Saturday, 25 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty One

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

The new world was made of polished brass, cream marble, smooth surfaces. The new world smelled of jasmine room freshener and sounded like piped music. The walls curved gently around in an infinite commercial embrace, a protective cupping. The new world was traversed not by concrete stairs but by serenely slow escalators. And the new world, I noticed, was cold to the touch. The surfaces were cold. The conditioned air was cold.
I looked around. One shop offered fortune telling based on head bumps and facial features, another advertised its marital matching service, “Marriage within 6 months or money back.” At the far end, in the dog grooming parlour, yapping and whining were audible under the noise of aggressive blow drying.
            Immediately to my right was the key-cutters. There was a dark red plastic sign above the shop, on which there were no words, only white plastic images: a key, a lock, the sole of a gentleman’s shoe, three links of chain. The window display was piled with radios, wooden lasts for shoes, rolls of uncut cable, folded pieces of tarpaulin and plastic, lengths of foil, torches in all different sizes and every kind of battery. Behind the counter was a workshop with bladed and weighted machines on it and racks of plastic tubs loaded with bolts, plugs and whatnots lining the walls up to the ceiling. On a metal spike in a corner of the room hung complete pieces of cow skin, pig skin and pony skin in all colours. There were also various knives, hammers, saws and irons lying about.
Zizi was sitting on a low wooden stool behind the counter, sharpening a pencil with a razor blade into an empty rice noodle packet. I recognised her instantly by her tight grey plaits tied with red rubber bands poking stiffly from under a skull cap. Zizi had been in the square outside the Lotus Project the night the locals clashed with Mayor Ali Mercator and his developer friends.
“I’m Esha, your apprentice,” I said. “They said you’d be expecting me.”
 “Nice to see you again.”
“You remember me!”
She nodded, looking at me out of the corner of her eye like a naughty, charming old pixie.
 “Huh – Ali Mercator. But look where we ended up: in the lap of the Mall King. That’s karma.”
I explored the front of the shop, knocking a few wooden lasts together, thrusting my hand into a box of loose batteries and pushing the lengths of heavy chain so they swung slowly.
“You handy?” Zizi asked me. She held the pencil close to her face and assessed its thickly hewn nose of raw wood and chisel-shaped lead. “What I look for in an apprentice is this: a natural feel for the materiality of things. That’s not something you can teach.”
An announcement echoed through all the floors of the mall – a robotic yet flowing  woman’s voice inviting customers to a demonstration of threading, waxing and bleaching techniques for tackling unwanted female facial hair.
Zizi tucked the pencil into the top pocket of her shirt and invited me across the counter. I lifted the heavy metal flap and ducked under it. She dragged out another wooden stool and slapped the seat. I sat down.
“Didn’t know what time exactly you were coming.”
She reached into a cubby-hole under the till. It contained a box of matches, a crumbling deck of playing cards tied with a rubber band, a mobile phone and a neon yellow wrist tag. Zizi tightened the tag around my wrist. Her fingers were thin and warm, nimble bone covered in wrinkled, soft skin.
“That comfortable?”
“Once I fasten the tab you can only cut it off.”
            I pulled my sleeve down over it.
“I was downstairs, just now. In the under-basement,” I told her.
“They keep ‘em squeezed in like chickens in a basket, don’t they? I got a room. Renting it.”
She cocked her thumb towards who knew where.
“It’s not nice being a young lady,” said Zizi. “If you did what I’m doing, you’d have all the neighbours round in two minutes asking a million questions: What’s your name? Where’s your husband? Where are your parents? Who’s responsible for you? Where are your in-laws? It’s good being old. Nobody asks what you do. No-one cares. I’ll rent a room for two years and save my money. I already got some savings. The people at the bank know me well! Next, I’ll buy some land. Not here. Well out of Binar. Next, build a house for myself. One room. One bedroom. Bathroom. Workshop. Kitchen. Roof. And a big gate around the whole thing.”
Very few people were passing outside. I stood up, wondering if we’d lost any customers who’d come close then veered away thinking the shop might be empty.
“Slow day for keys,” remarked Zizi.
            She dug about in the cubby hole and came up with a plastic packet of something sticky and brown. She tore off a chunk and gave it to me, took a chunk for herself.
I thought it was packet of compacted prunes. It put the whole thing into my mouth and wrapped my tongue around it. It was coarse chewing tobacco. A sour taste spread around my mouth. I coughed and some juice went up my nose. Spluttering, I passed the tobacco miserably between my jaws. Zizi nodded encouragingly.
“Good, isn’t it,” she said.
            She got the noodle packet of pencil shavings and spat neatly into it, a tightly wrapped bullet of chewed leaves.
“Got it off the chap at the cigar shop here. Only a month past use-by.”
“How much did you pay for it?” I said, wiping my eyes and swallowing hard.
“Nothing. I gave him use of the key to the washroom of the executive bar on the top floor. There’s a hot water shower in there.”
“They’ll catch him on the security camera.”
“Not my problem. That’s what he asked for. That’s what he got. If he dobs me in I’ll dob him in.”
The mall had an empty, haunted feel even though I was sure there must be people above and around us, on the other floors. Zizi taught me a betting card game called Crab Claws, using fraction coin sized off-cuts of punched metal as bargaining chips. I lost badly because she kept ‘forgetting’ to teach me new rules.
The only two customers of the day were a woman who needed the fastening of a paste peacock-design brooch fixed and would come back for it in a couple of days, or send her maid, and a man who wanted the battery in his watch changed. They were simple jobs and Zizi taught me how to do both. When the customers were gone she took me around the workshop.
“See this? Stamps metal. Put the plate in there, fit it against the groove, flush with the side. Now get your hand out of the way. Pull the lever.” A heavy metal plate slammed down from the ceiling. “Next, the soldering iron. Heat it up. Put your hand near it. Closer. Feel how hot that is? Imagine if you’d gone one millimetre closer.” She told me not to drink any of the leather tanning and priming solutions or metal polishes, even though she stored them in drinking bottles next to a real bottle of tropical juice drink which I was free to have any time I was thirsty.  We went to a polishing machine: “I had an apprentice work with me on one of these, vain girl, didn’t tie her hair back, leant in to use it, it got her ponytail and ripped a slice right off her head in a split second. Scalped her. She had to go to the hospital for three skin grafts.” Then a cutting machine: “If you save a severed finger and pack it in ice you can reattach it quite successfully.” Then a series of loose stakes and blades: “The average eyeball has surprisingly few nerves. If you lose the sight in one eye, it’s amazing how quickly the other eye adapts.”
Then we came to the key-cutting machine.
“If a public official comes along and wants a key done for, oh, I don’t know, a local government building, an office or anything that seems like it might be interesting or useful, just whiz off an extra key for the record. Not for yourself. Not for me. Just for the record. Write down what it’s for and keep it in the spare key box.” She stuck her foot under a cabinet and toed out a red metal tin full of keys.
“Soaps and towel supplies cupboard, municipal swimming baths. University archive, 357BCE – 200BCE, Kalka Dynasty concubine transfer scripts,” I read off a couple of key tags. “Where did you get these?”
“Found it. Under there. I did exactly the same where I was before.”
“Where are those keys then?”
“I left them to Lovely. She’ll take the best advantage. Those are what I call fancy keys, to fancy places,” she said as I closed the box and put it back. “But the best of all is this. I made it.”
She stuck her hand down the front of her shirt and pulled out a metal spike on a leather thong. The spike was thin as a needle at the end, spiralled stiffly in the middle and ended fat and blunt like a cosh. It was like a long, twisted sea-shell, cast in metal.
“I call it the Devil’s Prick. It can get in anywhere. With enough of a motion, it’ll open. And you can also use it as a corkscrew if you’re desperate.”
We continued on with Crab Claws as the big plastic clock ticked around to five, then six o’clock.
“Nobody’s going to come in now, can we close early?” I said.
“Not allowed. This isn’t my business any more. Here, we close on the dot of seven and the shutters have to be down by seven-thirty or there’ll be penalties. We can have some of this while we wait.”
