My lungs were grime and the clock darted between one and two in my soot-smeared vision, waiting for the last of them to arrive. There were moths, plenty of them, or were they crickets? I can’t say for sure. Whichever ones make noise. My thought counter clicked over once again. I was now in the high hundreds, three hours into my shift. I know what men want, they want real pussy. One thousand and one. I zipped myself into my boots and buzzed for Fuego313. None of these bastards know how to operate the system. One thousand and two. I buzzed again. 100 quid in currency dropped through, all coins. Fuck you Simon!
Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. I wonder why Simon did me like that. Fuck. You’re supposed to be watching your breath. Inhale. Exhale. That Buddhist nun really wasted her time on me.
The 242 to Homerton Hospital. My tote bag sagged in one corner, hitting the railing every now and then. Just three stops to go. The old man was still across the street. I blinked twice, and the soot swam to the periphery of my vision. It was him, the one who always sang church hymns. I was living on Graham Road with Shady Old Kate. Kate was from Manchester, and never seemed to be able to hold down a job. She would lie about everything, from what her family was like to what her last meal was. Regardless, we seemed to work well together as flatmates, and so Shady Old Kate, about whom I knew very little, had come to know everything about me.
I can’t say anything original about London, but I’ll tell you what I think. The minutiae between the cracks on the pavement can’t burst forth until spring. And then over the course of the summer it gets trampled, trodden over, crushed back into the earth. It takes a tree that cracks the pavement, a tree that has roots, one that cleaves the earth, to claim its sunlight.
Shady Old Kate left at eleven. The clock was steady. I jumped into the shower. Boots. Fags. Oyster card. Keys. And a handful of Simon’s fucking coins for lunch. I got on the Overground at Dalston Junction. It was two o’clock and I started in an hour. Inhale. Exhale. Sandwich bite. Light fag. Exhale. Inhale. I’m getting better at this.
The new girl was from Spain. I clocked on to Fuego313 and told Simon I was on. Inhale. Exhale. Try to smile at least. She seems nervous. What was her name? Mercedes. No it can’t be. Who names their kid after a car. I showed her the operating room. Then on past the toilet on the left, down the hallway and past the data processing centre, and down to one of the cells. I kicked the cans of beer out of the way and asked her to sit on the silver seat.
‘Mercedes? Right? Okay, so you have to spend the whole six hours in here, and you can’t take the headset off at any point. If you need to pee, please use the can in the corner. Since you have just started up with us, you target for the shift will be 300, and anything more than that will earn you extra. No lights are allowed in here, no torches or anything of the kind. Drugs are allowed, as you can see. Don’t overdose though, please. Try to stay seated, and don’t walk around or lie down, that’ll just tire you out. No syringes, no spoons, no foil, but coke is fine. Poor target performance works on a three strike basis. Three strikes and your base rate will be halved. You will see thoughts clicking over here on the panel above your head. Make it filthy and we’ll love you. Umm, I think that’s about it. Any questions?’
She shook her head.
‘Okay, your trial shift starts now. Just pop that headset on and I’ll buzz you into Fuego.’
She smiled, cracking her knuckles awkwardly.
‘Okay, think sexy thoughts!’
I commed Simon and went into my cell. ‘One thousand and two, Karima,’ his voice crackled. Fuck off Simon.
I met the Buddhist nun at Stour Space in Hackney Wick, the folds of her robes like supple waves on a mid-afternoon stream. She sat at the front of the room, and the rain on the roof landed like thoughts, arriving full and lucid, without warning, requiring no invitation. Her twig-like fingers danced. The smell of incense hovered. She taught us how to watch the breath, to watch thoughts land, to arrive at the very moment a thought enters the empty space of the mind. I closed my eyes. She makes it sound so easy. Inhale. Exhale. Strange isn’t it? I just have to hone in on them and then I start hitting a thousand in under three hours. Exhale. Inhale. It’s nice to not have to think on demand. Yeah its nice. Nice. Inhale. Ugh. Exhale.
Shady Old Kate came in at around nine in the morning. On the brink of wakefulness, my thoughts and anxiety always entered together. I’d better clock a good figure today. Shady Old Kate made us coffee with peanut butter and jam on toast, hers crunchy, mine smooth.
‘How’s Fuego?’ she asked.
I looked out through the window. A soft mist fell. ‘It’s good,’ I replied after a while. Shady Old Kate slid a yellow envelope to my side of the table. I ripped it open.
‘500 cash. 300 from your coins and your 200 from last time.’
Shady Old Kate threw on her parka and took off. ‘Don’t forget the dishes, Karima,’ she shouted, knocking on the kitchen window from the other side, the steady rain falling behind her.
Sandwiched between a bookstore and a commercial bank on the long stretch of road that runs between Holborn to East London, there is a small opaque door and an intercom with just one name written on it: FUEGO. I usually took the bus to St Paul’s and walked the rest of the way, watching throngs of suits and heels disappear into towers, cabs and coffee shops. Fuego itself was a growing operation running out of the basement of a commercial bank, large enough to house three big offices and around 25 cells for the girls.
Where the moths came from, I still don’t know.
