Amir heard the first laughter from the office party as a yellow envelope appeared on the bottom of his screen. The new message was from his father in Pakistan. The contents were along the lines that everyone missed him; they may have found a suitable bride for him; the weather was pleasant, not too hot. Amir typed out a few lines in reply. He explained that he was working late most nights, the firm was only giving him two days leave for Christmas. He sent it then shut down the computer.
His employers had decided to close the office for ten days, giving everyone the time off. Amir had successfully avoided the trip to Pakistan, now he had to negotiate an exit without being dragged into his colleagues' celebrations. He collected his overcoat and briefcase.
"Going already?" A computer technician appeared in the alcove Amir shared with two others. He was carrying a drink with a frothy head. Amir mumbled something about an upset stomach.
"Am I right in saying that a Muslim cannot attend a party where other people are drinking alcohol?"
"No worries, mate." He disappeared. Amir took the lift to the ground floor. The idea of watching a room full of people get more and more drunk while he stood in a corner drinking orange juice held little appeal.
Festive shoppers mingled with office workers on the Underground. A loud family sat opposite Amir. The children were trying to guess their presents, the mother and father stayed silent. His thoughts went to his own parents. He thanked God that he was missing the oily food, muddy tracks, endless praying and genuine diarrhoea.
He changed lines, getting onto an overland train. As it got further from the centre, the carriages became less crowded. Amir got off, raised his collar and walked in the dark through the suburban village then down wide residential roads.
He unlocked the porch, then front door of his house and switched on the lights. He was hungry. The freezer was full of packets of cooked food left by his mother. He was considering these when the doorbell rang. The daughter of neighbours who were friends with his parents was standing outside with two covered dishes in her hands. "My mum's sent you dinner." She passed them to him. "Didn't fancy Pakistan, I don't blame you. Are you getting much holiday?"
"Ten days. What about you?"
"University is closed for five weeks, but I won't stay here that long."
"Thank your mum for this." He lifted the containers.
"Better be going." She walked back to her house.
As Amir shut the door, he remembered her name was Shehnaz. He heated up the chicken curry, rice and spicy aubergine. The herbs and flavouring were a pleasant change from the ones his mother used. So, she was arranging his wedding to a girl from the village. He thought to himself of what alternatives could exist to his life taking that path. Nothing came to mind. All that was left was what his mother planned for him.
* * *
Disturbed sleep segued into sitting in front of the television, drinking coffee. Amir had a shower then ate a late lunch. He flicked through the channels, seventy or so, took an afternoon nap. He read an old newspaper while having a cup of tea. He watched two evening features on the film channels, defrosting dinner between them. One was mildly amusing, the action in the other kept his attention but was forgotten when it finished.
He switched off the television. A row of framed photos stood in a cabinet. They started with a serious looking ten year old boy in a crisp blazer, then he was in public school uniform, finally graduation gown. The rest of the series flashed before Amir; a gaudy wedding shot from Pakistan, father of well-fed children, and ending with a thin white-haired man wearing thick lens spectacles.
As he was getting changed after a shower the next morning, the doorbell rang. It was Shehnaz again. "Hi Amir, can I have the bowls?"
They were unwashed. Amir handed them back, mumbling an apology. She asked him what he had been up to. His eyes glazed over, he told her he had been watching television.
"You know Omar? He's coming round later, why don't you come?"
Early afternoon Amir set the alarm, locked up the house and walked outside. A cold sun glared through the light blue sky. Several houses were decorated with Christmas lights, people were at home preparing their celebrations.
He rang the bell of Shehnaz's house, she opened the door. He said hello to Omar, they had not met for several years. They had known each other as boys, attending Quran school and functions of the local Muslim community. Amir mentioned the name of the firm where he was an accountant and asked Omar what he did. "Filing and photocopying."
Shehnaz suggested they go out to eat. Amir offered to drive, he took his father's Mercedes. Omar broke the silence from the back, "Nice car." Shehnaz gave directions. It was nearby, on the fringes of the local shopping centre. Amir parked outside a parade of shops that pre-dated the new malls: Bric-a-brac, comics and a family-run grocery.