            At the very back of the cubby hole was a small flask and two cups. Zizi filled the cups and handed one to me. I took a sip and tasted something cold, strong and smokily sweet that turned hot as soon as it was inside my mouth, sending tendrils of fire down to my stomach and perfumed vapour up inside my head. I felt my insides melting into it.
“Good?” asked Zizi. I nodded. “It’s plum wine.”
“Did you make it yourself?”
“Nope. That’s a specialist craft. You cultivate a wine like that, you don’t mix it up in a vat at home. You can have different types. Rose wine. Cucumber wine. Grass wine. Lemon wine. There’s even a black wine. Tastes of liquorice.” She took a long sip of plum wine and smacked her lips. “This is my favourite. Good thing is, it doesn’t smell of wine. It smells of plums. Have some more.”
            At a quarter to seven the loudspeaker announced that the shops would be closing in fifteen minutes and wardens would be on hand to direct servants bearing purchased goods out to the exit. I was fuzzily trying to thread the bits of punched metal we’d been using for Crab Claws onto a leather thong. Zizi packed her tobacco away but gave me the last of the plum wine.
“It’ll warm you up if you’re sleeping down there.”
            She opened the till, whose drawer shot out stiffly with a comical ping, took out a small blue five token note and gave it to me. It sat on my palm, light and crinkled.
“What do I do with this?” I said.
“Whatever you want.”
“‘Huh’! It’s yours! It’s your pay. Five tokens a day. Six days a week. Fifty-two weeks a year. Adds up.”
            Slowly, I closed my fingers around it. It didn’t make me feel greedy, it made me feel nervous. I must not lose the five tokens.
            The announcer was giving out once-a-minute closure warnings. Senior security guards with glistening key chains and janitors wheeling trolleys of cleaning fluids crossed the marble floors. The lights flooding down from the top floors through the central part of the building, which the escalators reached up to like automated walkways to Paradise itself, shut off. A group of women with their noses in the air stalked past on kitten heels, each holding a round white vanity case. 
“Dog groomers,” said Zizi, her eyes tracking their progress like an animal spotting its natural enemy.
We turned off any of the machines that used mains power and covered each one with its own thick canvas hood. We went out together and Zizi snapped off the lights and locked the door. I brought down the shutters before bidding my new boss goodbye and going to the under-basement.
A wave of heat, noise and smell hit me as soon as I opened the door. There was a feeling of compression, compaction, hundreds of different meals being cooked at the same time, of bodies being bathed, babies changed, children chivvied and adults having snatched, tired conversations.  I went down the length of the room, looking for Nimet.
            I spotted baby Femi first. He was lying in an older gentleman’s arms, being rocked softly, too weak to make any noise. He was an even worse colour than when I last saw him. An older lady was leaning in and singing to him, sitting cross-legged, exactly how I had first seen Nimet. Neither the woman nor the man wore even one piece of jewellery. It had all, clearly, been sold.
            When they finally noticed me I gave a deep, traditional Mirian curtsey. I addressed them properly as Grandmother and Grandfather and said,
“Are you the parents of Nimet? I work at the key-cutters on Minus One, with Mother Zizi, and Nimet was helpful to me earlier today when I arrived.”
“Of course, please – you brought the vitamins, and some meat fries. Join us,” said the woman.
She made space for me but kept her eyes on the baby. Over the one ring burner there was a small lidded pot emitting a sunny, molten-butter aroma, but there was no way I was going to take any of it.
            I knelt down near them and something small and glossy on the bed sheets caught my eye. It was a stack of sticky new photographs.
“May I?” I said, reaching for them. “I love looking at pictures.”
            The woman looked embarrassed, but nodded. When I looked through the photographs it was clear why. They were other people’s family snaps, strangers’ celebrations, rejected print-outs from the photo processing shop where she and Nimet worked. Some were overexposed, others too dark, too much flare or shadow, unevenly cropped. They were photographs of posed, smiling, chubby cheeked daughters and sons sitting at full dinner tables, standing in shorts and sun-hats in the middle of Mirian plantations, or mountain passes, or beaches, or forests. They were the images of other people’s wealth and happiness. I put the photos in a pile and changed the subject.
“Is Femi all right?”
“He’s only weak,” said the man. “He had a stomach upset.”
“A baby can die from a stomach upset,” I blurted out.
“The illness has passed – it’s from the water,” said the woman. “It’s only that he can’t sleep. He can’t rest.”
            I knelt, hugging my bag, and felt the shape of Zizi’s flask through the thin cotton.
“Babies like sugar drinks, don’t they?” I said.
“Sugar costs a lot,” said the man.
A look of exasperation passed between the couple. I took out the flask, poured out the last of the plum wine into the metal cap and held the cup over the cooking ring to warm it up a little.
“This’ll help,” I said. “It’s plum… tonic. Plum cordial.”
            They let me approach Femi, who was writhing and grizzling. I held up the cup.
“Tilt him, Greve,” said the woman to her husband.
He did so. I tipped the last of the plum wine into Femi’s mouth. Just like Zizi and me, Femi tasted the liqueur, squirmed and smacked his lips.
“Look at that, Agonia,” said Greve to his wife. “It’s working.”
Femi mashed his gums together and gave a few deep sighs and blinks. His shoulders stopped shrugging and he dropped off into a heavy sleep. I winced to imagine that tiny baby waking up with its first hangover. Before Agonia and Greve could offer me any of their minuscule dinner pot, I told them I had to go.
“I’ve been indoors all day and I want to go out and get my bearings. I suppose I won’t see Nimet until tomorrow.”
“She went to collect more hand-work from the textile dealers,” said Greve.
“We told her to come back before dark,” said Agonia.
“Have all your shifts finished for the day?” I asked them.
“For now,” said Agonia. “Nimet will sew until they turn the lights out. She used to carry on and sew by torchlight, until we had to let go of the torch,” she said delicately, “when Femi needed medicine.”
“I go to the shoe store to restock it at five,” said Greve.
“He should go to bed now,” said Agonia pointedly.
“It’s worst for the men out back,” said Greve.
“Out back?” I asked.
“The meat market in the food hall. They cut meat all night. The blood and juice runs down to the gutters outside. We have to wade through the water to get out. But a roof’s a roof. There’s water and electricity for most of the hours of the day.”
“We’re not starving,” I nodded.
“No: we are starving. But we’re not dead,” said Agonia.
            I bid them goodbye, went to one of the washing areas and cleaned out Zizi’s flask at the pipe, shaking it dry over the drain. In the artificial light, it was impossible to see how clean the water was, if it contained pith and dirt or was tinged black, brown or yellow. The wine had made my mouth dry but I resisted drinking.
            I went to the main doors, through which I could see a sliver of twilight. I was stopped by an older woman and a lanky boy in his teens.
“Wait, please,” said the woman, officious but not unfriendly. She wore traditional clothes, tight around her short form.
“Tag?” said the boy. He exuded the pore-deep breaded, greased and fried smell of a snack shop kitchen hand, although his coconut-oiled, sharply parted hair and hopeful moustache fluff told me he had manly aspirations far above that station.
            I showed them my tag. They were satisfied.
“You’re new,” stated the woman. “Name and post, please.”
“I work with Madam Zizi. She’s the master of the workshop.”
The woman introduced herself as Gilanta, and the boy was Barzakh.
“But everyone calls me Zak,” he said, his hand going up to his moustache as if to check it was still on.
“We’re on security tonight,” Gilanta informed me. “When you’ve served two months here and earned trust, you’ll be added to the rota.”
“Purpose for leaving?” asked Barzakh.
“I want to go for a walk.”
            Gilanta and Barzakh looked baffled.
“Alone?” said Gilanta.
“I want to stretch my legs.”
“How long will you be?” asked Barzakh.
“I won’t be back late.”
“Who do you know out there?” asked Gilanta.
With a great deal of ceremony, handling the large key and padlock  as if they had been made to guard the coral gates of Paradise, Barzakh eventually let me out.
“What if there’s a fire and people need to get out?” I said.
“We’ll go up the stairs and out through the main entrance. They,” Gilanta rolled her eyes upwards, “wouldn’t begrudge us that, I’m sure. If it was an emergency.”
“What if there’s a riot?”
“There won’t be a riot unless a troublemaker starts one. If anything happens to you out there, don’t bring it back to our doorstep. Trouble stays outside. Decency stays inside.”

