A Red Light

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3. Friends in Need

3 FRIENDS IN NEED

In the summer life began even before the first rays of dawn appeared on the horizon. Everyone wanted to do as much as possible before the heat reached its peak and made them feel languid and listless.

In the afternoon, when the sun glared down from a brilliant, blue sky and the heat shimmered above the dusty streets, shutters were closed, blinds pulled down, and people and animals slumbered restlessly until the heat abated and they were rested and refreshed.

Zahra slept longer than usual the morning after she had been attacked. Normally, the sounds of the dustman clattering through the alleys with his barrow, cockerels greeting the pale sun as it rose, and a donkey or two braying in annoyance as the first loads of the day landed on their backs, roused her from her sleep. However, the following morning she awoke long after the call to prayer had resounded from a nearby mosque. She felt sore and bruised and lay in bed for a few moments gradually recollecting what had happened the night before. She got up slowly and stiffly and crossed over to the dressing table. Her reflection gave her a shock. She hadn’t seen her face after the assault and was not prepared for such a sight. Her left eye was black and swollen, her cheeks were bruised and a scab had formed on her lower lip where it had bled. She gasped and put her hand up gingerly to her face trying to smear gently the traces of cream which Madame Ziba had put on to soothe her skin.

Tears welled in her eyes. This experience had convinced her more than anything that she would never sell her body for sex again. She looked down at her torn dress and then remembered that Shirin had promised to leave a frock on the door for her. When she looked outside, she saw Shirin had, indeed, left a dress hanging on the door handle. Zahra returned to her room and took off the dress which Hassan had ripped. She noticed deep scratch marks below her neck where, in his haste, Hassan’s dirty nails had clawed her skin as his rough hands grasped the thin material to wrench it apart. She was further mortified to find deep bite marks on her left breast, and even on her shoulder where Hassan had bitten her through the sleeve of her dress. She shuddered at the recollection as she went over to the washbasin to dab her face and injuries, wincing as she touched them. Then, trying not to touch her bruises, she put on the dress which Shirin had left for her. As she was doing up the zip, there was a knock on the door.

“Who is it ?” she called nervously.

“It’s Madame Ziba, dear,” came the reply.

“Oh, just a moment. I’ll unlock the door.”

Zahra crossed the room and turned the key in the lock before slowly opening the door.

“How are you this morning ?” asked Madame Ziba kindly, shaking her head when she saw Zahra’s face and the scratches on her collar bone.

“I slept well, thank you,” answered Zahra, “but I expect my face will take a while to feel better.”

“I’ve brought someone to see you,” said Madame Ziba, and beckoned with her finger to someone standing on the stairs.

“Last night, this gentleman paid Hassan a visit he won’t forget in a hurry, didn’t you, Akbar,” she prompted as Akbar appeared at the top of the stairs. “He’ll never show his face in these parts again if he knows what’s good for him,” she concluded.

Zahra looked apprehensively at Akbar who put his hand in his pocket and drew out a wad of notes.

“This is for you with Hassan’s compliments,” he said quietly. “Hassan is sorry-very sorry-he couldn’t give it to you himself.”

Zahra made no effort to take the money which Akbar was holding out to her. She blushed and looked away.

“Come, don’t upset the girl, Akbar. Her feelings have been hurt,” said Madame Ziba.

Akbar shrugged and went over to Zahra’s dressing table where he left the money beside her hairbrush. As an afterthought, he picked up an ashtray and put it on top of the notes.

Seeing Zahra had awakened in him feelings he had long thought dead. Many years ago, as a young man, he had met, fallen in love with and married a beautiful young girl. But when he was called up to do his military service, he had returned home unexpectedly on leave to find that his lovely, young wife had found a gainful occupation with manoeuvres of a different kind while her husband was away doing his.

From that day, he had mistrusted all women, and had become a pimp to exploit any woman who symbolised what his wife had become. Zahra looked so much like his former wife, that the memory was almost painful. But he was intrigued when Madame Ziba told him that she didn’t think Zahra could adapt to selling her favours, and Zahra’s reaction to the money seemed to confirm her opinion.

