The leopard usually woke after I started my shift, but that night it was already up when I sat at my control desk. The monitor was split into six video feeds covering my patrol: three for the grounds, three for the mansion basement. The leopard skulked in and out of view, pacing the dark basement and spraying the walls on its circuit, the sheen of its coat pixelating, its eyes glowing white discs.
At midnight, the feeder rattled and whirred into my headphones. Meat slopped onto the tray. The leopard tore into the slices, pushed bloody hunks around the wet-look concrete before it began chewing. I ate my own dinner—greasy samosas from the strip-lit mini-market, yoghurt dip in a plastic pot. Everyone fed at their control desks here.
After eating, the animal secreted the leftovers in one of the basement corners hidden from the camera. It stalked to the egress door, listened to foxes crying at each other in the grounds. In response it let out a deep, hacking noise that could have come from below the earth it was so unreal and alive. The sound thinned, became grainy as the connection faltered. Into the darkness, the foxes scattered and dissolved.
Leopard made anxious by foxes, I wrote in the Occurrence Book.
The leopard was alone again, the property deserted, the owner in other countries. We’re not paid to remotely monitor the rich people, Martin had said after I complained to the management of Soteria. We’re paid to keep the poor people out of their houses.
In the afternoon, I lay in bed afraid to move in case my body gave up on sleeping altogether. My app said that I’d only had three low-quality hours. Outside my flat I could hear the clotted breathing of traffic, stacks of blocks rising on the nearby construction site. The gritty red sticky mesh of summer, the worst time of year for the night shift. I had only two motivations to leave bed since it had begun: peeing, and seeing Kal. I held out for an hour before going to the bathroom, and then I waited for the sound of his footsteps in the flat above. He came home less often now. When I heard him, I pulled on jeans, feeling in my pocket for the money, and went upstairs.
It’s me, I said, looking through the spyhole.
I’ve just got in, Kal shouted.
I didn’t realise. Do you want me to come back?
Kal opened the door narrowly. He looked surprised but maybe he knew that I was lying or he hadn’t expected to see me after last time.
Shall we drink? I asked.
He peered out into the corridor before shutting the door behind me. I have to leave soon, he said.
He walked quickly over to the fridge and took out a half-empty bottle, examined the label and then took out something else. He looked up at me briefly, squinting, as if I was at a great distance. When I opened my mouth to speak, he turned away.
On the coffee table was a pile of paper. The top sheet was sharpied with esoteric symbols connected by a diagram. All the sheets underneath were blank but numbered.
Where are you going? I asked.
Meeting friends, he said.
He mentioned some people who he always called by their full names, as if he only knew them in an official capacity. I had not met any of them. Kal was a film writer. Before meeting him, I had never met anyone with creative ambitions or even anyone who liked their job.
This looks cool, I said, pointing to the paper.
It’s private, he said, snatching the pile away just as I leant forward to read the first page. The paper fell everywhere and he scooped each sheet from the wooden floor with his fingernails.
Your energy can be so negative, he said, waving me away. After he finished, he sat down on the sofa and exhaled shallowly.
I’m looking forward to the party, I said, changing the subject. The one you mentioned a couple of weeks ago. I wanted to sound positive even though I was paranoid that my energy was signalling rudely behind my back.
I’ll let you know about that, he said, staring at his phone.
From the side, he had the tragic and elegant angles of a black and white film star. He turned, our mouths close and his knee against mine. His faced softened for a second, but I could have imagined it. Sometimes I had as much control over my body as I did the foreign news. When I leant over, he moved away and covered his eyes.
I can feel all this pressure rising through the floorboards, he said.
You asked me to come in.
I know, he said.
Are you seeing someone? I asked.
I don’t know yet, he said.
I got up slowly and took the money out of my pocket. You left this the last time you came around.
The money had been on the floor beside my bed.
It’s for you, he said. You kept going on about your debts.
That’s not the same as being poor, I said. I have an actual job.
Take it, he repeated, in the same soft voice he used whenever he made me a cooked dinner or gave me coke before I went on the night shift.
Okay, why not? I said.
He watched me put the money back in my jeans.
Every time I left his place I felt as if I had a weight tied to my stomach and could only crawl until I saw him next. But I would only be able to stop feeling that way if I didn’t see him again. Downstairs, I listened to him walking around until the front door slammed and the building went quiet. I no longer knew whether I liked him or only wanted him to like me. I am not a joke, I texted. I waited for him to reply.
