Lady Luxe has never sat so still in her life. She stretches her muscles as much as she can, given the restrictions of being in an (albeit, very comfortable) airplane seat. After almost seven hours of sitting in one place though, she feels like bounding out of her seat and launching into a Jane Fonda aerobics routine. She wonders if the cute guy beside her would join her if she did.
Before she persuades herself to swallow her inhibitions and leap into a star jump, she finds that crossing her legs in a Buddha-like pose stretches her fatigued muscles adequately, and sinks back into her seat in relief. She can imagine Dubai's expat newspaper headlines the next day had she decided to make a spectacle of herself. ‘X heiress loses the plot,’ the expat favourite would declare with undisguised glee, but the Arabic ones would refrain from such vigour. ‘Daughter of X has publicly shamed herself and her family,’ perhaps.
She sighs, already missing London’s grey skies, cool breezes and the beautiful fragrance of freedom.
In London, Lady Luxe does not need to don a blonde wig over her thick, dark brown hair whenever she decides to have a little fun. Nor does she bother with the blue contact lenses that mask her own hazel eyes, giving them an ethereal look. In London, her abaya is carefully hung in her South Kensington closet, acquiring the slightest sheen of dust until it is time to board an EK flight back to DXB, her sheila lies discarded somewhere close by and her name is definitely not Lady Luxe. She is not the daughter of X, granddaughter of X and niece of X. In London, she is just plain Jennifer. She struggles to board the tube with everyone else, she stands squashed against sweaty commuters with everyone else and in every restaurant she is served just.like.everyone. else. She is completely anonymous; an ordinary, twenty-something girl living an ordinary(ish) life.
Shifting around in her seat and rearranging her legs once again, Lady Luxe mindlessly flicks through the movie options, realising upon reading the brief film descriptions that her life is probably far more interesting than any movie.
For a fragment of a second, she toys with the idea of writing a screenplay about her family. A script full of dry, British humour intertwined with colourful Gulf jokes; English with a splash of Arabic, just like her. She knows she will never be able to though. She knows that telling anyone about her father's mistresses, her mother's addiction to prescription drugs, her brother's fierce temper and her own scandalous double life, will guarantee the X family's exile from the desert and her own head on a platter.
"Can I get you something to drink, ma'am. Some wine perhaps?" The air stewardess is pretty, like all Emirates staff, and she smiles a white smile at Lady Luxe, her pearly teeth even more distinct due to the deep red lipstick they are framed with.
Yes please. "No thank you," Lady Luxe murmurs, her throat dry, wishing she could. But she has already spotted four other Khaleejis in the cabin and cannot risk having a drink in case they happen to know who she is. She snorts when she sees a man in the traditional Emirati white robe, known as the candoura, indulging himself in a glass of something clearly haraam, and wonders why it is acceptable for Emirati men to do as they please when God has set clear rules that apply to both men and women.
Hypocrites, she thinks to herself.
Sighing audibly, she grabs her huge orange Birkin from where she hid it under her black pashmina to avoid having to store it in the overhead hanger, and rummages through it in search of something to occupy her mind. She comes across torn cinema stubs, old concert passes, dried rose petals and scrunched up receipts – all reminders of her amazing three and a half years in London - of a time she knows she will never be able to get back.
"Having a bad flight?"
Lady Luxe knew that the boy sitting next to her would eventually work up the courage to speak to her. There is something about her clear, open face that often encourages strangers to make idle conversation with her.
"Not anymore," she flirts, watching his cheeks turn pink with pleasure.
Recently graduated, he tells her that he has been headhunted by an American company in Dubai to join an investments firm. He shifts around in his seat, clearly not used to flying Business, which she finds endearing. As he continues to talk, she tunes out, concentrating on his hands instead. Small with long, delicate fingers, she wonders how niftily he could do undo the buttons on her Seven jeans and then quickly shakes the questions out of her head. She is trying to stop being such a rebel.
“So where exactly is your office based?” she asks in a slightly British, slightly American and even slightly Arabic accent – the product of being born and raised in Dubai, studying in an International school and having an English mother. Her caramel complexion is also hard to place – too tanned to be from Iranian descent, too fair to be an original Emirati and too rosy to be Lebanese, most find it difficult to work out where she’s from. Her hair also makes her stand out from most of her cousins, who, with their frizzy jet black hair subjected to countless biolustre hair treatments, dark brown eyes and large noses (until they make the customary ‘coming of age’ trip to Lebanon to rectify it), envy her small, straight nose, glossy chestnut hair and greenish brown eyes.
Although the combination is definitely attractive, and with her lean limbs, small shoulders and trendy dress sense she often turns heads, Lady Luxe is not what you would call beautiful. There’s something mischievous about her wide smile though, and something strangely innocent about her bright eyes, and together with her infectious laugh, the full package can be lethal.
