Flat one was an impromptu decision, just to get the ball rolling. We were seduced by its fancy eighties chic ways, the built in wine cooler and espresso maker, the dark grey tiles of the wet room. Thing was, it wasn’t quite honest. I wasn’t the only one looking round it and as the woman ooed and aaeh in her partner’s ear I marvelled at how squished I felt. The door to the lounge didn’t even shut properly because of the sofa. Besides it wasn’t really where it said it was, their interpretation of East Dulwich was generous that far down towards Forest Hill. A long way from anywhere, really. Or anywhere anyone would want to go. After I donked my head on the ceiling for the fourth time I grumpily excused myself thus preventing a bidding war, in which less than half the people present wanted to participate in. Off I trudged, down the length of Barry Road and across the open Peckham Rye, as the hefty Thursday sun belted down on my neck, my briefcase was slung across my shoulder and a chaffing Sainsbury’s bag containing trainers and clothes from a couple of days back cut into my fingers. As I struggled with the weight, I realised that soon I wouldn’t be spending so much time collecting my wardrobe from around the city. This plan had so many unexpected benefits.
Flat two was the first one we looked at together, the first one we took seriously, but it didn’t light up for either of us. The view of the Rye was pretty enough on such a sunny morning, but maybe it was the shiny greyness of the estate agent’s shirt which shimmered as he moved in that jerky-static, check-Cockney, barrow boy way, or maybe it was the strange creatures in the floor to ceiling cage, or the lycra wearing owners doing aerobics in the lounge whilst we tried to gauge how it would look with all our stuff instead of theirs, or maybe even the soft brown leather bed, but something, whatever, didn’t feel quite right.
Flat three was never going to work. It was always too cheap, down the Lewisham end of Wickham Road, but if the first two had been up at the top end of what we could afford this was to check out what was on offer down the bottom. A fridge freezer in the lounge, a bedroom too small for a double-bed and panes of glass that felt loose in their frames was the answer.
Flat four probably would have been great. It was kind of odd, but in a good way up on Tressillian Road. Down in the basement, it had a country cottage style unfashionable kitchen of open units and no storage, a spare room underneath the steps up to the rest of the building, a dark oak heavy wardrobe in the corner of the bedroom, a lush shared garden and dodgy wall paper in a lounge filled with two crappy sofas. Thing was, it was just me again. My girlfriend was in France with work, soaking up the sun on the glittering cote d’azur and I should never have gone, but I’ve always been bad at ignoring problems. I just want to sort things out. So, I went and liked it, but not enough to be certain. I pleaded with the Polish agent and he promised to hold it until she got back at the weekend. The next day he let it to someone else, the shit. Ah well, it was kind gloomy and ever so slightly damp.
Flat five would have killed us. ‘What you have to remember,’ trilled the agent shrilly as she prepped us in the street, ‘is that this flat is really Victorian, yeah? I mean, when I first saw it, I was like, oh yeah, this must be how them Victorians really lived.’ Uh-huh, I thought and in we went. ‘The landlord’s already said he’ll fix that,’ she pointed out as my foot almost plunged through the broken floorboards and into the foundations. The lounge was an okay size, but in a tired shape. Where once would have been a beautiful Victorian fireplace, someone had ripped the whole mantelpiece out and replaced it with a gas fire coloured that unique seventies faded olive green. Attached to this ugly monstrosity was a safety notice: ‘Condemned!’ it read. ‘Do not use. Danger of death!’ ‘That’s not very reassuring,’ I said. ‘Is that going to be fixed?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know. He hasn’t mentioned it.’ We moved into the hall. ‘Anyway, it’s got lots of storage.’ She flung the doors open and inside the cupboard two planks of MDF sagged in a sad grimace back at us. The so-called study, which felt damp even on a hot Saturday afternoon, was so small I could stand in the middle and touch every wall without stretching. The doorknob for the bathroom came off in my girlfriend’s hand. Whilst she found herself forced to clamber into the bath in order to close the door I began to wonder what on earth I was playing at. ‘So, I’ve found this place on Oglander Road in East Dulwich,’ I’d explained as I met her at the bus stop from the airport. ‘It sounds great.’ But the garden was a mess. There was a shed, but clearly not for much longer for when I tapped the wall it collapsed inwards. ‘What you have to remember,’ the estate agent piped up, ‘is that if you were buying this place it’d make a great investment. It’s got loads of potential.’ ‘But I’m renting it.’ ‘It’s really Victorian,’ she tried optimistically and I worried that my girlfriend would be questioning what she was getting herself into with South East London.
