THIS IS A BRIDGE *** Maryam couldn’t believe she had just broken the bird’s beak. She just broke the tap! Please let this day be over already, how could she not know how to operate a tap just because she moved to London?40 She was making flailed attempts to cover the mess with her hand when someone burst through the door. Oh, thank God! They heard her cry. The water was about to wash her out. Her long black abaya had long clung to her body, she was grateful it was Wafiyya that showed up, she couldn’t have survived another humiliating incident today.15 Another woman stepped in and effortlessly looked for the main inlet, Maryam face-palmed herself, why hadn’t she thought of cutting it? Well, number one would be, she couldn’t operate the birdy tap, how was she supposed to know where the water inlet switch was, or how to operate that one? When they’d finally put a stop to it, she was too exhausted. Maryam had no idea gushing water from a tap could be so exhausting. All three of them let out a heavy sigh.9 “What was that Yaa Maryam?” Wafiyya asked. Shivering, Maryam shook off the excess water but failed miserably in her attempt to peel the material off her body, she said, “Oh, thank God you came up this thing nearly killed me today. I was just trying to fetch some water to perform an ablution…” That was when it occurred to her that she was standing there all exposed to this stranger that was silently looking at her like she was a zombie. She looked about the same age as her, now that she had a chance to have a good look at her she saw that she was a young woman, fair in complexion, tall with skin as smooth as porcelain well presented and generously developed. The silent comparison reared its head in her mind. But Maryam was an exception and she had long accepted that, so she blinked the thought away.18 “And hey, who are you. Thank you for coming to my rescue. Please tell Aunty Kulthum to send someone in to repair this.” She squeezed out more water from her gown, Ya Rabbi she needed to get dry fast, pray and eat. She was famished.2 She walked out of the bathroom dripping water along the way into the part of the room that was not yet completely wet. She huffed wiping off more water. How long had she been in that room to soak up this much on her body?2 Wafiyya moved, “Ah, Yaaya Maryam, here let me get you some clothes to change into.” “No, actually my bag is…” turning to where her black bag lay in a pool of water near the bathroom door, she gasped. “Oh Allah, what will happen now? All my clothes are inside. Now how can I wear wet clothes?” Oh thank God, she had placed her laptop in her backpack, which was now placed on the bed. “Don’t worry I have some, let’s take your bag to the laundry room and put the clothes in the dryer.”2 Maryam felt like hugging Wafiyya, she sighed. “Okay, thank you Wafiyya. You, please can you help us lift the bag? It’s a ton heavier. What is your name by the way?” Maryam said regarding the fair porcelain beauty, she seemed so calm, Maryam felt so at home with her she hadn’t realized she was talking to a complete stranger, and she had just exposed her to her crazy side, that was not the problem, the problem now was how to stop herself. Because the moment she panicked or got excited she seemed to have no control over what she blurted.15 Porcelain-girl bent to lift the bag with her, Oh she is actually really nice, I like her already!12 “I know this is not a very good time for introductions, but don’t mind me, I’ve never seen you before.” She continued. Okay, mouthy this is your cue to shut up. Thankfully she was interrupted.4 “That’s because you didn’t attend the wedding.” Wafiyya chimed in, as they carried the heavy bag, her face suddenly twisting with the weight. She was reminded of all the things her mother had to pack in the bag despite all her protest. Now her bag really felt like it had a corpse stashed in it. Not that she would know how heavy one was.4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Sister Sa’ima, Yaaya Maryam our cousin from Hajiya’s side and Yaaya Maryam, meet Sister Sa’ima Ya Bilaal’s wife.” Wafiyya announced.4 She was taken off guard at the declaration. Her head whipped up and her fingers slipped off the handles of her bag and she let it go then started jumping up and down. Before she could stop herself, she shrieked. “Oh my God, so you’re Sa’ima- Ya Bilaal’s wife? Your wedding was epic I must say, the controversial wedding of the century.” Her hands went to her chest, she had been wishing wishes upon wishes for this to happen, now here she was upfront face to face with her.30 Wow! So Ya Mubarak was in love with her. She stood no chance with him then. But then her mother had said, Ya Mubarak didn’t love her that was why he left, but they all knew that was not true at all. Something more was to that story, and she would find out what.22 “I’m very pleased to meet you. Of course, don’t mind the controversial stuff I just said, it’s been going round and round in the family. So how is being married to my broody brother?” She had to ask her that, come on, it was Ya Bilaal and everyone knew that no one could break his brooding record.
They almost toppled over when they neared the laundry room door. She smiled apologetically at them, and they finally did the needful, after that it was a change of clothes for her, and hopefully, she would get to know of all that happened during the course of the day.8 Sa’ima was polite, and her gut instinct told her they were going to get along. If she looked past her craziness and a little more of Maryam. But first, she had to pray. What time was it?2 ***** “So, how does it feel to leave all your plans and just come over here?” Maryam asked later when they were working in the kitchen away from the bathroom chaos. She just wanted to hear how other people did it, she couldn’t just put herself in that shoe.2 She had never dreamed of going abroad, she had never dreamed of getting hitched. At twenty-two that would be weird for some girls but that was her sad reality, she had never had a suitor that lasted past the second seeing so that about summed up her dream of getting hooked. She watched as Sa’ima peeled a cucumber.4 “That’s marriage and I’m already used to it. Is there a greater plan than being married itself? I mean, it’s a whole new life. Besides, now I have my family here.” Sa’ima said when she looked up at her. Wow, this girl was strong. How could she just shift gears?19 “Oh, that’s sweet. But between me and you, I can’t leave my family in the name of marriage to another part of the world.” Maryam said in a matter-of-fact tone, even though that was literally what she was doing, even worse she didn’t leave it for marriage she left her family for a proposal that had a high probability of not working out.12 “Then in the name of what will you leave?”7 Maryam considered her response, while still wondering what it was like in her new arrangement with a man she had never dreamed of marrying, maybe Sa’ima could share her own experience and she could use it as a guide herself.2 “Whatever, vacations, shopping, excursions and such. Do you know Ya Bilaal had never had a girlfriend before? Not even one. How boring can that be? Anyways, I even tried as much as possible to make him like me but he was too stubborn for his own good, I ditched that and even tried matchmaking, a total flop. So you’re in safe hands, besides, how do you cope with him? He’s not so good at the love thing. Never his cup of tea, you know.”50 Sa’ima grimaced, did she say too much? Okay, maybe she shouldn’t have spoken about the love thing. What would poor Sa’ima think? Definitely too much yapping.6 Sa’ima lifted her brows at her. Wafiyya’s entrance into the kitchen salvaged the moment, and Sa’ima handed her the vegetable knife and said “I’ll just be back” Maryam felt Sa’ima’s silky exit had to do with something she had just said, and she hated her quick-witted mouth. At least she hoped someday it said something witty.8 STORY CONTINUES BELOW **** Mubarak was home early. He had to leave all that he had been immersed in when he got a call from Hajiya. After all, that was the first time she had reached out to him since his return. After their apology session in the kitchen, he couldn’t wait to see her, to hear what the call was all about.14 But when he met them both at his father’s living room, he knew that wasn’t a rebounding call. He greeted them with the salam and found a spot on the rug thrown in the living area to sit on. His head had hung low from when his mother had started talking to when she had stopped and his father picked up. “Your mother and I think it is now time you moved on with your life, it’s been months and there is no need to hold on to what would have been while you have your full life ahead of you. So, we’ve found a solution for you. I wasn’t in support of doing even that, for what you’ve done but your mother insisted, hence I agreed with her.”4 Mubarak’s brows had been up since his father had begun talking, his heart was beating wildly behind his chest walls, he couldn’t believe what he was experiencing at the moment, he felt stuck in a movie that had no voice nor picture. Looking from Hajiya to his father, he voiced out the only thing that came to his mind.2 “Please Hajiya, stop joking, I’ve had a hectic day at work today.”9 Hajiya Kulthum and Alhaji Umar exchanged looks. “Does it look like we are joking? You’re getting married and that’s all. We won’t take a no for an answer, after what we have witnessed you capable of doing we are not going to let you loose around people’s wives, especially not your brother’s, he’s earned this respect and you have to know when to give it to him. You can’t keep staying like this, after all, it wasn’t our doing that you’re still unmarried. Now you have to own up to your responsibility and get married. Salis will soon settle down too, do you want all your siblings to attain that honour first before you?” Alhaji Umar said, his eyes on him. They must have witnessed the stupid thing he had pulled on Sa’ima