When I was younger, I was rather foolish. This absentminded mindset once saw me spend the night sleeping on the pavement of Trafalgar Square. Never again.
When I was young(er), I was pretty reckless about my safety. I also had two beliefs: (1) that I should always do anything a man could and (2) that people were essentially good so nothing terrible would ever happen to me. And that’s how I came to be sleeping in Trafalgar Square. For what it’s worth, I no longer believe either of those things.
Back then, my strategy was very simple: travel for as long as possible on as little money as possible. The entire goal was not to work very much. Working meant going back to an agency in London who would send me to look after an ageing aristocrat.
There was one time I misjudged exactly how close to zero my bank balance would be by the time I got on the plane to London. But that was okay, because I was meeting up with a friend and I could casually mention that I needed somewhere to stay.
My plan was foiled by my friend bringing along the guy he was dating – and whose place he would be staying at that night. As he walked me to the Tube, I was too embarrassed to tell him how broke I was. So I went down the stairs into the Tube and waited for a few minutes before resurfacing.
I reckoned Trafalgar Square was a safe bet. The constant stream of pedestrian traffic wouldn’t exactly make for peaceful slumber but at least there would always be somebody around. I sat on the steps of the National Gallery, holding the backpack that contained all my worldly belongings.
Also on The Big Smoke
- A salute to all the jobs I’ve lost along the way
- Ahmed, Arabic pop and hiding from the prostitutes of the Western Sahara
- That time I snuck over Mexico’s border. With a clown.
Slumped against the bag, I smoked cigarette after cigarette and stared at the straggle of passers by, trying to stay awake as long as I could. Every few minutes I checked my watch and flicked the spatter of occasional rain from my shoes. Time dragged by more slowly than the groups of friends drunkenly stumbling home from their night out.
Around three in the morning, a woman approached to ask me for spare change. She was probably only a few years older than I was at 22, but a lot worse for wear. When I apologised, she said “You shouldn’t be out here, love. It’s not safe for you at this time. You should go home.”
I wanted to tell her it wasn’t safe for her either. Instead, I just nodded and watched her wander across Trafalgar Square, disappearing into the darkness.
When I began losing the battle to keep my eyes open, I found a passageway around the corner from the museum that was sheltered and unoccupied. I hoped it was far enough back from the main footpath that no one would pay me any attention.
Stretching out on the concrete, I lay as close to the wall as possible. I rested my head on my bag so if anyone decided to snatch my valuables they would have to get me out of the way first. For some reason, this was a comforting thought. After a few hours of sleeping in fits and starts, light crept around the edges of the sky and the Tube opened again.
Arriving at the hostel in Camden, the Iraqi receptionist told me I couldn’t check in to a room until 10am. I must have looked exhausted because he took pity on me and let me sleep on the couch in reception for a few hours, even though it could have cost him his job.
The next day, the agency sent me to look after a Lady Someone.
She lived in a mansion so enormous it had deserted wings.