(Published in The Summerset Review) I watched the Chelsea girls stalk down Kings Road. The street was hard and gritty under my feet, but the cement became gray velvet under their high-heeled shoes. I saw their packages from Harrods on Old Brompton Road. I imagined their walk down Sloane Street, chitchat in between the swish of boutique bags, as they finally wound their way to the road where I lived. My Chelsea girls ranged in age, from coiffed and powdered matrons with foundation caked into the wrinkles around their eyes and mouth to girls of twelve or thirteen who grew their hair long and lustrous, who had manicured nails to match their bright handbags. My friend thought these young girls looked atrocious, that children should not be dressing and acting like adults. I disagreed; I didn’t think these girls looked too old for their shiny lip-gloss or deep conditioned hair. They were the bright young things who were meant to own Kings Road. Their roles were carved out, while mine lays in limbo.
After two days, we despised our cheap hostel. Katie and I thought we could handle the communal shower and stale smell of our shared room for two weeks, but quickly found that we weren’t the grungy backpackers we pretended to be. From my apartment in Boston, booking the cheapest hostel I could find in central London over the Internet had sounded like a smart idea. At twenty-two, I saw myself romantically fulfilling the role of the penniless graduate, wandering from hostel to hostel, meeting Australians and Kiwis, all of us grubby and impulsive, resplendent in our naiveté and youth. With my ticket from STA Travel and several editions of Lonely Planet stuffed in my oversized luggage, I had thought that hostel living was a rite of passage. But men screaming at each other in Italian and women walking around the communal showers naked were not a part of my hostel image. There were other romantic notions to hold onto. Katie and I had to find a flat of our own, and soon.
I had heard stories about council flats before I moved to London. They were the failed social experiments after World War II, the quick fix to the housing problem after the Blitz. High-rise living became known for displacement, poverty, and crime in England. Residents feared muggings from heroin addicts, fires set by homeless men, and climbing twenty-seven flights of stairs, since the elevators usually didn’t work.
I told Katie all of this didactically. After all, I had considered myself knowledgeable in everything about young Americans in London. I had been hired as the editor of a website called budgetbritain.com owned by the British Tourist Authority. The site promoted work, travel and study to the U.K. for American students. I often answered e-mails from new students to London about what to see and where to stay, as well as how to obtain a work visa. As I researched their questions, I also planned and imagined my own trip to London; Katie and I had applied for six-month work visas. What I imagined most was the search for a flat, seeking out nooks and neighborhoods, detecting the history and singular charm of each affordable area near a Tube stop or High Street. I knew that when I moved to London, I would find the perfect flat, and I knew just where to look.
I had heard stories about Chelsea too, and the street that recalls an entire age: Kings Road is synonymous with the swingin’ sixties, where everything kinky and avant-garde was the order of the day. The young and trust-funded exiled themselves from Belgrave and Mayfair and settled into the street where Twiggy shopped and Michael Caine and Mick Jagger hung out. The street that was once full of parading trendsetters has been subdued since those hippie, punk days. Homes in the price range of two million pounds have given Kings Road a snobby edge, but the street is still popular with young people, even if cafes have turned into Starbucks and thrift stores into the Gap. Still lauded as the epicenter of trendiness, Kings Road had been my secret destination ever since I stepped off the plane at Heathrow.
There were names for the Kings Road shoppers and residents: Chelsea girls, bright young things, modern-day aristocrats. I hoped to become a project for one rich idle young woman, or a young man tired of the vapid girls in his posh circle. If any of these cheesy romantic comedy plots roamed into the forefront of my mind, though, I would push them away. Yet these stories must have remained somewhere in the stores of my brain, and allowed me to quickly say “yes” to a cramped flat in Chelsea.
As much as I had read about council flats, I never thought of the possibility that I would end up in one. Tower blocks were for displaced people, a social experiment I was not a part of. No one chose to live in the tower blocks, I had thought, tenants just ended up there by some misfortune. Council flats became privately owned long before I moved to London, but the stigma of government housing was still there. I never thought to avoid ex-council flats because I never thought living in one would become an option. What girl from a middle class family in New Jersey could predict she would end up in a flat akin to the projects she had seen on the news, something once so far away from her life’s concerns and daydreams?
