Until she disappeared only a few of Iman Haq’s neighbours had known her name. Now, along with most of the world, they all know every juicy detail about her.
Not that Iman is shy. For three years prior to her disappearance, she has curated snapshots of her life on Instagram. Beginning with a photograph sof the moment, re-enacted for the lens, that her boyfriend became her fiancé and ending, or so it seems, with one of fireworks in the park behind their home in a leafy part of north London. That tangerine explosion against an inky sky is perceived by some as a poignant farewell and by others as a mere coincidence. In between those two, there are thousands of posts cataloguing happy, chaotic or comical aspects of her days. A highlights reel for a continuous movie that has gained the make-up artist and new mum nearly 400,000 followers and partnerships with various brands. It is her undeniable charm and the sense of community that she creates through her frequent and seemingly frank posts that cultivates loyalty in her followers and jealousy in her trolls.
Now, strangers pour over every snippet of news and old Instagram posts of her idyllic life like amateur detectives looking for hidden clues to over-analyse. Photographs of her posing in Eid outfits, beaming on her wedding day, close ups of her hugging her baby and even the way she decorated her home for Halloween just last week, flood news feeds. Her dimpled smile becoming familiar even to those who had never heard of her till now.
Theories swirl about exactly how, why and when she disappeared, without a trace, leaving her baby home alone. They are discussed online, debated in group chats, and mulled over in office kitchens. Differing possibilities bubbling and bursting by the hour.
Everyone has an opinion but her nosey neighbour, Sujata Patel, will be the first to uncover the truth.
People see what we show them. I’ve always known that.
That’s why I love make-up. I can transform myself into whoever I want to be.
It is magic really.
Kamila Haq is no longer gasping for breath when her mobile phone rings but her chest still feels tight. She instinctively reaches into her hoodie pocket for it, then stops herself. Are her hands clean? They must be. After tossing her muddy trainers in the washing machine, cleaning her hands is all she has done since she arrived home five minutes ago.
She holds them up to the light, yes, yes, they are but seeing her mum’s name on her phone screen, she decides to ignore it. Instead, she grabs a towel, peels off her damp clothes and throws them in the washing machine too. She knows she should have wiped the mud off her trainers first but she doesn’t even want to look at them. As she watches the soapy water begin to froth and fill the cylinder her phone rings again, this time she reluctantly picks up. Her mum, is not the sort to ring twice. As the matriarch of the family she normally doesn’t have to.
When Kamila is not met with even a fleeting greeting, she wishes she hadn’t bothered.
‘Why is your brother’s phone off?’
Kamila is yet to say a word but the pace of her breathing, even now that it has considerably steadied, is enough for her mum to snap,
‘Take your asthma medication.’
‘I don’t need it.’
‘If you can’t handle a run, then you do.’
‘I wasn’t running.’ Kamila lies.
‘You and your brother. Tauba.’
‘I’m fine.’ Kamila says firmly.
‘Ok then, tell me why does Rameez have his phone off? It is never off.’
Her mum is furious but there is a hint of something else too, fear. In an instant Kamila is seven again, rather than thirty-seven, and responsible for her little brother.
‘I’ve called Rameez nine times and it goes straight to answer phone every time. Barcelona is an hour ahead of London, he should be up.’
Kamila has not heard from her brother since they argued yesterday, when he was boarding his flight, so she is about to say, your guess is as good as mine when she hears her baby nephew, Musa, whimper in the background.
‘Iman isn’t home. I arrived to find Musa alone. Crying his eyes out. I need to speak to your brother.’
Kamila takes a moment to absorb her mum’s words, which is clearly too long for her mum because she says,
‘Are you asleep too? I said, Iman is gone. His wife is gone.’
Iman is gone.
Kamila repeats to herself. She tries to grab the words but they roll around her tired mind, just out of reach. It is as if the rage that was swirling around it just half an hour ago has sucked all her energy.
‘We agreed, I’d arrive at 7.30 this morning to babysit so she could go do that singer’s make-up. I arrived on time but she is not here. I found Musa alone in his cot. Crying. I do not understand what is going on.’
Iman is gone. Kamila silently repeats to herself over and over.
Relief. She feels relief, just for a moment but she does. Then guilt hits her, it races through her body till even her toes pulsate with it.
Oblivious, her mum continues,
‘Iman’s car is here. Her keys and wallet are here. All her stuff is here but she is not here. Your brother is on his silly schoolboy holiday with his phone off.’
Kamila hears herself say, ‘stag do’ and instantly regrets it. The need to correct her mum is so entrenched it has become a reflex.
‘Jo bhi hai. I don’t care. His baby is alone, his wife is missing and I can’t get hold of him.’ She hisses. Kamila can almost see her wave, a no doubt beautifully manicured hand, through the air as if to bat Kamila’s correction away.
Musa begins screaming and Kamila notes, not for the first time, that her baby nephew has inherited Iman’s lungs. The pitch of his cries reach far into Kamila’s soul, blocking her thoughts but fortunately Musa stops just as abruptly as he started.
‘Hello? Are you listening? I’m talking to you Kamila.’
There is the briefest of pauses and Kamila can feel the heat of her mum’s gaze as if they were stood opposite each other.
‘She can’t have left for that singer’s forest party thing, all of her make-up kit is here and we were going to go over Musa’s routine. She kept going on and on about that, I must have twenty messages about it. Not even this Natasha Jones, singer or actress or whatever she is, make-up job is more important to her than Musa. Something has happened.’