“That’s £4.99,” Annette said, in her most gracious voice, looking at the teenage boy dressed in a green school uniform. As she looks down her gaze lands on a fluffy, pink pencil-case with a garish cartoon of a unicorn on it. She quickly concealed her horror.
“It’s for my sister.” He says too quickly, blushing the same shade of pink as the pencil-case.
“Sure, sure,” she lies, shoving it into a plastic bag and handing it to him, smiling mechanically as he leaves.
“That was better, Annette. But still, you are forgetting to greet customers as they approach the desk. Ask them how their day has been. Ask them if they found everything they needed.”
“If they didn’t find everything, Pragna, they will say: I didn’t find what I needed. What’s the point asking them.” Anette replies, turning to the overbearing woman standing directly behind her.
Annette had worked at the stationery store Paperclips for over a year and it had so far been the worst of her life. Not only was she re-sitting 3 out of her 5 failed GCSE exams but she was also putting up with her bossy team leader Pragna, on a daily basis.
“Sometimes, customers are a little afraid to ask. Especially male customers.”
“S’not my problem if they have self-esteem issues.” She folded her arm moodily, wanting nothing more than for her shift to be over.
“It is our problem if we do a bad day of sales.”
“Yours not mine. You’re the Team Leader.” She deliberately used bunny-ear, air quotes when saying the word team leader, knowing how much it would frustrate Pragna.
“Annette…” Pragna began, but Anette had already moved away, taking the SKU gun with her. She hated the way Pragna said her name, enunciating the A at the front with a dissatisfying ‘uh’ sound rather than the ‘ah’ sound that she was used to, making it sound like she was being called: ‘a net’.
“Anette, where are you going with that SKU gun? Carl, did the stock checking this morning.”
“Unless you didn’t notice, I’m trying to get a bit of distance from you.”
“Where can you go to get away from me? You can’t leave like you did yesterday. Your shift isn’t over.”
“Why I left yesterday, is none of your business Pragna. And, I’m not leaving the store… I’m trying to get out of this depressive bubble that you cast around yourself.”
Pragna blushed a deep scarlet, turning away. Annette smiled, happy that she had at last struck a nerve. She was not like the other workers at Paperclips, she did not feel the need to eagerly please the senior management team.
“Well, since it is so important to you, you may continue re-checking what Carl has done. But then I need you to sort out this stock.” She pointed at the new desk chairs that had just arrived and that had been callously stacked to the side. They were surrounded by boxes and baskets which had been piled on top of each other in a haphazard manner, looking more like piles of the piles of trash she had seen outside her building this morning.
“You’re kidding, right?” Annette.
“No, I’m not kidding,” She smiled as she makes away across the shop floor to help a customer looking at the latest desktop computer.
Annette looked out, through the large windows, noting the dusky pink colour of the sky. There was an hour before closing and still, the cars kept flooding into the car park. Students with parents coming to by stationary, lawyers urgently saturating the copy centre to get vital document bound. Tall women, driving fancy cars walked elegantly through the sweeping doors, swinging their handbags and smoothing out any creases from their skirts. Annette caught a whiff of their perfumes as they passed, noticed their crimson, manicured hands and even caught whispers of important conversations. She imagined they all had university degrees, worked in fancy office buildings, behind large mahogany desks with several assistants answering to their beck and call. Annette turned away to scan the white sticker on a jewel-studded phone cover with the SKU gun. The women themselves made Annette aware of her own lowly existence, with her failed GCSE exams, plain looks and lack of aspirations for the future.
Then Jacob, the Store Manager, was tapping her on the back and handing her a box of pens.
“Price and put out on the front shelf.” He said hurriedly, speeding towards the back.
“What else do I have to live for,” She sighed deeply and made to the front of the store.
“Jacob,” Pragna said loudly, waving a sheet of paper in front of his face. “You have still not approved my holiday’s.”
Jacob observed Pragna assiduously, taking in her tiny form but still not hearing what she was saying. It was the second time that day she had come brandishing the forms under his nose, only this time she looked a little more aggravated.
“Not now, Pragna. We are an hour before closing. You always come at the wrong time.”
“Then when, Jacob?” She threw her hands manically in the air. “Hmm. Tell me when?”
