Barking, let me start by saying, is A Long Way Away. From Ealing, where I was starting from, certainly – but also from any part of London I know well. But there are some friends who are the Very Best Type of friends, for whom you will get out of bed early on a Saturday morning and trek the entire breadth of London in order to be a second pair of eyes at their flat viewings.
Through a small amount of planning and a larger amount of luck, Saz and I find ourselves on the same tube at West Ham.
She is a bit blurry around the edges, having had a messier-than-planned evening the night before. I am sharper round the edges than is ideal, because my anxiety has – for the first time in months – decided it’s time I remembered that EVERYTHING IS WORRYING AND SCARY, AND SOMETIMES I DO THINGS THAT ARE WRONG OR MISJUDGED, AND SOME PEOPLE PROBABLY THINK I’M A DICK. We meet in the middle; she mellows me out.
She tells me a story of last night’s misguided misadventure. I laugh, and sigh, and butt my head on her shoulder. We arrive in Barking, at last.
We arrive at the first block of flats with ten minutes to spare before the viewing, but tailgate our way into the lobby so as to be out of the wind. Saz settles quite quickly into the role of “helpful doorperson”, having situated herself next to the Press To Enter button. We realise that everyone we’re letting in to the building is also here to view the same flat we are, and become resentful.
The agent arrives.
We all get into the small lift; it’s cosy, but jovial. We’re all pretending that we are totally OK that everyone here wants the same flat, but one blow of a conch and I’m fairly certain things would have gone Full Hunger Games.
The flat is functional, but small. Saz is also small, so it is not a completely unviable option – but I think lying down I could have touched both sides of the living room, without even going to full tippy toe stretch.
There’s a small balcony! Lovely! Let’s see what the view is – OH GOD IT’S COVERED IN PIGEON SHIT. AND ALSO PIGEON EGGS. AND ALSO A DEAD PIGEON. AND ALSO SOME SEEMING UNBOTHERED, MASSIVE, ALIVE PIGEONS.
Never mind; it would be too much to hope that the first viewing of the day is perfect.
It’s an easy 10 minute stroll to the next property.
We get there, and walk the full perimeter of the block. I could lie and tell you that it is because we are diligent and vigilant, but actually it is because we have terrible observation skills and cannot find the right entrance. It’s worth it, though, because this means we see the pleasant riverside view and – look! – it’s the Shard! This is practically a central London apartment. Swish.
This flat is more promising. There are some large gouges out of some of the surfaces. They are almost certainly not sinister, but we have both quite recently read The Girl On The Train and have a slight fear that they may be the result of a golf club swung aggressively at the previous tenant’s head. Still, nothing a bit of filler wouldn’t fix.
The next two properties are ex-local-authority. I find it both comfortingly familiar and eerily uncanny that the estate they are on seems to have been built to the exact same specifications as the estate that my secondary school sat within.
We are much too early, so have to hang around outside the first block for 20 minutes or so. Gradually, a small crowd of fellow flat-hunters gathers. A sweet-faced pregnant woman and her kind-faced husband defy the rules of pluralistic ignorance, and instead of mindlessly standing in the cold waiting for an agent like the rest of us, simply ring the doorbell.
It turns out they have rung the doorbell for number 54, which isn’t for sale, rather than number 52, which is. For some reason the people in number 54 do buzz us in, though, and so 16 of us tentatively make our way inside and congregate on the landing.
An angry lady flings open the door of number 52, and aggressively directs us inside. She is mid-flow in a seemingly impassioned telephone conversation, which she does not break off at any point of the viewing. There are four tenants inside the flat, each going about their business as if there were not suddenly 16 other people poking around their space. The hallways are narrow, and we have to form a kind of conga line in order to see any of the rooms. Each room has its own distinct smell; none of them are unpleasant, exactly, but each is strong and unfamiliar. All the windows are firmly closed. We conga our way back out of the flat, down the stairs and out of the building.
The agent arrives: stern, and harassed. “Have you all already been in to view number 52!?” She asks, incredulously. She is visibly annoyed when we say that we have. She starts ticking people off on her clipboard, ascertaining who has turned up for the viewing and who is still to arrive.
She is glowering.
