LIFE IN LONDON #05

I scanned my list of names again and found her address. The number matched the rust-bitten silver digits screwed into the black door and I consulted my paper to find her flat letter. I leaned on the “A” doorbell and stepped back, waiting for the little box beside me to squawk into life with my patient’s voice asking who it was.

I locked eyes with a landscaper working in the neighbouring garden and flashed him a smile. He nodded, a recognition of a fellow community worker navigating the maze of London houses and apartments.

When the response finally came, it wasn’t from the direction I’d anticipated. The metal box remained silent and instead a wavering voice drifted down from above.

‘Hello. I’m up here.’

I glanced up to find a thin elderly woman in her nineties leaning out from an upstairs window, a bird-like hand waving at me, and a toothy smile grinning down at me. It was instinct: I waved back.

‘Hello,’ I said, remembering why I was there. ‘I’m Jonathan, the community phlebotomist. I’m just here for a blood test. You must be Catherine.’

‘Oh, right you are. I’m not good on my feet. I’ll have to throw the keys down.’

‘Oh.’ This was new. ‘Okay, sure,’ I said to an empty window, my patient already disappearing inside.

I rocked on my heels, waiting on a stranger to throw her door keys at me, and shared another look with the landscaper. I gave a weak smile and glanced away, repressing the urge to tell him this isn’t how it normally went.

After five minutes the frail face reappeared in the square of window frame. ‘Oh good, you’re still there. I’m throwing them down now.’

I raised my arms above my head and clapped my hands. ‘Go ahead,  I’m a good catch,’ I said, then felt an absurd surge of anxiety that I’d drop them with the landscaper watching. I couldn’t tell you why I wanted to impress a stranger with my key-catching abilities, but there it was.

Catherine gave a little flick of her claw of a hand and the keys hung in the air. I traced the arc of the descent with my eyes and my hand snaked out, snatching them from the sky with a contraction of my fist. I felt a flood of elation and sneaked a glance at the landscaper to see if he’d seen. He gave a raise of his brows and I shrugged like it was no big thing.

‘It’s just the one by the handle, and then the bigger one unlocks the lower lock.’

Catherine’s words snapped me from my victorious reverie and it occurred to me to put the keys I was still holding aloft like a trophy to use. I followed my patient’s instructions, unlocking deadbolts and locks with keys straight out of the Victoria era, big fat keys with the small square of teeth at the end. I stepped inside and into an apartment that could have been lifted from a Sherlock Homes’ novel. Sunlight filtered through the dusty air and a rug-lined staircase twisted up through the wooden foyer to the bedroom above.

I mounted the stairs and found my patient sitting in her nightie and dressing gown on a two-seater couch that looked as old as she was. She looked small in the big bedroom instead of the image I previously had of her hanging out a window.

‘Catherine, it’s nice to meet you,’ I said, handing the keys back, stupidly triumphant in this exchange of property, as if it was a challenge I had risen to and won.

I slipped into my role of health carer, providing the necessary small talk and questions while simultaneously preparing equipment and poking this sweet old lady with something sharp. If done well, you can have your patient more absorbed in the conversation than the act of taking blood, and they’ll swear afterwards that they didn’t feel a thing, even if in the moment they winced as the needle pierced flesh. This I treat as a real triumph — the ultimate victory.

I completed the necessary paperwork and Catherine fell silent as I worked. When finished, I looked up to find that she had a portable phone in her hand.

‘The council are always so hard to reach,’ she said.

‘Tell me about it,’ I replied while slipping on my backpack. While I’d never tried to reach my local council in London, I felt I’d waited on-hold long enough with equivalent organisational bodies to share an eye-roll at the ineptitude of Catherine’s local council.

‘I just ring the gas-leak number,’ she said with a wicked and satisfied little smirk I wouldn’t have believe this old dear to be capable of, and she pressed dial on her phone.

I laughed and gave her a silent tip of the hat, and as I waved her goodbye and turned to head down the stairs I heard this exchange:

‘Hello! No, no, there’s no gas leak. I just need more of those green compost bags…Oh, you could? Oh, well, thank you, dear.’

