He was strings but no drama. Ana hadn’t wanted or needed strings but neither had she resisted their inevitable creeping around her ankles and the inevitable stealthy tightening. She supposed that a woman must have a head made of concrete for her to sleep with a man so many times and for there to be no strings. These, though, with Ameen, were incidental and of a cobwebby wispiness. The sort of affection that you might develop for a café where you had drunk a dozen or so coffees. The sort that sometimes made Ana wonder whether she possessed any authentic emotions anymore. Strings that could be kicked away whenever the brief time that had been allocated to her and Ameen, during this otherwise unoccupied interlude in the universe, was up.
One afternoon she had walked to his flat in Meggetland and found him waiting for her. This was immediately startling. Usually, she had to let herself in with a large, heavy key that he made her carry around with her. Usually, she would first proceed to his kitchen to pour herself a glass of white wine, which she would half drain as soon as it was in the glass and then primly top up again. Next, she would venture in search of him. She would have to turf him either out of his bedroom or the synonymous clutter of his “den.” Today, however, he had opened the door on her sharply, before she could worm the key into the hole. He wasn’t smiling.
He was now ushering her inside and marching her down the corridor to his bedroom. He still hadn’t spoken or looked at her face. She was suddenly struck by a keen, bitter nostalgia for some lost time when they had seemed distinctly younger and freer from cares.
Now he was standing beside his desktop computer. He glanced swiftly at her, making noncommittal eye contact. “I have to show you this. The police told me that I have to show you.”
Ana stared amazedly at him. She found that her mouth could not move in reply, as though it had filled with cold water. She was very frightened.
She had assumed that Ameen must have all sorts of excruciating secrets, but these things are bearable if there is a layer of decorative normality pressed down firmly on top of them, hiding them and making them sweetly non-existent. She now vaguely supposed that he must have committed a murder when he was below the age of legal responsibility or that he was on some imposing register of sex molesters. But he didn’t have any stilted little speech pre-prepared for her. He instead turned to the computer and activated a video that was ready waiting.
“This was emailed to me last night,” he explained over his shoulder.
He switched the video to full screen. He then stepped to one side, facing her with blank eyes, as if he was a sentry who was being inspected alongside the video.
For now, the horror was lurking about somewhere around the floor like a sunbeam, which might suddenly pounce and stretch and bathe her fully in its light.
On the screen, there was an interior that was clearly just stage scenery. A kitchen in which none of the pots had been ever used and the stove had been never lighted. A woman was creeping slowly and carefully into the kitchen. Ana could see that she was an old woman and that she was handicapped in some way. A stroke, perhaps, had slowed her down and impaired her coordination. She was blinking thickly.
A tiny moustachioed man was also making his way into the kitchen. He was a black man and he was apparently suffering from elephantiasis. One foot was a huge dragging tube, which poured out of his clothing like a marrow, with the toes squashed crazily out of all shape.
Both the man and the woman stopped when they saw each other. The man looked at least twice as alert as the woman. The woman hesitated but then the man nodded at her to begin. “When are you ne-ne-next avail, avail-able?” the woman barked rapidly. “I-I- have-t-t-t-to work for the ne-ne-next three days… cl-cleaning th-th-th-the trains… wh-whi-which I fucking ge-ge-get so pissed a-at, by the way.”
The woman had an accent that sounded, at best, peripherally European. She had recited the swear words in a curiously neutral tone of voice, as though she was unacquainted with what they really meant. “Cleaning the trains?” the man replied patiently. He had a very clear, mild, educated accent.
“We-we’re always in a team of three and it’s – it’s okay if you get the ho-hoo-hoo-ver, but th-th-th-the other two, wh-who are fucking lazy, are always pl-playing ga-ga-games on their phones, and they ne-nev- they never – do half their own jo-jo-jobs. I do it all.”
“Tonight was so good,” the man said contemplatively. His moustachioed face was very beautiful and Ana could not help marvelling at this as he spoke. “For the first time, I think we really clicked. You were so hot tonight and I want to do it again as soon as possible.”
