Kemal brandished the photo like a weapon. ‘Who is she?’
‘You have no right,’ said Baba with an edge to his voice that shifted beyond anger.
‘Where’s the letter?’
‘Give me the photo.’
‘Not until you tell me who she is.’
Baba stepped forward and hit Kemal, the back of his hand catching his cheek and the tip of his nose causing his eyes to water.
Kemal dropped the photo and ran. He ran without looking back, just sucking the cool acidic air until his lungs burnt forcing him to stop. He bent over to catch his breath and felt the rain on his hair, dripping from his nose, mingling with the blood. On the other side of the road he saw the 113 to Finchley pulling into the stop on the high street.
Climbing aboard he made his way to the back of the upper deck. The windows were steaming, the grey world looked like it was disappearing into a mist like some kind of ghost town he didn’t recognise. A pale middle aged woman ambled up the isle with her Safeway’s shopping, took one look at his nose and turned back.
When Kemal got off the rain had stopped but the sky was darker and he became aware of the cold bitting his cheeks, cooling the back of his neck.
He moved off the high street and onto the unlit side roads, hands tucked into his jeans, shoulders hunched forward, weighed down by his soaked jumper. A little way up the road he sensed a presence trailing in the shadows. He bit his lip and quickened his pace, desperate to look back, to see if Baba had followed him. He turned down his best friend’s road and glanced over his shoulder. The figure continued on oblivious.
Tariq’s was the last but one terraced house, all of them huddled together in the cold, slightly lopsided like dominos about to fall. He looked up but there were no lights on. He pressed the bell, waited for an answer, knocked tentatively and finally with his fist tightly clenched. Where were they at this time on a Saturday? Slumping onto the front step, he buried his head in his hands, no money, just his bus pass and his thoughts to entertain him but all he could see when he closed his eyes was Baba’s thick fingers catching the side of his face. His lip stung as he touched it.
‘Kemal? Is that you?’ Tariq’s father appeared in front of him, his palms open, his arms wide as though he was about to embrace him but his dark eyes watchful. He was wearing a black anorak, the hood pulled tightly around his face and when Kemal looked up he noticed the rest of them, also hooded, perched on the edge of the pavement like a family of giant black birds.
Kemal wiped his nose with the heel of his hand hoping to get rid of any red streaks.
‘It’s just Kemal,’ said Tariq’s father.
Tariq’s mother stepped forward. ‘My god, you’re drenched. Let’s get him inside. You’ll have to get changed. Is everything ok?’
‘Everything’s fine. I was just passing and thought that Tariq was in?’
‘How long have you been out here?’ Said Tariq’s Mum.
She traded looks with her husband before ushering everyone into the house.
Through the whole exchange Tariq had remained silent. He inspected Kemal with his large, questioning eyes and didn’t speak to him until they were safely inside his room and Kemal had changed into one of his neatly pressed grey tracksuits, which was one size too big and made Kemal look like a recently escaped convict.
‘What are you doing here?’ Were the first words out of his mouth.
‘I came to see you.’ Kemal grinned, showing all his teeth.
‘Why didn’t you phone?’
He shrugged knowing that Tariq would immediately see through him because he was too smart, the smartest person Kemal knew in fact.
‘You had a fight with your Dad, didn’t you?’
He nodded, tight lipped.
‘What was it this time?’
Kemal began to move around the room, lifting things, examining them as though he had never seen Tariq’s maths quiz medals, his scientific calculator pencil case, his white cuddly ape named Rodney that had lived on his pillow ever since he’d known him.
‘Can you stop that.’ Tariq followed after him, rubbing the back of his neck and repositioning everything.
Kemal sat down on the swivel chair in front of his desk. ‘I need to get away. I can’t live there anymore.’
‘He hit me.’ Baba hadn’t hit Kemal since he was little and on the way up he had thought about how good it would feel to tell Tariq and his family about what Baba had done, to shame him but as the words dribbled out, it was Kemal that felt the shame.
‘I found something.’
‘A photo.’ The word burnt the back of his throat. The black and white portrait of the woman, dark eyes staring out towards him, wishful, hopeful and a gentle smile.
‘A photo of what?’
The door opened and Tariq’s mum entered the room which startled both of them because there was no warning, not even a knock. Kemal shut his mouth.
‘Your mother phoned, Kemal. I told her you’re staying for dinner. And you can return those clothes when you see Tariq next week.’ She said.
‘Thank you,’ He tried to avoid her eyes.
‘She said you and your father got into an argument.’
He lowered his chin.
‘You can’t run away every time you have an argument, Kemal. I’m sure if you talk it through with your parents whatever it is can be sorted out.’
No it fucking can’t. The neon words lit up inside his head but he stayed silent.
She continued to stare at them, holding the door open, gripping the handle until Tariq let out a long sigh.
‘Dinner will be ready in thirty minutes.’ She said.
Tariq stood up and shut the door properly as soon as she’d left.
‘Your Mum is proper stealthy,’ said Kemal.
‘You don’t know the half of it, she’s scary.’
‘Do you think she’s angry with me?’
‘No, she loves you coming round.’
‘I think she’s just worried about you.’
Tariq didn’t sit down, he just remained where he was, shoulders a little forward so that his figure etched out a gentle ‘C’ and made him look a lot older than he was, like a school teacher.
‘You know I like your parents,’ said Kemal.
