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Sophie Cunningham

Crush hour: writers share their experiences of love in the city

To mark the launch of the Barbican’s new exhibition ‘Modern Couples’, eight Londoners tell real-life modern love stories set in the city

Written by
Time Out London contributors

Lavender in London

By Bella Cox, a Barbican Young Poet living in east London

I’ve never had a girl bring flowers to a date before.

There was a boy, once, when I was 16. He was apologising for being 20 minutes late in the only language he’d been taught that girls understood and he thrust the over-large bouquet in my hand in a mute please-don’t-be-mad-at-me gesture as soon as he arrived, which got me to smile. But the date didn’t go well.

A woman bringing flowers to a date is unprecedented. And she’s done it out of nothing more than kindness? I am bemused and, like last time I saw her, speechless.

We are standing in the entryway to the tube, disgruntled commuters bustling past us, her beaming like a freshly shined jewel. She hands me the flowers, words desert me, we smile into a kiss that is filled with nerves. As we do, and without our permission, our lipsticks spread two different shades of red around each other’s mouth. Shit. Another unprecedented occurrence.

I’ve never been with a woman who also wears lipstick. I feel my cheeks plum to match my lips; Red Peril. But behold! She is a Londoner and baby-wipe prepared!

So we stand, giggling at the entrance, gently wiping each other’s mouth back to neutral,
me awkwardly clutching the first-date bouquet between arm and ribcage, still not sure what
to say, her asking me to keep still and smell the flowers.

I Miss Your Instagram Stories

Travis Alabanza Artist, writer and performer living in south London

It was sometime in July that you dumped me.
I do not know why I say ‘sometime’,
as if I do not remember the exact moment,
and second, and day.
You always were more casual.
My mother said we imitate those that leave us,
so we feel like they are still here.

Sometime in August a friend sent me a text to say that I should go out and flirt with the city.
‘Shouldn’t I wear my boring clothes, then at least I know they will not leave when things feel tough?’
We both know I do not own any boring clothes.
I am an expert in covering pain with sequins.

I went to the only queer bar I knew north of
the river,
a bar I could be alone in whilst held.
I get to the bar and it is closed.
This time not for a day, but for good.
I do not know why we say closed, when we mean shut down.
Why we say leaving, when we mean running.
How we say ‘it’s for the best’, when we imagine all the ways this feels worse.

I stand outside Camden station.
All dressed up and nowhere to cry.
I go to where all nomadic feelings simmer and open Instagram.
I remember a drag queen I am fond of loved this bar when she travelled here last year.
I wanted to send her a message to tell her the news.
maybe we could share the pain of unplanned departures.
She had deleted her account. She didn’t tell me.

I crumbled outside of Camden station.
Finger hovering over the place your picture used to sit.
I missed seeing you every day. I loved when I could tell you were happy. When you laughed I would catch a smile too.
But now your Instagram account is gone, and I’m outside a closed bar,
and I’m thinking of all the people that have ever left without saying goodbye.

Voice Notes: Express Delivery to Holloway Road

Jeremiah ‘SugarJ’ Brown British-Jamaican writer and performer living in Croydon

It’s hard to think of having any kind of modern relationship without WhatsApp or iMessage. You speak to the mandem in the group chat, your babes messages you daily and everyone has family that sends them bad chain messages. I message my friend to see how she’s keeping… I  literally say ‘how are you keeping?’ (Sometimes I message like an old man for the kicks.) 

She’s gotten a new job in Holloway Road that’s been eating all of her time, she’s going through a lot and we barely get to speak.

She responds,‘not great’, then moves on to ask about me. WhatsApp is great but messaging lacks the full texture of human interaction. I’m imagining her on Holloway Road walking to the station, it’s night and kinda chilly.

Her phone is probably running out of battery because it always seems to be running out of battery, there’s probably a guy being creepy somewhere and she’s exhausted.

I want to appear out of the next off-licence she walks past and give her the warmest hug possible. I want to tell her she’s amazing and beautiful and that it’s okay to be exhausted but never doubt yourself because you’re worth it (L’Oréal, I’ll run you your p) and your sauce runneth over. I can’t teleport and I’m too far from Holloway to just appear on her and then I remember voice notes. So I turn on the husk and say everything as though I’ve just stepped out of Bossman’s with a KA.

She messages back ‘I love you’ and I feel our connection all the way from Holloway Road.

That Monday, That April

Justin Myers Writer, columnist and author of ‘The Last Romeo’ living in Shepherd’s Bush

You know where you are with a profile pic and a quick bio. Memes and quips on a flat screen – their human form a headshot, or a close-up of an eye. You can block, ignore, log off, but now he’s come to life. Twitter breathes.

That message. ‘I worked it out! I know who you are!’ Not quite. He knew a version; it was up to me to disappoint in the flesh.

‘We should meet IRL.’ I’d lost my mind for a moment, expecting nothing – that’s what I
usually get.

‘What shall we do?’

I settle on bowling. It’s a personality test – show-offs, sore losers or arrogant winners are exposed in seconds, plus there’s little need for eye contact. We pick the lesser-gentrified alley of two on Queensway, a haze of neon, arcade games, warm wine. We watch each other bowl – a stellar view from behind in both cases, I hope – but strikes and scores are unimportant. Nerves stop us talking much; our best lines saved for tweeting the next day. Emerging into the open, we find Bayswater livening up; we prepare to retreat once again to our internet anonymity. Unless.

‘One more? Soho?’


