When True Love Runs Into Real Estate Anxiety
Laura Powell on the Real Cost of Buying a London Apartment
The year I turned 30, I cried for a whole summer as I realized I would never be able to afford to buy my own home. I exhausted everyone who would listen. “The London property market,” friends would say sympathetically—coupled ones who had mortgages and husbands—and afterward I’d take the tube back to my skinny single bed in the second bedroom of a rental, and lie there, surfing real estate websites all night, laptop balanced on my stomach.
Sometimes, she would come over, though she didn’t sleep well at my place—the bed was too narrow—and a sleepless night could knock her off balance for a week. She couldn’t afford to buy, either, and she was eight years older than me. “I’ve come to terms with it’” she’d say sadly. “Let’s get our own place, rent together instead.” I was buried too deep in Rightmove to answer.
One day my grandfather telephoned me. This, in itself, is rare. My grandmother usually does the telephoning. “I’ve been speaking to your parents,” he said. “And I have a proposition.” He would, he said, loan me £9,000, interest free, toward a deposit. I thanked him, cried some more. Then I registered for a shared-ownership housing scheme run by the government, viewed 43 apartments, built a color-coded spreadsheet to compare them, and bought the second one I was allocated. That September I moved in.
“When you want something badly, nothing gets in your way,” marveled friends. She didn’t marvel. “You steamroller,” she said to me at the end.
If I trace back to the start of this flat of mine—to the moment I began needing it, conjuring it—I can pinpoint a Sunday in August. I was ten years old. I hid in my grandmother’s wooden shed at the top of the garden with my secret book, and I leafed through it in silence, my skin mottled and blotchy, the color of Spam— that way it goes if you’re doing something you know you shouldn’t. I heard footsteps (my grandfather watering the petunias, it turns out) and slammed the book shut, then sat on it, mortified at the thought of being caught. In other sheds, in other gardens, girls and boys my age might have been doing the same thing with pornographic magazines, with wedding magazines. My secret book was a homeware catalogue, pushed through Gran’s letterbox, stolen from her pile of junk mail. Which lawn mower would I have when I was a grown-up? Which set of tea plates? Which medium-sized television set? Which deep fat fryer? A wedding list in ways, but I gave the marriage, the husband, no thought.
As a teenager, I graduated to glossy interiors magazines. I worked as a cleaner in a bakery, and spent my weekly wage on them. Mopping the floor twice and dusting flour from the bread-making area three times over afforded me one copy of House & Garden. I’d tear out the pages and tape them into a spiral-bound notebook, and when the cover fell off its hinges from the weight of all of those homes, I filled another. Then I moved to Pinterest and quit the bakery to take an after-school job in the homeware section of Debenham’s department store—the highest echelon of Cardiff’s interior design scene in the 1990s—and I spent my first month’s salary on a small square cushion in lavender suede that I had taken to dusting at the start of every shift.
“You’re obsessed with all that interiors stuff,” remarked one of my friends years later, just after she spilled tea on the cushion and I told her how I’d come to buy it as I sponged it clean.
“I love your taste,” she said to me, at the beginning, when I worried about my obsession with home decor. “Obsess more. It makes you, you.”
This apartment of mine has engineered wood floors, white flat walls with sharp corners, a big cupboard in the hall with a boiler inside that was designed for maximum efficiency, for no breakdowns. There are no oddly shaped spaces, no nooks, no creaky floorboards; not like the subsiding flat above a bacon sandwich shop I’d shared with an ex-boyfriend where I had to walk uphill from the sofa to reach the bookcase. It looks like none of the apartments I tore out of those magazines—too crisp, too featureless—but it is mine.
The morning I first viewed this apartment block, I took photographs of the show flat—appropriate that it is the show flat I ended up living in—while she lay on the sofa of my rental, dozing. I don’t remember her wanting to see my iPhone pictures of the flat, when I got back. I held them up in front of her anyway.
The first night, after I’d exchanged contracts and got my keys and a quarter of me became a homeowner (I bought 25 per cent of my apartment through that government scheme and rent the remainder), I hired a man-in-a-van and drove the first batch of belongings there from my rental: She came with me. We ate oven chips and drank cava on the never-touched engineered-wood floor; we opened a tray of chocolates she had brought along, and she shoved the cardboard boxes in the corner, while I watched them and yearned to unpack them, to sort, to label, to order and organize. She lay flat on her back on the floor—no chairs yet—and I gave her an indigestion tablet to go with the chips, and lay there too.