Akbar gazed at Zahra’s battered face before saying, “If you ever need a favour, any time, just ask for Akbar’s café, and I’ll be happy to oblige.”

“Thank you,” murmured Zahra, finding her voice at last, “and thank you for getting that man.”

“Oh, don’t thank me. Madame Ziba arranged that. We just carried out orders.”

Madame Ziba turned to Zahra and said, “You’ll feel much better after some coffee and something to eat.”

“Yes, I could do with some coffee,” answered Zahra gratefully.

They all went downstairs and Madame Ziba invited Akbar to join them. Akbar politely declined. “No, thank you. My customers are waiting, and Ismail needs a hand before lunch.”

He addressed Zahra again. “I mean what I said. Just come and see me if you need a favour any time.” And he turned and strode out of the house and down the alley.

Madame Ziba took Zahra to the kitchen where the other girls had already been informed of last night’s events by Shirin. When Zahra appeared, they made sympathetic noises and cursed the day that men like Hassan were born.

“Is there any hot coffee ?” asked Madame Ziba.

“Yeah, just made some,” answered Sonia.

“Well, pour a cup for Zahra, love. I’ve already had my breakfast, but you girls look after Zahra until she recovers.”

She paused by the door and addressed Zahra. “Come and see me later, dear. I’ll put some more cream on those bruises for you.”

When Madame Ziba closed the kitchen door, Zahra felt ill at ease. She had always shunned the other girls’ company because she thought them coarse. But now she felt ashamed of her disdain. Sonia pulled up a chair. Shirin poured out some coffee. Hilda set out some fresh bread and cheese, and Pari and Mahin simultaneously held out packs of cigarettes.

Zahra smiled at them and shook her head. “No, thank you, but it’s very kind of you to offer.”

She sat down and gratefully sipped the hot coffee which Shirin had given her. She didn’t feel like eating, but Hilda insisted. “You need to keep your strength up. It’ll help you get over the shock quicker.”

“Alright, then. But only to please you,” answered Zahra.

“Do you know who it was ?” asked Pari curiously.

“Yes,” mumbled Zahra, her mouth full of bread and cheese. “It was Hassan, the coach driver.”

“Never mind,” said Mahin consolingly. “He won’t get away with it.”

“No, he didn’t,” replied Zahra. “Madame Ziba came to see me earlier with a man called Akbar.

He told me that Hassan had been taken care of.”

“Well, if Akbar dealt with him, he’ll be sore and bruised this morning too,” commented Shirin, “but he won’t recover as quickly as you will.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand,” said Zahra looking puzzled.

“Well, when Akbar and Ismail get a scumbag for assaulting any of us, they leave a special mark so that all the girls know what he’s done.”

“What kind of mark ?” asked Zahra timidly.

“They carve a cross on one cheek as a permanent reminder,” gloated Shirin with a wicked chuckle.

“Oh,” gasped Zahra, putting her hand over her mouth.

“You don’t feel sorry for him, do you ?” said Shirin.

“Of course not,” replied Zahra hastily. “It’s just that I don’t like hearing about things like that…” She looked down at her lap and nervously twiddled her fingers.

“Change the subject, Shirin,” piped up Hilda. “It’s the last thing she wants to talk about.”

“Sorry,” murmured Shirin. “I didn’t mean to go on at you.” She paused. “You can keep that dress, dear. It suits you,” she said generously. “I don’t wear it any more, anyway.”

“Thank you,” replied Zahra.

Shirin had given her a simple, pale pink, cotton dress with a ruched bodice and cap sleeves. It was a perfect complement to Zahra’s olive skin and long, black hair. Shirin no longer wore it because she had grown a little plumper and it was too tight for her buxom figure. She was twenty two years old and had been with Madame Ziba for four years. Being lazy by nature, she enjoyed the life immensely and liked an occupation that gave her money to buy clothes and allowed her to spend a lot of time in bed. She was a pretty girl with shoulder length black hair, highlighted with henna, impudent eyes and a pouting mouth. She was a favourite with the men because she was so good natured and a complete scatterbrain. She lived from day to day, and had convinced herself that it was only a matter of time before someone offered to marry her or to make her his mistress. In the meantime, she had time to play…

“Is there anything we can do for you ?” asked Sonia solicitously.

