He stands in front of the mirror, both hands clutching the side of the sink, nose grazing the toothpaste-splattered mirror. He ignores the razors and multiple bottles of aftershave crammed on the ledge. He ignores the soggy mat beneath his feet. He looks deep into his dark brown eyes and reaffirms his right to get the things he wants in life. He is hardworking. He is qualified. He deserves this job.
He retrieves a shaving stick from the kit he keeps in his suitcase. The others might be content to share razors, but not him. As he shaves, he rehearses words that might trip him up. When he was perfecting his English many years ago, it was itinerary.
He stares into the stuffed wardrobe, seeking out his only suit amidst everyone’s best clothes. The rest are rolled up in suitcases piled on top of the wardrobe, beneath the bed and behind the bedroom door. He pins the bulk of their clothes back and extracts his suit without creasing it. It’s faded from jet black to ash, but its fine tailoring is still evident. At two thousand pounds, it was his first big purchase after he became a trader, the biggest purchase of his life. Today, two thousand pounds doesn’t even cover a month’s rent of their cramped one-bed.
He places the suit down, the trousers flailing off the side of the bed. He kicks his scrunched-up overalls farther away. The toilets were particularly nasty at school today. It’s often like that at the start of a new term. He must take them to the laundromat, before they stink up the room.
He whips off his towel and stands naked, legs spread. It’s rare that he’s ever home alone. Pritesh usually works nights and would be asleep in their double bed or Chang would be banging about in the kitchen, grime blaring from his phone, trying to sate the beast of an appetite worked up on site. Gbolahan was the only quiet one. He would be sat in the corner of the living room where he had carved out space for a desk, studying for one exam or another. He’s lucky that his qualifications aren’t void in France. He can’t imagine going through all of that again.
He tears the cellophane wrapper off the shirt he bought at the supermarket. It’s easy to hide a cheap shirt underneath a good suit, but not one that’s been washed. He dresses, all the while rehearsing those words under his breath like a silent prayer. He has been listening to the French for Professionals masterclass for two years now – on his morning run, on the bus to work and when he lays down at night. Chang assures him that he sounds more Parisian than the girl he is seeing, but when he haggles over courgettes in the market, the farmers still charge him more than the locals. He knows it’s because of his accent, the accent he spent many years perfecting, the accent he had been so proud of.
He checks his reflection in the bedroom window. He is satisfied with what he sees but licks his thumb and sleeks back his eyebrows out of habit. He slips his wallet and phone into his pocket. He picks up his laptop bag, empty but for his CV. He doesn’t have a laptop – he uses the internet café down the road, full of old North African men with long white beards shouting at faraway relatives – but he has to have something in his hands, if only to keep them from shaking. He looks around the room, patting his pocket to be sure he has everything. But as he reaches for the doorknob, his phone buzzes.
‘Bonjour, this is Cecile from Crédit national.’
‘Ah, yes; I recognise the number. Is everything okay?’
‘Absolutely; just checking that we’re still meeting you at 4pm today?’
‘Yes. I was just about to set off.’
‘Perfect. And you know how to find us, yes?’
‘Indeed, the directions are imprinted on my brain.’
Her laugh vibrates from deep in her throat. He imagines that she has a long, slim neck and shiny, almond-shaped eyes.
‘You’d be surprised how many people don’t show up for interviews.’
‘That’s incredible. I’ve been counting down the days.’
‘And so have we. Alors, just call if you have any problems finding us, d’accord?’
‘I will. See you soon.’
‘Oh, one last thing.’
‘Could you bring your passport? We have to sight it before we can proceed.’
‘Sure, no problem.’
‘Fantastique. Au revoir.’
He breaths out, long and hard, and slithers onto the bed, deflated. In the suitcase under the bed is a brown A4 envelope folded in half. In it is his passport. He fingers the golden emblem that proudly declares the United Kingdom of Great Britain. When he first got it, he would sleep with it under his pillow. He would thumb through it, memorising all the images etched on its leaves, wondering whose job it was to decide what to include. And now, he would shred it if he could. Once he presents his passport, rejection is guaranteed. It has happened to him too many times. And to Pritesh, Chang and Gbolahan.
The others talk about Paris like they’re in temporary exile, but not him. There’s something about watching your street ablaze on TV. Seeing men in balaclavas throw Molotov cocktails through your neighbour’s window, chanting go home, knowing it’s you that they are talking to. It begins to chip away at your core, at the image you see of yourself when you close your eyes. And even if you’re strong enough to dismiss them as lunatics, to think that their thoughts don’t mirror those of the people you sit next to at work or Tom, who serves you a pilsner at the pub; when a letter arrives, a letter in an innocuous brown envelope asking you to present yourself at the Heritage Bureau – that will break you. It will draw up a long-buried reel of neighbours knocking down your door to machete your father to the ground. You will hate yourself for thinking that if you spoke a certain way and dressed a certain way, then they would accept you. They will never accept you. Your place in their world is a lie and this is a country in which you can never thrive.
He pulls a sheet of A4 paper folded into a small rectangle from his wallet. It’s old and dog-eared, the words on it are barely legible. It’s a list of all the places that he has applied to. At some, he managed a telephone interview, at others he reached the final stage. There are just two names left uncrossed. He draws a neat line through one.
He puts his passport away and begins to undress. The last bank on the list is not as prestigious as the others, but it’s a good one, too. He removes his jacket and trousers and scrapes away bulging hangers to create room in the wardrobe. Patience is all it takes. Patience to read more books, drink more wine, seduce more women at the bar on Rue de Charonne. And when he is ready, then, he will apply. And he will get it. It was the same thing all those years ago, when he arrived in London with nothing but a thick Hausa accent and pictures of his loved ones in his wallet. But this time it will be different; he knows that he will never be one of them.
As he heads towards the laundromat, his overalls clasped under his armpit, he whistles to the tune playing through his earphones. It’s the song that marks the start of French for Professionals.
The List was originally published in Somesuch Stories Issue 2, which is available for purchase here.
Photograph by Creative Commons