Hi all, I'm struggling with the editing process for my dark comedy. Please help? Sorry if that sounds a bit hopeless but I guess I don't really know the best place to start. I've self edited it twice but hit a brick wall. Here is the prologue and first chapter......
She drank Old Fashioneds and smoked Djarum Blacks.
She was everything she decided to be.
Was it artificial? It was reality.
What’s done is done whether through determination or nature.
Her eyes blazed in every emotion, black-rimmed. Her smile was easy but full of sharp teeth.
Chapter One: Mungo
Today, she was on the terrace of The Original Bean, playing scratchy patty-cake with a stray cat. It was dusk, and sweetness was seeping from the sand up into the leaves of the palms, rising like the robust vibrations of the cat’s purrs.
The waiter was a short, slim Keralan, with a wide, handsome, smooth-shaven face. Mungo, watching from the other side of the path, noticed the man relaxing as he approached the woman; there was an ease between them that seemed unusual in these lands of strict hierarchy.
She glanced up and smiled. He received her smile with ease in his eyes, though his body displayed some urgency.
Mungo dashed some words in the crossword grid he was pretending to solve: ‘waiter – involved?’
He took a long sip of his lemon tea and squinted across the darkening square, listening to the microphone planted under Madaam’s table through his earpiece, which was carefully concealed by his hair.
“Madaam, the, uh, gentleman is here.”
“Would you mind showing him over here, please, if it’s not too much bother?”
The waiter paused.
“He said he wants to sit inside, Madaam.”
She laughed huskily in the back of her throat, scratched the top of the cat’s head and stood up.
“Oh, no, he’s mistaken. Don’t worry about it. I will come and get him.”
The waiter’s body showed relief. Mungo wrote: ‘VIP contact’.
Madaam stood up. Her red silk kimono billowed behind her as she spiralled fluidly from her seat, seeming to swing upright more than simply stand. Suddenly clipping the motion, she stuck her hands in her jeans pockets and tilted her cheek at the cat.
“I’m sorry to ask, Janu, but do you think you could please find a spare splash of milk for Ballsy?”
Janu looked down at the cat with light distaste as Ballsy twitched an ear and writhed on its back, displaying its namesakes with splayed skinny legs.
A light breeze flew in from the desert scrubland, churning up a wake of sand and filling the air with the smell of hot rock. The clear sound from the bug was muffled by a soft hissing. Mungo strained to hear through the dust that was dulling and clogging his equipment with tiny yet sharp particles.
He thought suddenly of his father’s swiss watch, guaranteed for a lifetime, that had given up during his assault of Sakaka. When the horologist had opened it, his workshop had been dusted by Saudi ground, creeping into crevices and emerging months later, like glitter in a kindergarten. His father had asked the watch to be re-sealed “still stopped by the resistance of the earth we took”.
Mungo felt an ancient bitterness creep into the back of his throat like phlegm; that pompous ass had always loved mementoes.
Mungo peered at Madaam and Janu but could only see a slide show of brief faces. The roast pepper light of the setting sun split the grit in the air into a flickering screen of fool’s gold.
The waiter laughed and said something. Madaam shrugged and her face softened for a second. Ballsy rolled to its feet in a feline figure of eight and rubbed against the man’s legs, then just as quickly swiped at his hand with claws out. Madaam melted indulgently at the cat, then touched Janu’s arm; a swift squeeze. The waiter shifted his body, leaning his weight on one hip, and turned towards her. They smiled at each other, but there was no creeping closer; no lusty lean-in. The man said something earnest. Madaam laughed loudly, which Mungo heard as if from a deep well. She patted the waiter’s shoulder and spoke as she turned, then strode into the café.
Mungo switched to the other feed. It had taken only moments to bug the place, but modern technology could not make up for the months of human stalking it had taken to choose which rooms to watch. That was his role and he took great pride in knowing he was one of the best in the world.
On the slim screen of his laptop, Madaam walked confidently through the café, past her usual seat, and into the kitchens. Mungo spat dust from his tongue and swore.
In the clouds of steam Mohammed Jaffer Hussein had shrunk back against the cold, sharp pantry shelves. The Filipinos were laughing as they fried, hot fat spitting. The sound set Mohammed’s teeth on edge. He did not want to be here, but he had discovered from the reactions of his friends that one did not refuse an invitation from Madaam.