the other night or had she really claimed her threat and spoken up against him?27 Ya Allah! He really needed to get it together.3 “How does someone gets married in a spur of a moment? ” Mubarak said, almost at the brink of tears, he saw they were hell-bent on ruining his life, he was still fighting his feelings for his brother’s wife and here they were, messing things up for him by trying to trap him into yet another meaningless relationship. Why was it so difficult to let go? It was so much easy to start liking her, why wouldn’t stopping be as easy?10 “Besides, I’m not seeing anyone at the moment so can we at least wait till I meet someone?” he looked at Hajiya hopefully wishing she would understand.8 “We’ve seen you plan a wedding before, but how did that work out?” Hajiya had to bring that up. Mubarak swore they were after him with full force. “And about the girl you need not worry, that has been taken care of.”15 Mubarak’s eyes popped out and he broke into a cold sweat, “I can’t believe this is really happening.”13 “Mubarak!” Alhaji Umar said in a stern voice. “Baba, how could you choose someone for me without my consent? I’m thirty-three!” Yes, what he did was wrong, confronting his brother’s wife the way he did was so low and out of character, even for him. But if this was their way of punishing him then he had to hand it to them. They did a marvellous job at that. Not that he didn’t deserve it all.26 “Well we’re not imposing it on you, but we deemed it necessary to take the first step for you since you’re not trying to do so yourself. You need to move on.”4 Mubarak swallowed hard. Rubbing his hands over his face “Who is she?”5 Alhaji Umar let out a sigh, “I’ve spoken to your Uncle, Muhammad, you’re going to talk with his daughter and see where this leads to. She will be staying here for a while. And just so you know when I spoke to him about her, he had given his consent, you just need to get to know each other more.”9 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Mubarak had to reflect deeply before he remembered who his uncle’s daughter was. “Who?” “Maryam,” Hajiya said confirming his suspicion, and he dropped his hand from his face looking at his mother with his heart in his throat. “No, not Maryam the village girl. Maryam? Haba Hajiya, please… is this some kind of punishment? Because really I’ll apologize again, more than I did before but please not Maryam.” That girl literally lived in a sack, he didn’t think he had ever seen her smile. She was a zombie version of all things bad waiting to happen. No! He felt like shouting over the rooftops, for them to hear his protest.50 “That’s too bad then, she is already here.” Hajiya Kulthum said, and he knew that was her way of pulling and twisting his ear hard as she would when he did something bad as a child, only this time he had to sustain the pain all his life.2 “We’ll leave you to talk about it, get to know her more. Your father has already spoken to Yaya Muhammad. So, make it quick because the wedding will take place soon in sha Allah”5 Really? Mubarak thought. He was expecting an outburst from his parents since his return, he had even expected Baba to take him off the firm, but none of those had happened. And of all the cruel things on earth he was expecting from his parents to do, he wasn’t expecting this. This was something else. His wave just reached its highest peak.2 “Thank you,” he said, as he got up from the rug, his limbs slackened with shock, he trod down to the kitchen for a glass of water because he needed it.14 **** “Maryam are you listening to me?” “Yes, Mama.” “Good, so how have you settled in? We’ve been waiting for your call. Your aunt has just called to tell me that you have reached the mansion.”4 Maryam sighed. “Alhamdulillah, I arrived late last night, it was almost midnight, so I didn’t call.” “Is this your new number?” “Yes, I gave it to Baba too. How are Sury, Zuby and Timtim?” “So you called your father first, Maryam, you know that I am your mother right?” Hajiya Aisha said, ignoring Maryam’s question.14 “Yes, I know, which is why I’m calling you now, can you call me back, please? I don’t know how to recharge this thing when I run out of minutes.” “Did your father call back?”13 Maryam closed her eyes, now contemplating why she called. “Yes, he did. And we spoke for twenty minutes. Mama please, I just want to tell you that I am safe and at home.”2 Hajiya Aisha’s voice took a different tone, she sounded cheerful now. “Okay, that is good. Ahan, so have you met yet?”12 “Met who?”11 “Kaniyarki, your head. I am asking you something and you are pretending not to understand.”15 “Sorry Mama, I’m still disoriented from the jet lag.”10 “Mubarak, who else? What did he say when he received you at the airport?”13 “Mama! He didn’t pick me, Ya Salis did, and no, we haven’t met yet.”2 “What! You’ve been there for more than twenty-four hours, how can you not meet him, has he travelled?”10 “Almost. Almost twenty-four hours. And how will I know?”4 “You see, this attitude will take you nowhere, ask Hajiya Kulthum, that’s how.”22 “Mama, how can I start asking?”2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Leave it, you won’t do a thing I know that. So, listen to me carefully, you’ve read the list, you know what type of a person he is, try to avoid all the things that he despises, be calm, and please Maryam, control your tongue. I can’t have you ruining this because of something you say.”9 “Okay, Mama.” At this point, Maryam had no choice than to say yes to everything her mother said, just like she was used to doing when it came to her mother.2 “Also, don’t be walking anyhow, you have seen number nine, make sure you do all the right things. Draw his attention to yourself, I don’t have to say it, talk to Nafeesa she will guide you well. You have a sweet voice use it, don’t go about shouting his ears off.”53 Unbelievable, Maryam thought. She loved her mother, but right now she would bless whoever would make her mother forget about her wedding and the fixed alliance for a while.4 “Mama, did you just tell me to bat my eyes at a man?”10 “Well, you have to do something to make yourself enticing, you know men are visually inclined in nature and considering… you know, how you are, you have to work with what you have to your advantage…”35 Somebody should just kill her now. “Mama my units… talk to you tomorrow, good night.” She disconnected the call. Letting out a huff of air. She shook her head her eyes still wide.8 Maryam couldn’t believe her mother, why was she after her? She couldn’t wrap her head around that, she refused to dwell over their phone call, instead, she came out of her room, and quietly went downstairs to the kitchen to get a dose of her yogurt, she had placed it in the refrigerator as soon as they had arrived last night.9 Salis made sure she had her Yogurt when they were coming from the airport. She was glad she had shed all inhibitions and asked for it.4 Allah bless her cousin and aunt’s souls. When Wafiyya told Hajiya Kulthum about it this morning, her aunt had stashed it by the litres in the refrigerator in their gigantic kitchen, now she had her mind fixed on it. She would attack the one in the tub first, it was creamy with no add-ins, it would soothe her heart as well as her tummy faster. And maybe give her something that her mother would be proud of.20 She was in the midst of bliss when she heard the clink of the glasses. Her tub of yogurt almost slipped off her hands, she slowly came out of hiding from the fridge, hugging her tub to her chest and let out a loud shriek into the dead of the night.31 Mubarak looked like he was about to shriek too, but his brows went up and there was the meanest scowl etched on his face.11 “What the…?” He stopped mid-sentence, closing his eyes briefly he opened them on her. Only now he was regarding her with a cold glare.5 Maryam stood there with her scarf tied around her head completely covering her ears, and her long black Jilbaab flowed down to her feet.9 “Sorry, Mama it isn’t pink” She sent her mother a silent apology. She could imagine steam coming out of her mother’s ears, she hadn’t worn the pink dress when they met. Hajiya Aisha had planned their meeting to the T. Maryam was sure this was not a fraction of how her mother had envisioned things going down.24 Mubarak Umar Bugaje stood before her in a pair of black slacks and a white T-shirt that defined everything that made him ‘him’, while there she was hugging a tub of yogurt- and from the coldness on her face she was sure some yogurt smeared on her face too- She must have looked like an old market woman and he effortlessly looked like the mogul that he was.28 Good, now the game would begin. It was time for him to send her packing. Instead, Mubarak spoke to her.2 “What are you doing? What is that on your face?” He said gesturing to her face. His, twisting in disgust. Yes, he saw the yogurt. She almost shook a leg. And she would exit gracefully. Okay, maybe not so gracefully. The end.2 “Ya Mubarak, you scared me!” He glared at her. “When you’re taking what does not belong to you, you’re bound to be startled by every little noise.” Oh, he wanted to play the mean card with her?8 Maryam held her hands by her sides and puffed some air out, something twisted in her chest. “I wasn’t stealing if that’s what you’re trying to say. It’s mine!”4 She moved past him, she wouldn’t go through another second of this. But Mubarak grabbed her by the arm, “Close the fridge and wipe your face.” he said icily “Villager.” he muttered under his breath and left.69 A gasp escaped Maryam’s lips. When she finally managed to close her mouth and trudged back to the refrigerator, she thought back at what just happened. He is so arrogant, is that how he’ll treat me even after we get married? He is so stiff. I wonder how on earth he will know what love is, and my father has betrothed me to this… mean person. I always liked Bilaal more even though he was broody he is nice, and he knows how to talk to people. Whatever. She shrugged off the thought, opened the refrigerator and took the big tub of yogurt with her upstairs.11 She loved yogurt.18 **** Mubarak was awfully late again, it had to be the late night he pulled in. It had to stop, before he made it a habit, and he wouldn’t be useful in today’s executive team meeting if he didn’t have a cuppa coffee. He envied his brother’s knack of punctuality, had things been good between them Bilaal would have served as his alarm clock by calling him repeatedly to get him up and about, hence ready for this meeting. But now he had to rely on his alarm clock which had a snooze button on it. 25 Why did they create the snooze on it if the aim of an alarm was to do the jarring? 