Karen came back from the bathroom and sat down smiling, she flicked her hair with her glowing iPhone in her hand. We were on our first date in a crowded South London gastropub, the smell of food filled the air. The odour, emanating from an open kitchen behind the bar, was an overpowering greasy slick – the poor ventilation was perhaps intentional, the fumes supposedly adding a rustic element. Whatever the rationale, my lungs were being crushed in a fug of garlic chicken.
Karen sat down and placed her phone on the table, it vibrated and she glanced at the message. My phone was also on the table, I pressed the home button but the last few seconds had not brought any new information. Karen smiled at her alert then placed her phone face up next to her drink.
“I love this place,” she said, “it reminds me of somewhere I used to go in Clapham.”
I would not have considered that a favourable comparison – still, I smiled and spoke the line I used on every first date in this pub.
“Brockley is pretty up and coming, you know.”
Karen looked around with an assenting nod, with her black rimmed spectacles and comic book T-shirt she was a perfect fit. She pushed a lock of hair behind her ears and I noted a tattered Glastonbury wrist band – I hoped it was from last year, a piece of unwashed fabric any older would surely pose a significant health risk.
I said, “since they put the Overground line in, it’s made it much easier to get to Canary Wharf and Shoreditch.”
I loathed both areas and yet, I could not help but offer this banal fact as good news. I had long relied on public transport as a reserve topic of discussion and London’s shifting infrastructure provided limitless chatter. The Overground opened us up to other parts of the centre, drawing more middle-class professionals to the neighbourhood. And with gentrification comes the inevitable handwringing, all of us ‘true’ Londoners, supposedly born into a losing struggle, start deriding the coffee shops and exclusively white gastropubs. However, given that many of these professionals buy in the area (in contrast to the working-class renters) the question of who actually ‘owns’ the area is problematic.
Karen was precisely the kind of woman I did not want in my life, jarringly upbeat and effortlessly modern – and yet I liked her, she was attractive and had an uncluttered view of the world
Karen ordered a burger with goat’s cheese. I ordered the next grade up and mine arrived stuffed full of bacon, gherkins, radishes and what I took for humous. Even the junk-food had been gentrified. Belying her roots, Karen dismantled her burger with a knife and fork, the frayed edge of her wristband trailed through the condiments. There is no sight more contrived, or disheartening, than the festival band outside of its natural environment. I hoped she didn’t notice me looking, or we would have to have the inevitable festival discussion – presumably this was her rationale for keeping the thing.
Karen and I got along very well. She worked in a corporate role and, like me, took none of it seriously. She was however considerably more successful, which I found unsettling. I had attributed my own lack of progression to my nonchalance and rebellious demeanour. Yet Karen, who boasted of her tardiness and poor work ethic was a partner in a large law firm. She juggled career success and the cultural zeitgeist with ease. And still, she wore that infernal wristband. Karen was precisely the kind of woman I did not want in my life, jarringly upbeat and effortlessly modern – and yet I liked her, she was attractive and had an uncluttered view of the world – even if it was through a series of gifs. She breezily referenced obscure artists along with the relevant pictures on her phone. I was unable to reciprocate – the Internet has made curators of us all, but I did not have even so much as a cat video to show her.
I noticed that after every time Karen showed me an image on her phone, she would briefly read something else, a message, email or tweet. They arrived in swarms, Karen was always on, her mind was a two-way torrent of data. We had been in the pub less than an hour and she had already photographed two of our dishes and I suspect, discreetly tweeted my image into the ether.
She said, “so you’ve lived in London all your life eh? That’s great.”
It was not ‘great’, it was not anything, it just was. Still I nodded, trying to find the arcane humour, trying to get it.
“Yes, I suppose it is. I’ve seen all sorts of changes.”
“Really?” She was looking into her phone, “like what?”
I rattled off a list of insipid facts about Sydenham, where I had grown up – I tried to comment intelligently on the failed regeneration of the area but instead droned on about the new benches on the high street. A waitress then took our desert orders, Karen went first, then as I dithered over the choices she scrolled through her phone. The waitress departed but she continued. After a few moments, I checked my phone for emails – there were none so I switched to Facebook. Neither of us looked up until our deserts arrived, but it didn’t matter, we were simply taking a conversational break. Karen unfolded her napkin and looked up.
“So,” she said, with a smile, “where were we?”
I had no idea, but that didn’t matter either.