Sally Donovan was straight, always had been. Straight talking, calling a spade a spade, a freak a freak. A straight copper, no dodgy business. Playing it by the rules, no-one loved mavericks, well, not black, female mavericks.
Though she wasn't all straight, of course. She'd never straightened her hair, that would be running away from herself. And not exactly strait-laced anymore, not like when she and her mother went along to the Church of God of Prophecy every Sunday and Wednesday. Good job her mother never heard about Anderson. In the police, it was hard to get to know anyone but colleagues and lowlife, but combining the two had been a serious mistake.
It had been about an hour into their first interview, conversation, that Ella had said she was a lesbian. Sally had made some stupid joke about whether she was disabled as well, tick off all the quotas in one person. Ella said nothing for a while, she was good at that. And then she said that maintaining boundaries was important, and she was always careful not to let her sexuality make her straight friends feel uncomfortable.
Ella did straighten her hair sometimes, but she wasn't running away from herself. An impressive woman, Ella. Sally wondered for the first time whether it might be good to be slightly bent.
Ella always studied her clients’ service records carefully, almost memorised them, so she knew about the three years of her life Sally didn’t mention. But Sally wasn’t a client anymore, but a friend, maybe something more. Ella didn’t ask and Sally didn’t tell, till the day when Ella mentioned Mozart, and Sally said:
“Miss Thorpe tried to get me into him.”
“My geography teacher.”
Ella said nothing.
“It was all part of teaching me about culture. Seeking out the best, she said, nothing should be off limits.”
Keep quiet a little longer, thought Ella.
“You know where I went to uni, don’t you?”
“It’s very impressive,“ Ella replied, “Not many black women get to Cambridge.”
“Down to Miss Thorpe. I was drifting, Mum talked about sending me ‘back home’ to school, as if Jamaica was my home. Then Miss Thorpe made me her project. She told me what to read and to do, there was a mentoring scheme. And I got lucky at the interview.”
“And you hated it?”
“Yes, no. A bit. Made some friends, did some fun stuff. But the posh white boys were wearing. Three years were enough, it wasn’t really me.”
The psychologist in Ella that never quite shut down, even with a friend, made a mental note: Sally is ambivalent about her own brilliance.
There were voices that automatically got Sally’s hackles up: smooth, confident voices, that told you their owner was in charge, and you weren't. She wished Ella’s voice wasn’t like that.
“My accent distracted my clients,” Ella replied. Smoothly, of course. “I’m there to be a mirror for them as much as anything, if they’re too conscious of me as a person, it can be unhelpful.”
“What’s wrong with a West Indian accent?”
“Nothing. I didn’t have one. I had a Brummie accent, pure Berming-gum. People used to ask me if I was related to Lenny Henry. If I wanted to get somewhere, I had to change it. Now it seems faked if I talk in my old voice.”
Ella’s smoothness was hard won, of course, that was the difference between her and the posh boys. The accent, the clothes, the education that marked her out as a professional appeared natural now. You’d never guess that she’d had to fight to get herself qualified, not drop out of college, make a success of her life. Unless you knew that Ella was 37 and had a grown-up son.
There were some lines now on Ella's smooth, almost polished skin, but she still looked gorgeous. Sally found herself wondering, more and more, if Ella would still be quite so smooth, so polished, in bed.