I succeeded in not being longlisted for the Gurdian x 4th Estate Book Prize 2017. I didn't want my story to not go anywhere cos I like it very much. I hope you enjoy x
Her cheeks creased as her face shifted into a devastating smile. Heavy lips peeled away to reveal gappy teeth cemented in shiny black gums, a pearly cage trapping her pink tongue firmly in her mouth. Laughter bubbled in her belly, shot up her throat sliding across her tongue. It escaped out the spaces in between her teeth and whistled slightly just as Matthew registered it as the most beautiful sound he had ever heard for the twenty-ninth time. He looked forward to the thirtieth time he’d be in her company because then, he promised himself, he’d ask her out for a drink, maybe dinner.
“Am I free to go Dr Oluwa? I swear you always keep me here laughing for 10 minutes after our appointment’s finished!” Paulette slid her arms into her coat and waited for his permission to go. His cheeks fluffed out and pushed up under his eyes. He smiled so effortlessly with her, for her. Blood rushed to lightly dust his cheeks with pink embarrassment; he wondered if perhaps she read minds and would make this easier for him but she sat patiently waiting for him to say something.
“You are free to go. Book your next appointment with Karen before you leave.”
“Sure. Soon, we’ll be done, right? And I won’t have to come back?” His heart squeezed; a warning he’d have to make his move soon. She’d already reached the door and threw him a smile over her shoulder. “Have a good day, Doctor!” The door snicked shut. He let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. Rubbing his hands on his trousers he tried to shake off her presence. It bared down on him when she was around, now he missed it, her.
The automatic doors opened for Paulette and the sounds of the city rushed towards her. Air so cold she could smell its iciness. She was glad for it; the weather’s ire was as alive as she was! Pushing her hands into her pockets, she squared her shoulders and braced herself against the wind and headed to the bus stop across the road. Before she had a chance to check the electronic display, a bus crept up behind her. So sneaky those new Route Masters. Pulling out her card wallet, she pressed it against the reader pausing for the millisecond it took for the indicator to turn green. Paulette meditated on a time not too long passed when it was a gamble if there was fare enough on her Oyster Card to get her on a bus; how quietly the machine blipped green yet how loudly it screamed red, announcing to the passengers she was broke. A distant memory now as she sat in the welcoming warm belly of the 390 bus, empty post rush hour. She pushed her hand into her bag, her fingers searching for her phone which had become an extension of herself. A flicker of panic when she didn’t immediately find it, her hand fishing frantically through the detritus in the bottom of her bag, followed by the slow, drugging joy as her long digits curled around it’s hard shell. She turned the phone back on. She could have put it on silent mode for her appointment but she was never quite sure why it was called silent when the vibration of incoming messages still made a sound- they should rethink that term. No, her phone had to be completely off for her time with Doctor Matthew Oluwa. The pads of her thumbs rained like lightning across the screen as she sent a message to her mother, as promised, that she was fine and it was nearly over. Opening apps and closing them, Paulette gleaned quick glances at what was happening in the world. The phone vibrated in her hands, a call coming through.
“Are you Mrs Dr Oluwa yet?” Yasmin’s voice poured into her ear. Warm treacle.
Paulette laughed. “No, I think he’s shy.”
“What’s he got to be shy about?” Paulette knew Yasmin was sitting in her office about to go make a cup of tea. She was serious about elevenses and openly embraced that aspect of British culture. Paulette also knew Yasmin was holding her left hand up in the air, admiring the diamonds in her wedding ring, excited for her best friend to join her in the club.
“I’m his patient.” Paulette reminded her.
“You’re patient all right. Kari will be in University before you two get it together.” Paulette’s goddaughter was currently fourteen months old.
“I’m waiting for him to make the first move.”
“Aren’t you a feminist?”
“Yes, but I also don’t want to emasculate him.”
“Any man emasculated by a woman asking him on a date needs to jump back up their mother.” They both laughed then. A familiar, frequent sound amongst two friends.
“You still coming tonight?” The play had been in their calendars for months. Paulette pressed the bell, waiting for the bus to turn the sharp corner before getting out of her seat.
“My mum’s babysitting and my man’s got football, so I’ll meet you in the bar at seven? I need a drink and I saw it’s happy hour!” Yasmin was giddy.
“Awesome. I’ve been fantasising about the pork-”
“-Pork stays in your body for ten years-”
Ignoring Yasmin’s admonition. “-the pork dumplings,” said firmly because she was definitely having them “from the shop around the corner from there so that’s perfect.” Paulette stepped off the bus, the cold tightly wrapping itself around her.
