A Red Light

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4. A glittering Affair


When Farid awoke the following day, he thought he had overslept. Servants and extra staff were bustling about the house in such a flurry of activity as one normally associated with the annual spring clean preceding Noh Ruz (the Persian New Year in March). He jumped out of bed and looked through the window into the back garden. His father was just about to dive into the pool for his customary, daily swim amid people swarming about the terrace setting out tables and chairs and cushioned garden seats.

Farid clicked his fingers. Of course, it was the day for Samira’s engagement party, and over two hundred guests had been invited. No wonder there was so much commotion. Farid was relieved that he had time to join his father for a swim. It wouldn’t do he thought, having boasted the previous day of his intention to rise early every morning, to lapse on the very next day ! He put on his swimming trunks and went downstairs, his towelling robe over his shoulders.

“Good morning, father,” he called as he prepared to dive into the water.

“I thought you were joking,” said Amir Nezam as Farid surfaced in the pool.

“About what?”

“About getting up early every morning.”

“I never say things I don’t mean.”

“No, you don’t, come to think of it,” reflected his father. “Well, now you’re here, how about a race to get the circulation going. The best man to finish two lengths !”

Farid was a stronger swimmer than his father but he didn’t want his father to overexert himself, especially today. So, he stayed a metre behind all the way.

“What’s the matter, Farid ? “ asked his father as he reached the edge of the pool first. “You can swim better than that !”

“Too many late nights can play havoc with one’s system,” laughed Farid. “This time next week, I’ll beat you.”

“You’re on ! Challenge accepted, but right now I’m ready for breakfast.”

They climbed out of the pool together and went across to the table set on the terrace. Maryam Nezam declined to join them as she had breakfasted very early and was busy directing staff in preparation for that evening. They were astonished when several minutes later Samira appeared, dressed in a cotton housecoat and stifling a yawn with one hand.

“This engagement has gone to your head, Sami,” teased Farid, “or your watch is fast.”

“I couldn’t sleep any longer,” yawned Samira, “all this noise everywhere.”

“Well, I’m afraid there’s a lot to be done before tonight,” said her father. “We must have everything finished in time.”

“Is there any coffee left ?” asked Samira sinking into a chair.

“Yes, but it’s not very hot,” replied Farid. “Fatemeh brought it out about ten minutes ago. I’ll get her to bring some more.”

He picked up a small bell and rang it. A few moments later Fatemeh appeared and nodded when Farid requested the coffee to be replenished. She returned very quickly with a steaming pot and poured some out for Samira.

“Oh, that’s better,” murmured Samira, sipping the coffee when the maid had departed. “It’s just as well I’ve woken up early because I’ve lots to do.”

“Such as ?” enquired Farid.

“Well, I have to go to the hairdresser.”

“Yes, that’ll take all day,” teased Farid ducking from a playful swipe aimed by his sister and laughing.

Samira had thick, long, black hair down to her waist. It had a natural beauty of its own, but for this occasion she wanted it arranged in a mass of curls. She was twenty years old and had one year left at Tehran University before graduating in English and French. She had met her fiancé there, and was fortunate that her parents approved of the young man.

“What are you doing today, Farid ?” she asked.

“Oh, nothing much. I want to save my energy for tonight. There’ll be so many people to shake hands with, not to mention the eating, drinking and dancing !”

Samira smiled. She was happy that her brother approved of the match because his opinion mattered a great deal to her-more even than the opinion of her parents.

Their leisurely breakfast was interrupted by a great clatter in the enormous salon. The musicians had arrived to set up their instruments, and had dropped a set of drums !

“I think we are shortly going to be very much in the way,” warned Amir Nezam as the local florist and his assistant came onto the terrace with armfuls of flowers to arrange outside.

“I’m going to my room for a while,” said Farid excusing himself.

He thought he would spend a leisurely day listening to his favourite music and, maybe, write a few letters. Samira stayed for a while talking to her father and eventually they both arose to get on with a myriad duties which such a function entailed for the hosts.

