An Acquisition was first published by Shooter Literary Magazine, in 2017.
The day before Laila disappeared, this is what I would have told you about her: Laila is rather stupid. I acquired her for this very reason. Back then I made it a habit to acquire friends who were less intelligent than me, because it made life easy. If I needed an equal, I confided in my sister. The rest of the time, I wanted simple.
There were many signs of Laila’s stupidity. Firstly, she was racist. Laila being a racist took most people by surprise, because she was Asian, but the experience of prejudice is neither cure nor inoculation.
‘I just don’t like them,’ she would say of the women around the mosque door, when I dropped her off for prayers. ‘They’re so dark.’
They wore headscarves, these women, kept their sleeves long. Laila wore pedal-pushers and V-neck vests in summer, in a variety of tropical colours, and put on Factor 50 to keep her skin light. Her accent was pure Scouse, and outside of mosque she only covered her hair when it rained. Some Fridays she went to prayers, but every Friday she went out to the local bars where she took numbers from white men.
‘I don’t like dark meat!’ she’d say, laughing as always at her own joke as we sat on the balcony of our little flat on Saturday mornings. I didn’t say anything about this, because I didn’t care enough about her to want her to be better. Here is what I did: watched the boys doing bike stunts on the corner, checked the earth in the plant pots for dampness, wondered if it would rain. Here is what she did: transferred some guy’s number from the scrap of paper in her hand onto her mobile phone, sighed, picked at her bare foot.
Occasionally the men would come home with her. Some mornings I would walk into the kitchen and find a stranger there. Once I found a man wearing only a pair of baggy grey underpants, going through the kitchen drawers. He was opening them cautiously, one by one, and he jumped when I pulled out a chair.
‘I am sorry,’ he said in accented English. ‘I look for a spoon?’
He called our landline a few times afterwards, and I grew tired of passing on his disjointed declarations of love.
‘Are you going to call him?’ I said. Laila shrugged, applying a black pencil to her eyebrows.
‘I’m not taking any more of his messages,’ I said, and the next time he called I told him she’d moved out.
Some further signs of Laila’s stupidity: she spelt Ireland ‘Eyeland’; she thought that pasta was made of rice; she once asked me where Europe was.
I realise that this sounds like I don’t like Laila. I don’t now, of course. But back then I liked her enough to share my flat with her, and disliked her enough for it to work. To share your life with someone you need to care about them just enough, and no more. I liked to drink wine with her on Friday, and I liked to let her paint my nails. But I didn’t like her so much that when she left the front door unlocked again, I felt betrayed. I didn’t feel the loss when I asked her to wash the grill pan and she hated me for a day.
I acquired her at the bookshop. She came in looking for a TV tie-in book, and within a few minutes she had told me that she was looking for a place to live. I met her for coffee first, a little date to see if we had potential.
‘This cake’s gone hard,’ she said, holding up the biscotti in its little plastic packet. ‘Should I complain?’
She was perfect. ‘I need a lodger,’ I said. ‘My sister’s moved out. I don’t suppose you’re interested?’
‘Can I come and have a look round?’ she asked.
We went straight there after our coffee. ‘I like your pictures,’ she said, pointing at my wall. ‘Where did you get them?’
‘They’re limited edition prints,’ I said, omitting their value. She probably thought I’d got them from Homebase.
‘Nice,’ she said, turning away to look into the kitchen.
She moved in in May, and I cut my hours at the bookshop and spent more time on my screenplay. She asked to read it once, but I refused. I didn’t want her opinion.
‘What’s it about, then?’ she asked, and I said, ‘It’s about a man who kills an old lady with an axe.’ It’s not, of course. It’s about a girl whose brilliance goes unrecognised by society.
‘Sounds grim,’ she said, making a face.
‘Thanks,’ I said. I considered putting her in it, but she wasn’t complex enough. She wouldn’t have mixed well with my other characters, who all had hidden depths.
It wasn’t expensive, our place, but it wasn’t cheap. It was the best I could afford on my wage. It was in a big, brick-built nineteen-thirties block, stylish enough to be desirable, ex-council enough to keep the prices down a bit. There were three bedrooms, all the same size. I gave Laila the one on the dark side of the flat, and kept the south-facing one for my writing room.
In the kitchen she had two of the eight cupboards, though she needed only one. She ate next to nothing. ‘I might go and get some shopping,’ she’d say vaguely. This meant she’d be going to Lidl round the corner, and returning with two plastic bags. One would hold the fish fingers off which she lived. The other would hold a big bottle of diet cola and a sliced loaf of white bread. Medieval sailors had more nutritious diets than Laila. She’d eat curry, but only if her mum made it.