The woman’s eyes fixed in concentration and then she started to rock as she recited a fresh glut of lines to herself. “Bu-bu-but I want – I want you – to del – to delete the film you made on yo-your muv-mu-movie ca-cam.” Her voice became keener and more querulous. “That fi-fi-film in which I su-su-suck yuh-yuh-you I loo – I looked up – and I saw th-th-the – th-th-the cam – in your ha-ha-hand.”
“It’s just for me,” the man assured her in a voice as soft as velvet. “I just need it for me. I won’t share it with anyone, of course. You know that.”
“I-I-st-stil-still would be – I would be me-me-more com-fort-ab-able if ye-ye- del-if ye-you deleted… it.”
Suddenly whatever this scene was appeared to have ended. Both the man and the woman relaxed and the man smiled at the woman, as if he was congratulating her, whilst she wobbled buoyantly on her feet. Then the screen went black.
Ameen had needed to move very quickly to pinion Ana. He let her thrash and shake in his arms. Some very distant part of herself, which felt as if it was watching in dismay from the doorway of the room, was aware that her recriminations were overshooting the mark and that they sounded reckless and disastrously inept. Then she caught hold of something, as if it had been swirling past in the mayhem and almost escaped her. Hadn’t he mentioned the police?
She tried to wave him away. She needed to think about this and about how it could have happened, without his voice talking all over her mind. Meanwhile, he was buzzing words steadily into her ear and as she relaxed within his frozen grip she found that she was listening to them.
“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know who these people are. I didn’t record that – I didn’t make any recording. I don’t know how they recorded it. I promise. I absolutely promise.”
“The police,” she said, clinging forlornly to this small, brittle word.
“They told me that the people need not have been burglars. They needn’t have broken in.”
“You can get listening devices that could have recorded that conversation from way outside in the street,” he told her fairly.
Ana jumped and reeled, as if they were in the midst of some slapstick routine and a new shock had been planted for her. “So they could be recording us… now… as we’re speaking?” She pictured the next video. The dainty little man edging around his own tubular foot to pinion the old woman and hiss into her ear.
“Who are they?” she appealed to Ameen. “Who could they be?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anybody like that – how could I?”
She flared up angrily again. “What does that mean? People ‘like that’?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know what it means.” She suddenly hated him – that maddening incomprehension that would make him look like he was never fully participating in the crisis. Or as if he was peeking out at it from within the faraway, fortified bunker that was his imagination.
She had cleaned ten more trains before she saw him again. She hated cleaning the trains. The trains were driven to a depot and the work was done overnight. Her fellow workers were reticent and they devoted only the barest fraction of themselves to the work and they came and went without her ever getting to know them adequately. She would walk home at dawn, numb with exhaustion and self-pity. She often wished, sometimes within Ameen’s hearing, that he would give her a job in the chain of bars that he managed. But he had laughed that this wouldn’t work and that it would rile up the other workers. She hated how he treated her cleaning of the trains as if it was a viable career and how he would question her interestedly about it.
The video would have offered a good pretext for ending their relationship, but she felt as if this would have been too obviously villainous. In the following weeks they never spoke about the video. When one of them considered doing so, they would feel uneasy and deterred, as if the right words for discussing it were never quite to hand. And, in any case, the crisis seemed, having been left unattended, to be boiling away into nothing.
Ana received the next video when they were on a twenty-four hour getaway in Yorkshire. Ameen was showering before dinner and she was drifting around their hotel room, waiting for him to re-emerge. Then her phone had whistled its two pert notes and she had veered towards it.
An email. It had no title and its sender was just a string of numbers.
The scene this time was outdoors. There were the ribs of some ruined temple with glossy jungle foliage peeping over the battlements and waving through terracotta windows and archways. And, as before, the man and the woman crept into the scene from either side and they stopped when they saw each other. The woman looked less anxious this time.
The man spoke first. He smiled and recited his lines very clearly and with a twinkling musicality. “Let’s do it here. Quick, while nobody is about.”
As if on his own signal, he pulled down his trousers and pants. Ana had assumed that he would be naked but then she saw that he was wearing some kind of ludicrous prosthetic phallus. It was a soft blue colour and apparently moulded from smoked glass. He touched the woman tenderly on one arm. She gurgled with excited laughter but she then appeared to remember that her character had been originally shocked and embarrassed.
