I’m sat up in bed, feeling incredibly rough with a head full of cold and a nose full of…stuff. Hot water bottle, chocolate bar wrappers scattered all around (not that I can taste anything) and badly wanting to curl up into a ball and sleep (prevented by a sharp pain in my throat – I might be coming down with tonsillitis again). Oh, and my left calf is covered in bruises, but at least not so swollen.
So how have I got to be in this state? And how come, in a strange turn of events, I don’t mind it quite so much as I would normally?
Part One – Straight Lesbians, Like Us
I rock up to Paddington early on Saturday morning. I am sans coffee and already reminding myself what it was like only a few months ago when dragging an over weighted cabin case was the norm.
‘Where are you?’ I text my friend, although the delivered but not received tick says it all. Still hacking across London on the Underground. When we eventually catch up it’s as if only a week has passed since we saw each other. Two long-time friends who, as luck would have it, met in Swindon in different industries but bonded strongly in London working for rival banks. We hop on the Bakerloo line and speed away towards China Town.
‘You know what you’re having?’ Cherice asks me over the top of the menu, a quirky place tucked away behind theatres staging Thriller and Les Miserables.
‘Not sure. Maybe the eggs?’
‘Oh, okay. Because I was thinking the full English…’
‘Thank God you were thinking that as well!’ I exclaim in a garble, just as the waiter comes by.
‘Know what you’re having?’
‘You go first.’ I say to Cherice.
‘Well, one of us has to go first.’
‘Fine,’ I put the menu down. ‘The full English, please.’
‘I’ll have the same,’ Cherice adds, handing the menu over. They’ve put us in the window seat, the best seat in the West-End restaurant, the table where they put the cute couples.
I watch group of tourists in protective face masks walk by. ‘Why is it every meal with you turns into a flirtatious date?’
Cherice laughs her signature laugh, causing everyone to stop for a second to study the source. One of the things I love about her. The waiter agrees with my judgement, rushing forward with my very much needed Americano.
‘You laugh has just brightened my day!’ He chirps, leaving Cherice to squirm under the attention. I roll my eyes.
‘Every time I take you out. Just like the time in Dalston,’ I sigh. ‘When the waitress thought we were on our anniversary. Remember? When you gave me the chocolates for my birthday and she said it was cute of you to treat me to Hotel Chocolat?’
We’ve often spoken at length about how life would be so much easier if we could date. Cherice, with her 100 egg diet and cross-fit, in the old days it was enough to convince me I was the more effeminate one in our pairing. Then London happened and I decided the only thing separating us in that regard was that I was the more decisive one, the one more likely to be more assertive, less caring what others thought. Now, as Cherice literally held my hand on every Tube change my thoughts were scattered again.
‘I know how to board the Tube, Cherice!’
‘You’d have left your case in the restaurant if it wasn’t for me! Do you even know where we are?’
‘You trust me that much? I could have taken you anywhere!’
‘Cherice, a stranger in bookshop could have promised to take me to the British Museum and I would have followed. You said we were going to the Wellcome Collection and here I am.’
I was at this point I directed Cherice to our mutual favourite series, You (FYI – I still can’t bring myself to watch season two, because…well…I am far too drawn to Joe and discovered my online life is far too relatable to Beck’s. Also, I get bad bookshop envy.)
We walked around the collection, idly laughing about the medicinal equipment (knew the GCSE would eventually come in use) and watched children playing around some of the kid-friendly exhibits.
‘Kids don’t have the space to roam like they used to,’ Cherice pointed to a diagram. ‘Me and my brother were allowed to wonder around massive areas growing up.’
‘Yes,’ she says flatly. Our extremes of surroundings growing up has always been a topic of immense bewilderment to the other.
‘I guess it was similar for me,’ I say, looking again at the satellite image. ‘Not the urban environment, but the space to be able to be me. I lived in the middle of nowhere, nothing but fields as far as the eye can see.’
‘Didn’t it ever drive you mad? Having nothing to do?’
‘Not at all!’ I counter. ‘Some people create imaginary friends, I created imaginary worlds to escape into.’
‘Ah, so that’s why you’re like you are?’
‘Maybe. Depends if it’s a good thing or not!’
We pop our heads into an exhibit on the power of water, splitting up briefly before Cherice returns to find me watching a surreal video of a McDonalds slowly flooding.
‘Water is bloody scary, man.’
‘Cherice, pigeons scare you and you’ve lived in London your whole life.’
‘Yeah, but it’s the destruction water can do. Why are you still watching it? It’s depressing.’
