Father Bernardo Argenti was about to die.
He was sitting on his heels on open ground with his knees spread wide. His legs were starting to ache from the unaccustomed posture as he was no longer young. His head was bowed, almost touching the ground beneath him. He could feel the blades of grass touching his face, stroking him as if to give comfort. His hands were tied behind his back. There were two men sitting in the same way on his right. He was the first in the line of men. Bernardo was a tall, thin man: gaunt. His skin stretched over his old bones like parchment in an old book. His looks reflected his ascetic life, his simple foods, his lack of excess. It was late June. The weather was hot but not sunny in spite of the hour, just after ten. The sky was white, overcast, almost as if glowering at what was taking place. He was not cold in his simple priest’s robe. A huge crowd had gathered around the three prone figures. There was talking, muttering, rumbling on, occasional shouts. Father Bernardo knew what was about to happen. He was not afraid. He felt calm.
After all, his entire life in the priesthood had been preparing him for this moment: the moment of death. He had always had faith. He could not remember a time when he doubted. He had known instinctively that there was God, that the Christian way was right for him. It was what he was sent to earth for. He had felt this as a child in Italy. His mind drifted to those early idyllic days in Puglia where he had been born. In his memory the sun always shone. They were poor, rural dirt poor but he had felt no lack. They had a garden, almost a smallholding, where his mother grew vegetables and grapes. He remembered squatting under the vines, searching for creatures in the soil, wondering at them. He remembered his mother’s voice, calling him in for dinner. There had been wonderful food: home-made crusty bread, hearty stews and soups, fruits. His mind summoned his mother’s face, lined and kindly, not quite beautiful, but warm. Here was love, not showy, not gleaming but real. Soon he would see her. This thought warmed him. He missed her with a long, dull ache. She had died long ago shortly after he had entered the seminary. He felt peaceful. He prayed simply inside his head.
Dear God, Forgive me my sins.
He prayed this over and over. He had no doubt. Jesus came into Bernardo’s mind just as he always did in times of trouble. He appeared to the priest just as he did in the Italian Renaissance paintings, dressed in a white robe with his arms outstretched. His hair was long and brown and his face was smiling at Bernardo. A feeling of greater peace descended upon the priest and a voice in his head seemed to tell him that everything would be all right. It seemed to come from deep within Bernardo.
Everything would be all right.
He was to be a martyr for the Christian faith. He would have riches in Heaven. He would see God. Bernardo thought of all those who had gone before him, all who had died for their faith over the long centuries. The modern world seemed far away. Here was still the ancient conflict between the Christians and the people of other faiths. Nothing had really changed for centuries. Somewhere in the distance he sensed he could hear birdsong. He was glad about that. He tried to focus on the birdsong and not on the shouts of the men.
One of the rebels stepped forward. He was a Jihadi, originally a Chechen. If you asked him he would say he was fighting for Allah, to see the Caliphate brought into being; an Islamic state stretching across the world. Nobody did ask him. But really he was fighting for himself. He loved the thrill of war, the glory in violence, the power, the primal urge in him to destroy others, to make himself more while making others less. This was what he understood. This was his element. He was born to rage. The Chechen was named Abbas Khasanov, from the northern plains of Chechnya, a rolling land, almost desert: the Nogay Steppe. Dressed in a woollen dark robe he almost looked like a monk himself, yet a wild, debauched monk, grown fat on too much meat and bread. His beard, long, dark, straggling stretched almost to his knees. His narrow eyes glinted with delight at what he was about to do. Indeed, at a glance one would say Abbas had a madness in him, nurtured by too much killing, too much blood. In his hand he held a simple knife with a long blade. It had seen death before, no longer at its sharpest.
Unlike the priest he was about to kill, Abbas did not think about the past. He had always known toughness. As a child he had been a shepherd boy, living in a hut with no running water, no comfort, nothing soft. He didn’t ever think of the rugged terrain of his homeland, of the sheep roaming to look for the rough grass. He didn’t think of his cold mother and his distant father. Abbas had never felt love. As a young man had joined the Georgian army and things had gone well for him for a time. He learned the art of war, how to kill. He learned stealth and he took pleasure in it. Abbas did not know the love of a woman though he had slept with whores. Women had little interest for him. He had been discharged from the army due to tuberculosis which he had miraculously survived. Things fell apart. There was no job for him, no purpose. So he found a way to Syria, to glorious Jihad. He grew his beard long. His reasons for fighting had little to do with Islam, all to do with the thrill of the fight. Before Syria he had rarely thought of Syria or of his Muslim faith. He was good at what he did.
Abbas Khasanov leaned forward quickly and grasped the back of Father Bernardo’s head with one hand while with the other he started to hack at the back of the priest’s neck. At first the blade went in easily, cutting through the soft skin. Then the work became harder as the knife hit bone and cartilage. It was tough going even for a powerful man like Abbas to work through this. He sawed this way and that for several minutes. Bernardo made no sound. The low hum of the crowd began to be louder as they shouted in unison:
“Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!”
Over and over again, the same shout. No sound from Father Bernardo. The sawing continued. The blood pooled around the priest. The head finally came loose from the body and was held up by Abbas for the appreciation of the crowd.
The noise of the crowd swelled:
“Allah Akhbar! Allah Akhbar!”
The men of the crowd, and indeed they were all men, raised their mobile phones and clicked photos of the event. There was whirring, beeping and flashing.
The head was laid on the grass.
The face of the priest stared up unseeingly.
The birds were still singing.
Manchester 30th September 2011
That was the day my life started. Or re-started. The day I woke up. The day I first saw him. The day fate dropped him into my life like an over-ripe apple. The day I thought nothing of at the time but which was to change everything. The day I was becoming…becoming someone new.
Rain hitting the pavement so hard it ricocheted back up to soak you again from the other direction.
It had rained all day.
Grey, louring sky, grey pavements scarred with chewing gum, grey concrete tower blocks, grey people.
The kind of rain that soaks you to the bones, that gets right into you and chills you, the kind that makes you shiver. The kind of rain that would kill you if you were a delicate maiden in a Victorian novel. Not that I was a delicate maiden. Anything but. I thought of myself as tough. I had been tempered by this city into cold steel. It was the kind of rain that made me want to up sticks and go and live somewhere sunny: anywhere. Spain or Greece or one of those places you see on TV. I hadn’t ever been abroad. One day, one day I would manage this. Leave Manchester behind. Become an export.
So what else was new in Manchester? It seemed to be always raining that year. Being me I had come out unprepared. I had no waterproof coat, no umbrella, no hat. The rain had saturated my dark red hair, flattening it to my head and was dribbling down my neck. I raised the collar of my battered black leather jacket ineffectually against the deluge.
‘I bet I look a right mess,’ I thought.
I couldn’t face the library feeling like this. It was going to be horrible, sitting there, steaming away in my soaked clothes. I needed to go home. No, I needed to drink something warm first. Grasping this thought I headed for the university coffee bar which was in the basement of a tower block on the University of Manchester campus. I was studying computer science. It was boring but I had high hopes my degree, if I ever got it, would stand me in good stead for a job, a ticket out of here. I wasn’t really friends with any of the nerd crew as I thought of the people on my course. The arts students were more fun, devil-may-care, more like me. The coffee shop was not exactly pleasant but cheap and full of my own kind. It was safe and there wasn’t much chance of being chatted up by passing chancers trying their luck with me. I might bump into one of my fellow students to talk to, one of my so-called friends. Company would be good today. I made the lift before the doors shut. There were two young male students in there and an old pewter haired lecturer who avoided my gaze. The boys eyed me up in that leering way some males of the species have about them. Cocky. I stared straight ahead and was relieved when the doors opened at basement level. Being in enclosed spaces with the opposite sex made me feel uncomfortable for no real reason. Nothing really bad had happened to me but I was wary. I had learned to look out for myself, to avoid gazes, to appear more confident than I felt. I had had to. I had grown up in this city, right in the centre, in Hulme, which until recently had been widely regarded as a no go area. Hulme, where the flotsam and jetsam of Manchester lived, those washed up on its shores, too feckless to get anywhere better. It was a place of immigrants but not new immigrants, really a place of second generation incomers, West Indians and Irish. It made me think of those signs you saw on TV, on pubs in the sixties: No blacks, no Irish, no dogs. Well Hulme was the opposite: plenty of blacks, Irish and dogs. Hulme, where even the cabbies wouldn’t go after dark, making you get out at the corner and walk the rest of the way home. Hulme, where the idiots I went to school with drive around in four by fours with blacked out windows, pretending they were Al Capone though they still lived with their mothers. They were making more money now than I probably would in a life-time. Now Hulme was gentrifying, full of gay men in spick and span apartments who wanted to be close to the centre and the gay village they adored. It was changing. Everything was changing. Manchester was changing. I was changing.
At the counter I ordered a hot chocolate from the server and looked around for someone I knew. Thankfully, I spied Abigail sitting on her own staring into her mobile phone. Abigail, Abbie, was the closest I had to a real friend at university: Best mates.
Her face lightened when she saw me.
‘Molly, Oh my God you are here. You look SO wet. You have saved me from terminal boredom.’
I smiled back and pulled one of the orange plastic chairs from another table to sit on. I wiped away someone else’s muffin crumbs and collapsed onto it. I took a swig of the hot chocolate and felt grateful for the warm richness sliding down into me. It was just what I needed. I inhaled the pleasant smells around me: fresh coffee and baked goods. I spread my legs wide in that unladylike way I had about me and settled back into the chair.
‘So what’s new in Abbie world?’ I said.
‘Oh Molly, I’ve been so stupid AGAIN. You know how I really like Jack. Well I went to Rockworld, you know to see if he was there and like of course he wasn’t. So I just thought what the fuck let’s just get drunk so I did. So Jason was there. I mean, my God, I don’t even like Jason but I was like so drunk so of course I go back to his flat and all his mates are there in the living room drinking Jack Daniels and pretending they are Nirvana, Well, they are all losers so of course we go in the bedroom and I am SO drunk. So I’m lying there and he says to me he wants me to walk down his back with red heels on. He actually got these scarlet stilettos out of the wardrobe. I mean, really. So I actually did it. Can you believe? How much of an idiot am I? I mean that was the foreplay, we won’t talk about the main act because it really was NOT that memorable.’
