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Chapter Sixteen

It was strange and unexpected that by the time she got home that night, Tala found herself thinking much more about Hani than Leyla. She let herself into the house, which stood quiet and softly lit. Rani, the housekeeper, heard the click of the front door from the kitchen where she had just boiled the kettle. Recognising Tala’s steps, she poured the steaming water into a spotlessly clean cup which held a bag of herbal tea, then padded out to meet her at the foot of the stairs.

‘Hi, Rani. Where are my parents?’

‘Went out for dinner, Miss. Here, this is for you.’

Tala took the cup gratefully. ‘Camomile. Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome, Miss,’ Rani said, kindly.

‘Any calls for me?’

She hoped that perhaps Leyla would have telephoned, that she would have in fact found herself unable to live without Tala, even in the half hour that had elapsed since she had left the restaurant.

‘Nothing, Miss.’ Rani hesitated. ‘I’m sorry.’

Tala shook off the sympathy with a quick smile, and trudged upstairs. There were times when she felt her mother’s laconic housekeeper knew more than anyone else about everything that went on in the house.

Gently, Tala closed the door to her room, and sat on the edge of her bed, in the dark, and thought about the evening that had begun so well and with such promise. She tried to trace the weaving line of the conversation, to pinpoint what had broken the delicate thread of their flirtation and she came back once more to her own words:

‘I told them it wouldn’t be fair to Hani.’

It had seemed like the truth at the time, at the apex of the wedding crisis. It had contained the correct amount of self-blame, and even held the suggestion that splintering the engagement would be more beneficial to him than to her. But now it felt like only a glossy-surfaced excuse that did not touch the reasons beneath.

Leyla’s insistence had stirred up in Tala a new kind of guilt towards her ex-fiancé.

Resolutely, without switching on lights, she reached for the phone and tapped in the familiar number.


‘Hani? It’s me. Is this a bad time?’

She meant the question in the most practical way. To ask if he was in the middle of a meal, or asleep. But the length of his silence reminded her that there could never be a good time for him to hear again the voice he had been in love with.

‘No, it’s fine,’ Hani said at last. ‘Is everything okay?’


He waited for more, for the reason why she was calling, but only a soft silence hung between them, as fragile as a spider’s web.

‘Hani, I have to tell you something,’ Tala began. She swallowed and held her hand to her forehead as she spoke, for her palm felt cool and calming on the hot skin. She could feel him waiting for her to speak, and she opened her mouth to try but she couldn’t.

‘Tala, you don’t owe me anything,’ he said, and his tone was not harsh, but was not kind either. There was a weariness to his voice that pierced her. She looked up to the windows, where thin slats of yellow light from the street poked in through the shutters and threw long slashes of brightness across the wooden floor.

‘I never told you why I didn’t marry you, Hani. Not exactly. And I’d like to.’

‘Go ahead,’ he replied and she closed her eyes against even the shards of light from outside. Perhaps if it was so dark that she could not even catch the shadow of herself, she would be able to say it.

‘Hani, I’ve always been more attracted to women than men. Always. And so, even though I loved you, I wasn’t in love with you, not the way I am with...’ Tala cut herself off and took a breath.

‘What I mean is, I realised I did feel that way about someone, and it was Leyla. But I was too scared to admit it to myself, never mind to anyone else.’

She knew he was listening because she could hear him breathing, could hear him clear his throat.

‘Wow,’ he said. Then, after a long pause and a cough, a touch of irony: ‘So it really wasn’t my fault?’

She laughed, a little, and the release of the breath brought up tears, and to her chagrin, she could not find a way to stop them this time, they pooled up without concern for propriety or form and she cried, as silently as she could, while Hani listened without speaking. When she had finished, and was fumbling in the dark for the tissues that were next to her bed, she tried to apologise but he interrupted.

‘You should be proud of yourself, Tala,’ he said. ‘For admitting it eventually. Not many people do. Especially from our part of the world. And..I’m glad you told me. It helps. Really, it does.’ The lightness that he tried for could not rise above the heaviness of his tone, but she was grateful for his kindness, so grateful for his friendship.

‘Tala, you can count on me to be totally discreet about this. You know that, don’t you? I won’t tell a soul.’

She wiped her nose and smiled. ‘Well, maybe not for a day or two. I need to talk to my parents first,’ she said, and he laughed, a throaty, happy sound this time.

‘Good for you. And good luck,’ Hani said. ‘Because trust me, habibti, you are going to need it.’

* * *

Tala walked into the dining room at ten the following morning to find her parents in an expansive mood after a good dinner the night before and an excellent end to the evening for Reema in the casino.

They greeted her with enthusiasm and ushered her in to join them for breakfast – a platter of tropical fruits which Reema steered solicitously towards her daughter.

‘Have some papaya, mama,’ Reema advised as she lit up a cigarette. ‘It’s anti-cancer.’

