The Hadid family was an effortful one. Even minor occasions and trivial achievements were marked with a rigid persistence. Birthday cards arrived precisely on the day in question, except on Sundays when they would tip through the letterbox one day early. Wedding anniversaries were marked not only by the couple concerned but the entire extended family, great blooms of pink mandevilla arriving in steady procession. Lavish bouquets were dispatched routinely: congratulatory lilies for passing a test, good-luck orchids for a summer job, get-well roses for a lightweight cold. These gifts were cordially acknowledged with thank you notes, each of which then garnered a phone call; a three-act play that ran on repeat.
Family news was issued systematically to ensure that everyone received an update. When Kamran interviewed at Oxford and his mother forgot to tell an aunt, she took it as a personal slight and needled them for weeks.
Kamran understood that his family made sense of the world through this codified means of connection, so when his housemaster pointed at a bouquet of flowers, instead of feeling pleasure, he only felt a sense of duty. He collected it with resignation, the sturdy ceramic pot held securely against a hip, then thanked the master and headed back to the third floor, his footsteps echoing off the wood-panelled walls.
At seventeen, Kamran was a senior and no longer had to share his room unlike the boys in lower years. He set down the flowers on his desk, a Victorian construction of quarter-sawn oak. He opened a drawer, shaking it free of its mahogany boxing, and took out a piece of paper. Hampton’s coat of arms was printed along the top, a golden lion on a royal blue shield with the words Alere Flammam Veritatis inscribed underneath. To feed the flame of truth.
Kamran’s mother insisted that he use official stationery when writing to their relatives. She was of second-generation wealth, garnered by her father’s steelwork business, but aspired to older money – hence Kamran’s enrolment at Hampton College followed by his brother, Adam.
Set in a sprawling wooded estate, the boarding school was eight miles west of their family home: a stucco townhouse in Belsize Park where they were received each break like kings. Sometimes they would arrive on a Friday to find the house filled to the brim. Kamran and Adam would swap a glance before slipping into character of ‘the two good sons’.
When greeting his uncles and aunts, Kamran would recall second-hand reports of other Asian families: their raucous laughter and flavoursome food, brash debates that verged on rude. He had seen the evidence on Instagram Live: brothers jostling over the last piece of chicken, set to a mother’s gentle chiding, cut by a father’s sterner scolding. Together, they sounded like family. The Hadids in comparison were more composed; a little more ‘clenched’, a friend once said.
Kamran’s mother, Sofia, was obsessed with saving face. A great beauty at the age of forty-six, she had a laughably strict style of dress: slim chinos that tapered at the ankle, tailored tops with navy-and-white stripes, structured jackets with embellished buttons, complemented by pearls or diamonds but never both in tandem. Her dark hair fell in coiffured curls, framing her fine-boned features.
Kamran could tell that she was proud of them in the fussy way she arranged them for pictures: Kamran to the right, Adam to the left and herself ensconced in the middle. There was a neat symmetry to these photos: the brothers an identical five feet ten and their mother three inches shorter. It was strange to define a family this way – well groomed– but he couldn’t deny it; he too liked the way they looked.
Kamran bore a clear resemblance to their mother: fine features with high cheekbones and a delicate, elegant jawline. Adam, at sixteen, took after their father with his large, heavy-lidded eyes and lips that were overtly full next to Kamran’s more subtle appeal. Their mother liked nothing more than showing them off at weddings, her only regret that she had named her sons the wrong way around.
‘You should have been Adam,’ she would say to Kamran. After all, didn’t ‘Adam and Kamran’ flow off the tongue more smoothly than ‘Kamran and Adam’? It annoyed her, this slight hitch in their naming, especially as she had spent so long selecting ones that kept to Islamic tradition but could also pass for western.
Still, she couldn’t be prouder of them – a fact she shared with a finely tuned mix of vanity and humility. Seeing her spar with an aunt was akin to watching ballet. Sofia might start with a passing comment, a reference say to Kamran’s interview at Oxford.
Aunty Rana, their father’s sister, would reply with a lament on fees. ‘But it was worth it,’ she would say with a shrug. ‘Yusuf did after all get a First and look where he is now.’
