Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Madhouse.

It’s been 10 months, 9 days and 5 hours since my home address no longer existed. 10 months exactly since I moved to my parents house to recuperate from knee surgery. 10 months since I left London. I never thought I would still be here. My parents definitely didn’t think I would still be here. We are all in shock.

My Father’s old boys lunch club gathers every other Thursday at a local hostelry somewhere in Hampshire. They always choose a proper pub – no music, no video games – with good food. I only mention these gatherings because the first question they ask my Father when they’ve all got their drinks, ordered and sat down, is, So Peter, is your daughter still with you? My Father sighs dramatically and responds with a solemn hunch of the shoulders, Yes, she’s still here. They respond with understanding nods and sympathetic grunts. On the other end of the spectrum, when my friends ask me if I’m still living with my parents, and I pause and say, Yup, still there, my friends can’t hide their horror. What?? they cry, Oh my God, you must be going insane!

Yes I am. I am in my own personal Madhouse. It’s a sort of slow-burning insanity that builds up over the months and bursts forth in spectacular displays of tantrums, hysteria, crying and shouting. It’s not pretty but it is necessary. A volcano can’t stay dormant forever (ok some do, but let’s not dwell on those) and if I didn’t have a dramatic outburst of emotions every now and again, then it would sit and fester and smoulder and it would be a very dangerous thing indeed. Better out than in, some would say. I realise friends and family suffer the effects of these eruptions, like poor unsuspecting Pompeiians... covered from head to toe in verbal lava before they have a chance to escape, and I apologise to all. But as well as living in my own internal Madhouse, I have also stayed in some particularly mad houses.

Since last November, I have spent 4 months chez my parentals, followed by a sordid array of B&B’s, Airbnb’s, Guesthouses, Pubs and Hotels, not forgetting friends and family (but I couldn’t possibly say any of those were a little nutty otherwise I wouldn’t get asked back!). Let’s just say I have slept on air beds, camp beds, sofa beds, sofas, floors, bunk beds and sometimes no beds. I have been squashed into kids bedrooms, left to freeze in attic rooms, wheezed in damp basements and broiled in conservatories. I have been swathed in every kind of sheet, duvet, eiderdown, sleeping bag and blanket you can imagine. I have bounced around on hard mattresses, sunk into spongy mattresses, fallen off blow-up mattresses and been sent to heaven whilst lying on the most expensive mattresses ever made (you know who you are, you lovely lovely We just get everything from John Lewis, bugger the cost, people). I have been woken by cat mewls, dog barks, horse neighs, children screaming and babies crying and have drawn the bedroom curtains of these rooms, completely unsure of what I will find outside the next day. Views change from grey urban sprawls to green undulating countryside. I have stayed on main roads and down country lanes, 40 floors up and 2 floors down, rural farmhouses and modern blocks. I have seen it all, done it all, and am tired of it all. I want my own bed, my own space and my own home. I want to leave my parents house with them still liking me, and I want to be able to put them up in my home and look after them for a change (I don’t mean forever, you understand, I just mean the odd weekend!)

I spend, on average, 6 hours a week trying to find places to stay for the following weeks, when I may be working in London, Bath, Bristol or anywhere in between. I’m still freelancing and I’m still working all over the place so I need somewhere to rest my head that’s close by. Add in the tricky necessity of places that don’t have too many stairs (bionic knees don’t like stairs) and that have free parking (bionic knees don’t like public transport) and the choices become fewer. In London, free parking is as rare as conversations on the Tube, so to find a house with either a driveway or a parking permit, and which is available for the dates I need, is rare indeed. To then find one in hobbling distance from the design studio is even rarer. I then need to make sure I can actually eat. Many Airbnb’s won’t allow you to keep anything in the fridge, let alone use their kitchen or eat food in your room, so you then have to figure out where the nearest pub, cafe or restaurant is, and if you simply can’t afford to eat out, you have to be prepared to ingeniously smuggle in a cold sandwich and some grapes, in the hope they don’t catch you eating in bed or find giveaway crumbs on their eiderdown!

