Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The eyes of the Iranian Ministry of Security’s London office chief were green. Nariman, being 13 years old, didn’t trust those eyes.
All through the spring of 1977, whenever he dropped by their Bayswater Road summer flat, the Chief did not appear especially dangerous. He sat by the round card table near the bay window overlooking Hyde Park and chatted with Nariman’s father. They drank mostly Johnny Walker Red, the men did. Often there were other men too. They were loud because they were successful. And rich. And none was louder than Nariman’s father, who was never not the biggest man in a crowd. But the Chief, he was mostly silent, and maybe that added to Nariman’s fear of him. Yet he was aware that somehow this fear was called for, was appropriate, and might even be perceived by the adults as a sign that Nariman was finally growing up, that he too understood things that should be understood as soon as possible.
He heard things. He kept his ears sharp hanging around the kitchen, where his mother, and the aunts who came and went, and the servants who were sent along each summer from Iran whispered about how much money this guest had or what so-and-so did for a living. If the Chief’s job was to be a secret, it wasn’t. Because nothing was. And it didn’t matter. And because he was sure his father was a man who never got scared. Except for yesterday, maybe, when his little sister, Narges, had been sitting in their father’s lap on the same chair that the SAVAK chief usually sat on when he came to their house.
Nariman hadn’t been home more than an hour when this happened. Every Friday the boarding-school bus would give the boys who went home for weekends a ride to the station in Taunton. From there, Nariman would take the London train all by himself and come into Paddington, where he could either walk or take the tube to Marble Arch or even ride a taxi home. He had enough pocket money for all those things. The envy of his mates at school. And, for all he cared, he could have taken a train and ridden all the way to Scotland. Who was there to stop him? He could pretend he had to stay behind for a rugby game this weekend and wouldn’t be able to come. Then he might take that train and go anywhere. Anywhere at all. One time in the winter when the family was back in Iran, he had done just the opposite. The housemaster at school had had no idea Nariman was going to an empty house in London. An exciting thing to do, the boy had thought without even telling his dorm-mates about it. They wouldn’t have understood anyway and would have probably called him a liar, like the time he’d admitted his monthly allowance was a hundred-fifty quid a month. They’d started calling him the lying gollywog then, until he’d showed them just how stuffed with Swiss chocolates his tuck-box was, and no, he wouldn’t give them a thing—nor would he allow them to ride his skateboard with the blue Kryptonic wheels—if they didn’t shut up with that gollywog and excuse-of-a-camel’s-ass nonsense.
Quietly then, he’d done the nearly unthinkable that time. Walking from Paddington with a fast heartbeat, he’d come up through the basement and slipped past the dozing doorman at the Albion Gate buildings to open the door with keys slick from his sweaty palms. Then the hard part, the things he hadn’t thought about when he’d set out on the train. There was only a nearly empty box of stale Weetabix cereal in the house. And what if he turned the lights on and one of the doormen noticed and told his father about it? A whole night spent thinking of buttered toast, watching television in the dark, and the next morning he’d caught the first train back to Taunton. His father had had an emergency business trip to Tehran and sent him back early, he’d told the housemaster.
Only the idea of Scotland was really nice. He would never get on a train and actually go there and he’d never share this thought with anyone else. He wondered what the SAVAK chief did every day of his life in London. A lot of his English dorm-mates had green eyes like the Chief. But it made sense for them to have green eyes. He’d never seen such green eyes in a grown man until he’d come to England and it bothered him that the Chief should have them. They were like glass marbles, see-through, unreal. He imagined a language those eyes must have, one that had to do with that dreaded word SAVAK, a word he’d become conscious of ever since fourth grade when he’d first heard it half-whispered several times between two older kids in the schoolyard back in Tehran. Yet he’d never wondered what the individual letters stood for until yesterday afternoon, when he was sure he had seen something close to fear in his father’s eyes. No, it wasn’t fear, more like a moment of real worry. It had shaken Nariman to see that. The house quiet. One of those rare times when their father was in London and their mother away. She’d gone to Geneva to visit her brother, Uncle Mehdi, and she’d taken the new maid with her. This was good news to Nariman. If his mother went off and took help along, it meant she’d be away at least a couple of weeks and he wouldn’t have to waste his precious London weekends being bored at Harrod’s while his mother went up and down the place shopping for perfume and dresses.
