Mubarak’s gaze was still fixated on Maryam when he spoke. “You have taken notes on me?” There was no disbelief in his voice just pure curiosity and a ton-load of amusement. Now he would laugh to his fill.+ “No, don’t flatter yourself. It’s nothing, give it to me, you don’t open a lady’s notebook.” Maryam stepped forward, but he took it back, holding it behind him. His brows furrowed. “Since when?”4 “Since etiquettes exist.”16 Maryam could see the glint in his eyes and she was sure he just assumed himself a challenge. And as far as she knew Mubarak Umar Bugaje he had every intention of winning. His gaze left hers and he opened the notebook scanning the first page. “Mubarak loves white?” His scowl deepened, then he looked up at her. “Who says I love white?”6 “Okay, that… you shouldn’t read that, give me my book. Mama wrote it for me,” She said with a brief roll of her eyes. “She thought giving me a heads-up about you might help. But apparently, she has no idea… I’ve never even read it!” She said, in her defence.18 The edge of his mouth lifted into a smile, “She has no idea that I’m unique?”9 “Why do you like to flatter yourself? That is self-aggrandizing. It is unflattering.”8 He chuckled and his voice, oh his voice was so thick, and deep, he sounded like home. So comforting just like someone who had a cold or someone who just woke up from sleep and had a hot cup of ginger-cloves tea. Okay ears, that was one creepy way to listen to him, there was nothing comforting about this man.2 A shady man who always got home at midnight sometimes well into the morning. Maryam felt the need to ask him where he stayed late every night. Since he always seemed to be in his outdoor wear when he met her at mid-night at their unspoken rendezvous point.8 Granted, this night and a few others were exceptions. But somehow she felt she didn’t have that right yet. Oh, she was dying to know. She just wished that thing about him being ‘the King’ was actually a ruse and he wasn’t like a double-agent, an attorney in the day and a mafia at night… Wait. Was he coming home late just to avoid meeting her? Today was an exception because he wanted to meet her and give her her notebook. But before she could ask him, he spoke. “Okay, white is not my colour, you may want to amend that.” He said, surprising her, she had never expected him to open up to her, much less offer anything that had to do with him. Maryam squinted at him, he was staunchly going over that list and number nine made her cringe, oh let him be blinded and not read number nine. She had lied to him, she had actually taken a peep. After that first time in the flight- if she could call one hour staring a peep- trying to figure him out when he wouldn’t open up to her himself. So she decided a little distraction might help, he should not read number nine.21 “Why are you always in white, cream or grey then? If you don’t love white?” STORY CONTINUES BELOW  He looked up thoughtfully, and he was so quiet she thought he wasn’t going to answer her. Then his voice came, gruff at first, he cleared it, and it went straight to her, she had no idea how, but it did. “I used to love bling and colours that pop, but they are somebody’s favourite, and I’m not allowed to think of somebody now. So…”47 Maryam felt a twinge of sadness from his statement. “That is bad.” His eyes looked distant, she recovered quickly from her lull. “Tell you what? Why do you have to stop loving your favourite things just because they remind you of somebody? You don’t have to hide from it, knowing that it is still there hidden, your hidden favourite will only keep reminding you of why you stopped loving it openly. But if you let it out, eventually you will create new memories that aren’t related to that somebody. It can be your new normal;”9 Mubarak let out a sigh. “Good point. Black is majestic but a little colour won’t hurt, you know. Cream is nice, heard it looks great on the skin too.” He said, his eyes briefly sweeping over her. Then he took a bottle of water from the patio table. “May I go with this?” he tapped her notebook.21 “No way!” Maryam extended her hand to snatch it, but he uneventfully gave it back to her, letting out a defeated sigh. “I was so looking forward to reading my favourite pass time and my favourite thing about a woman. How in the world did your mother get all that information ‘she assumed’ are my favourite things?”9 “I don’t know, ask your mother.”4 He gave her a short nod and began to walk away. “Wait, my mother does not know number nine. Please tell me she doesn’t.”60 Oh, he read that one, too bad. She tried to warn him. “Well, you may want to check again with her and see.”2 Mubarak grunted and turned, making her laugh.2 *** It was 2 a.m. when Maryam woke up with a start, that was when Mubarak’s words registered to her, he had told her cream suited her too. She wore a cream dress when she went to see him that first night at Hajiya’s living room. Why would he even notice that? He hadn’t even spared her a look on that day. Just that blazing murderous glare. It must have been one of his spiralled thoughts. But what if this was him making an effort towards the alliance? Oh, it would be fun working with his mother. She rubbed her hands excitedly and smiled. She prayed a few units of nawaafil prayers, seeking Allah’s guidance over her affairs before she got back to sleep. *** On Saturday, Hajiya took them out. Maryam was impressed with what she saw. When Hajiya Kulthum spoke in plural about her initiative, she had no idea she was talking about a team of many people volunteering from all walks of life trying to better the lives of the future generation. There were doctors, educationists, lawyers, accountants, founders, homemakers and many more. Maryam watched as this amazing woman who she had no idea what she was before now, deliver a wonderful speech about pushing it forward. That was when she knew what she wanted to do with her life. At twenty-two, the revelation finally dawned upon her. “Sorry, Mama but I am going to be a full-time writer. These people need content and I am going to give the best to them.” She smiled. And just when she was plucked out of her thoughts. Her eyes travelled across the green park, seeing how many people were participating until her eyes landed on his. He stood several feet across the field. He was there, leaning on a tree, his