A bittersweet story I wrote a long time ago.
The Back Packer
It was his fourth day in London. He was staying at the Chelsea Hotel, not the famous “Chelsea Hotel”
immortalized by Simon and Garfunkel and which a certain U.S. president had supposedly named his daughter after, but a large, sprawling fire trap structure in the Earl’s Court area of London. Despite the word “hotel” in its name this was actually a back packer’s hostel. A bit expensive at 10 £ a night but cheap for London. Twelve quid a night was about the going rate for hostels here, Jarred noticed. The Chelsea Hotel was a little over four blocks from the subway, the London Underground, a little far to walk with a heavy backpack. It did look somewhat classier (and much larger) than its seedier looking competition though. The guidebook gave it a good recommendation and he thought it might be a good place to meet people. His guidebook (he had the newest edition) also said it would be cheaper than it actually was, promising a dormitory style room at 8 £ a night. When he got there it was unfortunate, the girl at the reception desk told him, but there were no dormitory spaces available just then. If he wanted he could come back after check out, around 2, something might be available then. Jarred looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry…” , the girl began. She looked at her computer screen for a minute. Jarred knew he should have called first . Then the girl’s face brightened. They did have a single available. It would be more expensive, but if he was interested…
He had arrived in London several days ago on a trans-tunnel bus from Calais, France. He had boarded his bus at 9:00 pm the previous night and had arrived at Victoria Station that morning at 7:30. Try as he might, in all his travels Jarred had never been able to sleep on buses. This was on top of a torturous week and a half of hitchhiking though Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and a sliver of France. He was tired. Very tired. After paying he made his way to his 14 £ a night single. He promised himself it would only be for one night. That night he didn’t have a choice.
The Chelsea Hotel did have a cheaper bed available in a dormitory room the next day, so Jarred decided to stay .He had been at the Chelsea for four days now. He saw London, or those areas of it that he was most interested in seeing anyway. On his first full day here he had taken himself on a really good walking tour of , described in his guidebook. He didn’t care that much about going into (and paying for) the famous tourist attractions (although he had visited Christopher Wren’s famous cathedral) but wanted to get a general feel for the city, to see how Londoners lived, and if possible, soak up some of the history. So far he had gone from Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park to Piccadilly Circus ,Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road. He had walked along the Thames and taken a few pictures (mainly to show his parents, who would be interested in such things) of Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament. He had visited the bustling hippy tourist markets on Portobello Road and Liverpool Street. London did have an exciting feel to it. It had the feeling of a place where ambitious young people on the make in music, the arts, design or other what sounded like to him exciting fields could literally create their own culture, and become rich besides. Several generations of such young people, from the era of the Beatles in the mid 60s to the present, had done just that. The most enjoyable aspect of London for Jarred, however, were the bookshops. On his second full day in Britain , originally intending to go to the British Museum, he found an interesting science fiction bookshop, off Leicester Square, where he spent a few hours browsing, and then he found himself wondering over to Charing Cross, where he spent another few hours in a political science/history bookshop, browsing. Then came another interesting bookshop right across the street. He ended up spending that whole day as well as the next one, exploring the bookshops of London.
While at the Chelsea Jarred developed a routine which had taken him though the last four days. Every morning he would come down, early, for the free “breakfast” consisting of two pieces of dried, cold toast , and one cup of instant coffee (coffeeholic that he was he would often scarf a second cup . No one ever said anything) . He enjoyed watching the two young ,sexy, scantily clad Indian women who worked there. Although they didn’t look alike, they somehow seemed like sisters. Were they apart of a family that owned the hostel? No one he asked seemed to know, although most of the hostel’s male clientèle enjoyed flirting with them. It would make sense though. He knew that many traditional cultures in Asia had close knit families. He didn’t know if such traditional cultures would approve of what these girls were (or weren’t) wearing, on the other hand. They didn’t speak English very well and clung tightly to one another as they served food or washed trays. On the other hand they had an “in your face” type of sensuality, very aggressively flirting with guys-they somehow had a way of seeming to be on intimate terms with a fellow they first might have met only a half hour ago. In some ways they seemed traditional but in other ways very, very liberated. Mmmm…
He had pretty much seen what he wanted to see in London, on this trip anyway. It was very expensive to stay here and he would have to leave soon, but he wasn’t too sure where he would go next. He didn’t have to be back to work until the middle of September, so he had time. Money was another matter though. He had money enough with him (in traveler’s checks) to see a bit more of Britain, but not a whole lot more.