Tala considered whether she should point out the obvious irony as she watched the recommended fruit suffer under the pall of Reema’s exhaled smoke, but her mother pre-empted her.

‘Don’t complain,’ she said. ‘I need a cigarette to get my system going in the morning.’

‘I wanted to talk to you both,’ Tala said quickly, composing herself. Reema inhaled deeply, narrowing her eyes to regard her daughter.‘Whatever you have to tell us can’t be good, or you would be smiling.’

There would be no need for small talk, Tala realised. The gate had been opened to her, and she had only to march through it.

‘It is good,’ she started boldly, determined not only to unload the basic premise, but to actively present it in a way that might possibly influence their reaction. ‘I’m in love with a wonderful person.’

Omar frowned, while Reema bit on her cigarette holder. She prided herself that she always looked on the bright side of life, that she could find hope even where there seemed only to be despair – it was how she had gotten through life with two such disappointing children as Tala and Zina. But she knew in her heart that this opening was not good.

For some years now, Reema had vaguely sensed something about her eldest daughter, something that had made her regret her inractable insistence that her daughter attend a girls-only boarding school. Something horrible, something obscene, something disgusting. It was a mere suggestion, a possibility, a hunch, a sour taste on the back of her tongue, never something that she would spit up for everyone to see. Instead, Reema’s strategy had been to keep swallow-ing it back down to the pit of her stomach whenever it appeared or, as in the recent case in Oxford with that girl Leyla, to arrange things so that a gentle pressure kept her daughter on the correct path.

‘I’m gay,’ Tala said, and she closed her eyes for a moment, disguising the movement as a long blink. She waited tensely, but filled with righteous determination, for Reema’s response. Her father was examining the fanned pieces of fruit with the air of a man who has heard nothing.

Reema felt as though a badly-honed axe had just slammed down on her fingers. She couldn’t believe Tala had just said it like that.

Gay. The very word made Reema shudder. It was so far from the reality of marriage and it was miles away from the sexual act, which in its natural state contained within it the image of strong, wild male-ness merging thrillingly with willing feminine submission (for on the subject of sex she remained more influenced by her avid reading of romance novels than her own personal experience). Homosexuality sounded like a reckless and disgusting science experiment. Reema felt like screaming.

But the housekeeper had chosen this moment to walk into the room with a fresh pot of mint tea. Carefully, methodically, Rani unloaded the tray, placing the pastries she had brought closer to Tala and reserving to the end the special, gold-filigreed cup, Reema’s favourite, which she placed with delicate precision right before her employer. She glanced at Reema and decided against offering her the tea right at that moment, for she was certain she could see the slow grinding of Reema’s teeth beneath the muscles that stood out tautly in her jaw. Swiftly, Rani left the room to stand sentinel just outside the door where the acoustics of the conversation inside were best.Having been forced to swallow her first, instinctual rage (for it would never do to air their dirty – and in this case filthy – laundry in front of the staff) Reema put out her cigarette with a deep sigh of regret, as if the residue of crushed ash contained all her cremated hopes.

‘Don’t you want to know who it is?’ Tala said, looking up, having spent the past minute staring at the floor.

Her mother regarded her balefully.

‘It’s Leyla,’ Tala said, surprised by her own resolve.

In Reema’s mind were two considerations. One was that that girl Leyla had always had trouble written all over her face (which, by the way, was the same colour as her numerous staff members) and she cursed herself for not somehow finding a way to remove her from Tala’s life. Secondly, and more pertinent to her long-term appraisal of the situation, was the fact that she would have to find a way to cure Tala of this. It was not something one was, it was something one had, and there were ways to get rid of it. Foremost among these was a good marriage, but Tala had obstinately refused to try that method. She wondered briefly about certain camps she had heard of in America, but she didn’t know where they were.

‘Don’t tell a soul,’ Reema said. ‘Until we sort this out.’

‘I’ll tell whoever I like. And there’s nothing to sort out.’

‘Haven’t you shamed us enough already?’ Reema cried after her daughter, for Tala had gotten up to leave the room. ‘You’re a disgrace! An aberration!’ she yelled, and Tala had time to exchange one, tearful glance with her father before she walked out and slammed the door behind her. Caught between two camps, Omar put a calming hand on Reema’s shoulder, but when it became evident that his wife was completely unaware of his presence, he hurried out after his daughter.

In the stillness of the hallway, after the hysterics and the banging of doors had ceased, Rani sensed that her employer might be in need of her. Into the dining room she glided, economical and quiet in her movements, and watched Reema, who was sitting heavily in her chair, one hand on her chest, the other holding listlessly onto her cigarette holder. With great care she poured a cup of warm mint tea for Reema, and offered to her the vessel, where the slick spittle that she had deposited earlier floated unobtrusively, and for the first time since Rani had begun her solitary game, Reema drank.


Date: 2015-02-28; view: 945

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