Delicious smells wafted from the kitchen where the caterers were preparing traditional dishes from fresh ingredients. A huge cake arrived from the patisserie, and a lorry delivered crates of soft drinks and beer. Amir Nezam went to collect the order for wine, spirits and champagne himself, and also stopped at the jeweller’s to pick up a present for Samira and her fiancé.

The preparations continued smoothly all day and at four o’clock Maryam Nezam and Samira departed to the hairdresser’s. By then everything was ready except the food which was still cooking slowly under the watchful, skilful attention of the caterers.

Farid had spent the morning listening to his stereo. After lunch and a long nap, he went for another swim and then showered and shaved before going to pick up aunt Helene. She had also been to the hairdresser that afternoon, and was waiting, elegantly coiffured and dressed, for her nephew to arrive. Farid alighted from the car and walked to the front door bowing low as he reached his aunt.

“Your servant, madam !” he said seriously, crooking his arm for Helene to hold.

“Enchantee, monsieur,” she replied as she saw the twinkle in his eyes.

Farid led her to the car and opened the passenger door not forgetting to lift up the hem of her long gown. As they drove along, Helene enquired how the preparations were progressing.

“I could have come over to help you know.”

“Absolutely not, aunty. Mother hired extra people to do it all-she just directed everybody. Besides, it wouldn’t do to have you working with them, especially as you’re a guest. You wouldn’t have any energy left for the party !”

“Is everything ready then ?”

“I think it is. I kept out of the way all day, but it seemed very quiet and organised when I left.”

“Oh, good. I am looking forward to it,” said Helene eagerly.

Farid thought that he detected a note of wistfulness in her voice. Helene led a lonely life. Since her husband’s downfall and untimely death, her old friends had drifted away and, apart from a few kind neighbours, her sister in law’s family were the only relatives she had. Farid sincerely hoped that she and Zahra would get along. It would ease the loneliness that Helene endured, but never admitted to, and, maybe, Zahra would even be able to fill the void which Helene’s childless marriage had created.

It was twenty past seven when Farid and Helene arrived at the house. Maryam and Samira had just returned from the hairdresser, and greeted Helene effusively.

“Come upstairs and talk to us while we get dressed,” said Maryam.

“Yes, please do, aunty,” said Samira. “You can tell me what you think of my dress.”

The three women went upstairs chatting excitedly to each other, leaving Farid alone in the hall. He guessed that his father, a stickler for efficiency, was probably making last minute checks to make sure that everything was in order. When he went into the salon, Amir Nezam was doing just that. He was already dressed in his dinner suit and black bow tie, and was giving instructions to the waiters and kitchen staff.

“Ah, Farid,” he exclaimed as he caught sight of his son. “Come and help me with this check list.” He held out a piece of paper to Farid who took it and looked at several lines of writing already crossed through.

“There isn’t anything left here, father.”

“Isn’t there ? Well, it must all be done then. But I could have sworn I missed something when I was writing it all out. Are you sure there’s nothing missing ?”

Farid glanced at the list and slowly shook his head. “No, I think you’ve covered everything.”

“I hope so,” said his father. He dismissed the staff until the first guests arrived and sat down on one of the elegant salon chairs.

“It’s already starting to get dark,” observed Farid.

“Well, it’s only a month to autumn,” replied his father looking out across the terrace.

“There !” he exclaimed suddenly. “The lights. I knew I had forgotten something. We must switch the floodlights on in the garden !” He rose from his chair and went outside to switch on the lights which the electricians had been wiring and skilfully concealing amongst the shrubs and bushes all day. Suddenly the garden was transformed from a shadowy arboretum into a botanical wonderland, bathing plants and flowers in iridescent shades of red, blue, violet, green and orange, and forming a sharp contrast to the black silhouettes of unlit trees and hedges. A small table lamp adorned each elegant, wrought iron table, and spotlights beamed onto the swimming pool sparkled and danced on the water. Amir and Farid nodded to each other approvingly.

“They certainly made a good job of it,” said Farid. “It looks better than Saee Park.”