She paused for breath and stroked her hair down waiting for my opinion, her hands fluttering around betraying her nervousness underneath the veneer of brash confidence.
I laughed but with affection. This was typical of Abbie. She was in deep love with Jack who already had a girlfriend but slept with her occasionally when the mood took him. He was a grade A user but I didn’t tell Abbie this. The way I saw it it was up to her what she did. Abbie was loud, sweet and full of fun but she had a neediness in her which men took advantage of. She was tall and thin with long frizzy hair that was almost blonde. She was always trying to straighten the frizziness out of it but the damp weather meant it always managed to outwit her and make a comeback. She was stopping just short of being conventionally pretty.
‘Well at least you have learned you don’t like Jason. Just forget it and if you see him again ignore him. Anyway, if you didn’t like such shit music you wouldn’t end up in these situations. I mean, come on, Rockworld, it’s so passé. They are all meatheads with no manners. You need a better class of guy,’ I said.
‘A better class of guy? Like round here. Where exactly am I going to meet one of those?’ Abbie said.
She rolled her eyes for effect.
‘We could try the student union. It’s supposed to be okay on a Friday.’ I said.
‘You are not serious. The fucking student union. Come on! Nerd central,’ Abbie said.
I laughed again.
‘Don’t be so harsh. At least they’ve got prospects. Nice boys who’ll treat you like a lady,’ I said.
‘I don’t want to be treated like a lady. I want to be a crazy cool rock chick you know like what is she called? Courtney Love. That kind of thing. I am not into all that cheesy rubbish you dream about. All that hearts and flowers bullshit. It doesn’t exist Molly. This is it. This is what’s real. You have to take your good times where you can find them. Anyway, I love a real man, a grungy guy, all down and dirty,’ Abbie said.
‘I am NOT into hearts and flowers. I don’t want any kind of love right now, dirty or clean.” I said.
I was saved from arguing further by Abbie’s mobile phone ringing. I could tell by her panicked face it was some guy. She went into full flow, talking at one hundred miles an hour at the top of her voice. Everyone in the coffee bar would know Abbie’s business in ten seconds. Not that Abbie cared for anyone’s opinion. A few people looked over curiously but turned away again when they saw my frown.
I took advantage of the break in conversation to look around the room. It was pretty full, lots of people sheltering from the downpour. Some were talking, huddled conspiratorially in groups, others poring over laptops or phones, permanently plugged into cyber space. It seemed to me there was too much of this. They would miss the love of their life walking past while they were staring at a screen. Poor souls. There was a large group of Asian students in the corner who had managed to commandeer the only comfy sofas. I observed them with interest. I loved to watch people, to try to work out what they were like, to guess from their appearance what made them tick. There were equal numbers of boys and girls, all well dressed in the latest fashions, designer labels probably unless they were fake. I wasn’t very good at telling. I couldn’t afford designer labels and to be honest they didn’t really interest me. I tended to shop in charity shops or looked for bargains in the supermarkets. I like to think I had my own style: a little quirky. I had a knack of putting odd things together quite well so I didn’t look the same as everyone else. There was one girl who was beautiful. She had long sleek hair, almost black, and lots of make-up, kohl emphasising her wide eyes. She had a patterned scarf tied round her neck like people wore in posh TV sitcoms and a black leather jacket twinned with black jeans and long boots. Her nails were long and painted bright blue. I assumed they had been done at a nail bar, artificial. She was glamour personified, the exact opposite of me. I could just make out her accent as she talked which went with everything else about her, the long vowels of received pronunciation suggesting an expensive, private education. I felt myself recoil somewhere inside like an instinct.
‘I mean honestly. At my school we were always engaged in political debates. Everybody knew about politics. There was a very vibrant debating society. It is so important to be aware, don’t you think? What is wrong with these people?’ she said.
Everything about her exuded confidence as she sat leaning back on the sofa with her legs crossed and her arms stretched wide, gesticulating as she talked. My attention was drawn to the man she was addressing. My eyes widened as I looked at him. I had to admit he was probably the most attractive man I had ever seen in real life, not in a magazine or a film. What was he doing in the basement coffee bar of the University of Manchester? Why wasn’t he doing a photo shoot on a beach in St Tropez or something? Why wasn’t he walking down a catwalk in Milan enclosed in an over-priced suit? I felt something contract in me deep down inside and a deep sense of longing overwhelmed me. I was in lust at first sight. He was dark skinned, a walnut brown, and very tall and thin, over six feet. I couldn’t see his eyes because he was wearing big sunglasses, even though he was indoors. He also had on a black t-shirt and skinny jeans with red Converse boots. His mouth was shaped into an impish smile as he listened to the girl opposite him. His hair was longish, slightly curling around his shoulders and his seated position was relaxed, with his legs spread wide. Like the girl he exuded confidence. I wondered if they were boyfriend and girlfriend. His eyes wandered away from the girl and he saw me watching him. Our eyes locked for a fraction of a second and then I frowned deliberately and looked away. I didn’t want him to think I liked him.
My gaze returned to Abbie who was smiling at me delightedly.
‘Aha, I SAW you. Looking at him. MOLLY! You do not want to get involved with him,’ she said.
‘What are you talking about? I don’t want to get involved with him. I just glanced over for goodness sake. Anyway, even if I did why would you say that? What’s wrong with him?’ I said.
‘Oh nothing. I don’t know him. It’s just Asian men. You know. It doesn’t work out with white girls. It’s well known,’ Abbie said.
‘Abbie. You can’t say that. It’s racist. You are a shocker.’ I said.
‘I am NOT racist. It’s just I had this friend at school a few years above me and she married this Pakistani guy and he was like really horrible to her and wouldn’t let her go out or anything. In the end he made her go back to Pakistan with him. Yeeurrgh!’ Abbie said, looking earnestly at me.
‘Well that is sad I suppose. Anyway, what are we going to do on Friday. I need fun.’ I said, deftly steering Abbie away from the subject I did not want to dwell on.
‘Well,’ Abbie said, ‘We could try your idea and give the Student Union a whirl. I need a change.’
‘You are on. See you Friday. I’ve got to get home and get out of these wet things.’
I beamed at Abbie. She did cheer me up. I gathered my nylon laptop bag from the table and walked out towards the lift, being careful not to look over at the table of the Asian guy.
Outside, it was still raining. What was it Mum used to say? Raining stair rods. She wasn’t wrong there. I walked quickly down the treeless streets home eventually arriving at our little house. I didn’t pass any greenery on the way, just tower blocks and pavement. It was about as urban as it was possible to get in the centre of the city. I was so used to it I didn’t think about the lack of nature then. It was all I knew. The wind funnelled between the blocks and nearly blew you off your feet. Our house was modern, red brick with a little railed front garden and white UPVC windows. Dad had put some pots out the front with red geraniums in but he hadn’t looked after them so now they were brown. The house was owned by the council. They had given us it when our old tower block got demolished. It was all part of a regeneration project. It was great, a lot better than the old flats. I liked the way it looked like a private house if you didn’t know any better, all new and shiny.
I turned my key in the lock and went in shouting, ‘Dad, I am home! Are you in?’
There was silence. He wasn’t in. Dad was in the pub again. I sighed heavily and pulled off my boots. In the kitchen I scoured the fridge for edible food. There was virtually nothing. I ended up dipping two sticks of celery in the mayonnaise pot and munched on this while I figured out what else I could eat. I went upstairs and showered, stripping off all my wet clothes. The shower was set up over the bath but the water flow was good and the force of it warmed me up again. I loved the shower. It was so much better than the old flat with the avocado coloured bath. I smiled at the thought of going out with Abbie on Friday. It would be good fun. I thought of the guy in the coffee bar. I imagined who he was. I decided he was a rich kid from the Home Counties and his father was a Harley Street doctor. He was going out with the glam girl and they were deeply in love. One day they would marry but before any children arrived he would die in a motorcycle accident. I admonished myself for giving him a mean end and laughed at myself for thinking of him. I wasn’t into men right now. I wanted a career and independence. I had seen too many girls go down that route, get pregnant and end up with no life. That was not for me. I was on my way up and out.
I flopped down on the bed in my tiny bedroom and waited for the water drops on me to dry off. I reached over and turned on the computer to listen to music. Heavy dub reggae filled the room. My favourite. I closed my eyes and almost fell asleep. The bass of the reggae mixed with another kind of banging, a regular beat. In my drowsy state it took a minute for me to realise that this new noise meant there was someone at the door. I grabbed my grubby fluffy bathrobe and headed downstairs. When I opened the front door it was Miles. Miles was my best friend not at university. I had known him since primary school. He was charcoal back with short, neat dreads. He was wearing baggy jeans and a corduroy brown jacket. He was artfully dishevelled. I smiled broadly.
“Hey Molly, I got chicken,” he said.
“You are the best Miles. The best friend in the whole wide world,” I said.
I headed to the kitchen with Miles trailing behind. I put one portion in the oven to keep warm for Dad whenever, if ever, he returned tonight and then got two forks for Miles and me. We didn’t bother with plates and headed upstairs to eat straight from the cardboard. We lounged on the bed and chomped through the chicken without speaking for several minutes. Miles leaned over to the computer and switched the music to Bob Dylan.
“Oi, I was listening to that! I like reggae better. Bob bloody Dylan. You are lost in the sixties Miles,” I said.