Friday, 24 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty

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

“Hey!” I exclaimed
“Don’t lean forward. Sit directly behind me,” he said, spidery fingers holding the steering wheel in a death grip. 
“So I’m not seen?”
“No. If you sit on the left the whole thing leans down on that side.”
            He pulled a bent lever next to him and the auto kicked into the path of an oncoming bus.
“Watch it!” I yelled.
“What are you doing here?”
“Didn’t think we’d let you go without saying goodbye, did you?”
“Gods, I’m so ungrateful! I know I shouldn’t have left without saying thank you. Tell Devika and Gita and the others.”
            Riven cut in behind the bus and followed it so closely that I could see the bright green of the auto reflected in the bus’s back bumper. We spurted forward, hit it and bounced back. We followed the same route that the Family parade had taken, past the alleyway leading to the Lotus project, past Lovely’s tea shop at the end of the street. I wondered how it felt for Riven, pretending to be as low caste as me, a mere auto driver although his smooth forearms, not tanned dark from driving all day under the sun, gave him away. 
            We made a nervous right turn at a major junction, then continued straight for two large city blocks. The auto got onto a flyover and laboured over it, grinding and falling back while Riven whimpered. The view from the topside was of endless building works going on throughout the city, the spines and shoulders of cranes, the raw edges of scratchy scaffolding and the blunt, unfinished ends of other flyovers.
The road let us down into a monster junction. It was hard to see through the smeared front window and Riven was driving blind, guiding himself by the avoidant screeches and warning honks of the vehicles surrounding us, as well as the occasional knocks, side-slams, bumper pummels and hand-slaps we were receiving from the bikers and motorcyclists who risked their lives by being near us.
These few blocks were in better shape than the ones we’d left behind. The roads were slightly less broken and there was a more definite sense of where the traffic ended and the pedestrians began. I’d thought that Riven would turn off into a side-street, but there seemed to be no side streets on these blocks, no secret lanes, alleys or shortcuts. Every road was a wide road, every turning was a major junction, everything was of a giant size.
“You’ll be working for a lady named Zizi, at a new place,” said Riven.
“A key-cutter. Lovely said.”
“Zizi relocated here herself from Block Q so you’re both in this together. She’ll train you up.”
“Is everything around here new?”
“Not new, just in a process of constant makeover that never ends.”
He got to the outermost lane by the side of the road and slowed almost to a walking pace, which made the auto shudder and threaten to tip. I looked out, noticing subtle differences between the neighbourhood I’d left behind and this one. The people, though just as shabbily dressed, held their heads a bit higher.
“What block’s this?” I asked.
We heard the squeak of something large and mechanical right behind us and let it pass. It was a white street-cleaning van, churning out its own black Binari exhaust smoke. On the side were written three statements, each one slightly smaller than the last. Cleaner streets, was written in foot high red letters. Then, slightly smaller, in blue, Be proud to walk down yours! And then, a hand span height in green, either a promise or a shifty apology: We’re making Binar even cleaner.
            We pulled up in front of a glittering, sleek, four storey mall.
“It’s in there,” said Riven. “In the basement. Zizi’s expecting you.”
“I just… go in and claim my job?”
            Riven nodded.
“No-one’ll stop me?”
“Why would they? You look like a local,” he said, and that surprised me, because to me my origins were written across my face, the stench of the orphanage and whatever I’d gone through leaking from every pore.
“I suppose a lot of ex classers work in the malls, do they?” I said.
“And in the Binari service industry, generally,” he conceded.
            Sitting on the wide steps leading up to the mall’s  main doors were groups of secondary school kids studying together, eating crispy onion patties and fried plantains from the food vendors out front. The vendors were doing a roaring business – literally, as each stall had its radio on loud, blasting out live commentary of a horse-race. The sound of hooves and urgently shouted jockeys’ names echoed down the steps towards us.
I felt intimidated by the size of the building and unwilling to get out of the auto. Riven didn’t rush me.
“The place is owned by the Mall King,” he said. “Nasser-Khaleb Murat. On the other side of the crossing are two other malls, both his. One’s for reconditioned electrical goods and the other’s a market for knock-off Western brands.”
It was with those words and not any great farewell that we left each other. I was about to tell him again how grateful I was when a schoolgirl with a bulging rucksack ran down the steps, pushed me smartly aside and got into my seat even before I was fully out of it.
“Amien Technical College science lecture theatre, please,” she said.
            She set her plimsolled feet together and looked at Riven expectantly. Riven furrowed his brow. I heard him gulp. I loitered next to them, half in and half out, unable to say a proper goodbye – or to fervently wish the schoolgirl all the good luck in the world as she put her life in Riven’s hands. I hoped her lecture didn’t start for a good two hours and there was an ambulance on standby when she arrived.
The auto wobbled away. The mall towered over me, elevated above the traffic, shaped like a temple, built by this Nasser-Khaleb Murat guy with the confidence of a god. But even temples needed people to clean their toilets.
            I went up the main steps, heart tugged by the sight of all the well-fed, uniformed students around me, eating, reading, photographing each other, phoning their mothers. They were not so far from me in age but we may as well have been from different planets.
Just behind each door was a security guard. She blocked me.
“Side entrance.”
“Could you tell – ”
“Side entrance.”
“I just need to find – ”
“Side entrance.”
I trudged back down. The workers’ entrance was a storey lower than the main entrance, down a slope at the side. All the dust and rubbish from the street rolled into it. The wide, corrugated metal doors had been propped open with bricks and a hot fug of air came out, smelling of toilets, petrol, bleach, feet and a hundred different snack foods all stewed together, the combined smelled of the entire undercarriage of the mall. A heavy snake of chain with industrial padlocks hanging from the links sagged from the doors, to be fastened up again once we were all inside. But I didn’t see any guard or boss types. Perhaps we were supposed to lock ourselves in as a sign of good faith.
            I went inside. In front of me was a settlement occupying the entire footprint of the mall. It was concrete but strangely cosy, low ceilinged, dimly lit by long yellow bulbs in cages hanging from the maze of crinkle-skinned foil ventilation tubes, sewage pipes carrying posh people’s shit over our heads, colourfully bundled electricity wires and cables and the winding guts of other utility lines.
The breezeblock wall was painted into different zones with a coloured number next to the service stairs in each zone. People were spread across the floor, families living in groups, each keeping a bit of stepping space between them and the next group, all living the same way, with a portable cooking ring, some sheets, a stack of kitchen pots. There were spots of delicate privacy: two open umbrellas used as a screen, an old veil draped across a line strung between two packing boxes, a petticoat ripped open at one seam and stretched from nails in the basement’s supporting pillars.
