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Black Sparrow

Black Sparrow

Book excerpt

FRIDAY 4PM – FARIDA RAFIQ

Staring at my reflection in the bus window, I hardly recognise the dark eyes gazing back at me. They look like deep pools of water, bottomless and cold. Where is my soul? Have I lost all emotion? It’s hard to believe that I’m only forty years old and in what they call the prime of my life. There are a few tell-tale signs of tiredness on my face, lines by the corners of my eyes – crow’s feet, I think the English would call them – but I have neither the money nor the inclination to buy expensive creams to try to stop them from creeping up on me. My hair has lost its lustre and there are a few stray white hairs poking from underneath my polyester headscarf like thin, ancient wires.

I move my head away, partly because I can’t bear to look at myself but also due to the bus stopping, which means more commuters are cramming themselves inside the double-decker.

I don’t mind using public transport, it’s the only way I can get around, but sometimes the heat and crowded space make me feel sick. There’s an odour on the bus today, unwashed coats and sweat mingled with stale cigarettes and greasy food, not pleasant by any means.

 I’ve had a very enjoyable afternoon chatting with Shazia, who always takes such a keen interest in what I have been up to, but our tea went on for too long and now I find myself rushing home to prepare the meal for my family. I dare not be late, my husband would have something to say if I were.

As the bus makes a sharp turn into Kilburn High Road, I grab the handrail on the seat in front of me, accidentally brushing my fingers against the fur hood of a teenager who turns sharply and mutters something at me under her breath. After twenty-two years of living in this country, I still haven’t got used to it. People aren’t as friendly as at home in my native Pakistan. Yes, I still think of it as my home; after all, it’s my motherland, the place where I was born and brought up, a place steeped in rich history and religion. I have a good life here, though. I live in a comfortable house with modern amenities, I have two clever and beautiful children and I have a husband with a good job. He is a difficult man, but we are married, and I am bound to him.

“Busy today isn’t it, dear?”

There’s an old lady next to me, peering up expectantly, waiting for me to reply.

“Yes, too busy,” I tell her, trying to keep the conversation short. After all, I don’t know her.

“Are you going far?” she presses, touching my arm with her perfectly manicured scarlet nails as she offers a pack of opened Polo mints.

“No, thank you. Just three more stops,” I say, adjusting the heavy shopping bag on my lap which is giving me pins and needles in my thighs. I would eat a jelly sweet if she had one, but not a mint.

“I expect your family will be waiting for you to get home and cook dinner.”

I let the comment hang in the stuffy air for a few seconds. She is, right of course. My family will be expecting a good meal, but also their clothes to be washed and ironed, the house to be tidy and their dinner plates cleared away as if by magic after they have eaten their fill.

“Will they?” the woman asks again, tucking the sweets back into her black patent handbag and snapping the clasp shut. “Be waiting for you, I mean?”

I nod politely. “Yes, I expect they will. Do you have family?”

“No, dear. I couldn’t have children and my Albert has been dead these past fifteen years.”

I don’t know what to say. It must have been very hard for her in her youth, not being able to fulfil her role as a mother, so I mutter, “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t be!” the pensioner says with a laugh, smoothing down her red and black tartan skirt. Then she lowers her voice. “If truth be told, I’m having the time of my life. I go to a couple of tea dances every week, lunch with my brother and his family most Sundays and I’m always out shopping. There’s a lot to be said for arriving home with a new frock and not having to justify the cost to anyone.”

I’m not familiar with the terms ‘tea dance’, or ‘frock’, so I smile politely, but a question leaves my lips. “Don’t you ever feel lonely, being by yourself at night, or on cold, rainy days?”

I look deep into her watery blue eyes as she breaks into a smile. “Oh no, dear, not at all. I read a lot, listen to music and of course I have Bruce.”

“Bruce?”

“My British Blue.” The little old lady grins, taking out a photo of a very fat grey cat. “I love him to bits.”

I don’t like cats, they’re selfish creatures in my opinion, but I’ve never actually owned a pet and I wonder how such a large, furry animal could possibly stir those sensitive feelings in her.

          I see that we’re coming to my stop and I pull my scarf tighter around my head, tucking the ends into my jacket so that it doesn’t blow away when I go out into the windy street. After pressing the bell, I turn to say goodbye to the silver-haired woman.

“Excuse me,” I say. “It was good to meet you, but this is my stop.”

“Goodbye, dear,” she says, smiling widely with her bright red lips and rouged cheeks. “Lovely to chat with you. Have a good evening.”

I push my way to the exit, still sensing her beady little eyes watching me like a crow.

 

I walk along the damp pavement in my sensible loafers. It’s been raining again today and I’m glad that I put my waterproof jacket on, although I’m aware that it’s probably not the most fashionable item to wear with my pink shalwar kameez. Nobody takes any notice of me, anyway. The other pedestrians are too busy hurrying home out of the cold breeze to their warm and comfortable homes. I used to be like that, when I first married Jameel, but it’s funny how things seem to change over time. I wonder if all marriages are like mine. Do couples lose interest in each other with the passing of years, or am I the only unhappy woman in London? Maybe it’s natural to feel like this.

