“Not good for English guy,” he says. His accent is Asian, perhaps Chinese. “Lots of people in same room.”
You’re calling him about a Gumtree ad. 1 single bed well be rent in Stratford £42 per week all including.
“I don’t mind,” you tell him.
“Not good for English,” he says. “Too many people.”
King size room! Sharing 3 people in room. All including.
“It’s a really small room. Just so long as that’s okay…”
Hundred quid per week near Finsbury Park.
“That’s okay, I’m used to that.”
“… and we had a bit of a problem with a leaky ceiling, but it’s going to be redecorated this week.” Her voice crackles through your mobile. She sounds English, in her twenties, maybe.
She pauses like a salesman about to deliver the small print.
“It’s a really small room.”
Streatham Hill, eighty-five quid. Single in a non-smoking flat. Wood Green. Turnham Green. Some of the ads read like bad prose poems, Dada Gumtree.
It is Very big house, many facilities like 30 MB virgin.
Internet, 2 toilet, very big kitchen,
You go to one in a Tesco Extra wasteland somewhere south of Vauxhall, howling wind and a floodlit newbuild block thrusting up from the astroturf. Short term stays £15 per night limited availability. Call Sonny 07742 482… A French couple turn up at exactly the same time, youngish and pretty, share a lift with you. The girl laughs when you realise you’re all room hunting. You hope it’s the same flat. They get out on a different floor. As the lift doors close she brushes away a shy smile. You wish you could see her again. You know you won’t. You find yourself outside and high above the city. You wrap yourself on the edge of the railing and gaze out into the night. The river is a smoky black gash, the streetlights bleed sodium glare.
Sonny turns out to be a pleasant, bored-looking guy of about thirty-five, maybe Greek, maybe Turkish.
“Fifteen per night,” he intones distantly. “Eighty if you stay a week, thirty pound deposit for the keys.”
“Minimum stay three nights.”
It’s a tiny flat made tinier still. Kitchen like a strip of stainless steel, hallway with no hall. Small downstairs room with three beds crammed in beneath a bare overhead bulb.
“This one you share with one person. Upstairs with two.”
A guy on one of the beds watching a laptop movie through his headphones glances up at you. He’s got a heavy-set face, maybe Greek or Kurdish.
You nod. “Uh huh.”
“You wanna see upstairs?”
Upstairs is even smaller. Another guy balances a laptop on his knee on the side of the bed, speed metal roaring through the tinny speakers. He doesn’t even look up.
“This one’s available from tonight, if you want it.”
You try to picture yourself bedding down here for the night. You imagine making a bit of conversation with the other guy, trying to overcome the intimacy of undressing in front of one another, of negotiating when you’ll switch the lights off and go to sleep. Or maybe he’ll continue all night with his laptop and speed metal. The light in here is either the flat bulb or darkness. You feel a sort of lurch of misery and homesickness, or just sickness.
“Can I, er, think about it?”
There’s a moment while Sonny glances at you disinterestedly. He shrugs.
“Sure,’ he says, “have a think about it.”
You suddenly get an image of Sonny’s life, driving around estates showing people these rooms, packing them in with low-waged migrants and travellers, collecting tenners and twenties, handing over Yale keys. It doesn’t really matter whether you take it or not, you realise, as he shows you to the door. This is London. Someone will.
Beyond the railing the city glows in the night, throbs with electricity, power, government, finance. You feel the wind in your hair and lean against the wall, and you imagine all the people crowded into those tiny windows, flat upon flat, block upon block. London never ceases to horrify you, and yet you keep coming back. It just does that to you.