“Small world,” Meredith muttered to herself when she suddenly saw a familiar shape cross the little market place in the middle of Arabian peninsula. She knew the man from her hometown, through an incident she wasn’t ready to confront just yet.
It was her eager ex, who were to blame in dragging her into it and why she was here now, hiding far from the obscure streets of Leeds, in a place she thought she’d finally be able to breathe again. Leeds was big city compared to the town she was staying now, but small enough to get everybody’s attention after a stupid photographer put your image up in the local post. The police had said she’ll have nothing to worry about as his boyfriend and she had been simple bystanders, who were dragged into the drug war incident. But she could never forgive him the way he put her in the middle of it. She couldn’t understand why he did it – you didn’t place people dear to you in such danger, ever. Yet there she was, standing before an empty gun with their guest rolling his eyes in ways she never thought possible.
Her boyfriend had cowardly hid himself before the police arrived and later tried to clean his guilt by repeatedly telling her she caused it herself. After a while she started to think so, too, shady suspicion inside growing that perhaps she indeed flirted with him and gave him the wrong ideas – him being Muslim after all and her dressing in revealing outfits on a daily basis.
It was about a month later, when the man’s father had came from Saudi Arabia that she started to see it differently. They had similar body shapes, but that’s where the similarities ended. She had got a good back-side glimpse while waiting the judge’s ruling, but never saw his face well enough to remember. Even then he was dressed in white thobe as he was right now, when she spotted him in the crowd. He just sat there, next to his son, but never said anything to protect him nor showed any support, only patting his shoulder quietly when the police handcuffed and took him away.
She had seen him up close afterwards, she recalled. It was outside the court, when he spoke to the young woman she thought was the junky’s mother. The woman had seen her and thrown down on her, blaming her for jailing his son. He had pulled the mother away, seeing her even more revealing outfit that she had worn that day. No, it wasn’t her, she told herself then, it wasn’t her outfit that threw him over the edge. But that was the moment the photographer captured and that was the second she could look on the next day’s paper until the hell froze over and the despair in her eyes made her feel guilty for acting as a good, protective for her community person and calling the police. He had only glanced at her, but those eyes were just as anger-filled as were his wife’s.
“Perhaps I heard him mention the town’s name?” She recalled bitterly, coming suddenly back to her reality and for a brief moment she scolded her absentmindedness. She couldn’t remember hearing the name, but when she took out the map and frantically searched a place far enough from her townspeople ugly stares, that name on the middle of Saudi Arabia had ringed in her eyes as if the only place to be right now. She could handle moving to a new city in UK, when she returned from her sudden, but much needed two weeks of vacation.
It had taken almost two months to actually come here. As she had absolutely no wish for company or a male companion to meet her up – not that she even knew anyone here – it had been a tormenting month and rejections came in as if rain had suddenly turned into a storm. After finally receiving the visa, she had to find the suitable dresses and everything else she thought she needed for her stay. She didn’t want anybody know about this either and secrecy is something best done slow as hurrying might have brought in too many mistakes that might reveal her to the entire town once more. But in the end it was all worth it as neither her overconfident boyfriend nor the paparazzi, who had made their permanent camp outside her premises had noticed anything and that had filled her with proud sensation when she finally sat on the plane, on her way here, under the hot Sun.
The first two days had been wonderful, hidden under her own handmade abaya, unknown to anyone but herself. She needed food though and hiding among the safety of her hotel was over for now. Time to come out of her own shell of misery too, she said to herself. Abaya didn’t ask for burqa and as a foreigner, she deeply hoped she didn’t have to use it. That meant she hardly looked up nor spent her time ravishingly staring at the buildings around though she found them absolutely fascinating. She found it was better to hide her grey eyes when all there were around were brown.
There had been nobody in the reception desk while she left and nobody to ask for a male companion to. They had offered for one when she arrived, but back then she didn’t need it and now, when she did, there was no one around to offer it.
She should have waited, she realized ironically, seeing the police sudden interest in her and she knew right there she had stood too long on one place, openly following his casual walk over the marketplace. She lowered her eyes immediately, but didn’t move. It would’ve been unwise to run. Meredith just hoped that in a place, where he had the upper sleeve and a good reason for revenge, he wouldn’t recognize her. At least the police will send her back to hotel and be done with it. She’ll promise to stay in her quarters and not come out without a companion again and the whole nasty incident would have a good solid solution.
But as the police closed in, she sensed another intrigued pair of eyes on her and those made her unforgivably nervous, melting her stoutness into a pile of sand that was whisked away with the rest of the sand on the stones under her shaky feet. She sent him a fast glance and it unnerved her even more, seeing his shocked expression and eyes that could freeze anyone on spot. He recognized her and that made her feel even worse, stomach clutching to her ribs and shoulder slumping.
He stood tall over others, though he didn’t seem so big, but she figured that this came from her tilted perspective. As far as she was concerned, the man was huge, both by power and his physics and trained enough to wear linen that gleamed through and showed his short sleeved t-shirt underneath.
