One Night in Hell
One Night in Hell
Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: September 1, 2002
In the year 2000 I experienced a night that was unique in my experience. It comes close to rivaling The Worst Day of My Life ... and I've left 2 years before revisiting the article I wrote then to capture the experience. It's a long a convolved tale, with many threads converging on one theme I think: just what are the depths of human ineptitude?
If you have a moment to spare, kick back and explore this one.
Rob was planning to shoot a documentary on hitch-hiking if he could get the funding for it. I was on a tour of hitch-hiking personalities myself and accordingly dropped in on Rob. I stayed a few days but he made almost no time for us to discuss the documentary alas. In fact, I had the first draft of a proposal thrust at me in one heated rush and a completely misfired interview with a producer in another heated rush.
I was invited to talk about the documentary proposal with this producer. I had with me on CD a rather healthy bibliography and much scanned material useful as background research for any seriously factual proposal and Rob thrust us together with no real introduction and had me demonstrate this material. To my repeated complaint, I saw no reason to walk through, however cursorily, a dry and factual list of data and research papers with a television producer. Work which can be performed diligently much later. I was expecting to discuss the documentary, for some strange reason.
So when Rob went to the men's me and the producer could finally thrust this nonsense aside and discuss the real meat, however briefly. Meat which turned out to be minced. He had no interest in Rob's documentary!
Much rather, he wanted to produce a kind of game show format hitch to Asia for television. He asked me if I knew any people with experience hitching to Asia. I cited the two or three that came to mind. Our business was done. Rob returned. The producer excused himself.
On my departure I'm sure Rob was saliently aware of the lack of meaningful discourse between us during my visit, his not having offered any time for it, and asked me to drop in again when I pass next week so we could pursue that. I was heading north, and on returning south would be able to drop in. I promised nothing, expected nothing, and expressed hesitance, but left the option open. The documentary interested me. Rob's passion for it lacked sufficient depth though to lay even a few hours aside for some mutual discussion, or organise a mutually beneficial meeting with others. I found it accordingly difficult to imagine he'd find the depth of passion to execute it.
As it turns out, I did drop by on the way south. I had other business to conduct in Rob's town, and stopped over a night on that account. I dropped in on Rob at the studios and he expressed his usual efferfescent enthusiasm and joy, inviting me to stay at his place that night.
The phone rang though, and after ignoring my presence for a cool 20 minutes or so, I interjected with as polite an expression of my desire not to stand around listening to his phone conversation, as I could muster. He fished out his keys and handed them over, motioning towards the door.
I had, while waiting spotted a short on the endless stream of shorts running on the array of televisions in the reception area, that piqued my interest. It was of a show called "The Risk Files". Clearly of possible pertinence to Rob's own proposal for a documentary on hitch-hiking, which might include a reasonable rundown on the risk of hitch-hiking within the context of the more mundane risks we run in every day life.
I motioned that I have one more question for him, knowing full well, if I don't raise it now neither of us will return to the subject of this file "The Risk Files" again.
He thrust paper and pen at me impatiently, gesturing I write a note. I'm hoping at this stage, that he's talking to the Prime Minister here, and fearing (from the audio cues before me) that it's just a lady friend, who can't hang on 30 seconds to clear a question. Given my last visit of course, I had an inkling as to how important this documentary, and subsequently my presence really were to Rob. Not important enough to interrupt a phone conversation for 30 seconds I'd just confirmed. I shouldn't have come ... "poor fool me", I thought.
I scribbled a question. He read it, his lips moving to some parallel conversation. He gave me a seconds air time, apologised to his phone partner, and said "I'll look into it" with a wink, before diving back into the world of his telephone relationships. I'd won 1 second anyhow, and took my cue to go.
On leaving Rob put his hand on the microphone and flattered me with a 2 second extension. "I'll be up in about an hour," he says and engages the phone once more.
His flat is on the same road. It has four bedrooms, one small kitchen, and no living room all connected by a squarish entry hall/chamber. The bedroom doors are uniformly closed, hiding behind them three rather private lives. I took a shower, most welcome after two days camping out without a decent wash in the sweaty summer nights and washed my clothes, which I hung out to dry in the hall hoping they'd be done by morning.
