Thursday, 6 November 2014

How to have a literary hit by accident

To read Esha Ex, click here. To read an in-depth interview about it in The Asian Writer, click here.

I’m a journalist through and through. I started at 14 and have been one ever since, in print and speech, recorded and live, on paper and mic and stage and screen, almost without exception. Apart from my outreach work, I've never done any other job. When I got the Seahorses book deal at 16 I took it on as an exciting project, not some kind of defining strike from the gods. What freaks me out about Seahorses is that not only does it stand up to rereading, it’s an incredibly serious adult novel about grooming and child abuse. I have no idea where it came from. It was written in the summers between mock GCSEs, real GCSEs and university entrance prep, when I was going out all the time, doing arts magazine journalistic work, hanging out with friends and having a fantastic time.

Seahorses came out when I was 18 and I was disturbed by the success that followed. I found it objectifying, limiting, creepy, unnatural. It felt like a violation even though it wasn't. I felt I was suddenly part of a game or a system in which I was in competition with other writers and also with my own track record, which I was required to improve in perpetuity. It was nothing like being a successful journalist, going around town freely writing about things. I felt like my life had narrowed down instead of opening up and I came away from the famous-novelist experience thinking that the only people who might want that type of success would have to have some kind of ragged wound of low self-esteem that needed to be satisfied by strangers’ validation. Publishing Too Fast To Live at 21 was a mistake, although commercially it did fine. I felt under pressure to keep on producing, but the book was incredibly dark and violent, its graphic, tightly plotted heaviness a clear sign that this was a writer who was punishing both herself and the reader.

The outer success was immaterial. Writing fiction takes forever – I can barely do half a page a day – it’s agony and it makes me feel restless and aggrieved and out of touch with the world. At a contemplative level, fiction had never brought me anything other than sensations of resistance, darkness and broken momentum.

Too Fast To Live came out in early 2000, 14 years ago.

In 2011 I published Dust, an anthology story. In 2013 I published The Comforting of Children, another anthology short. Earlier this year I brought out two fractions, Moment of Curfew and Those Castles. I am proud of these deep, dark, serious works. Somehow I've crawled back in under the wire and am a fiction writer again.

People began reading the fractions. They began getting in touch about the two anthology stories. I watched the stats on this site, which is read by relatively few people but has a strong influence because those readers are all industry peers. The stats began to transform: the numbers for the fractions, which are barely a paragraph long, climbed, while my journalism stayed steady, a flat line.

From December 2013 until June 2014 I had completed a novel, Esha Ex. In the end my agent Kelly Falconer and I agreed that it didn’t have the It-factor that completed manuscripts need these days to gain a decent contract with a major publisher. It was rough around the edges, fast and skeevy, like its heroine. I could junk it or I could spend three years working on it, line by line.

I junked it, but the story and its main character – a raw ‘ragamuffin girl’, as she herself would put it – wouldn’t let me go. I had a feeling that Esha’s adventures and her simple, passionate voice could be reworked to fly in online form. Esha is someone who just wants to survive, who doesn’t realise how special and inspiring she is, or how brave. I didn’t want her personality to be lost in my career failure.

I edited the book, refined it, carved it into segments and scheduled each part to go online every morning from the end of September for a few weeks. I did no press about the project and didn’t even send out a notice to my contacts. The most I did was write an introductory article and publish a single Tweet when a new chapter went up.

From its launch, the readership built. It’s in the hundreds, not the thousands, but that doesn’t matter to me. I’ve created a series which is drawing people in, with zero PR or marketing push. The numbers are increasing rather than tailing off, even though the project ended a couple of days ago. Yes, it’s out there for free – but it’s competing with billions of other posts, news items, video clips, shopping sites and countless varieties of porn. The Asian Writer picked up on the project early with their typical acuity and speed and the elegant, upscale literary magazine Berfrois expressed interest too. The Asian Writer then ran a long, in-depth interview with me, which further boosted Esha Ex's readership.

I was asked by a colleague if I’ll be releasing an e-book of Esha Ex. The answer is no. Having seen that people are responding to it, what I might like is to take it offline, sign it up with a publisher and work on the book for two years to give it the body and depth required of a literary novel as opposed to a picaresque online adventure delivering a strong voice and fast action in bite-sized daily chunks. The novel form is different from the online serial form, with different tone and pacing; I would want to work hard to make it a great book, just as I worked hard to make it suitable for online publication. But I am not going to use up my time pushing at closed doors, trying to make it all happen. 

