London Falling

“There you go, love. Finished. Those uneven edges will grow out”. She smiled at me sitting in the chair, then turned and smirked at the group of black ladies seated behind her.

I had just had the worst haircut in all of my life, at the hands of a large woman of West Indian descent. In my naivety, I had wandered into a black peoples’ hair dressing salon in what was then the cheap rent suburb of Kensington, London, where I was living at the time. The hairdresser was obviously not experienced with anything but negro hair types. Or perhaps she was not a qualified hairdresser at all and it was not a licensed salon.

I paid the woman who had just mutilated my hair and left the shop to the accompaniment of female giggles that steadily grew in volume as I walked towards the door. By the time I stood outside the shop the giggles had turned to laughter.

I walked along the streets of Kensington with my horrendous haircut. As I ambled along, the sound of Reggae music regularly wafted from the open windows of tenement buildings I passed until I reached the familiar townhouse that was a convenient and friendly dormitory for travelling Australians. From the window of that house came the keyboard synthesiser sound of the first solo album by music virtuoso and ex-member of the famous British band, “Traffic”, Steve Winwood.

I was living there with a girlfriend and we were sharing a first floor bedroom with another couple in a house that had a constant stream of itinerant Australian backpackers coming and going. Each of the two couples slept on two single beds that were side by side within the bedroom and each couple took turns at sleeping in the living room downstairs to give the other couple privacy. The arrangement worked well most of the time. The only things that became annoying was the fact that the other couple smoked cigarettes in the bedroom and that they were in the habit of repeatedly playing Steve Winwood’s 1980 LP, “Arc of a Diver”, on the record player in the living room, directly below. “Arc of a Diver” regularly appears on “the best of British albums” lists. It is an iconic record. But listening to any record multiple times a day becomes tedious. Every time I heard the first three distinctive, electronic synthesiser notes that heralded the first track of the album, “While You See a Chance, Take It”, my eyes would roll and a voice in my brain entreated:

Oh, please no, not again.

Earlier in the day, I had stepped out of the house for a haircut as I had just landed a bar job at the prestigious Cafe Royal, Piccadilly Circus. Prerequisites to taking up the job were to shave off my beard and cut my long hair, short. My girlfriend already worked in a different section of the Cafe Royal and had lined me up with the job interview. She was not impressed with my new hair style.

“Oh, my God. Who cut your hair…London Council?”

I was on the archetypal Aussie backpacking tour of Europe and I had decided to stay a while in one of the greatest cities of the world. London to a young, untravelled Australian boy from the western suburbs of Sydney was fabulous. Working behind a bar and living in that dynamic city was incredibly stimulating. Interesting people came into the bar and chatted every day and at night there were outstanding concerts by international musicians and high-quality live theatre with famous actors. Shows in places like the Hammersmith Odeon with the likes of Ry Cooder, Joe Jackson and The Steve Miller Band, and plays in the West End like “Another Country”, starring Rupert Everett at Queen’s Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, the original production of “Cats” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and the comedy “Steaming”, where all the actresses performed nude, at the Comedy Theatre in Haymarket, loom large in memory.

The Cafe Royal was a large and historic, high-status establishment within sight of the Eros Statue and a few minutes’ walk from Piccadilly Circus railway station, the Tube stop I would alight at on my daily commute to work. The restaurant/convention rooms/bar complex was famous for visits from royalty, media personalities and other celebrities. I didn’t work in the most salubrious part of the Cafe Royal, but in the public bar around the back which had an entrance of its own. There, I was a barman and sometimes waiter working under a handsome, flamboyant West Indian bar manager called Alf (“I’ve slept with women from almost every country in the world”) and a middle-aged Spanish barman who went by the name of Pepe. It wasn’t too long before I understood the significance of the boast made by my Jamaican supervisor. There were many single women from all over the world in London and a lot of them came to Piccadilly Circus. Many women were not averse to flirting with barmen who had “cute” accents. I often thought at the time that if all the Australians, Irish and New Zealanders left London, the bars would be bereft of bar and restaurant staff. My girlfriend who worked in the high-class restaurant across from the public bar was amazed at the copious womanising and the high level of success of her boss with women who strayed in from the street outside. It seemed as though many a public establishment in inner London was a lucrative pick-up prospect for their male employees.

