It looked like nothing. A tiny piece of paper that spiralled down towards the floor on a parachute of dust. She could have ignored it. If it hadn’t landed face up she certainly would have.
It was a black and white photograph of a woman. Nasreen picked it up. Dark-haired and unsmiling, the woman looked some- what like her aunt Shahana. But there was something more European about this face. The eyes were heavy, reminding her of the eyes of some of the Romanian boys she saw flogging fake Adidas tracksuits in Queens Market. Too thin and plain to be what Nasreen always thought of as typically Italian, there was a kind of beauty in the woman’s face but it was not of an obvious or comfortable nature. This was someone who, though far from old, had done a lot of living. And even though the image had faded over time, Nasreen could see that the eyes were full of pain. She turned the photograph over in her hands and wondered what had happened to this woman.
Nasreen had been sanding down the front door when she’d spotted it, an ancient paint-encrusted lump stuck to the door- frame. To begin with she’d thought that it was merely a build-up of paint. The house hadn’t been repaired or decorated for decades and she and Abdullah had found layers of paint and wallpaper that probably dated from the 1940s. But this lump was different.
As she’d chipped away at it with her scraper, Nasreen had seen that it was some sort of capsule fixed to the doorframe. About the same length as a wide, flat lipstick it was attached by screws, forced through metal loops at either end. She went into the house to find a screwdriver. When she returned, she gave the thing a tug and it came away easily from the rotten wood of the frame. The photograph had floated down to the floor from behind it. Someone had hidden it there. Why?
Nasreen and Abdullah had only just taken possession of the house and were both still excited to be home owners. But, due to the state of it, they hadn’t moved in and were still living with Nasreen’s parents a few streets away. Until they managed to make the place habitable, things would have to stay that way.
Abdullah called down from the bathroom, where he’d been knocking out a sink the colour of stewed tea. Now the banging coming from upstairs stopped. ‘How you getting on?’ he shouted, over the top of the CD player belting out Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’. His accent always reminded her a little of that comedian Peter Kay. It made her smile.
‘OK,’ Nasreen yelled back.
‘I’ve got the sink out. Now I’m going for the bath,’ he said. ‘I’m still scraping off paint.’ Nasreen didn’t tell him about the
paint-encrusted lump or the photograph. She put them both into the pocket of her jeans, like secrets. She didn’t know why.
Lee Arnold knew that his assistant Mumtaz Hakim wouldn’t join him when he went out to get his lunch from the chippy. Saveloy and chips. He’d explained to her what a saveloy was and that the ones he bought contained no pork products. He’d told her that this kind of saveloy had been created for the Jewish immigrants, and was made of beef and cereal.
‘You should try it,’ he said now, ‘with chips. You eat chips. Everybody eats chips.’
She smiled. ‘I’m just not hungry. Maybe another time.’
‘My treat,’ he tried again. She’d lost weight in recent months and Lee was worried. He wanted to ask her if she was alright, but she was a private person and it was difficult. She hadn’t taken any time off work and she was performing well. But the dark circles underneath her eyes bothered him.
He shrugged. ‘OK.’ He put his jacket on and made his way towards the office door. ‘Call me on me mobile if you change your mind.’
He knew she wouldn’t. He ran down the metal stairs leading from the front door of the Arnold Detective Agency and in to a rough back alley behind Green Street, Upton Park. A burst of Greek bouzouki music from George the Barbers heralded his arrival on one of London’s liveliest streets. In spite of his concerns about his assistant, Lee Arnold smiled.
One way or another, Lee had been around Green Street all his life. As a kid he’d come with his mum and his brother to Queens Market for fruit, veg and the odd turn around the junk shops. As an adult he’d walked it to the sound of bangra music, past ornate jewellery emporiums run by Sikhs. He’d broken halal bread with owners of money-exchange agencies, restaurants and mobile phone shops. His favourite pub, the Boleyn, still stood at the far end of Green Street, on the Barking Road, and the chippies still sold saveloys, wallies and his favourite fish, rock eel. Managing to get an office on Green Street when he’d set up in business had been a bonus.
Lee lit a cigarette and began walking south towards the chippy.
He tipped his head at an old white bloke who scowled back. He’d been a fence, and probably still was. When he was a copper, Lee had arrested him twice.
The sky was as grey as a sewer rat’s tail. London weather. It neither thrilled nor depressed Lee, it just was, and in its ‘just was-ness’ it represented comfort. His thoughts drifted back to Mumtaz. Since she’d joined the Arnold Agency, Lee had gradually been given access to a very lucrative market in troubled Asian ladies. Mumtaz helped them pursue errant husbands, looked into the backgrounds of prospective in-laws, and offered them a familiar and at the same time forceful woman with whom they could discuss their problems. Ever since she’d arrived just over a year before, Mumtaz Hakim hadn’t missed a beat.
Lee stamped out his first fag on the ground and lit another. He knew that Mumtaz had financial problems. She was a young widow with a step-daughter and she lived in a house that was too expensive for her. Clearly things hadn’t yet got so bad that she’d had to move because she was still in it, but she wasn’t happy and whatever was causing her misery was making her pale and gaunt. Lee wanted to tackle her outright about it but something held him back, which made him feel impotent and also vaguely guilty. He knew that if Mumtaz had been a white woman he wouldn’t have hesitated to ask her what was wrong.
There was no point going to Lee for more money because he didn’t have any. Mumtaz and Lee had always shared the book keeping and she knew what he did and didn’t have in the bank. The business was prospering but overheads were high and Lee had recently had to update his camera equipment as well as the office computer systems.
