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the exposition box

Chapter Text

Our dearest son,

We hope this letter finds you well. After you abruptly left once informing us of your recent dismissal from Cambridge, we haven’t quite been sure how to move forward. However, we believe we’ve found the perfect solution.

I’m sure you remember how, upon his retirement, your grandfather left to spend the rest of his days in a small village by the sea, along with your grandmother. He ran a small shop until he passed a few years ago; always upholding the al Tahan family name. In his will, your grandfather left the store to you, Hamid, to continue upholding the long-standing al Tahan reputation in the town.

We didn’t tell you this at the time, since we were hoping that you would finish your schooling at Cambridge and follow in your brother and sister’s footsteps, but based on recent events, we feel as though this may be a more appropriate responsibility for you.

Enclosed, you will find a single train ticket to Dunnock Town, and directions to your grandfather’s home and shop. The mayor has been informed of your arrival, and will meet you at the train station to ensure you are able to find your way. You leave tomorrow. Please do not miss the train.

We expect you to conduct yourself reasonably and continue your grandfather’s business in the town. Use this opportunity to reflect on your actions and begin to build up your business acumen, and perhaps after a few years we can see about you properly joining the family business in banking.

Saleh, Saira, Aziza, Ishak and Ismail all send their love, and want you to know that they will come to visit as soon as they are able.

Love always,

Your mother and father

 

P.S. Call your mother when you arrive, she’ll want to know you made it there safely.

 

 

Hamid startled back into wakefulness when the train whistle went off, followed by a droning conductor’s voice announcing that the next stop was Dunnock Town. He glanced out the window that he had been dozing against, making a face at the little bit of makeup and oil that his forehead must have left on the glass. Quickly he glanced around and pulled out a handkerchief, dabbing the small blemish away.

The hills and rolling fields fell away behind them as the train steamed ahead, passing through a dense forest and alongside a river. The sun was beginning to set off in the distance, casting long shadows over the train as it slowly chugged along. It looked like your standard English countryside, although it wasn’t raining, and Hamid wondered what could have made his grandfather decide to settle in such a small place as Dunnock Town.

He’d find out soon enough, he supposed, and checked his watch. The train was roughly five minutes out from the station, and Hamid was looking forward to getting some real rest.

Hamid had been traveling all day, nearly. The train wasn’t as fast as flying, but there wasn’t an airport anywhere near Dunnock Town, apparently, so train it had been.

The backpack he’d brought onto the train was small at his side, but that didn’t mean he was traveling light. There were four other suitcases in the luggage car with some of his favorite outfits, and at least five purses with some accessories that he simply hadn’t had the heart to get rid of.

The train whistle blew again and Hamid clutched onto his bag straps as he gritted his teeth and squared his shoulders.

His parents had made the offer clear; this was Hamid’s responsibility for at minimum

the next few years, and if he didn’t complete it to the best of his ability he could kiss goodbye any sort of aid from his parents. Even though his grandfather had left Hamid the house, it was obvious that he was only allowed to be here thanks to his father.

Plus, he didn’t want to disappoint his parents again. The al Tahan name had been lucky enough to be of high enough status to keep the… unfortunate situation out of the news with a generous donation to the university and some clever spinning by one of their public relations people, but Hamid knew that the grace of his father only extended so far. This was his second, and last, chance.

The train slowly ground to a halt and Hamid rose, making his way down the mostly empty aisle and stepping out onto the platform. He needn’t have worried about not being able to find the mayor in the crowd - only two other passengers had even been on the train by this point, and there was only one other person on the platform, holding a sign with his name on.

Thanking the attendant for helping him with his bags, Hamid strode over to the man and reached out a hand for him to shake.

“Hello, you must be Mr. Gussett - I’m Hamid Saleh Haroun al Tahan. How are you? I hope you weren’t waiting for a long time.”

The other man stared at Hamid’s hand with what seemed like suspicion before slowly reaching out and giving it a shake. “M’not Mr. Gussett. That’s my dad. You can call me Brock. He wanted me to come pick you up, said you were related to old man Apophis.”

Hamid nodded, all too used to the familiar tightening of his chest when people spoke about his grandfather. They hadn’t been close, but he’d always been kind and given Hamid sweets when he visited their home. Which just added to the mystery of why he’d left Hamid this house instead of Aziza, who he’d always been closest with, but Hamid wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, regardless of the conditions attached to it.

“Nice to meet you, Brock. Thank you for helping, I do appreciate it.”

Brock shrugged. “Not a problem. This all you, then?” He gestured to the bags on the cart next to Hamid. “Bit much.”

Hamid bristled slightly, and felt the curve of his smile turn a bit more cold. “Well, I’m moving here permanently, so I needed to bring more than just the essentials.” He grabbed onto the cart and double checked that all of his luggage was there, before turning back to face Brock. “How will we be getting to the house?”

