Two days later, Ruby’s summons arrived by text. Mr Saif Haq had invited Miss Ruby Rauf to his London office the next day at 4 pm to meet his team and discuss issues she had raised at their last meeting. Delighted to have been remembered, Ruby was nevertheless disappointed by the perfunctory tone of the text. But, she told herself, it was good that it was professional. It showed respect.
The message gave a St John’s Wood address. When Ruby showed it to Kiran, across a small table they were sharing at Kiran’s favourite vegan restaurant, she frowned. “Acacia Road?” she queried. “But that’s a street full of big family houses with SUVs parked outside. That’s his office?”
“That’s what it says.”
“You sure this isn’t a grand seduction scene that he’s luring you into?” Kiran smiled mockingly.
“Kiran!” Ruby protested, flushing with secret pleasure. “Why would he seduce me?”
“Why not? What’s wrong with you?”
“It’s not like I’m some gorgeous model.” Ruby was emphatically not model-like, but she was not without charm. What she lacked in stature and regularity of features she more than made up for with her dimpled smile and neat figure. In an unconscious reflex, she pulled her buoyant, curly hair over her ears. “Besides, he’s not like that.”
“Not if you believe Nadia,” said Kiran. “Apparently he’s been sending her suggestive texts.”
“Ya, since you believe everything that Nadia tells you, you’ll also believe that Brad Pitt made a pass at her when he saw her across a crowded restaurant in New York. Or was it Dubai? Or no, maybe it was Singapore? She’s such a liar, that girl.”
“Actually, I don’t find it that hard to believe that Saif would send her a text after that dinner, inviting her to his room. He has a reputation for that kind of sleazy thing. He preys on young women.”
“Let me tell you there was no preying going on over there. You should have seen how she was behaving with him!” said Ruby hotly. “Batting her lashes at him all evening and giggling and flirting and what all.”
“So, you’re blaming Nadia for the fact that Saif Haq has sent her inappropriate texts?” Kiran snorted. “And I thought you were a feminist.”
“Have you seen these famous texts?’ challenged Ruby. “No, na? And just like that they’ve become ‘a fact’! You’re so bloody judgy.”
“I’m judgy?” Kiran’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief. “What about your precious Mr Haq who called divorce a ‘western disease’ in his bloody speech? So, us women should just carry on suffering silently with abusive, philandering husbands, and go on being battered black and blue while he lectures us about our fucking Eastern values. Don’t tell me you’re a feminist next time, okay?”
“He didn’t say women should carry on being battered and abused. He just said he believed in the sanctity of marriage.”
“Fucking hypocrite.” Kiran’s voice was shrill. “Didn’t you see him exchanging those sidelong looks with his sidekick when Jazz was all over him, begging him to come to dinner? He was going to hang out with his louche London friends, Imaad and that lot, doing god knows what. Nadia told me how he couldn’t wait to leave after dinner. And this after that cheesy speech of his about transparency and honesty. Bullshit!”
“Shh, lower your voice,” said Ruby, looking over her shoulder in case Kiran’s outburst had irked other customers. She did not share Kiran’s blithe disregard for social niceties. It must be a function of wealth. Rich people didn’t have to bother with the opinion of others. “I don’t know why you’re so angry,” she whispered, “but...”
“I’m angry because I can’t bear to see someone honest and intelligent and, and...you know, good, like you being fooled by a total cheapo like Saif Haq. Next you’ll become like Jazz and all those snarling Rottweilers, accusing everyone else of being a traitor.”
“Who said I’m becoming a Rottweiler?” asked Ruby hotly.
“Admit it, you’re crushing on him. You’ve fallen for that sexy smile, that humble hand-on-the-chest routine, all that practised shit. Unless...” she regarded Ruby through narrowed eyes, “it’s a daddy issue.”
“Stop!” hissed Ruby. “Just stop.”
“I’m sorry, that was low,” said Kiran chastened. “But can’t you see? It’s all drama. He’s an actor, Ruby, a total fakester.”
“So, why did you drag me there to listen to him? I didn’t ask for it.”
“I thought he’d be a laugh. I thought that you needed to lighten up, I swear.”