On a corner with the beginning of a residential street was a small restaurant, brightly lit behind the glass walls. A man behind a counter was taking orders for take away. A few tables serviced the customers eating in. Kebabs were turning on skewers next to a doorway leading to the kitchens. They sat at a table by the side. A waiter handed them laminated menus. Amir had not been there before. Shehnaz and Omar made suggestions, they ordered.
"Do you like Leeds?" Shehnaz smiled at Amir's question.
"It's brilliant. You've got the campus and life around the halls of residence, then there's the city itself. The best thing is the different kinds of people you meet, the friends you make, all types of backgrounds. You can just be yourself, no one dictates or frowns at what you do. Fending for myself, away from London, has been a wonderful experience."
"I never thought about going away. I lived at home, took the tube to lectures every day. What about you, Omar?"
"I was in halls in the East End for a while."
"Did you like it?"
"I loved the area. It's losing its character now, becoming trendy."
As they ate the naan bread and pieces of mixed tikka grill, three bearded young men walked in. Their eyes seemed to be in a permanent blaze. They surveyed the place and sat down. Omar's back was to the door, he had not noticed them. Shehnaz watched them warily. One of them turned and stared at Omar until he caught his eye and nodded at him. Omar lowered his head and carried on eating. His acquaintance walked over.
"Brother Omar, we have missed you at meetings of the Circle."
Omar looked up, "Hey Riaz, how you doing?" He held out his hand, it remained in the air.
"Brother, you have a duty to your faith, our cause and your fellow Muslims. We cannot afford anyone not meeting their responsibilities. I trust we will see you tomorrow." Omar nodded.
"Sister?" Shehnaz looked up. "You have forgotten your veil. I advise you.."
"I advise you to go back to your friends and mind your own business." She stared at him. He smiled strangely and returned to his table.
They resumed their meal. Amir commented that the food was good, he was glad they had brought him there. The religious trio collected their order and left. Omar got up to go the WC.
Amir turned to Shehnaz, "Wasn't he a musical kid genius?"
"Something like that." She wiped her fingers on a napkin. "He was studying music when his mother died. He joined a youth Muslim group where they told him music was evil. He didn't finish his degree, and after a while stopped going to the group's meetings, but he hasn't taken up his music again."
Amir raised his eyebrows, "I remember hearing him playing piano at a function when we were kids. He mixed old Indian songs with nursery rhymes. The children loved it, but the adults weren't sure whether to laugh or not. His fingers glided over those keys. It was a big hall and it was full, but one boy and a piano got a reaction from everyone." Amir noticed Shehnaz's eyes welling up.
Omar came back and sat down. "Are we going to see a film?"
They drove over to the local mall which housed the cinema. Two features were about to start, they chose the historical epic. Halfway through, Omar commented that the twists and turns of the plot were similar to Bollywood movies. They made fun of the actors for the rest of the film.
As they drove home, Omar suggested they do something the next day. Amir nodded. Shehnaz said they would come round to his place.
* * *
The ball rolled along the varnished surface, hitting the middle pin which caused the other nine to follow. Shehnaz whirled round, punching the air. Omar and Amir looked up at the screen which showed the scores.
The bowling alley was crowded. As Amir stepped forward, others around him were launching their balls toward the tumbling pins. His first throw left a few standing which he could not hit with his second. He was lagging behind the other two. Omar pipped Shehnaz's total in the final round.
Omar slapped Amir's back. "Unlucky." They were in an entertainment park which included a cinema, night club and restaurants. It was on the A40, the road connecting the western suburbs of London to the centre. They headed this way. An elevated section took them over the Westway, past high rise council estates and the first office tower blocks.
They parked, then walked to a busy road where the restaurants and cafes were mostly Lebanese, the shops stocked Arabic newspapers, the supermarkets included North African delicatessens.
They ate at one of the cafes. Tables were set out on a rough, uneven floor of what at first looked like a dark back room, past the counters where orders were delivered and bills paid. The only menu was on the wall at the front. Some items were on display.