Gerry Rafferty immortalised one inner-city London womaniser, the doorman at a Chinese restaurant famous for being frequented by celebrities, in his 1977 song, “Baker Street”.

I quickly realised that the pay I was receiving at the Cafe Royal represented only a small fraction of what I would have earned in Australia for the same work, considering penalty rates of pay and other such unheard-of benefits in England, but I was having the time of my life.

The working conditions and customs in London bars were also strange to someone from Australia.  For one thing, customers would sometimes order themselves a beer and add a comment like: “and have one for yourself”. On such occasions, I was allowed to accept the offer of a drink but after taking their money and pouring myself a beer, I had to take it into the backroom and drink it alone rather than share the experience with the generous patron. I always felt rude leaving someone alone at the bar who had just bought me a drink. Also, the bars opened at 10am but at mid-afternoon, they shut for a few hours that were unpaid and which had to be spent amusing yourself, before you reported back to work again for the rest of the night. I was told that it was due to an ancient law aimed at getting workers back to work after their lunch break and that the law was an anachronism, but for some reason it had not been repealed by Parliament. It meant long days from 10am to 10pm with hours of useless idleness in-between but the compensating factor was that you worked four days on and then had the following three days off in a row. This meant great sightseeing and short excursion opportunities to places like Bath and Oxford. I would often go off on these sojourns alone, to the disappointment of my girlfriend.

Lucy was a very sweet, quietly spoken girl from Randwick, Sydney. She was educated at an exclusive Sydney girls’ school and came from a wealthy family with fascinating historical connections to the events commonly referred to as “the Mutiny on the Bounty”. Her surname was Christian. Lucy was intelligent, mature and sensitive. She was also pretty and had an attractive, slim figure.

I had broken up with my first big love, a romance of several years, just a few weeks before starting to go out with Lucy and was determined not to get involved in a serious relationship, again. After living with Lucy at Kensington for a month or two, I started seeing a girl from the Seychelle Islands who also worked at the Cafe Royal. Marie-Alice (“all the girls in the Seychelles have two first names”) was very exotic and although she had lived in London for most of her life, had never visited the city’s art galleries, live theatres or other iconic attractions. It was entertaining and gratifying to show her around her own hometown. Marie-Alice was very kind to me and later inspired a song.

I thought it best to tell Lucy what was going on and break-up with her. That of course made things awkward back at the house where we both still lived. I thought that all of us in the household could be adult about the situation. In reality, I was being a spoilt child and expecting everyone else to be adult.

After almost three months in London, the final day of work at the Café Royal arrived. I was leaving England the next day. It was to be the last leg of my European trip with an imminent return to Malta for two weeks, then on to Rome to catch the return plane journey back to Australia and an uncertain future. Things had not been pleasant back at the house. On that penultimate morning in London, I overheard Lucy talking to her girlfriend/flatmate about me and the conversation was not complementary. I descended into a dark mood and left for the notoriously boring Sunday shift- my last one- at the Cafe Royal public bar.

At work, my mood deteriorated further when I learnt that my final pay was not yet calculated and I would not be able to pick up the wages that were owed to me at the end of my shift. I could see what was going to happen. My suspicions were later proved correct and I never did receive my last few days’ pay. Thanks Alf.

It was a Sunday and typically uneventful. I was manning the bar alone and on Sundays we closed early, not reopening after the afternoon shutdown. Furthermore, Sundays were always very quiet, with hardly any customers at all to serve. The half day would often pass by excruciatingly slowly with just a handful of customers entering the bar to break the monotony.

I got to thinking of how to make my last day at work a memorable one and wondered how I might ameliorate my unpleasant feelings of being taken advantage of and cheated out of my wages.

Working behind the bar of the Cafe Royal for the last time, I decided that this day was going to be the day that I tried every brand of scotch whisky that was on display; starting with the exclusive top shelf varieties and working my way down- literally. I started with the more expensive brands of whisky: Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Chivas Regal. There must have been at least a dozen brands and I tried them all. Needless to say, by closing time I was feeling jolly but I was not in a competent state.

