Three weeks later there was an important press conference at the airport, to which all the relatives and friends were invited. It was in a room that George had never seen before: it was bright and airy, with white walls, rows of potted plants and brilliant panoramic views of the airport’s runways. Mr Waddington was there, as were speakers from the police, the government and Barcelona. The relatives and friends huddled on benches in one corner of the room: white-faced and tense, they recognised each other and nodded silently, unwilling to speak, almost as if they were ashamed for being there. They hoped, desperately, for some good news, some ray of hope, but they expected the worst.
Mr Waddington spoke in his usual fashion: his slow, ponderous words echoed through the loudspeakers, filling the room, saying nothing, denying everything. The police representative was more interesting. She outlined three possible scenarios to explain XY375’s disappearance. Islamist terrorism was a possibility: there was an active group somewhere in north-east Spain. But the police had found no direct link between them and XY375. Mechanical failure could also have been the explanation: despite the plane passing the safety check, a week earlier there had been a problem with one of the engines. However, the policewoman told them, it was not the most likely cause. The third possibility was a struggle between drug smugglers. Heroin had recently been smuggled from Barcelona to Britain by plane, and two rival gangs were involved. It was possible that one gang had learnt—or perhaps even only suspected—that the other gang was going to smuggle drugs on XY375 and could have blown up the plane in order to scare them off. (George wondered once more if Judy could have been a drug smuggler.)
The policewoman spelt out the implications of the investigations to the relatives and friends: they must now consider that the passengers of the plane were deceased. A shudder ran through them. Some gasped, some cried, and one or two shouted out: ‘no!’ George looked for the hijab lady at that point: he couldn’t see her. The spokesman for the British government gave a brief, empty statement expressing the government’s grave concern. The representative from the city of Barcelona proved to be surprisingly eloquent: his offer to all of them to come to stay in Barcelona, at municipal expense, was quite pointless, but it was made with such passion that somehow it comforted them.
Following these speeches, the reporters asked questions and the photographers took pictures. The relatives and friends were ignored. George looked around: he wasn’t sure what to do. He noticed someone had got up from the benches and saw that it was the blue hijab lady… only she wasn’t blue anymore. Her hijab was a sombre black, and large sunglass covered her eyes. He hadn’t spotted her before because he’d been looking for a blue hijab. She was heading for the exit, carrying a small overnight bag. On an impulse, he stood up and went the same way.
In a minute they were walking out together, talking like old friends. She introduced herself as Mariam. They agreed that the policewoman’s speech had been interesting, if worrying, and they both had felt embarrassed by the British politician’s empty words. George listened carefully to her voice for the first time and noticed how her accent shifted: there was a northern ring to her vowels – maybe Bradford? – when she spoke colloquial English. But when she spoke more formally, the vowels grew longer, the stresses on the words were sometimes misplaced. She looked thin and tired. She explained that her husband had died from a surprise heart attack five years ago, and now her son was… She didn’t finish the sentence.
‘I have no one left! No one!’ she repeated several times.
He felt a sudden sympathy for her. As he walked to his car, she followed. When he opened the driver’s door, she got in the passenger side. This seemed odd to George, but no odder than anything else that had happened in the last six weeks. He decided it felt right. They said little on the drive back to George’s house.
When they arrived home, he automatically offered her tea or coffee.
‘Coffee, please,’ she replied, ‘black, no sugar’.
She smiled, and he noticed how white her teeth were. He went to the kitchen and made two coffees. When he came back, there was a surprise waiting for him. She was standing in his sitting room, taking off her hijab. It took a surprisingly long time: it involved much fiddling with hairpins at the back of her neck. It’s worse than taking off a bra thought George. Probably the whole process took less than two minutes, but while she searched for hairpins, three important thoughts hit George in succession.
Firstly, he realised that while he had no idea what the hijab meant, there was some quality in her deliberate, measured movements, and in the manner in which she looked at him, that told him that her actions were intensely important. This was some sort of turning-point… in her life? In his life?
Secondly, he kept thinking about a stripper he’d once seen. He knew that this was wrong and felt ashamed of himself. In fact, discounting films and videos, he’d only actually seen a stripper once: she was an ill-judged addition to a stag-do. He’d admired her dancing skills but found absolutely nothing erotic in her performance.
Thirdly, he realised that Mariam was very, very beautiful. On their previous meetings, he had only looked at her hijab. Now, for the first time, he looked at her face.
She began to talk as she searched for another hairpin.
‘Some Muslims would say that I am committing an unforgiveable sin, and Allah will never forgive me.’
She paused as she pulled out the hairpin.
‘Others would say that I am committing a sin, but if I sincerely repent, Allah will forgive me.’
She placed the hairpin down on a table.
‘Finally, some would say that the most significant expression of my religious faith is my devotion to Allah. My actions today are of little importance to him.’ She paused and looked at George directly.
‘I happen to agree with those in the third category.’
She smiled, flashing her white teeth at him.
‘You understand: I will continue to be a Muslim.’
Finally, the black cloth folded free from her neck.
‘And I think I’ll continue to wear this thing. It protects my hair, it makes me feel safe, and… Oh, I don’t know… Maybe I won’t.’
She ran her hand through her long, glossy black hair, pulling it straight.
‘Right: I’m tired, I’m going to bed.’
She walked out of the room with her overnight bag and went up the stairs. A few seconds later, George heard the bathroom door close. How had she known where to find it? Then, after a few minutes, he heard her walk over to his bedroom. Again: how had she known which room it was?
George sat down. He had two coffees in front of him. He sipped one but found he didn’t want to drink it. He wondered for a moment what he should do, and then decided that he didn’t have any choice.