arms were crossed over his torso. Dressed in a plain white T-shirt with a light army-military khaki jacket, a pair of blue denim jeans and some clean white sneakers, he stood waiting for his mother to finish her program. STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Maryam had no idea Mubarak would be coming to the event. She couldn’t help the grin that had spread across her face when she had her vision of becoming a writer. Now that he had seen her silly grin, he would think she was smiling at him. She frowned her face to pass across the right message. But he smiled shaking his own head. She even saw a glimpse of his teeth. So white.29 Later when the other participants were sharing their ideas. Hajiya Kulthum summoned her, “Mubarak is going home, he will get your yogurt. And Wafiyya isn’t feeling good, so he is dropping her home. Do you want to leave with them?”2 Somehow Maryam felt the question should have been ‘do you want to wait?’ But she nodded nonetheless. He wouldn’t even know which type of yogurt she wanted. “Hajiya knows the yogurt place, you don’t,” she said later when they reached his car. A black BMW with a sophistication that matched his robustness. “You can talk about your yogurt after we are done with our little detour.” And as it turned out, their little detour was a clinic. Now he just made her feel awful. She thought they were going home, she hadn’t even thought of taking Wafiyya to see a doctor, she was so inconsiderate. She couldn’t shake the sensation that covered her just then. He cared about his sister. “Ahn… Yaa Mubarak, what are we doing here?” Wafiyya asked from the passenger’s seat.2 “You said you are sick. So here we are, a doctor will soon have a look at you.” “I just wanted to leave, I was tired.”10 Mubarak turned to face Wafiyya, his scowl neatly in place, his eyes narrowed to slits. “So, you lied about your health?” Maryam looked back and forth between the siblings and she thought she may just retract her statement about him caring about his sister, he looked like he was going to play squash with her.2 “She wanted a polite exit, don’t be mad at her,” Maryam said. Only after she spoke, did she realize she was talking.2 “I’m sorry Ya Mubarak, can you please take me home?” Wafiyya pleaded, Maryam couldn’t help but notice the unease that passed between them, it felt as if this didn’t happen quite often, hence Wafiyya was a bit shaken by her brother’s outburst.2 “I think we can go have that Yogurt now.” Maryam interrupted, Wafiyya had no idea she was getting into trouble, she had to save her. “What’s with you and yogurt?” Mubarak spat.19 “I die if I don’t eat it. So it is a basic necessity.”17 “You should just draw an IV line and be fed with it for life then,” Mubarak said, and the set eyes were trained at her now, via the rear view mirror.24 He placed the car into motion and he didn’t stop anywhere but at the mansion. Maryam was disappointed, she wanted to cry like a petulant child, but it was his time, his car and his energy. She would just call Hajiya Kulthum and ask her to get some for her. Maryam was sliding out of the back seat after they stopped when he said, “Not you. Come around.”2 “What?”4 “She lied, I’m not taking her out, so if you really are going to die if you don’t take this thing I suggest you get into the car and come with me.”28 “No way, I’m not going anywhere with you.”9 Mubarak leveled her with his gaze and she felt like she had no option. She glanced at Wafiyya apologetically only to see her giving her a thumbs-up from her side. This girl was vile. Just like her brother.4 “Okay, I’m coming. Just… don’t take advantage of me.” He glared at her without saying a word, they were out again.8 She looked out the window the whole time they were driving. They were at Old Brompton road, not far away from the house. The place named scoop according to him should have what she wanted. Not that he said that out loud, but because he checked the TomTom map for the fastest route to take them there.2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  They did have the best, not that she had compared a lot to know that, but she certainly knew they were great. She went in to get just some plain Greek yogurt but came out packing a kaleidoscope of flavours. Not without trying the Hazelnut and pistachio flavour first, right inside the shop.2 When his car was brought out of parking she noticed he had to rent a space. “We should have taken the tube.” She said. Keeping her precious package on the floorboard of his car. Mubarak didn’t speak, when she looked up his eyes were on her. Practically glued to the front of her abaya. Ya Rabbi! Her eyes widened and he continued to stare without having the shame to look away even after she had caught him staring. She sat in the car seat and turned to look at him.27 “Hello! My face is up here.”25 Mubarak narrowed his eyes at her. He shook his head in confusion. “And in case you are wondering ‘how?’, it is padded.” She rose both brows at him, daring him.12 Mubarak’s jaws dropped. He closed his mouth then opened it to speak, “Are you always this brash?” He started the car and eased into the traffic. “No, just to oglers.”6 Mubarak gritted his teeth, he shook his head. “I wasn’t ogling.”8 “Yes, you were. And I will have to resort to poking some eyes out if that is not remedied. There is a thing called lowering the gaze, it doesn’t say keep it at certain levels.”16 He blew out some air. “I think we should get home now.” “Yes, I think so too. And please never take me out again.” She closed her eyes briefly. Maryam couldn’t believe she got her mouth diarrhoea now. What a stupid shade of humiliation is that, mouthy? I just spoke to him about my sets! Oh, ground open up and swallow me now.2 “Can you not tell anyone that I…”3 “That you wear padded bras? Nope, your secret is safe with me.” Maryam could hear the amusement cinched all over his words.15 “What! No! Ya Rabbi, you don’t have any shame.”13 “Says the girl who speaks about her bra types to a total stranger.”32 “Just kill me already!” She spat. And his smile stuck to his face all the way home.2 *** When Maryam got down, she made a beeline to Wafiyya’s room, doing her best to escape Mubarak’s smiling eyes, he wouldn’t stop doing that since he learned of one of her deepest secrets. But Wafiyya wasn’t in her room, she went downstairs to keep her frozen