I haven’t written a phenomenon the way JK Rowling, EL James, Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins have. There won’t be huge advances or Hollywood film adaptations. But starting from failure and fear, Esha Ex is a phenomenon to me.

Chapter One is here - Chapter Two is here - Chapter Three is here - Chapter Four is here - Chapter Five is here - Chapter Six is here - Chapter Seven is here - Chapter Eight is here - Chapter Nine is here - Chapter Ten is here - Chapter Eleven is here - Chapter Twelve is here - Chapter Thirteen is here - Chapter Fourteen is here - Chapter Fifteen is here - Chapter Sixteen is here - Chapter Seventeen is here - Chapter Eighteen is here - Chapter Nineteen is here - Chapter Twenty is here - Chapter Twenty One is here - Chapter Twenty Two is here - Chapter Twenty Three is here - Chapter Twenty Four is here - Chapter Twenty Five is here - Chapter Twenty Six is here - Chapter Twenty Seven is here - Chapter Twenty Eight is here - Chapter Twenty Nine is here - Chapter Thirty is here - Chapter Thirty One is here - Chapter Thirty Two is here - Chapter Thirty Three is here - Chapter Thirty Four is here - Chapter Thirty Five is here - Chapter Thirty Six is here - Chapter Thirty Seven is here - Chapter Thirty Eight is here - Chapter Thirty Nine is here - Chapter Forty is here - and the last chapter, Chapter Forty One, is here.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Forty One

The final instalment of Esha Ex, a novel-length work of new fiction, which I've been updating daily. For more details click here.