The shift of location is immediately understood: we could have our first kiss anywhere, maybe, but Soho knows us best. Five stops on the Central line. To the future.


Annie Hayter Barbican Young Poet living in Lewisham

We matched a month before we met, and talked like lovers might on Messenger, in a nightly ritual. You always had some tired or trite excuse not to see me in person.

I was your first, you said, the sole picture you uploaded (of the best side of your face) did not draw in the lady punters – your profile spurned in a shower of red Xs.

One night, you rang me, asked me to come to dinner, summoned me to that patch of wasteland that straddles South Bermondsey and New Cross.

I used to go there as a kid, picking fruit from bramble bushes, scowling at thorns. It was an open and scabby place, friend to trash and all its cousins – namely dogshit, and upturned trolleys, hidey-holes for pigeons.

I found you curled up on a hollowed-out fridge. We sat amid these leftovers, seen only by a scandal of foxes, whose yowling should have been caution enough. You pulled out a bag of Tesco’s finest yellow-label spinach. We munched handfuls in tandem, the mould our bedrock.

Walking back to Cold Blow Lane, we kissed with teeth as green as giants. It was truly bad, a missed, yet moist, opportunity. We said ‘bye’ then, and didn’t speak for
a while.

You left London, but still text me sometimes – my replies are polite, but brief. I miss the idea of you, but not the reality of your probing tongue.

River Man

Olivia Sudjic Author of ‘Sympathy’ (ONE/Pushkin Press) living in Peckham

Is it rude to fold a stranger’s dog’s ear back? Awkward perhaps.

I’m observing a stranger with his dog on the South Bank. He seems oblivious – the owner.

The dog is staring up at his master with an expression of intense concentration.

See me, his dark eyes say. Give me your hand. The pink shell of an ear looks raw and exposed.

It’s summer, bright but cold, the wind salty off the river. I begin to hate the man, glued to his phone or glancing everywhere but the ear.

I’m early for my first and last Tinder date, loitering near the appointed spot for a walk along the river. Suddenly I’m overwhelmed by misanthropy. Nauseated.

At last the man looks at the dog. It’s impossible he does not see the bent ear. I hold my breath. No. I walk over determinedly, preparing some caustic remark, but he waves, greets me using my unabbreviated name.

River man, as he’s saved in my phone, made no mention of owning a dog, though we’ve otherwise exhausted the subject.

I said I was considering one instead of dating. He wouldn’t let it go. Clasping at my ‘canine fixation’ like a raft. That and Nick Drake, which I’d noted in his bio. He’d put it there ‘as a test’.

Just as he moves toward me, a geyser rises between us. I jump back. It disappears as quickly as it emerged and I see his face is flushed. ‘Right on time!’ he crows. More walls of water spring up, a slightly different configuration this time.

‘Whose dog is that?’ I shout over the noise and froth. ‘I rented him,’ he shouts back, ‘I wanted to give you a surprise!’

Lost and Found Noises

Megan Nolan Irish writer of essays, criticism and fiction living in Brockley

When I was 25 I moved from Ireland to Peckham. My sort-of boyfriend had sort-of ended our relationship and did not live in London, but was still fully staying in my room and fully sleeping with me when he passed through it that summer.

He was involved with another woman by then. I knew, but was so in love with him that I believed we would work out anyway. He sent me links to articles about ‘relationship anarchy’ and I read them eagerly. He was an artist, intellectually exotic, stimulating. Maybe I could learn to be like that, I thought.

We walked around the dusty, boiling Peckham streets from parks to gallery openings.

I squinted into the sun and sipped my beer, asking him things. ‘Is she prettier than me? Does she make you laugh more than I do?’ The most painful thought of all – I could not imagine him laughing with anyone else as we laughed.

That night I lay in bed as he worked at my desk, editing sound recordings for a video work. I listened idly, drifting into a dream. Then the sound of his voice and another, a shy giggle,
an accent.

He was editing recordings he had made of her voice, sitting a few feet away from the bed he would climb into later. I was awake now. Tears were streaming down my face.

I bit down on my duvet, a noise coming which might have been a sob or a laugh but finally was both because it was so sad but so funny, so absurd, what I had allowed to happen to myself.

I Think He Was Wearing a Cap

Candice Carty-Williams Author of ‘Queenie’ (Trapeze), to be published next year, living in south London

The year was 2015, the month was September, the day was hot. When we got to Brixton Splash, the crowd swallowed us immediately.

As we squeezed through bodies dancing in the sun, I locked eyes with a boy whose face I’ve mainly forgotten, but whose eyes I remember. I think he was wearing a cap. We smiled at each other. ‘Do you know him?’, my friend asked. Knowing I have a habit of falling in small love every time we go anywhere, she rolled her eyes.

Until we were both jostled out of each other’s view, the boy and I would smile at one another across people’s heads as we danced with our respective friends.

That night, completely sober (!) I typed ‘Brixton Splash’ into the Instagram search bar. Four solid hours later, I hadn’t found him. New tactic, I started searching the Brixton geotag for a sighting. I fell asleep at 7am, phone in hand.

The next day, my friend sent me a link to an Instagram post, asking ‘This is him, right?’  Wasn’t even nearly him. ‘No!’ I sent back; ‘How could you do this? Are you my friend at all??’ She replied with the rolling-eyes emoji.

Illustrations: Sophie Cunningham

‘Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-garde’ runs at the Barbican Centre from Wed Oct 10-Jan 27 2019.

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