Sofia would volley back, ‘Fees are certainly annoying. We’re not made of money after all. I hate it when people assume that. Take Mack’s Jag. He works so hard but just because he drives a Roadster, the garage assumes he’s dripping with cash.’
A tight laugh from Rana. ‘Why doesn’t he take it to the official factory? That’s what Aadil does.’
The children would watch these contests with tense amusement. Perhaps this is why they received such frequent congratulation. Their smallest achievements were shamelessly embellished – a keen swimmer recast as an Olympic hopeful, a piano recital hailed virtuosic. Neither side wanted to seem ungracious and so they bestowed each triumph with outsize praise, prompting this empty rally of thanks.
Kamran smoothed the piece of paper and began to write with his Cartier pen. In neat letters, he thanked Aunty Rana for her wishes following his interview. The note was polite but impersonal and he finished with an expansive ‘x’, their customary substitute for truer intimacy. He placed the note inside its envelope and sealed it with a sponge-tipped pen, knowing it would prompt a phone call to thank him for his thank you. Wearily, he returned to the office downstairs.
Finn Andersen received him with a smile. With wavy blond hair, broad shoulders and an easy, affable manner, Finn was the sort of boy who featured in Hampton’s brochures.
Kamran placed his envelope in the silver pail reserved for outgoing post. ‘You must be looking forward to tonight,’ he said.
Finn glanced at his calendar. ‘Tonight?’
‘Your fancy party in the Hawtrey Room?’
‘Ah, of course. Yes, I certainly am.’
‘I hear that everyone gets a bit “tired and emotional”.’
Finn laughed, his blue eyes squinting winsomely. ‘That’s what I hear.’ As assistant to the housemaster, Finn was invited to Hampton’s spring fundraiser where powerful alumni gathered to reminisce and write generous cheques after copious drinks. Hosted in the lavish Hawtrey Room at West Lawn, the party was an opportunity for invited pupils to network in a semi-formal setting.
‘Well, have fun,’ said Kamran. ‘I’ll see you later.’
Finn nodded. ‘I certainly hope so.’
Kamran headed back up to his room. His duty was officially done and now he was free to play. At 6 p.m, their spring exeat would begin; a scheduled weekend that granted them leave. Barrett, a broad-chested boy in the same year as him, had invited some friends to the Cotswolds. Kamran was thrilled that his mother had permitted the trip and began to pack with alacrity, humming a half-formed tune.
From his wardrobe, he pulled out a standard-issue suitcase. With a sturdy brass handle and buttery leather in a dark green olive, it was one component of the Hampton aesthetic: well turned out young men, all smartly tugging the exact same case.
Kamran folded his pile of clothes into one half of the suitcase: chinos in khaki, black and dark navy, one polo T-shirt in white and another in black, a knitted jumper and a pair of jeans. Barrett’s parents were away, but from what he heard, these weekends in the country were civilised affairs: whisky in the drawing room with pungent cigars, as if priming already for their grand collective destiny. Hampton was, after all, breeding ground for the country’s most powerful men. Here walked the sons of moguls and royals. These boys with their plummy accents and cheerful confidence were future kings and leaders. Kamran was comfortable in their midst. He may be of a different race but he dressed as they dressed, spoke as they spoke and held the same values and graces. He knew that it wasn’t colour but class that set you apart at Hampton. You could spot the social intake by a mile. They pronounced their ‘t’s and rounded their vowels in an effort to fit in, but they did not know how to hold a fork and were flummoxed by silver service. Kamran pitied them. No matter how they tried, they would never be accepted. Instead, they were treated with a bemused paternalism, as if too dim to withstand challenge. Of course, Hampton did not tolerate bullies, so the worst they ever faced was a hearty ‘pleb’ on the rugby field. It was fitting, thought Kamran, that at Hampton, even insults were traded in Latin. He closed his suitcase and wheeled it to the door. Carpe vinum, he thought as he checked his watch with a smile.
