A-row-of-houses-in-south--001 photo peter madciarmid getty images the guardianby Georgia Mason-Cox

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.’

Writer’s bio:

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.