Maya sat in the audience bursting with pride while trying to discreetly communicate a signal to Leyla, who was on display amongst all these intellectual people, to sit up straight.
But Leyla was not looking at her, she seemed nervous, and who could blame her? The publication of her book was a big event. Maya fought for elbow space with her expansive husband who was taking up the seat to her left and half of her seat besides, and considered how proud she was that she had given birth to a daughter clever enough to write a whole novel. Glowing, she turned to her right to give even her youngest daughter a broad smile of approval. Although she longed for the day when Yasmin would stop throw-ing live lobsters into her good cooking pots and make something normal for dinner, like a nice chicken tikka or a shepherd’s pie, she considered it a coup that at least the child could cook. She caught the outline of Ali’s profile, for he sat next to Yasmin (the result of careful manoeuvering on Maya’s part) and she noticed how lovely the two of them looked together. And now they were exchanging a glance and a smile as they watched Leyla stand up and begin reading. Maya sighed with pleasure and looked around. In this majestic London courtyard, built of old stones that caught the last autumn rays of the evening sun, she felt happy.
Leyla began her reading with a stomach that felt as if it was filled with rocks and a voice that quavered just slightly, but she tried to focus on the words, tried to remember she was telling a story, and as she became absorbed into that world, she felt her voice relax, and her shoulders too. She rounded off the excerpt elegantly after ten minutes and blushed as everyone applauded. In the audience, which contained more people than she had dared hope to expect, she caught sight of her parents, beaming, and of Yasmin and Ali, clapping still. It was a golden moment, for the sun still sat high enough to coat them, she could feel the touch of it painting her arms. She would have wished for only one more thing to complete her happiness, but that was something and someone that could never be forced and she would learn to accept that fact, somehow, one of these days.
The reading ended and Leyla was led to a small table where she could sign books. Filled with horror at the idea of sitting there and being approached for a signature only by her family, she was greatly relieved to see that a significant queue was forming, and she sat down with her pen, and tried to look casual, as if she did this every day. Out of the corner of one eye, she saw Ali smiling at her, caught a glimpse of her father proudly buying a big stack of her books, and her mother chatting with random audience members, explaining that the famous writer was her daughter. She looked up to find a book being placed before her.
‘Can you sign it “Jane Austen”?’ Yasmin asked.
Leyla smiled, signed it as herself and looked up as Yasmin moved smartly out of the way for the next person in the queue. After about five minutes, Leyla got into a rhythm, opening the book to the right page and asking who she should sign it for before handing it back with a smile and a few words of conversation.
‘Who should I make it out to?’ she asked for perhaps the twen-tieth time in ten minutes. She was thrilled that so many people had waited to buy books. The publisher had told her to keep her expectations low for she was a new writer and nobody would have heard of her.
‘To Tala,’ came the reply.
Leyla looked up and stared and all sound and sense seemed to drain away. Tala’s intent brown eyes held her look for a long moment, until Leyla became aware that she had not breathed for too long, and that she had adopted the attitude of an inelegant statue, mouth slightly open and pen suspended in mid air.
‘To Tala,’ Tala repeated softly, dictating carefully. ‘Who finally had the courage to come out to her parents.’
She replied to Leyla’s look of query with a nod and a quiet smile.
Clearing her throat, although she could think of nothing rational to say, Leyla looked down at the book. Quickly, she inscribed something inside, closed it and handed it back to Tala. The tips of their fingers touched lightly in the exchange, and Leyla felt the current of it run through her spine.
‘Thank you,’ Tala said and she moved away.
As soon as she could, Tala stopped, held the book in her palm and looked at it. She smiled with pride to see Leyla’s name imprinted on the cover, and then she smiled with embarrassment to note how shaky her own hands were. She took a breath and gently pulled back the front cover to see that Leyla had written only three, short words, but they were the only words she would have wanted to see.
Words which Tala had read a thousand times before, in books and also in occasional love letters, but which touched her now as if they had been written down and committed to paper for the first time in history and for her alone.
The sweetness of the moment was broken, but not unhappily, by a hug from Ali, and an introduction to Leyla’s sister, a lanky girl whose eyes held a latent sparkle. And those two older people who were approaching them, Tala realized with misgiving, must be Leyla’s parents. She resisted the urge to hyperventilate and tried to smile nonchalantly as they said hello. They might know that Leyla was gay, but they certainly didn’t need to know that she had ever kissed their daughter, or touched her, or even looked at her. Did they?
‘Are you okay, Tala?’ Ali touched her arm, and Tala felt the blood rush back to her face.
‘Fine, thank you.’
She shook hands with the parents. Leyla’s father seemed very nice and offered her another book from a pile he was holding, and her mother was polite too, although the way that she wouldn’t meet her eyes, combined with Yasmin’s slight smirk made Tala suspect that they all knew exactly what she had done to their daughter once in a hotel room in Oxford. She swallowed hard and looked around to find Leyla coming to join them, finished with the signing. With relief and yet trepidation, Tala moved aside to allow Leyla into the circle, and watched gratefully as attention diverted from herself to the celebrated writer who underwent hugs and kisses from everyone in turn, until she faced Tala and it was Tala’s turn to offer congratulations.
Panicked in front of the watching parents, Tala stuck out a hand.
