A Red Light

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6. A Way Out

6 A WAY OUT

Zahra was apprehensive about her meeting with Farid on the appointed day. She was depressed because the marks on her face were still vivid, and she dreaded the thought that he might not have found a way of taking her away from New Town, or, worse still, that he might not even turn up.

She had spent the afternoon with Pari and Mahin who were having one of their parties. They thought that her depression was a delayed reaction to the assault, and tried cajoling her into drinking some wine. But, as the time for her rendez vous grew near, they noticed that Zahra was becoming increasingly nervous and agitated.

“Is anything the matter, dear ?” asked Mahin concernedly.

“No…no,” declared Zahra. “I’m alright.”

“Are you sure ?” asked Pari. “You seem afraid of something.”

“I think maybe the wine didn’t agree with me,” answered Zahra. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take a walk to clear my head.”

“I’ll come with you,” volunteered Pari, but Zahra shook her head.

“No thank you. It’s very kind, but I’ll be OK, really. And, anyway, I don’t want to spoil your afternoon.”

“Well, if you’re sure,” said Pari doubtfully. “But it’s no trouble.”

“No, thank you all the same. I really need to get used to going out by myself again, and I must do it alone.”

“OK, then,” said Pari. “But take it easy, eh.”

“Yes,” said Mahin. ”Be careful, but when you come back, come up again. We’re not doing anything this evening.”

“Thank you very much,” said Zahra. “If I’m not too tired, I’d love to.”

“Bye,” chorused the sisters as Zahra left the room.

She returned to her own room, and picked up the chador which was lying folded on a chair. It was made of thin cotton with tiny, dark brown sprigs of flowers on a white background. Zahra shook out the garment, and then enveloped herself in the voluminous folds, adjusting it in front of the mirror until only her eyes were left exposed. She would have to hurry as it was almost time to meet Farid. As she went downstairs, she met Madame Ziba coming out of her room.

“Oh, Zahra. Are you going somewhere ?”

“I thought I’d go for a walk,” replied Zahra. “I’ve been in my room for two days now, and I could do with some exercise.”

“Well, mind how you go, dear.”

“Yes, Madame Ziba, I will. Thank you,” said Zahra and left the house holding the chador tightly round her.

Farid had reached New Town, and was driving along trying to remember which alley he had met Zahra in. He wasn’t familiar with the area, and one street looked much the same as the next. The only thing that came to mind was the mullah he had seen on a clandestine visit to a house of ill repute. He wished that he would oblige him by turning up again, but no turbaned figure came into view. Then he remembered something else - the street pump on the corner where he had seen women washing their clothes. They were there again with their children playing around them. Farid heaved a sigh of relief and turned the car slowly down the alley gently tooting his horn for the children to move out of the way.

There was no sign of Zahra as he drove down the narrow lane, only two veiled forms at the far end. Farid let the car roll to a standstill thinking that he must be early. He was happy to wait there until Zahra arrived and he could tell her the good news. One of the veiled figures had disappeared into a house, but the second one had almost reached his vehicle. As she neared the Camaro, she stopped and looked directly at Farid. He was mildly surprised. She was slender and had enough room to pass. What did she want with him ? If she was trying to solicit him, her luck was out. He would merely ignore her. She didn’t give up easily, he thought, as her hand reached for the door handle. He detested whores who feigned modesty by masquerading as models of virtue under a puritanical shroud-it only served to heighten their depravity. Farid wound down the window to protest.

“Hello, Farid,” whispered the shroud.

“Zahra !” exclaimed Farid, recognising the voice. “What on earth are you doing wearing that thing ?”

Zahra didn’t reply, but let the veil slip from her face. Farid gasped. “What happened ?”

“I was attacked the evening I met you, after I returned to the house,” said Zahra pulling up the chador again to hide her bruises.

“No, don’t put that on,” said Farid grimacing.

“I don’t want anyone to see my face,” replied Zahra apologetically.

“Well, get in the car. No one can see through the tinted windows. But take that chador off. I can’t stand them.”

Zahra slid meekly into the car and hung her head. Farid was angry, she thought. Maybe he thought she had taken another man back to her room after he had given her money for rent and food.

