I wake up to the clanging of dishes in the kitchen. Someone’s up. Not me, though. I lie huddled under blankets on the couch, awake, but still.
I’m guessing it’s George – she told me she’d be getting up early.
After five minutes of dozing I peel myself off the couch and put on some pants. And then I sit back down. Do I go and say hello? Or should I leave her to do her morning ritual in peace? Back when I was a suit, I hated being disturbed in the morning. Any place before 8am was not my happy place.
Eventually I get up and walk into the kitchen. She’s sitting there, eating a pretty typical white girl breakfast – eggs with some green stuff. I think about reaching over and stealing a bite, but decide our friendship isn’t quite there yet. We only met some 12 hours ago.
I grab a glass of water and sit. We talk. She looks smart, dressed up all fancy in some office girl clothes, like Ally McBeal. In another life, I would’ve been sitting next to her, tailored suit and tie, chowing on a bowl of rice, eggs and soy sauce, getting ready to head to my own London office. But not in this life. There is no big-shot fancy-suit broadway-show London in my story. The only London I’ll know is the sleep-on-a-couch, eat-prepackaged-supermarket-meals and watch-buskers-in-Trafalgar-Square London. The high life passed me by a long time ago.
Stephen Brown is a farm boy. The way he talks about horses, one would think he’s going to end up marrying one. But the farm isn’t around right now. Right now, he’s a big shot in London, which I’m thankful for, because I’m sleeping on his couch. I knew I stayed friends with this guy for a reason.
I know Stephen Brown from my accounting days. He worked downstairs, I worked upstairs. Same shit, different desk. But we got along, me and him.
When I get home from my day out in London, he’s sitting there eating fajitas.
“Want some of this, bro?” he asks.
Yeah, I do, actually.
We sit and eat at his dining room table. Damn, I miss having a dining room table.
I look around his kitchen. There are veges in the fridge, spices on the rack, protein up on the top shelf. He’s got a motorbike outside. A girlfriend with a sweet smile. A healthy paycheck.
The man’s got a life here in London.
In New Zealand, people always speak of “the London thing”. You go to university, you get a job, you save up some cash, and then you get that one way ticket to Heathrow. You get your two year visa, earn some pounds, do that funny thing with your taxes, travel Europe on the weekends, and then bring all that dosh home to buy a house. Want to travel? Do the London thing. Want to earn mad cash? Do the London thing. Everyone loves the London thing.
Stephen Brown is doing the London thing. He’s doing it well. He’ll head home with memories and some mad stacks. But what about me? What about my London thing? I did the exams. I got the grades. But there’s no London thing in my story. There are no big paychecks. I don’t get the chance to fall in love with London like they do.
I get home and the house is empty. It’s 7pm. Stephen Brown is nowhere to be seen. Neither are his roommates. I sit on the couch and listen to Taylor Swift.
Then I hear the door. It’s Rachel.
“Hi!!” she says enthusiastically as she walks in. A little too enthusiastically, in fact. She pulls off her heels with a smile. What’s she so happy about?
“What’s up?” I say, smiling.
“I’m gooood, I’ve just been at the bar, I’m going to make a cuppa, would you like one?”
“Sure. Green, if you have it.”
She’s so bubbly – reminds me of Summer Roberts.
“Yeeeaaah of course! I’ve got green with ginger and lemon, and jasmine green, and plain green, what would you like?”
“Green with lemon, if you don’t mind,” I say, trying to sound British.
She fiddles in the kitchen for a few minutes and then, with teas in hand, hands me mine and sits back at the kitchen table.
“So…” she begins, giggling, “Steve told me that, you were like, working as an accountant, and then one day you just said FUCK IT and started travelling around the world. Is that true?”
I nod slowly. Stephen Brown talks too much.
“I guess it’s kinda true, yeah.”
“Oh my gosh, I would so love to…just…drop it and go like that.”
“You should,” I smile.
“I’m going to, soon. I really want to.”
We talk for the next half hour. She tells me everything about her. Her past relationship and why she wants to travel and all her drama and fears and plans. No filter, it all comes out. I’ve known this girl maybe 72 hours and she’s already telling me her entire E! Hollywood story. After hearing her travel plans and giving my bit of advice, I tell her how every traveller out there fits into a box; a profile.
Me? I was the Peter Pan 9-5 Corporate Runaway.
Her? She’d be an Eat Pray Love girl.
But it’s weird, because I see a lot of myself in her story, too. I also was the broken relationship need-to-get-the-fuck-out-of-here guy once. I offer that to her, so she knows I get it. I’ve been there too, bro.
“So what did you do today?” she asks.
“I just woke up, meditated, did some writing, walked around, got some food.”
“Meditated? What’s that about?
“I just do it, to clear my head. It’s easy. We can do a session now, if you want.”
“Yeah! Can we? Let’s!
She jumps up and comes over to the couch, and I pull out my phone and start a beginner’s audio. We do ten minutes. I can hear her breathing super deeply beside me. I’m impressed. She’s taking the shit real serious.
When it’s finally over, she opens her eyes slowly in a gaze, staring blankly in front of her.
“Wow. I feel so mellow right now. How often do you do that?”
“I try to do it every day. It helps with the writing.”
“That’s so awesome. I really need that. I find it really hard to clear my head. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I can never seem to stop talking.”
No. I hadn’t noticed at all.
I haven’t played touch rugby for around four years. The last time was back in Auckland, when I still had a life there.
Today that changes. Stephen Brown has a team here, with a bunch of my old office mates. He gets home from work and insists I come and play.