We looked at the flat in World’s End Estate at night, four days after our arrival in London, when “Chelsea girl” rang in my ear so loudly that it drowned out any warnings about the looming brown towers ahead. I should have been tipped off by the high rises and the kids loitering outside the second tower. I should have known when we walked into the flat and I saw that one roommate slept on a mattress in the closet, and the other had a day bed in the living room, while Katie and I would share the small bedroom. Yet I imagined John, the American boy in the closet, feeling the thin white walls cocoon him like a blanket. The girl on the day bed, Ellen, must have smiled every morning with a view of Kings Road outside the lightly curtained windows at her bedside. I thought the cameras were for our protection, to safeguard the expensive possessions of Chelsea residents. Somehow, I thought, one of these flats had been preserved for young Americans. I assumed that cramming four people into a place designed for one or two was the only way someone like me could live near the bright young things.
The landlord, Matt, spun us quickly through the flat, repeating that we couldn’t find a better deal. He said my name often, but rarely looked me in the eye.
“Jillian, the deposit is only twenty-five pounds. You can leave whenever you like. No lease. No worries.”
It sounded like a good deal to me.
Matt also intimated that he rented out a lot of flats to Americans, that he understood our needs and transitory nature when other landlords would not. He had sounded like a crotchety old woman through the static of our mobile phones when I had called to view the flat, but in person he was around forty-five, very slight with the pitted skin of acne scars. He traveled around with a Mrs. Gray, who seemed to be his business partner, since she was too young to be his mom and too old to be his girlfriend. She looked like a pleasant grandmotherly figure, with striking white hair and a face that still held some of its youthful beauty. If Matt’s business practices seemed dubious, then sweet Mrs. Gray made up for it. When Matt wasn’t talking, Mrs. Gray filled the silence with tales of American girls in the other flats. She regularly doled out advice on English men and American heartache, the job search, and even makeup tips.
On the way out, Matt told us that Elton John and Bryan Adams lived nearby. He drove us near his own flat and locked us in a private garden so we could discuss our decision. Katie and I looked suspiciously at the trees and flowers lined up in rows. Looking back at that moment, I can’t help but imagine myself spinning and spinning around, watching large houses circle around me. But those houses could just as easily been something else, monstrous towers ready to eat us up, whispering, “Chelsea girl.” “Let’s take it,” I said to Katie, as I imagined myself walking down Kings Road in a tan cashmere sweater set and matching skirt, with everyone watching me. Where would I get the money for such clothes?
On the day we moved in, Matt picked us up from our hostel, lifting our heavy suitcases into his trunk with surprising ease. At the flat we met Ellen, the American girl who slept on the daybed in the living room, and kept her clothes in the wardrobe that practically blocked the entrance to the bathroom. She told us she’d be moving out soon to live in the rooms above the pub where she worked. John emerged from his closet, looking worn and haggard, much like one of the hostel people we had tried to be. Katie and I stuffed our clothes into the tiny wardrobe. We didn’t quite feel at home, but it was a start. Matt left, saying it would be easy to find another American to move into the vacant bed Ellen would soon leave.
My first trips out on Kings Road were sunny and warm. Matt had suggested looking for a job in one of the shops there, which he always referred to as “the Kings Road.” He also referred to our roommates in this way, so that Katie and I would giggle whenever Matt mentioned “the John.” Having a job on Kings Road didn’t appeal to me, though. I didn’t want to work as a waitress or in retail; I didn’t want my whole life to take place on this one London street, however appealing.
For the next week Katie and I tried to find employment. We went our separate ways during the day, going on interviews, registering at temp agencies, popping into bookstores to fill out applications. It felt odd to be away from her. For a whole week we had rarely been apart, and if so, we seemed to find each other as if by magic in a crowd, sensing each other’s presence easily. We were best friends instantly when we first met in Bath a year earlier on a study abroad trip. Now it was time to set off on our own, find jobs and have our own sets of experiences.
I was writing an article for an American magazine in a Coffee Republic when someone took a crowbar and broke down the door to our flat. I was probably on my way home when the robber closed the door behind him, carrying the rusty crowbar in one hand and my laptop and raincoat in the other, leaving a mobile phone behind. He closed the busted door behind him, letting it slam against the frame over and over.
