Anyone watching Ronak suddenly clinging to me as we stepped out of the cinema into the cool evening would have interpreted the gesture as a demonstration of possession. Some would have rolled their eyes with a cynicism that projected their own relationship issues, while others would have beamed amiably with a genuine appreciation of what is often captioned on social media as “relationship goals”.
The five men who stood around the parking token dispenser were not even looking at us, but I was vaguely aware of their interest. Gangs of men in their 20s just hanging out were a common part of the scenery all over Middlesbrough, as they must be everywhere else in the world. But the notion that we were not part of the scenery to them piqued my primaeval instinct in a way I cannot explain but must have served our ancestors well in times of yore.
As we passed them, rough hands suddenly prised us apart, bound and gagged us in a single, swift motion. Ronak was frogmarched ahead of me, her stilettos beating a frenzied tattoo that ricocheted into the night as she struggled to maintain her footing. When she tried to dig in her heels and squirm free, one of the men bore down on her and barked a command in Farsi. Having an Iranian girlfriend enables you to recognise the language, even if you cannot speak a word of it yourself. She indicated her acquiescence with quick nods, and the man smiled in cruel triumph, stealing a mocking glance at me.
Someone must be seeing this, I told myself frantically. The parking area behind the mall was hardly a heavily populated area, but at around 9pm, even on an autumn night such as this, there had to be someone! Rough sleepers were known to use the far end. Besides, we were barely 200 metres from Marton Road. And, Middlesbrough is famous for its CCTV coverage. Someone must have seen us dragged away, and help was already on its way.
We were being taken towards the underpass that leads to the Riverside area with its football stadium. At this time of the night, it was even less densely populated than the parking area. Yet, hope surged in me. The underpass had CCTV cameras, probably with face-recognition capabilities to help the police identify football hooligans.
To my horror, we stopped outside the underpass, out of the cameras’ field of vision. Was this the chosen place for whatever it was they meant to do? I was turned around, to face the direction we had come from. They meant for me to be present, but not to watch. I was to only hear, and that alone would sear into my mind as vividly as the horror of witnessing helplessly my girlfriend being gang-raped by total strangers who happened to be her countrymen. I began to wriggle desperately, my breath a rasping, frantic snort. The men holding me laughed knowingly, pausing to look at the scene behind me. I heard male voices shouting in Farsi, and Ronak sobbing plaintively.
Then, it seemed there were footsteps pounding the concrete in retreat. I was pushed from behind, and I lost my footing. I keeled over like a full sack, turning my head in time to avoid smacking lips first into the concrete, but I still managed to get the left side of my brow in there with a loud thwack! The man who had pushed me down pressed his knees against me and glared into my terrified eyes. “You are scared, eh? Good. I hope you learn now; stay away from Iranian girls! They can create problems for you!” Dust seared my nasal cavity as if a torture master had just sprayed it in. It was that fire in my nose that prevented me from passing out. That, and the voice of Ronak, sobbing with rage and humiliation.
After what seemed like an eternity, dogs’ legs flashed across my field of vision. Behind me, I heard an exclamation of surprise, then, “Here, there’s another one! A lass!”
Panting, one of the dogs came back. This time, its muzzle filled my vision, before its tongue rolled out and lapped across the exposed part of my face.
WPC Olivia Cotton crept into the room nervously. I sat up in the bed and groaned as the bruises all over my body ached. “Officer, I think we have told you everything that we can tell you!” I said, sighing. “Middlesbrough has more CCTV coverage than any other town in the UK, so you should have it all on…You should have it all…I mean…”
She allowed me a moment with my anguish. Then, she said, “I am afraid, Mr Mangwende, that we need to make further enquiries. I do have some good news for you.” She paused as I pulled down the sheet with whose edge I had wiped my tears. “Our forensics team has done a thorough physical examination of Ms Anvari, reviewed the footage from the cameras at the scene of the attack, and Ms Anvari has testified as much, so we are satisfied that there was no serious sexual assault committed against her.”
