I’d expected to see pyramids as the plane dipped towards the airport, expected Suma to meet us and whisk us away to her family home in an oasis of palms. I’d expected men in red Tommy Cooper hats, with a black tassel swinging from the crown.
As the bus coughed its way towards the city, I wiped away the naiveté of my expectations as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I was fifteen, too old to believe in fairy tales, and yet my dad must have brought me here for something. Cinderella got to marry her handsome prince. The ugly duckling grew up to be a swan.
We got down from the bus in the main square and Dad asked for directions to the hotel. Men dressed in long white caftans held hands as they studied the headlines at the newsstands. Women dressed like nuns head to toe in black chatted to long-legged dolly birds, their voices stretching shrill and guttural above the blare of the traffic. Heat seared the paving and my skin felt sticky beneath my T-shirt and jeans.
We met up with Patricia and my mother at the hotel, with just enough time for a shower and change of clothes before the four of us headed off to the clinic. Mr Abdullah was a compact figure, no taller than my mother, but very suave with his Brylcreemed hair and clipped moustache, his three-piece chalk-striped suit in defiance of the heat. I found his demeanour reassuring: I’d been half expecting him to greet us straight from surgery in a bloodied butcher’s apron.
Nevertheless, I was embarrassed when he took me off to a more clinical room and bade me strip down to my socks. Most of the questions he fired at me were familiar from my meeting with Dr Hutton, yet his accent, with its pleasant lilt, made me self-conscious about my own rough vowels, so I kept my responses brief.
When we rejoined the others, Mr Abdullah summoned his assistant to bring us some refreshments. Dad and I had eaten nothing since the plane, and my stomach rumbled in anticipation. Yet it seemed odd to be tucking into tea and cakes while the doctor sat writing notes at his desk. The pink perfumed tea was served without milk in straight-sided glasses that scorched our fingertips, and the tiny cakes oozed syrup as soon as you touched them. For a moment, I wondered if they were part of the treatment, but it would have been a strange kind of medicine that was prescribed for all the family.
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