At 5 am I cry.
“Am I making myself small here?”
I ask my partner while he’s holding me sobbing.
I just want this to be over. I want to move on.
– I’m angry because I was right and its terrible that I am.
I write an email to my landlord in my head:
“Dear T. Lol. Sure. We stole the shoe rack.”
“Dear T. you are truly showing that all the things people warned me about landlords in Britain are accurate.”
“Dear T. we have cleaned the flat for 8 hours! How was that not enough?”
“Dear T. I did not make the ceiling fall down on the rugs! Please, go fuck yourself.”
I spend the whole morning writing emails to my landlord in my head. Some even make it into the email program. In the end I delete them all. I am tired of it.
“Landlords’ right has its origin in robbery. The landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for the natural produce of the earth.” (Adam Smith, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 44.)
Smith is obviously talking about actual land here but it’s not far away from how I feel about living in the UK as a renter. The term “Landlord” already sounds so feudal no wonder an imminent hierarchy is still at place.
My landlord does not deserve this post. The energy I put into it. It’s not for them anyway.
It’s for you.
The reason I write about this, is a reminder.
It’s for that moment in the past and/or future, when you will feel scared of someone. Of what they might do to you. When you feel that they have power and you don’t. That they could crush you. That it will not be worth the fight. It is for people who choose the easy way out because they are afraid and when it comes to money always feel on the powerless side. I guess ultimately this is for me. To learn from this.
Because this time: I gave up.
The day before we moved out, we cleaned. “I have never not gotten my deposit back.” I assured my flatmate, while I scrubbed the tiles above the kitchen counter, wondering if this was even worth it. If in the end we’d still have to pay for a professional cleaning service. Like I had heard it from so many of my friends before. An absolute common practice in the UK.
“The vast majority of deductions are for cleaning so concentrating on appliances, dust on skirtings, doors and door frames as well as behind and under furniture, windows inside and out.” wrote the agent who would do the final inspection, after I had asked him how to hand over the flat.
Well, well. How clean is clean?
8 hours of scrubbing and sweeping and looking at how my flatmate has cleaned the bathroom I start to feel a bit panicky. There are streaks on the mirror and I know I would have done it better but when are you still cleaning a flat and when are you starting to get fucking paranoid about it?
It’s a fine line.
Trying to remind myself that probably I am overdoing it: I stop taking photos of everything that I cleaned as proof for later. I want to trust that this is going to be okay. This should be enough because it has to be enough, I tell myself. This is okay.
I walk home tired and exhausted. My flatmate sends me a couple of photos of the hall and the bathroom. I ask if she has also vacuumed behind the dresser. I circle a turquoise line around it. I also circle one around the towel dryer in the bathroom. Is that still dust that I see?
She sends me a thumbs up. “On it.”
I wonder if I should go back in the morning one last time, just to be sure everything is really really clean. My partner shakes his head. Total Monica Geller state here. I let it go.
It has to be fine.
But it’s not.
10 days later we get the email. Well I get the email. It is personally addressed to me. As I am the lead tenant, the one who has always been in contact, I get the whole rapport.
I skim through the lines, my heart is racing, zickzacking through the painful accusations.
Apparently the shoe rack is missing. (What? Why? It was there!) / We have to pay for it. There are stains on the rugs that clearly “happened before” and did not come from the ceiling falling down on them. / We have to partly pay for it. The whole flat had to be cleaned again for 8 hours. / We have to pay for it.
Did I mention that the ceiling came down two days before we moved out?
There are other things that are scratched and slightly damaged. Probably from the ceiling but also from “before”. We don’t have to pay for it (yet) but I can sense that we will have to if we do not agree to the deductions. Future threats hanging in the air. Fearmongering.
It is 5 am in the morning and after two more email replies from my landlord I collapse.
