Hannah, Cate and Lissa are young, vibrant and inseparable. Living on the edge of a common in East London, their shared world is ablaze with art and activism, romance and revelry – and the promise of everything to come. They are electric. They are the best of friends.
Ten years on, they are not where they hoped to be. Amidst flailing careers and faltering marriages, each hungers for what the others have. And each wrestles with the same question: what does it take to lead a meaningful life?
It is Saturday, which is market day. It is late spring, or early
summer. It is mid-May, and the dog roses are in bloom in the
tangled garden at the front of the house. It is still early, or early
for the weekend – not yet nine o’clock, but Hannah and Cate
are up already. They do not speak much to each other as they
take turns at the kettle, making toast and tea. The sun slants
into the room, lighting the shelves with the haphazard pans, the
recipe books, the badly painted walls. When they moved in here
two years ago they vowed to repaint the dreadful salmon colour
of the kitchen, but they never got around to it. Now they like it.
Like everything in this shabby, friendly house, it feels warm.
Upstairs, Lissa sleeps. She rarely rises before noon on the
weekends. She has a job in a local pub and often goes out after
work – a party at a flat in Dalston, one of the dives off Kingsland
Road, or further afield, in the artists’ studios of Hackney Wick.
They finish their toast and leave Lissa to sleep on, taking
their faded canvas shopping bags from the rack on the back of
the door and going out into the bright morning. They turn left
and then right into Broadway Market, where the stalls are just
getting set up. This is their favourite time – before the crowds
arrive. They buy almond croissants from the baker at the top
of the road. They buy strong Cheddar and a goat’s cheese
covered with ash. They buy good tomatoes and bread. They
buy a newspaper from the huge pile outside the Turkish offlicence. They buy two bottles of wine for later. (Rioja. Always
Rioja. They know nothing about wine but they know they like
Rioja.) They amble further down the road to the other stalls,
looking at knick-knacks and second-hand clothes. Outside the
pubs there are people, in the manner of London markets,
already clutching pints at nine o’clock.
Back in the house they lay out the food on the table in the
kitchen, make a heroic pot of coffee, put on some music and open
the window out on to the park, where the grass is filling with small
clusters of people. Every so often one of those people will look up
towards the house. They know what the person is thinking – how
do you get to live in a house like that? How do you get to live in a
three-storey Victorian townhouse on the edge of the best park in
London? Luck is how. A friend of a friend of Lissa’s offered her a
room, and then, during the same year, two more rooms came up,
and now they live in it together; the three of them. In all but deed
the house is theirs. There is an agent somewhere in the far reaches
of Stamford Hill, but they have a strong suspicion he does not
know what is happening to the area, as their rent has remained
stable for the last two years. They have a pact not to ask for anything, not to complain about the peeling lino or the stained
carpets. These things do not matter, not when a house is so loved.
Sometime around eleven Lissa wakes and wanders downstairs. She drinks a pint of water and holds her head, then
takes her coffee to the steps outside and rolls a cigarette and
enjoys the morning sun, which is just starting to warm the lowest of the stone steps.
When coffee has been drunk and cigarettes smoked and
morning has become afternoon, they take plates and food and
blankets out into the park, where they lie in the dappled shade
of their favourite tree. They eat their picnic slowly. Hannah
and Cate take turns to read the paper. Lissa shades her eyes
with the arts pages and groans. A little later on they open the
wine and drink it, and it is easy to drink. The afternoon deepens. The light grows viscous. The chatter in the park increases.
This is their life in 2004, in London Fields. They work hard.
They go to the theatre. They go to galleries. They go to the gigs
of friends’ bands. They eat Vietnamese food in the restaurants
on Mare Street and on Kingsland Road. They go to openings on
Vyner Street on Thursdays, and they visit all the galleries and
they drink the free beer and wine. They remember not to use
plastic bags when they go to the corner shop, although sometimes they forget. They cycle everywhere, everywhere, all the
time. They rarely wear helmets. They watch films at the Rio in
Dalston, and then go to Turkish restaurants and eat pide and
drink Turkish beer and eat those pickles that make your saliva
flow. They go to Columbia Road flower market and buy flowers
in the very early morning on Sundays. (Sometimes, if Lissa is
coming home early from a party, she buys cheap flowers for the
whole house – armfuls of gladioli and irises. Sometimes,
because she is beautiful, she is given them for free.)
They go to the city farm on Hackney Road with hangovers,
and they eat fried breakfasts in amongst the families and the
screaming children, and they swear never to go there again on
a Sunday morning until they have children of their own.
Sometimes on Sundays they walk; out along the Regent’s
Canal to Victoria Park, and beyond to the old Greenway, to
Three Mills Island, savouring the sideways slice of London that
the canal offers up.
They are interested in the history of the East End. They buy
books on psycho-geography from the bookshop at the bottom
of the road. They try to read Iain Sinclair and fail at the first
chapter but read other, more accessible books instead, about
the successive waves of immigration that have characterized
this part of the city: the Huguenots, the Jews, the Bengalis.
They are aware that they too are part of a tide of immigration.
If they are honest, they would like to halt this particular tide –
they fear encroachment by those who resemble themselves.
They worry. They worry about climate change – about the
rate of the melt of the permafrost in Siberia. They worry about
the kids who live in the high-rises, right behind the deli where
they buy their coffee and their tabbouleh. They worry about the
life chances of these kids. They worry about their own relative
privilege. They worry about knife crime and gun crime, then
they read pieces which suggest the violence is only ever gang on
gang and they feel relieved, then they feel guilty that they feel
relieved. They worry about the tide of gentrification that is
creeping up from the City of London and lapping at the edges of
their park. Sometimes they feel they should worry more about
these things, but at this moment in their lives they are happy,
and so they do not.
They do not worry about nuclear war, or interest rates, or
their fertility, or the welfare state, or ageing parents, or student
They are twenty-nine years old. None of them has children.
In any other generation in the history of humankind this fact
would be remarkable. It is hardly remarked upon at all.
They are aware that this park – London Fields – this grass
on which they lie, has always been common land, a place for
people to pasture their cows and sheep. This fact pleases them;
they believe it goes some way to explaining the pull of this small,
patchy patch of green they like to feel they own. They feel like
they own it because they do; it belongs to everyone.
They would like to pause time – just here, just now, in this
park, this gorgeous afternoon light. They would like the house
prices to remain affordable. They would like to smoke cigarettes and drink wine as though they are still young and they
don’t make any difference. They would like to burrow down,
here, in the beauty of this warm May afternoon. They live in
the best house on the best park in the best part of the best city
on the planet. Much of their lives is still before them. They have
made mistakes, but they are not fatal. They are no longer
young, but they do not feel old. Life is still malleable and full
of potential. The openings to the roads not taken have not yet
They still have time to become who they are going to be
Thank you, Anna Hope Random Things Tours.
About the author
ANNA HOPE studied at Oxford University and RADA. Her
contemporary fiction debut, Expectation, explores themes
of love, lust, motherhood, and feminism, while asking the
greater question of what defines a generation.
She lives in Sussex with her husband and young daughter.