“You mean she wasn’t…?”
“No, she wasn’t. CPS have also had a look at the evidence, and they think there is little for even a charge of attempted rape. Abduction, false imprisonment, perhaps.”
“Officer…I don’t understand.” I tried very hard to gather my thoughts. “OK, if they did not want to rape her, then why did they grab us like that? Robbery?”
“They went through Ms Anvari’s purse but put everything back. It looks like they only went through her things in order to verify her identity.”
“They were Iranians,” I said. “They could be security agents. You did find out that Ronak is an asylum seeker from Iran, didn’t you?”
“A failed asylum seeker, sir,” said WPC Cotton. “But we are not concerned about her immigration status at all. We are a police force, not the Home Office. However, the possibility that they are security agents is something that we are very concerned about, so we have passed on the details of the case to Special Branch in London. We are also concerned that the idea that your attackers could be Iranian security agents did not seem to have entered Ms Anvari’s mind until we suggested it to her in the interview.”
“So, who did she think they could be at first?”
“She was not forthcoming with that information, sir. She just wants this whole ordeal to be over, which is normal in these cases.”
“Well, could you blame her, officer?” I said. “It’s not as if there is going to be a prosecution.”
“We are keeping all lines of inquiry open, sir,” said WPC Cotton. “I must say that we have several asylum seekers and refugees from Iran in Middlesbrough and the Teesside sub-region as a whole, but a case of Iranian security agents terrorising them would be a first.”
“You don’t believe security agents were involved, do you?” Truthfully, neither did I, for that matter. Maybe the whole event had been staged to bolster her asylum claim. I had heard of a Zimbabwean who made 150 pounds apiece by sending threatening messages, purportedly from the regime’s agents to asylum claimants in the UK. But Ronak would never pull a stunt like that without discussing it with me first, and she would have never gone along with it if I had objected.
“As I said, Mr Mangwende, we are keeping all lines of inquiry open.”
I looked away, trying to piece all this together into a coherent pattern. There was a lot I did not know about Ronak. But then again, we had only been together for a year or so. The Hounslow shop she was working at (illegally, if you must know) wasn’t busy, so we chatted for nearly four hours about everything under the sun. I was going to walk away after that, anxious not to come across as the sort of fellow who misconstrues a really beautiful woman’s amicable manner as a flashing neon sign, yet knowing I liked this person I had just met and wanted to see her again. Her boss, Priti, had intervened and made us exchange numbers. The rest, as they say, is history.
We moved up north about four months ago. I purchased a lovely cottage in Westwick, a hamlet between the village of Whorlton and the town of Barnard Castle, surrounded by sheep farms and the Edenic green of the Teesdale region. My digital nomad business is legally based in Estonia.
“So, do you have any suspicions of your own at all about who might have attacked you tonight, sir?” WPC Cotton said. “Family members, perhaps?”
“Family members?” I echoed, astonished. “I am not Iranian, so they were certainly not mine. And, I don’t think they were Ronak’s relatives either.”
“Well, sir, as I have already indicated, one line of inquiry we might be pursuing, given how she appears reluctant with information, is that those men are well known to her,” said the policewoman. “Now, I am trying to be as sensitive as I can about an area that I will admit our force has very little experience with. However, we think that we may be dealing with a family opposed to your relationship because you are not from their culture.”
The words of one of the attackers came back to me so vividly that I could smell his breath. I hope you learn now; stay away from Iranian girls! They can create problems for you!
“So, what happens now?” I asked.
“You are both free to leave,” said the policewoman. “We are going to examine all forensic evidence and keep you posted on the investigation. We will also ensure that police in the Teesdale area where you live have a full description of the suspects and will keep a look-out for them in case they decide to visit you at home.”
“Thank you very much, officer,” I said.
