Down and Out in Willesden Green

This story is from a collection of my travel experiences from 2011 to 2012.

As we 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. The amount of wrinkles embedded into his cranky face indicated just how long he had been working in the underground booth, only catching the last twelve minutes of sunlight as he hobbled to his rusty honda each day for the past 20 years. 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. A curt and validated point. The girl would have been about 24. She wore a black leather jacket and a black denim skirt with a leopard print scarf 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 we were from Australia. She got excited after she realised we didn’t say ‘Austria’. 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. 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
“Whatju mean?”
“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 beer, “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. My skin was red and irritated from the sunburn I got on my first day. I had pointed out to Graham how stupid this was, as this is where whiteys came from and that you can’t trust UV rays anywhere.

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, fast food and the unmistakable odour of shit would punch you like a truck.

The ticket machines looked like ATM’s with sirens that would obnoxiously draw everyone’s attention to you 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 to read this one particular line of newspapers because of how cutting-edge the journalism was and, oh yeah, if you turn to page three you see tits. 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 made the passengers look as gaunt as an empty burlap sack.

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 as slick as his jeans. 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 use as their toilet. The 50’s kid emphasised how disgusting the toilets get at Glastonbury and how much healthier it would be to just shit in the tent. 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. 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 bomb threat, which turned out to be an alarm clock stuck to twenty party poppers.

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, like the poor middle seat passenger on an international economy flight.

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 video cameras in the neighbourhood. 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 very cold, timber and brick pub which smelt like Ethanol and regret. 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, A scanner darkly by Phillip K Dick, pulled back the doona and grimaced at the suspicious stains on the bed sheet.

***

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 bartender unplugged the toast conveyor belt while someone’s breakfast 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. Some fucking genius 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.

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. Yay.

***

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. Then we tried to sleep.

The noises started at one am. The low hiss of drums and the hard thudding of bass had been turned up downstairs. The rhythm mixed with the padding of the hostel made a ‘flarp’ sound as it resonated through my pillow. 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 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… SHOOSH there’s fuckin’ people sleepin! Look, I promise I won’t hurt cha”. Something something something “fit right?” Something something something “pudding.” Dazzo replied that he was not in fact a pussy, but required some right away.

The next day we left for Paris and witnessed a couple fighting over a schnauzer… What the fuck.

End

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