This is the first chapter of my novel, 3rd person present tense
|Zahra gazes into the doorway of her new flat and regards her surroundings imperiously. The long road to normalcy stretches out in front of her in the shape of smelly shoes and unidentifiable fluffy objects. It’s like an artist's sketch of what a graduate flat should look like. All a bit typical. But Zahra is determined to take the path well-traveled. The publishing job is a great opportunity to network and what's more, has brilliant opportunities for career progression - she can hear June’s voice ring in her head over and over. Not to mention being able to afford to live with other young creatives will be such fun!
Or is this her own voice now? She isn’t sure. Trying shake it off, she walks in and dumps her ginormous suitcase in an ambiguous location. Kind of in the kitchen, relatively near the hallway and trespassing slightly into the living room. Not practical, but that’s not her fault, rather the misguided rise in popularity of open-plan architecture. Inhaling the sooty atmosphere, she takes a moment to consider the potential grandness of her surroundings. Everywhere her eye darts reveals a clue of what the house used to be. Before it became an unholy combination of privilege and depravity. Expensive yet disrespected. An unfair class advantage seen as entitlement. Beer cans and fags ends litter the floor conscientiously like a Matisse in a middle-class family home. The residuals of past shindigs reveals the possession of socially desirable traits within a household of twenty-somethings. They are intended markers of wild nights once lived, parties once had, good times gone and many more to come. She considers these signs of popularity approvingly but hates herself for it. Beneath the glass chandelier that drapes from the high cream-coloured ceiling there lies not one, but two striped red and off-beige coloured chaise-lounges. Tatty and neglected, poised dejectedly around an ancient-looking, richly mahogany coffee table. Its very existence serves to make those that sit on it feel relatively cheap, as they stir the grim dregs of their reduced-price Nescafe like the scum they are. She notices long lace curtains parted in the middle to reveal bulls—eye glass pains and a small cast-iron railing she thinks must originally have been built to keep the riff-raff out. For a moment she imagines herself to be a Georgian woman of great wealth and stature, and what it must feel like not to have any real choices in life. Zahra can’t imagine a life without choices.
Her thoughts are interrupted by instantly recognizable murmurs emerging from the room at the end of the hall.
'If God was the ideational foundation of Western civilization, when Nietzsche proclaimed God was dead he was declaring the growing realization of a society predicated on illusion. So where was the new values-structure found?'
Although she doesn’t want to, Zahra smiles. Although she doesn’t want to, her legs carry her towards the sound of Elliott's voice.
'Science, obviously – the search for universal truths... that became the new values structure.'
She recognizes the voice of her brother Kamran answer like a hopeful little puppy. She can practically see his tail wagging.
'Certainly. But the increasingly polarization we are witnessing today all comes down to post-modernist ideology spreading top-down from universities…’
Pausing outside the room, she braces herself for one of Elliott’s pretentious political lectures she hates so much to love.
‘…Once God died, per se, our desire for universal truths led some to question whether the only ultimate truth may be that there is no ultimate truth - that truth is something relative, something emotionally mouldable. In this paradigm even words, and free speech as the expression of values systems, becomes the enemy. That’s the core of postmodernism you see, and the political Left has always lapped that shit up. Hundreds of years later its warped into this…. this… tribal form of identity politics, and excessive political correctness follows. That’s what’s caused the retaliation of the working class in the Western world. I mean, why would they give a toss about identity politics when they have like… real shit to deal with, you know?’
'So basically, your criticizing all left-wing people because of some convoluted connection with a side-lined academic tradition, which is probably only relevant within the Cambridge white-boys-only-club you attended?'
An unrecognisable, husky Mancunion voice. Female. A possible threat. Zahra is about to move into the room, hand on door knob, but retreats. Although she’s just arrived, she’s very sure this is her territory.
'Give me a break, it's too early in the week for an existential crisis' She says as she eventually swoons in, her long black hair swishing against her hips as her long, skinny legs sway in their motion. Through these words, she plays part of a role she crafts delicately for Elliot's enjoyment. She displays intelligent wit and irreverence for the things Elliot takes seriously. She shows she understands complex things but isn’t more knowledgeable than Elliot. She wonders how many women craft exactly this same character because of the ease and simplicity with which it pleases men. She feels a deep sense of unoriginality overwhelm her. Is she a bad feminist?
'There she is!’
‘How was your journey, Zhee? Come sit, have a beer. We were just discussing the dastardly post-structural hegemony. This is Flo, by the way, flat mate number four'.
That is how Zahra meets Flo. She thinks Flo looks like the kind of girl who says 'basically' and 'literally' a lot. There is an aura hanging in the air. And as much as she tries to unpeg the clothes line of her hostility… dirty laundry can be very hard to hide.
