Extracts

Extract: Jaded by Ela Lee

Read an extract from one of the most exciting debuts of 2024. This raw, darkly funny novel explores the ‘grey-area’ of consent and recovery that’s far from linear.

Ela Lee

I considered myself an honest person. At the job interview, he asked what three words would your friends use to describe you? I paused, then replied they’d say I’m honest, hard-working and loyal. I said it with a curt nod and slightly pursed my lips where the interviewer’s eyes lingered. The ‘luminous lip tint’ I’d applied was effective. I knew I ought to be found attractive in these situations.

Having to appraise yourself like that, in three solid words, is strange. What adjectives could adequately capture a person’s idiosyncrasies? Doing so is like looking at a Monet landscape with a telescope. What attribute could describe the fact that I think bread is sacred because my father breaks a loaf across our table to cure any problem? That my pockets are constantly gummed together with Blu Tack because it helps to knead something when I get anxious. That supermarkets are relaxing because family time was going to ASDA. That I’m too impatient to suck on mints so I grind them with my molars. That I only use Maldon salt flakes because Kit told me it’s uncouth to season food with anything else. That I order an oat flat white in the same breath as a cheese toastie. That I wear my backpack on my chest in crowds because my mother gave me a flogging when I ‘let’ myself get pick-pocketed. That showers are never long enough, because of him. That Jade isn’t even my real name. That Jade began as my Starbucks name, because all children of immigrants have a Starbucks name. That I was an honest person until I realised how easy it was to just say I’m really good thanks, and you?

It might be self-indulgent to want someone to see all these peculiarities of mine. But at one point, I didn’t have a single word to describe myself.

**

The Lincoln Room was at full capacity. Dotted about were expansive round tables, with bushy bouquets at their centres, each named after a prominent female politician: ‘I’m on Maggie Thatcher! Where are you sitting?’ Guests arrived plucking a champagne flute from the white-

Gloved servers’ trays. The reception was at a pleasant hum; we’d timed our arrival to perfection. Knowing British people, there were at least five concurrent conversations about ‘this mental weather we’ve been having!’

‘You ready?’ I asked, pausing under the unconscionably lavish flower arch. The ground floor of the Savoy had been monopolised tonight to celebrate thirty years of the Firm. I spotted in the corner a Willy Wonka style cart offering cupcakes iced with ‘1988’ and ‘2018’ in the Firm’s colours.

‘If I can get through this evening,’ Adele said, lips stretched into a ventriloquist’s smile, ‘without cracking into my cyanide tooth, I’ll consider it a success.’

It seemed the women of Reuben, Fleisher & Wishall LLP had sold out Van Cleef’s Alhambra collection. Men signalled their earning capacity with discreetly indiscreet watches.

At one point, I didn’t have a single word to describe myself.

When we first met a year ago, I read Adele’s insistence on wearing black Dr. Martens and mismatched Celtic earrings as a tiresome display of rebellion; a statement that I may be another cog in this machine, but I’m an individual and, crucially, I am not a sell-out. When she got her forearm tattoo – an outline of a nude woman with flowers sprouting out of her nipples – she essentially plastered vive la résistance! over the door to our shared office. I knew now that nothing Adele did was performative.

I had yet to reach such dizzying heights of emancipation. I’d spent the last ninety minutes assembling myself. Neutral-but-smoky eye make-up, legs smoother than dolphins. I got a manicure earlier today, returning to a Post-it on my desk in my boss’s scrawl: Jade, this isn’t playschool. An hour for lunch? I wore a fir-green dress that cinched my waist and had a wrap-around bodice. Despite its low cut, the dress remained professional, given my lack of breasts. I felt some feminist guilt over the hours I’ve spent researching boob jobs, but enough aunties at enough weddings have lamented that my ‘childbearing’ hips are disproportionate to my flat chest. The last straw was Auntie Ebru’s exclamation that Jade has the face to launch a thousand ships, and the backside for them to harbour under!

‘There you are! I’ve been looking for you for ever!’ Eve grabbed me in a hug as Adele was pulled into another huddle. ‘Jeez, love this dress, and it has pockets?’

‘Hey, Evie,’ I grinned.

‘Come, let’s mingle.’ She tugged on my wrist towards a group of colleagues. I looked over my shoulder and flashed Adele an apologetic smile, reciprocated with a minimal wave as she dissolved into the crowd.

‘It’s always about the oil,’ Will Janson – of Post-it fame, and also the partner who headed my team – cried. There were more partners at the Firm called William (nine in total), than female partners. ‘That’s all US involvement in the Middle East has ever been about.’

‘Now, we’re not talking politics, are we?’ Eve stepped into the conversation, sidling up against Will, one hand perched on his shoulder.

‘We were just talking about the Pentagon’s planned withdrawal

of troops from Syria,’ Will said.

‘I’d know nothing about that,’ Eve said, doe-eyed. ‘Could you walk me through it?’

The thing is, Eve has a first-class Politics degree. Her thesis charted how the unassuming Bashar Assad went from reserved ophthalmologist to dangerous dictator. On an August day, in a muggy lecture hall that smelt of feet, I crept in late to the first session of postgraduate law school. Eve was in the back row, messaging someone under the desk. Her proud chin and severe cheekbones were incongruous with the battered dungarees slung over her shoulders and the carton of apple juice she reached for. She smiled at my dithering by the door and shuffled to make room for me.

‘What’sa girl gotta do to get a pint around here?’ she whispered as we filed out of a seminar on insolvency that had made time stop still. ‘Paid a fiver for a cider the other day, gave me a fucking heart attack.’

Eve’s over-familiarity, and the confidence it displayed, made me shy.

‘That’s London for you,’ I said.

‘It was always gonna be spenny here, but no one signed up to starve.’

‘I know a place around the corner,’ I offered, ‘a student bar, if you fancy it?’

Frolicking down the back streets of Bloomsbury, we peeked into the cream Edwardian houses saying we were putting ourselves through this grind to get ceilings that high. Eve ended up pulling pints for the rest of law school at that student bar. At the time, she had an older boyfriend who paid her rent and understood she didn’t love him, but she still needed extra cash to maintain the lifestyle she emulated. We went on to submit our applications to Reuben together. We both got in, secured contracts together, trained together, qualified together into different departments. We ran on parallel tracks, and luckily, have never collided. After our shared blueprints, Eve didn’t hide the fact that my rapid freefall into best friendship with Adele was a thorn in her side.

Eve was the most uniquely intelligent person I’d ever met. She understood the person her audience wanted her to be. For Will, she knew to play the role of the gorgeous junior who hung on his alpha word with wonderment. As she requested, he ‘walked her through’ the news story whilst she innocuously grazed her hip against his leg, to indulge his belief that he could have her if he wanted. It reminded me of the scripted flirtation between a father and his son’s girlfriend (I can see where your son gets his good looks from!). By the same token, Eve knew to mention her desire for motherhood when speaking to a colleague who had just returned from maternity leave, or to play up her Northern accent when the Geordie head of IT came to fix a computer bug. She once referred to herself as the right Spotify playlist.

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