“Hi, Esha. Get up, would you?”
“What if I went for you right now?” I snarled, coiled on the floor.
“You’re not going to do that.” And then she actually flicked her hair, with a nonchalant swipe of her finger, out of her collar. It fell back in a smooth and bouncy wave.
I dragged myself up, seething. She indicated the place opposite her. It was impossible to fight with someone who wouldn’t fight back. All the juice went out of my muscles and I let my head go back and roll with the motion of the van. My bones were throbbing.
The inside of the van was not completely black, as my panic had made it seem. There were ventilation slots running high along the sides and cut-outs in the top surface through which the sun flashed. There were long metal benches on either side of the inside of the van, with rings and hooks set into the floor, walls and ceiling, allowing any configuration of restraints, belts, cuffs, chains, ropes, for detained individuals.  
            The van wasn’t speeding. I could sense a drag in its motion, a frustrated lag, as if it was being driven slower than it wanted to go. Next to Sahar some storage space had been blocked out, like a black metal locker, and she was resting her elbow casually on the top of it like a lady waiting for a friend in a café.
“Where are we going?” I asked. I was determined not to beg her not to hurt me.
“Central core.” She opened the front of the locker. Inside was a telephone. She dialled a coded number, just three digits, said into it, “We’ve got her,” and hung up.
“Who’re you calling?” I asked.
“An associate. You just met her, actually.”   
“Don’t play games with me.” The van took a wide, round turn, pressing me back against the wall. “I wouldn’t think that even you were so low as to go to all this fuss for someone as minor as me.”
“We in the Family always say: a small pain in the arse will turn into a big one, the way a splinter inflames the entire limb.”
“That’s what you sit round saying to yourselves all day? Gods, you’re pathetic.”
A little smile played about Sahar’s face.
“I’m no kidnapping you, I’m saving your skin,” she said.
“Don’t taunt me, it’s disgusting.”
            I heard a clanging sound rising in an arc over our heads. It was the alarm of a toll booth barrier.
“We’re on the motorway,” said Sahar. I didn’t react.  I heard pushes of noise as we overtook other vehicles. Not a single one sounded their horn in protest.
“How nice it must be, in your world,” I said. “Nobody says no to you. They can tell this is a Family vehicle. I couldn’t.”
“You think it’s nice doing my job because I get to ride in the back of a military vehicle?”
“Yes, I do think that.” As we talked my gaze was skittling about, trying to find a way out. But the van was sealed tight. “What do you want?”
“To have a chat.”
“You see, this is what I hate about you people. I hate the way you talk.” Sahar opened her mouth to speak and I interrupted, “I find it hard to believe you wake up and switch on to Binar Bizarre every morning or weed through the leaked footage from the front of a mall in an inner-city block that nobody gives a shit about….”
“No, we have people to do that for us.”
“Of course you do.”
“Nasser-Khaleb Murat is Prince Raed’s uncle, by marriage,” said Sahar.
“Ha! I knew it. You people.”
“He’s his mother’s sister’s husband. And Amaro Solanki is Nasser-Khaleb Murat’s nephew – Mr Murat’s wife’s brother’s son.”
“You lot are so inbred I’m amazed your children don’t have gills and two heads.”
We cleared the toll booth. The van accelerated and carried on smoothly.
“What do you want?” I said. “The last time I went face-to- face with you – ”
“I’m sorry about that.”
“You tried to bribe me. You think I’m going to reveal Raed’s sexuality to the world. But I’m not.”
“Homosexuality is still illegal here.”
“I’m no blackmailer. And everyone knows it’s one rule for the Family, one rule for everyone else. You people do what you like.”
“It’s still a conservative country.”
“It’s a loyal one. A benign dictatorship – isn’t that how we’re seen from the outside? Famously.”
“Poverty makes people disloyal and there’s a lot of it in Miriadh. That’s why you’re risky. Miriadh has many young people in it – the majority of the population, now, are under 25.”
“The Family’s given them a good model to follow, on that score: have as many children as you physically can –”
“They know there are other ways to live. You have symbolic value.”
“From a few video clips?” I sneered.
“Those people live through their screens. Their real lives are rubbish, terrible, not exciting.”
“Get the TV companies to delete them. I’m sure you have that power.”
“We don’t censor.”
“Of course you do.”
“No. We omit things. But we don’t censor.”
“Oho! A true Mirian distinction. Why don’t you just shoot me in the back of the head and throw me in the Kader?”
“If something like that happened you’d become a martyr.”
“Only if someone wonders where I went, which they won’t.”
“They might. Mirians are sentimental. I’ve been following our progress since you left.”
“Yeah, I know you hate me.”
“The Family doesn’t ‘hate’ anyone.”
“You’re not the Family, you’re an illegitimate offshoot, bred for labour. You only serve the family, because your ancestors did. You have to – tradition dictates it.”
“I don’t hate you, I admire you.”
In the astounded silence that followed, we switched lanes and the sound outside changed. There was a stiff, buffeting noise from one side, hard air knocking about the space: we must be in the leftmost lane, the fastest one, and there was a crash barrier alongside us. If I tried anything, forced my way out through the back doors or tried somehow to break into the front and gain control of the wheel – although there seemed to be no way to do this – I would cause a fatal accident on the road.
“The man at the hospital. The guard. He works for you,” I said.
“Nope. He’s for real. They wanted to question you about the bike. Legitimately.”
“That was so much more trouble than it was worth!”
“We can make that go away.”
“So you’ve gone rogue or something?”
“No, I act at my own discretion. It’s left to me to decide what’s done with you. As you say, the Family has lots of petty irritations. Lots of splinters. They can’t deal directly with every one.”
“You planted the master key in my clothes.”
“One our agents did that. We have someone at the hospital – as we do in all institutions.”
“Lakshmi,” I said, certain.
“No, the other one.”
“The other one? Qumul! No!”