“Puh-puh-plea –ss… th-th-this is t-t-t-too much. Someone meh-meh-might see.”
The man had this unfortunate tendency to stand back theatrically and freeze as he delivered his lines. This made his performance look overly presentational. “If you hurry up then nobody will see. And what if they see anyway?”
“Th-th-this is not ne-ne-not real loving.” The old woman wagged her head solemnly. “Th-th-this is not about me. Ye-ye-you just want to be like a fuh-fuh-flash-uh-er. It’s cheap.”
This time the video ended on a flourish. The camera zoomed in on the phallus, which glowed and pulsated mystically with blue light. Then the screen went black.
Ana and Ameen had been alone on the clifftop when this conversation had occurred. They had had the entire country at their feet and a view over all of the white pathways that had led up to the cliff as plainly as the windings on a snakes-and-ladders board. The land below had been vividly exposed. There had been no bushes or ditches for miles around for any snooper to conceal themselves in.
She showed Ameen the video while he was dressing. He declared responsibly that they should call the police, though she could see that he was annoyed at being reminded about the videos and that he would rather eat.
What so disconcerted Ana was that they had shared numerous conversations over the weekend that she would have been far more panicked about there being an independent record kept of. For example, they had argued about Ameen’s behaviour during a recent trip to the doctors. He had discovered blood in his urine and the upshot of this was that he had been booked in for a prostate examination. At the surgery, however, the doctor who had been assigned to him had been a black man. Ameen had taken one look at him and insultingly demanded that he be replaced. Ameen had not wanted to be naked in front of a black doctor. Nobody had said anything at the surgery, but when Ameen had jocularly recounted the incident to Ana, she had been very angry.
“You employ black people at your work. You aren’t so rude to them there.”
“That’s different,” Ameen laughed. “That’s work.”
“How is it different?”
“We can hardly do anything about it. We’d get done for it.”
“Look, please promise me not to be like this.”
“In my family, we are all like this. It’s how I was brought up.”
“You’re better than th…”
“Better than what? What do you think you’re saying about my family?”
On it had escalated, in oddly plonking hops, with them being alternatively angry and cautious. The videomakers had not selected this scene though. Ana felt that they had known about it and that they would have had no trouble staging it had they wanted to. In choosing to overlook it, they were actually flaunting their power.
After a while, Ana wanted to request that Ameen not notify the police. During their dinner, she gradually realised that their relationship had incurred some detectable damage. She was avoiding speaking about anything honestly, as though their conversation was some charmed water on which she should not make a ripple. Every conversation that they shared was now potentially a script for the videomakers.
She never knew whether or not he told the police. Once they were back in Edinburgh, she began to worry that these videos were in some way out there online. She was certain that there would be viewers and that, as things accrue online, they might number in the tens or even the hundreds of thousands.
Furtively, she hunted for confirmation of her fears. First she typed “videos stroke victim woman elephantiasis man arguing” into Google. This didn’t yield anything relevant – only a handful of websites offering disconnected medical advice. Next, on a whim, she typed in her and Ameen’s full names. Their names were common but she figured that few websites would bunch them together. Sure enough, aside from Facebook and two bizarre online databases of millions of names, only a single website was returned.
This was an overly jaunty and dated-looking website that had been made early in the last decade. It was apparently the personal website of an amateur enthusiast for the Middle Eastern and Maghrebi television of the 1970s. The page that Ana had been directed to profiled a lavish Moroccan soap opera that was named, in English, An Appointment With Desire. This programme had run until 1977, when most of its cast had perished in a freak jet plane crash. There was no mention of elephantiasis, though the single photograph that illustrated this profile was a stock portrait of the show’s heartthrob. His face was his fortune and Ana could instantly see that this was also the face of the tiny moustachioed man from the videos.
For a long time her thoughts roamed madly like clouds. She staggered on through her shock to conduct a stunned search for any online episodes of An Appointment With Desire. Of course, there were none available. Had the programme been ever issued on DVD? She doubted that there were enough people in the world who would want to revisit this show. The Twitter account that was linked to the fan website had lain dormant since 2013. She idly wondered whether there would be some academic at Edinburgh University who would possess the relevant knowledge about Moroccan culture. Then she realised how foolish this hope was. It would be like contacting an expert about English modernism in New York to try to locate some ancient episodes of Coronation Street.
