I started these four-day working weeks with the best of intentions and biggest of plans! I was going to explore and do stuff and write things. However, I’m now four weeks in and the only writing I’ve done is about how I’m going to do more writing. How meta.
The difficulty I have with writing is the sheer magnitude of the task at hand. What lives in splendid colour and 3D in your mind can be flat and lifeless outside of it. The gulf of richness between the living and the retelling can be challenging to cross. Writing is at once a joyful and tortuous process.
But, fuck it. I said I was going to do it so I am.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent. :)
New York had chewed me up and unceremoniously spat me out as if I were a bit of gristle stuck in its teeth. I was down, but not out at this point and upon surveying my pitiful bank statement made the decision that I would spend the last of my life savings on a trip abroad. I was 23, stupid and brave.
I booked my flights, handed all of all my worldly possessions, including a TV/VCR combo, a trunk of vintage coats and a jewellery box full of photos that had once belonged to my mother, to my one remaining New York friend, Betty. I packed my hideous, hand-me-down tapestry suitcase with all the wrong clothes for the impending London winter and boarded the plane at JFK.
The Air India flight was loud and long, the arduous Tube journey seemed even longer and by the time I reached my destination of Bayswater I felt an eternity had passed since I left home and had no clue how to go about finding my hostel. This was pre-Google Maps. Fuck, it was pre-smart phone.
Exhausted and defeated I approached the nearest taxi driver and asked for directions. He informed me that my destination was some way away and that with my obscenely large, eyesore of a suitcase I was better off getting a ride with him. Of course I trusted him and hopped in his car. Before I’d even settled in properly he’d driven me around the roundabout and then round the corner to my accommodation. I could see the Tube station from the front steps of the building. Cunt.
The hostel I booked was adjacent to Hyde Park and on a very nice street, but it was a shithole. I lived in a room with 11 other people, all stacked on top of each other like shoeboxes in rickety, squeaky bunk beds to maximise what little space there was. The air was always thick with the smell of feet and the windows constantly fogged up by our collective breath.
The guy who slept below me was another American, the two dudes next to me were UK nationals in their 40s who chose to live in the hostel to avoid council tax. They grew mungbeans on the windowsill and never changed their sheets, which were soiled with damp and mould. The other beds were on heavy rotation except for Beth’s. Beth was a jolly, kind and affable Australian who took me under her wing and introduced me to sweaty, pre-packaged Marks and Spencer cheese and onion sandwiches and alcopops. It was Beth who joined me on my first night out in London.
Before I left New York, Betty gave me the phone number of a friend of hers named Joe. She explained that they had met in New York and she’d since been to London to see him. She told me he’d show me around and if I ever got stuck to give him a call. I called Joe that afternoon from a PAYPHONE. Back in ye olden days, before those things were used exclusively as urinals, people like me used to use them to talk to other people. I digress. Joe answered the phone with a voice as rich and sweet as maple syrup and I have never wanted to be a pancake more or since. He also called me “love” which, any American will tell you, is an instant panty soaker.
Once I composed myself enough to focus on the words he was saying we agreed to meet that night in Camden. Now that I’m a Londoner and have lived here for 15 years I can say with 100% certainty that this was a HUGE red flag. But hindsight aside, the excitement pulsing through my body at the thought of meeting this exotic London boy was almost too much to bear. What the fuck would I wear? Should I shave? Where the fuck was Camden?
I queued up for an hour to use the one shower in the hostel that wasn’t completely clogged up with cum. I then chose a tasteful outfit of jeans, Dr. Martens and a slightly sexy, totally climate-inappropriate, sequinned, strappy top that was about three sizes too big, but it was on sale, and that’s how a bitch lived in New York.
I dragged Beth with me as my reluctant wing-woman and we sidled up to the bar at The World’s End, which I now know is pretty much the worst bar in London, if not the world. Bacardi Breezers in hand, we plopped ourselves into some stupidly low-to-the-ground stools and folded our legs uncomfortably behind us. I picked at the label on my bottle as I bore a hole in the door with my eyes waiting for Joe and his friend while simultaneously trying to look super cool and aloof.
I had never seen Joe, so every time someone with a dick walked into the pub I popped up looking like a hopeful meerkat. I checked my watch, they were late. Beth and I continued to make small talk, but we were both preoccupied with the promise of the night stretching and receding in front of us like the tide. I was so desperate for an adventure I could taste it. I could feel it prickling just beneath my skin like a fever. Surely I hadn’t left New York for London for nothing?
I was lost in the enormity of my slowly deflating expectations when the boys walked in. They swaggered over to the table and sat down, administering a heady cocktail of relief and pheromones in the process. We exchanged pleasantries, introduced everyone to everyone before Joe said, “right then, can we get the fuck out of this shithole.”
Beth and I trailed slightly behind the boys, tripping a bit on our delirium, before pushing our way into a bar that looked and smelled like a fight. Men pushed each other back and forth jockeying for position at the bar, women with painted lips and tattooed arms tottered on towering heels, sipping from oversized bottles of Newcastle Brown. The air was heavy with the scent of rusty metal and malice, it was intoxicating.