He shrugged and looked away towards the window which held their reflection in the dark speckled glass like an ancient black and white photo, the two of them but old, like a long time from now.
‘You don’t know them like me. They’re super strict.’
‘Strict? I’ve never really seen that.’
‘They’re on their best behaviour when you’re round. I mean I like your mum too but I’m sure I don’t see what you see.’
Kemal swivelled to face the desk, marvelling at the neatly stacked books, the sharpened pencils almost all the same size, lined up in a row. He was tempted to roll them apart with his fingers but he sensed Tariq staring into the back of his head as though he knew exactly what he was going to do and was waiting to pounce.
‘So you were going to tell me about the photo?’
Kemal had told Tariq a lot of things, things which he’d never told anyone else but this was different. Not his secret to tell. He closed his eyes, pictured the door to his sitting room that first time, a fine horizontal line of light in the darkness, his little ten year old fingers encircling the door knob, pushing ever so slightly. He hadn’t seen Baba like that for a while and then a few weeks ago, he hadn’t been able to sleep.
‘Have you ever seen your dad cry?’ he said unable to see Tariq’s face but imagining the wrinkle forming between his eyes.
’No, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him cry.’ He sounded far away.
Kemal shook his head and turned to face his friend. ‘I’m going to have to change before I go. I can’t wear this in the street.’ He picked at the sleeve.
‘What’s wrong with it?’
‘It’s grey for a start. All of it.’
He smiled. ‘Dad’s got one too.’
‘Serious? I so need to educate you.’ He stood up and walked over to Tariq’s wardrobe. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got here?’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Clothes equal respect Tariq. It’s how other people see you. I’m saving up for some Jordans right now.’
‘They’re expensive. My dad would never let me buy those.’
‘Baba is the same, that’s why I’m doing some extra work at the Cafe.’
‘You still haven’t told me about the photo,’ Said Tariq.
Kemal turned back to the window. It was just him in the reflection now. ‘I think Baba is cheating on my mum.’
‘The photo was of another woman.’ Even saying it now it didn’t seem right just like when he had looked at the picture. The face had seemed familiar, he had tried to place it but couldn’t.
‘How do you know he’s cheating?’
Kemal felt a lump in his throat.
‘I could ask my mum if you could stay here for the night?’
Tariq stepped towards him, still bent over in that considerate, protective way of his that was reserved for him and his sister.
He thought about his Mum being alone in the house with him. Did she know? ‘Thanks but I should go back.’ Promise me that you won’t tell your parents about Baba hitting me or about…you know.’
Tariq shook his head. ‘Ofcourse not.’
After dinner, Kemal thanked Tariq’s parents for their kindness and hospitality and insisted on changing back into his old clothes even though they weren’t quite dry.
Kemal skulked all the way from the bus stop up to the front of the cafe where he stopped and stared through the shop window expecting to see Baba standing at the cash register counting money but the space was deserted, just empty tables and chairs, the countertop spotless although the door at the back to kitchen was ajar and the light was on. He waited with bated breath as the door opened but thankfully it was Ayse that emerged with her coat on, tying back her black hair into a pony tail. She lifted her hand to her chest when she saw his face squished against the glass.
’Where did you go?’ She said.
‘Is he angry?’
She gave a humph, half way between a grunt and a laugh but then stepped back to take him in. ‘You should get changed.’
‘I went to Tariq’s.’
She nodded, gave his shoulder a squeeze and left.
His mother was waiting for him in the kitchen of their little flat above the Cafe. She was standing by the sink, sipping water and staring out of the window which looked out onto the back yard. He tried to pass by without her noticing but couldn’t avoid the creaky floorboard. Shit.
‘Kemal? I was getting worried. Tariq’s mother said you left almost an hour ago.’
‘There was traffic.’
‘Wait a minute. I want to talk to you.’ She stepped forward and lowered her glass onto the table in order to give him her full attention. Her dark eyes were half closed and her cheeks were a little redder than usual.
‘Your soaking wet.’
‘I’m obviously going to get changed. Where’s Baba?’
‘Sorting some things in the cafe.’
Behind her, the light in the yard came on.
‘What do you want to talk about?’
She lifted her hand to his cheek. ‘Why did you run off like that?’
He pushed her hand away.
‘Don’t be like that.’ Her eyes shifted away from his. ‘Baba was so angry. What did you do?’
‘Nothing? How can it be nothing?’
‘What did he say?’
‘You know your father. He closes up when he’s upset.’
Although she was frowning, her eyes were soft and pleading and he felt sorry for her. It was clear to him that she didn’t know.
‘We were speaking about school and I told him I didn’t want to work in the cafe, that I wanted to do something else.’ At least there was some truth in this lie.
She closed her eyes and took his hand, squeezing it. This time he didn’t pull away. When she released him, she turned and dropped her glass into the sink before planting a kiss on his head and heading off. ‘Leave the clothes in the basket.’
He thought about leaving before Baba came upstairs but something kept him in the kitchen. The light was still on outside so he stepped up to the sink and peered out of the window.
Baba was standing just inside the gate, on the edge of the pool of light from the street. The orange glow from his cigarette bathed his cheek in amber as he stared up at something beyond the wall, out of Kemal’s line of vision. Smoke curled and drifted around his tightly shaven dome in thick spirals. Kemal watched him take one final puff, drop the butt and stub it out with his toe. He backed out of the room and switched off the light.