yogurt in the fridge. She decided to finish off hers while there at least nobody would find her there now. And her treat could numb the crazy side of her brain. But Maryam knew that wasn’t her day, when she walked into the kitchen and found him sitting at the island, with a glass of water in his hand. His face was lit by the screen of his computer. The man that was avoiding her for the past two weeks was completely stalking her now. He had a catch in this. What was it?2 “This is not going to happen.” “What?” Maryam knew he was not going to let her be until she explained the story behind the notebook and her other story. Letting out a sigh she chose the least incriminating one. “Okay, here goes the story.”2 “What story?” “You asked about my story if you are just going to shut up, turn around and don’t ogle, I may tell it to you.”2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Mubarak closed his laptop and turned his stool to face her. Maryam narrowed her eyes at him, why was he so full of himself? “I said turn around.”4 “I like this view better.”35 Her breath hitched in her throat. But she was good at covering stuff, so she did just that. She rolled her eyes, knowing that he wasn’t relenting.2 “Okay, I talk about my bra types with strangers because that is all strangers have taught me to think of myself. So, there. I am no shameless girl, I just happen to have too many strange oglers. Please, don’t ogle again. I’ll really appreciate that.”4 Mubarak’s pulse slowed for a beat. Woah! That was how he made her feel? He had no idea his silent rebuke was doing this to her, even though he really wasn’t ogling he felt worse than he did when his brother had bashed him up. Mubarak had never expected her story to start out this way. When he saw her walk into the kitchen, he just felt the need to stay with her, get on with the process, so that she would just tell his parents that he was good with her and she was okay with them getting married. And by doing that he would be back into their good books. He least expected to get blown away by a single sentence uttered by her. Who was this girl?19 He didn’t speak for a while because he didn’t know what to say to her. In part because what she said was true. He had spent half his life dating girls that were only the finest in beauty and bloom, girls with class, edge and elegance. Not that Maryam wasn’t beautiful but he had seen better. Much better. His first thought when he saw her after their alliance was proposed was how in the world was he to take this talkie-plain-jane as a wife, a girl who had been to nowhere certainly wouldn’t have the sophistication he needed for a wife he was settling with. He just felt so awful it took him a little over a moment to recover. “Yet.”2 “What?” “I won’t ogle at you, yet. You can’t tell me not to ogle my wife though, right?” Great, he had no idea where that came from, did he just admit to the idea of them being together? Had he just accepted the proposal?32 “That won’t happen just yet, Ya Mubarak. Aunty Kulthum said I have to say yes first.”10 He let out a laugh, what was this girl made of? “You have already said yes, and that is why you are here.”6 “No, I came here to study and the next time you will see me here is when I go study and become the world’s best writer. You are just a by the way, I have to give my consent before anything is finalized. So, you get some work to do here Paapi, lucky for you, my heart is not that hard to win.”56 Mubarak’s eyes widened as she spoke every word. “Ya Rabbi, why me?” He muttered. “We can say you just got lucky.” She gave him a sweet smile and rose from the island stool.8 Mubarak felt like he had just been winded. He needed to talk to Hajiya. But not before he got his breath back in his lungs. “Wait.” Maryam stopped, not having an inkling on what he wanted to say to her, she was celebrating having the last word and he just had to burst her bubbles by having more to say.4 “Yes?” “I was not ogling, you got some yogurt on your scarf- green yogurt- and it was distracting, I wanted to politely tell you to wipe it off, without coming off as an ogler, but then your head was already in the gutter.”36 “Oh!” her lips rounded.6 “Yeah, oh.” He said with a grimace, taking his laptop with him, he left the kitchen. There went her last word. And now he knew she wore padded bras.5 Now she really wanted to melt away.10 *** “Hajiya, that girl is…” “Not what you expected?”2 Hajiya Kulthum was staring at her son, waiting for it to come. Now when she proposed the alliance between Mubarak and Maryam, she knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task. While Bilaal was stubborn he was easy to deal with when it came to suggestions, Mubarak had her husband’s stubbornness in every bone of his and sometimes he thought his way was the only way out. That plus he was used to getting away with things he did. Unfortunately, not this time, he had to pay for what he did, even if it meant setting his head right by proposing a spouse for him. “Hajiya, she calls me Paapi. Who in the world does that? Do I look like Uncle Muhammad?”42 Hajiya Kulthum gave him a stern look, she could see how miserable her son was, but that was just a part of it. He needed to be tamed and there was just one girl in the whole wide world who would do that to him. Maryam.7 She was just so glad the girl was onboard with it, even though she had clearly stated it to her, whenever she felt she was not up to it, she just had to say it, and the alliance would not be formed. Because she had never believed or supported the notion of a lady changing a straying man. No, he had to know what he would miss if he didn’t get his bearings right.1 “You need to be grateful then, this means only one thing Mubarak, she knows nothing about such things. She is innocent, she has you to teach her, and with that, I say you may have an upper hand, that is if you use it wisely. Good luck with that. Just know that there are lines. And just because she lives under this roof, that doesn’t lift those lines. Any attempt to cross it, you will have me to face. Maryam is a good girl who deserves to be valued, if you cannot do that, then I suggest you be honest with her and cut to the chase.”7 Mubarak wouldn’t look up at her and Hajiya Kulthum knew how difficult it was for him to come to terms with this. “And you do look like your Uncle Muhammad.”9 Mubarak grunted as if he would even begin to go there. Ya Rabb, why was everyone after him?2 Now he was stuck with a village girl that tied her black headtie over her ears, who roamed the backyards at odd hours of the night, a crazy walkie-talkie that happened to call him Paapi.2 That’s some moving on!8 *** “Yaa Maryam, why do you have so many bodysprays in your handbag?” Wafiyya asked as she shuffled inside Maryam’s handbag, looking for a hairband Maryam had asked her to fetch. 