As I made my way down the stairs I couldn’t help shake the feeling that there was a lot Catherine could have taught me about navigating life in London.

LIFE IN LONDON #04

In the old days (by which I mean a few months ago when I lived in Australia) I used to work as a district nurse. This involved driving from patient’s home to patient’s home and providing nursing care in the person’s own environment. The work day would finish by heading back to the office and sitting around a table with my peers and having a serious discussion about our patient’s needs. It also involved having a not-so-serious discussion about the absurd things we’d come across that day, each of us trying to best each other’s latest edition of the bizarre things humans are capable of.

Working in the community opens you up to a plethora of (what’s the politically correct way of phrasing this?) “interesting” people. These are the people who treat social norms as more of loose guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. Normally, this is a good thing. Life would be boring if we all behaved the same, dressed the same, and said the same things. Unfortunately, some of these patients take it too far, and dismiss certain social norms that are norms for very good reasons. Let me give you an example to help clarify what I mean.

One day a friend of mine told me casually over the work table that she’d been met at the door by her patient, a middle-aged man, “windmilling” his penis at her. I think he was wearing an open robe, but it’s equally likely he was stark naked. This is one of those times where the social norm is beneficial for everybody — let’s stick to shaking hands instead of shaking alternative appendages.

For anyone wondering, I think the term “windmilling” was invented by my friend, and I find it brilliant because right now everyone reading this has an image in their head of exactly what took place. You lucky things.

This is the first example that came to mind, but rest assured there are many more. From a smoker with a chest wound that puffed out cigarette smoke every time he coughed, to a woman dressing in a garbage bag while having her catheter changed to preserve her dignity (mind you, a hole had to be created to get to her catheter, so I’m not really sure what this achieved).

A colleague who has worked as a nurse for over thirty years once said to me that she wished she’d written some of these stories down, that for all the ridiculous tales she could remember there were twice as many she’d forgotten.

Now that I’m in London and doing essentially the same sort of work, I thought I’d learn from my friend’s hindsight and pencil some of the stranger incidences down.


From the outside, the block of apartments looked dignified. Ancient trees drooped limp branches over the grass ringing the building, and the flats were constructed of old brick begging to be strewn with a lace-work of ivy. I read the name from my sheet — Patricia — and pictured the sweet old lady that belonged to this sweet old building, already looking forward to her proper accent and polite ways.

I walked around the apartment block and found the line of buzzers by the exterior door, checking her number on my list of patients and pushing the button. A few seconds later, there was a mechanical whirr and a click, and I pushed on the door and stepped into the stairway. It was dank, but it’s London, so that wasn’t particularly unusual. I climbed the creaking wooden stairs, scanning door numbers until a green door bearing the appropriate digits stood before me, and I rapped on the wood.

Footsteps sounded from inside the apartment and I straighten my coat, wanting to make a good first impression. Appearances can say a lot, after all. The door opened and I blinked, my introduction falling from my lips on instinct.

‘Good morning, I’m Jonathan, the community phlebotomist.’

An adult diaper covered her crotch and buttocks, but everything else from her flabby breasts to her varicose-veined legs were on show. She was younger than I’d anticipated, around sixty-five, although from what I could see, time had not been kind to her. She smiled at me, a toothless smile revealing gums as naked as the rest of her, and she asked, ‘Are you here for the blood?’

‘That’s me,’ I replied. She seemed completely comfortable with her attire, entirely unperturbed at being barely clad in front of a young male stranger. I felt the weird sensation that it would have been rude of me to make an issue of it.

She waddled down her dark hallway and into her cluttered living room, saying over her shoulder, ‘You’ve caught me in my nappy.’

‘I can see that,’ I said, moving into the room and inhaling the scent of years of cigarette smoke soaked into walls and floorboards. Her house was stifling from the warmth of her heater, and I pulled off my jacket before I began to sweat. A method of cutting down on her heating bill occurred to me, but I decided not to mention it. I reasoned that I had obviously interrupted her preparing for the shower, and wanted to give her an out. ‘I not bothered by it if you aren’t.’

‘No, I’m not bothered.’

