Fauzia liked the office at this time of the morning, when the ranks of desks lay empty and expectant for another day of dramas. Before the rush, she could still think clearly, she could breathe without the tightness in her chest which gathered through the course of the day. Tapping keyboards were all that lay between her and the overwhelming rush of data; tapping which attempted to order and make sense of the world. She skimmed Twitter feeds, Instagram, she checked several competitor sites – the Financial Times, the New York Times, The Times; she had half an eye on BBC World News on a screen above the news desk. The first editorial conference was in ten minutes, and she needed to pull the foreign news list together: a bomb in Kabul, a British tourist in a minibus crash in Majorca, a political crisis in Italy. She was almost done.
‘Fauzia, a call on line one – can you deal with it?’ called Jack, the news editor. The ring of a landline was an unusual sound these days; the newsroom used to thrum with the ringing of phones and the murmur of voices, but that was twelve years ago, when she first started as a reporter. The screen was king now; voice calls took too long, and WhatsApp was safer and quicker.
Fauzia put on her headphones to take the call, and resumed typing the news list. A man was speaking so fast she couldn’t follow, and she missed his name.
‘. . . she had been studying for a PhD. She once told me she knew you . . . I think you had met through a family friend? She went to Cairo just ten days ago.’
Fauzia was searching through Twitter for the name of the dead British tourist in Majorca. The man’s voice was educated, middle- class, but his sentences were fragmented, so it was hard to catch the significance. She paused her scrolling.
‘You’re saying she studied in London and has been here eighteen months. Is that right?’ she asked. ‘Sorry, who is this person? Who are you?’
‘You met Reem Hameed – I think you knew her well?’
Fauzia stopped typing, alert. ‘What’s happened? What about her?’
Jack was calling her from the other side of the news desk, his face puckered with impatience. He needed the news list for conference.
‘Hang on a moment, stay on the line,’ she said quickly. No, no, not Reem. She forced herself to focus: the BBC were reporting that six British tourists had been killed or injured in the minibus crash. News was also breaking of a shooting in Louisiana, with two dead; she added it to the list and pressed save. Now Jack had the list, she switched her attention to the breathing on the other end of the line.
‘What’s happened to Reem?’ she repeated.
‘She went to Cairo and we haven’t heard from her for several days. We’ve made various attempts to contact her, but nothing – no texts, emails, WhatsApp messages. It’s not like her. She was in regular contact every couple of days, and now nothing.’
Fauzia tried to place the voice – was he a doctor? How did he know Reem? He was someone used to wielding authority, to being listened to without interruptions. Now that he had her attention, he slowed down and paused between sentences. He was making an effort to contain his anxiety.
‘Disappeared? How long ago? What was she doing in Cairo?’ ‘She was vague. We last met at a seminar two weeks ago, and she mentioned in passing that she was going to Egypt. I didn’t think much of it, and we mostly talked about a paper she was preparing. I think she said something about meeting family or friends, but when I go over the conversation now, I don’t know if I heard that or have added it in – but she was emphatic that she’d be back in plenty of time for a seminar yesterday, when she was due to present her paper. She was too conscientious to let me down without good reason.’
He paused. When he began again, there was a tremor in his voice and he had to clear his throat. ‘Just before boarding at Heathrow, she emailed her phone number and gave the contact details for her hotel in Cairo. She said it was “just in case”. I thought that was odd, but she’s mature, she knows the Middle East well – she’s told me something of her background, her father, and so on – and I reasoned to myself that she wouldn’t run any risks.’ ‘Did she email or WhatsApp from Egypt?’ Fauzia ignored Jack beckoning to her through the glass wall of the meeting room. ‘A week ago she emailed to say that she was enjoying the sunshine and had pretty much finished the paper. She had a minor query. I replied and explained the running order for the seminar, and that we had an additional speaker. We’ve been trying to get the Foreign Office to help. They won’t do anything – they say she is not a British national.’
‘Who’s “we”? And, sorry, I didn’t catch your name.’
‘I’ve got the university involved. I thought they would carry more clout. I’m Tim Blatchford, professor in international relations, and fellow at Corpus.’