Zahra thought for a while.

“Yes, there is something,” she said at length. “I wonder if you have a chador I could borrow.”

“A chador ?” echoed Sonia in surprise. “What do you want one of those for ?”

“Maybe she wants to go out and doesn’t want anyone to see her face, silly,” retorted Mahin.

“Oh, yes. Of course,” said Sonia. “Silly me. I didn’t think as usual. Is that why you want it ?”

Zahra nodded.

“Well, as it happens, I do have one. I had it when I first came here two years ago. I’ll go and get it from my room.”

She went out of the kitchen and up the stairs, remembering vaguely that she had put it away in the bottom drawer of her wardrobe. Sure enough, there it was neatly folded under some jumpers. As she shook it out, a photograph dropped onto the floor. Sonia picked it up and looked at it. Her whole family was there, herself in the middle-one of eight children. Her parents were poor and lived in two rooms in Karaj, a town some thirty miles from Tehran. Sonia had overheard her mother crying one night as she talked with her husband, and weeping that she couldn’t manage to keep the family going much longer on his labourer’s wages. The following morning, Sonia told her parents that she was going to Tehran to find work. She did, and sent money home regularly. Her mother thought that she had found employment as a maid and was pleased that her daughter’s employers looked after her so well. Sonia paid a visit to her family every couple of months. They were pleased to see her but being religious with traditional values, frowned at Sonia’s discarding of her chador to travel in public. Sonia, however, told them that it had become unfashionable to wear such a restrictive garment in the big city.

She hadn’t changed much since the photo was taken, but she wore her long hair loose now instead of in plaits, and was heavy handed in applying her make up. She had no regrets for taking up the occupation she had. That’s life, she had thought to herself philosophically. Here, she had a good time, plenty of food and a room to herself. At home, she had seen her parents arguing, had always been hungry and had shared a room with seven brothers and sisters. She felt sorry for her mother and her virtuous pauper’s existence. As far as Sonia was concerned, there were times in life when one had to do what circumstances dictated. She had seen no other way of earning enough money to support herself and her family and, therefore, considered herself exonerated in the eyes of her Maker for the fallen woman that she was.

She gave a contented sigh, put the photograph back in the drawer, and went back to the kitchen with the chador.

Hilda was urging Zahra to eat some more bread and cheese, but Zahra was pleading that she was full up.

“Come on,” insisted Hilda. “You’re as skinny as a forest gazelle.”

“No, really. I’ve had enough, thank you,” said Zahra good naturedly, “but I wouldn’t mind some more coffee.”

“Alright,” said Hilda, giving in, “but don’t think I’ll let you starve yourself any more. The first person you should look after is yourself.”

Hilda was a very practical, down to earth person who told people what she thought. Her mother had been a prostitute and had started her daughter on the game at the age of eleven. It was the only life Hilda had ever known, and she had regarded it as a natural progression when her mother started her off on the same vice ridden track as herself.

She was only twenty years old, but her dissipated living had contributed to make her seem much older. She was dark skinned and had short, back combed hair. Her love of food triumphed over her will power, and consequently she was fat but not shapeless. Nonetheless, she had no lack of customers because migrant Arab workers found her reminiscent of their wives back home, and told her they liked her the way she was. She was saving her money as Madame Ziba had done, and saw herself eventually with an establishment of her own.

“Here’s the chador !” exclaimed Sonia holding it out to Zahra.

“Oh, thank you. Do you need it back soon ?”

“I don’t need it back at all, but if you don’t want it when your face is better, I’ll have it back just as a keepsake,” she chuckled.

“Yes, I’ll do that,” promised Zahra getting up. “Thank you all so much. Madame Ziba is going to put some more ointment on my face. I’ll probably see you all later.”

“Bye,” chorused the other girls as the kitchen door closed.

“He really had a go at her, didn’t he ?” piped Pari.

“Yes, what a shame,” murmured Mahin. “She’s a sweet little thing. I wonder what he had to go and do that for.”

“I dunno. Probably had a skinful and didn’t think of the consequences,” mused Pari.