“It does look very impressive,” agreed Amir Nezam, looking very pleased. “I hope your mother and sister like it.”

Samira, Maryam and Helene had, indeed, noticed the sudden glow through the open upstairs window, and were gazing onto the transformed garden. Samira was captivated.

“It’s so romantic,” she said delightedly to Maryam and Helene. “It’s perfect !”

Maryam smiled fondly at her daughter. She, too, was quite taken with the lighting effects but, as always, showed guarded enthusiasm by saying cautiously, “I hope the guests like it.”

Helene, however, agreed with her niece whole heartedly. “Yes. It’s lovely, Samira. Like an enchanted garden.”

“Well, are we ready, ladies ?” asked Maryam. “We’d better make our way down because the family guests are bound to arrive early.”

“Yes. I am. How do I look ?” asked Samira, twirling round in her new white gown.

“You look very pretty,” said Helene handing Samira a box. “Here is something for you before you go down.”

Samira took the box and opened it. Inside were two white orchids.

“I thought you might like to wear them, tonight,” said Helene.

“They’re beautiful, aunty. Thank you so much,” replied Samira. “Would you fix them for me ?”

Helene pinned one in Samira’s hair and one on her dress.

“Helene, you shouldn’t have,” exclaimed Maryam.

“Well, it’s not every day that my niece gets engaged. Besides, I don’t have any more to spoil now,” she added smiling.

As they walked downstairs, Amir and Farid appeared in the hall.

“What a lovely sight. You all look so charming,” exclaimed Amir Nezam. “There won’t be a lady here tonight who could outshine any of you.”

Maryam and Helene smiled, but Samira ran up to her father and put her arms round his neck.

“Well, in that case, Baba (Daddy), you won’t refuse me the first dance.”

“Of course not, my dear,” he replied putting a hand in one pocket. “And before anyone arrives, here is something for you from your mother and myself.”

He handed Samira a black velvet box. Inside she found a matching necklace and bracelet of diamonds and sapphires set in white gold.

“They’re so beautiful,” she enthused, and hugged her parents in turn. “May I wear them now ?”

“Of course.” Her father fastened the necklace whilst her mother put the bracelet round Samira’s wrist.

“I thought you might like something more practical,” said Farid, handing her another velvet covered box. Samira opened it to find a gold pen inscribed with her name.

“No excuse to fail your exams now, sis !”

“Oh, thank you, Farid. It’s perfect. With such a lovely pen to write with, I’ll be brainier than you!” she countered.

Everyone laughed.

“Well, here’s the first car,” remarked Amir as he heard tyres crunching the gravel outside. The doorbell resounded a moment later, and the first to arrive were the Nezams’ eldest daughter, Leila, and her husband, Davoud. They were warmly greeted, but after the initial exchanges, the conversation soon focused on the latest developments and escapades of Leila and Davoud’s ten month old son, Anoush, who had been left at home in the capable hands of his babysitter. Amir Nezam, in particular, doted on his first grandson. He was looking forward to doing with him all the things he had been unable to do with his own son, due to the commitments of his former military and diplomatic career.

“Well, what has the young rascal been up to lately ?” he asked Leila.

“Oh. You wouldn’t believe it ! I haven’t told you the latest. Now that he’s walking, I can’t have anything within his reach. Yesterday, he grabbed hold of the sugar bowl and tipped it on the floor. And then, do you know what he did ? He looked at me very seriously and held out his hand for me to smack !”

“Did you ?” asked Amir, unable to suppress a smile.

“No, how could I ?” exclaimed Leila. “He knew he’d been naughty. That was enough !”

“My son will grow up to be an axe murderer, and his mother will hug and kiss him !” joked Davoud as everyone roared with laughter.

Their merriment was interrupted by another ring at the door. Youssef and Jenny had arrived, followed closely by Samira’s fiancé, Eskandar, and his parents.

