It's a freezing cold January day in 2009. The snow has been falling for days but it is now turning to slush and the sky is dark at 4pm. In three months time I will be forty. Forty! How did this happen? It was only five minutes ago that I was starting high school. Older people always say that you never feel your age, but I never realised that they actually meant it. I thought that they were just trying to give me hope. You see, when you're eleven, twenty sounds old. Then as you coast your way through your teens and finally hit twenty you can't believe that you ever thought that way. You party your way through your twenties with little regard for thirty, like it's something that is never going to happen to you. Then all too quickly it arrives, like a number thirty bus, when you've just found a nice seat at a bus stop, on a hot summers evening and are comfortably reading a wonderful book.
I was warned that thirty was a milestone that people did not really enjoy. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news to all you reckless teens and twenties folk out there, but my own empirical evidence can firmly substantiate these warnings. I guess, that splitting up with a long term girlfriend, who'd been an even longer term friend did not make this transition from my twenties any easier. But by thirty one I was back on my feet again, and thoroughly enjoying my thirties - probably because I was still doing things that most eighteen year olds had already tired of.
Thirty five, six, seven and eight went in the blink of an eye (quite literally, when the dealer came up trumps), the supersonic passing of time often thrown into hyper drive with the application of a twenty pound note up my right nostril. And soon I was thirty nine. Quite happily plodding along in a dead end job, making very frequent use of budget airlines to Europe and partying like 1999 was a date in the future. Then it struck me that forty was knocking on the doors of Fort Mitton. Fuck! I had to make a change. To do something completely different in an attempt to slow down the wheels of time. I took note of my inner concerns and the die was cast.
Milton Keynes in a roundabout way
So, it's 5 pm on a freezing cold January evening in 2009 and I have just finished work for the day. I eagerly make my way to my car which is parked some five minutes away in the only car parking space in central Liverpool that has not been commodified. My silver Nissan Almera is easily identified by the huge smash on the drivers side door and right wheel arch. If the truth be known, the car should have been scrapped a few months ago when I embedded it in the side of a VW Beetle, but being true to my stubborn nature, I decide to drive it until it falls to pieces. My current destination being Milton Keynes some three hours away, I have a strong feeling that this may be its swan song.
But why Milton Keynes you may ask? If there were no purpose to this journey, I would certainly be asking this question myself. Any place that has to employ the use of concrete cows to make it feel more rural, can have little appeal, surely. My own pre-conceptions of Milton Keynes or MK as they like to abbreviate themselves, came mainly from Bill Bryson's "Tales from a small island". Where he basically describes it as one big shopping centre, surrounded by roundabouts. An accurate description, as I am about to find out.
The purpose of my journey is to get my documents apostilled (more on this in a later chapter), and Milton Keynes is the only place in the country that has authorisation to do this. I guess that they have to find some way to get people to come to this modern concrete metropolis.
The die has been cast and the decision to leave the comforts of my homeland for an indefinite period of teaching English in South Korea, has been made. The documents that sit on the passenger seat next to me, are my passport to a new life in the Far East. All that stands in my way now are 130 miles of road in treacherous driving conditions, in a car that's on its last legs. Surely, things can't go wrong?
Despite the driving snow, two metre visibility and obscene grinding noise that emanates from my damaged front wheel, things are going great guns. I have successfully navigated two of Britain's busiest motorways and I am now heading down country lanes at a speed that is far greater than either the weather condition or condition of the car safely permit. I don't think that I have killed any unsuspecting pedestrians but I probably would not realise if I had. The ever increasing grinding noise would surely have masked their screams. I make a note to myself to check for blood upon my arrival.
I've booked in at a YHA (Youth Hostel Association) hostel. It's only one night and I am trying to keep expenses down. It's a Monday night in January, in Milton Keynes. I do not expect there to be any problems. I have a niggling concern that my arrival will be slightly later than the 9pm that I stated, but I assume that this will not be too much of an issue. How wrong one can be.
By the time I reach Milton Keynes, it is already 9 pm and fuck me! there are a lot of roundabouts. I can see where Bill Bryson was coming from. I spend the best part of the next hour literally going around in circles. And then as I am just about to give up, there it is, in a surprisingly nice little courtyard, the Milton Keynes YHA.
By now the snow is literally dropping from the sky in buckets. Snowflakes as big as golf balls. My Nissan, grinds and slides its way sideways into what I believe to be a parking spot and I jump out. The only other vehicle in the car park is a large white transit van. The engine of the van is running and a plumage of smoke bellows out of both the passenger and drivers side windows.
To my right, the hostel is shrouded in darkness and looks closed. A few bangs on the front door yields no success, so I make my way around to the transit van.
