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 faded again 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 the dishes 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’d 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…