The band started playing soft, background music as more guests appeared, and waiters went around with glasses of wine and champagne and any other requested drinks. By nine o’clock, everyone had arrived and the party was in full swing. The band played popular Western and Persian tunes as the younger guests danced in the salon under the glittering chandeliers. Older people stood around in groups or sat at the tables, observing, talking, laughing and joking. At half past nine, the band stopped playing and announced that dinner would shortly be served. Platters of steaming rice and the accompanying exotic dishes were carried out of the kitchen and placed on tables at either end of the salon, so that people could go and help themselves.

“Can I get something for you, aunty ?” offered Farid.

“Why, that’s very kind of you. Thank you very much. It all looks and smells so delicious. But don’t put too much of anything because I won’t be able to dance later !”

Farid decided upon saffron rice and rice with dill and broad beans to which he added some chicken cooked in walnut and pomegranate sauce, and lamb cooked with tomatoes, yellow split peas and whole limes.

“Getting stuck in first !” exclaimed Eskandar also filling a plate.

“You can talk,” retorted Farid, “this is for my aunt.”

“Likewise,” grinned Eskandar. “This is for my great aunt, then there’s my grandmother and more aunts !”

“Why don’t you ask the waiters to help out ?”

“You know our elders. They expect personal attention ! See you on the second lap !” he quipped.

“Here you are, aunty,” said Farid, putting the plate in front of her. “Bon appetit !”

“That looks delicious. Won’t you join me ?”

“I’ll try, but there are a lot of people at the tables at the moment so please don’t wait or your food will get cold.”

He returned ten minutes later with a plate of rice, and beef simmered with celery, cinnamon and parsley. Behind him a waiter carried a plate of ‘sabzi’ (mixed fresh herbs) and one of salad.

“Sorry, I took so long, aunty. I’ve brought you some ‘sabzi’ and salad. I forgot the first time ! Would you like anything else ? I can send this gentleman to get it for you.”

“No, thank you. This will be more than enough.”

“Well, some cake or fruit or ice cream ?”

“Some ice cream sounds perfect !”

Farid beckoned to the waiter and asked him to bring over ice cream for Helene and himself.

“I couldn’t eat another thing,” he declared, as they finished the last mouthful of vanilla and lemon sorbet.

“Nor could I,” agreed Helene, “but the food was excellent. I must congratulate your mother on her choice of caterers.”

“That will really please her. She’s put a lot of effort into this party.”

By ten thirty, everyone was replete and, while the servants cleared away, the band played background music again until eleven o’clock to give everyone a chance to digest their food. Promptly at eleven, General Nezam appeared at the microphone and asked for everyone’s attention. It was time for Samira and Eskandar’s engagement to be formally announced. Waiters distributed glasses of champagne, the huge cake was set on a table in the centre of the salon and a toast was proposed to the young couple. Eskandar took a diamond and sapphire ring out of his pocket and slipped it on Samira’s finger while all the guests clapped and the women made their traditional shrill. The cake was cut and then moved to one side as the band started playing old fashioned, Persian music. Samira and Eskandar moved to the middle of the salon and danced to the seductive, swaying rhythm accompanied by whistles, hand clapping and finger clicking. Then, gradually, everyone joined in -even the grannies and granddads- for no one missed a Persian dance !

The celebrations continued until two in the morning by which time the last guest had departed and only Eskandar and his parents remained. They bid the Nezams goodnight, and presently drove away leaving a tired but happy Samira with an arm round each parent. Farid appeared a few minutes later in a taxi after having accompanied Helene home.

“That was the best evening of my life,” declared Samira.

“Let’s hope you have many more,” replied her father.

“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” said Maryam to her daughter. “Now we only have your wedding to arrange !”

“Well, I’m for bed,” said Amir Nezam. “See you in the morning, son,” he winked at Farid.

“Certainly,” said Farid, knowing full well what his father meant. He would even surprise him and already be in the pool by the time the General came down !

“Yes, let’s go up. The place will be cleared in the morning,” said Maryam. “Good night, you two.”

Farid and Samira bid their parents goodnight and went up to their rooms. Soon the only sound to be heard was the chirping of the crickets whose chorus rose to a crescendo after the lights had been switched off, plunging the garden into darkness.

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