Salma had always sworn that she would never end up in a place like this. "It's a bit like purgatory," she had joked when they first came to see the house in a harried half hour before work one morning. The estate agent, a hawkish woman with a watchful gaze, had herded them from room to room and Salma had murmured politely, even commenting on this or that "lovely feature" as she and Bilal locked eyes, amusement passing between them.
They had agreed to view it only because there was a gap between their other bookings and the agent had pushed this property. It was in a neat cul-de-sac on the eastern reaches of the Central Line. It was built seven years ago, said the agent, and still had the bright, bland feel of a new development. There was a dizzying amount of brickwork and even its name, the mononymous "Blenheim," felt like an artless attempt at class, like petrol stop perfume or "Guccci" shades. Upstairs, out of the agent's earshot, they had giggled about the perfect lawn.
"Do you think neighborhood watch will knock down your door if it grows above two inches?" said Bilal.
Salma fought a smile. "We're being snobby," she said but with laughter in her voice.
The agent walked in and the two of them sprang apart like children caught red-handed. She nodded at the window, her silver-brown bob swaying with the motion. "It's lovely, isn't it?"
"Lovely," Salma agreed.
That was six months ago, and after close to forty viewings, they had both grown weary. Nothing else matched Blenheim for price, condition, space, and safety and so they talked each other into it. Four double bedrooms
, said Bilal. And it's still on the Central Line
, said Salma. The neat streets and perfectly nice neighbors
. If they could set aside their vanity, they could be happy at Blenheim and so they had put in an offer-and here they were, their first week in their new home.
They hadn't yet met their neighbors but, yesterday, a square of white card appeared on their doormat inviting them to a May Day barbecue. No need to RSVP. Just turn up!
it said in jaunty letters. Salma had read it uneasily. She wasn't an introvert by any means but did find parties tiring. She far preferred to meet new people on a one-to-one basis. Still, they were new here and had to make an effort. Salma had prepared some potato salad and told her son, Zain, that he had no choice but to join them. They approached 13 Blenheim like a trio of soldiers heading into battle. Outside, Salma paused and assessed her husband and son. As she smoothed the crooked leaf of Bilal's collar, he caught her hand and kissed it.
"Here goes," she said. She rang the bell but no one answered. Music bled from the garden and Salma counted to twenty before she rang again. Zain ventured to the side of the house and pointed at the open side gate. They walked through in single file and hovered at the edge of the gathering. There were about thirty people of varying ages, laughing and milling around. Two men were tending the barbecue, both of them wearing white polo shirts paired with khaki shorts. At first, Salma thought that they were hired staff but realized they were guests. Cheers went up around them as they dished up the first tranche of meat, filling the air with a pleasantly smoky smell.
A woman spotted them and her eyes lit up. "You must be the new arrivals!" she called. She detached herself from the group and pulled Salma into a matronly hug. "I'm Linda Turner, the hostess."
"Oh, hello! I'm Salma. Thank you so much for inviting us."
"Bilal," her husband introduced himself. He saw the crease of Linda's brow and promptly added, "Call me Bil."
She brightened. "Bill! How wonderful to meet our new neighbors." She turned to Zain. "And this must be your son. My, what a handsome boy!"
Zain smiled politely. "How do you do?"
She whooped with delight. "And such manners too!" She saw the glass bowl in his hands. "You didn't have to bring anything! But thank you." She took the bowl and ushered them into the party. "What can I get you to drink? We have wine, beer, cider." She paused. "Or we have fresh lemonade and fruit juice."
Bil smiled. "A lemonade would be lovely-thank you."
"Make that three," said Salma.
She beamed. "Wonderful!" She smoothly introduced them to their next-door neighbor. "This is Tom Hutton. He can give you the lowdown on everyone here."
Tom greeted them warmly. He was in his mid-forties, muscular under a navy polo shirt, and with thick dark hair splayed beneath an orange cap. As he spoke, a young bull terrier bounded up to him. "Her name is Lola," he said, bending down to pet her. He looked up at Salma. "She was a showgirl," he deadpanned.
Salma broke into laughter. Tom nodded in approval as if she had passed a test. Lola snuffed at Salma's feet.
"You don't mind, do you?" said Tom.
"No, not at all. We have a dog too, a Lab called Molly."
"Oh, that's great. This is such a dog-friendly neighborhood. You're going to love it."
Linda cut in to hand out drinks. Bil volunteered to help with the barbecue and she happily whisked him away. Zain took his drink to a corner of the garden and busied himself on his phone.
"So what do you do?" asked Tom.
"I'm a teacher," said Salma. "Geography at a secondary school," she added, pre-empting his follow-up question. "What about you?"
