Authors: Helen Black
To Dad. We miss you.
I watch Yasmeen sleep, her breath shallow, her mouth slightly parted.
She is so beautiful.
Wherever she goes people stare at those eyes, heavy-lidded, flecked with amber.
At mosque, when she takes her usual place, her hijab secured tightly under her chin, I can see her lips move. They are garnet red as she murmurs her prayers.
Here, on the bed, I am dazzled by her all over again and I nearly change my mind. There’s still time. I could call an ambulance and they would inject her with drugs, attach her to machines.
I pull out my phone and my finger hovers over the number nine.
But no. I have made up my mind.
There was a time when I would have done anything for this girl and she would have done the same for me. In this cruel world we stood shoulder to shoulder against those who would torment us. When I lost hope she held my face in her hands.
‘God will provide.’
I wonder then why she has chosen to wreck everything. To bring this family to its knees. To crush me like a can.
Her chest rattles and I picture myself sitting here in Yasmeen’s bedroom, watching this girl I have loved so well. Watching her die.
Do I still love her?
With all my heart.
Yet I am immobile as her life creeps away.
She lets out a tiny gasp and a pink bubble forms on her lips.
When it bursts I know it is over and through my tears I whisper the words she cannot say for herself.
‘I bear witness that there is no God but Allah.’
Lilly Valentine leaned against the wall and sighed. ‘I paid for all this to be up and running last week and I still can’t make outgoing calls.’
The telephone engineer was lying on the floor, unscrewing a socket. ‘There must be a glitch in your system,’ he said.
‘That’s right. There are often problems with the fibre optics.’
‘Listen, mate, I’m trying to run a law firm, not sit for a degree in telecommunications.’ Lilly heaved her backside into a chair. ‘Can you fix it?’
‘I’ll need a new circuit board,’ said the engineer. ‘Can I come back tomorrow?’
Lilly shook her head in despair.
‘Try not to worry,’ the man laughed. ‘Teething troubles are routine.’
Lilly smoothed her hand over her pregnant belly and
looked around at the new offices of Valentine & Co. Unopened post was spewed across the doormat, files littered every seat, the espresso machine still in its box and the potted plant had already died.
‘Trust me,’ she said. ‘Nothing in my life is ever routine.’
As the engineer stood to leave Lilly leaned over and opened a box of headed notepaper. The smell of fresh ink escaped.
The engineer looked over Lilly’s shoulder. ‘“Valerian and Co,”’ he read. ‘Ain’t that a type of sleeping pill?’
Lilly closed her eyes tight and hoped this was all a bad dream. When she opened them everything was exactly the same.
The heat of the smoke makes Ryan’s lungs sting but he holds it in and counts to five.
Only girls can’t take their weed. And batty boys.
Lailla wags her finger. ‘You gonna get caught with that.’
Ryan laughs in a cloud of grey. ‘You worried about me?’
‘I think you a big enough boy to be looking after yourself, Ryan Sanders,’ she winks.
Naz and some of the other boys whistle but Ryan knows Lailla is only messing. She flirts with all the boys at school but everyone knows she’s going with Sonny. He’s eighteen and picks Lailla up in a black Merc. Personalised reg plate and everything. Respect to him ’cos Lailla’s well fit.
Ryan, Lailla and their friends meet here every lunchtime, on the grass between the lower school
playground and the boundary wall. The headmistress calls it the Orchard Green but there ain’t no trees or nothing. There used to be a climbing frame but someone fell off and broke his shoulder so they took it down. It gets muddy sometimes but it’s the furthest point from the classrooms that they can get without breaking the rules. Not that Ryan gives a shit about rules, but some of the others are a bunch of pussies, innit.
The girls giggle and apply lip gloss while the boys smoke and chat them up. Ryan sometimes deals a few baggies. Nothing major.
‘Who’s your friend?’ asks Ryan, nodding at a girl hovering in the background.
He’s seen her around school, though she’s not in any of his sets, except in art. She’s got long shiny hair to her waist and a shy smile. He tries to catch her eye but she’s looking anywhere but at him. She don’t seem like the type to hang with Lailla, to be honest, and he wonders why she ain’t indoors revising or some shit.
Lailla grins, showing her sharp white teeth. ‘Why you asking?’
‘You know me,’ says Ryan, ‘I like to get to know all the pretty girls, innit.’
Lailla smiles again but her eyes narrow. She don’t like anyone else to get the attention. Likes to be top dog, she does.
‘Aasha,’ she pulls the girl by the arm, ‘come say hi to Ryan.’
The girl flushes and checks the ground.
‘So you can’t speak now?’ Lailla laughs. ‘Can’t look a boy in the eye?’
There’s something cruel in Lailla’s voice, like she enjoys her friend’s embarrassment. Girls are like that, though, thick as thieves one minute, bitching about each other the next.
Aasha lifts her chin as though it were made of concrete or something. When she finally, painfully, meets his gaze he can see his reflection in her eyes. ‘Hi.’
‘She’s a good Muslim girl,’ Lailla tells him, ‘so don’t be getting no ideas.’
Ryan laughs. A good Muslim girl. He’s heard that like, what, a million times before.
