Run, Mummy, Run
Run, Mummy, Run
Run Mummy Run
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF
Copyright © Cathy Glass 2011
Cathy Glass asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9780007299287
Ebook Edition © APRIL 2011 ISBN: 9780007436644 Version: 2017-02-21
About the Author
Also by Cathy Glass
It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul – an opening, a gateway, to the person within. But what happens when the glass is cracked? Do we see the distortion, or wanting desperately to believe, ignore it, until it’s too late?
To Aisha, the kindest, most gentle person I have ever known. Your only crime was to be too trusting, for having no wickedness in your own soul, how were you supposed to see it in others?
Aisha touched the photograph and then moved it slightly to the right, trying to find its correct position. It had to sit at exactly the right angle, with the light streaming onto her face so that it showed her at her best. Mark liked it that way, he said it reminded him of the day when they had posed for the photograph – on the bench beneath the large oak tree. The sun had filtered through the leaves of the branches overhead, casting little diamond patterns onto the material of her dress. The two of them, with their arms entwined, taking their eyes from each other just long enough to smile into the lens. Mark had stopped a passer-by and had asked him if he would mind taking their photograph, then he’d given Aisha a framed copy, as a token of his undying love, he said.
Aisha inched the photograph left and right again and then saw a smudge, a fingerprint, on the glass. She picked it up and rubbed it hard with the sleeve of her cardigan until all trace of it had gone. She knew how Mark hated dirt, how angry he would become if he saw it. Mark said dirt was a sign of a slovenly and untidy mind, and that it was the inside of a person coming out and couldn’t be tolerated. It wasn’t Aisha’s fingerprint on the glass; oh no, she would never have been so careless. It must have been the inspector when he’d picked up the photograph and examined it, as though a clue might be concealed within, and then returned it to the bureau, only in the wrong position and leaving his fingerprint.
Aisha silently cursed the inspector for his thoughtlessness – she was going to have to go through the whole of the downstairs of the house, making sure he hadn’t touched and sullied anything else. She resented it as much as she resented the inspector’s intrusion in the first place – his self-assumed right to ring on the doorbell and then stand there with his WPC expecting to be admitted. It was a liberty, that’s what it was! Apart from which, didn’t he know she wasn’t allowed visitors when Mark was out? Didn’t he know the consequences for her if she was found out? He was playing roulette with her life.
Aisha moved away from the photograph and crossed the lounge to the armchair, which was backed hard up against the wall. She’d sat in that chair every night since the accident, every night watching and waiting, on guard for her life. She flopped down into the chair and rested her head back. She was exhausted. Everything seemed such an effort – walking, eating, washing, even thinking tired her to the point of collapse. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the inspector’s questions; so many questions with so few answers, they ran on and on like a tape recorder set on continuous, with no pause or stop button.
Where exactly had you been on the night of the accident, Mrs Williams? Where were you going? Was your husband away much on business? Would you describe your marriage as happy, Mrs Williams? On and on, making her head spin and her stomach cramp, nauseous with fear. And she’d seen their furtive glances when she’d taken time to answer a question, or stumbled, or repeated herself. She saw. Did they think she wouldn’t notice? That she was so blinded by grief that she couldn’t see? Or perhaps they thought the colour of her skin prevented her interpreting their looks and silence, as Mark had done.
Of course she had lied. There was nothing else she could have done, because to tell the truth would have sent her to prison and the children into care. And what would have been the point in that? It would have all been for nothing and they would be better off dead. Which might still be an option if the inspector persisted, and she couldn’t answer his questions, or sort out the chaos running through her head.
‘But what could I have told you, Inspector?’ she said out loud into the empty room. ‘What could I have told you that would have justified what I did? That I cried for so long and so hard that my tears fell like ice, and my heart crystallized, just like in the story of the Snow Queen that my father used to read to me as a child? And from my heart’s cold dense mass came a determination, a single-minded purpose – the will to survive – so that when I saw the opportunity I was able to seize it as the only escape. That is the truth, Inspector, honestly. Not that it’s going to do me any good.’
Aisha had always been destined to achieve. It was her father’s philosophy – to carve a small notch in the world, fuelled by purpose and ambition.
‘Set your sights high, Aisha,’ he often said, ‘and you can have whatever your heart desires. I am the living proof. I came to this country with nothing, now look at me.’
He was right, of course, it was there for all to see, an example to follow – something to aspire to. Aisha remembered how, when she was a child, he would shut himself away in the box room he called a study, and there, bent over his books, he had followed a correspondence course in accountancy. Night after night, weekends and bank holidays, with his meals brought to him on a tray, for five years until he had qualified. Occasionally she’d been allowed to take his supper up to him, a privilege she yearned for, but then doubted she was up to.
‘Don’t go in until he tells you,’ her mother warned each and every time she carried the wooden tray covered with its fine lace tablecloth up the creaking stairs. ‘Put the tray down while you open the door. Use both hands, and don’t rattle the door or you’ll disturb his train of thought.’
Aisha did as she was told; she followed her mother’s instructions exactly, bursting with childish pride but at the same time almost recoiling from the responsibility. Once, the door had stuck, and no matter how hard she’d turned and twisted the knob it wouldn’t open. She panicked and did what her mother had forbidden and rattled the door, then waited, hot and fretting, for her father to open it. She had disturbed his train of thought, he would be annoyed, and she would never be asked to take his tea up again.
But he hadn’t been annoyed. He’d smiled as he opened the door, his tired and bloodshot eyes saying he understood and she was forgiven. Aisha mumbled a child’s apology and passed up the tray. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘I’m pleased for the chance to stretch my legs.’ But the door had immediately closed again and she’d turned and fled, bitterly disappointed. For not only had she failed in the task, but she’d also missed the opportunity of going into the study, and the rare glimpse of the Aladdin’s cave: the huge oak desk which dominated most of the small room and was piled high with papers and books; the spotlamp which her mother had bargained for at a bring-and-buy sale, its beam of light concentrating on the exact spot where he worked, the rest of the room falling into its shadow. And Aisha had known for as long as she could remember that in that room lay the secret of success, and one day she would follow in her father’s footsteps and make him as proud of her as she was of him.
When she won a scholarship to the best girls’ school in the area, her father had built her a desk of her own. He constructed it from nothing, just planks of wood, jars of nails, and a drawing he’d sketched on an old envelope. Aisha thought it was incredible, marvellous, the way he created it. She and her mother had sat in the lounge, night after night, listening to the sawing and hammering coming from the conservatory where he worked. Night after night for weeks and weeks before the final stage came – the gluing, sanding and varnishing, the acrid smell and fine dust floating into the house, despite him keeping the door to the conservatory closed. He toiled away week after week, every evening and weekend; for when her father set his mind to something he did it with complete determination.
He’d had to take the desk up to her bedroom in pieces and assemble it in situ, as it was too large and heavy for the three of them to carry up the stairs and then make the tight right turn at the top of the landing and into Aisha’s bedroom. Once in place there was some final sanding and varnishing – touching up – before her mother vacuumed her bedroom and she was finally allowed to see in. He told Aisha not to look and she placed her hands, palms down, over her eyes as he led her up the stairs and into her room, her mother following. The three of them were quiet and she felt her heart racing as the tension built and her excitement mounted. She wouldn’t peep; she knew better than to peep and spoil the surprise. Only when he had positioned her directly in front of the desk was she allowed to take her hands away and look.
‘Well?’ he asked tentatively. ‘What do you think? We can make some changes if you like. I know it’s not perfect.’ He laughed nervously and waited for her comment, suddenly small and vulnerable in seeking her approval.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Aisha cried. ‘Of course it’s perfect. Thank you so much.’ She kissed his cheek before rushing over to explore the magnificent desk.
It was made of dark mahogany wood with an inlaid pattern of lighter wood around the edge. There was a carved well for pens and pencils, and three drawers either side. She looked at the little brass locks and turned one of the keys.
‘For your personal papers,’ her father said. ‘It was tricky fitting those locks. They were so small, I kept dropping them. I must be getting old.’
Aisha kissed him again and saw how he grew with pride for they all knew that the desk was far more than a table for studying; it was a symbol of achievement, and everything she could and would accomplish.
‘You’ve made your mother and me very proud, Aisha,’ he said. ‘Very proud indeed. And I know you will continue to do so in the future.’
They’d had to buy her school uniform during the summer holiday before Aisha started at the girls’ school in September. The uniform was navy with a bright logo on the blazer pocket; instantly recognizable, and signalling the wearer as someone who was clever enough to go to St Martha’s. The uniform was only available from one leading London store and the three of them had made a special trip into the city, with her father visiting the building society on the way; he preferred to pay in cash, rarely used a chequebook, and refused all offers of credit cards.
‘What we can afford, we will buy,’ he said. ‘And what we can’t, we’ll save for.’ Which seemed to Aisha most sensible and something else she should remember for the future.
After they’d bought the uniform, they had lunch in the store’s restaurant on the top floor. Her mother had hesitated as they walked in and a waiter in a black suit and bow tie greeted them. ‘It’s not for us, Ranjith,’ she whispered, holding back. ‘Let’s find somewhere else.’
Her father insisted. ‘It most certainly is,’ he said, drawing himself up to his full height. ‘This is to celebrate our daughter’s achievement. It will make the day complete.’
But they had sat quietly at the table with its starched white tablecloth and crystal centrepiece; quiet and stiffly upright, with their bags and packages tied with the store’s ribbon tucked well under their chairs. Aisha had felt as conspicuous as her mother obviously did, and wished they’d gone somewhere less grand. When she finally dared to raise her head and steal a glance around, she saw that those seated at the tables nearby were far more at ease than she and her parents were. Others spoke loudly, rested their elbows on the tables, and talked as they ate, all of which was strictly forbidden at the dinner table in her house. It seemed to Aisha that if you were confident enough, then your surroundings were there for your convenience and not the other way around. Only those who were unsure of themselves adhered strictly to the rules of etiquette and convention and worried about what others would think. So she allowed one elbow to rest lightly on the table, looked the waiter in the eye, and pretended to enjoy what her father had ordered – the delicate pink fish with a peculiarly sharp sauce and the neat bundles of thin vegetables arranged along one side of the plate. The three of them had eaten carefully, with her mother repeatedly dabbing the napkin at the corner of her mouth, their silence broken only by her father’s occasional comment about the high standard of the place. Aisha ate and feigned enjoyment for her father’s sake but was grateful when he finally called for the bill and they could leave.
Her mother had taken her to school on her first day to show her the way on the tube; then after that she’d gone by herself with her books in a large bag on her shoulder. Aisha was surprised by how easily she adapted to the new school. While her classmates forgot things and missed their friends from their junior schools, she met the challenge head-on and relished it. After all, this was what she’d been aiming for – the first step along the road to success. And although she wasn’t the most popular girl in her year, which seemed to rely on being an extrovert, she was loyal and quietly confident and would always help a friend who was struggling with her homework.
Each and every evening after dinner Aisha went up to her bedroom and studied at her desk beneath the spotlamp her father had given her. The beam of light seemed to focus her attention as though diffusing the knowledge into her, so that she had only to read something once, with complete concentration, and she remembered it.
‘You’ve made a good start,’ her father said when she presented him with her first end-of-year report. ‘Well done, keep it up. Don’t be lulled into complacency. There’s a long way to go yet.’
Aisha continued following the doctrine of hard work and determination and won a place at Nottingham University, where she allowed herself only one day off a week to socialize. It was usually a Saturday, and she and a few like-minded friends went to the theatre, cinema, or for a walk along the river to a local bistro. Among this group of friends was a young man called Rowan whose parents were plantation owners in Sri Lanka. Rowan had been sent to England to study, and once he graduated he would take his education home for the benefit of the family business. Aisha never mentioned Rowan to her parents when she phoned, instead she told them of all the little details of college life which her father loved, having never had the opportunity to go to university himself. Why she never told them, she wasn’t sure; it was just something she left out. She and Rowan remained good friends – but only friends, nothing more – throughout the three years. Coming from similar backgrounds, they both recognized the privilege of education, and made sure their parents’ money didn’t go to waste. When they graduated, both with first class honours, Rowan packed, ready to leave as soon as the results were published.