‘I’m happy to wait,’ I said, sliding my backpack to the ground, letting the implication hang in the air that the time spent to put clothes on was no burden to me.

She plonked down onto the couch, plucking an already lit cigarette from an ashtray on a coffee table and took a drag. ‘Wait for what?’

That was when I realised she obviously wasn’t putting clothes on, and just as obviously hadn’t been preparing for any shower.

‘Never-mind,’ I said, smiling at her, and wondering exactly when it was this woman had last showered.

With an internal shrug, I went to work going through the routine of preparing my blood-letting equipment while keeping up a stream of small talk. For those of you who have never attempted to take blood from an elderly woman wearing nothing but a diaper, I can tell you, it’s a distracting process. It’s hard thing to carefully thread a needle into the twisted and constricted veins of an actively smoking patient while her breasts are bobbing in your periphery. I had to bite down the urge to ask “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable with clothes on?”, the subtext of the query being that I sure as hell would have been more comfortable if she’d put some clothes on.

Luckily for me, Patricia was as unbothered by the situation as she had stated, and merrily nattered away, as comfortable as a babe in her crib. Which is ironic, because that’s exactly what she looked like. Well, an ancient over-sized baby in a nicotine-stained couch, but it equates to the same thing.

Once I had pierced her vein and drained the required blood, I taped a cotton ball to the site and pressed the fingers from her opposite arm to the cotton ball, instructing her to apply pressure for at least a minute. She kept up her flow of conversation while I squatted on a stool and wrote her details in the microscopic space provided on the tubes. It wasn’t until I was done that I looked up and found that she was bleeding.

The minute I had asked for her to apply pressure had lasted for as long as it’d taken me to glance away, and blood had seeped out from the small hole I’d created in her vein.

‘Patricia, you’re bleeding.’

‘What?’

She lifted her arm and revealed a red puddle running down her arm and pooling on her thighs. I instructed her, again, to apply pressure to the cotton ball while pulling on another pair of gloves and got to work cleaning her up.

A bleed always looks worse than it is and it didn’t take long to mop up the spilled fluid from her arm and thighs and have her back in her not-so-clean state. She smiled at me, that naked-gum smile to match her outfit, and thanked me.

‘No problem, Patricia. It turns out it was a good thing you weren’t wearing any pants,’ I said, raising my brows and nodding at her recently blood-smeared thighs.

‘Yeah,’ she answered cheerfully, ‘it really was.’ She seemed proud of this, as if the decision to wear nothing but a nappy had been a genius stroke of forethought on her behalf, rather than the neglect of a very basic human desire to put on clothes. I let her have it — I figured an adult who spends their day walking around their home in an adult diaper didn’t get many wins.

‘Nicely played,’ I said, shrugging on my jacket and giving her a wink, and immediately reflecting that winking at an almost naked elderly patient probably wasn’t the smoothest thing I could do.

I said my farewells and waved goodbye to my new nudist friend, stepping back into the stairway and making my way out into the fresh air and away from the tropical heat and cigarette-perfumed environment I had just left with relief.

As I found the address of my next patient and begun trudging away, I looked back over my shoulder at the beautiful English building I had just left. It really did look quite dignified.

But looks can be deceiving, I suppose.

ON MOVING

I never really wanted to live overseas.

When I was growing up, becoming a teenager and realising I had some control over where my life went, I never really saw myself venturing across the pond to start an alternative life. I rationalised that I had a good life in Australia, that I had family and friends, that I had managed to find employment and secure comforts, and why would I risk all this to attempt to recreate the same in a different country? I was a teenager, and therefore very wise in the ways of the world.

A lot of it was fear. The idea of standing on foreign soil, of being an outsider, and then attempting to carve my own niche into a country that owed me nothing, was terrifying. I could see myself floundering, unable to find a place to live or a source of income, and eventually turning around and scurrying back to Mum and Dad broke and embarrassed, and swearing to never again come out of my room because the world’s a bully.