The boys had disappeared into the crowd almost instantly, but I spotted them coming back to us, drinks in hand, and could finally get a real look at them. Joe wasn’t tall, about my height and though his leather jacket gave him extra width, he was waifish. His jeans clung to his thighs, but hung from his narrow hips deliciously. He had an easy smile and slightly uneven rodent-like teeth hidden behind lips that were the perfect kind of plump. The kind women pay a lot of money for, but never quite get right. His eyes were big blue saucers adorned with the most ludicrously luscious, curly lashes which, if they weren’t blonde, you might assume were enhanced with a coat of mascara. His hair was spiked as high as it would go and though thinning, I thought he managed to pull it off.
Joe’s friend Ben was also attractive, but I barely noticed him. He was kind and funny, but I was drowning on dry land stood next to Joe, breathing in his dank bouquet of hair product and damp laundry. Beth wasn’t keen on either of the boys, but she and Ben made polite chit chat until the band began to play and drowned out any hope or expectation of conversation.
We danced, rubbing our bodies en masse together, occasionally breaking the scrum and pushing forcefully through the tangle of limbs, rebirthing ourselves into the cold night in pursuit of a cigarette. When Joe ran out of rollies we shared my Lucky Strikes, swapping saliva on filters and chatting bullshit from chattering teeth as we watched our visible breath combine and disappear on the wind.
The bar closed. We all walked unsteadily down the road, arm in arm, and waited in line in front of a throbbing building where the bass possessed me like a spectre and turned my bones to tuning forks. Once inside we drank until it got fuzzy. We spilled drinks and secrets, screaming into each other’s faces as we danced too close and I fell in love with the night and with London.
Before Beth made her exit she begged me to come with her. Looking back it was probably more for her safety than mine, but I was a rubbish friend and chose to stay with the boys. I was living the London life I thought I deserved. I was having the kind of night I knew would sustain me when I checked my bank balance in the morning and realised I could never go out again.
We closed the club. I was woozy and giddy with nowhere to be and no idea where I was. Joe kindly invited me to his place to “see his record collection” and I knew it would be wrong to refuse such an offer. We boarded the most miraculous mode of transportation London has to offer - the night bus. Anyone who’s ridden a night bus knows that it is not just a way to get from Point A to Point B, but can often be the highlight of your night. People from all walks of life, all socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, races, religions converge on the Night Bus. We are all equal on the Night Bus.
Joe, Ben and myself took three of the back seats on the lower deck. I pressed my forehead against the cool window to get some relief from the fluffy blanket of drunkenness that was starting to weigh substantially on my shoulders, threatening to tuck me in and put me to sleep there and then. I zoned out for a minute, but when I came to there was a man in front of me shouting that I looked like Kelly Osbourne and demanding money. I sat up straight and asked the man if I could help him with anything. He screamed at me again that I was Kelly Osbourne and before I could register what was happening I saw a fist shoot past my face and connect with his. Ben had punched the screaming man.
Fists, elbows, shoes were flying everywhere. Joe managed to get me up and push me off the bus, which had stopped due to the commotion at the back. As I stood on the pavement looking into the bus, watching Joe and Ben fight this shouty man I had the strangest sensation that I was watching something on TV, something not real or happening to me.
The police arrived and put Ben and Joe in handcuffs, but not the screaming man. I was confused and out of it, but the adrenaline of the situation had started to kick in. I spoke to the police and informed them that this was a case of mistaken identity and that it was the other man who should be arrested and that these two gentlemen were coming to my rescue. The police, to their credit, were so kind in dealing with my drunk ass and my even drunker compadres. They took the cuffs off Joe and Ben, but the screaming man took off running and they made no attempt to catch him.
Once we had made our statements we were asked if we needed any medical attention. It was then that Ben revealed his swollen hand with a very bent finger. Dread pooled in my stomach, I felt like I had somehow caused all of this and had broken Ben. I rode shotgun in the ambulance with Ben and Joe in the back. Ben was admitted to the hospital and would need surgery. It was coming up to 5am and as Joe and I waited for Ben’s paperwork to be complete we decided to take a stroll round the hospital. We burned off the remains of the adrenaline by cuntishly running up and down corridors and riding on linen trolleys like a pair of demented children. I don’t know whose movie I thought I was in, but I pulled Joe into one of the consulting rooms and kissed him.
Maybe it was because the whole night had been so intense, maybe it was because we were lost and somewhere we weren’t supposed to be, maybe it was just because I had a massive lady boner for him. Whatever it was, it was exquisite. The smell of tobacco and stale beer, the faint taste of blood on his lips, now dry from the cold, all culminated in a physical manifestation of desire so delectable I felt outside of my body.
My fingers raked through, and got stuck in, his tacky hair, like papier-mâché. We took turns pushing each other into walls and against doorframes trying to get closer, to become part of the other even just for a moment. Time ceased to exist and once we untangled our bodies, still panting and wild with wanting, we made our way back to Ben’s room to see how he was. He looked shit. He was crestfallen. The alcohol had worn off and the situation was undeniably grim and unpleasant. I apologised for the hundredth time, but was still unsure who was at fault. It didn’t really matter. Ben’s mom was on her way, so Joe and I slipped out the front door and back into icy reality.
I can’t imagine how terrible I must have looked when we set out to face the day together but, as we walked, Joe ran his fingers gently down the inside of my arm to slow me down and laced his fingers between mine.
He had a nice record collection.