“I bet he’s thinking of them now,” giggled Mahin. “Come on, Pari. Let’s go shopping.”

Pari stubbed her cigarette out in the ash tray and pushed her chair back from the table. Mahin was her older sister and they did everything together. They had been very young when they first arrived in Tehran with their parents. Their father was a skilled carpenter and quickly found work on a major construction site, but was killed tragically when some wooden scaffolding collapsed on top of him. Their grief stricken mother suffered a miscarriage through the shock of losing her husband, and died of a haemorrhage a few days after him. Pari and Mahin were taken to an orphanage, and were reasonably well taken care of. But when they were twelve and fourteen respectively, had been encouraged to participate in sexual play with the caretaker and his wife. The girls were rewarded with trinkets and chocolates, and eventually met ‘friends’ of the caretaker and his wife, who were also very kind to them.

Both girls yearned for the affection denied them by the premature demise of their parents, and responded eagerly to the attention showered upon them. But one evening, one of the ‘friends’ blundered by offering money to them instead of to the caretaker after he had been in bed with both of them. Pari and Mahin had been quick to realise what the set up was, and after talking it over between themselves, threatened to expose the caretaker to the head of the orphanage unless he handed over the money he had pocketed by exploiting them. The man had agreed on condition that they disappeared forever from the establishment. He had no wish to be permanently blackmailed, and was quite sure that the sisters would never return.

Pari and Mahin slipped away one day and made their way to New Town. They chanced upon Akbar’s café, and mentioned in conversation that they were looking for rooms to rent. Akbar introduced them to Madame Ziba, and they had stayed there ever since.

Their sexual awakening had been expertly manipulated and they had enjoyed it, so it seemed a good idea to continue their enjoyment and be paid for doing so. Their technique was a threesome. They solicited and worked together-one client at a time, but a double fee. They would lie on either side of the customer in bed and take turns in caressing and kissing him. When he was aroused, he prolonged his lovemaking by changing from one sister to the other every ten seconds. The girls also encouraged each client to place a bet before starting as to which one of them he would climax with. If he lost the bet, he had to pay half the fee again. If he won, he earned another fifteen minutes in bed with them.

As the girls only needed one bedroom, they turned the second room into a sitting room and, in between customers, played records and watched television there. When they had a day off, they would invite the other girls in, and sat around gossiping and giggling and drinking wine. For the present, they were content to savour the luxuries that their success afforded them for tomorrow, when they were old and overblown, was a long, long way away…

Madame Ziba had the cream ready when Zahra arrived. She wanted to have a talk with the girl but didn’t really know how to start.

“Are you going somewhere ?” she asked when she saw Zahra holding the chador.

“No. Not just yet. I borrowed it from Sonia in case I need to go to the shops, or to go out for a walk.”

“Yes. A good idea. You don’t want people staring at you or following you. Sit down here, dear, so I can put some more of this cream on those marks.”

Zahra waited patiently trying not to wince as a second application was smoothed on.

“There,” she said as she finished. “Your face is clearing up already. In a week’s time you won’t know the difference.”

“Thank you,” said Zahra getting up to leave.

“Zahra…” the older woman started awkwardly. “I, er, wanted to have a word with you. I know that you’re not very happy here and…”

“Oh, yes. I am,” interrupted Zahra quickly. “You and the girls have always been kind to me. It’s just that-well, this isn’t- I mean, it’s not what I really want to do,” she stammered. “And after last night…”

“Yes, I know, dear. Don’t be upset,” said Madame Ziba as she saw Zahra’s eyes fill with tears. “You don’t have to do it any more. No one will force you. But what will you do instead ?”

“I…I’m not sure,” replied Zahra, trying hard not to cry. She couldn’t say anything about Farid because she didn’t even know if he would return in a couple of days as promised, or whether he would manage to find another job for her.

“I might go and see Akbar,” she continued blinking back her tears. “He might be able to find me a job as a waitress or something.”

“Yes, he might,” agreed Madame Ziba. “You’ve paid the rent for a week, so take your time and look around.”