Fauzia thought of when Reem had last come down from Cambridge. Reem had wrapped her thin, reddened hands around the coffee cup. She was cold – she didn’t like the British winter – but she was cheerful. She hadn’t said anything about an imminent trip to Egypt. Always that bright determination, and compact presence; her hijab neatly tied around her head, and her careful make-up. Reem had fired a series of questions at her about the Wilcox Smiths, Fauzia’s former in-laws. Fauzia tried to answer, but Reem already knew more than she had ever done.
‘I’m making headway. I’ve been piecing it together for over a year, and it’s coming together. I found a letter – in a library in Cambridge – a letter from Phoebe Wilcox Smith. The funny thing is, she set the ball rolling,’ she said thoughtfully.
‘But it was her husband, Martin, who set up the business,’ protested Fauzia. Her heart sank, Reem was still pursuing the subject.
‘I know. I was surprised as well, but believe me, it all starts with Phoebe in Iran – she knew what she was doing. I’ve got some loose threads to tie up in the next few weeks, and then you’ll see. I feel uncomfortable, though, digging all this up about Phoebe – I like her,’ Reem went on, her forehead creased with a deep frown. ‘She has been very kind to me. You know she paid for my grandparents to fly over for my graduation?’
‘Yes, I’d heard something about that. It’s the least she could do. Spare change,’ replied Fauzia. ‘I grant you that she is kind – but there is something about her which is unforgiveable.’
‘That’s too harsh. Last summer I really came to love her, and I know she felt the same way about me. That makes my research difficult, but . . .’ She took a sip of coffee and there was a pause in the conversation as they both took stock of the implications of that phrase. ‘I suppose you could say we’re a bit alike.’ Fauzia raised her eyebrows, surprised. ‘We both know what we want and that makes us very determined.’
She had a few more questions about the family – ages, dates of marriages, children – and took notes. As they’d said goodbye, Fauzia reminded Reem that the Wilcox Smith family had always known how to keep things hidden, but Reem only laughed. ‘Maybe not this time.’
Fauzia pulled her attention back to the voice on the other end of the line. Blatchford was saying, ‘The Bahraini government won’t help. The university asked the ambassador in London, but he said she no longer has citizenship. Her father was made stateless four years ago. It’s got nothing to do with them.’
‘She was definitely in Cairo? You’re sure she didn’t go anywhere else? Our stringer can look into it. What was her hotel address?’
Fauzia googled the hotel, and a shabby place in a back street on Gezira Island came up, popular with backpackers. A few years ago, she had stayed somewhere nearby on a work trip. She remembered the dust, the bedraggled tree on the corner where kids kicked a ball against a wall covered in graffiti, and the dull roar of traffic.
‘What’s your connection to her?’ asked Fauzia as she searched Reem’s Facebook page – the most recent posts were photos by the river Cam a fortnight before – her Instagram and Twitter.
‘I’m her PhD supervisor.’
Fauzia stared down at her keyboard as she struggled with the possibility that Reem was not safe, that it might already be too late. Once the thought formed in her mind, it grew more solid, gathering a horrible, quiet certainty. Her mind fixed on the memory of Reem’s thin wrists, how they protruded from the rolled-up cuffs of her big jumper as she reached up to fiddle with the single strand of small pearls she wore around her neck. Her hands were always restless as she spoke, making small adjustments to her hijab, shifting the loose gold watch round her wrist, smoothing down her jeans.
When Reem was awarded a place at Cambridge for her PhD, Fauzia had pressed her to find another area of research – something safer. ‘Make a fresh start,’ she had urged as they ate a quick lunch, ‘and put the past behind you. Build a new life.’ Reem had laughed: ‘What do I want a “new life” for?’ she asked, and Fauzia could think of so many reasons, she didn’t know what to say. They had been in a cafe in Bloomsbury, celebrating the news that Reem’s MA thesis had been awarded a distinction. Fauzia had been thrilled for her. She was on the point of finding a way in life, despite all that had happened.
‘I warned her to be careful . . . but she is strong-willed,’ Blatch- ford said haltingly. ‘Perhaps too much so for her own good.’
‘She had her reasons,’ Fauzia replied, chewing a strand of hair. ‘We’ll see if we can find anything out.’ She took his number.
