A fierce wave of deja vu hits Leila Armstrong. She allows it to pass over her. First the swash sensation of having lived the moment before, then the backwash of synapses grasping at the ether of memory for confirmation of when and where. She tells herself to accept the sensation, that this is tidal, an inevitable part of her life. Most times, the deja vu changes little about the moment, it washes like a lazy wave up a calm beach. This is different. It crashes through her like a tsunami, sucking away cliff falls of memory.
Leila shifts her mind from, ‘Have I been here before?’ to ‘Why am I here?’. In front of her sits a guy wearing navy loafers, grubby jeans and a grey polo shirt. The polo shirt has ridden up to reveal a thicket of black belly hair. His hands are half raised. Above a jowly chin, his face wears a look of fear, his small brown irises are lost in a sea of terrified white.
Why is she pointing a gun at him?
This is Raffi thinks Leila, the lowlife that runs this shit hole of a bed and breakfast. Why am I here? Too existential. Why am I here? I am here for the conference, ‘Quantum Religion - the Great Disentanglement.’
“Don’t fucking move.” She says. It seems appropriate, even with the ‘f’ bomb that she doesn’t like to say. Was that a look of confusion on his face?
A conversation. A couple of days ago. In the conference coffee shop. Professor Bar has two scones, a latte, and a coke. Bishop Goldfinch has tea and is cleaning steam from his glasses.
“I’m worried about someone.” I say.
“Who?” Asks Professor Bar.
“A girl at my digs.” I say.
“Go on.” Says Bar.
I glances around, knowing some of what she says next will be inappropriate. This coffee break gathering of priests and physicists doesn’t need to hear it.
“I forgot to book my hotel room. When I did everything was full because of the Festival.”
“Oh Leila, school girl error.” Says Bishop Goldfinch.
“I found a place near the station. It had two five star reviews, so I rang and booked it. But when I arrive, it’s a dive. As I go to check in, a tall guy with his hood up stands at the counter in front of me. All I can see of him is a pair of big, meaty hands.
“Hey Raffi, I hear you have a new girl for me to try.” He says.
“A Saharan Queen, Mr Fairweather, lean as a beanpole, you’ll love her. Room two.”
This Mr Fairweather pushes a pile of notes across the counter, is given a key in return and he shows himself up the stairs.
“Oh, sweet Jesus.” Says Professor bar. “You’re staying in a knocking shop.”
I check in and have to pay with cash. Raffi, pushes the key across the counter.
“Room three.” He says.
“Oh my.” Says Bishop Goldfinch and I notice his left hand is rubbing the inside of his thigh.
“When I get to my room, it’s pink and awful. After a couple of minutes, I hear Fairweather moaning, then the bed starts rattling off the wall and I hear her yelping. It doesn’t take long him to finish. He grunts like a pig and the noises stop. Then it starts again. Three more times.”
My Swiss cheese brain is putting this together well. I hold the gun steady, recalling the Bishop’s hungry eyes.
“You listened to a Saharan whore and her punter.” Says Bishop Goldfinch giving his lips a lizard-like lip.
“Heard.” I say. “Hearing differs from listening. Anyway, this morning I heard her sobbing. I don’t know what to do?”
“Not an awful lot you can do. Tell the police?” Offers Bar.
“We could tell one of the Street Ministers. They could check in on her.” Says Bishop Goldfinch.
But it’s a weak memory. That course of action has no resonance. Leila returns her focus to the gun and the man in front of her. These seconds of inaction are unnerving him, and his complexion is becoming ashen. Raffi and the gun.
The gun is from this Raffi. Two thousand pounds of her cash sits in the safe behind him. Leila knows she paid Raffi for the gun. More of Professor Bar’s words come back to her.
“It doesn’t matter what you do about the girl. If Francisca Okikiolu’s presentation this morning is correct, then the multiverse takes care of it all. In the multiverse you are living every option. You’ve called the police, not called the police, a Street Minister has rescued her, the same Street Minister was her next punter. Every eventuality is happening. Your choices are irrelevant, they all happen.”
Leila recalls Professor Bar pushing an entire half of scone in his cavernous mouth and as he did, her frustration sparked. What was the point of speaking about real-world problems with a theologist and a theoretical physicist? She snapped back..
“Okikiolu is a performer not a physicist. Her equations are storytelling for undergraduates.”
And as she remembers saying the word ‘storytelling’, the sea of memory offers a driftwood lifeline. The girl. She paid to speak to the girl. Raffi had drooled thinking she’d paid for an hour of girl on girl action.