In her dreams, coming to the South East had been far different than what she was against now. She closed her eyes in anticipation and her other senses took hold of her. She felt suddenly nauseated by the smell of their stinking skins of their belts that held their weapons, smokes rising from the food stands and spices too sweet to her taste.
“Madam, where is your chaperon?” a smaller man with goat beards asked her.
She understood, what they asked, but through the man’s heavy Arab accent made it almost impossible. There were five of them now and they kept coming to her way as if she was honey and they were flies. She would have given them her passport hadn’t she heard all the stories of how the passport was taken away and you were practically made into a slave. She froze up instead, horrified by the way they openly stared at her. She had taken extra care to find the abaya cut and fabric that wouldn’t show her curves or anything and there she was – openly ogled by the men as if she’d put up a sign “Come and get me!”
They continued in Arabic and she didn’t understand any of what they were saying, clutching to her purse, praying they would go away. Not that they would.
There was no one she could ask for help and she really regretted coming away from the hotel without a companion. For a second she even thought on turning to him across the market, but she knew he’d have nothing to do with her and after the gloomy thought of what might happen if he actually DID decide to help her, she let the thought go right there.
The smells of the spices mixed with dust the dry wind raised up from the pavement and it was making her even dizzier as it was really difficult to breathe now. She wanted to scream, make them stop, but dared not open her mouth as she knew she’d be held responsible for speaking to a man before asked.
“I’ll faint right here and have them deal with that!” she thought, sick feeling deepening, when suddenly a pair of strong dark hands pushed through the wall of men and six bright colored oranges appeared before her sky blue abaya and a low growl like voice asked in pure English: “Were those the ones you wanted, Meredith?”
She stopped breathing right then and there, staring at the fruits. The men pulled back too, revealing the owner of the two big hands and seeing, who he was, they pulled back all the way, creating something of a half circle around her.
The rest of his physics suited with the hands. For starters, he was tall and it hadn’t been her wickedly distorted eyesight on a hot day as she had assumed. He was older than she expected, with heavily burned face, big nose, chiseled features and a pair of dark very serious, calculative eyes. He was dressed in white thobe as most of the men on the market with the exception of silver clock that showed two times – one in Arab and the other of England.
Her hands trembled as she reached to touch the clock, but caught up with her wish fast enough not to raise suspicion by the police and moved fast to touch the oranges instead. She didn’t take them, only felt the scabrous surface under her doddery fingers. She knew right there that he was just aware of her strange reaction as she was. Of course, she told herself, the shudder must of made the oranges move, too. It took her a while before she managed a polite nod and enough grateful glances up that didn’t include absolute fear she was feeling inside. Her heart was beating hard and had he had his fingers any closer to hers, she was sure he’d feel how the blood was pulsing through her.
He pushed the oranges to her lap, forcing her to step back and turn, but the policeman grabbed her shoulder and pushed her around again. He immediately removed his hand from her shoulder and she felt the breeze of cold air go through between the police and them.
“Can’t I look away even for a second to pay for the oranges without you harassing my guest?”
No-no-no! She wanted to protest, ask them to take her back to her hotel. No, this was not what she wanted! She was not his guest! Even ending the whole holiday and being sent back home was much better choice than being “his guest”!
“Madam, do you know this man?” the policeman asked again, with reserved respect that hadn’t been there just seconds ago, avoiding the man’s look.
He didn’t get an answer. She felt miserable and too confused, hands filled with ripe fruit and smells taking the best of her once more. She looked around now, openly searching a way out. She thought of asking them to take her back once more, but saw the look in the men’s eyes a moment later that made her change her mind. There was something odd about those so-called policemen. Something about them didn’t add up. They did have the symbols on them, but the way they moved, hand steadily on the guns, and faces half way covered, eyes gleaming in more than the sunlight.
She took a small step back so she could see their eyes better and submerged the urge to run. She’d fall on her own gown’s drapes and then what would she do? Either one of them would be a bad faith, she just had to decide, which one was worse and make the decision fast before the choice was taken away from her. So far she had never trusted people by looking in their eyes, but she saw no worse or better moment to start. There was nothing she knew about them, nothing about their culture to relate to or body language to follow, so she really had nothing to lose than her turn in a game she hardly even understood.
She had been right. The “police” was eyeing her way too openly than suitable for a Muslim man. Her sudden rescuer at least had a good reason, why he kept staring at her. Leastways she knew him, she added to herself, that itself gave her better chances to get away than from among people, to whom she was nothing more than a big prize. He at least hated her.
She decided fast, promising herself that if anything happened while she was under his care, she could at least apply on his anger and hatred and have a camera proven evidence to go with it. It was ironic how that unfortunate picture that forced her come here might one day save her.