‘It’s strangely fascinating though, don’t you think? Slow TV, but with undertones of climate awareness. Makes you wonder, where are the humans? Where is the water coming from? It’s only depressing to you because of the conclusions your own head is reaching. See, it says right here that it was all set up, it’s not even a real restaurant. Wow, the effort that people put into art, eh?’
‘Suit yourself,’ Cherice shrugs as she says this. Like anyone who has ever visited an art gallery with me, you give me an inch…
‘…Then again I used to stare at pieces in the Tate Modern for ages until I was able to force myself into finding some deeper meaning,’ I ponder aloud. ‘Anyway, shall we go somewhere else?’
‘Sure,’ Cherice says gladly as we walk away together.
‘There is one thing though that bothers me about that video…’
‘Well, the description says the only audio is the sound of water. When did water sound like that?’
We next went to a couple of Riverside bars near King’s Cross.
‘There’s more to King’s Cross than the station?’ I exclaim.
‘How the hell did you survive here for a year?’
‘I live off £7.50 a week, maybe £9 at a push.’
‘How are you still alive?’
I ignored the question. ‘This mocktail is almost double my weekly food budget when I was living here full time. You really think I was hanging out at places like this? You think I ever travelled as far out as this for what is effectively a lemon juice?’
‘Besides, I always got the guys to take me to Shoreditch.’
‘Alice Elizabeth Bennett!’
‘What? One of them was a Programme Manager on Crossrail! Not like those guys ever seemed short of money…’
Cherice paid for our drinks, including the service charge, before we both scampered out.
‘Jesus, how much did you just pay on service charge?’ I scoffed. ‘You didn’t even like that drink! The waitress gave us evils the whole time!’
Cherice laughed. ‘I know, what am I like?’
‘No wonder you London lot are all skint, you keep paying for crappy service because you’re too embarrassed to say no.’
‘Remember the time in the Korean chicken place where I told the waitress I wasn’t paying the 12.5%?’
‘Yeah, I admired you so much.’
‘But I also couldn’t go back there again for a few months.’
I sighed. ‘Oh, look, book barge!’
Cherice could see me jumping from foot to foot, like a child desperate for the toilet. ‘Go on…’
‘I know you, you want to photo it for your blog.’
‘No I don’t…I just want it for…personal reasons. It’s a pretty boat.’
I was lying, but we both knew this.
‘Just take the photo and we can move on.’
We ambled over to another cocktail bar, one with an amazing 70s theme and a DJ playing retro tracks to match.
‘I want to be this bar when I grow up,’ I thought, looking around at the interior decorations.
Cherice meanwhile was having a moment with her Old Fashioned.
‘You okay, there?’ I smirked.
‘Question,’ I start. ‘Would you take a date here?’
‘Of course! The drinks are so good!’
‘Agreed, but doesn’t that make it a negative?’ I take a sip on my gin cocktail, the taste swarms around my mouth. I blow out a short stream of air. ‘Like that, right there. I’m having a better time with my drink right now then anything else.’
‘Yeah, but don’t you think it’s a bit of a distraction? Aren’t you meant to talk to people on dates?’
Cherice shrugged. ‘You tell me.’
‘I haven’t dated anyone since I left London in May, you tell me.’
‘The men haven’t changed, Alice! There’s still none!’ She thumped her glass on the table.
‘Woah! That alcohol is really going to your head, huh?’
‘…It is. I think I’m going to go freshen up.’
‘Okay b…’ I stop myself mid-word.
‘You can call me bae if you want.’
‘Really? We’ve reached that level of our relationship?’ I shout across the room in joy. Seeing the general reaction from other consumers I quickly turn around. Maybe I was a little tipsy too.
‘You okay there?’
‘Jesus Christ!’ I shout in surprise at the most retro looking server to have ever existed.
‘Sorry!’ I quickly add. ‘Didn’t see you.’
Ironic, given his orange floral top and beautifully styled beard, he was the most obvious man in the whole bar. He smiled, clearly finding the comment amusing as well.
‘Did you and your friend want anything else?’
‘I think we’re good, thanks.’
I quickly followed suit after Cherice returned, admiring the record covered walls in awe when the retro waiter appeared out of a cubicle.
‘Here,’ he held the door open for me. ‘This one is free.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ I duck under his arm and close the door. I stared at the back of the door and pondered some of the big questions for any woman to consider in her life.
‘Do I like beards now? I wonder what they feel like? Come to think about it, does this count as flirting in the modern age? Did 70s Henry Cavill just flirt with me? And why am I standing here when I need to pee?’
‘Sorry, there was good music playing in the toilet. Was too busy Shazaming the hell out of the space,’ I say as I grab my coat from the back of the seat.
‘Wow,’ my friend replies as she lifts herself from the padded seat.