I’d pictured this moment; this was my version of the wedding day other girls waited for—two people who loved each other eating chips off the floor of a first home. But she was strangely absent that night, even in her presence, even with the chocolate and cava she’d bought to christen it. She used words like “your flat.” And “your place.” “You should be proud,” she said. (Or was it “pleased?”) “It’s what you wanted.” I didn’t notice that night. Long shadows fell over the room and the traffic rumbled away on the dual carriageway below, and I thought how happy I was that this would be our home. I had bought it for us. I would decorate it for us. I would pristine it (because that should be a verb, my verb) for us.
I tried not to think about her dog, who she loved, and the clause in the apartment contract. “No pets.”
One night soon after moving in, I walked down the dual carriageway, past the pizza place with a plastic orange counter that would be our local takeout; we would know the motorcycle delivery man’s name; we would be too lazy to peel from the sofa, which would be pink velvet, or from the bed.
I walked past the newsagent’s where she would buy the Sunday Times and chocolate Hobnobs and pretentious art magazines on a weekend morning, then come back to me; I would fill the teapot and take it back to bed with her, with the papers, and we wouldn’t dress all day.
She hated noise, the way I did mess. Hated that dual carriageway most of all. The traffic might build all day, into the night, easing for a breath at 4am before it started up again, but she would get used to it, I knew. It would become part of our rhythm, like our breathing at night.
I lived it all in my head; those early months, those first years, until the flat itself breathed, until we had our first child growing in her. But then, those pictures never lived outside my head; none of it.
No child, no years, barely months.
She never moved in.
Those last months of us, she was forever cleaning up after herself, tossing knickers on the floor, sheepishly picking them up and stuffing them in the laundry basket. My laundry basket. The night she bought a housewarming gift—an expensive silver bottle opener—she splashed red wine over the white wall; while she scrubbed it off, I sat on my hands and forced myself to giggle—too high pitched, she could tell.
It tore me in two. I wanted a home that was pristine, faultless, brought to life from the magazines. But I wanted her in it, relaxed, breathing, not sucking in. I wanted no dog hairs, no dust, no ornaments, no trinkets (clutter makes me itch), no scuffs on my marble dining table and that antique sideboard I love to wax; but I wanted her spewing out her laugh and bubbling over with stories in that way of hers. But the two images didn’t sit in the same scrapbook, or the same photograph frame.
The real photograph: She would be there when I walked in late. One hour, two hours, but always late. I don’t remember kissing her hello. I’d be talking about work. I would walk past her to the kitchen. On the counter she would have left a piece of chicken, in a foil container, marinated lovingly by a supermarket worker. There would be a tray of vegetables in cream or oil or milky sauce, ready too, picked out and paid for by her. It was left to me to push the foil containers into the oven, to turn the knobs, to tip it onto plates when the oven timer pinged. Perhaps it was her way of demanding that I participate in us. She would sit in the right angle of the corner sofa made of brown plastic that shouldn’t have been there—the pink, velvet sofa belonged there—playing a computer game on her phone or something, and on weekends I would drag her to department stores to sit on better sofas that neither of us could afford.
She had stopped calling me her “moon and stars,” even by then, and telling me the things she wanted to do to me in the basement of the office where we once worked together. There were promises about our future, now and then. Rushes of sentiment too. A beautifully bound novel she gave me for Christmas—three months after I’d moved into the flat that would break the last bit of us—inscribed with: “Xmas 2016. We’ll enjoy this story together, through the highs and lows it will be a brilliant adventure. Just like our lives, always together, always an adventure. Sx.”
The red cloth bookmark is still in there, stuck on page 53. We made it that far, read alternate pages to each other in bed, our legs rubbing like sandpaper, my head tucked in the crook of her armpit. I stopped her reading mid-sentence once, noticing she hadn’t shaved it. “Disgusting.” Sometimes I got spiky like that. I think she might have nearly cried, or maybe it was anger. She cleaned herself up begrudgingly, pristined herself for me.
Now she has gone, the book is back in the bookcase (double fronted, oak glossed white). I won’t read it alone; the 1,243 remaining pages of The Count of Monte Cristo—1,276 if you count the glossary—forever unread. But it is there, arranged in alphabetical order in that tidy bookcase in that Instagrammable apartment of mine; dusted, neat, tucked away alone on a shelf, perfectly pristine.
Laura Powell’s debut novel, The Unforgotten, is available now from Gallery Books.