“What are you up to?” Ameen asked without interest. As he entered the bedroom, Ana remembered with some surprise that she was actually in his apartment. She had been so engrossed in the puzzle that she had fallen into thinking that she was back at home. This dislodged or shifted something loose in her mind and all at once her thoughts were rushing forwards, liberated again. All of the online information about An Appointment With Desire would be in Maghrebi Arabic, not English. There would be surely an indigenous Moroccan Google, on which one could access an abundance of information about the extinct programme.
“Stay here,” she sang to Ameen. “Don’t go anywhere.”
She heard him exclaiming in reply but she didn’t have time to listen to him. On Google Translate, she converted An Appointment With Desire back into its original Arabic. Next, she switched to the Moroccan Google. Suddenly, the screen was teeming with helpful information and numerous videos. She clicked on the top video and ran its description through Google Translate, back into English. This proved to be the show’s pilot.
Ameen was standing behind her. She looked up at him.
“We’re going to watch this,” she told him. “I think that the videos we are getting are modelled on it. It might even feature the same actors.”
She stood up and stood back. She vaguely wanted to dance excitedly now that she was on her feet and freed from her chair. She had clicked to activate the video and then for a moment she was confused, thinking that she had brought up the wrong content. She and Ameen were both on the screen.
“I’m naked,” she heard Ameen observe quietly.
He was helping her to undress, pulling down her jeans. He then rolled both of their clothes into a ball and rolled them off the bed. He was stalking around her silently and awkwardly. His skin was tanned but his backside looked exaggeratedly white and flabby.
“Condom,” she prompted him sharply. He nodded and looked about the bedroom.
“You don’t have one?”
He deliberated for a second before announcing with a tight smile that there might be one in his jacket. He stalked away from the bed. He always seemed to move much more heavily, or even groggily, on his feet once he was naked, as if this had reconnected him with some long lost bear ancestor. Sitting up on the bed, Ana looked visibly restless and exasperated.
On the screen, the camera panned back to show an interior in which the familiar old woman and the charismatic man were standing before a television, watching the footage of Ana on the bed. The woman began to shake with agitation. “Th-th-th-that’s our fuh-fuh-fuh – that’s our fu-first time, Am-Ameen?”
“I know,” the man replied softly and with a kind of dazed grief.
“Ye-ye-ye-you mu-mu-mu – ye-you must be in on this. Ye-you must be gur-gur-giving them th-th-th-these movies th-th-that ye-you muh-muh-make…”
“I have told you, Ana, that I know nothing about this. I don’t know who these people are. And the movies that I make of us I keep just for me.”
“Oh you bastard,” the old woman pronounced sourly. She seemed to be undergoing a genuine epiphany and she was so holy with anger – so eerily shining in her fury – that she was no longer stuttering. “You bastard. Wer-wer-what’s this trick you are puh-puh-play-i-ing on me? Fuh-fuh-fur how long?”
The man turned and tried to hobble out of the scene, but she fixed on to his arm and walked him back again. For a second they were grappling, rocking together in a peculiar strained silence like two fighting animals. Then he dealt her a bop in the face – smartly and just once – and, in a listless kind of mechanical response, her hand swept up a pint glass that had been abandoned beside the television and she brought it down on his skull. She then set to work, bringing the glass down doggedly, again and again and again.
Ana felt a stray drop of liquid on her face. She turned to see Ameen tumble as heavily as a cascade of suitcases at her feet. She focused on a hand that lay in the carpet without the fingers moving. Then she glanced at his head and took it in, with an effort, as though it was an almighty, complicated, philosophical problem. It was all blood and batter and beer and hair with broken glass flushed through it.
On the screen, the old woman put down the bloody shell of the glass. She began to snivel to herself. Behind her the footage on the television went black and then the film on the computer screen went black and then Ana automatically set a foot into the blackness pouncing out towards her and she closed her eyes as it soared into her head.