Jamila loved swimming. Her mother had never learned to swim; it had been common for women in her community to never learn. But London had several public pools with women-only times, mixed-sex Muslim-attire-only times, and even women only with head-to-toe-covering attire times. Jamila was grateful for that.
Her favorite pool was the one at Croydon in its normal women-only time, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Jamila would hide her newly bought swimsuit in a bag. She rode the subway in a big detour to Croydon on her way to university to get her swim twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays.
Afterwards, she would put the swimsuit in the locker, still wet. A friend who had the spare key to her locker dried the suit in her backyard and put it back in the locker. The swimming kept Jamila’s fitness up, something even thin women in her community lacked; outdoor exercise and gyms were a no-no.
Tiring earlier than her usual thirty laps of the twenty-meter pool, she left the pool, now empty. She lowered herself into the warm, bubbly spa next to the pool. She was carrying bottled water.
She put the plastic bottle on the edge of the spa.
The change rooms were behind a side exit. The main hall only held the pool, the spa tub, bare walls and anti-slip floors, and one large wall clock. Two old ladies next to her in the spa chattered incessantly about the rising prices of everything and the specials on at various outlets.
Jamila let her body slide down. Her hands rested on her thighs; her legs were off the ground. Using the edge of the mezzanine step as a lever, she let herself float almost horizontal, the warm bubbles pinging her ears. Soon, her hair, over here free of pins and hijabs, was soaking in the warm water. Strong jets hit her in all directions. She let herself coast down to the edge of the seat that was two-thirds of the way up in the tub.
The two old ladies got out of the spa and smiled at her as they left. One raised her eyebrows in a question, her hand poised on the button that would restart the jets that had just stopped. Jamila smiled as she nodded a thank you.
“I’ll set it for the longer period. Ten minutes.” The lady smiled back at her.
The second blast of the jets felt even better than the first. Soon, Jamila was all alone in the main hall.
She felt tense. Her body refused to relax. When she shut her eyes, her mind took her to the night of the narrow escape. Marlon was holding her hand. She was running as fast as she could. Her calf muscles twitched. Sweat accumulated on her forehead, as much from the anxiety provoked by the recent memory as the steam of the spa. She opened her eyes and wiped her brow with her forearm.
I must conquer my fear.
She sank back into the water, lifting her legs again, and the jets whistled past her ears. Shutting her eyes again, she forced herself to breathe deeply. A strange calmness began to find its way into her mind.
Marlon. He made me feel safe.
Images of her running drifted off. Her calf muscles stopped twitching. Memories of Marlon flooded in—the talk of running away to Paris, the kiss, shopping with him for an abaya …
He’s handsome, that Marlon.
She opened her eyes, her breathing steady, palms resting on her thighs.
I mustn’t think like that.
But her right hand crept up, coming to rest between her thighs. She shuddered from the mere thought. She looked down. The bubbles did a great job of hiding everything down there. She had done it before, but only at night in the privacy of her bedroom with the door bolted.
Marlon. I feel secure in your embrace. I need you.
When the image of Marlon invaded her consciousness again, her hand did not seek her permission to slip inside the elastic on the side of her modest, thigh-covering pink and blue swimsuit.
This is so wrong. He’s my teacher.
She pulled her hand away, angry at herself, and looked around with a guilty conscience. Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself down in the water as much as she could in the shallow depths of the spa and then let the streams pull her back out to float.
It feels so good.
She settled into the edge of the seat again, feeling her free hair, splashing about like a child.
What the hell, why not?
Now her left hand went to the place where her swimsuit parted into two legs. She rubbed the most sensitive spot, gently at first, then more vigorously as she lowered her body, keeping her eyes and forehead just above the water line.
Sinful images floated into her mind. She remembered the touch of Marlon’s lips on hers. Her right hand, warm from the bubbling water, parried across her lips as if to filter the sinful images, then gently erased the rising line of sweat below her nose.
This feels so wrong, it must be right.
She let her body run itself, without censoring. Her breathing became heavier and faster. The water seemed to swirl around in ever-faster circles. Her face flushed with inner heat, but she blamed the rivulets of steam climbing her body.
She became aware of the imminence of the final stage of ecstatic agony only moments before it exploded. Quickly, she took a deep breath and ducked under the water. Her moan that would have been audible became a single forceful exhalation—the exhalation merged with the rising globules of warm air.
Under the water, she fought to control the body tremor. Her own effervescence mingled in a sensuous climax with the warm foam and lather massaging her from head to toe, her generated wetness now indistinguishable from what the bath gave her.
Her head bobbed up briefly to inhale. The lasting image that her filter would not clear was about Marlon’s hands.
What was it about men’s hands?
Shutting her eyes, she submerged again to manage the second order spasms. They subsided as the spa jets began to ease. She let her body half float on the surface—her legs spread, her mind now becalmed.
The steam rose with her rising as she reached for her towel. She shook the excess water from her hair as she wrapped herself tight, and headed for the coolness of the shower that would rinse away any vestige of guilt.
