A couple of weeks ago I took a walk through a past life. A quarter of a century ago I was still a teenager, albeit approaching the end of those years. I worked for a posh convenience store called Cullens in Gloucester Road, Kensington. And for a while I had a very posh address on Oakley Street. The actual accommodation that I called home was anything but posh. A bedsit with a communal toilet and shower room a couple of flights of stairs up, the rent for which amounted to half my weekly wages. The peeled paint on the walls was old enough to qualify as an exhibit on the Antiques Roadshow. The less said about the loo and shower the better.
But it was all about the location. At one end of the street is Kings Road, which was one of the hippest parts of London. At the other end you’ll find the Albert Bridge, which looks resplendant in the evening with its pink paint job, illuminated by enough bulbs to light up a sizeable village. When I finished work on the late shift at about 10.30, I’d sometimes go with a couple of friends for a beer in the Stanhope Tavern. In those days, pubs threw the punters out at about half past eleven, so we needed to find other ways to amuse ourselves. Now and again, during the warmer summer months, we’d walk down to the Albert Bridge with a few tins of lager and discuss the rights and wrongs of the world. I doubt the beers added much to the intellectual content of our conversations, but that’s by the by.
There is a tree to one side of the Albert Bridge, next to a bench, on the north bank of the river. It is a great tree to climb with reasonably comfortable perches for three people. We’d sit up in the tree chatting for an hour or two. In hushed voices. We didn’t want to alert our prey to our presence. The river path would be deserted at that time of night. Even the road traffic was pretty minimal. Every now and then a jogger would pass and we’d scare him out of his skin for our amusement. Outrageous sneezes were our weapon of choice. Cruel I know, but the sort of person that goes out for a midnight jog is a glutton for punishment anyway.
The biggest drawback of my living arrangements came when nature called in the middle of the night. It’s a long old walk up two creaky flights of stairs in the pitch black at three in the morning. I won’t lie. There was more than one occasion when I opened the sash window of my room and watered the plants in the garden three stories below. If it had been a particularly heavy night, I could water some of next doors fuchsias too. I was just doing my bit for the environment.
Perhaps you’re appalled at my loutish behaviour, so let’s move along. Next stop on the walk is the junction of Oakley Street and Kings Road. There’s a fire station right opposite. To the best of my memory, it’s the only fire station I have ever been inside. My visit came in the middle of the night. I casually strolled in the front door wearing a t-shirt, my boxer shorts and a pair of trainers. Not my most dignified ever entrance, I’ll admit. I explained my predicament, which probably needed little explaining.
On one of the rare occasions I had opted to do the decent thing and clamber up the stairs to use the loo rather than the window, I had forgotten to take the keys to my room. The door closed and locked shut behind me. Awkward. There’s an exception to every rule, and I had just discovered the one for the old saying, ‘don’t piss on your own doorstep’. I clearly should have.
The only solution seemed to be to seek the help of a fireman at the local station, who would surely be fully equipped with the necessary tools for a problem such as this. I was right. Three of them came up with a bag of spanners, screwdrivers, hammers, other tough looking implements and a huge library of jokes, all of which were squarely aimed at me. They inspected the lock and frame and then selected the right tool for the job. Which turned out to be a hefty boot to kick the door in. Not entirely what I was expecting.
But it got me back in. And besides I was a low income tenant in a flat barely above slum status. The landlord should expect such incidents. Not that I hung around to see the landlord when I vacated. I disappeared quick sharpish a few weeks rent in arrears, leaving behind an unsecured door, a three foot pile of Autocar and Motor magazines, some unwashed dishes and the most thoroughly watered flower beds in the whole of Chelsea.