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Underground fugue, p.13

Underground Fugue, page 13


Underground Fugue

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  Javad thinks of the young man’s cowering affect, that glimmer of intelligence in his cagey eyes. The answers were all right there, of course, buried in the circuitry of neurons, in the obscure communicative chemistry of the brain. But how to decode them? They still didn’t know how to tell deception from delusion, malingering from a psychotic break. You could scan his gray matter until grass grew beneath your feet, and it wouldn’t tell you a bloody thing.


  When she rings, she just says hey. Her voice is as soft as an embrace.

  Amir is sitting at the kitchen table, tapping away on his laptop, earphones in. Up close you could hear the whump of bass.

  “Hey.” Javad presses the phone to one ear and a finger to the other and moves into the sitting room. She’s just there, on the opposite side of the wall, less than a meter away. “Come over,” he says.

  This is the little game they play. He will ask and she’ll refuse. He guesses it suits them both, for now at least.

  “I can’t. It’s late.”

  “Just for half an hour. One glass of wine.”

  “I really can’t.”

  “I’m sure she’ll be all right. You won’t be far away.”

  “I’m sorry.” There is a rustling, a shift. Her breath, amplified through the phone, approaches and recedes like waves.

  “You’re a good daughter,” he says.

  “I’m not, really. I haven’t been, anyway.”

  “I’m sure that’s not the case.”

  “You don’t know.” A silence. Then she says, “She begged me to come back to England. She had nobody in the world but me. But I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t do it. All these years, I stayed away.”

  “You had your life to live.”

  “That’s true. I did.” She pauses. “But I was angry, too.”

  “Angry about what?”

  “Oh, I don’t know. Everything. Angry that she wanted me to be with her. Angry that she didn’t try harder to keep me close. Angry that she took us away from my father. Angry that he screwed up. Angry that he died. Angry at her for defending him, as if that could make up for what he did.”

  “You don’t seem like an angry person to me.”

  “You don’t know me very well, I guess.”

  He leans against their shared wall. Maybe not yet, he thinks.

  “Is your son home?” she asks.

  “He is, actually, for once.”

  “That’s nice.”

  Javad glances over into the kitchen. Amir is tapping away at the laptop, nodding to the beat. “I suppose. As usual, he’s been glued to his computer all night.”

  “All the kids are these days, aren’t they?”

  “So it seems. But as he’s quick to remind me, I’m usually stuck to a screen as well.” He presses against the wall as if he could touch her through it. “Are you sure you won’t come over? You can meet him properly.”

  She sighs. “I really can’t.”

  “All right,” he says. “Another time, then.”


  In the kitchen, Amir pulls out an earphone and says, “Who was that?”

  “A friend.”

  Amir raises an eyebrow.

  Javad fills a glass with water from the tap. “Someone you don’t know.”

  “And you say I never tell you anything.”

  “Well, you don’t.”

  “Neither do you.”

  He leans back against the counter. Fair enough. Behind the unshaven face before him he can still make out the little boy. The long-lashed, trusting eyes. The gap-toothed grin. The feathery heft of him at four or five—the way he’d coil his legs tight around Javad’s body and wrap his arms around his neck. He’d begged and begged, back then, Why can’t I come and live with you?

  “It was that American from next door, wasn’t it?” Amir says. “The one who brought over that chocolate cake?”

  Javad’s stomach does an involuntary flip. “Yes.”


  “There you have it.”

  Amir tips back in his chair and smirks. “Do you fancy her?”

  “She’s just a friend.”

  Amir rolls his eyes.

  “What? It’s true.”

  Amir’s expression shifts. “She’s a bit of an odd one, isn’t she?”

  “Why do you say that?”

  A shrug. “I don’t know. She just seems a little weird. Also, she smokes. I’ve seen her a couple of times, puffing away, out front. Even in the middle of the night.”

  “Lots of people smoke.”

  Amir makes a face. “Baba, I can’t believe you’d snog somebody who smokes.”

  He feels his cheeks go red in spite of himself. “Who says anybody’s snogging?”

  “Whatever,” Amir says.

