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.’
Georgia Mason-Cox is a Tasmanian-born writer living in Sydney. Her London adventures took her from dishwashing, to charity collecting, to working for the Royal Household. This is her first published work. It is fiction, just.