“Yes, I will. I’m sorry. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Well, I’m sorry too,” sighed Madame. “With your looks and manners you could go far, but if you’re unhappy, well…” She shrugged her shoulders. “That’s another matter. Don’t worry. Everything will sort itself out.”

She patted Zahra on the back. “But whatever you do, don’t trust anyone you don’t know. If Akbar can help you, he will. He’s been here a long time and he knows all the crooks, so take his advice.”

Zahra managed a smile and retreated back to her room. She decided not to approach Akbar until after she had seen Farid. In the meantime, she intended to rest and regain her strength. The money which Akbar had left on her dressing table caught her eye and she picked it up curious to see how much there was. Her spirits rose as she counted out almost seven thousand rials-enough for rent and food for five or six weeks. She tucked the money inside her bra and, having made sure the door was locked, rested on her bed wondering what the day after tomorrow would bring.

Farid had, for once, deserted his bed much earlier than he was accustomed to. His father, who was in the habit of rising early and taking a dip in the pool before breakfast, was startled to have his solitary swim interrupted by a sudden splash. To his immense surprise, his son surfaced in the water beside him grinning.

“Good morning, father !”

“Well, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company at this hour, young man ?” he teased.

“I’ve decided I have a lot to do before I go to England,” replied Farid, “and if I get up earlier I’ll probably be able to get it all done,” he explained seriously.

“Very sensible. But why this sense of urgency ? There wouldn’t be a young lady involved by any chance, would there ?” asked General Nezam his eyes twinkling as they swam leisurely around.

“Well, no one girl in particular,” said Farid grinning again, “but I have to start saying goodbye to them one by one !”

General Nezam laughed approvingly. In his opinion, his son had been very wise not to commit himself to a serious relationship with one girl. He had his career to think about, and had plenty of time to choose a wife and settle down after he had graduated from naval college. He himself had had a distinguished military and diplomatic career rising to the rank of General and serving for a time as the Iranian military attaché in Paris. Ill health had forced him to retire early at the age of fifty two, but he had great aspirations for his only son to achieve a status comparable to his own.

When Maryam Nezam came out onto the terrace for breakfast, she was pleased and surprised to see her husband and son emerging from the pool together. They rubbed themselves briskly with their towels, and then slipped into their towelling robes before joining her at the table.

The maid appeared soon after with the crockery and cutlery noting in consternation that she had only catered for two people and there were three. Farid was amused when she apologised profusely and scurried away for an extra setting.

“You’ve disorganised her usual efficiency by getting up so early,” laughed Farid’s mother. “She’ll be flustered the whole morning now.”

“Thank you, Fatemeh,” said Farid as the maid reappeared. “I shall be having breakfast at this time every day now.

“Very well, sir. Thank you, sir,” replied Fatemeh as she set an extra place.

“Will there be anything else, madam ?” she asked Mrs Nezam.

“No, thank you, Fatemeh. That will be all.”

Fatemeh dropped a quick curtsy and returned to the house.

“Is Samira around ?” Farid asked his mother. “I want to talk to her.”

“Yes, she will be later,” replied Maryam, “but she sleeps later than you do. You’ll have to wake her up if it’s anything urgent. Would you like some orange juice ?” she asked Farid as she poured some for her husband.

“Pardon ? Oh, yes please,” answered Farid absentmindedly.

“You seem unusually preoccupied, Farid,” observed Amir Nezam.

“I don’t think my system has quite recovered from the early morning shock !” exclaimed Farid good naturedly.

“Then it’s just as well you’re reforming your habits before you join the Navy,” said his father. “They rise considerably earlier than this even.”

“I expect I’ll get used to it,” laughed Farid.

“What are you doing today, darling ?” his mother enquired.

“I’m going to see a few friends before lunch but I’ll be back here to eat, and I might go to a disco tonight.”

“Well, have a nice time, but I hope you haven’t planned anything for tomorrow evening because you know it’s Samira’s engagement party.”

“No, I hadn’t forgotten,” replied Farid, thinking with relief that he had arranged to meet Zahra the day after tomorrow.

“Oh, Farid. There is something you can do for me tomorrow, while I remember it..”

“Yes, of course. For you-anything,” said Farid gallantly.