The afternoon sunrays that peeked inside and lit the water splashes on the floor seemed to reflect the glow she felt inside of her. The tranquil water she left behind in the spa was attuned to her state of nirvana.
Marlon took the Breathalyzer test. He knew he was clear of drugs and alcohol. The change of clothes was optional. He refused the prison-issued tracksuit and T-shirt, putting his own clothes back on after the full-body search.
He stepped into the central hall. In the middle, the dome-like ceiling was exceptionally high.
Pentonville was a Victorian prison built like a half octopus, an octopus with four limbs. The wings radiated outward from the center. Each of the four main wings was five stories high.
He was taken to the A Wing First Night Centre, where officials briefed him about various matters—food times, gym times, visitations, protocol.
The A Wing had a communal area with tables and chairs. He took a seat and waited. The few other inmates about stared at him. They had seen him before.
Word will get to Paolo inside a minute.
Later, he sat in the communal area, soaking it all in, refusing the offered talk with a counselor at the First Night Centre. The large metal doors jangled when the clock struck nine. Men in overalls walked in with industrial-sized vacuum cleaners. He watched their methodical and dispassionate efficiency with interest. The drone of the equipment calmed him.
Eventually, he accepted the supervised walkabout offer. He had heard the stories of bullying—of rape, of grown men reduced to tears, of suicides and nervous breakdowns. He had always worried about Paolo. So he walked chest out, head high, showing no fear. Inmates glanced at him, sizing him up.
Murder gets you respect. They’ll be shit scared of me. But I’m shit scared of where the fuck my life has ended up.
In the A Wing there were two prisoners to a room. He wondered which monster he would share the night with. A prison guard took him to his cell.
Marlon guessed it was no more than nine feet high, and twelve by ten feet with two beds held to the walls by chains on either side. The guard unlocked the door. Marlon went inside. The grated door clanged shut.
Bit different to a night with Jamila at the Sheraton in Paris …
One of the beds was occupied by a short, slight man, who lay facing the wall. He wore the Pentonville inmate outfit. The man seemed to be awake, but resting.
Marlon plonked himself on the empty bed. “Hello there,” he called.
The man turned to face him. He looked haggard. Early sixties, Marlon guessed. The man’s face was wrought with bitterness. The skin was fair but not pale, the hair gray and thinning. A long scar reached from under his collar to behind his ear. His gray eyes shone with an intelligence alien to these surroundings. One of his eyebrows stood up in an arch higher than the other. The eyes and ears were noticeably of unequal size. The prominent asymmetry was beguiling.
On the man’s bed, Marlon saw a worn copy of the Quran.
The inmate sat up. “I’m Ismail. I killed a guy in cold blood.”
What’s this? A game of one-upmanship? You don’t scare me, you little old man.
“I’m Marlon,” he said.
“Do you want to know whom I killed and why?” Ismail spoke more from one side of the mouth than the other.
Marlon shrugged. “Not particularly.”
“You should be interested, professor.”
Dammit, he knows me. Is the news out already?
“Senior Lecturer, actually.” Marlon laughed.
I’m sure I’ll lose my job when the media circus starts.
“Not for long when you’re an ex-convict.” Ismail showed a toothy grin.
The diction. He doesn’t belong here.
“Your brother speaks highly of you,” Ismail continued.
So that’s how he knows me.
“Now I’ll tell you whom I killed and why,” Ismail said.
Didn’t I just tell him I’m not interested?
“I don’t scare easily,” Marlon said.
“I don’t wish to scare you, Dr. Stone. Just to teach you.”
A night with Hannibal Lecter. Just what I need right now.
Marlon grinned. “I’m not Clarice Starling.”
Ismail laughed. “Nowhere near as pretty, that’s for sure. Although you’re a pretty boy. Some guys in C Wing might fancy you.”
“I can look after myself.”
“Against them? Maybe. You are a big unit. Perhaps you can fight with your fists. But I heard you recently on Question Time. You’re an ignorant fool.”
And I praised Islam as a religion of peace in all my answers, you eccentric old man.
“Let me tell you my story. The night is still young,” Ismail said.
The lawyer said there could be a pre-trial hearing within two days. So I’m stuck here for one night at least, perhaps two.
“All right. If I get bored, I’ll tell you to stop,” he said.
Ismail settled himself more comfortably. “I’m an Ismaili. Do you even know what that means? Your blank expression tells me you know nothing, Senior Lecturer. But I will make you a professor in one night.”
“You can give it a try, Hannibal. I’ve no better offers,” he said.
Ismail laughed. Marlon realized he had moved on his bed to get closer to Ismail. Ismail pulled himself closer from his side.
There was a noise of a large lever being pulled down. The corridor lights went off. Marlon remembered the protocol—the ten p.m. lights out. Outside the cell, the light dimmed slowly.
Paolo did say there are drift-lights in the corridors on a ten-minute timer.
Two guards walked the corridor to check each cell, their boots landing heavily on the concrete.
The thud of the boots faded into silence. It became pitch dark. Marlon was all ears as Ismail’s voice lowered to a hoarse whisper.
Excerpts from the novel, A Sharia London, available on Amazon’s Kindle Store here