Miles just grinned and said nothing. He had finished the chicken and was working his way through the chips. I ate ravenously. At that time I could eat anything and never get fat. I was thin, no actually skinny, so I just ate what I liked. I had never had to diet. I still didn’t like my body though or think I was attractive. I was too angular, everything bony and sticking out, no curves. I wanted big breasts and curves like that TV chef. I thought she was so beautiful, so sexy and sensuous. What wouldn’t I have given to look like that? What did it matter any way? I didn’t need a man. I had Miles for company as a friend. That was enough. We both laid back on the bed with Bob Dylan whining in our ears. I liked Dylan really even though I teased Miles about it. There was something really relaxing about his music.
“So what’s new, Miles?” I said.
“Nothing,” said Miles.
“Come on. Give,” I said.
“I wrote a song,” Miles said.
“Oh Miles, brilliant! Play it to me.”
“I haven’t brought my guitar.”
Silence for a while.
“You will be famous one day. I know it. More famous than Bob Dylan, you know. I can feel it,” I said.
Miles gave a small smile.
“Naw,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, “We will go and live in LA in a huge mansion like on that show what is it? Best cribs or whatever. We will have a personal gym and a butler called Reginald. I will have a little dog called Milo who will go with me everywhere and bite people. I will run a huge software company and you will be a famous singer songwriter. You will write the soundtrack for films.”
“Naw,” said Miles but he was smiling still.
We snuggled together on top of the bed and I could feel his breathing getting deeper. We were almost asleep when there was the sound of the door banging open and shut again. There was swearing and grumbling coming from the kitchen. It was Dad back from the pub.
I leaped up and went to the top of the stairs.
“Dad! There is chicken in the oven. I am with Miles. We are listening to music. You don’t need to come up.”
I could hear him gurning to himself in his drunken state.
“Fucking women. Fucking women these days. There was a time I would have had me tea on the table so I would. What’s wrong with the world? No respect. That’s what. Toiled and slaved all my life for what? This shit. Fucking women. Fucking Molly. Pissing about at that la di da university when she should be looking after me.”
“Dad, just get the chicken out of the oven. I’m busy,” I said safe from my position at the top of the stairs.
I went back into the bedroom and locked myself in. Dad could be unpredictable when drunk. It was best to avoid him until he fell asleep.
Miles was frowning.
“You should move out Molly. Go and live in halls. You shouldn’t have to put up with that. You do everything for him. He’s a wanker,” said Miles.
“I can’t leave him. He wouldn’t be able to cope on his own. Look Miles it’s fine. He will be all right again in the morning,” I said.
Miles lay down on the bed and closed his eyes, listening to the gentle music. I lay down as well, snuggling in close to him and closed my eyes. Crashing and banging sounds were still coming from downstairs and then the sound of the television: voices and canned laughter.
“We’ll always be friends won’t we Miles? You’ll never leave me will you? Promise,” I said.
Miles flicked open his eyes and smiled.
“I promise,” he said.
It was Friday evening. I was home, getting ready to go out. Dad was out as usual so I was playing music loudly, streaming it from Spotify for free. It wasn’t the sort of thing I normally listened to but I needed to get in a happy, energetic mood for tonight. So it was a playlist of club anthems, repetitive beats and strong bass lines. It was seeping inside me and filling me with excitement. I needed a good laugh, to dance and forget everything, to lose myself in music. What to wear? I chose my tight black jeans and Converse boots, matched with a Ramones T-shirt. I didn’t really have any jewellery except two plain gold studs in my ears and an ankh on a bootlace round my neck. I layered on some make-up, worrying about the effect as I didn’t wear it during the day. Was it too thick? Was the foundation the right colour? Well it would just have to do. I finished with bright red lipstick and dark kohl round my eyes. I brushed out my long unruly red hair as much as I could though it still went it’s own way, curling in waves everywhere like spare corkscrews at a party.
“Damn this bloody hair,” I said out loud.
I looked at myself in the wall mirror. Well I supposed I looked striking if nothing else. I liked the way the foundation smoothed out my skin so you couldn’t see the freckles. I liked the way the kohl made my eyes look mysterious and maybe even sexy. Yes, I would do.
I grabbed my phone and stuck the buds of my i-pod in my ears and then descended the stairs two at a time. I crawled in to my beloved leather jacket and headed out, slamming the door with abandon behind me. I headed up the road and across the arched bridge, aiming for the student area. I always walked. Buses cost money and I hated them anyway. I liked the feeling of freedom walking gave me. On your own feet you were in charge of your destiny, no-one else. It reminded me of the lyrics of that Marley song: “my feet are my only carriage.” Yes, I could relate to that.
I passed the pub and there were two guys outside, loafing about without aim as usual.
“Hey darling, come and have a drink with me,” one said.
The other one flashed his white teeth in a big smile.
I didn’t actually know them but I had seen them around many times. This pub was a magnet for the layabouts of the neighbourhood. They came to talk and to buy and sell grass, mostly just to talk and watch sport on the pub TV.
I half smiled and said, “No thanks, I am going somewhere urgently,” I said.
Usually this worked. Today it didn’t.
He glared after me as I passed.
“What’s the matter with me? Too posh to have a drink with a black man? Are you racist?”
I sighed and walked on faster. Me posh? That will be the day? It was just so irritating. Why did they have to bring race into everything? I didn’t want to have a drink with any man, whatever colour he was.
I reached the main road and crossed it, going into the student Indian take away. It was safer here in the student area here than in Hulme where I lived. Nobody would bother me inside. I ordered a vegetable curry and rice and sat in the corner on the plastic chairs. It was the cheapest thing on the menu, just £2.30 so a bargain. It would fill me up before the drinking began. The curry was mild, adjusted for the students’ taste but it was still good. I started to relax. There was hardly anyone in the place, just two male students in the opposite corner, deep in conversation. I scraped the remains of the curry from the plastic box making sure I got every last bit. The rice was sticky, just how I liked it. My phone rang. I checked the name. It was Abbie.
“Hi Abbie, whats up?” I said.
“Everything’s great. Where ARE you?” Abbie said.
“I am in the take away. Eating,” I said.
“Well stop eating and get yourself over here. Bring booze,” Abbie said.
I laughed, too loudly so the guys in the corner looked over.
“Ok, ok. See you in five,” I said and ended the call.
The students were still looking at me so I gave them my best frown, got up and walked out. I checked instinctively that my wallet was still in my pocket and strode down the street, turning left past the Irish pub. I stopped in the corner shop and bought a bottle of vodka. The owner was an Asian woman who always looked grumpy. I waited in the queue. The woman in front was asking advice about painkillers. She was covered head to foot in black. Only her eyes showed.
The shop owner answered in her usual style.
“How should I know? I am not a doctor,” she said.
The black clad woman hurriedly paid for some paracetamol and left.
I plonked the vodka on the counter and put the money beside it. Shop owner woman looked at me like I was spawn of the devil and took the money, turning from me towards the till. I swiped up the bottle and exited the shop rapidly. Two minutes walk and I was at Abbie’s hall of residence. I pressed the buzzer and waited. Someone buzzed me in without asking who it was. I took the stairs and after one storey arrived at the door of Abbie’s flat. I rapped as hard as I could and after a minute the door was opened by a Malaysian student. Abbie shared with five other Malaysians, none of which she knew. They kept themselves to themselves and spent a long time cooking in the shared kitchen and talking in each other’s rooms. I realised with a jolt of guilt I didn’t actually know any of their names. The girl smiled at me and opened the door wide to let me through.
“Thanks,” I said smiling back and stepped inside. I wondered if I had known her too long now to ask her name. Probably. I decided against asking and walked past her to the kitchen. Abbie was sitting at the table deep in concentration painting her nails a metallic blue. This made me realise I had omitted to paint mine any colour at all. Damn! I had failed again in the glamour stakes. I banged the bottle on the table.
“Beware of Molly bearing gifts,” I said.
“Get that bottle open girl. I could murder a drink. In fact I could stab it in a park and bury it,” she said.
I took two glasses from the draining board and decided on wiping them out with the cloth first. Cleaning wasn’t Abbie’s strong point. I sat back down and poured two generous shots into the glasses. I didn’t bother with a mixer and glugged down the liquid enjoying the searing sensation in my throat.
Abbie regarded me as if I was a specimen in a petri dish she had just found.
“Molly, you are an animal,” she said, getting up and retrieving some orange juice from the fridge.
She poured a glug into her glass and offered some to me. I demurred and took my second swig. I felt more relaxed and looked around the kitchen. I had been here a thousand times. It was about as basic as it was possible to get with the cheapest units round the walls and a big plastic table in the middle. It was always grimy feeling in spite of the fact that the university sent a cleaner in every day. The surfaces were littered with the detritus of someone’s meal and there were two rice cookers belonging to the Malaysians with half their contents spilling out.
“ I am an animal. I like that. Look at the state of this dump. You are all animals,” I said.
“Yeah, right, whatever. So are you up for manhunting tonight?” Abbie said.
“No. I am up for getting drunk, dancing and having a good time. No men,” I said.
“Cool. That will do for me,” Abbie said.
After several more drinks we wandered out down the street. I felt pleasantly serene from the effect of the alcohol. Everything was good. I took Abbie’s hand and we waltzed down the road together laughing and tripping over each other’s feet.
The next thing I knew we had arrived at the Student Union building, another monstrosity from the sixties with no architectural merit. The door guy leered at us. He was a student but puffed up with his important role of being able to decide who did and didn’t get in. Local boys were often chancing their arm trying to get some university totty.
“ID ladies,” he said.
I showed him my card. He actually laughed at my photo which I was rather proud of as I thought I looked mean, moody and magnificent in black and white.
“That’s never you,” he said, ‘Far too pretty.’
I couldn’t actually decide if this was some clumsy attempt at a chat up line or if he was just a total asshole. I snapped the ID back in my wallet, glowered, and hurried into the room ahead of me. Abbie propelled me to the bar and ordered two vodka and cokes.
“What a fucking jerk!” said Abbie in my ear, having to shout above the din.