48 Keeping the folder he had been working on last night on the breakfast nook table, he fixed himself a cuppa. Hajiya had already left the kitchen, a confirmation of just how stately late he was.4 Mrs G was out back. Mrs Gabriella, their father’s Kenyan aide’s wife who they called Mrs G, occasionally came over to help Hajiya Kulthum with some of the domestic work. Her family had been with them at the mansion for so long they considered them family. Mostly in the mornings she was scheduled to come in, they got ready for a mean tasting pastry, which was her speciality, she always came carrying a wickerwork box. In her mid-fifties, she had a charm that was infectious. Mubarak waved at her when she turned around and she beamed at him returning a wave of her own. The cleaners came in twice a week to take care of the mansion, on other days, his mother still made her home presentable. 2 That woman was strong. 11 And the swipe that just flashed through his vision was quick. That was his first thought before he realized what had just happened. The scald first registered then the dampness, he jumped out of his seat, and his hands flew to the folder and his bag. Shaking the liquid off the casing of his folder. He snapped at the perpetrator. 2 “What the heck!” He looked up and there she stood in front of him, he felt like killing someone that instant, and it wasn’t his routine thought. 15 “I’m sorry. It’s just that you startled me, I was in the fridge…” She gestured behind her, how did he not see the refrigerator door opened. And what was with her and hiding in cold places? Now she got coffee on his suit and on his damn folder. 28 Mubarak closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath he miraculously detached himself from the thoughts of murder. 6 “When next you see me, run.” He said, as remarkably equable as he could. 71 Maryam’s eyes popped, she felt the chills from his rolling voice and she swore for a minute there she thought he was going to shred her to pieces. Or huddle her back on the plane she came in two days ago. 5 She would have begged him not to put her on that plane, not because she was dying to marry him but because she really really needed to get over this thing and get back her old life. And she was really really tired of jets and automobiles she didn’t think if he hurled her on one now she would survive it. 3 Maryam let out a whoosh of air when he stormed out of the kitchen and she landed with a thud on the suede wingback chair.6 That was when it all came down to her, she had never seen a combination of forehead and brows that scowled as hard as Mubarak’s, and she used to think she had seen him enough times to know his moods. Apparently, she wasn’t exposed to the scary side of him. May Allah help her!15 STORY CONTINUES BELOW **** “Oh please!” Mubarak said, getting off his office couch, he paced the room then turned to look at his friend, Kamaal. “What?” “Don’t look at me like I need to pity the girl. She was thrown at me, can’t you see? I’m still disoriented. Her clumsiness isn’t helping matters. And I actually can’t picture myself living with that… that girl. Forget about marriage, I can’t even stand talking to her. Did I say she is… ugh!” Mubarak held the back of his neck with both hands, turning his face upwards to the stark white ceiling.26 “She’s just nervous. If you as the man are this flustered following the news of the proposal, imagine what the poor girl must be going through.”22 Mubarak glared hard at his friend. “What poor girl? How about me, poor me? Wha… you know what, I’ll just tell them it is a no on my part.”11 “And then what? Risk being stuck in the black books of your parents forever? You are this close to getting evicted from this firm from the way I see things here. Your father will soon start sidelining you in official matters. That is a big deal if you ask me.”2 Mubarak’s hand went back to his nape, rubbing the thick muscle there. He squeezed. When thinking alone didn’t get him a solution, he only had two options, calling his brother or his friends. But his brother was the biggest bone of contention in his life at the moment, so seeking Bilaal’s help was out of the question. Mubarak was left with his league of friends. Kamaal was the one available, even though he was friends with Kamaal, Mubarak knew his judgement sometimes seemed off. 4 Now Garba was the rational one among them, but the fact was, Mubarak didn’t need a lecture at the moment, this was the matter of his life, and he had to live with all the sentiments ahead and the consequences that came with them. Hence the need for Kamaal. Yet, here he was receiving an impossible logical reasoning from Kamaal, it was like they had conspired against him. 5 “Ya Allah! What do you suggest I do? Tolerate the girl for eternity?”4 Kamaal gave him a pointed look, “You know the drill.”12 Mubarak’s eyes widened as he realized what his friend was suggesting. “No! That’s not going to happen.”6 Kamaal shrugged, “Well, just saying, you never know it may work. I mean, it has worked for me.”4 “No, drop it KR. Hajiya adores her older brother, she is going to kill me when she finds out. And believe me, she’ll find out.”11 “Then brother,” Kamaal patted his shoulder. “You just got your only way out.” “I hate you.” Mubarak removed his friend’s hands from his shoulders, he felt scalded within his core. He looked out his office window to the moving life in the city. An explosion was imminent. 2 “Thank you. I hate you right back and you owe me lunch.” When Mubarak didn’t move, Kamaal shoved him forward. “Come on, let’s go.”4 *** On Saturday, Maryam had been in her room when Hajiya Kulthum came in dressed in a black flower patterned gown. Maryam smiled at her, she had always admired her aunt. Had the circumstances been different no one would be as happy as she, to get a chance to be Hajiya Kulthum’s daughter-in-law, but it seemed her son was of a different breed of men. She doubted if her aunt’s gene was the dominating gene in him, no offence to her Uncle, Umar Bugaje. 13 “Wa alaikumussalam, Aunty Kulthum. I would have come to you, is there anything you want me to do?” She met her at the middle of the room. Hajiya Kulthum smiled at her, she held her hands and walked her to the bed-bench, once they were seated, she spoke. “No, Maryam, I’m good. I’ve spoken with your father earlier and he told me he would like you to go and tour the school you’ve applied to so that when the session begins, you will find it easy.”2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Yes, I’ve spoken to him too.” “Maasha Allah, That is good. Actually, there may be a thing or two I wanted us to talk about.” “Yes, Aunty Kulthum.” “Call me Hajiya, please.” Maryam nodded. “I believe you’ve been spoken to about Mubarak?”8 Oh, Lord! Maryam had never thought about the coming of this moment, the moment where her aunt would tell her a thing or two about this, and she couldn’t believe she was talking to her potential mother-in-law with no headtie on, her hands clasped in hers, like a friend. She felt her face go warm. 11 She lowered her head, hiding her face coyly. “Ahaf! Maryam, are you hiding your face from me? Don’t do that, I just wanted to tell you something beforehand. I know you are aware of how things were left off during the wedding, so Mubarak is a little bit on the difficult side now. But I trust he will come back to his senses. I’ve always wanted the best when it comes to matrimony, and I want you to know that just as I wouldn’t choose a bad thing for Mubarak I wouldn’t do that to you either. 6 “So, in the course of this courtship, I want you to be honest with me. If you don’t find him suitable to be your husband just tell me, and everything will remain as it is now before all this started. You will have a few sit-downs to get to know each other.”10 Okay, this was strange, her mother would kill her if she said no, and here she was with her aunt giving her an option, she felt as if that was the first time she was being given a selfless choice. 6 Maryam nodded, not being able to get the words out. “He will be home early today in sha Allah, do you think you two can meet and discuss the alliance, see if there will be anything of it? Just give it a try, nothing will happen against your will. Tell him I said he has to win your heart before I let him marry you.”47 Now should be swallow time, but the ground wasn’t opening, Maryam couldn’t believe what was happening. And it didn’t stop at that, Hajiya Kulthum pushed a gift bag to her. “Try this, I think it will look lovely on you.”9 She had no idea where that came from, she was so full of nerves she hadn’t noticed her aunt came in with the bag. “Thank you, Hajiya.” “Is there anything you want?” Maryam smiled and shook her head. “Okay, I’ll leave you then to get ready.”2 When Hajiya Kulthum was out of the room, Maryam ran to the bathroom and splashed her face with some cold water. Her reflection stared back at her, wide-eyed and breathless. This was too much.4 She had never been this nervous before, and this was her aunt! Now the real problem lay ahead, since their first meeting, it had been established that there was nothing as feeble as mutual likeness between her and Mubarak, she wondered how this arranged meeting would hold. 3 She opened Hajiya’s gift bag, removing the contents onto her bed. Her mouth hung open. It was a dress. A silky cream, floral-patterned dress. Her hands went to her mouth to cover her excitement. Hajiya Kulthum Maigoro, Mrs Umar Bugaje just gifted her a dress to meet her son in, that was so… Maa sha Allah. She repressed the urge to squeal. 