Chapter 1 Red lipstick on the coach window was the first thing Sorayah saw when she awoke. Fleetingly disoriented, she pulled out her headphones, rubbed her eyes and craned her neck. Are we any closer to Manchester? The M6 kept the remaining distance locked inside its tarmac heart. Vehicles flicked past. Heading nowhere. Is this what it means to be coming home? Going from nowhere to nowhere? She retrieved a tissue paper from her black leather jacket and wiped off the lipstick.
The coach was full of students returning home, faded women, old jangling men with their heads nodding like demented rocking chairs, burnt out mothers, fleeced out fathers and squealing, psyched-up children, high on food stimulants and confinement. Sourceless conversations mingled with tinny music rising from CD players, MP3 blasters and Walkmans.
Her gaze slipped back to the blurring motorway, searching for a light at the end of the tunnel of grey. I should have stayed in London. Damn him, damn the bastard.
She rummaged in her Gucci handbag and brought out her Nokia. Its envelope icon was flashing. Another text from him. She ignored it, returning the mobile to her tiny bag. She whispered a curse. It could only be from Ravinder. Rav bloody cheating Rav. There it was, a tight wedge of hatred so pure and hard you could build a city on it. She felt the tears clawing up through her throat, but they'd never reach the surface, never erupt. She possessed only ugly pitted memories.
A road sign appeared. MANCHESTER 26.
Two seats ahead she caught an Asian man turning around, trying to catch her eye. She turned back to the road, pulled on the headphones, and thumbed her Ipod to release the fusion synthetic tones of Rishi Rich. Then she closed her eyes, her long dark hair fell across her face and she expertly feigned sleep.
Imran saved me. Kept me sane. Sorayah still couldn't admit to Imran she'd been so deeply pagal in love with Ravinder she'd been blind to his blemishes. "My Dr Hrithik was a Mister Hyde," she'd confessed to her friends. I owe Immy big time.
She moved in with Imran a few days after leaving Ravinder. Imran insisted she take his bedroom. "I'll take the spare room, it's not as if I'm here anyway," he said. The world wouldn't be the same without big brothers. Guiltily, she took his room, promising herself it wasn't for keeps. The weeks became months, the months became her own private no-man's-land. Ravinder had soaked into her heart and she couldn't wring him out.
She had a deep jealous streak, and perhaps the relationship was doomed from their first kiss, with Ravinder being such a flirt. He was tall and slim and had muscles in all the right places. "Oh, they can't help themselves," he'd often say to her. "But it's you I love. Come on Sorayah, stop sulking." She'd fallen for him hook line and stinker. Why do I always go for the same flipping type? Why can't I just be a normal apnee and do the normal apna thing?
She met Ravinder at Bombay Rouge, an Asian nightclub. He was dancing with his mates to a desi beat and she was mesmerised. She was drunk on Baccardi and Coke, new to London, trying to forget Manchester and never clearly remembered how they got talking, but two dates later she'd moved in with him. Her visits home became less frequent as their love blossomed. When holidays came she lied to her family that she had too much studying to do, and when the academic year ended she claimed she'd got a job.
"But you can come and work for me," suggested her father.
"I'm not into restaurants, Dad."
"Abbu, I want to do something with my degree."
"Are you sure, my sweet?" her father pressed. Guilt marinated in her heart, but she closed her eyes and repeated the lie. I'm not into restaurants. She'd made up her mind: Ravinder was her future and the past didn't matter. She lied from day one that there was no phone in the flat to avoid Ravinder answering it. Her mum, dad and the rest of the family could contact her by mobile phone and the one occasion both parents were in London for a wedding, she'd had ample time to hide Ravinder's countless Manchester United T-shirts and other paraphernalia that patterned their shared lives.
