PART I: SAABIRAH
Months later, as Saabirah Shafi would lie on the pilling, beige-coloured carpet of her three-bed council house, blood draining from her head wound, she would recall the distant memory of her son falling from his bike as she taught him how to ride it. She would remember how she had cleaned the raging gash on his knee, gently and lovingly. She would hope that all the modest comfort she had given her children would see them through the rest of their lives, happy and optimistic.
Long before that though, Saabirah’s thoughts were consumed by the intricate pattern of the prayer mat she knelt on to pray Isha. She tried to concentrate on the words she was saying – those she’d grown up reciting that exalted Him and begged for His forgiveness – but her mind wandered helplessly. The teal colour of the mat along with the flowers that decorated the border took hold of her mind. The Ka’aba image at the head of the mat that lay between her hands, out of reach, tortured her as she contemplated whether she was ever destined to make pilgrimage to the holy place. She longed to be surrounded by the cube, to touch it, to experience the serenity of the sacred house.
She was knelt by the foot of her bed, a king-size wooden bedstead in the master room of their terraced damp-ridden house. She faced the windows that overlooked the front of the house, the curtains not yet drawn and the window pushed open to compensate for the creeping June heat and mould forming on the walls.
From downstairs, she could hear the muttering from the TV and the sound of her husband’s laugh. She smiled to herself imagining Junaid’s arm splayed at the back of the sofa, his leg crossed over the other and his tea in hand. He always seemed like a completely different person when he was laughing.
She heard the floorboards creak from across the landing – one of her two children pacing. She wondered which one of them was fretting. She wanted so badly to be able to go to her daughter’s room and tell her that everything would be OK. She wanted more than anything for her husband to listen, for once. But she knew that Reyhana’s love for a gora would never be accepted. Junaid would never allow his only daughter to marry a white man.
Saabirah had always been proud when relatives and friends commented on her beautiful and obedient children. They were beautiful but she knew that they got that from their father. Junaid’s milky-white skin, his dark eyes, long lashes and framed face had made Saabirah blush the first time she looked at him. She’d been hiding in the bedroom she shared with her sister-in-law, Ambreen, while her brother was away. Ambreen had been teasing her after her initial shock wore off at Junaid and his family’s unexpected arrival. Eventually, Ambreen had been called to the sitting room and Saabirah became even more nervous. Wanting to hear what was being discussed, she had poked her head out from behind the curtain in the doorway. Unfortunately, Junaid had been walking towards the kitchen sink at that time and she was seen. She had shrieked and ducked her head back behind the curtain. Stealthily, a moment later, she had looked again. This time, Junaid had been crouched by the kitchen sink with – Saabirah observed – a smile across his face. Curiously, she had continued to watch him – this mysterious man who in that moment had caused Saabirah to fall in love for the first time.
Of her children’s obedience, she could say very little. They were always polite and well-mannered around company – Junaid had drilled that in to them from a young age and they were always reminded by her. Yet still, relatives and friends were mistaken – not that she’d ever admit it to them. Her son was a drug addict. It had taken her a long time to accept it but it was true.
The signs had been there for a long time – the pungent, woody smell, the blood-shot eyes, the sudden food cravings – but now the police had become involved, Saabirah felt betrayed and Junaid, irate.
‘Look at the state of you,’ Junaid would say, pointing with his whole hand. ‘You’re an adult now, what is wrong with you?’ As if smoking cannabis was fine as long as you weren’t an adult.
Raheel would stand there, shamed. He knew he was lucky the police wasn’t charging him, yet still he didn’t seem to realise the gravity of the situation. If he were caught again – anywhere – the council had the right to evict them from their home.
Junaid would continue, his voice raised as if his point could be understood better if he shouted. ’You’re supposed to be supporting this house, not getting us thrown out. Do you think I have money to buy us a house? Who will I depend on, huh? Your sister? You want to shame me in front of everyone by having to take money from my daughter, a girl? Or do you want to see your parents homeless in their old age?
'Because that is what will happen. I do not take money from girls – your daada-abbu taught me that much . . . Allah grant him Jannah.’
