I'm in the Natural History Museum, looking at a model of a baby in its mother's womb. My friend Kay and I are grimacing at the swollen forehead, the tiny clamped hands and the long pink straw it sucks its dinner through. "Imagine how disgusting it must feel to have that jiggling around inside of you," I say. "Yeah," says Kay, "it must feel like that scene in Alien when the gooey grey thing bursts out of Sigourney Weaver’s chest."
Kay and I agree on everything: how fit Jake Gyllenhaal is, how soothing Liverpudlian accents are, how we are obviously not going to give the museum a voluntary donation. Being with her is easy, like sinking into a bubble bath or stealing a boy's well-worn Reebok jumper after a night out. It's easy to forget that Kay is actually getting paid to be here – £20-an-hour, just to pretend she cares about me. She's very good at it.
I found Kay on rentafriend.com, a website where, for a $24.95 (£19.25) monthly fee, you can pick someone to hangout with from a database of 621,585 people. The site was set up in 2009 after CEO Scott Rosenbaum found himself wondering why there were so many dating websites, but none for platonic relationships.
Along with Japan's rent-a-family industry and the growing amount of companies which allow you to rent-a-mourner for your own funeral, rental friends sound like the beginning of the end. But they make perfect sense in a society where overwork and social media has rendered us fragmented. A study carried out last year by the BBC found that one in three of us describe ourselves as "socially isolated", while adults typically have just two people they feel able to confide in. This isn't making us very happy: one-third of people feel lonely often or very often.
Waiting for Kay outside South Kensington tube station, I get a text: "I'm running late, sorry x." When she arrives, we hug, my nose buried in her faux fur leopard print coat. "Sorry about that," she says. I tell her not to worry – I was relieved because I was running behind as well. "That's the best feeling, when your mate is also late so you can stop rushing, or when someone bails from a night out that you never wanted to go on," Kay laughs. I instantly like her, but I'm aware I could say anything and she would probably agree with me; for the next few hours, her job is to make sure I have a good time. I momentarily consider telling her I love Piers Morgan just to see how she reacts.
We walk into the museum. In front of a taxidermy giraffe I find out that Kay is 21 and studying Economics at Brighton University. In her spare time, she invests money on the stock market, a hobby she to turn into a profession after graduation. Lucky, then, that all three of her regular Rent-a-Friend clients are middle-aged men who work in finance, one of whom offers her free tutoring on her course.
Kay became a friend for hire after googling "how to make money fast" directed her to the website. She meets up with each client around once every two weeks, swapping the student life of Domino's pizza and revising lecture Powerpoints for beef carpaccio with men in Rolex watches. She normally spends around three to six hours with clients; sometimes, one sitting is all she needs to pay off her monthly rent.
Kay likens her work to that of a therapist: "So much of the time in our society, when people we care about ask, 'How are you?' we never say, 'I'm shit, I'm struggling to pay my bills, my mum is annoying me.' You just say, 'Yeah, I'm good. How are you?' I get a lot of people who want to talk about problems that are going on in their lives."
I ask Kay why she thinks men are more likely to hire her out. "Women can moan to their friends, but men often don't have this same experience – there's still a huge prejudice towards men expressing emotion," she says. "Often, my clients find that they are too ashamed to be vulnerable."
It's also unsurprising that investment bankers are paying for Kay's time. Busy work schedules see them leaving the office at 11PM and back in again at 7AM, leaving little time for socialising. "Working in finance is depressing," says Kay. "The industry is so competitive that if you make one wrong move there are thousands of applicants ready to take your job. You're replaceable, you have no meaning."
As we wander past purple brains and diagrams of tiny veins spidering through the human arm, I find myself telling Kay about the minute details of my life: how I'm pretty sure I bruised my vagina at my first spinning class, how I eat so much salt I practically use it as a dipping sauce. I could tell I was being boring and I didn’t care. Normally when I'm around friends I'm performing, desperate to make them like me. But the fact I was paying Kay guaranteed she was getting something concrete out of the experience. It was relaxing – a friendship without the need to impress.
Often Kay's advice felt very Oprah, which makes sense given that her favourite books are The 48 Laws of Power and The Slumflower's What a Time to Be Alone. I told her that I often don't leave my house unless it's to go to Lidl. "We don't spend enough time on ourselves working out what we like," she said. I told her that people always talk over me and she said that's OK because "you have two ears and one mouth for a reason, you should listen twice as much as you speak". I told her that I cried recently because I was so angry that my boyfriend didn't put his deodorant back into the bathroom drawer. "When men and women date, men damage women for the next person, but women heal men for the next woman," she said, a Yoda for the Instagram generation. A more straight talking Rupi Kaur. An Urban Outfitter's coffee table book with scratchy pastel illustrations on the cover.
As time goes on, our conversation is becoming less #yasqueen and more confessional. Looking into the glassy yellow marble eyes of a Velociraptor, Kay tells me: "I don't believe that dinosaurs existed. That's one of my secrets. When I talk to people they're like, 'You're crazy.'" I ask her what else she believes in.
"That we live in a holographic universe where everything we experience is part of a simulation."
"Like the film Inception?"
"Yes. I have personally had a lot of experiences where I saw that this world is not it; there's more to life than being born, spending all your time working for money that's doesn’t even mean anything – currency is just something humans invented."
I ask her whether she can talk about these thoughts with clients or whether she has to be more reserved. "If I told a client all that it would put them off. Sometimes if I go for drinks with them I get too comfortable. Once, I was talking with a regular about Brexit and I said we should have a second referendum because a lot of the people who voted to leave are dead now. I mean, the vote took place like three years ago. He got offended. I think it was because I spoke about the dead people. I thought, 'Oh shit, I shouldn't have opened my mouth.'"
We go for coffee, and over two crazily expensive vegetarian sausage rolls Kay tells me more about her past. "The guy I lost my virginity to basically hit and quit. I was heartbroken and terrified – I thought no one would ever like me because I've done this thing. Culture-wise it was a big thing for me, because my parents are religious and they think that you should only have sex with the person who you're going to marry."
I like that Kay's telling me things she probably wouldn’t tell another client. I ask her if there’s a difference between rent-a-friends and real friends. "Real friends say what you don’t want to hear. People don't like being in the wrong – they think, 'Oh, she really had the audacity to say that?' They don’t ask themselves: 'What is this teaching me?' One time, someone was asking advice on a personal issue; I was too severe. I told him: 'If your wife is not serving your needs then you need to walk away, you deserve someone who makes you value yourself.' He became very defensive."
When you have a finance worker's salary you can pay to get what you want, but maybe that stops you from getting what you need. Someone to tell you to stop logging onto other people's Instagram accounts just to stalk your ex's spa day in Budapest. Someone to tell you that the way your spit smacks around your mouth while you chew is revolting. Someone to tell you that a Manchester United-themed room featuring a single bed and that poster of a tennis player scratching her arse is not a room fit to bring a lady back to. Friends set you straight, rent-a-friends can’t.
As I walk back from the bus stop to my house, Kay sends me a text: "thanks so much for today! I had so much fun x." It's difficult to tell whether she actually means it, or whether she tells all her clients personal details about herself in order to feign closeness. Either way, it made me feel less alone. As Kay heads off on the train back to Brighton, I wonder if in the future, when she becomes a full-time investment banker, she will be the one hiring company on Rent-a-Friend. Plagued by loneliness after spending late nights at the office crouched over a take-out Yaki Soba from wagamama, staying at work until the rims of her eyes are pink. I guess she'll just need good friends around to tell her when to stop working so hard.