I was the first one to discover that we had been broken into. Katie was at a temp job and John was at work in the restaurant down the street. The noisy residents were abnormally quiet, letting me focus on the slamming of the busted door against the frame and the eerie classical ring tone from the robber’s mobile phone. I searched the flat. Nothing was stolen but my laptop and raincoat. The new TV and stereo that came with the flat were untouched. I called Matt. He arrived so quickly that I wondered if he had in any way anticipated my call. Mrs. Gray and another man who I didn’t know and wasn’t introduced to were with him. They concentrated on the busted blue door and the quickest, cheapest way to fix it. Matt kept mumbling that a new door was unthinkable, too expensive. When the police arrived Matt introduced himself as Gerard. I wondered how many other fake names he had.
“What did you expect?” John said when we told him about the robbery. “We do live in an ex-council flat.”
That was the first time I had put the two together. In London, I would have to understand, the World’s End could exist alongside the Chelsea girls.
The police called everyday after the robbery, asking me to stay at home so someone could come by and dust for fingerprints. By the third day of these promises, I was tired of waiting in the flat, listening to the people yelling at each other next door, hearing heavy footsteps outside, the polite ding of the elevator letting someone off. The TV got little reception. I realized that the stove was gas and only worked if I lit a match and threw it in. I could only imagine that would result in singed eyebrows, or worse. The police called again on the fourth day, saying it would be too late now to get any accurate prints, too much time had passed. They were still hopeful about finding my laptop, asking once again for the serial number, make and model. I didn’t hold out much hope. Often, I was asked what brand of raincoat the robber took. They were baffled by the choice of stolen items. Why a laptop and a rain jacket? Why not the TV or CD player? I repeatedly told them the coat was nothing special.
I suspected all of the foreign friends John brought home at random hours, who couldn’t speak much English except to tell me how much they liked my Sony Vio. Only later, when relating this story to a friend, did it dawn on me that the robber must have grabbed the coat to cover the laptop. Obviously, the robber wasn’t going to be walking around with a laptop under his arm. Why couldn’t any of the officers have figured that out? The police gave their final call a few days later. The cell phone that had been left by the robber was stolen and untraceable. They were stopping the investigation. I received a formal police report a week later, telling me to call if I needed any further consolation.
John brought his friends home at five am. From inside my bedroom, I tried to sleep through the guitar-playing and smells of smoke. In those moments, I felt more akin to my council flat ancestors, placed somewhere I didn’t want to be, stuffed into a tiny space with people I didn’t know, who didn’t behave like the posh residents only a hundred meters away.
Kids set off firecrackers outside my door as soon as it got dark. They laughed and cursed at each other. I blasted the staticky TV so I wouldn’t be jolted by the loud cracks, but they still made me jump.
Inevitably, when Katie and I went for a beer on Kings Road, men would ask us where we were staying. “Nearby,” we would answer. We could play the role of the rich Americans for a night, spending daddy’s money on a Chelsea flat and lots of beer. But it got too depressing coming home after imaging something grand.
Katie and I decided to leave London, to lick our wounds in Oxford or Bristol—a smaller city, one we could more easily negotiate. Obviously, we weren’t cutting it in the big city. I felt cheated. Along with running a website about living in London, I also dated an Englishman for a year. We met while I studied abroad in Bath. Darren drove me around the southwest by way of courtship and visited me often in the states when I moved back to America. While our relationship eventually didn’t work out, we still remained friends. I listened to the lingo everyday over the phone, heard about the football scores and pints, pasties and mobile phones. I had studied English literature in college and imagined eighteenth century London streets from the dusty seats of my college library. Something was wrong. My karma was off, stars misaligned. If anyone was supposed to be successful in London, it was me.
While Katie went to check out Oxford, I visited Bristol with Darren. But Bristol was dull and drab compared to London. I figured this out quickly, and Darren spent the rest of the day tempting me with the comfort of a warm bed in his flat nearby. We hung around until I had missed the last bus back to London. Thinking of Katie alone, while I was safe in Darren’s car, made me quiet.
