As Graham and I walked to the back of the vast cue, we realised there was only one man working the ticket tills. He was an Asian man in his forties. His face was red and his brow was furrowed like a discarded piece of carpet. We joined the line after queuing up for the ticket machine that decided to stop giving change just before our turn.
The Victoria underground station was full of back packers, teenagers, junkies and business commuters. Every single face looked grey and grumpy. Some were atop suits, some adorning piercings and heavy makeup. Despite so many different people, no one would dare cut in line and bleat out “don’t you know who I am?” No matter their attire or pay cheque, everyone respected the fact they all wanted to get out of that filthy station.
A girl standing in front of us in the queue exclaimed loudly how bullshit this situation was. This made us smile. The girl would have been about 24. She wore a black leather jacket and a black denim skirt. A leopard print scarf was wrapped around her black, cropped hair. There was a tiny silver stud in her nose, the same colour as the ones in her ears. She was dying for a spliff. We told her where we were from and she got excited. She told us her name but I only heard the last vowel, I believe it was ‘e’.
She was sipping at a can of London pride beer, and beamed every time she tasted it. Her sister, who was also standing in the line, decided to sit down near the cue. She had just got off the train from Brighton and was lugging around a heavy camping sack. She too was sipping at a can of London pride. As we were chatting, we told them about our first time at Heathrow
“You got there and there was no information?” She was surprised
“No nothing at all. It looks like a giant hospital. After we finally got to the underground ticket booth, we got ripped off by the guy.” I said
“We bought a ‘before-hours’ ticket, but it was 5 to 9, so we could have saved seven pounds.” Graham explained.
“Fucks sake” she scoffed, then sipped her been, “Welcome to bloody England.”
By this time it was 10.25pm, and Graham and I were aching from the day’s activities. Our hostel was a dusty, old pub filled with young adults and their pheromones. Unfortunately, booze was also put in the mix and it was a wonder we got any sleep at all. There was no desire to stay there when we didn’t have to, so we would spend all day out in the sprawling city, the quaint town of Rochester, or in the green and hilly streets of Highgate. We made sure we would be exhausted and sleepy at the end of the day.
Victoria train station was huge and beautiful. The dome-shaped station was made of intricate patterns of white and grey marble, glass and brick. There were coffee shops in every nook and cranny and it was a nice place to people watch. However, the underground station attached was encased in metal grating, hot, dirty and nearing unbearable. One would have to walk down 20 stairs to get to the underground. Then the musk of collective sweat, perfume, floor cleaner and fast food would hit you, weakening the stomach and the will to go on. The ticket machines looked like ATM’s except they would make loud sounds, like at the pokies, if you didn’t have the right change. All the staff looked miserable working in a loud, hot tube tunnel for less than fifteen pounds an hour.
Finally we neared the front. A frumpy, middle-aged woman stood in front of us. She dragged her cranky four-year-old boy to the counter, bought her ticket, and then spent five minutes chatting to the ticket operator about the weather. Eventually the girl asked if they could hurry the hell up, and the woman walked off in a huff, dragging her boy through the turnstiles.
The tubes were crowded. There were advertisements everywhere telling you how to get to Heathrow, or how one could take a train to Scotland for just 17 pounds. Although London is a hub of multiple cultures, every single person has a grey tinge to their face. This could be because of the pollution or lack of Vitamin D, but underground the grey tinge combined with the bad halogen lights on the tubes made the passengers look gaunt and shady with big bags under their eyes. There were two young boys chatting near the door. One was dressed in baseball memorabilia that was two sizes too big for him, the other adorned a slick pair of jeans and a blue plaid shirt. His hair was oiled back like a biker from the 50’s. They were planning on going to the Glastonbury music festival in two days. The boy in the baseball gear had never been and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The kid in the rockabilly outfit was bragging that he had been three times, and that he’d met Thom York from Radiohead. Whether these two incidents were related, I’m not sure but he was proud of it.
The baseball kid had already packed everything they were going to need for their four-day music marathon including one tent to sleep in and another to hide their portable toilet in. The 50’s kid emphasised how disgusting the toilets get at Glastonbury and they’d feel much healthier if they had their own. The boy wearing the baseball gear looked about 16 years old. His skin was tanned, as if he didn’t live in a city that had shite weather at the best of times. His black hair was flattened by his white New York Yankees cap. He asked the rockabilly boy whether he had got the tickets. He shook his head and told him not to worry they’d be able to get in. The boy in the baseball gear was yelling at his friend as we got off the tube.
The first night in Willesden Green was spent roaming the streets looking for the hostel. After returning from Dublin that afternoon, we spent an hour hopping from train to train because the London police had to close down half of the Piccadilly line for a crime scene.
At 11pm the tube arrived at our stop. Willesden Green had a different air to London city. London had an ego, it was a little dirty, with buildings jutting into the sky like crooked hobo teeth, but it was exciting. Every corner had a different café, a different bookshop, a different historical building. Age was caked onto the stone work. Willesden Green smelt like petrol and rotten vegetables. Willesden Green was a poor neighbourhood wedged in close to rich ones.
The streets were narrow and crowded with tiny shop fronts. It was a mix of industrial car yards and off-licensed grocery stores. Everything was charcoal grey except for the signs which informed you about police using DNA spray for offences as small as public urination to horrific crimes they’d show you on BBC news. The night’s concerto started with a car alarm sounding off in the distance, followed swiftly by a chorus of howling dogs.
A tall, skinny black man with a giant smile named Sean greeted us at the No.8 hostel. Sean didn’t work there, he was just friendly. He was much more welcoming than the pudgy man at the front desk. The clerk gave us a stony stare as we told him our details. I tried to make conversation about his New Zealand accent and he curtly cut me off.