It was a 40-minute drive back to Westwick. Ronak stared sullenly ahead, giving one-word answers the three or so times I tried to initiate a conversation before I finally got the hint. Yet, when we got home, she begged me to make love to her, tell her everything was going to be okay, we were safe here. Afterwards, she fell asleep in my arms, while I watched the sun rise over the sheep grazing in the field.
Ronak and I had so much in common, but we were from different worlds. In mine, honour killings and other forms of violence against women who dated outside their own community were unknown. Well, there was that time when my former friend, Calisto, beat his sister up after he found out she was seeing a Rastafarian. Oh, and that story in the papers about a mixed-race woman who murdered her brother’s Black girlfriend. I had to admit that a typical Zimbabwean couple did not readily find acceptance in each other’s family, and violence was not entirely unheard of. Honour killings, however, were something new.
There was nothing to show so far that the motive for the attack had been family, or even just community disapproval of our relationship. Iranians, like any other people on the earth, were not above bigotry, but I had seen enough Zimbabwean-Iranian relationships to reject the notion that they were a bunch of racists. I had certainly never come across a racist Iranian. So, I was back at What Just Happened?
I stroked Ronak’s hair. I knew the details of her asylum claim. One way of looking at it was that it was a bogus one. She lived the life of a young, western woman, but she was hardly a political dissident. She came from a powerful, connected family that trailed clouds of glory going back to the Ottoman Empire, but she had wanted to stay in Europe after graduating. There was no surprise that her application had been rejected several times now. Her only viable option was to marry someone who was a British citizen or had indefinite leave to remain. That someone was me.
I wish I could say that no one had ever tried to talk me out of this relationship because it looked to them like I was being used, or had predicted its termination as soon as Ronak got her residence permit. And, maybe, the thought had lingered in my mind just a few seconds longer than it should have in a healthy relationship. I had dispelled it until it learnt not to come back, but, sometimes, I heard it cough or shuffle its feet behind the hedge.
Next thing I knew, it was broad daylight, and there was a furious knocking on the door. I sat up, Ronak falling back limply beside me. She stirred, then sat up, as disoriented as I was. The banging against the door persisted. We exchanged wide-eyed looks.
“Mr Mangwende, Miss Anvari, this is the police! Please open the door!”
I slid off the bed, grabbing clothes off the carpet. There were two officers, male and female. Their badges read Hodgekins and Craddock. I stepped aside to let them in and took a glance outside. Westwick was still sleeping, or out working. So, hopefully, no one had seen the police car pull up outside the only non-white household in the village.
In the living room, the officers were introducing themselves to Ronak. I circumnavigated them to stand beside my girlfriend, putting my arm around her.
“Middlesbrough contacted us about what happened last night,” said Craddock. “I want to assure you that we will do everything we can to ensure your safety. We will be on the lookout for any suspicious persons in the area. I have already spoken to your neighbourhood watch committee as well.”
“That is very reassuring, officer,” I said.
“We would also like to leave you with a pair of panic alarms,” said Hodgekins. “You don’t have to accept them, of course, but we have them for you.”
I felt Ronak tense against me. “Are they really necessary, officer?” she asked.
“At this stage, we can’t give you an answer, madam,” said Craddock. “But if I were in your situation, I would rather have one and not need it, than, God forbid, need it and not have it.”
Ronak did not look convinced. “Okay, I suppose they don’t need feeding or the lining in their cage changed,” she said
The policemen beamed, pleased with this tongue-in-cheek expression of co-operation/acquiescence. “You will need to fill in these forms,” said Hodgekins, handing them out. Should our putrefying bodies be found with our throats slit and Ronak violated, records would show that the police had tried to protect us.
After they left, Ronak sank into a sofa with a weary sigh and put her hands to her face. I joined her. “Babe, what is it?”
“I can’t do this, Kundi,” she sobbed, her hands sliding down her face slowly, falling onto her lap. She shook her head, as if everything that was happening could be denied away. “I came to this country to be free! I don’t want to spend the rest of my life, our life, in fear.”