Invitation. That was a joke. He cleared his throat, tasting bitter oil. He could feel his body tensing with indignation. To be given orders by a woman – it was not merely wrong; it was against God himself. Mohammed clenched his fists and stood up straight, trying to appear calm. God was on his side; he would regain order. Soon, she would answer to him, and all his friends would hail him a hero.
His moustache was starting to smell of second-hand food. He could feel the sweat dribbling down the looser parts of his trousers, thick and cooling like runny yolk. It was only a matter of time before something unctuous splattered his pristine white thobe like a used tablecloth and then he would be angry.
Any other Thursday afternoon he would be relaxing in a waterside lounge, with pretty waitresses running around him with shisha and delicacies, accompanied by the song of his friends’ laughter. What was he doing here? His scalp felt prickly. He felt himself clenching his teeth.
The far door swung open with a steely smack against the countertop. Mo stood to attention. A young Thai waitress came in, wiping her hands on her black apron. Mo could smell the freshly ground bean dust on her. To his surprise, he felt a small attraction rise; he had never liked Eastern women, but this one...
“Mister angry wants three eggs, runny, on waffles with potato side and syrup.”
The larger chef laughed loudly. Despite his short, skinny frame, he had dimples when he smiled. Mohammed resented noticing that. These were not Arabs; they were background servers; café furniture that incidentally happened to talk, walk, eat, shit.
“Oh my god, he came back! After all that complaining!”
There was a sudden soft breath on Mohammed’s neck. It was not a human breath; it was a breeze so slight and soft there was no other word for it; a movement of air so subtle only the finest hairs and most sensitive skin registered it.
“Nice people, aren’t they?”
He swung round, startled in a way he had not been since his early youth. He was not a tall man, and so his face was level with hers; surprised eye to composed eye; gape to smile.
She was not at all what he had expected. Suddenly he realised that, for all the whispers and reputation, nobody had ever mentioned what she looked like. Usually that was the first comment on a woman, swiftly followed by a qualification; hot or not.
She was not beautiful, but not ugly either. Her eyes were powerful – there was no other word – twin bubbling cauldrons of intelligence, amusement, and something else he could not quite place. They bore an intensity not so much fiery as solar; stellar; bursting infinite supernovas. He imagined the passion with which she must fuck.
He pursed his lips and endeavoured to look stern and professional. He nodded stiffly, eyes rolling up and down her body. She chuckled. He swallowed hard shame; he had not realised his habit was obvious.
He had not expected jeans, nor the tattered band t-shirt. In his world, powerful women dripped off their lover’s arms in the highest heels, endless gold, diamonds. They were crafted, carefully painted make up matching their carefully sculpted bodies, equally carefully swathed in glittering, diaphanous cloths. This woman, more powerful than the richest citizen, was in grey converse and simple black hoop earrings, nearly barefaced, with a smudge of pink balm and some kohl. She was chubby, and the skin of her wrist was very, very pale.
He flinched as she shook his hand. He should touch her if and when he wished, not have his space invaded.
“Wonderful to meet you at last, Mohammed. Will you come and sit outside? The night is cooling and it’s really very pleasant.”
Her tone was warm but left no room for dissent. He nodded politely.
“Certainly. How should I call you?”
He inwardly kicked himself for the mild grammatical error. To his relief she smiled and seemed not to have noticed. There was something almost relaxing about her presence.
“Just call me Madaam – everyone does – what would you prefer?”
To his own amazement he found himself allowing familiarity.
“My friends call me Hamed.”
“Ok, Hamed. It’s really a pleasure. I’m sure this meeting will be fruitful and enjoyable for both of us.”
For a second, he wondered if she was trying to seduce him. She led the way and, as her robe billowed, he caught brief glimpses of the soft shapes of her body. He would not mind at all…
A glance at her expression clarified that was not the case.
As they walked through the café, he saw several wealthy men glance towards him. Nerves started to creep into his temples and love-handles like miniscule ants. He didn’t know any of these people directly, but it was a small world.
On the other hand, most people thought Madaam was an urban legend. People would probably just assume he was with another new girlfriend, and nobody cared about that, especially his wives.
Madaam caught the eye of an Indian.
“Janu, could you bring the refreshments, please.”
Hamed was shocked by the way she spoke to the man. She used his name, said please, almost as one would speak to an equal. Did she have no sense of the propriety of hierarchy?
