Huda rolled onto her side and checked the clock on the bedside. She wondered, Was Khalid asleep? Or was he huddled under his faded Star Wars sheets, shining his flashlight on a dog-eared copy of Harry Potter? The boy wanted nothing more than to enroll in the Hogwarts Academy. Pity he did not show the same enthusiasm for study in real life.
Huda's ears pricked up at the familiar rattle of Abdul Amir's Corolla station wagon turning into their street. She swung her feet over the side of the bed and into a pair of fluffy pink slippers. A Mother's Day gift from Khalid three years ago, they were worn at the heels. In the hallway, she paused and stuck her head into his bedroom. Khalid was curled up like a snail. She continued to the front door, unlocked the dead bolts, and released the chain.
Outside, dry leaves whispered in the darkness. Abdul Amir's voice boomed from the far side of the gate.
"What the hell? Have you locked me out of my own home, woman?"
"The lock was broken." As Huda pried open the gate, she could smell the burnt molasses of nargilah smoke embedded in her husband's hair and clothes. "I had to replace it."
"How on earth did it break?" Abdul Amir waved his hands about like an angry prophet scolding his flock. "Do I need to punish Khalid again?"
"Please, my dear, be quiet." Huda peeked along the potholed street. Tall walls stretched in both directions, draped in flowering bougainvillea or fragrant jasmine. All were topped with metal spikes or shards of broken glass. "I'll explain everything—in the backyard."
Abdul Amir stiffened.
"The backyard?" he whispered. His hands were still raised, but now he looked less a righteous prophet and more like the victim of a stickup.
"That would be best," Huda murmured nervously.
Like his wife before him, Abdul Amir scanned the street. The wind groaned, and grains of pale desert sand scratched against their cheeks.
A razor-thin moon hovered high over Huda's backyard. The flames of al-Dora still spiked the horizon, but the wind had begun to turn. Huda's nose wrinkled at the smell of burning gas. Abdul Amir stood on his toes and peered over the neighbor's fence. No lamp glowed in their window. Their own house was dark and quiet too. Still, it was safer not to talk indoors—walls have ears, and so do teenage sons.
Abdul Amir and Huda huddled close. "What did you tell them?" he whispered.
"There was nothing to tell," said Huda. "I barely know the woman. If she stops by the office, we chat about the weather, small talk, that's all. I mean, why would I go asking for trouble?"
Huda scanned the dim reaches of the garden: the orange and lemon trees, the vegetable patch in the corner, the wrought-iron swing seat that rocked back and forth on squeaky hinges. Abdul Amir raked his hands through his hair. In the moonlight, his fingers were pale as bone.
"What do you know about this woman?"
"Ally seems nice enough," mumbled Huda. "But it can't be long before she packs up and returns home. The heat and the sun always prove too much for the embassy wives."
And the loneliness too, thought Huda. She remembered meeting Ally a month ago, at the end of her ten-hour drive from Jordan to Baghdad. The young woman had stumbled from the embassy Land Cruiser, hand raised to ward off the sun, legs wobbling like a sailor stepping ashore after months at sea.
"All the way here, I kept looking for white sand dunes and camel trains." Ally laughed awkwardly. No one had the heart to tell her that was some other country.
Huda remembered when women like Ally had flocked to Baghdad: British nurses, French school teachers, and the plump wives of American oilmen. Tourists filled the cafés and strolled the banks of the Tigris. But nowadays, the expats were gone. So were the tour buses. The rail line to Istanbul was severed, and NATO jets shot down any planes that entered Iraqi airspace.
These days, only a handful of diplomats and United Nations workers ventured through the wide western desert to Baghdad. Very rarely did their wives join them—and like the exotic parrots at al-Ghazl pet market, the women soon went off their food, drooped, and plucked out their own feathers. Then they disappeared back into the desert, pale-skinned gypsies in four-wheel-drive caravans, leaving nothing behind but a trail of dust and a perhaps forgotten sun hat. Eventually, their husbands were posted elsewhere and life resumed happily. At least, Huda assumed it was happily. It was almost impossible to stay in touch with those outside Iraq's borders. Unwise, even, to embark on such friendships in the first place.
"What is she like, this Ally?" Abdul Amir paced back and forth. "Is she one of those arrogant foreigners who knows nothing of history and believes we're all savages?"
Huda shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Will it be difficult to befriend her?"
This excerpt ends on page 15 of the paperback edition.
Monday, December 14th we begin the book Two's Company by Jill Mansell.