I shrugged and downed the vodka in one and then dragged Abbie to the dance floor. It was wonderful to dance, to let go. I felt my cares disappear as my body moved. Nothing mattered except the music and me. I was lost in a trance, in a dream. I felt totally free. I didn’t care what people thought of me or how I looked. I danced and danced with no sense of time. After who knows how long I suddenly felt tired so looked for somewhere to sit. There was a corner of a sofa free so I perched on it, catching my breath. Abbie was nowhere to be seen. I became aware of someone looking at me and turned my head towards the feeling. It was the Asian student from the other day staring at me intently, the one from the coffee bar. He smiled when he saw me look back. I snapped my head away from his direction as fast as I could and scanned the room for Abbie. I STILL couldn’t see her. I sat back in my seat and closed my eyes, feeling suddenly nauseous. I would just have to go home. I had had way too much vodka. I opened my eyes again but the room began to spin. It was better to close them again. I became aware of someone holding onto my hands. I flicked my eyes open again in shock and saw it was him, the Asian guy from the coffee bar. He smiled and leaned in to speak to me.
“Hi I’m Taj. Are you ok? You seem a bit drunk,” he said.
I felt myself stiffen in shock.
“Yes I am fine. Absolutely fine. I’ve lost my friend,” I said.
My mind registered the fact he was called Taj.
It suited him.
“Come dance with me. It’ll make you feel better. I promise,” he said.
He didn’t wait for an answer and I felt myself being dragged to the dance floor. Taj was holding me up and I was very close to him. As he was taller than me I could just see his shirt and my face was pressed against the hairs coming out of the top of it. I could smell his aftershave, something spicy and expensive smelling, subtle. We were swaying around together as if there was old-fashioned music playing when really it was fast, thumping dance grooves. Normally, I would have pulled away by now but I suddenly felt safe and warm and I had no need to free myself. Everything was okay. I had no idea how long the dancing went on but as he gripped me ever tighter I realised I had never been this close to a man before apart from Miles. He felt completely different to Miles though. I could feel myself attracted to him in spite of inner resistance as if something animal was rising within me, something I had never allowed myself to let free rein to before.
The next thing I remember we were outside in the street and Taj was making me drink a bottle of water. I could feel myself swaying and I had to concentrate on not falling over.
“Oh no. How did this happen? You must think I am really stupid,” I said.
“No, not at all. You just had too much to drink. It happens. I don’t really drink myself,” Taj said.
“I need to go home,” I said.
“I can drive you. My car is around the corner,” he said.
“No, no. Please don’t bother. I am fine. I can get a taxi,” I said realising that I had no money for a taxi but I wasn’t going to tell him that.
He didn’t reply but just steered me along the road until we reached a black jeep Cherokee. It was huge and very shiny and clean. It looked like something a rap star would drive, a little over the top for a student in Manchester.
Taj pressed a key fob and opened the door.
“Isn’t this a bit pretentious? Is it really your car?” I said and then instantly regretted it, realising I shouldn’t be antagonising my rescuer. A little voice somewhere deep inside of me was telling me I shouldn’t be getting in the car of a complete stranger but another voice was also telling me I didn’t have much option given the state I was in.
“Do you think so?” Taj said. “I think you might be right. My Dad bought it for me as a birthday present. I was kind of hoping it would be a babe magnet,” he said.
“I don’t mean to be rude. It’s very nice,” I said.
I was bundled into the front passenger seat and started to feel a little more human. Everything inside was pristine. The dashboard was black and so were the seats. Taj turned to me as he started the car and the dash lit up.
“Where do you live?” he said.
I felt the usual stab of embarrassment that I was going to have to tell him that I lived in Hulme.
I took a deep breath.
“Hulme. Rolls Crescent.” I said, staring straight ahead.
“Really. How cool,” he said and started to punch the information into the satnav. I had never been in a car with one of these before. As we started down the road I was startled by the strident voice of satnav woman giving directions.
It didn’t take long until we arrived at my front door.
“It’s a nice house,” said Taj looking at our red front door and sounding as if he meant it. I was taken aback by his lack of snobbishness. Usually, people would make some disparaging comment about my area unless they were gay and then they would think it trendy. I had got used to it.
I sat with my hands in my lap and looked down. I was unsure of what to do. I still felt drunk but not quite as bad as I had been in the club. Normal consciousness was seeping back in.
The silence seemed to go on forever. I had to break it.
“Thanks. For bringing me home I mean. It’s so sweet of you. You didn’t have to. And thanks for not slagging off my house.”
“Why would I do that? I hear the parties in Hulme are the best in town. What are they called? Shebeens. Yes, shebeens the police daren’t raid,’ he said.
“Yes, good parties,” I said. “We know how to enjoy ourselves.”
I wondered if I should invite him in. I decided against it. I was off men remember and anyway Dad might still be up.
“Thanks again,” I said and got out of the car rapidly. I swayed up the path and fumbled in my jacket pocket for the key. Thankfully it was still there and I managed to open the door. I turned before I shut it behind me and waved at Taj. He waved back, smiling broadly.
I shut the door, relief flooding over me that I had finally got home safe.
Without knowing why I sank to my knees and started to cry. The tears ran down my face causing my eyeliner to run. I brushed my hand across my cheeks and saw the black come off onto my palm. There was no sound in the house. Dad must be in bed. That was a relief.
I crawled up the stairs using my hands to stabilise myself as I went. I crashed on top of the bed with relief and fell asleep almost immediately, not even bothering to take my boots off.
My dreams were vivid, more so than usual.
I dreamed I was going up winding stairs to a club door entrance. Taj was walking behind me, pushing me from behind, sometimes putting his hands on my butt to get me along. In the dream I was irritated that he was doing this. He shouldn’t be touching me. It seemed like the rickety stairs went on forever. I awoke abruptly from this dream and my throat was sore with dehydration. I stumbled to the bathroom for a glass of water. I downed the glass quickly, feeling much better and greedily poured myself another one.
My head was thumping with a regular beat. I scrabbled in the cabinet for some painkillers and quickly found them and swallowed two. I walked back to bed and undressed myself properly this time. I dived under the covers and felt better. Taj came into my mind. How weird that he had been at the club after I had just noticed him a few days before. He had been so unexpectedly nice. He hadn’t taken advantage of me or been mean at all. Was it fate that I had met him? No, Molly I said to myself firmly. You are not getting interested in a man. You don’t need a man. You need a job. You need to concentrate on your studies. You are going places.
But Taj stayed in my mind as I fell aback to sleep. This time I slept more soundly and I didn’t remember my dreams when I woke up the next morning.
So a week had passed since my embarrassment with Taj. I had put it out of my head and concentrated on my work. I was so bored with coding but I had to do it. Some days I enjoyed it. The challenge of solving the problem, of figuring it all out. There was a kind of beauty in it. But not today. Today I just wasn’t in the mood. I had been working in the computer lab all day and there was a dull thud in my forehead. I exited to the coffee bar. It wasn’t actually raining for once but the wind was bitter. I felt like it was trying to blow me over deliberately. I sat down at one of the tables with my usual hot chocolate. So good. There was no one I knew today. I played on my phone to avoid feeling awkward. I flipped through Twitter without interest. Someone had left a boy band or something. Everyone was tweeting about it. Big deal. I couldn’t get interested. Why were people so lame? So involved with rubbish. My mind wandered back to the program I had been trying to write all day. I dismissed it. I hadn’t seen Abbie since last Friday. She was lying low, not even responding to my texts. I had let her be. It was probably some guy as usual. I closed my eyes and tried to visualise a better future where I was rich and successful and lived in an apartment overlooking the Thames with long windows that let in natural light. Yes that would be wonderful.
“Penny for them,” a voice said.
I snapped open my eyes and there he was. Taj. Taj from last week whom I had deliberately not being thinking about.
“I was just resting my eyes. I’m tired,” I said.
“Shame. I was going to invite you out,” he said.
I eyed him nervously.
“I’m afraid I’m not available,” I said with as much coldness as I could manage.
Taj laughed. He seemed amused, unconcerned. It irritated me.
Then all of a sudden he grabbed my hand and dragged me upright.
“Come on,” he said. “You only live once.”
Somehow we were outside in the street and then we were in his car again.
“This car is so pretentious,” I said.
“You are so spikey. Don’t you like money?” he said.
I considered the question. Did I like money? I wasn’t sure.
“I don’t know,” I said, looking at him with a sense of helplessness.
“You are a funny girl Molly,” he said.
I sighed. I had been told this before. I had no idea in what way I was funny. I glared and hunched deeper into the collar of my jacket.
His grin broadened, annoying me even more. He was laughing at me.
We pulled up in Rusholme outside one of the many Indian restaurants. This was a little, unprepossessing one I hadn’t noticed before. It didn’t have a neon sign or a waiter outside trying to entice you in. I had been for curries many times in Rusholme. They were cheap and it wasn’t far from my home. Usually I came with Miles or very occasionally my Dad. I hadn’t been to this one before.
We went in and the waiter rushed up to Taj. He behaved like Taj was some visiting foreign prince. I was surprised. We sat in a booth. It felt private. The waiter fussed with some menus but Taj waved them away. He spoke in a language I didn’t understand and the waiter disappeared smiling obsequiously.
Taj smiled at me broadly across the table.
“Have you just ordered for me?” I said.
His smile managed to widen even further and he sat further back in his chair and poured us both some water.
“You have. That’s so rude. How do you know what I like?”
“You’ll love it. Believe me,” he said.
I pouted and took a sip of water.
“Do you want a drink?” he said.
“Do you?” I said.
“I don’t really drink. So I’ll just stick to the water. We are having lassi as well. Do you know what that is?” he said.
“I know what it is. I have been for curries before. I only live down the road. And yes. I do want a drink. Beer. Indian beer,” I said.
|Taj’s smile slipped slightly and he gestured to the waiter.
|”Why aren’t you having a drink?” I asked.
“I don’t really drink. Not that I don’t weaken occasionally. It’s because I’m a Muslim,” he said.