“It’s not what you think,” she whispered almost guiltily.

“I don’t think anything. I’m angry with myself for not taking you right back to your house that night. Then it would never have happened.”

“Yes, it would,” said Zahra tearfully. “The man didn’t attack me till after eleven that night. I was asleep, but I forgot to lock the door, and he sneaked in.”

“Did he…?” asked Farid unable to continue.

Zahra nodded.

Farid was silent for a moment clenching his fists so tightly that his nails dug into his palms. His eyes were closed, and Zahra watched him fearfully. At length, he opened his eyes and took a deep breath. “Are you alright ?”

“Yes, I am now,” she whispered. “Madame Ziba and the girls have been very kind to me, and Madame even arranged for someone to get the man who did it…” she said in faltering tones.

“Oh, so you know who it was then ?”

Zahra nodded, a look of misery on her face. “He was a man I’d… a man who… someone who’d paid me before” she blurted unable at last to stop the tears flowing down her ravaged face. Farid looked at her huddled beneath the chador, a picture of utter dejection, her thin body heaving from sobs which she no longer tried to contain. He reached across and gently took her hand. “You’ll feel much better after a good cry.”

Zahra’s sobbing slowly subsided but she kept her face averted from him. He sat holding her hand until her shoulders stopped shaking. “Would you like to hear something to cheer you up ?”

Zahra looked at him apprehensively.

“I’ve found you a job and somewhere to live !” Farid announced triumphantly.

Zahra was unable to speak but he saw the hope and gratitude that came into her eyes, and the joy and relief which swept over her bruised, tearstained face.

“A friend of mine owns the Wimpy Bar, and he needs a waitress. I told him I’d take you over next week.”

“But my face…” said Zahra, finding her voice at last.

“Don’t worry. You needn’t start until your face is better. He won’t give the job to anyone else.” After a pause he added “And you are going to stay with my aunt.”

Zahra looked at Farid with a puzzled expression on her face. “For a few days you mean ?”

“No. As a permanent lodger. Unless, of course, you don’t like it there.”

Zahra was still puzzled. Why should an aunt of Farid’s need to take in lodgers ? Voicing her thought, she asked him just that.

“Well, it’s a long story, but to put it in a nutshell, she didn’t have much money left when my uncle died, and no pension. She has her own house, but she needs money to live. My mother sends her some every month, but she takes in girl students to get a little extra. Besides, she has no children, and is a lonely woman. You’ll be company for her.”

“She won’t want someone like me around. Not when she finds out what I’ve done.”

“She loves you already. I’ve told her everything and she insisted that I take you there as soon as possible. She’s a very warm and compassionate person, and she’s very concerned for you. She won’t ask you any questions, so you needn’t feel embarrassed or guilty about what happened.”

“How can I ever thank you, Farid ?”

“There’s no need. It’s enough to know that you’re happy.”

“One day I’ll be able to help you in some way,” said Zahra gratefully.

“Is that a promise ?” Farid asked smiling.

“Yes. I mean it,” replied Zahra earnestly.

“Well, one day I may take you up on it. Who knows ? Anyway, I’ll come and pick you up here tomorrow, and take you to my aunt Helene’s house. That will give you time to pack your things and say goodbye to Madame Ziba and the girls if you want to. No ! On second thoughts, I will pick you up at Madame Ziba’s, and right now, that is where I am going to take you.

He looked at Zahra as if daring her to object, but she didn’t. Instead, she gave Farid directions to the house.

“Turn right at the top of the alley, then second left, and Madame Ziba’s house is about half way down on the right. The house with the blue door and shutters.”

Farid started the car and within one minute had drawn up outside Madame Ziba’s establishment.

Madame Ziba was at her usual place with one eye on the television and one eye on the street. She watched in surprise as the Camaro drew up in front of the door, and Zahra emerged looking relaxed and happy, waving goodbye to the driver as he sped away. She made no attempt to get up. If Zahra could trust someone so soon after the attack, it was her own affair. She had been warned, and no one could do more. Nonetheless, she was curious, and when she heard a soft knock on the door, she responded immediately. “Come in, Zahra. Come in.”