Zara Kaleel gazed at the four-tier chandelier looming above the altar, its mass of golden arms like snakes on Medusa, each curved and spindly, topped with a tongue of light. It cast a ceremonious shadow across the cavernous room, making it somehow colder. She was perched on the edge of a pew, wary of being asked to speak after her silence in the meeting last week. She squared her shoulders and crossed her legs, her right foot positioned in a demure en pointe. Places of worship put her on edge.
There were seven of them tonight in this sorry assembly of miscreants and misfits, all dotted across St Alfege church as if sharing a pew might unglue a wound. Zara recognised three of them: Sam, the part-time teacher; Kerry, the wounded writer; Ed, the ex-criminal on the cusp of surrender.
As feared, Chris, the session leader, nodded at Zara. ‘Would you like to address the group?’ he asked, his Irish accent soft and lyrical.
Zara felt a spike of unease. How was it that she had spent years orating in open court but was anxious at the prospect of addressing this room? She raised a hand in polite refusal.
Chris angled his head to the right, entreating her to speak.
She faltered for a moment, caught exposed in his hopeful stare. ‘Okay,’ she said finally. ‘I’m Zara Kaleel.’ She pressed a nail into the pad of her thumb, leaving half moon crescents that slowly plumped back. ‘And I am an addict.’ The words were strangely hollow, as if she were playing a role. ‘I have been clean for three weeks.’ The word ‘clean’ held a hitch, laden with sarcasm or irony as if she were somehow superior to this charade of recovery.
She had read that acceptance was a pertinent step and she agreed that this was true, but mainly for people who were really addicted. Zara hadn’t fallen so deeply. In fact, she had stopped taking Diazepam regularly nearly five months ago and hadn’t touched it for a full three weeks – except that one Thursday when she needed to sleep. She wasn’t really an addict but those words formed a vital part of admission to this club and so she deigned to say them.
Unlike in the movies, there was no round of applause to praise her for her courage. Instead, the group waited in silence. In the front row, Ed turned in her direction. His hair fell in strings from the swamp-green canvas of a baseball cap and he stared at her with deathly grey eyes.
Zara wondered if she had made the right choice. Her options had been to see a therapist or join a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. She had balked at the thought of therapy; the shock-white exposure of sitting in a room, bleeding intimacies into soft upholstery as a stranger sat by and watched. She had agreed to attend this NA meeting; to come to church on a Saturday evening and say that she was a junkie.
Chris nodded sagely. ‘Thank you, Zara. Can you share some of your story?’
She wrapped her woollen cardigan around her and folded her arms tightly. With her long dark hair in a messy bun and her skin make-up free, she looked many miles away from the barrister she used to be. ‘I first started using about six years ago.’ She uncrossed her legs and shifted in her seat. ‘At first, it was because my job was stressful.’ She paused, not knowing how much to share. ‘I was a lawyer and it wasn’t unusual to take medication to keep yourself going. I took it for several years on and off without any problems and then…’
Ed in the front row gave her a gentle nod.
Zara felt oddly touched by the gesture. She averted her gaze to the altar and focused on the folds of rich purple velvet. ‘Then my dad died in 2017 – three years ago now. He– we hadn’t talked for six months because…’ Zara shook her head. ‘Anyway, I didn’t get to say goodbye.’ She tried to remain neutral as if reciting facts in court, but felt the dull, aching beat of ceaseless remorse. ‘After that, I started taking Diazepam more frequently and I did some things I’m not proud of.’ She flashed back to a newspaper headline: FOUR MUSLIM TEENS RAPE DISABLED ENGLISH GIRL. ‘I let some people down and now I’m here.’
‘Because you choose to be?’ Chris was clearly more perceptive than Zara had believed.
Her lips curled in a plaintive moue. ‘Because I have to be.’ Chris waited and she shifted beneath his gaze. ‘After I quit chambers, I took a job at a crisis centre working with victims of sexual assault. I had a difficult case last year and things have been… erratic ever since.’ She gripped the edge of the pew in front. ‘My boss told me to seek help if I wanted to keep my job.’
‘Has that helped?’
She half shrugged. ‘Well, I’m here, so that remains to be seen.’
Chris smiled. ‘Okay. Thank you for sharing, Zara. You’ve been very brave.’
