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Yeah, Faith said into her phone, I brought the prosecco and the plunger. They all went happy hour without me, even that bitch with men’s shoulders. I’m all alone. Give me a big kiss baby, I’m almost back.
She hung up and turned to Alina.
Don’t you think so? Faith said.
Shoulders like a Mexican wrestler, she replied.
Alina stepped around a baby bottle with silver gas cylinders and balloons around it. They walked through clouds of smoke and vapes, Faith spat gum into a gutter and an Asian guy in a blacked-out Volkswagen doing five in a thirty honked at them. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day in South London.
They’d just stepped off the bus to head to Malik’s – her boyfriend’s – apartment off London Road, the longest road in the world, so long that nobody has ever driven from one end to the other and you can look that up.
This is going to be so funny, Faith said.
He’ll find it hilarious, Alina said.
Alina went back to her story, face like she was about to sneeze.
This guy, Faith said, he sold heroin?
I couldn’t see him, Alina said, he was too scary for me to turn around. But I had a strong mental image. He was talking to these two girls. I couldn’t see but I thought they were black and then one left and she was white and they were shouting so loud the people going work on the night bus were scared. Anyway, he went down for four years on intent to supply. Police were trying to catch someone higher up, but he was all they could get ’cause the crackhead didn’t snitch. The girls were into him but he said he could never get with a white girl ’cause he needed someone from his culture, and what if he went round for a Sunday roast and the Dad called their baby an n-word like Prince Charles. He has a mortgage now.
What kind of crackhead snitches? Faith said.
I don’t know, Alina said. It’s not a healthy relationship,
It’s all consensual. You can’t go police after and start whining about he made me buy it.
I don’t know how these things go.
It’s a lack of loyalty, Faith snapped.
As they came up the elevator, Faith had a moment of fear – that second when the lift starts moving and it feels like it’s falling. The inside smelt of shoe polish and stainless steel and there was a notice tapped to the wall, a Zakat collection for the homeless brothers of South-East London. They stepped around a skateboard in the hallway. Faith nearly dropped the Prosecco.
He’s gonna find this funny right? Alina said as she knocked.
Have you seen Malik, Faith asked, since you stopped fucking last year?
A few times in Shoreditch.
Faith made a face and knocked too. Malik opened the door and saw his girlfriend, Faith, standing with his ex-girlfriend, Alina. He took a step back.
You stopped having sex with Alina to listen to the music playing downstairs?! Faith said, bursting out laughing.
Malik stayed in the doorway while Faith and Alina walked past him. There were empty boxes everywhere and finance books on the sofa, the sofa still had the shrink wrap on it, and instead of mouthwash he had a bottle of vodka on the sink attached to the living room wall. No one knew why the sink was there. The viewing agent called it a positive in a post-pandemic world, Faith thought it gave the place character. She put the prosecco on the table.
I was so confused, Alina said giggling, we’re on the sink at this party in this disgusting bathroom, you know, then all of a sudden Malik goes just give me a sec, are they playing what I think they’re playing? He said it was Death Grips or something. Was it Death Grips? Wasn’t like I was going to come anyway!
Malik had sex with her back when he was being a whore, that was the term Faith and him had agreed on. He had sex with a lot of women back then, Faith had seen a lot of them since in the street or online, or in her dreams. These are the parts of the story they don’t tell, what happens after you’re whoring, and walking down the highstreet with your girlfriends like walking through a haunted house. He tried not to bring it up. He skipped over it around her, he scraped their hieroglyphs off his pyramid.
I didn’t know you two knew each other, he said in an even voice.
Oh my God, where are my manners, hey! Alina said. I haven’t seen you in ages how are you?
I’m good, Malik said.
We’re new best friends, Faith said, throwing her arms around the other girl and squeezing. She’s intellectual and she’s sexy.
You’ve definitely got a type, Alina said.
Oh absolutely, Faith said. He always says he doesn’t as well.
Liar liar liar, Alina sang, laughing and throwing her head back so far it was like her face had turned into a chin. She was laughing and Faith was laughing and Malik was moving away from the doorway with the door still open and staring at the two of them, in his room, together. Like walking out halfway through a movie and coming back and being completely unable to figure out how it’d ended up the way it had. Alina put her hands on her hips.
I have to go, she said as though leaving a party early, but we should all get lunch together sometime.
We have to! Faith said, giving her a kiss on the cheek. We’re gonna get to know each other very well.
’Bye Malik! Alina laughed, then left.
Malik immediately went and locked the door. He looked at the closed door. He wheeled his chair over from his desk and picked the kitchen knife up.
Don’t cut yourself, Faith said.
He chopped the tofu and rolled it in the cornflour and dipped in the bowl with the soy sauce and the mirin. He started on the pack choi, peeling it apart and dipping it in the soy sauce as well. He reached for the wok on top of the fridge.
It stinks of cigarettes in here, Faith said.
What have you been up to?
Studying, Malik said.
Nerd. She got up from his desk and went to the floating sink to wash her hands. Oh my God, she said.
The sink’s blocked, Malik said.
I told you, she said, didn’t I tell you? You can’t keep pouring ash down it.
It don’t make sense. How can ash block a sink?
Faith cocked her head. That is a lot of ash, she said. But I told you. Those who don’t hear must feel. Your mum told me that.
When you burned your hands, Malik laughed, trying to eat plantain fresh out the oil.
Faith glared at him.
She thought you were crazy. Not too far off, Malik said. Where’s the plunger?
Don’t do it now, you’re cooking.
I’ll wash my hands.
I don’t want your plunger hands on my food, Faith said. Do it after.