He hesitated for a moment, concerned with the look of helplessness her face. She looked on the verge of tears, as her large liquid eyes bored up at him. He attempted to assuage his own guilt by reminding himself that it wasn’t an urgent matter. He could always approve the holiday form tomorrow.
“We will discuss it tomorrow morning.” He said, stalking off, though he was well aware it would not be the last he would hear of it. Though he put up many injunctions against Pragna’s incessant needs to discuss personal matters on the shop floor, she had a predictable way of evading his demands and bringing up the conversation in any way she could.
Jacob cast his eyes up, looking at the round clock on the furthest side of the store. He now had 50 minutes in which to get the store neatly organized and ready before Jo from head office arrived the next morning.
“Excuse me.” An old woman came up the stationary aisle with a sprightly spring in her step. “Can you tell me where the sharpeners are?”
“Keep walking to the end of this section and you will find them on the right.” He pointed, smiling at her.
“You are a very kind young man. Thank you.” She said, walking away.
Even when Jacob was not working, he was always very formal. He wasn’t the sort of man to walk around in track-suits or jeans, sporting beanie caps and trainers. It was always dark, freshly pressed trousers and crisp shirts.
Growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Nairobi, Jacob’s mother had little in the way of money. He worked two jobs as a young man, which amounted to enough Kenyan Shillings to pay rent, feed his family and put his three younger brothers’ through school.
It was at the age of 24 that a distant uncle suggested he try his luck in America. The younger Jacob, who had subsequently and rather nervously digging his toe into the red Kenyan earth, confirmed in a washed-out voice: “I will go to New York.”
“When you get there, you must stand tall and proud. You must make something of yourself.” His Uncle Mote had said.
Taking his words to heart Jacob worked his way up the ladder in the retail game, earning more than enough to continue supporting his family but also to make a life for himself. But it seemed that the United states did not suit him well. As a black African man, he did not feel as though he fit in. So, what had begun as a passionate and exuberant affair, ended with hateful words, terse accusations and fits of tears. During this period of time, Jacob felt a taste of solitude and decided he would instead try his luck in England.
Jacob had been working for Paperclips for the best part of 2 years and was recently promoted to the position ofstore manager. His sullen mood and the bad taste America left in his mouth had vanished and he found a new lease on life.
All of a sudden, there was a cry of outrage from the other side of the shop floor. Jacob sprinted to the front where Pragna was standing with Khalil, Annette and an elderly man.
The man had a vernal face, with transparent skin. White hair bunched from the side of his head, but the top was completely bald.
“Not a single one of youse, cept that girl speaking a word of bloody English.” He pointed a gnarled, yellow-nailed finger at Annette.
“Woah, woah.” Jacob put well practiced hands up, defensively. “What’s going on?”
“These two, yappin on in some dirty Arab language. Can’t you hire normal people here, who speak English?” The man blasted, swearing at both Khalil and Pragna. They looked fearful, as he took a threatening step forward.
“Hey!” Jacob replied forcefully. “There is no need for that sort of language.”
The man’s eyes narrowed and he came a step closer to Jacob. It was in that moment that Jacob caught the acrid scent of cigarettes from his shirt and the alcohol on his breath.
“You ain’t English neither. African I suppose. Can’t speak English either, I guess.”
“What am I speaking then, if I am not speaking English?” Jacob asked the man, the tone of his voice rising.
The man’s thick eyebrows raised in protest. “You shouting at me. Who do you think you are?”
The brow itself stretched the length of his forehead and his wrinkles deepened as he scrunched his face in anger.
“I’d like you to leave. I will not have you speak to my staff in this manner.”
Jacob sensed the tension rise as the man swirled around, a drunken mess and made for the doorway, though before he departed he gave the four of them a haughty, disapproving look.
Pragna and Khalil both looked at the floor, looking as though they wished nothing better than to disappear into its fibres and disappear, rather than stand out like sore thumbs as they were in that moment. Jacob looked at them, saying nothing. The man had made him so angry, he had not noticed that his hands had balled into fists and that his fingernails were digging into the palm of his hands. He untensed and released his grasp to look down at the crescent moon shapes that were etched into skin.
