It’s like being born again. With no artifice. No fanfare. The howl of burning rubber and the muffled sound of a flight attendant announce the start of a new chapter. I’ve shelved the previous one, twenty years of cute, harmless little events. None of that really matters at this point. There’s a new world, a new life ahead of me now.
The idea of moving to London came out of the blue. I finished my basic studies and had no idea what to do next. All I cared for was making music, writing, and drawing. I wasn’t thinking about the future, which to me seemed vague and out of focus. 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.
I was excited to break free and see the world. I was chasing something I wasn’t sure of – I longed for long drives past rolling hills and valleys, honey sunsets and starry nights. I imagined myself embarking on an epic train journey. Not the kind that involved backpacks and a bunk bed in a smelly youth hostel.
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 felt the way I do. People who shared my code
But most of all, it was the urban jungle what seemed most attractive to me. London offered freedom, anonymity. The mysteries of the big city were calling me. The noise, the chaos. The late night walks with music and fast food and neon lights flashing in the starless sky.
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 meditate, or at least I pretend to. Like a hairy teenage monk whose acne scars have barely healed. So far, London hasn’t quite been what I imagined, but I’m enjoying just going through the motions.
I’ve plunged headfirst into adulthood without reading the manual. Being independent is proving easier than I expected though. I’m finding my way around through dimly lit places, and there is a great deal of improvisation. I’m mastering a new language, both literally and metaphorically. I’ve thrown myself into the current of self-reliance and, so far, I think I’m doing ok.
There’s been no transition period. No planning ahead. Two weeks ago I was sat on my childhood bed playing guitar, my only responsibilities being to keep my bedroom more or less tidy and to sit at the table for lunch with my parents at exactly 2pm. Now I’m standing in the lobby of a central London hotel pushing around the suitcases of rich middle eastern people. One quick look at me and you can tell that I’ve never worn a suit or wear leather shoes before in my life. My acne scars have barely healed and I am mostly incoherent to everyone around me.
I believe this is the way it should be done. Personal achievement comes from daring, from obeying the exciting and sometimes foolish blind urge like the one that brought me here. I trust that adaptation will happen organically, naturally. There are obstacles, but they usually sort themselves out.
I’m aware that I’m not going through anything that any of the people living here in the Staff House haven’t already experienced in a similar way, although the reasons they came here for are most likely not the same. The big difference is that I’m not really here out of financial need. I’m only trying to find my place in the world. You could say that I’m on a personal and spiritual quest but, mostly, I’m here because it’s different and more exciting than everything I ever knew.
I try to explain this to some of my fellow housemates when they ask me, but they don’t seem to understand it at all. I suspect there’s even a degree of resentment towards me for that reason. I’m by far the youngest tenant in the house. Most of the other tenants are 20 or 30 years older than me, adults who live by themselves in box rooms with barely the means to make a hot meal. Most of them are still here because they’re stuck. Some have families abroad and rely on their steady income. At their age, it might be hard to find a job elsewhere, and the Staff House is just convenient and cheap.
One thing for certain is that, whatever our reasons to be here are, once you walk through the door and put your suitcase down we are all equal. We all face the same issues. Our rooms are equally small. Our jobs at the Hotel are equally tiresome and repetitive.
Another thing that we do have in common is that no one here seems to regard London as their home. Even if they’ve been here for 10 or 20 odd years. It appears as if 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, and then leave. London is a new chapter, perhaps the gist of the story, but not where it ends. It’s an easy place to find a job, get on your feet, forge an experience and then move on.
Shuffling in our beds, we stare at the ceiling and think of what to do next. Most people’s goal is to make money fast and escape the grind. Whatever your reasons are, 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 tool, a stopover on the way to the promised land.
The Staff House is like a small Tower of Babel dressed in a Regency dress. 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 the downstairs payphone. As I walk past him, 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 thing isn’t even hooked up!”.
There are other strange, silent men in the house. 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, one side of his face dimly lit, enhancing his acne scars. “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.