'I'm sorry,' Lina said, running up the steps at the main entrance of St Paul's Cathedral. Anil was standing, with arms crossed over his broad chest, in the narrow gap between a pair of Corinthian columns. The collars of his shirt and coat were turned up, the stiff edges almost grazing the lobes of his ears. Worry, which had started to flare across his body like a bad itch, melted into dampness across his palms. He was suddenly thankful that they wouldn't shake hands in greeting. To date, they had acknowledged each other only with smiles and hellos. When they touched it had been accidental: a brush of knees or elbows while sitting beside each other. And once, when she was leaning over to point out something, her cheek had grazed his arm: a fleeting, teasing caress.
'My God, it's huge.' Lina took in the two tiers of columns and the great bell towers that rose up from each end of the cathedral. One of them bore the time and announced in golden Roman numerals that she was over an hour late. 'I'm so sorry.' Her eyes and mouth shrank in embarrassment. 'Thanks for waiting... so long. I just... I don't know. It was one thing after another. And the time just...' She snapped her fingers.
'At least you made it. Shall we go in?'
'The others?" She glanced around. 'They're not here?'
'No, they were busy.' Busy wondering where he was, probably. Anil wiped his hands on his brown corduroy trousers as they entered the nave of the cathedral. He'd made vague claims about a project deadline to get out of the game of squash the friends had been scheduled to play. He hadn't said he wanted to see Lina alone. It would have meant putting up with jokes beforehand and facing an interrogation afterwards. And, for the first time, he felt a need to protect a little part of himself from them.
Suddenly, Lina was nervous. She fingered the ends of her hair. Tousled by the wind, it had more volume, and emphasized the thinness of her face, making her chin seem longer. For all the minor irritations having Anil's friends around entailed, they had provided a convenient buffer against the slowly unfolding truth that she was trying to deny.
When she gasped it was more at being dwarfed by her own feelings than the tremendous dome under which they had arrived. The floor of the cathedral was shaped like a cross and they were standing at the heart of it. 'Incredible, isn't it?' Anil spun around and opened his arms. The cuffs of his striped shirt rode up his arm, revealing strong wrists. There was a thick gold kara, a symbol of Sikhism, on the right one. 'It's the second largest cathedral dome in the world. 'Then he started pointing out different features and telling her about the architect, Sir Christopher Wren. 'He took inspiration from everywhere. Remember those twin columns at the front? Well, they're based on ones at the Louvre. And the dome, the porches - they're all taken from what he saw at other churches. The genius lies in the way he combined everything so harmoniously. And he did it against so much opposition. The church hated his original design! They thought it was too modern. He had to keep watering down his vision until they approved it. But he was clever, he got sanction from the king to make variations on the agreed plan, and basically constructed the original building he wanted right under the noses of the clergy. Of course, by the time they realized it was too late!' His face opened into laughter. The gums above his top teeth were exposed and shone pink.
The fine down on Lina's face stood to attention as a light spray of mirth sprang from his mouth and landed on her forehead. 'You could apply to be one of their official tour guides.'
'Thanks. It's good to know there's something I can fall back on if my other plans don't work out.'
Afraid to ask about these, Lina turned slowly to take in the murals, the ornate guilding and the galleries that lined the dome. When she looked down again, the black and white tiles on the floor seemed to slide into the vortex at her feet. She put a hand on Anil's arm to steady herself. 'You seem to admire people who do things differently.'
He closed his eyes for a moment and appeared to think before replying. In fact, he was trying to reclaim his body, all of which had become inconsequential in relation to the burning patch under her palm. 'I like it when people dare to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy.' Her hand slipped away and he could breathe again. 'I believe in fighting for what you want.'
His conviction persuaded Lina, who didn't know that he'd never had to struggle for anything.
'Come.' Anil took Lina's hand. 'I'd like to show you something else.' Both were quiet at this first deliberate pressing of flesh against flesh. Around them people were starting to fill up the pews. 'I think the evening service might start soon. We need to be quick, otherwise it won't work so well.'
He took her up an endless staircase. The higher they went, the more his grip on her tightened. Towards the top of the 259 steps it was the strength of his clutch that propelled her along. Her legs had become woolly leaden things, inordinately heavy, and yet trembling like thread. There was a tightness in her chest which couldn't just be attributed to the strenuous climb.
Then they were in the Whispering Gallery. Anil explained that it got its name from a quirk in construction, which made a whisper against its walls audible on the opposite side. He led her to a section where there was no one else. 'Stay here.' He left her standing in front of a wall and disappeared behind the one directly opposite.
His voice wafted softly towards her. A moment later his head peeked out from the edge of the wall, eyebrows lifted in enquiry. She nodded to confirm that she'd heard him. Once he was out of sight, he spoke again. At the same time, below them, a priest began rumbling welcome to the congregation.
...FIND IN THE WORDS OF THOMAS À KEMPIS...
I've been wanting to tell you for weeks.
I think you can guess what...
LOVE IS A GREAT THING, YEA, A GREAT
AND THOROUGH GOOD.
Anil worried that whatever he said might be drowned out by the microphone-enhanced voice that was blowing through the cathedral. But he went on:
I felt something from the first time I saw you.
Like, I can't explain - it was meant to be. Even our names...
LOVE FLIES, RUNS AND REJOICES;
IT IS FREE AND NOTHING CAN HOLD IT BACK.
The more I know you, the more I want to know.
Lina's hands were joined, palm to palm, with the index fingers pressing hard against her lips and the thumbs digging into the soft valley beneath her jaw. The simultaneous boldness and shyness of Anil's gesture moved and amused her. She wanted to skip in response to his adoration, but a history of compliance was binding her feet. Her mother's face loomed before her, a finger wagging in warning as she mouthed her favourite saying, 'Don't put a question mark where Allah has put a full stop.' There was no way around the great bulwark of Iman's expectations. But then, Lina saw her father with his gentle equivocations. Shareef's way of applying pressure was to say, 'You must do the right thing. It is always either the easiest or the hardest course of action. Usually, the latter.' Lina found herself wondering if succumbing to Anil could possibly be the rightest of all rights, because it felt at once supremely easy and excruciatingly hard.
LOVE FEELS NO BURDEN, THINKS NOTHING OF TROUBLE,
ATTEMPTS WHAT IS ABOVE ITS STRENGTH,
I can't go away and not speak to you for a month.
I guess what I'm asking, if you agree, is...
No. Oh no! Lina thought.
I've fallen -
LOVE DIVINE ALL LOVES EXCELLING
JOY OF HEAVEN TO EARTH COME DOWN
He appeared again as the Charles Wesley hymn filled the Cathedral. As he walked towards her, she felt a strange amalgam of elation, guilt and ominous premonition.
Anil was in front of her. They stood face to face - him looking down, her up - and read each other's eyes for all the feelings that words could not measure. Then his finger pressed against Lina's lips - as if to silence any objection.
'Does it hurt?'
For a second she thought he'd glimpsed the agony of indecision in her heart - until his finger started to trace the scar on her upper lip.
'No.' She couldn't explain that the spot was at once supremely sensitive and strangely numb, because - suddenly - his lips were on hers.
Astaghfirullah! Allah forgive me! She begged quietly.
© Priya Basil
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