The perma-smile slipped and he leaned towards me, looking intently into my eyes, as if trying to figure out what I was thinking.
“Oh,” I said, “how interesting.”
Taj smiled again with relief.
The food and beer appeared preventing conversation for the moment. There was an awful lot of food. I knew some of them but not all. As I served myself Taj talked me through the dishes, explaining the ingredients and spices used. I was yet again surprised, this time that he knew so much about the food. The beer numbed my nerves and I started to relax and enjoy myself.
“So tell me about Islam. What else do you do apart from not drink?” I asked.
I thought of my own alcoholic father and all the trouble and pain it had caused. Not drinking seemed like a pretty sensible lifestyle choice to me though I was amazed anyone could keep it up.
“Are you really interested?” Taj said.
“Yes of course.”
“Well, it’s hard to explain. My mum is a lot better at this stuff than me. You should talk to her. We go to the mosque, learn the Koran, we pray a lot, we give to the poor. We are supposed to go to Mecca once in our lifetime. We try to live a good life. That’s all.”
“Sounds good,” I said, genuinely taken with how good it did sound. Pure. So unlike my life and the life of all my friends. Were we living a good life? Weren’t we just lost in hedonism and dreams of riches. It occurred to me then that Taj seemed quite rich.
“But you seem well off. I mean the car and everything. So how does that square with the whole good life thing?”
Taj looked down as if he didn’t know how to answer. Then he managed.
“Well it’s not incompatible. I mean you can do more good as a rich man than a poor one. You can help people. My Dad helps loads of people in the community and back in Pakistan.
Having money doesn’t make you a bad person.”
I took in this novel information with interest. All my life I had been taught to despise rich people, to think of them as the enemy. Class War. Yet what Taj said made sense to me. How could you help anyone if you couldn’t even help yourself? I thought of my schoolmates of old, my father, my neighbours. None of them had really done any good to any one. They just struggled to look after themselves and mostly failed. There was something wrong somewhere.
“So what does your Dad do? How has he made all this money?” I said.
Taj’s eyes twinkled with delight.
“He owns restaurants. He owns this one. Lots of others. He came to this country with nothing and started work as a waiter. He saved and worked his way up. He bought his first restaurant and built from there. He worked very hard. He still does.”
My eyes widened. I didn’t know any successful people. It was a humbling story. My family had lived here for generations and achieved precisely nothing. Why were we so feckless?
It explained the behaviour of the waiter. The staff were still nervously looking over at us, checking we were all right every few minutes, refilling my glass and generally fussing. I wasn’t used to it. I was used to being ignored.
Taj leaned across the table and took my hands in his. He stared intently into my eyes.
“So you seem genuinely interested Molly. I’m so pleased. You should meet my mother. She can talk about the joys of Islam for hours. But she’s not serious. She’s great fun. You’ll like her.”
“Yes I would like that,” I heard myself saying.
So the beer did its work and the rest of the evening became blurry to me. We talked and talked and ate and ate. There were so many flavours, sweetness and spiciness, heat and comforting naan. I loved it all. I felt wonderfully sated and happy. I remember leaving the restaurant. I remember being driven back to my house. Outside the door Taj took my face in his hand and kissed me gently. Then he was gone. I sat on the doorstep for a while in a daze, just thinking about what a good evening it had been and how serene I felt. I managed eventually to unlock the door, climb the stairs and collapse into bed without washing my face.
He had been the perfect gentleman, not forcing himself upon me. So different to how I had imagined. I had thought him arrogant and shallow and yet there seemed so much more in there than I knew. I hadn’t known anyone like him. My mind was trying to resist but my heart was singing. Wake up Molly. My brain said he was too good to be true. Street savvy Molly don’t be taken in by this. What’s his game? What does he want? What’s he up to? Cynicism came easily to me. It was the streets I had grew up in, the school I had gone to, the whole environment bred mistrust. We were used to being treated as nothing. We were nothing. Surely Taj was too good to be true.
Sleep came quickly and I dreamed of Taj. I was falling…
I woke the next morning late. I scrabbled for my mobile phone to see the time. Damn. I had slept in. I had missed two lectures and a tutorial. It wouldn’t matter. Nobody would really miss me. I could make it up later. The bed was warm and cosy and I wanted to stay there longer. For me I felt amazingly relaxed. I didn’t feel the need to do anything. Just be. It was glorious. Must be all that curry. I wasn’t really hungover which was all to the good. I was serene. I finally got how cats feel. They wake up, they stretch, they go back to sleep. Nothing is a big deal. There is no urgency. My mind wandered to Taj. He felt right. My old voice still warned me that no good would come of it but there was a new Molly waking. A Molly who wasn’t afraid to try new things, to think differently, to live…
I got up and hauled my laptop into the bed with me. I fired it up and put Islam into Google. I was fascinated. Of course I had known Muslims at school but I had never really thought about it seriously before. They kept to themselves and we kept to ourselves. I started with Wikipedia. It made Islam sound amazing. It was a magical world where angels appeared. The centre of Islam was the family. Women were revered as mothers. The whole mindset seemed completely different to the one I was used to. Magic was everywhere. Spirituality was everywhere. It was all about worshipping God. Everything was an act of worship. It all sounded rather wonderful. I read on and on, finding other sites. Some were more critical, especially about the treatment of women but this seemed to be mostly in Saudi Arabia. Then there was the war in Syria and wars popping up all over the place. There seemed a problem with different factions of Islam and some extremists. It all sounded so different from the world I had grown up in. Religion had been a mystery to me. We had never gone to Church. Dad had always scoffed like he did at everything. Here were rules to live your life by, a good life and at the end the reward of Paradise. I felt beguiled by it all. It was a strange, magical otherworld which had been right under my nose all this time.
I spent the whole day in bed, reading about Islam, sleeping, eating and drinking tea. I felt like a light had come on in my head. I felt different. I clicked on to Amazon and ordered a copy of the Koran. I wanted to know more.
I finally managed a shower, enjoying the pressure of the jet on my skin. I scrubbed myself fiercely. I felt like I was washing all the alcohol out of me and sloughing away all my old life.
In the evening I made stew for Dad and me and we sat and watched TV together. For once he was half sober and we managed to get through the evening without arguing.
We ate the stew on our laps in front of the ever-present TV. Dad was addicted to it. That’s why I spend so much time in my bedroom, to avoid it. Tonight I humoured him. We watched a chat show and then a documentary. Later on there was an action film. Dad made a running commentary all the way through everything, mostly critical. I felt a new, fuzzy warm feeling enveloping me. Everything would be ok. That’s what it seemed to say.
When it was time to go to bed I got down on my knees at the side and prayed. I didn’t know how to pray as a Muslim but I just prayed anyway.
“Dear Allah. Keep me safe. God bless Dad and Miles. God bless Taj. God bless Mum. Amen.”
“ God is great,” I finished with, having read this expression on the internet. It probably wasn’t a Muslim prayer but it would have to do. I wondered if it was true if Mum was in Heaven like it said on the internet. I hoped so. I looked up and asked Allah to keep her safe.
“Mum are you there? Are you ok? I hope you made it to Heaven.”
Mum had died years before and my memories of her were getting thin. I remembered warmth and laughter, pennies for sweets and heavy perfume.
It comforted me to think of her up there with Allah instead of scattered to the wind. It was all lovely. Hopeful. I had made a new discovery and it was all down to Taj. I felt warmer when I thought of him.
I felt cosy and loved and slept soundly. I dreamed of the Paradise I had read about that day. I dreamed of fountains and rivers, children playing with garlands of flowers, green grass, eternal sunshine, lions and lambs playing together. There was a total sense of peace. I loved it. Then I dreamed that Taj and I were together there too with two children, little dark haired boys. I was smiling in the dream, smiling like I never smiled, beaming with happiness.
It was Friday morning. I was back in the university coffee bar. Alone. I hadn’t seen Taj since the restaurant. It was only a few days but I had missed him. I was hoping to see him like I had that first time just by chance. We hadn’t exchanged phone numbers or anything. He knew where I lived but I didn’t know where he lived. I wondered if he had just been playing with me. I sat for a few hours, toying with several hot chocolates, trying to make them last. I recognised his group of friends from the first sighting. They were sitting as usual on the comfortable sofas, talking loudly and laughing with each other. I felt a twinge of jealousy at their ease with each other, their ready smiles, their confidence, the way they enjoyed the world. They made me feel awkward. My shyness was usually mistaken for aggression. I didn’t feel relaxed with most people. I was always coiled, a wild animal ready to spring, flight from danger. Taj didn’t come. And he didn’t come. I was deflated. I had no way of contacting him.
I gave up and spent the afternoon trapped in the talons of my project. I was teasing it out, unravelling it, solving the problem. When programming I felt myself disappear into a kind of trance, forgetting everything, working away. It was dark when I finished for the day. I wended my way home still thinking about it. I had pushed Taj from my mind. He was just another guy. So what? It hadn’t meant anything. I stopped at the Chinese on the way home. It was my regular Friday haunt. The owners were Vietnamese, always smiling from ear to ear. They lived above the shop and always seemed delighted with what they had in Manchester. I wondered what they had left behind to feel like this. It must be something worse.
“Hi Molly, chicken lady,” the owner said to me grinning and preparing my order without asking me what I wanted. I always had the same thing. He always gave me free prawn crackers and extra chips. I mused about how lovely he was, how happy. I wonder what it felt like to be that good humoured all the time.
“Hi, how’s tricks?” I smiled back, thinking that my smile could never match his.
“Tricks are good,” he beamed.
I waited on the plastic chair for my order, still thinking about my project and when I was going to finish it. There was nobody else in the shop. I wondered if they ever made any money. Most people preferred fried chicken round here.
After what seemed like an age my order was ready and I headed home. Swinging the bag cheerily at my side I entered my street. I was listening to music on my headphones so not really that aware of my surroundings. Singing along I was startled by a hand on my arm. There was Taj, towering above me, smiling.
