What would you talk about if you were stuck in a room with a drug dealer for five days?
Meet Magda – hardcore drug-dealing queen, or guardian angel? She is one of the new wave of Polish immigrants to the UK, a woman who will stop at nothing to expand her drug dealing business, and will even make the ultimate sacrifice of the people who love and trust her.
Already established as a major drug importer to the UK, Magda has to return to Poland to attend a funeral of a family member. She only has five days, before she goes back to London, to convince her mysterious listener to come back with her and help her build up her empire.
Magda begins to tell the unexpected story of her life – the cover jobs in London, the strained relationship with her family who know nothing about who Magda really is, and her development as a cannabis dealer. Can you really trust somebody who is two people, how do you know when to believe a professional liar? … Menacing, fast-paced, with a unique and intense voice, A.M. Bakalar’s first novel reveals unexpected truths about the lies we all tell and the people we really are.
Praise for Madame Mephisto
‘The book was fun…Magda makes some great observations about Britain and is pretty scathing about the Polish and their culture.’ Guardian - Among the readers recommendations to the Guardian First Book Award
‘A darkly-comic account of a Polish immigrant’s experiences in London.’ Lucy Popescu, Huffington Post
‘Reading and loving Madame Mephisto by A.M. Bakalar. Exceptional book.’ Deon Meyer, author of Thirteen Hours, Dead at Daybreak (shortlisted for The Sunday Times literary Prize), Trackers (shortlisted for CWA International Dagger Award)
‘Madame Mephisto shows how both totalitarianism and theocracy oppress women and infantilize men. Bakalar…captures how isolating London can be for newcomers.’ Max Liu, The Times Literary Supplement
‘I found the book more moving and funnier than I expected though I was sometimes irritated by Magda’s destructiveness and slightly alarmed by the author’s detailed knowledge of the cannabis trade…It’s well done though, and the voice comes through strongly, drawing you into Magda’s world.’ A Discount Ticket to Everywhere
‘Polish fiction / British Polish fiction…a new line of fiction like windrush’ Winstonsdad’s Blog
‘Bakalar…has a sharp eye for detail, be it the business of smuggling or the tragi-comedy of the migrant experience…a very promising debut novel’ To Be Read
‘Intriguing read.’ Bibliotheca
‘Impressive debut novel...Madame Mephisto touches on the worlds of international crime, corporate culture, globalization and immigration and deftly manages to explore what has and hasn’t changed in Polish social mores since the end of communism through a vivid portrait of Magda’s family.’ Literalab
‘Magda is a sum of all Polish grievances and frustrations and an interesting study on self-destruction.’ Book Snob
‘A very powerful account of the liberating and sometimes bitter experience of living abroad.’ CaféBabelBerlin
‘Punchy debut…Mouthpiece of new Poland or amoral ballbreaker? … what’s most striking about the book is its vigour and the curious charisma of Magda herself. Balakar has created a contemporary anti-heroine with a heart of pure titanium.’ Bookoxygen
‘A.M. Bakalar created a memorable anti-heroine, worth adapting to the big screen…fantastic first novel!’ Literati
Back at my London house I dropped the bag on the floor and, without taking my coat off, I went to the basement where I grew the weed. The lights were still on. I breathed, relieved. I still had around half an hour before the timer automatically switched the lights off; after that I would not be able to go inside the room. I inspected the plants. They had enough water in their pots. Jerome had left me a note on the small table where I kept gardening tools, scissors, gloves, a watering can and bottles of organic fertilizer. ‘Look under the leaves. Spider mite infestation?’ I kneeled next to the plant closest to me and gently twisted each leaf. I could not find anything and I sighed with relief. I looked at the second plant. Then I saw them. Tiny, white crawling dots, under the leaves. I looked closer and saw a very delicate web between individual twigs. Not good. And I did not have enough time before the timer switched the lights off in the room so I took out as many plants as I could. Outside the garden room I called Jerome.