Then she has to hear a whole night of their fucking. Ell’s whimpers Flo’s name and she moans loudly on and on… (The lady doth protest too much!). Zahra tries to blank it all out, tossing and turning repeatedly and at one point muffling her own screams within the pillowy depths of her cushions. Then the sun starts to rise, it takes a while for the lopsided ray of bright white light shining into her eyes through the broken beige blinds to annoy her enough to mobilise. At breaking point, she stomps over to the blinds and pulls them this way and that, hoping she will be able to cocoon herself in darkness once again. But resistance is futile. The blinds jam higher up, and Zahra’s room floods with the natural light and warmth that blossoms from a beautiful Spring morning. She sticks a defiant middle finger up at it all and crashes back to bed, losing herself to a wave of anxious thoughts that pull her back and forth beneath the rocky current of her sanity. Whatever it was between Ells and Flo, it was probably just a one-night only thing. It probably means nothing. Everyone was drunk last night. There'd even been cocaine. Of course Zahra had dabbled. But only because she felt she had to, out of politeness and good will. She was used to cocaine. In the world she comes from, cocaine is common as muck, or having a cleaner, or ordering a taxi that isn't an Uber… just because you can afford to. She hadn't touched Flo's drug of choice - Ketamine, the drug of people that would never be seen dead in the kinds of expensive, girly dresses and high heels Zahra wears. But she reminds herself she’s not the type of girl that gets all jealous and weird. She is laid-back and cool. She is laid-back and cool. She is laid-back and cool. Besides, Ells is probably only fucking Flo to make her jealous. Ells is probably only fucking Flo to make her jealous. Ells is probably only fucking Flo to make her jealous.
In the kitchen, Zahra stirs a mug of cheap instant coffee round and round, so that it forms a whirlpool her tired eyes got lost in for some time. She tenses up as she hears footsteps coming closer, but with great relief she sees it is her brother Kamran – standing there with his floppy, sooty hair and wearing those ridiculous hippie pants he bought when he went to Thailand with Ells that one time, way back.
‘By the looks of it you didn’t get much sleep either’ Kam chimes playfully, unknowing of the way his chirpy tone wrenches open the meagre pieces of Zahra’s heart that aren’t already broken and torn.
‘No shit, Sherlock’ She chimes back, on the ball as ever. ‘Though it’s a damning indictment of the feasibility of this whole thing’.
‘Whaddya mean?’ Her brother replies.
‘I mean I’ve got a lucrative job starting soon. At one of the best publishers in the country. And I already feel like I’m back living with a bunch of students’
‘Lucrative? Is that what they call photocopying these days?’ Said Kam, shrugging it off and gazing longingly into the fridge. ‘Have you always been this grumpy?’
‘Kam, you and your mates party every night. I’m going to be working a professional 9 till 5’.
Kam somehow chugs out the word ‘laaaame’ as he deep-throats a leftover bacon sandwich. He gives his arse a scratch in consideration of what his sister is saying. ‘Were you always this boring?’.
Zahra squeezes the hot mug between her hands, so that she doesn’t squeeze her brother’s neck. Then the worst happens. Flo swoons in, bringing her incredibly edgy, partially-dreadlocked atomic blonde hair and her pretty face with her. She is adorned with an Elliot, draped around her like a leopard around the neck of its colonial poacher.
‘Morning Kam! Morning Zhee!’ Flo chirps like a bird from hell.
From their body language, Zahra susses out in three moments this isn’t just a one-time hook-up. The pair have been doing whatever they were doing for a while. Or had at least done it before. She smiles sweetly and resumes staring into another fascinating coffee whirlpool, hearing going’s on around her – stomping around in her ears like a marching band. A slap of the bum. A peck on the cheek. A rub of the neck. Beating down on her eardrums like boom, boom, boom. She hears her brother Kam’s fondness of Flo and the mutual respect that exists between them. She hears Ells perv at the peach-shaped curve of Flo’s arse as she bends over to get the cereal. She hears her own irrelevance. Her invisibility is the trumpet playing loudly out of tune.
‘Zhee, did you hear what Flo was saying?’ Ells seems to scream.
‘Huh?’ Zahra looks around trying to grasp what she had missed.
‘Flo was saying we should go to Vietnam, like we discussed last night. Fuck it, why not? Tickets cost what… like 400 pounds? We stay there for four weeks. We could do the whole thing in what... Like 800, 900 quid max?’
‘Easy for you, Mr. Freelance’ Zahra snaps. ‘What about my job?’
‘Oh come on Zhee, the institution of nepotism isn't going to disappear in four weeks. Can't mother dearest’s friend hook you up with this lucrative job some other time?’
Zahra feels like the tips of her ears are being dipped in lava. Squeezes her mug harder.
‘Yeah Zhee, sounds like you're basically selling out to the Neoliberal establishment already. Your only twenty-two, at least give it a few years! Ells was telling me how artistic you are – I literally love the sound of the poetry you write. Hey, we should go to that weekly art fair down the road some time if you’re up for it?’
‘Well, I’ll be working a lot’
And with that, Zahra exits the kitchen decisively. She weaves through a sea of confused and offended faces. Except they weren't confused or offended because they didn't notice her protest. At least she was right about Flo saying basically and literally a lot. Small victories.