Of course, I never said this. When it came up in conversation, I detailed how Australia was the lucky country, how we had so many rights and luxuries, and I wouldn’t want to give these up. That of course I wanted to see the world, but could do this through vacations. Vacations are safe, you see. Well, relatively. They’re little bubbles of escape, taste-testers of culture and sights, a chance to shed your old life while knowing all the while that your old life is safe and warm and comfy, and right where you left it.

I held onto this narrow-minded belief right up until I actually went on a vacation. Being able to taste-test exotic experiences didn’t make me pine for the comforts of home, but instead made me wonder what else was out there away from my well-worn safety-net. If I could experience this level of immersion and adventure just from skimming the surface in a matter of weeks, what would I discover if I stayed longer? And what if I threw myself in completely and moved there?

Even though the seed of intrigue had been planted, I still didn’t give the idea serious consideration. For most of my adult life I had been in a relationship, and the notion of uprooting, and expecting my partner to pull up her own roots, seemed inherently selfish. We were building something, and we were building it in Australia. There was the answer.

It wasn’t until I found myself single and with savings behind me that I realised I no longer had a justification for not trying something new. The only thing holding me back was the same thing that had made teenage-me bluster on about the grandness of Australia: fear. I was still scared of putting myself out there and failing. Of stripping away the security blanket of family and friends and a familiar environment where I knew all the rules, and making myself vulnerable to a different culture. So still, I didn’t give the idea much thought.

But then I began to stagnate. I was tucked away in my pillow fort of ease and niceness, well out of reach of anything that could be considered difficult or frightening. I got up each morning and went to work, and returned home each night to an empty house. I exercised and cooked dinner for one, and then went to bed to get a solid eight hours of sleep so I could be well-rested for the next day of work. I saw family and friends on weekends, which broke the tedium of the work-week, and at least added some flavour to my existence. But I wasn’t making anything. I wasn’t going anywhere. It was ease and niceness, and I was boring myself with my own company. And as a special person recently told me: nice is a carpet. I didn’t want nice.

It wasn’t until I got away from this circular rut of work that I realised I needed to change something. I knew I wasn’t particularly happy, but reasoned that I was an adult now, living an adult lifestyle, and adults weren’t supposed to be particularly happy. Let me state emphatically that this is not a belief to which I still prescribe. Granted, the stressors of an adult life are taxing, but if you’re not happy, what the hell are you making all that effort for? Change something, change anything! Don’t just sit there in a puddle of your own misery thinking, “Well, this didn’t turn out like I expected.”

What broke this cycle and misconception for me was a trip through the United States of America. I don’t know if it was the excitement of busing it from one side of North America to the other (west coast to east coast, for those playing at home), or simply getting my head away from the fog of work, but the realisation that I was unhappy hit me like truck shot from a cannon falling from the sky. It hit me hard.

Part of me was shocked. Why hadn’t anyone told me I was unhappy? I talked about it with my brother after returning home and he said that, yeah, he knew I was unhappy. Of course he did, he knew me better than anyone. Better than myself, apparently.

It felt like my blinders had been ripped off and I was squinting against the glare of reality. Of course, the blinders had been self-imposed. No-one had told me to construct the life I had made for myself, no-one instructed me to continue in the habits I had developed, and because of this, no-one could tell me stop because it wasn’t working. I had made my own bed and it was up to me to burn it out from under me.

After shaking off this shock of personal insight, I knew I had to change something. The framework of living I had made was fine if I had a partner to share it with, if I was making something in the form of a family, but doing it solo simply wasn’t anything.

And then I considered moving. Not just moving from my house, or from the suburb I lived in, but moving from the country altogether. The old idea rose and this time all the fears and arguments against it seemed brittle and pathetic. I didn’t care about the risk of housing and employment, those challenges seemed interesting more than frightening. Mostly because they were challenges, and I was sick of going unchallenged. (Little did I realise what a challenge UK nursing registration was, but let’s not detract from the point I’m making.) It dawned on me that I had built a small nest in a small corner of a big country tucked away in the southern hemisphere while there was an entire world of experiences and new things going on all the time. I was unhappy and lonely and bored, and there was a whole globe to explore. What the hell was I doing sitting at home alone? So I decided to get out into it and explore it.