Mark, the most social and affable of Rob's flatmates, whom I'd grown quite fond of on my last visit, appeared from his private quarters. He was a travelling soul as well, with an inter-continental, inter-cultural relationship not unlike myself, and while busy much of the time working in his room (a freelance artist producing monographed paintings on postcards) he enjoyed a good talk about life and people as much as I.
As Rob’s hour turned to two and Rob still hadn't rung, Mark confessed how unreliable he'd found people to be over the years. He was quite disillusioned with them, quite a contrast to my own naive optimism.
|He recounted the funniest (and most auspicious as it turned out) tale of a visit to a friend of his. This friend looked a lot like Rob from the telling and I had to laugh. Mark's friend had a single bedroom and a tiny kitchen, and he'd invited Mark to visit. They went out for a few beers with mutual friends. As it got late some of them opted to visit a nightclub and others to retire. Mark was among the latter and his friend was sitting on the fence, deciding in the end to retire as well. Walking home he was struck, as by lightning, with a turnaround decision - he would in fact go out clubbing with his mates. He thrust the keys into Mark's hands and told Mark to make himself comfortable.
On arriving, Mark discovered that the door from the kitchen (which served as an entry as well) to the bedroom was locked and that he didn't have a key for it. The kitchen had as much floor space as your average coffin, and as much dust as the rather more spacious crypt you'd expect to find one in. Mark's things were all in the bedroom!
He tried without success to pick the lock, and with grim disconcert settled to face the inevitable, the dusty kitchen floor until his friend turned up. Of course the rage welled up inside of him at this negligent disrespect, but he granted the benefit of the doubt and resolved to break the door down only if his friend failed to show before Mark's scheduled departure in the morning (at which point he would need access to his luggage without any further ado).
Around 4 a.m. though his friend did turn up, inebriated and in the company of a similarly conditioned lady friend he'd found in the night. Giggling and laughing they arrived to trip over Mark's prone body on the dusty kitchen floor .... retiring to the bedroom.
Needless to say, Mark got little sleep that night and lost much faith in his friend - and with this experience and others like it, probably in friends in general ...
Eventually Rob rang! He came across as hesitant, shy almost, as he confessed a concern of his. He was with this girl, and didn't know where to go with her ... (shades of Mark's tale surfacing as we spoke).
"No problem", I said, "I'm sure I can just crash at your folks, and I'll leave you your room for the night."
But Rob's mum, Fran, was expecting, and just short of delivery. A home birth was planned and the water tub was all set up already. Rob wanted to call her to see if she didn't prefer some quiet. He promised to call back soon.
Frankly I couldn't imagine any problem. Fran was so easy-going and affable, she was living in a house with her ex-husband (Rob's dad), current lover (and father of the child-to-be), Rob's brother and a friend of the family. There was a spare room as well in the regal old house in the inner suburbs.
Last time, a week earlier, I'd stayed with Fran and co. They have an open door policy and that always touches me. They don't lock their front door. I'm not even sure it has a lock.
|I've encountered this a few times in my life and it always impressed me. When trust outweighs the paranoid fear so rampant in society today, promoted by an entertainment industry disguising itself at times as a news broadcasting system ...
"How foolish?", is many a reaction to such open door policy, and that's precisely what Mark, Rob's flatmate, asked me when I described the house to him. And yet I've known people in central Geneva living this way, lived that way in central Adelaide myself, and have encountered numerous country folk doing the same over the years. I don't know who's the more foolish in the end, the one who locks the world out (for fear of unwanted company) or the one who lets it in (embracing it)?
There are certainly areas, parts of towns, where an open door is tantamount to an invitation to others, to partake of all my worldly goods (and depart with them). But perhaps it's a mistaken notion to assume that the quality of life is inherently characterised by these pockets of rampant communal abuse. Perhaps many areas are not like that at all.
Certainly a part of me has always felt that most people so bold as to try the door for uninvited entry, will either pose no threat, or if they do, have arrived equipped for a break and entry on the assumption of a locked portal. Thus perhaps the paranoia surrounding us, works slightly in our favour, projecting the illusion that a door is locked when it is simply closed – realy our expectations at work. How common is the opportune thief, who is bold enough to try a door handle uninvited, and yet not equipped (in mind or body) to cope with its expected status of locked? Rare enough, in the experience of many, to make an open door policy literally workable in many, perhaps most, places.