The set-up in his country was a sliding scale based on obvious distinctions, top to bottom of the pile: Pure Arabs; White British; White European; White American; Mixed Race Arabs; Black Americans; Pakistanis; Indians; East Asians; Bangladeshis; Africans. Hamed believed in this sensible, simple system that was aeons old. It was, therefore, only right that the wages were set accordingly, and respect given relatively.
Her smile cut into his indignation.
“Don’t worry, you’ll like it.”
She led him to a table in the square, set slightly back from the path, under a palm tree. Hamed wrinkled his nose at the rangy, balding, elderly stray cat sitting nearby. Cats were disgusting and this one particularly so; it was skinny and mottled, with the tip of one ear missing and a tail stiffened by past injuries. It stared at him pugnaciously.
Hamed sat and crossed his legs, feeling public eyes upon him. He should try to appear relaxed, then the strolling groups ambling around the square in the cool of dusk would read this as a flirtation and move on. He thought, far too late, that he should have insisted they met in one of the poorer neighbourhoods where nobody he knew would ever go. Mind you, the Pakistanis gossiped, and all of them were in, or related to, the police. He wasn’t sure why he was here, but it seemed likely it wasn’t entirely legal.
“Madaam, I’m not quite sure…”
“You’re here because Nadia and Sara are my friends.”
She cut into his sentence and, for a second, he could not understand what she had said; it seemed so ridiculous.
“My second wife?”
“And your brother’s wife, yes.”
She wafted her hand, showing irrelevance. As though to emphasise her gesture, the string lights in the square turned on at exactly the same moment; a coincidence that illuminated Madaam in a halo of twinkling stars, festooned over the nearby tree. The cynic in him wondered if she had somehow orchestrated it, but that would surely be too much.
The Indian arrived with a tray of drinks and small dishes. He leaned too close and Hamed shrank away, not wanting to touch. The waiter placed a short coffee in front of Madaam.
She smiled and looked the waiter in the eyes.
“Thank you; you know me well.”
Hamed could not stop himself from sucking the tip his tongue against the back of his top front teeth and tutting, once. The Indian smiled down at him, but his eyes were defiant.
“And for you, Sir.”
He placed three small bowls in front of Hamed. In them were three different desserts: miniature, perfectly golden waffles served with a deep pink cream; three scoops of ice cream in gentle pastel colours; and a chocolate brownie so dark it was almost black, dripping with hot Lotus biscuit sauce. Next to that, a pot-for-one of milky ginger tea, sweetened with honey, on a raised tray with tealights to keep it warm. Hamed could smell the spice rising from the glass as the waiter poured some.
Hamed’s face filled with moisture; he was salivating and on the verge of tears at the same time. Nostalgia ached in his heart and, for an instant, the world was transported into fragments of the past. Madaam was his father, smiling kindly and indulgently; the lights were candle lanterns in the restaurant near their home; it was his birthday; the tea was his grandmother’s recipe. The images did not match reality; the memories from different years overlapped like gentle waves eating the sand with an incoming tide.
He turned his face away from Madaam into the dark, sticky night. He did not want her to witness his emotion.
One could hardly see the buildings on the other side of the fountains now that the stone sun had dropped behind the earth and the thick humidity of the blackness had risen to full effect. Such was the world here: dry days and wet nights.
“Where I’m from, the light lingers for hours.”
Madaam’s voice pulled him back to the present.
Hamed took a sip of the tea and the heat spread through his throat into his soul.
Madaam was looking up at the emergent stars. Behind her shoulder, the tip of a crescent moon started to rise.
She suddenly flipped her face back down and looked deeply into his eyes, unbalancing his regained calm.
“But I love the sunsets here; they may be short, but they pour the same amount of glory into a fast blaze. They are… Passionate. Definite. Fierce. Longevity is not the only qualifier of value.”
Hamed stared at her, trying to understand her point.
He took a tentative spoonful of sand-coloured ice-cream. Honey and cardamom. His inner cheeks ached with pleasure.
“I can offer you one night of the thing you have fantasised about most for the past ten years.”
He tried the pale purple blob melting and mingling with the honey ice; roasted ripe fig. He smiled and tasted the third: fresh pistachio, not dried. It was the taste of boyhood tree-climbs. He gestured at the spread and laughed.
“Are you a witch? It’s perfect.”
His face grew serious.