I gave an astounded laugh and even Sahar smiled.  
“Yup. Qumul. Real name Ophris.”
“Ho – she’s good. She was really milking it.”
            Sahar and I grinned at each other and I instantly felt the perversity of it and let the smile drop from my face.
“She’s with me on this,” said Sahar.
“She’s with you? You mean she’s a friend of yours? Or that she agrees with you?”
            Sahar shrugged.
“You’re the same age as us. We keep our tabs on you – we’re impressed…”
“And I’m supposed to be flattered by that? Don’t you know how completely and utterly sick and creepy that is?”
Her eyes burned somewhat as she looked at me.
“What’s that look?” I said to her. “Don’t tell me it’s envy. Even you wouldn’t patronise me so much…”
“You go somewhere. You rile them up. You’re alone. You fight. You say what’s on your mind – ”
“Oh grow up! Now you really sound like a little, little child,” I said, squirming in my seat. “I don’t even have clothes of my own! I can’t remember the last time I ate!”
“You’re a fighter,” she said, with a patronage so raw it set my teeth on edge.
“No. I hustle to survive, moment by moment. It’s not the same thing. I’m flattered that you’re so threatened by it. I’m nothing special. That’s just your fantasy.”
“People like me, our families have always worked for the Family. We always will. We’re bonded in servitude to them,” Sahar countered.
You have power.”
“No, I have position.”
“To me and all people like me, believe me, it’s the same thing.”
“If I left the Family I’d be blacklisted for disloyalty. I wouldn’t find a post anywhere else.”
“Not with a royal family. But with a foreign company you would,” I finished easily.
“I wouldn’t be granted an exit visa.”
“Sahar, the Family might be a golden cage but it’s still gold.”
            We were each on our bench, gripping the edge, feet braced on the floor, shaking slightly with the van’s vibrations.
You don’t rebel,” I said. “You don’t fight. You don’t risk anything. You sit back while people like me try, people who have nothing. If I’m thrown to the dogs, you’ll shrug and turn your attention elsewhere. We’ll never be friends.”
“I know that.”
“Raed will marry whoever’s he’s to marry and you’ll see to it that it all rolls on, exactly how it’s meant to. Whatever you may secretly feel inside.”
“Raed’s fiancée is a very promising young woman.”
“I’m sure she has very promising childbearing hips. And what about that boy - Nikko? Raed used him.”
            Now Sahar showed her true Family colours.
“Nikko wanted to be there, doing that. He knew what he was getting involved in. If you play with fire you get burnt to death.”
“Raed took advantage of him.”
“Nikko’s naïve if he think he was special – how a prince behaves is how he’s always behaved. You don’t toy with the Family then expect them to give you special concessions.”
“Nikko’s in love with him.”
“We don’t live in an age of love affairs,” Sahar snorted.
“What age do we live in?”
“You tell me,” she said silkily, “since you know.”
            We stared at each other for a few seconds.
“…A hard, brutal, striving age,” I said.
Yes,” she said, and clenched her fist.
“And the others – Opal and Jacir?”
“They still work for us.”
“Are you saying they’re happy? You know what happens on workers’ floors. Those girls are prey.”
“They’re no more or less happy than they would be anywhere else. You think, because of what you’ve managed to do, that in Binar, or in wider Miriadh, anyone can do just anything and go just anywhere. They can’t. For girls like Opal and Jacir, everything else is worse,” she said.
“So, you’ll save me, one person out of billions – while all the others go to hell. For all you know, going to prison for a spell for scooter theft might straighten me out.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No-one survives a Mirian prison. In this country we believe in punishment, not rehabilitation. But you decide. We can turn back. I’ll tell the driver.”
“Nah. I’ll take my chances. If it’s a choice between a cell and the streets.”
            The van slowed but the atmosphere quickened.
“This is a game to you,” I said. “You let me out and what? I have to promise never to answer back to anyone higher up than me – which is everyone – and I’ll be okay?”
“You’re at liberty to do what you will. I can’t perfect your life for you. This is the best I can offer.”
“What are the other choices?”
“‘Questioning’ for disobedience and insurrection. Jail for petty theft. Or reform: a three year intensive programme of lessons and training, all free, accommodation and food and everything provided.”
“And then?”
“You join our security forces.”
“Gods! Never.”
The van followed a long, leisurely diagonal.
“We’re close,” she said.
She reached for something next to her. It was a package, like a double-weight of flour, tightly bound in black nylon. I hadn’t noticed it against the black of the walls. She gave it to me.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Some Basics. Money – enough to survive for a couple of weeks. Food. Some other stuff. No luxuries.”
“You’ve taken pity on me. And this is the price of your conscience: a fortnight’s rent.”
“It’s got some papers in it. New ID and bank papers. In a new name. Your record’s been wiped,” said Sahar.
“I’m not Esha Ex any more?”
            She shook her head. There was a long pause, during which all my nerves tingled and I felt my old self slip away – painlessly. I would have floated away with it, but for the weight of the package in my lap.
            The van made a neat turn and came to a softly buffered stop. The engine died. I didn’t move.
“We’re here,” said Sahar.
“What’re you going to do now?”
“Go back to work.”
            I stood up, weighing the black package.
“An entirely new life. And this is the size of it,” I said.
I went to the doors, half-step by half-step.
“Go on,” said Sahar.
            With a deep click the doors loosened, letting in the thinnest line of light.
“I hope I never see you again,” I told Sahar.
            But even that concession, that one promise, she couldn’t make me.
“That depends on you,” she said.
The floor was vibrating as the ramp slithered out. The doors loosened further breaking out from their frame so a clear inch of light showed along the bottom. Sahar sprang forward and we clasped hands for a second.
“Goodbye, Esha.”
“Who’s Esha?” I grinned.
The doors opened and the light came in. Although I knew my every step was being watched, I walked free.



