Down and Out in Bath and London

May 31, 2015

Once upon a time, two Australian girls lived in a cupboard above the stairs, in a town called Bath, in a country called England.

The girls were best friends. One was Liz and the other was Isabel. Liz and Iz. This is a true story and it happened ten years ago.

Liz and Iz met at high school, and afterwards, went to Melbourne Uni together. After the first year of their Arts degrees, they decided that they needed to go travelling. Their lives so far had consisted of school, family, friends and now uni. Enough of text book learning! The wide world was calling.

They decided to volunteer – Liz went to Vanuatu to build water tanks and Iz went to Papua New Guinea to live in the jungle for three months (she will tell you this story another day). The plan was to then meet up in London, work, save money, and backpack around Europe. Sound familiar?

The dates were set. The flights were on hold. One afternoon, Liz and Iz trotted to the bank, each withdrew $2000 in cash, and tried to act casual as they walked to STA Travel to pay for their round-the-world tickets. They thought they might be mugged somewhere between the Melbourne Uni bank and the Melbourne Uni travel agency. Bless their paranoid 19 year old socks.

Fast forward six months and a very tired, cranky Liz met Iz at Heathrow Airport, London. Iz’s flight from PNG had been delayed 24 hours, and Liz had been waiting for her at the airport for two days. ‘Finally!’ said Liz when they met in the arrivals hall. ‘OK. So we have to get out of London. It’s not good. Everything is way too expensive. I’ve been living on pasta and tomato sauce for a week.’ She looked at her friend, fresh off the plane from the Pacific. She was wearing a long flowery skirt, Birkenstocks and a cotton t-shirt. Living in a tropical country will make you forget you ever knew cold weather. ‘Also, put some clothes on. It’s freezing outside. And here,’ Liz thrust a packet of Ritz biscuits at Iz, ‘Get these away from me. I’ve been eating these bloody things for two days’.

And so began their adventure.

That same day, the friends boarded a bus for Edinburgh, thinking they might work there. Anywhere but London, said Liz. Iz dutifully followed Liz’s lead, thinking London must be a terrible place. She trusted her friend who, having been there for a week already, was a seasoned Europhile and definitely knew best.

A few days in Edinburgh was enough to cross that city off their list too. The combination of grey stone and grey rain, in contrast with the bright sun and frangipani trees of PNG and Vanuatu, made it too depressing.

One drizzly Edinburgh day, Liz and Iz went into a Pizza Hut and pulled out their Lonely Planet.

‘OK’ said Liz, ‘We’re just going to open it up and randomly choose somewhere, and that’s where we’re going to live’. Liz has many excellent qualities, and one of them is being a decision maker. The page opened to Bath, Somerset, population 88,000. A few hours later, because nowhere in the UK seems far from anywhere else if you’re an Australian, Liz and Iz hopped off the bus in Bath Spa, their new home.

Have you read Harry Potter? Of course you have. Do you remember how Harry used to live with the Dursleys at 4 Privet Drive, in a cupboard under the stairs?

Liz and Iz lived in a cupboard above the stairs at 4 Anglo Terrace, Bath.

OK, well it wasn’t ACTUALLY a cupboard. It was a tiny, tiny room that the landlord couldn’t believe anyone would pay her to live in. ‘Two of you?’ she said, looking at Liz and Iz, then at the room. ‘Are you sure?’ But Liz and Iz were THRILLED. It was a five minute walk from town. The rent was £45 a fortnight BETWEEN them, all bills included. They were the happiest little Australian Vegemites since Kevin Rudd, and he wasn’t even on the scene yet.

Their first task was to find jobs. That was easy. It was six weeks til Christmas – every second shop had an ad in the window looking for staff. Liz and Iz strolled around in the crisp Bath sunshine, handing out resumes. Iz even bought a new green top and a pair of pants from Top Shop for the occasion, much to Liz’s relief (three months living in the jungle and your clothes will never be the same, no matter how hard you washed them in the river). Soon enough, the interviews started and they both had jobs, Liz at The White Company selling bath towels and overpriced duvets to rich Bath women, and Iz at Waterstones Books where her official title was ‘bookseller’. They were living the dream.

4 Anglo Terrace was a four story terrace house on a main road. Trucks laboured past, spewing fumes that settled as grime on the windows. The back yard was full of rubbish and greasy puddles. Besides the cupboard above the stairs, there were five other rooms occupied by a motley crew of foreigners. On the ground floor was George, a medical student from Kenya, a Christian, who would leave dirty soup tins all over the kitchen bench and rail against gay people (“How can a man go to another man? It is demonic!”). Liz tried to argue with him, but he was unconvinced. Up the stairs was Mickey, who was rarely seen. All that was known of him was that marijuana smoke leaked out from beneath his firmly closed bedroom door. There was Beatriz, from Spain, who worked as a waitress and had long home-sick conversations with her mother and grandmother; Bridget, a chef from South Africa who had a pet ferret that she took everywhere; and in the attic room, Michelle from Canada and Sarah from Australia, who were both into crystals and swore they weren’t a couple, even though, well, they were. Perhaps they didn’t want George on their case.

Liz and Iz did not like to spend money. The purpose of working in Bath was to save up for Europe, which to them, did not include England. They never went out for dinner. They never went out for drinks. They once went to a film. Every night after work, they would meet at Waitrose supermarket and buy ingredients for one of the following meals:

Pasta with cheese

Peas with cheese

Broccoli with cheese

Pasta with tinned tomato sauce

They figured that they needed their veggies: tick to peas and broccoli. Cheese also covered their dairy and protein needs, and an occasional hit of carbohydrates from pasta was both thrifty AND tasty. In retrospect, these meals were hideously mundane, but back then, they were happy with their diet. Bizarrely, after spending no more than two pounds on dinner ingredients, they would often stop at a fancy grocery shop on their walk home and buy two bottles of sparkling grapefruit lemonade for £5 each. Hmm.

