Waking up in the morning felt different. We were finally a couple, starting out on a big adventure together; the World was ours for the taking and as a team, we could achieve anything we wanted. As I pulled back the orange curtains, letting light flood into the room, I gazed hopefully across the rooftops of London. In a few short days I would be saying goodbye to this great city and beginning a new chapter in my life, with my partner and the motivation to stay together at all costs. Love does tend to happen under the strangest of circumstances and if I am honest, I never believed for one minute I would be running away to Australia with a man I barely knew!
I didn’t have far to walk to the shower, a green avocado cubical sat imposingly in the middle of the room. The sound of knocking copper pipes and antiquated plumbing had kept me awake for most of the night, so I wasn’t expecting the power shower of my dreams and I wasn’t wrong. As I turned the dial to hot, a rather lukewarm, tepid affair forced its way out of the head of the hose, just enough to wet my hair. Fiddling with the switch further, a gush of cold water knocked me back against the side. Exasperated, I gave up and had a rather vigorous wash instead, moaning and groaning to myself, kicking the shower door. Finally, getting dressed, I shook Darrell into life, eager to start the day, bleary-eyed, he reluctantly got up. The dilapidated nature of the Heritage House Hotel, is a memory I will always cherish. At the time it drove me mad, but today it is an enduring resonance, that makes me chuckle to myself, every time I think about it!
There were only few days before our departure, so today we had planned our journey to Australia House, the Australian Embassy in The Strand, (a place I would get to know well over the years) where I would get the necessary paperwork for travel to this island on the other side of the World. I had flown little over the years, so undertaking a twenty-four-hour flight was a little disconcerting, but as a young twenty-four-year-old, nothing fazed me. I was unsettled yes, but I was also exhilarated at the same time. Nobody knew where we were going, not even my family, this was an adventure like no other and a story without end!
Excited, we arrived at Australia House early, and started to queue outside. I was really unsure what to expect, but was prepared for a grilling by a member of the embassy staff. I have always been a worrier and on that day my anxiety was as high as it had ever been, Not only was I embarking on a new life, but I was leaving without preparation and no belongings in tow. Standing there waiting to be seen, I was consumed with introspective thoughts, feelings of apprehension and reflections of a life that would soon be history. There was so much muddled information racing through my mind, it was difficult to remain composed and relaxed as I reached the desk.
Somehow, I managed to get through the morning relatively unscathed and was eventually presented with my passport and visa, after a few hours. This small stamp would allow me to stay in Australia for three months, I couldn't be happier. Neither Darrell nor I had any idea what would happen when the three months ran out, but we didn’t care, we just wanted to be together. Both of us had discussed long term plans and believed that we could quite easily start a new life in Australia as a couple. Of course the reality of our situation was far more precarious than that, but both of us kept any thoughts of failure to ourselves, always hoping for the best and expecting the worst.
The next few days in London were wonderful. This vibrant city gave me a renewed sense of purpose and an interest in the future, something I had lost in recent times. As we ate in restaurants, visited national monuments, shopped in Soho and spent time, getting to know one another, without prying eyes and judgemental people, I began to realise just what was important - a normal life, accepted by society and the love of someone who made me feel special again. Undertaking this next exciting phase in our journey together, I put all signs of negativity to one side; nothing was insurmountable, everything was possible, as long as we stayed together, fighting against a system, determined to keep as apart!
After a few days staying just outside London we arrived in the centre. It was a warm September day, as Darrell pulled a broken suitcase over Waterloo bridge, cursing as he went, something about buying a new suitcase when he had the chance. Darrell was always a bit of a drama queen and tended to blow the littlest difficulty into the biggest travesty. As for me, well I was happy to be away from Southampton and the turmoil that would surely surround our departure. The tube station was only a couple of hundred meters away now. I had taken the suitcase from Darrell to give him a rest, as we set off to our next hotel, during our short stay in London, before leaving for Australia in a few days time.
Bayswater was bustling, there were market traders shouting to shoppers, bars serving cold beer and lunch to passers-by and the streets were busy with enthusiastic commuters trying to catch a few rays of sunshine before returning to work. There were rows and rows of grand Georgian mansions as far as the eye could see and just a short distance from our tube station, there was the Heritage House Hotel, nestled in the middle of a row of other grand looking buildings.
Looks can of course be deceiving, and as we approached the entrance, I could clearly see the peeling paint, chipped masonry and rotting wooden window frames. The Heritage House Hotel was not what either of us expected, but is probably the most memorable hotel we have ever stayed in. As I opened the door, peeking my head inside, I could smell the musky air and a familiar stench of stale cigarette smoke. Immediately I was greeted by swirly patterned carpet and equally striking 1970s wallpaper, dark wood moulding and a handwritten note inside the door, asking guests to be inside their rooms before 10pm, when the doors would be locked. As we walked into the entrance hall, I spotted a small booth by the stair case, with an old lady furiously knitting away, unaware of our entrance, oblivious to all around her.