            There were long lockers against the walls, some open and with the key in the lock, revealing bedrolls and other necessities awaiting collection by new people. Off to the sides, running alongside an open gutter, were water pumps, and next to the gutters were concrete enclosures, the walls shoulder high, for people to wash with some privacy.
As I explored, many of the others looked up and greeted me then immediately turned back to their own business. This was how such large numbers of people lived together: by remaining separate, by keeping some things for themselves, marking themselves out not with physical space but with tact and silence. Those who were at the end of their shifts were cooking whole grains and lentils, stewing spice tea in tin pots. Others just crashed out, managing to look wary even in sleep. There were small children living there too – their parents or grandparents must work at the mall – sitting cross-legged reciting sums by rote and spelling out English words loudly after their half-day at school. I noticed that all the children were wearing bright yellow bracelets on their skinny wrists. I thought it must be from some school club they were all in, until I looked at the adults and saw they were wearing the same – a neon plastic band, rubbery and biteable like a teething toy, fitted closely but not tightly. It was some kind of identification band.
            The woman nearest me was sitting bowed over in a thick nest of white sheets that must have felt suffocating in this heat.
“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m new here. Could you tell me where to get one of those yellow things?” I asked her.  
She looked up at me. From her armful of silver bangles and demure plait I’d assumed at first glance that she was a senior woman. But she was barely my age. She was cradling a tiny baby in one arm. The baby was fast asleep, its eyes sealed shut. 
“How did you get in here without one?” she said. 
“I walked in. I have a job here.”
“No-one stopped you?”
“There was no-one to stop me.”
“Those doors are never meant to be left open.”
“The doors were wide open.”
“It’s not safe.”
She squashed the baby to her protectively and it moulded itself bonelessly in her clasp.
The woman looked at me mistrustfully for a few more seconds. Clearly, though, I looked exactly as clueless as the newly arrived apprentice for a key-cutting service should look, because her expression lightened and she said,
“May I offer you a cup of tea?”
A courtesy, a traditional Mirian sign of offered trust.
“No – but thank you. If you could just show me where to go…”
“This is the under-basement. Minus Two floor. The key-cutter’s in the basement – Minus One. Go to the orange staircase, number 4.”
“Staircase 4,” I repeated. The staircase closest to us was numbered 28.
We fell into conversation and she told me her name was Nimet. She worked on the third floor in the back of a shop that printed people’s digital photos, sent faxes and scanned documents. She shared the job with her mother, who was there now. Her father worked in the Bata shoe store as a shelf stacker. 
 “The key-cutters’ and other mending and fixing things are at the opposite end from the fortune-tellers and reflexologists and the dog groomers, which are exactly above us now. The new Binar rich like to keep dogs as domestic pets,” she scoffed, “and they feed them well, too. In the middle of the basement floor, between you and them, there’s a travel service and ticket booking. And a crèche. Not for the children of the people who work here,” she corrected hastily, “I mean the children of the shoppers. They’d be disgusted to know we live here, crawling under their feet like rats.”
She rocked the baby. The baby’s little arm flopped and I saw how thin it was, how the palm had a tinge of yellow to it.
 “If I’m going up I’d better offload these,” I said, opening my bag and taking out the meat fries Lovely had given me. They had flattened out inside their napkins and had an over-ripe, rancidly delicious smell. I offered them to Nimet.
“Aren’t you having any?” she asked.
“I’m full.”
“I can’t accept them,” she said, though mutedly.
“Please. They’d have to be thrown away otherwise. And I don’t think that’d be very hygienic round here. If there are vermin or anything.” I added hastily, “But I see everyone who stays here keeps everything clean.”
“Of course we do,” she said sharply.
Before taking the food, Nimet carefully pushed the white cloth from around her as though it was made of spun silk. I looked at it more closely. It was made of spun silk. It was covered in tiny silver stitches and a thin silver needle was pegged into the top fold.
“I take in sewing for some of the shops in the locality,” she explained.
I ran my hand under one leaf of the white silk. It floated stiffly over my skin. I turned it over and looked at the underside. Nimet’s work was so fine that the underside was almost as perfect as the top.
“You’ve already embroidered so many metres,” I said.
 “My mother’ll be back soon, then there’ll be an hour where neither of us has any duties up there, so she looks after Femi,” she indicated the baby, “and I do another half-inch of sewing.”
“Is it a wedding veil?”
“A shroud.”
“All that labour, just to go in the fire.”
“No! It goes on.”
“It goes on.”
“On where?”
“Ahead. The soul goes to the next place,” said insistently. “But there’ll be wedding clothes to make soon, with Prince Raed’s wedding coming up.”
“Don’t tell me you care who these Family royals marry and how Majesty magazine covers it?”
“There’ll be commissions for textiles, clothing, jewellery, decorations, glassware, all through the capital. No person will go without employment. They’ll need drivers, car-washers, waiters, ushers, caterers, cleaners, security guards. That’s a good opportunity.”
“It’s a good opportunity for a rich family to pay people like us very little money for hours of work, in the knowledge that labouring at a royal wedding’s such a thing in itself that there are plenty who’d happily work for even less than usual, just to say they’d been there,” I said.  
The baby, Femi, gave a pained squawk and began to wake up.
“Excuse me. I have to feed him,” said Nimet.  
            The sight of little Femi’s peaky yellow face made me take the plastic tub out of my bag and say,
“This is weighing me down a bit. I wondered if you might like some. It’s… vitamin tablets,” I finished, unable to think of any decent lie or polite cover-up.
“I’ll take them,” she said quickly, nakedly. “I can crush them into milk. Or water.”
            We said goodbye and I walked along the middle of the under-basement city. The place must have been half a mile long, or more.  Staircase 9 was painted violet, 8 was light grey. Staircase 7 was green. I could see the orange  wall around staircase 4, and the back wall, half of which was taken up with more lockers. I was amazed that the other residents of the floor hadn’t helped themselves to more bedding to pad up what they already had. So much ran on trust. If just one person out of the hundreds here broke that group faith, that fine and delicate unspoken civility, the invisible mutual protection and consideration which enclosed us all, everything would shatter and break.
In the furthest shadow of the furthest corner was a man sitting by himself on a plastic chair, leafing through a black-covered moneylender’s ledger, poring over the details. He was the only one in that vast space who looked at me warily, following me with his dead pellet eyes.
            I climbed staircase 4 until I reached the door to Minus One. I opened it and was immediately in a new world.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