‘I’ve done what I set out to do,’ he said stoically. ‘Now it is time for me to go.’ If he had any regrets, he certainly didn’t say.
Aisha went with him to Birmingham Airport and waited until his flight was called. They wouldn’t write, they had agreed there was no point. He was returning to his homeland where he was promised in marriage to a girl from a good Tamil family. Aisha watched him go into the departure lounge and waved as the smoky-grey doors closed and he was lost from view. She admired his tenacity and his single-mindedness: they were qualities her father would have approved of if he’d known about their friendship and things had been different. The following day Aisha also packed, she too was expected to return home. She had secured a graduate trainee position with a bank in the City which offered a very good promotion ladder.
With her first month’s wages, to say thank you for all the sacrifices her parents had made that had allowed her to go to university, she bought them a holiday in India; it would be their first visit in twenty-five years. ‘I owe you both so much,’ she said. ‘It’s a small gift in comparison to what you have given me.’
Her father’s eyes moistened as he accepted the tickets. ‘You’ve made us very proud, Aisha, very proud indeed. I only wish you could come with us and meet your cousins, they too will be proud of you.’
‘Next time, maybe,’ she said. ‘There’s so much to learn at work and I want to make a success of it. You know how it is.’
Aisha’s hard work, commitment and determination to succeed continued at work. She stayed late at the office most evenings, took home files the night before important meetings, attended weekend seminars and read banking journals from cover to cover. She upgraded her computer at home so it was compatible with those at work; it was important to keep abreast of change in the fast-moving IT field. And the hard work and commitment paid off; the bank saw her worth and rewarded it. By the age of twenty-nine, she was a bank manager, with an office and personal assistant of her own.
‘There’s no need to work yourself so hard now,’ her father said. ‘You’ve got where you wanted to be. Relax and allow yourself some leisure time. You deserve it.’
‘There’s still a job at head office,’ Aisha laughed, trying to deflect him from the real problem – the reason why she was still so absorbed in work. ‘Second best will never do – for either of us. Will it, Dad?’
Her father smiled and nodded agreement, though it seemed to Aisha that he might suspect: that in concentrating with such purpose on one aim – a successful career – she had neglected another equally important aspect in her life. If they had lived in India or had had a large family network in England, Aisha knew it wouldn’t have been an issue. Her aunt’s children in Gujarat had all been found suitors as soon as they’d come of age, some had even been promised in marriage as children, their union taking place when they were eighteen. For here lay the problem, the reason why Aisha still immersed herself so totally in work. It was the loose thread in an otherwise perfect garment. For in spite of everything she’d achieved, Aisha had no one to share it with; no husband or partner. So it seemed to her that all her commitment and hard work had been for nothing, although she’d never have admitted it to her father.
It made Aisha feel irritable and unsettled, though she knew it shouldn’t. She knew she had much to be grateful for and that it was wrong to dwell on this one aspect of her life, considering everything else. She reminded herself that many women today remained single through choice, and willingly concentrated on a career to the exclusion of marriage and children. But I never made that decision, she thought. It’s crept up on me without warning, and now there’s nothing I can do about it.
She knew, of course, that there were ways of meeting people her own age: singles clubs and bars, dances for the divorced and separated, dating sites on the Internet. But the very idea of putting herself on the market as though she were goods for sale filled her with dread and horror. Here I am, single and alone, not quite desperate, but getting very close. Please take me before it’s too late! No, she couldn’t, not with the intention so crudely obvious. Apart from which, with no knowledge of his family or background, how would you know you weren’t talking to some kind of pervert or an axe murderer?
On Sundays, after dinner, Aisha always read the Sunday paper. It made a change from the tomes of high finance, and the glossy Style colour supplement gave her an insight into a startlingly different world. The preening and pampering some people indulged in was incredible, and it wasn’t only the women: £840 for a man’s suit; £75 for a pot of face cream; £350 for a handbag, and some of the handbags were for men! It was amazing what some people spent their money on. One of the colour supplements ended with a page entitled ENCOUNTERS, and contained advertisements for those seeking partners. As usual, Aisha skimmed down the page, marvelling at the abbreviated descriptions some people used to describe their qualities and what they were looking for in a partner. How, for example, could anyone describe themselves as a ‘buxom blonde’ as though that was her only asset, the one she was marketing and with which she hoped to catch a mate? Aisha’s gaze slid down the page to the boxed agency advertisements, then stopped. Here was one she hadn’t seen before and the wording caught her eye.
‘Too busy being successful to meet people? I understand. A personal introductory service for professionals. The crème de la crème from London and the Home Counties. Not a dating agency.’
Aisha glanced up at her father who was still immersed in the sports section of the paper, the one section Aisha never read. His glasses were perched on the end of his nose and he looked like a wise old owl. She tilted the magazine towards her and reread the agency advertisement. The sentiment was right; it was strange she hadn’t seen it before. Perhaps it was a new agency? But no, it said they were established. Perhaps I could just telephone, she thought, a general enquiry asking for a few more details? They must have hundreds of calls that are never followed up. I could phone from the office tomorrow lunchtime, just to satisfy my curiosity; there would be no harm in that. Later she slipped the magazine into her briefcase ready for Monday. Knowing it was there, awaiting her attention, caused her a little surge of anticipation, a flutter of excitement, which she hadn’t felt in a long time.
At one o’clock on Monday, with her office door closed and her secretary at lunch, Aisha carefully dialled the agency’s number. A staccato voice, which sounded as though it had been activated by the trill of the phone, answered. ‘Hello, Connections, Belinda speaking, how can we help you?’
Aisha replied that she only wanted some details, a leaflet in the post please, something she could look at at home. But Belinda clearly had to say her piece, and continued: ‘We pride ourselves on our very personal approach, and we are highly selective. I prefer to talk through the literature with my clients at the interview.’
‘Interview?’ Aisha said, taken aback.
‘Well, more of a friendly chat really. I always see all our prospective clients personally, preferably in their own homes. It gives me a clearer picture of the type of person I am helping and who would be most suitable for them. You can tell a lot by a person’s home environment. Well, I can, after so many years in the business.’ She gave a little laugh.
Aisha heard the words ‘friendly chat’ and ‘own home’ and inwardly cringed. She nearly hung up – the very thought of this woman interviewing her at home: her parents’ house, furnished and run by her mother. It offered no clue to her own identity or hopes for the future.
‘But we can arrange an office interview if you prefer,’ Belinda added quickly.
‘Yes, I would prefer it,’ Aisha said. ‘I live with my parents and I’d rather they weren’t inconvenienced.’
Aisha heard the little silence, the small hesitation, and knew what Belinda must be thinking: Still living with her parents and wanting to keep it secret, how quaint.
‘I quite understand,’ Belinda said diplomatically. ‘My office it is then. When would suit you? I’m here Monday to Friday until eight in the evening.’
Aisha found herself reaching into her handbag for her diary and opening it to the week ahead. ‘You realize I probably won’t go ahead with this,’ she warned. ‘I mean, I don’t want you to be under any misapprehension. I don’t want to waste your time.’
Belinda gave another little laugh. ‘Don’t worry. Most people say that to begin with, but there’s no harm in us having a chat. If you decide not to go ahead, then there is nothing lost other than half an hour of your time, is there?’
Aisha liked Belinda’s approach and warmed to her slightly. This was no hard sell or pressure meeting, and she of all people could afford to wager thirty minutes of her time.
‘Now, when would suit you?’ Belinda asked.
‘An evening after work would be best.’
‘Of course, no problem. How about Wednesday? Is six thirty convenient?’
‘Yes, that’s perfect,’ Aisha said. She gave her name and then wrote the appointment very quickly in her diary before she had time to change her mind.
Perhaps I could look upon it as similar to the arrangement my father would have made had we been living in India, Aisha thought by way of justification as she climbed the stairs to Belinda’s office after work that Wednesday. Belinda is finding me a suitor, vetting him, and then introducing us. Belinda is in place of my father and her fee is in lieu of the dowry. If I view it like that, she thought, it might seem more acceptable. Might. But the Western notion of romantic love kept getting in the way; she wasn’t in India, but England.
Alone on the landing, Aisha rang the bell to Belinda’s office. A brass plaque on the lilac glossed door boldly announced ‘CONNECTIONS’. Her office was over an antique shop in SW1, where rents were horrendous, so Aisha guessed Belinda must be doing very well for herself. Aisha knew exactly what Belinda would look like – she could picture her from their brief conversation on the phone: tall, blonde and willowy; with an effusive yet slightly reserved manner that girls in this part of London seemed to acquire.
The door opened. ‘Aisha? So sorry to have kept you, I was on the phone.’ Belinda smiled and shook Aisha’s hand. ‘Do come in.’
She wasn’t at all how Aisha had imagined: petite, mid-thirties, with brown hair, and a navy suit, Belinda wouldn’t have looked out of place at the bank.
‘Well done,’ Belinda said, leading Aisha down the short hall. ‘That’s the worst part over with. Now you’ve made it this far, the rest is easy.’ Aisha liked Belinda’s appreciation of just how much it had taken to get her here.
The room Belinda showed her into was furnished more like a flat than an office, with two beige sofas either side of a long, low coffee table. The flowing beige drapes at the windows matched the thick pile carpet, and the light terracotta walls were dotted with modern watercolours. A massive fig tree stood in the bay window which looked out over the street.
‘Do sit down,’ Belinda said, waving to the sofas. ‘What can I get you to drink? Tea, coffee, fruit juice? Or something stronger perhaps?’
‘A fruit juice would be nice, thank you.’
Aisha sat self-consciously in the middle of one of the sofas while Belinda crossed to a small fridge discreetly placed in a recess at one end of the room. Belinda’s shining bobbed hair swung as she bent forwards to open the fridge door. She’s only a few years older than me, Aisha thought, but she’s so vibrant and sophisticated. How dowdy I must seem beside her. And Belinda had such good taste. Aisha looked around the room with its minimalist style, and decided that if ever she was lucky enough to have a home of her own, she would furnish it just like this. Plain and simple, no clutter, and certainly none of the gaudy memorabilia her parents had collected from India.
Belinda returned with two glasses of orange juice which she placed on the coffee table, then sat on the sofa opposite Aisha. She smiled reassuringly and took a large white folder from the shelf beneath the table and passed it across. ‘I usually start by letting my clients take a look at these,’ she said. ‘They are testimonials from some of my satisfied clients. They’re not all there, of course – as you can imagine, there are hundreds – but it will give you some idea.’
Aisha took a sip of her juice and then opened the album to the first page; it was a large photograph album that had been adapted for its present purpose. On the first page, under the cellophane, was a handwritten letter from a Susan, thanking Belinda for introducing her to Steven. On the page opposite was a photograph of the couple, raising champagne glasses, with the caption: ‘Engagement Party. Susan and Steven. February 2000.’
‘That was my first success,’ Belinda said.
Aisha glanced up, smiled, and turned the page.
‘While you’re looking at those,’ Belinda said, ‘let me give you some background about how I got started, so you know where I’m coming from.’
Aisha nodded and studied the next page, which showed an Asian couple at their wedding reception with some of their family members in the background.
‘Twelve years ago,’ Belinda began, ‘I arrived in London from the Cotswolds to take up a job as a PA with a large firm of solicitors. I enjoyed my job immensely, but I returned every evening to an empty flat, with only the television to look forward to. The only people I met were my colleagues at work, and they were either married, not my type, or too busy with their own social lives to notice me. Months passed and nothing changed, and I began to wonder how many other people were in the same position as me, isolated in the big city, surrounded by entertainment, but with no one to go with. Out of curiosity more than anything, I placed an advertisement in the Evening Standard, asking if anyone else was too busy being successful to meet people. I was astounded at the response. I had over a hundred and fifty replies! So I picked a few for myself, compiled a register of the rest, and started introducing them on the basis of their interests. It was so successful that a year later I left my job at the solicitors to turn it into a full-time business. And here I am now, still going from strength to strength!’