Brock reached over and took the cart after Hamid let go, satisfied that nothing had been left on the train. “Car’s over here, we’ll load it up and head over. The house isn’t too far, maybe a five minute drive.” He eyed Hamid’s luggage. “Shouldn’t need two trips, but it’ll be a squeeze. Come on, then.” The cart squeaked as he pushed it away, waving to the station attendant. “We’ll bring it back in a mo’, Figgis.”

The attendant, a short and squat man, nodded stiffly, fixing Hamid with a deeply unimpressed expression as they headed out of the station. Brock led the way to a small black car and popped open the boot with his key fob.

He started loading in Hamid’s luggage, stacking them on top of each other and eyeing the largest bag dubiously. The boot filled up quickly, and Hamid started loading up the back seat. It was covered in candy bar wrappers and empty drink cups; Hamid only just stopped himself from scrunching up his nose, and mentally apologized to his bags before he gingerly placed them on the seat. Brock opened the other door and shoved in the rest. Hamid winced as one of his favorite purses got crushed by another piece of luggage, but didn’t say anything.

Brock shut the door and rolled the cart over to Hamid. “Mind running this back to the station? I’ll get the car started and then we can head out.”

Hamid nodded and grabbed the cart. It was a quick stroll back to the station, and an awkward hand-off with…. Giffis? Figgis? Whatever his name was, who still looked deeply unimpressed and vaguely annoyed with Hamid, for some reason, and then he was hurrying back to the car, eager to get on his way.

Brock was waiting in the front seat, texting, when Hamid got back, and slipped his phone into the cupholder as Hamid sat down in the passenger seat. “All set?”

Hamid nodded, buckling the seatbelt. “The uh - the attendant looked… angry?”

The car screeched out of the parking lot and Hamid grabbed onto the door, knuckles white. “Oh, Figgis? He’s always sour-looking. Don’t take it personal.”

Hamid nodded, stomach roiling as Brock took a sharp left turn and roared down a dirt road.

He was right, at least; in less than five minutes, they were turning onto a gravel path with a pale blue mailbox sticking out from the bushes.

“Here we are,” Brock said, shifting the car into park. He reached under the wheel and Hamid heard a little pop as the trunk opened behind them. “Home sweet home.”

Hamid stepped out of the car and gazed up at the house.

The house was more like a small cottage; the brickwork outside was worn, with ivy slowly creeping up the sides and covering the windows. It had a small garden out in front that was overrun with weeds, and the windowsills could definitely do with a paint job. Still, it looked cute - a little less glamorous than Hamid was used to, and smaller than he had been imagining, but he didn’t really have any room to complain. And it was fine, he would be living by himself anyway. It was fine. Cozy.

He startled slightly as a small Chinese man stepped down from the front porch, waving.

“You must be Hamid! Yes, I can see the family resemblance, you’re the spitting image of your grandfather at your age, and what a mischief-causer he was, I dare say.” The man (who Hamid wanted to assume was Mayor Gussett, but didn’t want to have another misstep like he’d had back at the station with Brock) nearly skipped over to him. “Pleasure to meet you, of course, and that old shop’s been empty since your grandfather passed, awful business, so sorry for your loss, but we’re happy to see someone new bringing life to the old place!”

“It’s lovely to meet you, Mr.…” Hamid trailed off, stepping forward to meet him.

“Oh, where are my manners, of course, my name is Bi Ming Gussett, Mayor Gussett to you, at your service, lad,” Mayor Gussett said, sticking a hand out to Hamid; he reached out as well and gave the mayor a firm handshake.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Mayor Gussett.”

“You as well, son, you as well. Now,” Mayor Gussett said, “let’s get you moved in.”

He and Brock moved back toward the car, popping open the boot and back doors to grab Hamid’s luggage, and Hamid hurried over to help.

“Apophis used to always talk about you, even before he moved here. Would send me letters about all of his grandchildren.” Mayor Gusset reached into the car and started pulling out the luggage. Hamid hastily started to help, stacking his bags on top of a suitcase and making sure they were balanced before pushing them out of the way and reaching in for more.

“I thought my grandfather moved here out of nowhere?” Hamid asked, adjusting his grip on one of the bags.

Mayor Gussett shook his head. “Your grandfather and I were good friends in university, but he went on to head the al Tahan family bank and I came back to this little town to take care of my parents.” He lifted another bag out of the car and handed it to Brock, muttering a quiet, “there’s a good lad.”

“You and my grandfather went to university together? At Cambridge?” Hamid asked, setting off toward the house.

Mayor Gussett chuckled. “Don’t sound so surprised, now!” As Hamid began to stutter out an explanation, he waved his hands. “You should see your face - I’m only kidding.

“We were close friends, really. Lost touch a bit when I moved out here, but I was never off the Christmas card list. And then he moved here when he retired.”

Brock had started to stack the luggage in front of the house; as Mayor Gussett got closer he started fiddling with a key ring, shuffling through all of the keys and muttering quietly to himself.

“Oh,” he said distracted. “We haven’t gotten a chance to get inside and clean, this was pretty last minute news for us, so forgive how dusty it is.”

“It’s fine, really! I appreciate you helping me move my things in.” The door creaked open as Mayor Gussett gave a quiet cheer, tucking his key ring back into his coat with a jingle.

