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Chapter Fifteen

Yasmin was perturbed to find that the pasta dough she had been kneading for ten minutes resolutely refused to become smooth and elastic. She continued kneading with an unabated enthusiasm though, because it gave her something else to focus on, something other than the phone call she was now stuck in.

At the time, she had thought that calling Ali to discuss her plan would be fun. She liked him, he had a good sense of humour, and a part of her relished the shock value of what she wanted to tell him.

But when she had heard his voice she had felt a rush of affection, mixed with just a little pity, and she had not wanted to just come out with it.

‘What I’m trying to say,’ she began again ‘is that love is a strange thing. Sometimes it springs up where you least expect it. You can’t control it. And I think you just have to act on it. Encourage it.’

There was a long pause at the other end, during which Yasmin cradled the phone on her shoulder and got on with her kneading.

‘Are you in love with me?’ Ali asked, and she could hear the smile on his face, but also the underlying confusion in his tone.

‘Well, you are cute, but this is not about me,’ Yasmin said dryly.

‘I want to get Tala and Leyla together, and I need your help.’

‘But why?’

‘Why what?’ she asked, trying to force a modicum of patience into her tone as she fed dough into the pasta machine.

‘Why do you want to get them together? The other night I suggested it and Tala didn’t seem interested at all… In fact, it feels like she wants to avoid Leyla for some reason. No idea why.’

Yasmin sighed. ‘Listen, did you ever see the TV show, “The L Word”?’

‘No, but did you ever consider not speaking in riddles?’ Ali shot back.

Yasmin took a breath and let her next words tumble out in a mess. ‘They’re in love with each other.’

‘Who?’

Yasmin rolled her eyes at her uncut ravioli. ‘Leyla and Tala.’

She waited. Clearly, he had understood at last, because there was no further sound from Ali, only the background noise of his phone.

‘Ali, I….’

‘I’ll call you later,’ he interrupted quietly and hung up the phone.

* * *

When Leyla had turned and walked away from Tala that afternoon after the lecture, she had felt a momentary sense of relief that she had Jennifer’s protective hand to hold onto, that she could show Tala how she had moved on with her life, that she had not let Tala’s marriage affect her. There was a tinge of pride too, she had to admit, in demonstrating that she, at least, would remain honest about who she really was. But both pride and relief were subsumed all too quickly beneath a much heavier sense of loss and she had made an excuse about not feeling well in order to avoid going back to Jennifer’s flat. She could not think of Jennifer now, and she did not want to encourage an intimacy that would allow her to close her eyes and imagine Tala while she was with someone else.

And so for the past three days she had stayed at home, except for her hours in the office, which were becoming fewer as she prepared for the upcoming publication of her book. The idea of the book thrilled her but she came to realize that the low hum of excitement that quivered constantly in her body was somehow more related to Tala, to having seen her and felt the touch of her hand on her arm, and having caught the scent of her that she had forgotten.



In her robe, Leyla walked into the kitchen, past Yasmin who was doing something odd to a bowl of prawns, and through to a small laundry room, where her mother was applying a hot iron to her father’s shirt. The room was warm, with curls of steam that settled around the windows’ edges, and a welcoming light that pushed away the creeping dusk outside.

Maya looked up and held out her hand for the black dress that Leyla held over her arm.

‘I can do that for you.’ she said. ‘You haven’t worn a dress in ages.’

‘I’m going out.’

‘Who with?’ Maya asked automatically, and then instantly regretted asking. She had made a point of never asking such things since Leyla’s unfortunate revelation, because if she didn’t ask, she wouldn’t have to find out things she’d rather not know. But here, lulled into drowsiness by the warmth and the slow, rhythmic shift of the iron, she had lowered her guard and forgotten. She dropped her eyes back to the fabric before her.

‘Ali asked me to have dinner with him,’ Leyla replied.

Maya looked up, alert. This was news.

‘He’s a lovely boy,’ she began.

‘Mum! He’s a friend.’