Zahra entered the room holding the chador over her arm.

“Come and sit down,” urged Madame Ziba smiling. “Would you like some tea ? I’ve just made a fresh pot.”

“Oh, no thank you, Madame. I’ve just come to tell you that I’ve got a job and somewhere to live.”

“Well, tell me about it , dear.”

Zahra related the story from the beginning when she had first met Farid. Madame Ziba listened impassively until she had finished. How could she be sure that the girl wasn’t being led into a trap-maybe to another Madame who kept girls against their will. She decided, however, not to voice her concerns to Zahra. She had been through enough and Madame Ziba hadn’t the heart to dampen the happiness shining in Zahra’s eyes.

“I’m very pleased for you, dear. I hope you get on well. Don’t forget to say goodbye before you leave, will you ?”

“Oh, no, Madame. Definitely. I couldn’t possibly forget. I’ll say goodbye to everyone. I’m going back to Pari and Mahin now, so I’ll say goodnight.”

When Madame Ziba was sure that Zahra had gone upstairs, she went to her bedroom and phoned Akbar again. After relating him the whole story, she asked him if he had heard of the Nezam family and Farid’s aunt Helene.

“Oh, yes. They are a very respectable family,” answered Akbar. “The General retired a while ago due to ill health. But I seem to remember there was a family scandal mentioned in the newspapers a few years ago. His wife’s brother was accused of corruption and he died of a heart attack shortly after. Left a widow called Helene who had to sell up to pay off the old bugger’s debts. I wouldn’t be surprised if she takes in lodgers to make ends meet. It sounds kosher to me. Besides, I know all the Madames in Tehran, even the uptown ones, and there isn’t one in that street or of that name.”

“That’s all I wanted to hear,” said Madame Ziba. “Thank you.”

“Do me a favour,” said Akbar. “When this young man comes to pick her up tomorrow, ask her to drop in and say goodbye. Then I can have a look at him, and maybe have a word or two.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” replied Madame Ziba with mild surprise. It wasn’t like Akbar to take an interest in a girl. He tolerated the ones he had to come into contact with. Otherwise he steered completely clear of women preferring to have nothing to do with them. Obviously, there was something about Zahra which touched a hidden chord.

“Goodnight, then,” said Akbar.

“Yes, goodnight,” replied Madame. “Oh, by the way. There will be a room available from tomorrow,” she added.

“I’ll get the word around,” promised Akbar and put the receiver down.

Madame Ziba returned to her vigil nodding to herself and glad that Zahra was going to good hands.

Zahra, meanwhile, had gone back to Pari and Mahin, and joyfully told them her good news.

“Well, if that’s what you want, we’re happy for you,” said Mahin. “There’s no point in doing something if it makes you miserable.”

“Pity,” added Pari. “You’re alright when you relax a bit. We might even miss you !” she giggled.

“No. You’ll forget me quickly,” said Zahra shyly.

“What ? After that bastard beat you up !” exclaimed Mahin. “Of course we won’t forget. Besides, you’re different. You’ve got class. We thought you were snooty at first, but you’re not really.”

Zahra gave an awkward smile. She had been a little disdainful at first and had learned a valuable lesson-that people were not always what they seemed. She allowed Pari and Mahin to ply her with wine and became merry and light headed. The three girls sat and giggled until one o’clock in the morning by which time the alcohol had made them feel heavy and drowsy.

Zahra awoke the following morning, her tongue dry and furry, and ruefully pressed her hands to her head. What a price one had to pay for consuming a few drinks and having a good time, she thought. She certainly enjoyed the state of mind and complete feeling of wellbeing that alcohol induced, and decided that the after effects were due to over indulgence. She would compromise, and in future drink in moderation. She got up unsteadily from her bed, her resolution strengthened as a feeling of nausea swept over her. She only made it to the basin in time. Afterwards, she felt better and went down to the kitchen for some coffee. Pari and Mahin were sitting bleary eyed at the table.

“Boy, you must have had some party last night,” commented Shirin looking at the three of them.

