On the doorstep she was like someone selling god: black dress, white lace collar, brogues, a large leather bag tilting her hips to the side. ‘Hi, it’s me, Delphina,’ she said, reaching to shake my hand. I thought she’d be older but she was in her twenties, mixed-race, with lemony green eyes and a glow of moisture on her forehead.
She’d walked quite a way from the station, she said, odd, as Skylar maps had calculated it to be six minutes, 28 seconds at an average walking speed. It was so hot out on the road, she was literally melting.
As I looked at her, self-disgust broke in me; the tangled, lank hair around my face, the rising sourness of my cropped top and holey leggings. But the last thing I wanted to feel was unconfident. We’d been on the email and phone (three times) and she’d said, it’s fine, I just needed to relax and not over-think it. ‘It always works better that way,’ she had said. The warmth in her posh tone was reassuring, I imagined good lips working off good teeth when she smiled. I was right.
After leading her through the hall and into the flat, I offered her a drink, praying she wouldn’t follow me into the kitchen which had three days worth of rancid washing up in the sink. She didn’t want tea, just plain cooled boiled water if I had some, with perhaps a slice of lemon. I didn’t have lemon and she said just plain cooled boiled water was perfect. In the kitchen I flicked the kettle on.
‘I don’t mean to be a pain,’ Delphina told me back in the room, ‘but I’m on a clean diet.’
She was already sitting on the sofa, pulling objects out of her bag with practiced ease: a clutch of leads, three mobiles, a small Skybook, a grey laptop (no logo), three small black devices I couldn’t identify, an assortment of white leather boxes, latex gloves, some baby wipes and various bottles of fluid. A small leather notebook and two pens.
‘I’m not normally on the road, I’m based in the lab, more R&D, but Tiff couldn’t come so it was up to me. But you know, it’s been fun, really lovely meeting everyone. Great to see how Lola’s working with our new client base.’
‘Lola?’ I said.
‘The product,’ she said.
‘Oh – yes of course.’
I asked if she wanted some tap water but she said she’d wait. I was suddenly thirsty myself so I went back to the kitchen and filled up a pint glass. The kettle had boiled and as I poured, bubbling water spat onto my hand. I swore quietly. I found a Jif lemon in the fridge, but after smelling it I decided against squirting it in.
Back in the room, I started talking randomly about pint glasses, a sure sign I was nervous. ‘We have five in the cupboard. I’m not a pint drinker and Jay drinks shots or bottles of beer. I’m not sure where they come from, it’s weird.’ Delphina pursed her lips and smiled: clearly not a drinker.
I didn’t mention Jay had just moved out. Although I’d found out a lot of stuff I didn’t know, I didn’t think he was the type to steal pint glasses. It was three years since we’d finished our degrees but we were still wading through a bleak terrain of zero contract jobs that would make you wake in the festering 3am darkness and compare yourself to people doing better. At that time in the night, the panic felt more animal, like it was alive. It was a lottery, career happiness, any kind of continual happiness; only a few lucky ones getting the good lives around. The rest of us carried on suffering temp jobs and endless internships if parents were up for supporting you. And mine weren’t.
But what did I know about anything anymore? I was numb, the kind of numb before you go into freefall. I knew the rent was due and I had to now go on paying it by myself, how temping wasn’t going to meet it and how I would be paid a princely sum of one hundred pounds for what I’d been told would be half an hours work.
Delphina took out a form. ‘Do you want to read through the paper work?’ she said. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone about Lola or discuss any of its component parts etc. If I did, there was some legal sounding language I skimmed down and some other national security stuff, (Jay would have read through all this) it went on for five pages, but I stopped reading and nodded and then signed my name at the bottom of the sheet.
‘The only thing I’m worried about is electrocution,’ I said.
Delphina giggled. ‘You won’t be connected in any way to the mains,’ she said. ‘It’s all on radio waves: wireless.’
She placed a box on the table. ‘So this is Lola.’