Maryam Nezam smiled. She was extremely fond of her dashing, charming, young son.

“Well, tomorrow, before the party, would you go and pick up your aunt, Helene ?”

“Yes, I’d be glad to,” replied Farid, an idea suddenly creeping into his head. In fact, he would even pay her a visit today, he thought. He stretched his legs out leisurely for a while before announcing, “Well, I’m off to get washed and dressed. See you both later.”

Maryam and Amir Nezam bade their son goodbye, and fifteen minutes later heard his Camaro purring out of the drive.

Farid had decided first of all to visit some of the restaurant owners he was friendly with. He thought that one of them might well have a vacancy for a waitress, and Zahra stood a good chance of getting a job if he gave her a personal introduction.

His first stop was at the Wimpy Bar in Pahlavi Avenue. Business was always brisk there, and Farid knew that the owner, Youssef, employed quite a few students during the summer break. It was by now quarter to ten in the morning. The restaurant was open but not yet busy and Farid reckoned that Youssef would still be upstairs in his flat. He parked his car outside, fed the parking meter and then rang the bell at the side entrance. A few seconds later the answer phone crackled and a voice enquired who was there.

“It’s Farid-Farid Nezam.”

The automatic lock buzzed and released the latch letting the door swing ajar. Farid went up and was greeted by Youssef clad still in his baggy house pyjamas.

“Salaam, Farid !” he exclaimed jovially, extending his hand and then kissing Farid on both cheeks. “Is this a social visit ?”

“Why of course, Youssef. What else could it be ?” replied Farid smiling.

“Well, it’s a bit early in the morning for you to be out and about, isn’t it ?” quizzed Youssef.

“Would you like some tea ?”

“Oh, no thanks. I’ve just had breakfast at home.”

“Take a pew, then. You don’t mind if I finish my breakfast, do you ?”

“Oh, no. Please go ahead. I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” apologised Farid.

“What are you doing these days that I don’t see you around ? Don’t you like eating at my café any more ?”

“Don’t be silly. You know I’m going to England in November. I have a lot of things to organise.”

“Well, I hope you’re enjoying yourself, eh !” replied Youssef with a conspiratorial smile.

“I can’t complain. How about yourself ?”

“We’re pretty busy here as you know. But we manage to get away to the Caspian Sea now and then.”

“Where’s Jenny ?”

“Jenny’s at work. She starts at eight in the morning and finishes at two.”

“Don’t they have a summer break ?”

“No,” said Youssef mournfully, “otherwise Jenny could give us a hand in the café.”

This was the cue Farid had been hoping for, but he bided his time and continued the conversation.

“Don’t the English teachers get a holiday at all ?” he pursued.

“Yes. They all get a paid holiday, but as the Air Force never closes, they can’t all take their vacation at the same time. There must always be sufficient staff to cover the classes which are running.”

“Does Jenny like working there ?”

“Oh, yes. She loves it. She was a bit lonely and homesick until she started there, but now she’s met other English people and has made some friends. Also, she says she’s learning quite a few words of Farsi just by listening to the students.”

“Well, I’m pleased for her,” said Farid.

He liked Youssef’s young English wife. Youssef had met her whilst studying in England and had brought her back to Iran after graduating. Youssef’s parents were hoping for grandchildren straightaway, but Jenny had insisted that she wanted to learn about the life and customs of the country before tying herself down with babies. Youssef supported her views and told his parents that his wife needed time to adjust to a new land and make herself feel at home. Jenny found herself a job teaching English at the Air Force Language School five days a week. An Air Force bus picked the teachers up every morning near their homes and brought them back again in the afternoon.

Farid decided that he could broach the subject of a job for Zahra without making it seem obvious that that was the purpose of his visit. Persians were very quick to take offence if correct protocol was not observed, and he did not want Youssef to think that this was anything but a social call.

“Why did you say you could do with Jenny helping in the café ?” he asked casually, stretching out in the armchair and clasping his hands behind his head.

Youssef sighed. “One of the waitresses has just left and it’s so difficult to find anyone reliable these days,” he complained.

“How about a student ?” suggested Farid.