Changing beds every few days is tough because it always takes me at least one night to get used to where I am, the new sounds and smells, the bed and the pillows not being quite how I like them, the temperature always being too hot or too cold. Having to share a bathroom is one of my absolute bugbears too so I always try and rent somewhere with an en-suite. Coming face to face with scantily clad strangers in the middle of the night, half-asleep and staggering on creaking landings, blindly wandering down dimly lit hallways trying to find the lavvy, is horrendous. I hate seeing and interacting with strangers when I don’t want to, so being forced into these awkward situations is my idea of hell.

Actually my idea of hell has been fully realised. It is waking up 2 hours before your alarm goes off in a stuffy and too bright room after having a terrible night’s sleep (which are too numerous to mention), followed by the inability to have a shower in the shared bathroom as one of the other guests is using it. While you wait for the other guest to use up all the hot water, and listen as they fart, cough and spit their way to an ablution conclusion, you decide to make yourself a cup of coffee, but there are only those tiny cartons of UHT milk on the tea tray in your room, so you make do with cheap instant black coffee that tastes like gravy. Once washed and dressed, you then face the stranger you saw half naked in the middle of the night, at the breakfast table and proceed to make the most monotone, monosyllabic and cringeworthy small-talk ever! I hate mornings, I hate talking in the mornings and I hate talking to strangers in the mornings. You get the picture.

Talking of pictures, picture the listing I saw for an Airbnb property in East Bristol; Stunning 1930’s house with original features, wooden floorboards throughout, generous south-facing bedroom with homemade Kingsize bed, shared bathroom, compact kitchen overlooking sunny garden, free parking, breakfast included, friendly owner and pets, £30 a night. Yes, that’s what I thought. £30? Too good to be true. I should have dwelt more on my first gut instinct and focused on the words; homemade, shared, compact and pets. Of course I didn’t query any of this because I was too busy thinking what a bargain I’d got. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Necessity never made a good bargain.” He was right.

I arrived at the property and was welcomed by the owner and her two cats. I love cats but I am allergic. I can pick them up and stroke them but then I must wash my hands immediately. Under no circumstances can I get cat hair in my eyes or up my nose. If this happens I very quickly turn into Shrek. So I usually have to email ahead just to check that the room advertised hasn’t had cats on the bed or pillows, otherwise I’d be in trouble. I was assured that the cats didn’t go in the room but as I walked into the bedroom of this particular Airbnb, I wasn’t so sure. All the soft furnishings seemed to have absorbed the smell of cat and kitty litter and I got that sort of itchy roof of the mouth thing as soon as I put my bags down. Oh dear. The bedroom was indeed large and sunny but the homemade bed was something else. It was a humungous wooden structure with giant metal bolts protruding out of it, dominating the room at over 10 foot square. It was a cross between a medieval torture device and Noah’s Arc. As well as the prospective splinter and bolt wound hazards, it was also 4 feet off the ground. Now I’m tall but even I had to launch myself onto it, an ungainly Fosbury Flop if ever there was. I then checked out the bathroom. Jesus. Neon orange from floor to ceiling with orange accessories, orange towels and even orange shower gel. The only things that weren’t orange were the bathtub, the sink and 3 rolls of toilet paper. I went back into the hallway and noticed a piece of paper blue-tacked to my door which had JULIET x 1 written on it. On the door adjacent to mine the note said JING x 2. Another door, I hadn’t noticed before, had no note and no door handle. I gulped and went down to the kitchen to put some food in the fridge. My hostess was making a cup of tea and we squeezed passed each other in the tiny galley kitchen, reddening as we came face to face. I asked her about JING x 2 and she said, Oh didn’t I mention there were other guests staying? You will have to share the bathroom I’m afraid. My face remained blank, I think. They’re Japanese though, so I’m sure they’ll be neat and tidy, she added helpfully.

