Standing with his hands splayed flat on the glass topped counter in front of him, he stared through the glass at the rows of hand creams and toothpastes without seeing them. His mind's eye was busy with pictures of Sarah's straight fair hair - she hated the word 'blonde' with its association of 'dumb'. He remembered her laughing at jokes, being serious about politics and sentimental about anniversaries and animals. The little black kitten she had adopted must be a mature cat by now. The reverie ended when a woman walked in with a spotty teenager, needing his advice about acne treatments.
The days passed. He told his mother that a friend from England was coming and he wanted to invite her to dinner, and kept his voice and manner cool and casual. This was a useless strategy. His mother's psychic maternal antennae, tuned to the sound of anything female in the vicinity of her son, picked up what he thought was hidden excitement, which made her both inquisitive about and hostile to this perceived threat. Nury understood the reaction and let it pass over him. He managed not to hear remarks about 'foreign girls with no morals', and answered blandly the pointed questions designed to discover his real feelings. The thought of a family dinner was daunting but unavoidable, it would be extremely difficult to explain to Sarah why, after she had crossed Europe to see him, his mother did not want to show her the Arab hospitality he had boasted of. On the whole he was reasonably sure that his mother's good manners would prevent her from being unpleasant.
After several days of rain, welcome but messy in an arid region, the thirteenth was a bright sunny day, quite typical of the Syrian winter. The clear blue sky was like a picture postcard, and the stone buildings looked clean and pale grey after the rain. The same rain had washed the dusty trees, and the evergreens added to the freshness. The tour bus was due at 2.30pm from Palmyra, so he had time to shut up the pharmacy for lunch and walk up to the Emir Hotel to meet it. The rest of Wednesday and Thursday were dealt with by a small sign on the door "Closed due to sickness", and Friday was his holiday, so he would be able to spend all his time with Sarah.
He had to avoid puddles, patches of mud and splashes from cars, but reached the hotel unscathed and rather early. The time passed slowly after he checked that he had the right date and that they had not arrived yet. He stood by a large marble trough in the foyer, watching fat goldfish flipping about, and he was as bored as they by the time the bus arrived at almost three o'clock. Sudden nervousness kept him inside the foyer, but he recognised Sarah through the window as soon as she swung down from the bus, her head turned back to talk to someone behind her. Quietly he stood looking as she walked into the hotel, waiting for her to look round and notice him.
She saw him very quickly and left the group to come across to him. The others were being herded into a corner of the foyer to be welcomed with orange juice or beer, but Sarah and Nury stood a little apart from each other, looking at each other long and rather shyly.
"Hello, Nury, it's good to see you. I wondered if you had got my letter."
"Yes. Well, it was easiest just to be here. You look very good. Are you enjoying your trip?"