In the shadow of secrets, lies and shame

Naomi Lieberman has flown the nest of her hometown in Liverpool to seek the bright lights of London. Despite having a degree in forensic science, Naomi finds herself working as a sales assistant at a sex shop in Soho. This is just one of many shameful secrets she has to hide from her Orthodox Jewish family and childhood sweetheart, Ephraim. Facing up to the disappointing realities of her life, Naomi is desperate to find meaning and purpose. On a whim she signs up as a volunteer at a local refugee centre, where her path soon crosses with that of John Paul Chambers.

John Paul is head of English at a private college and the manager of the refugee centre. He is arrogant, aloof, and still trying to free himself from the emotional curse of the genocide in Rwanda that orphaned him twenty years earlier. When John Paul interviews the centre’s latest flighty volunteer, neither he nor Naomi has the slightest idea that their lives are about to change forever.

The extract below is taken from ‘Once Upon a Thousand Hills’, in the section where Naomi and John Paul first meet. It’s written from Naomi’s point of view.


At last I find the refugee centre, situated in what appears to be the annex of a primary school. I approach the main entrance and press the door buzzer. Instantly the mechanism clicks open. Pushing down the metal bar, I step inside a large bright area that is awash with displays of children’s artwork, giant family trees, maps of the world, and posters depicting all sorts of exotic-looking places and people..

Folding up my umbrella, I take off my jacket and sling it over my arm in what I hope is a casual pose. Then I spot an attractive young lady who’s holding a large pile of papers and speaking to a dark-haired, olive-skinned teenage boy wearing jeans and a long baggy T-shirt. I’d guess him to be Arab, perhaps from the Middle East. He’s got a lean face with black flashy eyes. In a few years’ time he’ll probably be breaking girls’ hearts. I hover around for a few moments until they’ve finished talking.

The woman is speaking in a firm, teacher-like voice that matches the sternness of her arched eyebrows. “So in future, Ahmed, please try to remember that, okay?”

He gives a half-nod, half-shrug. Evidently Arab teenagers are no less sullen than our own home-grown ones. She turns her attention to the pile of paperwork in her hands, clearly indicating to the boy that the conversation is over. He tosses me a hostile look before disappearing down a corridor at the far end of the hall.

I scuttle over to the lady, tugging down my skirt. “Excuse me?”

She looks up. “Yes, can I help?”

“I hope so.” I smile cheerily. “I’m Naomi Lieberman. I have an appointment with Mr Chambers at six-thirty. Sorry I’m a bit late – the rain slowed me down, and –”

“Oh, yes. John Paul is expecting you. Please, come this way.”

I follow her down the corridor. We stop just outside Room No 7 towards the end. She knocks at the door and we wait.

“Have you come from far?”

“Oh, no, not that far – I mean, not Somalia or Syria or anywhere like that!”

I laugh half-heartedly, but at that point our brief discourse is interrupted by a short: “Come in!” from within the hidden walls of Room No 7.

She opens the door and announces to the invisible person inside, “Hi there. Naomi Lieberman here to see you.”

With a parting smile she turns round and walks away, abandoning me to my rising nerves. So this is it! Down to me now.


I step inside the room, closing the door behind me.

“Hello, I’m –”

And suddenly, I stop. I’m lost for words. Even though only two words need follow.

“Naomi Lieberman?”

I nod.

He stands up from his desk and walks towards me.

I know this is ridiculous, and it’s going to sound racist, which I’m honestly not,but the thing is, I am completely taken off guard by my first sight of John Paul Chambers. I hadn’t expected him to be … well, black. And suddenly, it occurs to me in a whoosh of mortification that I have never known a black person in my entire life. Where have they all been, these last twenty-four sequestered years?

He holds out a hand to me. “Hi, I’m John Paul Chambers, the Volunteer Manager. So you found us then. Eventually.” He glances at his watch to emphasise the point.

“Yes – sorry I’m late. I got a bit lost.”

He’s also tall. I mean really tall. I have to look quite high up in order to aim my nervous smile at him. And broad-shouldered, with narrow hips. And smartly dressed. Dark trousers and jacket, white shirt opened at the collar, and a tie that’s a bit loose and hanging askew. In fact, he’s all round a fine figure of a man,as Gran would say. He has a firm jawline, very short hair, and a surprisingly refined nose, though I shouldn’t be making general assumptions about what sort of noses different races of people are supposed to have. But even more striking than his refined nose is a scar that he has, just touching his left eyebrow. Not a huge ugly jagged scar, but quite long, and certainly conspicuous.

“Well then, Miss Lieberman,” he begins in that deep, self-assured voice that I recognise from our three telephone exchanges, “if you’re planning on helping us out here, I trust you won’t make a habit of coming dressed like that in future?”

I stall. And then frown, despite my nerves. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”

He raises his scarred eyebrow, then takes a step backwards, folding his arms as he surveys me from head to foot. “Nothing, if you happen to be meeting friends for a drink on a Saturday night. But not acceptable here, sorry. That’s the rule.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’m quite good at breaking rules.” I laugh, but John Paul does not.

“Well you better hadn’t here. This isn’t a game, you know.”

“Of course not.”

I’m beginning to feel decidedly out of place. Not just in my three-inch heels and snazzy suede miniskirt and black zig-zag tights – but just all round existentially out of place.

Still frowning, he says, “Okay, we can talk about dress code later.”

He touches my elbow – a firm, confident touch – and steers me over to his desk.

We sit down opposite one another. I place my dripping umbrella on the floor beside me and hang my jacket round the back of my chair. While waiting for him to sort through some papers that are scattered about his desk, I have a quick survey of my surroundings. It’s a small room – snug, warm, cluttered in a vibrant way – obviously intended to put people at ease. There are lots of ethnic prints on the walls, as well as posters depicting scenes from different continents, and a large map of Africa. But the thing that makes the room far more personal is the handful of framed photographs that are displayed on John Paul’s desk. Two in particular grab my attention. The first is of a middle-aged couple sitting on a bench – could be in a large garden, or possibly a park. They’re smiling at the camera and the man’s hand is clasped upon his wife’s (I presume), which in turn is resting on her lap. It’s a very soothing, endearing sort of pose. Friends of the refugee centre, perhaps? Benefactors? Anyway, presumably not John Paul’s parents because both faces in the photo are white. The second photo is of a black family: a striking couple standing in the middle of a gaggle of children that are clustered around them, ranging in age from about five to twelve or thirteen.

Suddenly I realise that John Paul is looking at me. “Do you think we could possibly start?” he says. “That is, once you’ve had your fill of examining my photographs.”

“Oh – sorry. I was just thinking how lovely they are. Especially the one with all the children. Do you know those people?”

“I should hope so. They’re my family.”

“Oh, right. Well, they’re certainly a striking bunch.”

“Thank you.” He appears to be oddly uncomfortable with the compliment.

“Especially the lady in the middle. Who is she?”

“My mother.”

“Wow. She’s beautiful.”

“Yes, indeed. Now –”

“And you? Are you in the photo?”

“The boy on the left. Now do you mind if we move on?”

“Okay, sure.” But I a sneak a final glance at the boy on the left. He’s the oldest looking child, probably a teenager, and has a huge smile on his face. Bears little resemblance to the stern man sitting opposite me right now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s