Aisha looked up, impressed. ‘You’ve certainly done very well,’ she said.
‘Thank you. I always stress this is not, and never will be, a dating agency. It’s a way of bringing like-minded people together, without all the time-consuming and tacky business of hanging around in bars and clubs, waiting to be picked up. I’m highly selective, Aisha. I only take professional, interesting and well-rounded people. I screen out anybody with emotional baggage.’
Aisha paused in turning the pages and briefly wondered if she was guilty of having ‘emotional baggage’, but decided she hadn’t had enough experience to acquire baggage of any sort.
‘So,’ Belinda continued, ‘that’s how it all started, and I’ve continued in much the same vein ever since. I always work one-to-one with my clients. Once I have met them and have a clearer understanding of the type of person they are, and I know they’re suitable for my books, I spend quite a bit of time talking to them, then complete a short questionnaire. From that I know what qualities they are looking for in a partner and who would be most suitable for them. I always have a large number of clients on my books, but I only select one at a time for introduction. That’s why I say we are not a dating agency. I’m meticulous and only introduce a couple when I’m completely sure they are suited to each other.’
Aisha flicked through the last few pages of the portfolio which contained photographs of more recent weddings and engagements and returned it to the coffee table. ‘But supposing the couple aren’t suited?’ she dared to say. ‘I mean, you’re obviously very good at your job, but supposing they’re not right for each other and don’t get along after all?’
‘Absolutely no problem,’ Belinda reassured her. ‘In that case, I select again. Then a third, fourth, and even fifth time if necessary. After that I’m more likely to suggest they wait for a week or so as new clients join daily. But it rarely happens, Aisha. Usually the next thing I receive is a telephone call saying they won’t be needing my services anymore.’ Belinda gave a small laugh. ‘By then the couples are saying they met through a mutual friend and don’t want anything to do with me. Strange, isn’t it? Nowadays we happily discuss everything else, but finding a partner through an introductory agency is still taboo.’
Aisha nodded and smiled weakly. She met Belinda’s gaze. ‘I wouldn’t want anyone to know either. I mean, if I went ahead, I wouldn’t want you phoning me at home, for example.’
‘I completely understand,’ Belinda said. ‘Your wishes are paramount. I could call your mobile or work number at a prearranged time. Whatever my client asks for I respect. After all, without you I wouldn’t be in business.’
Aisha nodded again. ‘My work at lunchtime would be best,’ she found herself saying. ‘My mobile is off during the day. I eat at my desk and I’m usually alone between one and two o’clock.’
‘Good. And you’re happy with what I have told you so far? It’s important you are able to put your trust in me.’
‘Yes.’ Aisha nodded. She was trying to adopt the same objectivity to what Belinda was telling her as she used at work, but something kept getting in the way. ‘And you vet all your clients?’ she asked.
‘Absolutely. I wouldn’t take anyone on if I had any doubts. I’ve been in this job so long I form an immediate impression and I haven’t been wrong yet. Is there anything else you would like to ask before I take your details?’
All the questions Aisha should have been asking – the exact nature of the client vetting, for example – flew easily and happily out of reach. And in their place stood the obvious and irrefutable: Belinda was good at her job and may even be able to give her what Aisha so desperately needed; assuming, of course, she was to be included among Belinda’s very select clientele.
‘I can’t think of anything else at present,’ Aisha said. ‘From what you’ve seen of me so far, would you say I was the type of person you would accept?’
Belinda leant forwards in earnest. ‘Most definitely. You are a professional and well-qualified person, with an open and honest nature. I have no doubt you are sincere in your wish to be in a long-term committed relationship. I’d say you were exactly right. Shall we start on the questionnaire then?’
Aisha took a deep breath and told herself that if she ever did one thing that could be described as self-centred and impulsive, it had to be this and it had to be now. ‘Yes, please, I’d like to go ahead; I haven’t got anything to lose.’
‘Excellent,’ Belinda said, picking up her pen. ‘But let’s make it a bit more positive and say you have everything to gain.’
An hour later, when Aisha had answered all Belinda’s questions, and the receipt for the fee of £475 was safely tucked in her purse, she congratulated herself; not only had she made a possibly life-changing decision, but in talking to Belinda she had discovered her likes and dislikes, attitudes and preferences, a personality, which had somehow become lost along the road to success, and which Belinda had approved of.
‘It’s been lovely meeting you,’ Belinda enthused, seeing Aisha to the door. ‘I’ll phone you as soon as I’ve done my homework; Monday at the latest.’
Aisha thanked her again and said goodbye; then went back down the stairs, past the antique shop, which was now closed and night-lit, and out onto the street. Her shoes clipped a newfound confidence on the pavement as she headed towards the tube, a lightness, a little risqué freedom, which hadn’t been there on the inward journey. Before she went down into the tunnels and lost the signal on her mobile, she phoned her mother. ‘Sorry, I was held up in a meeting. I’ll be home in an hour.’ Which was all she intended saying now or in the future, to save them all embarrassment, and her parents the futile job of trying to dissuade her from going ahead.
‘It’s a Miss Mayhew,’ Aisha’s PA said, her hand covering the mouthpiece of the phone.
Aisha glanced up from the printout she was studying. ‘From which company?’
‘She said it was personal.’
Aisha frowned, puzzled, and took the phone from Grace. ‘Hello,’ she said, and was surprised to hear Belinda’s voice. She hadn’t known Belinda’s surname, and it was not her lunch hour yet, and only the day after the interview. ‘Just a moment,’ she said into the phone. Then to Grace: ‘Can you give me five minutes, please?’
She waited until Grace had left her office and closed the door behind her. ‘Hello Belinda. What can I do for you?’
‘I’ll be quick because I know you’re busy, but I just had to tell you. I have an introduction for you! Already!’
Aisha heard the excitement in Belinda’s voice and knew she should have felt it too. ‘Yes?’ she asked tentatively.
‘Let me explain. By the time you left yesterday evening I already had three gentlemen in mind. All absolutely charming and meeting your criteria. So, in keeping with my usual policy, I telephoned each of them with a few details about yourself, and from that I was able to proceed and select one. He’s so right, Aisha, so absolutely right! Perfect. You’re very lucky indeed.’
Aisha admired the diplomatic way Belinda passed off the rejection of her details by the other two; they were probably looking for someone younger, she thought, or more vibrant, or both.
‘Now, before I go any further,’ Belinda continued, ‘there’s something I need to clarify with you first. I am right in thinking you are happy meeting someone from a different ethnic background? That is what you said, isn’t it?’
‘Good. I wanted to be certain because it’s obviously important.’
‘It could be to some,’ Aisha said, and felt the familiar niggle of irritation. ‘Is he white?’
‘Yes. Now let me tell you a bit about him. He’s thirty-six, a bit older than you, as you requested. He’s a graduate engineer, and tall – you said you like tall men. He works for a large multinational in the City, in fact not far from where you work. He sometimes travels on business, but he’s more than happy to take his partner whenever possible. Don’t worry though, I’ve already explained it would be difficult for you with your career. He has his own house. His car is a BMW, which he changes every year. Without doubt he’s completely sincere in his wish to have someone important in his life again, and is over the break-up of his marriage, which I understand wasn’t his fault. He loves what I’ve told him about you and hopes you will allow him to telephone you. This will be his first introduction, Aisha. Like you, he’s very particular about the type of person he is looking for.’
Belinda stopped and Aisha latched on to the one sentence she would rather not have heard: the break-up of his marriage. ‘He’s been married before then?’ she asked.
‘A long while ago, when he was young. Too young, he told me. As I said yesterday, Aisha, men of his age will have either been married or have cohabited in a long-term relationship, and if they haven’t, I would hear alarm bells ringing. It could suggest commitment issues.’
Aisha wound the telephone wire around her little finger as she pictured the look on her parents’ faces if she were to introduce a divorcee, regardless of how long ago it was, or whose fault it had been. Divorce didn’t happen in her family in India, and given the choice, her parents would have doubtless preferred a never-married doctor or accountant from Gujarat, but her father no longer had those connections so that wasn’t an option.
‘Does he have children?’ Aisha asked.
‘Two, but he doesn’t see them. His wife remarried straight after the divorce and encouraged the children to look on her new husband as their father. He told me he didn’t want the children upset by a court battle so he left them in peace. Which I think was highly commendable, don’t you?’
‘I suppose so,’ Aisha said and let the telephone wire go with a twang. ‘Why did the marriage break up? Did he tell you?’
‘He said he would like to discuss that with you personally, but I understand his wife was having an affair.’ Belinda seemed to hear Aisha’s hesitation. ‘Aisha, you can’t possibly make a decision until you have met him. And when you do, I’m sure you’ll be as impressed as I was. He’s charming, absolutely charming. In fact, if I wasn’t happily married I’d be quite tempted myself.’ She gave a little giggle.
Aisha hadn’t thought of Belinda as married, and it was heartening to have this first-hand example of a woman combining a career and marriage so successfully; no one at her level at the bank seemed to have managed it.
‘Well? What do you say?’ Belinda asked. ‘I’ve put a lot of work into this, Aisha, and I wouldn’t have suggested him if I didn’t think he was absolutely right.’
‘Yes, I’m sorry. I understand. So, what happens now?’
‘I’ll give him your phone number and he’ll call for a chat.’
‘And he won’t mind if we don’t go ahead and meet?’ Aisha asked, needing a get-out clause.
‘No, of course not. But you must give it a chance.’
‘All right then,’ Aisha said. ‘There’s no harm in us having a chat.’
‘Excellent. His name is Mark. I’ll tell him to phone your office. Tomorrow lunchtime?’
‘Yes, between one and two o’clock, please.’
They said goodbye and she hung up. Mark, she thought. No surnames at this stage, only first names. Mark. She tried to picture him, but beyond him being tall and white it was impossible, for in truth Belinda had given her very few details.
The rest of the day was very busy and that evening she had a report to write for a meeting the following morning so there was little time for worrying or idle speculation. It was only when she was alone in bed and drifting off to sleep that her thoughts turned to Belinda and Mark, and with it came the inherent worry of what she had committed to. Oh well, I can always wind up the conversation with an excuse, she thought; that’s assuming he phones at all. And the more she considered the chances of him phoning the less likely it seemed he would.
The following day her morning meeting overran and by the time she arrived back at her desk it was one fifteen. She asked Grace if there had been any phone calls; Grace said there had been four, but when Aisha looked at the note Grace handed her she saw they were all business calls. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or disappointed. Aisha asked Grace to switch the phone line through to her office while she went to lunch as she usually did. She then sat at her desk, took her sandwich box from her bag, opened the carton of orange juice, and tried to concentrate on the correspondence Grace had left for her. The phone rang almost immediately and she sprang to answer it, but it was a disgruntled customer who had asked to speak to the manager. Eager to clear the line Aisha apologized profusely for the banking error and promised to look into it personally. With the customer pacified she replaced the receiver. Two minutes later the phone rang again with another unhappy customer. Aisha again apologized and said she would look into it. Ten minutes passed before the phone rang again and when Aisha answered she knew straight away it was different. A friendly warm male voice, not complaining – far from it, a little hesitant, she thought. ‘Is it possible to speak to Aisha, please?’
‘Hello Aisha, this is Mark. I hope you’re expecting my call?’
‘Yes, I am, Mark. Hello.’
She heard his small sigh of relief and the pause before he said: ‘Good. Excellent. Now, where do I go from here? I don’t know about you, but all this is new to me. Maybe I should start by telling you a bit about myself? That’s what Belinda said I should do.’