Ruby felt drained. She hadn’t slept the night before. Money worries had kept her awake till almost daybreak and then she’d overslept and missed her class. As a scholarship student, Ruby had to account for every penny. The bill for last night’s unplanned meal, though not a huge amount when divided equally among all the students, had still blown a hole through her budget for the month. Tired and anxious, she didn’t want to quarrel with Kiran.
“For the tenth time, I don’t have a crush on him,” she groaned. “We’ve been through all this. I’ve apologised for what I said to you that evening. I’ve said sorry before also. It was wrong of me, but...”
“But you were electrified by what he had to say,” grimaced Kiran. “All that garbage about accountability and spine and honour.”
“It’s not garbage,” said Ruby.
Kiran held Ruby’s gaze for a long moment. Then she asked quietly, “But haven’t you heard it all before? Isn’t this what every politician says?”
“Of course I’ve heard it all before. It just felt sincere this time, that’s all. I don’t know how to explain it to myself, let alone to you. I really feel that he meant what he said, and I’m sorry if I didn’t respond like you wanted – with a clever joke and a giggle – but I’m not your Sheeba, you know, who will sit when you say ‘sit’ and fetch when you say ‘fetch’.”
She stopped to draw breath and then continued more slowly. “I’d like to believe, that for once, someone wants to do what’s good for everyone instead of what’s good for himself only. Can’t I be allowed to even listen to him without you accusing me of having crushes and becoming a Rottweiler and what all?”
Kiran considered Ruby’s words in silence. Then she sighed and said: “You’re right. You should hear him out. Go see him if you must. But I’m warning you,” she cuffed Ruby playfully on the arm, “if you start wearing Chitrali hats or Peshawari sandals and accusing me of being a traitor, I’ll never forgive you. Okay?”
“As if!” Ruby laughed, relieved that yet another argument with Kiran had been averted.
The day after the dinner with Saif had been difficult. As the exhilaration of the evening faded, Ruby’s guilt at her highhandedness with Kiran and her inexcusable behaviour towards Jack and Annie mounted.
Too scared and ashamed to call, she had snuck around to Annie’s the next morning, at a time she knew Annie took her toddler out to his weekly music class, and left a big bunch of her favourite arum lilies on the doorstep with a card saying: “Sorry. Please forgive me. Love, Ruby.”
Then she had gone around to Kiran’s and apologised. Kiran had received the apology coolly. It had taken another day of grovelling, and now this emollient of an overpriced salad at an overhyped café before Kiran had finally come around. Generous to a fault, Kiran would normally insist on paying for both of them, but today she sat back and let Ruby pick up the tab.
Ruby understood that this was her punishment. Including her share of the bill at Chaudhry Sahib’s, Ruby reckoned the evening and its repercussions had cost her £70, £95 if she threw in the £25 she would have earned babysitting had she foregone the privilege of dinner with Saif. The thought made her queasy. She had blown her budget for the rest of the month. Now she would have to work extra hours to pay for her accommodation at college.
Perhaps Annie would forgive her soon and call her back to babysit. If Annie didn’t call back, she would have to take up her tutor’s offer to walk Arthur, her elderly, incontinent dachshund. Handling his tepid turds turned her stomach, even if it was through the protection of a plastic bag. On the bus ride to St John’s Wood, Ruby reflected on her conversation with Kiran.
She knew Kiran was wary of the fanatical devotion that Saif inspired in his followers, but Ruby couldn’t fathom the depth of her hostility towards him. Why was she so derisive of his political ambitions? So averse to the idea of Ruby even meeting him? It was not as if Kiran had some personal grudge against him. By her own admission, she barely knew him. Perhaps it was something more generic, more prosaic but much pettier and spiteful.
Could it be mere snobbery? From her wealthy, patrician vantage point his aspiration probably seemed impertinent. A jumped-up actor from a humble background making the ultimate power grab and presuming to lord over the likes of her. What had she called him? A cheapo. A fakester. Was that how Kiran thought of her too? An impertinent nobody? All at once, she felt solidarity with Saif.
Excerpted with permission from The Impeccable Integrity of Ruby R, Moni Mohsin, Penguin Books.