The hostel was built onto the back of a pub, a very cold, timber and brick pub. There were photo frames of Noel Gallagher from Oasis, David Bowie and Amy Winehouse on the walls. I didn’t like the fact Amy was next to David. At least Bowie learnt how to play guitar, not just wear it.
The stairs were flecked with old paint and creaked on every step. Our room was the size of a utility closet. The lock was loose and constantly threatened to fall out of its place. When I opened the door, two faces stared at us and nodded. They were a couple from China. Quite, tidy and could barely speak a word of English. I grabbed the book I bought on my first day at the British library’s Sci-Fi exhibition, ‘A scanner darkly’ by Phillip K Dick. I pulled back the doona and grimaced at the suspicious stains on the bed sheet. ‘Damn it’, I thought, ‘I’m sleeping on top of the doona’.
The next morning the staff had set up the breakfast gear all over the bar. The urn spat out the hot water at irregular intervals, which slopped out of the cup and onto the person holding it. Used plates, bowls and cutlery were strewn throughout the dirty tavern, and on the stroke of nine the staff took everything away. The main bartender unplugged the toast conveyor belt while some of the tenant’s food was still cooking.
At ten, I witnessed the hairdryer installed in the bathroom catch fire and injure a fellow traveller. She was ok in the end, but remained extremely angry. Graham ran downstairs to get some help. I found a roll of gaffer tape and covered the hair dryers controls once it cooled down. I also taped a warning to the mirror before leaving to leave a complaint with the staff. The problem with the hairdryer was that someone decided to permanently install it into the wall. Even though the showers in the bathroom lacked hot water, the moisture and steam must have built up and seeped into the wiring. Thus causing the electrical fire. Four days later, no one had attended to the faulty machinery.
Everyone who stayed at the No.8 hostel did not choose it for its reviews. It alleged to be cheaper than the average hostel, as well as clean, but our tab cost a little bit more than it claimed. When brushing my teeth one night, I started chatting to a girl from Western Australia, who was cleaning green paint off her face. She had been working as a living statue around Britain for four months. I explained about the hairdryer and she sighed. She told me it was better if Graham or I complained, because they didn’t like her. I asked why and she said it was because she bitched about the conditions more than anyone. She wiped off the rest of the green paint and left.
Despite the lack of care for the occupants, the corn flakes that tasted like cardboard, the cold water, the tainted bed sheets and the bad-mannered staff, the internet access was free. This was the sweet that came with the bitter because internet access in hostels generally range from one pound an hour to five pounds an hour.
The hostel did have a kitchen but it was in bad condition. It was a large room on the top floor that led out onto a small deck hidden in the roof alcoves. The deck had a table and two chairs. There was a thin tarp set up to hide the half completed section of the deck that looked over the beer garden. The kitchen floor boards had never been varnished so they were splintered and the colour of dirty beige. The door frames were flaked with paint.
The only time we ate tea at the hostel was on the deck. Several dead pot plants were placed around the alcoves as a forgotten attempt to brighten up the place. We bought vegetarian lasagna and apple cider and had a small feast. We hid the ciders every time someone was in the kitchen because the staff got cranky if you didn’t buy their alcohol. Europe is much more informative when it comes to vegetarian and vegan food because they have indications all over the packets. Britain’s food and alcohol prices are a nice change to places like Australia, Paris or Germany. Compared to Australian prices, a sandwich in London will cost you two pounds. Even with the exchange rate it is still half as much as we pay. A bottle of cider, which would be $5 Australian, is just a pound in the UK.
However the alcohol consumption rules in Britain are strange. The legal drinking age in the UK is 18. On the other hand teenagers aged 16 and 17 can have a low alcohol content drink with a full-sized pub meal. There is an act called ‘Challenge 21’ that requires a person buying alcohol who looks under 21 to provide ID. However if you are 18 you will be able to buy alcohol. If you are 16 you are able to buy chocolate liqueurs from the supermarket, although its rare people are carded for chocolate.
After finishing the soggy food and tasty cider we left the tension of the No. 8 hostel and went to see some British comedy. There were a few people doing shows near the West end, next to the theatres and the ridiculous four-storey “M&M” world that sold everything but packets of “M&Ms”. The man we watched was called Inky Jones, and he wasn’t very good.
The little, hotel basement smelt like moist cigarettes and toilet deodorant. It was packed with seats and had a small stage area for the comedian to stand, but by 8pm there were only six other people sitting down with us. The first thing he did was begin to pay out the each member of his tiny audience. This was a mistake. This was not a good way to get laughs from such a small crowd, especially at the beginning of one’s set. He had no one left to enjoy the teasing. Inky wore a suit jacket and baggy, microfiber track suit pants. This was also a mistake. He did have occasional moments of good comedy rhythm or quick wit, but most of his material fell short.
On our last night in the hostel we packed all our bags, left out our clothes for the next morning and got the 25 pound deposit back for our room key. We let our roommates know our alarm would go off at four am and apologised in advance. Then we tried to sleep. However the pubs owners had other ideas. The noises started at one am. The low hiss of drums and the hard thudding of bass had been turned up downstairs. The patrons decided that tonight, of all nights, was the night for getting shit-faced.
Footsteps and high-heels hammered up and down the stairs constantly. The treble tones of girls giggling and shouting resonated off the tiled floors and into our room. A man, possibly from Liverpool was standing near our door yelling to someone called Dazzo. “C’mere, no c’mere mate. Look Daz, shhh, no shhh there’s fuckin’ people sleepin. Look, I promise I won’t hurt cha”.
Dazzo replied in an undecipherable slur and the Liverpoolian went away. By Four AM we didn’t need our alarm.