here in the Staff House works. Cheap plastic toys or souvenirs, handbags or card holders made of cork. Unopened chocolate boxes. A bottle of expensive wine. Maybe some fudge from one of those fancy street markets, or US-imported candy sold in those strange blinding stores in Oxford Street. Bruno will pocket any old crap that’s been left behind by our flush guests and share it with me in our sessions. 

We hang out for hours, drinking and laughing, me lying down on the floor whilst Bruno sits heavily on the bed, still as a totem. We talk nonsense and speculate about all the weirdos in the Staff House, whilst listening to his latest musical acquisitions. Bruno collects Japanese editions of classic records on CD, and every time he receives a new one he brings it up. I play them on a discman plugged into a pair of cheap speakers. Bruno claims to dislike vocal music, so we listen to mostly instrumental stuff from the 70s and 80s. Lots of progressive jazz and virtuoso guitar music.

He has confided to me the inner workings of his daily life and, by all means, he does not lead what you would call an ordinary life. His shift at 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 to the Staff House around 7am and then goes to sleep. He says that this pattern helps him stay sane, after all these years in London. His true life starts when it gets dark, he says. Night softens the rough edges of big city life. It puts everything in its right place. 

His drawing skills are like nothing I’ve ever seen. He has, after all, worked in some of the most successful animation movies of recent years. Sometimes, while we’re sat there drinking wine, 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. 

Nobody in the hotel except me knows this part of Bruno’s life. He has never owned a mobile phone and does not talk to many people, but he seems to have taken a liking to me. I’m the only person he really talks to in the building, or seemingly elsewhere. I know more about him than everyone else at the hotel. He can be inscrutable, sometimes intimidating. sensical attitude. A sense of humour that most people would find inappropriate.

Sometimes he can be in a quiet mood which means that I end up doing most of the talking. When that happens he just sits contentedly silent, occasionally throwing some snarky comment – his Argentine cynicism always accompanied by a big toothless grin. A true night owl if there is one, he would stay up all night if it was up to him. Sometimes our soirées only end when the sun comes out, but most times I fall asleep on the floor, at which point he quietly leaves.

With the exception of these evenings with Bruno, no other forms of socialising take place in the Staff House. Despite the fact that everyone living here works at the hotel, nobody talks to one another. Besides the intermittent phone chattering in the distance, the sound of mice rushing to and fro one corner of the ceiling to other, and the fire alarm occasionally going off, you can really hear a needle drop here.

The best thing about the Staff House, however, has to be the roof top. For some reason I seem to be the only one venturing up there. It’s a liberating feeling, climbing up that narrow staircase, opening that heavy metal door, and walking into that open space. Sometimes, when I’ve had a rough day, I sit there for a good couple of hours, gazing into the London skyline and watching the sun go down beneath the orange sky, over a sea of roof tops, chimneys and satellite dishes.

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 a fine 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 place to live for some, this house of homesickness and anonymity fosters strange eccentricities and memorable tales. For these are the kinds of people that keep the engines of the city running, and their stories sometimes go unnoticed.  

I don’t know what my part is or will be in this story, but this is how it started.

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