Flat six came close. Hinckley Road was nestled between Peckham and East Dulwich to give the best of both and hide from the worst of the yummy mummies or the relentless bass from growling cars. Plus it was just up from the Gowlett. The last time I’d been there it’d been a fantastic pub. It was thrashing it down with rain and unusually dark when we arrived. The agent was late and then bumblingly incompetent, like he’d he was channelling the ghost of Charles Hawtrey, only without the Carry On sexual innuendo. First he tried to take us into the wrong flat, one where a child was home alone, and then he forgot every detail about the place we had come to see, flicking through a sheaf of damp notes held together by string. Even so, it was close. It really was. The kitchen was great, the bathroom pretty good and the patio kind of cute, if you like crazy paving which I don’t mind, but she did. Maybe if we’d been less soggy, maybe if the cellar hadn’t been damp, maybe if the lounge had been square rather than having the corner cut out of it by the staircase upstairs, maybe if you’d been actually able to get in and out of a bed without somersaulting over each other, maybe if the Gowlett hadn’t seemed to have gone downhill so badly we’d have taken it. Perhaps it was because it was raining. We went back a couple of days later when, despite lovely sunshine all through the afternoon, the rains were pelting down again. ‘You’ve three minutes,’ the agent said as the next woman huddled in the shelter of the doorway across the way. We couldn’t be pushed into a decision, it just didn’t feel right. I wonder if she took it. I wonder if she was alone and if not didn’t she mind falling over your dearest at every turn.
And this isn’t even counting all the places that were gone before we even saw them or never really there in the first place. The internet was supposed to make this sort of thing easier, but all it does is provide endless information overload that breaks your heart and pisses you off twenty times a day.
Flat seven was just too sad, despite the proximity of Hilly Fields. It smelt of cigarettes and tears. The big woman who opened the door wasn’t even dressed and looked barely conscious. She sat on the edge of the bed staring down at the hands in her lap as we looked around and intruded amongst the dirty wine glasses and empty bottles in the kitchen, the slopped red stain on the lounge floor and the photographs on every surface of her with a smiling man in her arms of whom there was no trace.
Flat eight cropped up at the time when we were beginning to think about lowering our standards. It was a Sunday evening and it wasn’t on any of the property website as yet. It had just appeared on the Polish agent’s website. It looked perfect. It looked light and smartly designed, modern without catering for twats. It had room for an office where I could write, selfish demanding bugger that I am. It had access to a garden. ‘I want it, ‘ I thought and despite it being late on a Sunday rang the Polish agent, but the dial tone told me he was out of the country. Nine in the morning and I rang his office. And again. And again until I got to speak to someone. And again when the right person didn’t call me back. ‘I’ll need to speak with the tenants before we can go round, but you’re the first person to call for this one,’ he reassured me. I called him four more times when he didn’t call back. This continued all Monday and Tuesday as I braced myself to sneakily disappear from work for an hour or so. All the while there was a growing weight of anticipation snagging down around my neck distracting myself from everything other than how we’d arrange the furniture to make the best use of the space. I felt permanently poised until eventually he said: ‘You sound pretty keen so we can get you in first, how about tomorrow morning?’ So I took a half day off work, even though my girlfriend had meetings she couldn’t get out of. ‘If it’s like the pictures, just go for it,’ she told me. In the morning I paced in anticipation willing the time to skip past. The flat was exactly like the pictures, the only drawback being that the garden wasn’t secure for bike storage and, well maybe, its white coolness was just a touch clinically stale. Anyway, I went for it. The Polish agent, who was back by now, took some details and a holding deposit. I texted my girlfriend as I waited at the train station to go to work. We had a home. ‘Hello David,’ said the Polish agent ten minutes later whilst I changed at London Bridge. ‘Um, I’ve spoken to the landlady and, well, there’s a problem.’ ‘What?’ I felt my heart escape. ‘She doesn’t really want to rent the flat. She wants to sell it.’ ‘What?’ I repeated not able to understand what he was telling me. ‘You can rent it for a while, but people will be coming round to look at buying it. I thought I’d let you know as you said you wanted a long-term rent.’ ‘Cunt!’ I shouted into the air after he’d hung up and I kicked an advertising hoarding on the platform. Then I kicked it a few more times because a pain in my foot was somehow better than the ache of frustration and disappointment.