‘Yes, please do,’ Aisha said, and smiled to herself at the image of this grown man taking his instructions from Belinda.
‘Well, I’m six foot one, so you won’t lose me in a crowd,’ he joked, ‘and I like the usual things – theatre, cinema, travelling, a drink in a country pub. I enjoy my work and it takes up a lot of my time. But when I can, I play squash, and I swim. I’m a member of my local gym, but I don’t use it as much as I should. Occasionally I watch television, the late-night films mainly – they help me to unwind. I like most food, but I’m particularly partial to Italian and Indian. There are some excellent restaurants close to where I live and they’re not helping my waistline at all.’
He gave a little laugh then paused, and Aisha knew it was her turn. Her heart thumped and her mouth went dry. How to make it snappy and interesting as he had done?
‘Well,’ she began, twiddling the phone wire, ‘I expect Belinda has told you I’m also busy with my work, but when I have free time I like to read, or go for a walk in the country. I find a country walk quite relaxing. I go to the theatre every so often, and eat out, but not as much as I’d like to. Sometimes I take my parents to the cinema.’ She stopped. Don’t get too cosy and domestic, she told herself. He won’t want to know that. ‘But more often I take work home,’ she added, ‘which I do while listening to music. Mozart and Tchaikovsky are among my favourites, but I like some jazz as well as some modern music.’
‘I have eclectic tastes in music too,’ Mark said. ‘What about country and western, do you like that?’
‘Yes, some, the old favourites – Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Tammy Wynette.’
As the exchange of information continued and then developed into a conversation, Aisha found it wasn’t as difficult as she had thought and indeed she was quite enjoying herself; she wondered what she had been afraid of. Mark took the lead in the conversation, steered it, and filled in any gaps. Fifteen minutes later when he finally broke off and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m going to have to go. I’m due in a meeting soon,’ she felt a pang of disappointment. Then he added: ‘Shall we continue this in person and meet?’
‘Yes, I’d like that,’ she replied without hesitation.
‘How about Friday? After work? We could go for a bite to eat perhaps?’
‘That would be lovely. I usually finish about six on a Friday.’
‘OK. I’ll have my car with me but we can use the tube if you prefer. Can I suggest you wait near the main entrance of Harrods? Say six thirty? I’ll collect you and we’ll take it from there?’
‘Yes, that’s fine with me.’
‘Good. I drive a metallic silver BMW with personalized number plates. If you’ve got a pen handy, I’ll give you the registration. I don’t want you running off with the wrong man.’
Aisha laughed easily and reached for her notepad and pen.
‘MAR K12,’ he said and she wrote it down. ‘I’ll be wearing a navy suit. The jacket will be hanging in the rear window of the car. I always hang it there when I’m driving. But don’t worry, I’ll recognize you first because Belinda has told me you’ve got the most amazingly long black hair. Is it true you haven’t cut it since you were a child?’
Unused to personal compliments, Aisha felt herself blush and was pleased Mark couldn’t see her. ‘I have it trimmed, but my mother believes it brings bad luck for a girl to cut off her long hair before she’s married.’ Immediately she could have kicked herself for introducing such a personal note so soon; it sounded as though marriage was the only thing on her mind and she was desperate.
‘I can’t wait to see it,’ Mark said. ‘Until Friday then. Have a good week.’
‘And you. Thank you for phoning.’
That evening after dinner, Aisha went straight to her bedroom, shut the door and sat at her dressing table mirror. The face that looked back at her had hardly changed since she was a teenager and, Aisha thought, was as plain and unsophisticated now as it had been then. There was nothing interesting in it, no intrigue, no signs of having lived, no experience; in fact nothing to distinguish it from that of countless other women her age, apart from maybe the colour, and that hardly singled her out in London. But it was the face Mark was going to see outside Harrods and then later across a table in a restaurant. The one that he would either want to see again for another meeting or politely reject.
Perhaps I could start by wearing some make-up, she thought, something that would define my features. That might help. She opened the top drawer of her dressing table and found a kohl pencil and lipstick which she’d bought a year or so ago but had never used. Widening her eyes, she drew a thin line with the kohl pencil under the bottom lids; then placing the pencil to one side, unscrewed the lipstick. Tightening her lips, she ran the lipstick lightly over her lips and to the corner of her mouth and looked in the mirror. The result she had to admit was more the expression of a surprised clown than an attractive woman. Aisha sat back in the chair and scrutinized her head and shoulders. Perhaps it was her hair that made her so plain? Although it was in good condition and shone she always wore it drawn straight back off her face in a plait.
Aisha undid the plait and shook her hair free; it fell to her waist. It was certainly long and black as Belinda had told Mark but Aisha wasn’t sure about the ‘amazing’. Taking her hairbrush from the drawer she gave her hair a good brush and then arranged it loosely around her shoulders. But the sheer length and volume made her look more like a woman possessed than attractive or even seductive. Stoically, Aisha re-plaited her hair and wiped off the kohl and lipstick. She was naturally plain, that was all there was to it, and if Mark didn’t like it, well, he simply wouldn’t ask to see her again, which in many ways would be something of a relief.
Standing, she moved away from the dressing table and picked up the banking journal that was on her beside table. Propping herself on the bed she buried herself in the comparative safety of the London Stock Exchange. At least here graphs predicted outcomes and a negative forecast could be acted on to minimize loss. Pity life wasn’t as controlled and predictable, she thought. But then again hers probably had been, which was why at nearly thirty she was living at home with her parents with nothing beyond work to look forward to.
It was raining hard on Friday evening so Aisha sheltered in the doorway of Harrods. Other shoppers and tourists were doing the same, hoping the rain would ease. It hadn’t been raining when she’d left home that morning and she wished she’d thought to bring an umbrella just in case. Trying to stay dry under the canopy of the store she leaned forwards and, peering out, surveyed the traffic for any sign of Mark. She then checked her watch again – it was nearly six twenty-five; she’d arrived early, there was still time for him to come.
A few minutes later at exactly six thirty she began to think that Mark wouldn’t be coming. There were all sorts of reasons that could have stopped him from meeting her: the rain, the traffic, an unexpected appointment, or more simply he’d just changed his mind. She’d just decided she would give him until six forty and then head for home when she saw what she thought could be his car and her heart lurched. Half a dozen cars back, there was a metallic silver BMW, shimmering with rain in the street lamps. Was it him? She couldn’t be certain until it drew closer. She moved further forwards for a better view, careful to stay under the store’s canopy and out of the rain. She watched and waited, peered out through the drizzle and round the heads of passers-by, monitoring the car’s painfully slow progress in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. Then she saw the silhouette of the driver, male and large, and yes, there was a jacket swinging in the nearside rear window. Her heart set up a queer little rhythm as the car drew close enough for her to read the number plate – MAR K12 – yes, it was definitely him.
Aisha stayed where she was as the car pulled in to the kerb. She saw him lean over and peer through the passenger window, looking across the pavement, searching for her. Then the driver’s door opened and he got out. He was tall, yes; she could easily see him looking over the roof of the car towards the store, scanning the pavement. Umbrellas got in the way as Aisha moved out onto the pavement and into the rain. She gave a little wave, her hand flicking nervously from her side and back again. For a moment she thought he hadn’t seen her as his gaze continued past her, and she stood there feeling foolishly exposed. Then his eyes returned to her, and with a small nod of recognition he moved towards her, his large strides bringing him easily onto the pavement and up to her.
‘Yes, hello Mark.’ She smiled.
‘I’m so very pleased to meet you, very pleased.’ He shook her hand. ‘The traffic is appalling, I hope you haven’t been waiting long?’
‘No, not long.’ She smiled again and noticed how blue his eyes were and how they sparkled as he spoke, and that he seemed genuinely pleased to see her.
‘Good. Come on, get in or you’ll be drenched.’
He cupped her elbow and steered her protectively across the crowded pavement to his car. She felt pleasantly conspicuous as he opened the passenger door and then waited while she got in. He unhooked her seat belt and draped it over her shoulder and into her lap; then closed the door. Aisha watched as he crossed in front of the bonnet – took in his well-defined features: the firm angular jaw suggesting confidence; his upright manner; his slightly thinning fair hair. He wasn’t handsome in the traditional sense, she thought, more rugged: a man with presence who was at ease with himself. A man’s man, she thought.
The driver’s door opened with a rush of cold air and the interior light flickered on as Mark got in. ‘What a dreadful night,’ he said. ‘I do hope you haven’t got wet.’
‘No,’ she said, and ran her hands over her plaited hair, which was only slightly damp.
She glanced sideways at him and saw the little patches of rain on his shirt and a few beads of rain glistening on his forehead. He smiled and, reaching behind her for his jacket, took a freshly laundered and pressed cotton handkerchief from the pocket and dabbed the moisture from his face. She watched, transfixed – the act appearing intimate and magnified in the confines of the car. Briefly checking the result in the interior mirror he stretched out his legs and pushed the handkerchief into his trouser pocket. A car horn sounded behind them.
‘Patience,’ Mark said evenly. ‘A little patience goes a long way.’
Which, Aisha realized, was exactly the type of thing her father would have said; he had a maxim for every occasion.
Mark clicked on the indicator, but before pulling out suddenly turned to her, concerned. ‘Aisha, you are happy about using my car, aren’t you? Say if you’re not, and I’ll park and we can get a taxi.’
She smiled, and dispelling any reservation she may or should have felt said, ‘Yes, Belinda said it was OK, although I would like to know where you’re taking me.’
He laughed. ‘I’m sorry, I should have said. I thought we’d get out of the city. Do you know The Crooked Chimney, just off the A1? Coming from North London, I thought you might. It’s had some excellent write-ups.’
‘Yes, I do,’ she said, and felt comfortable that they were going somewhere she knew. ‘It’s not so far from where I live. I’ve never eaten there though.’ Another horn sounded and Mark looked over his shoulder and began to pull out.
‘I used to go there regularly, a while back,’ he said, straightening the wheel. ‘The menu’s a bit conservative, but not at all bad.’ He glanced at her. ‘You do like English food, don’t you? You know, meat and veg?’
‘Yes, I was born here,’ she said. And she knew straight away she shouldn’t have said it – that quick retort her father chided her about: ‘You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself one day, Aisha,’ he said.
‘I didn’t mean—’ Mark began.
‘No, neither did I. Sorry. It’s just that I’m used to the question, and often put a lot less subtly. I love English food, and Italian, and Indian. In fact, I eat almost anything.’
‘Great! That’s settled then,’ Mark said and then fell silent as he concentrated on manoeuvring across the two lanes of traffic to turn right. ‘Now,’ he said after a moment. ‘Belinda suggested we should talk about our childhoods as a safe topic to begin with. Best not disappoint her?’
‘No, indeed,’ Aisha laughed, and glanced sideways at him again. ‘But you go first, Mark, I’m sure your childhood was a lot more interesting than mine.’
‘I doubt it, but if you insist … Stop me when you’ve had enough, I don’t want to bore you to death on our first date.’
First date, she thought, suggesting he was already thinking of more. She settled herself back in her seat and looked through the windscreen. The wipers continued their steady, almost hypnotic rhythm as she listened to Mark’s rich, mellow voice. He told her about his early years in Perth with his parents and younger brother, their move south of the border, and eventually to London. She was pleased he’d suggested using the car, with just the two of them cocooned in the semi-darkness, and Mark having to concentrate on his driving. It gave her time to adjust and relax rather than suddenly being on display in the stark illumination of the underground, or opposite him in a restaurant close to where they worked. When Mark reached his teenage years in his life story, they were on the A1. He stopped talking and glanced at her. ‘I’m sure you’ve heard plenty now. I could go on all night. Your turn.’
Aisha smiled and briefly met his eyes. ‘My childhood was very different from yours, a world away. It might help if I tell you a bit about my parents first.’
Mark nodded. ‘Yes, I’d like that. I’d be very interested.’