“Ooh, don’t shout,” pleaded Mahin.

“I’m not shouting,” said Shirin. “It’s your hangover that’s amplifying any sounds. But you never learn. Every time you and Pari have a do, you’re as sick as dogs the next day.”

“OK. OK. Don’t go on,” groaned Pari. “Just give us some coffee.”

Shirin laughed. She poured out coffee for Pari, Mahin and Zahra, and then one for herself.

“Anyway, what was all that merriment for last night ?” she asked curiously.

“We were celebrating Zahra’s new job,” answered Mahin. “She’s leaving here today.”

“Oh ?” said Shirin looking at Zahra questioningly.

“Yes, it’s true,” confirmed Zahra. “I’ve got a new place to live and a job as a waitress.”

“That’s quick work,” said Shirin. “How did you manage to find something so fast ?”

“I met someone a few days ago who offered to help, and he knows the right people,” answered Zahra.

“Are you sure he’s on the level ?” asked Shirin.

“On the level ?” repeated Zahra puzzled.

“Yeah, you know. Not having you on. Leading you up the garden path…”

“Oh, I see what you mean,” said Zahra as the penny dropped. “No, no. He’s a very nice person who’s only trying to help.”

“Yeah, right. Some of the worst pimps in town are handsome and charming,” murmured Shirin. “But once they have you in their grasp, they’re the vilest and most menacing men you ever met.”

Zahra was dismayed. Farid wasn’t like that. He couldn’t be, she thought. And yet…

Madame Ziba caught sight of her crestfallen face as she came into the kitchen. “Why Zahra, whatever is the matter ?”

“Shirin has been putting the dampers on her young man,” said Pari.

“Well, he could be anybody,” said Shirin defensively.

“Yeah, but there’s no need to upset her,” said Mahin.

“Shirin is quite right to warn her,” said Madame Ziba standing up for her. “He could be an undesirable character. However, I have had him checked out and he’s OK. So, Zahra has nothing to worry about.”

“Oh, good,” groaned Mahin. “In that case could everyone be quiet while I recover…”

Zahra’s face was wreathed in smiles again. Nothing could go wrong now. She finished her coffee and made to leave the kitchen. “I’ll see you all later before I go,” she told the girls.

Upstairs in her room she glanced around to see what she needed to pack. Her possessions were few-a cheap, nylon dressing gown, one towel, a change of underwear and basic toiletries. It wasn’t much, she thought, but more than she had arrived with. The room was spotless because she had spent the last two days cleaning it from top to bottom to give herself something to occupy her mind.

She went over to the washbasin and had a quick wash. Her eye and lips were no longer swollen, but the bruises were still visible on her face. She dabbed some ointment on the purple marks and told herself she was lucky there would be no scars. After brushing her teeth, she put all her toiletries into a plastic bag and, pulling a large carrier bag out of the wardrobe, proceeded to put her scant belongings inside. Finally, having satisfied herself that there was nothing left in the wardrobe, dressing table or chest of drawers, she sat down on the bed and spent five minutes vigorously brushing her hair until it shone like ebony.

She wondered what she could do to pass the time until Farid arrived. Maybe she should buy some flowers for Farid’s aunt when they were introduced. Yes, she decided it was a good idea.

She could slip out once more in the chador before she gave it back to Sonia.

She returned to the house a couple of hours later clutching some flowers, a magazine, and a large cake which she wanted to share with the girls and Madame Ziba by way of saying thank you. The girls rarely entertained mid afternoon in the summer, and were all resting in their rooms. Zahra knocked on all their doors and invited them down to the kitchen where they could drink some tea and eat the cake together. When she went to Sonia’s room, she handed her the chador neatly folded.

“Don’t you need it any more ?” asked Sonia.

“No, thank you. It’s been a great help, but I’m not starting my job until my face is clear. I shall stay in and read. Maybe I’ll be allowed to watch television.”

“Well, good luck, love. I hope it all works out.”

“Thank you,” replied Zahra. “So do I. Are you going to come down to the kitchen ? I’ve bought a cake for you all.”

“Ooh, that sounds tempting ! Yes, I’ll be down in a minute.”