  He has always been cautious with women around Amir. He’s had girlfriends, of course, but he always felt things had to be quite serious before he’d introduce them to Amir. Not like Caroline with her endless stream of men. Only Alison came close—he nearly proposed to her, once upon a time, back when Amir was maybe nine or ten. They used to meet up at weekends—in London when Amir was at Caroline’s, or in Oxford when her ex-husband had the kids. She was clever and funny, a lecturer in musicology, and he liked their lazy lie-ins on Sunday mornings, their long walks to the pub out in Port Meadow or through Hampstead Heath, the concerts and lectures and recitals that she was always organizing for them. But eventually it had become apparent that distance suited them better than proximity, that their intimacy depended on a buffer zone of space. He would not move there; she would not move here. And in the end, he supposed, he couldn’t picture her as a mother, or her two redheaded daughters as sisters, to Amir.

  And now? Could he imagine it?

  He sets his glass down in the sink. Amir has returned to the laptop. Weird. What was that about? Was that really what Amir thought? Did it matter? Amir was no longer a child. He was an adult, or nearly, leading his own life. As Javad must lead his.


  In the light of the gooseneck lamp, he stretches out on the sofa with The Guardian. Flash flooding up in Yorkshire, suicide bombings in Palestine and Iraq. The doors to the garden are open to the June night. It is too late now for the piano; next door, Esther is probably asleep. He hears it in his head instead, the blue halftones of Bach.

  He inhales the night air: humid, earthy, green. In the shady garden of the house on Hesabi Street, there was a shallow pool that turned green as glass in the summer heat. Around it, his mother kept coleus and geraniums in clay pots. They had two turtles, too—Xerxes and Artaxerxes, impossible to tell apart—that he fed lettuce leaves and celery stalks. He remembers how they lumbered, oddly agile, on their stubby legs; the green-brown patchwork of their shells, their armored underbellies, the precise chewing movements of their small, sharp beaks. Turtles were long-lived creatures. Perhaps they were there still. His sister Darya was still living in the house. She and her husband, the dentist, had two daughters, already grown. The dentist was bearded, devout; the women blackbirds in chador. He has not seen his sister in nearly thirty years.

  Sometimes it amazes him that he is here in London, that this is where his life has led. How easily it could have gone a different way. For a long time, he had assumed that one day he’d go back to Iran. The mullahs would grow old, the regime would change, the sanctions would be lifted, the war with Iraq would end. He has never thought of himself as an immigrant. One day. For years it seemed to hover just there, just out of reach. Yet somehow, almost without being aware of it, he had veered off course, the distance growing with each passing year. Of course, he could be in Tehran tonight, at least in theory. It was nothing—a six-and-a-half-hour flight. He could take a taxi straight from the airport to Hesabi Street and ring the bell. Khodaye man, peeshi! Darya would gasp. Good God, it’s you!

  Javad was the youngest of three children, the long-awaited or accidental boy. His sisters, six and eight years older, called him peeshi, little cat. They dressed him up in th
eir skirts and scarves, let him try on their lipstick and clomp around in their high heels. He lay on his stomach on the floor and watched them turn before the mirror, Darya in a miniskirt, Shirin fussing with her hair. He remembers the smells of hairspray and nail polish and cheap jasmine perfume, the 1970s hits on LPs stacked on the spindle of the record player in its suitcase, open on the floor: Giti Pashaei, Googoosh.

  He’d sneak up on them and make them scream, or eavesdrop on their conversations from his hiding spot beneath the bed. Peeshi! they’d screech and reach down and pull his hair. Their world—the world of girls—was an exotic realm. He was the court jester, eunuch, spy. A receptacle for information he couldn’t fully understand.

  By the time he turned twelve, both Shirin and Darya were already studying at university. His skin was still smooth, his voice unchanged. He was obsessed, in those days, with taking things apart: transistor radios, broken watches, clocks. In the cupboard beneath the kitchen stairs, the wooden crate that served as his workbench was littered with tiny gears and springs. He rigged two magnifying glasses and a flashlight to a headband, which gave him the aspect of a strange, gigantic bug. He scrabbled about, an awkward, dreamy child, alone in the garden or on the flat roof from which you could look down upon the orange taxis and red double-decker busses stuttering through the traffic lights along Pahlavi Street, or see in the distance the Alborz mountains, brown and crenellated in the summer, white with snow in the winter. At Abe Ali there was a ski resort. He imagined himself sailing down those distant peaks like the Shah and his family and their jet-set friends, as if on wings.