‘You were right. Tell me what to do,’ I said.
‘Isolate all the sick plants. Mix one-to-one pure alcohol with water and wipe each leaf. If you can soak them in water in a bathtub, upside down, or spray them, it should kill the spider mites.’
‘It must be from the cuttings I got from Andreas.’
‘Possibly. Do you want me to come over?’ he asked. We would probably end up having sex but I wanted to get rid of the bugs so I said no.
‘Okay. Call me if you need help.’
You see, that was my first lesson. When you bring cuttings from other people into your own garden there is a danger of bug or spider infestations. And the soil, of course. You must be careful with the type of the dirt you use. It is best to buy organic dirt and limit the exposure to various germs, bugs, worms and caterpillars that may be hibernating in there. The moisture and temperature make it the perfect environment for those nasties to wake up. Andreas has been my constant and reliable supplier of cuttings and seeds for the past few years. I met him through Jerome and I trust him. Now I make my own cuttings from the plants I grow but at times I need to experiment with other strains. Andreas is Dutch and thanks to him I have access to competition weed. Once a year, in November, the Cannabis Cup is held in Amsterdam. Andreas, Jerome and I meet at the venue in Amsterdam as travelling together can be too risky. That is how I got Black Widow and White Widow but what I grow now is mostly Cheese. It is the most popular strain among my clients, especially among the City workers. It is a milder smoke and the City workers do not like Jamaican Sensi, a much stronger strain and harsher on the throat, popular among my West Indians clients. Jerome sells most of my Jamaican Sensi production.
I have not told you much about my clients because I still don’t know if you will come back with me to London after the funeral. If you do, I would like you to get involved in the business eventually. It has been growing quite nicely, not without problems, mind you. I could use a reliable pair of hands. We have started planning for three more underground containers. You could learn so much from Piotrek.
Now that I think of it, you could be my perfect legal front. At the moment it is only me who deals with the lawyer I mentioned earlier. I do not involve anybody else. Piotrek is a good worker on the ground but the legal front of keeping my production clean I leave in the hands of the professionals. Besides, the lawyer, who I reward well for his services and silence, knows exactly which customs officer, policeman or judge to buy. Yes, everybody has a price. We all want to live a better life. If it involves looking the other way or directing the attention of sniffer dogs to somebody else’s vehicle when the cars transporting cannabis cross the border, it is ultimately a small request in exchange for a generous flow of wads of bills. It’s human nature. Money usually does the business, threats less so. Still, from time to time you find a staunch believer in the letter of law, but there is hardly anybody who would not do anything to protect their family. A small threat to the lives of others usually gives me what I want. But you do not have to worry about that side of the business. It will not be your concern, not in the beginning at least.
Crime is a risk analysis and I reward generously for protection. Loyalty, even if bought, is a powerful ally.
Now, let’s leave the story about my clients for later. I know you would like to hear about them but first things first. I promise I will come back to that.
That day I took care of all the sick plants.
The next day I started my new cover job in the Department of Health as an assistant to Campbell, a civil servant, a head of the project. The rumour was that if he was successful he could become a minister one day.
I had never worked in the public sector before, let alone a government department. Walking every day on Whitehall, between the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence, before entering the swing door that leads into the Department of Health, opposite the Foreign Office, had a certain appeal; it gave me a feeling of belonging, of being one of the few who could make a difference in society. I thought my mother would be proud of me, but instead she only asked me how long it would be before I antagonised somebody and moved to work somewhere else. So I told her lying stories that this time everything would be different. It was the first job of which Alicja wholeheartedly approved.
I must say there was also another, more enticing, element to my working for the British government. You see, unfortunately it is still illegal to sell weed in the UK and I thought that this new job offered me a nice cover. After I passed all the security checks I was pleased that the British secret services deemed me a good citizen, worthy of being trusted to work in the public services. Sweet!