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The room was cheap, but ‘cheap for London’ wasn’t the same as being affordable. I scrutinized the ad. Of course it was a shared house (‘we are six friendly Eastern Europeans’) but I couldn’t expect to go straight from a crowded hostel to my own flat. I had to be realistic, but there were some things I wouldn’t compromise on.

Balancing my laptop on my knee, and resting one arm protectively on my bag, I found the crucial information in the third paragraph: Royal Albert was the closest public transport link. After clicking through the photos, I concluded location was about all it had to recommend it. The rooms were dark and severe, with incongruous touches of chintz. But when the hostel looked like a school camp that had hosted a bucks’ night, what was a bit of jarring interior design? For central London it wasn’t a bad deal.

I was on the Beckton branch of the Docklands Light Railway when I realised Royal Albert had nothing whatsoever to do with the Royal Albert Hall. The address was in fact way out east, beyond the loop of the Thames. Still believing geographical isolation caused its metaphorical equivalent, I had no desire to tempt loneliness by being stranded out in no-man’s land. But there were worse things than a hostile flat. With its air of quiet paranoia, its rules and complex hierarchies, the hostel sometimes felt more like a low-security prison. If I didn’t get out soon I’d become a lifer, hanging around the common room and dishing out advice on the best time to get a hot shower and where to find a power point.

So I stayed on the DLR, and did some belated location research. Google said it was a good place to watch the take-off and landing of planes. The scenery had a low-rise bleakness common to the immediate vicinity of airports. Overpasses loomed briefly, a concrete blur. Things soon came into focus once I stepped out into the rain. Factories and fly-tips dominated the streetscape. Eventually I found the house. The front yard announced itself by extending an uneven carpet of cracked pavers onto the road. A few rubbish bins, huddled together for warmth, were the only obstacles to the front door. Now it was only curiosity impelling me to knock.

Bogdan was a Bulgarian security guard with a boxer’s nose. He owned the place; we had talked on the phone. Charming and proprietorial, he led me inside. ‘It is very good possibilities for the renovation,’ he announced. We toured the ground floor. The décor was eclectic, like a hermit and an Orthodox priest had fallen out over furnishings. I asked who else lived there but Bogdan didn’t hear me. Distracted, he used his foot to nudge a thigh-high leopard-print welly out of our path. ‘Anastasia’s,’ he muttered. ‘We go up!’

I sat on the bed, observing Bogdan observing me pretending to observe the space. It was quiet, a long way to the high street. In fact it felt a long way from anywhere. Bogdan said there was a short-cut to the Tesco’s. He told me about the other tenants, pointing out their rooms: a Latvian student in that one, a Polish couple next to her, a young Estonian woman over there. As he showed me the upstairs bathroom I peeked into the half-open door beside it. Centre stage was a dressing table, weighed down by a shining sea of perfume bottles and jars of lotion that were reflected back in a vast wall-mounted mirror.

‘Who lives there?’ I asked, imagining an exotic Russian showgirl – Anastasia, no doubt, the owner of the glamorous welly. Bogdan closed the door. ‘This is my room,’ he said.

Downstairs we chatted. He was about to go into business. There was a gap in the market for Slavic home gym equipment, and he knew some suppliers. Perhaps I’d like to be his secretary? But I’m only telling you this for context – it has nothing to do with the actual story.

That begins a week later, with Patrick. I saw his ad at breakfast and had arranged a viewing by lunch. The small print troubled me but four words weren’t enough to put me off going. We met outside his office. Tooting was almost as far south as Royal Albert was east, but there was no mistaking it with any famous landmarks. ‘It’s a good area,’ said Patrick. ‘Lively.’ The wind gnawed at my knuckles and I pulled my sleeves down to cover them. He inspected me carefully. ‘I assume you’ve a job?’  I made my hands visible again, and told him I waitressed part-time. ‘Right,’ he said, unlocking a peach sports car. ‘Hop in.’

Patrick drove fast, gliding around corners and talking about his investments. The villain of the piece was a real estate agent, but this was separate to his job – this was his own property he was renting out. It was just around the corner, he said. The protracted drive built up expectations that crumbled unceremoniously as he began to slow down. ‘I like my tenants to have an education,’ he said, hastily parking.

The house was medieval brown and squatted at the end of a wistfully named street. Inside was a maze of stairs and corridors. Patrick was in a hurry. I lagged behind, struggling to reconcile the puzzling dimensions of the house’s interior with the modest proportions visible from outside. We passed three distended washing machines and a big yellowish sink. ‘The laundry,’ said Patrick. His shiny winklepickers lacked grip on the scrappy lino and he steadied himself on a small bar fridge. ‘Also the kitchen.’

We climbed the stairs. Chipped bannisters and peeling paint. Medium furnished room. The first floor smelt of fat and onions. All utilities included. Scraggy carpet and sweating walls. Women and minorities welcome. Abruptly Patrick turned left, stopping outside a door littered with faded Pokemon stickers. ‘This is the one,’ he said, unlocking it. A woman inside yelled out, and we both jumped.

‘Christ!’ Patrick crossed his arms and stood with his back to the door. ‘Are you decent?’ he said, and stuck his head inside. ‘Daria, I’m afraid you owe me more rent.’

‘No! This is not what we agreed!’

‘We agreed you would be out by now.’

They argued, and I studied the floor. After a minute, Patrick glanced my way. ‘Do you want to….’ He nodded towards the room.

‘No, it’s okay.’

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

The room was cramped but scrupulously tidy. I did a quick twirl, enough to get a general sense of the space, before backing out. Downstairs, he asked me what I thought.