I do a half-second rain check. ‘I’m both sorry to myself and our entire generation that my statement isn’t nearly what it would have meant ten years ago.’
After that we agreed that there was still time for another coffee, but Cherice couldn’t decide whether to take me to Paddington in West London or Angel in Islington.
‘I think I once got stood up by a guy who lived in Angel…’
‘Angel it is!’
We searched around for a coffee shop, most filling up quickly down the expensive boutique shop-lined streets. I paused outside a wedding dress shop.
‘What are you looking at?’ Cherice asked.
‘That’s an ugly dress,’ I observed. ‘It’s see-through all the way to her crotch! And the bit in the middle, see through again!’
‘Someone will buy it,’ Cherice commented. ‘Take it that’s not you?’
‘Jesus no! Weddings are so expensive. Why not use the money on something like a holiday or a house?’
‘…You already own a house.’
‘You know what I mean. It’s just like Valentine’s day with the overpriced roses that wilt. What’s wrong with other flowers anyway? Or just going out another night? Or even better, nothing at all. I’d rather have a toasted sandwich.’
‘Has anyone ever told you you’d be the perfect girlfriend?’
‘Hah! Bless you. No, I’m not perfect, I’m like bloody Sea Monkeys.’
‘Yeah, you have to keep feeding me or else I will float around. That or literally start burning rice and then end up contracting rickets. It’s not a great look.’
‘Wait, how do you even burn…’
‘I’d really rather not relive the trauma, Cherice. Now bear with me, I need to stick one of my business cards on this noticeboard.’
We eventually found somewhere with enough space to fit us in. Cherice had a tea, I was on yet more coffee. We hung out there for a bit longer, and chatted through my friend’s plans to move to Canada. I suppose for her, having grown up and worked in London nearly her entire life, moving to another continent is just a big a step as it was for me choosing to move to London all that time ago. Still didn’t make it any easier to accept though.
‘How long are you staying in Swindon?’ She asked, putting the focus of conversation once again back on me. I’d rather she didn’t, I much preferred her telling me all the amazing reasons why I should move to Canada myself.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, really, what’s keeping you there, in Swindon?’
‘There are no men, your family aren’t there, your friends…’
‘My friends are all over the world! Some can’t seem to keep still…’
Cherice chuckles. ‘My bad. But really, would you consider moving elsewhere?’
‘I do miss London…’
‘No!’ Cherice cries suddenly, almost knocking her soy milk over. ‘You romanticised this place, that’s your problem! Thinking London is just one big culture trip with nice dresses and fancy men in bars.’
‘Remember how miserable that flat made you? With the black mould? Do I need to make the same sounds as your flatmate?’
‘Please, God, no!’ I jump in, almost grabbing her arm. ‘The only way to make her and her boyfriend stop was to play Baby Shark against the wall on full blast FIVE…TIMES..A…NIGHT. Do you have any idea how much that screws a woman up?’
‘Exactly! No, you don’t want to come here. You’d be better off in Bristol.’
‘Didn’t expect you to say that.’
‘Well, aside from the lack of jobs, everyone is really snooty. I was on a night out there once when, outside a kebab shop, this guy started slating off Swindon. Not a gentle poking fun, but on his high horse level. Asking me why I hadn’t married my brother already or whether I could count to ten.’
‘Anyway, so you know me, when I’ve had a bit to drink I get super friendly or super verbal-sarcastic-aggressive. There was only so much I could take.’
‘Where is this going?’
‘Well, eventually I snapped and said “fine, you tell me all about your three-bed townhouse in the centre of Bath then!”‘
‘My friend had a mouthful of food and from the surprise at my sudden bluntness she covered this smartly dressed toff in half-chewed wrap, complete with halloumi and lettuce. It was beautiful.’
‘We then made a quick getaway. I got to the rank, hailed a taxi and yelled at my friend to get in the car. She followed me in, not realising that it was me until the last second. My own friend swooned with my dominance.’
I raised a hand in mock charm, although Cherice by this stage had become less engaged in the story, trying to pour out the last dregs of loose leaf tea into her cup.
‘…Sorry, what were we talking about?’ She asks.
‘You know what, I can’t remember.’ I paused for a second while my friend kindly paid for yet another round of drinks.
‘…Remind me again why we aren’t lesbians?’
Places visited (in order):
Balans SoHo Society, SoHo
Doughnut Time, SoHo
Wellcome Collection, Euston
The Lighterman, King’s Cross
Word on the Water, King’s Cross
Spiritland, King’s Cross
Brother Marcus, Angel
NB – we were not paid to visit any of these establishments, adding links for general reference.
London Recalling Series