Dead end street, W2. Number 34. The carpet has recently been replaced, badly. There are small gaps here and there and the odd nail head sticking out – bright silver dots in a winding river of dark burgundy. Excess matting rests against the wall in every corner. It doesn’t silence the squeaking and creaking, which makes you feel like the floor is about to collapse under you. I do enjoy the feeling of walking on clean new carpeting though. A modest luxury in a building that’s otherwise struggling to keep itself together.
Bruno unwraps a chocolate bar, leaves the edible part to one side and, with his thick greasy fingers, begins to play with the plastic packaging in solemn concentration, folding it around itself until it’s reduced perfectly to the size of a stamp. He then tenderly places the little wrapper stamp inside a tiny shoe, and yawns.
There are approximately 20 bed-sitting rooms here in the Staff House facility, all occupied by us employees of a big four-star hotel located a 10 minute walk from here. Just one of the many hotels that populate in this area of London. Bruno thinks that the Staff House was one of them once. Not a fancy one by any stretch of the imagination, a boarding house more likely. A cheap late-night refuge for the lonely or the desperate.
Two coin-operated phones in the hallway downstairs supports this point. These relics from a different time look like one the pay phones you see in New York films from the 1970s, those silver metal ones that look bullet-proof, encased in a dark metallic open shelter still displaying the odd rude graffiti of yore. There is no Internet connection in the Staff House, so this machine is still very much of good use here. Sometimes I’m lying down in bed late at night and I can hear the distant sound of someone talking to their relatives in some mysterious language deep into the early hours of the morning.
The cream-coloured walls throughout the building feature a sweaty shine. In some areas the wallpaper is peeling away around the edges, up where it meets the ceiling, slowly exposing swarms of mysterious little 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 companions of our strange lives.
Two toilet facilities in frequent state of disrepair are located on separate floors. The walls have recently been painted over but when I first moved in they were covered with what looked like years’ worth of graffiti. I remember one particular message that someone carved into the wall right above the toilet seat which read: When the world runs out of money and we start using shit instead, the poor will be born without assholes.
On-going blockages and subsequent flooding often renders one or both toilets unusable for days. There are fewer things in life more character-forming than waking up in the middle of the night to the distant cacophony of snoring, then proceeding to sleepily stumble down the stairs, opening the toilet door and, upon switching the harsh white light, discovering in horror a pool of brown water with several floating turds looking like Polish kielbasas filling the toilet to the brim. The hotel maintenance team is responsible for fixing issues like these at the Staff House, although replacing the carpet and painting the walls seem to be higher on their list of priorities.
The bedsits themselves are pretty simple, and the amenities and layout are pretty much identical in each one. A single bed is tucked against the wall in one corner, often near the only window in the room, and a cheap, narrow wardrobe is located 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. In the absence of a fridge, you can fill it up with cold water and use it to keep cold drinks. The sink constitutes a multi-use facility of sorts which, on lazy nights, can also work as an improvised urinal when the communal toilets feel like too much of an emotional threat.
But these sinks can also be problematic. Occasionally and for no apparent reason 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 grey water. A sort of grotesque baptismal font that will make you feel like you’re on a virtual reality tour of Bubonic-ridden Venice.
Due to the size of the bedsits, chairs, desks or tables are rare. I have only seen one table in the whole house, in Giuseppe’s room upstairs, one of those coffee tables with two extendable sides. The table features a large sticker of the 7UP character Fido Dido which Giuseppe tried to unsuccessfully peel off, so now it looked like Fido Dido was nonchalantly spinning his basketball despite having had his legs chopped off.
The absence of tables means that all the entertaining, eating and drinking happens whilst sat on the floor or on the bed. Eating was the most problematic thing. There are no kitchen facilities in the house and any kind of cooking in the room is highly frowned upon by the management, who strongly encourages the tenants to eat in the hotel’s staff canteen located a 10-minute walk away from the building. As soon as you move in they advise you 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.
Eating and dining in the hotel is free for employees, but not many of us care for it. Only the hoodlums of the house dare to keep toasters – a strictly forbidden appliance if there is one – however the management turn a blind eye when it comes to microwaves and kettles. Most of us have both, 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, as that it’s often the only place where there’s a socket to plug them in.
Upon moving here I was 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 keep the milk or the white wine in the sink filled with cold water 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 might start to devise brilliantly innovative ideas to improve your cooking. A few days ago, Giuseppe showed me how he 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. All of a sudden the piercingly loud alarm goes off, waking the whole building up in sheer horror, and 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 better than anyone else here. He works as a housekeeper supervisor at the Hotel. His job mostly consists of assigning rooms to the cleaners, making sure the rooms are ready for the next guests. 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.
A couple of times a week and always without warning Bruno turns up in my bedsit to hang out. He often brings along whatever lost property that he’s found that day at the Hotel, discarded purchases left in the bedrooms like plastic toys or souvenirs, cheap handbags, examples of strange tourist fads like those card holders or purses made of cork. Mostly useless stuff, although sometimes there will be half a box of chocolate truffles from Harrods or a bottle of expensive wine. Bruno pockets any useless crap, which I will sometimes try to identify first via a drunken game of twenty questions.
We hang out for hours, drinking and laughing, me lying down on the floor whilst he 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 to play them on my old discman which I have plugged into a pair of cheap speakers. Bruno’s big contrarian statement is that he dislikes lead singers or indeed any sort of vocals in music, so we listen mostly to instrumental stuff from the 70s and 80s. Lots of progressive jazz and face-melting guitar music, stuff like Michael Hedges or Jaco Pastorious.
Bruno is a mysterious man who 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 starts at 3pm and finishes at around 11pm. Four or five days a week he then heads over to central London to his second job as a an illustrator and animator for the film studio division of a, let’s say, well-known entertainment conglomerate. He then gets back to the Staff House eight hours later and goes to sleep for a few hours before his hotel shift begins. A true night owl if I ever saw one, he says that his true self comes alive as soon the sun goes down and the city lights switch on.
He says that he has worked in some of the major animation films of recent years. Maybe I am too keen to believe this claim, but the truth is that his drawing skills are like nothing I’ve ever seen. Sometimes, while we are 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 Disney-like creatures that move gracefully as you flip the pages.
Whether he’s full of shit or not, I might never know. I have asked colleagues about him, but no one knows him because he doesn’t really talk to anybody. Nobody has any idea about his second life as an animator. He doesn’t own a mobile phone which suggests that not many people outside his two jobs really expect to hear from him after hours.
Not that I find out that much in our sessions. The chat never gets too personal and we mostly just drift into strange conversation. He does have a sense of humour that most people would now find inappropriate, if not plainly abhorrent. Sometimes he is in this strangely quiet mood and I end up doing most of the talking. When that happens he just sits there on the bed contentedly silent, playing with candy wrappers or drawing, occasionally throwing some snarky comment – his Argentine cynicism always accompanied by a big toothless grin. He is of course able to stay up all night, and our soirées tend to end either when the sun comes out or 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. I think the others look at me suspiciously for that reason, Despite the fact that everyone living here works at the hotel, nobody really 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.