Saturday, 1 November 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Eight

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

“Hey! Don’t!” cried a choked young voice. “Come back!”
            It wasn’t a Family thug or a mall security man but a thin-faced boy, the Mama Hosanna delivery guy, running after me with his girlfriend, local, holding onto his hand. Both had the rumpled, mush-faced look of a couple who had been smooching quite naturally in the relative privacy of the garages, away from their relatives.
I panicked. The bike reared up and I rocketed through the narrow urban lanes, navigating by instinct, and was then onto the main street, shooting between the traffic.
I heard the whiz of a klaxon and a voice sending out a warning: a traffic cop, wearing shades even though it was dark, shouting at through a megaphone and motioning for me to slow down. I sped away, the people on the street looked tiny, faces blurring past me.
            I saw the mall, set back from the road, LED lights spangling like diamonds all over its front, the slope down to the car park and workers’ entrance hidden by its own.
I slowed down, swerved in and wobbled down the slope. My legs felt like jelly. I got off and wheeled the bike to the edge of the car park, which was gated and padlocked on the inside. I left the bike in the shadows just in front, taking care to put it in the security cameras’ blind spot. I planned to take the bike back to Bela Anand the next day, even before the sun was up. I added the bike key to the net bag.
            I went back to the under-basement. I had expected it to be dark insight, but instead there was a slight glow emanating from the gap. Gilanta’s face loomed up in front of me.
 “The child has not passed,” she whispered before I could say anything.
            Nimet was there. The vigil for Femi was on. People had put up their ring burners up on the smallest setting, so the floor looked scattered with glowing red circles. I sat down with everyone else. No-one said a word. The night wore on and people let sleep pull them down wherever they sat.
We were all struck painfully awake when the work-alarms began to sound. Many of the ring burners, cheap and made not to last, had blown. Agonia, Greve and Nimet had not moved a muscle through the night. They did not react when the alarms went.
“How’s the baby?” I whispered to the man next to me.
“Declining,” he replied, “but fighting. He should stop – and release his mother.”
            People left in slow silence. They washed, ate, drank tea in silence. The alarms went and seemed to scrape through us, strafe us like a scythe. I walked the length of the under-basement and saw, as I had expected, that Rastro’s patch had been cleared away as though he’d never been there, and so was mine.
            I went up Staircase 4. As soon as I got near the workshop I knew someone had been there because the shutter was up. I unlocked the door and went in, forgetting to pocket the key again.
            Whoever had come in hadn’t taken anything. Quite the opposite: they’d stuck it all down. The racks of files and tools which had hung from the walls had flat-fronted metal bars over them. The materials we worked with behind the counter, and the smaller tools, had been pushed back into metal hatches with domed fronts that slid down and locked. Zizi’s cubby-hole had been cleared out.
The escalators started and Amaro Solanki glided down. My heart began beating hard. I tried to work the till but they had done something to it and it wouldn’t open. I dropped to the floor and pulled out the box of copied keys. It was empty.
Amaro Solanki strode in the workshop, noticed that I’d left the door key in the lock, plucked it out and popped it into his handkerchief pocket. I stood up. Solanki threw something small and hard onto the counter. It rolled towards me in a fan shape. It was the Devil’s Prick.
“What’s this?” Solanki demanded. “What does it do?”
I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t tell. It seemed obvious. But Solanki was not of the class to have to break his way into a place. If he wanted to go somewhere, the doors were opened to him.
“It’s a decoration. We make jewellery from bits and pieces. Zizi had it on her necklace.”
“She’s been running a network of pass-offs and exchanges. We picked her up – ”
“You raided her house and dragged her off – ”
“You know about that, do you?”
“I went to visit her, as my friend. That’s allowed isn’t it?”
“She was invited for questioning by Mister Nasser-Khalab Murat who’s very concerned about all irregular behaviour on in his premises.”
“So they threw her in a van and then what?” I goaded. I’d closed my hand over the Devil’s Prick and was drawing it towards me.
            Amaro Solanki’s face turned red and he gave full vent to his frustration.
“They were at junction 7, they checked on her, there she was. They were at junction 8, they checked on her, there she was. On the flyover to the facility, in the middle lane, in speeding traffic, coming up to junction 9, they checked on her, the hatch was open, the van was empty, the chains were loose and that thing was  rolling on the floor.”
“You lost her,” I breathed. Zizi had got away. I wheeled away, grinning to the back wall, quickly stuffed the Devil’s Prick down my front and into the net bag, and came back.
“Where is she? Tell me.”
“Gods, Mr Solanki, I don’t know, I only met the woman two days ago.”
“I’m facing thirty lawsuits about those children.”
“So you made scapegoats of all of us. Offered up some human sacrifices to please the parents in a big clean-up operation.”
“You’re sacked. You have five minutes to leave.”
“Yeah, yeah.”
I stalked out and he let me go, but there was a smile on his liverish lips. To aggravate him all the more I went up the escalators, but Solanki said nothing. It was so forbidden for someone like me to be using the escalators that the cleaners on the ground floor all motioned for me to go back down. I refused. I crossed the marble foyer, heading for the front doors. I looked behind me. Solanki had been joined by some of his brown-suits. They were following me.
Still on duty at the front doors was the security guard who had Tasered the dog. Solanki hadn’t even given her two day off.
“Don’t go out that way,” she said to me frantically.
“She wants to go, let her go,” said Amaro Solanki, coming up behind me and opening the door.
The noise hit me instantly. I realised that the warnings I’d attracted from the other mall workers were nothing to do with using the escalator. There was a yelling crowd at the doors of the mall. I saw signs, pictures, hands reaching out to me, pulling at me, others pushing those hands away. The crowd was shouting, booing, cheering, a cross-hatch of sound, handclaps and jeers.
“Esha! Esha!” shouted the strangers, holding up their phones.
“Shame,” bellowed others.
The crowd pushed me back against the doors, which held, locked. Something small and white sailed towards me exploded in an eggy splat on the glass. On one side people were touting luridly printed placards with pictures of one-eyed dogs, lame donkeys, balding monkeys, rabbits with bleeding paws.
            A young woman got in my face and shouted,
“How could you do that to that dog?”
“Huh?” I said breathlessly. For one moment we were toe to toe – some of her fine, staticky hair was clinging to my shirt.
“Do you think it’s funny?” she said.
“Do you know how we live down there?” I said, shouldering her aside. I began to fight through the crowd.
“That dog was frightened!”
“She saved children from being hurt! You saw it!” shouted someone over on my side.
 “You weren’t there,” someone answered back to her.
“Either you care about all living creatures or you care about none!” yelled a young man.
“I bet if it was snakes or beetles or scorpions or something else that’s not cute, you wouldn’t give a shit!” someone answered him.
“She’s serving her masters by protecting a bunch of rich kids. They like that!” shouted a young man dressed in a bandana and combat trousers – yet with the glossy, pink-cheeked complexion of the lifelong rich.
“You’re no folk hero,” sneered someone else. “She’s not the people’s saviour!”
“She is!” responded someone else hotly. “She stood up to the developers! – ”
“When she saw the cameras she did, like all fame whore!”
“She’s not any kind of ‘whore’ and neither am I and neither are you,” yelled back a woman on my side.
 “She doesn’t speak for us!”
“What do you know about it?”
The crowd split off into arguing groups of two and three, all filming each other. Animal rights nutters on one side, human rights people on the other, anti-rich-people people in the middle, with some Binar Bizarre watching lunatics peppered in among them.
“You’re getting your fifteen minutes of fame, just like you wanted,” someone shouted to the back of my head – I felt their breath on my scalp. I didn’t turn around.
“Esha! Esha!” screamed someone wildly, but whether it was in admiration or meant to shame, I couldn’t tell.
There was a sound of sirens on the stretch  of road directly in front of the mall.  Behind us was a slamming noise, a whine like a squeaky wheel.
“Hose,” gulped one of the protestors.
One of the mall’s front doors was open. Amaro Solanki was nowhere to be seen. He was inside a control room somewhere, seeing it all on screens. Some workers – my own kind – were aiming a fat, Chinese-dragon-red fire hose at us, its long snout hanging, dripping water from its round brass mouth.  