In those days Imran was still studying medicine at Royal Free. He always covered for her. "What am I gonna do?" Imran asked her. "Tell Mum and Dad about stuff that doesn't concern 'em? Nope, little sis, I've got better things to do. They'd probably blame me anyway - everyone shoots the messenger, you know. Bang bang - no thank you, ma'am!"
Sorayah's blissful subterfuge ended the day her dad met her boyfriend.
Once the shock of discovery had faded, Sorayah and Ravinder continued living a life close to perfect in modern multicultural Bombay-mix Britain. That he was a Hindu and she was a Muslim was irrelevant. The issue raised its head only when she daydreamed about how they'd bring up their children. (she'd planned the number and the names and even the careers they'd have). She believed their love would conquer any divide.
Her favourite memory was the three weeks they spent on the Greek island of Lefkus at the end of her second year at North London University where she was reading Sociology. She remembered when Ravinder had eaten crayfish too quickly and almost choked to death. She'd laughed all the way to the hospital, winning puzzled glances from the paramedic and driver. Later, she'd regretted not snapping a picture of him stretched out in the rickety Greek ambulance.
During their second year together, their relationship had matured. They'd become a live-in couple and it was nirvana; watching Friends with Ravinder, shopping with Ravinder, clubbing with Ravinder, walking in the local park with Ravinder…Ravinder was everywhere.
They had planned to go to the United States on holiday after she'd completed her degree, but she'd started a new job. The money her dad deposited in her bank account had dwindled and her absence from Manchester and the growing distance between herself and the family had made her a poor little rich girl for the first time in her life. Her heart was set on a life in academia. She wanted to save up for her Masters so began working for a small charity.
"I can't go with you. I've only just started working here. I'm on probation," she tried explaining to Ravinder.
"You did this on purpose, init, you didn't want to go with me, did you?"
"Honest, Rav. I didn't realise I wouldn't be able to take any holidays. I can't go. We'll go later in the year."
"I fuckin' planned for this. Why don't you throw a bloody sicky?"
"What? For three weeks? Don't be ridiculous!"
"Why'd you bloody want to work anyway? Phone your old man and get him to send you some dosh. He's bloody rich enough."
"Don't talk about my dad like that. I want to earn the money myself. Don't you get it?"
"If you don't bloody want to go with me, somebody fuckin' else will!"
They'd broken up and two weeks later Ravinder went to the States with his best friend, Bobby. That's when he probably started cheating on me. Maybe he'd always been cheating.
While he was away she changed the locks. On his return Ravinder came round with flowers, fell on his knees and refused to leave until she opened the door and forgave him. She did. They picked up their relationship almost from where they'd left off, but it wasn't the same. She convinced herself the high of the early days had become the plateau of maturity, but in her heart of hearts she didn't believe it.
Nazia, an old friend from undergraduate days, informed her of Ravinder's treachery. Sorayah was at home watching Friends Series Four while painting her nails black.
"He's with her," Nazia began.
"Who? What do you mean?"
"Rav's with that cow, Vinny." Vinny was a girl from Ravinder's Business Studies course. Vinny was Bollywood beautiful. Sorayah loathed being told by friends that she looked like Vinny. She'd often seen Vinny at parties and at friends' places over the years. She hated the way Vinny's eyes lingered on Ravinder, a little too long, a little too hard. Ravinder accused her of jealousy and she'd let it go. I was jealous.
"You still there?" Nazia asked.
"Yes. Maybe they're revising." What a stupid thing to say! "He's got his exams coming up," she heard herself say. His finals for the third time.
Sorayah heard Nazia sigh. She imagined her plump friend, mobile against her ear, making exasperated faces. Sorayah heard the sound of music in the background and guessed Nazia was in Rhubarb, a glitzy bar-cum-cabaret in Covent Garden, a favourite haunt of theirs famed for its coterie of jet-setting celebrities who rubbed shoulders with the natives before shooting off to exotic locations.
"I shouldn't tell you this, but…" Nazia paused, "…they're at the Bollywood Brasserie."
