The girl stands at the door; her knee high boots covering black stockings, a green sweater hanging loose over a pencil skirt. I notice grubby carpets and wallpaper peeling but I let it slide, desperate to find somewhere to live in London. Somewhere to finally unpack.
We climb three flights of stairs, every room with its door closed. I can hear the faint sounds of a television downstairs and I wonder if I’ll get to meet any of the housemates.
Here it is, she says, opening the door to a bedroom in a converted attic.
I let me eyes fall over the angled ceiling of the roof, instantly liking it. I note the double bed, the wardrobe, the carpet, the skylights. It’s perfect for me.
We discuss rent and moving in dates but I don’t commit. Not yet. Not until I’ve seen the rest of the house.
We pass by a clean and spacious bathroom in the hall but still no housemates, and arrive back in the hall I’d been in less than 10 minutes ago.
I’ll show you the lounge, the girl says, leading me in the direction of the faint television sound I’d hear before.
My heart immediately drops.
Walls with holes in, carpet that probably used to be cream but now resembles a colour closer to brown, two disheveled sofas squeezed into the smallest room in the house, the original lounge obviously having been turned into a bedroom.
In the kitchen I find the table piled with rubbish, junk covering most of the floor space. Bin bags full to the brim, a old stereo up-turned in a purple bucket. A brown-haired girl sits on the counter eating pineapple chunks straight from the tin.
I cannot live here.
I put the room-search on hold and fly to Seattle to meet some of my new co-workers 3 days later knowing that when I arrive back in London I still have to find somewhere to live.
My colleagues ask me what I’ll be packing for the trip and I realise that I have no choice but to take the entire contents of the suitcase I’ve been living out of in friend’s spare rooms with me to The States.
I open my laptop one crisp Seattle morning, the remnants of a coffee and croissant still visible on the desk around me, and open Facebook. There’s a message from my friend Tom – we’d worked in a pub together while we were both at university in Leeds.
Four days later I’m back in London, waiting for Tom outside a pub near London Bridge station. It’s freezing, and the smell of mulled wine drifts out onto the street as people open and close the doors.
The pub is warm inside, and cosy, and we make for the stairs and find a table on which to hatch our plan.
The plan’s pretty simple really; Tom’s moving out of his place in a couple of weeks, I need somewhere to live right now. Why live with a bunch of strangers when I could get a 2-bed place with someone I know?
Two drinks down and it’s settled. We start our flat-hunt on our phones during the third wine and I leave in a haze of happiness, finally reassured that everything’s going to work out.
Tom goes to see two flats without me, in Stoke Newington. If we don’t like the ones we see tonight, he says, we’ll organise a viewing for you.
We find ourselves in Finsbury Park, a place I’ve passed so many times on the train down to London from my parent’s but never actually been.
The first flat is a write-off.
A steep set of stairs to a dark basement, a lounge turned into a master bedroom, a bathroom with a glass door, a second bedroom, the tiniest bedroom I’ve ever seen, slap bang next to the kitchen.
The fact that it’s got a garden almost makes up for it – outside space is a premium in London – but then I imagine sleeping in that room next to the kitchen, the bathroom pipes gurgling and groaning overhead.
We tell the agent we’ll let him know and rush to our next viewing.
It’s a first floor flat in a converted Victorian end-of-terrace. A high ceiling in the lounge, sash windows, two similar-sized bedrooms, laminate floors. The kitchen would probably be better described as a walk-in-closet but it would do, wouldn’t it?
We push our luck a bit in the nearest pub afterwards, negotiating with the landlord, but by the time we’ve finished our drinks and we’re walking back to the tube station we’ve got ourselves a deal.
I feel that knot in my stomach loosen.
There are forms to sign and deposits to pay and that small matter of waiting for the bank to give us references so we don’t move in straight away. I drag my suitcase across London, from Leyton in the East to Wimbledon in the South West and then, when the references still haven’t come through a week later, I pack up again and travel back to my parent’s house where I work from home and hit refresh on my emails every few minutes, hoping for some good news.
A few days later we finally move in. London gets colder, Christmas comes and goes. I see in the New Year with people I’ve only known for a few weeks but it feels good. It feels good to be settled.
Our little Victorian terrace is never going to be as warm as a purpose built flat. And it’s a little noisy and kind of compact and it still needs some travel photos on the walls.
But it’s home.
London is home.