And thank god I did. Already, I have seen sights, been places and done things that I never imagined myself doing. I have met incredible people and shared amazing experiences that have changed me in the best of ways. Primarily, they’ve made me happy.

By no means has the venture been easy. I have had to make myself vulnerable and walk into situations well outside my comfort zone. I’ve faced challenges in language barriers and navigating public transport (one particular two AM stroll through London comes to mind). I’ve missed my family and friends, and have had times where I wanted to just drop back into my old life for a day. I’ve worried about money and housing, and employment.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it. Because all those fears and beautiful moments roll around together, and make you feel alive. They make you into something bigger and more detailed, and more interesting. And it feels good to be making something again.

LIFE IN LONDON #02

I had spent the morning travelling to a GP clinic for the pleasure of obtaining a tuberculosis immunisation. I needed the shot for work, and hadn’t received it prior, despite my working in health in Australia, because in most first-world countries TB isn’t a particularly common disease. In fact, if I was working outside of London, just a few kilometres out, I wouldn’t need the shot either. It’s only here, in Central London, that tuberculosis is prevalent enough to warrant protection against it. I’m not sure what that says about the health conditions of Central London, but I’m choosing not to think about it too hard in case I ditch health altogether and go work in a supermarket.

(Actually, I’ve worked in a supermarket — I’d probably be more likely to catch something there. Between the customers and handling money, it’s basically a petri-dish of communicable diseases. Thank god the days are gone when I have to accept sweaty money pulled from an obese woman’s cleavage. Now I just shower the obese woman. Maybe a supermarket isn’t that bad? Moving on…)

The TB immunisation is unique in that it’s not injected deep into the muscle like most vaccines, but is delivered just under the skin. Long story short, I now have a cute little bubble of inactive tuberculosis in my upper arm. The doctor told me that this cute little bubble will decay into a sore, and not to worry when this happens. He said some people see the red swollen skin and leaking pus and think something’s gone wrong. I said this was a fair reaction to purulent muck leaking from an injection site. He said it was completely normal and could take six months to heal. So I have that to look forward to.

After leaving the clinic I walked to the closest township (my exercise has increased dramatically without access to a car. It’s amazing how having no other option can really motivate you to walk). My new room more closely resembles a cheap hotel bedroom than a warm familiar place in which I can tuck myself away, and this is solely because it’s without ornamentation. While I remain unreasonably proud that I moved overseas with nothing more than a fourteen kilogram bag, it did leave little space for personal items. I decided I needed to put something on the very white walls so headed to a store to print some photos. There was an hour wait while the photos were printed so I bought a sandwich from a supermarket and went for a wander around a nearby park.

It’s important to note that I had headphones on and was listening to a podcast while taking my meal and stroll. And not little earbuds that could be hidden in ears and under hair, but big proper headphones, the sort that engulf your entire ears and block out all other sounds.

The reason I point this out is because, whilst leaning against an outside table-tennis table in the park and enjoying the sun, I realised someone was talking to me. There was a black blur at the edge of my vision that was vaguely human shaped, and I could just make out the murmur of words outside the noise vacuum of my headphones. I turned and found a short squat middle-aged woman talking to me. Apparently unperturbed by my back being to her or the presence of my headphones, she happily nattered away, needing very little prompting to keep the one-sided conversation going.

I slipped my headphones around my neck and faced her, and discovered that she was talking to me about immigration. Let me give you some more information about my new friend and see if you can guess what her opinion was on this delicate topic.

My new friend was in need of a shower. Her black hair looked like something that had been pulled out of a clogged drain pipe and her clothes were of the caliber most people would delegate to rags. In fact, it looked like her clothes had been used as rags for many months, but then, desperate for an outfit, she decided to reverse her decision and upgrade them back to clothes before leaving the house.

My new friend was also in need of teeth. To give her credit, she did have a full set along the bottom, although they were black and a little worn. But where her top set should have been was nothing but pink gum. It was grotesquely mesmerising to watch her talk.