‘They were born in Gujarat,’ she began, ‘which is on the west coast of India, in a village not far from the port of Okha. Their families were poor but my father had his sights set on coming to England, right from an early age. He had a very menial job first, working in one of the government’s offices, but he worked his way up in their accounts department. Much of his money went to supporting his younger brothers and sisters but eventually he managed to save enough for the plane ticket here. He tells how he arrived with all his belongings in one bag and trekked the streets until he found a job as a clerk with a firm of accountants. He studied in his spare time, and once he had a decent income and a permanent address, he sent for my mother. They were married in a registry office and I was born a year later. My father made a lot of sacrifices to get where he is now and he is a very proud man. He’s strict with me and so is my mother – she wants me to do the right thing. My father would give my mother and me anything, but he’s frugal. I suppose it comes from knowing what real poverty is. He won’t ever buy anything unless he has the money.’
‘There’s nothing wrong in that,’ Mark said. ‘I know too many people sinking under the debt of credit cards. We live in a gotta-have-it-now culture. Never mind if you can afford it. I think your father’s attitude is right.’
It pleased Aisha considerably that Mark agreed with and upheld her father’s principles, and it gave her the confidence to continue.
Presently they turned off the A1 and Mark braked as a sudden squall sheeted against the windscreen and momentarily blocked their vision. He upped the wiper speed. Aisha looked out of the side window at the trees bending over in the wind.
‘I’m glad I’m not driving,’ she confessed. ‘My car is old and doesn’t like the rain. I’m always worried about being stranded with a breakdown or flat tyre.’
‘Don’t worry, you’re safe with me,’ Mark said. ‘She hasn’t let me down yet.’
And, yes, Aisha felt safe sitting beside Mark, his broad shoulders squared into the seat, his large hands covering the steering wheel, she felt very safe indeed. Mark emanated a confidence, an assurance, that whatever befell them he could deal with it. He was someone, she decided, who’d had enough experience of life to be in control of it rather than at its mercy, as she sometimes felt.
The sign for The Crooked Chimney presently appeared out of the trees, swinging in the wind and rain. It had always reminded Aisha of the signboard for The Jamaica Inn – the pub on the edge of Bodmin Moor: the oil painting of the old inn sign creaking as it swung from its tall metal stand. Mark made the left turn then drove a little further along the B road and pulled into the restaurant’s car park. The car’s tyres crunched over the gravel to one of the few remaining spaces on the far side.
‘Stay put and I’ll get the umbrella from the boot,’ he said, cutting the engine, ‘I’ll impress you with my chivalry. And don’t forget to tell Belinda.’
Aisha laughed easily, she felt far more relaxed now. Mark reached behind her, unhooked his jacket from the rear, slipped it on, and threw open his door. The wind and rain sprang to seek refuge inside the car before he slammed the door shut. Aisha heard the boot open and close, and then he was at her window, shaking out a large golfing umbrella, which he pointed into the wind. He opened her door and she got out and stood beside him, close, but not quite touching. With Mark holding the umbrella like a shield into the wind, they began across the car park. Aisha looked down and concentrated on trying to avoid the little potholes that were quickly filling up with water.
‘Who would ever live in this country?’ Mark shouted against the wind. ‘It’s a wonder any of us survive in this climate.’
‘My father would,’ she shouted back. ‘He wouldn’t live anywhere else.’
‘He must be mad!’ he said. ‘But I’m glad for my sake he is, otherwise you wouldn’t be here now.’
The door to the restaurant was opened from inside as they approached and to Aisha’s small surprise she found that not only was the maitre d’ waiting for them, but that he knew Mark. ‘Nice to see you again, Mr Williams,’ he said with a small nod. They shook hands. ‘It’s been a while. I hope you’ve been keeping well?’
‘Yes, and yourself?’
‘Very well, thank you.’
Mark passed him the umbrella, and then helped Aisha out of her coat.
‘Your table is ready,’ the maitre d’ said. ‘Or would you and your guest like a drink first?’
Mark turned to Aisha. ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m famished. Shall we go straight through and order a drink at the table?’
She nodded and ran her hands over her skirt, wishing she’d changed out of her office suit. Now she was inside, the restaurant seemed very grand and she felt underdressed. The maitre d’ led the way from reception, down a small carpeted hall and into the dinning room, which was full and buzzed with conversation and the chink of cutlery. A huge inglenook fire roared orange and yellow and above it rose the crooked redbrick chimney from which the inn had taken its name. To their right a large party of a dozen or more were opening champagne for a birthday celebration, while the other tables, nestled between the exposed oak pillars, were occupied by small groups and couples. The room was warm and cosy and not as formal as Aisha thought it might be. The maitre d’ led them down the centre aisle, between the tables with their single candles and flowers. Aisha noticed that the other diners, men and women, looked up as Mark passed, their gaze lingering. It wasn’t just Mark’s stature, she thought, although it was true he didn’t stoop as some tall men do, but he had that unmistakable quality – that presence of being – that drew people’s attention. Aisha felt proud that she was with him for she also noticed that as a diner’s gaze left Mark, it went to her, as though some of his charisma was rubbing off.
The maitre d’ removed a reserved sign from a table in a secluded alcove and drew out a chair for Aisha. He eased it under her as she sat, while Mark took the chair opposite. The maitre d’ handed each of them a large leather-bound menu. ‘Would you like a drink now, sir?’ he asked as a waiter appeared and hovered, ready to take their order.
Mark looked at Aisha. ‘A mineral water, please,’ she said.
‘And a gin and tonic for me, with ice and lemon,’ Mark added.
‘Very good, sir,’ the maitre d’ said and, with another slight nod, left, followed by the drinks waiter.
Aisha opened the menu and propped it between the table and her lap. She began studying the extensive list of dishes presented in flourishing italics.
‘Well?’ Mark asked after a moment. ‘What do you think?’
‘I’m not sure yet. There’s so much to choose from.’
‘No, I mean the restaurant. Do you like it?’
She looked up with a nervous little laugh. ‘Oh, yes, it’s very nice. I’m so pleased you suggested it.’
‘Good. Although I can’t take all the credit. I ran it past Belinda first.’
Aisha laughed again. ‘Belinda has very good taste.’
‘Absolutely,’ Mark said, and his eyes lingered admiringly until she looked away embarrassed. ‘Anyway, Michael Winner reviewed it once in his column,’ he continued. ‘Do you read the Sunday Times?’
She looked up again. ‘I do. But the arrogance of the man! It’s a wonder restaurateurs let him in. I’m sure I wouldn’t.’
‘I suppose any publicity is better than none.’ Mark laughed.
The starters arrived and as they ate and talked of work – a subject which came easily to them both – it crossed Aisha’s mind how proud her father would be to see her sitting here now, in this very nice restaurant, as confident and relaxed as Mark and the other diners. She thought that one day she would treat her parents to dinner here: book the table, order the food, and call for the bill at the end, to show them just how self-assured she could be, how at home she was in these surroundings.
‘I’m incredibly well organized,’ Mark said by way of confession as her chicken and his steak arrived. Aisha nodded and helped herself to the vegetables from the dishes the waiter had placed in the centre of the table. ‘It can be seen as a fault,’ he said. ‘Angela certainly thought it was.’ Aisha looked up and met his gaze. ‘Belinda told you about Angela, didn’t she?’ Mark asked, slightly concerned.
‘Not really, she mentioned that you had been married before, but that was all.’
‘I see.’ Mark looked down and sliced into his rare steak. ‘OK, it’s probably a good idea if I tell you now and then we’ll get it out of the way.’ He chewed and swallowed before continuing as Aisha sipped her mineral water, waiting. ‘It was the classic tale of marrying too young really,’ he began, ‘and then spending too much time at work. I was in my first position with the company and wanted to do well. My career has always been important to me, as I know yours is to you.’ Aisha nodded. ‘You don’t get a second chance in my line of work – if you haven’t made it by the time you’re thirty, you can forget it. With hindsight, I can see how isolated Angela must have felt, alone in the house all day with only the children for company. She became very depressed and was prescribed Valium. It turned out to be the worst thing that could have happened. We might have ridden out the rough patch had it not been for that drug. It affected her moods and she became a different person.’ Mark suddenly stopped talking. He held his cutlery still and looked carefully at Aisha. ‘You don’t mind me going into this detail, do you? Only I feel it’s important we’re honest with each other right from the beginning.’
‘No, not at all,’ Aisha said. ‘I’m pleased you can.’ She latched on to the word ‘beginning’ as proof there could be more: another meeting, another date, which meant Mark was finding her company acceptable and possibly even enjoying it.
‘Angela cited unreasonable behaviour as grounds for the divorce,’ Mark continued. ‘The little time I spent at home, my neglect of her and the children, and something she called my obsessive attention to detail. I wasn’t going to sign the divorce petition to begin with – it made me sound like a nut case, when all I had been doing was working my socks off to try and provide the best for my wife and family. But my solicitor said I should sign it, that it was the easiest way out, and it would be expensive to defend a divorce, so I did. I signed the papers and gave Angela the house and everything in it. She moved her new bloke in the same day I moved out. I’d no idea she was seeing someone. I was gutted.’
Aisha gasped and set down her cutlery. ‘But that’s dreadful,’ she said, genuinely shocked.
Mark nodded. ‘My parents were devastated. They lost their grandchildren, and to a certain extent they blamed me. We’re still not fully reconciled, even now.’
Aisha looked at Mark with heartfelt pity; to have a family torn from you and not see them was the worst thing she could imagine. It could never happen to her. How she would have liked to have reached out and touched Mark’s hand, to have lightly squeezed it and reassured him. To have told him that she understood and felt ashamed that a woman had behaved so despicably, and that never in a million years would she behave so badly. That she had waited so long for the chance to show love and commitment and knew its worth and would cherish it forever.
‘Anyway,’ Mark said, suddenly returning his hand to his fork, ‘enough. I’ll ruin the evening with my tales of woe. Tell me about your relationships and I hope you’ll be as honest as I have been.’
Aisha gave a little shrug and looked down. ‘There’s nothing to tell really,’ she said quietly. ‘I had a good male friend at university, but that was a long time ago. There’s been no one since.’
‘Oh, I can’t believe that,’ Mark teased. ‘You’re far too lovely to have been saving yourself for me. Come on, out with it. I’m a man of the world, I can take it.’
He laughed again, but stopped himself when he saw her face for that was exactly what she had been doing: saving herself.
He leaned forwards in earnest and, laying his hand on hers, said, ‘I feel very privileged that you agreed to meet me, and while the evening isn’t over yet, I’m already planning our next date. Now, let’s call for that sweet trolley. Tonight’s a special night and we should treat ourselves.’
When Mark took her home after their meal he drove slowly as though he didn’t want the evening to end. The conversation flowed easily now they were used to each other’s company. He pulled up outside her house and cutting the engine gently asked, ‘I hope you enjoyed this evening, Aisha? I’d like to think it’s the first of many.’
‘Yes, I have,’ she breathed. ‘I’ve enjoyed it very much, thank you.’ Then added shyly, ‘I’d like to meet again too.’
‘Terrific!’ he exclaimed with the uninhibited enthusiasm of a little boy and she laughed. ‘Shall I phone you on Monday to arrange something for next week?’ he asked.
‘Yes, please.’ She smiled; then her eyes left his as she looked past him, through the windscreen and up to her parents’ bedroom window. The light was still on, they were awake. She wondered if they’d heard the car draw up. She’d told them she was meeting a friend after work and not to wait up, but she knew they would.
‘It’s late,’ she said. ‘I’d better go in. Thank you again for a lovely evening.’
‘There’s no need to thank me,’ Mark said. ‘The pleasure is all mine. I’ll walk you to the door.’
Aisha remained in her seat while Mark got out and went round and opened her door. She already knew he liked to do this, it was one of his many little acts of chivalry which made her feel so special. He offered her his arm as she stepped out and onto the pavement.
