‘Soppy’, she said, teasing me about the mother of pearl box filled with baby teeth, the lacy blanket we wrapped her in to bring her home from the hospital, her school reports, her first shoes, her favourite doll – all safe and sound in a trunk in the spare room. The trunk had been my great-grandfather’s, his initials are still on the lid, it had travelled all the way to India and back with him. Her lace christening gown still hangs in my wardrobe, next to my mother’s fur coat, above my wedding dress, which is wrapped in special tissue paper and boxed to stop it yellowing and to keep the moths – and time – out. All these things I keep to ward off loss, or forgetting.
There were no clues. Nothing in the day-to-day routine to warn you that life will come to this. That doesn’t stop you wondering, though; thinking back to sugary cereal mornings and birthdays with cake and jelly and mountains of discarded wrapping paper; remembering scabbed knees and days at the beach, being stuck in traffic in a hot car with story tapes and Christmases with presents and Scrabble. There is nothing you can find, no sign at all that your child, your daughter – the apple of your husband’s eye – will grow up, go to university and then, vanish, leaving you fearing the worst, the absolute worst. But still you search, as if that might change things, or make sense of them. And then she reappears, only you don’t know her anymore. And that’s when you discover that there are worse things.
‘This is all that we hate’ she said. Her face, half-hidden by a scarf, her eyes – blue like my mother’s – and her voice were unmistakable. She is on film, a film the police brought to show us. ‘Is this her?’ they asked, gently. I looked at the figure on screen, cloaked in black, gesturing to a young man at her side. He is on his knees, his head is bowed. His hands are tied behind his back. He is a journalist. He is your son. ‘We hate the messengers of your evil hegemony, your peddlers of lies. We hate your false freedoms and your worship of money.’ She is my daughter.
There’s a photo of her, aged four or five; she looks straight at the camera, her lips half way to a smile. We were on holiday, somewhere in France, and the beach behind stretched out for miles. I remember her standing with me at the top of a dune, her little feet pressing into the sand. ‘There’s just so much nothing,’ she said, her eyes, so much like my mother’s, wide with fear, her soft hand gripping mine. Was that a clue?
‘At least she’s alive’, my sister-in-law, Valerie, said. She still visited then, braving the journalists gathered around our garden gate and the nasty looks from our neighbours.
‘I’d rather she was dead,’ my husband said and left the room. His tea cooling in the Spurs mug she’d bought him for Father’s Day. She smiled, gap-toothed, from her school photo propped on the mantelpiece and I wondered if even then, she hated us, if the death of your son was already a part of her. My eight-year-old daughter.
‘He doesn’t mean it,’ Valerie said, reaching over to pat my knee.
‘He blames me.’
‘Surely not. She’s a grown woman, making her own choices. How could this be your fault? He’s just upset, that’s all. He’s never been very good in situations like this. You know what he’s like.’
‘People always blame the mother.’
‘What have the police said?’
‘Not much. Only that she’s married now.’
‘Right. Obviously she’s been brainwashed, probably at that university. She was always such a good girl.’ We heard the front door slam and the stiff shouts of journalists. I wanted to write to her and tell her – you broke your father’s heart – but then I remembered, this is all we hate.
We were so lucky. The doctors reminded us, reminded me, just how lucky we were, I was, at every scan, being so old, having waited so long. The injections and tests and procedures had worked. We had given ourselves over to the process and it had succeeded. Perhaps we were never supposed to be lucky. We’d tricked fate but it didn’t last, we couldn’t keep her. Was that it? Had I pushed my luck too far?
The police took her computer and found emails and messages on her Facebook page, about Jihad, and western devils and suffering, starving children; they found instructions to fly to Turkey and then how to cross its border. There were offers of marriage, and congratulations that she had the grace to see the glory of Allah. She called herself a lioness and a martyr. She changed her name; she calls herself Azraa Zadeh. Azraa – it means ‘pearl’, or so I read.
My mother gave her a string of pearls for her eighteenth birthday. They were a gift from my father when I was born. My mother told her how he’d doted on me, and how he would’ve loved her if he’d been alive to meet her. Emma had loved the necklace, wore it often. She was wearing it the last time we saw her. Someone once told me that pearls were unlucky, that they symbolise tears. Perhaps that’s it? Perhaps it began then, when I was born. This is all we hate. What does that mean?