Bibi-joon had been in the kitchen, rinsing rice, as always. A big woman who grew bigger every year she stayed with the Nasr household. Nariman’s father liked to slap her hard on the behind. “Bibi, we’re going to have them operate on your ass soon, make it smaller. Your ass is so big it conquers the kitchen.” To the boy, Bibi was just Bibi, his nanny until the year before last. But boarding school had changed all that. The boy now understood how there were worlds within worlds and maybe most of these worlds had nothing to do with each other. For Bibi-joon, England began and ended with that Safeway supermarket she had to shop at wordlessly every week on Edgware Road. For his mother it was, of course, mostly Harrod’s. For himself, it was his boarding-school life—the rugby games, which he understood a little, and cricket, which he didn’t understand at all. His, he was already aware, was a double life that allowed him to lie to everyone if he wanted to. Tell his housemaster he was going to London to be with his family when no one was there. Tell his family he was staying at school when in his head he could jump on a train and go to Scotland. The feeling, though, did not give him a sense of power; it scared him. And watching Bibi-joon and her rice, he also had a sense that he was looking at this woman with one of his father’s old pairs of hunting binoculars, but with the lens turned around so that she seemed impossibly far from him.
What a bad day Friday had turned out to be. He had begun to feel sorry for himself even before his father and Narges had returned home. Come summer the house would bustle with all kinds of people coming and going. It was always like that. He’d drag Narges and Bibi-joon with him down to Speaker’s Corner to watch the strange people. They’d have boat rides, they’d have Battersea Park, and the zoo. Now he had none of that. It was as if lately he couldn’t shake off the dreariness of boarding school no matter where he was. Even the sky was bad. All gray and wet and he wouldn’t even have been able to take his skateboard across the street to the park if he wanted to. When Bibi-joon brought him a small dish of ice cream he ate it quietly, saying nothing to her, as if the eyes of some upper-sixth-former at school were on him and he’d get punished by one of those brutes or worse, by the house captain, if he didn’t eat the thing properly and in silence.
Then his father and Narges had come home and the first bad thing that weekend had happened. He should have known things would turn out badly when he saw their father trying to be extra nice. It meant he was getting restless being alone with them. He needed his whisky. And his friends.
“I have a wish,” Narges said playfully to their father.
They were waiting for Bibi-joon to serve dinner and his sister had climbed into their father’s lap. The two of them had taken the SAVAK chief’s chair and Nariman was sitting across from them.
“I wish you were the king, daddy.I wish you were the Shah of all of Iran.”
That was the moment Nariman had seen their father’s eyes drop for a bit. The big man was still holding his daughter in his lap, yet his body seemed to go limp, and the boy could feel a sudden chill between father, son and eight-year-old Narges. It was not a feeling he could have ever in a million years described to his English mates at school. The very walls and windows and the table and carpets seemed to have grown eyes all of a sudden watching the three of them. No, not eyes, but ears. It was actually their father’s eyes that were roaming now, searching for telltale signs that maybe someone had overheard what the little girl had just said. And all that the big man could utter just then was, “What you say is not a good thing to say, little one. Don’t ever repeat it. Don’t ever say it in front of anybody.”
“Why not, daddy?”
The boy saw his little sister laugh, revealing a gap of two teeth. And he saw their father laugh too, nervously, letting her and himself off of where they’d sat.
Then a slight sharpness in the big man’s tone: “Because daddy says so. Never, ever repeat what you just said. Only the king is king. Only our Shah is the Shah of all the Shahs. And he’s a good Shah and we love him. Don’t we, boy?”
He’d nodded, not really answering. Then his fear had turned into embarrassment and he wasn’t sure who he was embarrassed for, himself or his father. He wished he could be as carefree, for just those few seconds at least, as his little sister, who was running to her room shouting happily through her gap teeth that only the king was king, only the Shah was Shah. Daddy had said so. Daddy did. And the boy also wished this: that he hadn’t come home at all this weekend.
It was a wish that turned to dread the following morning once he found out that Bibi-joon had lost a set of the house keys. Together they retraced her steps to the supermarket three times to see if they could find them. But the keys were gone and Bibi’s horror made her green. During one of the search runs to the Safeway, the woman plopped herself down on the pavement and began pulling at her hair. She spoke to God and cursed at the English dogs and their owners she had to share the sidewalk with. The boy, meanwhile, tried to calm her and he was aware of himself doing it. “It’s not the end of the world, Bibi-joon. It’s just keys.” But they both knew it wasn’t so. Nariman’s father was a man who took locks and bolts seriously. He liked to buy things. The auctions at Sotheby’s mostly. English silverware. Landscape paintings. Pictures of boats out at sea. Expensive-looking things with expensive-looking gold frames around them. And just like their house in Tehran, when the walls and closets at the London flat had gotten filled up, the big man had had workers empty out Nariman’s old room in the back and turned it into storage space. He had recently bought a penthouse for himself around the corner in Albion Mews, where he was going to take his new possessions once the renovation of the place was complete.