‘At least it’s stopped raining,’ he said, cupping her elbow and guiding her the few steps to the front gate. She waited while he undid the latch and opened the gate; then they walked side by side up the path to the front door.
He turned to face her. ‘Until Monday then,’ he said. ‘I’m already counting the hours. Have a good weekend.’ Then without warning he leant forwards and lightly kissed her cheek. ‘Goodnight, Aisha. Take care.’
‘Goodnight,’ she said and quickly turned and fumbled her key into the lock.
‘Goodnight,’ he called again from the path as she opened the door. She stepped inside and paused before closing the door. She watched him as he fastened the latch on the gate; the street lamp above him threw a faint aura of light around his head and shoulders. He looked up, ‘Monday,’ he mouthed and blew her a silent kiss before returning to the car.
Aisha quietly closed the front door, took off her shoes, and crept up the stairs and past her parents’ bedroom. She hoped her mother wouldn’t hear her, for if she did, she would call out and ask her if she’d had a nice time. Aisha didn’t want to have to answer – to talk would break the spell; tonight she wanted it all to herself, to savour and remember.
She went silently into the bathroom and quickly washed and brushed her teeth, then crept across the landing into her bedroom. Slipping out of her clothes, she left them where they fell, then pulled on her nightdress and eased herself into bed. Nestled beneath the soft, warm duvet, she ran over the evening in her head, scene by scene, reliving every detail from that first glimpse of Mark, to the journey in the car, and the restaurant. She could picture the way he had looked at her across the table, attentive and interested in what she had to say. She could hear the little compliments he had slipped in at every opportunity. She could see his face, his clear blue eyes and neatly clipped fair almost blond hair. She caught the faintest breath of his aftershave, and as her eyes finally closed, heavy with sleep, she felt the light touch of his lips on her cheek, a feeling so intense she shivered with desire. ‘Until Monday,’ she whispered.
‘Isn’t he exactly as I said?’ Belinda enthused when she phoned at nine fifty on Monday morning. ‘Absolutely charming! You’ve made a real impression. He’s asked me to find out.’
‘Find out what?’ Aisha asked, not best pleased by Belinda’s early call. ‘I’m sorry, I haven’t got much time this morning.’
‘Yes, I apologize. I know it’s not your lunch hour, but Mark needs to know if you feel the same. He telephoned me first thing this morning, like a dog with two tails. He’s besotted with you, Aisha, but he doesn’t want to make a fool of himself. I always give my clients feedback if they ask for it, and he’s worried he might have scared you off. I told him I didn’t think he had.’
Aisha pressed the phone closer to her ear and watched the door to her PA’s office. ‘I like Mark,’ she said. ‘But we have only just met.’
‘And what’s wrong with love at first sight?’ Belinda intoned, her voice rising. ‘You can tell a lot by first impressions, and I’ve got a sixth sense for this one. It feels right, so very right. I’m excited for you both. I’ll tell Mark you feel the same then and—’
‘Belinda,’ Aisha interrupted, ‘will you please tell Mark that I enjoyed Friday evening very much, and I am looking forward to him phoning.’
‘OK, playing it cool is fine by me, but be careful you don’t lose him.’
Aisha’s Monday morning at the bank passed with the usual fallout from new Saturday opening plus analysing the sales figures from the previous week, readjusting the staffing rota for the week ahead allowing for absences, and a meeting with the area manager. Then the ATM broke and it was two hours before the replacement arrived, and another hour before it was fitted and fully functioning, which put an additional strain on the already depleted staff of cashiers, all of which Aisha had to oversee because her deputy was on leave.
At one forty-five she was at her desk, surrounded by piles of papers and folders, with the outside line switched through while Grace took her lunch. Aisha’s sandwiches lay in their box beside the phone, and her computer was on, but she did nothing with either. She sat watching the movement of the hands on the wall clock, as they gradually inched towards two o’clock. Mark hadn’t phoned and he said he would. I’m like an adolescent schoolgirl, she thought, unable to settle to anything, waiting for him to call. She chided herself for having been so cool with him, as Belinda had put it, and for not giving her the encouragement she had wanted to take back to Mark. Perhaps I should phone Belinda, Aisha thought, and apologize for not being more forthcoming; explain that it’s just my nature, that I’m naturally reserved, that I really do want to see Mark again, and am as besotted with him as he is with me. Then she wondered if ‘besotted’ was his word or Belinda’s exaggeration.
At five past two, when Aisha had almost given up hope, the phone rang and she snatched it up. ‘Aisha Hussein,’ she said.
‘Aisha, it’s Mark.’ Thank goodness, she thought. His voice was exactly as she remembered it – as she had continuously recalled it since Friday. ‘I’m sorry I’ve left it so late,’ he said. ‘I got held up. Is it still OK to talk?’
‘Yes, but I might get interrupted.’
‘Me too. Sorry,’ he said again. ‘We’ll have to have a code word to alert each other when we’re not alone. Something we wouldn’t normally use like “sausages” or “wellington boot”.’
Aisha laughed. ‘Wellington boot. We could have done with them on Friday.’
‘Too right,’ he said, then paused and lowered his voice in intimacy. ‘It was a lovely evening, Aisha. I’ve thought about nothing else all weekend. I hope you didn’t mind Belinda calling?’
‘Not at all. The go-between.’
‘Yes. But it’s no longer necessary now, I hope. I just needed the reassurance, after everything I’ve been through. You do understand, don’t you?’
‘I was beginning to think I was having an early mid-life crisis,’ Mark said. ‘I took work home and brought it back again, untouched, I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Aisha, it really was a lovely evening. Damn,’ he said and stopped. She heard a noise at his end that sounded like a door opening and closing. ‘Wellington boot coming soon,’ he laughed. ‘Let’s arrange to meet quickly before I get interrupted again. Are you free tomorrow?’
‘Yes, I am.’
‘Great. I could pick up some tickets for the theatre. We could eat first, if you’re coming straight from work.’
‘That would be lovely.’ She paused as Grace knocked on the door; then poked her head round, signalling her two o’clock appointment had arrived. ‘I have a wellington boot here too,’ she said.
He laughed. ‘It must be very muddy out there. Look, I’ll collect you from work at six. Is that all right with you?’
‘Yes, fine. I’ll wait outside the office.’
‘Until tomorrow then. Take care. You’re already very special, Aisha. I can’t believe how lucky I am – an old geezer like me.’
And so it began, his courtship, her romance. Whirlwind, yes, but given their ages and circumstances that wasn’t so very strange. For, as Mark said and Aisha agreed, they had both lost too much time already in going down the wrong path, and had a lot of catching up to do. Mark always managed to say and do the right thing; he was always the perfect gentleman, and wholly attentive to her needs.
In the six months that followed, they spent every available minute together and Aisha felt that all her dreams had come true. She and Mark talked endlessly about anything and everything – the myriad of little incidents that shape us and make us who we are. Mark met her parents and, although he still wasn’t close to them, she met his. He introduced her to his work colleagues and friends, of which there were many, for with his sympathetic ear and ready wit Mark attracted people like bees around a honeypot. By the time Aisha told her parents that Mark was divorced, carefully explaining the circumstances – how he had worked hard and had been badly deceived – they were so impressed with him, and he had become so much a part of their family that other than a couple of questions from her father about his children, it wasn’t an issue.
* * *
‘So did I miss something?’ she asked herself later, when she sat night after night, alone in her armchair, answering the inspector’s questions, trying to get it right in her mind. ‘Did I miss something in the headiness of it all, when Mark literally swept me off my feet? Something that a different person might have seen? A seed of doubt, borne on the wind of chance that should have been harvested and grown to fruition? Would a different person have said, Now stop, wait a minute, that doesn’t quite add up. Would they? Was there a clue?’
And looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, she could see that there might have been: one clue, one crack in the otherwise unblemished china. A fine line of repair where the glue had been applied too liberally, and had set prominent over the join. So had she been more worldly-wise, she might have looked more closely, and then asked how it had been broken in the first place. But the clue, if it was one, came immediately before Mark proposed, and you don’t question the man who’s just asked you to marry him. Of course you don’t, not if you’re as much in love as Aisha was.
It was a clear, cold day in late October, when the autumn sun shone through the trees and sent little shafts of sunlight onto the hard earth. Hand in hand, Aisha and Mark made their way along the edge of the field, stopping every so often to pick up pine cones. They examined them, discarded the mildewed ones and, keeping only the best, dropped them into the carrier bag that swung from Aisha’s arm. A little childish rivalry had developed between them, a competition to see who could discover the biggest, the most perfect pine cone: the one that would be used in the centrepiece on their dinner table on Christmas Day.
Aisha had collected pine cones every year for as long as she could remember, spending an afternoon foraging in the countryside with her parents. Once they had collected enough cones, they would return home for her mother’s piping hot dhal, which she’d prepared the night before and said would ‘warm their bones’. After they’d eaten, Aisha would carefully wash the pine cones and spread them on newspaper to dry in the airing cupboard. Once dry, they were put away until December, when she painted them silver and gold, and used them as Christmas decorations, fresh ones every year.
Only this year, Aisha wasn’t doing it with her parents. She was doing it with Mark, who had fitted so perfectly and completely into her life, it was as though he had always been there.
‘Your house must look beautiful at Christmas,’ Mark said, brushing off the dirt from yet another find. ‘I confess, I haven’t put up decorations in recent years, there didn’t seem much point.’
‘And is there one now?’ Aisha teased, sure of his response.
‘Oh, without doubt. But I’m glad I’m coming to your house just the same. It will be a proper family Christmas. My first in ages.’
He put his arm around her shoulders, and drawing her to him, kissed her lightly on the cheek. He often did this – in the street, out shopping, meeting her from work, and when they were alone. It was a little statement of affection that said they were together, a couple, and she was his.
‘Our Christmases are very quiet,’ Aisha said, glancing up, a little concerned. ‘I hope it’s not too quiet for you. There’s just my parents and a few friends who drop by. I’ll make sure we have some decent wine in for you though. No one else drinks.’
Mark laughed good-humouredly and gently squeezed her shoulder. ‘Never mind the wine. I’ll be with you, that’s what counts. It will be my best Christmas ever, decent wine or not.’
He dropped his arm from her shoulders as they left the edge of the field, and then climbed over the stile into the wood. Mark led the way along the narrow, untrodden path, for only he knew where they were going. It had been his suggestion that they came here, when Aisha had told him of her proposed outing, and had asked him if he would like to join her.
‘I know just the place,’ he said, matching her enthusiasm. ‘Plenty of pine trees and very few people. It’s quite a walk as I remember, you can only take the car so far. It’s well off the beaten track.’
Aisha said she didn’t mind a walk, in fact she enjoyed one. And going somewhere different would make it all the more exciting, particularly as this year it was with him.
‘Now if I’m right,’ Mark called over his shoulder as they continued in single file, ‘there’s a stream just up here. My brother and I used to play there for hours as boys. He fell in once and I got a right bollocking, being the eldest.’
‘Don’t worry, I won’t fall in,’ she laughed.
‘Good. I don’t want a telling-off from your mother. I’m still trying to impress her.’
Further up, the trees thinned out and a makeshift wooden bridge appeared. ‘I was right!’ Mark cried, stopping. ‘It hasn’t changed at all in all these years! Now, do be careful and use the rail. I’ll go first; if it takes my weight, it will certainly take yours.’
Aisha waited as Mark took hold of the gnarled branch that acted as a handrail and tentatively tested the planks of wood with his foot, then started gingerly across. ‘It’s OK,’ he called. ‘But mind how you go.’
She followed, running her hand along the rough wooden rail. She looked down into the small gully only a few feet below and saw the trickle of a stream running at the bottom. Even if the bridge were to give way, she thought, and they fell in, they wouldn’t do themselves much damage. They were like children really, alone in the countryside and imagining an awfully big adventure.
