It is March 2019 and I have just left a Clapham townhouse, located on a quiet road behind the high street, after undertaking a viewing for a prospective flatshare. This seems like a pretty ordinary weekend activity for a twenty-something living away from home (about 500 miles away). However, this viewing lasted precisely 8 minutes – I’m very precise to say the least. I always was good with units of measurement, thanks to the Scottish education system, where we are taught the nuances of time, distance and weight from a young age. Anyway, I digress.
Now, why does a viewing last 8 minutes? Why so short?
At 11.30am I was ushered around an immaculate first floor flat in the converted townhouse, the paint smell still fresh on the crisp white walls, my face visible in the myriad of shiny taps and jet-stream funnels of the jacuzzi (yes, jacuzzi). At 11.33am after exchanging niceties about the flat, myself and the Spanish landlady sat at a dining table in front of a window, looking out onto the cars parked below, to discuss logistics.
I recall I asked two questions: one about the length of lease and the female flatmate, as advertised to be occupying the second bedroom. I was told: the lease could be anything from 3 months to 3 years as she was waiting for a Dubai work visa and could come back, if denied (lack of clarity over timeline - red flag one); the female flatmate left in alleged unexplained circumstances however, I was assured the delightful Spanish gay guy, Alejandro, had since moved in and was en route to the flat, to meet me after nipping out to Sainsburys (lack of information on future flatmate - red flag two). At 11.38, I politely excused myself and took leave (before I met Alejandro on my way out of the flat).
Just to clarify, I have nothing against gay men, Spain or, even Clapham; I left as I just couldn’t believe the ‘unexplained circumstances’ and the terms of lease. I just couldn’t believe as to how a landlord can have the audacity to be so confident in such opaque details. I guess my emotions were further heightened by the fact that I was trapped in a vicious cycle of back-to-back viewings, often four in one evening. Usually after work, eating Doritos for dinner (Cool Original, obviously) and dragging my swollen feet across TFL’s South West bus network, as I uttered street names in an incomprehensible drawl as the nights grew darker.
It is March 2015 and on a slightly wintery evening, albeit for spring (note: British ‘spring’), I crumpled into the Mini of a young estate agent, not too much older than myself, to be shown around 3 flat viewings in South East London (Greenwich, Deptford, Lewisham). From what I recall or, is now etched into my memory, my friend was due to move to Jersey with work and I had exactly two weeks to find a flatshare, before going to Pakistan for my cousin’s wedding. Basically, I had no flatshare to return to upon my arrival hence the urgency. Propelled by this fear of being Down and Out (in Paris) and London, the only person I could have depended upon was myself.
On an entry-level salary, I thought I could make like an Asian Bridget Jones and live by myself. In London. With the benefit of hindsight I now understand that this was a pointless battle to embark upon.
With my predisposed dogged determination, I did like the look of a first floor flat situated just above a hairdresser in Greenwich. It had one bedroom, honey coloured wooden bookshelves and sofas upholstered in plush terracotta coloured cloth. I was sold. However, in one viewing (one which was also taken up by multiple viewers such as a family with a screaming toddler in tow) I was unable to inspect the flat properly. After being driven to the Lewisham and Deptford viewings, I asked the estate agent to take me back to the Greenwich flat, that same evening, if timing was permissible.
The overzealous estate agent, zipped across back to the Greenwich flat in no time, only to be majorly diverted. The estate agent had noticed a group of people on mopeds steal a woman’s phone as she waited at the bus stop and complained that I hadn’t noticed. Then without my consent decided to chase them with me (a customer!) in the car, to get their number plates for the police. I guess, in a quest to do the right thing.
I swiftly became embroiled in the Greenwich edition of Fast and Furious and on the eve of my 23rd birthday, I was in my first car accident. The specifics of which don’t really matter, especially now. As a brief vignette: the group realised that we were following them and were not impressed, leading to a car chase as an intimidation tactic, one of the members threw a brick into my side of the car, the window of the passenger seat and drove off. I shielded my eyes with my hands from the glass as it rained down, covering my hair, gathering in my lap and into my shoes like grains of sand on a beach. Before I knew it, I was being driven to Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Lewisham by the police on duty. She spared me the three hour wait for an ambulance after gathering from the personal information that my birthday was the next day. To date, it is the most unusual (pity) present I have ever received.