“Hey Molly, I thought you were going to walk right past,” he said trying to look hurt.
“Oh, I was in a dream,” I said, trying a smile.
He cupped my face in his hands and kissed me quickly on the lips and then released me. I darted back in shock, then recovered.
“I hope it wasn’t that painful,” he said.
“Oh. No. It was just a shock. I wasn’t expecting…” I tailed off awkwardly.
I smiled up at him, feeling ridiculous.
“Look. I’m having a party tonight. I want you to come. I realised I didn’t have your number. Give me your phone,” said Taj.
Somewhat taken aback by the imperiousness of his tone I mutely obeyed and gave him the phone after unlocking it.
He opened the contacts and punched in his number, email address and home address.
“There. That’s all my details,” he said, handing the phone back to me.
He smiled down at me, confident as ever.
“I’ll see you later. Eight o’clock,” he said, then turned and jogged off down the road.
I stood stunned. His arrogance had piqued me. He was assuming I wanted to come to the party, assuming I wanted his phone number, assuming everything… and yet I did want to go to the party. I was intrigued.
I looked at the address on my phone. It was in Didsbury, the poshest suburb of Manchester. Typical. I didn’t know the road but it would be easy enough to find.
I collected myself, remembered the Chinese takeaway that would be getting cold and ran home to eat it.
I let myself in the front door. Nobody was in. I got a plate out of the cupboard and decanted the contents onto it. I balanced the bag of prawn crackers on the top and headed to my bedroom. I sat on the bed and chomped away. After a while I turned on the computer and streamed some music to listen to. Reggae. My favourite. I texted Miles telling him I couldn’t come out tonight. I was going somewhere. I was vague about where. I hoped he wouldn’t be too hurt. We nearly always spent Fridays together.
I opened the wardrobe and tried to figure out what to wear. What sort of party was it? I had no idea. I didn’t really have very much. I didn’t have any smart clothes. What sort of people would be there? I decided it didn’t matter. It was just a student party. Scruffy would be fine. I showered and decided on a different pair of black jeans which were a little less torn than the ones I had been wearing. I put on my most feminine shirt. It was white with ruffles down the front and a lace collar. Then I caked my face in make up, finishing with my trademark black kohl eye line. I put on my leather jacket and felt I looked good. Cool but feminine. This was ideal I decided. I was way too early to go to the party. I needed Dutch courage. I went into Dad’s room and looked under the bed. Among old newspapers and dirty socks I found what I was looking for: a half empty bottle of whisky. I went back to my bedroom and poured some of it into a glass. I glugged it down in one. It was so strong my eyes smarted and my throat was seared. I lay down on the bed and rested. Every now and then I took another tot of the whisky. Before long I was feeling pleasantly woozy, slightly not in my body. It had done the trick though. I felt much less nervous. I could face the party without being crippled by awkwardness. I typed Taj’s address into Google maps and figured out which way to go. It was easy, not too far from here. I headed out.
I walked quickly out of Hulme and out into the suburbs. The tower blocks were left behind and the roads became more leafy. There were gardens and neat semis. I kept walking. After what seemed like an age I arrived in Didsbury and stopped to window shop in the little row of smart shops. It was a world away from Hulme. A couple of women walked past looking me up and down. They seemed to have a faint air of disgust on their faces, their noses wrinkled. Were they really looking like that at me or was it my imagination, my continual air of paranoia? I didn’t belong here. This wasn’t my territory. I felt like an animal who had been transported to a strange place. I shook my head and tried to free myself from such thoughts. They were not going to do me any good. Taj had invited my to his party. I had as much right to be here as anyone. I turned right down a street of Victorian mansions. They had big gardens and front driveways. I had arrived in traditional leafy suburbia. It was lovely. I wondered who had built these houses; maybe cotton merchants from long ago, factory owners. Who knew? I scanned the road for the number I was looking for: 24. There it was. I crossed the road and stood nervously at the gate. Many of the houses on this road, too large for modern sensibilities had been divided into flats but this one appeared to be intact. It had an air of dilapidation about it. The grass was untrimmed, the bushes overgrown and weeds were poking through the flagstones at the front porch. There was a traffic cone at the side of the front door. Everything about it said rented student accommodation or possibly young professionals, just graduated. The grand old place had seen better days. It reminded me of an old dowager, now living alone who had long since taken to the gin.
I screwed up my courage and went up to the imposing front door. I pulled the rusty Victorian bell and it came away in my hand. Obviously it was no longer functional. I scanned the door for a more modern bell but I couldn’t see one. I could hear voices inside and music. How was I to gain attention? I made a fist of my hand and banged with as much authority as I could manage. No answer. I pushed the door and it gave way under my hand. I pushed further and walked into the hallway. The inside of the house had the same air as the outside. There was a beautiful parquet floor, completely scuffed and neglected with pieces missing. There was a wide hallway with stairs winding up to the other floors. The stairs were covered in a filthy patterned carpet that looked as if it might have been expensive in its day. There were people wandering up and down the stairs and one couple were locked in an embrace on the first stair. Nobody paid any attention to me. I made aim for where the music was coming from and was soon in a long kitchen. People were sitting at the table, picking at olives and figs and drinking wine from plastic cups. Some were standing chatting. They all looked like students, mostly Asian, some white. I couldn’t see Taj. Still nobody noticed that I was there. I backed out from the kitchen and went up the stairs. I found myself in a large drawing room with elaborate stucco work on the ceiling and an old sofa with the stuffing spilling out everywhere. There were a few armchairs in a similar state. On the floor rolling a joint on a vinyl record cover was Taj. I had found him.
“Taj!” I shouted, trying to be heard above the music which could still be heard from the kitchen.
His head flipped up instantly and his smile widened so that his whole face appeared to be smiling.
“Molly, Molly, Molly,” he said and stood up. “Come and sit down. We’re spliffing.”
I sat down cross legged next to Taj. We smiled inanely at each other. I felt like a teenager on my first date. He kind of had that effect on me. In fact, I hadn’t really been on any dates, well not proper ones. Taj carried on rolling the joint, lit it up and then inhaled it deeply. He passed it to me. I was already feeling the effects of the whisky and slightly worried about what the joint would do to me. I took it anyway and inhaled it a few times before passing it to a girl sitting on the other side of me. I felt better. This was okay. It wasn’t much different to the parties I was used to. I began to relax. Taj poured some red wine from a bottle into a plastic cup and gave it to me. I took a sip. It tasted smoother than the wine I usually drank, less fruity but with an older feel. I liked it.
“You are drinking?” I asked remembering that Muslims weren’t supposed to drink.
“Yes. It’s a special occasion: my birthday,” he said and looked slightly sheepish.
“Oh. Happy Birthday. I didn’t know. I didn’t bring anything,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter. You are enough,” said Taj.
I felt myself glowing with the unlooked for compliment. I wasn’t exactly used to people being this nice to me. I didn’t know how to react so I just smiled. I felt drunk, slightly stoned, perfectly relaxed and almost happy. I closed my eyes and allowed the music to seep into me. It was sort of dance music but with an Indian feel. I hadn’t heard anything quite like it before but it was good, hypnotic and full of rhythm. It was a little too loud to talk comfortably so I just sat and smiled.
People came over to talk to Taj from time to time. He exchanged a few words with each but seemed largely disinterested in them. He didn’t really take his eyes from me the whole time. We drank the wine and gazed at each other for what seemed like forever. I didn’t want to do anything other than sit here and let these moments go on for eternity. It just felt right. I didn’t want anything to spoil it. I felt like I had been lifted into another world where people liked me, men fell in love with me, everything was easy and everything flowed. There was no reason not to smile.
After the longest time seemed to have passed Taj gestured for me to get up and propelled me out of the room and up another flight of stairs. We appeared to be on the top floor of the house. There was a huge window with stained glass birds fitted in on the landing. I stared at it delightedly. I had never been in a house like this before. I imagined how grand it must have been in its heyday. I felt myself wondering about the people who had lived here. Could they still see it from heaven? Were they sad about how neglected it had become? The next moment I had been steered into a bedroom; Taj’s bedroom. There was a large futon in the middle of the floor. We collapsed on to it and Taj held me tightly. Then he jumped up to bang the door shut and then snuggled back down on to the bed.
“Finally, we can talk without getting sore throats from shouting over the music,” he said.
“Yes,” I said simply.
“So I realised the other night we hardly said anything. I want to know all about you.”
“There’s nothing to tell,” I said.
“Come on. Just everything. All the ordinary things. I want to know.”
“Well I’m Molly. I have always lived in Manchester. I live with my Dad. He’s retired. Disabled. He used to work on the railways. He drinks too much. My mum is dead. I’m studying Computer Science. So I guess that makes me a nerd. I love music. That’s about it.”
“Cool,” he said, “I talked way too much about myself last time. You know I’m studying law? It’s what my Dad wants. I don’t know about it. It’s a bit dull but hey it’s a good job. High status and all that. It’s what my family want for me. They’ve worked so hard. I owe it to them to be a success. Oh, I’m talking too much about myself again…”
“No, I like it,” I said, “I like knowing things about you. I was reading about Islam the other night. I was fascinated. It’s so interesting. Can you tell me about it?”
“Are you really interested?” he said. His eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Yes of course,” I said.
“Well it’s not really a party vibe,” he said and then laughed.
He rolled me onto my back and laid on top of me. Then the kissing started. We locked together perfectly. Kissing, kissing, kissing. On and on. I had never kissed anyone like this. It was totally perfect. I didn’t want it to stop ever. I felt a calmness washing over me that I had never felt. It was like coming home.
We fell asleep on the futon and dozed all night. The party continued around us but we weren’t part of it. We were in a world all of our own. When my eyes opened it was dawn. I could see the thin light edging around the edges of the wooden shutters which covered the windows. We had lain all night entwined in each other, fully clothed.