As for kitchenware, she brought little with her apart from a collection of plastic-handled camping cutlery of which she was inordinately protective. If it was all in the dishwasher she would use my heavy old knives and forks, but if she found me applying the same principle to her items then she would remove them from my hands with a tut. ‘KA-ren!’ she would say, as if I were a naughty toddler. ‘These are not yours!’ It was at these times that I considered upping the rent. I should have done, of course. It would have been helpful now.
The summer was an easy one, as Laila spent most of her time out. There was a group of friends, but they never visited our flat, and I never asked her why. I liked it. It helped to keep her transient. My friends came over occasionally, when I didn’t need my time for anything else, and we watched films together or ate dinner. Laila seemed to them to be terribly cosmopolitan and daring, which I would have found disappointing if I’d cared that much about them. As it was, their behaviour was just what I expected. Claire from the bookshop, who wore trouser and skirt combinations like it was still 1998, giggled nervously when Laila swore, and Big Benny developed a crush. He developed a crush on any woman who paid him attention, which was one of the reasons he’d been so easy to acquire. Laila would play up to them, saying things she thought were outrageous to make them act shocked. ‘Your dweeb friends,’ she called them, half teasing, half not.
Laila worked part-time, thus the flatshare. There was no money for her own place. Before she lived with me she lived with Darryl, nickname: ‘The Unit’, an amateur boxer and professional cretin who came round once to shout through the intercom box about unreturned CDs. Talking to him through the handset, Laila sounded bored. ‘Go away,’ she said, then hung up and added ‘Fuckwit.’
Her job was in a cosmetics shop, not one of the big chains but a warehouse, an end-of-line, bulk-buy kind of shop in the industrial estate at the edge of town. There was always something new that she’d bought with her work discount. Shonky hair straighteners, non-brand mascara, perfume that reeked of bubblegum or fermenting fruit. When I opened the door to the flat after work there would usually be a smell: scorched hair perhaps, or the sweet stench of the oil she used to clean up after waxing. There were mishaps, too, because the products were cheap and unreliable. The dye labelled in Arabic that turned her highlights grey, for instance, or the time she left the hair removal cream on too long and burned her top lip. It didn’t put her off.
‘I like putting on my disguise,’ she’d say, turning her foot towards the light to make her painted toenails shimmer.
Every so often she would try and give me a makeover, and I would refuse.
‘You could be so pretty,’ she’d say, lifting a section of my hair and grimacing like it was a dead animal. ‘If you just made an effort.’ She was not, herself, beautiful, but she thought she was, which was almost as effective. Benny taught me, recently, that the word ‘glamour’ once meant a spell or illusion. Laila had glamour. The accessories of beauty seemed to conjure the beauty itself, and so people believed that sticky, glitter-coated Laila was lovely.
‘I am pretty,’ I would say, and she would make a face that said: Maybe. Kind of. At these times I imagined my life when the screenplay was sold, and the good reviews were coming in. I imagined my cultured friends, people who were not acquired but connected with. People worth connecting with. I imagined how clever I would be about this part of my life, how scathing. I imagined Laila as an anecdote, told to a dinner table of laughing faces, and this perspective diminished her to her true insignificance.
She surprised me now and again. I assumed she had dropped out of school at sixteen, but it turned out that she’d been to college, to study textile design. ‘I wanted to be a fashion designer,’ she said.
‘What happened?’ I said.
‘They said I nicked some stuff,’ she said, not realising that I meant what happened to her life, not just to her course. ‘If I did it was only because they treated me like crap. Fuckwits.’
Fuckwit was one of her favourite words, and one I had introduced her to. She thought I’d made it up when she first heard me use it. There were many phrases she hadn’t heard before: ‘spoils of war’, ‘blunt as a ball’, ‘terra firma’. When she didn’t know a word she’d laugh, as if you were the odd one for using it. Some, like fuckwit, she adopted; others she never believed were real, and would remind me of as if I ought to be ashamed of them. ‘Oh look, we’re back on terra firma,’ she’d say as we got off the bus, rolling her eyes.
The strange thing about Laila’s simplicity: it invited confidence. As the months went on I found myself growing to trust her. My other friends might be stupid, but a part of them knew that they were; they wanted to pass for something else and so they were self-conscious, tangled in transparent concealments and dull pretensions. Laila did not suffer the same problem. She stood squarely at the centre of her universe, ignorant and fabulous, and it seemed impossible that she was anything more than you saw.
Sometimes, too, she would be kind. The kindness came in odd small bursts, like the week I had tonsillitis and she brought me orange juice in bed, or the day my bike was stolen and we searched diesel-streaked service entrances and back alleys for it, Laila tottering beside me in ludicrous pink patent-leather boots. An unexpected fondness grew in me, the kind you might have for a pet, or, at a push, a younger sibling. Now and again I talked to her.