You’ve been very brave. Was recovery really this cheesy? Zara imagined how Safran would react when she told him about her NA meetings. She pictured the amused curve of his brow and the familiar lilt of his laugh. She – Zara the Brave – in recovery. What a joke, she thought. What an abject hoot.
Kamran heard a sharp rap on the door and opened it to welcome Jimmy. An athletic boy of Malaysian heritage, he, like Kamran, hailed from a wealthy family and dovetailed comfortably with the Hampton aesthetic. His thick dark hair was scrupulously styled and his manner was calm and confident.
‘You heading to the Batts?’ asked Jimmy.
‘The Batts? But we’re meeting Barrett in a minute.’
‘No, we’re not.’ He gestured at Kamran’s phone. ‘I thought he texted you? His parents’ trip got cancelled so we’re not going up there after all.’
Kamran groaned. ‘I didn’t get the message.’ He drew out his phone and checked his texts. ‘The signal here drives me crazy.’
‘Well, there’s no harm done. We’re heading to the Batts instead. Rumour has it that some old cad has smuggled in a keg.’
Kamran arched a brow. ‘In that case, fuck this then.’ He tipped his suitcase over and grabbed his blazer from the back of his chair. Together, they raced down the stairs into the warm May dusk outside.
The Batts, a large clearing hidden by a copse of trees, was located on the south-eastern boundary of the school grounds. It provided a refuge from their various housemasters, tutors and matrons. Access to drink, drugs and women was strictly controlled at Hampton and these covert soirees provided a rare and welcome chance to indulge.
Kamran’s house, West Lawn, was located at the western extreme of Hampton’s grounds. Eleven other boarding houses were dotted around the complex, each with around seventy boys; fourteen from each year. West Lawn was the centre of his life at Hampton, and his closest friends – Jimmy, Barrett and Nathan – were all housed there too.
Soon, the four of them were gathered on the Batts joined by their boisterous peers. Jimmy handed Kamran a foamy beer, which he tipped to his lips in glee. Raised in a Muslim family, albeit a liberal one, he still felt a subversive thrill whenever he chose to drink. The beer was warm and sticky, but he gulped it down in hearty swigs. As the sky blotted dark with ink, the mood grew loose and merry.
Kamran spotted his brother, Adam, playing beer pong with some seniors. He headed over and lightly touched his shoulder.
Adam turned and flinched in surprise. ‘What are you doing here?’ he asked.
Kamran gestured towards his friends. ‘Barrett’s parents aren’t leaving after all, so I’m coming home with you tomorrow.’
Adam’s face flushed. ‘Oh, right.’
Kamran pointed at the beer pong table. ‘Sorry to ruin your fun.’
‘Nah, you’re not ruining anything,’ he said gravely.
Kamran laughed. ‘Adam, I’m kidding. You’re sixteen. You can have a drink if you want to. Just go easy, okay?’
He nodded solemnly. ‘Yeah. I will.’
Kamran headed back to his friends, vowing not to bother his brother. Adam was naturally pensive and a night of fun would do him good. As the younger sibling, he likely felt more pressure to perform. Kamran was a skilled fencer and popular at school. The thing Adam seemed to enjoy most was spending time with horses and yet he refused to play polo – ‘a cruel sport’ he’d say with that dreamy, absent air of his. He had joined the cricket team at their father’s behest, but lacked a natural flair. Adam was too self-conscious in a team. He needed to learn to let go, and perhaps this party would help him.
Kamran passed a group of juniors that were climbing a large sycamore tree. Janus Keister reached the top branch, then pulled down his pants and mooned his friends.
‘Very on brand, Keister!’ yelled a boy, then chuckled at his own wit. Another group of juniors had fastened their ties around their heads and were running around shouting in Greek. Apparently, this is what passed for fun at Hampton. Kamran laughed as he watched, then joined his friends for a second drink.
Zara smoothed the Estée Lauder serum on her skin, taking care not to rub too hard in the hollow beneath her left cheekbone. The bruises had long healed but it was still delicate and she often felt a faint pain when she pressed it absentmindedly. Five months had passed since the attack and though she had clicked back into her heels and pulled on her armour of poise, she still felt a queasy vulnerability whenever she ventured from home. She had to harden herself to do it, as if she were duelling with the very act of existing.
