It’s sort of hard to put into words.
Well, it happened a long time ago. You’ll think I’m wasting your time. But I’ve been thinking about it, going over and over it. And it means something.
So, I’d moved up to Edinburgh, it must be nearly ten years ago now. I just needed a new start. My girlfriend had found someone else, someone who could give her the things she needed, she said. But that’s not important.
It’s all a bit jumbled. The more I think of it…Right, I suppose I sort of ran away to Edinburgh. I’d found a random job and somewhere to stay. But it turned out I wasn’t cut out for call centre work and they let me go pretty much as soon as I started. And I think that frightened the girl whose flat I’d moved into. I mean, the day after I told her about my job, she said, ‘I don’t think this is working out.’ She was big on yoga, kept going on about her chakras, so I suppose she’d had a bad vibration or something. Anyway, when she said that, I asked her if I could borrow the Yellow Pages, and I was looking for a cheap hotel or a B and B when I discovered that backpackers’ hostels existed. So I phoned one and booked a bed…I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
No, the important thing is the hostel…
Right, so, when I got there it was this dour old deconsecrated church, brown stone and pollution streaked. And I remember standing there, looking up at the steeple and telling myself that it would only be temporary, while, at the same time, I knew everything was going wrong. But I still kept hold of the old view of myself. I’d always had a job, a flat. You know, you cling to that view of yourself even when those things have gone, don’t you? Like a shield. If that makes any sense…
After I’d checked in, they told me to go through to the dormitories. They were in the main body of the church. The room had three lots of bunkbeds in it. Two of them were taken, bags on them, clothes and stuff. I literally slung my bag on the spare bunk and ran. I walked the streets for hours, couldn’t face it. I didn’t want to meet the people or accept that’s where my life was at. But I had nowhere else to go. So I went back again at about two in the morning. You’ve got to face reality in the end, don’t you? It’s that or take the turn off for La-La Land. Anyway, I could hear the people snoring and beds creaking as I walked along the corridor. And the room stank. There were two people in there, foreign bodies, sleeping. It was bizarre. I stood there for a while trying to get my head round it. Then I climbed into bed with all my clothes on…I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
The point is…Right, the point is Jacques and Maria weren’t bad people.
They were my roommates. Jacques was a French watch-mender, plied his trade all over the world. He had a wife at home, but I never got to the bottom of that. He had this wiry black hair that was really tightly curled, like it was permed, and a pasty white skin that seemed loose, you know, badly fitting. I usually saw him when he came back from work. Our paths crossed in the dining area…
No, the dining area, kitchen, and a little TV room were down in the crypt with these windows that looked out at pavement level. So I’d see him making his dinner, and we’d have a chat. You had to stay a couple of steps away from him most of the time. I mean, he stank. I mentioned it to him once and he just said, ‘I like to smell.’ Some sort of statement, I think. But he was OK. You see, he told me that when people were in dire straights they could do some cleaning in the hostel for their rent. The managers, this pair of sneary Aussie girls, had never told me anything, but why would they, I suppose. Anyway, the next week I started cleaning.
The other roommate? She was a Polish woman called Maria. She didn’t have much English, but we could communicate. Her husband had died a couple of years before, cancer. She could only have been fifty but she was haggard. Had these missing front teeth, and broken blood vessels all across her cheeks. And she worked 16 hours a day, cleaning, so she could send money back home to her daughter. I think she was just grateful I talked to her. The girls on reception talked to her like she was stupid. Anyway, one day, I came back from trawling round the employment agencies and found her in the dormitory. She was probably on her lunch break, or something. I must have been looking a bit glum, because she tapped me on the arm. ‘I give,’ she said. Then she was kneeling down beside her bed and reaching underneath. She dragged out this big white plastic container and held it up at me, made me take it. It was a 5-Litre tub of mayonnaise. I tried to give it back, but she insisted. ‘With potatoes,’ she said. She must have noticed I was hungry. Do you see what I mean?
Exactly. It was an act of kindness. Those things stand out, don’t they? Like after my money ran out, this Australian guy made me pancakes, he fed me. He didn’t need to. I didn’t have any work for three months, so I was surviving on porridge. It was all I had to eat. Visitors always left it behind in their cupboards when they checked out. But what I’m trying to say is…He gave me pancakes. You can sit on a train, or go into work and no-one cares, they’re not interested…What I’m trying to say is…it’s…God, I’ve lost my track now…
No before that.