She stared at her own fingers, held out in a gesture of formality she had only ever offered to business associates or complete strangers before now. She knew she had to take it back, the hand, and behave like a normal person, like a normal friend, just offer a hug or something, but it was too late. Leyla took the hand and shook it solemnly.
Tala’s mind rushed back to a first meeting so long ago (and yet not that long, she realized) in her house. Then, slowly, sinuously, she felt Leyla lean forward and Tala could feel her lips brush her cheek very softly, felt her head reeling from the scent of Leyla’s skin.
‘Sorry to break your reserve,’ Leyla said. ‘But I don’t think a kiss of congratulations is too much to ask?’
Tala nodded and smiled and completed the kiss, but the touch of Leyla’s hand on hers, the caress of her clothes against her own was a kind of torture, for she longed to kiss her properly now, to put her lips against hers, to place her hands under her shirt and…
‘You must join us for dinner,’ Sam said, kindly.
Inwardly, imperceptibly, Tala shook herself and tried not to appear breathless.
‘I’d love to,’ she said, because she could not be away from Leyla, but she wondered how she could make it through a whole meal without betraying herself. And what would happen afterwards?
* * *
‘Booked you a hotel room,’ Yasmin said to them under her breath as they finally left the restaurant and stood about on the pavement.
‘Christmas is three months away,’ Leyla said.
‘Yeah, well, don’t expect anything under the tree,’ clarified Yasmin with a grin. She scribbled a hotel name on the back of a napkin and handed it over.
‘Come on, Mum and Dad,’ Yasmin said, hailing a taxi. ‘Ali and I will get you home. These two are going out to celebrate.’
‘Now?’ exclaimed Maya. ‘But it’s ten o’clock already.’
‘Mum, they’re not eighty,’ said Yasmin, and Maya’s retort was lost as she was bundled unceremoniously into the back of the cab.
With a final glance back at Leyla and Tala, and a look that was not without a wistful regret, Ali joined the others in the taxi and waved from the window.
The slam of the door opening back against the wall echoed down the plush corridors of the hotel but Leyla didn’t notice, for Tala’s mouth was on hers as they fell into the room. Closing the door with her foot, she leaned back against the wall, tasting Tala’s tongue chasing her own, pulling off Tala’s jacket. Tala’s mouth moved down to her neck, following the line of her fingers which were undoing the buttons of Leyla’s shirt, fumbling urgently, releasing finally the swollen breasts and kissing them, licking, caressing the erect nipples with a tongue that was gentle but insistent. Leyla reached down, her hands slipping inside Tala’s bra, then moving down, stroking her stomach, reaching for her belt, pulling it open, sliding her hand inside her panties, but Tala slipped down further, onto her knees and out of reach, her tongue tracing a line down Leyla’s abdomen and down further, lowering her trousers with hands that lingered over her and spread open the legs that could barely keep Leyla upright.
Leyla moaned, her head falling back at the play of that tongue touching her; there was no thought, no feeling, nothing except the waves of sensation, her hips moving against Tala’s mouth until she cried out. Shaking, she slid down on top of Tala, who held her close against her own skin, their bodies fused together so that, in the indefinable world revealed by her heightened senses, Leyla could not tell where hers ended and Tala’s began.
* * *
In an expensive restaurant in Amman, amid the excitable chatter of lunchtime diners, Hani sat with Reema, newly arrived from London, and tried to make conversation that did not touch on politics, religion or sexuality. The first two were never easy to avoid in the Middle East, and the last topic was foremost in both their minds because of Tala. Hani tried another bite of flatbread with thyme, and momentarily regretted having invited his near mother-in-law to lunch. He had done so because he knew he was the only one who could try to talk to her about Tala, and because it would not hurt for Amman society to see that he bore no hard feelings towards Tala’s family for what had happened. But here they sat, ten minutes into the meal and already they had exhausted the weather, the plane ride and his work as items of discussion.
‘Aunty?’ Hani said suddenly. ‘About Tala. It’s not the end of the world.’
A burst of laughter, unconnected but cruelly timed burst up from the table behind them, hidden from view by discreet banquettes and potted plants. Reema sighed and picked up a cigarette.
Hani leaned over, lighter ready.
‘As long as she’s happy, Aunty,’ he tried again. ‘That’s what really matters.’
Reema regarded him without enthusiasm. Perhaps it was a good thing Tala hadn’t married him. The boy was clearly a crackpot.
‘Happiness is not the issue,’ she explained, slowly, as if to someone of limited mental faculty. ‘People will talk,’ she hissed.
‘You know what? No-one knows. And if they find out, I don’t think they’ll even care. Times have changed, Aunty. Even here.’
Again the laughter from the table nearby, but this time, in the silence that Reema imposed with a withering look at Hani, they caught a snatch of the conversation between four women:
‘No, come on!’
‘You’re joking, habibti! Tala?!’
Hani squirmed as the other women quieted their friend down.
The gossip continued, with low undertones passing back to Reema, who had assumed the rigid mien of a stone carving.
‘I have to say,’ said one of the women, in a tone that carried. ‘I don’t see what all the fuss is. About Tala.’
Hani breathed. This was promising. Could he allow a smile?
‘I mean,’ she continued. ‘Some of my best friends are Lebanese.’
Closing his eyes for just a moment, Hani found that he could.