“I don’t want to live in fear either,” I said, “The police will catch them, whoever they are.”
She looked at me, a searching look that I met with a reassuring yet tender gaze. We kissed, I pulled her close, realising that we had deftly avoided confronting my questions about last night’s attack again. If the police did not find our attackers soon enough, or if Ronak did not come clean about what she knew about them, whichever came first, those questions were going to drive a wedge between us. Another relationship made null and void by a lack of honesty, Kundishora Mangwende. Third one this decade, too.
“I am going to fix us breakfast,” Ronak announced, apparently recovering her mien. I watched her retreat to the kitchen and felt my resentment at her silence on today’s topic dissipate. She would tell me when the time came, I told myself. I wasn’t exactly an open book to her either, but everything was going to be just fine.
After breakfast, as rain pelted the wide window, we made love. She fell asleep. I had work to do, correspondence with clients in Armenia and South Sudan. As I sat down to begin working on the South Sudan account, Ronak poked her head into my office. “Baby, we are out of aubergines and some other stuff, so how about I pop into Barnard Castle—”
“I’ll go!” I said, rising.
“Kundi, I will be fine!” she said. “Look, after that love-making, and the nap afterwards, I am coming round to agreeing with you; there is really nothing to be afraid of.”
But there is, my darling Ronak. You know what it is, who it is, and you are not telling.
“Babe, I will only be out for about half an hour!” she said, with an exasperated sigh.
“Okay!” I said, waving both hands at her. “You go, and be back in 30 minutes, you hear?”
She blew me a kiss and vanished from view with an exultant chuckle. My apprehension melted. She would be fine. I heard her get ready in the next room, then the door opened and shut. A few minutes later, I heard the roar of the engine, and the bright purple (don’t ask) vehicle flashed past. As an asylum-seeker, Ronak was not eligible for a UK driver’s licence. She had an Italian one, which she was yet to be asked to produce. I did most of the driving between us.
Five minutes into the proposal for the South Sudanese client, my apprehension returned like a tidal wave and washed out the sandcastle I had built with my reassurance. I was an idiot for letting her leave the house. If anything happened to her…
The only bus linking this part of the Teesdale area with Barnard Castle came only five times a day, but it was regular. The next one was due in five minutes. If she wasn’t back by then, I would be on it.
“Our lass got the car!” I felt I ought to explain to Dennis, the red-faced, middle-aged driver who drove the only bus on this route, why I was getting on the bus after a long time of absence. His smile was the same, but the piercing grey eyes held a question. There was only one other passenger, an elderly woman who stared at me and seemed to shrink into herself when I passed her and took a seat on the other side of the aisle. Paddocks and sheep rolled past, then the Bowes Museum, and I was in Barnard Castle.
There is a superstore with a car park in the middle of the historic market town. The sky threatened to rain again, grey clouds rolled over the sun. I scanned the car park until I spotted our SUV. Attention from members of the public was being directed towards a point behind the vehicle, near the entrance of the superstore.
Ronak entered my field of vision, a carrier bag in one hand, walking briskly in a bid to get away from the man who was following her; a young, nondescript man, probably in his early 20s, of Iranian appearance. His actions were desperate – a suitor whose overtures had been spurned might behave that way. However else his behaviour could be interpreted, he did not come across as the sort of person who joined gangs that ambushed couples in post-industrial north-east English towns.
As I rushed to intercept them, he made one last attempt to grab her arm. Ronak shrugged him off, reaching for the car door. I heard him say, “My sister, please, my sister!” He suddenly realised that I was upon them and shrank back in wide-eyed terror. Ronak looked up and was startled to see me. “Kundi…babe!”
The Iranian youth turned and fled. I brushed past Ronak, in hot pursuit. A man pushing a trolley tried to get out of my way, bumping into his wife, who was right behind him. By the time our trajectories intersected, there was still enough of the trolley for me to trip over and take it down with me like in a rugby tackle. Curled up over the stricken trolley, I looked up over the scattered, spilling groceries and saw my quarry disappear in the crowd.
