Amirah wore her hair in a bun. She was delicate and she wore ballet flats and a scarf. Someone less like Jess would be difficult to imagine, but when Tania sent them out for groceries, Tony leapt at the chance. He hadn’t talked with someone his own age in a very long time.
“You ever think of being a lawyer?” Amirah asked as they left the shop, hefting reusable shopping bags out of reach of the dog chained up outside.
“No,” said Tony. “I’d be rubbish.”
“So you’re a secretary,” said Amirah, unlocking her car and opening the boot. “You scurry around doing what my uncle tells you to.”
“I don’t,” Tony protested. “I’m more a financial manager anyhow.” He put his groceries in the back and very nearly walked around to the driver’s side.
“Right,” said Amirah. “Are you out?”
“Mum wanted to fix us up but you’re gay.” Amirah said this shruggingly as she turned the key in the ignition. At first Tony was surprised, but then he recalled that she had two uncles and she lived in Canada.
“She was serious about that?” Tony asked.
Amirah rolled her eyes. “There’s no telling with her. She’s got that dry sense of humor I so clearly didn’t inherit. Plus whenever Uncle Omar visits she gets ten times worse. Half the time she’s just making things up to tease him.”
As they pulled out into traffic, Amirah’s phone rang.
“See who it is, would you?” Amirah asked. “I try not to talk while I drive.”
Tony glanced at the screen. “It’s your mum.”
“Answer it,” said Amirah.
Tony was beginning to notice just how short on “please” and “thank you” this family was. “Amirah’s phone. This is Tony.”
“Tony,” Tania said, “tell my daughter to stop for booze. If Omar tells me one more thing about business I will either stick my head in the oven or strangle him with my bare hands. Bring olives.” And she rang off.
It turned out that Tania knew how to make a mean martini. Tony rarely drank, but he had had to learn how to hold his liquor for those times Mr. Nelson took the office to the pub at the end of each fiscal year. He finished one and a half and then set his glass down in front of him and watched what unfolded.
In one corner, Omar was talking very earnestly to Tania’s husband, Asad. He was talking with his hands, and his face was fairly flushed. Asad stood there nodding and occasionally took a long, considering sip of his fruit juice. (Asad wasn’t drinking. Asad didn’t drink at all. Tony had considered joining him, but decided in the end that a little liquid courage wouldn’t be totally uncalled for in this company.) At times Asad would interject in a soft voice that nonetheless carried across the room: “Let me ask you this,” “I’d be interested to hear more about that,” “Have you considered—?”
Standing in the doorway, Amirah was on the phone with someone. “No!” she exclaimed, quite drunk. “No! You can tell that fat-faced cow just what I’ll do to her. Absolument non!” The next minute she burst out laughing. “Yeah, I’m wasted.” She listened. “No, with my parents.”
(If Tony’s mum caught him so much as glancing at alcohol, she would refuse to speak to him for days. She would cast baleful looks at him across the breakfast table.)
Beside him on the sofa, Tania and Johnny were deep in conversation. Tania kept accidentally elbowing him as she talked, and Tony had tried to move to a nearby chair more than once, but she kept seizing his arm and holding him in place. “Tony, please stay. We need your opinion on something.” And then she would forget that he was there and, after some time, his attention would wander.
Now she clutched his leg and Tony nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Don’t worry,” she said, with her frankly alarming direct stare. “Just listen to this.”
“Well,” Johnny said, “there’s this bloke an’ he moves to this village in Wales. He’s got this neighbor—chatty old geezer, but he doesn’t introduce himself. So this bloke asks his name and the old man goes all red.”
“All red,” Tania said to Tony, as if he were hard of hearing.
“Old man goes all red and he says,” and here Johnny put on what sounded to Tony like a pretty convincing Welsh accent (although the only Welsh accents Tony heard with any regularity were those people on Torchwood), “‘See those houses? Built ‘em all and do they call me Jones the house builder? No. See those flowers? Planted ‘em all myself and do they call me Jones the gardener? No. See that sign? Painted it myself and do they call me Jones the sign-painter? No. But I fuck one sheep…’”
Tania’s grip on Tony’s knee tightened as she doubled over in laughter. “A sheep!” she exclaimed, wiping tears away.
Johnny grinned over at her. “Can’t believe you’d never heard that one.”
“I’m in exile here, darling,” she said, abruptly regaining her composure. “And somehow jokes about Americans don’t quite tickle the same funny bone.”
“I wouldn’t think,” said Tony weakly.
Tania looks at him appraisingly. “Tony,” she said, “what do you hope to do with your life?”
“Leave the boy alone,” Johnny said into his martini glass, finishing off what had to be his third.
“We’re just talking about his future,” said Tania. “Didn’t Omar bring him here to talk about his future?”
Johnny rolled his eyes and leaned back into the sofa. He closed his eyes.
“I think he said something about Canadian business,” said Tony. “I think he had hoped to sit me down with your husband.”