It all started with Jodie Wolfe, a sixteen-year-old girl from East London who walked into Zara’s office last July and accused four classmates of rape. In what would become a tabloid frenzy, Jodie – white, disabled, beleaguered – named her attackers as Muslim. The firestorm that followed took something from them both.
Zara, herself a Muslim, was denounced a traitor – rhetoric that led to a physical attack. It was on the most banal of evenings, during a late night trip to pick up dry cleaning, that she had heard those fateful footsteps – two sets echoing her own. Her memory held the next moments in a murky midnight blue: her scream snuffed by the force of a palm, the crack of her cheek on brick, the giant flowers blooming in her vision, her body jolting upwards. A kick to her stomach when she fell to the ground and, then, the single most terrifying moment of her life: a bottle of clear liquid emptied on her face with the threat that it was acid. She had blacked out then, sinking into dark relief. When she woke, the doctors told her it was vodka, not acid, but the horror of that moment – the sadism in her attackers’ eyes – changed something permanent inside her.
Ten days later, a video clip surfaced that seemed to prove the four boys’ innocence: Jodie whispering to Amir, the ringleader, entreating him to touch her. Disgraced, Jodie said that she had lied and the case was swiftly thrown out of court.
Weeks later, a second clip emerged showing the events that followed the first. This one proved indisputably that the boys were, in fact, guilty. The case was reopened but Amir was set free and his friends were issued nominal sentences given their young age and clean rap sheets.
Zara had no way of knowing if it was this final infraction that led her to the precipice, or if she would have arrived there regardless following her attack. She found herself taking Diazepam with more zeal than ever before, mixing it with alcohol with dangerous frequency if only to collapse into dreamless sleep, free of violent memories.
She reached her nadir in February when she roused one day to the blare of horns deep inside Rotherhithe Tunnel, a narrow, suffocating tube that burrowed beneath the Thames. She had veered out of her lane into the path of oncoming traffic – extraordinarily lethal in such a small space. She snapped to rigid attention and drove home with a manic focus. Once safely inside her Greenwich flat, she let herself dissolve. It was shame that she felt more than anything – not only for being so weak but for putting someone’s life at risk.
Safran had forced her to take a break after hearing what had happened that day. He had bundled her into his car and driven her to Dartmoor. They took long, bracing walks in the February cold and saw wild horses gallop on the moor. The memory of that week made her well with sorrow. Sharing a home with her friend made her see how lonely she was. There was comfort in knowing there was heat in the house, in seeing the grains of salt fanned across the table, in the curtain that wasn’t folded quite the way she wanted, or the haphazard way he left his shoes on the landing. They had spent evenings in front of the fire, eating comfort food and watching TV. Every laugh from her he took as a small victory.
Their colleagues from chambers had often wondered if their friendship went further given their easy manner and the way they looked together: he, tall and athletic with sleek good looks; she with her haughty cheekbones and naturally full lips. Their chemistry was never sexual, however. They were more like comrades in arms.
Over the course of the week, they had watched the first season of Breaking Bad – he appalled that she hadn’t yet seen it – and in the bright, warm tones of the Albuquerque desert, she found a strange and calming comfort. Perhaps nothing was elemental and everyone was in danger of change. Perhaps that’s why she, Zara the Brave, still felt this strange anxiety even at home on a Saturday evening.
She paced to the kitchen and poured herself a cool glass of water. She sat on her large cream sofa, legs tucked beneath her thighs, and watched the hand on her large wall clock as it counted down the minutes to night.
Were those gunshots? Kamran wondered idly. There was no way to tell over the riotous noise. The babble of boys mixed with tinny music that played from someone’s phone. Shouts and screams rose like flares that joined to form a din. Kamran felt unsteady on his feet, but where he’d usually stop, he carried on drinking, knowing that tomorrow he was free from duties.
