Listening to Jasvinder Sanghera on Desert Island Discs reminded me of a short story I wrote on my MA course at UCF.
I’m leaving. This morning I watched your friend Lawrence, as he cycled past on the towpath. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was singing “A Song For The Lovers’, the one I used to play in my bedroom all the time. Where was he going so early, who was he meeting, why did he remember that tune? Did he know I was here? It was just before six. The dog walkers and joggers were already up; the mist was clinging to the marshes, curling around the dipping branches of the wet willows. I sleep so little in the summer. The sun rises fast, slicing through the cranes on the Olympic site and flooding my bedroom. I have longed for curtains. In the winter the street lamps keep me awake and the cold creeps through the metal-framed windows, viciously searching under my thin duvet. It’s the first time I’ve seen Lawrence in ten years. Is it ten years I’ve been here, Baba? Ten years since you and Mohammed brought me here? To teach me the evil of my feminine ways? To protect our family? And has it worked? Have you all been safer without me?
He looks just the same. Amazing. You wouldn’t recognise me. I’m fat. And ugly, hopefully. Will you love me now I’m ugly? I can’t move around much in this flat and the food Yusef leaves outside the door is just KFC, McDonalds or kebabs. Greasy takeaways, never vegetarian.
You were right to leave the mirrors. They did remind me for a long time how unnaturally attractive I was, how blasphemously sexual. What spell did I weave at fifteen to seduce Lawrence, a married man, a colleague of yours? How could it have been anything but my fault that he fell in love with me, that he left his wife?
In the reflection of those mirrors I’ve seen my sister A’isha grow up. She catches the bus to school opposite everyday. Do you know she smokes? That she drinks Lambrini straight from the bottle and has a boyfriend? A white boyfriend?
I’ve seen my brother Sahla as well. I think he’s selling. He has many friends. Friends with noisy cars, they park round the corner outside the Spar. Someone got stabbed there one night. Pierced deeply, through the bright white satin of their jacket. There was so much blood, the stain lay on the pavement for weeks. I was glad I was indoors.
But now you don’t have Ummi, you don’t have Mama. What killed her? How did she die? I saw all the people go past. I saw the flowers. M U M in white carnations. N A N in red. Has my sister Aysen had a baby? I remember it was winter, early January? The kids weren’t back at school and the snowdrops weren’t out. There was ice on the canal but it didn’t cover it completely. The bulrushes were ghostly, frosted sentinels and the moorhens and coots still had room in the water to paddle and feed. Did Ummi miss me? She never came to find me. When the weather was hot, I used to open all the windows and sing Gnawa as loudly as I could. I remember her teaching me all the songs, as she cooked tagines and couscous with her special recipe harissa. I remember her, Baba. I remember you. Every day.
There’s a canal boat moored over the bridge. The girl who owns it only comes at the weekend with her boyfriend. In the summer they have barbeques and lie on the deck under a rug in the moonlight and make love. I watch their bodies, I see her pale legs, his hands stroking her face. The lights of their cigarettes afterwards. I know she has diesel, enough to take me to Hackney where Lawrence lived and where you might find me when, at the end of lectures you say your polite farewells to your students and leave the University for your walk home.
Dear Dad, I want you to know that I forgive you. I know that you truly believed that if I stayed free I would have brought only dishonour on our family. But I was not an evil child, I have no unearthly powers of bewitchment. My beauty was a gift from you, my parents. No one should ever have feared me. I grew as a woman, as a woman should, I knew no other way. Now the mirrors have cracked and I must go. On the barge, I will cover myself with bed sheets, my clothes no longer fit me and my public nakedness would shame us. Even in death, I pray for forgiveness.