Friday, 31 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Seven

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

Zizi’s neighbourhood was a puzzle of low buildings with corridors, yards and corners to rent for anybody to sleep in, one room apartments, hovels and shacks built over and around them. The whole place had the too dark, too silent, too watchful, too tightly fastened air of a heavily populated area living in constant paranoia.
Outside Zizi’s building was a scooter, parked at a slant with the key still in the lock, a box on the back bearing the name Mama Hosanna’s Jerk Chicken. My mouth watered. I opened the storage box but there was nothing inside except caked grease, tissues which had gone orange with soaked up oil and a driving permit belonging to young guy name of Bela Anand, who looked like a mole who’d just had a torch shone into its burrow.
            There was a thin gap, a sewer let-out, running between the block and the next building. I walked its length, balancing my feet on the edges of the sewage pipe. Behind the building was a row of doorless garages full of broken chipboard furniture, smashed bottles and stained mattresses.
“Third from the bottom, second from the left,” I said to myself, following Zizi’s instructions.
I climbed up to the correct level. It was absolutely silent but I was sure that there were people inside the building. I saw that there was rubbish heaped not just inside the garages but on top of them, too.
Zizi’s room had no buzzer or knocker. The door was slightly ajar and long splinters of wood had been torn away from the edge. When I got closer I saw that the entire lock part had been blasted out. I prodded the door. It swung open. I reached in, flicked the light on and tucked myself into the flat.
The lock mechanism was lying on the floor, Zizi was nowhere to be seen and the place – a box with a kitchenette at one end and a prison bed at the other – had been ransacked. Clearly some games had been interrupted: there were playing cards, plastic drinks beakers, an ashtray the size of a steering wheel, mah jong tiles and casino poker chips scattered on the floor. If there had been any wine, cigarettes, food, money or tools in the room, they had all been stolen.
            I went to the neighbouring room, knocking crisply on the door. There was movement inside, two women’s voices arguing with each other, then nothing. I knocked again.
“I know you’re in there,” I said.
“Please. Go away.”
“I’m not the police or state security. I’m a friend of Zizi’s.”
“Fiera, she’s a friend of Zizi’s!”
“She says,” replied another voice.
“It’s true,” I hissed. “I work for her. My name’s Esha. I’m her apprentice.”
            The door opened an inch, then another, and I saw two ladies, perhaps in their sixties, both in the maroon cotton suits of factory workers, with dryly backcombed, bouffant hairdos, thick eyeliner and coral lipstick. I had seen countless State TV films about these factory ladies who worked at super-fabrication plants all over Miriadh.
“They’ve taken her!” burst out the shorter of the two ladies. “We were having a social evening when all of a sudden there were tyres squealing, footsteps on the stairs, then about twenty of them punched through the door and burst in – ”
“There weren’t twenty, Roma,” said her friend. “There were eight. And they didn’t punch through the door. They used one of those things. A ram. And they really do shout, ‘Police! This is a raid.’”
“Please – let me in, I don’t want to be seen out here,” I said, edging my foot over the threshold.
            They stuck their heads out and looked out across the other landings, the dusty domes of their bouffants brushing against me on the narrow ledge. When they were satisfied we weren’t being watched, Roma let me in.
Her digs were exactly the same size as Zizi’s, but for a few key differences: everything had been painted peach pink or pistachio green and every surface that could be covered in a crocheted doily, coloured beads, curly-framed oval mirror, scalloped rug, landscape in watercolour, religious picture, family photograph, coaster, cosy or tablecloth, had been.
“I live on the other side of Zizi,” said Roma, “but Fiera and I’ve been working together for so long, I spend a lot of my time here.”
They invited me to sit on a tasselled pouf and Fiera poured me a glass of pink fruit juice.
“Where are the others?” I said.
            Both the women froze.
“The others?” said Roma.
“Zizi said she was having a party with her neighbours and I’m sure she didn’t just mean you. So how many were there?”
“About ten,” said Roma eventually.
“And they’ve all disappeared into their rooms like rats into pipes? I’d have thought this building was empty, when I got here,” I said.
“That’s why you’ve got to go,” said Fiera beseechingly. “We can’t have this get back to our employers. My grandchildren go to school on the money and subsidies I get from here.”
“What happened to Zizi? I know she trades. I’m sure you do the same, if there’s surplus cloth. Good factory wools must re-sell quite high on the grey market.”
            Fiera and Roma looked utterly guilty and I felt wretched for using it against them, but it worked. Roma reached across to the large old radio on the plastic breakfast bar and turned it up loudly – ballroom dancing music played through the static.
“The men broke in, they took our wine, and some cigarettes, and some… spirits and liquors,” she said, blushing delicately.
“They took our winnings from the middle of the table and it went into their pockets,” said Fiera.
“The men told Zizi that Nasser-Khaleb Murat knew all about the grey-market dealing going on in his malls,” said Roma.
“And what did she say?”
“Oh, she was marvellous. Cool as a cucumber,” said Fiera.
“But they trashed the place, marauding about,” said Roma.
“So they were thugs, working for the Mall King,” I said.
“We begged them to leave. They did – but they took her with them,” said Fiera.
“Where could she be?” I asked.
            The women exchanged a look.
“Disappeared,” said Roma.
“What d’you mean? She must be somewhere.”
“Yes – but that could mean anywhere,” said Fiera.
“When you throw away rubbish you don’t concern yourself with where it goes,” said Roma. “They put them in handcuffs, drive them around town to frighten them, then dump them somewhere. Most are too afraid to come back,” said Roma.
            There were voices outside.
“There’s someone out there,” I whispered. I stood up, slow, primed, skin prickling.
“Go,” mouthed Fiera.
            I slipped out the door, which closed firmly as soon as my back heel cleared the doorway.
The movement and sound were coming from the last garage. Roma and Fiera’s paranoia hadn’t been misplaced. I became light and stealthy, padding down the steps and backing into the gutter, knowing that none of the Mall King’s heavies would be able to fit their gym-pumped shoulders into the space.
            I ran out front, hauled the Mama Hosanna scooter off its stand, kicked it around to face the street, got onto it, turned the key and bucked forward. The bike resisted, puttered, grinding and stalling. Then it gave. I thunked off the kerb and scraped up onto the street, tyres burning. I heard footsteps and voices behind me. I got my bearings, picked up speed. It was only when I was curving away that I looked back and realised – story of my life – that I’d made a little mistake.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Six