“Let’s get back to work.” He said, turning on his heel and stalking off towards the stock room.
Khalil was the eldest child of Warda Hussain a Pakistani immigrant who had moved to the U.K in the summer of 1999. She had been 2 months pregnant with her one and only child, Khalil Waleed Hussain, though at the time she had not known it. Now at the age of 20, Khalil supported his mother financially as well as putting himself through a law degree at the prestigious B.P.P University in Waterloo.
He despised the idea of being the ache in his mother’s joints, a life-long worry, so despite despising the idea of an arranged marriage, he had agreed to meet a few girls from the Pakistani community in London, to appease her tantrums and foot stamps. He spent most of his spare time working, unable to spend the time with his mothers’ wounded silences and narrowed eyes. Warda, as he had come to realise, would not sit still and would often fidget, fuss and fiddle when things grew too quiet. So, as the clock hands would turn, edging towards 8PM it would remind him that he would soon be leaving and he wished nothing more than for the hands to turn backward and allow him more time before he had to go home.
It disheartened him greatly when 10 minutes before close, he would make his rounds on the shop, informing customers that they would be closing the tills soon.
“You clock watching, again?” Annette asks Khalil as he ushered the last of the customers towards the counter. She lifted her head, ad gave a look that suggested that she felt as though it had been a draining day.
“It’s been one of those days, right. Bet you can’t wait to get home.”
“Hm.” Khalil nodded and smiled, mechanically, not wanting to reply directly to the look. He did not feel the same way she did. He would rather take on one hundred rowdy customers than go home to his mother.
Pragna had hurried past him in that moment, shutting out the last of the customers. She turned to look at them, then back outside. No words passed through her lip but Khalil could tell that she was silently praying for the evening to be over too.
“I just need to finish cashing up,” Pragna said, running through a checklist of things with her hands. “Then we can hopefully be out by 8 on the dot.” She threw a set of keys in Annette’s direction. They slipped at her fingertips and clattered to the floor.
“Put the shutter’s down halfway,” Pragna called as she ran. “And Khalil, make sure that Jacob is ready to leave.”
Khalil nodded, disappearing into the back room to retrieve his coat and bag. As soon as he walked through the door, the pungent smell of mould hit his nose. He clenched his teeth together and forced himself to block the nostrils and anything foul stenching from passing down his airwaves. Jacob, who had been filling out some last-minute paperwork, had not yet spotted him. He was haunting the back room like a possessed demon, searching under cabinets and in lockers. Even stopping down low to look under his desk.
“Jacob?” Khalil asked curiously. “Are you o.k?”
“Trying to find the damn holidays spreadsheet.” He muttered aloud, though he seemed to be talking more to himself.
“Jo is coming in from head office tomorrow and I don’t want anything to go wrong.” He wheezed as he stood up again and Khalil thought he looked more like a man of 50 than the late 30’s he was in.
“How can you stand it in here?” Khalil asked, the smell starting to hit him. “This is disgusting.”
“I’ve seen worse.” Jacob chuckled at himself as though enjoying a private joke.
“We need to talk to Jo about this tomorrow. It’s bad for all of us.” Khalil hesitated before continuing. “I’ve read that too much exposure to mould is bad for your lungs.”
Khalil didn’t particularly have any issues with the other members of staff, but he wouldn’t go as far to say they were friends. Out of the 4, he worked with regularly he like Jacob the most.
“You’re right. I will inform her again.” He paused and squinted at the circular black and blue dots covering the walls. Jacob wrinkled his nose in disgust as he brushed past the wall in attempts to grab a few files from the cabinet.
“Let’s hope she listens this time.” Khalil laughed.
When Khalil left the back, he found that the shop front was empty. Annette and Pragna had already left to collect their things.
Jabob came out from behind, shuffling between the aisles, carrying boxes of stock. He should have been exhausted, especially since the mound of boxes had now come waist-high.
“Stock to put out tomorrow morning,” He proclaimed happily, wiping sweat from his brow. “Fun job for Annette and Pragna.” He hooted, unaware they were walking up behind him.
“Yippee for me,” Annette said in a monotone voice, pushing past to hand the set of store keys to Jacob. “I’m so looking forward to tomorrow.”