Tania shook her head. “It’s not my husband you want to talk to, it’s me.” Tony must have looked doubtful, because the next thing he knew Tania had slapped him lightly, playfully, across the face. “Don’t look so surprised. I made it for myself in this country for years before I met Asad. I ran away from home. You have yet to do that?”
“I used to own a flat but now I live with my mum,” said Tony, regretting the last half martini.
Tania shook her head. “That’s no good. No good at all.”
At some point, Amirah had come to rest on the arm of the couch. Now she slithered half onto Tony’s lap. “Ask him if he’s got a boyfriend,” she said sleepily.
“You should,” said Tania, and for a moment Tony thought she was talking to Amirah. When he realized that her eyes had not moved from him he blushed bright red and said, “How do you know I haven’t?”
Tania shook her head. “If you did you would be on a mini break right now instead of following your employers to this godforsaken place.”
“I thought you invited me,” said Tony.
“I did,” said Tania. “But that doesn’t mean I would have come in your place.”
“Bollocks,” said Johnny. He didn’t open his eyes.
“You bollocks,” said Tania. “And when was the last time you met anyone new? Do you and Omar have friends?”
Tony couldn’t wait to hear the answer to this. In the few months he had been working for Omar and Johnny, he hadn’t once had to schedule anything around social obligations. They seemed to exist on a steady diet of work, takeaway, and—if the occasional overheard comments were anything to go by, and although Tony blushed to even imagine such a scenario—vigorous sex of patchy frequency.
“Yes,” said Johnny, but he didn’t say anything else.
Across the room, the rumble of Asad and Omar came to a stop and, “Tania,” Omar called across the room, and Tania let go of Omar’s leg. “Tania, do you remember what you once said to me? You were so exasperated. ‘Families! I hate families!’”
“Yes,” said Tania.
“My dear,” said Asad, fondly.
“Did you really?” Amirah asked her mother.
“I did,” said Tania. She glanced at her daughter, and Tony could see something behind her eyes wavering. She sort of smiled. “It could be that I was wrong.”
The next day, Tony called Jess. “I’m in Canada,” he whispered into the phone. Everyone else was still asleep, and Tony had tiptoed down to the kitchen to make tea.
“And you couldn’t make it to California?” Jess asked. She didn’t sound angry. She sounded tired.
“Not this time,” said Tony.
“Am I ever going to see you again?”
“I’ll be at your wedding,” said Tony. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Some days it feels like I’m on the other end of the world, here,” said Jess. “It’s not bad most days. It’s great, even. I’ve got Joe, and Jules is here and there’s the team and Joe’s pals and all that lot, but then…” Tony could almost hear her shrugging over the phone.
“But then I’ll hear from you, or Mum and Dad, or Pinky, and it just feels that much farther, you know?”
“I know,” said Tony, and they sat there and breathed into the phone.
“Well,” said Jess, after a time. “This is cheerful, isn’t it?”
“I’m missing you too,” said Tony. “I’m with a family here, but they’re not you.”
“Look,” said Jess. “Take what you have. The rest’ll find its way of getting to you.”
Tony blinked. “That was almost good advice.”
She laughed. “Oh, shut it. I just tell you what you need to hear.”
Tony heard footsteps descending the stairwell. “I gotta go, Jess. Let me know about the wedding.”
Tony rang off just as Omar padded into the kitchen. His hair was sticking up at odd angles and in the morning light there seemed to be more grey in it than usual. When he sat down at the table, his left knee creaked alarmingly. “It sounds worse than it is,” said Omar thickly. “Must we have the blinds open?”
Tony turned and slanted the blinds over the sink shut a bit. He took advantage of having his back to Omar to let out a silent chuckle. Not everyone got the opportunity to see their boss thoroughly hung-over. He turned back around and rested against the sink. “Tea?”
Omar shook his head. He rested his elbows on the table and his chin on his hands. “Who was that you were talking too?”
He looked inquisitive, almost professorial. Tony bit back the urge to laugh again. “Just my friend Jess.”
“Ah,” said Omar. “The one with the Irish fiancé.”
Omar nodded slowly, his head jerking up and down in his hands. He stopped suddenly. “Tony, I am about to give you a piece of advice and I will only say it once, so listen closely.”
Tony nodded again then, when it became clear that Omar hadn’t seen him (he was too busy squeezing his eyes shut against the remnants of sun), he cleared his throat. “Yes.”
“Your friend is doing it right.”
Tony waited for him to go on. When he didn’t, Tony couldn’t help but blurt out, “Sir?” as if he were still at school.
Omar smiled. “Sometimes you have to say fuck it, before it fucks you.”
Amirah clattered into the kitchen, as fresh as she would have been if she had not spent the majority of the previous night yelling into the phone alternately in French and English. “What did I miss?”
Omar winced, and clutched his head, and Tony turned to the teapot.