The meal had a Lebanese theme: spicy dips for starters, followed by rice-stuffed squashes and a delicately perfumed lamb stew. Simon asked if that was where Venus was from.
“Where isn’t she from?” said Paul. “Thirteen countries, wasn’t it, before you came here at eighteen?”
“She spent her first three years in Beirut,” I said, “which makes her almost Lebanese.”
“Although she was born in Cairo,” said Paul.
“You can’t really count Bhutan as one of the thirteen,” I said. “She was at school in Switzerland all the time her parents were stationed there.”
“Hark at you two,” said Fiona. “I can see you on Mastermind. Specialist subject – the places Venus lived in as a child.”
Simon, seated on my right, leaned in closer: “Cairo – I’ve been dreaming of seeing the pyramids since I was six.”
“That’s way too long to harbour a dream.” Still smarting from Fiona’s teasing, my words sounded more judgemental than sympathetic.
“We were hoping to go for our twentieth wedding anniversary next Christmas. Don’t suppose I’ll ever get there now.”
I could almost hear the violins. Men became so gutless once a woman let go of their hands. “There’s nothing to stop you going on your own.”
“It wouldn’t be the same, would it? It’s supposed to be romantic.”
“Romantic?” Slicing into a slow-cooked zucchini, my irritation seemed to render it as hard as a calabash. I tried to catch Venus’s eye but she was closed off in a tête-à-tête with Mohammed. If she’d invited the extra man to keep me company she might have picked someone less wimpish. Yet, on reflection, the smoothly-ironed shirt suggested there might be more to him: either Simon sent his shirts to the laundry – unlikely on a lecturer’s salary – or he possessed some life skills independent of his former wife. I decided to give him another chance: “I suppose so, especially at dawn with the sun coming up in the background.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Simon. “According to my guidebook, the site isn’t open till eight.”
“Isn’t it?” For the second time that evening, I was buffeted by childhood memories. A world away from Bessemer Terrace and Geraldine Finch, these were warm and abrasive, blowing a sheen of dust over all the familiar landmarks, fierce enough to knock me off my feet. “It’s thirty years since I was there. It’s probably changed.”
“Thirty years? You must’ve been only a tot.”
I smelled the spices, felt the sun scorch my face. Mesmerised by the cadence of the ancient language, the fascination of a culture so different to my own. “I’d just turned fifteen.”
“School trip? Or did you have a peripatetic childhood like Venus?”
I took a slug of Prosecco. “Not at all. Cairo was only my second time abroad. And I was travelling independently; my school didn’t do that kind of trip.”
Simon put down his knife and fork. “You went to Egypt on your own at fifteen? What were your parents thinking?”
“Of course I didn’t go all that way alone. My parents took me to Cairo. Although I did go to Giza on my own for the day.”
“On an excursion?”
“No, I caught the local bus.”
“I wouldn’t want my daughter roaming around a strange city alone.”
I didn’t need to justify my trip to a man who was only invited to make up the numbers, but I felt the tug of something I needed to justify to myself. “Kids were more independent back then.”
“Didn’t your parents want to share it with you? The pyramids at Giza – one of the Seven Wonders of the World.”
Ms Thompson had said to put it behind me. But this was one memory I’d been determined to keep. A picture-postcard image of the sphinx sheathed in pink light. I couldn’t let Simon import storm clouds into the scenario. “My father was tied up at the bank. And my mother, unfortunately, was sick a good deal of the time. But I enjoyed exploring by myself.”
Simon nodded. “Needs must, eh? Sounds a bit like my childhood. My folks had a corner shop. Open all hours. Not much time left for me.”
“No, it wasn’t like that! Not at all!” It had been a magical time, those few weeks in Cairo, basking in my parents’ attention. I mustn’t give the impression I’d been deprived. “Did your guidebook tell you about the market?”
“The Khan el Khalili?”
“It was like something out of the Arabian nights. Lanterns suspended from the ceiling. Stall after stall sky-high with silk and copper and gold. Perfume, spices, clothes, and cooking pots. Embroidered shoes with curled-up toes and enough reproduction funerary goods to stock the British Museum.”
“They say it’s got rather touristy. You have to watch their prices.”
What a wet blanket! “You have to watch, obviously, same as you would anywhere. But once you figure how to play it, you can have a whale of a time. Especially if there are two of you working together.”
“I’m glad you didn’t have to go everywhere on your own,” said Simon.
“Me and my dad. We had this scam going.”
Simon raised his eyebrows.
My cheeks tingled. Was it the memory or the wine? “Perhaps it was a scheme. Or a double act.”
“Tell me about it,” said Simon. “Whatever it’s called.”
“You know how you have to bargain for everything?”
“I’d be rubbish at that,” said Simon.
“We were perfectly coordinated – like Ryan and Tatum O’Neal in Paper Moon. I’d pick out a papyrus painting, say, or a brooch in the shape of a scarab and he’d be: You can’t have that! It’s way too expensive! He’d storm off and I’d follow, droopy shouldered and looking down sulkily at my shoes. Nine times out of ten the stallholder would call us back and offer it to us cheaper.”
“Sounds like you enjoyed it.”
“Enjoyed doesn’t begin to describe it. It was like our minds were in perfect harmony and, so long as we stuck together, we could get away with anything. We got all our souvenirs at knockdown prices.”
“Including,” quipped Venus, “the galabeyah she was wearing when we first met.”
Simon looked quizzical but, before he could enquire further, Giles cut in: “Dads and their teenage daughters, eh?”
I’d forgotten, for a moment, we weren’t alone. Now the others’ comments seemed intrusive, shockingly inappropriate, as if they were spearing food from my plate. I cast about for the memory I’d chanced upon with Simon: the scent of incense, the rhythmic voices, the rare intimacy with my dad. It was hopeless, like trying to climb back inside a dream. “We made a good team,” I mumbled.
“How could you not?” said Fiona. “It’s a mutual admiration society at that age.”
What did she know? What I had in Cairo was unique; it couldn’t be whittled down to the tired old cliché of Freud’s Electra syndrome.
As the conversation drifted on to the highs and lows of parenthood, I felt relieved, for once, to have nothing to contribute beyond the occasional academic abstraction better kept to myself. At such moments, the only thing required of the childless was that we should avoid nodding off, keep smiling and, perhaps, pour ourselves another glass of wine.
Yet as I extended my arm, Simon stretched across me and snatched the bottle, gleaming with condensation, from its bucket of ice. My glass frothed as he poured.
“Thanks.” I looked down at my plate, streaked with lamb sauce and a few glistening grains of rice. Simon, I assumed, would be intent on the current conversation, waiting for a suitable gap to chime in with some anecdote about his own offspring. Some well-rehearsed vignette to illustrate the amusing quirkiness of children in general, highlighted by the spectacular talents of his own. Yet when I looked up, his gaze was directed not down the table towards the three couples, but at me.
He spoke as if emerging from his own dream: “If I ever make it to the Khan el Khalili, I hope I’ll find a guide who can match your enthusiasm for the place.”
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