There wasn’t a day that I didn’t hate myself.
What can you do with that? Disappear, that’s what and London is the best city in the world to disappear in.
No one notices, no one cares.
It’s what I’ve been doing since getting out. And it’s working OK for me …
It was 9.55pm.
Six women went into the building. I was one of them. It was a four-hour shift.
There would be routine during that time. I had no problem with routine. I didn’t care how mind-numbing or repetitive it was. There was clarity in routine and neatness and that suited me fine.
The work was physically demanding but mentally unchallenging. I got on with it. No complaints, no arguments, nothing was beneath me. The company was Fast Genie Industrial Cleaning, a firm well-established across East London over the past six years. The boss man, Mr Lakhami, got no attitude from me. I wanted to work, I needed to. I had all my certificates, earned inside, once I’d caught myself on. I was now a model employee, at least I had been for the past three months.
The six of us wore an identical uniform; grey polo shirt, loose-fitting blue trousers and heavy-duty black boots. We also wore a red and white visitor lanyard, handed to us at reception by one of two security guards. It was the talkative one that signed us in. He was a well-built black man in his twenties with a strong East London accent. His name was Liam or Leo or something, I was rubbish with names. He always enjoyed a joke or two with us. But I didn’t laugh at any of them. I didn’t even smile. I doubt he noticed.
Two of the women were Nigerian; they were gorgeous-looking and spoke English and French mixed in with a language they called Yoruba, I think. I’d never heard of it before. They seemed perpetually happy, filling late-night corridors with gentle song as they worked. They had great singing voices and there was a good vibe between them and the two security guards. Both men wore wedding rings and flirted with the two women, especially Liam or Leo or whatever his name was. There were promises of running away to sun-drenched beaches. The second guard didn’t say as much. He mostly laughed along with the harmless comments from his partner. He was a much older guy, in his mid-sixties. It was all good-natured and the girls sung melodies at the men.
In days gone by I might have enjoyed the banter. Right now, to be truthful, the only company I was interested in was my own - and I wasn’t too keen on that. One of the other women I worked with was named Jenny. I connected with her the most. By that I meant I nodded at her and asked how her day had been. That was the extent of our friendship. She was close in age to me. I was thirty-six and I reckoned she was about the same, give or take a year.
Jenny’s life could rival any long-running soap opera. It was complicated with a new boyfriend and his two kids and his ex-wife who was, in Jenny’s words, a social media monster or troll or something. Then there was her ex-husband and her own four kids – all caught in the crossfire of a rampant fling with a local guy who’d decorated her new flat and who she’d coarsely labelled donkey-dick. I thought he was the new boyfriend but apparently not. It was messy.
“Do you want me to put you in touch with him? You won’t sit down for a week.”
I’d told her I wasn’t interested, donkey-sized or otherwise.
“Are you a bit funny, like?” she’d asked, in that dense, foghorn Liverpool accent of hers.
She had terrible mood swings and these came to work with her. No middle ground with Jenny. One moment she was cheerful and talkative and the other she was ready to slash her wrists and exterminate the entire male population. But at least she had shit to fight over. I could’ve told her of my past, straightened her out with a few stories of my own, only I didn’t.
Besides, she never asked anything and I was glad. I was nobody, a sounding-board in her eyes, the way I liked it.
Some nights Jenny got pissed at the Nigerian women; it was the singing and the fact they were always happy, I guessed. She’d tell them to shut up but the girls took it as humour and would sing even more. They didn’t get it. Once she told them to fuck off back home. She looked at me directly afterward and later that night, once her temper had tapered off, she’d cornered me and apologised.
“I didn’t mean you, you know, when I said that about going back home. I mean, you’re almost home anyway. You’re not one of them.”
I was mixed race. My mother was Irish, my father Jamaican. Dad would’ve tore strips off her for that comment but he was gone now. I shrugged off her words. It was the only thing to do. I’d been born in Belfast and that was a city where colour wasn’t the only division. I’d heard a lot worse than what had come out of Jenny’s mouth. Besides, she wasn’t filled with hate - only her throwaway comments were.
The Nigerian women could’ve have reported her to Mr Lakhami and I could’ve backed them up but none of us wanted any situations at work. Mr Lakhami quickly moved on employees who made waves.
I didn’t say much that night or any other night. I didn’t have much in the way of conversation. I wasn’t in that kind of loop. You weren’t cut off inside. I knew about the world. But I had nothing to offer. I was here to put the hours in and get paid. Not gossip about celebrity divorces or reality TV or who was stepping out with who. On the few occasions I said anything, and it was usually about tea or coffee in the canteen, the two Nigerian women would quiz me about where I was from.
“You are not from London,” one of them would say. She had a broad smile, shiny teeth and a fierce sounding voice. I never could get a handle on her name. “Where are you from? We want to know where you are from.”
“She is from Australia,” said the other girl. I couldn’t pronounce her name, either. She had a punchy tone. Every word was a jab. “Maybe New Zealand. Are you from New Zealand? Or Australia?”