She gets to Saz – “Oh! Sarah Bull!” – and suddenly beams. Saz has this effect on people. (“You’re very clearly her favourite,” I say, as we walk away. “Of course I am. I’m everyone’s favourite.” She’s not wrong).
We make our way through the estate to the next flat, via a corner shop for much-needed Lucozade, and incorporating a not-entirely-intentional detour. When we get to the next block, all our old friends from the conga line are there. They seem less delighted by this than we are. Eventually, Stern Agent Lady arrives and lets us all into the building. She leads us to the top of the stairs, unlocks the door, and cannot get in. The door will not budge.
She calls someone in the office, hoping for some kind of ESP unlocking. It is not a successful tactic. Luckily, a burly Croatian man is better at persuading doors to open than she is. We all swell towards the entrance.
“You can’t all go in at once!” She says, dismayed. “There isn’t room! You’ll have to wait your turn!”
She puts her arm in front of the man who was trying to enter, physically barring his way. She spots Saz: “Sarah and friend! Please come in!”
We skip past the others. (“I told you I was her favourite.”)
The flat, if I am being charitable, had potential. If you were willing to spend a lot of money or a lot of time to fully gut it and start again, you could probably turn it into something quite charming. Saz has neither of those things to spare; it is not a goer.
We rapidly make our way back outside, and power-walk to the next property since we’re running slightly late for the viewing.
From the outside, it looks promising. There’s smart blue woodwork and neat pathways and an air of faded gentility. We ring the doorbell, and are immediately buzzed in.
As we make our way up the stairs, a man shouts down, “I’m just having a crafty cig!”
“I’m not an estate agent! I don’t know anything about the property! Don’t be asking me about service fees or loft ladders: I don’t know a thing!”
Who… are you, exactly?
“I do paperwork for personal liability claims. But they pay me to stand here for two hours letting people in and out. It’s not a bad gig.”
He interrogates us ceaselessly while we look around. How far have we come? (Streatham!? Bloody hell!) How much is this flat on the market for? Where are we going next?
“Ilford!? I’d raize it to the ground, if you gave me the chance! Full of Eastern Europeans.”
Is it? Right.
“I met the woman who’s selling this place the other day. Very strange character, she is. Very strange.”
She must be a raving eccentric to have registered as odd to you, Mr. Not-An-Estate-Agent.
The flat is quite nice.
We are flagging.
So, to Nandos, for a sit down and a subtle phone-charge and some tasty chicken thighs and bottomless fro-yo. It begins to pour with rain outside, so we sit nursing a coffee for longer than is strictly necessary, killing time until our final appointment of the day.
A ten minute bus journey, and suddenly we are somewhere quite else. It’s suburban; safe; a land of culs-de-sac.
[❤️ you, compound plural]
At the property, a neat and orderly queue is forming. We join it, obediently, and slip off our shoes as is clearly required of us. Welcome home, Haniya! says the handmade sign on the door. A new baby has made the one-bedroom flat unlivable for a two-child family.
The flat is beautiful. Immaculate. Small but perfectly formed. The kitchen floor is sparkly, like Debenham’s in Westfield. It would suit Saz down to the ground. The sliding doors open onto a small patio. “That’s how the cat would get in and out.”
(She doesn’t have a cat).
I’m opening a kitchen cabinet while Saz turns to make her way into the bedroom.
“Sarah!? Oh my GOD!”
Improbably, implausibly, one of Saz’s friends from school is in the hallway. There were about 16 girls in her year; there are 40 people viewing this flat today. It feels ridiculously unlikely that they are here at the same time, but they are.
“Hahahahaha!” They say.
“How funny that we both want the same flat!” They say.
“You can’t have it, though! I want it!” They say.
Everything is fine.
We head out into the rain, all our viewings for the day completed. At the bus stop, a gaggle of people who have all been to see the delightful, sparkly-floored flat. We have been worn down by the day; our defences are lowered. We forget, temporarily, that we are Londoners; we smile, make eye contact.
“Lovely, wasn’t it?” We take turns to say, sadly. “Mmmm. Lovely.”
The bus arrives; our faces harden. We are not comrades, we remember suddenly, but competitors.
At the end of the road, the orderly queue continues to form.