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

I walked quickly up the slope, out to the front of the mall and down the street, mixing myself in with the crowds. A video screen blazed over me, showing an advert for a fruit scented shampoo in  which a woman danced around a mango grove in a monsoon shower, loosening her plait as her blouse and harem pants grew ever more sheer and clingy.  I had the usual city feeling of millions of people and prospects teeming around me, glowing like countless grabbable stars, rubbing at me and riling me up. I tried to remember Zizi’s directions.
Between two office blocks was a typically Mirian stretch of nothing, fronted by a half built wall. Behind it was a blunt-topped mountain of rubble, either from a demolition that wasn’t cleared up or a construction that was never completed because its funds mysteriously went missing into the pockets of everyone involved. Blocked around the rubble was a city of old fridges, sink units and washing machines.
Sitting in the dirt just on the other side of the wall was a naked beggar wrapped in a sheet. I looked him over casually and incuriously – it wasn’t a rare sight – then did a double-take. I stared at the top of the beggar’s head, which was matted and bloodied. I leant over the wall.
“Rastro?”
The beggar lifted his head and looked at me out of one black, swollen eye and one normal one.
“Esha,” he croaked. “They threw me out.”
“Who did?”
“Solanki’s men.”
He pulled himself up, wincing, until he was sitting on the flaking top of the wall. I sat beside him.
“They came in while I was washing, they dragged me down the length of the basement, kicking and screaming…and when I tried to dress, they tore it off me.. and we had a fight…a physical fight. They threw me out. After a few seconds someone came out and threw a sheet over me. I’m no good in a fight.”
“That wasn’t a fight, it was an attack.” I saw that across the balls of his shoulders and up his arms there were handprint bruises.
You wouldn’t have been scared.”
“I’m always scared. We have to get you some clothes. Can you walk?”
“It hurts, but yeah. Hurts when I breathe too.”
“You may have bruised your ribs. But you don’t think anything’s broken?”
“No. I don’t need the hospital.”
Painfully, Rastro lifted his arm and put it around me as I held his waist, trying to support him without tightening my grip and hurting him. We didn’t fit together well. I dragged him hobbling along the street.  
“Where are we going?” he said.
“Leave it to me.”
“I can sleep out for one night,” he said miserably. “It’s hot enough.”
“You may have to.”
It was either a credit to Mirian nonchalance or a terrible condemnation of Binari poverty that nobody paid any attention to us. Rastro’s frame, despite being thin, was so heavy that every step was making me feel that I was being hammered into the ground like a peg. We passed the carnival ground, where all the rides and pavilions were still in pieces, although there were shadows moving busily among them.
“You know, Solanki showed you mercy,”  I said.
“What!”
“He taught you a lesson and threw you out. Local goons are better than rich people’s lawyers. That’d be on your record for ever, if you weren’t imprisoned. You wouldn’t be able to get any job, of any kind. If you went back to work tomorrow you’d be questioned by people much more scary than Amaro Solanki. He’s given you a chance to escape.”
From the entrance to the cemetery the pyre emitted a ghoulish orange glow. The windows of the lodge shone with a sullen red light.
“We’re going in there?” said Rastro.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid? I’m trying to help you.”
“It’s… a cemetery. I don’t want to.. disturb it.”
“Ridiculous,” I said, getting annoyed.
I heaved him forward and knocked on the lodge door.  It was opened the first woman cemetery worker I’d met. The second was behind her, and behind them was a stocky woman in a waistcoat and a traditional round-topped hat, smoking a cigar, with a younger girl standing close by. We all stared at each other, Rastro holding onto my shoulders.
“I’m sorry to disturb you. We need your help,” I said.
            The first cemetery worker and the second cemetery worker sized us up.
“I’ve got money,” I said.
“Oho! You should have said.”
The door opened wide and the waistcoated woman tipped her hat to me as I went inside.
“Edwiga,” she introduced herself with a meaty handshake. “Carnival owner.”
She took the cigar out of her mouth and exhaled thickly, making a smoke ring that spun slowly into the night like an angel’s coronet returning to paradise. The girl, meanwhile, was blinking in a very particular way at Rastro.
The lodge was one room. Three lanterns hung from nails hammered into the other walls. The nails themselves were so long and strong, clearly forged, hammered and filed by hand – they reminded me of Zizi’s beloved hand-bladed pencils – that they must have been as old as the lodge itself. The floor was covered in a traditional rug. In the corner was an open door; through it, I saw the back wall of the cemetery just a foot away, with a greened copper dripping tap sticking out of it.
Rastro and I edged onto one of two wide benches which I assumed were pushed together to sleep on at night. The girl sat next to Rastro. First, Second and Edwiga sat opposite us. The hearth and fire took up almost the entire span of the long wall, with a giant-throated chimney over it, and all so blackened, stony and misshapen that they must have been there for centuries.
“When this was a smaller cemetery, they used to do the cremations here,” said First, “under your very feet.”
 Rastro opened and closed his mouth like a fish. First and Second were observed him with wicked glee.
“They’re only teasing,” said the girl.
“But it’s true,” said Edwiga. She took a small pewter snuffbox out of her pocket, sniffed some and massaged the end of her nose vigorously. “You know this is the only bit of green in Block L?” she said. “Unfortunate placing. I come by, I speak to these two, we work out the timings between ourselves: cremation. Or carnival. Not both at the same time. No need to have funfair music playing all junty-bunty when you’re trying to bury your great-grandmother. And in return, we have a band at the carnival,  if there’s a particularly pretentious family that wants to make a big song and dance and show the entire world how much they’re grieving and carrying on and tearing their hair out, me and Iris here get the band to come in and do a mournful song, at the pyre, while they say goodbye. You any good at singing?” she asked me.
            I shook my head.
“You?” she asked Rastro.
            He shook his head.