But I couldn't be sure of course, that I was welcome this time around, with delivery of the new-born imminent and left it to Rob to clear things as he saw fit. It was, in the end, his problem, having doubly committed his own living quarters for the night in a fit of warm-hearted spontaneous irresponsibility.
Mark went back to work, smiling knowingly at the news. I settled to read a book. I found so little time to read while travelling that I was quickly absorbed in this tale of a penniless hitch across the States, that I intended to review at some stage (I write book reviews from time to time).
Another hour or two passed before I'd even noticed, when the phone rang. I was expecting Rob of course, on time as ever.
It was Fran! She was looking for Rob.
"Why, hasn't Rob phoned you Fran?", I asked glancing at the time, to confirm he'd promised well over an hour ago that he would and call me back. I explained this to Fran. She sighed knowingly, she knows Rob of course. Dismissing any concerns I or Rob may have had she invites me warmly to crash in the spare room at her place of course.
I accepted warmly, meaning to relieve the pressure on Rob for the night. But, I added, simple (misled and naive) courtesy dictates I should wait until Rob calls. He said he'd call back soon, and I should really be here when he does. So I settled back into my book expecting a call from Rob any minute. In retrospect of course, I failed very badly to judge the likelihood of that event with any accuracy, harbouring this uncanny optimism that people were in fact reasonably reliable, the naivite of which left a smile on Mark's face of course and would wipe one off mine in short course!
Rob, of course, never did call. I called Rob though, on his mobile, but it was switched off. Contact was not an option it seemed. Instead, well after the last bus had gone there came knock at the door. It was Angie, a petite, not unattractive young lady, Rob's "girl".
She'd been sent on ahead, to wait for Rob. Rob said he'd follow in two minutes, he just had to duck into work (the bar where he works, his holding down two jobs beside his work at the television station) and get an advance as he was out of cash. Angie was gushingly affectionate, embracing me in a long passionate hug and then Mark, to our wide eyes.
We got to chit chatting. She was sure he'd turn up any moment ... the problem of tonight's accommodations was clearly on all our minds. There really wasn't much room. Angie approached the matter with a certain laissez faire, no problem. I'd just crash in the living room ...
"There is no living room," Mark points out, to which Angie reacts with a rather sudden and vehement mix of surprise and disbelief. She'd been here before oddly enough, leaving me and Mark equally surprised at her ignorance.
"Where did Dan sleep then?", Angie asked. Dan was a Canadian friend for Rob's who'd just been visiting for a few weeks, sleeping on Rob's floor, much as was my destiny tonight (or not ...). Angie had been here once or twice before and Dan definitely did not sleep on the floor it seems.
Mark suggested he maybe slept in Jim's room, one of the anonymous, closed, and uninviting doors in the hall. Jim it seems was a good friend of Rob's and was away fairly often, perhaps he'd loaned Rob (Dan) some floor space or even a bed.
The gang of four who lived here didn't on the whole share much time or company, nor know one another intimately enough to share the problem of housing one another's guests. And Jim was in, and (sensibly) asleep behind that solid door of his tonight, as was the fourth in the house, and Mark himself had an art studio, post card production unit, living quarters leaving him with genuinely zero available horizontal lying space for someone he wasn't keen on sharing his single bed with ...
Which left the hall with all its 7 connecting doors and no real clear wall space (4 bedrooms, tiny kitchen, tinier bath and even tinier toilet) as a kind of fallback, or walking about an hour with my bags and wet laundry up to Fran's place at this early hour of the morning.
Time went on. And on. Rob neither showed up, nor rang. Angie, whose affectionate good humour seems incorrigible was getting mad, pissed in fact. Needed a drag or joint badly, wasn't coping, started pillaging Rob's belongings in the hope of finding some dope or fags. Asked me repeatedly if I didn't have any, or want any (I don't smoke).
Mark had (sensibly) retired by this time, though I expect to continue working in his post card factory cum living quarters, having already privately expressed his condolences to me and desire not to participate in the nights soap opera (understandably).
Angie tells me she is homeless. Officially registered as such and waiting for council housing, a process of several months. Rob promised to put her up tonight. She has to move around on a daily basis, imposing on friends for a place to crash. Her mother had passed away. Her father disowned her, they didn't get on she said. She was kicked out of her flat, by here ex-boyfriend, whose new girlfriend didn't find her presence tolerable. And now she was homeless. And mighty jacked off, that after an hour of Rob's two minutes we were still all unsure of our (at least my) status.