“Uber together back to South after?”
“Love you, girl. Gonna make myself a cuppa.”
“Love you too. Later. Bye.” Paulette laughed. She knew her friend; the cup of tea would be piping hot with no sugar.
Earbuds in, fingers flying across the keyboard, Paulette was settled into her working day. Excited about lunch, she had planned her schedule so she’d eat earlier and could still enjoy the pork dumplings she had been salivating over ever since she’d booked the tickets for the play. Tap. Tap. On her shoulder. It was Gillian from HR, Paulette knew before pulling out her earbuds and turning around to see what she wanted. Her mouth pressed into a hard line, it was almost as if God had been too busy with something else and had simply pulled a razor across her face, under her nose, to make an opening. Another woman was stood beside her, sleek and tall, her mouth was not made in rush; she smiled openly.
“Veronica, this is Paulette Boateng. Paulette, this is Veronica Lewis your new Head of Department.” Gillian’s words were clipped and short like her nails. “Paulette is the Project Manager on the McCauley brief.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Veronica.”
“I love your hair.” Veronica’s hand reached out, missing its intended target, Paulette’s tightly curled mass. Obsidian candy floss. Paulette had stood up, realising her seated position had made her vulnerable. The moment was ruined, awkward energy flitted between Veronica and Gillain. Paulette cleared her throat hoping to dislodge the temptation to reprimand her. Gillian’s beady, too close together eyes bore into her, silently begging Paulette not say anything.
“So, which firm lost you to us?” Paulette’s words filled the void.
Veronica found herself again, her smile returning, grateful for the diversion. “Kenley and Clark. Ten years.” She was proud.
“Did you touch people’s hair without their consent there too or is this something new?” Veronica’s smile slid off her mouth.
“Paulette, come on.” The words puffed out of the slit in Gillian’s face into the space between the three women that had suddenly become airless. A reminder to Paulette that despite their meetings, Gillian still didn’t understand.
Veronica though, smarter and quicker, more tactful than Gillian turned so she was only facing Paulette. “I apologise. That was very rude and entitled of me. While your hair is very beautiful, I won’t do it again.”
“We’ll get on well. Which office did they give you?”
“The corner office next to Jeff, I think his name is.”
“Nice! You’ll love Jeff. He and his wife throw the second-best Christmas Party.”
Veronica leaned forward wanting in on the secret. “Who throws the best one?’
“Me, of course.” The laughter that followed returned on the heels of the oxygen that had previously deserted their conversation.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Paulette asked, deciding that she liked Veronica who hadn’t lost her cool.
“I’d love one.” Paulette had already forgiven Veronica but tucked away the encounter for future reference. She knew instinctively there’d be many more times she’d have to correct Veronica.
The two of them walked towards the kitchen side by side, Paulette slightly leading way, new-girl-in-the-office conversation flowing easily. Gillian followed gruffly behind.
The darkness that descended onto London during the winter months made the city beautiful on clear nights like this one, Paulette thought as her train creaked and strained crossing the bridge. Manmade stars twinkled as the city prepared for its evening business. Paulette could almost taste the pork parcels melt in her mouth as she headed towards the restaurant that held the realisation of many a dream just beyond their doors. Disappointment started in her toes, traveling up to her heart as she got closer, no light cast from their shop window. She tried the door, perchance they were trying to conserve energy. Alas it was definitely closed. It would be an age before she’d be back in this part of town. Nowhere else she had visited had come close to matching the blended spices and marinated pork they folded into their handmade dumplings. Tonight she’d have to settle for vegetable gyoza from the big restaurant chain whose doors, she could see from where she stood lamenting, were open; capitalist, flashy lights spilling onto the pavement.
Paulette sat in the cold eating the inferior dumplings, proficient with chopsticks, dipping them into soy sauce then slipping them whole into her mouth. She chewed and knew she looked wild, sitting outside when a warm restaurant was behind her. To hell with what anyone thought of her, she alone knew the value she held in the ability to still feel anything let alone the chilled air, now intimately stroking her face.
Paulette pulled out one of her earphones. A woman stood in front of her had said something she didn’t catch. “Pardon?”
“Spare some change, love?” The film of dirt coating her, when clean, porcelain skin stretched as she smiled, worriedly hoping Paulette would be the person to help fill her stomach.
