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People Who Brunch

Brunch time on Saturday. Sam and I are squeezing ourselves into the middle seats of a picnic table outside of Cafe Route in Dalston, awkwardly trying not to disrupt the already-established pairs on either side. We complete the table; two girls sit opposite one another to my left, discussing their parents’ adjustment to becoming empty nesters and an impending trip to Australia, while on my right two guys with accents are asking the waiter for smoked salmon on the side of eggs benedict.

With the intention of heading over to Voodoo Ray’s for pizza-by-the-slice, we’ve chained our bikes up in Dalston Square. Most of Dalston is comfortably grubby, but Dalston Square is shiny-new and purpose-built, the cafes and restaurants nestled below shining glass tower blocks. We are frequently running or cycling through but we’ve never really looked to see what’s here, so we have wandered over to see which cafes have outdoor seating. We decide to stay. It’s not terribly warm, but it’s warm enough to make the most of.

Once our plates are cleared, the guy next to Sam, Saturday-casual in a t-shirt and backwards baseball cap, asks us if we’re from around here. He’s from Lithuania, but he’s getting ready to move to New York for work as a business development manager at HelloFresh. “Your marketing budget must be insane,” I’m saying, enviously.

He laughs. “We were just talking about how different New Yorkers are. They’ll chat to anyone, anywhere. Londoners, not so much. We were… testing this theory.” I try not to now imagine the situation as a trial by combat, and agree instead. I am being harmonious.

This year you can’t talk about New Yorkers without talking about Donald Trump. The four of us are equally appalled. “People are voting emotionally. It’s happening everywhere,” the guy next to me is saying. He’s about to move from Dalston to Notting Hill. “I’d rather stay around here– east– but my friends and I found a really good deal. We didn’t even see the place before we agreed on it,” he says with a hint of a shrug. Finding accommodation in London is not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for the choosy. He tells us he’s Romanian.

“Romania is a completely underrated country,” his Lithuanian friend states, nodding. I admit I’d like to visit. The Romanian sighs. “Romania is beautiful, it’s just been destroyed by its politicians. But that’s another story.”


Wedding Belles

“What do we do?” I’m asking, looking at Sam who is sitting on a petite blush settee. I squint at him slyly. “Are we supposed to… discuss this?” Now I turn to look at the shop assistant, Michaela, wide-eyed. “I don’t know what we do!” Michaela bursts out laughing.

We’re on Sloane Street in Emilia Wickstead, which is a new store here, just down the road from one of the temping agencies I used when I first arrived, desperate to find my place in London. And now here I am, in a dress by an up-and-coming designer, made famous by dressing Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron, and it is the one I want to be my wedding dress.

I have been told not to go wedding dress shopping with my fiancé (bad luck), but he’s the only person I want there, and I already have a good track record of ignoring everyone to do what I want anyway.

Emilia Wickstead must be good at doing what she wants too; how else do you build a made-to-measure business into the foundations of an empire? The shop in Knightsbridge in which we’re standing is evidence of that– just eight short years in the making. I love this dress, but I love it all the more for being the vision of an ambitious young woman.

When Michaela mentions the dress is 30% off in the sale then darts off to calculate what that is, I think “How can that be bad luck?” but I say, “Should we do it?” The skirt has volume in the back and I am swinging it to test its dancefloor potential. It’s a big purchase and a big deal and I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you try on your wedding dress for the first time, except this feels pretty good.

The dusty pink Emilia Wickstead bag is huge and I hit everyone with it as I get on the tube. “Sorry,” I lie, hoping everyone wants to know what’s inside.

When we tell Jenny and Mike, Sam’s parents, they’re pleased. “Must be a family tradition,” Jenny says. “Mike came with me to buy mine.”

Bar Crawl

“What is nduja?”

We are sitting at the counter in Pizza East, having just ordered two negronis. Sam shrugs. “Ask the waiter.”

“What is nduja?” I ask the waiter. I get my reply: “It’s a salami,” and I quickly ask my next question before he can escape, “and girolles?”

“A mushroom.”

“And guanciale?”

“Pork cheek.”

I pause, glancing back down at the menu. “And…”

The waiter has taken this brief window and sensibly rushed away. “Let’s share the nduja pizza and the girolles and guanciale pizza,” Sam suggests, knowing how indecisive I am and how long it took to even agree on Pizza East (only once I had stared sadly at the enormous queue snaking from Dishoom).

Afterwards we walk back from Shoreditch, stopping for a drink at Redchurch and then Birdcage. On the way I am explaining how upset I’ll be if anyone calls me Mrs when we get married, or assumes I’ve changed my name. “You won’t be sad when I cry if someone calls me Mrs Bourke, or worse, Mrs Sam Bourke?” Losing my own identity would be a trauma.

Sam assures me he doesn’t mind. “We’ll put something about it in the save-the-date email.”

“I feel really strongly about this, but also I don’t want you to be offended. It’s just that it’s not about you, it’s about me!”

Sam laughs and squeezes my hand. “That’s a good line.” I don’t always know what I want, but once I do, I’m certain. By this time we’re in Broadway Market, just before London Fields.

“Want to go to the secret bar?” Sam is referring to Kansas Smitty’s, the bar in the basement of Off Broadway. There’s a neon sign in the window, so it’s not really a secret, as such.

But then once you look there’s often more going on, just below the surface.

Flying South


The first time Sam came to Charlotte, N.C. with me we had been dating for six weeks. It was June last year, and it was a crazy idea, and not because we were in that first, uncertain phase of a relationship. “I want to come with you,” he told me, without blinking. “To Charlotte?” I replied, incredulously. I had to check several times. “You know it’s the south, right?”

Now, just under a year later, we have been to Charlotte together a total of three times. A month ago I woke up to several missed calls from my mother and a Whatsapp message that read: call me. My dad, 59, had suffered a heart attack and no one could tell my mom definitively whether or not he was dying. We booked flights for the following day; my dad survived.

This last time, we are flying in to Charlotte, then driving up to Virginia where Vanessa is getting married. It’s a five hour drive, which is nothing in the U.S. but if we were to spend that long in a car in England we could choose to go north and get to Newcastle or south to Newquay and span the entire country. We don’t have a car in England, though, only a motorcycle, and I have an annoying (Sam might say dangerous) habit of falling asleep as the pillion passenger, so there is no way we’d attempt such a distance. We don’t care much for leaving London anyway, where we can get everywhere by bicycle.

“What is a mason jar?” Sam asks at the rehearsal dinner, as Vanessa is having her bridesmaids write a final to-do list. The next day, he is not wearing the cowboy boots he bought when we were in Las Vegas, in January, because they do not fit underneath his British-made suit. He has found some mason jars and is pouring Woodford Reserve into two, straight, which we sip on as everyone helps themselves to barbecue and mac’n’cheese. “We’re having an aperitif,” I announce to the table.

Later, a couple from Napa discount the claim that the Shenandoah Valley wines are out to rival theirs. “The grapes don’t get ripe enough,” I’m told by a breezy Californian, in the business. “Meaning they’re too tart?” I enquire, making a sour face for effect. He nods in agreement. “You got it.”