It’s 8:30am and the girl who has been frying cabbage for the past hour has decided to come and sit opposite me. Since I left my job and therefore no longer have to eat as soon as I get up, I have started waiting until I’m hungry before I eat anything, this suits my colitis a lot better which is the main thing, but in turn it also happens to help the bank balance and means I don’t have the ongoing dilemma of deciding whether to leave half used boxes of cereal, cartons of milk and loaves of bread behind for other travellers to use, or whether to cart them with me to use at my next destination.
Now that I get a close up view, I can see it wasn’t just cabbage that Cabbage Girl was frying, but also onions and celery, and more recently she’s added two fried eggs and a brown bread roll. The table we’re sitting at is a long table with fifteen chairs down either side, it’s fairly empty, and yet she’s chosen to come and sit opposite me. I am repulsed by the smell of fried vegetables this early in the morning, but I’m aware that Cabbage Girl might be sitting opposite me because she wants a friend, so I stop my internet search for accommodation in Manly Beach using the painfully slow youth hostel wifi, lower the lid of my laptop, smile at Cabbage Girl and say hello. Cabbage Girl ignores me completely, she is too busy looking at her phone. She cuts one of the eggs in half, puts it on the bread and then holds it artistically above her plate so that she can take a photo of it. Then she spends another five minutes fussing about rearranging her food and photographing it. So she clearly hasn’t chosen to sit opposite me because she wants a new friend. Why would she want to talk to a brand new person in front of her when she can instead be taking photographs of her food and posting them on social media for all her friends in faraway countries to see? The only thing in question is why when there are so many empty seats, she has chosen to sit opposite me, when she had no intention of talking to me. Perhaps I look like I really love the smell of vegetables.
I had chosen to sit by myself partly because I really need to spend a bit of time on the internet making plans for the next part of the trip, but mainly because Andrew the Australian is holding court at the other end of the table. Andrew the Australian holds the mistaken belief that he is some sort of major celebrity here at the hostel because he is a bonafide real live Australian. The main part of his royal duties seems to be sitting at the head of this gigantic table imparting lots of random facts about his life as an Australian very loudly for everyone else to hear. To his credit, he does seem to have quite a following this morning. Today he is philosophizing that “Australia is basically just one big beach and nobody would come here if there wasn’t any sea” which in my case is certainly true, but I’m not planning to join the discussion. Like a keen professor he knows his students and hones in on a guy from Switzerland: “Dude, you live in a landlocked country, you must spend your whole life literally walking around thinking oh my God, I’m surrounded by other countries.” The Swiss guy neither confirms nor denies this supposition and Andrew the Australian goes on to address his students as a whole. “Doesn’t it freak you all out, walking around Australia thinking about how much space there is here?” Everyone nods keenly, or possibly dumbly, and Andrew the Australian goes on to tell them how lucky they are that he just happens to be staying in the same youth hostel as them and can give them a first hand account of just what’s it’s been like to grow up in such a big country and how he is so used to all this space that he doesn’t ever feel overwhelmed by it. Speaking as a traveller from little old England I can’t say that I’ve ever thought to feel overwhelmed by the size of Australia, but maybe that’s just me.
Opposite me, Cabbage Girl is glued to her phone, either lots of people are loving the posts of her latest meal, or nobody has taken any notice and she is staring at her phone willing people to like her photos. Either way, she shovels the cabbage into her mouth, not looking at her plate, or me or anything other than the screen of her phone. I managed to burn my centre parting a couple of days ago and now it is peeling, looking like flakes of dandruff in my hair. Before Cabbage Girl sat down I had been obsessively and surreptitiously trying to remove the bits of nasty dead skin, I stopped when I thought I was getting company and might have to pretend to be polite, but Cabbage Girl is so engrossed with her phone, I decide I’m safe to carry on doing it.
“You’re a busy bee, what are you typing?” says a voice, and I realise a lady is hovering behind me. I can hardly tell her I’m writing a critique of the people around me and that unless she’s boringly normal, she’s most likely about to be incorporated into it, so I quickly hit enter several times to send my words out of sight and swivel around to talk to her, forming ideas in my head of what I can pretend I’ve been typing for the past ten minutes. Then I clock who it is and realise that I’m not going to need to say anything because it’s Middle Aged Madge.