5 Maryam’s hand stopped mid-stroke as she brushed her hair back clenching the long silky mass in her fist.6 “Uhm, I like different scents on me. Have you seen the hairband?”6 “Yes, got it.” Wafiyya passed the blue large hair ruffle to her. “Thank you.” “Are you coming with us?” Wafiyya asked as she plopped on the charcoal-grey bed-bench in Maryam’s room. 2 “Where?” “Hajiya has a literature and creativity event with the girls today, we volunteer on Saturdays when I have no school work. Something similar to what we did the last time, but this is a more interactive session.” Maryam carefully analyzed Wafiyya’s statement, she had said ‘we’ did that include him?6 “Uhm… Is Ya Mubarak coming too?”2 Wafiyya smiled, wiggling her brows at Maryam. “Want him there? I can make him go.”12 Maryam shrieked, “Wafis!”7 Wafiyya chuckled, “Okay, sorry. No, he isn’t coming with us. He coaches the boys at the court on some Saturdays some other days he played with his mates, so it’s just us.”2 “He is into sports?” Maryam’s eyes popped out. She had to be extra careful then, she wouldn’t want to end up as a squash ball someday. No wonder he looked so burly and ripped and…30 “Yes, they all are. The Men that is, Ya Mubarak and Ya Bilaal are Basketball players, Ya Salis is into football.”15 “Okay, then I don’t want to be by myself when you all go. I’m coming with you.”4 “Nang! I’ll tell Hajiya then. She had mentioned something about shopping too. You’ll love it.” Wafiyya said, already giddy before she left the room, Maryam let out a sigh. She didn’t know why she had a sinking feeling in her abdomen, but it was there and she didn’t like it. But she had to push it aside and thoroughly enjoy her day. 7 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  *** Wafiyya was right, she enjoyed every part of the day, and was whipped by the time they returned home in the evening, after their shopping spree. Hajiya Kulthum had taken them around the clothes section of an exclusive store. She had asked Maryam to help her select from every Collection and Wafiyya helped with the colour coordination. Maryam was so overwhelmed she couldn’t even remember what all they bought. 9 At the end of the day, there was a huge shopping bag in her name and Wafiyya had a mini version of hers stashed on a trolley. Maryam had never shopped like that at a go. If she put together all that they had bought that evening she had never bought half of it by herself. Mama did all their shopping during Eid, and she got her Jilbaabs from her Aunt Biba, her mother’s sister who resided in Lagos. She was a clothes and small appliances retailer. She sometimes shipped her merchandise to Nigeria from the Middle East or Asia. 6 When Maryam said her Isha prayers, she had no strength left to look at the things they bought so she passed out on the praying carpet right in the middle of her room. 2 *** Alhaji Umar Bugaje placed the tea carafe back in its place on the mini-console after pouring himself a cup. He settled in the striped midnight blue armchair in his living room. That was when he heard the faint sound of the door opening. He knew who it was before he turned, yet like the thousand other times his living room door opened during the past twenty-three years, he wished it was someone else.16 “Get a cup.” He said, leaning back into his easy chair. Mubarak did as his father said then took a spot on the rug next to his feet. It gladdened his heart to see that despite everything, Mubarak still had a place for him in his heart, he still held him in high regards, and he did best in every challenge that came his way. 4 Which was why he was disappointed in his son, when he took off on his wedding day, despite all his enthusiasm in the preparation of the said event.2 “Where are you with the proposal?”10 The saucer and cup rattled in Mubarak’s hands. When his father requested to see him, Mubarak had no idea he was getting to this point. Hajiya Kulthum had not spoken to him about the proposal since their little chat. Now he realized they were taking turns, he was stuck in between something like a good cop bad cop situation. 8 “Uh… Baba we are still getting to know each other, we had four meetings.”2 “I married your mother after the first.”28 “Baba that was almost forty years ago.”6 “What do you mean? We don’t have hearts then or we don’t know our worth?” 12 “No, that is not… I’m sorry Baba, we will speed things up in sha Allah and come out with a conclusion.”2 “This is not one of your property litigations, that girl has a life, and we wouldn’t have you putting it at a standstill for her, a proposal was given and received, just because we want your consent doesn’t mean we have forgotten your tendencies or what you’ve done, so you have to present us with a solid response. If you both do not reach a mutual agreement by tomorrow then Maryam is going home and will only return when school opens in two months. So you have a day to make up your minds.”23 Mubarak could feel the coldness from the film of sweat that coated his forehead. He knew what was at stake, he couldn’t just come out and tell his parents he had declined their proposal, he knew to his core that waiting for their consent was just a ruse, his consent was just a validation. Something that would bring him back into the fold. 2 It had been weeks since he had supper with his father, yet today for the first time since his return, his father had offered him tea, this only meant one thing. It was a peace offering that would only go on as long as he said yes. 14 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  On the other hand, there was the risk he was putting Maryam in, he wouldn’t promise himself redemption, he didn’t even trust himself to be right again, but just as he knew his parents were set on making this alliance happen, Maryam would also go through the same if not worse from her parents. 