Mumtaz looked at her mobile phone and wondered, not for the first time, about calling her father. Her latest payment wasn’t due – yet – but it was only a matter of days away and she was broke. There was just enough food in the house for dinner and Shazia could well have to go in to college with leftovers. She looked hard at her phone again. What would her father say if he knew? What could he do?
She knew that if she told him about her predicament, he would certainly help her with the mortgage. But it wouldn’t be easy for him, he and her mother were old and they needed every penny. No, she couldn’t take money from them. And anyway, even if she did, what would paying the mortgage do on its own?
Her two brothers were also out of the question. They were young men, quick to anger, and if they found out what was really happening to their sister they would be furious. And that, Mumtaz knew, could only end badly – for her brothers.
No. There was only a single realistic course of action and that was the one she had taken the previous month. She extracted a sheet of paper from the office printer and made a list. A lot of her jewellery had already gone and she didn’t want to touch that again for a while. In her head she roamed around her house looking for things she could live without. She wondered whether items like toasters, microwaves and soft furnishings were actually worth selling. Mumtaz baulked at the idea of selling any of Ahmet’s carpets. Her late husband had not been a man of taste – except when it came to carpets. Two Persian and three Afghan remained out of what had once been a considerable collection. Could she bring herself to sell those? If she failed to make the next payment there was more than just an increased rate of interest at stake.
The entryphone buzzed, interrupting her thoughts. Mumtaz got up from her desk to answer it. She heard a man’s voice then saw his face on the monitor. She recognised it immediately. He was called Naz Sheikh.
‘Hello Mumtaz,’ he said. There was a smile in that voice which made it even more oily than usual. He must have seen Lee go out.
Mumtaz stared at him on the CCTV monitor. She wasn’t even frightened any more. Not for herself. She didn’t answer.
‘Just a friendly reminder about your obligation,’ he said. ‘The end of the week. You know what—’
‘You’ll get it,’ she said as calmly as she could.
‘Just making sure, you know, for the sake of your—’ ‘You’ll get it,’ Mumtaz reiterated. ‘Go away.’
Naz’s face broke into a big smile. He enjoyed what he did, and that made it much worse. To be so young, so handsome and yet so . . . Mumtaz didn’t have the words for what he was. She watched him as he turned and walked back down the metal steps, back to whatever he did with the rest of his time. The silver panels on the sides of his trainers caught what little light there was left in the cloudy London sky.
The first thing that John Sawyer had noticed about Helmand had been the smell. He’d struggled to describe it for months until he finally came up with ‘seven shades of shit’. Lieutenant Reeve had once asked him to list the seven shades. He’d said, ‘Goat, sheep, man, woman, child, chicken, fucking bastard Taliban, sir.’
Lt Reeve had lost his head less than a week later. He and two others out on patrol, blown into thousands of pieces by the ‘fucking bastard Taliban’. John had seen it. Walking fifty metres behind, he’d got away with a face full of his mates’ blood. Everybody said how lucky he’d been. And he’d agreed with them.
A month, maybe a bit more, had passed then. Out on patrol again – some village in the arse-end of nowhere. He didn’t know its name, he never had. Just like he’d never known the girl’s name. John shook his head as he tried to forget about all that and concentrate on the present. Now, keeping low in the garden undergrowth so that he couldn’t be seen, John watched the young, beautiful woman scrape away at fifty years’ worth of paint on that rotten old doorpost. He had wanted to talk to her ever since he’d first seen her, but he had to be careful not to let her see him. If she did her husband might go mad and chase him away, and he didn’t want that. John didn’t like frightening people, even by accident.
Back in the horror of his past, the girl had frightened him because she’d been bleeding. It wasn’t easy to say where from but it looked to John as if she had been shot or stabbed in the abdomen. He told the Afghan translator to ask her if there was anything they could do to help but he’d been reluctant to do so. John remembered that feeling of impatient agitation he’d had then. Sergeant Willets had told him to ‘fucking pipe down’. But then he’d ordered the translator to ask the girl what was wrong.
‘Don’t do too much.’ The man – the woman’s husband’s voice – ripped through the present and across the ruined, tangled garden. John lowered his head.
‘I won’t,’ the beautiful woman said. Then he heard her scrape, scrape, scraping again. In Helmand he’d tap, tap, tapped his foot as they’d waited in fifty-degree heat for the girl to tell the trans- lator why she was bleeding.
‘She says it’s nothing,’ the translator had said. They’d talked in the local language, Dari. There was no contact on any level with English. They could have been saying anything. The girl, whose head was almost completely obscured by a scarf, began to walk on, blood dripping down her exposed ankles as she went.
And then the translator had said the fateful words, ‘She must go back to her husband now.’
John closed his eyes, as if by shutting out the grey London light he might also somehow shut out what had happened next in Afghanistan as well. Tears seeped from the corner of his right eye. Then he heard the present reassert itself again. The beautiful woman called out, ‘Abdullah, I’m going to get some cold drinks. What do you want? Coke or—’
‘Fizzy water,’ the man said. ‘That’ll do me.’ He had a northern accent and if John hadn’t been screaming inside he might have found it funny. He was, he had been, the type of bloke who found almost anything funny. But back in Helmand on that hot day he’d turned the girl around, taken the scarf off her head and looked into her eyes. Only after that had everything changed.
Excerpted from An Act of Kindness by Barbara Nadel. Copyright © 2013 by Barbara Nadel.
First published in Great Britain in 2013 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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