Travelodge provides cheap overnight accommodation. There’s one of their hotels at Toddington services on the M1, about thirty miles north of London. Sometimes after gigging late into the evening in that alien metropolis, I like to get well clear of it, grab a night’s sleep, and then get on the road early next morning, clear of the London traffic, for the three-hour northbound M1 drive back to Bradford. I’m then home before lunchtime. Toddington’s my usual stop-off.
It’s the early nineteen nineties, a warm summer evening, late but not yet dark. I’ve settled into my Travelodge en suite and am in the shower. Outside, the services are busy, packed with coachloads and carloads of tourists, holidaymakers and commuters plus all the usual commercial vehicle drivers. Then there’s the vast number of people employed at Toddington to serve all these stoppers-off. I’m soaped and soaked when the fire alarm goes off.
Two jangling minutes later, I’m still standing in that bathroom just beginning to doubt that it’s a fault or test or prank, when a member of staff runs down the corridor, banging on doors and shouting for us all to get out at once, there’s a fire.
Ten minutes later, well over a thousand of us stand herded together in the car park as the fire engines arrive. Unlike everyone else, I’m wearing nothing but a small towel wrapped around my waist. I quickly get the distinct feeling that I’m not the only one to have noticed this. The next hour seems to last for a year.
Eventually, the hotel manager comes over to me and explains that they’ve found a fire in a linen cupboard and, although the fire service is still dealing with it, if I come with him, he’ll let me back into my room so that I can get dressed. Escorted by him and the fire chief, I’m let back into my room. They hurry off. Overcome with gratitude, I suddenly realise that I haven’t even thanked them.
If you’re not English with a middle-class upbringing, then don’t even try to understand the impulse that then drives me to turn round, re-open the door, step out into the corridor and shout my thanks as their hastily retreating figures disappear round the corner. As I do so, the door slams shut, leaving me – keyless and still in my towel – unable to get back in.
The hotel lobby is deserted so I venture outside in the hope of finding the manager there. As I do so, a growing cheer followed by enthusiastic applause rises from the assembled throng. Their idiot is back!
About two years later I’m working in a school in Luton. At lunchtime I go into the centre to eat. Walking down a busy street, I pass a couple. The man bursts out laughing as he passes me and I hear him exclaim to his partner: ‘That’s the bald bloke who was in that towel!’
Unfortunately, I’ve a second more recent story on this same theme. It’s set in the late April of 2011, I’m spending a week working as a visiting poet in Moscow schools. Usually, when I’m working abroad, I buy a sim card on arrival and put it into the spare mobile phone that I carry for that purpose. It means that I can make cheap local calls while I’m there.
On this trip, my host is a shy but earnestly helpful and unstintingly considerate young maths teacher. He and my appointed driver, a Russian bear of a man who’s equally hospitable, set about ensuring that my visit is both hassle-free and memorable. Throughout my stay, they fill what free time I have by taking me around their amazing city, of which they’re fiercely proud. They insist on paying for everything when we go to one of the capital’s best and most authentically Russian restaurants, and they ferry me daily to and from my hotel, constantly pointing out sites and explaining Russian life and language.
This extensive hospitality is the reason I’m not even allowed to buy a sim card. My driver simply lends me the spare mobile that he and his wife keep for emergencies. It’s an old Russian-made phone and the Cyrillic text means nothing to me. I have some teething problems working out how to use it.
Late one afternoon, the school day over, I’m waiting for the two men to arrive. They’re taking me to Red Square. Then that mobile rings. They’re delayed in the heavy Moscow traffic and are about half an hour away. They’ll ring again when they’re near the hotel.
It’s been a hot and hectic day working with pupils. The delay means that, if I’m quick, I’ll have time to shower and change before they arrive. I undress and am about to get in the shower when it occurs to me that they might ring while I’m still in the bathroom. Rushing back into the bedroom, I grab the phone and, as I re-enter the en suite, am trying to check that it’s on and working properly. There’s a video function on the machine and, somehow, I start it. Standing naked in the bathroom, I’m holding the mobile in both hands, looking down at it. The first I know of the videoing facility is when I see my own penis and balls filling the screen.
I’ve no idea at all how to delete what I’ve just filmed. Two days from now I’ll be leaving and will have to return the mobile to my driver. I imagine his wife will want to know why he’s got video footage of another man’s naked tackle on their phone.
You try explaining to a man you’ve only known for a few days, via his friend because he has virtually no English, how come you’ve filmed your privates on his mobile phone. It’s not easy.