“Students are quick to learn and they work hard-most of them. But they don’t stay very long. I go to all the trouble of training them and then all my efforts are wasted when they go back to their studies.”

“Agencies ?”

“I don’t seem to have much luck with them,” sighed Youssef. “The people they send don’t want to work, but expect to be paid at the end of the day.”

“I know someone who might be interested,” said Farid seizing his opportunity at last.

“You do ?” exclaimed Youssef. “Well, why didn’t you say so ?”

“I didn’t want you to think I’d come here just to find work for someone. I fact, I’ve only just remembered,” fibbed Farid artfully.

“Well, who is this person ?” asked Youssef impatiently.

“She’s a very nice, young girl who isn’t happy in her present job. I’m sure she’d like to work here if you offered her a position.”

“Has she done waitressing before ?”

“I don’t think so, but she’s a housemaid at the moment so she must have done some table service.”

“Why is she unhappy ? If she’s afraid of hard work…”

“Oh, no. Nothing like that but there’s a man in the house who keeps trying to force his attentions on her, and she’s afraid he might go too far.”

“Well, if she’s a good, honest worker, and you recommend her, I’ll give her a trial period.

“It was exactly what Farid had been hoping to hear, but he concealed the glee in his voice as he stood up to leave. “I’ll bring her over next week, but I must go now. I want to see my aunt, Helene, to arrange about picking her up tomorrow evening. You and Jenny will be there tomorrow night, won’t you ?”

“Where ? Oh, yes, of course. Samira’s engagement party. We’re looking forward to it. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. And thanks for dropping by. Try and come more often. See you tomorrow evening then.”

“Yes, goodbye,” said Farid. “See you tomorrow.” And he went jauntily downstairs.

“What luck !” he murmured to himself. “A job fixed up at the first try ! Now for somewhere to live…”

He started the Camaro and drove off in the direction of his aunt’s house in Eisenhower Avenue-only five minutes away by car. The purpose of his visit was two-fold. Firstly, he wanted to arrange a mutually convenient time to pick her up the next day, and secondly, he wanted to sound Helene out as a prospective landlady for Zahra. He knew that the extra money and company would be welcome to her. Helene had been married to Maryam Nezam’s brother. He had been an affluent, respected businessman until a taste for gambling led him to squander all his money, and set him on an unstoppable, downward spiral on the road to corruption to finance his obsession. He died eventually from a sudden heart attack leaving behind massive debts for his widow to settle. Helene had been forced to sell their expensive villa on the northern side of town to pay off her husband’s creditors, and to buy a cheaper, more modest property further south. She had no pension and took in lodgers to make ends meet. Maryam Nezam felt a duty towards her sister in law, and contributed a small amount of money regularly to make up for her brother’s lack of provision for his widow.

Helene had not been able to have children and showered her attention on her nephew and nieces. Farid, in particular, she regarded as a son. Farid was equally fond of his aunt and felt sorry for her but she always gave the impression of being happy with her lot. Farid found it much easier to talk to his aunt than to his parents. His mother and father, although very attentive and loving, saw everything in life in terms of black or white. They accepted no compromise. For them there was only right or wrong, and no mitigating circumstances could lessen a wrongdoing in their eyes. Aunt Helene was totally the opposite. She never condemned anyone outright, and was a compassionate, warm hearted person. Whenever Farid had felt depressed or under pressure from exams or high expectations from his parents, his aunt had been able to soothe his nerves and raise his spirits with her wise, unbiased interpretation of people’s behaviour.

Helene knew the sound of her nephew’s car, and had opened the front door by the time Farid had switched off the engine.

“Hello, aunty. How are you ?” asked Farid kissing his aunt on the cheek.

“Very well, thank you. And how is my favourite nephew ?”

“Very well, too, especially after being met at the door by such a charming lady,” said Farid disarmingly.

“Come in, dear,” said Helene laughing. She led the way to the lounge and immediately set about placing the customary fruit, nuts and sweets on the table before her guest.

“Sit down, aunty. Don’t bother with all of that. I want to talk to you.”

“Alright, dear. I’ll get us some tea first. You’re not in a hurry, are you ?”