“Enough with the attitude,” Jacob said as he approached the front of the shop. “It’s not like it is a picnic for any of us either.”
Through the half-descended shutter, there was little light coming through to on the shop floor. The summer sun was all but vanished past the horizon, and only a sliver of brightness from the car park made its way onto the spotted blue and white carpet. There was a rush of noise and the last of the cars parked exited towards the main high street, but mostly there was quiet.
“Ready?” Jacob asked as he held his finger close to the alarm box. “I’m going to set the alarm.”
Pragna who had been rummaging through her bag, stood up instantly, straight and determined. Khalil thought she looked rather like an Olympian at the start of the race track, waiting for the bang of the gun so she could dart off.
Jacob tapped in the six-digit code and they all waited for the familiar sound from above. It had sounded for only three seconds, letting out its siren-like screeches when the noise changed to an indistinct heavy sound. The warbling of the alarm died instantaneously and the shutter came crashing to the floor. The noise alone caused Annette to shriek and jump backward, knocking into a stand of notebooks, which then caused Pragna to fly back in surprise and knock into Khalil. Had he been watching the spectacle as an outsider, Khalil thought the situation was rather funny but having Pragna’s heavy bag swing into his shin and her tiny feet crush his own was rather painful.
“No, no, no. Listen. I’ve told you, we had new shutters fitted last week, we can’t crank them up manually.” Jacob shouted down the phone in frustration. “Yes, I tried the key, instead of using the button. I’m not an idiot.” He shook his head in frustration. He had a defeated look in his eyes that reminded her of her youngest son Bharat, who had the very same look, especially when he was trying desperately to solve complex maths problems.
Unable to stand idly by, watching his struggle, Pragna had moved close to him, holding out a hand, waiting to receive the phone call.
“Pragna. What do you want?” He said, holding his hand over the receiver. “I’m on the phone to head office.”
“Yes, let me talk to them.” She said, nodding her head in encouragement. “I’ll tell them what’s what. We will be out of here in no time at all.” She slapped her hands together in a finite movement, as though she were dusting off flour.
“What?” He asked confused, staring blankly down at her. “No, Pragna, let me just finish.” He stalked off to the other side of the counter.
Pragna sat at the edge of the counter, thinking how stubborn Jacob was. He reminded her so much of Bharat, from his good-natured smile to his tenacious, immovable disposition. It was bizarre, being in such close proximity to Jacob, because it brought her both great joy and great sorrow. When she closed her eyes, she could remember her son’s frail little body, so filled with happiness would fall in fits of hiccoughing laughter. She would be reminded of his smile, that curved into a perfect crescent, as though God himself had taken a scalpel and carved it into his face. It was the same perfect smile that Jacob held, wide, toothy and filled with warmth.
“I’m starving. How long is this going to take?” Annette complained. She looked reproachfully at Pragna, as though she held all the answers.
“Jacob is still on the phone to them,” Pragna replied, putting her bags down and sitting on the floor next to the counter. “It might still be a while.”
“This is ridiculous. I had so much revision to do when I got home.”
“Me too,” Khalil said, taking a seat next to Pragna. “Do you need my phone, Annette? To call your family? I’ve already text my mum. She isn’t too happy.”
“Oh, yes please,” Annette replied gratefully, reaching for his phone. “I need to let my mum know.” She swirled around on her heel, dialling the number as she did.
“You don’t need to call anyone?” She asked Pragna, to which she smiled sadly in return.
“No. No one I need to call.”
She had little planned for her evening, except to sit in front of the television with a bowl of daal, lentils and bhaat, rice. Beside her, Annette was chatting away to her mother, angrily regaling the events of today. Pragnaenvied her.
“I hope this doesn’t take too long, I’m really hungry,” Khalil grumbled. “I didn’t bring lunch today.”
Pragna observed the boy sympathetically. Even though he had long since left his teenage years behind, he was still relatively young. She stood up from the uncomfortable patch of the floor that she had claimed and turned towards the shelves along the counter. They were stocked with shelf upon shelf of brightly iridescent packages. It was clever, their positioning in the store. They were the first things your eyes were drawn to as you walked through the double doors. Brightly packaged and shiny they were mostly used to draw in young children, whose sticky fingers would grab them as their mothers came in for stationary. Pragna thought that sweets were such a wonderful distraction. They could divert a child from tears, or an adult from their worries.