The three friends sat down. Several tables in one area were taken up by old North African men playing backgammon. The rest of the clientele were young Arabs and students. Each group had a Lebanese pipe. Water bubbled in the glass bottom which led to the funnel holding the tobacco then the lit coals on top. The smokers tugged at the filter connected to the long tube. The room was filled with light fruity smoke. The newcomers unwrapped their shawarma kebabs. Amir had followed the others and ordered mint tea. He asked how they knew of this place. Omar answered, "I used to come here with friends from Sixth Form College. It was exactly the same five years ago. Then I had friends who wouldn't have liked this, because they feel threatened by things they don't understand. But we're back here now. What do you think of it?"
Amir nodded, "It's really relaxed in here." His eyes wandered to someone puffing at a pipe. Omar called a waiter and ordered one with mixed fruit tobacco. At first, there was little taste but gradually the sweet fumes permeated the lungs of Omar and Shehnaz. She waved the filter at Amir. He placed it on his lips and breathed. Whenever he had previously tried smoking he had not enjoyed it, but this gave a mellow feeling. The three of them shared the pipe, passing round the filter. As the tobacco ran out, and the smoke became tasteless they asked for the bill.
They headed back to the suburbs. Amir invited them to his house. He switched on the television and flicked through the music channels. He stopped at a black and white clip of The Animals performing 'House of The Rising Sun'.
"I went to a karaoke bar with some friends from work and one of them sang this. I remember it from when I was a kid. I think my dad used to like it." Omar gave Amir a knowing glance. He gestured to them and walked to a small room at the front of the house. They had walked past it as they came in. A piano stood by the wall.
Omar went to the window. He looked at the clouds hanging in the dark sky, the stars watching over them, then he sat at the piano. He lifted the lid. His eyes had the resigned happiness of meeting an old friend. He played the opening notes of 'House of The Rising Sun'. It was a slow grandiose version that gave nobility to the compulsive gambler of the song then to anyone who ever had an obsession that tore them apart. He looked at Amir. "Do you know the words or not?"
Overcome by the power of the musicianship, he sang. He had imagined performing the song when he had watched his colleague at the karaoke bar. Now he was doing it.
Shehnaz clapped as they finished. "I've got a book of old rock tunes at home, I'll go and get it." She was back in a few minutes. Omar set it on the piano. He started playing. Shehnaz frowned. "Can we skip 'Maggie May?'"
Omar turned the page. The next song had a sweet melody like a children's song. Amir laughed. Shehnaz sang, "Why do birds suddenlyappear, every time you are near.." She continued through the first verse of 'Close To You' then turned to Amir. "Don't you know this song?"
His cheeks turned a shade of pink. "I probably do. I think my mum or my aunt liked The Carpenters." Omar flicked through the music book. The next notes were sentimental but proud. Omar sang himself, "So this is Christmas, and what have we done?" The other two joined in John Lennnon's festive song, ending together with the chant, "War is over, if you want it."
They laughed. Omar shut the book. Amir offered him a lift home. Shehnaz came too. It was a short drive. The streets were more cramped where Omar lived. He grinned at them. "It was a good day." He walked to the front door and let himself in.
* * *
"Looking forward to your parents coming back?"
"I suppose so."
"Don't sound too enthusiastic"
"I think they've arranged my wedding to a girl in Pakistan."
They were silent as Amir stopped the car at a traffic light. They both tried to speak at the same time, went quiet then Amir spoke, "When are you going back to Leeds?"
"Next week. I can't wait."
"We should go to that North African café again. I don't know if my friends from work would like it. I might suggest it to them."
"You've got Omar's number, haven't you?" She looked in the glove compartment and took out a pen. They had reached her house. She leaned over and wrote a telephone number on the back of his hand. "Give him a call."
Amir cruised down the road to his driveway. A few lights were on, the season's celebrations continuing. He looked at the numbers on his hand and thought of Shehnaz clutching it to write them. hotel.
He went inside and cleared up the crisp bowls and glasses. He smiled at the family photos set out in the front room. He went upstairs and wrote down Omar's telephone number. He thought about the wayward musician and resolved to keep in touch with him. He got changed, switched off the lights and went to bed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
lives in London. He has had fiction published in The Richmond Review. He has lived in France and China where he taught English. This is his first appearance in 3am