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Real estate agents, like property developers, are reliable villains. Maybe someday a great novel will be written about a property manager with a bruised soul, and floods of  sensitive young men will covet a foot in the door at LJ Hooker. In the meantime, there’ll just be people like Patrick.

‘The room’s gone,’ he said. I felt like crying. Couldn’t he have emailed me this information before I came all the way down to Tooting Bec to see it?

‘Gone?’ ‘Yah, the cheap ones go quickly.’

£89 per week for a cupboard in suburban South London didn’t sound all that cheap to me, but what did I know?

‘Listen,’ he added, ‘I’ve got another one for the same price you might be interested in.’

We arranged to meet in an hour at his real estate offices, and he suggested somewhere to get a coffee. Instead I soothed my irritation with a curry. I’d had a good feeling about this room, based on nothing more than the idea that if I kept on saying I had a good feeling about it fate would reward my optimism. After Royal Albert the area felt lively, youthful even, but mostly in the way a 90th birthday party seems vibrant after attending a funeral.

I waited at reception while Patrick finished up with a client. Gelled hair, pointy shoes – he told me we’d have to be quick as this was separate to his actual paid work.

‘These are my own investment properties I’m renting,’ he said, ushering me out the door.‘I assume you’ve a job over here?’

‘I work at Winter Wonderland, it’s a festival’-

‘Right,’ he said, unlocking a peach sports car, ‘hop in.’

Patrick drove fast, gliding around corners and talking about himself. He lived in Kent, but all his ‘business interests’ were in London.

‘I prefer it if my tenants have some sort of education,’ he said ambiguously, pulling up outside a narrow wooden house with a front yard bathed in so much concrete it would have stirred the soul of my late Nonno.

He charged across the threshold and led the way upstairs.

‘This is the one,’ he said, pushing open the first door on the landing. A woman inside yelled out in protest, and we both jumped.

‘For Christ’s sake,’ said Patrick, crossing his arms and standing with his back to the door.

‘Why do you come here again? You always-‘

‘Are you decent?’ he said, and stuck his head into the room without waiting for a reply.

‘Dasha. I’m afraid you owe me some more rent.’

‘No! This is not what we agreed.’

‘We agreed to a timeframe you’ve failed to adhere to.’

While Dasha ranted, I became engrossed in the faded Pokemon stickers littering the doorframe. After a minute Patrick glanced my way.

‘Do you want to…’ He nodded towards the room.

‘Oh, no, it’s OK.’

‘Don’t worry about her, she shouldn’t even be here.’

The room was cramped but scrupulously neat. I did a quick twirl, enough to get a general sense of the space, and backed out again.

‘Patrick, the pilot light needs fixing, it fucking…it goes out when a breeze is coming,’ complained Dasha from her bed.

Eventually we made it back downstairs. ‘I better check out this pilot light while I’m here,’ said Patrick, and I stood in the hallway trying to look inconspicuous. Rickety stairs, dated carpet, sweating walls – it seemed not much ever changed at the budget end of the rental scale. The place was a boarding house, basically, but lacking the seedy charm I associated with these places. Missing, too, was the down-at-heel glamour peeling off one such establishment I remembered in Sydney’s Kings Cross. From the outside it was a rambling fuchsia terrace, complete with lush tropical plants cascading from balconies. It was only when I got inside that the neglect resulting from a transient population revealed itself. Raymond Chandler could have designed the room I was shown; the absurd plastic chandelier only heightened the noir. I’d been entranced, until the sound of an old man hacking up a lung somewhere down the labyrinthine corridor brought me back to reality.

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