"He's meant to be revising." Her words sounded hollow even to herself. Warm tears fell down her face and she wiped them away angrily. I'm going to tear that kutti's eyes out!
"He's so bad to you, Sorayah, why can't you see it? You're beautiful, you can do better than him." And then the classic Nazia line. "There are tonnes of fish out there, why do you need a shark?" There isn't anyone better than Rav. He loves me. And there it was, the awful truth, the reality she'd been aware of, but had carefully avoided. Ravinderitis.
She simply had to know if Nazia was telling the truth, witness the truth even if it shattered her.
She cut the conversation short and raced to the nearest Tube station not caring to check her appearance. She took London's underground to Covent Garden from Holloway Tube Station changing once at King's Cross. She strode to the Bollywood Brasserie, an expensive Indian restaurant she'd visited once with Ravinder. She hadn't been impressed with the gaudy pink decoration and overdone Karahis, but the chicken tikka was aromatic, sweet and tender. She remembered Ravinder saying he detested the place and never wanted to return. He pretended he hated it so I'd never go there and discover him smooching with some time-pass. She smiled grimly.
Was it chance that brought Vinny and Ravinder immediately into view through the windows of the Bollywood Brasserie, oblivious to everything around them? It was kismet. I was meant to see them. Ravinder was holding Vinny's hand across the table. They were laughing, sitting opposite each other, Ravinder facing in Sorayah's direction, his eyes filled with emotions that once belonged to her alone. She saw Ravinder move forward to kiss Vinny. Her stomach lurched. She yearned to claw out Ravinder's eyes, but she was powerless. As Ravinder's lips pressed down on Vinny's, Sorayah's hands clenched in fury. She hated Ravinder with a fierceness that took her by surprise and brought tears to her eyes. "But he loved me," she whispered. Her gaze was glued to the two lovers. It took a brutal blink to tear herself away.
The journey back was a blur. Later, she remembered stifling her tears as she approached Covent Garden Tube Station and roughly pushing through Japanese tourists, ignoring their smiling disapproval. She ran sobbing out of Holloway Road Tube Station. When she arrived at the flat, her fingers fumbled to get the key into the lock. It stubbornly refused to fit. She banged the door in helplessness and hit her head against it. The pain calmed her and steadied her hand. She inserted the key, turned the lock and threw open the door to a flat that reminded her of stagnation, death and betrayal. Something inside her broke.
Her mind swung into survival mode.
She washed her face in the bathroom sink and blew her nose. She dried her face. She phoned Nazia who sounded as if she was still in Rhubarb, but now the music was louder.
"Nazia," she said, "can I stay with you for a couple of days?" Her voice was a croak. Sorayah knew the word would be out within seconds of the phone call ending that she and Ravinder were history.
"Of course you can, darling. Did you see Rav and- ?"
"Yes. I saw him - I saw them," she paused. "Thanks Naz."
"You OK, sweetie?"
"I just need to pack some stuff and then I'll call a taxi. It'll take me a couple of hours."
"We can come over and pick you up if you like."
"No. I'll be alright. Honest."
"OK, we'll be home in about an hour. Come over when you're ready. If there's no answer when you ring the bell then call me on the mobi. Don't worry Sorayah, there's plenty more fish in the sea." It's like she's happy she was right about Rav being a shark.
After packing her bags, Sorayah felt an emptiness like she had vomited her guts out. How long is this hangover going to last?
She carefully cut up the holiday pictures of the three weeks they'd spent in Greece - in Ibiza, in Paris and the countless other places they'd visited. She ended with the photos she'd so lovingly kept in her purse. They were the hardest ones to cut. She gritted her teeth, pressed her lips tightly together and cut through the image of Ravinder, his arm draped around her shoulders.
She wrote the goodbye letter to him while sitting cross-legged on the bed. She didn't feel anything when she'd finished. She held the brown envelope in her hand; it was the only one in the drawer they'd kept for bills, a discarded Housing Benefit envelope. Then she ripped up the letter. Why do I have to explain anything to him? She put the pieces in her purse in case he unearthed them and pieced them together.