Maya bit her tongue against articulating her belief that a good friendship was what real marriages were all based on anyway, and went back to making sure the dress was ironed perfectly. Perhaps if he actually saw her looking like a girl, Maya thought, Ali would sweep her off her feet and at the same time sweep away this whole sorry phase of Leyla’s life. She handed Leyla the dress and she slipped it on, twirling around for approval. Maya smiled.

Yasmin appeared at the doorway, car keys dangling in her hand, and let out a low wolf whistle at her sister’s appearance.

‘You should wear that for Gay Pride,’ she advised Leyla, mainly for their mother’s benefit. ‘They’d eat you alive.’

‘She’s having dinner with Ali,’ snapped Maya.

‘Oh, I’m so pleased,’ grinned Yasmin. ‘He’s such a good boy…’

‘Where are you going?’ Maya demanded.

‘I’m going out,’ Yasmin replied helpfully.

Maya sniffed at the lack of detail, the lack of respect, then she switched off the iron and chased Yasmin and Leyla away from the door and followed them into the kitchen where a massive pot of water was boiling away, steaming up the whole room.

‘I made you and Dad homemade pasta with shrimp for dinner,’ Yasmin explained.

‘If I want a sauna, I can join a health club,’ Maya said disconso-lately, and turned, ready to face Yasmin’s inevitable retort, only to find her youngest child regarding her with new respect.

‘That was quite funny, Mum.’

‘Someone answer the door,’ Maya instructed, for the bell had rung, but her daughters might have been deaf for all the interest they showed. Yasmin obeyed, returning with a large, long gift box which she handed to Leyla.

Leyla stood awkwardly by the stove in the soft folds of her black dress with her mother and sister watching and gingerly removed the lid to reveal an expansive, spreading bouquet of long-stemmed red roses. On top lay a fine envelope upon which her name was inscribed in a deep blue ink.

‘Ali?’ breathed Maya.

‘Jennifer?’ suggested Yasmin.

‘Tala,’ whispered Leyla.

They all looked at each other, embarrassed in their own way, then Maya turned to put on the kettle for her tea, Yasmin left to go out, and Leyla took her present upstairs.

In the sanctuary of her own room, Leyla switched on lamps and sat down to open the letter. A thin, crisp sheet of paper emerged, as translucent and delicate as a petal, but there was no letter, no introduction and no signature, only a poem:

Every night I empty my heart, but by morning it’s full again.
Slow droplets of you seep in through the night’s soft caress.
At dawn, I overflow with thoughts of us, An aching pleasure that gives me no respite.
Love cannot be contained, the neat packaging of desire Splits asunder, spilling crimson through my days.
Long, languishing days that are now bruised tender with yearning, Spent searching for a fingerprint, a scent, a breath you left behind.

Leyla brushed away the tears that sat thickly on her lashes. She hated Tala for doing this to her – for she knew it was Tala who had sat down and chiseled out that poem, who had crafted it and polished it for her alone. But why? It was late, too late. Leyla folded the poem gently along the delicate creases of the paper and slipped it under her pillow. Then she looked at the flowers, boldly crimson and exquisitely tinged with pink around the edges, a symbol of perfect beauty and perfect love. On an impulse, she picked up the lid of the box and closed them over, ready to give away, for they represented a world that did not truly exist, and she did not want a reminder of it too near her.

* * *

‘Reservation for Ali, seven thirty?’

Leyla gathered herself as the waiter consulted his book. The drive into London had given her time to recover a little, and she felt stronger now, a little self-conscious in the unaccustomed dress, but a little more confident also. She was glad she had worn it, for Ali had chosen an exceptional restaurant.

‘The other party hasn’t arrived yet, Madam. Can I offer you a drink at the bar, or shall I show you to the table?’

Leyla glanced over at the bar, all polished wood and clinking crystal glasses, but it was dominated by an odd-looking woman dressed in a wide-brimmed floppy hat that fell over the huge dark glasses shielding her face. Probably an actress, Leyla thought; there was definitely something familiar about her.

‘The table, please,’ she asked, and followed the waiter inside. The floppy hatted woman’s head turned to watch her as she went.

