“There’s not much room to dance”.
I had to ask the tall, skinny blonde lad next to me to repeat himself three times; the pumping reggae music was drowning out his voice, and I was unfamiliar with his cockney accent.
“Yes, right…” I replied, or something like that. He caught on that I was foreign, and I told him I was on holiday in England for the first time from Germany and had read about the Notting Hill Carnival in a guide book.
It was 1995.
We bopped along to the music, watching the floats and costumes; me 18 and him 19 years old.
He told me about his 11 siblings, and I explained I’d been to an acting workshop, spent a few days enjoying Viking Bay in Broadstairs, and was now on my final week of the summer holidays in London.
He gave me his number and asked if I would go out with him one evening. I felt a flush of excitement, having never been asked out before, and carefully pocketed the slip of paper.
The next day, I somehow lost the piece of paper with the lad’s work number at the British Museum and spent the rest of the afternoon thumbing the phone book and calling directory enquiries with my pocket change to track down my new crush.
It was in vain. Somehow, I’d underestimated how hard it would be to track down a skinny 18-year-old that lived with a flatmate in Ilford, having just a surname to go on, in a city of close to 10 million people.
Eventually, defeated, I stepped out into the street to get some dinner on my own. To my surprise, the lad was walking towards me almost as soon as I left the youth hostel! He told me that when he hadn’t heard from me, he had made his way over straight from work to find me.
He wined and dined me at some diner in Leicester Square, and I felt like a princess in a fairytale.
That evening, he walked me home along the banks of the Thames, singing “I’ve never met a girl like you before”, and we kissed for the first time in the street outside the YHA. His kissing, much like the quality of his suit, was awful, but I tried not to mind as I was falling in love with him.
I went back to Germany and we kept in touch by letter and phone calls, the latter playing a role in his abrupt nighttime move out from his flatshare and back in with his large family. When the bill came he decided to leg it, as it was over £200, more than a week’s wages.
When my half-term autumn holiday came around, I flew back to visit him, lucky to have a bed of my own in his sister’s bedroom, where we topped and tailed in bunk beds.
The dad used to be a boxer and had left most of his teeth in the boxing ring; he chain-smoked with the baby on his lap while the older kids performed Irish dancing in the living room. The mum brought me proper cups of English tea with two sugars.
In December, I was back again. This time, the lad told me he’d invested in a “very nice hotel” near Finsbury Park, which turned out to be a cheap B’n’B with holes in the windows, which I stuffed with my socks to avoid freezing. The breakfast sausages came sliced in half lengthways, and I met a lovely gay couple who were staying there to escape the Brixton riots.
New year’s eve was disappointing. There were no fireworks, and by the stroke of midnight we were still en route rushing down Brick Lane to a warehouse party near Eli’s Yard, where the lad worked. Eli was his boss and it was still a working clothes import business then.
A year after meeting the lad, in September 1996, I moved to London. By then, the lad had bought his own flat; unbelievably grown-up to a school-leaver from Franconia, who hadn’t even decided what to do with her life yet!
But first, London. I happily played housewife aged 19, and we shared his ex-council flat near the Blackwall Tunnel with a view of Canary Wharf. I had landed an internship with a TV production company, where I was paid the cost of my weekly travel card. The lad’s wage packet came in cash wrapped in brown paper on a Friday, and he’d go to the bank on Saturday, his only day off, to pay the mortgage.
When my internship ended I got a job in a clothes store on Oxford Street, where I quickly learned to sell the right pair of jeans to suit any body shape. I was paid £3.65/hour and worked part-time so I was able to spend the lad’s day off with him every week.
We visited my family in Germany at Christmas, and because work didn’t want to give me the time off, I quit.
When I got back to the flat a day after the lad, it was freezing. Thinking this would save money, he’d decided to turn off the gas and I couldn’t get the heating on. So I ran a bath, which sat steaming in the tub, tempting me to get in. I stripped off and put my foot in, expecting to quickly warm up in some bubbles, but I discovered the water was icy cold. I hadn’t yet worked out the connection between the hot water in the radiators and the water used to run a bath…
So I waited for him in bed, under all the covers we had and my winter coat. It was New Year’s Eve 1996.
The lad and I split up a few months later, and I began living with friends I’d met through my new job.
I stayed living in London until 2019. By then I had acquired a British home, degree, career and child. Still Brexit forced me to reconsider my future in Britain nonetheless.
I am a British citizen by naturalization but couldn’t see an immediate future in a country that was so divided and suddenly seemed so hostile.
When a workmate of the lad’s asked him, in 1997: “How is your Nazi bitch”, the lad gave him a black eye.
In 2016 the hostility was more subtle; but no less toxic. The newspaper headlines on June 24th shocked me to the core. Was this where I wanted my son to grow up?
I struggle with fitting in in Franconia. It is so much harder adjusting ‘back home’ than it ever was adjusting to life in London.