Reaching the house was stressful enough. The sound of a motorway welcomed me to the neighbourhood as I stepped onto the empty platform.
“Cross the bridge,” read the instructions.
I couldn’t see a bridge.
I hate feeling lost. Not knowing where I am or which direction to take is one of life’s biggest frustrations, one which usually leaves me fighting back tears. Sadly I have not been blessed with a natural sense of direction. I get lost in my hometown. I have lived there for 10 years and it has a population of around 10,000. I have lived in London for less than a year. It has a population of around 8 million.
I decided (although I am not quite sure why) to follow the mysterious person who had just appeared on the empty platform. I followed them to a footbridge that carried me high above the motorway. As I crossed I looked down at the grey conveyor belt churning out row after row of cars and lorries.
“At the end of the footbridge, cross over the railway track.”
An overgrown path twisted to the left, leading to some stone steps and rusted iron railings that climbed up to the railway line. To my right a pile of mattresses lay abandoned amongst glass confetti.
I had not dressed for clambering over a railway line. Brambles were in strong competition with the path and one particularly prickly branch bit a hole in my tights. I tried to imagine this journey at night. I thought it was best not to even contemplate the prospect of lugging heavy suitcases along this route.
“Railway: DANGER OF DEATH.”
Was that a train I heard as I stepped tentatively onto the track, or the busy motorway below? The railway curved around the corner and out of sight so it was difficult to tell. I didn’t leave time to find out.
On the other side another set of steps brought me to an overgrown path that cut through a row of terraced houses and their back gardens.
“Once on the other side, go through the tunnel and you will find our street.”
Following the path I came to a narrow tunnel and followed the window of light on the other side until I was out and standing on the side of a main road.
“On the other side of the road, directly in front of you, you will see the house.”
The landlady opened the door. She was a small old lady with a clipped English accent who brought me into the house whilst asking me over and over, “where did you go to sc-YULE?”.
As I answered again and again (I don’t think the name of my local state comprehensive rang any bells), she brought me into the kitchen.
It was a serene white room that glistened with new work surfaces. Sunlight smiled in through the large window that looked out onto a neat postage stamp of lawn. On the low coffee table in the adjoining sitting room glossy magazines were fanned out neatly.
The kitchen was like a happy sigh at the end of my somewhat eventful journey.
“Let me just get the key,” said the landlady, “And I’ll take you across the road to your house.”
Because sadly, 202 was the house I had come to see.
“I haven’t been here for two months,” she said as she put the key in the lock of 202, “so I don’t know what it will be like…”
I sometimes wish it were socially acceptable to just tell the truth. As she showed me around the house, it was the struggle to stop myself from telling the truth that was the hardest.
“Well… it’s a good sized kitchen…”. I tried to ignore the fact that the ceiling was falling down.
“And there’s a garden… that’s great.”
Sadly it was impossible to get into said garden because it was so overgrown that the backdoor wouldn’t open. When I did try to open it, it nearly fell off its hinges.
“Oh well, I don’t really use garden space that much anyway… Shall we look upstairs?”
Leaking bath, mouldy shower curtain. “So, there’s a bathroom…”
We moved into a bedroom that faced onto the road.
“And would this be my room?”
“Excuse me?” replied the landlady.
Another lorry rumbled past the house.
“I said WOULD THIS BE MY ROOM?”
“Yes, yes,” she said, disappearing into the other bedrooms, apparently to inspect their state of disrepair.
“Well, it’s a good size…” I lied out loud to myself.
When the landlady returned she had a broken lamp in her hand and decided that now would be a good time to make sure that her potential new tenant wasn’t a psycho. What did I do? Where did I study?
Where had I gone to school?…
“And how old are you?”
I told her.
“19! 19! Do you burn saucepans?”
I assured her that no, I did not burn saucepans (although it was a natural question because of course I am not technically entitled to my saucepan user licence until I’m at least 21), and that in any case I had my own supply of cookware if I did want to do any saucepan burning.
“Hmm,” she nodded.
For a moment we were both quiet.
“Well, thank you for showing me around. I have a few more places to view, but I’ll be in…”
“You don’t want to live here, do you?” she interrupted.
I looked at her.
“It’s really very scruffy, isn’t it?”
We were in the front hall and I could just see the kitchen ceiling sagging behind her head.
“I wouldn’t want to live here,” she said.
Well that was settled then. Even the landlady didn’t want to live in her own house. Yet somehow even then I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell her the truth: “Yes, you’re right, your house is truly horrible and you are absolutely mad if you think that I honestly want to live here.”
“No it’s not that,” I said, “it’s just that I’m really looking for a social bunch of people to share with, so the fact that I couldn’t meet the tenants is a bit of a problem for me. But thank you very much for showing me around anyway.”
So, I waved a happy goodbye to number 202 and climbed back over the railway to continue the search for that most elusive of things, a London flat to call home that doesn’t make me want to cry.
The search continues…