Besides, he had never been truly drunk, not stinking drunk. He felt a tinge of envy when his friends would talk of hunching over a toilet bowl, the sheer abandon of knowing what was coming but going ahead and doing it anyway. It felt like an important part of living, a rite of passage to adulthood, and the fact that he’d never done it needled him unduly like it might if he’d never kissed a girl or not yet lost his virginity. Thankfully, that wasn’t a worry. He thought of his family’s cruise at Christmas and his fumbles with Maya, the ballet dancer. He thought of her long legs, shiny from the buttercream that she kept in a jar in her cabin. He thought of her lithe thighs and ready lips, her warm mouth and the downy film above it.
‘She certainly taught me a thing or two,’ he had joked with Jimmy on his return to Hampton, his voice gruff with newfound swagger. In truth, he had weaved with nerves and trembled beneath her fingers. She, a year older than he, had lulled him into security, telling him over and over how handsome he was, how desperately she wanted him. He didn’t care that she was bored or looking for something to do that might annoy her wealthy parents. He succumbed to her that evening and every evening for the rest of the trip, begging Adam to cover for him.
He hadn’t been with a woman since. The girls from the comp nearby certainly made him flutter, but given his schedule at Hampton, he had little chance to indulge. There was plenty of time for that, he supposed. He was approaching his final year of study and would soon be starting at Oxford. All those girls from their single-sex schools – what an utter treat.
Kamran knew the sort of man he aspired to be – a strong and faithful one, loyal and fair like his father – but first he wanted to have some fun; to drive it all from his system. He would give himself ten years, he’d decided – from eighteen to twenty-eight – to sample the fairer sex. After that, he would look for a wife and have three kids and buy a nice car like his dad. Until then, he would seize his youth with all his might.
Kamran accepted another beer, its hoppy smell mingling with spring wisteria. It was warm and gummy in his throat but he chugged it down regardless. A group of juniors rode by on bicycles in close pursuit of a small white rabbit, its bushy tail flashing a desperate SOS. Kamran willed it to escape and was pleased when a boy wobbled and fell, his legs tangling in the cold blue metal. Giddily, he stood and remounted the bike, wobbling down the hill towards his quarry. Nearby, a separate group of boys dipped a pint with various body parts to feed to one of their friends. Further on, a group was pouring a keg straight into the mouth of a boy lying prone. Above the noise and chaos, the night took on a certain romance: strange and heady, sweet and surreal.
Kamran accepted another beer and the sky began to spin. He laughed out loud at something absurd. He heard the Hampton anthem and a chorus soon joined in. He loved this place. He really, truly did.
The night bled into a snatch of memories: him walking giddily home, fumbling for his keys, the jangle as they fell to the floor, the jarring sound making him giggle. The way his head pulsed as he brushed his teeth and how the room seemed to stretch and contract. Pulling off his clothes, falling into his sheets, swiping at some crumbs and then sinking into sleep.
It was deep and dreamless until he felt a body against his, the powerful arm curled around his chest, the hot whisper in his ear, the eager hand encircling him. It seemed inky and unreal, with the opiate quality of an erotic dream. Each touch, in isolation, felt entirely unthreatening: a fingertip brushing against his navel, dipping inside so slightly; lips on the curve of his shoulderblade, warm and hypnotic. It was only when he felt the full heft of weight that something triggered inside him: a distant alarm or warning that this might really be happening. But where his subconscious might have roused him, it lay only mute and submissive, blunted by the alcohol coursing through his bloodstream. He felt a bewildering mix of pain and pleasure and heard sounds in a voice that was somehow familiar. He tried to reach for meaning, to latch onto reality, but only sank back to a deep, dark sleep.
Sofia Hadid read the email with a febrile sense of defeat. Jonathan Walmsley, the CEO of her father’s company, had dispatched her ideas with a cold and clear diplomacy. He appreciated her input, he wrote, but it wasn’t the direction the company was heading. If she should have any similar ideas, however, then she should please feel free to contact him.
She knew he disliked her meddling, that he wondered why she couldn’t keep quiet like her sister, Noreen, and the other silent partners. What he didn’t know was that Sofia had been her father’s first choice as successor at Arshad Steel. It was only after she got married and pregnant that his preference seemed to shift. What hope did women have when their own fathers eschewed them for men?
