The idea of moving to London came out of the blue. I finished my A levels and had no idea what to do next. I wasn’t thinking about the future, which seemed vague and out of focus to me. I didn’t know how to make it more concrete. Back home the choices seemed limited to being a University dropout or joining the dole queue. Neither of which were particularly appealing.
All I cared for was music, writing, drawing, and film.
I was excited to see the world. I imagined myself embarking on an epic train journey. Not the one that resembled a typical backpacking / interrailing adventure. I longed for long drives past rolling hills and valleys, honey sunsets and starry nights.
I craved independence. Big city life offered that. It also offered freedom, anonymity. The mysteries of the metropolis were calling me. The noise, the chaos. The late night walks with music and fast food and neon lights flashing in the starless sky.
I guess I was looking for something more exciting than the life I had known in my hometown, and a place where I could meet people who feel the way I do. People who are searching for something they’re not sure of. People who share my code.
And here I am, just a few a weeks later, kneeling on a dirty mattress in my tiny box room, in the Staff House. Right in the middle of Notting Hill. I’m meditating. Or at least pretending to. A hairy teenage monk whose acne scars have barely healed. So far, London hasn’t quite been what I imagined, but for now it satisfies my thirst for excitement.
In a way, I’m learning to live again. I’m learning how think and feel in a totally new way. Improvising. It doesn’t matter what I do anymore, I just do it. I’m really just finding out how to live by myself. Mastering a new language, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve thrown myself into the current of self-dependence and, so far, I think I’m doing ok.
There’s been no transition period. No planning ahead. In the space of two weeks I have transformed from the local troubadour – a bright hope, freshly-out-of-art-school – into a timid, mostly incoherent new luggage porter in a central London hotel. I believe this is the way it should be done. Personal achievement and satisfaction comes from daring, from obeying that exciting blind urge. I trust that adaptation will happen organically, naturally.
I’m conscious that I’m not going through anything that any of the people living here in the Staff House haven’t already gone through. Although I’m by far the youngest tenant in the house, their experience is not that dissimilar to mine. It might be a London thing. It seems to me that no one is born here or dies here. One day you find yourself in London, write your book, so to speak, with ink or with sweat, then leave.
London is a new chapter, perhaps the gist of the story, but not where it ends. It’s an easy place to get a job and get on your feet quickly.
Shuffling in our beds, we stare at the ceiling and think of what to do next. How to make more money and get out of the grind, perhaps. It’s like we are all on our way somewhere. Maybe we’re all on the way home, be that a state of mind or a physical place, or both. London is a stopover on the way to the promised land.
Moving to London can be tough, at least at the beginning. Not everyone is able to keep up with the pace of a city like this. It must be hard getting out of it when you’ve been here for a while, especially once you reach a certain age. Most of my fellow Staff House residents and work colleagues are well into their adulthood. Men and women in their 40s and 50s living by themselves in their box rooms, with barely the means to make a hot meal.
The Staff House is a minimum-wage Tower of Babel. Spaniards, Italians, Poles, Algerians, Argentines, Hungarians, Romanians, Cubans al live under this roof. All expatriates. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, atheists, Freemasons. Housekeepers, handy men, porters, cooks. Talented people, many with a story to tell. Adventurers, fugitives, explorers, expert acupuncturists, masseurs, stamp collectors, one-eyed jockeys, quiet ex-cons, midnight bookies.
As the weeks go by, I increasingly find myself trying to avoid other tenants. The first few days were ok. Pleasantries were shared on the stairs and along the narrow corridors. I had the impression that most tenants liked the novelty of a fresh-faced new arrival from friendly Spain.
But that initial, easy friendliness soon began to transform, taking on more complex dynamics. It takes energy to interact with some of these guys. A couple of them have been living here for decades, and it shows. We might be on a similar journey and we might have been drawn to London for similar reasons but, aside from Bruno, I have absolutely nothing in common with any of them. Sometimes I see them, just as I suspect they seem me, as creatures from another planet.
The odder types, some of whom were especially friendly when I arrived, are less so now. They barely acknowledge me. One man is a particularly unnerving presence. I see him around work, but I can’t work out what his job is. I’ve never heard him speak or seen him interact with anyone in the Staff House, but every other night on my way to my bedroom I see him using one of the pay phones. As I pass, I hear him speak very quietly into the handset in an unknown language.
“He’s a raving lunatic”, Bruno told me the other night, choking with laughter. “That phone isn’t even hooked up, it hasn’t been working in years!”.
There are other strange, silent men. One of them, Jonas – who had lived here for years – was recently evicted following an incident. Jonas did nightshifts at the hotel, where he worked as a handyman. He was very short, dressed casually but very neatly, his t-shirts were always immaculately ironed and tucked in. He had neatly trimmed short hair and his pale skin was pock marked with acne scars. Two ghastly little eyes, devoid of any emotion or expression, were buried deep in his face.
He must have been in his late 40s, but somehow looked 20 years younger. He was really just a quiet, strange man who had been living in the smallest room of the Staff House for at least a decade. I learned recently that he hadn’t spoken to anyone for at least a couple of years prior to my arrival.
At first, I didn’t sense anything particularly threatening about Jonas, But I had noticed his tendency to conclude our conversations with an eerie parting comment, like “let’s be grateful for still being alive”, or “see you later… if there is a later”.
He turned up at my doorstep a couple of times, for no particular reason. I would open the door and find him there, standing on the doorway, staring blankly into the distance. “Just checking that you’re okay”. One time he came to borrow a corkscrew, which he returned a couple of days later. That seemingly small gesture seemed to make a big impact on him. Every day, for the following couple of weeks, he would mention it in conversation. “Oh, and by the way, thank you for the corkscrew that one time”.
I soon found myself trying to avoid Jonas at work and in the House, even checking the window before going out to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing him – a small, erect figure marching down our dead end street in a very straight line, head fixed, staring blankly ahead, barely blinking – was enough to justify my avoidance tactics.
As the handyman of the hotel, Jonas owned copies of all the room keys, including those of the Staff House. Apparently, he’d become obsessed with one of the new housekeepers, a cheerful Polish girl who’d moved to the House a few weeks earlier. Jonas wasted no time in asking her on a date and didn’t respond well when she rebuffed his advances, escalating his pursuit and changing his shifts to coincide with hers so they’d walk home together.
A formal complaint to the hotel’s management followed, but Jonas’ exit was sealed by a final climactic event. One evening after finishing work, the housekeeper opened the door to her bedroom to find him sitting on her bed, carefully folding and tidying her underwear, which he had seemingly removed from her bedside table and spread across her bed.
Jonas was almost immediately sacked and thrown out of the Staff House. The housekeeper decided to leave. Bruno, who had detested Jonas for years, delighted in his expulsion and, accompanied by music, microwaveable dishes and cheap incense, the event is still a reliable topic of conversation and laughter during our late night sessions.
To be fair to my fellow inmates, Jonas’ case is the most extreme example of troubling behaviour I’ve so far encountered in the house. According to Bruno, who’s been here longer than anyone, Jonas’ is the first tenant to have been evicted for behaviour of this kind.
There are a few other odd, reclusive characters here with strange but ultimately harmless habits – Bruno being one of them – but, as far as odd behaviour goes, my favourite, without a doubt, is Giuseppe. The one and only Giuseppe.