I hope you enjoyed Esha Ex. Thank you for sticking with me - and Esha - during this past year.

Monday, 3 November 2014

China Flash: Only condoms can save China from a "raging epidemic" of syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections

This 'as told to' interview was granted to me by Dr Neil Schmid, Beijing chief of sexual health charity DKT International, and first ran in Time Out Beijing's November edition. The text below is by and (c) Neil Schmid, not me. 

China has the highest overall contraceptive prevalence rates in the world: 88 per cent of women of reproductive age (15-49) use contraceptives. But that official figure is highly problematic: it’s unrepresentative of sexual activity across the Chinese populace for the fundamental reason that it excludes unmarried women and all men, married or unmarried. So it’s a highly gendered measurement of what constitutes normative contraceptive use. And in China, that concept forms the basis for the entire family planning policy as well as access to and, crucially, knowledge of all contraceptive methods. The upshot of this situation is that married women bear the brunt of contraceptive responsibility, men don’t, and those outside of married couples -- namely 249 million people -- are largely ignored in terms of sex education and general public discourse on all the contraceptive methods available. I want to address these inequalities and other sexual health concerns first by promoting condom use among youth and by providing both women and men with additional contraceptive options.

At the moment, the Government’s family planning policy favors IUDs [intra-uterine devices] and sterilisation for married women, and these two methods currently amount to roughly 50 per cent and 30 per cent respectively (i.e., a whopping 80 per cent) of all contraceptives used by that group. The legacy of this system is that because all these procedures were, and still are, done in government-controlled clinics, contraceptive choices have been highly limited. Not having a variety of choices means that information about other contraceptives isn’t necessary, and both institutions and parents are thus never obliged to develop the knowledge and concern to communicate different options. Also, hormonal contraceptives such as the pill, implants and injections don’t generally appeal to Chinese women because they often believe that hormones disrupt the body’s balance. An unfortunate result of the lack of short-term contraceptives among younger, unmarried women is that multiple abortions are relatively common and there’s frequent misuse of emergency contraceptives such as the morning after pill. If used excessively, both these methods can affect fertility in the long term. Finally, there a social conservatism that feeds into these larger patterns: you’ll often see adverts for abortion clinics in the Beijing subway, but you would never, ever see an advert for a condom.

Today’s Chinese youth have enormous amounts of freedom, access, and mobility which their parents never had. Enablers range from rapid urbanisation to apps like Momo, billed as ‘the magical tool to get laid’, which were completely unthinkable among their parents’ generation. Where the state was once revolutionary in addressing citizens’ reproductive and sexual health needs, it’s now turned a conservative eye to the new revolutionary changes affecting its population. The negative results are a rapid increase in unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STIs. 50 years ago, syphilis was virtually eliminated from China by government initiatives. Now an epidemic rages, with an average of more than one baby per hour being born with congenital syphilis in China. And unfortunately that’s one out of multiple STIs which are increasingly rampant across the population. As important and useful as IUDs and hormonal contraceptives might be in preventing unwanted pregnancies, they do nothing to stop the ever-growing spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

DKT International runs extensive programmes addressing sexual health in China. Visit their site.



