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In the second of her columns on sex in London, Bella Reid talks to young Londoners about the secret side of their sex lives and the casual relationships that stay firmly between the sheets.
Marco is sitting opposite me, his unadorned black coffee (no milk, no sugar) cooling on the table between us. He’s an artist in his forties and his tall, lugubrious good looks make him popular with women.
I want Marco to tell me about sex and Londoners. I want to know what’s happening right now, in bedrooms across the city. I’m thinking maybe I’ll write about pubic hair; how it’s waxed, and why, and what it means for society. Some kind of “porn invades the bedroom” theme, perhaps?
Marco finishes telling me about his successful art show in Istanbul. I know he’s been single for a few years – his last girlfriend was a rich businesswoman who took him travelling all over the place. I ask him if he’s met anyone since. At first he says no, he hasn’t. Then, nearly as an afterthought, he admits that Petra, an art student, often stays the night.
“It’s good to have a regular sexual routine,” he says. “But it’s annoying. In the morning you can see she’d like to stay, maybe go for a walk, go out to a café. But I get up at seven and I like to start working on my installations straight away.”
“How do you manage, then?” I ask.
“I get up and start working and after a while she realises I’m not going to be available for anything else, so she leaves.” He shrugs.
“Would you call her a girlfriend?” I ask.
“No, no,” he says, “Not a girlfriend.” He tells me no one knows they’re seeing each other.
Marco is just the start. The more people I talk to, the more I hear it: a dark, subterranean theme popping up with enough consistency to make me wonder. A mysterious being keeps being alluded to. Not partner, not lover, but a hybrid creature, kept around solely for sex.
I hear it from men and women. They report having, or having once had, a secret. Not the presentable partner who meets their parents, but a lover, someone they don’t mention to anyone, ever. Even ‘lover’ is often too strong a word for these ‘understandings’, containing as it does an element of joy and passion. The affairs I’m hearing about are footnotes, located somewhere between shame and dreary routine. It’s surprising, speaking to these sophisticated, funny and warm Londoners, to come across these small pools of darkness.
A friend puts me in touch with Agnieszka, who is happy to share her experiences, provided I don’t use her real name. A pretty, blonde Polish woman, she moved to London six years ago and works in the offices of a shipping company.
She’s single and has been so since coming to London, but three years ago she “kind of met someone”. She didn’t have a computer and had become a regular at an internet café. She’d go there in the evenings and spend hours browsing the internet. The café was owned by Somalis and she often exchanged a few words with them. One of the young men, Abdi, was especially pleasant to talk to. He got her email address and started emailing her — jokes or a few lines of light banter. She became aware that he fancied her, and thought him attractive, but did not particularly encourage him.
Then one day he asked her out, and although reluctant at first, she accepted. She found him agreeable company and the way he kept pursuing her was flattering; he was six years younger than her. Over the next few weeks, they went to see a movie, she invited him to her place, and they became lovers. She recalls how mismatched the union felt. They had no common ground, shared no interests. And yet, they met weekly for nine months for sex. They managed conversations, a kind of baby talk about their physical passion. She got hints that he had lived through much trauma, in refugee camps in Kenya, Germany and Holland, but he had a childish, naive side to him.
Agnieszka tries to convey how it felt, her despair at their lack of understanding. She yearned to feel closeness, but there was just nothing there. He himself had no idea of how she was struggling: depressing jobs in mobile phone companies, battling with a stretch of unemployment. He assumed she was well-off and didn’t ask her many questions about her life.
She struggled with conflicting feelings: she enjoyed the sex but yearned for a ‘proper’ relationship. Eventually she broke off all contact. After a few months she started dating a work colleague; then he dumped her and she was heartbroken. When Abdi emailed her out of the blue, they rekindled their affair for a further two months before it petered out.
She is still surprised that she saw Abdi for so long — she never imagined that her life would turn out that way. She’d assumed she would meet someone easily, like in Poland, and that they would date, move in and get married one day. She doesn’t have an explanation for the kind of affair she drifted into.
Agnieszka is silent for a moment, then shakes her head. It must have been the disruption of moving to London and starting a new life, she says. Being constantly exhausted and worried about work.
“Definitely. The loneliness, not knowing anyone,” she says. Looking at her, it feels incongruous, this affair. It’s something you would expect from a cynical fifty-year-old man rather than a pretty, intelligent young woman.
Somewhat disturbing, too, is Elena’s story. She nearly doesn’t mention it at all. She had forgotten about it, she says. These stories have that in common: they happen in the margin of real life.
Elena is a fundraising manager in her late forties, tall and elegant with long dark hair. She visits an array of nutritionists and homeopaths, and one of these, whom she saw from time to time in his private practice in South London, made a pass at her. She was taken aback, and then curious. They had sex on a sofa in the room he received his clients in. She then paid her fee and left. This happened every time she visited him. He never suggested having a drink anywhere or going out. Just cold sex, and that was it.
She didn’t have any feelings for him, she tells me. At the beginning she fantasised about him leaving his wife. But she soon realised how little she really knew about him. All she knew was that he was quite attractive and that his opinion of gluten was unfavourable. She just tended to forget about the encounters and go about her daily life, until one day she met someone she cared for and just stopped visiting that doctor.
I heard many other such stories. The friends who’ve been secret lovers for years. The man who shagged a colleague’s husband one evening. London seems full of these little encounters, and through them all runs an absence of joy.
It’s difficult to know how to read this trend. Gestures of lonely Londoners practising for the real relationship they all dream of? Just the gratification of bodily desires, reminding us that we are just animals, whatever we think? Or are these just the failed combinations of constant permutations, as if London was a giant random computer spewing out equations, some that work, some that don’t.
It’s as if, in order for successful relationships to happen, lots of others need to fail. Unending patterns forming and reforming.
It is not the casual sex that’s shocking, but the lack of feeling displayed by the people I spoke to. It feels oddly like a heresy. Sex is a precious sensation we’ve been awarded — the potential, pre-wired in the body, for intense enjoyment. So a fling should at least be filled with joyful, lustful enchantment, even if there’s no potential for anything more. It should be more Restoration comedy, people plunging with ardour into complicated intrigues, and less “bored office worker drifts off for sex”. Instead, I’m left with a sense that behind the promise of the city’s lights lurk dark spots of lonely and unspoken liaisons.
Patricia Duffaud is a writer of mixed French and Northern Irish origin. She writes short stories, features and reviews and her work has appeared in Wasafiri Magazine, the Puffin Review and Thresholds. One of her stories was highly commended in the Gladstone's library's Mystery Lady short story competition. She is currently non-fiction editor for Litro online.