She plunged the sudden gift back to its owner’s open hands and dug in her bag, where she had put her passport. It was slightly twisted, but other ways unharmed and she showed the police her document. It read Meredith Leighton in big capital letters and with visa for another 6 months. Her hands were shaking, but when the smaller man tried to grab the paper from her, she hold on to it tight.
Three rules, she reminded herself, three simple rules to keep every woman alive in Arab world: never give your passports away, always have a male companion and most importantly stay away from men’s path both through dressing code and other ways. In the last quarter of an hour she managed to keep at least one of the rules and that made her feel slightly better.
“Where is she staying? It doesn’t say on the visa!”
“At my house,” he replied with a tone that cut any further inquiry and the police took back as if he’d said some curse on their behalf and left them be, muttering by themselves.
It was odd silence that filled most of the market and she physically sensed all the shocked eyes on her. She didn’t look up, forcing herself to stare the stones in the dirt, but it didn’t matter – it still felt as if they were carving knives to take slices of her pink body home with them. She saw his hand edging towards the direction he wanted her to go and she followed it with stumping heart as she realized the consequences of her foolish decision.
She knew nothing of the man besides the incident back in England! As far as she knew he could be kidnapping her and forcing her to stay in his harem or something till hell freezes over. And she could do absolutely nothing!
She was still holding on to her passport and while he was leading the way she found the perfect moment to hide it under her garment, deep between the layers where she had sewn a little pocket. She didn’t know he was watching her every move though and saw exactly what she did. He found it utterly familiar and annoyingly typical for a foreigner, but he hadn’t explained her yet, why he had done it either.
“Please,” he showed his car. She hesitated, but the cop she saw from the corner of her eye made her move and before she knew it, she was sitting on the back seat of a dark blue Bently, shooting carefully hidden curious looks to her sudden knight in the shining armor. The driver was giving little attention to what went on in the back and so she found herself soon in the position that she had dreaded most, but dared not to let in her head when she planned the trip.
Suddenly she felt her skin growl and she knew he was openly judging her.
He put the oranges down next to him one by one before pealing the last one filling the car with fresh smell of it. The car took from its place and drove off, leaving the muffled sounds of the market behind. One of the oranges ran off his seat and straight to her feet. She automatically picked it up and reached it back to him. He nodded and took it, deliberately avoiding any contact.
He started after a pause, offering her the pealed orange instead, “I apologize for such a rood intrusion.”
She hesitantly took the orange, but she didn’t eat it. He knew the man from somewhere else besides the ugly show back home, she was pretty sure of it now – his posture, his shoulders, the chin. She couldn’t match them up with anybody and it only frustrated her.
He ate his slice in silence while she watched, still playing with hers in her lap.
“H-how do you know my name?”
“My name is Ghalib xxx, I believe you are the woman from Leeds, who called the police on my son.”
Her eyes widened and she stiffened. Straight to the point.
“Oh, please, don’t get upset,” he continued, “I am not angry at you for doing it. He has to pay for his actions, I’m glad you had the courage to do it.”
She listened, but couldn’t believe her ears. Was this man talking seriously? How could he be alright about her sending his son to the jail?
“I was, um…” she tried to intervene, but he continued saying how important it was that she stayed in his house now and how he wished to repay her kindness with his. It was the part about the kindness that flipped her calm and she felt her heart racing way faster than was suitable for sitting in a car that was starting to get freaking hot. “I was meeting someone at the main street’s coffee shop, may I request to be left off there?” Of chores it was a lie, partly, but still a lie, but it was the best one she could manage on her shaky voice.
He immediately stopped and stared at her as if she was insane. “The way you testified against my son, I understood you didn’t know anyone here?” he asked slowly, his voice filled with sudden menace.
She couldn’t get words out at first, mouth dry from even trying, but as it was obvious that without her answer he could only be thinking one way, she answered slowly: “I don’t. I just called on the number of the coffee seller the hotel looked out for me and they told me to meet them at the shop.”
He studied her for a long moment. “So, why are you going around without an escort then?”
She was surprised he didn’t start arguing on the validity of her statements and answered with the same honesty: “There was no one in the front desk at the time I left.”
“That was thoughtless of you.” He marked without hesitation and for some reason she knew he was right.
Like I hadn’t noticed myself, she scolded herself, but it was too late now.
“Alright, then let me introduce you to your situation.” He leaned slightly closer and clasped his hands together. “As you are now officially known to the police as my guest and you decided to come to this small village for your holiday – which I have hell of a time understanding why you even decided that, I suggest you start taking seriously the fact that you are staying in my household for the time being. I will have your things sent over in few hours and for…”
“I do have an appointment with the coffee seller,” she intervened, “he’ll start asking questions if I don’t show up.”
He raised an eyebrow doubting it was the case, but nodded then a slowly and told the driver to turn around and take them to the shop.
She was utterly lost now, not knowing if to thank him or try to run from him. She surely didn’t wish to meet that police again, but at the same time she was hurt inside how matter-of-factly she had played herself into hands of a man, who hardly wanted to be genuinely friendly.
And that hurt.