“Here,” Pragna said, dropping a few selections into Khalil’s hands. “We can share these.” He was surprised by the sheer amount she had prised off the shelves, dropping them onto the floor.
“Are you sure?” He asked, surprised. “Won’t we get into trouble?”
“It’s the least they can do for the inconvenience. I will write it off as expired tomorrow.” She said mischievously, her eyes twinkling in the dim light.
As soon as Khalil picked up the chocolate bar he took a large bite, looking up and smiling at Pragna as he chewed on it.
“That’s the spot.” He said with an open mouth, making her wonder if he was perhaps deliberately showing her the contents of his mouth to revolt her. Annette, back from her phone call sat down and grabbed a yellow and purple flaky chocolate.
“Are we having a picnic?” She giggled, taking a large bite. She disregarded the shavings of chocolate that crumbled down her red work shirt and scattered on the floor.
“What do you think you are doing?” Jacob asked, aghast, looking at a large number of wrappers on the floors.
“Wha?” Khalil asked innocently, still chewing on a mouthful. “I’m hungry.”
“Stop being such a tight ass, Jay.” Annette laughs and throws a coconut filled chocolate in his direction.
He caught it, looking at it interestedly for a moment, as though it is the first time he had ever glanced upon a confectionary good. There was a strange way he held it, so tenderly, so carefully, as though it were a tiny, frail bird. Or perhaps even a bomb, that if dropped would blast them all to kingdom come.
“I don’t have a tight ass.” He said finally, sitting down with them on the floor. He prudently ripped the sky-blue packaging before taking a small bite.
“You have a very nice bottom, actually,” Pragna said matter-of-factly. “It’s not too big but not too small either.”
Jacob coughed and spluttered on the piece in his mouth, blushing.
There was a silence, in which the other three looked at her, astonished. Then they hooted louder than a pack of hyenas, forcing tears of joy to stream down their cheeks and pits of laughter to well from their stomach. Khalil rolled on the floor next to Pragna, while she looked on at him in amazement.
“What?” She asked, confused. “What is so funny.”
“Pragna,” Annette managed through choked hiccoughs, “that’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said.”
She smiled at them, feeling rather embarrassed, wondering what they all found so funny.
“So, what did head office say?” Pragna asked when Jacob had regained some of his composure. “Is someone on their way?”
He smiled empathetically. “Sit tight. The door is jammed shut until they can call someone out to fix it.”
Pragna wasn’t sure, but in that moment, she was sure she saw Khalil turn away, a slight smile on his lips. He sat back, stretching out to look at the ceiling, as though he were on some beautiful, exotic desert island.
“What! Are you kidding me? How long are we expected to sit tight?” Annette asked furiously.
“I don’t know,” Jacob replied, indifferently. “I know as much as you guys.”
Annette turned away, her eyes dark with disbelief and suspicion. She took her headphones out of her bag, turning her music player onto the highest volume and sulked in her little corner between the shelves.
Pragna stood up, uncertainly, wobbling on the spot. Her knees ached but she disregarded them. Her expression was a blur of both confusion and hope. She took Jacobs hand, which felt like a heavy-set of keys in her own tiny ones.
“I’ll make some tea in the staffroom.” She said brightly, to which Jacob nodded his head gratefully.
When Pragna returned, she noticed that the group was wearing faces of notable chagrin. Caught between curiosity and the reluctance to spend the next few hours in silence she asked if there had been any news.
“Nothing,” Annette said taking a mug of tea from her, her voice was brisk and somewhat condescending. “We’re probably going to be here all night.”
“Well, we could pass the time. There is stock to still put out.” Pragna said. “Might as well do something, rather than sit here waiting.”
At first, Annette was expressionless, wooden and statue-like as though her face had been carved into the bark of a tree, she did not smile sheepishly like Khalil who brushed it off as a quirky remark. Then, her face turned into a grotesque form, as she stood up and delivered abuse.