“He’s shy,” I said.
“He’s not shy of a brawl.”
            We all gazed at his bruises for a few seconds.
“What can we do you for?” First asked us.
“Do you have any clothes that might fit my friend? I can pay,” I said.
Second and First pushed the benches back and peeled the rug off the floor. Underneath was a trapdoor with a leather pull. It came up easily. There was a hollow underneath, with three steps leading down. First went down until only her top half was ticking out into the room.
“That’s where they used to keep the cremation wood,” said Second.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” said First. She came up with a pile of washed and folded men’s shirts and trousers. They were all in white cotton – traditional Mirian burial clothes.
“Any of these take your fancy?” she asked Rastro.
“I can’t wear these,” he said, sorting through them. “They’re meant to be sacred coverings.”
“Twelve hours ago you were wearing a clown costume,” I said.
“They’ll look nice on you,” said Iris, with a mincing entreaty that made my skin crawl.
            First grabbed Rastro’s foot, brought out a leather sandal and measured it, sole to leather sole. She found the other half of the pair and gave them to him. Rastro took a shirt and trousers and I worked out a price with First and Second, the negotiations watched keenly by Edwiga, who occasionally dropped in a few comments of her own. Edwiga shoved the bench into place. We sat with our backs turned against Rastro while he changed.
“Ready,” he said, and we turned back to face him like a jury in a TV fashion competition.
“The bruises are covered,” said Edwiga.
“I’ve seen more meat on a barbecued chicken wing,” said Second.
“What got you into this state?” First asked. “It wouldn’t have something to do with a dog, would it? Because it came in here. I saw it off. Only a warning shot. Maybe I should’ve been a bit more direct.”
I saw the long, thin pipe of an old-fashioned shotgun leaning in the corner.
“Then you know what happened,” said Rastro, looking mortified.
“I saw it on TV,” said Iris. “Binar Bizarre was showing it on a loop – but then they said they had to take it down because it was ‘part of an ongoing investigation.’”
“That’s bad. It means it’s not going to go away,” I said.
“And your friend came to see us,” said Second. “The girl. With the son. Said she’d see us again soon. Said it wasn’t long now.”
“It won’t be,” I said. “She’ll be here by dawn.”
I paid them and First and Second bid us and Edwiga and Iris goodbye. The air outside was so thick, there was no breeze, no relief, just pressure meeting pressure, heat against heat.
“Til tomorrow, ladies,” said Edwiga, saluting the closing door.
We stepped out onto the path and headed back towards the road.
“Edwiga Madam, are you looking for an engineer?” I asked.
“You offering one?”
“I’ve been apprenticing at the workshop since… I got here.”
I wasn’t sure how my day’s experience with a countertop hole-punching machine squared up to setting up an electrified bumper car arena, but I bit my lip.
“It’s a rough place, the site. I’ve got gals on my team, but they’re a different sort from you. Bigger. Got a bit of heft.”
“I’m strong. Rastro needs a job too.”
            Iris immediately perked up and looked imploringly at her mother.
“Oh but he’s a useless one,” complained Edwiga. “I need crane operators and mechanics and guys to break up fights.”
I can do that,” I said. “He can do other things. He can work in the box office and look after the money.”
“We do need someone in the office, ma,” said Iris.
            Edwiga signed.
“We won’t let you down,” I said. “We could start whenever you wanted.”
“Like when,” said Edwiga.
“Tomorrow?”
“Actually,” said Rastro, sheepishly, “I don’t have a place for the night. ”
“We’ve got a spare bunk,” said Iris.
“Oh - he does no work and he gets a night’s bunk free, does he? I supposed you’ll be serving him the breakfast of kings tomorrow,” said Edwiga.
“I can cover it – we’re very grateful,” I said quickly, and so yet more of my tokens passed into another’s hands.
“All right, all right, you’re in and you’re in. We’re here for two weeks. You make your peace with the mall and then come to us, Esha.”
We had arrived at the carnival site and I immediately I sensed the difference in atmosphere. Where the cemetery was heavy and still, this place was charged with dormant electricity.
“Iris, why don’t you take this one and show him round the site?” said Edwiga.  Iris didn’t need telling twice. “Poor thing. She’s at that age. Like a cat scratching at a post. You don’t keep a lighted match near an old-soaked rag, but your Rastro seems like a nice boy. He’s on probation now. You wouldn’t believe what crawls out of the woodwork when you’re touring about.”
“I can believe.”
“I know who you are, you know,” Edwiga announced. “You were on TV before – you’re a people’s protestor. You were fighting some developers in another block.”
“That was just something I got caught up it.”
“You seemed to mean it. Lots of your generation are like that. Angry. You won’t give me any trouble. I say it now, because I don’t like to be harsh in front of Iris.”
“No – no – of course not.”
“You’re no engineer. But I’ll give you a chance. I always help those that need help.”
            I promised her that I’d come the next day and her rich silence told me she would believe it when she saw it. Rastro and Iris were up ahead, wandering among the machines, she animated, he limping with pain, her flirting, him not noticing, but I didn’t want to bother them.
            On the main road the traffic had changed from local vehicles to the sleek cars of important people for whom Bock L was just an undesirable part of town to be got through as quickly as possible, with the central locking on and the windows sealed tight.
            The night thickened around me and, even though it must only be eight o’clock or so, I began to feel prickly and paranoid. A man clipped alongside me and hissed something into ear that was either an offer, a piece of savage advice, a question or an insult, but was delivered so fast and so savagely sizzling that I couldn’t break it down.  
There was a group of women dressed all in white, looking like a mixture of nuns, nurses, angels, good witches and medieval queens, holding out fundraising tubs, under a banner with The Sisters of Perpetual Charity written on it. One of the women caught my eye as I walked past. I always noticed women who I thought were about my age, and I marvelled over the hundred lives I could have led, had karma been skewed in another direction, delivering me a different fate.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Five

