Escape To The East End
When I was here in London on holiday last July, I was walking with a friend in Regents Park one evening. The sun hadn’t yet dropped below the skyline and the air was warm and still. I mentioned to my friend- a London resident for over a decade- that I was moving back when it got a little warmer. He turned and raised his eyebrows at me, standing there in the sun in the middle of a heatwave, and said, “When it gets a little warmer?”
I explained that I meant after winter, when the city was defrosting, and he asked if I dislike the cold. He was looking at me as if to say this could be a problem.
“I don’t mind the cold.” I said, “But I figure when I get here I won’t really know anyone and I won’t be able to afford a place with decent heating, so it’ll just be me, on my own in the dark, eating baked beans out of the tin and freezing.”
He smiled and said, “That sounds romantic to me, man.”
Everything sounds romantic to him, but I guess some of his optimism stuck with me because I rolled into town as December was on its way out and the cold was seeping through the city. I’d gotten tired of Australia, sick of the heat and the familiarity of it all, and decided I’d take my chances with the chill and the damp. I don’t regret it at all – there is some romance and poetry to be found, even in miserable weather- but I shouldn’t have been worrying about being alone all those months ago. I should have been worried about being with people.
Back in Australia, I used to watch Escape to the Country and wonder how and why anyone would live in such cramped houses. Compared to where I’m staying now, those low-ceilings and poky little rooms look like a luxury. At present there are nine of us living in a five-bedroom house nestled in a part of the East End that hasn’t been labelled ‘up-and-coming’ just yet. On weekends when most of us are at home the inside of the house looks like somebody’s clothes dryer exploded. Jumpers, towels and trousers are draped over every radiator, filling the place with a thick, damp smell as they dry. Gathering up dry laundry is like a scavenger hunt, with individual socks or t-shirts scattered in odd places about the house. It’s a weird experience for someone like me, who has only ever lived with a maximum of three other people at a time.
My housemates, while friendly, are loud and seemingly omnipresent. They shout to each other at odd hours of the night, wander into the living room at one in the morning when I am trying to write at the table. I’m beginning to think we’re running the Portuguese embassy out of our kitchen – they just seem to appear out of nowhere. The other night I went downstairs for a cup of tea and nearly fell over four of them, all sitting there in the dark. The house is so narrow that I could hardly get around them, and they laughed and tried to persuade me to crawl under the table. It all makes trying to write turn into a personal nightmare. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to work without expecting someone to come peeking over my shoulder. On the plus side, having so many people in the house means there’s usually someone to help fix things when they break, which is often. Appliances switch on by themselves, taps refuse to switch off no matter how far you turn them, and to get the elements on the stove to work you have to use a very specific combination of luck and technique. Not to mention the fact that if the boiler turns off you have to stab it with a knife to get it going again.
Once I have a job, I’ll be able to find my own space- somewhere I can use the bathroom for longer than five minutes without someone banging on the door. Somewhere I can go down to the kitchen and make myself a cup of tea or a piece of toast (with an actual toaster, and not a sandwich press like we’re using now) without feeling like I’m trying to get on the Tube at rush hour. Lying on my half of a shared double bed, staring at the mold creeping up the walls, I think about this glorious future as I’m drifting off to sleep. Then someone downstairs slams the back door and starts rattling around the kitchen, and I have to remind myself that this will all make a great story one day. It’s best not to end it by hitting someone with a frying pan.
If ever I need a rent-a-crowd, though, I won’t have to go very far.