What she wasn’t in need of was a drink. I was happy to see she was remaining well hydrated, and happier still to see that inside the brown paper bag clutched in her fist was a 500ml bottle of Guinness. She was Irish, so I feel she’s entitled to this one. The woman was clearly a patriot. And for an adorable little touch, she was drinking her beer with a straw. Maybe lacking upper teeth makes drinking from a bottle a messy process.

Have you guessed what her opinion was on the complicated and human issue of immigration? That’s right, contestants, she was against it!

This woman’s opening statement in an attempt to broker conversation with a young man she didn’t know was racist comments. Isn’t that an incredible topic to use to break the ice? You have to admire her confidence.

My immediate thought was: “I don’t want to talk to you.” Followed quickly by: “I definitely don’t want to talk to you about immigration.” But I had twenty minutes to kill and rather than give in to the instinct to mutter something about buses to catch and making a get away, I decided to commit to having a conversation with this person. In my work, conversations with people outside the normal sphere of society are common, and given that I will be commencing work again soon, I saw it as a good easing in process. She was also a woman lonely and desperate enough for interaction that she approached a stranger wearing headphones for a talk. The least I could do would be to give her that. It would cost me nothing but time, and being currently unemployed, time is one thing I have in abundance.

Firstly, I had to change the topic away from immigration. While I was happy to converse with my new friend, I didn’t need to sit through her biased and ill-informed opinions on this topic, and didn’t think she’d appreciate my conflicting views, so I said, “It’s a complicated issue,” and then commented on her accent and asked how long she’d been in London.

By the end of our conversation I learnt these facts:

  • She’d been in London for thirty years. No, forty years. No, wait, thirty years (she was a bit unsure at first).
  • She was married to a dope addict.
  • She believed dope to be as addictive as hard drugs, and that it was a habit that could severely affect the people living with the addict. I was glad we’d found something we could agree on.
  • Her husband was currently in a jail, although she wasn’t sure which jail.
  • She was in the park today waiting until two o’clock when she could enquire after which jail her husband had recently been taken to.
  • She was a Catholic (she was Irish, so this wasn’t exactly surprising).
  • She was in the habit of swearing profusely, then apologising profusely for her swearing, before immediately swearing profusely once again. And then apologising profusely.

My watch ticked over to two o’clock which meant my photos were ready to be picked up. I looked at my new friend and said simply: “I have to go.” I wished her well with her hunt through the penitentiary system for her husband, and she spilled religious blessing upon me as I walked away, to which I replied: “You too!”

I gave her a wave and she smiled a half-toothed smile, and we parted ways.

Despite the obvious unpleasant aspects of talking to her, her body odour being just one, I don’t regret making the effort to converse. One thing working in health, and even in a supermarket, has taught me is how to talk to people. And more than that: how to empathise with them. A small dose of genuine empathy from me could change this woman’s day, and give me an insight into a life I’ve never, thankfully, had to live. A show of empathy is like a ticket into a deeper part of a person, where they keep the small truths and vulnerabilities they usually mask over. It’s easy to think that this woman was undeserving of empathy, that she is the product of life choices she’s made and is living the consequences of her actions, but this isn’t true. She is a person, and one who has had to face choices I’ve never had to think about. And while I wouldn’t want to maintain an ongoing relationship with her (as a drinking buddy, I’m pretty sure she could drink me under the table), I don’t mind sacrificing twenty minutes of my day to hear a slice of her story.

Anyway, that’s the tale of how I made my first friend in London. It can only go up from here.

LIFE IN LONDON #01

I decided that, now that I’m back in the UK, entries from a travel journal aren’t really justified when, technically, I’m making a new home here in London. Even though this still feels very exotic (there are red double-decker buses everywhere!), and may feel like exploration, it is in fact a form of nesting. Of constructing a new home. And home, by definition, isn’t travelling.

But, invariably, by being in a new country and attempting to build a new life, things will happen that I want to write about. I imagine most of these will centre around me fumbling through the challenges of assimilating into a new culture. Subtle and delicate things like saying pants instead of trousers and having British people laugh at me. It should prove quite entertaining.

So in light of that entertainment, welcome to the first edition of Life in London.

Appropriately, the first entry in this segment involves my recent entry into London. It seemed like a good place to start.