The pusher of the trolley and some other people picked me up, apologising profusely, asking if I was okay. As if to prompt me with the right answer, pain shot up from my left shin. I winced and gasped, and glanced around for a place to sit. The spot where our car had stood was vacant.
I got a taxi back to Westwick. It was late afternoon, and the rain had decided to go away. “Are you sure you’re okay, bud?” the driver asked as I gingerly stepped out of the vehicle and began to sort of mince towards the gate. I turned back and flashed him a smile. “Nothing that an icepack can’t fix!”
“Alright, pal. Mind how you go.” With that, he drove off.
The car was in its shaded spot. I told myself that, this time, I was going to insist on the full story. Ronak knew who that person was, and why he was harassing her. She knew who those men who had abducted us briefly last night were. It was time for her to tell me everything, or else… Or else what? I shrugged the question away as I opened the door. There was not going to be an or else.
The utter silence that greeted me as I entered the house seemed to mock me, the triumph of evil over good. Despondently, I went all over the cottage, taking painful, limping steps, calling her name in a sobbing, barely coherent voice, pausing to listen to that victorious silence. Her clothes, everything she owned, was gone. There was a note on my desk.
My darling Kundishora
The reality of our different backgrounds and our pasts has snatched away our happiness and our future. I love you so much, and I know you love me, and, until last night, I thought this would be enough. But life has decided that it is not. Now, all that remains is that love and the memory of how wonderful our life was, a picture of how it would have continued to be.
Maybe I will return. But do not put your life on hold for me, babe. Do not look for me. If you do, they will find you first. Or, you may find out things about me that you will wish you never did. All I ever wanted was to put my past behind me. But it has come to snatch me back. Maybe you will understand that I wanted our future so much that I was prepared to do this shameful thing and run away from my past. But I cannot risk it. I know the man you are.
Please, babe, do not look for me.
“Normally, you would have to wait for 48 hours before she can be declared a missing person,” said WPC Craddock. “But, under the circumstances, this is now a top priority case, hence all the feds.” She made a sweeping gesture at the crime scene investigators combing our house and the surrounding area, the helicopter casting a sweeping, searching beam of light, and the geeks going through all electronic communications devices in the house. Specialists brought in from Newcastle to this sleepy corner of County Durham.
“Am I free to leave the house?” I asked.
The officer stared at me for a moment. “Well, we can’t actually prevent you from doing so at this stage of the investigation, Mr Mangwende. But, it may raise eyebrows if you do. I wouldn’t go anywhere for the next few days if I were you.”
I understood. “I think I may find out more if I go to the London neighbourhood where we met,” I said. “There are people who knew her for a lot longer.”
“That might be seen as interfering with an investigation, sir,” said Craddock gravely. “Perhaps you’d care to give me the details of these people, and we will look into it ourselves.”
“The shop where Ronnie worked,” I said, “Priti’s on Hounslow High Street. That is where we met. The lady who owns it is called Priti, like the Home Secretary. I can’t recall the surname.”
Craddock scribbled this down with quick strokes. She looked up, as if expecting more. It was probably then that she realised from the look on my face that she did not have my full cooperation. “Mr Mangwende, I know how you feel, but you will have to trust the professionals.”
“Ronak is a failed asylum-seeker, officer,” I said. “We were going to do a last bid for her to get a visa as my partner, but the risk of her being deported before we achieved this has loomed over everything. I am afraid that if you went around asking about her, people might not be as forthcoming with information as they should.”
“I see your point, sir. However, as police—”
Annoyance flashed in me. “However, as police, if you decide to go by the book, you risk blocking possible avenues for finding Ronnie!” I said. “To you, she may be just a high-profile investigation, but she is my girlfriend. She means something to me!”
Craddock put her notebook away and sat back in the chair. “I am sorry, sir. I do understand how you feel.”
“But things have to be done a certain way, right?”