Flat nine was kind of pointless. My girlfriend was still upset about missing out on number eight and so didn’t come. I didn’t know why I was going, perhaps just to reassure myself there was stuff out there we could disregard. That we weren’t desperate yet. Still, three bedrooms on Wickham Road for that price was just too cheap. We didn’t even need that much space. It was as skanky as expected. The lounge was nice enough, but the rest needed a major refurbishment and the agent seemed to think he was a BMW driving Fonz. ‘Eeeeeyyyy,’ he greeted me, waggling his thumbs upright. One of the bedrooms was so narrow that the single bed touched three walls and the edge of the open door. The other room slipped underneath the bare concrete outline of the stairs up to the front door. On every surface were old cameras, in cabinets, hanging from the ceiling, on the cistern of the toilet, suspended from the kitchen extractor fan. People are strange, I thought to myself as I didn’t even bother to pretend to be interested.
Flat ten was back in East Dulwich on Crystal Palace Road. It sounded nice as my girlfriend rang through the details. A garden, one bedroom and a landing where I could fit a desk to write, but a little drafty from the open chimney. Problem was, I was a hundred miles north on a canal barge for Jamie’s stag do. I tried to picture the layout she described as I clamped the phone to my ear, struggling to ignore the babble of excited thirty-something men let out. ‘What do you think?’ I asked. ‘I’m not sure,’ she replied honestly. ‘It’s okay, I suppose.’ ‘Let’s go for it,’ I replied bombastically, but by that time I’d already had a couple of beers and was perhaps being a little impetuous. ‘Good news?’ asked Google-Steve whom I’d been boring with our struggle all the way up from London the night before. ‘Yeah,’ I nodded enthusiastically, but already had doubts at my own eagerness. After all it was for at least a year. ‘I think we might have a flat.’ My mobile rang. ‘It’s gone,’ she sighed. ‘The person after me took it straight away.’ Phew, I thought.
Flat eleven my girlfriend saw moments after flat ten and although apparently massive and light, it was furnished and in a way which, whilst perfectly nice, just wasn’t for us. Tuh. I wondered if were being too fussy. ‘We’ve plenty of time,’ she said, but it was slipping away from us.
Flat twelve came with its own cats.
Flat thirteen just kind of felt right. It looked okay on the pictures, a one bed with a dining room which could be partly used as an office, a massive garden led out to by French windows from the bedroom. It only looked okay online, not amazing, but I had a good feeling about it. It felt a little blank, like we could make it something of our own. Thanks to Arcade Fire playing Hyde Park in the afternoon we both had the next day off. The agent was something of a geezer: ‘Cor, I tell you, this woman coming at six o’clock she said don’t let no-one else take it! I want it! Still if you’re available, then you’re in first. Them’s the rules.’ Once inside it felt even better. We went downstairs to explore the enormous cellar and afterwards as the agent faffed with the lights we slipped into the lounge and I said: ‘What do you think?’ She nodded and then added: ‘I mean that hideous sofa goes, but otherwise, yeah.’ ‘So,’ said geezer who seemed alright for an estate agent (although may have just been because we took his flat), ‘what you reckon?’
We took it.
By the time we’d sorted out the holding deposit we were running late, but that was okay. The sun was shining, except for when it wasn’t, and the music played and I felt elated. We had a home, after all the hours of trawling the internet at risk from the IT department’s wrath and my mobile chirruping out the Dexy’s Midnight Runners all through the afternoons, after all the disappointment and the feeling of futility as we rang to enquire about yet another place that was too nice to be still available, after all that we finally had a lovely place of our own. ‘We can grow vegetables in the garden,’ I cooed into her ear, no doubt nauseatingly for anyone who overheard.
The next day I remained irritatingly chuffed for myself until at around seven-thirty in the evening I arrived at my girlfriend’s Maida Vale flat, having cancelled all our viewings for the following morning and looking forward to a weekend of not obsessing about where we might or might not be living in a few week’s time. In the kitchen I downed a glass of water and then she placed her hands on my biceps, looked into my eyes and said: ‘I need to talk to you. So, you know how we’ve found a flat? Well, something’s come up.’
To be continued…