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Jason*, our Hugh-Grant-lookalike Airbnb host, was prone to wild sporadic fits of weeping. It was the kind of animal uncontrollable wailing that you often hear in new wave Indie films or in a final year art student’s all-immersive video installation piece.
Raw, carnal and generally pretty distressing.
We would find out later why. And the reason was, in truth, bloody shocking.
This was never the plan.
When I first saw Jason’s sweet dig on Airbnb I was overwhelmed with the special smugness that belongs to all budget seeking travellers when they chance upon what can be coined as a ‘goddamn bargain’.
It was an old Victorian terrace house in a reasonably bougie part of London town, all white curly plaster and wrought iron gates, with big windows and oodles of ‘natural light’. There was a movie sized projector screen, thousands of alphabetically ordered DVDs and a deluxe bath tub with gold claws, all apparently ready for our instant consumption.
It was luxury most fine, and all this magnificence was going for the princely sum of 20 pounds a night. In a post-Brexit Britain this felt like a cry for help and by George did we answer it.
For us (that is two starving Australian students terrified of the oppressive power of the British pound sterling), this listing felt like a veritable prize and be damned if we didn’t jump on it like a couple of bubonic plague-carrying fleas onto an innocent and unsuspecting rat.
Upon receiving a booking confirmation email, I felt Bridget Jones. I felt Mary Poppins. I felt Prince Albert, prince consort and eternal love of Victoria The First. This was Mother England on a budget, and I was all over it big time.
It was both glorious achievement and valiant triumph.
However, upon my initial arrival to Jason’s hallowed halls I became aware of a slight, yet definite unhinged kind of energy. Puffing violently under my battered backpack, I arrived to find an open front door and a middle-aged man circling wildly through a decrepit kitchen whilst tuneless music blared from a pair of antique speakers, a fat doob smoking somewhat dejectedly between his fingers. He was wearing an untucked white dress shirt that was covered in several unidentifiable stains and buttoned up wrong so that it gaped rather unbecomingly on his hairy chest.
Straight up, I reckoned that Jason was a legend, but one of those legends that I like to occasionally observe from a distance and not necessarily sleep in the same house with.
“Come in come in!” he yelled. “I’m just writing!”
“Oh!” Said I. “How cool. What do you do?”
“I’m a comedian and producer. Anyway, go upstairs yeah, use anything you want”, he said, gesticulating frantically. “There’s coffee in your room, and tea too of course. Go anywhere you want, but I work late, very late sometimes. Such is the life of a creative am-I-right?! Haha. Haha.”
I noticed a few peculiar things about the house straight up. First, everything smelt almost overwhelmingly musty, the kind of dirty must that gets in your nostrils and doesn’t want to leave. The garden was overgrown and strewn with abandoned children’s play equipment and various rusty shovels. Inside, the stairs were disintegrating, and the kitchen bench was covered in crumbly ancient food residue.
On every wall, all I could see was an array of framed photographs of the same mystery girl over and over again. She was wearing small purple glasses and grinning at the camera in the same squinty exuberant manner in each shot. She looked like she was around 17 years old.
“That’s my daughter”. He said, seeing me looking. “Oh, she’s lovely”, I said, thinking nothing of it.
Later that afternoon we went out down the road and bought some hummus and bread and four fresh peaches and a packet of tangy Haribo fake ones. It was one of those uncommonly fine English summer evenings when the rain isn’t falling and every person you pass in the street looks like they’ve just gotten back from a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the tropics.
All felt right and just in the world.
When we got back home, Jason was sitting hunched over his laptop while the whole room was awash with voice recordings and soundbites layering on top of one another. Everything was lit up and blinking like a tech lord’s lair in the depths of Silicon Valley.
“Oooooh!” we exclaimed. “What’s going on here?”
“I’m making a podcast series actually,” he said. “Writing, producing the whole shebang. It’s taking me forever but it’s all I can think about at the moment.”
“Ah amazing! What’s it about?” I asked, thinking that he was going to say something dry and funny and British.
“It’s deeply tragic actually”, he said, while laughing, so we did too.
“It’s actually haha, not funny. My daughter died. It’s a completely crazy story so I’m making a series about it. You know, comedy mixed with like a crime investigation situation kinda thing. It’s been a big job. It’s unbelievable actually, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
At this, Jason broke off.
We stood there aghast. “Oh god. I’m so sorry, that must be so awful for you…” I trailed off, this being one of those horrendous moments in one’s life when really no right words can be selected or said.