7 So, the only way out of this maze was for him to concede. Whatever would happen, Maryam and he would sort it out later. 13 “In sha Allah Baba, we will. We just need a little more time. That is all we ask for. Seven days, please Baba.”4 “Seven days.” Alhaji Umar said with a finality to his voice. Then he talked business as if he weren’t just about to cut Mubarak off from his life. 4 “Have you heard from your brother this week? I hope you are not letting this come in between you two. Whatever has happened is part of your destinies, I trust you to work things out with dignity.”6 Mubarak swallowed, this was routine between him and his father, a sitting had never ended where he didn’t ask of Bilaal, yet, his father had refused to budge and go to his son. Likewise Bilaal, none of them was budging, he had no idea how long they were willing to take this, but it sure as heck was taking long, twenty-three years was enough to build a nation. Yet the father and son duo still weren’t seeing eye to eye at a personal level, it was always professional with them.7 “He is good. I’ve met him, we had a discussion and there isn’t any ill feeling between us.”5 “Maa sha Allah, that is good. Your mother is still worried though.” “Like she is about you two?”4 “Mubarak!” “Sorry Baba, but for how long would this go on?”4 There was a little pause before Alhaji Umar spoke. “Have you met your brother?”2 “I know, he is stubborn and difficult as a coconut but we have to…”2 “Good night Mubarak. Your seven days are almost up, you may want to do something about that. Let’s not forget how your little trip has set us back at the firm.” 7 Mubarak held his lips between his teeth, refraining from talking. He had sensed a threat in his father’s final statement. His father was not in the mood, he had never been in the mood and he didn’t see him being in the mood any time in the near future.5 “Good night, Baba.” **** On Saturday morning, they went out with the preteen-group to Holland Park. Maryam wore one of the new clothes Hajiya had gotten her, a light brown long-sleeved chiffon shirt with a Coffee long pleated skirt and a matching scarf wrapped around her head and upper torso.12 The girls from the age of seven to twelve were with Maryam and the rest of the team, where they had set up a big canvas in the park on which the kids had been grouped into teams of three or four with an expert to supervise the activities of each group. Their activities for the day were creative and movement arts, sports, nature awareness and creative writing. They had even collaborated with the park’s ecology centre to support their event for the day.2 The kids would focus on whatever caught their eyes of nature. And translate it to show their inner mindfulness. Which would guide them and help them towards positive change.3 Maryam met Raheema and Dahlia who were two volunteers on Hajiya Kulthum’s summer team.2 Hajiya Kulthum had to be in a meeting with some of the women from the community groups, hence she had left Maryam with some of the other volunteers to oversee things before she got back. STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Raheema, a tall South African teacher was married to a Pakistani born British, Yasir, they lived in East London with their two kids. And the ever-smiling Dahlia was a Moroccan doctor, about Maryam’s age, she had recently got married to her husband Binyamin. 4 Maryam could see how taken Dahlia was with her new husband, as she kept talking about the interesting things he taught her, or the things they did together.4 Moving past clusters of moms and babysitters scattered around the park, the three of them moved towards a cherry blossom tree, where their group were bundled up painting some parts of the park. “You really love him,” Maryam said, making Dahlia flush crimson. Raheema’s phone chimed and she stepped aside to answer it. “He is a good man,” Dahlia said her eyes glowing with apparent love.2 “Maa sha Allah, how long have you known him before you got married?” “Five months. He had been on the lookout for a wife. Well, more like his mother was wife-hunting for him, the first thing he asked through his mother was if I was moving to Florida. I said no, but still considered talking to him over the phone, we spoke once and we knew we could work it out. Our parents set up a meeting and he got called off work to meet me here in London, which is a long story for another day.”8 Maryam watched as Dahlia flushed a deep shade of red. Her eyes twinkled with joy. “He came down here, and we met. We’ve talked for almost two weeks thereafter bridging the gap and getting to know all the basics. When our parents asked us both we told them it was a yes. And the Nikaah took place four months later. He moved here three months after the wedding.”2 Maryam had her hands to her chest when Dahlia was through with her story. “Maa sha Allah, that is amazing and scary.”2 Dahlia laughed, “It was, but we’ve never been so sure of anything more than we were of our decisions then. We’ve been praying for Allah’s guidance and choice before we met, our parents were happy about it, Allah has blessed it for us and we found love in it. I don’t think I would have chosen a man that is better than Binyamin if I was to do it myself.”4 Maryam took a long sigh, “Binyamin is a lucky man, may Allah unite you and keep you for each other here and in Jannah.”2 “Ameen.” After the third activity of the day, which was poetry, Maryam went towards the pond, she found a spot not far from it on the green patch to do a little reflection of her own. Something had shifted within her after hearing sister Dahlia’s story, could she also do it? Could Mubarak be her Binyamin? 