‘Hey, Val!’ Jo had the facial expression of someone about to play an April fool’s joke. ‘Guess who just loved your show last night!’
‘You’d better tell me, I’m only in first gear mentally right now.’ Valda was sitting on the stage with a mug of black coffee, leaning against the piano and feeling pretty lousy.
‘Sheikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khaimah!’ exclaimed Jo, with excitement.
‘Hey, you didn’t tell me I was doing a royal command performance!’ quipped Valda sarcastically; the coffee had obviously hit the spot.
‘Well, you’re doing another one tomorrow and he wants to meet you afterwards, so don’t let it go to your head!’ Jo was obviously not kidding.
‘So he’s the one with the tablecloth round his head, right?’ Shoib and Guiseppi could not help but giggle at Valda, although Jo immediately tensed up,
‘He owns this hotel, six others and the Flanagan’s chain, Valda, and since we’re all rather attached to our jobs, we’d be grateful if you kept your jokes about his clothing to yourself!’
Valda took the point; the PC revolution had not quite reached her planet yet. She wondered what Sheikh Abdullah had liked about yesterday’s music mix. Valda had sung a lot of Queen, her personal favourite and a lucky for her, a great favourite in Dubai, as well. But she was curious as to why he wanted to meet her, it seemed unusual. Valda was not sure what to make of it, but there seemed no need to read anything into it at this stage.
Flanagan’s was packed as usual on a Thursday night – it must have been the TGIT feeling! Valda and her band, which Danny had decided to name “Wotzamazoos” and only he knew why, had performed a diverse selection from Barry Manilow to Bon Jovi and from Cher to The Corrs and by one o’clock, they were all shattered.
Flanagan’s was a huge club: at one end was the impressive stage, in front of which was the dance floor, and the bar was opposite the stage at the other end. To the sides were tables and the sides were tiered with the different levels, thereby increasing seating capacity. It was on the third tier near the back that the Sheikh sat in a secluded lounge area, with an excellent view over the entire club. The club was comprehensively decked out in its theme colours of midnight blue and silver, which extended from the silver coasters to the midnight blue baby grand.
It took a real effort to get up those stairs to the Sheikh’s lounge and Valda almost fainted by the time she reached the top. Her eyes took time to adjust to the gloom. Not only was it gloomy, but very smoky up there, which created an unreal, spooky atmosphere. As her eyes adjusted, she saw the Sheikh rise to greet her. The Sheikh was a member of the extended royal family of Dubai and Jo had not briefed Valda on any relevant protocol, other than avoiding the tablecloth analogies, of course. He held out his hand and for a moment, Valda wondered if she was supposed to shake it or kiss it. She chose the former. The Sheikh was not very tall, perhaps around 5 foot 10, but he had a commanding presence, almost omnipotent, in a way. Valda was not easily intimidated though. He was immaculately dressed, his skin was flawless and his beard was so perfectly shaped and shaved, it almost looked as if it was painted on. Valda was rather mesmerised by him and for once, was at a loss for words.
‘A pleasure to make your acquaintance!’ The Sheikh had a deep, rich voice and an accent, which sounded like a cultured mix of a French and Mumbai. ‘May I offer you a cigar?’ the Sheikh gestured towards his pack of Cubans.
‘No thank you, but I will join you with one of my own.’ With that, Valda took a seat on the couch and reached inside her jacket for a JPS.
The Sheikh was quick to offer her a light and he went on to describe how much he had enjoyed and appreciated her performances. He had a very deliberate and formal way of speaking which, combined with the murky atmosphere, was almost melodramatic in effect. Valda thanked God for cigarettes, for the meeting was a tense affair and at least taking a puff every minute helped to ease the tension of the moment. Valda tried to chat light-heartedly about her experiences as a singer, although she was not sure whether her anecdotes amused or bemused him. The Sheikh’s Lalique ashtray was full and Valda felt almost ill when she thought of how many cigars he must have been through that night already. The Sheikh had an unusually defined face, with high cheekbones and piercing brown eyes, which were locked on to Valda. She met his gaze many times with one of her own “so what the hell do you want from me?” looks.
‘Do you remember Claire?’ the Sheikh asked.
‘Er, no. Should I?’ Valda was genuinely disinterested.
‘She used to work here as a hostess.’
‘She must have left before I started,’ said Valda, still less than interested.
‘Claire used to stay in an apartment of mine, just near here. A very large apartment, with panoramic views over Dubai and towards the Gulf. She was immensely happy there, but now she has returned home to England, I feel that it is a pity for such a beautiful apartment to go to waste ... if you were at all interested, I would be delighted to offer you the use of the apartment.’
Valda drew deeply on her JPS again; she didn’t like his tone of voice. If this Claire had been so happy, then why had she gone home? Valda mused as she exhaled very slowly. ‘With all due respect and apologies if I have misunderstood you, but I am not the kind of girl you set up in a fancy flat for your rich mates to visit.’
If Valda’s words had been strong, her stare was stronger. It was clear from the absence of any reply that Valda had not been far off base. But what had just happened had neither bothered nor made any great impression on Valda. A throwaway conversation of no lasting relevance – an offer and a rejection. Simple as that – and she made her way home to Jumeirah to her little flat and after a shower, she fell fast asleep. Totally cancelled.