“No, no, no. She is from Sweden, yes? Yes? You are Swedish, yes?”
“Kina is not a Swedish name. Does that sound Swedish? Anyway, Swedish girls have blonde hair.”
They would laugh at that comment and I would smile, a rare thing, and leave them hanging and guessing.
It was Jenny who bustled into the conversation, setting them straight.
“What are you pair chatting about? Kina’s from Ireland, leprechauns, shamrocks and all that.”
The women were disappointed. Ireland clearly wasn’t exotic enough for them. God knew where they thought Jenny was from, probably the moon. Jenny was a little off target, in truth. I knew she thought I’d been born in the south, the republic, but I’d grown up on a grey council estate in the north. There wasn’t much left of my accent after all these years in England, just a twang here and there when my blood raged.
The cleaning contract was with a wholesaler on an industrial estate. It spanned two units. The warehouses were shuttered. Through grilled windows and padlocked wire gates we could see parked forklift trucks, shrink-wrapped pallets of cardboard boxes and long aisles of shelves stacked with stock. It was a bit eerie-looking with the lights off and no staff around but we didn’t have to work in there. Our business was with the offices, canteen, corridors, stairwells and toilets.
We swept, wiped, emptied, vacuumed, polished. We straightened blinds, switched off lamps and took away coffee and tea-stained mugs.
What would Billy make of me now? Fuck him…
I was out of the halfway hostel, putting distance from the past. I had an honest job. I rented a flat. I paid my bills, bought smokes and cans of lager and picked up clothes from the local charity shops.
I wasn’t going back to my old life. No matter the temptation.
I looked up from my bucket. It was midnight already. We were allowed one break halfway through our four-hour shift. I never started it early or came back late. Jenny did, and Sally, her mouthy partner-in-gossip. They were always first in the canteen and last to fill the kettle and get out the mugs. Pauline, a quiet woman in her fifties, made a point about it every night but she often skived a few minutes here and there. Even the Nigerian women came back late.
I took off my goggles and gloves, thoroughly washed my hands and headed for the canteen. Drink made, I went outside for a smoke.
An overhead light came on. I huddled in a doorway, put down my mug of tea and shook out a cigarette, ducking my head from the wind as I lit it. I picked up the mug, took a sip and leaned against the wall. The light illuminated a stack of wooden pallets and two bins with unit numbers painted on the front. The rest of the industrial estate was in darkness, silent, all except the parcel company across the way. That place ran every hour, vehicles in and out. I could hear a radio, songs of the sixties, and echoing voices of drivers and loaders.
The estate was just off a busy dual-carriageway. The city crowded round us, a wall of lights and perpetual noise, never sleeping, never shutting off. There was nowhere in London, not one tiny spot, where a quiet moment existed. That suited me just grand – too much of the past lurked in quiet moments.
I dragged smoke into my lungs, stared at the brightly-lit buildings soaring into the night sky. An ominous bank of clouds was rolling in. It was going to chuck it down later.
The radio jangled away at the parcel company; a strumming guitar and a whining voice singing about love.
Jenny and Sally came out to smoke. I straightened up. The three of us crowded in the doorway. They took out their smart phones, ash crumbling onto tiny, lit-up screens. They shared pictures, posted messages and spoke in mumbles, never really looking at each other. I had a smart phone. It was tucked into my back pocket. I hardly ever got calls or texts and had only gone online once.
I funnelled smoke through my nostrils. Sally showed me a picture of a pensioner and a cat with an amusing caption. I didn’t really get the joke but she did so I forced out a half-laugh for her.
Break was over, for me anyway. My cigarette end went into a rusted metal bucket, hissing as it landed in an inch of water.
I reached for the door handle. A dark blue car drove onto the estate. It cruised by the parcel company and then us before disappearing from sight. There was nothing over that way except units in darkness.
I waited. I watched. Pauline complained I was letting in the cold air. I’d forgotten I still had the door open.
The car didn’t reappear. I guessed we weren’t the only ones working late. I went inside, got back to work and forgot about it.
It was the early hours of Tuesday morning but it still felt like Monday night, the start of the working week, and one shift would quickly blur into another.
Tonight would become tomorrow, tomorrow would be the same as tonight, which meant every tonight and tomorrow was just a strange repeat of yesterday.
Then my phone began to buzz. And none of that was about to matter.
The Nigerian women were singing in Yoruba. It sounded beautiful but they stopped at once.
“Answer it, Kina,” said one of them.
“You never know,” said the other. “It might be a man.”
Their eyes sparkled as I took the phone from my back pocket. I must have come across as pretty lonely to them.
“Is it a man?”
I was going to disappoint them again. It wasn’t a man. It was never going to be a man. It was Olivia, my sister.
She sobbed down the line at me. I couldn’t make out half of what she was coming out with but I got my head round one thing pretty quick - tonight wasn’t going to be a repeat of yesterday.
And tomorrow? I had no idea about tomorrow because Olivia was in the police station.
Her boyfriend, Simon, had been stabbed to death.