How do you know you’re getting old? When a bed in a mixed dorm is a chance to get some sleep rather than meet girls. When you watch art-house movies and don’t even remember if anyone took their clothes off.
And when the world seems to have changed so much, and so quickly, that you barely noticed it changing.
“Sleep in an authentic prison cell” boasts the website for the youth hostel in the converted legal chambers, complete with former jail downstairs. “Chill out where The Clash stood trial.” You weave your way through furious King’s Cross traffic to get there, buses rattling past kebab shops and unloved pubs. Somehow, you didn’t imagine yourself doing this in your thirties. Distant sirens scream out through the night.
A “hip, funky, upbeat kind of stay” is how one online guide describes this distinctive London accommodation, and the shiny-eyed receptionist – barely out of her teens – gives you a hip, funky, upbeat kind of swipe card when you hand over a grubby twenty. Cell 14, she tells you. Sorry? She smiles. That’s what we call them. It’s part of the theme.
You head down into the cellars beneath the flicker of prison-issue bulbs. On the wall of a bar/disco hangs a punishing activity schedule for new inmates: Happy Hour, Cops & Robbers, Salsa Night. A gang of young Italian prisoners pass you in Abercrombie uniforms, sipping Cokes, chatting into mobiles. Your footsteps echo behind you. It feels less like a backpacker hostel and more like the headquarters of a faded military dictatorship; the Vietcong with flip-flops.
You pass a room marked “Marketing Chamber”, then another calling itself “Social Area”. You open the door: thirty young people stare silently at their laptops. “Smile,” says a poster, “you’re on CCTV.” It feels like getting a dirty wink from Chairman Mao.
Euro-techno pulses through the complex, machine-guns your ears. It follows you into the cafeteria, where you sit for a while, crunching crisps from the machine. Two French guys near you chat over a formica table. You wonder at what exact point you became too old for this. Somehow, it reminds you of a moment in your early teens: realising with genuine sadness that you’d never play Pass the Parcel again. A security guard wanders around, gently and quietly checking that Everything’s Okay, like an aggressive dad patrolling a birthday party. Overhead strip lights glare into your eyes. You wonder if this is the future of youth hostels: a cross between Big Brother and Guantanamo Bay.
You find your way into the dorm and wrap yourself in a little cocoon of calm by pulling the blanket down over your head and pinning your eyes shut. You don’t open them when the Germans come in, but you hear every word they shout to each other. They sound like they’re attempting to direct airplane traffic by the power of voice alone. Or conducting an open-air theatre rehearsal beside a motorway junction. Just ignore them, they’re only young, young and excitable, they’re not trying to disturb anyone, you probably did the same a million times when you were… Jesus, how can they be so loud???
You raise your head from beneath the duvet.
There are two of them. About twenty, twenty-one. Flighty skirts. Blushing faces. They seem to be turning the process of fiddling with a locker key into a multi-stage giggling operation. In the past, you’d have introduced yourself. For a moment your mind reverts to its old reflexes…
It’s a dorm. Dorm means “sleep”. Latin or something.
Your voice is a croak. They stop what they’re doing and look you over: a caterpillar head from beneath the bedclothes. One of them clears her throat.
“Listen, sorry.” You hesitate. “It’s just, some of us are sleeping in here…”
They watch you uncertainly.
“Could you just keep it down a bit?”
Like a dad turning the music off at a birthday party.
They look crestfallen, embarrassed perhaps, as if they’d been caught necking with a heart-throb on the sofa. There’s silence. You feel their eyes on you. By Christ, I hope I don’t grow into someone like that…
“Yes,” one of them says. “Sorry. We’ll be quiet.”
“Thanks.” You give her an encouraging smile and roll your way back under the duvet. What is it they say, seize the day? Carpe diem and all that? You close your eyes. Forget the day. All you can think about is a good night’s sleep. Outside the dorm you can hear more inmates clanking their way down the corridor, shouting, pausing to get a Pepsi. You lie back in the bunk in the converted cell in the retro prison with the bars on the windows and you think: that’s the magic of youth, isn’t it? The sense of freedom.