I came up to London last week for a four-day jolly: two football matches, two parties. I can’t afford London hotel prices, so I booked myself into a youth hostel behind Portland Place. A smiling Uruguayan beauty checked me in to an eight-berth dormitory on the second floor. I laid claim to one of the top bunks by leaving my self-help paperback, Solitude, on the pillow. Then I stowed my wheelie bag in one of the lockers, set my shiny new four-number combination padlock to the year of the Peterloo Massacre, then went to Plaistow for a few shants before the first of the football matches.
A liquid evening ended at about three in the morning, in a cellar in Soho, with an argument. The bouncer wanted to throw me out for falling about all over the place. The proprietress wanted to let me stay because in her view I was only enjoying myself. As an impartial observer, I could see the validity of both points of view. In the end I left of my own accord, leaving with as much dignity as a man can muster when he can’t walk in a straight line or pass through a doorway at the first attempt.
Back at the youth hostel, I pushed open the dormitory door and was welcomed by a masculine fug and the peaceful dissonance of heavy, international breathing. I was relieved that I’d made it safely. Soho to Portland Place is half a mile at the most, but at three steps forward, one to the side, and one back, progress was slow and anything but smooth. The ordeal was behind me now, however. All I had to do was get up that ladder and tumble into the Land of Nod.
My path to the foot of the ladder was lit by a street lamp shining through an uncurtained window. I decided against removing my shoes, suit and tie. This would involve balancing on one leg several times — a big ask in my present condition. My only preparation for bed was to take off my poppy and place it carefully out of harm’s way on the windowsill. I’d given £40 for that poppy. People must have really lumped in this year because the poppy seller at Paddington station hadn’t batted an eyelid. ‘Do you want a pin?’ was all he’d said in his routine way.
I grasped the ladder and heaved myself up. At the top, I managed to get a knee over the rail and levered myself — a sweet, sweet moment — up and over to safety, rest, warmth and a degree of comfort. I would have added privacy to this list of desirable states, except I found myself lying half on and half off a sleeping man, now a waking man, now a fully awake Japanese man sitting bolt upright and looking at me with a mixture of astonishment and (to his great credit) good humour.
‘Have you seen my book?’ I said, lamely. ‘I think I left it up here.’
I woke at noon on the top bunk of the bed opposite. Looking down, I saw a wide puddle on the floor. Had this water been paddled into the dormitory from the en-suite shower cubicle? Or had I clambered down during the night, disoriented, not quite awake, and done my usual party piece? It didn’t bear thinking about.
The next night I arrived back from a birthday party at about two. Compared with the night before I was almost sober. The Japanese man was in my bed again. My second-choice bed was taken by a shaven-headed man with a spider’s web tattooed across half his face. It wasn’t easy to tell in the semi-darkness which of the other beds were taken and which were vacant, because the duvets were all in disarray and some people lie very flat when they sleep. After giving the matter some consideration, I tried a lower bunk next to a wall, found it unoccupied, quietly slipped out of my suit this time, and settled down to sleep.
In the early hours there was a very late arrival. This person had no qualms about whacking on the light or making a racket as he unpacked his rucksack. There was now only one bed without a body in it, but the rumpled duvet made him hesitate. Perhaps it was reserved. I heard him whisper to someone who was awake, ‘Excuse me, mate. Is this one free?’
The other person must have indicated that it probably was. ‘Then whose is this?’ I heard the Aussie say. I opened an eye and saw him sitting on the bunk and waggling my self-help book, Solitude, at his interlocutor.
‘Oh, I guess it belongs to the old guy,’ I heard the other voice, another Australian voice, say. ‘The silly old bastard keeps leaving it around.’