‘That lady – Daria – she’s definitely moving out?’

‘She – she’s Polish or something, she’s been nothing but trouble.’

I confirmed the price. Patrick’s intricately gelled hair seemed to wilt a little. ‘What did I say? Is that what I said?’

We faced off over the boot of his car. ‘The ad said all utilities included.’

‘You must want the other one.’ He started to explain when his phone began to purr. ‘I’ll have to take this,’ he said, walking a little way up the street. I jammed my hands under my arms to keep warm. Patrick seemed agitated. I heard the word depression, several times. Then, ‘It’s news to me he’s unemployed.’

Patrick returned to the car, shaking his head. ‘I’ve just had his mother on the phone. She’s not happy because she says he has issues and he’s better off living with her and sorting them out.’

‘Who’s this?’

‘Duane. The one in your room. The room you said you wanted.’

I followed him back inside. Patrick had advertised two rooms and shown me the wrong one. ‘I leased it to Duane purely on a trial basis,’ he explained, climbing a newer, different staircase. ‘But nothing’s settled yet.’ We walked to the end of a dim hallway. There was nowhere to go from here.

‘Duane!’ Patrick banged on the door. ‘I’ve just had your mother on the phone!’

Barefoot in shorts, Duane was silent and motionless in the doorway. His fingers clenched and unclenched an open packet of jaffa cakes. Eventually he stepped back, allowing us a little way into the room. It wasn’t much wider than the flat screen TV wedged at the foot of the single bed.

‘I’ve just had your mother on the phone,’ Patrick repeated. Duane winced. After the second time I realised it was a nervous blink. He looked away. I thought Patrick had stared him down but Duane was in fact looking behind us. We tried to turn around too, bumping shoulders and stepping on each other’s toes, and I found myself face to face with the small figure on the bed that I’d tried so hard to avoid seeing just a few minutes earlier.

Daria stood in the hall. She looked determined, but maybe she was just cold. Her ugg boots looked like they’d stolen all the fluff from her dressing gown.

‘The pilot light, Patrick. It fucking goes out even when a little breeze is coming.’

Patrick grunted and disappeared down the hall. Now it was just me and Duane.

‘Mothers can be difficult,’ I said. He remained silent. Shoulders squared, he could have been wearing a combat uniform rather than a stained t-shirt that read ‘phat papa’. I wondered why his room was the only one without a bulky padlock on the old-fashioned swinging latch.

‘Mostly,’ I continued, ‘they just want the best for you.’ I couldn’t look at Duane, so I let my eyes drift up to the small high window. A few frigid trees against a restless sky. Duane still wasn’t talking.

‘What do your parents want you to be?’

‘Afro-Caribbean,’ he said, disbelieving. I nodded quickly but he called my bluff. ‘Doctor, lawyer…’

He sat on the bed. ‘Sorry about this,’ I said. We waited in silence. ‘It’s a good little room,’ said Patrick when he returned. ‘Duane, we’ll talk.’

‘He’s dropped out of college too,’ confided Patrick as we went downstairs. ‘Actually I think his mother has a point.’

In the car we got down to business. ‘I’d take it,’ I said, carefully locating my enthusiasm in the realm of the hypothetical.

‘As I said, I like my people to be educated.’

‘I’ll think about it.’

Patrick dropped me off at the station. ‘Let me know,’ he continued. ‘The sooner the better, because sorting things out with Duane could take some time.’

The journey home was quicker than I wanted. Soon I was navigating the blustery granite angles of Kings Cross. At the hostel, the weekend crowd was checking in. Uni students, mostly, down in London for a party weekend. They booked months in advance, pushing out the tide of people washed up from all corners of the EU and further afield. It was a Friday, so I had to move. My standards had lowered with my bank balance. Gone were the days of four bed all-female dorms, hairdryer and toiletries included. The new dorm was practically in the basement. A Tetris nightmare of cheap metal bunks, on entering I was greeted by the familiar odour of cleaning chemicals and bodies stewing on stale sheets. No windows. But it was quiet. The dorm was empty.

I turned on the lights and hung my towel over the railing at the end of the bed. Next to me, someone had done the same thing. An elaborate curtain was rigged up out of sheets. Taking advantage of the unexpected privacy, I began to get changed. The position of the room gave me plenty of warning if someone was coming. I tugged off my jeans and threw my t-shirt into the corner of my suitcase reserved for dirty clothes. My bra was almost off when a haggard face briefly appeared from behind the sheet curtain next to me. I screamed, and he retreated. We never spoke, but on a few occasions that night his rough damp foot brushed against mine. The thin wooden bunk dividers were only waist-high. In the morning I rang Patrick. This time there was no hesitation. ‘I’ll take the room,’ I said.

I didn’t stay there long, a few months at most. Like I had suspected, the small print was a disclaimer, authorised by Patrick’s conscience. He continued to be slippery about prices and I had no allies once Daria was evicted. She threatened to take him to court over the illegal extensions, but that’s another, longer, story. I saw Duane once more, soon after moving in. There was a big black guy outside Tooting station in some kind of awkward dispute. He might have been asking for money. Maybe it wasn’t him, we only crossed paths briefly. Anyway, I’ve left Tooting behind. Recently I got a new job, front-of-house at a hotel in Mayfair, so I’m crossing the Thames, moving up, moving on. I found a little bedsit in Kilburn. It’s a start. Before leaving I went down to the station to try and find Duane. I wanted to tell him he could have his room back, but I couldn’t find him. I suppose he’s probably moved on as well.

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