Although these experiences are quite divergent in nature they do, indeed, draw some parallels. Sweeping aside the fact that they both took place in March and involved the desperation of impending homelessness to opposite extremes, they convey the feelings of vulnerability involved in moving house and what you are forced to both realise, and accept about yourself, in a short space of time. From the ages of 22-27, over the span of 5 years, I undertook 8 moves (on estimate, about 1.5 ‘moves’ a year), 4 of which were moves to various London flatshares alone.
The mid-section of my twenties involved packing and unpacking cardboard boxes every 6 months or so.
In every viewing, faced with each element of uncertainty it entailed, I always stepped forward with my faith, which looking back, coloured more of my conversations than I thought. From asking about whether those in the flatshare minded my not drinking (this is a thing), if they couldn’t cook non-halal in my dishes (people are more understanding than you think) and whether there was a ‘pseudo live-in’ boyfriend on the horizon (because, sanctity of a single sex space), you begin to exam your lifestyle AND relay, rather than recoil, at the tenets of religion that have guided your life. These are the jewels of your necklace that you do not want lost; these jewels are you.
Faith provided me with comfort, in embracing the concept of ‘hope’ when the viewings became more and more like panel interviews/auctions/walk-in clinics (delete as appropriate). The flats that did not seem like quite the right fit - the forced conversations with potential flatmates soon began to disperse, like my prayers whispered in the dark of the night, to reveal something better.
This is when I realised that faith and hope were inextricably linked.
This was further reinforced by the fact that, when seeing your life’s belongings in boxes with nothing but the clothes on your back, I realised that material objects do not mean anything. The van transporting them from one place to another can disappear but, what cannot, is the fact that there will still be people there to ask you how your move went and, if you had managed to eat, amidst it all. These are the people we should be grateful for. These are the people that bring a meal deal to your house, from another side of the city, as you have taken to your bed over not getting your deposit back.
PLEASE: make sure your deposit is protected by a legal scheme (Deposit Protection Scheme). This is money you will ‘recycle’ across the country to secure flats until you decide to BUY a place so, protecting it, is important. It is also at this point where we are presented with a panacea of emotion and take stock of the ‘important’ things in life, the evolution of our relationship with friends and family (and how we influence this trajectory).
I was in the incredibly privileged position (I never thought I would type this as a child from a post-industrial economy) that, my family was supportive of my choice to leave home and pursue my career. I guess from this degree of acceptance, my community also, albeit disapprovingly, did not judge me. They took it for what it was, an ‘ambitious girl, seeking opportunity’ - the same person I would have been, had I stayed at home.
Rather interestingly, my peer group within the diaspora here, in London, one of the most ‘open-minded’ cities in the world, treated me like a unicorn…a Scottish, Brown, Muslim, banker, in London.
Four years on, I still see humour in this. I still get the quizzical looks, revealing the unasked question: how I was possibly allowed to move away from home? The fact of the matter is, although it has been difficult, in my heart I never feel like I left home. I brought my full self wherever I moved and embraced the ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ concept, by staying more connected than ever to friends and family, wherever they were. I knew I had to try, so as not to be burdened by physical distance.
We ultimately grow our circles and find new friends, share experiences and find humour in our desperation, as we begin to understand, that we are often not as alone as we think we are. We take comfort, as creatures of habit, in finding a ‘home away from home’. For me, it was the in the rain and, the West of Scotland patter overheard on London tubes.
I guess it never turned out to be as grim as this memory after all:
When I stood underneath the bold white clock face of Liverpool Lime Street station, on a cold October evening, my breath forming clouds in front of my face, I felt my heart sink. My mum’s kind, round head-scarved face, urged me to the platform, to the purple and navy Northern Rail train in which she was to depart from, she kissed and hugged me goodbye, as my voice started to tremble. I was adamant to stay on the platform and watch the train as it departed from the station, swiftly to become a spot in the distance.
However, she didn’t allow that, on the 11th October 2014, my mum uttered the sentence that would become a lesson I have held with me, ever since.
In her fleece and shalwar kameez (looking gloriously out of place), she said she’d wait in the doorway of the train and watch me walk away from the platform before the train departed. I said ‘why?’, she said, ‘I want you to walk away, and not look back at me; in one’s life, you never look back’. The sentence echoed in my ears as my hands clenched in the pockets of my blue parka, tears starting to prickle on my cheeks. It was a sentence that signalled one thing, ‘you are now alone’.
I never was alone, I had faith, and all the experiences ahead of me. I just hadn’t realised it yet.