Zahra went downstairs and found everyone else already there. Madame Ziba had brought in a tray with glasses of tea, and Hilda had taken plates out of the cupboard.

“Come on, Zahra. You cut the cake,” said Pari. “It looks so yummy and fattening !”

Zahra smiled and cut portions for everyone.

“Come on, Sonia,” mumbled Hilda through a mouthful, “or you won’t get any cake.”

“No, not if you get near it,” said Sonia good naturedly. “You’d eat the whole lot if you had the chance !”

The girls often teased Hilda about the amount of food she consumed, but she never batted an eyelid, and remained impervious to their light hearted remarks.

“This is really nice, Zahra,” said Hilda with relish. “Aren’t you having any ?”

“Yes, if everyone has had a piece. Please help yourselves if you want any more.”

She took a small wedge for herself and smiled as Pari and Mahin exchanged conspiratorial glances and then playfully held back Hilda’s arm as she reached for a second slice.

“Careful,” teased Shirin. “She’s not known as Hefty Hilda for nothing !”

Hilda sat and drummed the fingers of her left hand on the table as the sisters allowed her right hand to stretch within a centimetre of the cake and then pulled it back again.

“She’s getting ready to throw you,” sang Sonia in a high voice.

“Here you are, Hilli,” teased Shirin, holding a piece of cake near Hilda’s mouth. “Ah, ah, don’t snap !”

Hilda looked at Zahra. “You see what I have to put up with from these girls.”

“I’m sure you enjoy every minute,” laughed Zahra as Hilda, catching Shirin off her guard, lunged forward and took the cake out of her hand with one bite. Pari and Mahin found this so funny that tears streamed from their eyes as they rolled about in helpless mirth.

“Ooh, it’s better than feeding the sea lions,” gasped Pari, holding her sides.

“Yes !” shrieked Mahin. “And this one catches balls too….”

Zahra blushed as the other girls screamed with laughter, and Hilda nearly choked on the cake as the joke dawned on her. Madame Ziba sat and watched the girls benignly. She was glad they got on so well together-almost like sisters. She hoped that whoever came to replace Zahra would be able to fit in and keep the atmosphere as happy as it was now. She sat for a few minutes more and then rose to leave the kitchen.

“Thank you for the cake , Zahra. That was very sweet of you. Please come and see me before you leave, won’t you.”

Zahra nodded. “Of course I will, Madame.”

“Very well then, girls. I’ll probably see you later.” And so saying, Madame Ziba ambled out of the kitchen.

Zahra turned hesitantly to the others. “As you’re all here, I’d like to say goodbye as it’s nearly time for me to go. Thank you so much for helping me get over the last three days. I hope you will stay as cool and happy as you are now.”

She went and embraced each girl in turn.

“All the best, love,” said Hilda as she hugged Zahra’s slender form.

“I hope you’ll be happier where you’re going, but if it doesn’t work out, we’re always here,” said Shirin. “Nothing’s worth it if you’re not happy,” and she kissed Zahra on the cheek.

Sonia embraced her saying, “I’m sure you’d get to like it if you gave it a while. But… if your mind’s made up, at least no one is forcing you.”

Finally, Pari and Mahin each took Zahra by one hand. “Look,” said Mahin, “if you’re leaving this game, you probably won’t come back again, but if you’re ever round this way, drop in and see us anytime.”

“We’d like to know how you’re getting on,” added Pari. “Maybe we’ll even join you !”

Zahra smiled warmly at them all and, hearing Farid sounding his horn, went to the hall to pick up her bag. She went out and gave it to him saying that she hadn’t yet said goodbye to Madame Ziba. After five minutes she came out of the house again and waved to everyone until she could no longer see them.

When Farid turned the corner and Madame Ziba’s house was out of sight, Zahra turned to him and asked whether he would mind stopping at Akbar’s café before they drove to aunt Helene’s.

“May I ask why ?” enquired Farid politely.

“Well, Madame Ziba told me that it would be nice if I said goodbye to him and told him what I was doing,” answered Zahra diffidently.

“Is it really any of his concern?”