6 “Assalamu alaikum,” Maryam was startled when she heard the familiar resonating sound of his voice. It always got to her and she hated that it did that. 5 “Wa alaikumussalam.” She responded more out of obligation, while she was thinking of the possibilities of her surviving this marriage if it happened, she had skipped the part where Mubarak was still touchy with the idea of her. She understood it must be difficult for him, not everyone would meet her and like her, she had long embraced that about herself but could he at least acknowledge that she was also going through the same strange emotions? He was even in a better position of taking another wife he found appealing after their wedding, what of her? Had he even thought about her sacrifice?14 Maryam didn’t turn around, her knees were drawn up, feet placed firmly on the ground. “Is the practice taking place out here today?” She asked.2 “Hajiya may take long, I’m here for you if you are through.” Mubarak looked towards the direction her eyes were focused on. He shifted on his feet when Maryam didn’t say a word. “May I sit with you?”4 She spared him a look, “I’m working, but you can choose a spot.”2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Mubarak scowled, and she wanted to knock the formation off his face. “Alright?” He asked.4 “No.”4 He sat several feet away from her, facing her. “Okay, honest answers, I like that. So, what is wrong with you?”2 “After we bypass the fact that I don’t know what this thing is?” Mubarak pulled his legs up, holding them with his hands at the knee, mimicking her posture. He was dressed in his game gear, a grey sweatshirt, a pair of black sweatpants, and black sneakers. Which showed that he was indeed coming from the basketball practice. He was still spotting the three-day stubble beard, by now Maryam knew he must be trimming it to maintain it this well.2 “You’re leaving.” His words brought her out of her sly scrutiny. 2 “I’ll think you sounded a little accusative right there.” Maryam gazed ahead, down at the line of trees that looked like a bed of greens from her vantage point. 2 “I just thought you would have told me.”2 “Oh?” Her forehead creased. 2 “Don’t I deserve to know?”4 “What are we even doing, what is our future in all of this? Is this even a thing?”2 Mubarak swallowed, looking at a flying seed that passed between them, “I understand that you are angry, rightfully so. I’ve only given you a reason to feel that way. I’m sorry you feel like this. But can you look at things from my perspective too, please? It isn’t as easy as it seems.”4 Maryam’s eyes widened, “So what? Are you going to just sweep me under the carpet like I cease to exist, just because you feel I am imposed upon you? Doing that won’t automatically put me out of existence, you know.”5 Mubarak’s eyes flared at her statement, and he looked at her as if he knew all her secrets. She quickly averted her gaze. 2 “I’m not sweeping you under the carpet Maryam, I’m trying to keep you away from a disaster, as much as I want to be selfish and take you as my wife to get into my parents’ good books again, I can’t do this to you.”11 “Why? Don’t you think I know it will take a lot of effort and sacrifice to make this work? But Ya Mubarak, when life throws a curveball at you, you take the challenge, how you make it useful is all up to you, that’s what Uncle J says. Always make use of situations to your advantage because those opportunities will not present themselves in our lives every day. So, Mafia King, all I’m asking is this; Will you marry me? Will you have me? Or are you going to keep up with this…”70 Mubarak stilled at her odd request, it clenched his heart with a fierceness that threatened to bring him down to his knees. He felt the trepidation behind her words. They made him wonder what this girl had gone through. Why would she think she was not worthy of someone good? Someone human? He wasn’t any of that, he had done things, bad things that made him want to shrink in his own skin. 8 But for some reason, he related to the pain he saw in her eyes. If that was all it took to take that away from her, to make her feel she was worthy, he could give her that. But until when?8 Would he take it to the finish line? He wasn’t even sure if he would survive to the finish line. Ya Allah, this was so difficult. At the beginning of all this, Mubarak had never thought he would even consider the whole marriage thing again. Now here he was conflicted on whether to ruin her life or incinerate his. Hence he did what the slightest good remaining in him would do. 2 “Thought as much.” Her statement made him realize that she must have taken his silence as his response. 4 “You thought wrong. Of course, I will take you as my wife, that is what this is all about, right?”6 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Maryam blinked and somehow he felt this was not the response she’d hoped to hear from him, her eyes fluttered shut. 7 “Thank you, Ya Mubarak, can you take me home now?” He couldn’t move, he just stared at her, as if searching deep within her soul. For a moment there, he felt as if she had just shared the most vulnerable part of her with him. 15 He folded his hands over his knees, turning to her, he saw how the breeze played with her scarf, he also noticed that for a change today she was in brown, which unsurprisingly looked good on her. She ducked her head to avoid the glare of the sun, he shifted, casting his shadow as a shade for her.25 “Do you want this, Maryam?”2 There was a brief pause from her before she laughed until her teeth showed. “Ya Rabbi, who wants to get married to a mafia Lord or king or whatever you go by?” She rolled her eyes.14 “Maryam!” He chided.2 Maryam watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down. She let out a sigh and looked away. “Of course, it is you, Mubarak Umar Bugaje, I will be Mrs Bugaje, do you have any idea what it means to be called that?”22 He scoffed. “You can stash that story for your readers, we both know you are not doing it for that. Tell me why you said yes, Maryam. Why you agreed to come here, despite knowing they are just using your studies as a bait.”11 Maryam swallowed, she had never expected such confrontation from him, but she felt a surge of braveness from within, she could do this. 2 “I like you, Ya Rabbi! I thought you used to be more confident in yourself than this. Are you too difficult to like? Newsflash,” She pointed herself with her thumb. “This girl likes you, deal with it.”65 Mubarak smiled and shook his head. It is official then, she is from the incredibly crazy ones who are excellent at failing to hide it. 13 “You are not doing this because your mother wants you to become a Mrs Bugaje?”4 She squinted against the glare of the sun, Mubarak shifted to the side resuming his guard as her shade. “What makes you think it is my mother’s idea?” 5 He chuckled. “We should agree on that at least, the fact that she is Aunty Aisha is enough to put everything in neon, who else would do this? Your father? Your father adores you, Maryam. He wouldn’t hurt his princess.”13 Maryam swallowed the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes, “So, because of that you deduced it was my mother’s idea?”4 His eyes crinkled at the edges as he smiled. “Come on, give me a little credit here, Mairo.”7 Maryam threw her head back and laughed, he almost looked hurt when he thought she considered his theory wrong. Good job Mama, see everyone knows what you are capable of doing. 