“I don’t carry change. Can I buy you something to eat?”
“Can I’ve sumfink from in there? Looks lush.” Her eyes darted around the interior of the restaurant, enchanted by the opportunity to eat something more lavish than a sandwhich. She rubbed her nose, wet from nights in the cold, with the back of her hand.
“Of course. Go have a look. I’ll finish mine up. I’ll be right in.” Paulette returned her smile and popped her earphone back in as she watched the woman go inside. Her hair dancing behind her, tangled with filth.
She took longer than she’d said to go in. Paulette was texting with Yasmin who said she had a big surprise for her when she got to the bar. Thunderous music falling into her ears, she didn’t see or hear the police officers rush into the restaurant until she’d finished her gyoza- more delicious than she’d remembered- and was throwing her utensils in the bin. The woman was standing with her back against the fridges, holding a sushi rainbow set in one hand, knife in the other. The rusty blade was pointed at the officers who in turn had their bright yellow Tasers pointed at her. Paulette yanked the earbuds from her ears and strode towards the commotion.
“I aint had nuffink proper to eat in days!” In a sweep, she pointed her knife at all the customers and staff staring, mouths agape. “You lot call the pigs on me!”
“Put down the weapon.” This officer was wound tightly, adrenalin surging through him. He was going to make this establishment safe again.
“Officers,” Paulette was careful. “There’s been a mistake.”
“This does not concern you. Step aside.”
“I just wanna eat sumfink!”
“I’ve told you once already!”
“Drop the weapon.”
She despised his dismissal.
He abhorred her arrogance.
“Miss! You’re interfering in police business!”
It happened all at once.
The woman jerked forward.
Paulette stepped in front of her.
“Taser! Taser! Taser!”
The prongs exploded from his Taser embedding themselves in Paulette’s shoulder.
Her body convulsed, dropped heavily to the ground. Fissures cracked in the work Dr Oluwa had performed to give Paulette a new promise of life, a new heart. The shocking current, meant only to immobilise, tore the connection between her left ventricle and her aorta. Her chest filling with blood. She heard screams mixed with gasps, someone crying. The music from her headphones sounded tinny, a soundtrack to a tragedy. She saw the officer’s confused face as if he hadn’t shot her. Felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. Paulette hoped she’d still make it to the play just as rolling blackness claimed her senses.
Yasmin sat at the theatre’s bar, four drinks surrounding her. Her best friend would want a mojito to start and a margarita to follow. She sipped at her strawberry daiquiri, idly skimming a news website on her phone. A hand on her shoulder, she knew it was his. Yasmin couldn’t believe her luck when her 2 o’clock meeting was with Dr Matthew Oluwa, his practice seeking new legal representation. She turned and smiled, accepting his kisses on both of her cheeks. His pecks were light, someone had trained him not to disturb a woman’s make up. This bit of information she stored in her memory bank to unpack later in the Uber home with Paulette. He smelled fresh, cologne wafting from him- the good kind, he’d changed since their meeting. “Would you like a drink?” She tossed her waist-length locks over her shoulder to see him better. Bless him, he was nervous. Yasmin was taking liberties but she’d assuage Paulette’s frustration when she arrived. Without her sticking her nose in these two would have never mustered up the courage to ask each other out. This was a good thing she’d done, a service she’d provided, Yasmin assured herself.
“Please, a shot of something.”
“Honestly, you’ve got nothing to worry about. Have a proper drink.” Yasmin got the bartender’s attention by raising her hand. He ignored everyone else waiting to make their order and came straight over, pulled in by her magnetism. “What you having?”
“Scotch on the rocks.”
“Scotch on the rocks coming up.”
Matthew rubbed his hands on his trousers. “You’re sure she’s coming?” He was sure he’d combust waiting to make her smile again, have her make him smile again. If tonight went well maybe he’d get to hug her and smell her hair up close, the scent of which he’d only caught hints of across the office. What glorious happenstance her oldest and closest friend was a lawyer who spoke plainly. Thoughts tumbled one after another. Future dates. Perhaps the thirty-first time he saw her he’d get to have dinner with her. With confidence after a time, he could call his mother back home and tell her she’d been found. A woman with a Ghanian name, a force overflowing with charisma and skin like butter he’d grieved marring with his scalpel.
“I just text her, she’s eating gyoza around the corner. She’ll be here any second.” Yasmin checked her phone, checked the door. Excitement was a clenched fist in her stomach, she was so thrilled she was getting to set them up.