“I don’t suppose so, but he’s the person who got the man who attacked me. However, if you prefer not to, then it really doesn’t matter…” said Zahra quietly her voice trailing off.

“No. It’s OK. We’ll go. Just show me the way.”

“Oh, thank you, Farid. I’ll feel so much better.”

She directed Farid through the maze of alleys, and a few minutes later they emerged in Khiaban Qazvin, the main street in New Town, directly outside Akbar’s café.

There were quite a few people inside, mostly men, although at one of the tables, two heavily made up girls sat sipping cokes and staring coyly at any males who looked their way. Akbar was behind the counter busy with the orders which Ismail brought him. He saw the Camaro stop outside the café, but as he couldn’t see through the windows, he didn’t know that Zahra had arrived with Farid. He merely gave it a cursory, approving glance and then turned his attention to the more pressing needs of his customers. Zahra was about to open the car door when she remembered the marks on her face and shrank back in her seat.

“Oh, no. I can’t,” Farid heard her whisper.

“What’s the matter ?”

“I forgot about my face. I can’t go in there like this,” she said dejectedly.

“Don’t worry. I’ll ask Akbar to come to the car. Which one is he ?”

“That man standing behind the counter. Can you see ? He’s just pouring out two glasses of coke.”

“Oh, yes,” replied Farid. “Wait here then, and I’ll bring him over.”

He got out of the car and strode into the café. The two girls noticed him immediately and both vied for his attention. One curled a strand of glossy, black hair to fall into the cleavage revealed by her low cut dress, and the other hitched her skirt five centimetres higher and seductively caressed her knee and thigh. Farid, being a gentleman, acknowledged their inviting smiles with a brief nod, but made his way to the counter without stopping. They saw him exchange a few words with Akbar, and then both men went outside to where the Camaro was parked. Zahra saw Akbar approaching with Farid and lowered the window half way to speak with him.

“Hello,” she said shyly.

“Hello, Zahra. How are you ?” asked Akbar, experiencing the same pangs as when he had first met her.

“I’m much better, thank you. I’m sorry to disturb you when you’re busy, but I just wanted to thank you again and say goodbye.”

“I hope it’s not goodbye,” replied Akbar. “I know this area doesn’t hold good memories for you, but try to drop by some time. You’ll always be welcome, and my offer still stands.”

“Thank you. Maybe I will sometime.”

She smiled at Akbar and then disappeared from view as the tinted window automatically closed. Akbar turned to Farid and grasped his hand. “Thanks for coming over. Any friend of Zahra’s is a friend of mine and always welcome here.”

“Don‘t mention it,” replied Farid, shaking his hand.

Akbar stood outside the café until the Camaro had disappeared into the throng of traffic, then returned behind the bar where he resumed preparing snacks and drinks. He noticed with amusement that the two call girls looked very put out as he went over to their table with their order.

“A friend of yours ?” asked one of them.

“You could say that,” answered Akbar, “not your type, though…”

“Don’t be too sure. I take all comers,” she replied.

“Got someone, has he ?” asked the other girl.

“I expect he has lots,” said Akbar, “but it’s no concern of yours.”

“Pity,” said the first one. “He’d make a nice change.”

“Yes, I know the kind of change you like,” said Akbar, “the more it glitters, the better.”

“Why not ? We have to live,” replied the girl.

“You do alright,” said Akbar grinning. He returned behind the bar where he lapsed into thinking about his ex wife. He had come to terms with her infidelity long ago, but he no longer despised the girls who had turned to prostitution through sheer necessity. In particular, he wondered why Zahra had gone down that route. He became so engrossed in his thoughts that Ismail thought he had succumbed to the heat and suggested that he lie down for a while. “I can look after things here,” he concluded.

“What ? Oh, no. I’m alright,” insisted Akbar. “I was just thinking…”

“You were miles away,” retorted Ismail. “It’s not like you. Something wrong ?”

“No, nothing,” Akbar assured him. “I was just wondering what we could do to liven the place up a bit.”

“Get a singer in,” suggested Ismail. “I’d like to hear a really good singer.”

