This story features in the Goldroom anthology, available to buy here.
On the doorstep she was like someone selling god: black dress, white lace collar, brogues, a large leather bag tilting her hips to the side. ‘Hi, it’s me, Delphina,’ she said, reaching to shake my hand. I thought she’d be older but she was in her twenties, mixed-race, with lemony green eyes and a glow of moisture on her forehead.
She’d walked quite a way from the station, she said, odd, as Skylar maps had calculated it to be six minutes, 28 seconds at an average walking speed. It was so hot out on the road, she was literally melting.
As I looked at her, self-disgust broke in me, the tangled, lank hair around my face and the rising sourness of my cropped top and holey leggings. But the last thing I wanted to feel was unconfident. We’d been on the email and phone (three times) and she’d said, it’s fine, I just needed to relax and not over-think it.
‘It always works better that way,’ she had said.
The warmth in her posh tone was reassuring, I imagined good lips working off good teeth when she smiled. I was right.
After leading her through the communal hall and into the flat, I offered her a drink, praying she wouldn’t follow me into the kitchen which had three days worth of washing up in the sink. She didn’t want tea, just plain cooled boiled water if I had some, with perhaps a slice of lemon. I didn’t have lemon and she said just plain cooled boiled water was perfect. In the kitchen I flicked the kettle on.
‘I don’t mean to be a pain,’ Delphina told me when I was back, ‘but I’m on a clean diet.’
She was already sitting on the sofa, pulling objects out of her bag with practiced ease: a clutch of leads, three mobiles, a small Skybook, a grey laptop (no logo), three small black devices I couldn’t identify, an assortment of white leather boxes, latex gloves, some baby wipes and various bottles of fluid. There was also a small leather notebook and two pens.
‘I’m not normally on the road, I’m based in the lab, more R&D, but Tiff couldn’t come so it was up to me. But you know, it’s been fun, really lovely meeting everyone. Great to see how Lola’s working with our new client base.’
‘Lola?’ I said.
‘The product,’ she said and smiled again.
‘Oh – yes of course.’
I asked if she wanted some tap water but she said she’d wait. I was suddenly thirsty myself so I went back to the kitchen and filled up a pint glass. The kettle had boiled and as I poured, bubbling water spat onto my hand. I swore quietly. I found a Jif lemon in the fridge, but after smelling it I decided against squirting it in.
Back in the room, I started talking randomly about pint glasses, a sure sign I was nervous. ‘We have five in the cupboard. I’m not a pint drinker and Jay drinks shots or bottles of beer. I’m not sure where they come from, it’s weird.’
Delphina pursed her lips and smiled: clearly not a drinker.
I didn’t mention Jay had just moved out. Although I’d found out a lot of stuff I didn’t know, I didn’t think he was the type to steal pint glasses. It was three years since we’d finished our degrees but we were still wading through a bleak terrain of zero contract jobs that would make you wake in the festering 3am darkness and compare yourself to people doing better. At that time in the night, the panic felt more serious and alive. It was a vast lottery, career happiness, any kind of continual happiness; only a few lucky ones getting the few good lives around. The rest of us carried on suffering temp jobs and endless internships if parents were up for supporting you. And mine weren’t.
But what did I know about anything anymore? I was numb, the kind of numb before you go into freefall. I knew the rent was due and I had to now go on paying it by myself, how temping wasn’t going to meet it and how I would be paid a princely sum of one hundred pounds for what I’d been told would be half an hours work.
Delphina took out a form. ‘Do you want to read through the paper work?’ she said. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about Lola or discuss any of its component parts etc. If I did, there was some legal sounding language I skimmed down and some other national security stuff, (Jay would have read through all this) it went on for five pages, but I stopped reading and nodded and then signed my name at the bottom of the sheet.
‘The only thing I’m worried about is electrocution,’ I said.
Delphina laughed. ‘You won’t be connected in any way to the mains,’ she said. ‘It’s all on radio waves: wireless.’
She placed a box on the table. ‘So this is Lola.’
The box, fake white leather with faint crocodile skin scales.
‘Take a look.’
She indicated that I should open it myself.
‘First of all I want you to have a play and see how you interact with it.’
‘Interact with it,’ I said.