It was an unusually hot and sultry summer’s day in London on that Sunday. I discovered this immediately I walked out of the air conditioned bar into the street. The unexpected heat hit me like a slap in the face. As if to make things worse, the top button of my trousers had popped off and I needed to hold up my pants with one hand to stop them from falling down below my groin. I decided that I was in no fit state to travel home immediately, so I decided to walk the short distance to St. James Park and have an afternoon nap. By this time, I was a little unsteady on my feet. I noticed through eyes that were half closed due to the sun’s glare that some people were staring at me as I, while holding up my trousers with one hand, stumbled along an unnecessarily long and circuitous route down Regent street, towards St. James.

I found a few quiet square metres of grass in the busy park and attempted to sleep it off. By the time I awoke I was still a little tipsy and it was dusk. I still did not feel like going back to my unhappy home so instead of going down to the Tube station to catch a train, I decided to prolong my splendid isolation and walk back to Kensington. The expedition took some time and as I approached Kensington Gardens it became dark. I kept walking.

All of a sudden, I became aware of loud music, laughter and animated conversation that sounded like an enormous party. I walked past a townhouse that had its front window wide open and saw a large crowd of revellers inside. It looked like fun and I really had nowhere better to go so I decided to crash the party. I knocked on the door and a young woman appeared in the half-opened doorway. The noise of the partying made it difficult to communicate:

“Hi, my friend… Jenny… is in there and she said that it would be ok to come over.”

“What? What did you say?”

“My friend. She’s in there. She said to come over.”

“Who? Oh, don’t worry. Ok. Come in.” 

Once inside the house, I headed for a table in the middle of the dining room that was littered with various bottles of wine and other liquor. Most bottles were open and it appeared to be a self-serve, community bar. I started drinking again. My blood alcohol level must have still been high from the whisky as it didn’t take long to once again feel very drunk. I found myself sitting on a lounge and blabbering semi-coherently to the young woman who let me in along with her female companion of around the same age. The three of us seemed to be getting on very well. At least I believed we were. I was feeling confident and out to impress so I explained how clever I was in tricking my way into the party. The girls laughed, then looked at each other and smirked. It transpired that it was their party and their residence.

I suspect that the young women I had been talking to were so enamoured with my story and found my funny little anecdote so intriguing that they repeated it to their friends because the next time I approached the liquor table, two large young men who looked very much like rugby players, cast me disparaging looks of disdain. They began muttering to each other while nodding their heads in my direction. I decided that I had probably had enough to drink and that I had better get back home to Kensington. I squeezed my way through the crowd of partygoers and out the front door into the street. I recommenced my journey home.

I arrived at the house in Kensington sometime later but I knew that I was still too drunk to go to bed. I dreaded that “spinning room” feeling and the inevitable result of being sick from it, so I kept walking around the block to clear my head and sober up. By this time, it was the not so early hours of the morning.

On one of my numerous circuits around the block, as I approached the house, I felt a hand placed on my shoulder and looked around to see who it was. It was Lucy. She had heard my heavy, drunken footsteps on the pavement outside, then seen me relentlessly walking past the house from the bedroom window. She had got out of bed and come down to the street in the pitch-black darkness because she was worried about me and wanted to help, even after all that I had put her through. She was a kind and caring soul.

The next morning, I folded my clothes and stuffed them into my backpack along with my other belongings. I was happy to be on my way, full of a sense of adventure and anticipating the next stage of my European odyssey, but I noticed a sadness in Lucy. I said my goodbyes and walked out the front door into the street. As I walked sprightly along, loaded up with my backpack, I felt a strong sense that Lucy was watching me from the bedroom window stride down the road towards the Tube station and out of her life.

***

Over the years and since returning to Australia from that time in London, I occasionally heard the Steve Winwood album track, “While you See a Chance, Take It “, on the radio. Listening to it always brought back memories of London, Lucy and the house in Kensington. The tedium I had associated with the song softened over time and I grew to enjoy listening to it, even though the song invariably brought back mixed feelings of happy memories tinged with remorse and guilt. One day in a Sydney second-hand store I found the vinyl LP, “Arc of a Diver”, in a bargain bin. I sometimes play that record when I am at home alone in the evening while sipping on a glass of red wine; maybe once or twice a year. The first track of the album always allows me to effortlessly drift off to London in my mind.

Advertisements

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.