10 It said so many things at once, It said “I approve of you, I accept you now it is up to my awful son to see sense and know that he deserves you.” 37 It took her all of four minutes to get dressed and look at her reflection in the mirror. The mirror! Now that she thought of it, how did Hajiya know her dress size? Was it store-bought? Or custom made? Did she ask her mother? If she asked, then that meant this was one carefully planned scheme. And that just showed how special she regarded her. Earlier she actually thought her parents were just hyping the alliance stuff. But now her mind was a little bit at ease. Knowing that it went both ways.3 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Not that she wanted the husband or the wedding, but a little escape wouldn’t be bad for her. Staying here, meant she would have that while she tested the waters and see if this thing would work out. 2 Now about that, she remembered their last encounter with Mubarak, since this was an official meeting, she was hoping there wouldn’t be coffee and death glares meddling in between. Maybe reading her mother’s little notebook might help.10 Maryam refused to know him through a piece of paper when he was only a few short yards away from her. She inhaled and draped her veil over her head, it cascaded down her shoulders covering her chest and her rump. She was good to go.1 *** Maryam was glad when she finally made it down the stairs with her heart still beating. Even logged in her throat, she was glad it was working at least. He was there before her and that almost made her bolt. But he turned and his eyes had now trapped her, leaving no room for escape. Sitting there on the couch, he was still in his white dress shirt, no coat, no tie, just pure crisp whiteness, against that fair skin of his, his dark brows, forehead and eyes pinching into a neat scowl, a three-day stubble framed his face, daring her with a deadly gaze. 14 She cleared her voice. “Assalamu alaikum,” She didn’t hear him respond, but she didn’t miss the subtle movement of his lips either. 9 And that was the only movement she saw from him, ten minutes later, his eyes were just glued to the TV. Oh, they were playing mute today? She was game. Maryam sat there quietly looking at him watch the TV. He sighed on the thirtieth minute and rose. Yes, she counted, her phone had been in her clutch and she kept timing him to see his breaking point. Apparently, the man was as tough as they would go. 4 He just left her there to the blank screen. That was rude! She refused to call out to him, she was busy trying to swallow a huge lump lodged in her throat to do just that. 8 Arrogant-scowling-TV-man! She hissed. Then smoothed her silk dress over her thighs. 15 She loved the pattern. 2 Her phone chimed and she almost dropped it. “Hey, what’s up with you? Umma and Abubakar are saying hi.” It was Nafeesah. “You are right on time girl. Just had the first sit-down with him. Say hi back to them too.” “Whaaaat! Tell me more, girl. How did it go?”6 Maryam stared at the blank TV still looking at her. “We watched TV.”37 “What do you mean you watched TV? As in you-have-talked-and-had-extra-time-to-catch-up-on 7 -your-favourite-TV-shows, watch TV or what kind of TV watching?”4 “The mute kind.”2 “Oh dear! Don’t worry all be well, just get a life and concentrate on your writing, let him make the chase, he will soon crack.”9 Maryam smiled. “Thank you, good night. I don’t mind him staying super glued and never crack, though.”8 Nafeesah laughed. “Vile girl.”4 *** Three days after their TV-watching sit-down. Maryam and Wafiyya were in the kitchen making dinner when he came in looking for Hajiya Kulthum, she had no idea he returned home at this time and as usual she was dressed in her black Jilbaab, one would think she only wore one dress since her arrival, apart from the day she wore Hajiya’s cream dress, she had always stayed in her black Jilbabs. Maryam was sure her mother would be so dismayed if she were to learn of this. 9 Between trying to push through her writers’ block and talking to Nafeesah, she would have drowned out the thought of Mubarak, but her mother had called for the thousandth time and kept probing her to see if she had actually used the list she had given her to make the acquaintance phase moving along. Eventually, she would have something to give her, a no or a yes would suffice.2 “What sort of mess are you making in here?”9 Mubarak asked, standing over the mass of wholewheat batter Maryam was mixing. Wafiyya began to speak but Mubarak dismissed her with a look. Maryam didn’t speak since he hadn’t directed his question at anyone in particular. And her alkubus dough wasn’t a mess. He may have had a bad day but she wasn’t going to talk to him until he was human again. Had he ever been polite to her?28 She walked to the sink to wash off the batter from her hand, that was when her eyes caught the gleam. She turned around slowly her eyes fixed on the knife he was holding. She moved back swiftly, gripping the marble cabinet for support. 2 “Are you… going to kill me, Ya Mubarak?”18 Mubarak’s brows furrowed, he saw the shock on her face then, he followed her gaze to his hand, when he saw what she meant his lips tilted into a half smile. 9 “No, but if you say my name again, I may consider doing just that.” 30 Mubarak dropped the knife he had found lying at the edge of the kitchen island back into the knife block. Maryam gave him a choice glare. “Murderer,” she mumbled. 14 Mubarak’s eyes widened at her utterance. And suddenly he wasn’t feeling kind anymore, this girl was uncouth. 9 Maryam saw the transformation, from an unmistakable frown to a fiery anger. 4 She leaned back into the cabinet behind her. “What? I was just trying it out, you said not to call your name, I have to find an alternative for you then. Don’t you think? And it is considered Haram to threaten an innocent person with a weapon, by the way.” She finished her eyes on the block of knives.24 Mubarak shook his head and left the kitchen without a word. He was going through a lot to let this girl drive him even crazier than he already was. The girl had just been at the house a few days. Hajiya had told him that she would be here for some crazy course she would be studying, which he knew was just another excuse to trap him. She should just pack and leave.10 If she thought she was going to slither her way into his house and subsequently into his life and find it comfy, then he got bad news for her. It had been nine days since Maryam had any sensible interaction with Mubarak, nine days that all comprised of watching the TV work. He refused to speak about the fact that her education was just an excuse their parents had used to throw them together, no, he saw her as what she was- Nothing. 5 Maryam wondered if she had not made a mistake by agreeing to consider this alliance. The few times that their paths had crossed were filled with sour memories, he had either intentionally hurt her or pretended as if she wasn’t there, to begin with. 4 After the knife incident, all pretence of getting to know each other took a back seat, now Mubarak wasn’t even showing face. Had it stopped at that, Maryam would have been fine with his attitude, but it was beyond that and she wondered if she had just been hooked to a loose cannon. Especially after she had caught him staring at Sa’ima on two occasions that they visited during the course of her stay at the mansion. 16 Now Maryam sat in his parents’ main living room with Wafiyya, waiting for him to come home from work, she deliberated over all the things she wanted to say to him. She needed to make things straight for her own sake. She had never done this, all the while she had placed it upon herself to be the obedient girl but she now saw the stupidity of her choice. If he wouldn’t even give her the time to understand him and conversely him to her, she saw no future in what their parents were trying to fix. She was no nurse to nurse his injured heart, he was big enough to take care of his heart and his ego. 28 Wafiyya turned off the tv and Maryam’s gaze travelled to her cousin, “What, why would you turn it off? I was having fun!”2 Wafiyya sat up on the couch “It’s not like you’re even watching the thing or anything. Can you please stop getting lost in thoughts? What are you even thinking about? Just let it go, if you’re going to ruin your days and nights thinking about what would have been or what is to come, then I don’t know what to say to you.”6 Wafiyya had turned into her mini-therapist, who kept talking to her about her fears of how things were taking shape, she was much younger than her, at fourteen, she said so many words that made sense. She had it good when it came to putting people together. 1 Maryam sighed “Who said I was thinking about someone?”14 Wafiyya rolled her eyes, and let out a puff of air. “I didn’t say, someone, except if that’s who you’re thinking about.” Maryam looked away twisting her mouth. Busted. 