‘Your brother couldn’t have got very wet falling in that,’ she called, laughing.
‘No, it’s deeper further up. I’ll show you in a moment.’
On the other side of the bridge, the bank rose sharply and was heavily overgrown. Thick, brown, waist-height briars protruded menacingly from the undergrowth. Mark went ahead, forging a path, holding back the vines so they didn’t spring up and scratch her. It cleared again at the top and Aisha heard the sudden rush of water, unseen and close by. Mark took her arm and led her slowly to the edge of the clearing and they looked down. She gasped in awe and steadied herself against him, for what had been a trickle of a stream beneath the bridge was now a rushing waterfall in a steep and narrow gully.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she cried. ‘Absolutely beautiful! And to think I’ve lived not far from here all these years and didn’t know it existed.’
‘Not many people do,’ he said. ‘Which is why it’s remained so unspoiled.’
She stood beside him, gazing down into the clear pure water as it crashed between the narrow banks before bouncing into a whirlpool and disappearing underground. It looked so fresh and pure she could almost taste the droplets rising in the fine spray. The steady hypnotic flow was so constant and unfaltering it seemed as if there was no movement at all.
‘My brother and I used to make little boats out of sticks and leaves,’ Mark said, after a moment. ‘We would drop them here, at the top, and see whose survived the longest. It kept us amused for hours.’
‘And who won?’ Aisha asked, happy at the shared memory.
‘Me, of course,’ he laughed. ‘I was the eldest. It had to be me!’
Mark bent down and picked up a large leaf and, curling up the edges so it looked like a small boat, dropped it into the torrent. Aisha linked his arm and they watched together as the makeshift boat rose high on the current of spray, twisting and turning, holding its own, before being sucked into the water and disappearing into the whirlpool at the bottom.
‘Oh well, you can’t win them all,’ he shrugged, straightening.
Aisha continued looking down, gazing into the swirling pool and hoping against the odds that their little boat might yet reappear. But there was no sign of the leaf, it had gone for good, sucked under to decay at the bottom of the riverbed.
‘My father has a saying,’ she said shortly, ‘one of many. He says brooks become crooked by taking the path of least resistance, and people do too. I sometimes wonder if that’s what I’ve done – taken the path of least resistance. The easiest, the most acceptable.’
Mark looked sideways at her with a mixture of humour and indulgence. ‘You say the quaintest things sometimes, Aisha. How could you possibly think that, with everything you’ve achieved?’
She looked up and met his gaze. ‘I’ve conformed though, haven’t I? I’ve always done what was expected of me. The way I met you was the one and only exception.’
‘And what’s wrong with conforming?’ he said. ‘If it’s made you the person you are? You’re perfect, absolutely perfect, as I keep telling you. Though I must confess that makes me feel a certain responsibility sometimes.’
‘For me?’ she asked, surprised. ‘Why should you feel responsible for me? You didn’t make me what I am.’
‘No, but you’re so untouched, unscathed. Vulnerable, almost. I worry that I might harm you in some way.’
She looked at him and then spoke with uncharacteristic sharpness. ‘I’m not an ornament, Mark. I won’t break. Please don’t treat me as if I will.’
He fell silent for a moment. Then, with a small start, he turned squarely to face her. Taking hold of her shoulders, he drew her gently away from the edge of the gully, then placed his fingers lightly under her chin and tenderly tilted her face up towards his. His parted lips came down on hers and Aisha closed her eyes, and felt his mouth, firm and insistent with desire. She felt his body pressing against hers, his tongue exploring her mouth as he clasped her to him. She looped her hands round his neck and clung to him, buried her fingers into his hair, and returned the passion in his kiss. How she loved him, how close she felt to him, how she now yearned for him. She wanted Mark to know that – that if his passion continued and grew, and he wanted her, then she was at last ready to give herself to him, completely. For Mark had always said it must be her decision; that there was no pressure, no rush, and that he would wait until she was ready. Now she was, and she wanted him to know.
His lips left her mouth and moved slowly across her cheek and to her neck; kissing, sucking, gently taking the skin between his teeth. Her body trembled with desire and anticipation. ‘I need you,’ she breathed. ‘I want you, Mark.’
What could be more natural, she thought, than making love for the first time in this beautiful woodland setting, with the sky as their canopy, and the undergrowth flattened to a makeshift bed. It would be perfect, she knew, and he would be gentle in this as he was in all things. He wouldn’t laugh at her inexperience or clumsiness, he would guide her, she knew. But he would have to be certain that she was ready to give herself to him because he had said he would never take advantage of her.
‘Mark, I want you,’ she breathed against his cheek. ‘I want you now.’ She pressed herself harder against him and felt the desire overpower her and the willingness to give herself up to him completely.
His hands were rubbing the small of her back and his lips were buried in her neck. Then gradually he became very still. His body was close but losing some of its pressure now as the firm embrace of his arms eased. Her hands were still around his neck and her eyes were closed as she felt him pull slightly away. Aisha thought he was going to take off his coat and spread it on the ground, then ease her slowly down and onto it. And she yearned for him now, as she never had before; she wanted him, she was ready. But there was no other movement or sound beyond the distant waterfall and a bird fluttering nearby. She felt Mark close but very still. Slowly she opened her eyes and looked into his as his hands dropped away. It took her a moment to realize that he wasn’t taking off his coat, but was standing still looking at her. Then he spoke, and his voice was flat and empty. ‘We’d better go, Aisha,’ was all he said.
He turned and started walking towards the undergrowth that led to the hill they had climbed together. Aisha went after him, not knowing what was happening. He swiped an overhanging branch as he went and his speed increased.
‘Mark! Wait for me,’ she called. He was walking fast, too fast, she was having to run to keep up and nearly tripped. ‘Mark!’ she called again. ‘Wait for me!’ But he didn’t; he didn’t stop or turn, but kept on walking, gaining distance: through the undergrowth, then out of the thicket and down the hill towards the bridge at the bottom. ‘Mark! Stop! I can’t keep up!’ she cried and ran after him, the bag of cones banging awkwardly against her leg. ‘Mark? Wait! What’s the matter?’
There was no reply. Fear gripped her. He strode on as she slipped and slid down the grassy bank, frantically trying to catch up with him. She went to grab hold of the passing twigs and brambles to steady herself, but the grass was wet and her feet kept slithering from under her. ‘Mark! Please wait!’ she shouted louder, but he ignored her.
Down to the bottom of the hill, his back was towards her, receding, moving further away as he continued, putting more distance between them. The bridge came into sight and he marched straight onto it with no concern for the rotting planks. He stalked across and off the other side. Aisha’s heart pounded as she arrived at the bottom of the hill and ran onto the bridge, trying to keep him in sight. Off the other side of the bridge the gap between them widened as he began along the track that led to the stile.
‘Mark, stop!’ she yelled, out of breath and consumed by panic. ‘For goodness’ sake stop! Tell me what I’ve done!’
She heard the hysteria in her voice and perhaps he heard it too, because he cleared the stile with a leap, then took another step and stopped. His back was towards her, his head was held stiff and erect. She ran to the stile, her breath catching in her throat, and clambered over, scratching her leg as she went. Mark was standing just in front of her now, still turned away, but not moving. She went round to face him. His face was deathly white and the fine lines of his forehead were furrowed deep. He looked past her; focusing on some distant point straight ahead.
‘Mark,’ she said again. ‘Mark, please. What is it? Tell me. What have I done?’
He shrugged, a silent gesture of despair, then slowly brought his gaze to meet hers; his expression saying it was impossible, futile even to begin.
‘Mark?’ she implored. But no, he stepped round her and continued at a slower pace towards the field.
She followed him along the edge of the ploughed field and then into the wood where they had previously sauntered hand in hand, enjoying the peace and tranquillity. And whereas before the isolation had added to her pleasure – just the two of them alone in the countryside – it now made her nervous and afraid. As she followed him, her mind frantically searched for an explanation, something that would give her a clue, a handle on what had happened. A small voice from her past said that it was her fault and she was to blame, that she had thrown herself at a man like some cheap hussy as her mother had warned against, and he had rejected her. Aisha felt bitterly ashamed.
The sky ahead burst fiery orange as the winter sun began its descent. Aisha saw its beauty and felt it bittersweet. Mark would have normally stopped and commented on it – he loved the perfection in nature as much as she. But now they continued separate and in silence, the artwork overhead an unacknowledged witness to their isolation.
A few minutes later, the car came into view and Mark quickened his pace again, delving into his coat pocket for the key fob. She heard the click, and watched as he opened the passenger door and stood aside to let her in. Her stomach tightened as she brushed passed him, his little act of chivalry now seeming ludicrous.
She watched him cross in front of the bonnet, his face set and expressionless as she’d never seen it before. She continued to look straight ahead as he climbed in and slammed the door. She could feel her pulse beating wildly in her chest and could hear his breath, fast and shallow. He threw the car keys onto the dashboard, jammed his hands into this coat pockets and, lowering his head, stared into his lap.
‘Well?’ she said at last, still not looking at him and only just managing to fight back the tears. ‘What have I done, Mark? What could I have possibly done to make you behave like that?’ Again her conscience said it must have been her fault, and fear rose up and engulfed her – if this was the end of their relationship, then she only had herself to blame.
He was silent for what seemed an eternity; a silence that seemed to condemn her; then slowly he took his hands out of his pockets and gripped the steering wheel. She saw his knuckles, clenched and white.
‘You haven’t done anything,’ he said tightly. ‘It’s me. I should have told you sooner. Now it’s too late.’
She turned to look at him, even more confused. ‘Told me what? What do you mean?’
He paused and drew a muted breath. ‘About me. My past. Choosing the wrong partner. I should have told you, but I knew you wouldn’t understand.’
She stared at him and found no comfort in his words. Clearly whatever had happened, she hadn’t understood. ‘You did tell me – about Angela?’ she said at last.
He paused again, then clenched and unclenched his hands on the wheel. ‘But I haven’t told you all of it. There was someone else before you.’
She stared at him. ‘So, you went out with someone else, before me. That’s not so awful. It doesn’t explain—’
‘No,’ he interrupted roughly. ‘It was more than that. I lived with someone – for five years. I wanted to tell you, but I never found the right moment and then it was too late. I knew that if I did tell you there was a chance I would lose you, and I couldn’t bear the thought of that.’ A muscle twitched nervously at the corner of his mouth. Aisha heard the words individually before understanding their full implication.
‘You lived with someone?’ she said slowly. ‘For five years? So you were married really, only without the piece of paper.’
He laughed, cynical and biting. ‘There! I knew you wouldn’t understand. How could you, with your upbringing?’
She was quiet, feeling the accusation, the condemnation of her culture and naivety. ‘I don’t think I have ever judged you, Mark,’ she said quietly.
She turned away and looked through the windscreen, concentrating on the darkening skyline as the sun continued its descent. ‘So what’s changed?’ she asked after a moment. ‘Why tell me now?’
He sighed. ‘Your passion. It made me realize how far our relationship had come. I knew I couldn’t continue without you knowing. I’m sorry, I don’t expect you to understand. I’ll take you home.’
‘No!’ she cried, panicking at the finality of what he’d said. ‘If you try talking to me instead of shutting me out, I might. I can’t possibly understand anything unless you tell me, Mark.’
He flexed his shoulders and looked around as though scouring the air for the right words. Releasing the wheel, he sat back and took a deep breath. Aisha looked ahead and tried to calm the nausea rising in her throat.
‘When my marriage to Angela ended I moved out, as you know,’ he said in a dead-beat voice. ‘I lived alone in a rented bedsit. It was squalid, but it was all I could afford what with having to pay maintenance. I was alone, with nothing to think about but the children and what I’d lost. I became very depressed. I couldn’t see any point in anything anymore. I know that must seem strange to you, seeing the person I am now. I really had reached rock bottom. Then I met Christine. She was younger than me and full of energy and fun. She picked me up and brushed me down, gave me a new lease of life. I didn’t stop to consider what I was doing, I was just grateful for her company. Within a few months, we had set up home together, and it was only then I found out.’