Middle Aged Madge talks to everyone at the hostel, but nobody talks to her because she doesn’t let anyone get a word in. My Mum and I have this ongoing joke that if the day ever came where she needed to move out of her own home, instead of residential care or moving in with me, I’m going to send her on a series of perpetual cruises, because it’s about the same price as a care home and looks like a lot more fun. I reckon that Middle Aged Madge’s children couldn’t afford the cost of a cruise ship, so they’ve sent their mother backpacking around Australia forevermore. The first time I saw Middle Aged Madge she was in the kitchen with a young guy chatting away to him as he washed up, and I didn’t think anymore of it, beyond the obvious recognition that she was probably beyond retirement age and therefore a lot older than most backpackers. The next morning Middle Aged Madge accosted me in the bathroom.
“Hello Darl, you look pretty today. Where are you going? I’m going to a farm! It’s my friend’s farm, I haven’t seen her for thirty years. Do you think I look all right? I suppose it doesn’t matter, she’ll have been milking the yaks all morning, she’s not going to be all glammed up is she? Do you think? Or maybe? Should I put on some lipstick? Whaddya think? Lipstick? Do I look all right? Sometimes it’s cold on those buses, maybe a sweater? You look pretty today, do I look all right? Do I need a sweater?”
Throughout the monologue I had attempted to answer and give reassuring responses, but Middle Aged Madge didn’t seem to need any. The other girls in the bathroom seemed delighted that Middle Aged Madge had honed in on me instead of them and they all stared at her in their mirrors as they did their ablutions. Eventually I managed to jump into the conversation long enough to tell Middle Aged Madge that she looked great and to have a nice day and left the bathroom realising that the guy washing up in the kitchen last night had not been Middle Aged Madge’s son or friend, he had simply been in the kitchen when she needed someone to direct conversation at. And now it was my turn again.
“Oh darl, I’ve had such a day, have you been to the market? I went to the market, oh it was beautiful. They were selling all this fish. I love the smell of fish. Don’t you just love the smell of fresh fish? Oh darl, I love it. Have you seen Sarah-Jane? Is that her name? Sarah-Jane? Mary-Jane? Something-Jane? Or is it Julie? Have you seen her? We are going, where are we going? On the sea. In one of those wooden things? What are they called?”
“Canoe?” I suggested.
“Wooden thing,” she said, as if I hadn’t even spoken. “What are they called? Not a boat. A gnu. That’s right. I’m going on a gnu. With Mary. Have you seen her?”
“Ah that’s a shame, she’s real nice. You’d like her. Oh she’s probably getting ready? Do you know what room she’s in?”
“No, sorry, I don’t.”
“She’s not in your room?”
“I don’t think so.”
“What room are you in?”
“Oh, well she’s probably in room six then,” said Middle Aged Madge and off she went to search for her gnu-ing chum who may or may not have actually existed, leaving me to frantically type up the conversation whilst Cabbage Girl continued to stare forlornly at her phone, the technological version of paint drying, and Andrew the Australian was now telling all his avid fans that koalas are not actually real bears and that they basically spend their lives being stoned from eating eucalyptus leaves.