Every few hours at work I went to the kitchen to check my phone and stare into the coils of the vending machine. On my third visit, the two other guards from the Private Properties division were standing around the dirty counter. The acrid smell of instant coffee filled the room. I rarely spoke to them even though our desks were only a few metres apart. Once I had heard them calling me leopard girl or leper girl, I wasn’t sure which. When we did speak, conversations usually turned to the personal safety of women. They always lowered their voices and made pained faces to imply what they were imagining. A woman who chose to work at night was suspect. It gave me a careless air that I would have cultivated if any of the men had been attractive. Now there were rumours of redundancies, a takeover.
The manager over there doesn’t like formalities, one of them said. He sipped from his mug angrily.
What’s wrong with that? the other asked.
He takes you out for a fistfight instead, isn’t it.
They both hunched over their coffees. I could feel them looking. Like all the security guards that worked here they were short. One looked as though he was in disguise—he always wore a hat, which somehow made his beard and glasses look stuck on. The other had leathery skin and missing teeth. Us boys have been through a lot together, I could hear him saying. I stood at the machine until they left. Then I returned to the control room with a Kinder Bueno and no messages from Kal.
Up until four in the morning of that shift it was inevitable that my life would change for the better, even if I was let go. I was young and, apart from my nose, beautiful. After four, I began to worry that I had no savings and only a partial security guarding license. By the end of the shift, my arms began to smell like fruit or dairy that had been mistakenly microwaved. I became afraid of what it was like out there among the day people.
On my nights off, I went to group therapy for the estranged. I wasn’t categorically estranged, but my parents had not called me in five years. I visited them but only to make sure that I could. I also didn’t have anything else to do on the evenings that I wasn’t working. There were ten people in the group, all older than me, and a therapist called Elsie. She spoke like she was unwrapping something fragile and puzzling. Name something you tended to in the last week, she said. She looked around, waited. Helena, whose mother had died without anyone letting her know, said that she had a new spider plant. She pulled at some turquoise bracelets around her wrist, rearranged her Indian scarves. It’s adaptable and hard to destroy, like me, she said.
Melissa, who sat next to Helena, cleared her throat. None of Melissa’s children spoke to her because she’d had addictions. Some people say that I have ‘too many’—she did air quotes—cats.
She carried on speaking in her flat voice. Her undyed orange-white roots sat like a cap on her dark hair. She was wearing an oversized T-shirt that said Bad Bitch. She caught me staring at her and her eyes narrowed. Elsie turned to me.
What about you, Orpa?
I can’t think of anything, I said. It’s been bad.
I started talking about Kal, and everyone began shifting in their seats.
At work, I watched the leopard, its fat paws cycling the air as it began to dream. It usually fell asleep again after eating. I got up and went out for my first toilet break—we were allowed two on a ten-hour shift. On the seat I stared at the pink fissured tiles of the cubicle floor, my phone warm in my hand. I waited for Kal to apologise or declare his love or explain or pretend that nothing had happened and that I should come upstairs. The party was only a few days away. I did not plan to reply straight away but I wanted to know exactly when he texted, so that I could speculate on how he felt when he did it. Sometimes I thought I was asleep and dreaming like the leopard. Brightly lit scenes overlapped until I realised that my eyes were still open and the phone had slipped from my hand onto the floor.
As I left the cubicle, I noticed there was a new poster on the wall next to the row of sinks. Abstractly good-looking men and women made the word Soteria with their bodies. They had exuberant teeth and hair, as if they worked those out along with their muscles. Day people.
Two years ago, Martin had asked me at the interview: can your body do unnatural things? Will anyone at home miss you? Are you a vegetarian or a vegan? I had said yes, no and no. You’ll be perfect for the night shift, he said.
On the way out of the toilets, I passed the large mirror. I closed my eyes for fear of seeing my reflection, or not seeing one at all.
Whenever I left a therapy session, I became a thin membrane permeable to all feelings. That was how I first met Kal, just outside our building. We’d come home at the same time every week and he was always slightly drunk. Eventually, he asked me to come upstairs. His flat was much bigger than the one I shared with a mostly absent housemate. The few pieces of furniture were tasteful and had long, complicated backstories. The expensively framed pictures on the wall had the elusive air of private jokes. He was borrowing it—the place belonged to a rising theatre actor, a friend of his, whose name I had googled weeks earlier from stray post.