"I work in advertising. At Sartre & Sartre."
"Oh wow. That must be glamorous."
"It can be," he said with a grin, enjoying the compliment. "And what about Bil?"
Salma felt herself tense. "He's a restaurateur," she said, despite the fact that his restaurant, Jakoni's, had shut down earlier that year.
"Restaurateur?" Tom puckered his lips in a show of approval. "You must be doing all right then, no?"
Salma looked bemused. "I mean, we're doing okay."
"Sorry if that's rude. I was just wondering how come you got this place then?" He nodded in the direction of their house.
Salma relaxed, relieved to find that he too was skeptical of Blenheim. She smiled playfully. "It's not so bad, is it? Where else would I find such a pristine collection of lawns?"
Tom frowned. "It's just that I would've thought you were above the threshold."
"Threshold?" Salma was confused.
"For social housing," he said.
It dawned on Salma what Tom had really meant: not you're wealthy, so why would you choose to live here
but you're wealthy, so why did you get social housing?
She shifted awkwardly. "We actually bought it privately."
"Oh!" Tom looked mortified. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to assume. In fact, I wasn't
assuming. I was certain that the house next to us was part of the social housing." He cringed visibly. "I must have been mistaken."
Salma waved in a show of nonchalance. "Ah, if only! It might have saved us a pretty penny." Her voice labored with the effort to put him at ease. She groped for another topic.
"So where do you teach?" asked Tom.
"Ilford Academy in Seven Kings."
"I see. Do you enjoy it?"
Salma could feel the conversation slipping away but was keen to keep the momentum going. If they parted now, it would surely make things more awkward the next time they met. "Yes," she replied. "It's especially nice in August." She laughed at her joke but it came out forced and hollow. She didn't understand why she was being this way. She was normally poised and confident, well versed in small talk. She reached for a question but was interrupted by a woman who slid up next to Tom. Salma stared for a second. She was tall and willowy with white-blonde hair, delicate cheekbones, and a tiny gap between her front teeth that seemed to only add to her charm. She held out an elegant hand.
"Willa," she said. "Like the writer."
Salma shook it and pretended to know which writer she meant.
"Although pictures are more my trade," said Willa.
"Oh. Are you a model?"
Willa made a snap of laughter. "You're sweet but no. I paint sometimes. Mainly, I run our home."
"Oh, sorry. You look like you could be," said Salma. "You must get that all the time."
Willa rolled her eyes. "Thank you, but it's fucking embarrassing. I'm like an Aryan wet dream."
Salma nearly spat out her lemonade. She couldn't tell if Willa was simply outspoken or if she actually rather enjoyed Salma's display of shock. She looked across at Tom, who didn't react, only slid an arm around Willa's waist. Salma cleared her throat. "How did you two meet?" she asked, steering them into safer territory.
"I know what you're thinking," said Tom. "How did a brute like me end up with a girl like her?"
"Tom used to be a firefighter," Willa cut in. "Believe it or not, he ran into a burning building and saved me. I was twenty-one. He was twenty-seven and that was that."
Salma looked from one to the other. "That can't be true!"
Willa gazed at Tom adoringly. "One hundred percent."
"Oh my god. That's incredible."
Willa burst out laughing. "I'm just fucking with you!"
Salma grew still. Then she smiled and pretended to be in on the joke.
"Of course that's not what happened," said Willa, "but the real story is almost as cute."
Salma waited but Willa was speaking to Tom now.
"Do you remember how you chased me for months? Sending me flowers and chocolates. God, wasn't there even that H. Samuel bracelet?"
Tom looked at Salma sheepishly. "Willa's family are rich," he explained. "So here I am sending her a box of Milk Tray and a five-quid bunch of flowers while she's used to"-he looked over at her-"what's that poncey brand you like?"
"Charbonnel et Walker," she said smoothly. "He wasn't a firefighter but"-she winked at Salma-"he did let me ride his pole."
Salma chuckled politely. She, like most people, did a subconscious thing when she met someone new. She assessed whether they were part of her "tribe." Tom and Willa with their strange, abrasive humor were far too different from her. Normally, Salma wouldn't mind and would simply get on with her day, but this was a new neighborhood and she had to make an effort. "You mentioned that you run the home," she said to Willa. "Do you have kids?"
"Yes. A son, Jamie. He's sixteen." She must have caught Salma's surprise because she added, "I had him young, at twenty-two."
Salma calculated that Willa was thirty-eight, five years younger than she was. "That works out well for me," she said. "My son, Zain, is eighteen and I'm sure he'd love to meet Jamie."
"That would be lovely," said Willa. "Jamie needs to make a few friends."