Esha Ex: Chapter Forty

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

There was chill of disbelief, a surge of pleasure and power. My heart was beating in my ears. I felt for the gap in the curtains and sank into it like a ghost. For a second I saw my hospital cell through the gauzy whiteness of the curtains. Then I pivoted to my left, tilted up onto the balls of my feet and began a prancing, soundless run. Not even my cheek brushed the folds of the curtains.
            Perhaps ten seconds had passed. Perhaps Qumul had already turned and –
“She’s gone!”
Qumul’s cry rang down the length of the ward as I rounded the last cell and bolted towards the doors. I miscalculated and got twisted in the curtains, stumbled out and hit something hard: the locked doors of the ward, half wood, half stained glass.
It was time for the Devil’s Prick. I slid the oval brass lock-cover up and pushed in the implement. A kick took my legs from under me and sent me crashing back to the floor. It was the Family guard, a wide-backed, big-thighed lug nut using military kicks and swivelling, showy punches. I dodged and ducked, jammed the Devil’s Prick deep into his thigh, driving it in just above the knee-cap and immediately pulling it out again. Astoundingly, it didn’t stop him or slow him down, it made him even angrier. He roared, grabbed my sweatshirt and pulled it up over my head like a hood. I thrashed and felt my elbow connect with his nose and break it. The sweatshirt loosened and I ripped it off me.
“Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” shouted sweet Lakshmi, running towards us.
Every curtain of every cell was pulled back and the patients, nurses, doctors and visitors were caught somewhere between cowering, protecting their loved ones pleading with anyone in uniform to do something and watching the whole thing as if it was the most exciting thing they’d ever seen. 
The guard reeled back, his nose smashed. He snapped his hand out. In it was a long, thin, quivering baton, the kind that broke any bone it struck. I pushed the doors and they shook on their soft old hinges as if suppressing a titter.
The man brought the baton slicing down. I jerked away at the last moment and it cut through the stained glass, which sprang out in big pieces onto the lobby beyond.
 “Ha!” I shouted as the man snatched his arm away from the jagged glass.  His shirt had ridden up and I saw the black synthetic weft of a stab vest.
I threw myself out through the busted window, my sweatshirt still bunched in my hand. I got a quick, whirling shot of my surroundings: black and white tiles, mint green walls. We were on a high floor and there was a showy staircase spiralling down. Behind me was a set of lifts. Running down through the centre of the building was a marble column, so thin it looked like a needle, and on a plinth on the top, in a position of all-seeing, all-smirking honour, the bronze bust of the man who must have founded the hospital. I looked down. Four storeys and a hard, brain-splattering floor.
The Family man ran for me, hands out. I threw myself at the central column, jumping across the gap and whipping my sweatshirt around the marble girth, one cuff gripped in each hand. I began to plummet. I looked up and saw the man’s hands grabbing the thin air, his blood falling down in drops. I tightened the sweatshirt like a sling and jerked, jarred, bounced and end-stopped my way to the bottom. As I approached the ground floor the staff at the reception desk stared open-mouthed, as did the patients waiting on the plastic seats.
I hit the floor and sprang away. Outside, the lawn being watered by several slowly turning sprinklers. Visitors approached along driveways on either side. At the other end of the lawn, directly opposite, was the hospital entrance.
            I went over the grass and through the sprinklers, the shortest route out. I didn’t look behind me, just held into the Devil’s Prick and propelled myself forward. A utility vehicle was backing into the driveway. It looked like a rubbish collection truck with fat, tumbler tyres. I got within six metres of the thing before I realised that the back doors were pinned open across its sides and its back ramp was down. scuttling closely over the ground. It wasn’t a rubbish truck. It accelerated straight towards me, mounted the grass and scooped me up, knocking me onto the metal ramp, hard on my front. The Devil’s Prick was jolted from my hand and lost.

The ramp creaked up and tipped me into the empty black heart of the van, and the doors slammed shut and locked.  I rolled around in the blackness, hammering the floor with the flat of my hand. The vehicle was so ruggedly built that there was no echo, it merely absorbed my blows. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I hit something soft and found myself staring, not at a pair of torturer’s boots, but at slender feet, set neatly together, in black patent ballerina pumps. It was Sahar, the Family’s flunkey. 

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Esha Ex: Chapter Thirty Nine