Katie found Oxford expensive, without many employment opportunities for young Americans. Both Bristol and Oxford lacked the cultural scene that had first brought us to London. We decided to stick it out. This time, we scoured the Loot, which listed London properties for rent and sale. Our eyes burnt from the small print as we looked up and asked each other, “Is Streatham safe? What have you heard about Hammersmith? Is Croydon too far?” We had no idea.
I called the places advertised in the Loot, made appointments, and judged for myself, in the daylight, what was safe and what was not. Darren came to help; a British male opinion might be what I needed. We got to the appointed flats on time and no one showed up, no one was inside. The places looked abandoned, deserted. Then Darren told me he couldn’t see me anymore. He wanted a real girlfriend; this was not healthy for either of us.
Katie and I swapped stories over beers on Kings Road—plenty of ridiculous landlords with accents we didn’t understand and flats that smelled of smoke and garbage. Ex-council flats were often listed in the Loot. We knew to stay away from them now, but the rent was often cheaper, the location often more desirable. Later, I would read several newspaper articles lauding the rise of the tower blocks as the new cool in London property. Once the scourge of London, the blocks were undergoing a renaissance, with young yuppie couples buying council flat after council flat, happy to live in affluent areas at affordable prices.
After our first month of living on Kings Road, Matt stopped by to ask if we were going to stay on for another month. I’d rather sleep on the street, I wanted to tell him. You couldn’t pay me enough to stay here. Instead, I didn’t even look at him, the man who I let dupe me into living in a council flat, who hadn’t been able to look at me, or ask if I was all right, when he had come to fix the broken door. He said he was in debt and needed to know soon.
Finally, a temp agency found me a job. To my surprise, few people realized that I was American and few bothered to notice. One man asked where I lived, and when I said Chelsea, he said, “I should have known you were a Chelsea girl.” “That’s me,” I smiled, wanting more than anything to get out of Chelsea, but proud that to him at least I looked the part of those girls I used to watch with envy, and now with indifference.
There wasn’t much to do at my office job. The boss handed me the Tatler, whose articles gossiped about the rich and titled and gave advice on things like how to get Hugh Grant’s attention. I found out that the latest “it” girl in London society lived not a hundred yards from my flat.
Gale winds forced open every window in the flat and then slammed the glass back against the frame. Our cheap, cramped, busted apartment became a wind tunnel. There was no way to keep the windows shut, nowhere to stand without forcibly needing to hold your ground. The mirror and knick-knacks were shaking, as well as everything else that wasn’t bolted down. Through the noise of the banging windowpane, I called Mr. Kay, the owner of a flat in West Kensington. I had stood outside his flat several days before, waiting for him to show up. I rang the bell and called his house, but there was no answer. The flat was across from the Tube station and adjacent to a large pub. A cute café was next door, as well as a kebab shop with men who smiled at me as I waited outside. As long as the flat wasn’t infested with roaches, I wanted to live there. If only I could get a hold of the landlord.
Mr. Kay answered, frazzled, not quite able to articulate why he had not shown up the other day with his heavy Indian accent and small vocabulary. We decided to meet at two. The wind outside was no better than in my flat, except it was fun to watch everyone struggle against the forceful air, looking at children jump and run, adults holding their coats tight against their chests.
On the evening we moved out, Matt came by the Chelsea flat to give us our deposit, and offered us a ride to West Kensington. As we lugged our suitcases out of the building, Matt and Mrs. Gray wouldn’t stop talking about what a dangerous area we were about to move into. They predicted we would get in touch with them soon, and described some of the other flats they rented. As we got out of the car, they half-heartedly wished us luck, asking if we still had their number in case we needed them. “Sure,” I said, and slammed the door.
Our new flat is just a large room with two beds, two wardrobes, one table, and a mini-fridge. We share the bathroom and kitchen with a pair of Korean girls and French pastry chefs, who fill the kitchen with leftover croissants and the lingering smell of cigarette smoke.
When I tell people I used to live in Chelsea, and that I now rent a flat in West Kensington, they think I’m rich, or extremely lucky. If only they knew what our previous flat was like. Or the nice but strange set up we now have. The noise from the main road here keeps me up at night and wakes me early each morning. There is no high society, nor are there teenagers in hooded sweatshirts setting off firecrackers at my front door. I am not posh or rich, impulsive or grubby, but safe.