The Chelsea Hotel was a large, sprawling structure with a hippiesh, psychedelic, “hip London” ambiance to it. Most of the walls had surrealistic looking murals, like an old Yes album cover or the cover art of a Tolkien novel. The radio, which you could hear in the lobby and in the basement restaurant/pub ,was tuned to what he supposed was the premier London hip rock radio station which continually played the latest in alternative rock. Two or three nights a week there would be a “pub” held in the basement, in which one could buy cheap beer, and have a pint or two or three with English, Australian, or South African slackers. It was fun of course but the whole scene made him feel either very young or very old, he couldn’t decide which. He was in his thirties now and this was strictly Generation X territory.
How long should he stay here and where should he go next? He’d have to make a decision soon.
Followed by the ever present heavy metal /hip hop/rap music which filled the hostel almost like air, he approached the check-in desk. He wasn’t really sure what he was going to do next. Should he check out, get his five £ key deposit back, and find out about getting a bus to Oxford (the guidebook said it was one of the “must see” places in Britain-along with London, Bath, and the Cotswolds) or should he check -in for one more night? He would have to move on soon. He kind of liked the atmosphere of the hostel, (this may have had something to do with the Indian girls) and again, he had time. Decisions, decisions. He wasn’t even completely sure why he had taken this particular trip. Moscow, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Bruges, Brussels, and now London. He was looking for something , he knew, but so far he hadn’t found it. He wasn’t even totally sure what he was looking for. Not really spirituality but that was part of it perhaps. A sense of community maybe ,a group of like minded people. Now he was third in the queue-a long line of semi-hippy backpackers from just about everywhere. Aussies, mostly, he supposed. A lot of South Africans too. Many of these people were lured here by the over valuation of the British £ in relation to other currencies. At this time it was 1.8 to the dollar. Bad for tourists like him but good for people who were able to get jobs in Britain and who could manage to save some money. People from British Commonwealth countries; Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada, who, if they were under the age of 27 could qualify for what was known as a “work permit”, a document allowing them to legally work in the United Kingdom. He had met quite a lot of these people in the past few days-the hostel was packed with them. Mostly Australians and South Africans. He thought it was surprising there weren’t many New Zealanders here, but then again there weren’t many New Zealanders in New Zealand either, he realized.
He looked at the clock . It was now 8:40 in the morning. Jarred usually liked to get an earlier start (he felt guilty if he slept in, even on a trip) but today he stayed a little longer at breakfast. He just felt like dallying, he couldn’t really say why. There were some good songs on the radio and he liked the atmosphere. He had to admit to himself though that the real reason were the Indian girls. He was too shy to actually walk over and talk to them but he really wanted to. He compromised somewhat by looking in their direction as long as he thought possible without (he thought) being noticed.
Down in the lobby there was a long line of people waiting to either check out or check in. He was probably about fifteenth in line. The queue wasn’t moving but everyone just stood waiting patiently, British style. Jarred started thinking about the Indian girls again and tried to come up a good line to use in case he decided to stay here one more night. Just then the phone on the reception desk rang. One of the girls who worked there (not one of the Indians) answered it, spoke for a few minutes, and then bellowed out, in an Australian/London accent,”Anybody wanna work?”. Blank, impassive stares from most of the queue. Most of the people checking in or out were short term tourists or people passing though on their way to other parts of Britain, and were not interested in jobs for now The other people at the hostel, those who were currently working , were either at their jobs or on their way to them. A young woman a few people ahead of Jarred in the queue spoke up and the girl at the reception desk gave her the phone. This sounded interesting. Jarred left his place in line and stood behind her, listening.
“Yeah, uh-huh”, the woman said, jotting down an address. Jarred wondered what to do. Should he take the receiver after she got off and say, yes, “I too want to work” or should he just stand there and do nothing? Indecision got the best of him and he elected to just stand there and do nothing.
After a moment’s hesitation he asked the young woman, “where is it?” (referring to the job) for lack of anything else to say. “Somewhere near Totenham Court Road. The directions they gave were confusing, but they said it was “within walking distance of the Tube”, she said. An Australian accent.
“They asked me if I knew of anyone else so they sounded like they need more people-you could give them a call”, she continued. There, that did it. She made the decision for him. He would give them a call. There remained a problem though.. “I’m an American “, he mumbled , “and I don’t have a work permit..do you think they’d ask?”
“Mmm…I don’t know”, she replied contemplatively. “I’ve heard about people who’ve done odd jobs and no one’s asked. This is my first job in Britain though.”
