Cromwell Road Hostel, London, 1980.

They took my money, handed over a key and sent me to the top floor. None of the timer lights in the stairwell worked, so I bumped my bags, in two trips, up eight flights in the dark through a fug of cooked cabbage. The door opened onto a room occupied by three single beds with green candlewick covers and a few cheap sticks of furniture. It looked too bare to be inhabited and frankly I was relieved. I wasn’t feeling very sociable.

After unpacking, I went downstairs to explore. On the ground floor was a lounge with two worn couches and a TV chained to the wall. There were ashtrays everywhere and cigarette burns everywhere else. Further along was a canteen with cherry-red lino and grey formica tables and beyond that the kitchens where I spotted the first sign of life – two dinner ladies chatting through billowing steam as they stirred cabbage in huge pots.

The hostel on Cromwell Road.

The hostel was a 20-minute walk from the Kings Road, where I worked, but that turned out to be the only upside. Though food was included in the weekly rate, it bore a strong resemblance to the Meals on Wheels my mother and I once delivered to lonely people in pensioner flats and in some weird karmic flip, they were being served back to me. On days when I couldn’t face the food, I went looking for a takeout in the high street.

Most people worked and kept to themselves. This was no youth hostel buzzing with backpackers – there were old men smoking in corners with an air of permanent fixture about them. I didn’t befriend a single person and no one moved in to share my top floor room the whole time I was there. It was just me and the cold. There was a gaping crack in the window and no heating, so I bought a one bar heater from Portobello Market for five quid to warm my hands. Evenings found me hunched over it, reading the NME in the dim glow of a single bulb which hung like a suicide from the ceiling.

I knew things would improve. I also knew I should be doing more to facilitate their improvement. At first I circled flat share ads in the paper and queued with other hopefuls, trying hard to give off affable flatmate vibes. Any place that wasn’t too expensive or too far out was overrun with applicants, but I kept at it. I learned to decode the ads: good value meant wretched, studio space was a cupboard and garden flat was a dungeon with a weed patch. After a while I stopped looking.

November came and went and winter gaped ahead of me. The hostel was somewhere to sleep and a place to leave my things, but there was no comfort there. I got myself to and from work and hauled my washing to the laundrette when it started to pile up, but a month later I was still there, like someone asleep at the wheel. When I felt the room closing in, I would grab my headphones and take The Cure out for a walk. The songs were so familiar, they were a kind of home.

In Your House is one of the tracks that frames the foggy lull of that time. With muted tones and simple repetitions, it is soothing and mostly uncluttered by lyrics. A heart-thud drumbeat and spirals of guitar build something that is spare and clean and into this space, uncertainty drifts like smoke under a door. The lyrics hint at self-undoing and the distance this creates between people. Among the silence and empty rooms, someone negotiates their tangled emotions, pretending to swim. There may be redemption, or they may be left to drown.

In my case, it was a friend from work who saved me from sinking any further. I hadn’t stopped by Caroline’s desk to chat for a while because I couldn’t do small talk anymore. I was delivering something to her department and as I went to leave, she took my hand and asked if I was all right. I nodded quickly. For most people that would’ve been enough, but Caroline didn’t let go of my hand. She sat me down and asked again if I was OK and that was all it took. I told her about everything. The food, the cold, the loneliness. The hypothermia I risked every time I took a bath – throwing the window open in the middle of winter because the sign on the wall said: GAS BOILER EMITS TOXIC FUMES WHICH MAY CAUSE DEATH.

Caroline told me to pack my things and settle the bill. That weekend she turned up in her Mini and took me back to her Maida Vale flat. I was welcome to stay, she said, till I found a decent place of my own. Though I thanked her many times, the words never seemed enough. I don’t remember if I cooked her a fancy dinner or bought her a gift. I should have, but I was just a kid and had no idea. Just as she had no idea how much her simple act of kindness meant to me.

Stereo Story #586

See also Maria’s share house story about The Cure’s So What.

I spent the 80s in London working at Penguin and Aladdin Books, living in squats and seeing loads of bands. After returning to NZ, I wrote scripts for a local soap, Shortland Street, also features for blogs and magazines, and a novel. I live in Auckland with my husband, three children and cat.