Second novel – Syria-beginning

This is the beginning of my novel. If anyone has any constructive criticism I would be grateful to hear it…

Syria

Prologue

 

Syria

 

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.

Chapter 1

 

Manchester

 

Rain.

Cold rain.

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. Manchester. Rain.

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 sometimes 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 grey 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 in a band. 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? That blonde girl in that band. You know. 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 almost cheeky 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.’

‘Shame.’

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.

Chapter 2

 

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 was retro. 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. My look was deliberately from the past. It was what I liked. I kind of wished I had been young in the 1970s. Punk would have suited me just fine. I liked to think I looked like Chrissy Hynde, pretty but androgynous.

‘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.

Abbie laughed.

‘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.

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.’

He laughed.

‘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.

I smiled.

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