  At what point did he become aware that Darya had a secret? And that her secret was a man? Hidden beneath the bed as she and Shirin whispered, he listened, antennae up, attuned to her tone of voice—a new note of urgency or fear. They’d met at university, she confided to Shirin. He was a graduate student, a geophysicist. He came from Isfahan. He had long hair and played the tanbur and the guitar. He took her up to the observatory and showed her how to look through the solar telescope at the dark flares on the surface of the sun. It looked, she said, like a giant orange rotten fruit. Afterward, they kissed. French kissed, she whispered. Shirin said, Ooh, look out!

  Oh, peeshi, you little sneak, Darya said afterward, ruffling his dusty hair, when he crawled out from beneath the bed. Don’t you say a word, you hear?

  He didn’t intend to betray her. He didn’t know, then, that words could be launched like missiles, impossible to call back. He couldn’t have foreseen the consequences that stretched far beyond his twelve-year-old horizon, out of sight. He couldn’t have known that in just a few short years, they’d all be scattered: he in London, Shirin in L.A., Darya and his mother sequestered behind the veil. Their father imprisoned in Evin.

  It was an August evening. The sun was dropping to the west beyond the skyline, the foothills of the Alborz washed in golden pink. He was outside in the garden with his father. The turtles nibbled on the half shell of a rotten quince. His father paced around the glass-green pool, puffing on his pipe. He was a methodical, precise man, an engineer. He was a supporter of the Shah, a fan of modernization, though a traditionalist at heart. He wanted education for his daughters, but he did not approve of dating; he did not believe that marriage should be a child’s choice. All he had to do was to give a little tug and out it came, Darya’s secret, unspooling like a thread. Afterward, he called her into his study and shut the door. Ear pressed to wood, Javad listened. He remembers, or thinks he remembers, the words inappropriate and Jew and shame. He remembers, afterward, Darya’s tight face, her red-rimmed eyes half-hidden by her hair.

  He hadn’t meant to betray her. What if he had held his tongue? What if she’d gone off with her long-haired Isfahani geophysicist instead of marrying the man their father picked? What would her life have been like then?

  On the hottest nights of summer, they slept up on the roof. He remembers, that August, waking in the strange, still darkness of the early hours of the morning, unable to fall back to sleep. Darya lay nearby, curled the other way. The air had cooled and the thin cloud layer had cleared and the sky was filled with stars. It felt as if gravity had been reversed, as if he were looking down onto a valley pricked with lights, instead of the other way around. Never before had he felt so alone. He watched as one star fell and then another, streaks of white against the void. Meteors. He had read about the Swift-Tuttle comet’s gaseous tail, about the constellation Perseus and its nebulae and galaxies, about its brightest star Mirfak. Now the constellations were dying, the stars detaching themselves from the order of the heavens, succumbing to the pull of gravity, freefalling through space. The stars dropped all around him. They traced white arcs across the sky and disappeared.


  Toward the end of June, the heat comes back, another record-setting, tarmac-melting wave. The TV weather map is dotted with glaring yellow suns and bright red heat index alerts. Public health officials urge the elderly not to leave their homes, warning of the dangers of the heat. In Hyde Park, bikini-clad girls sprawl on lawn chairs and leap through the fountains, as if they’re at the beach.

  Her mother is irritable. She is itchy, she is hot, her mouth is dry, her muscles ache. Esther brings her cold drinks and ice chips in a cup. She wraps damp towels around her neck and feet.

  It’s too hot to cook, too hot to eat. Esther considers cucumber soup, cold poached salmon, an arugula salad, then gives up and just makes scrambled eggs. Her mother takes a few bites and pushes the plate away. They flip through trashy magazines. Splayed across the floor, the titles almost form a sentence: Tatler, Cosmo, Yours, OK! They can laugh together about Russell Crowe’s tantrums and Camilla’s hideous wedding hat, at least.