For years, she had tried to prove her worth, sending him plans and proposals and strategies for improving efficiency. ‘Focus on family,’ he would tell her. ‘It’s the most important job in the world.’ A gentle way of saying that she was no longer needed.
She took her thwarted ambitions and applied them to her role at home. She created a project called ‘Hadid Family’ in Basecamp, the project management software used by Arshad Steel. She added profiles for Kamran and Adam, her brows creasing at the lack of poetry in the order of those syllables.
She created a space where her children could share what they needed, as well as their goals, ambitions and worries. She even interviewed them bi-annually for a ‘deep dive’ into their lives. Mack thought it ludicrous, but why couldn’t motherhood be approached like a job? If managers cared enough to formally check in with staff, why couldn’t a mother follow suit? All too often, parents lost sight of their children; assumed that because they saw them every day, they would spot a private aching. This is how children slipped from their grip and she refused to let that happen.
Besides, Basecamp was useful in other ways. It helped her keep track of her staff, especially since they worked different days and patterns: Julio the gardener on Monday, Magda the cleaner on Wednesday, Oliver the driver whenever he was needed since he was on full-time hours, and Nevinka the cook who was there every day.
Sofia used to have a live-in housekeeper when the children were small but now it seemed a tad indulgent. It would be useful though when the boys came home and the house-clean was already two days old.
She had received a message this morning, a taciturn text from Kamran saying he would not be going to Barrett’s after all and would now be arriving with Adam – news that pleased her immensely. Her children were her greatest joy and biggest achievement. They had to be. What else could she show for her wealth?
When she heard the door rasp open, she swept over to them with open arms and ushered them in with a kiss.
‘Hi, Mum.’ Adam hauled his suitcase inside.
Sofia frowned. ‘Where’s Oliver?’
He shrugged. ‘We told him we’d get our own cases.’
A cut of annoyance tightened her smile. ‘Well, that’s fine but it’s two flights to your room.’
‘Mum, we can handle it.’
There it was: that spike of impatience. She was only trying to help. ‘So!’ she said brightly, a two-letter palate cleanser, making way for warmth. ‘How are my boys?’
Adam nodded. ‘Yeah, fine.’
She looked to Kamran and noticed the film of sweat that glossed his upper lip. ‘Are you ill?’ she asked.
He tugged at a collar uncomfortably. ‘No, I’m just tired.’
‘You don’t look well.’ She grasped him by the elbow and turned him to the light. ‘Shall I call Dr Hepenstall?’
He pulled away from her grip. ‘No, I’m fine, Mum.’ He gave her a listless smile. ‘Honestly. I just got too hot in the car.’
Sofia was wary of pressing further so let them take their leave, listening as the twin creaks of their feet traced a path upstairs. One door closed and then another.
She checked her watch. It was approaching lunchtime so she headed to the kitchen to prepare their meal. She unwrapped the intricate platters of food prepared by Nevinka: chana chaat, a flavoursome mix of chickpea, mint, yoghurt and tamarind combined with onions and pastry; succulent lamb kofta meatballs; layers of biryani; and kheer for dessert, rice pudding topped with almonds and pistachios. Her sons loved homemade South-Asian cuisine and it was important to her that they were connected to their culture. She arranged the platters on the large oak table and set out plates and cutlery. She drew three glasses of icy water and placed them neatly to the right of each setting. She took another glance at her watch, then settled down to wait, ignoring the airless press of boredom.
Kamran sat on his bed in a daze, a sturdy king-size with a sumptuous white duvet, goose down pillows and four extra cushions in burgundy and gold. He remembered pleading with his mother in Liberty to leave the cushions behind, but she had firmly insisted. ‘It looks nice,’ she’d said. ‘You’re barely home anyway and when people come round, they want a tour. It’ll look nicer this way.’
He lay back on the cushions now to stop his stomach churning. Was he hung over, or was this the noisome texture of disgust? He could scarcely believe it had happened – was briefly convinced it had not – but the numb-white glaze of shock told him he couldn’t be sure. Lying there, he felt his mind cut away from itself, so that even as he succumbed to paralysis, some stronger authority inside himself rose to marshal his strength.
