1. Please make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life.
It’s a lovely little flat, the agent says with what could almost pass for genuine enthusiasm. Close to the amenities. And there’s that private bit of roof. That could become a sun terrace, subject of course to the landlord’s consent.
Nice, Simon agrees, trying not to catch my eye. I’d known the flat was no good as soon as I walked in and saw that six-foot stretch of roof below one of the windows. Si knows it too but he doesn’t want to tell the agent, or at least not so soon it’ll seem rude. He might even hope that if I listen to the man’s stupid patter long enough I’ll waver. The agent’s Simon’s kind of guy: sharp, brash, eager. He probably reads the magazine Simon works for. They were exchanging sports chat before we even got up the stairs.
And here you have a decent-sized bedroom, the agent’s saying. With ample—
It’s no good, I interrupt, cutting short the charade. It’s not right for us.
The agent raises his eyebrows. You can’t be too choosy in this market, he says. This’ll be gone by tonight. Five viewings today, and it’s not even on our website yet.
It’s not secure enough, I say flatly. Shall we go?
There are locks on all the windows, he points out, plus a Chubb on the door. Of course, you could install a burglar alarm, if security’s a particular concern. I don’t think the landlord would have any objection.
He’s talking across me now, to Simon. Particular concern. He might as well have said, Oh, is the girlfriend a bit of a drama queen?
I’ll wait outside, I say, turning to leave.
Realizing he’s blundered, the agent adds, If it’s the area that’s the problem, perhaps you should have a look farther west.
We already have, Simon says. It’s all out of our budget. Apart from the ones the size of a tea bag.
He’s trying to keep the frustration out of his voice, but the fact that he needs to riles me even more.
There’s a one-bedroom in Queen’s Park, the agent says. A bit grotty, but . . .
We looked at it, Simon says. In the end we felt it was just a bit too close to that estate. His tone makes it clear that we means “she.”
Or there’s a third-floor just come on in Kilburn—
That too. There was a drainpipe next to one of the windows.
The agent looks puzzled.
Someone could have climbed it, Simon explains.
Right. Well, the rental season’s only just started. Perhaps if you wait a bit.
The agent has clearly decided we’re time-wasters: He too is sidling toward the door. I go and stand outside, on the landing, so he won’t come near me.
We’ve already given notice on our old place, I hear Simon say. We’re running out of options. He lowers his voice. Look, mate, we were burgled. Five weeks ago. Two men broke in and threatened Emma with a knife. You can see why she’d be a bit jumpy.
Oh, the agent says. Shit. If someone did that to my girlfriend I don’t know what I’d do. Look, this might be a long shot, but . . . His voice trails off.
Yes? Simon says.
Has anyone at the office mentioned One Folgate Street to you?
I don’t think so. Has it just come on?
Not exactly, no.
The agent seems unsure whether to pursue this or not.
But it’s available? Simon persists.
Technically, yes, the agent says. And it’s a fantastic property. Absolutely fantastic. In a different league from this. But the landlord’s . . . to say he’s particular would be putting it mildly.
What area? Simon asks.
Hampstead, the agent says. Well, more like Hendon. But it’s really quiet.
Em? Simon calls.
I go back inside. We might as well take a look, I say. We’re halfway there now.
The agent nods. I’ll stop by the office, he says, see if I can locate the details. It’s been a while since I showed anyone around, actually. It’s not a place that would suit just anyone. But I think it might be right up your street. Sorry, no pun intended.
“That’s the last one.” The agent, whose name is Camilla, drums her fingers on the steering wheel of her Smart car. “So really, it’s time to make up our minds.”
I sigh. The flat we’ve just viewed, in a run-down mansion block off West End Lane, is the only one in my price range. And I’d just about persuaded myself it was all right—ignoring the peeling wallpaper, the faint smell of someone else’s cooking seeping up from the flat below, the poky bedroom and the mold spattered across the unventilated bathroom—until I’d heard a bell being rung nearby, an old-fashioned hand bell, and the place was suddenly filled with the noise of children. Going to the window, I found myself looking down at a school. I could see into a room being used by a toddler group, the windows hung with cutouts of paper bunnies and geese. Pain tugged at my insides.
“I think I’ll pass on this one,” I managed to say.
“Really?” Camilla seemed surprised. “Is it the school? The previous tenants said they rather liked the sound of children playing.”
“Though not so much they decided to stay.” I turned away. “Shall we go?”
Now Camilla leaves a long, tactical silence as she drives us back to her office. Eventually she says, “If nothing we saw today took your fancy, we might have to think about upping your budget.”
“Unfortunately, my budget can’t budge,” I say drily, looking out the window.
“Then you might have to be a bit less picky,” she says tartly.
“About that last one. There are . . . personal reasons why I can’t live next to a school. Not right now.”
I see her eyes going to my stomach, still a little flabby from my pregnancy, and her eyes widen as she makes the connection. “Oh,” she says. Camilla isn’t quite as dim as she looks, for which I’m grateful. She doesn’t need me to spell it out.
Instead, she seems to come to a decision.
“Look, there is one other place. We’re not really meant to show it without the owner’s express permission, but occasionally we do anyway. It freaks some people out, but personally I think it’s amazing.”
“An amazing property on my budget? We’re not talking about a houseboat, are we?”
“God, no. Almost the opposite. A modern building in Hendon. A whole house—only one bedroom, but loads of space. The owner is the architect. He’s actually really famous. Do you ever buy clothes at Wanderer?”
“Wanderer . . .” In my previous life, when I had money and a proper, well-paid job, I did sometimes go into the Wanderer shop on Bond Street, a terrifyingly minimalist space where a handful of eye-wateringly expensive dresses were laid out on thick stone slabs like sacrificial virgins, and the sales assistants all dressed in black kimonos. “Occasionally. Why?”
“The Monkford Partnership designs all their stores. He’s what they call a techno-minimalist or something. Lots of hidden gadgetry, but otherwise everything’s completely bare.” She shoots me a look. “I should warn you, some people find his style a bit . . . austere.”
“I can cope with that.”
“And . . .”
“Yes?” I prompt, when she doesn’t go on.
“It’s not a straightforward landlord–tenant agreement,” she says hesitantly.
“I think,” she says, flicking down her indicator and moving into the left-hand lane, “we should take a look at the property first, see if you fall in love with it. Then I’ll explain the drawbacks.”