This Flat Looks Like It’s From a Post-Apocalyptic Video Game

What is living in London like? Hell. Here’s proof, beyond all doubt, that renting in London is a nightmare.

What is it? It’s a single room with a single window. I’ve not been reading much lately – it comes in waves, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s three books in a week, sometimes it’s one stretched long over two months – but I’ve always had a thing for mysterious short stories that take ages to describe a room that sounds a little bit like a prison cell but isn’t a prison cell, and strange people come in and out of the room to visit, and 60 pages later you’ve read a lot of obtuse unnatural philosophical pondering:

He moved in his chair. “Sir, do you ever take of the bread?” “I – I must admit I’ve never heard of that process,” I said. I still couldn’t remember my own name. He smiled, gently, as you may to an elderly uncle who is stricken to his bed. “To take of the bread is a Catholic – well, not a Catholic, a sub-kind of Catholic, a kind of Catholic but not, there’s about 400 of them in the world. They are sort of Catholics but not Catholics, basically. But they Take of the Bread. And that means, what they believe, is that bread is Jesus, and butter is the Devil. And when you make toast, you condemn the Good Lord to Hell.” I still hadn’t urinated since I woke up, and I felt an urgent pressing

– and a lot of descriptions of the very specific furniture in the room then the story abruptly stops and you’re like, hold on, what? There was no point to that at all. Hold on: what?

That, for me, is what this room is. This room is the start of a short story in the middle of an anthology that is always described as “blistering good”. A retired policeman is about to walk in here and gently explain to me that I am, and have always been, a ghost. 

Where is it? Birmingham, or, as it will be known in five years, when the government has folded the entire city up into a living theme park with a big fence around it, which yes, condemns a couple of million people to a life of always-on Disneyland hosts but will boost the British economy more-or-less the same way as the royal family does: “Peaky Blinders Land”.

What is there to do locally? I think it is time for us to all stop being pretentious and admit that the modern concept of the shopping centre is both good and fun. Soulless, sure. Tacky, yes. But sometimes the ancient spirit that lives within us – the squirming, roiling, dark little gremlin that is “the human condition” – occasionally craves a Saturday spent drifting around inside of one. A bubble waffle taken under an artificial dome. A journey up two escalators then down three because you are so disorientated by the layout of the place. You drift into a big branch of Schuh and leave again after 40 minutes of looking at Air Max and trying to get literally anyone to serve you. You go in a phone shop at dab at the damaged, cracked, smeared and dirty display phones.

You consider a concourse massage, a four grand watch, how a parked car has ended up on display here. You gawp at a fountain that is at once so near you can smell it but so far that you can’t feel even a speck of its mist. You realise you haven’t spoken out loud for many hours. You can’t remember which door you came in from and when you find another door to leave you are alarmed to discover you are actually very high up. A serene walk through a multi-level M&S before machine coffee and a slice of cake eaten with a fork.

You are in Selfridge’s, now, looking at jogging bottoms that cost £400 but don’t have a matching top, at a drum of chocolate truffles, at a pair of Tom Ford sunglasses you try on but do not like. This is where Christmas lists are made, birthdays fulfilled, where joy is born and distributed. There is no bookshop in here at all. Sometimes you are attacked by a man in a polo shirt who is seven foot tall for some reason and firing a bubble gun at you. You walk past a shop with just “stuff for men”, which is jigsaws, whisky stones, and Star Wars figurines. You can hear the squealing screams of children but you do not see any children. There is a walking-direction system in place but you are the only person adhering to it. Someone has sprayed you with oud. You have just spent £35 in the biggest branch of Boots in the universe.

All of this is hell, yes, an exhausting and emotional bruising experience with an ungainly commute home. But, but, but: Admit to yourself that you want this. You want to be in a shopping centre right now. You want to queue for a Pinkberry next to a Sports Direct. You can do all this, and more, at The Bullring in Birmingham.

Alright, how much are they asking? £440 per month.

Here’s a single-room flat that has one window in the whole place, for £440 per month. Compared to other “studio flats” available in London and the wider UK, this place’s room is actually a little more sizeable than usual – and it has an actually separate kitchen – but as you can see from the photo of it, the main room is a cursed ground: a jumble of furniture that cannot be configured into a set-up that is workable in any way, a grey sludge of carpet with an immoveable stain; a landlord-issue wardrobe (you can always tell because the wood has so many more knots in it than any other piece of wood you’ve ever seen); a landlord-issue chest of drawers (you can always tell because it sags softly to one side and one of the drawers can’t actually be opened unless you get it at exactly the right angle and if you put it back wrong it locks the drawer below it, which in turn locks the drawer below that).

Bed, crap floral-pattern mattress on one of those dust mite-riddled box beds. A single lamp that points out at two poisonous angles. This is your bedroom and your living room in one, and though it isn’t that bad on paper, looking at it does something strange to me: I can feel the oxygen searing in my nostrils, I can feel my life force ebbing out of me and sinking without a trace. I think if I had to sleep three nights in this room I would go insane in the same way Big Brother contestants used to back when it was good. 

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This is because of the window, which is small and there is only one of them. The worst places I’ve ever lived have always had something that isn’t quite a curtain over the windows – a piece of netting that is stapled up, for example, or a blind that is splintered at the bottom – and this has a goth black semi-sheer curtain that doesn’t really keep the light out during the day or the light in at night, and also it’s over a window that is about the size of a family box of cornflakes.

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Retreat further into the flat – the grim kitchen that just has a hard-baked griminess that you will never truly clean off; a bathroom with a tiny stand-up shower cubicle and an inexplicable set of shelves – and the lack of light gets worse, darker and more sinister. You keep stepping into the cave until you have forgotten where there was ever an entrance. 

Here’s what this place is, actually, I’ve cracked it: it’s a videogame flat. You know the deal, it’s a dystopic post-apocalyptic world. Supplies are low on the ground and you have to break through windows and crawl through jungle-sprawl city streets. You can bind a shard of glass to your pistol as an impromptu bayonet. There’s a harrowing cut scene where your character self-performs surgery. A lot of levels where you have to navigate by torchlight to a soundtrack of very heavy breathing. This game really Says Something, you know? It really just – in a way that books and films and art cannot! – really Says Something.

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And then you stumble into this flat, in Birmingham, and jumble through all the drawers for supplies – a half-bottle of pain pills, sure; one of 50 collectible coins; tinned apples – and then, by the bed, the controller prompts you to press X to inspect. Your character picks up a letter, scrawled in a hurry. “They charged us £440 a month and only gave us one window,” it reads, “and this was before the apocalypse. Think about that: the apocalypse is at least better than that, because we don’t have to pay rent for this shit anymore.” You fold the letter and put it in your backpack. This really Says Something, you know? It really feels like it’s Saying Something.


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