“I just didn’t want to get another fucking email from that motherfucking David.” A friend tells me on the phone a day after I had hit accept. She had a similar bad experience. A landlord that charged her 300 pounds for the disposal of a bed she had left in her flat due to the fact that she had to leave the country and couldn’t come back because of covid. A bed that now is still in that flat and used, advertised as partly furnished. On top of the regular cleaning charges she and her flatmate (who did clean everything) also had to pay. Sidenote: That flat had mushrooms growing out of one of the closet walls.
I don’t care about the money I tell myself. It is not worth going through the hassle of more emails and accusations. Instead I cry for a day, lie in bed unable to get up.
I ask on Instagram who else had bad experiences with landlords: There are countless.
“You just want it to be over. They count on that. They trick you into thinking you wouldn’t have a chance if you disputed.” We sit in a cafe, sipping coffees. “I never got all of my deposit back. Ever. There was always something. There’s always some dust in the drawer or a mirror not clean enough. It’s absurd.” My friends tell me.
In Germany a flat has to be “Besenrein”. There is no actual translation for this word, it means “swept clean with a broom”. What it entails is: all your stuff out, you going over the surfaces with a wipe a little bit, vacuumed. Done. I never had a problem with cleaning in any flat. I never heard of cleaning charges from any of my German friends. I’m not sure if that would even be legal to deduct from the deposit. If anything you would be asked to come back again and clean it yourself.
But the truth is here: Often landlords treat your deposit as their extra cash to spend. To refurbish, redecorate and in worse cases for their own pocket.
And the reason why they get away with it is: fear.
I was so afraid that my landlord could try to deduct even more money and change their initial proposal for things that would be hard for me to proof I didn’t do (because I hadn’t photographed everything! damn it!) that I spend one and a half hours in the waiting line for citizens advice. A free service in the UK to help with all kinds of common issues.
“This would be quite unusual.” The man on the helpline said. “They could try to sue you still afterwards. But the deposit has to be paid out according to her initial proposal. If you agreed then it should be fine.”
They could try to sue you.
“But they probably won’t because it’s not worth the money.”
Today I received half of my deposit back. I haven’t heard from my landlord since I pressed on that: accept button.
Fear is easily forgotten and after a couple of nights of good sleep and talking to people it’s hard to understand what I was thinking at 5 am. Because the truth is: I wasn’t thinking very much. I was mostly feeling fear and looping on that.
“Am I making myself small here?” Maybe that was not the right question to ask in that moment. It did not make me feel better to know that it was exactly what I was doing. From that position if anything, I felt even smaller, even more powerless, knowing so.
What would have helped, I realise know is to ask: Where is my support? Who can help me with this?
Because the problem is when you feel powerless is that we often feel like we’re alone. That nobody will come to our aid, that there’s nothing to be done. That this problem has to be solved by you and if you can’t stomach it, than that’s that. Making the other person an incontrollable threat hovering above you, a rising wave crushing down.
Our culture itself is so often fracturing responsibilities, focusing on the individual as the core of problem and solution, that solidarity and community are estranged concepts: every human for themselves.
“I always keep my head down. I don’t want a fuss.” My new neighbour tells me one morning, while he rolls out the garbage bins for all the neighbours to be collected, like every Tuesday, like he has been doing for 30 years. He’s old and his breath smells of alcohol. He is a very kind man and I can see that life did not reward him for this attitude. But I understand why.
If you feel small, you act small. You can’t see the others. Also small maybe. But helpful still. And together not so small at all.
The problem I encountered with my landlord: is common.
The solution I chose: is common.
But I refuse to be common.
This time I let my fear take over.
Next time I will know what question to ask.
ONE THING TO DO
"I'd like the one with the non-existential dread, please."
My book: "Things I Have Noticed - Essays on leaving / searching / finding” is a poetic memoir, about the process of finding ones own voice.
IN CASE YOU MISSED LAST WEEK’S MUSE LETTER
Furnished Feelings – A short story
“I see your mouth opening and closing. Only air: A vast nothingness between us. Words as heavy as the furniture we carried out on that day three months ago. Till there was nothing left from you in the apartment or to say. Just shoulders that shrugged that said: Well that’s that.”
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