8 “Okay, you got me. It’s just that… I don’t know what’s wrong with Ya Mubarak he’s been avoiding me like the plague. And I’m not the kind to be clingy when I’m being pushed away. You see I may be going home soon. But not once did he even show he knows what’s going on and I don’t think I have it in me to face him with this. After all, our parents have decided, and I’ve agreed out of the respect I have for them and thinking that he was a good choice knowing how Hajiya has trained her children to be. “I’m not saying this because you’re here, but really you all are lovely people brought up with good hearts, people with such qualities come rarely these days, I thought Ya Mubarak was like that too, but… I just don’t want to be hurt, or even hurt him in the process. I feel like he hates me… no, I know he hates me.” It wasn’t a new thing for her, the least he could do was just tell her his intentions and rid her of her misery.6 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Well, why don’t you try talking to him today? He is almost home, you know?” Maryam’s eyes grew larger, her hands went to her chest immediately “And risk getting those murdering glares from him? I swear they make my guts churn, I’m just feigning braveness. No way. He’s so arrogant for his own good. And sometimes I feel like setting his jaw right to remove that permanent scowl and set jaws off his face. He used to be so nice before… I don’t know how he ended up…”19 Wafiyya stood up abruptly ready to take a flight “What is wrong with you? Why are you acting as you’ve seen a ghost?” Maryam asked, turning to Wafiyya’s new subject of discomfort.21 When Maryam turned to see him she almost passed out. She jumped behind Wafiyya’s back. Ya Allah, what was she saying before he showed up? It must be the part of her rearranging his face, right now he looked like he was going to make minced meat out of her. She gulped. He had his murderer avatar on.48 Wafiyya slid out of the living room, leaving Maryam with her eyes clenched and a pair of shaky legs. She found the will to turn, but before she took more than two steps Mubarak called out to her. “Come back, here,”12 Now she was certain she was getting killed, or beaten to a pulp, or the latter, then the former. She took her shaky legs to the couch, and when she was finally seated she felt her confidence coming back bit by bit. She raised her head high, in mock bravado. If she let him see that she was scared of him, she knew there would be nothing that would stop him from feeding on that, so she would act tough.12 “Who has an angry face?” Mubarak asked, his stormy eyes on her. 23 She looked wearily at him. “You, obviously. I know you heard us.” She said with little hesitation even though her liver was shaking like a leaf in the winter wind within her. And she watched his eyes grow bigger when she spoke. 13 “And you’re not even denying that?”25 She rolled her eyes briefly at him and pushed her mouth into a pout. “It’s the truth, why should I deny it? Of course, I’m scared to my bones, but that also doesn’t mean that I’m lying.”10 “You have no idea what you’re putting yourself in right? What do you want from me? I want you to stay away because at the end of this all you’ll be the one that will get hurt.”4 Maryam looked up at him and for the first time she saw the man behind the charade, she saw him shattered. He looked broken.3 “I don’t know what I’m putting myself in, and I don’t care as long as I know I am doing the right thing only by following my father’s advice. If you don’t like me deal with it.”15 Mubarak clicked his tongue at the back of his mouth, “Then you should care.”2 She gave him another glare before moving to the end of the sofa when she saw that he was seething, he could do unthinkable things to her for all she knew but right that moment she was being honest when she told him she didn’t care. “Are you still in love with her?” she asked, even though she knew it was daring for her to go there. Very daring.2 Mubarak’s head snapped up, he gave her a hard look. “That’s none of your business.”10 Maryam smiled shakily, “Of course it’s my business if it’s standing between you and me. We’re getting married for Allah’s sake, I need to know what I’m getting into. What I’m standing up against. And you also need to let go and move on. She’s now Ya Bilaal’s wife. You’re not hoping for him to drop dead and leave his wife for you, are you? Because the way I see it, he’s truly and madly in love with his wife and so is she. You can’t come between them unless if you’re planning on…”26 “Shut up.” He said, his teeth clenched, Mubarak closed his eyes briefly. She was driving him crazy, and this was just their tenth minute in the day, what would happen if he took her for a lifetime? He wouldn’t have a life to tell the story. “Don’t say a word more.” he gritted.2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Maryam opened her mouth wide and shook her head folding her arms over her chest. “Don’t scream at me.”12 “Right? Or what?” “Yes, I will cry if you scream again, I’ll shout and it doesn’t matter what I say, but I’d hate to break it to you, Sa’ima has moved on, and it’s time you do so too. I see the way you look at her when you think nobody was looking.” Since her arrival, they had met twice with Sa’ima and she had seen how conflicted Mubarak had turned in Sa’ima’s presence, once he had to leave before dinner. She wondered if he locked up his room and cried, he looked like he needed a good cry when he left. 2 “Are you going to stop me?” he said, his ragged breath coming out in a rush.
2 Maryam’s eyes softened, her hands went to her side she was really treading on sloppy ice. He was a dangerous steep she wouldn’t want to fall from. But he also needed to be saved from breaking and toppling over, it was a great height. 4 “Ya Mubarak, please don’t do this to yourself. I know this is not the way you are. Think of Aunt Kulthum, your father, think of your brother. You used to fight all odds just for him and if you don’t let go of all that hatred built inside you we won’t have a chance. And I’m afraid I’ll have to tell my father that things aren’t working out. And I will tell him you called me an outdated-village girl.”22 Mubarak’s brows furrowed, this girl was crazy, he had no idea he had voiced that out the other day. The day he found her in the refrigerator. Well, she was just that. “You’re doing no such thing.”4 “Well then tell me what to do. Because the way I see things, Ya Mubarak we don’t have any future if you’re still hung up on your past. Not to talk about how you are sinning by admiring someone’s wife. Do you have any idea how many sins you’re committing? I will be calm and I will talk less, I will never bother you again, I’ll stop calling your name too. I’ll just go back to our village if you agree to move on. But you also have to win me over from our village, if not I am not getting married to you.”55 Mubarak placed his face in both his palms, his head was pounding so bad that Maryam’s silliness was nothing to compare with what he felt at the moment. As much as he hated to admit it, she was right, And he hated that she was. “I don’t know how to do it, Maryam, I just don’t know. I’m in deep, I don’t think you’ll understand.”12 Maryam let out a sigh, he had just called her name for the first time. Did he just… okay she needed to get down that high. She redirected her thoughts elsewhere then.7 “Sometimes we do things that we don’t understand just because they are the right things to do. Like me coming to this stupid place because my parents want me to come.” When he glared at her she lowered her eyes, “Okay not stupid, beautiful but the point is, we are forced to face life sometimes as it comes. You have to keep reminding yourself that she is Ya Bilaal’s that might make it easy a bit. Can you apologize to Sa’ima?” She asked, and Mubarak shot her another glare. This time hotter than the rest.
 “No, don’t kill me yet, I swear that may work. I think starting there would be a good idea.”4 Mubarak grunted. “No, I don’t trust myself around her.” He admitted, his eyes briefly flickered as he rested his gaze on Maryam. “You have to do that for yourself. For us.” Maryam whispered. She had no idea where that came from, since when was there an ‘us’ between them? Maybe it came from him calling her name, which was stupid. But she guessed it was working because Mubarak was now looking at her as if seeing her for the first time. 19 She just hoped his image of her wasn’t that of a silly-outdated-villager or an old market woman. She would have been more grateful, but nonetheless, she was okay with him letting go.3 STORY CONTINUES BELOW He moved towards the left side of the sweeping curved stairs, no doubt to meet Hajiya in her room. Maryam sighed. She took out her phone and called Nafeesah. 2 “I think he may crack.” She whispered. “What? Oh! Oh… Yes! Go, girl!” Nafeesah’s voice came through as she realized what Maryam said. “Alright gotta go, bye. Say hello to everyone.” **** The place swelled into bloom as students, office dwellers and families alike flocked to the greenest corner of the City. She loved this place. They passed a series of repeated doorways, from greys to midnight blues. The plasters, white cornices, the way the elements of the buildings were picked out. The white stucco against the red bricks that created a simple splendour. Maryam especially had a sense of harmony, just looking at the buildings there. Everything was ensembled in a classical formulation, all of it enamoured her. She was in love with London, but she especially loved this part more. She had no idea one could fall in love with a building as she did this. And It was already a character in one of her future books. 