But Kal came from money, or seemed to have it. It was evident from his well-cut clothes and the way he referenced obscure books and films, as if being earnest or unknowledgeable about them was equally embarrassing. Other times, he exuded the confidence of someone who knew he would always be listened to no matter how far-fetched he sounded. Crouched on the floor, he showed me squats that improved the lizard brain. He smiled magnanimously before getting up and gesturing to the back of his head. My instincts, he would say. That’s what makes me an artist.
I didn’t know whether he was insane or I was just cynical and unambitious. He left photographs of himself with famous people around the flat, but I would only know they were famous after he told me. I should meet his friends, he had said once. It wasn’t normal for a young woman to be so friendless. There’s a party soon, you should come.
But I’m not lonely, I had replied. I like going in a different direction from other people in the morning.
One day you’ll have an epiphany, he said. You’ll realise it’s too late to go back.
But I ended up visiting him most evenings after therapy. I had never had someone so charismatic be interested in my thoughts and I didn’t like being by myself at night. After sex, he told me more than once that I would be beautiful if it wasn’t for my nose. He dissected me like a specimen. That was his way of paying attention.
I took the night off to go to the party. It was on the other side of town in an industrial building. I hadn’t seen or heard from Kal since taking the money. By the time I had made it up the wide industrial-blue staircase, I was sweating. Working at night had made me nervous around crowds having a good time. I had two personalities—one that belonged in the dark staring at grainy monitors and another that couldn’t sleep—and I couldn’t be either with other people. When I pushed open the double doors, lurid faces gaped out of the semi-darkness.
Kal was standing in the corner, holding a drink. From across the room, he appeared noticeably older than everyone else. He was in his early thirties, but vague about it. I went to the makeshift bar and bought a coke, which I filled with vodka from the flask in my bag. I poured in more than I wanted but there was nowhere to tip it. There were women and men scattered along the sides, the middle of the giant room still sparse. I took small sips as I approached Kal. He turned away and then turned back when faced with the wall. He looked possessed by the ghost of someone light-hearted.
Are you with anyone? he asked, looking around.
No, I said.
A tall woman walked towards us. She was probably the same age as me. Her clothes were smoky grey and pale green, old paint colours. Her dark hair fell to one side and streamed over her loose silky shirt. This is Orpa, he said to her. She’s my neighbour. Temporarily.
The woman took the drink from his hand. I’m Artemis, she said.
What do you do? I asked.
What do I do? she laughed. I didn’t know whether she was laughing at me or herself. What about you? What do you do?
I’m a security guard, I said.
She looked me up and down. You don’t look like one. No one’s just a security guard, she said. Are they?
I’m a remote security guard, I said. The most interesting thing I could say about myself was also the most personally embarrassing, but her attention was too compelling to stop. There’s a pet leopard in one of the mansions I oversee. It’s owned by a rich family but they’re always away. They can’t travel with it.
Her black-winged eyes saddened. That sounds awful. I saw a documentary about illegal exotic pets in Britain. The owners take out the teeth and claws. If it was me, she said, I’d let it escape. I just couldn’t do a job like that.
It’s well looked after, I said. A handler visits it every day. I repeated what the management had told me.
Poor leopard, she said. She touched her long single earring as if to check whether it was still there. Hopefully we’ll chat more next time. She smiled, handing me her empty plastic cup before moving across the room. Kal didn’t notice the cup. He kept watching as she stopped to greet people, air kissing and throwing her arms up.
How insecure do you have to be to pretend to be that happy? I asked, my voice rising involuntarily.
She doesn’t feel like she’s giving anything away by being nice, he said. He took my drink away from me.
It’s fine, I said. I don’t need to drink as much now to get drunk. I’m drinking less.
He was still looking at her. The bass vibrated in my chest. I want to like her, I shouted over the music.
She can be a bit mad sometimes, Kal said. He said mad in an excited way.
You never seemed that excited about me being mad, I said.