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

For the rest of the day I had flashbacks, seeing in flickering scenes, like a bulb snapping on and off in a dark room. Dog. Leap. Blood. Zizi gave me the easy job of making more embellished bracelets. Zak didn’t come to collect his, so Zizi let me have it.  
“Think you earned it,” she said gruffly.
            For the rest of the afternoon other workers from the mall, suddenly feeling friendly, dropped by for a range of tiny jobs which anyone could have done, lingering to get the full details of what had happened. Zizi told them in graphic, embellished detail while I stamped out four new metal signs to go on the desks in the financial services bureau, ran up some extra locker keys for the yoga studio, fixed countless clasps and settings on junk jewellery that had clearly been cheaper to buy than it was to fix. We bumped up the prices and at the end of the day I had two hundred tokens. 
“That’s the price of a life, is it?” I joked.
“It’s the price of a dog’s life. Ours is cheaper!” She gave me a pocket sized net bag on a short cord that shed been using to store picture hooks. “You can’t go around holding all that money in your hand. Keep it under your shirt.”
“Thanks Zizi.”
“You up for a game tonight? Card game? My place? Thought you might not want to hang out in the basement.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Zizi tore off a corner of my scrap paper and scribbled something down.
“It’s a shame to let two hundred tokens go to waste, un-gambled and un-bet, for no reason, on a day like this. The cricket replays are on tonight: Miriadh Summer Cup. Come over, we’ll be up late. Just me and the neighbours.” She pushed the scrap of paper over to me. “I’m in a place called The Alleys, the oldest part of the block. If you don’t want to take an auto you can walk. It’ll take an hour.”
            She gave me directions and also gave me her wine flask, which had a couple of good inches left in it.
“Take it,” she said when she saw me about to protest. “It’ll stop your mind turning about. Also, I’m expecting a delivery of a crate of something nice tonight. So I don’t need it. Oh – forgot something.” She fished around her shirt and trouser pocket and pressed a key into my palm. “Door key for this place. I might be ‘off sick’ tomorrow morning. My one permitted sick day of the year. You’re not allowed any.”
            We locked up and I went downstairs, opened the door to the under-basement and was immediately leapt on by Gilanta.
“Zak’s been sacked. ”
“What?”
“That’s right.” She stepped back and nodded furiously. “You dragged my grandson into your fandango when all he was doing was trying to help you out.”
“No, we had a fair trade.”
When all he was doing was trying to help you,” she shouted over me.
“I had no idea that Barzakh’s your grandson.”
“Of course he’s my grandson! Well – my grand-nephew, my sister’s son’s son. But it’s all family to me, because I have loyalty.” I got away from her but she ran in front of me. “They pulled him out of work in front of everyone. He’s just a boy, what was he to do? He told them.”
“Told them what?” I marched around her.
“That he sometimes passes off the surplus produce in return for other surplus produce.”
“‘They’ already know.”
“You’re not getting it.” Gilanta put her hands on her hips. “No – they’re getting rid of  everyone who was involved regardless of fault, to wash their hands clean of the whole thing. Powerful people aren’t interested in right and wrong.”
I saw that she was exactly right. In that moment we both calmed down a bit. I went towards my patch. She followed.
“You go to your bed. But where can Zak go?”
“You tell me. Where’s he staying tonight?” I said.
“With a friend,” admitted Gilanta.
“You mean a guy he’s in a band with. I’m sure they’re having a blast. And he can always stay with you, since you’re so close. I have no doubt that by tomorrow he’ll get himself exactly the same sort of job in a different mall.”
I could see my patch, looking scrappy and dirty, although I was sure I hadn’t left it in such a mess. Standing by it was Agonia, Nimet’s mother, holding Femi who looked like a bundle of sticks. She had been waiting for me and her eyes were on Zizi’s flask. I gave it to her immediately, the liquid inside making a silvery noise.
“Esha was the only one who acted fast enough to protect those children. She did what she had to and she didn’t think twice, far as I’ve heard,” said Agonia to Gilanta.
“The children of the rich have protection enough,” said Gilanta.
“They didn’t in that moment. All children deserve protection by anyone. And the children of the poor, too, deserve protection by the rich.”
“Well, they don’t get it,” said Gilanta scathingly. “Did anyone of them thank you, Esha? Did any parent seek you out to say a simple decent thank you?” I said nothing. “You see! The rich expect us to risk our lives and exhaust our bodies for them, for nothing, just for the honour of doing so.”
“But more than anything, the rich like to see us argue amongst ourselves,” said Agonia. “Then they sit back in satisfaction and say, ‘See? That is why they can’t better themselves. They’re just like animals.’”
            This shamed all of us. Gilanta slunk away and I walked Agonia back to her patch. People bowed their heads as we got close, either due to Agonia’s seniority or to what was surely soon to come for little Femi.
            We came to Agonia and Greve’s patch.
“Nimet’s gone to deliver three special pieces. A wedding set,” said Agonia, sitting down, giving Greve Zizi’s flask and firing up the ring burner.
            Greve unscrewed the flask and poured out a capful.
“Not long now,” he said softly. 
Femi’s skin was patchy, red in some places, yellowish in others. Although his belly and brow were domed, his neck and arms were too thin to look at without a feeling of certainty and close dread.
“Will Nimet be back late?” I asked.
            Greve nodded. He fed the last of Zizi’s sugary liqueur to the baby, whose eyes were closed but for a slit of watery white.
“There. No need for a little baby to feel pain when he doesn’t have to,” he said.
“Nimet’ll be back even later if she spends more time with those witches in the cemetery,” said Agonia. “Soul-suckers. Spending all your time hanging round the dead can’t be right. It means you’re pointed in the wrong direction.” She put a round of unfired flatbread onto a heating plate on the ring. “They see her suffering, see her alone – and they invite her to wallow in it.”
“I think it gives Nimet some comfort to be there,” I offered.
“What is comfort? I gave birth to eleven children and only three survived.”
“He’s laying down his weapons,” said Greve, as Femi grew floppy and stopped struggling against invisible foes. “There he goes… there he goes.”
“I have money. I’ll give it to you. For medicine,” I said. “There are free hospitals all over Miriadh for people like us.”
“They have waiting lists,” said Greve.
“And he’s not ill,” said Agonia.
“Yes he is!” I said.
“His liver, his stomach, his little kidneys, and his heart that you can see beating through his chest, his skin’s so thin – do you think they’ll stand doses of foreign medicine?” said Agonia.
“I don’t know! Take him to a doctor, for the gods’ sake,” I implored.
“We have. And we took Waleh too, when it was his time,” said Agonia, “and they did nothing.”
“Then what could save them?” I cried.
“To go back in time and be fed from the beginning.”
            I grabbed the net bag through my shirt.
“I’m offering you this money. All of it. Don’t tell me there’s nothing to be done.”
“You’re a sweet girl,” said Agonia. “Don’t you concern yourselves with us.”
“Where is Nimet?” I demanded, even though they’d told me. “Why isn’t she here?”
“Think - if you let yourself love Femi, and you knew you’d lose him, knowing how much it hurt… isn’t it understandable to guard against it and harden your heart? If you know that you’d run mad if you let yourself feel for the boy, like you felt for his brother, only for this one to be taken too,” said Agonia.
She slid her fingertip, into Femi’s tiny palm. But Femi was so far gone that he didn’t clasp it. His face was turned to the side, wizened and small.
“I’ll run into the street and call for help,” I said.
They said nothing and I finally got it: they wanted me away. I was nobody to them, a passing acquaintance of their daughter, a stranger who had only arrived a day ago, one of hundreds of people in the under-basement. They did not want my opinion. And I could not help them.
            I tore away from them and went sobbing all the way back to my patch, wringing my hands.  When I got there, my things were scattered and the sheets had been kicked about. At the end of my patch, Rastro’s was in an even worse state. The threadbare cotton was torn and the few possessions he had were thrown as far as the wall, where they lay in the grime. The sheets were wet and there were puddles of water by the side of his patch.
I was being watched, not scoped openly but thinly side-eyed by some of our neighbours.
“What happened to Rastro?” I asked one man, who was lying with  his hand over his concave belly. His ring burner was unplugged and it was obvious he had no food for the evening.
He just closed his eyes, blocked me out. When I tried to talk to the other neighbours they cold-shouldered me too.
“I don’t know why you’re giving me attitude,” I said loudly.
“Don’t give trouble, don’t get trouble,” one of them muttered.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep. I was too wired from what had happened that day, the excitement and the horror. I was worried about Rastro. If the parents of the children he’d let out needed to vent their anger and decided they wanted his head on a stick, they would get it, literally. The death penalty was one Mirian tradition that Family kept on, and they were loose and free with it, too.