Because Liz and Iz didn’t like to go out, they needed something to occupy their evenings. The solution, they decided, was to visit the Bath indoor market and buy cross-stitch kits. A Christmas project! Liz’s cross-stitch picture was a gaggle of geese dressed in Christmas outfits that she planned to give to her big sister Kate. Iz’s was of a black cat sitting on a fence looking out at a field of red poppies, for her Grandma in South Australia. Liz and Iz could be found most evenings sitting in their cupboard room at 4 Anglo Terrace, Liz on her upper bunk and Iz on the bed beneath. Iz, calmly finishing off a poppy petal with red thread, would hear ‘Shit a brick! I’ve lost my thread AGAIN! Fuck it!’ coming from above. Sometimes, if it was a particularly lovely work-free afternoon, Liz and Iz would take their needlework to the park beside the river. They felt like characters from a Jane Austen novel, quietly chatting and sewing in the winter sun.

Each morning, either Liz or Iz had to leave the cupboard room so the other could get dressed. This was not due to prudishness, but simply because there wasn’t enough space for two people to rifle through clothes and dress themselves at the same time. The year headed towards winter and the days got shorter. Liz’s shifts often started at 6am when it was pitch black, and she was too scared to walk to The White Company on her own. Iz would walk with her, and hang out in town until her 8am shift at Waterstones began.

Across the road from 4 Anglo Terrace was a public phone booth. It was 2004, and Iz’s only internet access was at the Bath Public Library, so the way to call home was with a phone card from a public phone. Back in Australia was a boy Iz had met at Melbourne Uni. His name was Steve. He said he was coming over to meet her, maybe in a few months, and they had many a stilted, angst-filled conversation from that phone booth across the road. Once, Iz called Steve at a pre-arranged time. His Dad answered, saying that Steve was out with friends and could he take a message? Iz, enraged, said thanks very much but she would email him instead. She sent a long, angry email from the Bath library, saying that if he couldn’t be bothered to be home when they had arranged to speak, if his friends were more important to him than her, if that was how little he valued their relationship, then perhaps there was really no point in continuing with it. The storm passed, and they did meet up a few months later, but those were the days when love was new and everything was full of anguish and meaning.

Iz developed a crush on a man who worked at Waterstones, Dave. Dave worked on the second floor, in the non-fiction section, and was tall and lanky and British, like a young Colin Firth, she thought. Iz, confined to the lower floor and mostly to working the till or stocking the sale shelves with Alexander McCall Smith and Dan Brown, would invent reasons to go to the second floor. Perhaps a stray non-fiction book might be left at the till by a customer: Iz was the girl to return it to the floor above. She and Dave never really had a conversation, and secretly I suspect Iz, frustrated by working every day for £4.98 an hour and probably undernourished by eating peas and cheese for dinner, was trying to create some faux excitement for herself.

On the night of the Waterstones Christmas party, Iz downed more than a few vodka shots and decided to tell Dave of her feelings. The classic cringe-inducing office Christmas party mistake. A very pissed Iz went up to a not-so-pissed Dave and told him that she ‘really liked him’. ‘Right’ said Dave, looking at this young, drunk Australian girl. ‘Well, that’s flattering, but I’m not really looking for anything right now.’ He wandered off and avoided her for the rest of the night. Iz, deflated, proceeded to drink and remembers stumbling home with a couple of workmates to Anglo Terrace.

The next morning, Liz woke up, having had a quiet night of cross-stitch the previous evening. Her friend was lying in bed, on top of the covers, naked. Confused, Liz went out to the stairs and saw Iz’s clothes strewn in a line from the front door to the top of the stairs. She quickly gathered them up before the rest of the house stirred, and the two of them still laugh about it: the responsible Liz picking up after her friend’s boozy night of unrequited love. Why Iz felt the need to strip off as soon as she got in the door we’ll never know.

January arrived and Liz and Iz couldn’t wait to leave Bath. They booked a cheap flight to Italy. They were going to work on an organic farm in Tuscany where there were horses, and olive groves, and a sweet Italian girl to care for. One day, in the week before they were due to leave, Iz went on a day trip to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds. Liz, saving every penny for the real Europe, decided not to join her, but Iz was determined to see some of England before they left. Off she went with the tour group, but when she got to Stonehenge, she was shaking and sweating. ‘That’s weird’ she thought, ‘Maybe I’m getting the flu.’ By the time they got to the Cotswolds, she felt so dizzy that she went into a pub and ordered a lemonade, just to have a place to sit down. She was freezing cold, pale, sweating, feverish.

The tour bus finally arrived back in Bath and Iz stumbled off and into a taxi (unthinkable for a traveller on a budget). She only just managed to tell the driver her address. She doesn’t remember arriving home, or Liz coming out and paying the driver and putting her friend to bed. She remembers waking up the next morning and feeling better, going to Italy, and then, on the train from Florence to Venice, the same sensation coming over her. She has a vague memory of staggering after Liz through the tiny lanes of Venice, Liz shouldering both of their massive backpacks, and being taken to a hospital that looked more like a museum. When the doctors confirmed it was malaria, the friends decided to return to England where they could at least speak the language, and have it treated in London…

But that is a story for next time.

More about isabelrobinson

Isabel is a writer from Melbourne. She loves long train journeys, Vegemite toast and cryptic crosswords, preferably all at once.