Obviously she had a work permit. He thought he’d put off the “where are you from?” routine until after he had made the call. If they still needed an extra person and he decided to take the job, he would have to make conversation with her on the way there, and this would be his opening. Best not to give away his opening now and run the risk of not having anything to talk about later, he thought . She gave him the number. He walked over to the pay phone at the other end of the fairly long lobby. He was going to have to spend 10 or 20 pence for a brief conversation he could have had for free. If the temperamental hostel pay phones were working, that is.
He called and got though. Yes, they needed somebody. “Where are you now?” “At the hostel” “OK”. The woman he talked to was very nice and polite and seemed almost relieved to hear that he was at the hostel she had just called.
He walked back to the Australian woman who had now returned to her place in the queue.
“They need somebody?”
“Yeah”. He was afraid to mention again that he was an American and hence didn’t have a work permit.
“Did they say it was alright if you didn’t have a work permit?”, she asked, seemingly reading his mind.
“Yeah”, he lied. “That’s great”, she said. “They sounded like nice people and all. That’s really good that you didn’t have to have a work permit”.
Upon hearing that Jarred silently gulped for breath. “What if it turns out that they do require a work permit?” he thought. He’d walk all the way to the Underground station with this woman, they’d get on the Tube , find the place and then he’d face an awkward situation.
“Good morning, I’m glad you found us okay . Uh…I’ll just need to see your U.K. work permit”, he could imagine the firm’s secretary saying, in the sing song lilt secretaries in the U.S. used.
“Well, I, uh…don’t have one “, he’d reply. “I uh…left it…um…back at the hostel”. “I’m sorry”, Miss Sing Song would reply,”but in order to hire you , I’d have to see your work permit. You can call and see if we need anyone tomorrow. Thank you for coming “.
“Mmm. that’s okay, no problem”, he would say politely, deferentially, and face a few moments of red faced embarrassment in front of the Australian girl as he headed out of the firm’s office, embarking on the trip back to the hostel, or to where ever it was that he would be going.
This scenario kept going though his mind all throughout the half hour or so it took for him and the young woman to find the place. In his brief phone conversation the lady he talked to didn’t say anything about a work permit. The people he was going to didn’t know he was an American. That fact wasn’t mentioned. Perhaps they assumed he already had a work permit in which case he had a problem or maybe they didn’t care, in which case everything would be alright.. It was nerve wracking having to think about this. On the way, despite his nervousness, he managed to keep a patter of conversation going.
“Where are you from?”
He already knew that.
“Where in Australia?”
“Oh, where’s that?”
Actually, beyond the usual patina of back packer politeness and boy meets girl politeness, her place of origin was genuinely interesting to him. He pumped her for information, although he thought , perhaps a little too aggressively. He didn’t want to be rude.
“What’s it like there, I mean, in Victoria? What’s the weather like? Have you ever been to the outback? Have you ever been to Alice Springs?” On and on. He had long wanted to go to Australia. It was far away (at least it was far away from the parts of the world he had been to), it was exotic but they spoke English there, and it was still a frontier land, a little like the American Old West, he thought, only without the shootouts. There was a long period when he was a little kid when his parents very badly wanted to move to Australia. The U.S. was going to hell in a hand basket, they thought. His parents had actually gone as far as putting the house up for sale and were inquiring about the price of air tickets. He remembered them making a big deal once about buying motion sickness tablets.
The campaign of Jarred’s father to get a job in Australia and move his family there went on for about three or four years before the evident futility of it finally dimmed his family’s enthusiasm. For some reason Jarred’s Dad , as qualified in his profession as he was, just couldn’t find a job Down Under. Young Jarred was more surprised about this then anyone else. Sometime later, by the time he got to college, he found out that this was because his Dad had listed his great-aunt Kathleen, a woman in her sixties who was his maternal grandmother’s sister, as a dependent. Aunt Kathy had lived in the same apartment in a deteriorating neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio, for almost twenty years and had about as much chance of wanting to emigrate to Australia as to one of the moons of Mars, but still, Jarred’s Dad felt responsible for her. The big move to Australia never materialized. Jarred’s family did move though. Several years later, when Jarred was in late high school , his parents left Long Island where young Jarred had grown up, moved to Vermont and a few years later eventually bought a farm in there. A nice, idyllic, laid back rural state but to young Jarred this represented a compromise, although back then he never would have consciously articulated it that way.. He had long thought about what it would have been like to live in Australia. The “what might have been” of a 14 year old boy. He wanted to at least visit the place, and he had wanted to do this for a long time. Well, he might very well do that, he thought, remembering the cheap air tickets he had priced in London. He had made it to London after all, and that was an accomplishment.