  But her mother can’t get comfortable. Her back hurts, her neck hurts. She wants to sit up, she wants to lie down, she can’t catch her breath. Esther repositions the fan, then unplugs it and moves it to the sitting room and helps her mother down the stairs onto the sofa. It’s a little cooler there, at least. She props and re-props the pillows, brings her another drink.

  Half an hour later, she finds her mother struggling to stand; now she wants to go back upstairs; now she’s got to pee. Esther grasps her around the waist and half lifts, half drags her up. It is a good thing her mother has lost so much weight. She frets and frowns, slaps at Esther’s hands, pulls her arm away. Every time Esther leaves the room, she calls again for help.

  A different nurse arrives in the afternoon. Zofia is on holiday, it seems. Esther misses Zofia. This English nurse has lanky hair and pasty, blemished skin. She has an annoying habit of tilting her voice upward into a question at the end of every phrase.

  The nurse wraps the blood pressure cuff around her mother’s arm and pumps, her lips moving as she counts. “One hundred over sixty,” she says to Esther. “It’s a bit low. She could be dehydrated?”

  “I don’t know,” Esther says. “She pees. She drinks.”

  Her mother’s eyes are glassy. She fingers her strand of pearls like prayer beads. “Take me downstairs,” she rasps. “I can’t breathe up here.”

  “Oh my god,” Esther says. “Not again.”

  The nurse pulls the stethoscope out of her ears. “Her heart rate is a little fast, perhaps? She seems rather anxious. It could be the heat?”

  “She’s like this all the time now. She’s never comfortable. I can’t leave her alone for a minute.”

  “It’s terminal agitation,” the nurse says, as if agitation, not the cancer, were the incurable disease. “It’s not uncommon at the end?”

  “You’d know better than me.”

  “For god’s sake,” her mother cries. “Why won’t anybody listen to me?”

  “You can increase the morphine dosage, if you like,” the nurse says. “It just depends on how alert you want her to be?”

  Esther isn’t really listening. The euphemisms wash over her: comfortable, pain management, terminal agitation, final days.

  Her mother’s voice is higher, stra
ined. “I can’t breathe!”

  “Come on,” Esther says to the nurse. “Help me take her downstairs, at least.”


  The heat worsens at the weekend. On Sunday it tops out at 91.4 degrees Fahrenheit in central London, yet another record peak. The air is thick and still. The kitchen smells like something is rotting in the bin. What would be normal summer weather in New York is unbearable here. Esther debates checking into a hotel. But half the hotels in London lack air conditioning too.

  The on-call hospice nurse is patient on the phone. Does she have pain that’s not well managed? When was her last bowel movement? Is she breathing effectively? Has her medication dosage recently been changed?

  Esther twists the telephone cord around her left hand. “I don’t know what to do.”

  “You can give her two milligrams of lorazepam to ease the anxiety.”

  “As well as the morphine?”

  “That’s correct.”

  Esther’s hands tremble as she pops the yellow pill from the blister pack. Maybe she should take the tranquilizer instead. Mother’s little helper. Right.

  Esther sits on the edge of the chair at the side of the bed and fans her mother with a magazine. Sunk against the pillows, her mother’s head looks as small as a child’s. The bedside table is crowded with pill organizers and tissue boxes and blister packs of pills. The untouched food is still sitting there as well: congealed eggs, stale toast.

  What was a good death? Was there such a thing?

  Was it a suffocation of pillows? An oblivion of drugs? A hunger strike?

  Esther checks her phone. The screen is blank.

  The root of all suffering is desire, the Buddha said. Oh, Javad, she thinks.

  She takes a deep breath and holds it, counting the seconds, the way she used to at the swimming pool when she was a kid, sinking to the bottom at the deep end, looking up at the bubbles roiling overhead, pressure building in her chest, a dizzy creep. This time she doesn’t even make it to fifty before her lungs release. The body always wins out in the end.

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