The tight roll of money in the net bag knocked against my sternum. I remembered the scrap of paper in there too, with Zizi’s address, and thought it wouldn’t hurt to sink a few cups of whatever hooch she and her neighbours were drinking. I left my patch. The doors were open and the chain was slack between them, the padlock hanging loose, dangling like a big metal pear. I put my palm up to the greasy wall and felt the vibration of the city through it. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Four

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

Zizi and Rastro ran out, followed by all the children. There was a macabre face-off happening across the floor of Minus One.
            At the bottom of the escalators was the man who put talc in his shoes, wearing his thick black rubber gloves, a padded black rubber suit and a convex cage mask. In his left hand he carried a lasso on an extendable rod. In his right hand he carried a tranquiliser dart gun. Behind him was one of the women who guarded the front doors of the mall, trembling from head to foot, holding a Taser.  
In front of them was a rabid dog. Its head was low, it was trembling, its bald-picked coat was covered in popping white foam and its eyes were red.
            In front of the dog, immobile with fear, was Zak. It was he who had screamed – the last echoes cut the edges of the air, bouncing off the marble surfaces. In a polystyrene tub he was carrying what I assumed was the vegetable special he’d promised me.
Do something, sir,” said Zizi to the extermination man.
The dog scratched the ground and advanced on Zak. The children were all clutching each other, looking up at Rastro, who gave them a beaming smile as if it was all part of the show. The dog turned its long-snouted head, noticed the children, gave a twitch, snapped around to face them and braced itself. The children screamed and surged around Rastro, to whom they clung, until his costume began to tear at the shoulders and peel off.
The extermination man was aiming his dart gun. Someone had stopped the escalators and I could see mall workers at the top, setting out Area Closed cordons across the mouth of the escalators. All the shop workers on our floor had locked themselves in and were staring out, some of the younger staff filming the scene on their phones.  The dog took a step towards the children, growling deep in its throat, ears stiff, fur bristling and switching.  
I looked around me. The workshop floor was a mess. Anything that could have been unravelled, emptied or upended had been. Close by was a length of sharpened metal. It was thick, with a point and bevelled edges, like a stake. I picked it up and went out.
The dog leapt toward the children in a high arc. The extermination man fired  his dart gun, which hit it in the haunch but didn’t slow it down. I threw the stake, hard. It hit the dog through the neck, thudding in. The dead dog hit the children square on, fresh blood hosing from its neck, its body contorting and contracting nose to tip. The blood-covered children ran screaming in a dozen directions. The dog fell onto the ground, making a bubbling sound as more blood gushed out – the blood was exactly the same colour as Rastro’s costume.
Rastro was clinging to the wall. He slid down onto the floor. I too lost my strength, fell to my knees and crawled to him. Zak joined us and we three sat and watched the pool of blood flow smoothly outwards until it almost touched us, reflecting the lights of the ceiling in its seamless red surface. Then the security guard, her eyes huge, Tasered the dead dog. When the Taser had emitted its full charge, the security guard threw it from her and burst into tears.
A type of mall worker I’d never seen before – middle aged men in middleweight tailored brown suits – ignored the cordon and came down the escalators, their cool eyes scanning the scene and taking in every person, in every position. The extermination man immediately began scrambling to cover himself. He got on the phone to his nephew, shouting at him showily for having left the van doors open “while I was conducting a meeting.” I knew that whatever he said, everything had been recorded on the security cameras from a dozen different angles.
“I can’t be seen here,” said Zak, suddenly coming to life. He threw the food package into my lap and disappeared down the staff staircase.
            Slowly, I pulled myself up to standing, although I felt very shaky. 
“Go and wash,” I told Rastro.
            Underneath the painted smile and startled eyebrows his face was flat.
“They’re going to come for me,” he said.
“You don’t know that.”
“I shouldn’t have taken the children out of the crèche. I shouldn’t have taken them to your shop. I shouldn’t have put them in harm’s way.”
“You’re in shock.”
“They’ll want to talk to me,” he said.
“They probably will.”
Customers and staff were now coming out of the different units to gawp. Mall workers surrounded the body with Hazard signs. The children were all crying, squatting down covering their faces, calling for their mothers or favourite servants or pointing tearfully to the dog. The doors of the dog grooming parlour opened and some of the women who worked there came out, sweet-talked the children and guided them back to the crèche.
The extermination man was having an argument with the men in brown suits, who milled about bumping into each other like ants.
“We have to wait for the boss,” I heard one of them say.
“This isn’t a police crime scene!” the extermination man argued back. “Just let me do my job and keep out of my way.”
“There should be a inquiry.”
“It’s a bloody dog, not your grandmother!”
“We have to follow procedure.”
“Who do you answer to?”
“The Mall King, sir. Nasser-Khaleb Murat.”
            The extermination man paled.
“Surely you’re not going to bother a great man like that with a very small matter like this? I mean,” he laughed and began wringing his hands, “I’m just an ordinary man trying to run a business with his nephew.”
“Your van was parked illegally on the lines outside the mall and your assistant left the back door unlocked and his phone sitting on the dashboard. And one of your dogs got out. That put our customers at risk. We’re going to incur lawsuits from the parents of the children. All of them.”
“Your guards panicked. They let the dog get in because they were mucking about like schoolgirls instead of watching the door. They had tasers and batons and mace and some of them have handguns but instead they flapped their hands and burst into tears. Lucky for you I could get a shot in.”
“It wasn’t you that stopped the dog,” said a brown suited man.
“It wasn’t you either.”
            Their heads turned to me. I dropped my eyes. It was a stalemate. The brown suited men backed off, the extermination man’s nephew arrived, looking sheepish, in a white plastic jumpsuit and gloves. He was carrying what looked like a plastic wine cooler. Their clean-up process wasn’t very technical: the man and his assistant picked up the stiffening dog, dumped it in the box and carried it off. Cleaners came with green paper hygiene masks over their faces, but no other protection, and began passing water-soaked mops through the blood.