Outside, the pavement was bright with tiny gas canisters. I sat on the curb with my head between my knees. The lights in the trees made holes in the darkness. A nearby bus shelter flashed up a charity advert: ARE YOU MISSING? I watched more people going in through the side door of the building. Waiting outside, tight circles of friends drank furtively and talked over one another. They seemed to be exaggerating their own happiness because I was so miserable, as though we were on a see-saw and one of me was the weight of all of them. Their evenings were only beginning.
Artemis’s voice floated above me.
Does she need a taxi?
When I looked up, she was pulling her coat tighter. It was soft and diamond-patterned, one that couldn’t suit everything else in a wardrobe.
Why would I need a taxi? I asked.
Do you know anyone here? Did you come on your own? she asked. Can you get her a taxi?
Kal was now next to her, tapping his phone. Then he walked me to the corner where the car was waiting. You can pay me back later, he said. Don’t fuck up my rating.
The following night, every few minutes—or what felt like it, the time on the monitor seemed unchanging—my gripslackened on the controller and my eyes closed. Visions of Artemis and Kal multiplied like a split screen in my mind, until I forced myself up and went to the kitchen.
Back at my desk, I alternated between a giant mug of lumpy instant coffee and a super-sized can of Red Bull. On the camera feed, the leopard was stretched out, its breathing long and even in my headphones. I envied anything that could sleep with impunity. Daylight eventually edged in through the strip blinds of the office. The mansion grounds started paling on the monitor. I scribbled my handover notes with relief: leopard undisturbed, foxes quiet. As I finished, a thump came through the headphones.
A hollow thump. Insistent. The noise was coming from the basement. The egress door was swinging back and forth. Every time a gale came, it clanged wide open. I keyed in the digits, hands shaking, and remotely closed it. It shut slowly and noiselessly. The basement looked empty, leopard-less—I could not remember the animal waking.
The key rule of remote monitoring, which I had asterisked in my copy of the work manual, was, Don’t keep looking in the same place. My heartbeat drowned out the headphones, waves of chemical-smelling heat rose from my skin. I switched to the mansion grounds. They were flat and featureless in the daylight, the pool a grey block. Nothing. I returned to the mansion interior.
The leopard was walking across the basement, where it had been hiding all along. It flattened its ears and sniffed the alien air that had briefly flooded the room. You’re safer in there, I said. Just doing my job. But the clank of the open door echoed in my ears all the way home.
In a dream, I saw leopards poised at dusk in a clearing above the city. They moved in time to crashes that seemed to come from both outside and inside the flat. Their irises shone so brightly that the towers below glittered. When I woke up, I heard furniture being moved upstairs, shouting down the stairwell, a car engine starting up. Outside, Artemis was placing holdalls into the boot of a taxi. Kal came out of the building. It was the first time I’d seen him since the party, a month earlier. She waved him into the back seat. He didn’t look around or up at the windows before he left. I wondered what kind of person I would have to be before I could tell him what to do.
When I left for work, hooked to the outside door handle of my flat was a thin blue carrier bag full of underwear that I couldn’t remember losing.
The following night, I returned to the cafe that I had spent whole days in after dropping out of the nearby university. I used to watch men and sometimes women going into the small, scruffy building opposite. Often they were in couples. There was no sign, only a window display of plastic grey columns set out to look like ancient Greek ruins. In three years, it hadn’t changed. Apart from people entering and leaving the place, the street was deserted. I sat in the window of the cafe, waiting.
When the owner began turning up chairs, I left and crossed the road, looked around to see if anyone was watching me approach the building. But most of the shops and restaurants that had filled the street were shuttered or vacant, their fronts graffitied and blank.
Only four people were allowed in at a time, the sign on the entrance said. Inside, a queue of three men waited to pay at a counter at the end of the narrow lobby. I closed the door behind me and joined the line. A small woman in a navy fleece took the customers’ cards and handed out towels. Cold air blasted in as another man opened the main door. He was tall with small, friendly eyes. He stood behind me as the queue cleared and the men disappeared through the doors that led to the facilities.
Do you have a booking? the woman asked. We only take bookings. She peered over me and the man, into the empty lobby. Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. It’s ten pounds for the sauna.
It’s cheaper if you come as a couple, the man whispered as she waited.
I ignored him and took the thin-looking towel.
I stepped through the double doors into a wide corridor tiled like the bottom of a swimming pool. The ladies’ lockers are that way, the man said, halting behind me for a few seconds.