8 “Well, that and because you are the only man who knows I wear padded bras- you and my cosmetic vendor back in Katsina. But believe me, I won’t do this if I have any doubt in it.”28 Mubarak laughed, he was blissfully doomed. And he somehow liked that. 11 “You know about the ‘will you marry me’ part I asked you earlier? Delete it off your mind, in my village, the man does the asking, so let me know when you have manned up, hmm?” 53 Mubarak blinked his eyes. He repeated the motion twice and she was still right there as real as the day. 2 “In my city, the first asking validates the contract. So go ahead and choose a date, Wifey.”39 “Oh, Ya Mubarak, that is not done, I am not taking this. I have declined.”4 He had that look on his face again, the look that made her forget her name, it had been long since the look had surfaced. Then as sure as he was of himself his lips tilted ever so slightly, “No, you won’t.”2 By the time they were done talking, the kids were through with their projects, Maryam met her team as they went round to supervise and see the result of the day’s exercises. She was surprised when she saw Mubarak actively participating. When they were done reviewing, they packed up and left for the day. There was one more day to complete the month’s session. But Maryam’s mind was not on the retreat, rather she was still in awe after seeing Mubarak around the kids. He looked so natural with them. 5 On the other hand, as they drove home, Mubarak felt paralyzed by the events of the afternoon, he couldn’t think straight since then. That was not part of his plans. But he had to take charge of things if he was to hold up his end. 8 *** Four weeks ago Maryam Maigoro was sure she would be rejected by Mubarak Umar Bugaje and she wouldn’t even bat an eye when she returned home to her parents. But today, she was looking forward to being accepted by him. Not just that, in these four weeks, Maryam had seen a fraction of Mubarak she thought she had imagined because of how fast they touched and go. 2 She was afraid of how he made her feel. The reality of her circumstances. She had never been this emotionally raw and weak as she was with Mubarak, she physically felt safe in his presence. She had never felt safe in the presence of a man like she did with him. 13 That was not on her agenda. She wasn’t supposed to be feeling all the… crazy things she felt now, but they were there. And that was the last thing she wanted. 11 She could sense his resistance, she had never seen a man so intent on not liking her as he. The rest just ignored her, him? He saw her but it felt as if he didn’t want to.5 Now she gave him the rope, he just had to lead the way. 14 **** LONDON, ENGLAND. JUNE 2007 Mubarak kept his blackberry to his ear as he paced his office, waiting for the line to connect him with his brother. But then who was he kidding? He wasn’t doing this over the phone. Five minutes later, he stood in Bilaal’s office. 12 “Going down to Nicole’s in an hour, you up for lunch?” Bilaal looked up from his screen and a stretch of silence filled the room. Peace-filled silence.6 After his visit to Bilaal and Sa’ima, Mubarak had communicated sparingly with his brother but they hadn’t met up for any deep conversation as they used to before the wedding. There was a moment’s pause before Bilaal responded. “Yeah, sure.”4 Mubarak gave a short nod before he left. He was glad his brother had not sounded baffled by his request. It was their thing before all of this mess had happened. So he was finally relieved to see that they had not lost the important parts of their lives in the events of the past few months. 5 Mubarak was about to step out to meet Bilaal at the café across the street when someone knocked on his door. He opened it to tell whoever it was he was on his lunch break. Only to come face to face with Kamaal. Kamaal Rafique was his British-Pakistani friend who they simply called K.R. They’d been friends for almost a decade. Kamaal’s father Mr Rafique Hasan was the president of Rahat Solutions, a telecommunication outfit where Tyler Meyers his university mate worked. Tyler introduced Mubarak to Kamaal at a social event. Since then, the three had been inseparable, then came Garba, Mubarak’s long-lost but found Nigerian friend, filling the missing block in the clique. 11 Kamaal had a burly appearance and stood a couple of inches taller than Mubarak. With his short-spiky dark hair and rugged good looks he was the most notorious of the group, a reason Bilaal questioned the integrity of their friendship. Bilaal believed Mubarak’s group had an influence on him as if someone would make him do what he had no intention of doing. Mubarak always argued otherwise.11 On the other hand, Garba was their anchor, most of the time he said things Mubarak agreed with, even though he had spent more time with Kamaal and Tyler, Mubarak paid heed to Garba’s advice most when the need arose. 7 “You’ve not been picking my calls,” Kamaal said, turning to follow his friend’s lead, Mubarak pulled his office door behind them, giving Gordon a short nod on their way out. “I missed your calls, there is a difference.” He buttoned up his charcoal black jacket suit, “I was heading to Nicole’s. You want to grab something?”2 “No, I’m good. Let’s meet up at Ty’s tonight. We need to do something about this dry spell of yours. You are losing your touch Bugaje.”25 Mubarak paused a bit, and Kamaal turned around to see why he had stopped moving, “Sure.” He had never hesitated to any of their outings, he had no idea why this felt different.2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  “What is it? Are you already into crazy-girl?”21 “Go away, K.R.”2 “We’ll meet then. 8 sounds good?”2 Mubarak nodded. He walked away from the office building wondering what just happened to him. When he pushed open Nicole’s door, a bell chimed above his head, and he was greeted with the aroma of coffee and garlic. He