We both gingerly walked over to the reception and I pushed Darrell forward, keeping myself a few paces behind, not wanting to get too close. Pushing her glasses, down towards the tip of her weather beaten nose, she peered disapprovingly at both of us. Stubbing out a woodbine in an ash tray full to bursting with buts, she scowled. 'Yes, what do you want,' she muttered. Asking us a few questions, not normally asked by your average hotelier, we told her we were both brothers, staying in London for a few days. Times were very different in 1995, and we didn't want to rock the boat by telling her we were gay. These days no one cares, back then they did. She gave us, rather threw us our key, and we headed to the very top of the building, dragging the case up flights and flights of stairs until breathless and sweat drenched we got to the top.
'Wow, just wow,' a simple word to describe the room we were staying in. It had more beds than a Turkish brothel, the decoration was positively avant-garde, there was an old shower in the middle of the room and the beds were covered in candlewick bedspreads. As a child, growing up in the 1970s, I remember the very same linen adorning my divan; I used to pull the little woollen fibres out with my fingers, leaving them lying all over the floor. Well this room was a time capsule in every respect and despite its lack of interior design and elegance, it felt homely, familiar and a great place to begin our journey together as a couple. The Heritage House Hotel and its fading grandeur was a special place for both of us and a link to the past that is so important right now. During these uncertain times, it is great to look back at 'the story of us' and think positively for the future, hoping to continue that journey once again, when the World returns to normality.
The World was a very different place in 1995, when Darrell and I met. For a start both of us were much younger than we are today, still partying for days on end and enjoying the best years of our youth. Darrell was backpacking in Britain, staying with friends Matt and Jimbob in Newbury and spending weekends clubbing and pubbing in Southampton, where I resided at the time. I lived on a gay scene 24/7, my whole life centred around a community of like-minded individuals, coming to terms with their sexuality, navigating their way through life and the daily barrage of abuse, bullying and torment, from anyone who wasn't gay. With no laws in place to protect us and our equal rights, we were very much on our own, trying to make sense of the place we lived in and just how we fitted into the grand scheme of things.
Darrell formed a relationship with a close friend of mine and despite their best efforts to stay together, life became difficult, strained and eventually their fledgling partnership broke down. By the time it ended, I had also become close friends with Darrell and together with my partner at the time, invited him to stay with us, while looking for somewhere more permanent to live. I was never looking for a new relationship, I was at least on the surface happy with my circumstances and although we were getting closer, there were aspects of Darrell's personality I couldn't stand. He was Australian in every sense of the word, arrogant and always right. However, the life I led at the time conspired with my then state of mind to change all that and after a particularly heavy night of partying, we formed a bond that lasts until this day.
Everyone else in the flat above Pinkies Public House was asleep, just Darrell and I sat up, talking and chatting, trying to make sense of the feelings we had for one another. In a short space of time we had fallen in love and wanted to spend the rest of our life together. That morning on the 22nd September was strange, as we left the flat at 3am in the morning to walk to the garage up the road to buy some cigarettes. As we walked we continued to talk, briefly sitting on a wall watching the stars twinkle in the sky. Suddenly Darrell mentioned Australia and how much better one could see the constellations at night and maybe, just maybe I should come home with him, so we could be together away from the pressures of gay life in Southampton. As I sat there thinking, my emotions overtook the reality in my head and I agreed, we should run, run away as quick as we could that very morning and travel to Perth, where we would live happily ever after!
My boyfriend at the time was still fast asleep when we returned to the flat. Both of us walked quietly through the hall way, and up the stairs to the lounge, where Darrell began to pack his things. Meanwhile, I popped into the flat next door, to speak to a friend, Mark about my decision to leave. He was delighted for me, but apprehensive of the path I had chosen. There would be a lot of angry people left behind when I left, but he would do his best to help smooth out the mayhem we were going to leave in our wake. In his words 'Queens can be vindictive at the best of times!' Mark gave me his bank card and said he would put some money in when he could, so I would have something at least. This was 1995, I was unemployed and had very little money to speak of and would have to rely solely on Darrell, as we prepared to leave Britain.
Trying to find my passport was a challenge, as I quietly went downstairs into my bedroom where my parter was sleeping. Trying not to make any noise, I rumbled through draws and cupboards, but to no avail, I just couldn't find the little black book. Eventually I had no choice, waking my boyfriend from his sleep, I asked him gently if he knew where my passport was. Instinctively, he pointed to the dressing table in the corner, but didn't open an eye. Whether he knew I was about to leave or just half asleep and unaware of my plans, I still don't know to this day, but I found the document and left the room, closing the door behind. As my hand sat there for a moment, on the brass door knob, I clung just a bit tighter, not wanting to let go. Was I making the right decision? Did I still have feelings for my boyfriend? Wasn't this just reckless behaviour? I gulped deeply catching my breath, shaking my head back to the reality of here and now. It was time to go, it was time to leave this hell-hole behind!
It was 5am when we departed, the sun was rising in the sky, and we were ready to go. Darrell had packed his belongings, leaving nothing behind, I left with just the clothes on my back. Heart beating faster and faster, anxiety at boiling point we both left for the train station, relieved at not getting caught, happy to be away from the flat. Two impulsive young men, recovering from a night partying, leaving for a new life on the other side of the World. I had no regrets, just a mischievous sigh of anticipation, as we walked the short distance to the station waiting for the first train to London. This was the life changing decision I had been waiting for, for so long, this was the start of a new life away from the pressures of an inward looking vengeful gay scene that had run its course, this was the beginning of the rest of my life!