“I don’t trust perfect, and I don’t believe offers that promise too much.”
“It’s not magic or false promise, Mohammed. I just know you very, very well.”
Her tone was serious, but Hamed could not look at her. He threw his spoon down into the bowl and he felt himself force his words, fast, throwing them like knives.
“What do you know? What can you do? You are not from here. You are just a woman with too much pride. I will show you how to be humble…”
The threat hung in the air as he realised with a cold drench down his shoulders that he had gone too far. He threw up his hands, somehow unable to stop his tantrum now he had begun. He heard his tone becoming whiny and fractious.
“Why are we even out here? What kind of a way is this to do serious business, which I assume we are? Anyone could see us!”
Her clear calm and smile stopped him dead. He stared at her as she spoke; watching an exotic predator.
“In fact, I can tell you that we are being watched and listened to right now by at least four people, including members of official agencies.”
At his table, Mungo kept carefully still, feeling raw and exposed. His mind raced; who else was out there? Had they seen him? Did she know he was here, or was she guessing? He slipped a sugar cube under his tongue to stay calm.
Hamed glared at her. The moon was gliding swiftly into the sky now. Above the rooftops, more real than the electric lights, it grinned with a grill of gold teeth.
“Then why the fuck are we out here? Are you an idiot? Do you know who I am? What I could lose?”
“Hamed, Hamed, if I didn’t know who you are, you wouldn’t be here. And you will not lose anything. You need to trust in Madaam. Anyway, you have little choice now; you have been seen with me by several government men who know very well who I am.”
“I arranged for a little dinner on the balcony of the next-door restaurant. Don’t worry, I think you’ll find it to your advantage in the long run; people who help me tend to help each other too. Please, try the waffle before it’s cold.”
Despite himself and his frustration, his arm seemed to operate without him. Hamed took a large spoonful: crispy golden batter and black cherry cream. As he chewed it, he thought suddenly of his brother’s wedding; the cherry patisseries flown in from Paris that he had been unable to enjoy because he was masking his tears.
“Although, of course, my friends also dislike those who make themselves my enemies.”
She shrugged briefly with barely any movement; somehow it was more serious than if it had been broad.
“It’s your choice, Hamed. Do you want to be rewarded with a beautiful time you once dreamed of but have since given up as impossible?”
She caught his eye and despite her vagueness, he understood.
“Do you want to enjoy countless business benefits that will add a figure to your wealth, or do you wish to slide into the obscurity of banishment from any important table?”
It was obviously practiced, if not rehearsed; a choice she had given others; a sentence she found fruitful, substituting names and offers as she needed. It was pompous and irritating but under her arrogant style was a real bribe and a real threat.
Hamed calculated the possibilities. His stubbornness battled with his wisdom. He spread his hands and smiled, though his back teeth were clenched, and his eyes bunched.
“Make your offer.”
“I can give you a long weekend with Sara. Next Thursday. Mahmood will be called away for an urgent matter. His third wife Zainab will insist upon travelling with him. She will carry out her own instructions from there, so you don’t need to worry about him returning unexpectedly or calling to check up on Sara’s whereabouts. You will meet Sara at the airport. Her driver is a dear friend of mine and will ensure discretion. You will fly out to a hotel I often work with, returning on Saturday a few hours before Mahmood.”
She paused and her organisational tone softened.
“Sara is excited, so I hope you will not disappoint her.”
“Am I to seriously understand that you are manipulating multiple women in my family… and our employee? Come on, it’s too much!”
He snorted, but the derision was mirthless and unconvincing. Madaam smiled serenely; he felt absolute hatred.
“No, Hamed. I am not connected to some women and an employee. I am close to ALL of the women in your family, and ALL of your employees.”
She sipped her espresso and released an exasperated breath.
“And manipulation is an ugly word, made ridiculous when used by a man used to power and control, who lacks empathy or a concept of reciprocity. I never manipulate. I look at my equals and ensure both our needs are met.”
“You threatened my business…”
She laughed at his protest; a genuine giggle of surprise that carried through the steamy air and seemed to echo around the square. He felt her mask lift and with it the cloud of irritation and frustration that filled his mind. He took a bite of the brownie and chewed thoughtfully.
“Hamed, you are not my equal.”
Hamed pressed his tongue hard against the back of his front teeth.