 


 

I flew into Gatwick airport last night from Vienna, and planned to use public transport to make my way from the airport home. City mapper is an app that formulates every possible route from one location to another within London, be in via train or bus or tram or bike or walking or hover board. This isn’t me being witty, by the way. The trip from home to the nearest train station takes approximately eight minutes via hover board, according to city mapper.

I had checked the route earlier in the day while still in Vienna to get a feel for how long it’d take me to get home, and knew that a train, then a tram, then a bus would have me on my doorstep in just over an hour. I estimated I’d be in bed a little after midnight, provided I hadn’t gotten the time difference between Vienna and London mixed up. I had, but that proved redundant anyway.

The first hurdle to getting home was that my plane was delayed by half an hour, putting off the schedule of my planned route. The second hurdle was that, upon landing, I discovered that the internet on my phone wasn’t working. This frustrated me, but I put it down to poor reception and reasoned that I still had the previously loaded route on city mapper, and could follow that until reception improved. The app was offline due to lack of internet, so wouldn’t update, but still showed the path I needed to take.

After a twenty-minute wait on a windy platform, I caught the 12:16 AM train to East Croydon, then headed into the deserted streets towards a tram stop marked on my static map. As I stepped from the station into the night, I passed a cab rank, and prided myself on the money I was saving by using public transport, enjoying a superior silent chuckle at the lazy fools who pay exorbitant prices for a black cab.

I had my first sense of disquiet after about fifteen minutes of walking through the dark deserted streets of East Croydon, admitting to myself that wandering through unfamiliar London suburbs alone well past midnight probably wasn’t the smartest idea. The eight minute walk that my frozen app displayed took around half an hour, and involved a lot of back tracking, sprinting across multi-lane roads, and feeling incredible exposed as I wound through alleys with nothing but my small pack back.

Eventually I found the tram stop, a small island of light in a junction of empty streets, and stood, praying a tram would appear. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the flight delay and my own indirect path to the tram stop meant I had well and truly missed my tram, but as the internet in my phone continued to hibernate, I happily boarded the first tram to appear, giddy with relief that a tram had appeared at all. This relief soured after about ten minutes when the tram came to a stop in the middle of nowhere, the tram driver announcing end of the line, and the words “Out of Service” appearing in small lights on the side of the tram. With little options, I walked away from the tram stop and onto a long empty road, devoid of anything but factories and warehouses.

It was one o’clock in the morning (two o’clock Viennese time), and I was stranded in an industrial part of London.

Fuck.

As I stumbled up a seamlessly endless road, the odd truck rumbling past to break up the darkness and the silence, a part of me began to accept this was my life now. I was destined to wander the grid of London streets until the sun rose, and maybe even past then, living off my wits, the items in my back pack, and a phone that refused to cooperate and get me the hell home. I honestly had no idea how I would get from my current situation to my apartment. Without transportation, I was looking at a five-hour walk through unsafe streets. Every car that approached I begged just to drive on because I was convinced that if it stopped it would only to be for the driver and passengers to get out, mug me, beat me, and then carry on, leaving me without my back pack, my only ally. The phone they could have, for all the good it was doing me.

As I approached an intersection, two buses whisked by and I had to bite back a yelp at the joy of seeing a sign of civilisation. They sped around a corner to the left without stopping and disappeared. I knew that left would take me in the opposite direction from home, so faced the decision of following big red buses away from where I wanted to go, or go right, down another long empty street filled with potential rapers and muggers, in the vague direction of my apartment.

I went right (right is right, after all), and prayed I wouldn’t later come to regret this as the moment I made the stupidest decision ever. Actually, it couldn’t be the stupidest decision ever because I’d already passed that point when I confidently and cockily walked past the cab rank into the night, a dumb smug smile on my stupid face. I cursed myself as idiotic tight ass and marched up the right hand road.

I saw foxes scuttling across the asphalt, dimly lit by the street lights, and felt like one of them. I too padded cautiously through the dark, sending furtive glances to either side, shoulders hunched against the cold and an imagined attack. We were creatures of the night, only I was a big dumb animal, vulnerable and unable to scurry into the bushes like my nocturnal companions. They were made for the night, whereas I was made for sitting safely on a couch eating chips.