“Your father will kill me,” Bibi said.
It wasn’t something impossible to imagine.
So on their third trip to the supermarket, the boy and the maid made a mistake. They took little Narges with them. She was smaller, closer to the ground, and anyway three pairs of eyes were better than two.
“What are we looking for?”
An hour later there were still no keys. Bibi-joon had to hurry back to the house to make lunch for Nariman’s father and his friends. She took Narges with her, and by the time the boy got home his little sister had already told their father they’d lost a set of keys. She would not have done this had Nariman remembered to tell her not to report it to daddy—just as their father had told the girl not to repeat in front of anyone she wished that her daddy was king. But it was too late now. In the scramble to find the keys, he’d forgotten to be Narges’s big brother. And now Bibi-joon was in her kitchen and the little girl was in her room playing with her Barbies. The boy, having lent his keys to Bibi, had to knock to come in. He was surprised to see his father open the door.
“Where are your keys?”
Men were laughing in the living room. And even though he couldn’t see them yet, the boy could put faces to the voices. There was Mr. Alaverdi, the lawyer, who two years from now would denounce Nariman’s father in a revolutionary court in Tehran. There was Mr. Gazanfar, the factory owner who would take his money and his family and escape to America just as the mobs were about to burn his factory down and freeze all his assets. There was Mr. Shams, who wouldn’t be so lucky; the revolutionary judges would have him stabbed first, then hang him from a street pole in Tehran for having been a stooge at the king’s court. There was Mr. Talai, an embassy man who would also be hung, but by his own hand and in a London suburb, once he realized the revolution was won and he wasn’t going to have any more paychecks coming in from Tehran. There were all these men and their loud voices, plus one or two more voices that the boy wasn’t familiar with.
“I don’t have them,” the boy said vaguely.
“Close the door. Follow me.”
In the living room he saw that the SAVAK chief was there too, at his usual seat at the card table. A Johnny Walker Red in front of him. The Chief’s vacant gaze stayed on Nariman. The boy could feel it. He always did. And to think that two years later, no one would ever know what became of this Chief.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The boom of his father’s voice topped the other voices and a sudden stillness took hold of the room. Boy and man stood a few feet apart. They had an audience now. “Why did you lose your keys?”
The boy would have held his ground. He wanted to. He wanted to be heroic and not give Bibi-joon away. In those quick moments he understood that his sister had only said that a set of keys was lost. What she hadn’t said was who’d lost them. He wanted more than anything to take that beating for Bibi-joon. It was the right thing to do. He knew that. He would feel good about himself afterward. What was a beating anyway? He’d taken plenty of whacks from their housemaster the first year of boarding school. It was nothing. He took the whacks and always smiled afterward. Sometimes even his English mates called him the tough gollywog. A lot of times they just called him tough. He was proud of that. He could see the silent men watching his father and him. And he could see the Chief’s eyes from the corners of his own. Green, like death maybe. What did SAVAK stand for? He had never thought he needed to know until yesterday. His father was a tough man; he’d be a good king. A great one maybe. His father was coming toward him, the big man’s big arms half-raised. “Why did you lose your keys, boy?” The voice now had worked itself into fury. And the boy still held his ground. He was going to take the blow. It was nothing. He wouldn’t give Bibi-joon up for a set of stupid keys. He hated all the antiques they had in this house, all the useless silverware and those sea pictures. He hated boarding school. He liked his dorm-mates, though, and they wouldn’t have liked to hear he’d been weak.
“I didn’t lose any keys.”
“Then who did?” the big man asked, towering over the son.
“Bibi. Bibi-joon did.”
His father stayed looking at Nariman for a bit longer. The boy saw the man’s face distorted. Like someone had just delivered a blow to it. He could not imagine anyone, anyone in the whole wide world delivering a blow to his father and living to tell about it. And then the big man turned away from him and said nothing. The boy took a step back, then another, and soon he was scurrying into his bedroom. The voices of the guests were picking up again. Someone was laughing. The SAVAK chief, as always, had said nothing.
“Let the kid be. It’s just a bunch of keys. Kids lose things.” Nariman heard this. It was the voice of Mr. Alaverdi, the lawyer who would one day denounce Nariman’s father, talking.
Salar Abdoh, born in Iran and now based in New York, is the author of two novels, Opium (Faber & Faber, 2004) and The Poet Game (Picador USA, 2000). His writings have appeared in many publications, including the New York Times and, most recently, My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes (Beacon Press, 2006). Scotland is part of a growing collection of stories about various Iranian lives.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.