Saabirah had never met Junaid’s father but she knew so much about him, mostly because Junaid always spoke about everything he had learnt from him and secondly, because Junaid’s mother – Allah rest her soul – always said that Junaid was just like his father – lazy, controlling and patriarchal.
She did credit Junaid though for having always stuck to that promise. He may not have liked Reyhana working, especially as a Financial Adviser – ‘a man’s work’ – but he didn’t ever take money from her.
Then, Junaid would go back to his Pakistani comedy and Raheel would struggle to make eye contact with Saabirah. In front of his father, he would say nothing but he covered his shame in front of Saabirah by making excuses.
She had begged him too many times to stop. She had shouted at him. She had tried to make him swear to never do it again. She had even – she was ashamed to admit – resorted to emotional blackmail.
All Raheel did was sigh. ‘It’s nothing, Mum,’ he would say. ‘It’s the same as Dad and his smoking.’ Then he’d exhale deeply when Saabirah would give him a threatening look that warned him not to compare his father’s nicotine habit with his cannabis-smoking one. ‘I’m going to stop, don’t worry. Just trust –.’ He was often cut off by his phone’s demanding ringtone. Sometimes it would be a friend she knew of, sometimes a friend she didn’t and she wondered if that was his dealer. A couple of times she had caught a glimpse of a photo of a young girl.
‘Mum, I have to get this,’ he would say. He always had to get it.
Saabirah would nod then check the time on the watch she’d received on her fortieth birthday. It had been on her wrist for over two years and she would absent-mindedly thumb the mother of pearl dial knowing that directly beneath it, on the stainless steel back, were the words she cherished the most: 'Special Mum. Love always, Raheel.’
Whenever he spoke to the girl, she would hear him talking in a rushed excitement, with a kind of urgency, as if there weren’t enough words left in the world. For some reason – and she knew not why – she felt apprehensive about her.
It was true that Raheel was a private person and she respected that, but there was a time when he opened up to her about everything. She always knew details of his friends, how he was feeling, what he wanted to do with his life, how a college exam or an interview had gone. Saabirah thought about his first crush and the day he’d told her. Its bliss sucked her in, making her momentarily forget the present. At just five years old, he had befriended a girl in his class who had become the reason for him losing his speech stammer. She had been his first friend, and Saabirah smiled at the memory of walking home with him that day and listening to the euphoria in his voice as he had described how wonderful she was and how she was his best friend.
‘She sounds lovely, Raheel,’ she had said to him.
He looked up at her from his tiny three-and-a-half-foot height and smiled. ’But you’re lovelier, Mummy, and you’re my bestest friend,’ he had said, squeezing her hand and pulling her along to skip with him. Three-year-old Reyhana hadn’t managed to get a word in edgeways and she’d been throwing suspicious glances in her brother’s direction the whole time.
When Raheel had started the skipping though, desperate to join in, she had said, ‘Let’s race to the lamppost,’ and off they had both shot, speeding away from Saabirah towards the unlit lamp, the shadows that fell encircling them as they had looked back at her, squinting because of the sun and breathless from the sprint.
Junaid hadn’t always been the way he was. Saabirah wouldn’t have fallen in love with him if he was. In the beginning, he did all the romantic things expected of a new husband – he fed her with his own hands, he bought her jewellery, he took her places even if those outings didn’t always go to plan. Once, he’d taken her to Thorpe Park but they hadn’t been on a single ride because Junaid had thought those cost extra. Saabirah joked to people that he was probably scared of the rides and didn’t want to embarrass himself.
He wasn’t exactly an involved father with either of the two children but he was different with Reyhana compared to when Raheel had been born. Saabirah had noticed him holding her more, he spoke to her in a gentler tone and he would almost always say yes to the same request coming from her than from Raheel. Reyhana had loved her father while growing up – she would sit on his shoulders, she would run barefoot in the park chasing him and being chased by him, he would push her on the swing, he would massage her tiny feet when she’d had a long day.
It was probably for those same reasons that Reyhana thought telling her father about her white boyfriend, Michael, was a good idea. Yet, she’d forgotten all those years after when she was at school and Junaid would reprimand her for playing with boys or talking to them. In her year 6 school production, all she had to do was act out a scene where she was talking to another boy and her eye kept moving towards Junaid’s reaction. Perhaps, Junaid had seen her fear and decided not to say anything after. Either way, Saabirah had been grateful to Junaid for that.