Hmm. I’ve mentioned that sharing bathrooms with strangers is my pet peeve. It’s bad enough with your own family but no one should have to endure the hair and smells of people you’ve never met before! And now I was going to have to sort out a bloody rota with strange Japanese people. Ugh, so annoying. I went back upstairs and gently knocked on their door. A teeny tiny person with lots of hair answered and immediately bowed at me. Disconcerting. I sort of bowed back and asked if she/he spoke English. The reply wasn’t in a language I understood so I presumed that to be a negative. At least the tone of voice was high-pitched enough for me to deduce that the hairball was at least female. I then did that awful slow speaking and charades thing that I see other people do with foreigners and hated myself instantly. I attempted to act out; Me, bath, 10pm tonight, and then me, shower 8am tomorrow please. Ok? I asked. She nodded. You know what’s coming right? Right. At 10pm I went down the hallway to the bathroom and could hear someone having a shower. I went back to my room and sat on the bed for 10 minutes, straining to hear if the shower had been turned off. I waited and waited. At 10:40 I was pissed off. Firstly there would be no bloody hot water left, secondly I was tired and wanted to go to bed! I went to knock on the bathroom door and suddenly it was flung open, steam poured out, and a big-haired thing emerged, bowing and uttering strange words. I went in and promptly slid across the floor. There was about an inch of water on the linoleum and all of the orange towels were heaped, sodden, in the corner. Bloody hell. I went downstairs, tapped on the sitting room door and asked my hostess for more towels. More towels! she exclaimed, But there were at least 4 in there. I nodded and shrugged and said, I’m not sure our Japanese sister understands the complexities of putting the shower curtain inside the bath, there’s water everywhere. She rolled her eyes and followed me back upstairs, reaching into a hall cupboard on the way to extract more towels. She mopped the floor and left me to it.

Having a bath in two inches of water is not my idea of relaxing so I got out a few minutes later and brooded about what to do the following morning. My neighbours obviously had no comprehension of English, or time, and I worried about the same thing happening in the morning. I would just have to get up earlier. I had a quick pee and reached for the loo paper. Nothing. I swivelled around and all discovered all 3 loo rolls were missing. Oh bloody hell. I had a quick shake, opened the bathroom door, lent over the banister while trying to hold on to my towel, and quietly shouted, Hello?? You know what I mean by quietly shouted... that sort of loud stage whisper that you think is audible to someone downstairs, watching television, but that won’t be heard by the people in the bedroom behind you. The door opened behind me and 2 perfectly formed Japanese girls stood there, black long straight hair hanging to their waists, blinking at me shyly. Awkward. Toilet paper? I mouthed. There was really no point. I shrugged and shouted downstairs again, Helloooooo? One of the girls cleared her throat, Hello, she said. It was like hearing a pet talk. I wanted to coax more out of it, feed it treats to say something else but nothing was forthcoming. Then, thank God, my hostess came upstairs, took one look at the girls, then at me in my towel and said, What now? I grimaced. There’s no toilet roll, I said, I think they might have used it all. She stared into the bathroom and put her hands on her hips. But there were 3 rolls in there and they’re only tiny! We both giggled because it was so ridiculous. Suffice to say the girls said no more, bowed and shut the door. My hostess found more loo paper and went back downstairs and I went to bed. I slept as well as I normally do in a mad house and woke at 7:30am, grabbed my towel and headed for the bathroom. There was already someone in the shower. Noooooo! Half an hour later, one of the girls emerged and seemed surprised to see me standing there. She smiled sweetly as I slipped passed her. But you say 8am yes? she said quietly as I began closing the bathroom door. Oh now she speaks!

I went to work, came back to the house and spent 20 minutes trying to unlock the front door. The key just wouldn’t work, so I knocked and rang the doorbell and waited and waited. Finally the door was flung open and there stood a 7-foot tall, 20-something black guy, holding a basketball. I stepped back and looked at the front door, thinking I had the wrong house. Um, I said. Hey, he said, I’m Lindell, and he shook my hand, stepped to one side and beckoned me in. Um, I said, holding up the dodgy key. Oh, he said, You’ve got the key that doesn’t work, take mine. And he took his key off his key ring and handed it to me. I thanked him and followed him into the kitchen. Bad idea, no room. I backed out into the hallway again. And you are...? I ventured, poking my head around the door. I’m Lindell, I live here. And gave a me a look like, duh, I just told you my name you idiot. And he bounced his basketball a few times, grabbed an apple from the fruit basket and left. I frowned, sighed, grabbed my salad from the fridge and began to go upstairs, but there was another guy, barrelling down the stairs towards me. He jumped the last 3 steps and landed next to me, grinning. Hey, he said. Hi, I said. Cool, he said, and left.

I learnt from my hostess that the first guy was her lodger, the second guy was her son, I hadn’t met her boyfriend yet but he may be around later. I also found out that she usually rents out 4 rooms on Airbnb, not 2. I was lucky, she said, This week’s quiet.