Down glided Amaro Solanki. The men in brown suits clustered around him. Amaro listened and nodded, then his eyes slid to Rastro. Then his eyes slid to Zizi. Then his eyes slid to me.
“You need to get out of here,” I said to Rastro. “Are there other workers at the crèche?”
He nodded, then sighed heavily.
“Oh, gods. I’ll be put on some kind of register as a risk to children.”
“Go and wash. My vanity case has soap in it, and cream. Take what you need.”
            He slipped away and I heard the door to the workers’ staircase bang shut. In shock, I went back to the workshop, put the food Zak had given me on the worktop – I felt like throwing up every time I looked at it – and began cleaning up. I was shaking. Zizi joined me and quietly began fitting the punched metal pieces onto Zak’s leather thong bracelet.
            Things seemed to go back to normal. Zizi finished the bracelet, set it aside and finished working on the extermination man’s shoes. The blood outside was cleared up, the cordon gone except for two Wet Floor signs. The fragrance jets were pumping an extra strong infusion through the floor.
            There was a clamour of well-bred voices on the floor above and a group of parents charged down the escalators, made for the crèche and dragged their children out. The children, who’d been so noisy and ebullient before, even when horrified, had all gone eerily quiet. They walked woodenly and allowed themselves to be pulled by their wrists.
“The exact details haven’t got out,” said Zizi as we watched them go. “If they had, they’d be coming here to thank you for saving their kids’ lives. And they’d be offering you things to express their gratitude.”
“I don’t want to be thanked for that.”
“Heads up.”
            The extermination man was back at the door, protective suit off, baseball cap on, carrying an odour of deep fried falafel and smoky peppers with him.
“Had a nice lunch?” Zizi asked, pointedly. “Good to have a strong constitution, it lets you bounce back from any shock moments,” she went on, but the mockery bounced off him.
            I pushed the man’s resoled shoes towards him and he stuck them under his arm, instantly crushing them.
“I wanted to talk to you about,” he said as he paid us. “There’s no need to, er, tell too many people about what happened today, is there? We sorted it out between ourselves.”
            Zizi cocked her head.
“Tell who, sir?”          
“Well – anyone. The Mall King has business connections all over Block L. And I work all over Block L. And both our dealings point in the same direction: to the Family.”
“As does everything,” agreed Zizi.
“I wasn’t supposed to be away from the van, but I wanted these resoled for my daughter’s wedding. I’ve worn the same pair to all my children’s weddings.” He began to get worked up. “When it’s Code Red, likelihood of imminent harm to human life, I’m supposed to step in and immobilise, just take it down, not jab it in the arse like a doctor giving a vaccination.” The man stopped himself, took a tissue from his pocket and wiped his forehead. “I’m sorry, ladies. I’m angry with myself.”
“The thing is, sir, we can’t get into trouble for something you did. Not when it was my apprentice who saved the day. She can’t give her skin to save yours, she’s not some Mirian martyr from ancient times. There’ll be people wanting to speak to us. They’ll be saying, ‘Just how did that thing get in here? Who’s to blame?’ And their eyes will cast about until they hit upon the truth.”
“You could say I didn’t come in here and drop off the shoes, that I arrived promptly and stunned it and the dog was dead by the time she staked it.”
“But that wouldn’t be the truth,” said Zizi.
            The man reached into his back pocket and dropped a couple of crumpled sweaty notes on the counter. It was thirty tokens. We didn’t react. He threw down another thirty. Zizi and I didn’t touch them. The man tutted and gave some more. Zizi stacked them together and gave me half, putting the other half in her shirt pocket.
“I’ve got your word, then, have I?” the man asked anxiously.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Zizi as the door opened, “and here’s Mr Solanki now.”
            As Amaro Solanki glided into our workshop, the extermination man ran out, into a huddle of brown suited men who escorted him up the escalators into, I assumed, a room set aside for ‘questioning’.
“Are the police going to talk to him?” I asked.
            Amaro Solanki scoffed.
We’re not the police,” said Solanki. “We don’t care if your man there’s driving about with no licence or a broken tail light or isn’t qualified to kill dogs or whatever. We care that he sullied the name of the Mall King  and made this lovely space an unlovely place to be. And he must bear the cost of that. The financial cost, the moral cost, the emotional cost.”
“What is the cost?” I asked.
“It has no limit,” said Solanki mournfully. “Twenty-eight children from twenty good families, who’re going to have nightmares for the next six months. Do you know how much a weekly visit to a child trauma specialist for twenty-eight children for six months would be?” He turned a slow circle around the front of the workshop, inspecting everything. I thanked the gods we’d cleaned up. “That young boy who was here when he wasn’t supposed to be, carrying food he wasn’t supposed to carry, we’ve spoken to him.”
“Zak,” said Zizi. She was chewing her tobacco again.
“You must understand, this brings us under great scrutiny.”
“What about Nasser-Khaleb Murat? The Mall King. Does he know what happened?” I asked.
“He knows,” said Solanki reverently.
“He should give her a reward,” Zizi butted in.
“She only did what any truly loyal employee would do,” said Solanki, “but in doing so, she made herself conspicuous, when all we ask of our employees is that you remain in the background.”
“She killed a dog that was menacing a group of children. You should give her a reward,” repeated Zizi.
            Solanki’s expression turned sour.
“Oh - fame is her reward. Isn’t it – ‘Esha Ex’?” He sneered, as if it was a name I’d made up – a superhero’s moniker. “You’re already a top clip on Binar Bizarre. You know that show? It collects all sorts of disgusting stupid things that people in Binar get it into their heads to do. Someone already uploaded it to their site.”
“I don’t know anything about computer things,” I said. 
“But it should satisfy you nonetheless. We know you like to be seen by your public.”
            He gave me a heavy look and I had the distinct feeling that he had seen the footage of me shouting at Ali Mercator in the square in Block Q, that he knew I had been around the Family and that somehow, in the last hour, some connection of information had been made, far above my head, far behind my back.
“Trouble seems to follow you wherever you go,” he said. “I do hope that’s not true. When someone has a reputation for trouble they become a liability.”
“Nothing wrong with a bit of renown,” Zizi piped up. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”
“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down,” said Amaro Solanki.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Three