Their walk continued. He wasn’t quite sure where they were going and was more or less following her. She seemed to have a really good sense of direction, something he never had. He was always getting lost, not only in foreign countries, but in small towns in the U.S. as well. Once, during the time he was shopping around for grad schools, it had taken him two and a half hours to retrace what parking lot he had left his car on one very hot summer ‘s day.
Several times Jarred almost walked into a car, coming from what to him was an unexpected direction.He never quite got used to cars driving “on the wrong side of the road”..
The Australian (it turned out her name was Alice) asked Jarred where he was from, what he was doing, etc. He wasn’t totally sure if it was because Alice was actually interested in him (it didn’t sound like it) or more out of a reciprocal politeness. He answered her, trying to make himself sound as interesting as possible. Somewhere along the line he managed to throw in the fact that he had lived in China for two years. He had been dying to get this in. This seemed to have the desired effect. Her eyes widened in surprise-there seemed to be some interest there. No, she had never been to China herself. She had been to Thailand, Malaysia, Japan, and lots of other Asian countries, but no, never to China. Thus deflated Jarred started to change the subject…but wait -there did seem to be some interest there. Her facial expressions, her tone of voice…
Where and what province had he been in? What did he do in China? He told her.
” I knew a lot of Australians in the city I lived in, students from Newcastle University” , he added, in an effort to establish some sort of connection with her homeland.(Newcastle University in Australia had a big exchange program in Jarred’s city in China that year). This fact didn’t seem to make much of an impression on her. Jarred felt awkward. He knew he had committed a faux pas. Jarred had an uncanny way of knowing these things. Well, so much for that. He felt his customary shyness coming over him again. They continued on their way though the London Underground. Alice was very quiet. It seemed like they we lost. Apparently (according to the Alice) they had either gotten off at the wrong stop on this train or had neglected to make the right connection on the previous train. She seemed to know exactly where they should be going and almost exactly where they had gone wrong. They were already 20 minutes late, at least according to her. The lady on the phone had said “be here in ten minutes” , according to Alice and it was 9:30 by now. (The lady had told him, Jarred distinctly remembered, to ” be here by 10″ , but he kept quiet, not sure if he should say anything about this). Would they still have the job when they got there? Could they find their way back if they didn’t? Could he find his way back alone if they didn’t accept him on account of not having a work permit?
After some fumbling around and backtracking they finally found the Totenham Court station. The place they were supposed to go to was three blocks from the station, at least according to Alice’s hand drawn map. They had to cross two streets and find an intersection. Now where was first street? Alice didn’t know. She had a blank look on her face. Apparently , while able to get around subway systems, she was out of her depth in finding, her way around streets . Jarred was surprised, and he had developed some skill though long practice in living in foreign cities where he didn’t speak the language, in finding streets. Let’s see now…according to Alice’s map they needed to find the second intersection after High Street… it should be near here. Alice stood back, letting Jarred take the lead.
He asked a few passerby, slightly grungy working class blokes, but not bums. He wasn’t shy about this at all but Alice hung back. Interesting.
When they got there they were a half an hour late.
“We were worried about you. We thought you weren’t coming and we were just about to get someone else”, the heavyset woman at the desk said, although without a trace of anger or even exasperation. She was very polite and friendly, in a breezy London, “cheers, mate” kind of way.
Alice was profusely apologetic, and explained, seemingly as a matter of professional courtesy emphasizing her sense of employment responsibility, the mix up on the Underground.
“I’m very sorry to be late, we had missed the junction at Embankment and had to stay on till Cannon Street. We were so anxious to to here on time, you see, that we forgot to get off at…”
The real reason they were late was that Alice had mistakenly thought they should get off at Temple two stops too late. Despite this Jarred was grateful for the “we”.
“Oh, no problem, I can understand”, the heavyset woman said,”Your first day in London and all” . There were mild laughs all around. Nobody said anything about U.K. work permits and Jarred felt relieved.
Alice, Jarred a young German girl who had on a pair of odd looking gold coloured high heel shoes , and the two women who comprised what seemed to be the management component of this company took a large van to the job site. The trip though the centre and then the suburbs of London was interesting. The place they were to clean was a nice upper middle class two storey house located somewhere in the fashionable district of Knights bridge, where they spent the day . First everything needed to be dusted. That took a while. Then the furniture had to be polished. Finally the carpets were vacuumed, but not cleaned-the cleaning crew would come and do that later. It was monotonous work but relatively undemanding . Jarred was meticulous and thorough and the heavyset woman told him he did a good job. This made him feel good.