I propped myself up on my elbow and looked at Taj; admired him. He was so beautiful to me. I admired his perfect ears, his straight nose, his strong chin and thick eyebrows. I ran my finger around his face. I couldn’t believe he had wanted to be with me, had chosen to be with me for this time. I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to stay like this for all time. I had lost all my fear of him. I loved the way he hadn’t taken advantage of me, hadn’t asked me to have sex with him. He had judged what I wanted perfectly. I felt totally safe, cocooned in this house full of strangers. Taj opened his eyes and smiled.
“Hello you,” he said.
“Hello you,” I said.
We had locked eyes again. It seemed like I could just keep gazing until the end of time…
I had been seeing Taj for about two months. We fell into a rhythm. We studied during the day. We always saw each other during the day for coffee and for lunch. We tended to spend the weekday evenings apart and then we spent all the weekends together. Mostly we were at Taj’s student house. Sometimes we went to mine. I felt more relaxed when we weren’t at mine. I preferred it at Taj’s. I liked his flatmates. I loved his huge room, his futon and all the rickety, quirky furniture the place was filled with. At weekends we often went clubbing, losing ourselves in music. I learned I didn’t need to drink to enjoy myself. Dancing and being with Taj was enough. Manchester was full of clubs, some vast and flashy, some dark and small, underground. We went to them all. I remember lights and noise, the beats getting inside my head, moving my whole body, pulsing in my brain. Dancing uplifted me, made me lose myself, forget everything, lose my ego, feel at one with everyone and everything. I lived for dancing and for Taj. After the clubs we collapsed together on Taj’s bed, hugging and kissing. We still hadn’t had sex. We didn’t discuss it. I took it as read that we were waiting. That was what we both wanted. It was natural and right. This was how things should be. I was perfectly happy for the first time in my life. I felt totally confident that this is how things should be, that Taj was the one for me. That we would be together until we were old. It was the natural way of things. We had been made for each other.
One Sunday morning I woke as usual before Taj. I turned and hugged him tightly and lay flat on my back, staring up at the stucco ceiling. I loved all the detailing in the house, the care that had gone into its construction, so unlike my modern house. I got out of bed and my feet hit the warmth of the wooden floor. I put on an old jumper of Taj’s and went down to the kitchen. I made coffee in the machine. I had never had real coffee until I met Taj. It was so much better than the instant I was used to. Zen was in the kitchen, one of the many flat mates. He was tall and scrawny and he looked perpetually worried. His face was marked with old acne scars and he moved awkwardly, folding himself up as if to make himself smaller. He was perched on a stool at the breakfast bar, reading the paper. He looked up and smiled thinly to acknowledge me, then went back to reading. We hadn’t talked to each other much. I didn’t know if he liked me or hated me or was scared of me or what it was. I smiled back and wondered what to say. I couldn’t think of anything. I inhaled the smell of the coffee and pretended to read a magazine to pass the time as I waited for it to brew. Finally the agony of sitting with the silent Zen was over and I headed back up the stairs spilling the coffee in places in spite of trying to be careful. I crawled back under the duvet and gave the coffee to Taj who was now wide awake, propped up reading The Guardian on his phone.
“Why do you like me? Why did you pick me?” I asked.
Taj laughed and raised his eyebrows as if I had just said the most ridiculous thing.
“What on earth are you talking about? I like you. I fancy you. You are pretty and cool. That’s why,” he said.
I considered this information.
“Cool. How am I cool? I’m not cool at all.”
“You are. It’s the way you dress, your hair, the way you walk, what you do. Everything. You don’t realise it because it’s effortless for you.”
“Bizarre,” I said.
“On the subject of cool I want to go to some of your places, the places you used to go before you met me. The places in Hulme and Moss Side. I want to be cool aswell.”
“You really are ridiculous. There is nothing cool in Hulme. It’s just full of poor people. I don’t know why you think they’re cool at all, poor little rich boy,” I said and kissed him on the forehead.
So the following weekend we went to the places I used to go before I went to university. It was Saturday night. I decided on the Grant’s Arms as an introduction. They were having one of their music nights. It was only two streets away from my house. I had virtually lived there as a late teen, underage drinker. The landlord, Henry, an old Barbadian who had made a living DJing before retiring to pub ownership didn’t care how old you were. He cared about trying to make money which was pretty hard to do in Hulme. It was a place where the old boys went during the day but they didn’t have money to waste so nursed one drink all afternoon. Henry’s party nights were his way of getting more people in. They kind of worked. He usually managed a good crowd to see the live jazz and blues bands.
Taj arrived at my house visibly nervous. It was only eight, way too early. I ushered him into my bedroom away from Dad who was already drunk and shouting at the television. We sat on the bed facing each other.
“You seem different today,” I said
“Yes, I guess I’m out of my comfort zone. This is your world,” he said.
“Don’t worry. You’ll be fine with me. Everyone knows me in that place,” I said.
“Is it true it’s full of drug dealers and criminals?” he said.
“No. Well, not really. Just the petty ones. Silly little boys who think they are Al Capone,” I said.
“Will I need to drink?” he said.
“Well only if you want to,” I said, “But maybe you need Dutch courage,” I said.
I went to the wardrobe and pulled out a bottle of vodka from the bottom. I found two glasses under the bed and poured some of the vodka into them. He downed his in one so I did the same. We lay on the bed and listened to music to get in the mood – jazz and blues. Snuggling into Taj I knew the evening was going to go just fine.
After an hour or so we headed down the road to the pub. It was only a stone’s throw from my house. Entering everything was in full swing. I saw a few heads turn as we went to the bar. There were quite a few people I knew from childhood, guys from school, old men who used to watch me play in the street, girls I went to youth club with. Here was awkward, shy Molly with a brilliant looking guy. No wonder they were staring. I felt really good. Taj was the only Asian man in the place. They almost never came in here. I wondered if he had noticed or if it bothered him. It wouldn’t matter. We ordered beers and sat in the corner, near the band. It was just the kind of music I liked. They were improvising jazz and there was a really talented saxophone player with them tonight. I felt the music get inside me. Sitting with Taj listening to this felt so right to me. I couldn’t stop smiling. People continued to look but nobody approached us. There was always food laid on on party nights so we feasted on jerk chicken, rice and peas and dumplings. This was the food I had grown up with. It was new to Taj but he tried everything and grinned. He liked it.
“Do you like my world?” I said.
“Yes. Yes really. It’s nothing like I thought,” he said.
We joined in with the dancing for hours.
Later I took Taj to a shebeen, an illegal party. It was in one of the old flats, 1930s built with little balconies. They were mostly inhabited by hippies now, Green activists, ex-students who didn’t want to grow up. There were still a few black families holding on. The party was full, all bodies and darkness and the smell of marijuana in the air. I held Taj close and we danced all night. It was dawn when we finally left and meandered back to my house, collapsing into the bed still wearing our clothes, too tired to remove them.
“Welcome to my world Taj. I am glad you like it,” I said.
Six months later
So much happened in six months. Where to begin telling you? The time flew by like falling Autumn leaves, the leaves of my life falling behind me. I was so in love the time seemed to have an air of unreality. The old Molly disappeared, the Molly that didn’t want a man or marriage or any of that stuff. It all fell away. All I wanted was Taj, to be with him always. Feminism just seemed like a bad dream.
I graduated and so did Taj. We both got 2:1s. I am not sure how as we spent more time with each other than studying but we managed it. Taj said that it was our natural brilliance shining through. I had started work in a bank. So it wasn’t the big American company of my dreams but now I had Taj it didn’t seem to matter so much. Taj got a trainee place with a firm of solicitors. Everything was how it should be.
We got engaged. It was a total surprise to me. It remains one of my favourite memories.
It was a few days after we had graduated. I hated the gown and the fuss but in the end the day went well. Dad remained sober and didn’t show me up too much. He met Taj’s parents for the first time and managed a genial civility. I was pleased and glad it was all over. So I was just home from my new job at the bank, lying on the bed wondering what to do with the weekend when my mobile rang.
It was of course Taj. Nobody else rang me these days.
“Pack some stuff. We’re going away for the weekend. Just take a few things. Not too much. I’ll be round in the morning bright and early, around eight.”
He rang off.
Typical Taj. Short and to the point. No frills in the conversation. He liked the air of mystery.
I wondered where we were going. I felt excitement mounting within me. I still hadn’t been to many other places and I always enjoyed the lure of travel. I looked in the wardrobe at my few clothes. Not packing much wouldn’t be a problem. I had barely received my first pay cheque and was still paying off a huge student loan. There was no money for frivolous clothes buying. I threw everything into a holdall: a few pair of jeans, some T-shirts, a few sweaters. I realised I didn’t know if the place would be hot or cold. It was still summer so presumably not too cold. Was it in this country or abroad? I figured this country as we only had the weekend. But you never knew with Taj. I thought about ringing him back and then thought better of it. If he had wanted to tell me he would have. He liked surprising me. Though I would complain about this secretly I loved it: the spontaneity. I passed a restless night barely sleeping due to thinking about the trip.
I woke in the morning feeling sun beating in through the window. It was really hot this early. It was going to be a beautiful day: a perfect day. In honour of this idea I set Lou Reed’s Perfect Day on my ipod and set it to repeat. I lay in bed listening to it, enjoying the music sliding into me. Yes, this day was going to be the best. I showered, brushed my teeth and dressed simply in my usual attire: black T-shirt, black skinny jeans, Converse boots and leather jacket. I applied some make-up, concentrating on the eyeliner. I threw my toothbrush in the holdall and took it downstairs into the hall. Dad wasn’t up yet. I wrote him a note and left it on the kitchen table.
Gone away for the weekend with Taj. There are some meals in the freezer.
A taxi drew up and the horn beeped. I peered out of the blinds. I could see Taj gesticulating in the back seat. I hoisted the holdall on to my shoulder and headed out. In the back of the taxi I decided it was time for Taj to tell me what was going one.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“Aha, it’s a secret. You’re going to love it,” Taj said.