The box, fake white leather with faint crocodile skin scales.
‘Take a look.’ She indicated that I should open it myself.
‘First of all I want you to have a play and see how you interact with it.’
‘Interact with it,’ I said. She smiled.
I began opening the box; it was awkward, sticky and I had to use my nails. Eventually it gave with a little click and slid open. Inside, encased in a film of cloudy plastic was a grey object like an elongated rubber, smoothly rounded at each end, about three inches long. There was flat tape running out of it at one end, pretty strips of colour running up it.
‘Looks like a tadpole,’ I said, holding it up. I ran my fingers over it, its surface yielding up little worms of rolled up rubber. It actually looked like a sperm but I didn’t want to say it out loud. I touched it again. Slightly tacky. Where has this been? I stopped touching it. Delphina was writing down what I said.
‘It’s a bit dusty,’ I said.
‘Oh that’s just the material,’ she said pausing with a slight frown, ‘it seems to attract dust. We’re still looking at the design, it’s only the prototype.’ She came forwards and reached to touch it. Involuntarily I flinched.
‘Don’t worry, it’s clean. It’s been sterilised. I did it myself.’
‘Right, I want to ask you some more direct questions,’ she said, sitting back down and folding her dress under her knees.
‘How do you think it looks, do you like the feel of it? Do you like the packaging? Would it be something you would buy?’
‘How much is it,’ I asked.
‘£80, but that’s just to begin with, we expect that with government subsidies, the price will come down.’
That was more than I had left in the bank.
‘Do you think the price is reasonable?’ she said.
‘Y-es,’ I said, lying, ‘I mean, if I had a good job.’
Then it was all about my periods, how regular they were, had I ever been pregnant, had I ever had a termination, how many sexual partners I had, how often I was having sex, even about my vagina. Moistness. Did I suffer from excessive dryness? Indicate from 1-10. Whether I had a partner. Yes, I answered. How often were we having sex…? It went on and on.
‘Is this all confidential?’ I asked.
‘Oh, of course,’ she said, nodding, as if she knew what I’d be asking before I did. And how I would answer.
‘It won’t hurt me?’ I said again.
‘You’re like me,’ she said, ‘careful.’ She tapped her nose. ‘I would ask the same kinds of things. You’re right to want to protect yourself. But we expect women to sign up for Lola all over the country. It will be rolled out in 40 other countries. It’s going to help millions of women and since births have dropped so low now…’
‘No, no, it’s going to be so important. Essential…’ I agreed.
‘Right, now we’ve done the presentation,’ Delphina said, ‘shall we start? Let’s get some privacy in here.’
She looked at the window, the sun showing up the faint brown coating of dust and finger marks where the window had been lifted countless times. A ghostly mix of Jay’s fingers and mine. I closed the curtains and turned on the lights. The room was grey with them shut, a knife edge of sharp light at its central slit. Three of the bulbs on the lamp overhead were dead.
‘Do you want to go and get undressed, just the bottom half,’ she said. I went into our bedroom and took my leggings and knickers off, coming back in a small towel. Looking down, I saw my legs were hairy and started to sweat.
I picked up the thing, dangling it gingerly in my hand.
Delphina said, ‘Before we go for it I want to explain, we’ll do some kegel exercises standing up, sitting down, and lying down – oh I almost forgot!’
She unzipped a bag and pulled out a condom. ‘You need to put this on Lola.’
Delphina stepped out of the room. I tore open the packet and tried to remember the last time I’d used one, probably when Jay and I first got together, but he ended up pulling it off and throwing it into a corner of the room.
I unrolled its greasy oiliness and dropped Lola into it. After that I tried to insert it standing up but I was nervous and it slipped out of my hands onto the floor. Oh god, now the condom was covered in filth. The carpet had always been old, its grey dog-weave fibres had hairs, crumbs and other specks of detritus all over it. I tried to rub the bits off but my hands were wet. I decided to lie down to make insertion easier. It resisted at first but soon slid in and I used my fingers to push it further. It was like a big rubber inside me.
