Karen came back from the bathroom and sat down smiling. She flicked her hair with a glowing iPhone in 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 overpowering. The pub's poor ventilation was perhaps intentional, the fumes supposedly adding a rustic element. Whatever the rationale, my lungs were being crushed by a garlic chicken funk.
Karen sat down and 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 did not consider it 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 - in 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 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 had drawn 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 actually buy their properties, the question of who really 'owns' the neighbourhood is problematic.
Karen ordered a burger with goat's cheese. I ordered the next grade up and my burger arrived stuffed full of bacon, gherkins, radishes and what I took for humus. Even the junk-food had been gentrified. Karen dismantled her burger with a knife and fork, the frayed edge of her wristband trailing 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 to swap musical anecdotes - 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 law firm. She juggled career success and the cultural zeitgeist with ease. She was precisely the kind of woman I did not want in my life, jarringly upbeat and effortlessly modern. Despite 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. I was however 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.
After Karen showed me an image, she would briefly read something else: a text, email or tweet. They seemed to arrive in swarms - Karen was always on, her mind 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, covertly tweeted my image into the ether.
She said, "so you've lived in London all your life, eh? That's great."
"Do you think? Well, 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 wanted to comment intelligently on its failed regeneration but instead droned on about the new benches on the high street. A waitress then took our desert orders. As I dithered over the choices, Karen scrolled through her phone. She continued after the waitress left. 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 the 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 it didn't seem to matter.