“Oh no, no. It’s a mental thing really, I just felt that I had to do it you know? Like yeah, it’s terrible. But, you know, it has to be done.”
He was still manically smiling at us and we genuinely just didn’t know what to do so I offered him a peach that we had just cut open. “Thanks!” he exclaimed. “These are my favourite!”
The peach was golden and juicy just like the ones Roald Dahl liked talking about, and we were glad that we had something to give him that he liked. As we went back upstairs, I hoped that Jason could eat it and feel good for one moment and that all the nutrients and vitamins would drip through his system and fortify a small part of him somewhere.
There was so little of anything wholesome left in that house. I have never felt so sad for someone.
Each night after that we would creep home late and try to go silently up the stairs past Jason sitting in the glow of his laptop in the dark kitchen, pressing pause and play on numerous voices that were cracking and crying and saying things like:
“It was all your fault. You and her mum’s.”
“She messaged me that day, the day before she disappeared…”
“I know we all did our best. Nobody knows how it happened…”
“It’s a mystery though, innit. Just one of those things that are totally crazy.”
The voices swelled up and seeped under the crack in our door, we tried to shut them out, but they wouldn’t give up. Jason would cry the whole time too, his watery voice warbling into our ears in the middle of the night and waking us up, the sorrow swashing around in our sleep like a nauseating liquid.
Jason would sleep down on the sofa every night, and I realised that the room we were in was the only one in the house with a proper bed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were sleeping in his dead daughter’s room. It made me feel slightly afraid, but also close to her, this mystery girl. She kept hanging out in my dreams. I was curious about what had happened to her but knew that I could never ask. I imagined her sitting on our white timber window sill and laughing and knew that I would never get to know the truth and maybe it was better that way. I hoped that she was alright and that her father would be too.
Despite this, I knew we needed to get out of there ASAP. It all felt too personal, too close and cloying like some kind of putrid incense. Despite the fully sick 20-pound deal, nothing in that house felt right. We needed to skedaddle and give Jason some space.
On our final night, we came home at 2am to find a young girl with large front teeth and a thin milky coloured body sitting on the round kitchen table swinging her legs. She was wearing a short skirt and was leaning back so that you could see her long white throat and the knobbly bumps of her ribs under her Grateful Dead t-shirt. She looked pleased to see us.
“This is Em!*” he said.
“Hi guys!” went Em.
She was cheerful and optimistic, chattering about her favourite films and how Jason doesn’t know how to work his laptop. I guessed that she was about 20 or 22. We thought that maybe Jason was her uncle judging from the vibe between them, or potentially a mentor man from the industry. We thought that it was semi strange that she was there at 2am, the pair of them doing nothing, but we knew that grief makes you do lots of things. It would be good for him to have someone to talk to we thought. Loneliness is the worst.
I offered them the rest of our Haribo peaches and they both looked pleased and happy when I did it which made me feel a bit better, like I had something to offer them, a transient and sweet respite for two lost people standing in a poorly lit kitchen with an old bathroom tap leaking pitifully somewhere upstairs. Sometimes it’s’ the little things.
We went to bed and didn’t hear Jason cry that night.
At 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, we woke up to her screaming his name and panting. The whole Victorian house echoed, and it was like we were all in one room while Em yelled,
“Oh Jason, Jason, Jas, fuck fuck fuckkkkkkkkkkkkkk (me).”
We didn’t go downstairs till 12, when the house was silent. He was sleeping alone on the sofa, still in his dress shirt, pretending not to hear us sneak out. She wasn’t there.
We left on the bus to Paris and didn’t look back.
As we crossed through the channel tunnel, feeling like we were inside the long rubbery throat of a subterranean fish, my phone pinged with a message from the Airbnb overlords.
Please rate your stay at Jason’s London Apartment!
This was tricky, because although Jason made us feel ancient and afraid and generally quite unsettled about humanity and grief and the universe as a whole, he also had some great Egyptian cotton sheets and provided artisan coffee beans and the floorboards were painted an excellent eggshell, which was definitely a nice touch.
This Airbnb experience wasn’t necessarily five stars, but I reckoned old mate deserved them anyway. I didn’t leave a comment and hoped fervently that one day Jason would sit outside on his newly mown lawn on a fine summer evening and eat two fresh peaches, and that his heart, bolstered by some Spanish industrially-farmed vitamin C, would, for one moment anyway, have some peace.
*Names have been changed