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

There was a sound of muddy glugging, the hose swelled and thickened up, and with a noise of spitting bullets the water shot at us, ice cold, hard and sharp, smelling of sulphur and shit from the trenches of the ancient Mirian sewage system. We scattered, running blindly into the road.
I went around the corner and down the slope, scrubbing the water from my eyes, spitting to make sure I hadn’t swallowed any, to find the scooter being stolen. Two urchins had pushed the thing onto its side and were squatting, bony arses stuck out, trying to pick the lock. They were so intent that they didn’t even notice me approaching. I pushed one on the shoulder but he bounced back, boneless, with kiddy resilience.
“Get away from my bike.”
“It’s not your bike,” said the kid, waving Bela Anand’s driving permit in my face.
            I snatched it out of his hand and slapped him on the forearm with it.
“Don’t pretend you can read. It’s my brother’s bike. He said I could use it.”
The kids legged it, laughing, without looking behind them. I pulled the bike up and the black and red logo on the side of the delivery box caught my eye. It showed a winking, smiling cartoon chicken on fire. Mama Hosanna’s Jerk Chicken was a major chain; I’d seen the adverts running on …State TV. It was a Family business. The theft of the bike must have been flagged up by now, and technically I had stolen not from a local chicken shop but from the state, from the Family itself.   
There was the thinnest chance that if I could get the bike back to where I’d lifted it from the whole thing would go away. I rode the bike up the slope and burst out, zooming in a high arc over the wet ground. I was barrelling towards the traffic when a terrible scream jerked my attention back. Nimet ran out of the double doors, one hand tearing at her hair, the other holding Femi’s body.
I turned to the front and shot face first into the side of a big black security van. Everything went white and hard and bright, my hands and thighs loosened, the bike fell from me and I plunged a thousand feet into soft deep blackness.
            When I opened my eyes I was in the laundry room of paradise, surrounded by white sheets. Gentle white ghosts moved around the room, speaking in underwater voices. One of them hovered over me and a cold white chemical peace slid into my veins. Then next time I opened my eyes I was on a hospital bed with the plastic curtains closed around me on a rail and a nurse in a white uniform reading a magazine in the corner. I was wearing nothing except for a paper gown under which I felt hollow and bashed and naked.
When I blinked, my eyes crunched with grit. I tried to speak but only a whisper came out, a husk.
“Where am I?” I breathed. I moved my hand. There was a loose clanging noise and something tugged at my wrist. The nurse noticed me just as I realised I was handcuffed to the bed. I sat up, snatching at the chain. The nurse ran out of the room saying,
“She’s awake.”
            A long shadows on the other side of the curtain, which I’d taken to be a pillar or a room-divider, shifted a little. It was a guard of some kind.
            The nurse’s footfalls disappeared down one side of the plastic curtains. Another shadow approached and stuck its head through a gap in the curtain-panels.  Another nurse.
“Where am I?” I croaked again.
“Let’s get you some water,” said the woman quickly.
            She poured me a plastic cup of water from a jug on the bedside table and held it to my lips. I drank, spreading the last drops across my lips. My neck ached and I dropped my head back onto the pillow. My glasses were next to me on the bed, tucked a under the curve of the pillow. I put them on.
            The nurse took my wrist, checked my pulse again her little silver watch.
“Do you remember anything?”
“I hit a van,” I said. I looked at her old-fashioned white uniform and realised where I’d seen it before. “You’re the … the sisters. You were fundraising last night.”
“The Sisters of Perpetual Charity,” she nodded. “I’m Lakshmi.”
            She began gently pressing down along my neck.
“It hurts,” I said.
“You jarred your whole body. You’re going to feel tired for a few long days.”
“Where are my clothes?”
“I’m sorry. We disposed of them. They were very dirty.”
“It was only water.”
“They were really very dirty,” she said apologetically. “We’ll get you some new ones. We do a collection every month.”
“I had a little bag. Where’s that?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know. Was it valuable?”
“No. No. How long do I have to stay here?”
“I’m…not sure,” she said, glancing at the shadow on the other side of the curtains.
As friendly as Lakshmi was, it was obvious she wasn’t very high up at the hospital. Someone else was making the decisions. I thought of Edwiga, Rastro and Iris. They were streetwise enough not to worry if I didn’t show this afternoon. But they would move on after two weeks if I didn’t join them.
“Are you… is this a religious order?”
“Not any more. It used to be, a long time ago. We retained the name.”
“And you’re funded by the Family?”
“Partly. The rest is through our own fundraising. As you saw.”
“Huh. They’ll millions on a wedding but they won’t pay for a hospital,” I said.
“I wonder where Qumul’s got to,” said Lakshmi. It was clearly not done here to criticise the Family.
“Is that the nurse who here before? Have you been told to keep an eye on me? Qumul goes, you come in, then she comes back. I’m sure you leave the other patients unattended – you don’t cuff them all.”
“The police want to talk to you about a theft of a bike.”