Faith went to the bathroom instead, Malik moved round to the kitchen and put the wok on the fire and added some sesame oil. Faith came back in shaking her hands. He used to call it her upside-down jazz hands.
You know Alina saw a heroin dealer on the bus, she said.
How much did he charge her?
Wasn’t it funny me bringing her here? It was her idea.
Malik switched the extractor on. He thought carefully about his next words.
It was weird, he said, I don’t know about funny.
You didn’t go out last night? She said, changing the subject.
I’m too busy.
Oh, I thought you would’ve gone out.
Malik took the wok and rotated it. He stuck his tongue out like Michael Jordan in ’98 and tried to get the oil right to the edge of the wok without it spilling. He cooked up a storm when he had the time to. They used to make pine nut and spinach pasta together, with the crank machine. Coat it with truffle oil and parmesan, add cherry tomatoes or more spinach if he was trying to eat healthy for a change. Malik wanted to go to China to learn pasta-making, that was where the Italians got noodles from. They got the tomatoes from America when they lit it on fire.
Am I allowed to sleep over tonight? Faith said.
You’re always allowed, he said pleadingly. But I’ve got to kick you out at eight to study for this exam. Can you pass the teriyaki?
It’s such a coincidence I saw Alina, Faith said. You know there’s another girl there you slept with? The Swedish one, with the ear thing. Ear cancer?
Faith, can you pass the teriyaki sauce please?
Maybe we’ll all make a club.
Go ahead, Malik said. Faith.
Sorry, Faith said. I can’t hear you that well.
She got up from Malik’s desk and brought the teriyaki sauce and the prosecco. She nearly tripped over the plunger next to the sink in the living room.
Don’t raise your voice at me like that, she said.
He added the pak choi and tossed them like pancakes so the sauce coated the inside of the leaf. Had he raised his voice at her? He couldn’t remember. There had been a few times when he thought he hadn’t and he’d been as careful as he could be, but it had turned out that he had and he’d had to apologise in the end. It wouldn’t be good if this conversation ended up like that, with him apologising, even if she apologised too. It would take them in a direction he didn’t want to go. Malik didn’t want to say sorry for cloudy things he didn’t remember anymore, the thought alone made him feel queasy and exhausted. He took the black pepper grinder and twisted in short sharp motions.
Are you mad at me? Faith said.
Malik stood back from the hob. He thought about throwing the wok out the window. He’d have to get another one after, though, and it might land on someone. Everyone in London dreamed of lawsuits and injury claims. Alina used to joke about throwing herself in front of a van so the insurance would pay her student loan, and she was rich. Now he thought about it, he wasn’t sure she even had a student loan. It was a bad idea. He should keep the wok inside the window, he resolved.
I’m not mad, he said deliberately.
You’re lying. You’re mad at me, she said, I know you, I know when you’re mad.
I’m not mad. I’m embarrassed. You brought my ex here and made fun of my sex life in front of me. You made me feel ashamed of myself.
I didn’t make fun of your sex life, she said, that was her. And you said you weren’t mad at me.
I’m not mad at you.
So why are you talking to me like this? Faith said, hiding her face in her hands.
I’m not mad at you, he said, You talk about me like all I can feel is anger. You brought someone here to make fun of me, to make me feel small, and now you’re denying it. Don’t piss on me and tell me it’s raining.
You promised you wouldn’t raise your voice!
Malik took the wok and threw it out the window.
I need to wash my face, he said, leaving the kitchen.
He came back in. His phone was ringing, Faith was staring at it from the other side of the kitchen, where Malik kept his sourdough starter. He picked it up and realised that he couldn’t leave.
Yeah, he said. Yeah, we’ll talk – yeah if you come around 10 that’s cool.
He hung up and went back to cooking.
I’ve got another wok under the sink, he said.
He got the rest of the tofu and started cutting it. That was the last of the pak choi but he could use broccoli instead. It was a very versatile vegetable that way.
Who was that? Faith said.
I’m going to use broccoli instead of the pak choi, he said. It’s a very versatile vegetable.
His phone buzzed and Faith looked at it. He started with the oil again. He stuck his tongue out and tilted his wrist.
Well, I wanted to apologize for what happened, Faith said.
Thank you, he said. That means a lot to me.
I didn’t know you’d react like that.
Malik put the wok down.
How I’d react? He said.
To seeing her again.
I’ve seen her in Hackney, he said. I don’t mind seeing my exes.
Why would you say that?
It was the two of you laughing at me, he pushed on, that’s what hurt me.
I thought it was funny, Faith said. What I think doesn’t matter?
Faith helped him carry the food into the living room. He’d cut the tofu better the second time around, too thin and it goes rubbery in the oil. Faith reached for the prosecco.
That’s for later, he said.
Oh really? Faith said smiling.
Yeah, Malik said, spooning rice and tofu into his bowl. Cedric and them are coming over.
Can you pass the chilli oil? I’m trying the fish one this time.
So you’ve got time to see them but not me? Faith said.
I told you, I haven’t seen them in ages.
Faith turned to look directly at him.
So you smoked enough cigarettes to block the sink, she said, all on your own?
I told you, Malik said, I’m stressed.
Faith made a face.
You don’t believe me? He said.
Of course I believe you. I love you.
Malik made a face as though to say, there it is. He got up and reached over the table.
Don’t worry, Faith said.
She pushed her chair out and reached for the oil. As she leaned on the table her weight tipped Malik’s food over and into his lap. Now he had sauce all over his clothes. She looked at him and burst out laughing.
Oh my God I’m sorry, she said with her hand to her mouth. Oh I shouldn’t laugh. Let me get you a towel. No it’s OK, Malik said laughing. It’s funny.