“Why do you want to hear my story?” The girl had asked. Her English carried a slight accent but was otherwise perfect.
“I want to help.” Leila replied, the girl looked her in the eye and said.
“I don’t need your help.”
The words were emphatic and the girl’s long neck, fine features, and studied hauteur had struck Leila.
“Who are you?” She’d asked.
“I am Amanitore Candace of Jebel Barkal. You can call me Amani.”
There was something almost regal about the young woman.
“Why are you here, Amani?”
“The sand has taken our lands. We had seven years of drought, even the Nile could not sustain us. My parents died first. They restricted themselves so that the young could eat. My two young sisters followed. They died with bloated stomachs and dysentery. When they were gone, my brother and I made the journey north across the sands. We had no choice.”
“But why did you end up here? And where is your brother?” “They stabbed my brother in the back streets of Benghazi when he was looking for a smuggler to take us to Italy. They robbed him of most of our wealth.”
‘Wealth’. Not cash. Not money. ‘Wealth’.
“But you had enough wealth to reach Italy?”
“Calais. I could not stop in Italy. We are climate migrants. They would have sent me back to scratch a death out of the sand. I reached Calais, but it took everything I had. In Calais, a charming man in a blue suit and white shirt who said he understood my situation approached me. He told me I was intelligent and had a natural authority, that he could find good work for me. We came to an agreement. He would get me to England and I would work my passage off when I arrived.”
“But there was no work. Just this.”
She raises her hands, highlighting the room and her predicament in one simple movement.
“The deal remains the same. I have to work off my debt, and when I have, I’ll need to do this a little longer to buy a false identity.”
“Why don’t you run away?”
“What would I do? Where would I go? Raffi has promised me that if I try, he will cut my face until I am unrecognisable and throw me in the river with the other migrants no one cares about. I don’t need your help.”
Leila remembers Amina’s certainty and sees another path. One where a dodgy punter smashes her up and she can’t earn so well. One where drink and drugs take her. Leila sees a body in the river mud. The deja vu is clearing now. Leila’s mind is grasping the situation.
“How long has she got?” She asks Raffi, stabbing the gun towards him.
“You mean the girl, Saharan Brandi. What do you mean, how long has she got?” “Until she works off her debt and is free to go.”
“Debt? She doesn’t have a debt, she’s mine.”
“You bought her.”
“I did.” “Like a slave.”
“A profitable one.”
The deja vu clears further and Leila knows what she was saying before the wave took her.
“Open the safe.”
“No.” Says Raffi, defiant.
“Open the safe.”
Raffi’s hands are lowering.
“No. You will not shoot me. You’re an interfering middle class bitch who stumbled in here and is going to stumble out again. Piss off.”
Leila knows he is right. She cannot shoot, not even for Amina. What if she was caught? Then Professor Bar’s words replay in her mind.
“If Francisca Okikiolu’s maths is correct, then the multiverse takes care of it all. In the multiverse you are living every option...Your choices are irrelevant, they all happen.”
Okikiolu’s maths might be weak, but the theory is undeniable. The bullet smashes into Raffi’s knee cap. He falls from the chair. Any sense of deja vu disappears. This is a new moment.
“Open the safe before I make sure you never walk again.”
Raffi slides to the safe and swings it open. It contains her two thousand pounds, along with other bundles of notes, bags of pills, Amani’s passport, and on top of it all, as if discarded, a gold bracelet.
“Pass it to me. All of it.”
Raffi passes the contents of the safe. The effort costs him. Blood spreads on the floor. The bracelet, about an inch and a half wide, is gold with enamel and carries the image of a warrior with a lion’s head.
“Where is this from?” Leila asks.
“It came with the girl. I said I could fence it.” Replies Raffi, forcing the words out. “I need that money. They’ll kill me. It’s drug money. You’ve done enough. Take the girl and the bracelet.”
Leila considers him. Which version of the multiverse should she choose?
She chooses the version where Amina escapes with English cash in her pocket and the last wealth of Jebel Barkal on her wrist. Settling her finger on the trigger, Leila weighs the situation and decides that, as Raffi’s shitty bed and breakfast has no official record of her, the probability of anonymity is high. The second bullet punches a neat hole in Raffi’s forehead and sprays his brains on the floor. Leila calmly scatters pills over the body and leaves the safe open. A drug killing. The gun will go into the river with the migrants no one cares about.