She's so pissed she starts phoning around everyone else she knows looking for another place to stay. She feels let down. If she finds somewhere, I'm welcome. She likes the idea of Rob turning up to an empty room, the both of us eloped somewhere. I have to admit it would be funny.
But she fails. She calls and calls and calls, but no-one home, just answering machines, or no answer.
I was a little relieved somehow. Thought perhaps that Rob was extending a helping hand to a homeless friend. But very uncertain of what to think really. There'd been enough allusion to other motives as well. But Angie's efforts to find a place to sleep, and her touching story of homelessness touched me too I guess.
We call Rob on his mobile again. It rings! He answers. He's dismissively nonchalant, and promises to be here in two minutes. Our eyes roll, but our tongues say "O.K.".
Angie asked again if I didn't want a smoke. Am I sure?
Yes, I'm sure. But I could do with a beer.
Right, she hits the streets. She has no money (nor has Rob, who is still haggling for some) but promises she'll be back in two seconds (and a hustle) with a fag and a beer ...
Two seconds pass. She's still not back. No surprise. Two minutes pass. Still nothing.
Mark emerges. Of course the unfolding drama must be shared. He can't completely disguise his curiosity, though he does an admirable job of trying.
Angie turns up in time. She has several fags and no beer, nor hash. No surprise. A rank amateur can hustle fags after all, portable beer takes another level of talent altogether and hash yet another.
She smokes, semi content. She's not angry anymore. I'm puzzled why not, but can't pose the question.
I've had enough. It's maybe 1 or 2 in the morning now. At 7 Rob said he'd see me in an hour. All he's provided is fine entertainment and a warm (though threateningly ineffectual) offer of a place to sleep that night. I was about to stand up, pack my wet laundry and walk to Fran's, offering in my turn to put Angie up there, carrying through our earlier plan, if she likes, but not really caring one scrap one way or the other.
I’m halfway out the door and Rob turns up. Dang! My resolute plan dissolves into discussion. Rob is dismissive of any problem. No worries. Apologetic for the delay. He'd received a lecture from his boss on these advances, she was also skint. Couldn't have predicted it. Tried to get away as fast as he could.
Not good enough really. He'd broken just about every possible social grace I could imagine. But I was cool. Angie got angry earlier, but I just don't tend to anger easily, something Mark mused over when we talked. Can't help but maintain my philosophic distance somehow. Rob can't after all help it. He means well, radiantly. I don't mistrust him. He's just socially inept with a 30 second attention span and extremely poor perception of what the people around him might expect of him when he says he'll do something.
That he call his mum when he says he will, perhaps.
That he call back when he says he will, perhaps.
That he turn up (roughly) when he says he will, perhaps.
That he make a little time to discuss hitching documentaries, having invited one to visit for said purpose, perhaps.
And so on ...
But that's life. He'll have to learn that on his own time if at all, I was on a mission to sleep. In vain.
Rob turned the TV in his room on. We watched, all three of us together. One show. Then the next.
At some point Rob reveals his hash (which Angie failed to find). Angie goes out to hustle more tobacco for the mix as Rob's all out. Rob and I talk about Angie.
"She's all right," he says, "not a bad shag." But full of shit, not his type at all. Rob's still pining for his old girlfriend, the one he left. He regrets that. "She's not homeless," he says. Her dad is filthy rich. She's filthy rich. Owns a flat downtown. Lived there. But she fell out with her dad, because she does booze and drugs all the time and he doesn't want her living there anymore, can exert some kind of influence I didn't quite understand from Rob, over whether or not Angie lives in a flat she owns. All perplexingly odd, and my brain is grogged with fatigue. I'm not really interested in much beyond sleep.
Angie gets back. Some joints are rolled and smoked. I indulge a little, might help me sleep.
Angie says something strange. She's had sex every Tuesday for the last few weeks. She promised herself this week she'd abstain. But it seems she can't. She'll have sex this Tuesday as well. My brain is drugged with sleep deprivation and stupor. I have no idea what she's babbling about. Besides, it's Monday I reckon.
A chat show comes on about prostitutes. They are interviewed by the hostess and the audience. There is much moral debate. Angie asks us if we could imagine ourselves hiring a pro some time. Rob and I both offer rather strong "No"s, with accompanying reasons and discussion about sex, love, need, commerce. The show ends.