At least half the kids at school are Muslim, and yeah, they can chat in Urdu or whatever and they don’t make a big thing of Christmas, but they ain’t that different. Sometimes there’s trouble, like that time the Mehmet brothers got the school play stopped, but Ryan stays out of it. You can’t judge a person on whether they’re white, black, brown or fucking green, can you? And girls are girls, whether they cover their heads or not, innit.
‘A good Muslim girl,’ Ryan makes a face at Lailla. ‘Is that what you are in the back of Sonny’s car?’
Lailla gives him a playful slap. ‘Be nice.’
He approaches Aasha, his head cocked to one side. ‘I’m always nice.’
Where else would one tombola ticket cost five pounds? Lilly shook her head. Only at Manor Park, her son’s prep school, would such a thing be considered reasonable.
‘How many do you need?’ asked Penny Van Huysan, one of the mothers running the stall.
Penny, like most of the Manor Park parents, was minted. Her idea of budgeting was to cut down the housekeeper to four days a week.
‘Who’s in charge of the tea tent?’ asked Lilly. ‘Ronnie Biggs?’
Penny rolled her eyes. She and Lilly were long-standing friends. Despite the Yummy Mummy appearance and her addiction to Harvey Nicks, Penny was kind and honest, and often provided respite care to disabled children whose own parents were on the brink of collapse.
‘Have you seen the prizes?’
Lilly scanned the table. Diptyque Candles, a Cartier fountain pen, vouchers for dinner at The Ivy.
‘Very nice,’ Lilly nodded, ‘but nothing I need as much as five quid in my purse.’
‘Every penny goes to disadvantaged children.’
Lilly patted her stomach. ‘Which is exactly what this one will be if I chuck away my hard-earned cash.’
Lilly felt strong arms circling her waist and smelled the familiar mix of lemon and leather that meant Jack was near.
‘Is this one giving you grief?’ Jack asked Penny.
‘Pleading poverty as usual,’ said Penny.
Lilly leaned into Jack’s embrace. ‘We can’t all be married to millionaires.’
‘In my next life I’m coming back as a hedge fund manager,’ said Jack.
Lilly nuzzled his neck. ‘Don’t you bloody dare.’
He touched her pregnant belly gently. ‘How’s Frank?’
‘Frank?’ Penny raised an eyebrow.
‘Don’t go there,’ Lilly warned.
Jack had spent weeks trying to engage her in naming discussions. Lilly flatly refused.
‘Then I’ll choose myself,’ he’d said.
‘Not interested,’ Lilly had replied.
‘Frank,’ he’d declared. ‘A good solid name.’
‘The only Frank I ever knew ended up doing a five stretch for attacking his neighbour with an axe.’
‘I thought you weren’t interested,’ he’d retorted.
‘Come on, Jack.’ Penny waved a book of tickets. ‘You must have the luck of the Irish.’
Jack laughed. ‘That’s the lot from the Emerald Isle. Trust me, there’s nothing lucky about Belfast.’
‘You managed to tie Lilly down, didn’t you?’ said Penny. ‘You must be doing something right.’
Jack kissed Lilly’s cheek, winked at Penny and pulled out his wallet. ‘Och, give us a couple then.’
‘You didn’t have to do that,’ said Lilly as she and Jack wandered around the May Fayre.
The school grounds lent themselves to the resolute Englishness of the celebrations, children streaking across the extensive lawns, gobbling ice creams. Blossom blew in the spring breeze like confetti. A white marquee seemed at home next to the immaculate cricket pitch.
Jack shrugged. ‘A copper’s wage may not be six figures but I’m above the breadline.’
‘Unlike this struggling solicitor,’ Lilly laughed.
‘We’ll get by.’
‘We’ll have to,’ said Lilly. ‘I can’t even get the sodding phones to work.’
‘Good,’ said Jack.
‘Haven’t I been saying all along that you should wait until after the baby’s born to set up shop?’
Lilly rolled her eyes.
Jack had made his feelings abundantly clear.
But she wasn’t some chicken on an egg. As much as she wanted this baby, and imagined little fingers curled around her own, she couldn’t be expected to sit around all day incubating.
‘I worked right up to the week before I had Sam,’ she said.
‘You weren’t forty then,’ Jack replied.
Lilly gave him a playful punch on the arm and anticipated one in return when she felt Jack stiffen. She followed his eye line and saw Sam and his dad walking towards them. Things had been tricky in the past between Jack and David. Hell, things had been tricky between Lilly and David. Her ex-husband had a talent for winding everyone up.
‘Hey big man,’ Lilly called to her ten-year-old son.
Sam was wearing a straw hat garlanded with flowers and ribbons.
‘I’m loving that look,’ said Jack.
‘It’s for morris dancing,’ said David.
‘And there was me thinking it was his rugby kit,’ said Jack.
Lilly kicked Jack’s ankle. For Sam’s sake, a truce had been called and they had each agreed to be as civil as possible.
‘It looks great, Sam,’ she said.
‘It looks totally lame,’ Sam scowled. He glanced at another group of boys in similar attire. ‘People will think I’m with those dorks.’
‘Still, you’ve a good chance of being crowned May Queen,’ said Jack.
Sam put up a fist but couldn’t resist a laugh.
‘Can Sam have tea with you, David?’ Lilly asked. ‘I’ve got to see a man about a phone.’
He shook his head. ‘Sorry. I’ve got to collect Cara and Fleur from baby massage.’