“Now, there’s an idea,” mused Akbar. “I might just do that. A lady singer suit you ?” he asked Ismail with a wink.

“Yeah, but not too big. I wanna see the curves move, not the fat layers.”

Akbar laughed. “I’ll work on it. We’ll be the hottest spot in town !”

Zahra and Farid had, in the meantime, arrived at Aunt Helene’s modest house in Eisenhower Avenue. Farid opened the passenger door for Zahra, helped her out and lifted the carrier bag from the back seat. He noticed that she was nervously winding her hair round her fingers and unconsciously pulling it over her face.

“Don’t be nervous,” he said kindly as he pressed the bell. “Aunt Helene is really looking forward to meeting you and she’s so warm hearted.”

“That’s probably why I’m nervous. I won’t come up to her expectations.”

“Nonsense,” replied Farid. “She never…” but was interrupted in mid sentence by his aunt appearing at the door.

“Hello, Aunty,” said Farid immediately. “This is Zahra.”

“Hello,” responded Zahra shyly.

“My poor girl,” uttered Helene seeing her face and taking her by the hand. “Come in. Come in and make yourself at home.” She put an arm round Zahra and led her into the house leaving Farid to close the door. Helene settled Zahra in a comfortable armchair in the lounge and sat down next to her. Farid put down the bag with Zahra’s meagre belongings, and also found himself a comfortable place.

“Have you eaten ?” asked Helene.

Zahra didn’t answer but looked at Farid.

“No, we haven’t, Aunty,” replied Farid, guessing that Zahra probably hadn’t.

“Well, I haven’t either,” said Helene brightly, “so, we can all dine and chat together. You will excuse me for a few minutes, won’t you.”

“May I help ?” asked Zahra standing up.

“Oh, no, thank you, my dear. Everything is ready. No, you sit and rest. I’ll call you both in a few minutes..”

Helene went out of the room leaving Zahra and Farid together.

“I bet you haven’t watched television for a while,” said Farid switching on the set. “Oh, don’t worry,” he continued, seeing Zahra’s doubtful expression. ”This is my second home. Aunty doesn’t mind.”

Zahra relaxed. “No, I haven’t seen television since I left home. Madame Ziba had one in her room but we weren’t invited to watch. Pari and Mahin had one, too, but I never watched that either.”

“What programmes do you like ?” asked Farid.

“Oh, I like the old romantic films and the cartoons the best.”

“Typical,” teased Farid.

“I bet you like cartoons, too,” retorted Zahra. “I haven’t met a man yet who doesn’t. My father and brother were always glued to the screen.” She bit her lip upon realising that she’d mentioned her family and fell silent.

Farid noticed her sudden reticence. “Look, Zahra. I know you left on bad terms, and they said things in the heat of the moment, but don’t you think you should let them know you are safe ?” Zahra remained silent.

“OK. I won’t mention it again, but remember that if they didn’t care about you, they wouldn’t have said anything about your young man. My parents have been just as strict with my sisters, and there have been scenes on many occasions. But, it doesn’t mean that they don’t love them.”

“I’ll send them a card in a while,” whispered Zahra. “At least now I’m out of that place, I won’t be afraid of them trying to find me.”

“Good. You do that,” urged Farid. “Of course, they may still be angry with you, but deep down they’ll be relieved to know that you’re alive and well.”

Zahra nodded and was spared any further discussion of her family by Helene announcing that supper was ready. Zahra and Farid followed her to the dining room and sat down at the table. Helene had cooked apricot Kufteh Tabrizi (meat balls with herbs and spices) which she served with a bowl of fresh herbs and a Persian flat bread called barbari.

“Oh, how lovely !” exclaimed Zahra. “I haven’t eaten any home made food for a long time.”

Helene smiled. She liked appreciative guests, and lost no time in piling high Zahra and Farid’s plates.

“I hear you are going to work at the Wimpy Bar,” she said addressing Zahra.

“Yes, I am. Farid found the job for me. I hope I’ll come up to scratch.”

“Of course, you will,” said Farid. “It’s just a bit hard on the feet if there are a lot of customers !”

“He doesn’t expect her yet, I hope,” said Helene.