The next instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, updated daily. For more details click here.

We’d been put down so early that I managed a few hours of proper sleep, but was awoken hard at three, four and five by the clanging alarm calling others to work. From four o’clock they kept the main lights on, bright enough to prick my eyeballs through the lids. From five, with a scrape of metal on concrete, they opened the doors and the rising sun filled the room. The bell at six was mine. Me and dozens of others got up, heads drooping, soles scuffling. We were all the same sort: dog poor, dirt humble and bone tired.
Nimet’s patch was such a distance from me that I could only make out the top of her head and her shoulder. Agonia and Greve were gone. Nimet was sewing, with Femi on her lap. I wondered how long she’d been up.
At the side a woman was creating and selling vast bubbling quantities of dark brown, crispy, salted, oil-glistening onion rings on her burner. Between her bare feet was a wooden chopping board, a plastic bowl with the raw batter mixture in it, a saucer with flakes of pepper-blackened salt heaped on it, a pile of onions and a meat cleaver dripping with onion juice.
“Trade you?” I asked her. 
“Cash only.”
I washed with the other women concealed behind the wall. Amaro Solanki was in his chair at my end of the room, watching everyone. His yellowish eyes were rimmed red and his face hung heavy. I wondered which teriyaki grill, whisky bar or gentleman’s club he had gone to after the lights snapped off.
Everyone left their possessions neatly piled on their patches, in full trust that they wouldn’t be stolen. I returned to my patch to find my dead-asleep neighbour awake and neatening his sheets.
“It’s all right. It’s safe,” he said, seeing me hesitate.
He was actually quite young, I noticed. I took him at his word and left my bundle up near where my head had been. 
            I went up the steps of  staircase 4 to Minus One, hearing the footsteps of the workers who were assigned to higher floors slapping above me. As I came out I was surprised to see Barzakh, twiddling his baby moustache, talking animatedly to Zizi. The corrugated shutter of the key-cutter’s was half up.
“Hi, Zak,” I said, and got a swaggering nod. I put my shoulder under the shutter and shoved until it caught momentum and pulled itself up.
Barzakh was dressed in his white kitchen hand’s apron and a white cap. Zizi was fastening something onto his wrist.
“This one thinks he’s a rock star,” she said to me.
“I’m in a band,” he said, all smooth.
“Good luck to you!” said Zizi heartily. “Your can go on tour and save money by doing your own catering.” Zizi showed me Zak’s wrist: “Leather thong bracelets. I’ll teach you how to make then. Always look for a side business. That’s the first lesson of the day. For our friends, we don’t charge money. Why pass the same five token note around among ourselves, only to have to beg for it back when things get tight? But there’s lots of schools round here. The young gals come in here and roam up and down with their pocket money. Go for them.”
            The dog grooming women tottered in. When they passed our little crew they gave us sniffy looks.
“They’re in a bad mood today because of the extermination units doing their circuit,” said Zak. “The vans that go around picking up stray dogs and gassing them.”
“So what?” said Zizi. “Binar’s got a dog problem. We come in here and see them being treated like precious possessions: ridiculous. Go out on the street and there are twenty on every corner, licking their own balls and passing on the rabies and the plague, e-coli, salmonella and all manner of dirty stuff. Can’t be sentimental.”
We went into the shop, Zizi still pulling Zak by the wrist. I went behind the counter, put Zizi’s empty plum wine flask discreetly into her cubby hole and brought out a fistful of the bits of punched metal we’d been betting with yesterday.
“We could do some bracelets that’re threaded with these,” I said.
“Those are cool,” said Zak quickly. He was carrying a thin paper bag soaked through with oil. He put it on the counter where it left a dark patch.
 “Not bad, Esha. Don’t know why I didn’t think of that,” said Zizi.
She joined me behind the counter.
“So, Zak, Esha’s looking a bit thin and you want a new bracelet with spiky bits on it. We can take that one off you and doctor it. But that’s extra work. An extra pair of hands means an extra stomach to fill.”
Zizi put her hand inside the paper bag, pulled out a fat triangular samosa, its corners deep-fried till their were pointed and dark, and casually handed it to me. I took a bite. Zak looked from her, to me, to his new bracelet, to the bits of punched metal I’d scattered on the worktop.
“I can’t give you any meat,” he said.
“Who said anything about meat? Did I say anything about meat?” said Zizi.
“We make a vegetable special every day…” Zak was already unpicking the knot of his bracelet and giving it back.
“I promise, Zak, we’ll make you something really cool,” I said.
“And you show your friends, and tell them where you got it from,” said Zizi as she sent him off.
            Next up was a quick swap: a man in a dusty black waiter’s suit with a burgundy nylon waistcoat came in with another flask of something, and in return Zizi took his cigarette lighter and put his initials on it, showing me how to use the engraving machine as she did so.
A bell rang across the mall. It was seven o’clock.
“Showtime,” said Zizi, “but first, a fortifier.”
            She picked up the new flask, unscrewed the metal cap and sniffed delicately.
“Aniseed. Vanilla. New blend. Ready for a shot?”
            I refused.
“But… it’ll help you digest your samosa,” she said, astonished.
“I don’t want to digest it, it’s got to last me all day.”
            It took a hundred rebuttals for her to accept that I didn’t want some forty per cent proof vanilla flavoured liqueur at seven o’clock in the morning.
“Uh-oh, it’s Smelly Feet Man,” muttered Zizi as the first customer approached.
 “How can you tell?”
“Large feet, closed shoes, baseball cap. nylon-mix football top. In this heat. This gent does not know the meaning of ventilation.”
“Can you resole these? They’re for a wedding,” asked the man when he got to the counter.
He clunked a pair of large, heavy, formal shoes out of a plastic bag onto the counter. They smelled fine.
“Heavy tread, is it?” deadpanned Zizi. “Puts a lot of pressure on the sole, especially if,” she lifted up one shoe and looked at the underside, “you favour the outside edge of the foot. Bad for you, sir. Bad for the arches. We can make you some foam inserts to correct that. Custom made.”
“They’re very effective sir,” I piped up.
The man wasn’t buying. I filled out a receipt for the resoling while Zizi made more small talk.
“You wear long gloves for work?”
“How do you know?” asked the man in surprise.
“Most gentlemen of your type, if you don’t mind me saying, they’ve got sunburnt arms. But your tan begins above the elbow. Makes me think you’re a man that works in gloves.”
“Well – yes,” he said.
“Is chain mail? My apprentice needs some, for when I teach her blade work. I don’t care for them myself – but she’s young.”
 “I wear rubber gloves,” said the man. “Anti bite gloves. I work in the vans. I’ve got my nephew waiting for me now, just outside. Well – my nephew-in-law to-be. My daughter’s future husband’s brother. That’s my business: extermination.”
Zizi took a thin, flexible knife, blunt along the edge and rounded at the end, so fine it could slice between layers of skin, and prised the stiff uppers of the man’s shoe from the soles. It came away slowly, with a cracking sound. She gave me the other shoe to work on.
            I twisted the knife and the shoe came apart, exploding in a puff of thick white powder that smelt of decades of compressed, congealed sweat. My stomach turned over, I felt the blood rush to my feet and the next thing I knew I was sitting on my stool with my head resting against the edge of the worktop, the man had disappeared and Zizi was holding her wine flask to my lips.
“What happened?” I said, coming to. I accepted a sip of liqueur. It was so sweet it shocked the nerves deep in my teeth.
“You went. Happens a lot at this time of year. It’s the heat.”
“Is the customer gone? Dead dogs he’s fine with but fainting ladies make him squeamish.”
“He got a call from his nephew. There was a problem with the van. Parking wardens, probably. Easiest way to make money in this city is harass the drivers who’re only trying to do their business.”
            The skins and soles of the man’s shoes were lying in a lake of stinking, clotted powder.
“This is a frequent problem,” said Zizi. “The client: his feet smell. His shoes smell. He doesn’t want to try a sandal or a flip-flop. He can’t be bothered to wash himself. So he pours baby talc in the shoes.”
            I swept the talc into a plastic bag – it was so live that the bag actually puffed out and steamed up – and dumped it in the bin. When I straightened up again there was a red devil on the other side of the window, beckoning to me.
It was a tall, thin apparition in a red jumpsuit with orange pom poms down the front, white gloves and a yellow cap. The face was thickly masked in caked white paint, with arched eyebrows painted in constant surprise and a red sausage-lipped smile, outlined in smudged, weeping black. An orange corkscrew curled wig was jammed underneath the cap. Thick lines of sweat poured down the whiteface, thickening the pan stick and melting it unevenly.
“It’s me! Your neighbour! We met this morning!” The clown pointed to itself. “I’m Rastro.”
She gestured for Rastro to come in, and he did, followed by about thirty noisy, wriggly, knee-high children wearing cardboard masks decorated with buttons, glitter, crayon scrawls and bits of macaroni. They all streamed in, putting their hands into clamps, stroking razorblades and picking up the knives and hammers that were lying around. Zizi watched, fists on hips, grinning broadly.
“I work in the crèche. I’m leading a pirate expedition around Minus One,” said Rastro, and the kids cheered. He added quietly, “The air-conditioning’ broken down in the crèche and nursery and it’s unbearable. We’re not allowed to come up to the ground floor, but we had to get out of there. Kids’ll be fainting. It’s agony, especially in this.” He plucked his nylon costume unhappily and it  sucked back onto him, charged with sweat and static.

Some of the kids had sunk their arms elbow deep into the lug nuts box while others were hitting each other with metal files, cutting each other’s hair with secateurs or trussing each other up in chains from the rolls by the door.  Underneath the high-pitched yelling of the children I heard a strange, frantic whimpering and howling from the dog grooming parlour, which increased in volume until it was cut through with a shrill human scream.