They talked until a natural lull allowed them to part ways. Salma circulated and scanned the crowd for Bil. She saw that he was cornered by Linda and excused herself to join them.
"What is that delicious nutty flavor in the potato salad?" Linda was asking.
"Fried pine nuts," said Salma.
"Ah, well, thank you for indulging us. For reference, I can handle my spice, so if you ever want to bring something with a bit more zing, you'd be more than welcome to."
Salma smiled. "Of course. I'll bear that in mind."
Linda clapped her hands twice, like an excited child. "I look forward to it." She glanced over Salma's shoulder. "Well, I should mingle. Please help yourself to the food and drink. There's so much to get through." She beamed and then left in a cloud of activity.
Bil looked at Salma. "How long do you reckon before we can leave?"
"Stop it," she chided. "We have to make an effort." She fixed on a fresh smile and led him back into the fray.***
Salma felt herself uncoil, the tension leaving her muscles as soon as they left the barbecue. Blenheim looked uncanny without any streetlamps. The council insisted that lights would spoil the character of the local area, leaving it eerily dark. Bil caught her hand in his and they headed home in silence, needing total privacy before they could fully relax. Zain walked on ahead and left their front door open for them. Salma crossed the blue-black lawn, which was still a consistent one-inch tall. Their neighbor Tom had mowed it while the house was being sold. Salma kicked a few pebbles back onto the path and retrieved from the ground a palm-size banner from the ground that Zain had stuck in a plant pot. She dug it back in place and followed Bil inside. She closed the door and sagged against it.
Bil laughed. "You okay?"
"Do you think I should take Linda some naga
next time?" she asked archly.
"Well, she did
say she can handle her spice."
Salma covered her face and groaned.
"It's okay," said Bil more seriously. "It was just a lot in one go."
She nodded vigorously but didn't uncover her face.
Bil pulled at her wrist playfully. "Come on, it wasn't that bad."
She looked at him. "Bil, did you hear what they call people who haven't lived here from the beginning? 'Offcomers.' Not newcomers. Offcomers. It sounds like a bloody horror movie."
A smile tugged at his lips. "They were being tongue in cheek."
"And that guy-Tom." She gestured next door. "God, it was so awkward." She explained how Tom had assumed that they were in social housing.
Bil winced with sympathy. "Stuff like that's going to happen," he said. "But they'll get to know us soon enough."
"Oh!" Salma cut in. "And you should have heard his wife!" She relayed some of Willa's choice remarks.
Bil laughed. "She was probably just trying to impress you. People can be like that at parties."
Salma raised a brow but didn't disagree. She was more cynical than Bil and though they shared a sense of humor-dry and sarcastic-his natural temperament was optimistic and she didn't want to spoil their evening. Salma had tried hard to stay upbeat ever since Jakoni's shut down in January following a horrendous year for the industry. It was her job to keep Bil's spirits high, just as he always did with hers.
"You're right," she said as she fit herself against his chest. "They'll get to know us soon."
He rubbed the small of her back. "You okay?"
"You don't think we've made a mistake?"
There was the tiniest pause before she answered, "No, I don't. I think we can be happy here."
"I think so too," said Bil.
She tipped back her head and kissed him. "Right. I’m going to take a shower." She detached herself and headed upstairs. She paused briefly on the landing to listen to the click of Zain’s keyboard in the attic.
In the bathroom, she peeled off her clothes, which smelled of smoky meat, and tossed them in the laundry bin. In the shower, she realized that she could hear voices on the other side: the deep murmur of Tom’s voice and the lighter pitch of Willa’s. She pressed her ear to the wall, but couldn’t make out any words. She listened to see if their conversation had the tightness of an argument or the lightness of a joke. Were they discussing her family, just as she had discussed theirs?
Tom’s words returned to her and she flushed with embarrassment. I would’ve thought you were above the threshold.
Despite what she had just told Bil, she did
worry that they had made a mistake. If they had known that they would lose the restaurant, they would almost certainly have stayed in Seven Kings, on their estate off the high street. By the time the restaurant closed, however, they had already started the process of buying their house in Blenheim and convinced themselves to take the leap. Five months later, they still hadn’t sold the restaurant premises and things were getting tight. The thought brought a familiar unease and Salma had to remind herself that they barely had a choice. Not after what happened with Zain. This was the safest place that they could afford and they would make the most of it. It was true that she missed her old neighborhood – the big, messy families and rows of crowded houses, the comfort of being among other Bangladeshis – but Zain had room to breathe here: a large bedroom, his own bathroom, a balcony and a garden too. There would be a period of adjustment of course, but they were sure to fit in before long. They had to. They had nowhere else to go.
Copyright © 2023 by Kia Abdullah. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.