4 “What’s the name of this place?” Maryam asked since Mubarak wasn’t being generous with information.13 “This is the Gordon Square.” “I love how it marries,” Maryam said, still entranced as they passed it. She didn’t expect a response from him but he said, “They are actually designed to form a whole entity from the inside. They were formerly separate houses. So all these doors don’t actually lead to separate entities, it is a large hall.”2 Maryam was awed, she also noticed that he had slowed the pace of his car. Allowing her to have a good look. “Have you ever been inside?” “I’m not taking you if that’s what you are asking.”34 Maryam almost rolled her eyes, there went the cheerful mood. She wouldn’t complain though, she had least expected him to take her on the tour. When Hajiya Kulthum told her she had to go with Mubarak, Wafiya would be in school when it was time for the tour of the university they had booked the previous week. Even though the day had not been completely uneventful, she was glad they did this, at least she had seen a side of Mubarak his former self would have killed to hide from her. She actually liked that side. Whatever it was, she would have to figure that out later, for now, she would pretend to look at the city while he drove them home. 1 *** When Hajiya told Mubarak that he would take Maryam to Bloomsbury, where she had to take care of something at Birkbeck, University of London. What they failed to mention was that he had to tag along on her tour for the school of arts. She took him to her first tour of the university, where she casually told him, “I will be enrolling September, I’m so excited. Where did you go?”2 He had walked at a brisk pace when they reached the school, he could hear her flats tapping on the cobblestone, following him right in step. 7 They stopped at the front desk where he referenced their booking and were assigned to a group by the receptionist. Maryam’s gaze had roamed the reception, from one part of it through the long hallways and angsty rooms to the viewing rooms and theatres, everything was beautiful. They toured the Library, and all the way Mubarak looked about to explode, so she had had her field game with him, maybe he would loosen up a bit. They were at the group study level of the library when she saw an array of munchies and snacks. 2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Ya Mubarak, can we get some of those? I missed breakfast.” She scrunched up her face, hoping he was as ravenous as her to let her take some. Perhaps that would make him soft. They ended up buying a bagful of snacks and he steered her out.2 “Enough tour for today, time to go home.” He turned to see their guide addressing the group, his gaze returned to Maryam and he gestured towards the exit. Maryam could see he was so angry his face almost looked red. And those eyebrows, the lines between them, those thick, sweeping eyelashes that framed his now narrowed eyes and the nose that bound them. Strong, elegant nose she shouldn’t be looking at for this long. An elegant nose that… Maryam you are damaged. He is so going to end you today. 12 That was when she stopped right next to his car refusing to get in. *** “Don’t kill me,” Maryam mumbled. “What?!” Mubarak looked around them before he returned his gaze to her, “Why do you keep thinking I have any intention of killing you?”10 “I don’t know. You tell me. You are the one that always has that look like you are going to snap and cut me into this tiny little piece of minced… You scare me okay? And I’m not actually the cause of your misery. You are. So don’t kill me. And stop smiling because I just admitted you scare me. It isn’t a good thing to be scary.”19 Mubarak looked skywards, he wasn’t even smiling. “Allahul musta’aan. Can I take you home now, Mairo? Please. My car doesn’t butcher people, I promise.”57 Maryam glared at him and took the back seat. “Heck no, I’m not driving you like this. Go get the tube, get out of my car.”2 Maryam folded her hands over her midriff. And Mubarak realized this was his greatest nightmare taking shape in real life.7 “Ha! I knew it, you have planned my abduction, that is why you have agreed to take me for the tour. You are trying not to look suspicious when this whole thing goes down, are you just going to tell Hajiya that you couldn’t find me in the crowd?”29 Mubarak knew he was absolutely doomed.8 “No Maryam, you aren’t worth a dime on the abduction market. So you see? You are safe.”29 Her mouth hung open, and something stung her eyes, clenching her chest in the process. “Did you just call me worthless?”9 Mubarak rolled his eyes, he opened the front door when she got out from the back seat and he used the brochure they were given at the reception to literally push her into the car, in the passenger seat. Locking the door, he turned to the driver’s side. 9 “You can’t do that, you know? I am not at fault here, so if you want to be grumpy or cut my tour short you should have told Hajiya that you won’t bring me to the school, I would have happily taken the tube. I have to know my way around the City eventually, after all. You don’t need to resort to calling me worthless to pass your message across. I get it you hate me, while I don’t hate you the way you do, I don’t exactly like you either, so go and explode for all I care.”17 Mubarak turned to face her with eyes that were filled with unmistakable anger, he huffed out some air. “If you don’t keep your little voice to yourself. I’m going to have to resort to my pocket knife to do the job for me. So sit back in that seat and shut the hell up!”11 Maryam didn’t make another sound thereafter, and Mubarak twisted a knot from his neck and turned to face the road ahead. 10 Unfortunately for him, his peace lasted only until they reached the mansion. “Does Hajiya know that you belong to the mafia?”119 What did they feed the girl to grow up? She was crazy, and she drove him so mad he was only inches away from subscribing to one Mafia group if they were hiring. 5 “Lucky for me, she is her Lordship the queen. I am the next King.” he bit back.19 Maryam gasped. And Mubarak left her there squinting at his retreating back. 2 The moment she had her bedroom door closed behind her, she gave Nafeesah a missed call, an indication to her friend to give her a call.2 The call came shortly after. “I’ve seen houses so picture perfect you would love to live in them. Ya Mubarak told me a bit about the architecture of the school.” Maryam said, as she narrated the event of the day to Nafeesah after their short greetings. “I see there is growth. You two now speak to each other.”2 “Have you missed the part where I told you he took me to the tour?”4 “I think you have to give me a recap. Some flashbacks will do.” “Okay first things first, I was on the street Virginia Woolf once lived, I saw her house. Well, what used to be it, that is.”2 “No! You have to come and take me.” “Done.” They talked more, Maryam giving Nafeesah a succinct account of her day. 2 “Okay now enough about me. How is Abubakar?” “Difficult.” Maryam could hear the bite in her friend’s voice as if she was holding something back. “Feenah, drop your stubbornness and let it happen, you can’t keep delaying on my account. This thing here might not work. How long will you keep him waiting?”7 “As long as it takes, a vow is a vow.” Nafeesah said.2 “I will break your head if you dare say that again, I’m talking to Umma.” “Maxy, don’t even go there.”7 “Bye-bye, talk to you when there is more.”2 “Maxy!” but Maryam was gone. She held her phone between her palms, closing her eyes, she let out a long sigh. “This is all so wrong.” She whispered, feeling the hurt in her chest twist so sharp it brought tears to her eyes.11 *** The events of the day prompted Maryam to write, she hadn’t written since she arrived in London, and with the events that unfolded, she had so many things to put down. There was something about the night that called out to her. After they’d finished watching a movie with Wafiyya, she had turned in but she was too restless to sleep. The sights she saw and the feelings they evoked within her, added with her phone call with Nafeesah they all stirred that part of her that had been numb for days, and she was grateful for that. 4 When on her borrowed balcony earlier that morning before they left for their tour she had spotted the perfect place to keep her imaginative juices flowing. She would give anything to write from beneath the brown roof. Even now when she looked down at the backyard, the place was well lit. The gazebo was half covered with glass, almost like a patio. But she knew she would love the breeze and the scent of the outdoor would keep the light in her burning. 7 Grabbing her notebook, a pen and her laptop, Maryam covered herself in her scarf and headed out not minding that it was almost 11 pm. She found the kitchen screen door closed, but with a little click to the handle it turned and she sighed. She would have been massively disappointed if she had found it locked. She took a station at one of the wicker chairs. And placed her laptop on the low brick wall that made up the other part of the gazebo. 13 Maryam relished her aunt’s sense of style, everything in the space had character. From the fur pillows, thrown at the back of each chair. To the sling back chairs, the clay pots hanging from the ceiling. The neatly trimmed flowers surrounding it. Put together this place was a little heaven. The perfect eclectic blend. She hated that she was just discovering it after staying in the mansion for almost two weeks. With the cool breeze taking up the unmistakable scent of grass, chives and cherry blossoms with the zingy clouds of Lady’s Mantle, her set was ready. 19 She fired up her laptop and sprinted. Her hands flying over the keyboard. She would always bless her father for getting her this computer as her graduation gift. Since then, she had been using it to write her drafts. The drafts she had no idea how to ever publish considering she didn’t have any means to sponsor the work, and she hadn’t exactly divulged her secret passion for writing to her parents. It was something she was sure they would not be okay with. 17 She had once tested the waters by asking her mother what she thought of writing as a profession.4 “Are you mad? What kind of question is this? Is writing even a thing? People are becoming doctors and lawyers but you are here dreaming rubbish.”56 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “Mama, I was just asking for a friend, you’ve already chosen Accounting for me, so relax.” 12 That night she overheard her mother telling her father about “the irrational direction” his daughter was pursuing. Her father had snorted and that was all. That was how the conversation had ended. With it, her potential of living out her dream of becoming a writer flushed down the drain.12 But the passion was ingrained in her. So, Maryam only wrote when they turned in at night or when her parents were not at home. On some nights, she would read the stories out to Zubaida for corrections. Surayya liked to listen in too so she could get more ideas for when the right time came according to her. Nafeesah was her biggest critic.12 Maryam was so engrossed in words and letters, feelings so raw and deep, she had lost the sense of time and sense of bearings. She missed seeing someone come over to her when she heard a gasp, her head tilted to work a knot in her stiff neck, dismissing the sound. 