‘What are your mum and dad like?’ she said, after a phone call from her own parents. I’d heard her talking to them, her voice teenage, making petulant demands for more money.
‘High-achieving,’ I said.
‘What does that mean?’ she said. ‘They earn a lot of money?’
‘I suppose,’ I said. ‘I meant that they have important jobs.’
‘What, like firefighters or something?’ she said, dropping herself into an armchair and tucking her knees underneath her.
‘No, they’re economists,’ I said. I wondered whether I needed to gloss this, but Laila was used to incomprehension. If she didn’t understand the first time, she would simply drop the topic and find another. I watched her peel a sheet of varnish from her fingernail.
‘My mum’s a cleaner,’ she said. ‘In a hospital. That’s a pretty important job.’
‘Important means that not a lot of people could do it,’ I said. ‘Like writing a film.’
‘I thought you meant important like if it didn’t get done then things would go wrong,’ she said, dropping the neon paint flake onto the floor beside her.
‘Cleaning jobs will always be done,’ I said. ‘Because there are lots of people who can do them. Not like the complicated jobs. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could learn how to be a cleaner. But a cleaner probably couldn’t write a film, or teach economics.’
‘So my mum’s not complicated?’ she said. I wondered if she might be offended, but there was only the same idle flatness in her voice that was always there.
‘She’s doing something very useful,’ I said. ‘The world needs people to do simple jobs. They’re just not as important.’
‘The jobs,’ I said, though as I looked at her sitting in my armchair, picking her hand, I thought: And the people too.
As autumn turned to winter and we spent more time in the flat, issues of hygiene came to the fore. Laila’s room had always been squalid, but now the squalor leached out in the form of stale smells and garish clothes hung over the radiators. She was obsessively fastidious over certain matters, such as keeping a roll of toilet tissue in her room so that she didn’t have to touch a shared one, but she was repulsive in others. Her hair, brittle from a hundred dye jobs aimed at reducing its rich darkness to an artificial orange, would break off in clumps, and these I would find scurrying across the kitchen floor or banded together for protection beneath the sofa. She felt the cold and would never open a window. Those in the main body of the flat I opened when she was out, but the window in her room was always closed, though she hung up her laundry to dry in there. Even through the strong lily-scent of her washing powder, her clothes began to exude the musty breath of damp.
‘I’m not paying for a tumble dryer,’ she said. ‘I don’t need one. And in case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have a lot of money.’
I bought the drier, then waited a few weeks and told her that our gas bill was a hundred pounds more than it was. A hundred pounds covered almost all of the price of the drier, which I considered fair. Although Laila complained, she paid it. ‘I’ve got nothing left,’ she said. ‘I wanted those new heels.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and meant a little of it. ‘You’ll have to budget.’
‘I need more money,’ she said restlessly. ‘I’m sick of this.’
I wonder, now, if it was a warning. I try to believe that it was. A warning means that there was a breaking point, a precipitation, an axial change in our relations. A warning means that I was not wrong, all along.
It was a Thursday, six months after we had met, that I came home to find the door open. At first I thought that she had left it like that by accident. Then I walked into the flat and found everything gone.
The marks on the walls showed where my pictures had been. Odd: I thought of the paint as fresh, but it had been years since I applied it. Where the dust had lain on top of the frames, faint grey lines underscored my loss. The lamp. The sofa. On the floor a square of dust, a single footprint in it.
In my bedroom the divan had gone, uncoupled into its two sections and carried away. My bedclothes lay in a heap on the floor, saying: Sorry. We couldn’t do anything. There was no wardrobe. There was no jewellery. Only the walls had been left.
I did not look for Laila. I think I knew, as soon as I walked in, what had happened. I looked into her room only out of interest, really: to see if there was anything left behind. It was dull in the north light, and empty. The window was, as always, tight shut, and the air retained the familiar stuffy Laila scent of damp towels, artificial flowers and unwashed bedclothes.
In the kitchen I found that she had, at least, left our dining table. It was a little folding wooden contraption, no more than a picnic table really. On it lay my manuscript.
I have been unable to open it ever since. I am not sure I will. I am too worried that I will find a certain word written inside it, over the top of my vain and laborious dreams. Nowadays I go to work and do my simple job at the bookshop, come home and cook my simple meals, and that is all. I cannot bring myself to advertise for another housemate. I cannot bear to see my friends. I cannot write. Not until my equilibrium is restored, and not until I can think of Laila again and be sure, quite sure, that I know which of us it was who was acquired.