I met the new girl Mercedes in the hallway as I was about to clock on. She smiled, her brown curly hair now in a high bun. I’d checked her stats: 358 in her first shift. Not bad at all. I clocked on, with the new girl in the cell next to me. I did five lines on the bench, and threw on my headset.
Tie me up, yeah, like that. Your thumb in my asshole like that, yeah! Inhale. Exhale. My father ties me up and starts to masturbate. Inhale. Two and counting on the panel above my head.
Fuego pools our thoughts in order to create patterns, and generate ideas, so as to gauge female interest. Agua, which operates out of Brixton, is the men’s wing of the operation. Fuego’s parent company, Persona EMT (Entertainment Media Technologies) is the biggest porn production house and digital pleasure communications agency in the world. We think, and they record, generate ideas, and recycle our fantasies into digitised databases which are skimmed and accessed and read by automated females in phone calls and chat windows. It is one of the best ways for girls who have retired from the industry to make money. It’s a pretty sweet deal actually. There is just one problem. The thoughts.
On average, you will think 50,000 thoughts today, most of them repetitive. A 1,000 thought target in a six hour shift shouldn’t be so difficult then, right? Wrong. When you’re asked to think on demand, all kinds of thoughts emerge, and only some of them make my counter click over. And it doesn’t get easier over time.The Buddhist meditation has been helping, helping me declutter so I can think at will without distractions. The coke also helps.
Around four in the afternoon. Homerton Station. A hesitant sunshine and the clouds, impermanent, floating, shifting in shape, just like the clouds in the sky of my mind. It was meditation day at Stour Space. I spotted an empty cushion at the back of the room, the smell of incense reminding me to breathe. Damn. Inhale. Exhale. The nun came and sat at the front, the window behind her resembling a motion picture, with a couple on bicycles by the river, the Orbit just visible, and a big mangled web of a red rollercoaster that could have been. Inhale. Exhale.
Simon commed me from Fuego313 as I was putting on my headset. ‘Hey love, stats are down. What’s the deal?’ Inhale. Exhale.
‘Yeah, I’ve been busy Sim.’ He crackled off and my countdown timer started. What’s the use of your high tech operation when your fucking comms crackle and muffle like Apollo 11? The panel didn’t click over. I unzipped my boots and threw them off, crossing my legs to sit in a meditation posture.
Thoughts appeared in the empty space of my mind like suitcases on a conveyor belt, more and more with each circumambulation, and fewer the longer I watched. I had always been a creature of the mind, but never one with authority. Everytime I thought I had taken charge, swiftly remembered memories would crush me. I slowly started to differentiate images from discursive thought, realised that the former squeezed at my innards whilst the latter was a slow and unassuming poison.
Our home in Beirut, running to the corner to get ice cream, my stepfather crawling into my bed at night. Fuego didn’t read images, but they were centrestage in the tableau of my mind, like the unmistakable reflection of the sun on the currents of a river, always shifting, everpresent. I hadn’t looked at a shadow in years. Like mirrors, they show us that we are empty, black holes illuminated by the sun in the land of animated being. I was afraid of being nothing. Afraid of abandoning labels, even when they brushed against my wounds. Whore. Prostitute. I was afraid of disappearing altogether.
At the end of the shift, I had just over 400 on the counter. I was waiting for Simon to say something, but he didn’t. I took the notes from the machine and left.
In another week, I had three strikes to my name. My Saturday shift was cancelled after I spent the whole six hours watching my breath on Friday night. Saturday was meditation day, and I slipped into my joggers and put on Kate’s old mustard parka and left. The nun said something like ‘an empty mind is ready for the immediacy of experience.’ All those years with my aunt, then with Yulia, and now with Shady Old Kate, I had not lived in London, but in the tunnel vision of my mind’s eye. The emptiness of my mind finally delivered me to the reality of London. Red bikes, stained glass windows, doors of all colours, the orange on the Overground, the smell of crisp winter air, strangers’ eyes, the ever presence of moss, the grainy CCTV on the 242, silent drug deals on Graham Road, and the foxes seldom seen in backyards.
I got home, slipped the parka off and dropped on the couch. Inhale. Exhale. A sudden flash of images on the backdrop of my eyelids. My mother roasting cumin, reading to me from Mala Sen’s book about the bandit queen of India, teasing me about a boy from school. I stole a bunch of her books when I left. I wondered if she missed me or Mala Sen more.
Simon buzzed me in one last time. Inhale. I pissed into the can and kicked my boots off before getting into the lotus position. ‘Now, remember babe, thoughts. Or no payment for this shift,’ Simon barked over the comms. I sat there, my mind assuming the rhythm of my breath, slowly becoming my breath, the two merging into one singular experience. Okay, thoughts. Ughh. Inhale. Exhale. I concentrated on the sensation of my breath as my diaphragm rose and fell.
A while later, Simon commed in. ‘Alright, love, shift’s over. Have a good life.’
I sat there, wondering why the moths hadn’t arrived today. I remembered my annoyance, my complaints when they first arrived. And now, I was looking for them. But they had long since abandoned me, perhaps at my own request.
‘Umm, we’re ready for the next girl, Karima. Please exit the cell ASAP,’ Simon barked. For fuck sake, I’m just looking for the moths … .or were they crickets?
Image: Tim Goedhart/Unsplash
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