The road I strode up, which I was sure would stretch on forever, a purgatory road, a Möbius strip road, miraculously came to an intersection, although as dark and deserted as every other I’d encountered. I stood on the corner looking up and down the line of bitumen disappearing to either side and feeling very far from home, and noticed, almost hidden by a scree of trees, a bus stop. A bus stop! It was like finding a sealed bottle of water in the desert, spotting a ship when adrift in the ocean, discovering a chocolate bar in the back of the pantry when you’re really hankering for chocolate. It was salvation.

I trotted to the bus stop, pulling out my previously useless phone and putting it to use as a torch, and stifled a squeal of happiness when I read that it was a 24 hour bus line. This late at night, the bus would come at ten and forty past the hour. It was 01:20 AM (02:20 AM Viennese time). I had to only wait twenty minutes and I would be heading, roughly, closer to home. More importantly, I would be taken off the streets and tucked into a warm metal box on wheels, which would feel like a five-star hotel after wandering dimly lit London industrial streets.

Twenty minutes is a long time to wait in the dark, standing on the side of a road in the extreme early morning, head spinning from sleep deprivation, listening to every sound and being convinced it’s Jack the Ripper. (I know he only preyed on prostitutes, but given how perfect a target I’d made of myself, I figured he’d make an exception).

So I did the only reasonable thing a person can do in that circumstance to pass the time: I pulled out my book and started reading.

Picture me now, backpack on back, standing small and exposed on the shoulder of an empty road in the middle of the night, reading by moonlight. What a fucking idiot.

Eventually twin headlights lit up my ridiculous tableau and the bus pottered to the side of the asphalt, door swinging open like the gates of heaven, and I boarded. I was so ecstatic I could have hugged the bus driver if not for the plexiglass barrier and his complete look of apathy that clearly communicated the sentiment, “Just take a damn seat.”

While riding this bus I realised that if I got off in five stops I could catch another bus from there to Morden station, a fifteen minute walk from home. I had a plan. I was going to get home. I repressed the urge to attempt to hug the bus driver again.

I disembarked at the appropriate stop and looked for the times of the 118 bus line that would get me home. It was upon reading the bus schedule that I discovered the 118 isn’t a 24 hour bus line as I’d presumed. I scanned the list of numbers, desperately searching for what time the bus line terminated. It was 01:53 AM (02:53 AM Viennese time) and the very final bus of the day would come through my stop at 01:56 AM. In three minutes. A difference of three minutes and I would have been looking at a two and a half hour walk through the western suburbs of London, but instead I counted down the seconds and, right on time, the 118 pulled up to carry me home.

I had to clench my fists to resist any physical show of affection to my new bus driver, but couldn’t help giving him a huge grin as I swiped my oyster card and took a seat, to which he rolled his eyes, closed the doors, and pulled out onto the road. My night bus in red shining armour was taking me home.

I got off at the end of the line at Morden station and felt like I floated the fifteen minute walk home. I savoured every familiar sight, running loving fingers over the graffiti-scrawled roller doors of an indian restaurant, smiling at the outline of the post office, and eventually drifting blissfully through the wrought-iron gates to my apartment building. I climbed the three flights of stairs, unlocked the door, and stumbled into my bedroom. As I stood in the light of my room, safe and warm and with a bed beckoning to me at my feet, part of me couldn’t believe I was actually there, that my physical body had somehow ended up in this location. An hour before I had been nervously striding past shadowy factories with no concept of how to transport myself from that reality to this one, yet somehow, through some weird twisting of luck, here I stood, unmolested and intact, with my backpack still on my back at 02:30 AM (03:30 AM Viennese time), in my home.

It was at this point that I noticed the internet on my phone had decided to stir, and city mapper updated to announce that I had arrived at my destination. I glared at it like the annoying kid at school who claims to have known the answer all along and just didn’t want to say it, trying to decide whether to swear at it or throw it against the wall, and then just collapsed into bed.

My last thought before falling asleep was that, next time, I’d take the fucking taxi.