“Excuse me, madam,” said Loz, brandishing his clipboard. “I’m doing some research into – ”
But the woman brushed past him without stopping, batting him aside as if he were a fly at a picnic.
“Excuse me, miss, I’m doing some – ”
“Excuse me, sir, I’m doing – ”
“Excuse me – ”
Loz blinked, stammered, then referred to his clipboard.
“Oh – er, yes – er, right. Sorry. Er, I’m doing some research into public perceptions of moral issues, and I wondered if you’d be able to spare a few minutes to answer a couple of simple questions.”
“Nothing to sign? No long-term commitments? You aren’t selling anything?”
“No, no,” said Loz, “Really. Just a few questions.”
The short, overweight man with a picture of a motorbike tattooed on his arm ran his hand over his close-cropped head and grinned at Loz.
“Go on then,” he said. “Do your worst.”
“Oh, er, yes, right,” said Loz. He consulted his clipboard again. “Well, question one. Alcohol. Would you say you’re a frequent drinker, an occasional drinker, or not a drinker at all?”
The man scratched his chin. “What’s ‘frequent’?”
“Every day,” said Loz.
“Oh yes,” said the man with a chuckle. “Put me down as frequent.”
Loz made a note on his clipboard and turned the page.
“Question two. Sexual relations.” Loz reddened. “Um. Have you ever, or would you consider, having sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite gender to whom you were not lawfully married?”
“As salaamu alaikum, Lawrence our brother. Come, sit beside me. Have you news? How goes your research?”
Loz sat awkwardly on the low cushion, aware that his shoeless socks were starting to smell after a day pounding the pavement.
“Not well, Imam hadhrat,” he said. “I have yet to find a pure soul, despite my vigorous attempts.”
The imam toyed with his beard, looking closely at Loz.
“You know what this means, Lawrence.”
“Please, Imam. Another week, I beg you. I know I will find one, inshallah.”
“Another week, brother Lawrence. But one more week is all Allah and I can give you.”
She heard him slam the front door, throw his keys into the brass incense burner on the hall table and scrape a kitchen chair back from the table.
“Larrykin, my darling,” she said, putting her arms around him. “Another bad day?”
Loz reached a hand around to grasp her wrist, but remained staring at the chipped formica table.
“Not a single one, Laila,” he said. “Not one.”
“Oh Larrykin,” she said, squeezing a little harder. “But perhaps the imam is right. Perhaps these really are very bad people. Perhaps they do not deserve to live.”
Loz spread his hands on the table.
“He said he’d cancel if I found fifty good, blameless people,” he said. “Fifty! Ha! I thought it would be so easy! Then he said he’d reconsider if I found ten. Then just one.”
Loz turned his face to look at his wife, tears running down his cheeks.
“Not one, my love! Not a single one! But I will not give up. I will go out again tomorrow.”
“Excuse me, sir,” said Loz, waving the clipboard once more. He was trying a different corner of the shopping centre, outside a branch of Mothercare. He knew that people were more likely to be bad around the off licence, and the coffee shops, and the multiscreen cinema, and there were all sorts of bad reasons why people might need to visit a chemist. But surely, parents of young children must have some good in them?
But looking at the string of mothers he wasn’t so sure. Few of them were wearing wedding rings. He noticed that those with more than one child rarely had two children of the same colour. What was it with these people? Did they want to be blown to bits in the name of Allah?
“Just one more day. Please.”
“No, brother Lawrence. You have tried, and you have failed to find a single person who deserves to live. We go ahead tomorrow, inshallah.” The imam put a hand on Loz’s shoulder. “You tried your best.”
When Loz awoke after a fitful, sleepless night he found the house empty. In a panic, he ran downstairs and found a note standing against the bottle of tomato ketchup on the kitchen table:
Gone to the shops
I love you
Fear crawled down his spine as he rushed to get dressed and ran out of the door. He raced to the bus stop, hopping from foot to foot as he waited. He could barely sit still on the bus, attracting suspicious looks from the other passengers. When the bus reached the shopping centre he jumped off and ran inside, racing through the air-conditioned halls.
“Laila!” he called outside the sports store, the jeweller’s, the electronic cigarette stall. “Laila!” he shouted as he ran past the bookshop and the fast food court. “Laila!” he yelled from the escalators.
And then he saw her, in the distance, sitting by the water feature. She was wearing her winter coat, despite the mild weather.
Loz ran up to her, calling her name. She looked up in surprise.
“Come, Laila!” he shouted, grabbing her hand. He pulled her to her feet and started to drag her towards the exit.
“Come! We must hurry! We must leave!”
When they were nearly at the door Laila slipped her hand out of his and stood still.
Loz continued to run a few paces and then, realising she was no longer with him, turned to face her, a look of confusion crossing his face.
Laila undid her coat buttons, slowly, one by one. As it dropped open Loz could see wires, sticks, straps.
But she turned away from him, to face the shopping centre once more. For a moment, for his last moment, the figure of his wife became a dazzling, bright white column. As if she was made of light. As if she was made of salt.