‘Not sure it’s a story for us,’ said Jack, preoccupied, as Fauzia recounted some of the detail.
‘Hang on,’ she urged, and pulled up a recent photo of Reem posing in her academic gown in a Cambridge cloister, smiling broadly, with her arm around a blond-haired girl. Jack looked over Fauzia’s shoulder at the screen.
‘She’s pretty, I’ll give you that,’ he conceded. ‘Perhaps we could put the picture up with a caption. It’s a good image – risks to academic freedom and all that. See if you can find any more on her. If you knew her, there must be something you can dig up – was she saving babies or teaching street kids? Anything photogenic.’
Fauzia suppressed an inclination to roll her eyes, and nodded. She had worked here for long enough, and knew the rules: the story needed an angle or it was just another foreign student missing in a foreign country.
The conversations she needed to have were delicate, and she didn’t want people eavesdropping. The desks were filling up as reporters arrived for the early shift, and Jack was back at his desk, within earshot. She picked up her mobile and what was left of her coffee; there was a stationery cupboard on the third floor where she could be alone.
She needed to make these calls – and others, to as yet unknown people in Egypt – to find Reem. She tried to imagine her sitting in a Cairo cafe, alive, sipping coffee, listening to her favourite Arabic pop music, tapping her foot: surely, that could be possible? The image helped steady her.
As Fauzia reached the third floor, she saw a cleaner disappearing down the corridor. The cupboard was also used for cleaning equipment, and with luck she had fifteen minutes before the cleaner would be back. She opened the door and flicked on the light; metal shelves were stacked with boxes of notebooks, pens, Post-its, alongside spare desktop monitors and keyboards, cleaning fluids, and a watering can for the office plants. It smelt sharply of detergents and dust. She sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall under a narrow window. As she gulped her cold coffee, she scrolled through her contacts. She would call Kate first, and then Phoebe.
She dreaded the anxiety this news would cause Kate, the only one of the Wilcox Smith family who still mattered to her. The call to Phoebe would be awkward but less anguished; Fauzia hadn’t talked to her former mother-in-law since a reception to launch Martin’s biography three years ago at the House of Lords. In the crowd of politicians, business associates and family friends, they had exchanged a few words. Phoebe had been gracious, she said she was sorry that the marriage had not worked out, but her loyalty was obviously to her son, and as soon as she could she turned to another acquaintance. Since then they had once or twice been in the same place – Reem’s birthday dinner last summer – but had only acknowledged each other from a distance.
‘Fauzia, how lovely to hear from you!’ Fauzia gritted her teeth at the warmth in Kate’s voice. This was hard. ‘I was going to invite you over for a birthday tea for – Sorry, hang on.’
Fauzia heard the babble of conversation and the words ‘after school’ and ‘pick up’.
‘Sorry, all done. I haven’t got long – I need to get on the tube.
‘It’s about Reem,’ said Fauzia.
She heard muffled sounds, and a thump as if the phone had fallen. When Kate spoke again, she was mumbling incoherently. ‘What about her? Is she OK? Where is she?’ She was panicking.
‘She went to Egypt and was due back two days ago for a seminar yesterday, but she didn’t show up. Her PhD supervisor just called me.’
The cry was animal-like, as if something had been caught in a trap.
‘Not Reem,’ Kate moaned. It was a horrible sound.
It inflated Fauzia’s sense of foreboding and she felt a tightening in her chest. She leaned her head back against the wall’s cold hardness.
‘We don’t know anything yet. Please don’t panic,’ Fauzia said, more sharply than she had intended. ‘Kate, I need you to call Reem’s mother.’
‘I can’t. She’s back in prison.’
‘Do you know of friends or other family we could contact? We need to find out what she was doing in Cairo. Who might know?’
Kate was crying. Too many things had gone wrong in her life, and Fauzia blamed the Wilcox Smiths for a large part of her misfortunes.
‘You could call Aunt Phoebe – she likes Reem,’ Kate finally said, her voice thick. ‘She would know people who could help. They’re close.’
‘Let’s hope so,’ said Fauzia grimly.
‘I have to go.’ Kate was blowing her nose. ‘I’m going to be late for work again. Fauzia, call me the minute you hear anything.’