“In Dubai International Finance Centre,” he replies proudly and slowly, careful not to fumble the words. She suppresses a giggle at his using the full name instead of the DIFC acronym. Dubai is full of acronyms – DLC, DFC, DMC, DIC, DIFC, JBR, JLT, MOE. The city that has grown so rapidly has an equally fast pace. No one even has the time to speak slowly and pronouncing a title fully is a gross waste of time.
“It’s obvious you’re a newbie,” she says with a coy smile. Do you need someone to help you out? is the unasked question. She dares him with her eyes and he responds exactly how she expects.
“I could do with someone showing me the ropes,” he says hesitantly.
“Don’t worry, there are plenty of friendly people who would be happy to assist you,” she replies with a warm smile.
Lady Luxe doesn’t mean to play mind games, but for some reason, she just can’t help it. From a young age, every word that she has uttered has held an underlying meaning – whether it’s negotiating for a new car, pleading for a new vacation or asking for a credit card with a higher limit, she has always had to choose her words carefully to get the response she wants. Now, at twenty-one, it’s not just her father or her brothers she tests her verbal skills with. Every man (or boy) that comes in contact with Lady Luxe never quite knows where he stands, what she wants or what she’s thinking. Most of the time, that’s exactly how she likes it, but occasionally, she wishes that a guy would just read her mind and give her what her subconscious desperately wants – a stable, uncomplicated marriage. No cultural issues, no second wives, just love. But everyone knows that such a thing doesn’t exist – not in an Emirati girl’s life.
“Um, I hope so,” he replies, his disappointment obvious.
She takes in his sandy blonde hair and dark brown eyes with appreciation but then looks away. She’s not in the mood to continue playing with him, no matter how attractive he is and how much fun they can have together, and it’s not worth the risk either. No matter what she does in London – the bars she visits, the clubs she stumbles out of at dawn, the men whose bedrooms she finds herself in when the cold, British sun seeps its way in through the cracks in the curtains and gently wakes her up. In Dubai, she is Lady Luxe – and with a surname like that, she just can’t afford to let her secret adventures become public. She doesn’t care about tarnishing her reputation and becoming unmarriageable. What she does care about however, is risking her life. Honour killings may not make the headlines, or even seep into community gossip, but after what happened to her cousin, she knows better than to flaunt her escapades. So, in Dubai, she continues her good girl façade when she has to, and when the cat’s away (in her case, her father), she plays. Hard.
It wasn't easy for Lady Luxe to persuade her father to allow her to study Fashion at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, one of Britain's most revered art institutions. It took her most of her life to make him accept that she wasn't interested in business administration, and then a full year of cajoling, pleading, crying, arguing and hypothesizing to make him agree to her studying abroad. Eventually, both her mother and uncle had to step in, explaining to her father the importance of her learning about her full heritage, of spending time with her mother, the importance of studying at a prestigious, historic college rather than a new Dubai establishment, as well as the benefits of learning how to be independent.
Lady Luxe's father was right to be concerned.
For three and a half years, his beloved daughter has tried everything she ever dreamed of trying – and more. Never particularly religious, God-fearing or traditional, she utilised every minute of her freedom as if it were her last, knowing that eventually, her time would come to and end and she would have to return to her home country and continue living a double life.
With her very own South Kensington apartment that her mother only visited monthly during her London 'shopping' (botox) weekends, for the first time in her eighteen years, she was accountable to no one but herself. There was no one noting when she would arrive home (usually at dawn, with makeup smeared under her eyes, smelling faintly of booze and cigarettes), no one to care about what she wore (nothing particularly hooker-like, but definitely never an abaya), no one to gossip about whom she mixed with (a gloriously eclectic range of art students from all walks of life, all nationalities and all religions) and no one to threaten to kill her for talking to a man (talking? More like… 'dating'). All in all, it was a hugely liberating experience for the young Emirati girl who had always dreamed about paving her own path in life, but was forced to live in a labyrinth of hypocritical rules.
"Well, I would kind of like it if you would show me around," the Brit says hesitantly, his nervousness clear in his eyes.
"Would you now?" Lady Luxe replies, surprised. She had underestimated him. He is clearly more resilient than she initially gave him credit for. Against her better judgment, she pulls out a Mont Blanc pen, reaches over and takes hold of his hand. He freezes and she can sense that he has stopped breathing. She grins to herself.
"Here you go. That's my number. Call me if you need any help," she says, scribbling down her second phone number on the back of his hand. The one that serves one, very clear purpose.
"Thanks. I will," he replies, staring down at the number as if he is afraid it will disappear before he has a chance to commit it to memory.