7 The second time she heard the movement, she jolted out of her chair, hugging her laptop with her, her notebook fell to the floor. Now it lay at the feet of ‘the King’ himself. 22 “Ya Allah! What are you doing out at this hour?!”2 Maryam looked around as if in search of whom Mubarak was speaking to. Then her eyes returned to him. 2 “I was writing.”2 “Can’t you write in your room, or in the balcony? There are eight living rooms and lounge areas, six corridors and more rooms inside the house, yet you couldn’t find a spot to write something on a laptop until you step out at 12 a.m?”33 Maryam rolled her eyes upwards, shaking her head. She got it, he lived in a house five times the size of a football field, he needed not to remind her of that. 8 “Ever needed air so baaad?”2 Mubarak stood stoic, he had his eyes fixed on her. He knew that feeling but he wasn’t going to talk weather or feelings with her for that matter. 9 “You know that hair-lifting-cool-on-the-skin breeze? That was what I needed. And words were itching to come out of my head, so I got a chance to join the two and I did.”14 He scrutinized her from head to heel, with the black jilbab and the grey scarf she was wearing he didn’t see anywhere some breeze would breeze through her. “You are covered in hijaab, I see no hair lifting going on here.”51 She turned her eyes up, and they caught the light of the gazebo, making them sparkle brightly. They almost looked grey. A jolt of shock hit him, it felt like this was the first time he was seeing her eyes. 35 Mubarak was used to the hazel of his brother’s eyes, but Maryam’s eyes weren’t hazel, they weren’t brown or even black. They were… different, unique. A touch of calmness that belied her feisty personality. 44 He would have to see them in the morning to find out what colour they were. 38 “You are such a buzz kill. What are you doing out at 12 a.m. outside the comfort of your mansion?” Her question took Mubarak out of his scrutiny. 4 Good question. Yeah, what was he doing out at 12 am and not in his bed, like every normal human? 10 He had no idea. He just knew he couldn’t sleep and he had to get some air. He needed some air. His eyes went back to her Laptop, she was hugging it to herself as if holding on to dear life, whatever was in there was really important to her. 16 And he would like to see what was so important to a crazy girl like her. Now that his curiosity was piqued, he had to find out. It may even be therapeutic to his mind, while listening to her rambling her crazy story, he may even get exhausted and would fall asleep right when his head hit his pillow. That was not a bad idea. 6 STORY CONTINUES BELOW “So, what’s your story?” He asked. 5 “Huh?” Maryam was blown with his question.2 He returned his gaze to her laptop briefly before taking it back to her eyes. They were whitish. No, light grey. “You write, it has to be about something, right?”6 “Nope, just my crazy thoughts.” She shrugged. He scoffed. “It must be for the crazy audience then.”16 She squinted her eyes. “Yes, just for people like you.” The girl would make the rest of his years sleepless, there was no way he was having a good night sleep if he ever had to experience her. The thought of spending forever experiencing her on a daily basis already gave him the creeps. 24 “You know, I once heard that there are two types of writers, the incredibly insane ones and the incredibly good ones who are excellent at hiding it. Which one are you?”9 She pursed her lips and he could almost see the snarky reply coming out of her lips. “I thought you’ve already figured that one out.”15 Mubarak narrowed his eyes at her as if that was an easy thing to do, no thank you, he preferred to remain sane. He let out some air. 2 Maryam went back to sit on the chair, still not opening her work. Maybe she was done for the day. Mubarak thought. 2 “Unlike you, I’m not out to figure you out. You’re just… I don’t know.”6 Maryam sighed. “I get that a lot. So don’t worry, you aren’t the only one.”2 She was crazy and witty too. Crazy-witty-black-grey-eyed cousin after his life.17 “I met them today.” He said. A silence fell between them except for the sound of the crickets and a distant hoot of an owl, neither of them made a sound. He just felt the need to share it with her, after all, if she hadn’t given him the shove he needed, he wouldn’t have mustered the courage to go down to his brother’s today. It was one of the most difficult things he had to do in his life. 9 Maryam noticed how closed off he seemed after making that statement. Pinching the bridge of his nose, a vein ticked on his temple. And she swallowed. 2 “Them, who?” “Sa’ima and Bilaal, I went to them and I apologized as you suggested, just thought I should let you know.”14 Uh-uh! He may be out because he really needed some air. Maybe more than how I needed it. Maryam thought.2 “Uhm… Maa sha Allah, that is… That is a great move. I am so proud of you.” She said matter of fact. 8 Mubarak levelled her with a gaze, she said it as if it was a reward to a well-behaved five-year-old kid. “How old are you again?” 8 Maryam shook her head. “Huh! You don’t ask a lady that.”21 His lips gave way to a ghost of a smile. “I have to know that, since we are getting to know each other, aren’t we?”18 “Oh!” He was getting to know her, she had no idea they were back in that game. She felt the chill from the film of sweat that coated her forehead. Straightening her back, she shrugged. “Old enough. So, tell me how did it go? How do you feel now?”8 The smile was gone and the heat was back in his eyes, so brown, smouldering brown framed by some long thick lashes. He blinked, and she looked away. “Can we leave that part, please? Let it be a story for another day.”2 “I know, just admit that you feel lighter now. I’m now going upstairs and I’ll try to do some writing. Just don’t sweat it, you are going to be okay.”4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW This girl was twisted, one minute she was crazy the next, she was borderline annoying. 7 “Maryam…” Mubarak gave her a warning look. 1 “Okay, I get it, good night. I won’t tell you to have a nice sleep. Because I know you won’t, it is the final day after all…”4 His eyes turned into slits and she almost forgot her name, Ya Rabbi, that man could scowl. 6 Mubarak huffed out some air into his palm, then kneaded his temples. She was so exhausting. But he had to admit she was right, he really did feel lighter. Who would have known a little confession and a determination to let go could do that to a man in a day? He felt changed already by the mere determination to change. The zeal to move on had never been stronger in him. 9 Even though moving on to him was now the retreating walkie-talkie with a penchant to write in the backyards at odd hours of the night.4 Creepy. 4 *** The next day, at exactly the same time he found her at the gazebo last night, Mubarak came out, he found her sitting in one of the sling back chairs typing away her brains. He would have ignored her presence there had she not been so immersed in her work. He had never seen her so quiet before, she was always talking. Or eating. Or making food.21 Looking at her now he knew he found an answer to his earlier thoughts, he couldn’t just remain stuck in one place. He either open up to her and put her out of her misery, or do nothing and remain on Hajiya’s Blacklist. So he forced himself to move towards her. 3 “May I have a look?” He said, jarring her out of her trance.2 “Ya Rabbi! Ever heard of the word ‘Salaam’? Please use it sometimes.”9 Maryam’s eyes slowly scanned him, he was in a camel brown t-shirt and a light jacket- Black. This was the first time she was seeing him in anything other than white, cream or grey. He should stick to black. He looked different. 13 Oh, she didn’t just scan him up. What was wrong with her? He was still looking at her, waiting. Oh! He was waiting for her response. She would have to tell him that she didn’t share her unfinished work. But he had never been this polite to her. He had never even been remotely interested in something she did. “You got a flash drive?” She asked.6 “Send it to my mail, take the ID.”4 Maryam looked up, he was about to ramble off his email ID when she said. “Uhm. I don’t have one.”10 His forehead creased, “You said you are a writer?”2 Her eyes darkened with confusion, was he checking to see if she was amnesiac? “Yes. I believe that is what I said.”2 “Then why don’t you have an email address? How do you correspond with… Oh.”6 “Yeah, oh.” She had no idea what he meant, but she would die before she looked dumb in his presence.2 Mubarak grimaced, feeling bad for making her feel bad about a resource she may not have had access to at home. “No problem we can open one for you now.”2 Her eyes went wide. “Are you crazy? Hajiya won’t let us go out now, it is like 1 am!”28 “Ever heard of the Wi-fi?”6 When her fixed gaze didn’t move from him and she was obviously lost on his word, he shook his head. “Wireless? internet? Anything tech?”10 Maryam lifted her laptop and he levelled a gaze at her that said “Really?” 2 “Of course I know the internet, what do you take me for? I just didn’t know you could have it wirelessly at home.”5 “Outdated.” He muttered glaring at her.36 STORY CONTINUES BELOW No, she had changed her mind she was not sharing her work with this arrogant-wireless-man. 32 “Keep your internet, I’m keeping my story.”6 “Impulsive,” Mubarak said and it looked like he hadn’t spoken at all. But his voice was everywhere. Thick, deep, resounding and everything in between, so she heard him okay.2 “Good night Ya Mubarak, you are giving me a block, I can’t think when I am talking.”2 Mubarak smiled and pointed his forefinger at her, “That… explains a lot.” He said and lifted from his position on the low gazebo wall. He walked towards the house. 