She tried to look at me directly but couldn’t. I knew for certain then that it had been a good idea not to mention to the police earlier that Ronak had taken one of my debit cards, even now as the possibility that I was a suspect in her disappearance was growing.
I caught the 05.35 to London King’s Cross at Darlington. I took a laptop with me and managed to get some work done. By the time I stepped out of Hounslow East tube station, my leg still aching, it was business hours. It seemed as if the months had rolled back to last summer, to the day I walked into Priti’s Boutique looking for a stunning outfit for my mother to wear at a cousin’s wedding in Harare. As I entered Hounslow High Street, my nostalgia transformed into anticipation. Ronak would be there, waiting for me, I told myself. We would go back home together.
I stepped into Priti’s boutique.
It looked the same as I remembered it. It was as busy as I remembered it too; a gaggle of young beauties fussing over wedding outfits in one corner, and in another, a man trying very hard to show the appropriate level of appreciation of his wife’s choices conducive to maintaining domestic harmony We exchanged glances, and I gave him the nod of brotherly empathy and solidarity.
“Hello, stranger!” Priti cried. She detached herself from another undecided couple and flung her arms around me. Heads swivelled towards us. She pulled back and looked me up and down. “The North looks good on you, though!”
“Oh, it’s great up there, Priti,” I said.
“And that’s why you don’t want my daughter to visit me, you silly boy?”
Her “daughter” was Ronak.
“Where is she, anyway?” Priti asked, glancing around. “Did you leave her up north?” A look of horror came over her Cleopatrine face. “Are you guys still together?”
“Priti, I cannot answer that with a simple answer,” I said. The story came out, beginning with the incident in Middlesbrough. She listened intently, but I had the feeling that my story corroborated her own.
“There is a young Iranian man who hung around here last month asking about her,” she said. “His English is not that good, and I got the feeling he was fresh off the plane. I mentioned him to Ronnie in a chat on Messenger, and when she told me she did not want me to pass on her number, he never came back.”
“When was this?” I asked. “When did you chat with her?”
Priti consulted a space to the left for a moment. “Last week. Okay, Kundi, what is going on?”
I shrugged. “Search me, Priti. I came here for answers. Is there anything this guy said that could suggest a reason as to why he was stalking Ronnie? Did he leave a name?”
“No, but Hardeep says she has seen him twice at the Iranian restaurant on Lady Margaret Road in Southall. Looks like he works there. Hardeep isn’t in today, though. She’s in Manchester for some family thingy.”
Priti had to attend to a matter brought to her attention by one of her staff. About 10 minutes later, she came back to where I waited near the counter. “Do you have any idea at all what this man wants with Ronak, Kundi?”
I realised that I could not bring myself to say it. She smiled; she knew my thoughts. “I am an outsider too, young man,” she said. “It was a great shock for me, coming from the Seychelles, to discover that, sometimes, interracial relationships are frowned upon more in ethnic minority communities than in the mainstream white population in this country. But you know that Ronnie is not like that at all. That is why she so badly wants to stay in England, where a woman of her background can break free from the chains of tradition and expectation.”
“But England is not always a land of liberty, especially for women from some traditional, non-western backgrounds,” I said. “Shame is still a weapon for enforcing what is regarded as appropriate behaviour. I think this man is her brother; he found out Ronak was shacked up with a Black man and came out here to punish her.”
Priti shook her head slowly.
“Priti, what else could it be?”
“I don’t know, Kundi,” she said. “But I know that Ronnie doesn’t have a brother.”
“He called her ‘my sister’. Maybe he meant cousin.”
“He said that in English?” asked Priti.
“Yes, he was trying to explain to me what was going on,” I said. “I thought he was trying to reassure me that he saw Ronak as a sister and he wasn’t trying to make a pass at her. But he was talking to her, pleading with her to listen to something he had to say about his sister.”