Tala waited in agony and in vain for any sign that Leyla had received the poem, and then, half an hour before she had to leave, started to get dressed. She did not have a clear idea of why Ali had insisted on inviting her to dinner, but she understood vaguely that it must be something to do with her wild-eyed, rain-sodden appearance and sudden disappearance the other night. She had made an effort to dress up a little, partly because the place he had booked was a very good one, but mostly to reassure him that there was nothing wrong with her.

She was not surprised when the waiter advised her that her dinner partner was already waiting – he was habitually early and she appreciated that about him, that he would prefer to wait than keep anyone waiting. She glanced at the gracious, old bar as she walked past, and felt the eyes of a strange woman in big sunglasses (at night!) and a big hat follow her as she passed. Tala shook off the self-consciousness that this moment induced and followed the waiter to the table.

Leyla had chosen that moment to unravel a napkin, which seemed to have been folded by an origami master, and so failed to notice that the waiter was leading someone to her table until she looked up to find Tala standing before her. She blinked, surprised, and saw her own confusion mirrored on Tala’s face.

‘I guess we’ve been set up,’ Tala offered, uncertainly.

‘So it seems.’

The chair was being held for her, and in the pause that followed, and not without a feeling of presumption, Tala sat down.

‘The gentlemen sends his regrets, ladies,’ the waiter said, handing them menus. ‘But he wishes you a pleasant evening at his invitation.’

Tala was very warm suddenly, her face felt flushed, and she reached for the bottle of water that stood in an ice bucket beside them. After she had taken a sip, she looked at Leyla.

‘You look wonderful,’ she said.

‘So do you.’

‘I know,’ Tala replied, deadpan. And Leyla laughed. Taking a breath, Tala smiled and felt a small measure of relief.

Out in the bar, a pretty young woman in a big hat and sunglasses paid for her drink, made a mental note never to order a watermelon martini ever again, and left.

Leyla knew that there was no way she could make small talk for very long, but she surprised even herself when, during the very first short pause in their early conversation she asked Tala how her husband was.‘I don’t have one,’ was the reply.

Leyla tried to look surprised (this was not hard, as the news did take her aback) but she tried also to stifle her other natural response, which was to laugh and punch the air. With a quiet dignity, achieved in part by staring hard at the butter dish, she waited for Tala to explain.

‘I called off the wedding. The day before the wedding,’ Tala said.

Clearly that kind of dramatic gesture deserved some response.

‘That must have been very hard,’ suggested Leyla.

‘It was the second-hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,’ Tala said, her eyes fixed intently on Leyla’s. Now Leyla blushed, for she could divine Tala’s meaning, not that she intended to let it go unarticulated.

‘What was the first?’

Tala looked away and smiled, then glanced back at Leyla.

‘Leaving you to go back to Jordan.’

Leyla smiled. Picking up her glass, she took a sip of wine. The taste spread lightly over her tongue and made her light-headed at once. Except that it was her first drink, and the giddiness could not be so easily blamed upon that alone.

* * *

Giving the taxi driver a huge tip, the woman in the floppy hat made her way past a crowd of after-work drinkers standing on the street, and into a much louder bar where the thumping beats made her shimmy slightly across the room, stopping with an upbeat wiggle in front of Ali. He looked a little tired and somewhat tense, she noted, as if he had been waiting for some time. Swiftly, Yasmin removed her glasses and hat.

‘Well, I’m glad to see you were discreet,’ Ali noted.

Yasmin grinned and shook out her hair, which had been pinned beneath the hat, and watched as he poured her some wine.

‘And? How’d it go?’ he asked, impatiently.

‘There eyes met,’ Yasmin said, pausing for dramatic effect. ‘A brief smile played across Tala’s mouth. Unconsciously, Leyla licked her lips…It’s all over.’

Ali winced and downed the remains of his drink. ‘You know, I’m still getting used to the idea,’ he told her.

‘Would it help if I drew you a diagram?’

‘Definitely not,’ Ali replied quickly. ‘But it might help – a bit – if you had dinner with me now.’

