This is a serialisation of the novel ‘Marcello: Love in the City’. This week Marcello, City worker and obscure dating blogger, has decided the online world is the only place to meet women. He has arranged an Internet date in the newly gentrified neighbourhood of Brockley, South London.
Karen came back from the bathroom smiling. She sat down and flicked her hair with her glowing iPhone in hand. We were in a malodorous South London gastropub. The stench, emanating from an open kitchen behind the bar, was overpowering. Perhaps the poor ventilation was intentional, I thought. Maybe the fumes were meant to lend a rustic feel to this otherwise unremarkable locale. Whatever the reason, my lungs were being crushed in a fug of garlic chicken.
I smiled back at Karen as she placed her phone on the table; it vibrated and she glanced at the message. My phone was also out. I pressed the home button but the last few seconds had not brought any new information. She smiled at her alert then placed the 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 leaned forward 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 ear 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 health risk.
I said, “Since they put the Overground line in, it’s made it much easier to get to Canary Wharf and Shoreditch.”
Despite loathing both areas I felt compelled to offer this banal fact as good news. Public transport was always a reliable topic of discussion, and London’s shifting infrastructure had provided me with hours of material. The Overground connected South London 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, feel obliged to knock the innocuous coffee shops and exclusively white bistros. Still, given that many of the new arrivals buy houses in the area (in contrast to the working-class renters) the question of who actually ‘owns’ the neighbourhood is problematic.
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 hummus. 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 swap musical anecdotes – presumably, this was her rationale for keeping the thing.
We got along very well. Karen also 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 well-known law firm. She juggled career success and the cultural zeitgeist with ease – all the while wearing that infernal wristband. Karen was precisely the kind of woman I did not want in my life, jarringly upbeat and effortlessly modern. In spite of this, I liked her; she was attractive and had an uncluttered view of the world. She breezily referenced obscure artists and showed me their pictures on her phone. Unfortunately, I lacked the requisite knowledge and was unable to reciprocate. The internet has made curators of us all, but I did not even have 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 WhatsApp message, email or notification. 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. 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, the neighbourhood in which I had grown up. I tried to comment intelligently on the failed regeneration of the area but ended up droning on about the poorly designed benches on the high street instead. A waitress then took our dessert orders, Karen went first. As I dithered over the choices she scrolled through her phone. The waitress departed but she continued. After a few moments, I checked my own phone for emails – there were none so I switched to Facebook. Neither of us looked up until our desserts arrived but it didn’t matter, we were simply taking a conversational break.
Karen put down her phone and unfolded her napkin.
“So,” she said, with a smile. “Where were we?”
I had no idea, but that didn’t matter either.
Next week: Marcello tries to befriend one of his icy corporate colleagues.
You can read more of Marcello’s book on WATC here.
You can purchase his book here.