She shook her head thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Kundi. I just don’t think this is a case of an attempted honour killing. If it was, I think Ronak would have told you. She has been upfront about everything. No, this is something connected with a secret she has never shared with anyone here about herself. Something that happened in Iran.”
My phone rang. It was a hidden number; the police. As I picked up, Priti moved away to attend to customers. “Mr Mangwende, this is Constable Adams at Middlesbrough Police Station. I just wanted to inform you that one of your attackers has been identified as a Mr Adeshir Homayun, from Leeds. Does the name ring a bell at all, sir?”
“No,” I said.
“He has been picked up by police in Leeds, and one of our detectives is going over there to question him about the incident. He will certainly be prosecuted, and we hope he can help us identify the other suspects.”
“Are you allowed to tell me if he is related to Ronak, or if he is with the Iranian government?” I asked.
“Sir, I can only tell you what is already in the public domain. He runs a shop in Leeds and came to the UK as a refugee during the Iran-Iraq war. He has served on the local Baha’i committee in his neighbourhood.”
A Baha’i would hardly have a problem with interracial marriage, that is what logic was telling me. But why else would he join a group of Iranians to waylay an interracial couple and warn the Zimbabwean man to keep away from Iranian girls?
“I have just gone through my messages,” said Priti, walking back towards me, mobile phone held out. “That young Iranian man is called Soroush Esfahani. I sent him a message, telling him that you wanted to find out why he tried to attack you and Ronak. He says to tell you it’s too late now.”
“Too late for what?” I said, lunging to grab the phone.
Priti pulled back. “He has blocked me. Or gone off Facebook, but see if you can find him on your phone.”
There were up to 10 people with that name on Facebook, but none of them appeared to be our man. Five of them were in America, two in Canada, one in France, and two in Iran. They were all the wrong age, three of them were the profiles of the same person. What did he mean it’s too late? As my thumb moved to push the Facebook app down so I could call the police, I caught sight of the heading on one of the articles linked to the name Esfahani in the search list: ‘Setareh Executed Last Night, Sources Confirm.’
A woman had been executed after two years in an Iranian jail, the article said. Setareh Esfahani was charged with the murder of a senior Iranian official, Basir Houtan. The then university student had maintained that she had stabbed Houtan in self-defence after he lured her into his bedroom after a party at his mansion and tried to force himself on her. There had been an international campaign to get her freed. Then, the world had found other things to be incensed about, and Setareh’s plight stopped appearing on people’s news feeds. Now, she was dead, and worthy of one last bit of online activist outrage.
A wave of horrified realisation washed over my cynical reaction to the news of Setareh Esfahani’s death. She had been the sister of Sourosh Esfahani! Please, my sister, he had said to Ronak in Barnard Castle yesterday. I had thought he was calling Ronak his sister, that he was trying to assure me in his halting English that he had not accosted her with improper intention. He was referring to Setareh, his sister, whom Ronak had known. Had Ronak been at that party where Setareh had caught the eye of Governor Houtan? Had she witnessed the interaction between Setareh and Houtan? At any rate, Sourosh had thought her a crucial enough witness to come all the way from Iran in a desperate race against time to find her.
That is why Ronak had avoided places with a large Iranian community. It wasn’t because she could not handle being threatened by narrow-minded compatriots or relatives for dating out. That is why she had run away from me; she had not wanted to be around when I found out she was not brave enough to face the institutions of her homeland, even if a life could be saved. I cannot risk it. I know the man you are
I wondered how far the police in Middlesbrough and Barnard Castle were from piecing it all together too. The rest of the world, the activists and media; would they care to know about this woman who had fled from a chance, however remote, to save a life in her country?
There was no one to answer that question. No one at all.
Masimba Musodza was born in Zimbabwe and relocated to the UK in his mid-twenties. His stories have appeared in anthologies and periodicals around the world, mostly in the speculative fiction genres. He has published two novels and a novella in ChiShona, his native language, and a collection of short stories in English. Musodza also writes for screen and stage.
*Image by Andrew Neel on Unsplash