“Where do you get off telling me what to do after work hours, Pragna?” Her face changes colour as quick as a set of traffic lights. The overcast shop floor had washed Annette’s skin in a yellow pallor but it quickly turned to a lucid red as she angered. Pragna was so shocked by Annette’s sudden outburst that she dropped a large amount of tea down her top.
“You know we probably won’t get paid for this, right? Take that stick out of your bum and just chill.”
“Hey!” Jacob said, extending an arm in front of Annette in attempts to calm her. “Calm down, Annette.”
“No, don’t tell me to calm down Jay. I take this shit at work because at least I’m getting paid for it. But I won’t take this shit now. Who does she think she is?” She was ranting and raving like a mad woman, flailing her hands absent-mindedly in the air as though they were detached from her torso.
“We all think you are a bitch, Pragna. A pretentious bitch.” Annette spat, before stalking off.
Khalil shot up, running after her. While Jacob turned to see Pragna sitting quietly, with liquid eyes and a bruised face.
Jacob said nothing, afraid that Pragna would break down into fits of tears. In the years, he had known her, he had never seen her face so crestfallen. Pragna had always been the hard-working, albeit a bossy team leader. He had many a run in with her when he started, many of which ended raised voices and frustrated sighs. One month into the job, he had even gone so far to contact head office, in hopes of getting a transfer. He had made all the arrangements when that very same evening something changed his mind.
Pragna had pulled up at the bus stop, in a beat-up Volkswagen Beetle, offering Jacob a lift home.
“This is a rough neighbourhood.” She said, rolling down the window. “You should try to get a car.”
“Thank you,” Jacob said, surprised by her kind gesture. “It’s out of your way.”
“I don’t mind.” She said, turning into a side road. “It’s no trouble at all.”
“This is a nice car. Not something I would expect you to drive.”
“It was my son’s.”
“Let me guess, he bought a nice new BMW so he doesn’t need this anymore.” Jacob laughed.
“No.” She said quietly. “He passed away last year.”
Jacob was reminded of the memory of that day as he comforted a hurting Pragna. “She doesn’t speak for me,” Jacob said kindly, putting a hand on Pragna’s shoulders. “I don’t think that at all.”
Jacob was moved that day by Pragna’s simple, kind soul. A woman who had lost everything, lost her son, her entire world, to a stabbing, still found the courage to wake up every day and come to work.
“Thank you,” She gave him a watery smile, brushing away her tears as though they were inconsequential. “I have been a little hard on her. It is natural for a child to lash out.”
There was a sudden rush of feet down as Annette came back towards the front of the store. She was still red-faced, but make was streaking down her cheeks. Mascara had run into the crevasses of the half-moons beneath her eyes. She fell next to Pragna, embarrassed at first to look at her.
“I’m sorry I shouted. To be honest, you ragging on me is what I need sometimes. I wish my mum was this hard on me sometimes, maybe I wouldn’t have failed my GCSE’s then. You know, working with you has inspired me to study harder.” She laughed shamefacedly. “I don’t think you are a bitch. I was just angry.”
She took Pragna’s hands, trying desperately to lock eye contact. “You are an amazing woman, a strong amazing woman.”
“Thanks,” Pragna said, choking back a sob. “That is very sweet of you to say.” She patted her hands gingerly.
“Let me go with you to the bathroom. Get that pretty face of yours cleaned up.” She took Pragna by the arm and led her down the walkway. It was a simple gesture, but to Pragna, it was profoundly meaningful.
“Did you tell her?” Jacob asked as they were left alone. “Does she know?”
“I told her,” Khalil replied. “She feels terrible.”
“A good life lesson, I suppose.” Jacob laughed in a hollow, somewhat empty voice. “Sorry if your evening was ruined by today. What were your plans?”
“Nothing special really. Revision. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.” Khalil ran a hand through his hair. Jacob could not see them, in the gloomy light but his fingers brushed past a few grey hairs that had sprouted from his scalp.
“You shouldn’t take life too seriously.”
“It’s hard not to. It’s just me and my mum to take care of the younger kids.”
“Where is your father?” Jacob asked.
“In Pakistan, with wife number two and his new children,” Khalil replied grimly.
“That’s a big responsibility,” Jacob said, choosing his words carefully. “But remember, you are doing the best you can. You can’t shoulder everything.”