After they had done with the house cleaning the carpet cleaning crew came to finish. This consisted of three young men. Not the most efficient group of blokes in the world-they appeared to spend most of their time horsing around. The house cleaners waited in the van 45 minutes for the carpet cleaners to get done. The carpet area they had to clean wasn’t that large. When they got out of the house they didn’t appear to be doing much. After a while it became apparent that they were very stoned. The Aussies finally finished their job (not before several times knocking over the drum of the cleaning machine, spilling foam all over the sidewalk) and joined the others in the van. It was crowded. On the way back, despite the fact that they were compatriots, there was little conversation between Alice and the carpet cleaners. They exchanged the name of their home cities but that was about it. Alice seemed seemed mildly disgusted by them. The fact that all three of them had lived in Britain for several years but hadn’t traveled or seen much beyond the outskirts of London seemed to add to her disgust. They seemed like friendly enough blokes though, Jarred thought. When it became apparent Alice didn’t want to have much to do with them they started (or perhaps continued) a rather tight knit conversation among themselves. This mostly consisted of the various drug problems each one had or had had in the not too distant past, either in London, or back home in Australia. Jarred was interested by their conversation. One of them worked as a barman in Sydney for several years. He regarded this as his profession. Jarred thought he had a good personality to be a barman-a nice, affable bloke. Trouble is, the nice, affable bloke said, was that he got heavily into dealing hash, under the counter so to speak. Being a dealer, he also ,almost by necessity, became a user, and eventually began consuming huge quantities of the stuff. A year and a half ago he took off for England, largely to get away from the drug scene. But, what do ya know, now he was right back into it. All this was interesting to Jarred. These people represented a world he wasn’t all that familiar with As a would be writer he felt he should be writing some of this down. Maybe he had been missing something in life, but he wasn’t sure if it was exactly this. He told the carpet cleaners some of his experiences living and working in China and Russia and they seemed fascinated.
The van arrived back at the cleaning company’s office off High Street. The heavyset woman (Jarred was never able to remember her name) explained that it was the firm’s policy to pay every other week. She asked if this would be a big problem for anyone, their temporary employees being traveller’s and all. Jarred kept quiet. Jarred was just about to ask her if she had a forwarding address when Alice spoke up. She explained that she was leaving London tonight, catching a night bus to Edinburgh, so she needed to be paid now. She told Jarred that she had been promised a job working at a lodge in the Scottish Highlands. To Jarred a stay in the Highlands sounded interesting, and although Alice’s new job would probably only be temporary scut work, he could easily see himself joining her. Alas, no work permit. It was amazing he got this job.
After Alice got paid, thus providing an opening for him, Jarred then asked to be paid. This seemed like it might be a bit of an inconvenience for the heavyset woman, and Jarred felt a bit guilty about it, but he didn’t think he’d be able to stick around London for another week. The pay was 50 £, almost $100, with the exchange rate. The cleaning company paid very well, for that kind of work. Maybe Jarred would stay in London one more night.
As they left the building Jarred asked Alice why she was taking a night bus to Edinburgh when she didn’t have to be in Scotland for another week. Alice explained that she had already seen as much of London as she wanted to see and that she thought taking a night bus would save her from having to pay for a night in a hostel. It was too bad, Jarred thought, he would have enjoyed being able to talk with her, that evening at the hostel. It did make sense though,sense, he realized.
After getting paid Alice and Jarred said goodbye. The heavyset woman gave Alice a ride in the company’s van to Victoria Station, where she would get her night bus, several hours later. Jarred went off, alone, in the other direction , back to the Underground (which he found easily, surprising himself.) About three quarters of the way there Jarred realized that he had forgotten to ask Alice her mailing address. Maybe he should go to Victoria Station, find where the long distance buses were leaving from, and ask her. In the Underground he looked at the map of stations. It was six stops to Victoria from Totenham. Jarred thought for a minute, “ What to do, what to do?”. Alice might think he was weird, or obsessive or something. Naw…he would be better off going right back to the hostel, to spend one more night at least, at the Chelsea Hotel. Jarred himself had never, in all his travels, been able to sleep on buses. He wondered if Alice had the same problem, but had been afraid to ask her. Now he would never see her again. Another “might have been”. He briefly wondered how her night would be. Then he got on his train and went home. Well, as the old cliché went, “tomorrow is another day”.As he rode home he wondered what he would do then.