“You are a cruel, selfish man, raised by other cruel, selfish men with medieval thinking. But, since none of that is your fault, I’m giving you a chance to redeem yourself.”
Hamed found the chip on the side of his back tooth and ran his tongue across the sharp edge.
“You have two options: joy or punishment. I enjoy being generous so I would prefer that you choose the candy instead of the gun but, honestly, my friend, I will get my way whichever way you decide.”
Hamed glanced down at the desserts involuntarily and felt his mouth water. Madaam sighed deeply; Hamed thought it sounded full of sadness.
“What you don’t understand is that I am not only offering you passing bliss with a woman you have long desired; I am offering you salvation. That is a strange idea to you now, as you squat in your toad’s hole, but you will thank me one day. I promise you, you will.”
Her words stung more than they should, but her final sentence suddenly lifted the weight on his chest. Her tone was soft and light, an invitation. Suddenly he could breathe freely and, though he could not understand why, he felt a gentle warmth towards her. He felt the truth of what she said in his bones, despite her pomposity and ego.
He wanted Sara, oh fuck yes more than anything, but he also did not want to disappoint Madaam.
Madaam stood suddenly and a breeze rose from nowhere, rattling the dried palm leaves and lifting her hair and robe so they ballooned and billowed. She was a flag, Hamed thought; he wondered what she flew for.
“Please, enjoy your food. Sit, think, relax. You don’t need to give me an answer now. Consider. If you are at the airport at 2pm on Thursday, I will have your answer. If not…”
She shrugged and laughed, looking up again at the stars. Above them, the moon cackled like the Cheshire cat.
Hamed suddenly wanted her to stay. He spluttered.
“Surely I need to know what you want in return… I need… uh…”
“It will not be too much. If you agree, then Sara will tell you. As a poker player I’m sure you understand I don’t want to reveal my hand to someone uncommitted to my side. If not you, then someone else will do it.”
She held his gaze in hers.
“And they will enjoy your reward whilst you suffer.”
Hamed realised that he was no longer upset by her threats. How had this happened? How had she twisted him on her hook? He felt in his belly he wanted to please her, but she was leaving with a sigh that fell somewhere between satisfaction and ennui.
“Now, Hamed, please excuse me, I must say goodbye. I’m late for dinner with your mother.”
She caught the Indian’s eye and waved. Hamed winced at their friendship.
Suddenly, she bent down and kissed Hamed’s forehead.
It seemed an unfathomable gesture, but her slow lips stole his mind, focusing a second of peace between his brows. She smelled of jasmine tea, cloves, and sweet, drinkable musk. The silk of her hem slipped coolly against the hairy back of his hand.
And then she was gone, striding into the dark pools between the lamps.
Hamed drank his hot tea and muttered a prayer for clarity.
As she passed his table, Mungo glanced up at Madaam; it would have been unusual not to. She was walking purposefully but at an easy pace, face relaxed into a slight smile.
He looked back down at his paper and cursed her under his breath.
What could he really report back? She makes a lot of friends easily? Excellent taste in dessert? Might be lovers with a waiter? Wants M.J.H to do…something? And his brother to do…something, possibly, but possibly not? Some government people work with her sometimes?
He put his head in his hands. Months of work and he still did not know her real name. He had found seven passports during various secret sojourns into her rooms, all genuine, all different. All of them backed up by national data. None of them real.
At least he could find out which officials were on her side. Though, of course, they would be untouchable royal cousins. How had she created this web? There were even whispers that the Sheikh was with her.
Where had she come from? Nobody could answer that. She was British, but nobody could say how long she had operated in this region, or even if this was where she primarily worked.
Mungo rubbed his temples and pinched the bridge of his nose. He took a small sip of the fresh mint tea, so full of brown sugar it was a heavy, warm syrup. It was not as good without the contrast of the acrid hookah pipe. When one was smoking, the tea soothed the throat and evened the bitterness. Right now it clogged his tongue.
Madaam seemed to have popped into existence two years ago, fully formed, and already connected. Miraculously anonymous, and able to outwit any attempt to curtail her. Where had she come from? She was obviously not a Gulf native, even from an ex-pat British family. Why would they all kowtow to a foreigner… to a woman?
He realised these were not questions he could answer now, nor did he need to. The pertinent riddle of the moment was: Where was she going to, right now? And in general, obviously, but her whereabouts for this evening seemed a more manageable thing to answer than her lifetime goals.