“Can I play in bare feet?” I ask. I don’t travel with much, especially not a pair of touch boots.
“Probably not. Those shoes will fit you, bro,” he says, pointing to a pair of boots by the front door.
“Whose are they?”
“Dunno, just take em.”
I laugh to myself as we head out the door in our flip flops and stubbies with a rugby ball between us. I feel like I’m back in primary school.
When we get to the field it feels strangely familiar, like I’ve been here before. I see my old workmates – Seok, Phil, James, chatting away like it’s any old Thursday. It’s a flashback to five years ago. We could’ve been in Auckland.
I don’t care much for the game. It’s fun, of course, and I run hard, but I’m not too bothered by whether we win or lose. I don’t know why. As competitive as I am, right now I’m just happy to throw the ball around. After so long, a game of touch just feels like a comfort from home, rather than something to get worked up about. Kind of like a mince and cheese pie in Asia – doesn’t need to be spectacular; you’re just happy it’s there and, as long it’s hot, it’ll get the job done.
In the end, we win. Good times.
Once we do all our post-game handshakes and hip hoorays, we head to the bar across the road for drinks. I’d forgotten how much of a luxury it was, to head to the bar on a weeknight. On the road, every night is a Saturday. As we sit there and sip away, I find myself paying more attention to the rest of the bar than the friends I’m sitting with. I see the guys in their suits, sinking the stress of the work day in the beers in front of them. They laugh tiredly at each others stories, probably about their douche bag boss or that mid-life crisis lady in the office they can’t stand. Funnily enough, I’m kinda jealous of them. I miss telling those stories.
In fact, I’m a little jealous of everyone in here. They all have some normalcy in their life. They have a local bar and a close circle of friends to kick it with on a Thursday. When someone asks them what they do, it’s an easy, one-word answer. They know where they’ll be sleeping for the rest of the month. When they buy drinks, they don’t need to count their pennies.
Maybe it would’ve been nice, to do the London thing.
I used to look forward to Friday night. In fact, it was probably the only thing I used to look forward to. Every day in the office, every morning ironing my shirt, every evening sitting in rush hour traffic; all I was doing was looking forward to Friday night. And not because of the booze or bar hopping that came with it, but just because, if only for just a moment, I had my freedom back. If you get drunk or play Playstation all night on a Tuesday, there are consequences. If you do it on a Friday, nobody cares. I used to live for Friday night.
Stephen Brown and I jump on a bus and head out to tonight’s house party.
“This house is full of Aussies bro. They’ll be having a bender tonight.”
We head up to the top floor of the bus and take the front seats. I always wondered whether I’d end up riding the famous London double decker. The first thing I notice are the empty bourbon cans on the floor.
“Do people come up here and get pissed a lot?” I ask him.
“Yeah bro, even on the tube. On Waitangi Day there’s a massive pub crawl on the Circle line. All the Kiwis just getting smashed on the train. Funny as.”
When we get to the house everyone’s already a little smiley. Not to mention it’s the most Australian house ever. Drugs, booze, dirty dishes. It’s all free flow. You’d be forgiven for thinking we were in a Colombian hostel.
I knew the moment I entered this wasn’t my scene. It doesn’t seem like Stephen Brown’s either. Him and I sip beers, but there’s no powder on our noses. We’re good.
After an hour, everyone heads to the local bar. They all head straight to the dance floor, bopping away. I stand in the corner, sober. Three girls sway to the music next to me and I say hello. Turns out, they’re from Paris. Maybe I should’ve guessed from the silly hat one of them was wearing. I tell them I’ve been in Montpellier for the last month, studying French, and try bust out some of my Français. I butcher it, of course, but it’s a great conversation starter. I’m taken back to France and suddenly, it feels like I’m on the road again. This is my comfort zone. Over the course of the night, a couple of cigarettes and some drinks, I feel like my French improves three-fold.
Around 1am the bar closes and we migrate back to the house. As soon as I walk in, the lines of dust are already sprinkled on the table. It’s kindly offered to me, but I decline, politely. But as I watch them indulge, I remember. I remember that feeling, the need to rebel and blow off steam and let the demons out after a week of being whipped in the back. Five days of alarm clocks, office politics, lifelessly punching a keyboard while watching the world go by. It sucks so much soul out of you that when that weekend comes along, you make damn sure to take it for everything it’s got. And as I spectate, I feel it again, if only for a split second. But that split second is all I need to remind me why I walked away from it all.
Sitting in Gatwick, I replay the five days over in my head and realise that, despite the short visit, I’ll remember London well. And it’s not Trafalgar Square, or the Eye, or Buckingham Palace that I’ll remember. Instead, I’ll remember it as a flashback; a brief step back into that life I left behind when I chose travel all those years ago. I got a glimpse of the old days here; the stressful mornings, early nights, collared shirts and long commutes. But also, and perhaps more importantly, I was reminded of the good things I had to leave behind. I don’t get to have a George to eat breakfast with each morning; a Rachel to kick it with at night; a house of friends to watch Geordie Shore with on Tuesday and a touch team to sink beers with on Thursday night. On the road, you don’t get that community of familiar faces and places to take comfort in and call “home”. Sure, you might make new friends on the road every day, but it can still be the loneliest place in the world. Everyone’s a friend, but everyone’s a stranger, too. Soon you realise, at the end of the day, there’s no one else. It’s really just you and your backpack out here, taking on the world.
Five days. That’s all London is for me. Like in so many other cities, I’ve come, taken my photos, and I’m gone. I don’t have a London thing in my story. For me, it’s just another stop around the world.