Angie goes to sleep on the bed. Rob makes no moves, no gestures. Angie was smart. I don't feel brave enough somehow to say to Rob what I'm thinking: "Could we turn the fucking TV off and get some sleep?". Not even delicately or nicely. Instead I say "I'll just sleep out in the hall O.K. Rob," and move to get my camping mattress unrolled there in the remaining few square feet between my laundry and and the seven doors.
Rob won't have a bar of it. "No, no, it's cool man, you sleep here." he says. We bounce the question between us two or three times. I insist on the hall. He insists not. A battle of needs, of pride. He wins. I'm weak.
Having won, his attention is glued to the TV again. I reluctantly unroll my mattress. He ignores almost everything, glued to that TV like a babe on mama's breast. I move slowly, with my mattress, sleeping bag and building my pillow (the sleeping bags stuff sack stuffed with clothes - my usual habit). All the while I'm fishing for words, excuses, prompts, opportunities to drop it all out in the hall. I leave Rob every chance to change his mind and offer me that freedom. I feel weak and lost somehow, barred by my own stupidity.
Angie mumbles "turn off the TV," in her sleep. I nod to myself.
I end up on the floor with my head near the TV and try to sleep. Rob makes no move to turn it off. He turns it down at some stage. Angie murmurs a repeated "turn it off". Rob moves from sitting on the bed, to lying in the bed, beside Angie.
She murmurs "turn it off". He replies "I'm watching it".
One show ends. Our hopes rise.
They're dashed, he plunges into the next.
Another show ends. Our hopes rise.
They're dashed, he plunges into the next.
Yet another show ends. Our hopes rise.
They're dashed, he plunges into the next.
I bury my face and my ears as best I can, but cannot sleep. Rob turns the volume down once more. But always the perceived volume rises again as the ears adjust to the surrounding quiet, and they hear everything.
There are shuffles. Rob shags Angie. It probably takes 3 minutes, but feels like 30. I just wanna sleep. The TV is blaring in my face, and Rob is shagging Angie in the background as what's left of my conscious brain realises it's Tuesday after all and Angie was probably saying something profound around midnight that my poor excuse for a brain failed to register.
Angie gets up. She gets dressed. Says goodbye to Rob, she has to go. She's not so homeless now at 5 a.m. apparently.
The TV continues to blare.
I can't sleep.
The unmistakable shuffles of Rob tossing off in the background penetrate the TV’s persistent drone alas.
I feel sick, shut my eyes, shut my ears, dream of people who love me, and think Mark will love this one ... Finally someone to beat his dusty kitchen floor tale, a story of rivalling grotesqueness. If only I could move from semi conscious grogginess to unconsciousness!
In time, my morning bladder can hold no more. I hear Rob snore. I go to the toilet. On returning I turn off the TV.
I finally get some sleep.
Rob had to be at work by noon. I was up around 10:30, washed, packed and breakfasted by 11:30. Mark was up, I told him this was a novel, and I'd have to document this for posterity and his wry amusement, and possibly for Rob, to laugh or agonise over, whichever way the cookie crumbles. A part of me is confident Rob would take it standing up and learn a little. Another part of me sees all the cues I was too stupid to process.
Why did Rob need an advance tonight? Why not tomorrow? Why right now, and so desperately he'd spend an hour or two begging for it? Why was Angie so affectionate? Why was she suddenly not angry anymore? Why was her story so different to Rob's? Why was she suddenly not homeless at 5 a.m.?
Why can't Rob or Angie tell directly? Why does Rob insist I stay in the room and not the hall? Why does Rob leave the TV blaring all night?
And the last irony was that if that damn TV hadn't been on all the time I might have been in pleasantly sweat deep sleep, impervious to the world around me and Rob could have shagged and tossed all he wanted without my slightest concern. But then, perhaps it was meant that way ...
I could go on. But to any half witted soul, by now it looks an awful lot like Angie should have been interviewed on that latenight TV show she keenly discussed, Rob was a first order exhibitionist, and I a dumb cluck extraordinaire ... We live and learn. Never again (I hope).
I was out the door before Rob woke ... Adieux mon amie, adieux.
In the interest of discretion, all names have been changed and geography kept intentionally vague. Not everyone in this story would want to be identified with it!