‘Don’t want to be alone to brood about Leyla?’ she asked, trying to be understanding. For she liked him, he was funny and intelligent and kind. How many men would set their ex-girlfriend up with their best friend? He was looking at her now, thoughtfully, and it felt a little too long before he answered, but when he did, she felt that he really meant what he said.

‘It’s not that,’ he said. ‘I’d just like to have dinner with you. That’s all. I know nothing about you except that you clearly love your sister a lot, and that you make a great Greek salad…’

Yasmin smiled.

* * *

‘I can’t believe your book is being published!’ Tala said. ‘I mean, of course I can believe it, it’s just that..’

To stop herself tripping over her own tongue, Tala reached out for Leyla’s hand and squeezed it. An expression of her pride, her excitement. And now that their hands were together, it felt too wonderful to break apart. Lightly, as nonchalantly as possible, Tala held onto the long fingers, but after a short moment, Leyla pulled gently away. Tala touched her hair, conscious of the rejection and changed the subject.

‘How’s your girlfriend?’

‘Jennifer?’

Tala cleared her throat. ‘Has there been more than one?’

‘No,’ Leyla smiled. ‘She’s fine. Thanks for asking.’

‘Do you love her, Leyla?’

Tala saw Leyla sit back slightly, perhaps because she herself was leaning forward now, earnest, demanding, as if this girl owed her any explanations when she clearly did not.

‘There are things I love about her.’

Now Tala sat back; the sting of being hit with her own words about Hani had struck her off-balance. Casually, she glanced at the tables next to them, followed the steps of a passing waiter, listened to the subdued, well-bred laughter from a table behind her.

‘And is that good enough for you?’ she asked softly. She held Leyla’s eyes now, would not let them shift away or find time to close off. Leyla shook her head, mutely, and Tala saw that she was on the verge of tears. Gently, she reached out her hand to touch Leyla, her cheek, her arm, anything to reassure her, to comfort her, but something indefinable snapped in the girl opposite. She pulled back and Tala saw at once that there was a new determination in her clear, dark eyes.

‘What is it?’ Tala asked.

‘Did you tell your parents why you broke off the wedding?’

Tala saw the hole looming and she danced around it. ‘I told them it wouldn’t be fair to Hani.’

‘Did you tell them why?’

The insistence, the stubborn need to push at things she didn’t understand needled Tala intensely. Irritated, she pushed away her plate.

‘Look, Leyla, you don’t understand. The Middle East is an unforgiving place. And my parents have a strong presence in that world, and it’s a culture that doesn’t change…’

‘And as long as people don’t dare to be truthful about who they are, it never will change.’

Tala leaned forward. ‘Leyla, I love you. Why should that be anyone else’s business? Even my family’s?’

Leyla had a good answer for this too, but it was temporarily lost to her as she tried to recover from hearing Tala utter the three words that she now realized she had longed to hear for so long. She marveled at how these three, ancient, hackneyed and probably over-used monosyllables, strung together by the right person at the right moment, could change her world. And yet, Tala did not feel able to explain that feeling, that love, to anyone else. It would remain hidden, illicit, unreal.

‘I don’t want to lie about who I’m with and why I’m with them,’

Leyla said. ‘I don’t want you to be my lover at home and my ‘friend’ everywhere else. I can’t live like that.’

She saw Tala look away, sliding out from under her gaze, wishing this conversation did not have to happen.

‘You know, you once told me to be more at ease with myself,’ Leyla said quietly. ‘Now I’m telling you the same thing.’

Tala tried to think of a reply, something that would explain why she could not do what Leyla expected, something to make her understand that just being in love with each other and together would be enough, but she realized with disbelief that it was too late. Leyla was standing up, gathering her bag and her things, and she was leaving.

‘Don’t..’ Tala whispered, and Leyla stopped next to her chair and pressed her lips against her hair in a kiss that felt urgent and final. Then she turned and walked out of the restaurant, leaving Tala floating in an acid state of shock and bitter regret.

 



Date: 2015-02-28; view: 787


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