It dived down for memories, grasping at them like seaweed from silt. The dull twinkle of stars in the sky, high-pitched jeers and raucous shouts. Adam playing beer pong and laughing in that nervy, restrained way that he did. Jimmy or maybe Nathan pushing another drink at him and Kamran glugging it freely, buoyed by youth and liberty.
He traced his walk home: passing beneath a Victorian lamplight, pausing to watch a hundred mites dance in the glow it cast to the ground. He’d seen one of Hampton’s peacocks and hoped it would splay its feathers, knowing it would not. He had stumbled along the path, a sliver of safety in the baleful dark. He was drunker than he’d ever been, drunker even than that last night on the cruise when Maya had traced her tongue down the curve of his back, wrapped him in her mouth and did things with her delicate fingers he would never have dared imagine. He’d got hard thinking about it, swaying on the green. At West Lawn, he had thumbed in his key code, his fingers leaving five smudges of sweat. He had grappled with his keys outside his bedroom door, then slammed it shut and flinched at the noise before remembering that most of the boys had gone. He’d pulled off his shirt and trousers, and climbed into bed in a stupor.
He tried to draw outlines in his mind and fill in the inky blanks. He remembered a hand tugging at his underwear, the black band of his Tom Ford boxers skimming across his buttocks, hot breath in his hair, a heady, intense feeling and the murk of a vital question: Had he wanted it? Had he known what was happening and relented anyway? Did a dark, perverse part of him react to the transgressive nature of it? He remembered asking a question if not out loud then in his mind: what is happening? The answer was swallowed by darkness and the fact that he hadn’t fought. He knew he hadn’t fought.
‘Boys,’ his mother’s singsong voice called up, snapping him from his thoughts. Kamran stood and lightly slapped each of his cheeks, bolstering himself for battle. He looked in his mirror and smiled, dialling the wattage up and down until it looked easy and natural. ‘Coming,’ he called and joined Adam on his way down.
At the table, he picked up a kofta and popped it in his mouth. ‘Thanks, Mum,’ he said between bites, feeling the gummy meat settle between his teeth.
‘So – talk to me,’ she said.
He nodded, assuring her he would as soon as he finished his mouthful. He remembered being fifteen and a conversation in their car. He and Adam were coming home from school and she had asked them how they were. ‘Fine,’ said one. ‘Yep,’ said the other. She had pulled up on the side of the road. ‘We’re not doing this, okay?’ she’d said. ‘We’re not going to be a family that doesn’t talk to each other. We’re going to communicate. So I’m going to ask you again: how was your day?’
Kamran had humoured her, not telling her that he too had seen that movie where Ethan Hawke pulls over his kids and gives them a similar speech. Perhaps cinema was as good a place as any to learn the nebulous art of parenting.
He swallowed his mouthful, knowing he couldn’t fluff this performance. ‘Things are good,’ he said. ‘I got a send up in fencing class. Mr Storr said I’m winning more pressure points than any other pupil. He might even select me for Grenoble.’ He segued to a monologue, changing his voice here and there like an actor on a stage: plummy for Mr Morewood, a trill for Mrs Brodie, a Dutch lilt for Nathan and a cut-glass accent for Jimmy. Beneath it all, his stomach dredged with nausea. He took another bite and imagined what would happen if he blurted it out now.
‘I think I was raped.’
‘Mum, I think I was raped.’
‘Hey, Mum, by the way, I’m pretty sure I was raped.’
He gulped a mouthful of water. ‘Mr Wycombe said I’m on course for top boy in his class.’
His mother reached out and ruffled his hair. ‘My boy. I’m so proud of you.’
He prayed she would look away, for his smile was a filament about to break. She held his gaze and he pretended to work something loose with his tongue to explain the strange contorting of his face. How does one deal with grief that wasn’t caused by death?
She continued to ask him questions and Kamran dutifully answered, silently second-guessing himself – the angle of his elbow on the table, the fullness of his laugh – as if he’d forgotten how to be her son. He wanted to confide in her, needed surely to tell someone, for if he continued pretending now, he would have to pretend for the rest of his life.