That evening I cooked my meal and sat down to eat it, far away from Cabbage Girl who had cooked up a storm of peppers and beansprouts and was now shovelling them into her mouth whilst staring avidly at her phone, presumably I’d missed the photo shoot. I chatted to some Dutch guys who were feasting on Coco Pops and to my knowledge hadn’t even considered taking a photo of them before devouring them which was a welcome change after Cabbage Girl. And then Andrew the Australian made his entrance, this time carrying a guitar. He looked slightly crestfallen when nobody noticed him. Everyone was too busy either cooking, eating, chatting, playing table tennis or staring at their phones. The guys who had attended Andrew the Australian’s morning lecture on landlocked countries and the overwhelming size of Australia were all sitting on the couches, crowded around a laptop and laughing, having far too much fun to notice that Andrew the Australian was looking at them longingly, perhaps they hadn’t been as excited to attend his morning lecture as they had seemed. Andrew the Australian took a seat, cleared his throat and looked around expectantly. Nobody noticed, so he began to strum mournfully on his guitar, sad chords that nobody could really hear above the throng of a lively Saturday night at the youth hostel. All the while Andrew the Australian cast his eyes around the room pleading with someone to notice that our own celebrity was not only a bonafido Australian, he could also play the guitar. Nobody did. So Andrew the Australian began to sing. A sad miserable song, presumably one that was in keeping with his sadness that nobody was noticing him. When he came to the end of the song and didn’t receive even a casual glance let alone the standing ovation he’d probably been anticipating, he stomped outside onto the balcony, slammed the door, sat down and started playing his guitar which prompted the two girls who had previously been sitting outside to quickly come inside. Andrew the Australian played the guitar, staring mournfully through the window at everyone. And then he came inside, threw the guitar on a sofa and stormed into the kitchen. Moments later he reappeared, sat down at the table and mumbled a hopeful “G’day” at the guy sitting opposite him. The guy was plugged into earphones and staring at his phone, so Andrew the Australian was lucky to get a “hello” from him. Andrew the Australian sighed, and cast his gaze around the room, for someone, anyone to notice him. When it didn’t happen, Andrew the Australian finally admitted defeat and took out his phone. From the glum way that he was staring at it, it seemed that nobody wanted to talk to him online either.
The next morning, I decided I could stomach a slice of toast and jam at 9am and after establishing that none of the toasters worked apart from the very last one I tried, I took my breakfast out to the long table. Cabbage Girl was eating a huge piece of steak with her cabbage, celery and onions, so I made my way to the far end of the table where the Dutch guys were having another Coco Pops fest. I haven’t seen them eat anything else. After breakfast I made my way to reception to put on some suncream – Australian backpackers usually have some at reception which you can use for free – and there was Andrew the Australian with his guitar and a sad looking worn out bag, getting ready to check out.
“Hi,” he said gloomily.
“Hi,” I replied warily. I hadn’t actually spoken to Andrew the Australian in person before, just overheard all the lectures he’d been giving the other backpackers.
There was a silence, so I busied myself with rubbing cream into the backs of my legs.
“Where are you going?” Andrew the Australian asked monotonously.
“To the zoo,” I replied with forced brightness, wondering if he was going to regurgitate his facts about koalas not being bears, or tell me something unexciting about red cheeked gibbons, but he just nodded glumly.
“Where are you going?” I asked because I can’t help myself from being polite and continuing conversations, even when I don’t want to be having them.
“Home,” he said, nodding sadly.
“Oh,” I said. “Where do you live?”
“Young Street,” he said, as if I should know it.
“It’s about eight minutes away,” he replied.
“That’s not very far to come for a holiday.”
“It’s not a holiday,” he replied. “I just couldn’t be at home this week because my Mum’s got my aunt and cousin staying with her.”
“Is there not enough space for everyone?” I asked, thinking it was a bit rough for Andrew the Australian to be kicked out and sent to a youth hostel every time his Mum had an overnight guest, even if he was incredibly annoying. Surely there was a sofa?
“No,” he said and sighed. “My cousin’s got this intervention order thing against me. I’m not allowed to be within two hundred metres of her. This thing happened at another cousin’s wedding.” He sighed again. “It’s complicated.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
He shrugged. “It’s okay. Worse things happen at sea.”
“Do they?” I always like to question people who throw random old saying into conversations.
“Yeah, you know, sharks and shipwrecks and stuff. Anyway, you never told me, what’s your name?”
“Melissa,” I replied without hesitation because I have had a lot of practise of not giving the right name to random men, as I find it often leads to trouble.
“Melissa,” he said. “Rhymes with kiss her.”
I wondered if was similar observations that had helped his cousin take out an intervention order against him.
“Maybe I’ll write a song about that,” he said, looking slightly more cheerful.
The arrival of his taxi meant the end of our odd conversation, and Andrew the Australian dolefully loaded his guitar and bag into the boot, before sitting next to the driver, no doubt regaling him with jolly anecdotes before going home to sit in his room and compose a song about a girl called Melissa, a song he would no doubt sing to a common room full of uninterested strangers the next time he got bundled off to a youth hostel because his aunt and cousin had come to stay.