It began as lust, that much I will admit. The events and emotions that came after were harder to reconcile. I, Oliver Edward Harding, am not one to trifle with the truth. The thing about truth, though, is that it sometimes reveals itself in the recounting, not in the living. So, while it is still fresh in my mind, I must revisit the events of these past weeks, in particular, the matter of the boy.

The straight and sure lines within these pale margins of my mind leave no other trail but those of my design. Only here might one find a true “safe space,” as it were, to borrow a phrase from the luminaries of our time. Do I take a risk, then, by spilling my thoughts in ink? Do I dare reveal the workings of my heart in some clumsy assembly of words? Oh, but it is such comfort to hear the scratch and whisper of pen on paper, to write by hand the way I once did as a boy with a journal. Here I am, then, on a page, in a fresh notebook, committing my story to sight. My story and theirs.

Before I dwell on the story of the boy and his aunt, I must state that something has been taken from me, something precious and tender, and the loss of it is so great that it may smother my account with searing emotion at times, of the kind no associate of mine would generally ascribe to my personality. I will attempt to sluice out such emotion, lance this open wound of the ghosts within, although I will not delude myself that a complete exorcism is possible. I must remember that the police prefer a clean retelling of incidents. Unblemished. The gendarmerie, the boy would call them. They are leaning on me to make sense of all that happened. I must organise my thoughts here so they can have the spotless narrative they so desperately need.

I won’t, of course, share my written accounts with them, for I hardly imagine them avid readers, but I will deliver to them as lissome a truth as they deserve. Were it not for their urgent and unannounced visitations multiple times a day, I would have more time to discern the most pressing matter at hand, the matter of the letter.

What is to be done with this letter that is in my possession?

This question has kept me sleepless until this hour of 3.45 am. I must choose one of two alternatives. This letter was given to me by the boy, less than a week ago. He asked that I mail it to someone in time for a birthday, someone in France. I am familiar with the contents of this letter. I did not read it in a furtive lapse of ethical judgment but, indeed, at the urging of the boy himself. Adil Alam, the boy, came to imagine me as some sort of mentor to him in the matters of the heart. Be that as it was, I did not advise him to change a single word in the letter. I found it rather charming, his declaration of love, driven by a clumsiness endemic to those forced into solitude in adolescence. The letter was all the more endearing, I thought, for being crafted by hand, despite the poor penmanship that has resulted from the millennials’ practice of texting, which has rendered all correspondence among them to be, quite literally, all thumbs.

The contents of this letter are remarkable not merely for their sophistication but also because they will have a significant impact on the investigations of the police. And this is where my dilemma cuts deep – the boy extracted from me the sincerest promise that I will not share its contents, not even in part, not even orally, not even in concept, with anyone. The letter was meant to leave my address and arrive at the address of one Ms Camille Harroch in Toulouse, France, as close to her birthday on December 1, 2016, as was calculable by ordinary post. Today is November 3.

Of course, all of this is rendered with greater poignancy because the author of the letter, the boy, now lies fighting for his life. If he dies, will this letter live beyond him? If he lives, whom will this letter serve? My journey of discernment must lead me to now deploy the letter in the service of love, or in the service of the law.

If one must speak of love, one must begin this story at that point. Although, as I noted earlier, it began for me as lust. That impulse, too, caught me off guard, because Ruhaba Khan was not the kind of woman to have inspired lust in me in all my years.

It helps to return to it. In these sleepless hours here, at my desk at home, I must return to that man I was at my other desk just about a month ago, in my office, a man far less bereft than I am today. It helps to play back those early images of Ruhaba in my head, before she knocked on my office door. In fact, those nascent fantasies I’d had of her did feature her knocking on that door. In the scenes of my imagination, she would knock, she would walk in, and she would stand over my desk. I would rise to shut the door behind her, “to keep the noise of the Department of English out,” I would tell her. Then, as she spoke of something – it was different each time in my fantasy – as she spoke of committee work and how it ought to be divided on the basis of disciplinary expertise of the faculty, I would come up to her, put a finger on her lips, and shush her.

I wouldn’t startle her, but I would no doubt see surprise in her eyes. And then, as she realised that goodness, yes, she had been expecting this, she would smile against my finger. My free hand would brush up against her buttocks and smooth the fabric on the ample mounds of flesh there. Things would go so quickly from here, and I would be assailed by the colors and scents of her flesh. She would be speaking of her workload on committees, negotiating with me for a reduction as I’d lay her down on my desk. I would enter her. She would fall quiet except for the tiniest sighs and moans. I would cover her mouth to protect her interests. Department walls have ears, especially those of the Department of English.

So you will understand when I tell you that I felt flustered and somewhat exposed the first time she actually knocked on my office door.

The Laughter

Excerpted with permission from The Laughter, Sonora Jha, Penguin.