It was half-term. At Lyan’s place, there were more shoes by the door than ever. His cousins were staying. All girls, by the look of it. When I came in, they were standing at the top of the stairs. The tutor was here, a strange man. Girls want to see. They must have felt safe on the landing. I wasn’t going up, and they weren’t coming down, except for Sweetie. How many girls, I couldn’t say. They were close together, in bright clothes, the colours mixing, and I didn’t like to stare.
“Girls,” I muttered. “It’s going to be noisy.”
It was quiet at the moment. They were shy, or Auntie had hushed them – both, probably. In their silence, however, I spotted something else: disappointment. I’d be there for two lessons, an hour and a half. It was a long time to be quiet.
Lyan was in the living-room, but he wasn’t ready. He never was. When I got there, he’d be eating or playing a game on the computer. Today, he was praying. I moved in behind him. He was kneeling down, leaning forward, then getting up again. He did it methodically, repeatedly, each sequence an image of the last. He was focused, as you’d expect from someone praying, if not from Lyan. It was Ramadan. He wore traditional dress, a long, white robe and skull cap, which was also white, embroidered, with a pattern of holes. He was immaculate; in short, a new Lyan. When he’d finished praying, I asked him, “What have you done this week?”
“I went to Oxford Street.”
“Did you buy anything interesting?”
“Boxes,” I echoed and glanced around. He had done well. The room was full of boxes. They were even on the sofa, where we normally sat, stacked to the ceiling. “Boxford Street.”
We sat at the table instead. Lyan cleared a path through the boxes and other piles.
“You need clothes to succeed in life, Graham. You need clothes to succeed in life. You need clothes to succeed in life, Graham. You need clothes to succeed in life. You need clothes to succeed in life, Graham. You need clothes to succeed in life.”
“Boxers!” I erupted. Sweetie walked in grinning. She had come alone, like a forward scout. The others were still upstairs. She was on the carpet, but she wasn’t praying; she was watching television, and she wasn’t fasting; she had a Chinese takeaway. The container was on the floor in front of her. She bent forward, as Lyan did when he was praying.
“I’m wearing shorts,” she said.
“They’re very pretty.”
Lyan snorted. Sweetie ignored him. She had a takeaway menu.
“What’s your favourite dish?” I asked. She couldn’t pronounce Szechuan, but I couldn’t either. “Is there hedgehog sweet?”
“No! You can’t eat them!”
“They could eat you. You’re very sweet.”
Lyan snorted again, even louder. It was his lesson, and there I was, chatting to Sweetie. When all the work was done, and all the chatting, Auntie paid me, but only her portion. This week, Lyan’s mother hadn’t left the money. Auntie pondered. She had some shopping to do; we could go to the cash machine. We set off. I latched the gate behind us. The upstairs window swung open, and girls leaned out, laughing, jostling, waving and calling. For ninety minutes, they’d controlled themselves. The noise had been smothered, like embers sealed in a box. Not any longer. Flames shot through the window. Auntie was beside me. The girls had seen her, but they didn’t care. Auntie did. She yelled in Arabic, prompt, brutal, and the flames went out.