I still remember the buzz of being newly married. Everything felt exciting to me then – living in Britain, learning how to take care of a modern house, lying next to my husband every night, waiting for him to climb on top of me and take what now belonged to him. Before Uzma was born, Jameel would come home with a small treat on Friday nights. Sometimes it would be chocolate or a metre of fabric for me to sew into something to wear and he’d have big plans for the weekend. Once, we went to Madame Tussaud’s Waxwork Museum and Jameel laughed as I stared at the model of the Queen for ten whole minutes. I didn’t recognise even half of the celebrity figures on display, but they were so lifelike that it was quite creepy walking around in there. I couldn’t bring myself to enter the dungeon so my husband went on ahead alone, leaving me to drink a cup of peppermint tea in the café.

In those days, unlike now, Jameel had never made excuses about having to work at the weekend or late in the evening. He was around much more then, and I seem to recall him being happier, too. Of course, he’s not a bad man but things are different now. Jameel is much more serious these days, providing for us all, guiding us, but nowadays always stressing about something. I think part of the problem is his work. As a solicitor, he has a lot of cases on his mind, but maybe some of it is me, although I couldn’t even begin to describe where things went wrong.

 

I’ve reached the corner of Appledore Gardens. This is where I live. I can feel the weight of my shopping bag pulling at the muscles in my shoulder. It’s far too heavy for a woman to be carrying. The late afternoon breeze whips around the bottoms of my traditional Asian trousers and I remind myself to find my thermal underwear, as my friend Shazia said that temperatures will fall by next week. I still yearn for the heat of Pakistan, even after all this time, and recall sitting on my grandfather’s porch with the sun on my face, eating fresh watermelon with my brothers to keep cool.

Number seventeen, this is my house. I need to balance the heavy bag now in order to dig in my handbag for the keys. I can’t put it down as the driveway is wet, so I struggle for a minute or so. Our home is a nice place, detached like most of the properties in the cul-de-sac, with a neatly clipped front lawn and hanging baskets either side of the front porch, although the flowers have long since died and just a few stray brown leaves can be seen sprouting up from the soil inside. There is nothing to signify that there is a Muslim family living here; no tell-tale signs, just an ordinary place.

I turn slightly to rest the bag on my knee as I slip the key into the front door and see the old man who lives opposite peeking out from behind his net curtains. He always seems to be watching and waiting for a visitor who never comes. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe he doesn’t have a cat like the old lady on the bus, although I’m still not convinced that having such a big, sharp-toothed pet in the house would be a good idea.

I’m inside now and can finally put down my burden. I slip off my shoes in the porch, glance up at the golden, star-shaped clock in the hallway and shake my head before taking off my wet jacket. I need to hurry if I’m to have the meal ready for six o’clock as Jameel will expect. Tonight, there will be a delicious mutton biryani with paratha bread, my favourite, although I know I shouldn’t indulge, as the heavy quantities of ghee required to fry the flatbread are already beginning to show upon my once slender hips.

Still, my family will be content. They always appreciate my cooking, if little else. And there will be plenty of food should any of my husband’s friends or colleagues decide to grace us with a visit. I hope that Jameel has eaten a respectable lunch, something substantial to fill him during his working hours. I meant to prepare him a hot breakfast this morning, but he left the marital bed before the sun rose, fumbling around in the dark for his fresh cotton shirt, and before I had even boiled the kettle, the front door slammed shut and he was gone. No goodbye, just a grunt and a wave. I went back to bed for an hour but couldn’t sleep. 

I put away the groceries and wash my hands before carefully dicing meat into small cubes. I have a few good tricks to make the lamb go further, such as bulking up my dishes with vegetables and heavy sauces, which saves me a few pounds every week out of what Jameel calls my ‘housekeeping money’. I do the same frugal shopping with packet and tinned goods, buying dented cans at reduced prices or taking the bus to bargain stores where I can make the pounds go further. I’ve been doing this for a long time now and, as far as I know, my husband has no idea how much money I have saved. It’s quite a sum, tucked away in a bank account that Shazia helped me to open, and it’s staying there, for now.

 

We had a good chat this afternoon, Shazia and I. She’s my only real friend and I trust her. Today, we talked about our daughters, always a worry for an Asian mother in Western society. Shazia’s daughter, Maryam, is training to be a nurse in a local hospital. She’s been there since finishing her exams at school and will continue until a suitable husband is found for her when she’s twenty-five. I think Jameel has the same plan for our daughter, Uzma, but I doubt whether he will discuss the matter in detail with me. He believes that the men in the family take care of such arrangements, no matter if it’s the right thing to do or not. He’s already regretting his decision to allow Uzma to go on an art course in Paris last summer. I think Jameel felt it would help to rid the girl of her ambition to become an artist – you know, shock her into realising how hard it would be to actually earn a living from selling her paintings. If you ask me, the plan back-fired, as she’s been sullen and withdrawn since her return, spending hours alone in her room drawing, or on that computer of hers.

I remember the day that Jameel relented. Uzma was biding her time, making her father a drink, asking him about his day and rolling her eyes at him as she handed over the leaflet about the course.  I sat in my chair watching, pretending to darn a pair of socks and occasionally popping a sweet gulab jamoon into my mouth, as she excitedly explained the details of what she would learn in the French city.  I was surprised when, only three days later, Jameel wrote out two cheques, one for the art teacher and one for the lady whose house Uzma would lodge in for the duration of her stay. I said nothing, although I feared terribly for my daughter, but everything was settled, and she danced with delight.

 

The phone in the hallway is ringing, sending a loud echo up the staircase, so I slowly slide the pan of sizzling meat off the heat and walk down the hall to see who could be calling at this time of day.

“There you are,” the voice on the other end states curtly. “You took a long time to answer.”

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