China Flash: Lean In Beijing on the new sexism, corporate ambition, marital choices and awesome girls in modern China

This is a greatly expanded version of an article which first appeared in Time Out Beijing last month.

A Lean In Beijing meeting, image (c) Lean In Beijing
Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s book about how she battled corporate sexism to rise to the top at Facebook, has struck a chord with young, ambitious women in China. “I saw Sandberg’s TED talk in March 2013,” says one of Lean In Beijing’s founding members, Allison Ye. “I was shocked because I had never seen a successful Chinese female leader talk with such openness and honesty about how exactly she got there. It was refreshing. Her message was that we can be responsible for our situation and we can control our lives. It was very positive.”

The talk triggered the formation of Lean in Beijing, which sent a survey [PDF]to more than 500 women, asking about their aspirations, their careers and the challenges they experienced in their lives. It revealed that 90% of respondents had never seen a professional women’s network – and wanted one. “We had 60 to 70 women at our first meeting, and every one had a story to tell. Things they wouldn’t tell to their own friends and families, they would tell to strangers,” says Ye. The Lean In message of female solidarity, boosted by speaker events, high social media connectivity, consciousness raising 'circles' and the open discussion of everyday sexism has proven so popular and necessary that Lean In has spread to several Chinese cities far beyond Beijing. Even within the capital, Lean In members have founded their own offshoots like the Lean In Thinktank led by Yolanda Wang and Maggie Zhang and the six Lean In College mentoring schemes founded by Alicia Lui. The mentoring scheme involves bringing in younger professional women to be mentors to college age students, Lui tells me. “Mentoring is a really great way to work through relationship, career and family pressures. At our last event in May, 150 students showed up and we had 15 mentors, all from different industries and with different interests. After the event, lots more professional women wanted to be a part of the network as mentors.”

We are meeting up at a time when gender inequality is back with a vengeance in China, with ancient stereotypes about femininity, double standards about gender roles, endemic and normalised violence against women, media misrepresentation and longstanding pressures on women meeting new corporate injustices around equal pay, property ownership, female leadership and opportunity, as chronicled in Leta Hong Fincher’s brilliant and vital book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

Lean In Beijing’s discussions aren’t just about strategising within a corporate context, combating institutional sexism, why prominent Chinese women business leaders stand at less than 5% or why women are paid less than men for the same job. “It’s [also about] the pressure of getting married young, the pressure that’s coming from all directions,” says Ye, “not just the family but the media, the government, society. Every young woman in a family is pressured to get married really young. The message behind it is that a woman cannot be happy by herself, she needs to be someone’s wife, someone’s mother in order to be fulfilled in her purpose in life.” Yolanda Wang agrees: “For a man in China, at the age of 30 you’re meant to have a career, a car, a job. For a woman, the main responsibility is to find someone, to get married. And the pressure on her [to do that] starts at the age of 22 or 23.”

Recently, the journalist (and friend of Lean In Beijing) Roseann Lake co-organised the Leftover Monologues – women’s monologues from all over the world, prompted by a combination of the Chinese women’s movement, Leta Hong Fincher’s work on gender inequality and activist Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues. It was the first time many of the Chinese contributors had presented their own stories. “It’s really hard for Chinese people to speak out. They’ll be judged by society as a bad girl, judged by family and friends,” says Maggie Zhang. The Lean In movement in China is radical in itself, for its fostering of open dialogue. The conversation goes far beyond tips on how to negotiate for higher salaries, be less self-critical, manage career progression, handle confrontation or consider a company job versus entrepreneurship - although Lean In Beijing members have discussed all these and more. “The idea is not necessarily limited to work or career, or even family,” says Lui, “it’s more about a close knit, confidential community of women who listen to you, empathise with you and help you.” “Women at big companies are afraid to speak out at meetings,” says Wang, adding, “In the US women sit and talk about their [professional and life] dreams. In China people ask you, ‘Do you have a boyfriend? What does he do?’ Nobody thinks a woman has a dream.” “We asked women how they saw their purpose in life,” says Ye, “and lots of women told us that that was the first time they’d ever asked that question of themselves.”