“Vanessa” was the name that popped into her in-box. Vanessa was an old uni friend, who had gone on, like most of Valda’s peers, to have sensible careers and lives. Vanessa was a successful lawyer, who happened to be dealing with the sale of Valda’s car and flat in Cape Town and the general tying up of that side of things. Valda was delighted to read in the email that Vanessa had found a buyer for both her car and her flat. She was sentimental about her Lotus and sad to have to let it go, but as for “that” flat, she would toast the fact that she would never have to set foot in it again. She could not wait to sign the papers and close that chapter of her life for good.
She allowed herself to briefly contrast the happiness and optimism she had felt when she had first moved into that Clifton flat with Richard and the desperate depths of despair she had endured alone there when he had left her. A few weeks ago, the surge of extremely painful emotions stirred up by these thoughts would have been too much for her and she would have been inclined to take a paracetamol and wash it down with a stiff vodka to quell the agony. But she must have come a long way since then, as now, as those feelings were less severe and although it was still painful, she was able to shrug it off and continue reading the email.
Vanessa was humorously describing the woes of turning 30, apparently a major crisis for her. So far, turning 30 had been a change for the better in Valda’s life and besides her grey hair count that was increasing by the day, things were looking up.
Vanessa was urging Valda to return to Cape Town as soon as she could to sign the papers, so that she could finalise the various sales. Valda cursed Vanessa’s efficiency. Valda had hoped the sale would drag on, like such things normally did, as she was not quite ready to return to Cape Town yet. She was virtually certain she would bump into some tactless moron, who would insist on giving her an update on the “happy couple”. Valda was astounded at how insensitive people could be. A few months after the split, Valda had been in hospital suffering from “exhaustion”, when one of her visitors who had seen Richard and Sonja at a function the night before and had given her a detailed description of how well they both looked and how “stunning” Sonja was. Not one to hold her feelings in, Valda let rip – Ward 16 had been treated to some choice language that day. Valda resolved to speak to Jo and see if some time off was possible. She was determined to literally fly in, sign those papers and get the hell out again.
‘It’s highly inconvenient. This is one of our busiest times of year, what with the Shopping Festival on. And now you lay this on me. If I get any more stress today, my brain will explode out of my head!’
Jo was just slightly tense at Valda’s request for a few days off and she explained that she was as irritated at the prospect of having to take time off for this trip as he was, but despite Jo’s rant, she got the feeling he’d swing something.
Valda had seen the Sheikh watching her from his lounge up there on quite a few occasions during evening performances. She had been meaning to ask Jo about him. What was his case? But Jo had been so stressed out and edgy that Val had decided the matter could wait. Shoib, Inzie and Giuseppi seemed far more interested in the endless stream of talent that poured through the doors of Flanagan’s on a nightly basis to care about the Sheikh, Danny was going through a messy divorce (as if there was such thing as a tidy one) and Julian was miles away on his own planet, so any questions Valda had about Sheikh were bound to remain unanswered. When their eyes did meet though, he would smile and for a few seconds, she would feel guilty for the way in which she had cold-shouldered him. There were obviously loads of things she had yet to understand as far as Dubai culture went.
Jo must have had a great night’s sleep or something, as the next day he was full of his usual verve. Valda was pleased to hear that her time off had been sorted – she had four days to handle things back in Cape Town, plenty enough for what she wanted!
Larissa, Jamie and Ellen were whipping up a storm conversation-wise and anyone sitting at a nearby table or even in the same coffee shop for that matter would have been forgiven for thinking they were on the set of Sex and the City. Larissa was animated as she dramatically related a story from her vast repertoire. She was one of those people who went through life collecting bizarre and often hilarious experiences – if ever there was a crackpot within a 5-mile radius, they would be sure to make a beeline for her. Although many of these experiences had been patently unfunny at the time, she was always able to convert them into highly entertaining and amusing stories. Larissa saw the funny side in everything; she had long ago stopped taking life too seriously.
There was a pause in the conversation as the waitress brought over three chocolate cheesecakes. All three girls were genuine “foodies” and would meet every Thursday to try out a new cake shop. Keeping the taste buds satisfied was just as essential as quenching their appetite for gossip. Ellen and Jamie were also from England and so any conversation always involved a segment on affairs back home.
An Arab man was sitting not far from them, legs crossed, with his Espresso in hand, reading his broadsheet, which was held out in front of him. A headline on his newspaper jogged Ellen’s memory.
‘Did you hear about that British girl whose body was found on the beach?’
‘Yes, that was terrible!’ said Jamie as she paused for a sip of latte. ‘They say she must have been struck by a motor boat or something while swimming. I heard she was very pretty. Have they named her yet?’
‘Yes, I forget what it was though.’
Larissa was surprised that she had not heard this particular story. ‘Where was she swimming that she managed to get hit by a motor boat?’
Neither Jamie nor Ellen knew the details, except that the unfortunate young girl had worked at a Dubai nightclub and foul play had been ruled out.