The last time we saw her, I’d made her favourite, a proper roast with beef and potatoes and Yorkshire puddings. She ate it all, I remember that. There was a small disagreement with Mike, just before I served the apple crumble, about politics. She said, ‘But surely, you can see that our government’s foreign policy makes us all culpable.’ And Mike squinted at her and rubbed his chin and sighed, ‘If only things were that simple.’ But that was it, nothing serious. In fact, I felt very proud of them both, discussing the world together like that. I remember it clear as day, that feeling. There was no tension, no anger. Was that the sign? Should I have known? We finished lunch and watched a film cuddled up on the sofa. It was raining outside. I remember. She hugged us both when she left, said, ‘I love you.’ I wouldn’t forget things like that. Now, she calls herself Azraa, Pearl.
I wonder if she still likes to eat peanut butter straight from the jar. Can you buy peanut butter there? Is To Kill a Mocking Bird still her favourite book? Or are those things, is that girl, erased? Replaced, like her name, with new tastes and a new history, one that produced a woman who can kill and, so the police say, train other young women to wear explosives tight against their bodies and make weapons of themselves. Everything is connected, everything. I see that now.
The police say that even if she wanted to, she wouldn’t be allowed to leave, the terrorists wouldn’t let her. Apparently, they treat women like slaves, like animals. They have no freedom, no choice; they must only serve their husbands, the fighters. I don’t know what to believe anymore. It’s possible they want to comfort me, these officers I speak to and see more often than my family, but then it’s possible Emma is right and it’s all lies. Which is worse? That my daughter is happy and well and doesn’t ever want to come home? Or that she is desperate and terrified and a prisoner?
When she was tiny, she couldn’t say ‘Emma’, so she called herself Mema. My little Mema. It stuck, along with all the other words she couldn’t pronounce; bippies instead of sandwiches, woozies for cuddles. Mema. Mema want woozie, mummy. I wish I could keep these words, this family language in a box. To be able to hear her voice again. My precious girl. Was that it? Mike said I spoilt her – was that it?
I think about your son. I know he was accomplished, and handsome. I kept all the clippings from the newspaper. Mike said to stop torturing myself, to throw them away. Was he always a kind boy? Was he always brave? I think about you and how you spend your days, knowing he won’t be back. Do you sometimes find yourself stirring a pot on the stove or watering the plants and forget how you got there? How you got here? What brought us to this? You have other children, two daughters, a son, I read. I’m so glad. That helps, I think. I hope.
She really did break Mike’s heart. He died last January. They found him in his car, ready to drive home from work. The key was in the ignition, his briefcase on the passenger seat. He looked like he was sleeping, they said. The security guard found him, still parked in the company garage, but it was too late. There was nothing anyone could do. Hardly anyone came to the funeral, not our old friends, or family even, they blame us, of course they do, but it was unforgivable not to come. He deserved better. Valerie came, and his work colleagues; I’m grateful for that.
I wish I could remind her of who she was and who she can be again. I’ve read the Koran and I think I see the beauty she sees, but not the violence. Not the hatred. I can’t understand the hatred. Perhaps if I can remind her who she really is, I’ll remember who I am, because I’m not sure anymore. I was a wife, a mother, a schoolteacher. I had friends, colleagues, a family. Ordinary blessings. Now, I’m something else. But I don’t know what.
Mike said it was me that she hated, that I suffocated her with love, with my need for her. He said I hadn’t paid attention, that I saw only what I wanted to see and I hadn’t seen that she wanted to be someone else. Perhaps he was right, and I was at fault all along. But still, why this?
There was an argument, an outburst, once. Meaningless, I thought – a teenage tantrum – just one of those things. Completely normal. ‘You’re both hypocrites,’ she’d said, ‘liars and hypocrites.’ I can’t even remember how it started, something she’d misheard, an argument we were having, a misunderstanding between Mike and me. All couples have them, don’t they? She wasn’t gone long, the police found her at her friend’s, and it soon blew over; we never mentioned it again. And yet – was that it? This is all we hate. Was it? Liars and hypocrites.
I’ve kept the photo of your son from the paper. I look at it when I miss her so much I could forgive her anything. I look at him and remember all you’ve lost. All we’ve lost. I want to ask you if you’ll forgive me, if that’s possible. I want to ask her if she’ll forgive me and I know that’s impossible. This is all we hate. Mike was right. She meant me. Her blue eyes, just like my mother’s. I’ll just have to wait. I’ll wait.
Photograph by Stephen Parker / Alamy