One evening, Reyhana was helping Saabirah clear the table after dinner. She brought the crockery and cutlery from the dining table in the living room to Saabirah who washed up. Junaid was sat on the kitchen stool talking on the landline on the counter.
'Wah,’ Junaid said, laughing. 'Jamal, tujhe pata hai I get bored at these things? But I will see.’ He was talking to his youngest brother.
’Reyhana, mujhe wo de,’ Saabirah said, pointing to a saucepan behind Reyhana.
Reyhana passed it to her.
‘Yes, they are here,’ Junaid said into the phone. 'Jamal, do me a favour. If I don’t come, ask around for a boy for Reyhana.’
Reyhana dropped the serving bowl on to the kitchen counter. Saabirah turned to her, furtively shaking her head at her as Reyhana visibly tensed.
'Haan, she is getting old. We need to find her someone now.’
He paused, watching Reyhana as he listened. 'Nahi, did our parents ask us? Why would she say no?’
‘Mum, tell him . . .’ Reyhana said.
‘Wait,’ replied Saabirah.
’Acha, as you say,’ said Junaid. 'Acha, khuda-hafiz.’ He hung up. Still on the stool, he stretched his body and then laughed to himself.
'Kya hua?’ Saabirah asked.
'Jamal kehta hai I should ask Reyhana if she wants to get married yet,’ he said, laughing again. 'Paagal, crazy. She isn’t going to tell us that, is she?’
Both Saabirah and Reyhana shifted uncomfortably.
'To make him happy, I will ask. Reyhana, bataa. Are you ready to get married?’
‘Dad, I . . .’
’Your chacha Jamal is inviting us to chachi Aneela’s sister’s wedding. She has many cousins about your age. I told him to check if any of them are suitable. I did the right thing, na?’
Reyhana was about to talk but was interrupted by Saabirah, who put her hand on Reyhana’s arm. ‘When is it?’
‘Dad, I don’t want to marry someone I don’t know,’ Reyhana said.
'Abbu, I don’t know any of Chachi Aneela’s family.’
'So? We will get to know them. Jamal knows them. You don’t trust your chacha? You don’t trust me?’
‘Dad, I do. But I don’t think I am ready yet.’
'Kya bakwaas. What rubbish. You are not young. Eh, Saabirah, how old is she?’
’Twenty-two!’ he said, pointing at Saabirah as if she were important evidence in the case. 'Twenty-two. Ask her how old she was when she was married? Eh, Saabirah, kitni ki thi tu?’
‘Seventeen,’ Saabirah said.
'Seventeen!’ Junaid said, again pointing at Saabirah.
‘But, Dad, I want to marry someone else.’
'Kya? What do you mean, someone else?’
‘Reyhana,’ Saabirah said, putting her hand on Reyhana’s arm again. She formed a barrier between her and Junaid so she now faced only Reyhana. 'You are scared, we know. Just think about it though, huh? Soch le.’ Her eyes warned Reyhana not to say anymore.
Reyhana nodded. ‘Nothing, Dad. I just mean someone we all know properly.’
Junaid laughed. 'Paagal. We will get to know them properly.’
Saabirah knew the consequences of arguing with Junaid or going behind his back. When the children were younger, they’d spend all summer between home, the mosque and their aunt’s; the little money that Saabirah was given to buy them something nice would be absent from her hands. Her husband would storm around the house for days: refusing to speak to anyone, but instead barking out orders or shouting; the children would be scolded for the smallest things and Saabirah reprimanded daily for her bad cooking, the dirty house, the disobedient children, her disrespect for him and his family, her attention seeking, the little dowry money she had brought and countless other things, of which she had no knowledge.
Saabirah’s childhood had been on another pole. She had always been taught the importance of respecting her elders but to fear only the Almighty.
Her father, Allah rest his soul, would say her name in a long, exaggerated fashion if he had ever perceived her being rude and disrespectful. 'What have I told you about how to speak to your elders?’ he’d ask and Saabirah would apologise, shamed. Thereafter her father would smile, ruffle her hair and leave her to it.