“I just don’t want my brother’s growing up thinking that I failed them.”
“Khalil, you work crazy hours. You go to school. You are doing the best you can. That’s all you can do.” He said kindly. He stopped talking once the girls had come back. Pragna sat down, taking a large chocolate bar and tucking into it.
“What were you talking about?” She asked curiously, looking considerably happier.
“Oh, we were just talking about my crazy father.”
“I have a lot of knowledge on that subject,” Annette said brightly, taking a seat next to Pragna. “My dad is super crazy. He lives on a house boat in Kingston.”
“Really,” Pragna said interestedly, “and he likes living like a hippie?”
“I guess he does.” Annette laughed. “He always sounds happy when I call him.”
“What’s your father like, Jacob?” Khalil asked, looking at his manager. It made him realize how little he knew of the man.
“My father was killed by a member of Mungiki.”
“Mun-whatta?” Anette asked, giggling at the name. Pragna threw her a scathing look, at which point she stopped giggling and looked once more in Jacob’s direction.
“Mungiki. They are one of the most feared gangs in Kenya.”
“Why did they kill your father?” Khalil asked, putting a hand on Jacob’s knee.
“Wrong place, wrong time. He saw something he wasn’t meant to see.” Jacob himself laughed, although it sounded rather muffled. Hips lips barely twitched, as though the grief would not allow him to smile. Khalil felt a rush of adoration for Jacob, who despite his own hardships, had so guilelessly, so unreservedly, uttered such kind words to comfort him.
“I’m sorry, Jacob. I’m sorry for your loss.” It was the first time since she had begun working at the store that Annette had called Jacob by his full name.
“It was a long time ago. I was a young boy.”
“You know,” Pragna said cheerfully, in an attempt to steer the conversation. “Jacob passed his driving only last week. He can finally buy a car.”
There were several cries of enthusiasm and enthusiastic pats on Jacobs back. He put his hands up shyly, as though unaware of what to do with the unwanted attention.
“Yes, yes. Thank you.” He replied graciously. “I’m thinking of getting a small Polo. I like the brand Volkswagen.”
They talked then, for a long while, discussing the future, discussing the past and enjoyed each other’s company. It was as though they had all removed masks that had been attached to their heads, to reveal their true, blemished and vulnerable faces. Their masks lay discarded on the side, as did the unspoken grievances, the burdens they bore and the apparent submitted destinies they faced were forgotten for a few fleeting hours.
Annette made the second round of tea, while they shared piles of chocolate from a common pile in the middle of their circle. When the clock on the far-side wall struck 1 AM Khalil asked if anyone wanted a third and they all conjoinedly agreed to down another.
Rushes of sound echoed from the outside, as the time spread on. The scurry of foxes rummaging through the outdoor bins, even the sound of the odd car passing by. Finally, when Jacobs phone began to ring, at 1.30 AM a look passed between them. An unguarded look that reminded them that their time in the store after hours was coming to a close.
“He’ll be here soon,” Jacob said, clearing the wrappers off the floor. It did not take long. As the hands drew close to 2 AM the alarm came on suddenly, causing them all to jump.
For a long while, the four of them sat in silence, listening to the sound of the alarm drone on. A few minutes must have passed before they heard a metallic scrape and the sound of the engineer from outside tapping on the glass window. It was strange, the bittersweet look that passed between them.
“Come on, Jacob. I’ll give you a lift home.” Pragna said standing up, massaging her legs.
“I was planning to sleep on the floor here.” He grumbled, running his hands down his backside. “Have to be up again in a few hours anyway.”
“Yeah. I think I might call in sick tomorrow.” Annette said looking fervently at him.
“Don’t you dare” He warned.
“Kidding,” she smiled cheekily, brushing her wayward bangs away from her eyes.
“Oh. Pragna.” He said suddenly, as the shutters came crashing down behind them. “Remind me to sign your holiday form tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry. I was planning to staple it to your head if you forgot.” She joked.
“See you guys, Friday,” Khalil said, walking towards his car, “hope the visit tomorrow goes well.”
They walked into the car park together, smiling coyly at one another as they felt the sultry London air on their faces, the events of that evening still playing on their minds.