A faint prickle of eyes on the back of my neck, that atavistic itch, and I suddenly want to draw into myself. Instead I unfurl, greet the challenge, turn and switch on the same smile I have dazzled all evening, even though my stomach plummets a fraction as I watch them weave through the guests. And although they’re looking off in the other direction, I can sense the focus, know with certainty that they spotted me from afar and are heading towards me with the precision of a B-2 stealth bomber. This is not unlike them.
Zubayr works for the family, in some unknown capacity that enables him to live a lavish lifestyle that at times seems beyond even that of the family - or perhaps he just likes to show it off. An adviser of some sort, perhaps that’s the correct term, because as well as managing their assets, he seems always on hand, a ubiquitous presence. I don’t know how long he’s known the family, but I sometimes get the feeling he is privy to a whole different level of information about them, and their past. I wonder then, how well he knows Zak.
Despite his overall manner of discretion though, he will surprise me by materialising in some ridiculous sports car wearing a cravat. Sayid once mentioned that his father sold watches in East Street market in the sixties, but Zubayr clearly learned fast, bouncing from the trading floor to private equity and then into the lap of the Zahar family. Clearly, the scope of his ambition exceeded the drab confines of Southwark. Perhaps that’s why he can’t resist a little display of conspicuous materialism now and again I think, smiling into my drink.
“Mia, we were meaning to catch you all evening.” Zubayr extends his arm with a tiny stiff bow that is a touch exaggerated in its formality, the small social lie tripping off his tongue with silky ease. He is heavyset and compact like a bulldog, but with a certain precision to his manner, and I generally feel a little wary of him, a sense of being scrutinized through the easy charm. I always feel we are playing some weird verbal ping pong, which amuses and makes me nervous in equal measure. Next to him is his wife Rimah, a crystalline vision of haughty perfection.
“Zubayr, Rimah, how lovely - I’m so glad we managed to catch one another. It’s good to see you both!” My tone feels false to me, vowels unnaturally rounded, like the tension in a soap bubble, my movements even more choreographed than usual.
Rimah wears a silvery white fitted gown, expression composed, and yet a sense of challenge in her dark eyes. Her position is assured, and I have always sensed she sees me as a usurper of some kind, a pretender. I find this ironic.
Despite her stiff manner with me, she has a coterie of friends, the “wives” - they lunch in the same exclusive venues, get their hair done in the same salons - recirculate the same gossip. She gives a cool smile as we greet one another, a small, light hug, cold fingertips brushing my skin. Reserve.
I see his eyes flick away, but he notices these things - the small things. That’s what makes him so good, all that is regarded as insignificant is minutely sifted by him. Plus of course, they probably discuss me. They were at the wedding, six months ago.
“Fantastic evening,” he indicates with a casual flex of the wrist, a small movement of his head - that expression, chin braced and chest slightly puffed, it is a nuance of body language that places him firmly in those echelons that he so easily inhabits now, as if he has been schooled in the gestures. Perhaps he can also see through mine.
“Yes, beautiful,” Rimah agrees with an unchanging expression, avoiding more than a flicker of eye contact, as if trying too hard with me would be a deference too far. Rimah, unlike her husband, is the daughter of a very illustrious family. It is easy to see though, where the power lies. Behind the cool facade she seems hungry for his approval. She probably thinks nobody has noticed.
Nevertheless, it is easy to see how generations of privilege are hardwired into the posture, the expression. Some small inflection, transforms Rimah from stiff and awkward into statuesque and elegant. Her chin is tilted ever so slightly upward, just that right increment that makes it subtle, and yet abundantly clear, that she is looking down on you. I wonder if she is a little scared of him. I take a thoughtful sip of my drink.
We all smile at each other across the battle lines, as Zubayr expounds, again with that same ease that releases a person from any kind of obligation, any self-consciousness. Our conversation takes in the hall, the architecture, and then manoeuvres around to the jewels themselves, and I can swear, that both pairs of eyes flicker at precisely the same time towards my neck, so I am once again aware of its solid weight, its coolness. The ache tugs at my temples again, and I feel distracted, as he continues in his steady drone, watching me all the while.
“Once we transport the raw diamonds to our laboratories around Europe, our craftsmen cut and polish them, in a very extensive process that takes off up to fifty percent of the diamonds weight, in dust.” He pauses, lifts his champagne flute in an expansive gesture.
I smile encouragingly - not that he needs it. Rimah’s head is tilted so much now, in rapt interest, that I think she might get a neck crick if she keeps it up.
“From there, it can take a whole team of artisans to design and finish the gem, into something as exquisite as the creation you are wearing around your neck tonight,” he finishes, with a small flourish and the gleam of perfectly even white teeth in a sinuous smile.
There is a silence, a stilted pause. Rimah and I are both wearing interested expressions, although whereas my mind is whirring, her now radiant smile suggests that she considers this a soliloquy of unbridled genius. I catch a glimpse of the kind of deference and adoration that possibly passes as wifely duty in her circles, and again consider the irony that just a generation ago her father would probably have booted this man from his door.
“Amazing.” I smile broadly, since they are both turned to me now. “It’s always fascinating to know the journey of something so finely made, that wings its way from the other side of the world, to adorn us at an occasion like this.” I take a sip of my drink, and he is now wearing an expectant smile, as if waiting for more. “You know, I read somewhere that it can take something like ten people several days to hand embroider a dress in India, before it makes its way here.”
This is the kind of meaningless drivel that passes for conversation at occasions like this, but also a statement that I know Zubayr will sift for meaning, especially given his wife’s exquisite hand embroidered gown. I watch as they both nod, Rimah’s smile fixed with a waxy quality and Zubayr with the ghost of a frown, figuring out whether I mean anything specific by this. I enjoy throwing him little curve balls here and there, because I know how he will run after them like an eager puppy, to unravel for meaning.
His eyes look like he is concentrating, and his eyebrows do that funny little play of squiggles as he muses on the import of this, makes a decision as to its significance and then formulates an appropriate response. But before he can say something else that will bore me silly, we all hear Sayid’s laugh rising conspicuously somewhere behind us, and it is the perfect moment to excuse myself with a polite smile and head towards him.
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