As the captain announces the descent into DXB, Lady Luxe untangles her folded legs and hauls herself off her seat. Ignoring the Brit’s bemused gaze, she scrapes her hair into a ponytail, rearranges her fringe and attaches a big, pink flower clip to the back of her head. Retrieving her Swarovski crystal encrusted abaya from the hostess, she slips it on and loosely places her sheila back onto her head.
“Bloody hell,” the Brit chuckles, watching her in amazement. “You look completely different!”
“That’s the point,” she answers, sitting back down, this time folding her legs delicately. Jimmy Choos peep out from beneath the abaya’s long hem, and she looks down at them happily. The sale at Selfridges definitely dented the shopping budget she tried to allocate herself in a bid to learn responsibility. Anyhow, at least they were on sale and everyone knows that shopping abroad is far cheaper than shopping in Dubai. She looks across the cabin and sees a pretty girl with silky black hair perform the exact same ritual she has just completed. Their eyes connect and they smile wry smiles at each other.
Alighting from the plane, Lady Luxe says a quick, halal goodbye to the Brit, grabs her luggage that has been prioritised to come out first and heads out into the humid Dubai night. The airport was freezing cold, but the weather outside, despite it being the middle of January, is pleasant enough for light sweaters. Only in Dubai do you wear your jacket indoors and remove it outdoors. Enjoying the warm breeze and the familiar scent of petrol by the taxi stand, Lady Luxe looks around for the white Bentley Continental that usually picks her up from the airport. Instead, all she sees are the beige taxis waiting to pick up naïve passengers who are unaware that riding a taxi in Dubai is tantamount to suicide.
"Need a lift?" The Brit is back, lugging a large, new suitcase, beads of sweat appearing on his hairline as he is confronted with the warm winter's night, his thick woolen polo neck and leather jacket completely inappropriate for Dubai's stuffy climate.
"Thanks but I'm expecting someone," she says, her eyes looking around quickly, hoping no one will notice the Emirati girl conversing with the foreign boy.
"A boyfriend?" he asks tentatively, taking off his jacket and slinging it over his suitcase.
"Haha, no. My driver," she laughs, relaxing upon realising that no one is looking in her direction.
"You have a driver?"
"A bit precious don’t you think?" He looks into Lady Luxe's hazel eyes, amused as they narrow in annoyance.
"You'll understand in a couple of months," she says patronisingly, a little peeved at his impertinence. "Anyway, shouldn’t you be catching a taxi like the rest of the commoners?"
"Are you trying to get rid of me? Fine, I can take a hint. See you later, it's been a pleasure." Giving her no time to react, the Brit leans forward and pecks Lady Luxe on the cheek, before heading over to the taxi rank, leaving her feeling as if she has been slapped.
Shit. What if someone saw that? She looks around, ignoring the disapproving gaze of the security guard, her heart pounding as she prays that her eyes don’t fall on anything white – be it a candoura, guttra, or worse, her driver.
But they do.
A hundred metres away, a white Bentley is waiting for her. Her heart still thudding against her ribcage, she walks over to it, pulling along her Louis Vuitton luggage as she does.
"Hi Mahboob," she greets the Pakistani driver with a small smile as he hops out of the car and relieves her of her luggage.
"Salaam," he replies abruptly, loading her Louis Vuitton bags into the car. Without waiting for him to open the door for her, she yanks it open herself and sinks into the plush red leather seats. She wonders if she should say anything to him, implore him not to mention anything to her father or brother, or if she should pretend that nothing happened. She opts for silence.
Mahboob skillfully manoeuvers his way through the lanes of traffic, over Garhoud Bridge and into Za’abeel, one of the most exclusive areas in Dubai, and home to not only the ruler and his family, but countless other royalty and their staff. Lady Luxe she stares blankly out of the tinted windows at the blur of mismatched villas as they make their way to her large, white villa. It's only when she feels the wetness on her cheeks, she realises that the blur of colour is caused by her tears.
"Miss X we are here," Mahboob states the obvious as the gates of the villa glide open and he pulls inside the grounds, driving around the fountain and into the garage where he parks next to a row of glistening, luxury cars. He opens the door and sees the tears rolling down Lady Luxe's face.
"What's wrong, beta?" he asks kindly, handing her a tissue which she accepts gratefully.
"Nothing, I'm fine," she answers, embarrassed, climbing out of the car and rearranging her sheila so that it sits perfectly over her head, her eyes and nose tinged with pink.
Mahboob opens his mouth to say something and then closes it.
"What?" Lady Luxe asks, walking over to the huge, wooden, berber style front door, looking back at him. "I said I'm fine." I'm not. I'm scared. I miss London. I don't want to be back here.
"I…" He looks at her, his eyes filled with concern. "I didn’t see anything, okay?"
Lady Luxe says nothing, but thanks God silently for saving her…once again. Although she knows there will come a day when he will stop. And when that day comes, she doubts she will be ready.