Continuing our series of short fiction set in, or influenced by London. This week’s story, of heartbreak and Hampstead, is by Charlotte Latimer.
“Love, I’m not in love with you.” My hot lips are poised against the cold metallic top of a Red Stripe, I whip my head back to respond to this mystifying statement.
“I know,” a temperamental breeze blows my hair across my face. I try to brush it away, it wants to be my friend, but it does not know how annoying I find it. “Why would you think that I’d think that?”
“Because you always want to be friends,” he bows his head down nervously, the sun dances across his soft brown hair, he tears off a piece of baguette.
“That's because...” I look up from Parliament Hill, out across the hot, hazy, smutty city air, “...I’m not in love you”. In the distance I see Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and the Shard; suddenly wish I was on a rooftop drinking an Aperol Spritz.
“Well,” he pauses and raises his head up to the high, thin, blue sky, “I think that you probably are”. He shifts uncomfortably, he can never be still. I turn away, hoping for some words to find me. I can't see him, maybe he can't see me.
“I don’t know why you would think that,” it does not come out as biting as I want it to.
“Because you always want to be friends and you know that we can't. It always gets in the way.”
“For you maybe,” I declare outraged, but I’m lying. There is a pause and I hear the shriek of children, screaming, laughing, crying, thank god the day is beautiful. I take a deep breath. Then the wind whips back up, it wants to ask me something, now it's talking to the grass. I have to ask.
“So we can never be anything?”
“No,” he doesn't move, I can’t read his face, then he shrugs “don’t worry about it, I just thought I should say something”. He swipes the hummus with his bread and shoves it into his mouth and I swear I could smack him, right round his stupid, perfect jaw.
I cut myself a small piece of birthday cake and I suddenly know that it's over, know that it's over in a way that, in all the other of hundreds of times it was over, I didn't know. I was just pushing away, so he'd come back to me. I look at the cake, chocolate sweating, and realise, he'll always come back. The way you can't stop yourself scratching an itch, that doesn't mean he wants it. I stand up.
“What are you doing?” He looks at me appalled. I walk off, I don't know where I'm going but I won't give him the satisfaction of pausing. All I can feel is my absolute, deep and bitter hatred for him, his hands, his feet, his shoes. Saskia always told me never trust someone who wears brown shoes. Suddenly I hate everything, the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass, the heat of the sun. Where is the wind when you need it most? I rage on. Why ask the world questions? It has no tongue. Language makes meaning and then fades away, never concrete, never sure of itself. Just like the soul, just like the self.
I hit the path and keep going, the feeling of hard concrete under my feet is intimately reassuring. I'm moving quickly, straight and steady, I don't look back, people seem to know to stay out of my way. Labradors and children on tricycles effortlessly glide out of my way. I feet hot, and furious, women did not fight, and continue to fight, for liberation just for me to reduce the sex to this. I knew I only had myself to blame, for wanting him, for thinking I needed him, for never challenging him. Calling me at 2am, telling me about dates, sleeping over without even kissing me. The worse part, I always said it was fine. I just wanted to be friends, good friends, best friends. The person I called when I was high, when I was low, when I was bored. Said that I didn't want anything more, knew that nobody believed me. The worst part, he had to be the one to call me out. The worst part, I forgot to pick up my bag.
I see a sign for the women's ponds and I follow it, he can't find me there, even if he wanted to, which he doesn't. I walk through the gate and am instantly comforted. It is the place where the body is no longer fetishised, where the body is an instrument, where the beauty of the body is its truth. Old women, young women, women who swim all year round, women who never swim, friends, sisters and lovers. Every single body different, a map, a lock, a key. I storm past all of them, I don't stop. There are two girls on the pier, clutching at each other; long, pale limbs full of excitement reflected in the golden water. Giggling, terrified of jumping in, they dare each other to do it. I dart past them and plunge into the water. My feet, knees, bum, elbow, shoot into freezing ice. My head is submerged before I realise I am still wearing all my clothes, and everyone saw me. I open my eyes and see a green, ancient darkness. I push up towards the sunlight.
I take in my first gasp of air and for the first time in months, years, I feel like I can breathe. I push my hands up over my face, gliding the hair and water out of my eyes. Lots of people are looking at me, but they don't say anything. I ignore them and casually start swimming, carefully making my way across the pond.
Got any more stories about London's green spaces? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Entries must be no more than 1,000 words, and must be set in London, or strongly inspired by the city. Full details here.
Previously in this series
- Lost Sister: A search among London's mythical inhabitants.
- The Wishing Duck of Regent's Park: Be careful what you wish for.
- The Strangest Suitor: An unconventional Prince Charming.
- Mud Man: A quietly heartbreaking tale from the canal.
- The Fingernail Fairy: Do you believe in her?
- The Last Train: A fairy godmother on the tube.
- Waterloo Sunrise: A dawn encounter on Waterloo Bridge.
For children/by children
- The Lion: Something’s up in Trafalgar Square.
- Lyndon The Greatest Thief in London: A light fingered robber meets the Queen.
- Beyond the Central Line: Notting Hill Gate looks different today…
- The Makings of a Killer: A dark encounter in Southwark.