The changing room was huge and clean. The light was yellow-green. There was a vending machine in the corner. I wondered what the other women who came here were like. I took off my dress behind the wall of lockers, scraped my hair into a bun. With the towel wrapped tightly around my torso, I felt like a puffed-up little woodpigeon.
Further down the corridor there were several closed doors. The last one I arrived at had a hand-written notice stuck on it: ‘Steam Room—Keep Shut. TWO AT A TIME.’ Inside there were two benches. I sat on the lower one next to a wrinkled copy of yesterday’s Metro. I read quickly: a Pomeranian snatched on Hampstead Heath by an unidentified creature; a hotline for exotic animal sightings; old-fashioned horoscopes with threats and telephone numbers. Sweat rolled down from my forehead and stung my upper lip. The door opened. The man from the queue stood there. He clambered onto the bench behind me. It creaked as he sidled along and deposited his weight.
Your heart will explode, he said. I drew the paper closer, but the sweat on my eyelids made my vision swim. If you’re here longer than ten minutes, your heart will explode, he repeated.
Okay, I replied.
There was a long silence and we both laughed, but I didn’t know why.
Your body’s all tense, he said, after a minute. I can see the knots from here. Do you want me to get them out? He got up and stood at the door, looking away as though he was already preoccupied with other options. I put the newspaper aside, the Pisces horoscope floating—The night is a portal into which you enter with strangers. Why not? I said.
I followed him down some steps further along the corridor. In the small room, the man and I only looked at each other briefly before I turned my back to him. He placed his hands on my shoulder blades and all I could hear were his rough palms shifting on my back. He skimmed down to my legs. I said that I wanted to sit in his lap instead. He said yes and then sat on one of the slim benches that lined the wall. He took a condom from his towelled bathrobe. I slid onto him and he closed his eyes as if I had commanded him to do so. My head was full of a solid, compressed blankness. I had no expectations or emotions, only sensations. I moved faster and then came listening to myself. He said to go back on the bed, and onto my knees. He pushed up against me. My knees ground into the grooves of the thin hard bed. Everything was in focus—the down on my arms, the pockmarked wall. I wondered if my splayed wrists would ever turn the right way back. The man sometimes made a noise. The pain began to bore me. It’s starting to hurt, I said.
He pulled out. I turned over as he drew himself up, raised his shoulders. The narrow door was blocked by his height. Look at me, he said. Didn’t you realise it was going to hurt?
No, I said. I wrapped the towel around myself as he put on the robe again.
Is that it then? You’re easily pleased, he said.
What’s wrong with that? I asked.
He opened the door, followed me out. His steps veered off and I went back to the changing room. After having a shower in the tiny white cubicle, I sat on the bench. My palms had pink indentations. The pure, blank feeling from knowing exactly what I wanted was gone. Whatever was dark and massing underneath rose in its place. I pulled on my clothes, which chafed against my damp skin and felt dirty. I drafted a text to Kal: tell me what I did wrong. I checked my spam for warm, personalised greetings.
My phone rang a second after—it was Martin from the office. The air conditioner hummed in the background of the call.
Are you free for cover? We’re short tonight. I know you’re probably busy, out on the town… Martin liked to imagine that everyone but him was having a good time. I pinned my ID to my shirt. I went up to the empty vending machine. A little light blinked on and off. The coils gleamed. In the fridge at work, I had samosas and yoghurt dip.
Martin called me into his office at the end of the week for the compulsory redundancy assessment. His office was a boardroom during the day. He sat at the end of a long table, with the Soteria poster behind him. As he went through his notes I stared through the white frosted glass into the half-empty control room. There were only a few guards left. It was as if the vacant buildings we oversaw were trying to shape us in their reflection. Refracted, they looked like a shadow play.
Do you have a rich wife? Martin asked, looking up.
No, I said.
Well, the ones with rich wives took the voluntary redundancies. There’s the day shift. An admin position’s opened up. Of course, you’ll still have to interview. It’s that or compulsory redundancy.
Who’ll look after the leopard? I asked. The other guards used to play tricks on it over the intercom.
Don’t worry about that, Martin said. You could do admin on days. Can you use the Microsoft package?