“No, in a couple weeks,” replied Farid. “Youssef is keeping the job open for her.”

“I’m glad,” said Helene, “because I won’t let Zahra out of the house until I think she’s ready to work. If Youssef minds, tell him to come and see me.”

Farid laughed. “He wouldn’t dare, Aunty. He respects you too much !”

“Well, that’s settled then,” said Helene. “Zahra needs rest and time to settle in.”

She looked at Zahra and was dismayed to see the girl’s eyes brimming with tears. “Why, Zahra, whatever’s the matter ?” she asked anxiously. “Have I said something to upset you ?”

Zahra regained her composure momentarily. “No, you haven’t. It’s just that I didn’t expect anyone to be so kind to me. I’ve been so alone…” but she was unable to continue. She finally succumbed to the pressures and events of the past months and, quickly excusing herself, left the room and stood in the hall ashamed of her weakness.

Farid made to go after her but his aunt stopped him. “No, Farid. Leave her. She’s been through a lot. She’s had to keep going for so long that finding she could let her guard down has been too much for her.”

Helene, with her usual perception, was right. Zahra regained her composure, and returned to the table to finish her supper.

“This is really delicious,” she said praising Helene’s cooking.

“Just you wait,” teased Farid. “After a few months of aunty’s cooking, you won’t be able to get into my car !”

By the time they had finished eating, Zahra appeared totally at ease again.

“Well,” said Helene at length, “if you two have had enough, go and watch the television, and I shall bring in some tea. Or would you prefer coffee ?”

“Tea is fine for me,” replied Zahra.

“Me too, please,” added Farid.

“Please let me help you clear this away,” Zahra offered.

“No, you go and sit down,” said Helene firmly. “It’s very sweet of you, but I want you to rest completely for the next few days. There’ll be plenty of time ahead when you can help.”

Zahra saw that it was no good to argue- Helene was quite adamant. So, she followed Farid into the lounge.

“Oh, good. I love Westerns,” exclaimed Farid switching on the television. “Do you ?”

“If there’s nothing better,” said Zahra smiling. “I prefer the romantic films.”

“Just the same as my mother and sisters. All women like romantic films !”

“Yes, and all men like Westerns,” countered Zahra smiling. She leant back in the armchair and closed her eyes. Farid watched her in silence. She was very beautiful, he acknowledged to himself. What a pity that her purity had been tarnished…

He saw his aunt returning to the lounge, and stood up to take the tray from her.

“Oh, is Zahra asleep ?” she asked softly.

“No, I’m not,” said Zahra opening her eyes. “I was just relaxing. It’s so comfortable here !”

“I’m glad you feel at home,” said Helene. “I think we’re going to get on very well together.”

“I hope I won’t be a bother to you,” replied Zahra.

“Of course you won’t. I do like having interesting, young people around.”

“Like me !” interrupted Farid grinning.

“You can see how conceited he is, “ laughed Helene as she poured out the tea. “Zahra,” she continued, “when you have finished your drink, I’ll show you your room.”

“Yes, I think I’d like to go to bed early. Thank you.”

“And I must be off soon,” said Farid. “I go for an early morning swim with father every day now. It’s about time I had an early night too !”

“Will you come over tomorrow ?” asked Helene, as they sipped their drinks.

“I don’t think so. You don’t mind, do you ? I’m sure you will have lots to talk about for a couple of days. I’ll phone, though. But I have a lot of things to see to before I join the Navy.”

“Very well, then, dear. Drive carefully and give my regards to your parents and Samira.”

“Yes, I will,” promised Farid. “Goodbye. I’ll be in touch.”

He let himself out of the house leaving the two women together in the lounge. Helene showed Zahra her room and where everything was, and by the time Farid had arrived home, they had both retired for the night.

Zahra fell straightaway into a deep, untroubled sleep in the comfortable, air conditioned room that Helene had given her. Helene didn’t go to sleep as quickly as Zahra. She lay thinking about her, glad that she had someone to share her lonely life, but concerned over Zahra’s depression

and wondering whether the girl might not become too attached to Farid, and then get hurt.

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