by Lucia de Santis
Since I moved to London, I can’t seem to manage to avoid my acquaintances’ curiosity about The Old Smoke.
You know, it’s always those nasty questions, the ones you’d do anything to shun.
“So how is life in the big city, huh?” “Best part of London?” “Any good hostels you recommend?”.
Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I got no answer for any of them. The truth is, as a student at UCL you don’t get much free time for all the touristy stuff, you definitely don’t sleep in hostels and, to be honest, London is not that pretty. At all.
I mean it’s gray and dull, I’m sure you have heard all sort of these things about London.
The one cool thing is, I’ll give you that, London is indeed the centre of the world.
Anything and anyone you can think of, they are in London. Or some doppelganger of theirs, anyway.
So that’s what I’m going to talk about. People. People in London, people I’ve met that were in London for just a brief time. Friends, not friends, any ordinary Joe I met on my way.
Today It’s Brian’s turn.
I’ll try to use pseudonyms as much as I can, but this guy’s name is so common that there won’t be much need, this time. Also, he’s 76 and he probably won’t mind if he’s life is typed somewhere, on some random blog on the internet.
So, yes, Brian is my 76 years old Landlord.
The first time I talked to Brian we were arranging a viewing to rent his flat, some day in October. Me and my friend (I’ll talk about her some other time) were pretty determined to move out, and although the renting season was far gone, we hadn’t let go of hope yet, and kept browsing everyday through the London Students Housing Services website. Until we found him. Or at least, I found him, so it seemed logical that it would have been my duty to call him.
Anyway, I wasn’t really expecting to hear such an old voice on the phone. However, it was a happy, chilled old man’s voice. Quite talkative too. I’m sure that conversation lasted for more than 40 minutes. Not that I needed that much information about the house on the spot, but he seemed to be in the mood for telling me his whole life story.
He warned me the house had a bit of a “cab in the wood” feel, but for £108 a week, London zone 2, I didn’t really mind.
I do now, but that’s another story.
We met for the first time a couple of days later in my then house-to-be. The old tenants were still moving stuff around so I didn’t get a proper feel of the house. It looked cool enough though (and cheap enough) and the old guy seemed alright.
I’m gonna skip the whole part where he let me and my friend sleep at the house for one night before taking it, and the cold and the horror for sleeping in someone else’s bed sheets that we felt on that occasion.
Anyway, as the time to sign the contract approached, we met up another few times. He was going to stay in London for a couple of days before moving to the country again, just to see if anything is okay. So we suggest having some dinner/lunch together.
We thus got the chance to know a bit more about Brian.
At first glance, you’d guess he’s not the sort of 76 years old man you’d expect to meet any day. Brian has got long, white hair, sometimes tied up in a ponytail, he wears clothes too big for him, loves leeks and doesn’t shower very often.
He’s a lonely, 76 years old man. The former tenants seem overjoyed to move out, and we have grown to understand the reason why, overtime. Brian has no one to look after him, and has repeatedly tried to be more than tenants-landlord with us. Unfortunately (for him!) we are two very young Science students, too busy with our new London experience and with the University schedule.
I grasped his story in different sessions. Brian used to be a descendant from some typical well-off middle class family, and he never seems too fond of his childhood memories. He fled to Canada as soon as he could and got some Engineering degree up there. And then became a hippie. But somewhere in between, holding his nice Canadian degree, he realised he could make some pretty good money with it. He started working as an engineer and apparently “money was pouring in”, as he said.
As soon as he had enough money to call it a day, Brian decided he wanted to travel. I haven’t quite got the bit where he made this sudden decision, but apparently he, a friend and some girl decided to go to India and travel all over the place.
Here the picture gets a bit blurry, but apparently he’s being going here and there, had some rice, met some people, worked a bit more and travelled a bit more. Until his friend ditched him for the girl. They were going back to wherever they came from and from there on they would have travelled on their own.
Sometimes Brian talks of women too. But they never sound that important.
In his house we have found some old handcuffs, a fair collection of Sensual Massage books, but no picture of friends or family.
There’s a few postcards by this tenant of his, whom he seems to have particularly liked. But she’s gone on with her life and Brian has been left alone, again.
Somehow, Brian seems to have got stuck in the seventies. He still wears hippie clothes, eats hippie food and he’s not planning to get old. Sometimes he asks us out to bars and clubs where his “friends”, some random musicians in their 30ies play music, smile at him and then go back to their music. Other times he scares our friends by suddenly jumping on road barriers and showing off his young attitude. But Brian is just old, lonely and on the run.
Brian is constantly on the run from any responsibility. A couple of days ago, our old boiler broke. We all knew it was going to happen, so Brian didn’t put up too much of a fuss, got it changed and everything seemed fine again. Until the lady who lives in the basement rang our doorbell at 12pm on the day before an exam, clearly upset, as water had been leaking for three days from our flat into hers. She called Brian, with whom certainly didn’t engage in a pleasant conversation, who then called me.
Quite expectedly, I’d dare say, he blamed it on us.
“You sure you didn’t have a bath and the water overflowed?”
“I’m sure Brian, the water has been leaking for days, our flat is completely dry and we hadn’t had a bath in weeks (cos it’s fricken cold!)”
Yes, for when Brian can’t escape his responsibilities anymore, he dismays.
You can read the excitement in his eyes when he talks about his travels and adventures in India, just like a child who talks about his favourite toy. But deep, deep in his voice you can feel the truth.
Brian is lonely, he has no family and very few friends. He hasn’t achieved anything in his life, as he quit his well-paid job to travel and managed to get just about £80 per month as pension. He basically lives on our rent.
If at first glance his life seems and adventurous one, one that you’d easily find written in some book, however, the truth is no adventure is that great if you never shared it with someone.
In his voice, there’s the desperate wish to charm his public and possibly himself, with those memories of a far gone youth. But all he manages to convey is regret and grief, for a life that he himself perceives as wasted.
Brian is very contradictory. He’s been running away all his life, but doesn’t have the courage to chuck anything in the bin. The house is thus stuffed with any sort of things, old pieces of wood, rotting chairs found on the street, books from centuries ago and newspapers from the 60s.
Sometimes me and my housemate talk about Brian. We haven’t seen him in a while and we keep in touch as little as necessary. We haven’t fulfilled his ideal of perfect tenants, and since the contract is expiring soon anyway, so we just decided to ignore him.
I feel guilty sometimes, I feel like I wished I could do something for him.
The thing is, Brian is the portrait of a man who hasn’t managed to do anything good to himself in 70 years, ‘cause he was too scared to stop for a moment, and consider his own life.
One time I asked him “Brian, do you regret anything?”
His eyes got lost somewhere for a few moments, then he cleared his throat, and pulled a smile “Well, sometimes I wished I had found some lady and settled down…” pause “..but after all I guess I had a pretty good life”.
Lie. Lie in his smile, in his gestures, in everything he was doing in that precise moment.
Sometimes I talk about Brian.
And I feel guilty for not doing anything to help him.
But then I realise, not everyone wants to be helped. Some people just choose to ignore their own need for help. And if they call themselves happy, there’s not much I can do for them at that point.
When I think of Brian now, I think I have to thank him, after all.
I learnt a lesson I might have wasted a whole life to learn.
People are the very important thing. No travel, no adventures, no London.
People are what make life worth it.