“Where d’you want ‘em?” Brock asked while Mayor Gussett started fiddling around the kitchen and brushing dust off some of the counters.

“Oh, just here is fine!” Hamid said, setting his own luggage down near the kitchen table. He could move it all around tomorrow, and truth be told he was tired enough from the journey that he wouldn’t be getting around to it tonight regardless of where they stashed it.

Once the last piece of luggage had been brought in, Brock gave Hamid a much more friendly wave than he’d gotten all night, hugged Mayor Gussett with a promise to come round for dinner soon, and headed out. Mayor Gussett turned to Hamid with a wink and motioned for him to follow him over to an old door off the side of the kitchen. “You can give yourself the grand tour of the house later, but let me show you this before I leave you to yourself.”

They stepped through a small doorway into a room that smelled even staler than the cottage, but was much less crowded. There were small, empty tables set up around the room, long tables stained a dark brown. A dust-covered register stood on a table in the corner.

“Here’s the store. Easy access for you, eh?” Mayor Gussett said. Hamid nodded and took a step forward, running a finger through the dust on one of the tables. This was going to take a little more than a deep clean to get it up and running again, he realized, but there was definitely a certain charm around the entire shop.

It would need some TLC, but Hamid could already picture the shop bustling with customers, maybe some new decorations in the corner, an upgrade to the register…

“It’s not much, and I know this wasn’t unilaterally your decision, but your grandfather -“

“It’s perfect,” Hamid said decisively, turning back to look at Mayor Gussett. “Well, not perfect, it… it definitely needs some work, and the spacing could be switched up, but - but it’s wonderful.”

It wasn’t a lie, not really - Mayor Gussett was right, this wasn’t Hamid’s decision and it wouldn’t have been his first choice, but his grandfather left him the store for a reason, and Hamid would make the most of it. Plus, the shop was at least functional, and had a lot of potential. He followed Mayor Gussett back to the main house and shut the door behind him.

“Now, you won’t have to go out and get all of the wares yourself. It’s been on hold since your grandfather passed, of course, but one of our local farmers will bring his crops over to the shop for you to sell. I’m sure you two will get along fabulously,” Mayor Gussett said, beaming. “Zolf can be a little prickly, but once you get to know him he’s a true friend. Him and my daughter, I’ll introduce you to her later, have been friends for as long as I can remember. He’s a good man.”

Mayor Gussett shook Hamid’s hand again, smiling widely. “Welcome to the town. I’m sure you’ll fit right in. If you need anything, my number is taped up on the fridge, and Brock or Sasha will be right over to help you. Tomorrow, I’ll bring Zolf round and you two can hash out any details you’ll need. He’ll have a better idea of how the shop used to run than I would.” He gestured to the house around him. “Make yourself at home. Dunnock Town will love to meet you.”

The door shut behind him as he stepped out and Hamid stood in the middle of his kitchen, staring around at the unfamiliar wood. The cottage was, for lack of a better word, charming . It looked homely, more understated than the house Hamid grew up in, or their vacation homes, or even his apartment back in London. And even though no one had been there in years, it felt lived in. The cabinets were painted a dark blue, but the paint was chipping in some places, with the same color on the counters below.

Hamid could make out photos of himself and his siblings hung up on most of the walls, and he smiled as he stepped closer and saw one of them all as children, jumping on his grandfather as he laughed.

He brushed some of the dust off of the photo and coughed as it floated through the air. Dusting would have to move up

the to-do list he was already mentally creating in his mind, but it was late enough that he wasn’t going to be starting anything now.

Tomorrow, he would have to meet Zolf, considering that he would be working closely with the man, and probably a few other people in town just to let them know that the shop would be up and running again.

Tonight, though, he was going to leave all of his luggage in the kitchen, ignore the disappointed voice of his mother telling him that he should put everything away now, and instead do the bare minimum of putting sheets on his bed before he collapsed into it.

There were two bedrooms in the cottage, both with similar furniture - Hamid picked the room facing west (with the queen-sized bed) and stared down at the pile of linens in his hands. In a perfect world, he’d be able to just snap his fingers and the sheets would fit themselves into the bed; instead, he spent about five minutes getting the sheets on (and another ten getting his makeup off) before he laid down on top of the comforter.

He pulled out his phone and frowned at the ‘No Service’ indicator in the top corner. At least there was a landline in the house, he’d spotted one earlier, so he’d be able to call his parents tomorrow morning and tell them that he’d made it in.

There was a whole list of things that Hamid would have to get done, most of which probably required either Mayor Gussett’s help, or (he made a face at the crack in the window in the corner) someone better at construction and building than Hamid was - which was to say, anyone minimally competent.

He didn’t know how long it would take. Hopefully there was a café with internet somewhere in the town that Hamid could use in the interim. Or some other way to contact people, so that Hamid actually would be able to make his grandfather’s shop successful again. It was what his parents wanted, after all.

Hamid was sure of one thing, though.

This was going to be a long few years.