Fauzia quickly agreed – she could hear the beeping of another call. It was Jack.
‘I just spoke to the stringer, Ted, in Cairo. It doesn’t look good. A couple of months ago, an academic was found dead outside Cairo. If this woman was asking difficult questions, she probably ended up the same way – did you know her well?’ He sounded embarrassed and didn’t wait for an answer. ‘We can put it up on the site for a few hours, but until there’s a body, it’s not really a story. Can you get back to the desk asap? The dead in the Majorca minibus crash is now ten and counting.’
Fauzia put her phone on the floor. For a moment she listened to the air conditioning and the pipes gurgling as someone flushed a toilet. The opportunity for media coverage to help Reem was disappearing. She understood how her business worked, but Jack’s brusqueness felt chilling. Reem was not British, she was some foreign student, and she didn’t count.
She had to call Phoebe quickly before she went back downstairs. She listened to the distinctive ring of the old phone, picturing the big house, remembering those years of trying to win approval from her intimidating in-laws – all the weekends, dinners and theatre trips. Someone picked up the phone and, after a pause, Phoebe answered, hesitant at first when she heard Fauzia’s voice, but then more at ease; she was used to negotiating difficult relationships.
‘Such a dear thing. What could have happened? I’m sure she will turn up – perhaps she missed her flight.’
Phoebe’s voice didn’t waver. Her world, even after seventy-six years, had proved so predictable that she had no reason to panic as Kate had done, thought Fauzia, and she felt a rush of irritation at the Wilcox Smith complacency: their unshakeable belief that the world was well organized and safe; their wilful refusal to acknowledge its arbitrary, underlying violence. It brought out a savage desire to puncture Phoebe’s complacency.
‘Our stringer thinks she could be dead. Egypt doesn’t much like academic researchers who ask tricky questions,’ she said bluntly.
‘A little early to jump to that conclusion,’ retorted Phoebe. ‘I heard from Reem only a few days ago. She was in Cairo and told me she had met by chance an old friend of Martin’s. Lebanese, I think. Anyway, she was very cheerful, asking if I remembered anything about him. It seems he had visited Lodsbourne for a shooting party. He told her he admired our collection of Iranian miniatures. She was having a very interesting time, she said – she adores Cairo, you know. She promised to come down next week and tell me all about it. Very sweetly, she had even bought a box of my favourite dates.’
That call to Phoebe must have been just before she disappeared, Fauzia thought, as she caught the echo of Phoebe’s voice in the high-ceilinged hall with its stone-flagged floor. She remembered the old-fashioned cream phone on the polished hall table.
‘Did she say anything about why she was in Cairo? Did she mention anyone else she had seen? This friend of Martin’s – do you know his name?’
‘Goodness – so many questions. I think she said something about doing research in Cairo, but nothing more. She said she had seen some friends she studied with in London for supper.’ Phoebe’s voice had a slight edge of annoyance. ‘I didn’t catch any names, Fauzia. I can’t offer anything useful.’
While Phoebe explained how she was planning to take Reem out for lunch when she visited, Fauzia’s mind travelled up the Lodsbourne stairs, with the Iranian miniatures on the walls, to the first-floor landing, and then to the spare room ready for Reem’s visit: the double bed under its old-fashioned quilt, the landscape painting over the fireplace, and the armchair by the window looking over the lawns to the park, and the downs beyond. She imagined how Reem would lay out her mat in the direction of Mecca for prayers. She snapped herself out of this reverie, and focused her gaze on the shelf in front of her, noticing that someone had hidden a packet of cigarettes behind some boxes. Phoebe was still speaking.
‘I’m sure she’ll call in the next couple of days to say she is back, safe and sound. You will let me know as soon as you hear from her, won’t you, Fauzia?’ After promises that she would, Phoebe rang off; she probably needed to talk to the gardener, thought Fauzia bitterly.
She stood up and ran a hand through her hair, before tying it with a band. She pulled out a pocket mirror and checked her mascara for smudging. Reem – of all people – would have known how high a price the truth cost. Fauzia was angry with her: she was too young and too clever to have lost the chance of a life.
She texted Jack: ‘Coming. Nothing yet.’