Yeah, so I’d started cleaning. I mean I cleaned the toilets and the showers, and I changed the beds after the visitors left. Some of the things turned your stomach. But I couldn’t find any work and my money was gone. I was stuck. So, I started to think, you know, there must be a reason for being there, there must be something to learn. And I started paying attention. There were all sorts passing through. A Romany troubadour from Romania who sang out in the courtyard after coming back from busking around the city. There were some who stayed for a while, a Bulgarian wide boy with Aviators who ended up working on a building site, Canadian exchange students, Polish stonemasons and builders. There was a Hungarian computer expert who took a job at the recycling plant, a young Scottish lad who’d run away from home, and a Czech guy who worked at a campsite. There were all sorts. There were stag dos and hen dos and school parties from France and Venezuela. Then there were Brazilians, Americans, Germans. There were wife beaters and deranged Christians as well. All passing through.
But then there was this nucleus of about 8 long termer residents and they all stuck together. I mean we were all outsiders in a way, everyone. But some of those long termers took ownership. They staked a claim and clubbed together, looking down at people. Not that it bothered me. I was just a starving cleaner, so they left me alone. But it wasn’t like that for everyone…
Right, there was this Spanish guy. Word was going round before I ever met him, all the long termers were saying he was a serial killer. Sergio, he was called. But he was OK, really. He was tall, emaciated, with sunken cheeks and this eye-popping stare, but he was a nice guy. I mean he was a bit odd, but who isn’t?
It was the way he strolled around, stately-like. He used to come into the kitchen at lunch time wearing this dressing gown, a green silk thing like a smoking jacket. He’d make his breakfast, coffee etcetera, then he’d carry it through to the TV room. I was usually in there when he came in. Occasionally, when he sat down, his dressing gown would gape open, but he wasn’t really doing any one any harm. And he was smart. I mean, one day, I was listening to him and Jacques talk about communism and Sergio was saying that Tito’s Yugoslavia was the only socialist state that ever worked. I mean I was sitting there wondering how one of the Jackson 5 had risen to power in Yugoslavia. But Sergio didn’t last, he was forced out.
Oh, the long termers had started making comments to him as soon as he arrived, sniping and bitching. The usual poison. Then they made him change rooms a few times, to make his life unpleasant and get rid of him. All he was doing was looking for work like the rest of us. They did the same with Jacques…
Well, they got together and decided he smelled too much. I mean, he stank but he was alright. But when they told him he had to have a shower he just left. Then they got rid of Maria, though that was a bit different…
Her alcoholism had accelerated. And she’d started taking these little pink tablets. Valium, I think. She got them from one of the other residents. There was a trade going on. Anyway, one night Maria was down in the dining room and she was massively drunk, sitting in the dining area, being hostile they said afterwards. The young Australian manager and her boyfriend started shouting at her to go to bed and threatening to throw her out. And she started shouting back at them. They had all their cronies on side of course, doing the moral outrage thing. I mean they were a bunch of swingers, so who were they to judge. But then Maria suddenly toppled backwards off her stool. She was on her back on the floor with her knees still raised, in a seated position. Then, unfortunately, she wet herself. It just seeped out on the wooden floor. So that was the end of Maria.
It was like you fitted in if you engaged in the exclusion thing. I suppose it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it? The cliques and the sniping. I work at a university now and it’s no different…
Me? In the end, I got a job at the Post Office, night shifts sorting the mail. I was still doing the cleaning as well. I quit after three weeks, when I had enough money to get away. I just packed up my bags and caught the train south again. But that’s not the point. It’s symbolic of something, isn’t it? The way it worked.
What I mean is, people are capable of kindness, but we build all these barriers…It’s like the people on the train, sitting right next to you when you’re going to work. You could reach out and poke them, but you can’t talk to them. And it’s like the long termers excluding people, taking ownership. There are these walls…Do you know what I mean?
It’s like…Right, the other evening, I was sitting out in the garden after work, just enjoying the sun. I only live in a terrace, with this stubby little garden hemmed in by fences on all sides. Very private, you know. Across the back, the people in the detached house have raised their fence to about ten feet high. To stop the cats getting in and crapping on their gravel, I think. Anyway, I had to get my fence fixed. You remember those winds in November?
Right, yeah, mine just crumpled one night. And I thought, I’ve got to fix the fence, respect the separation. So I got a firm in and I made the partition good again. Then, the other evening, I was sitting there and a cat hopped onto the back fence from the cracked-felt roof of next door’s shed. It dropped down into my garden, padded across the lawn, then clambered up the other fence and went into next garden. For a crap probably. Then I watched the birds flutter into the garden. There was a blackbird pecking at the turf and these three fledgling sparrows as well, flitting about from one garden to the next, finding their feet. I mean, it’s about boundaries, isn’t it?
No, I mean it’s the same everywhere…It’s society, isn’t it?
Christ, I don’t know how else to say it…It’s like, it makes sense when I’m thinking about it. Then, when I try to say it, it all gets lost in the words.
I don’t think there’s any point going over it again…It’s about…It’s just the way it is, I suppose.
No, I’m fine, thanks. But thanks for listening anyway. I might call back. When I’ve got it clearer, if that’s OK?
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