Heathrow airport at 10pm in January is a miserable place. After queuing for hours in customs and retrieving my two-ton suitcase containing all of my worldly possessions from the luggage carousel, I gazed bewilderingly at the regimented rows of Britons marching smartly towards signs to the tube station. I, on the other hand, sought out the counter for the national express airport- to-hotel bus service that I had booked back in Australia, not wanting to risk complicated transport routes on my first night in the country.
I was directed by a woman in a twin-set to take a seat on the lonely row of moulded chairs beside the automatic doors. I pulled my massive suitcase over to the chairs and peered out through the glass doors for my first glimpse of England. An occasional set of headlights loomed through the darkness, but no sign of my bus. Through the mist a man in a fluorescent orange vest appeared, walking purposefully towards the glass doors. The doors slid open... the shock of cold sent me scurrying back to my suitcase to retrieve my coat.
Precisely thirty minutes later I, along with a few other hapless Aussies, drove through the swirling mists towards central London. We seemed to take a circuitous route through streets lined with curry houses and signs reading ‘off-license’ until, two hours later, I was unceremoniously dropped in front of a BnB in Bloomsbury. Too cold to revel in the fact that I was standing on a street that members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood may have strolled along, I pressed the buzzer beside the bright blue door and waited, hands thrust deep inside my coat pockets.
‘Hiya,’ said the blonde in a sing-song voice as the door pulled back. ‘Are ye a’right?’
I blinked. Am I alright? Unsure how to answer the question, I responded with, ‘I have a booking’.
‘Brilliant,’ she replied. She stepped back and allowed me to retrieve my suitcase from the pavement and haul it up the short flight of stairs and into the carpeted hallway. A forbidding staircase appeared before me, covered with red and yellow paisley carpet.
‘I’ll get my husband’.
‘Sure,’ I replied, staring at the portrait of a stern individual in navy uniform who glared at me from above the sideboard.
Minutes later a short, thin man with a cream t-shirt tucked tightly into his jeans stepped into the hallway. ‘Good evening,’ he said.
‘Good evening,’ I replied, stepping forward and revealing my suitcase cowering behind me. His eyes widened in horror.
‘We don’t have a lift,’ he said softly.
‘What?’ I replied, looking around in confusion, ‘well, that doesn’t matter, I...’
‘We don’t have a lift and you’re on the fourth floor.’
‘Oh,’ I replied, still not sure what the big deal was- I’ve climbed stairs before in my time. Then, I became aware of his fixed gaze on my suitcase.
‘Oh,’ I laughed, suddenly comprehending, ‘that’s ok, I can handle...’
‘No,’ he sighed, stepping past me and grabbing my suitcase handle determinedly. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘No, really, I...’
He heaved my suitcase up the first two steps and balanced there for a moment. I stepped meekly behind him.
‘What have you got in here?’ he scowled.
‘All my worldly possessions,’ I laughed, then stopped. My host wasn’t laughing.
‘I’m moving here,’ I tried again. ‘That’s why I...’
I let my voice trail off as he sucked in a deep breath and pulled my suitcase up another couple of stairs.
‘Hmph,’ he said.
Ten minutes later, he unlocked the door to my tiny room. ‘Breakfast is at 8:00,’ he huffed, before heading back down the stairs. I could still hear him wheezing as I stepped inside and closed the door. I held out my arms to touch each wall. I felt the tears well.
‘I’m here,’ I whispered, and unzipped my suitcase to pull out my scarf, gloves and thermal underwear, ready for tomorrow.
(after reading the prologue of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a small island’)