- Places to Hide a T-Rex in London: About time someone tackled this one.
- The Modern Fire of London: A sneezing dragon is a dangerous thing.
- The Let Down Competition: A mango has a fight with a pig.
General London fiction
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
- The Guardian of Travellers: Victoria Coach Station passengers take the advice of a sage.
- Graphic Novels: A celebrated novelist finds inspiration in Shoreditch Library.
- Not Enough: A family struggles to get by.
London at Night
- The Soho Nocturnes: Sebastian Groes tries to shatter the concrete dream that is London.
- The Station Clock: Peter Watson takes a slow walk to Euston.
- Asparagus and Syrian Gold: A guy on a blind date takes a risk… but will it pay off?
- The Race: Susanna James races against the dying of the light.
- Sirens of the Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- Mark: A struggling actor becomes a hero of the people.
Christmas in London
- The Ghost of Christmas Replete: David Croser shares a Christmas tale set in the bleak midwinter.
- Keep the Change: Lee Hamblin takes a sneaky taxi ride.
- Night Bus Dreams: Michelle Surtees-Myers is picked up by an enchanted night bus.
- The Patient Banker: Tom Dean has a visitor call in at a houseboat.
- An Afternoon Some Time Ago: Nathan Good takes a nostalgic ride on the London Eye.
- Easy Pickings: Kay Seeley is being vigilant on the South Bank.
- Stepping Stones: Alison Chandler goes on a night walk.
- One Summer in London: Angela M. Rodriguez steals a very personal item and then wears it at Notting Hill Carnival.
- Blackout on Fen Street: Seth Insua wishes away the city.
- The Man From BEER: Which bits of London would you delete? By David Ritchie.
- London Falls: Liz Hedgecock unleashes a digital wipeout on the city.
- They Walked: Adam MacLean ponders what would happen if London’s building just got up and left.
- The Wallbuilder: A great wall was built around London, not everyone was happy, by Jonathon Dean.
- Tastes Like Chicken: Glen Delaney retreats inside London’s oldest fortress.
- The Conqueror: Rebecca Sams filches a legendary London object.
- The Busker Ascends: Darren Lee brings plague to Leicester Square.
- Amelie: Narges Rashidi considers the interactions of three people on a District Line tube.
- Shelter Drawings: Stuart Snelson’s tale of a mysterious Circle Line artist.
- Tracks and Albums: Richard Lakin attracts the attentions of the British Transport Police.
- Seeing Red: Anthony Fitzgerald on the woes of a cab driver.
- Instant Karma on the 263 to North Finchley: one seat left on the bus. Next to you. Raving drunk gets on. By Ronnie Capaldi.
- The Sender of Second Chances: Anthea Morrison records a chance encounter on a bus.
- Two Four Eight: Lance V Ramsay envisions an Orwellian dystopia in the lingo of future London.
- Old Nichol: Jill Fricker evokes the woes of the old East End.
- Clissar: Grazia Brunello dips into the future of north London, through a glass darkly.
- Harvest Festival: A spooky Halloween tale in the London suburbs by Helen Craig.
- Ordinary Days in London: Madelaine Hills on a Docklands disturbance.
- Bishopsgate: Oliver Zarandi visits the site of a bomb.
- Sirens Of The Tideway: Emily Williams recounts a ghostly police chase.
- The Perfect Gift: A Christmas fairy tale in which London’s statues come to life, by Katherine Wheston.
- The City Inside: Tom Butler has some curious metropolitan anatomy.
- Routine: The importance of the day-to-day, by Clare Kane.
- Jazz Code and the Tube: The ambivalence of dating, by Jenny Mackenzie.
- A Free Man: Melanie White’s flash fiction piece considers a recently single guy at a bachelor party.
- Clean Living London: Ursula Dewey rolls her sleeves up for some housework.
- Swipe Right: Does Tinder have the answers? By Heidi Scherz
- The Writer and the Dancer: Close encounter at a flat party by Vincent Wood.
- St Peter’s Gate, Knightsbridge: A nocturnal romance at closing time, by Theo Klay
- First: A romance begins inside a London gay club. By Lance Middleton.
- Natural Disasters: Can you find love at the supermarket checkout, when your customer’s buying porn? Yoel Noorali enquires.
- NO! SUSHI: A relationship breaks down during a Japanese leaving party, by Clare Kane.
- Compatibility: Stephen Lynch conjures the awkwardness of flat hunting.
- An Extract From the Diary of Kay Richardson, Actor: The surreal tribulations of a washed-up London thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor: More from the feckless thesp, by Tom Mitchell.
- The Further Adventures of Kay Richardson, Actor (Part 2): Our debauched hero tussles with mannequins.
- You Were Not In When We Called: A Christmas tale from Megan Toogood.
- The Do: Alan Fisher gets party phobia.
- Direction: Kevin Acott goes on a time-shifting pub crawl.
- RTA: Ryan Cartwright is involved in a traffic accident where all is not what it seems.
- Vegan Pigeon Eater: Rae Chambers sees a south London cafe get an unwelcome visitor.