“Yeah, well. I did it. The first thing I should have done was take off the registration plates instead of letting the cameras track me all the way back to the mall.”
“It says something about you that that didn’t occur to you,” said Lakshmi kindly.
“This must happen a lot around here – people like me, on charges like this.”
“It happens sometimes,” she conceded.
“I tell you, I’ve done so much, it’s a joke and a half if I go down for this.”
Lakshmi gave a small, warning shake of her head and her eyes shot to the guarding shadow outside. She tucked the edge of the bed sheet down under the mattress, unsubtly pinning me inside. I pushed the sheet off and dragged myself to the side.
“I’m not staying for this. Sorry,” I said.
My cuffed wrist yanked me back and I fell back across the bed.  
“Careful!” said Lakshmi, catching me.
The paper gown had splayed open and I could feel my bare bottom on the sheet. There was no way I could run out like that. I felt sick and obviously looked it too as I eased myself down again.
“You’ll feel nauseated for a few days,” said Lakshmi. “If you can force yourself to eat, try dry crackers only.”
“I’ll be sure to ask the prison canteen if they have any.”
The shadow beyond the curtains shifted once again, bowing very slightly as another shadow swept past and came in. It was Qumul, the first nurse. She was holding a neatly folded pile of clothes, with a pair of white plimsolls on top.
“Everything all right? I heard your voice,” she said to Lakshmi.
“No, yes, everything’s fine, Sister,” said Lakshmi nervously. “Good luck,” she said to me as she left.
            I was curled up, feeling beaten-down and untrusting. Qumul took a good look at me, a look so unsentimental and brisk it actually felt like being scrubbed down with a loofah.
“And how are we?” she said in a ripe, round, practical voice.  
“Fine. Thank you.”
            She put the clothes down at the end of the bed – a pair of jeans, a vest, pants, a stretchy bra top, a T-shirt and a grey sweatshirt.
“I haven’t been arrested, charged or tried and you’re already giving me prison clothes,” I said. “I can’t change unless you take these off me.” I jangled the handcuff.  
            Qumul stepped out to consult with the guard, holding the curtain-edges tightly bunched, her fists behind her back.  
“It’ll be fine if you give me the key,” she said.
The guard said something and Qumul answered,
“I don’t see her as a threat to myself or to herself.”
            The guard said something and Qumul answered,
“The only thing that footage shows is a group of young people being hosed off the mall’s property.
            The guard said something and Qumul answered,
“Evidently there are one or two who don’t think that sort of treatment’s right and thought the world should see it. But I can’t comment.”
So that morning’s altercation, the scrap on the steps, was now public too. But it couldn’t have been released by the Family. As Qumul said, they wouldn’t want people to see any of it.
The guard said something and Qumul declared,
“Under Mirian law there are approximately five hundred and sixty different crimes, large and small, which count as terrorism. If we examined our daily activities we would all count as terrorists of one sort or another, including my son and his friends who study every night,” her voice grew taunting, “in groups of twelve or more.”
            The guard said something and Qumul answered,
“That’s not your decision to make. The grounds for sectioning someone are very exact.”
            The word sent volts of desperation through me. Sectioned – as if cut into pieces, parcelled away. My nausea, pain and weakness disappeared.
I tore the paper gown off myself, slid off the far side of the bed and quickly pulled on the pants and jeans one-handed, turning up the over-long cuffs and worming my feet into the plimsolls. I slid my hand along to find the screws fastening the side rail to the bed frame. I dug my thumbnail against one and tried to turn it. The screws didn’t budge.
            Then the man said something and Qumul answered,
“She doesn’t want a gentlemen in with her. As soon as she’s dressed you can question her as much as you like.”
I tried to force the cuff off, squashing my knuckles together. It cuff wouldn’t even go past the knobs of bone at my wrist.
Qumul came back in and gave a start to see me crouching, topless, fiddling with the cuff. I got up slowly, the jeans bagging down. Qumul was holding the handcuff key, a long, thin bar with a single tooth sticking out at the end.
“Thank you for sticking up for me,” I said.
“I wasn’t. I just follow the rules. This is a hospital, not a branch of the local police station. Let’s get you changed, then I can hand you over and unlock the ward. Then we can all relax.”
“The ward’s locked?”
“The main doors at the end are. For ‘security’. They say.”
            She fiddled with the handcuffs, turning me so my cuffed arm was taut behind my back. I was facing the curtains on the opposite side to where the guard was. Qumul’s side brushed the edge of the plastic curtain and it moved aside, clinging to her uniform, before falling back. Through the gap I saw a slice of wall. There were about ten inches of space between the side of the ward and the wall, all the way around.
Qumul got the cuffs off me. The two opened rings looked like the large silver pincers of an alloy insect. I scrambled into the bra top, T-shirt and sweatshirt and tied my shoelaces.
“One moment,” said Qumul. “I have to give these back.”
She leant out to hand the handcuffs to the guard. I heaved the jeans up. They didn’t sit right. I stuck my hands in the pockets. In the left front pocket, my palm closed around the Devil’s Prick.

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.