“Our parents tell us not to get a boyfriend when we’re at college, so we can concentrate completely on our studies,” says Maggie Zhang, “but then, when we turn 25, they pressure us to get a husband.” “I was told, ‘You should never try to be too smart or you won’t find a boyfriend’ by my mother’s friend,” says Lui, “and I was pressured to marry from the age of 26. The family is still considered the centre of everything. I’ve heard, ‘You can’t get a PhD because no-one wants to marry a PhD.’” 

"The other side of the ‘leftover women' story is that we’re moving forward as never before,” says Ye. “Women don’t need a partner to sustain their lifestyles. It’s inevitable that women in China will have more freedom and that this will force change. The post-90s generation is already changing things, they’re really independent. They see that it’s important to have your own thoughts.” Lui chips in, “On one hand China has been one country that’s done the best in equalising everyone to some extent. People’s lives are getting better. But there are problems with the way it’s being done and the consequences. The Chinese haven’t got used to money yet. They want to show off, to show people what they've got. CEOs of companies are in their 20s and 30s. They start a company, they make money. The Chinese mentality-change is one of the fastest in the world, because of the way modern China has started itself up.” “The economy is changing very fast. But society changes slowly,” says Wang. Ye says, “My parents went through the hunger, when they didn’t have enough to eat. That’s why what they want for me is the best: comfort, a husband. When my generation has its kids, it’ll be different.”

While women are regarded as valuable only within the domestic sphere, where their labour can be exploited for free, domestic duties are regarded as demeaning for men to do. “If a man is a stay at home dad, people think he doesn’t have what it takes to go out into the world and support the family. It’s about saving face,” says Zhang. “In Chinese TV shows the man is always rich, tall, successful and the woman is obedient and subservient.”

“There are a lot of social barriers,” Ye agrees when I balk at the idea of individual women changing themselves in order to somehow evade, circumvent, win out against or contend with endemically antiwomen structures, judgements, customs, stereotypes and activities. “We can’t change the outside of society very fast but within our generation and the next we can change the policy-makers of the future. There’s only so much one person can do, but if everyone plays their part you can change a lot.” However, the barriers to equality and liberation are high. “You are discriminated against as a single woman,” says Ye. “Single women are barred from adoption. Sometimes a woman will choose her family over her career. Or she’ll choose her career. But women aren’t allowed to be both.” Yolanda Wang’s company asked one of her female colleagues to sign a piece of paper promising that she wouldn’t get pregnant for two years. “We never hear about men’s work-life balance, only women’s. And you’re judged badly whatever you choose,” she says. Maggie Zhang adds, “We have to educate not only women but also men, who are under huge pressure to be successful.”

Alicia Lui believes that Sheryl Sandberg’s inspiring talk and book have “raised issues which enable us to have more open conversations about [sexism]. Lean In was a catalyst. It said to women, if you really feel you have a need for something you have to raise your hand and ask for it.”

Ye believes the movement is a chance for women to look at their lives afresh: “Before you change anyone’s life you have to change the way they see themselves. We have high rates of employment for women here, but sometimes women are happy with less demanding hours and less pay, because it means they still have time to do all their family duties. I believed all that too – until I was brave enough to say that that was not what I want. Once people see alternatives then they can begin to lean in and change their lives. We want to help women pursue their own definition of success, help them when they’re young and share stories of other women’s lives so they see themselves in these women.”

Lean In Beijing derives its momentum and power from its focus on co-operation between women. “Why do women judge each other?” says Allison Ye. “We don’t have that tradition of women helping women.” “We support each other to take the next step,” says Alicia Lui, “but starting something requires the other side to response. I argued with my mum [who put pressure on me to marry] and now she’s coming to understand my thinking. Each of us has a personal stake in Lean In Beijing because these issues affect us personally.”

Yolanda Wang says, “At my first Lean In Beijing meeting I realised I’m not on my own, I’m not crazy. Women are so honest, so encouraging, they push you to change things. For women it’s very hard to be their real self. Who they are now is who their family wants them to be, who society wants them to be. The cliché was that the only thing between girls was jealousy. But that’s not true. It’s so good to see girls who say to each other, ‘I like you because you’re awesome.’”

Further reading in the China Flash series:

Four Corners, Beijing

Cherry, me, Sami. Four Corners, Beijing. Image taken by Inko.

Further reading in the China Flash series:

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Nine

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

When Officer Elifa left I went to my room, telling Gita I wanted a nap. I packed my things into the cotton shoulder bag. The things I hadn’t yet worn, I left behind. I put the cotton scarf on. I took my vitamins with me. Back down the stairs, a quick check of the landing to make sure none of the anoraks were around, down the next flight to reception.
“Gita’s in a meeting with Devika,” said Tilly when she saw me.
“S’okay. Can you buzz me out? I’m going back to the parade.”
“Haven’t the street performers moved on?”
“But the stalls are still out. I just thought I’d… soak it all up.”
            She glanced down at my bag, which bulged. My hand tightened on the strap. She looked at the monitor, then let me out.
            Once I was out, I didn’t know what to do. The streets were full but I felt self-conscious and aimless. Nothing could make Binar West’s traffic look good – it was more clogged than ever because half the lanes had been cordoned off for the parade – but the railings, road barriers, telephone poles and random bundles of black wires that hung overhead had been wrapped with coloured streamers. I went towards the main junction, trying to look casual, my hands in my pockets. In my right pocket I found a piece of paper. It was the collection slip for my glasses, with Gita’s signature and PAID stamped in red ink diagonally across it.       
            The young woman on duty in the glasses shop hadn’t been there on our previous visit.
“Hello, I’m just here to collect my glasses?”
“Miss…?” she began.
“Gita Sawlani.” 
            I handed over the collection receipt.  My heart was pounding.
            She opened a drawer that was full of neat capsule-shaped glasses cases with a prescription wrapped around each one, fixed with an elastic band. She pulled out mine.
“I packaged these up myself. They’re smart,” she said.
She opened the case, took out my glasses, opened them stiffly and gave them to me, holding them steady and horizontal as if passing a crown at a coronation. I put them on and my vision surged forward, sharply in focus.
There were voices and the click of a door-handle behind her. The door of the optician’s testing room opened and out came Mrs Shiva the optician. Her eye passed over mine once, blandly, then did an instinctive double take. I gave a neutral smile, and lurched out unsteadily, a thick silence behind me.
            Back at the junction I found that although Devika had given me directions, I couldn’t remember them. I ducked into a doorway to polish my glasses lenses and was immediately accosted by Lovely. She was in full Dragon Lady mode, complete with stiff green silk stole and a black lace fan to keep the street dust from sticking to her face powder.
“Here you are. I heard you were out and about,” she said.
“You followed me.”
“Nonsense. You know where this doorway leads?”
            I shook my head. I knew it was over – she’d call Devika and send me back.
“It’s a smokers’ club. Ponti’s. Want to see inside? You’ll be my guest,” said Lovely.
            She knocked on the door. A little slot in the middle of the door pulled back, a man looked at her and without another word let her in, with me following behind. We were greeted by four men in oversized white jackets, with caps on their heads, the fronts peaking up like wings. They took Lovely’s stole and one of them tried to take my bag.
“She’ll keep that with her,” said Lovely.
“Very good, Madam,” said the attendant.
            Ponti’s was decorated with bamboo screens, fans, tall plants, cane tables with  brass ashtrays and, hanging over everything, soft grey scented smoke. About twenty different bodies were slumped in the chairs.
“The ladies’ lounge is this way,” said the attendant.
            The ladies’ lounge was a tiny room decorated entirely in flamingo pink rather than green, and the accessories were not brass but mother of pearl. Music was playing through the sound system: harp renditions of pop tunes. We sat at a half moon shaped sofa and the attendant brought us two tightly rolled cigarillos on a silver dish, along with some mint chocolates in foil wrappers and two tiny, strong coffees. All of these joined the huge globe-shaped lighter and ashtray on the table.
Thank you Rishi,” said Lovely, leaning over him, and he gave a very fluttery bow in reply.
“If you need anything just ask for me,” he said.
“I will, Rishi.”
            He left us alone.
“They treat you very nicely here,” I said.
“I co-own it.”
“But you maintain a separate ladies’ lounge?”
“Sometimes they’re useful. Like now. We go in here and the gentlemen go, Aaahhh, ladies’ matters. And they leave us to it.” 
Lovely gave me her chocolates and her coffee. She reached into her crocodile skin handbag, pulled out a pink bejewelled phone and tapped into it with her thumb.
“I’m letting Devika know you’re safe,” she told me.
            I unwrapped a chocolate, dipped the bottom half into the coffee and ate it.
“It was Tilly, wasn’t it?” I said.
“Tilly who?”
“Who tipped you off.”
“I don’t know anyone called Tilly. It was the optician. They said that you’d gone in unaccompanied and were served by one of their trainees who didn’t bother to verify who you are. They phoned the Lotus Project and Devika put out an alert.”
“What alert?”
“There’s a network of local ladies, including me, who work with the Lotus project and stay vigilant.”
“When there’s something to be vigilant about.”
“You mean when someone runs away?”
            She gave me a hard look through an exhaled lungful of smoke.
“No. When a woman or her children are at risk.”
            Lovely opened her fan and batted her smoke away from us, her cigarillo tight between her lips. She wasn’t just taking the occasional puff, she was actually breathing through it, sucking with one side of her mouth and exhaling smoke through the other side. My lungs hurt just to watch it.
“I thought I’d come and get you and see what you were up to. You haven’t been here long, you’re unfamiliar with the place and Devika said you’ve never gone out without a chaperone.”
“How can you find someone in the whole of the city?”
“This is only a tiny little part of the city,” she corrected me. “You may think you’re streetwise. But you only know four streets. Devika and Gita and the others have been very kind to you, as they are to everyone.”
I sat back, hugging a pink satin cushion shaped like a heart.  
“That’s why I have to leave. I don’t want to cause them any trouble.”
“Why would you?”
“Because that’s what I do.”
“What makes you think that?”
            Lovely lit the second cigarillo from the butt of the first and smoked her way straight through the first centimetre of the shaft.  
“I can’t persuade you?” she said.
“Nope. I’m toxic for decent people.”
            Rishi entered again holding a platter with dark and golden fried things set out on it, the bubbles of oil still popping on the pastry. The rich smell of ground meat and herbs rose up. He put a stack of paper napkins down next to it. As soon as he was gone I picked one up and devoured it. A hot, minced meat fry.
“They want me to go back,” I said, chewing.
“They want you to be safe and have a happy life.”
“Well I want to survive. Alone. Out there. Without getting anyone else in trouble.”
“It’s not possible to survive alone,” said Lovely, shifting her bulk to the front of the seat. She took handfuls of napkins and wrapped up all the fried items, pulled my bag towards her and fit them inside carefully.
 “You’re leaving this block and going east by a few miles. If you insist on going. I’ve apprenticed you to a key-cutter.”
“Oh, you have.”
“Yes. I have.”
Lovely opened her handbag again, took out a large pink bottle of perfume and sprayed her neck and bosoms with it. Somehow it was impossible to argue with or interrupt someone who was in the middle of spraying themselves with perfume.
“What’s a key cutter?” I asked when she had finished.
“Someone who cuts keys. Just that.”
“In a forge? Like a blacksmith?”
“No. With a key-cutting machine. In a shop.”
She got up, opened the door and let me out like I was a stray dog. She sent fulsome compliments, thanks, greetings, farewells, hand-waves and seductive smiles to Rishi and the other staff.
Outside, we were met by a rattling auto-rickshaw which stopped with a screech and the sound of bucking metal.
“If you’re determined to leave, you owe it to Devika to make a success of yourself,” said Lovely.
“I know. I will.”
“Good luck. Goodbye.”
            She stepped out, passed behind the auto rickshaw and immediately crossed over in a long diagonal which put her far away from me. She looked like any other established senior Mirian lady. She strode into a shop selling jewelled slippers and was out of sight.
The auto was trembling in front of me, emitting wheezy honks. The smoke from its exhaust didn’t dissipate in the air, it just hung at knee height in a tightly woven black cloud, smearing itself on passing traffic and the clothes of people trying to cross the street.
I got in, holding onto my bag. Folded inside the driver’s section, shoulders stooped around the steering wheel, knees up to his chin, head butting the top, was Riven.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Twenty Eight