I felt truly ugly then lying down in my towel, my bristly legs, the tape hanging out of me like a sad grey tail. My brain was telling me that this was ok, this was normal. I had agreed to this, Lola was being tested on thousands of women, a national database was essential now, that’s what Delphina had said.
She walked back into the room with exaggerated discretion, her ballerina back upright, gaze averted, looking at the screen. I had to tell her which band of colour was hitting my pelvic bone. I strained down. I wasn’t sure. To my horror, she peered down between my legs.
‘Green,’ she said, ‘okay.’
‘What does green mean?’ I said. She didn’t answer but was busy tapping something onto the screen of the phone and tracking it on her laptop.
It must be about the depth of me, I thought, or how well I’d inserted it. I had never been very good with tampons, I would end up with the bathroom floor scattered with them like tiny half blooded bullets. I’d always been more of a sanitary towel user. What does the green mean? And how did that compare to say, orange? It tortured me but I couldn’t ask again.
‘Shall we try lying down first, as you’re already on the floor,’ Delphina said.
‘Oh, sorry!’ I said.
‘No, it’s fine, we can do it in any order.’
She was gazing down at me. I looked at her slender legs rising up out of her brogues, the healthy glow on her skin. She looked so beautiful, a girl you would never stop trying to please. She had mentioned an order: standing up, sitting, then lying last. I was doing it all wrong but I stayed on the floor.
I tried to remember the last time I’d had a shower. It wasn’t so much about wanting to leave Jay’s smell on me as not wanting to touch the places he’d touched. There was the last time for example, some people might have called it a pity fuck but I saw it as more despairing than that. I remember looking at his trainer collection as he grunted behind me, their boxes piled high and white against one wall of our bedroom. They were pristine, waiting to be sold or swapped online. He cleaned them with a special cloth, sometimes baby wipes. They were worth thousands of pounds. He would be coming back for them as soon as he’d got the space, he’d said. One of the rarest pairs he told me when we first met, was the Nike Duelist from 1989. He used to go to the conferences, chat in the web groups for hours, that’s where he met her, the other 1980s sportswear fan. I saw a picture of her online, it must the first time in history a man has left their girl for someone uglier. I thought about our bed, how he brought her here to our flat after she’d had a tattoo of his name done. I thought about the whirr as the ink jabbed in on the trembling pink wattle of her flesh.
Delphina was giving me instructions.
‘I’d like you to squeeze your pelvic muscles for ten quick holds, like you do with kegels, then after we’ll try some longer ones when you hold for ten seconds or more if you can. I’m recording it on the App,’ she said, holding up her phone.
‘Would it help to track it on-screen?’
I nodded and she showed me a small electronic graph, neon bars of pink filling up as I squeezed. I contracted harder, then harder to see if I could reach the top.
‘Pulse: one, two, three, four, five…’ she said. I was trying my best, barely feeling Lola now lost in me. Whenever I released, the graph blocks emptied down to zero. I let out a sighing breath. Delphina looked startled. ‘Are you ok?’
‘Yes, I’m fine.’ I said, ‘it’s just the effort.’ Contracting my pelvic floor was making me want to cry.
‘Don’t worry, that’s good, so we’re done with lying down. Let’s do some sitting now, just sit on the sofa.’
Sitting was harder. It was still dim in the room and the atmosphere became more sombre. Sweat blazed in my armpits. Delphina kept losing the signal, something was blocking the connection.
‘Oh sorry, it’s me,’ I said. I shifted my buttocks and rearranged the tail so it lay flat behind me.
‘Yes! I’m getting a reading again!’ she said. ‘Ok, now I want you to hold for longer, then release. Hold….hold….hold, hold.’ Delphina’s voice was louder than before. My pelvis kept slipping like I was on mud.