I sighed. The taxi drew up at the station after a few minutes. We got out, Taj paid the driver and added a generous tip. Then we were in the main concourse. Taj scanned the boards and then swept me along to the main platform. I twigged where we were going. The screen had a train going to Edinburgh in 10 minutes. I felt triumphant that I had worked it out. I had always wanted to go there and had mentioned it to Taj a few times in the past. I was delighted.
“It’s Edinburgh! Oh Taj how wonderful.”
I reached up to kiss him and we embraced.
The train hove into view and seemed to take an age to stop, filling the platform with its noise, the carriages snaking back seemingly forever. I didn’t want to admit to Taj that I hadn’t been on a train before so I acted like this was an everyday thing for me, trying to stop my face looking surprised and perplexed and my eyes from imitating saucers. Taj grabbed my hand and dragged me along the platform to the first class carriage. First class! This was another thing I had to pretend was totally normal. We sat in adjoining seats holding hands for the journey. I had the window seat and wondered at the scenery passing by so fast. The countryside was so beautiful, everything green and verdant, summer in full glory. We passed fields and fields of yellow flowers. I didn’t know what they were but their colour was so vibrant it imprinted on my brain. As we entered Scotland we started to hug the coastline. I got glimpses of the sea. I don’t think I had ever felt so happy. Here I was on a train going away for an exciting weekend with the man I loved. This was living. Now I had graduated my life could begin. There would be lots of weekends like this. I saw my life stretching into the future like a family photo album, full of happy holidays and smiling faces.
After a few hours the train pulled into Edinburgh’s Waverley station. It was a really stunning introduction to the city. I could see the castle perched on top of a huge rock. It knocked my breath out that a city could be like this. I, who had only known Manchester, was in awe. We disembarked from the train and took a taxi to our hotel. I felt like I was in a film, like I was a child looking bug eyed at everything. The taxi drew up outside our hotel: the Caledonian hotel right at the end of Princes Street. It was a solid, huge Victorian building of red sandstone. There was a doorman in an old fashioned uniform. As we got out of the taxi the sense that I was in a fairy tale grew stronger. The doorman opened the door for us and smiled. We went into the foyer and checked in. I felt so shy and nervous to be in such grand surroundings. I was virtually hiding behind Taj. He was unconcerned, confident as ever as if he walked into grand hotels every day. Of course he had much more experience of life than I had. He had been on lots of holidays with his parents as a child but I didn’t know what sort of hotels they stayed in. Perhaps this was all normal to him. We went up in the lift and a porter carried our bags. I still had an air of unreality. I was in one of those glamorous films from the 1950s, one of those with Audrey Hepburn in where everybody is well dressed and falls in love with each other at the drop of a hat. The porter walked in front of us down a long, dark corridor which seemed to go on forever. He opened the door of a room and let us walk in before him. Taj tipped him and he left smiling at Taj’s generosity.
Finally alone we embraced and kissed. I was so excited. I pulled away and went to explore the room. It was a suite. There was a bedroom, a living area and a bathroom. It was like a small apartment rather than a hotel room. I admired everything.
“Oh it’s just wonderful. Awesome. Everything is lovely,” I said.
Taj just smiled and collapsed on the bed, reading something on his i-pad.
I decided to have a bath. The bath was huge and I filled it almost to the brim, the foam almost brimming over the top. I luxuriated in it for the longest time, making the most of my film star feeling. I found a white bathrobe folded on a chair and I put it on, enjoying the delightful fluffiness. I snuggled next to Taj on the bed who put his arm round me.
“Thank you for bringing me here Taj. You are the most wonderful boyfriend a girl could ever have. Everything is amazing. I’ve never been anywhere like this before.”
He turned to face me.
“No Molly. You are the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me,” he said.
We kissed again, falling into each other, over and over again. Time always stopped when I was with Taj like this. I could go on kissing him until there was no more Earth and no more time.
In the evening we went to a restaurant, much grander than anything I had ever been to in Manchester, even with Taj. It was just near the castle and suitably gothic. I think it was called The Witchery though I can’t quite remember now. There were wood panelled walls, candelabras and crisp white table cloths. The seats were upholstered in red leather. There were huge candles burning everywhere, the wax making shapes as it fell. I loved it all. I had bought a simple black dress for the occasion and I felt right at home. The waiters were lovely and didn’t make me feel small. I was starting to relax in these grander surroundings than the haunts of my youth. We had oysters to start and I loved the salty feel slithering down my throat. Then I had venison which was so sweet and tender. The dessert looked like a work of art to me with spun sugar decorating it in a gilded cage. Everything was wonderful to me. I didn’t know that food could taste like this, with flavours so carefully chosen to complement one another. At the end of the meal we had coffee and I found myself gazing at Taj like the love sick girl I truly was.
“Taj that meal was amazing. I didn’t know life could be like this,” I said.
“Of course. And it’s only going to get better and better from now on in,” Taj said.
He leaned towards me and took my hand.
“This hand is a beautiful hand,” he said, “but it definitely needs something.”
He reached inside his suit jacket and produced a small black box. I held my breath. I could feel myself going red as blood seemed to be suffusing into my face. He looked at me in the eyes intently and then looked down. He seemed to change his mind.
“Not here,” he said.
He called the waiter over and paid the bill. We walked out into the night. It was cold with some wind but I was too distracted to feel it. We ambled along and looked at the castle. It seemed so grim and austere, growing out of the rock and yet it had a cold beauty, like something out of a fairy tale. Edinburgh seemed an illusion to me. I had never been to a place so architecturally divine. It had an unearthly quality. The whole time we were there felt like a dream sequence, that such things couldn’t be happening to me. I was just Molly.
Taj pulled me close to him and fished out his black box again. He opened it carefully and there was a large diamond ring. I could see the light glinting off it from the street lights. I knew nothing of diamonds but something this large and set so deep must have cost a lot of money. The diamond seemed like Edinburgh itself: solid, hard, cold but stunningly beautiful. I felt light headed.
“Molly, will you marry me?” Taj said.
My voice came out in a whisper, “Oh yes Taj oh yes.”
So I had changed. Taj had turned tough trust nobody Molly into a quivering romance heroine, a 1950s girl with no other idea in her head than her man. Nothing else mattered to me. It was some feat that he had achieved this. If you had told me a year earlier this is how I would be I would have laughed in your face. But Molly was in love. Nothing else existed. I shall always remember it as the best time of my life, that weekend of love in a cold Scottish city when we thought we were invincible.
So back in Manchester the unreal events of my life continued. I felt like I was in a movie. My life was happening to someone else and I was watching it with a sense of amazement. It was as if I had left my body and someone else was inhabiting it. That somebody was lucky and happy and carefree, nothing like the old, fierce Molly.
The week after we got back from Edinburgh I was sitting at my computer at work, trying to iron out a glitch in the system. I kept glancing down at my finger, admiring the diamond of my engagement ring, letting it catch the light at different angles. I sensed the vibration of my phone on the table beside me.
You need to meet my parents. Tomorrow night. I’ll pick you up at seven. Xxx
I felt cold. The thought of Taj’s parents terrified me. I knew they were wealthy from his father’s many business interests. I knew his mother was very interested in spirituality and didn’t work. They seemed so different from my own. What on earth would they think of me? My old sense of inadequacy came flooding back, my embarrassment at my humble background, my lack of experience of the world. They were successful people. They were Muslim. I could be myself with Taj but with them? I feared they wouldn’t be happy with someone like me. They would want someone for Taj of their own kind surely; a nice Muslim girl. It wasn’t until this moment that the enormity of marriage hit me. Taj and I had lived in a bubble. Nobody else had mattered. Marriage was something else. It would involve other people. Family. Friends. Respectability. Middle class existence. All these things I didn’t understand. I didn’t really want them. I just wanted Taj, not his trappings. The cold feeling didn’t leave me but I knew I had to go alone with it. I wanted Taj and he wanted marriage. So I would give him what he wanted. It wasn’t what I wanted. I would have to be 1950s Molly, a nice girl. A girl you could take home to mother. How strange that seemed to me.
I texted back ok xxx.
I thought how meek I was being. I was allowing myself to be swept along. I didn’t want other people to be involved in our relationship but I didn’t dare to cross Taj. I couldn’t risk losing him. The thought of life without him was too lonely. I would be back to old, awkward Molly. It didn’t bare thinking about. I would have to get through it.
So tomorrow evening came. Taj picked me up in the car and we headed out to Cheshire where his parents lived. It wasn’t that long a journey but the traffic was heavy with late commuters and Taj drummed on the steering wheel with irritation. Taj drove through some electronic gates and we were crawling up a sweeping, curving gravelled driveway. I was a bit shocked by the size of the house. It was modern built but huge, in fact, quite ugly. It had a flat frontage with no features to break up the monotony of the brickwork. It was plain and squat. A voice in my head said it screamed new money. I don’t know where this snobby voice came from but I could tell that a lot of people would think it tacky. Of the few posh people I had come across I knew they always preferred old buildings, Victorian or Georgian full of period features. Perhaps Asian people had a different view. I knew vaguely that Taj’s family were from Pakistan originally. I supposed there was a lot of poverty there. Perhaps new buildings seemed better to them. I was a little taken aback by the size of the house and its ample grounds. They must be very wealthy, much more so than I had thought. Money was a mystery to me really and business was an alien world. How on earth did people make so much money to buy a house like this? There was a part of me that was kind of repulsed by the show of money, a part of me that felt like it wasn’t fair that some should have so much when others had so little. I pushed this part of myself down deep and ignored it. I was going to become one of them. I couldn’t think like that. I had to go with it. What was it Taj had said? Money enabled you to do good. He was right. Being poor never helped anyone. I was going to be part of a wealthy family. I would do good with my fortune and help others. This thought comforted me.
Taj parked carelessly in front of the door and we got out.
“I’m scared to meet your parents,” I said to Taj.
He laughed and shook his head, not replying but squeezing my hand.