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

The next morning I went down to find the anoraks in high spirits. They had whistles on brightly coloured cords around their necks and bandanas tied around their heads. They were also carrying large foam lotuses which reminded me, with a pang, of the sign for the Pink Orchid motel. Everyone greeted me cheerfully and I seemed to have been forgiven for my little indiscretion on State TV.
“Look at you!” I said “And all this for the Family,”
“No - it’s for the community,” said Riven. “Every local business comes out to represent themselves. And we raise money.” He reached under the trestle table and jingled a bucket full of fraction coins at me.
            Two anoraks were unrolling a long Lotus Project banner on the floor behind me. They picked it up by the poles at either end and it sagged between them. I picked up the drooping section.
“We’re going out through the clinic,” Gita told me, joining me under the banner.
            We trooped down the stairs, through the canteen and out through the automatic doors of the clinic. The noise of thirty different radios all blaring different songs hit us as soon as we were out.  We tautened our banner and joined the throng. There were other groups there, with their own banners: a local school, a second hand bookshop for medical and science textbooks, a moto-taxi garage, a free bus service that took local kids across a few blocks to a sports centre in another part of Binar West.
Someone had scattered squares of coloured paper on the floor to conceal, somewhat, the cracks, dips, puddles, random piles of dirt and the way the pavement crumbled into the road, which itself crumbled into unset patches of asphalt. Hawkers sold bags of glitter and long-stemmed factory grown roses in unnatural colours like lilac and pale orange to throw when the cavalcade went by. Best of all, every food shop or stall was handing out free tasters, along with thimble-sized cups of spiced tea and short-brewed intense coffee whose smell lingered in the air. I felt completely safe and happy.  
We pushed until we were right up against the barriers. In the distance there was a fug of brown street dust, and through it, moving at a crawl, pushed the navy blue, black windowed Family cavalcade. Security at the front, two cars of it, windows sealed tight, coming closer. Then, one car of Family. They waved through the thick glass, wearing fixed smiles. The Family had countless members and branches and all looked exactly the same on occasions like this: the men were in dark blue suits with a gold Mirian pin on the lapel, the women with blow-dried hair and a Mirian pin on their Hermes scarves. Raed was elsewhere, a Gulf state polo resort perhaps, resting before his sham wedding.
State police on motorcycles and film crew, not only from State TV but also some international stations, surrounded each Family car. The guys from the TV crews were in vehicles with open backs, wearing bullet vests and combat trousers as if they were in a war zone. One car contained Mayor Ali Mercator, of all people. He had rolled down his window – the Family’s security team clearly didn’t mind if he got shot in the face by a disgruntled local – and was shamelessly bellowing out Hellos and Good Days.  
The street performers, who got the biggest cheer of all, especially the kids from the martial arts school who were tumbling, air kicking and spinning along the road. Then the gymnasts came, just as dazzling, just as small, just as serious, twirling hoops, silver balls and streamers. A group of people dressed in fun fur costumes of famous Disney characters, with enormous cushioned heads wobbling on their shoulders, followed incongruously after.
Someone in the crowd popped a cylinder of red streamers which burst out, high and full, then floated down in thin, crinkling lines, lying on the road with all the other fallen confetti and glitter. The next Family car was approaching, slower than  walking pace. The car reached us. It was long, low, a glossed colour of midnight. When the back window was level with my face, the car stopped. The glass was like a black mirror but I knew that someone was looking straight at me through it. The gaze seemed to sink several inches into my skin. I felt Gita’s elbow press hard into mine in alarm, and I pressed back, but I couldn’t look away. I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, caught in the Family’s force field, but eventually the car ground on and the unseen power released me. The parade resumed with a brass marching band.
“What was that?” said Gita as soon as they Family’s cars had passed.
 “I’ve got to get out of here,” I said.
“What? Are you sure?” asked Riven.
            I began to push my way out.
“Isn’t it better to stay here with everyone?” Gita called after me. I just shook my head and carried on. Our alleyway was empty, the square deserted. I knocked on our door.
            The door clicked open and I walked in to find police officer Elifa talking to Tilly at the front desk. Elifa’s shoulders were still draped in streamers from the parade.
“Oh, here she is,” said Tilly in her butter wouldn’t melt way.
I had frozen, my back against the front door, and wasn’t sure what to say or do. I tried to make my face as blank as possible.
“Good day, young lady,” said Officer Elifa. She had a solid black plastic case with her. Against my back, the door vibrated as someone else knocked on it from the other side. Tilly looked at the CCTV and buzzed them in. It was Gita.
“You followed me,” I said.
“I saw a man following you,” she said.
“What man? Where?”
“The secret police, I assume. There’s a type.”
She noticed Officer Elifa.
“Hello Madam,” said Officer Elifa, looking anxious.
“What’re you doing letting police officers in?” said Gita to Tilly. “You know the guidelines.”
“She said she had a permit.”
“I’ve had a request for some personal data, and I have to see it through,” said Officer Elifa.
            Gita had been standing close to Tilly with her hand on the edge of the front table – under which, I was willing to bet, was a silent alarm that would pulse through to all the other floors and offices in the building.   
“Of course, Officer,” she said. “Apologies for my reaction – I hope you understand our caution. What do you have to do?”
“We’ve been sent through some footage of an incident here,” said Officer Elifa, “showing this young lady here behaving in a threatening and antagonistic manner towards an agent of the state and his associates.”
“You were in the square too,” I said, “you know it wasn’t like that.”
“And a few moments ago she was spotted again in the crowd at the parade,” Officer Elifa went on, though her voice trembled.
“And the man who followed her,” Gita said, “he just melted into thin air did he?”
“That’s his job. He’s authorised to do that,” said Officer Elifa. Something in her pocket beeped and she took it out. It was a police-issue mobile phone in a bounce-proof black rubber skin. She looked at the message on it.
“Name, Esha Ex,” she read out, and looked up at me, and my blood went cold. Gita, too, looked startled. It meant that ‘they’ were onto me. How serious that was, however, I didn’t know.
“The Family’s list of troublemakers must be millions of names long, if it starts with nobodies like me,” I said. “What are you charging me with? When’s my trial going to be? Which prison d’you want me in?”
“If every kid who protested in the streets went to prison, Miriadh would be deserted,” said Gita.
“Of course you’re not going to prison,” said Officer Elifa in a small voice.
            We were all speaking across the tiny space in the reception area. I told myself that Officer Elifa was too low down in the scale of things to know anything about my own association with the Family and what I knew about them. All she knew was that I was one of the many people who’d been jeering at the Mayor and the promoters and that I’d just been identified by the Family’s security personnel who recognised me from the State TV footage, not from having seen me in person at the villa.
“I need to fingerprint you,” said Officer Elifa.
“What if I object?” I said?
“If you don’t want fingerprints we can take a hair sample, saliva or blood. And we can take that by force. Miss, please, this is just for our records,” pled Officer Elifa.
“They don’t get scanned and go into a database then?”
“… They do,” she admitted.
“Then you can hold it over my head for the next ten years so I don’t ever even so much as raise my voice in public again.”
“That’s up to you. The quicker we get this over with the quicker I can leave.”
“And now you know where I live,” I said. “You should have waited for me in the street. You’re making everyone nervous, being here.”
“It’s fine,” said Gita quickly.
“Madam, Miss, I support the work you do. I have no orders to investigate here, only to go where…” Officer Elifa checked her phone again, “Esha Ex is.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to Gita, bitterly. “I wouldn’t bring any more trouble on you. I’m sure there are many women who are much more deserving of a room and a bed than I am.”
“Don’t talk that way, Esha. Officer, let’s go somewhere more private. Who’s in the back, Tilly?”
“No-one, at the moment.”
As we went to the back office I thought of that other set of fingerprints, miles away, linking me to a theft I didn’t commit. And the possible-murder I did commit but had somehow got away with because, if it came to light, so much else would have to come to light too. And in this way, we all kept each other’s secrets.