The moon is as ripe and heavy as a piece of fruit about to fall. Above us, the domes loom, fat and golden. Minarets conjure Samarkand, Bukhara, St. Petersburg. Beyond the lawns, the Number Two to Rottingdean chugs past.
‘This is good,’ Bahrom decides, nodding like a connoisseur. ‘But in Moscow, we have better.’
I smile. ‘It’s not Red Square.’
‘Still, I like. Is beautiful.’
‘A prince lived here.’
‘Ah.’ He tries to stare more respectfully.
‘But it was always more make-believe than real.’
He assembles the words in his mouth. ‘More make belief.’
Clouds scud past, their bellies floodlit. I don’t know how to explain: about Kubla Kahn, pleasure domes, and the nineteenth century whim for all things Eastern. How do I say that the Pavilion is a pun on the onion-domes and turrets he has known all his life?
He stretches out on the grass, making himself into a bed for me, making even his upturned hands into resting places for my arms. How good he is to kiss. How solid he is below me. After nine months of grieving, I have been pulled back into the world.
His voice is deep and mild. He tells me the story of a relative, an old bear of a man who bites the faces of his favourites at family weddings, bruising them, drawing blood sometimes, but unstoppable. He demonstrates, getting hold of my cheek between his grin until I wrestle my face away. His teeth are white and strong. He opens wide and points inside – the backs are lacquered black. I thought only old men chewed tobacco. When he tells me he was born in Tajikistan, not Russia, I ransack my brain. Do I even know it? Have I somehow overlooked an entire country? ‘Samarkand is once ours,’ he continues. ‘My grandfather is birthed in Samarkand.’ I can think only of spices, Tamburlaine and ululating women. It is less real to me than The Arabian Nights. ‘But Stalin gives Samarkand as gift to Uzbekistan. He change our borders to make it theirs.’ He studies my hand, then kisses it. ‘You have very sugary toes.’ ‘Very sweet fingers?’ ‘Yes,’ he nods, impatient – I am a pedant. He hums a few bars from the new single by Lemar, ‘If There’s Any Justice’. Then, ‘Do you know, in just one day, Stalin orders 300,000 imams killed. My grandfather loses all his fingers fighting.’ 4 ‘But he lived?’ ‘Yes, he is re-settled by Stalin to Duchanbe, the capital. Is very nice. Boulevards. Trees with many leafs. Good restaurants. University. Mountains which hug the city. But we are no longer Persian. No longer Muslim. Only Soviet. Pure Soviet. Then civil war comes when I am thirteen. My teacher shouts, run, run. I fall off the bus and break both my..?’ He shows me. ‘Wrists.’ ‘They bomb houses on my street. If a man is birthed in wrong part of country, they pull him from his home, from his bedroom at night, and shoot. I go with my father and other men. In darkness, we bury our neighbours in park at end of street. There is one I see in my sleep for long time. Two bullets in his chest. One in his head. His body burnt. They say he works for secret newspaper. I remember him most of all because they cut off his nose and ears.’ I run my fingers over the stubble of his cropped black hair. ‘And your father?’ ‘My father is for Islamic Democratic Party. Not good. We must leave. There is another milk factory for him to manage. In Moscow. We even have chauffeured car. We are lucky, inshallah.’ As a boy in Moscow, he carried an oxygen mask in his backpack. At school, he was evacuated once a week in preparation for a nuclear attack by the Americans. If a neighbour visited the West, the KGB descended upon the street. They knocked on doors: ‘What has he told you about his visit? What does he boast?’ These days, Bahrom is proud of Putin’s might. He misses the Soviet passport, its authority in the world. ‘No vun knows Tajikistan.’ In my bedroom in the mornings, he races through a routine of one-armed pressups. He stands and twists quickly at the waist, popping the air between his joints. He grabs the door lintel, the top of the frame, and hauls himself up and down, up and down. In his jersey boxers, with his light skin and wide cheekbones, he looks like a 1950s Soviet athlete. Who would dream that his mother and father had the same great, great, great grandfather; that this great-great-great had four wives; that he worshipped fire as a way to God? ‘But after Stalin,’ Bahrom explains, ‘every science book at school begin with same sentence: “There is no God.”’ His mother is a physics teacher. In their Moscow apartment, his family celebrates holy days with the curtains drawn. On the Pavilion lawn, his phone vibrates between our hips. He reaches for his pocket. ‘Hello Moto,’ he sings to his phone, a new purchase from Churchill Square. He flips it open –‘Da’ – and slips into a blend of Russian and Persian. I roll off so he can speak. He stands and walks, phone to ear. His brow creases. He thrusts his free hand deep into a 5 pocket, shouts briefly, then ends the call. At a bush, he snaps off the stalk of a heavy-headed hydrangea and returns with it for me. I smile, my nose among its purple petals. ‘You’re not allowed to pick the flowers.’ ‘Always an odd number,’ he says. ‘One, three, five. An even number of flowers is bad luck.’ He opens my bag and settles it inside. ‘What was it? On the phone.’ He shrugs. ‘Nothingk.’ And as if to prove it, he turns a cartwheel in the grass. He tumbles upside-down and walks on his hands in the shadows of the Pavilion’s scaffolding. We walk past Grand Parade and toward the London Road. The Pavilion’s minarets recede behind us. We pass the old Bingo hall, and he snaps a picture of the eye-sore of a sign with his mobile. We pass Sainsbury’s, McDonald’s, my dry-cleaner’s. He speaks to me in Persian, and I laugh. Suddenly he is a stranger to me. ‘In Persian, I tell you how happy I am beside you. I tell you in Persian because it is best language for emotions. Like poetry. Pictures. Many pictures. Uzbek too. Turkish is quite good. Russian, not very.’ ‘And English?’ ‘I learn only slowly.’ No wonder. His language school in Hove has been shut down three times by the police. Each time, the owner, an Egyptian, waits a month, maybe two, then changes the name in the window. ‘The Regency School of English’. ‘The Imperial School of English Language Studies’. ‘The Sussex College for English Language Proficiency’. Mr. Hafez rents accommodation to his students. Cheap but still over-priced. Bahrom sleeps in a room with four other men. ‘Is okay,’ he says. ‘Like brothers.’ Recently, he brought home a fifth. An Uzbek. ‘What could I do? He sleep on potato sacks on kitchen floor in London restaurant. I give him my bed till Turkish student leaves, and I get him job vashing dishes.’ At the Italian restaurant in the Lanes, everyone in the kitchen is Asian or middle eastern. Few are legal. As a line-cook, Bahrom makes deep-dish lasagne and steamed mussels in a creamy white wine sauce. He has respect for food, for the pleasures of the senses. He is good. But in the basement, far below the feet of the clientele, tempers flare each night in the heat and steam. Soon, the new salad-man – surly, unpredictable, a stranger to everyone – will upend a kettle of bubbling tomato sauce and run. Bahrom will be rushed up the stairs and through the back door out of view of the diners. At the hospital they will discover secondand third-degree burns. Doctors will encourage him to press charges. But the salad-maker 6 will not be found, and the owner will visit Bahrom in hospital and give him £50 for his troubles. Bahrom wants to keep working. He must have money to show for himself when he returns to Moscow in November. Already his father boasts, ‘My son, big chef in good restaurant in London.’ London. Brighton. It’s all relative. In my fridge sits our supper: mushroom tagliatelle in a sauce he has made from scratch. But at my door, he kisses me and tells me to eat well. ‘What do you mean? Where are you going?’ ‘A problem.’ ‘The phone call.’ ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘Stay.’ ‘Do not vorry.’ ‘When you say that I worry.’ ‘I see you at parade tomorrow. Do not forget to put our flower in vahter.’ A Cadillac glides past St. Peter’s Church. Two hairy-armed dames perch on the back seat, blowing kisses to the crowd. The song from an open-topped bus explodes behind them. ‘So horny, horny, I’m horny, horny, horny…’ Balloon-bouquets and boas rise into the air. Men in Marie Antoinette wigs totter on stilts toward the crowd, their tanned buttocks quivering. A Japanese princess-boy waves from beneath her tall golden headpiece. Across the London Road, a party spills onto a narrow roof. Bubbles stream from their open window. A blonde in a tasselled leather waistcoat and mini cowgirl skirt slaps her thighs and fires twin pistols at the sun. Her friend twirls a lasso and chugs champagne as the Gay Police Association marches respectably past. A kiss on my ear. I turn and Bahrom circles my shoulders with his arms. ‘See? Like I promise. I find you.’ I lay my hands over his, then lift them, staring. His knuckles are bruise
d and bloody. He points, as if I’m a child who might be distracted. ‘Look! My God!’ Men in Vegas-style feather costumes can-can past. The crowd is a froth of cheers and whistles. He reaches for his phone and switches on the camera. I grab the phone. His eyes meet mine. We escape the press of bodies and walk to a patch of St. Peter’s dried-out lawn. ‘Yesterday, a guy from the school, a Tajik guy, I don’t know him much, he sees a girl from Kazakhstan he likes at station. He asks for her number. She is stupid. She gives it.’ 7 ‘Why stupid?’ ‘Because she has boyfriend, a Kazakh, who hears about it. Then a car with his friends find Tajik guy. He says he doesn’t know about a boyfriend. But is no good. I get that call. We all must go.’ ‘Where?’ Bahrom rips grass from the ground. ‘An empty petrol station on the seafront.’ The Tajiks versus the Kazakhs, like a scene-gone-wrong from West Side Story. Where am I? ‘Is terrible. The Kazakh, he hit and hit, and the Tajik guy, he not so big. Finally, I feel so ill in my stomach I go and pull the Kazakh off him. His friends, they shout and get big with it and they say I am against the rules – yes, but I can’t let it happen more – so they come on me and we all fight. Is bad for everyone. Two of us, we get the Tajik to the hospital – a broken rib and this and that. It takes a long time in 999. Then home, sleep two hours, shower – and find you. I promise, yes, and I find you.’ I lay my hand on his. It’s trembling. He looks up, shaking off the night. ‘How is flower?’ ‘Perfect.’ ‘My English not good today.’ ‘You’re tired.’ He laughs, falling back to rest his head on the ground. ‘My brain gets bad. Before I learn languages easy. My father tell me now I learn enough. He has business ready for me.’ ‘Where?’ ‘In Nowhere.’ ‘Close to Moscow?’ ‘No. Far.’ ‘Will you need English for the business?’ ‘No. I vill forget.’ He winces in the sunshine, looks at me, then away again. ‘I fear I vill.’ November. I stare at the map on my screen. I try to imagine him in the black dot that is labelled ‘Ufa’. He stands outside an internet café in temperatures of fifteen below. ‘Brighton,’ he is saying, but the signal is bad. ‘It feel like you, Brighton, your flat, Churchill Square, all the flowers, like…’ He sighs. ‘Is no good. Already, I don’t know the vords.’ ‘Try,’ I say down the phone. ‘Try to remember.’ ‘Here is jungle. You cannot imagine. For example, my eyes are wet a little now, yes?, because I speak with you, and people by door they look like they vish to kill me 8 for it. You, Brighton, speaking English, Pavilion – remember? – is all like…like…I don’t know.’ ‘Bahrom, sweetheart, listen, isn’t there anyone you know?’ ‘Is all like…the vord you teach me for Pavilion.’ My heart is a stone in my chest. ‘Make-believe?’ For a moment, only dead air. ‘Bahrom..?’ I see again his huge black eyes, the rise of his chest, the archipelago of burn-marks on his back. Outside my window, a girl with fly-away pink hair walks past. Then his voice again, deep but faint, reaching across 2,300 miles. ‘Yes. Make belief. You understand? Listen to me. That is vord. I make belief.’