Shakti describes herself an “only child in a family full of children”. Her parents, Bengali Hindus who could afford to swerve Bangladesh’s bloody liberation, swapped Sylhet for Stepney in 1975. They had wanted a son and got one, but “for some reason kept procreating”. Shakti was number three or four, she never seems quite clear how many they are. She says she never managed to care enough about the economics, the exams or the egg white folding techniques that bound the rest of them together but I think the rejection came from both sides.
The carpet is too thick and too red for computer sales. Shakti digs an elbow in my side. “Don’t worry Homeslice,” she says in a mock gangster whisper. “I is packin’.” And she hitches up her top, and tugs down her waistband, to reveal the giant pistol tattooed on her curvy coffee hip. She gives me a devious sparkle and scuttles candy apple fingertips across the display laptops. An assistant with a fat tie and a feathery haircut scurries after her.
“Er…can I help you?” He’s a northerner, Yorkshire, Leeds maybe, but he’s been south too long. His tie matches his trousers and bears the same logo that’s on the breast pocket of his shirt. He looks like he should be carrying a lunchbox. Shakti saunters. He looks at me. I look at Shakti. We both look at her fingernails.
“Maybe.” She loves creating unease. She leans back against the display case, pony tail twitching, elbows resting on the cabinet top. She’s coy, “I suppose you can,” then curt. “My friend wants a laptop.”
It has the desired effect. Feathercut can’t read her. He looks to me, but I can’t help him.
“Er…” he says. “These are very popular.” He gestures to a black box just south of Shakti’s elbow. He makes as if to touch it, but that would mean getting closer to Shakti. “It has a dual core processor and comes with…er…”
Shakti has moved right up close to the assistant. Beads of sweat are forming at his hairline and beginning to curdle with the products in his hair.
I’m at least two meters away from Shakti, but I can smell her like she’s just turned on a tap. She smells of marzipan, aniseed, cumin, amber and a forestful of Sundurban spices I couldn’t even name.
“Do…” she breathes in a deep jungle whisper, “you…” She shapes each word with hypnotic precision, the mangrove roots of her accent deliberately exposed.
“…have it in another colour?” She says confusingly bubbly and Stepney once more.
The assistant fails to stifle a whimper.
“Orange?” says Shakti. She looks at me. “Or…stripes.” She bares her teeth and snarls at him. “With a dedicated 64 bit graphics card and an independent minimum CPU speed of 3GHz, L2 cache and at least four, no eight gigs of D-Ram. Linux ready, wireless with…” She looks at me. “… a nice comfy bag you can ride a bike with.”
Feathercut looks ready for a career change – there had been none of this shit in in-house training. Shakti dismisses him with an open palm and he scampers off in search of a loading bay and a Silk Cut.
“Juice?” asks Shakti.
I shrug the bag from my shoulder and pull out the carton of juice she’d asked me to buy.
“Blood orange.” She gives a smirk of approval, fixes me with the midnight marbles and rubs her head against my neck.
Shakti takes the juice and places it behind the nearest display laptop. She folds back the edges and tears the top from the carton with a precision I couldn’t manage at the breakfast table. She picks up the alarm hub – a shiny black block that connects the display machines to the alarm system – and drops it into the juice. The liquid bubbles and squeals almost inaudibly, then the hub coughs up a twist of black smoke and dies. Shakti puffs the smoke away, takes the wire cutters from my hand and snips the alarm cable sticking out the back of a two thousand pound laptop. She hands it to me and, as we practiced, I drop it into my bag. She chooses a second, repeats the process and, unhurriedly, selects a third.
Fifteen minutes later, after our laughing gets the better of our running, we fuck hungrily in an alleyway leading to some private gardens, the pack full of computers bouncing clumsily against my back.