I couldn’t help thinking about that last time with Jay, every thrust an insult, how he tried to get me into a position which was right for him. It seemed to be a problem, the size of me. But he had become the problem. A draining away of kindness in his touch. He created enough disgust for both of us and left me sore too. It didn’t help when he said, ‘You’re just not doing it for me anymore.’ Like it had only ever been about that. Like he could turn me around and slot coins into me.
‘Now for the big one ok, let’s do it standing up,’ Delphina said. She was grinning, her voice louder as if heralding something, but we were just in a room in the gloom, the brightness of the day shut out forever.
‘No don’t do this to me, be my friend!’ She sounded angry.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Come one Lola, come on girl.’ She was talking to the App.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked.
‘It just keeps sticking, we need to work on it,’ she said. Her smile came back and she looked at me. ‘It’s useful, it just shows us what we need to focus on. Like I said, this week has been pretty invaluable.’ She looked back at the screen.
‘Do you want me to start again?’ I said. I was holding my breath.
‘Ok, yes, thanks for your patience, we’re ready to go again. Now one long last hold ok, I’ll do it too.’ The whole room seemed to be holding its breath while I tried to contract. It was harder than before.
‘Come on,’ I said loudly, ‘come on.’
Dephina looked at me, her hand dropping with the phone.
‘It’s ok, I’ll try again.’
‘Go for it,’ she said.
I held my breath and contracted again. No good. Delphina looked at the screen, a slight frown appearing between her precise brows.
‘Would you like a break?’ she said.
‘No, no honestly – this time I’m going to do it.’
I shut my eyes, held my breath and squeezed. My face tightened, hard as stone.
‘That’s good…’ Delphina said, ‘very good. Yes! Yes….and….relax.’
I let out a long, sighing breath. For a few minutes Delphina studied the phone screen and then her computer. My heart beat fast as I watched her. Finally she sprang over to me, waving the phone.
‘See – the graph stayed filled to the top. Look! You’ve got a really strong pelvic grip. Dynamic. Your cervix looks healthy and is well ripened. Are you about 20 days into your cycle?’
‘Yes…!’ I said.
‘Incredible isn’t it? What Lola can detect,’ she said. ‘Ok, we’re done.’
Delphina left the room again while I pulled Lola out and held it up, muffled like a mouse in its glistening condom bag. She came back in wearing surgical gloves, took it from me and dropped it into what looked like a nappy bag.
‘Will you be taking it for the next woman to use?’ I asked
‘No, no, I have others in my bag, it’ll be sterilised in the lab tonight.’
Delphina had five more clients to see that afternoon. I sat and watched her put everything away. It was hypnotic. Finally she handed me my money.
‘You’ve been great. I would like to ask you something, not everyone is right for us of course but would you consider becoming one of our ambassadors? You might have to wear Lola for a bit longer, like a week or so, possibly more…?’
‘Would I be paid?’
Delphina smiled, ‘Of course.’
I couldn’t see having Lola inside me for limited amounts of time would be a problem. Perhaps I would even forget she was in there. Together we walked to the door. Delphina shook my hand and grinned. I felt warmth inside, like she was transferring something of her to me. She’s so lovely, I thought, like a kind of friend. ‘Thanks for your help, think about what I said, I’ll message you in the next few days.’ For a moment I thought she was going to embrace me but she turned away.
Back in the sitting room I slashed open the curtains and started putting the sofa and chairs straight, picking things up from the carpet with renewed energy. I wiped the marks off the window and yanked it up to let in the air.
My pelvic floor was dynamic, that’s what Delphina has said. I had seen the light rising up the blocks of colour on the graph. In our bedroom there was a wall of boxes, ready for the kind of people who got worked up over plimsolls. The ad text was already forming:
Extremely rare pair of unworn Nike Duelist trainers, circa 1984. Only 100 pairs ever made. In perfect condition. Comes in original box. Price on application.
Featured in the Goldroom Anthology available here.