“No, of course not, aunty.”

Helene went over to a steaming samovar and poured out two glasses of tea. Then she returned and sat down next to her nephew.

“So, tell me what’s so important that it can’t wait a few minutes ” she said with a smile.

“Well, first of all, mother asked me to arrange a time to pick you up for Samira’s engagement party tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s very kind and thoughtful of her,” exclaimed Helene. “What time is convenient for you ?”

“Well, the party is starting at eight thirty. But I can pick you up at seven, and then you can see mother and Samira before all the guests start arriving.”

“Yes, I’d like that very much. I shall be ready and waiting on the dot !”

Farid waited a moment before broaching the more delicate matter of Zahra.

“Do you mind if I talk to you about a girl I met recently, aunty ?”

“Of course I don’t mind. I have always told you that you can tell me whatever you want.”

Farid decided that the best policy was to start from the beginning and tell his aunt the whole story. For the next half hour he described how he had met Zahra and what had befallen her. His aunt had listened with a look of compassion on her face, and when Farid finished she spoke out immediately. “The poor child. You must bring her here at once.”

“Do you mean she can stay here as a lodger ? Oh, thank you, aunty,” said Farid giving her a hug. “She’ll be so pleased. I’ve found her a job already, you know. At the Wimpy Bar. I arranged it with my friend, Youssef, before I came here.”

“You always were a kind boy, Farid. It’s a good thing to help someone less fortunate than yourself.”

“I won’t be seeing her until the day after tomorrow, but I’ll get her over as quickly as possible after that.”

“Yes, do that, Farid. I’ll make her welcome,” promised Helene. “When are you joining the Navy ?” she continued.

“Next month, and two months later, in November, they are sending us to England.”

“What for ?”

“To train at Britannia Royal Naval College where we’ll graduate as officers. But first we have to go to language school for a while until our English is fluent.”

“I hope you’ll write often and let me know how you are,” said Helene.

“Of course I will. I’ll probably be so homesick I’ll write all the time !” affirmed Farid.

“No, you won’t,” scolded his aunt. “You’ll love it there. Besides, you’ve been there with your parents.”

“Yes, but that was a holiday. This will be different.”

“Well, in the Navy, you won’t have time to be homesick,” laughed Helene. “When you have any free time, you’ll just want to sleep !”

“I expect you’re right, as always, aunty. But I’ll still write home so I don’t forget my Farsi,” he joked.

“Take my advice, Farid. When you get there, try and make some English friends straightaway. You’ll learn the language much quicker. But if you go around with your Persian friends, you’ll only speak Farsi together, and you won’t make as much progress.”

“I promise,” said Farid.

“Will you stay and have lunch ?” asked Helene.

“Well, I told mother I’d be back for lunch today.”

“Why don’t you give her a ring and say you’re having lunch with me. She won’t begrudge me your company.”

“Alright,” agreed Farid. “I’d love to.”

He went into the hall and phoned home. When he returned, he and Helene sat chatting about the family-Samira’s engagement, the Nezams’ baby grandson, Amir Nezam’s health and so forth.”

Farid stayed at Helene’s house for his afternoon siesta, and at four o’clock departed to meet some friends to arrange going to a disco that evening. Samira was sitting out on the patio when he arrived home, and he took the opportunity of asking whether she had any clothes which she no longer wanted.

“A secret cross dresser are we, now, bro ?” she teased.

Farid took a playful swipe at her. He got on much better with Samira than with his older sister, Leila. Samira had an outgoing personality and sweet temperament, and Farid was grateful that she didn’t start to question him about the clothes. He wasn’t ready to discuss Zahra with anyone except Helene. Samira knew that her brother would eventually divulge why he needed the garments. Because he always confided in her, she made no attempt to pry, but chatted excitedly about the preparations for her party the following day.

At seven o’clock Maryam Nezam announced that dinner was ready, and they both went in to eat. After dinner Farid had a shower and changed before joining his friends at a disco in the Hilton hotel. He remembered his promise of getting up early each morning and didn’t stay as was his wont into the small hours. Instead, he bade his friends goodbye at midnight, and drove home well pleased with the day’s events.

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