I’m proficient in the Microsoft package, I said. Is it that easy to go onto days? I asked, looking at the poster of the men and women. I now imagined their bodies forming the words proficient in Microsoft. I thought it would be harder, I said. I thought it was a progression. People never usually transfer from the night shift to the day shift.
After a while, they don’t want to, Martin said. He shrugged. It’s only a job in the end, whenever you do it, he said.
The tree canopies outside the window of the therapy room were ragged and brown and whenever Melissa paused we could hear them stirring. I gave away some of my cats last week, she said. To good homes for free. I miss those cats. Every time something bad happened with the children—money being sent back, no Christmas visit—I’d get a new one.
You had a breakthrough, Elsie said.
Melissa looked up. I don’t know if I believe in breakthroughs, she said.
A sign, maybe, Helena said.
I call it an insight when I have them. A little insight. And afterwards I thought I’m coming here tomorrow, Melissa said. I’m not alone. I’m going to be with people who care about me.
The woman and man on either side of her put their hands on her shoulders. It was agreed that we would not touch each other, even to give comfort, but Elsie didn’t intervene. Melissa returned the gestures, patted each hand. It seemed unfair that people who didn’t even believe in breakthroughs were having them.
I’ve decided to get a new job, I said. On days. I’m no longer on the night shift.
Everyone turned to me.
Wonderful, Helen murmured.
I could see that they were pleased that I was no longer talking about Kal, but they did not understand the significance of the job.
Do you feel like that’s a breakthrough in how you’re managing the estrangement? Elsie asked.
I was given an interview date. The nights passed like tunnels in a slow-moving car, but my travels between the vending machine and the desk had a new buoyancy, a can-do energy, even though the office was now always quiet. The remaining guards in the office watched their desks as closely as they did their screens. Although I hated them, it seemed best to be discreet. There was also no one to share the news with.
One evening, the hollow thump from weeks earlier came into my headphones. The egress door was slamming back and forth in the winds. I locked it and checked the feed—the basement was empty. The room was enormous; the animal had many hiding places. I waited for it to reappear, swaying across the concrete. Nothing. Martin walked through, but I didn’t call him over. I wrote door still broken, urgent in the handover notes and then crossed it out. An hour passed, two hours.
The grounds lit up bright white at dusk. The leopard was racing towards the swimming pool, its movement triggering the floodlights. I had never seen the animal run before. It slowed and stopped to lap at the water. Then it began circling the mansion periphery. My mouth dried, my thoughts scattered. I had always imagined setting the leopard free to make up for the months that I had watched it pace the empty room. In my visions, it ran for miles and emerged in a city or the woods. But I didn’t even know whether the house was in London or anywhere near a city. If I called the helpline, what would I say?
I heard its rough, hacking call, a cry running through it like wire. The leopard was now roaming the back of the mansion, searching for the sunken steps that led to the basement. When it found them, it ran down and halted at the locked egress door. It reared up against it, its front claws scraping and digging into the metal. After a few minutes, the animal detached itself and dropped on all fours. It crouched as if to leap at the door, but instead it lay down, and waited to be let inside again.
The interview was held on the top floor of a glass building in the middle of town. This office looked the same as the other one, except there were more women and people moved faster to fill the time. No one mentioned what happened with the leopard—it was understood that I was free to start on any date. My cuffs were distractingly white and the interviewer winked at me before I left. I waited for her to call. I got up earlier in the afternoons. I went to bed as soon as I got home. I tried to meditate but every time I got to the part where I could think my own thoughts, my head filled with the screech and hiss of heavy machinery. I knew things were going to change for the better, even if I was the only person who cared that they did. I started taking long walks instead. I said hello to my neighbours, even the ones who clutched their carefully styled children close as I passed. I took actionable steps. I stopped drinking. I set up a debt repayment plan. More animal sightings were reported in the Evening Standard. I made a note of the exotic pets rescue line. I thought about volunteering and began wondering what it would be like to have things to lose, like a serious person. After the interviewer called me with the good news, I phoned my parents. They sounded confused, firstly by who I was, and secondly, by what the news had to do with them. My mother hung up quickly, saying that she had to cook dinner for the dog. When everything seemed pointless in the face of actual feeling, I recalled my new mantra. I can only save myself.
I gathered strength. Kal finally texted me back. He asked me to come over. My new regimen was working—it was sending signs into the universe that I was self-sufficient, which was exactly when people wanted you most.