Both Saabirah and Reyhana nodded.
‘Good,’ Junaid said, walking across the kitchen towards the door. 'Ab mera sar na khao. Now don’t do my head in.’
The phone on the kitchen counter buzzed. Junaid stopped, waiting for someone to answer.
Reyhana, who stood closest, answered.
Who is calling at this time? Saabirah thought.
Reyhana greeted the caller then gestured towards Saabirah, holding the receiver out to her. 'Mum, it’s Mammu Arham.’
‘Your uncle’s calling at this time?’ Saabirah muttered. She looked at her watch. It is two in the morning there. A chill ran through her as she took the phone. 'Assalam-u-alaikum, bhaijaan, kaise ho sab?’ she asked. ‘Everything OK?’
She listened and while she listened she twirled the end of her dupatta, her smile upended into a frown, her forehead creased with lines of worry. In those lines, she was once told, lay her whole destiny – one where she was to accomplish many great things. The astrologist had ultimately told her that she was very lucky, one of Allah’s truly beloved humans. This comment had made her angry and she questioned him on his belief in astrology when he believed in Allah at the same time; how could one insist they knew your destiny when the basic teachings of Islam were that He, and He alone, knew which path your life would take? She prayed for the man to be guided and hoped that he wouldn’t stop another shopper ever again to deliver such blasphemy.
For some reason, her thoughts had returned to that afternoon in Tesco when he had approached her. She began to dwell on the term ‘destiny’ and what exactly it meant. Was it her destiny to fly thousands of miles away from her family to start a life with a complete stranger in a foreign country? Had fate intended on her making a life here with a new family, raising children who did not understand the importance of their culture? What would she be doing instead if she were still there, in Pakistan, with her family?
’Saabirah? Tum sun ri ho?’ her brother asked.
Junaid must have noticed her pensive, distracted look because he clicked his fingers in front of her. He shrugged his shoulders, putting his hands out. What happened?
'Bhaijaan, aap inse baat karo,’ she said, passing the handset to Junaid. He grasped the phone and spoke, but Saabirah did not hear any of it as she was, in her mind, transported to a time before her children, before Junaid, before London, even before her father had passed away. She was at the innocent but mischievous age of nine, a dichotomy of feelings making themselves known to her: still craving protection but wanting to break free too. She had been running through the sehen, the courtyard-like space, to greet her father at the door as he came back after his six months away working abroad. Her mother shouting cautionary words to her about the rain-sodden ground and her slippery chappals click clacking, to her need to finish her parai, her study. Because even then, Saabirah’s mother had wanted to be the first one to greet her husband as he arrived. It took Saabirah a while to realise this fact, especially as her mother never admitted it, but as she grew older she had watched her mother, Ammi, prepare his favourite food, get dressed up and wear her favourite lipstick well in advance so that when she heard the engine of any car down the end of the street, she would be ready to welcome her beloved husband back home. Initially, Saabirah had resented Ammi for it but later she felt regret for all the times she’d got to the door before Ammi, the woman who had been her father’s first love and the reason he had lived a life of comfort and ease.
Saabirah sat down at the kitchen table, feeling a small, gentle touch on her shoulder preceding a firmer touch. The hand squeezed and the voice belonging to it said something, but as far as Saabirah was concerned she was in a badly dubbed movie, her eyes focused ahead, staring into the distance while words around her flew around the room, incoherent and out of synchronisation.
‘I’m going to book the tickets tomorrow,’ Junaid said as he moved his hand down her arm and knelt down in front of her. ‘Go see your mother for the last time; the doctor doesn’t think she has more than a couple of weeks.’ She felt him staring at her, perhaps trying to read her mind through the depths of her eyes. He inhaled loudly and held his breath as he closed his eyes.
She nodded, at him and then at Reyhana who was standing in a corner. He exhaled and supported her body upstairs. Saabirah wondered if the news had left him troubled and concerned, or if he was just thankful to be given an opportunity after ages to protect and console her while she was vulnerable. She was sure he wondered where the shy, reserved woman he made love to on their wedding night had been hiding all these years as she timidly leaned against him.