He paused, but Aisha didn’t say anything, she looked ahead and waited for him to continue.
‘Christine was fun all right, the life and soul of the party, but she needed a drink to do it. In fact, she needed a drink for everything – she was an alcoholic. I’d had my suspicions early on but I hadn’t realized the implications until we’d been together for nearly two years. She was very clever at hiding it; they are, alcoholics. I enjoy a drink as much as the next person, but I’d never known anyone dependent on it like she was. It was a drug to her. The most important thing in the world. She used to live for the next drink. When I finally realized, I confronted her and there was a dreadful scene. She accused me of spying on her, but I was only trying to help. From then on it went from bad to worse. She no longer hid her drinking and drank openly, all the time. She lost her job, then didn’t have to sober up at all. She began staying in bed, just getting up to go out for more booze. I threw the bottles away, time and time again, but that always led to another ugly scene. She paid with her credit card; it didn’t bother her that she couldn’t afford it. I would come home from work to find her drunk or unconscious and lying in a pool of vomit.
‘I stood it for as long as I could and I tried to help, believe me, I did. I didn’t want another relationship to fail. Then, one night, she wasn’t there when I came home from work. I was relieved to begin with, but when it got to midnight I started to worry. I thought she could be unconscious somewhere, in a gutter, freezing to death. I didn’t know where to look so I sat up all night, waiting. She finally staggered in at four o’clock in the morning, completely paralytic. God knows where she’d been; she looked dreadful and stank of piss.’
He paused for a moment, struggling to find the words.
‘She wanted sex. We hadn’t made love for months; I hadn’t wanted to, not in the state she was in. It was disgusting, I couldn’t possibly. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer and kept coming up and pressing herself against me. I could smell the sick and booze. In the end I pushed her away … I didn’t know what I was doing … I pushed her too hard, she fell and hit her head. That was the end for me. The following day I packed and left. I never saw her again. It was all so humiliating and ugly, Aisha. I just wanted to forget it. But when I felt the depth of your love today – your passion – I knew I should have told you sooner.’
He fell silent and Aisha heard his breathing soften and felt her own heart settle. He had told her his darkest secret, the worst had been said and it wasn’t so bad, not really; she was just sorry he hadn’t told her sooner. She hadn’t realized she was so unapproachable, so perhaps it was her fault after all. She reached out and touched his arm. ‘Mark, I’m glad you’ve told me now. Thank you.’
He turned to look at her, his face still pale, his expression tight. ‘Can you ever forgive me, Aisha? I’m sorry. I’ve hated myself these past six months for not telling you. And I’m sorry I overreacted back there, it’s not like me at all.’
She moved closer to him and slid her arms around his neck. ‘There’s nothing to forgive. I only wish you felt you could have told earlier. You’ve no idea how much you frightened me just now. I thought I’d done something awful.’
He pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair. ‘Oh, my little love! You could never do that. You’re perfect, so very special. I’d die rather than hurt you.’
He kissed her hair, then her face and neck, and she clung to him as relief flooded through her. It was his conscience that had made him react as he had and the depth of his love for her.
‘Can you ever forgive me?’ he breathed into her hair, holding her tight, so tight, as if he would never let go.
‘Of course I forgive you,’ Aisha said gently. ‘I understand why you behaved as you did.’
‘Do you? Really?’ Mark asked slightly surprised.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Aisha, can you ever trust me …’ His voice faltered. ‘Can you ever love me again? Can it be the same as before?’ ‘Yes I can, Mark. It will be.’
‘Can you trust and love me enough to be my wife? Aisha, will you marry me?’
Aisha gasped. Love flooded her heart as all fear of him vanished. It was going to be all right after all. She turned to him, took one of his hands in hers and kissed it gently. ‘Yes, Mark. I will.’
Mark and Aisha were married on the anniversary of their first date, exactly one year to the day after Mark had met her outside Harrods and taken her to The Crooked Chimney to eat. The date had been Mark’s idea, it was part of his happy knack of saying and doing the most romantic things, wanting above all to please her. He asked her father formally for his daughter’s hand in marriage, knowing he would appreciate the traditional approach.
‘I shall always regret my divorce prohibits us having a church wedding,’ Mark said. ‘I know how much you and Mrs Hussein would have liked it. I am so very sorry.’
‘We are all entitled to one mistake,’ her father replied convivially. ‘I was fortunate in being found the wife I was. I am pleased you’ve decided to follow the ceremony with a church blessing. You know that means a lot to us, as practising Christians.’
Aisha had said nothing to her parents about Mark’s ‘second mistake’ – his dreadful ordeal with Christine – only about his marriage to Angela. Why upset them with what they didn’t need to know? she reasoned. Why complicate the past, or detract from the present, when there was no need to? And perhaps part of Aisha knew that her father might have questioned her further about the circumstances of the break-up of Mark’s relationship with Christine, or cast doubt about his culpability, or disapproved of Mark having lived in sin, or disapproved completely. For there was a gap between her generation and her parents’, and indeed their cultures, which, since meeting Mark, seemed to Aisha to have widened. She had come to realize that while she was a true Westerner, her parents were not and would never be, even though they had tried and so wanted to be.
Aisha’s father shook Mark’s hand after he had given his consent and then congratulated them both, while her mother kissed their cheeks and dabbed at her eyes with a little lace handkerchief she kept tucked in the waistband of her sari. Then Aisha’s father had presented Mark with a cheque for ten thousand pounds. ‘Towards the cost of setting up home,’ he said. ‘It’s not a dowry.’ And they all laughed.
Mark hadn’t wanted to accept the money to begin with, but Aisha nodded to him that he should. It was a matter of pride and family honour, and to have refused her father, even for the right motives, would have been unforgivable.
‘It costs a lot to get started nowadays,’ her father said, ‘and it’s no more than I would have spent on a full white wedding had my daughter had one.’
Aisha’s heart went out to her father as he handed over his hard-earned money. He seemed so small and humble beside Mark’s worldly sophistication. But Mark’s gratitude was heartfelt and sincere and her father seemed to grow from his response. Aisha thought then, as she had done countless times before, that she was the luckiest woman alive, both to have found Mark, and to have his love. She couldn’t have been happier.
The wedding was a small, simple affair with twenty guests including Mark’s parents, brother, an aunt and uncle, Aisha’s parents, and a few close friends of Mark’s from work. Aisha had invited Grace, the only person from work she wanted to ask, but unfortunately she had been taken ill two days before and wasn’t able to attend. Aisha’s relatives in India were sent invitations, but for protocol only as there was no possibility of them coming – they couldn’t afford it. As her father had said, ‘If I offer to pay for some, the others will take it as a personal slight.’ Including cousins and their children, there were over sixty members of the extended family so they decided it was better to send the invitation only, and then post wedding photographs to all of them after the day.
Aisha wore a very simple beige silk two-piece suit made by a dressmaker in London who Mark knew. It cost nearly as much as a full-length wedding dress, but Mark said it was more refined and in keeping with their maturity and a registry office wedding than something more flamboyant, and Aisha agreed. She carried a bouquet of lilies which her mother had arranged and wired together herself. Mark’s brother, whom he hadn’t seen in three years, was the best man, and naturally Aisha’s father gave her away. Aisha didn’t have a bridesmaid – with no sisters or relatives in England there wasn’t anyone she felt close enough to have comfortably asked. She had lost contact with her university friends, and since moving back home had been so busy with work she hadn’t had time to make new ones.
As Aisha repeated the words of the marriage service that she’d had so many years to practise, she said a silent prayer of thanks. Thank you God for sending me my perfect partner. You have made me very happy, and my parents unbelievably proud.
After the blessing, they were driven to the reception in a white Rolls-Royce – their one real extravagance of the day which Mark had insisted on. The reception was a five-course meal at The Crooked Chimney. The restaurant had been Mark’s suggestion although her father had paid for it. The sentiment of the venue was obvious, and Mark made it the focal point of his speech. He stood tall and proud and so very handsome in his suit as he spoke and pointed to the table where they’d sat on their first date, and where there was now a huge spray of flowers in the shape of a heart which he’d ordered secretly as a surprise for Aisha. He reminisced how he had gazed at Aisha across that candlelit table, and had been unable to eat because of his nerves. Aisha laughed for his nerves hadn’t been obvious and were nothing compared to how she had felt. Mark described how his first glimpse of Aisha had been sheltering from the rain and that he’d been immediately struck by her natural and unassuming beauty. He said he’d known from that moment on that one day he would make her his wife. He proposed a toast to Aisha’s parents, and thanked them for giving him their most cherished possession, and promised to look after Aisha as well as they had done. He said he would strive to live up to the honour of being their son-in-law and make them as proud of him as they were of their daughter. Aisha saw the look on her parents’ faces and those of the other guests as they raised their glasses for the toast, and felt a burst of pride. They obviously thought as she did, that to be loved and adored so much would create as near a perfect union as it was possible to get.
That evening, after the reception, they left for a week’s holiday in Dubai. They had purposely not called it a honeymoon – they felt that would have sounded frivolous at their age, a ‘short holiday’ was better Mark said. The destination was Mark’s choice, he had visited Dubai on business a number of times and wanted to share the splendour of its modern architecture with Aisha. As they waved goodbye through the rear window of the Rolls and the photographer took his last picture, Mark sat back in the car and sighed with relief. ‘Thank goodness that’s over with,’ he said. ‘It’s been the longest day of my life.’
Aisha laughed and poked him playfully in the ribs. ‘It wasn’t that bad! In fact, I quite enjoyed myself once I got over my nerves.’
‘So did I,’ he said. ‘But I had a nightmare last night that you would change your mind and call it off. It was so real I woke up in a cold sweat.’
‘Did you?’ she asked laughing. ‘But you know me better than that. I would never change my mind about you, ever.’ Little did she know how wrong she would be, for fate can be very cruel sometimes.
It was soon, very soon, of that Aisha was sure, for she remembered thinking, Isn’t it a little early? Why the rush? Indeed, if she thought hard enough, she could remember saying it.
On their return from Dubai – which had been everything it had promised to be, and more – Aisha moved into Mark’s house. Mark had said it made sense for them to use her father’s money towards paying off the mortgage on his house rather than sell it and buy another jointly. Aisha had agreed. Mark hired a van and moved all her belongings in the weekend they returned from holiday. Now, on Monday morning they were in their bedroom getting ready for their first day back at work as a married couple. Aisha was zipping up the skirt of her grey office suit while practising her new surname.
‘Mrs Williams. Mrs Williams, some letters for you to sign,’ she said out loud and laughed. ‘It still sounds so strange,’ she said. ‘I won’t know who they’re talking to.’
‘Oh, you’ll soon get used to it,’ Mark said. ‘Then it will be time for you to leave.’
‘Leave?’ She paused. She was now hunting through the boxes that they hadn’t yet unpacked for a file she needed for work and was only half-listening to Mark.
‘Yes, to start a family,’ he said. ‘You surely haven’t forgotten?’
She straightened. ‘No, of course not. But I’ll have enough time to learn my name. We’ve only been married two weeks. There’s no rush, is there?’ She moved to the next box.
‘True,’ he said, watching her. ‘But we can’t leave it too long. A woman is at her fertility peak during her early twenties. After that there’s a steady decline. It would be dreadful if we missed the opportunity.’
‘Yes, it would,’ she said absently. ‘You haven’t seen a blue A4 folder with the bank’s emblem on the cover? I need it for a meeting this afternoon.’
He shook his head. ‘No, it could be anywhere. Look, we need to go now or I’ll be late, and that won’t create a very good impression on my first day back at work as a married man.’
‘Sorry,’ she said, and quickly closed the box. She grabbed her jacket and briefcase and followed him out of the bedroom. There was always the possibility, she thought, that she’d left the file at the office.
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