My approach is met by an overwhelming smell of weed and I am greeted by two extremely stoned lads who rather politely invite me for a smoke. In the knowledge that I will be drug tested upon my arrival in Korea, I regretfully decline. Their stonedness and my inability to ask a direct question without digressing into an inappropriate interrogation, does not lend itself to a short conversation and it is 10.30 pm by the time I approach the neighbouring cottage.
The boys in the van, are builders on their way to a contract. They are staying in the YHA but have popped outside for a smoke to avoid the beady eye of the "bitch hostel manageress". They inform me that she resides in the cottage next door and bid me good luck in my quest. I make my way into the darkness of the night filled with anxiety and desperate to get into the 2 bottles of wine that I have brought with me.
Things are to get worse. The cottage is set back from the car park by a garden which is approximately 15 metres long, and sits in total darkness. At one end of the garden there is a gate and on the gate is the following sign "Wild geese protect this property". I stop dead in my tracks paralysed with fear. If there is one thing I am scared of, it is birds. Like my deceased mother I have a profound and irrational fear of birds. Geese, maybe not number one in my hierarchy of fear, that moniker goes to turkeys and vultures, but they are not far behind. My fear is so deep that I almost decide to sleep in the car.
After five minutes of psyching myself up, I step through the gate into the complete darkness of the garden and tentatively edge my way up the garden path towards the front door.
I am no further than five steps down the path when all hell breaks loose. I am not only attacked from all angles by geese bearing their teeth and hissing at me, but I am also illuminated by a spotlight which has been triggered by the commotion in the garden. I break into a heavy stride and consumed by fear, I literally throw myself at the cottage door. The door opens and I leap into the hallway without any invitation.
"What do ya think yer doing?", screams the lady. Even through my fear I recognise her American accent and note that she is dressed in a furry pink dressing gown. Although I am hyperventilating, I am able to make her aware that I have made a reservation at the YHA and that my name is Andy Mitton.
"I oughta call the police", she threatens me. "You can't just jump into somebody's house", she continues. I respond by telling her that I am petrified of geese and she soon relents. I am told to go out to the car park to await her arrival, whilst she goes and gets dressed.
As I walk toward the front door of the hostel. I am greeted by the two stoners who are keying in the code on the keypad. As you would expect they let me in and I immediately head to the comfortable common room. My bottle of red is uncorked and I have a glass in my hand in a matter of seconds.
They say hell have no fury like a woman scorned. If the hostel manageress is anything to go by this is undoubtedly true. She enters the common room and attacks me with more panache than her guard geese did not ten minutes earlier.
" Why are you drinking wine in the common room?", she howls at the top of her voice. She gives me no time to reply before yelling at even greater decibels "And I demand to know who let you into the hostel. Was it him?" she irrationally screams pointing at the first person in the room, who happens to be one of the builders. I think that she is actually right but I don't fancy getting my head kicked in by a bunch of builders. The geese and the mental manageress are enough for one night.
To cut a long story short, I am warned that my insolent behaviour will not be tolerated and made to swear an oath that I will not arrive at a YHA any later than 9pm ever again. She then exits the building but not before practically ordering me to go to bed.
Of course I ignore these orders, wait till she has gone and then retire to the common room. Here I polish off my two bottles of wine whilst conversing with an absolute psychopath who appears to be dwelling in the YHA full time and has also worked in Korea.
I hit my dorm at around 2 am completely sozzled and not looking forward to my early start in the morning. Fortunately I have a dorm to myself and I fall directly into a deep slumber.
I am awoken at 5 am to absolute pandemonium. The fire alarm is ringing, it's shrill whine penetrating my dreams. I try to ignore it but there is a rap on my door and the manageress demands that I make my way to the car park. Still overflowing with the pleasures of the grape, I leap from my bed without any intentions of clothing myself and dart full speed to the car park in my underpants.
I am the first person to reach the car park by a good 2 minutes. I stand in the snow feeling like an absolute fool as I shiver in my underwear. The builders, numbering six in total and the psycho from the previous evening all saunter out fully clothed and packed ready to leave. The fire brigade arrive some minutes later and discover that it is a false alarm. One of the builders has spun around in the corridor with his bag over his shoulder and smashed the glass of the fire alarm.
The sight of me shivering in my grunts serves as a great source of amusement to all around, including the fire brigade. In fact the only two people not laughing are me and the hostel manageress, who is convinced that I had something to do with it.
I hasten to add that the rest of the day goes swimmingly well and I not only get my apostille but also hand deliver my visa documentation to the Korean embassy in London.
Lock up your hostels, Korea here I come.