8 Suddenly, the breeze became chilly, and Maryam felt as if she was being watched. She should go up to her room now, he had ruined her perfect writing weather. A total buzz kill. 8 *** “Are we setting up a meeting?” Gordon slid a folder onto Mubarak’s desk. The movement startling Mubarak out of his thoughts. 3 “Gordon?” When his assistant saw that there was every chance his boss hadn’t heard what he just said, he laughed. “I’ve stood here for almost five minutes, explaining the draft and I believe that is the point where you give your approval, should we set up a meet? Schedule an inspection? Anything?” Brown brows rose on thin Gordon’s face. He always looked like he would need an IV line hooked to him before he functioned but the amount of work Gordon did, always put Mubarak’s sense of productivity to shame, it didn’t help that he was the boss. 6 “Oh, sorry.” Mubarak, let out a sigh, he was losing it again, this was not the time to lose it, especially after his father’s remark on how unfocused he seemed lately. He needed to turn in something productive this week. Anything. 3 But the problem was, his brain wasn’t working, it wasn’t doing the needful, it was exhausted thinking of all the possible ways he could shimmy his way out of this situation with the Crazy-creepy-cousin. 14 Although after their last night run-in, his mind was only filled up with the curiosity to know what lay within her hard drive. He must admit, after reading her notebook, he was a little bit more intrigued by Maryam Muhammad Maigoro. 32 “Mr Bugaje?”2 “Sorry, Gordon. Let’s see if we can get an inspection on Wednesday.” “You have Lunch with Mr Wyatt.” “Can you do me a favour and slide it on any available date, please?” “Sure, sir. Your father wants confirmation on all projects by Friday, and my job is to make your job glide as smooth as possible, so if you need any help until then…”2 “Thank you, Gordon. I appreciate that a lot. That will be all.” When the office door closed with a soft click behind his assistant, Mubarak opened his desk drawer and brought out the notebook, his fingers glided over the surface of the little glittery hardcover.6 “Leave a little Sparkle wherever you go.” The embossed words on the notebook sounded a little off. It should have been “Create a tornado wherever you storm.” That explained her better.42 Closing his eyes, he brought his hand to his face and brushed it downwards. He needed to deal with this once and for all. Losing his focus over this was the last thing he needed to happen. Hence he did something that was totally out of character for him, he created an email account for her and texted Wafiyya with the instructions to give her the login details and hook her up on the network. Only then, did he pull the folder Gordon had kept, he tried to concentrate on work, knowing soon he would know all there was he wanted to know about her and her stories. 6 STORY CONTINUES BELOW *** “Feenaaah, I wrote!” Maryam squealed into her phone. “Come again?” “I don’t have time but I just wanted to tell you that I wrote for two consecutive days and it is beautiful.”2 “Now girl, hurry up and come home so that I can see it all.” “I can send it to you by email. I’ve got a new address.” “No! You didn’t. I’ve always bugged you to have one but you kept refusing.”2 “Let’s just say it kind of happened, anyways bye, text me your ID and I will send it to you. Make your observations as the critic, as usual.”2 “You bet. I think London kind of suits you.” “More like the views.”2 “Any in particular?” Maryam could hear the jest in her friend’s voice, and she knew if Nafeesah started with her jests then she wouldn’t hear the end of them.2 “None in particular. Don’t even go there. We are still cracking and in the hate zone, though now we talk. A bit.”7 “Talking a bit is good, keep talking. Alright bye. Umma says hi.” “Oh! Hi, Ummah.” Nafeesah’s mother was the best, and sometimes Maryam envied Nafeesah, in a good way. Now she had to cut the call short because she couldn’t afford another second, so she pressed the end button. 3 After her phone call with Nafeesah, Maryam found Hajiya Kulthum working in the study. In the course of her stay at the mansion, Maryam had understood her aunt volunteered in some community service, reaching out to the less privileged children, and sometimes organizing Islamic retreats for kids and young adults. 7 So when she was working from home, Maryam liked to help her with the documentation, in the process, learning a lot. She’d once found out that the program catered for the disabled and there were special teachers for that. She had always thought her aunt was a stay at home wife, a homemaker. But what she saw of her aunt’s work inspired her to gear up more on fulfilling her dreams. The dream of touching the lives of people in a positive way. Finding a way of instilling positivity in young people. One thing she lacked while growing up. 4 “Maryam, can you help with the idea cards please?” “Sure, what do I have to do?” Maryam went forth to the wide mahogany table, taking in the materials spread out there. She loved activities that had to do with kids, she wanted to ask if she could join Hajiya when next she was going to meet her group. But something caught Maryam’s eyes on the table. She took the small card that was browned with age at the edges, it was a family portrait of when the sons were all young and the daughters were all little girls. 2 “Hajiya, are you making a photo album?” Hajiya Kulthum looked up from her planner. She laughed, “Ah, no. I was going through an old box this morning when I found this. So I took it out from the stash. I am working on a campaign to start these programs from the Islamic perspective. Most of the young people outsource the Islamic aspect of life from crooked ways. So, we are coming up with something that will be fun, engaging and will make the kids learn about the deen without making it seem like a chore.”6 “Oh, that will be beautiful maa sha Allah. Should I sort through the categories?” “Yes, these were some opinions suggested by the mothers at the community masjids, so we are going to work on what they think will help the kids more, coupled with the ideas of a few experts.” Maryam smiled, “Sounds interesting, in sha Allah it will be a success .” Maryam felt her heart swell with pride and love for her aunt. That was the moment when Maryam knew with utmost conviction that even if Mubarak liked it or not he was stuck with her. She wasn’t leaving this gem of a woman to go anywhere. Which meant she wasn’t leaving him too. He’d better get around his broken heart and give her that proposal she wanted from him.60 A shadow loomed in the door way, making Maryam’s heart leap to her throat. 4 She fell awestruck at the sight of him. Then she heard the familiar resonating voice pour into the room, and it was all chaos in her mind. Was he psychic? Were psychics real? Because this man just knew that she was thinking of him and decided to make an appearance in the room she happened to be.4 “Wa alaikumussalam.” Hajiya Kulthum answered, but Maryam refused to look up at him, she was still mad he had called her an outdated, impulsive, villager. Email account or not, no matter how she wanted to be his mother’s daughter-in-law she wouldn’t let him take advantage of her. Or call her names. 12 Instead of acknowledging his presence in the room, Maryam concentrated in sorting the idea cards. That was when he rocked her world. “Maryam, may I have a word please when you are through?” He was benign, she could swear even his eyes had softened. The mean-arrogant-wireless-attorney of a man. 10 What was with him and being polite with her? Why was he being soft with her? He was using the presence of his mother to his advantage throwing them both in the loop, “Hm as if I don’t know better.” She snorted.6 This man was a criminal. A bigtime hypocrite. It was just the previous day when it had pained him to speak to her properly, now he had the nerves to give her the soft eyes and the polite voice. He had called her outdated, yet today he wanted to have a talk with her, and he asked as if she mattered.21 Maryam managed to reduce the circumference of her eyes and gave him a tight smile. “Sure.”2 “Oh, I get this Maryam, go ahead. We can finish up later, in sha Allah.” Great, and now her aunt was pushing her to him. She glared at him discreetly and the rogue that he was, he had the audacity to wink at her ever so subtly. Was there a subtle wink? Mubarak just winked at her in his mother’s presence! 16 Maryam gasped. Not a subtle gasp a loud gasp, which made her drop the stack of cards she had painstakingly been sorting for the past thirty minutes. 4 “Go on, I will take it from here.” She had no choice but to follow him wherever it was he was dragging her to have ‘the word.’ She stopped short when they rounded the corner, they were in the small patio that linked the main living room to the backyard. It was almost dusky now, some rays of sunlight bathed the patio with its receding glow, an orange light glowed from the ceiling above them. 2 “What?” She asked, incensed, her nose flared. That was when she noted, he was out of his suit. He was dressed in a white linen shirt and dark wash jeans. He towered over her. Now that she was standing close to him, Maryam felt intimidated by him. 3 So she looked away. Waiting for him to say something. “You dropped this the other night.”2 Maryam looked up to see her blue notebook in his hand. Her eyes bulged out. That was the notebook that Mama had given her. The notebook that was laden with his biodata. 46 “Please tell me you haven’t opened it.”27 Mubarak’s gaze languidly grazed over her, as if he was too tired to speak, then he leaned back on the door frame, blocking her exit, caging her in the patio.12 What was he up to? She wished she could just pry into his brain and see what had placed that amusing look he was pulling off so perfectly.19 Argh! The man was intolerable. ***

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