Sugar and Snails
Halfway down the stairs, I sink to my haunches and hug my dressing gown across my breasts.
Below me in the hallway, Simon reaches up towards the row of coat hooks. His hand hovers above the collar of his black fleece and then falls, combing the sleeve as his arm flops to his side. “This is ridiculous, Di. We should at least talk about it.”
Can’t he see this has gone beyond talking? “It’s late. You’ve got a long day tomorrow.”
“Come to Cairo, then. Whatever’s bothering you, I promise, I can help.”
“We’ve been through all that.”
“Yeah, and you’ve served up one feeble excuse after another. Don’t you trust me, Di?”
Staunch as sculpted granite, Simon exudes reliability from every pore. Over the past five months, I’ve imagined him sharing my duvet, my toaster, my council tax bill. On good days, I persuaded myself I could summon up enough maternal sentiment to play mother to his kids. After tonight, I can’t envisage a casual catch-up over coffee.
Yet Simon rattles on, as if hope were a virtue: “Come to Cairo, Di. Come for a long weekend if that’s all you can spare.”
If I could explain, if I could open my mouth to speak, even, he would come to me. He would spring up the stairs and cradle me in his arms. If I could cry, perhaps, as other women can, and let my weakness make him strong. But tears don’t come naturally to me: I haven’t cried for thirty years.
I’m sandwiched between my parents in the back seat of a taxi, crawling along the Corniche with the Nile to our left. I’m fifteen years old and this is my first and only foray out of Europe.
We’ve wound down the windows but there’s not even the promise of a breeze. The driver hits the horn with the heel of his hand. Every time he does it my mother flinches and he hits the horn almost as much as he curses other drivers, which is practically all the time.
My father fans his face with a tourist map of Cairo. “It’s not too late to change your mind,” he tells me. “We won’t think any less of you if you do.”
My mother breaks off from rummaging through her patent leather handbag. “Honestly, Leonard, you certainly choose your moments.”
I try not to squirm on the tacky plastic seat. I’ve heard the quiver in my mother’s voice often enough, but I’ve never heard her call my father by his Christian name.
Our driver waves his fist and growls in throaty Arabic as he pulls past a camel cart weighed down with builder’s rubble. My eyes prickle, but I save my tears for later; crying is my mother’s prerogative after all.
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