When she'd brought everything down to the entrance hall, she scanned her belongings. Three suitcases, a cardboard box filled with sociology textbooks and chick lit paperbacks. She clutched her Gucci bag like a talisman. She sat there, on the second step of the stairs and waited forever for the cab on that hot June night. It was a long wait. All her memories of Ravinder came to visit and they left scars. It was meant to last forever.
Ravinder had spoilt all her plans and now she was adrift, rudderless, lost.
When the taxi arrived, she quickly opened the door and pulled the suitcases out, anxious Ravinder might return at any moment. The cabby helped her with her luggage. It took both of them to get the cardboard box into the taxi boot. "Opening a library, sweetheart?" the cabbie quipped. She answered with silence. They drove off and Sorayah looked back at the flat which had been her London home for so long. Don't think about him, don't think about him. The cabby nattered on about meeting George Best, Gerry Halliwell, Madonna, Jose Mourinho and Mr Blobby. "Listen," she finally snapped, "I've just broken up with my boyfriend and I'd like some peace!"
"Oh. Right. Didn't know that. No." the cabby said.
They drove in silence for the rest of the journey.
The cabby helped her with the suitcases and cardboard box when she arrived at Nazia's. "Well, good luck," he said to her and she nodded. She stood looking up at the terraced house Nazia was sharing with friends. She wondered if she should have left her flat keys. She'd never need them again. Why make life easier for Rav? she smiled. That made her feel much better. She rang the doorbell.
She stayed two nights at Nazia's and then moved in with Imran.
It was hard to swallow her pride and Sorayah was choking. She'd made a solemn promise never to return to Manchester. This wasn't meant to happen. I wasn't meant to come back. Five long years in virtual exile, away from the place that was more home and haven than anyone could ever have wished and she'd left it. Even two days ago she'd been dithering.
She cursed herself for breaking her own promises.
Imran changed her mind. They were having breakfast: she was munching tasteless supermarket branded cornflakes and Imran was pottering about the flat getting ready for work.
"What you gonna do? I don't get you, little sister, Manchester's just bricks and mortar, how could it possibly bite you? My mate's got a cobra that'll bite you if you like. I know it's strange having a pet cobra, but it keeps him out of trouble. Anyway, it's your mate's wedding, right?"
"Get lost, freak," she'd replied.
"You're pouting again! You always do that when you know you're wrong." He'd been saying that for years. She glared at Imran. She knew she couldn't miss her best friend's wedding, even if it complicated her life.
"OK. Maybe you're right."
"Maybe? Where's the maybe? I'm always right - even when I'm wrong!"
After she'd made up her mind to return to Manchester, she'd phoned the moneylender.
"I'll be arriving in Manchester later this week," she'd told him, speaking in Urdu.
"I knew you'd come."
"Our agreement still stands?" she'd pressed, loathing herself for begging.
"Of course. I don't break my promises."
The RDB rap Bhangra fusion tunes rocked Sorayah out of her daydreaming, reminding her of her urban desi roots. Going home is like admitting you couldn't do it: live your own way, apna gora stylee. She wondered if the bitterness she tasted was a symptom of failure in life, or the residue of lost love. She only had to close her eyes and everything would contract into a moment and she'd sense Ravinder's warmth next to her, hear the softness in his voice and if she turned she'd look into his eyes and she'd melt like a snowflake.
She blinked and the motorway winked back at her. She squinted. I shouldn't have listened to Immy. What a fool I was. I'll make sure it's a hit and run. Her mobile beeped twice. She didn't look. She knew the text message would be from Ravinder. Rav flippin' Rav. It amazed her that a year had already passed and he hadn't stopped chasing, trying to make it up to her like he did after returning from the United States. Not this time, Rav. Not ever.