spotted his brother immediately, in his grey blazer, he wouldn’t miss Bilal in a crowd of people. His back was to the door, yet he wasn’t surprised when Bilaal spoke when he stood a foot away from him. That man was so attuned to his surrounding, Mubarak wondered how he did it. 5 “So, you and Kamaal, huh?” 11 Mubarak closed his eyes briefly and looked around the cafeteria, he must have seen them leaving the building through the glass windows of the café. It was getting busy at this hour. On a normal day, Mubarak grabbed his lunch on the go, depending on how busy his day was. Days like this, he spared a few minutes for a quick meet-up with clients or friends. When Mubarak’s gaze returned to his brother, his eyes were pinned on him. “What? Stop looking at me like that, they are my friends.” He pulled a chair and sat facing his brother.12 “You’ve got to ditch that lifestyle Ya Mubarak, you are getting married soon.”21 “Ouch, I thought you know me better than that. I know I’m getting married, and no I’m not involved with anyone. It’s been two years now, do I need to back up my claims, little brother?”3 “No, you have yourself accountable for your deeds.”15 Mubarak scoffed. There went his brother, but instead of spoiling the afternoon with things that didn’t matter, he delved into the subject matter at hand. 2 “Have you ordered?” “Yes, I hope you still like pasta. They have Chicken Cordon Bleu and Spaghetti as special.”2 “Thank you. You should come home.” Mubarak said, not missing a beat.4 “I went home three days ago, you weren’t there. I met Salis though.”2 “No. You know what I mean. You should come home and see him. Not in the office, not in a boardroom full of his staff, he is worried about you. Give it a break Bilaal, I don’t want you to keep getting hurt in the process.”12 Bilaal spared him with a blazing look, the gold in his hazel eyes so vivid. “And here I thought you really did miss my company and wanted to catch up with me.”9 “Nitwit, you know I do. But I have to tell you some bitter truth while I’m at it, it’s just a fact, innit?” The waiter brought their drinks then. Mubarak took his glass of lean green pineapple juice and Bilaal took an iced tea. 6 “Just like you like to be told some bitter truth, huh?” 4 Mubarak took up his juice, had a sip and held it up. “Touché.” “How is Sa’ima?” He asked instead, and immediately felt like he was the nitwit now, was there going to be normal conversations between them now that things were this way? At least they weren’t talking about his strays. This was better.8 “She is good.”2 “Maryam and I are talking, just thought you should know.”8 “You’ve been doing an awful lot of that, don’t you think you should move it forward?”7 Mubarak agreed but the thought of it alone churned his core. “She wants me to inform them of my consent and court her properly.” He muttered as if the thought of it alone caused him discomfort. Why wouldn’t she just move along with things? She refused to talk to him whenever she saw him, he took it, that was her way of saying, ‘court me properly then we can have a wedding date’, the crazy girl was unswerving.36 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Bilaal was now looking at his brother like he had just walked out of an apocalypse. “What have you been doing since?”8 “Seeing if I can survive her? I don’t know, Bilaal…” When his brother’s brows went up, Mubarak let out a sigh and rubbed his forehead. 9 The waiter brought his food, Mubarak toyed with his fork a bit before he looked up at Bilaal. “You know Aunty Aisha? Make that times seven, that’s what I’ve got on my hands. That girl literally churns out words for a living, no one would stand a chance with her. Not even me.”11 Bilaal’s lips twitched at the corner. And the gesture almost meant ‘serves you right’. Then he laughed, “No one can fluster Mubarak Bugaje. You don’t mean it.” He hadn’t ordered any food, Mubarak noticed.10 “Oh trust me, I do. Okay, maybe not that bad. But you see, on one hand, I’m worried about us, about her. On the other hand…” He let out a breath, shuddering at the words he was about to speak. “She makes me sleepless.”34 Bilaal retracted back in his chair almost splattering his iced tea. “Whoa! That is huge, I mean from not standing her to going sleepless over her…”11 “… I don’t mean sleepless in the context of spending the night talking to her or thinking of her. No, it is just that whenever I close my eyes, that crazy girl is in it. So I want her out of my head, yet I want to do away with this thing they hold over my head. I’m so confused right now. And you were not there to make things right. Just when I needed you most. This past month has been knackering.”24 Bilaal could feel each of Mubarak’s words because he had once been through them all. “Just seek Allah’s guidance and you will be there. But I’ll love to see the look on Maryam’s face when I tell her she makes you sleepless. She will relish it.”14 Mubarak stabbed Bilaal’s leg beneath the table. “That is not a nice thing to say.” He muttered, seeing the attention of a couple of the patrons on them, he removed his leg.8 “May Allah make it easy for you. Maryam is a nice girl.” Bilaal said, his voice filled with amusement, yet he was earnest. 5 “I want terrific. I want earth-moving.”2 “Then go for terrific, create earth-moving.”11 “That’s the problem, she is that and more. But just too…”9 “Innocent for you?”13 Mubarak’s eyes turned beady, “I’ll shred you to bits and mail your remains to your Mrs.”11 Bilaal smirked. “You wish. But seriously, you’ll have it all figured out bros. I trust you.” Bilaal tapped his hand over Mubarak’s on the table. 5 “You’ve not ordered yet, I can’t finish this thing alone.” “I had my lunch.” When Mubarak stared blankly at him, Bilaal chuckled, tapped his brother on his arm and said, “The Mrs does a fine job, so you don’t want to cross her by sending her my remains. Go figure it out.” 13 Mubarak paid for his food and they left, with him feeling a degree more confused.6 **** “Feenah he is so full of himself. He can’t even open his mouth and say the words. How am I going to live with such a man?” Maryam said into the phone when Nafeesah called for their bi-weekly progress report. They decided waiting to give the report would make for better and meaningful phone calls. That way they would save some talking minutes too.18 “You know you are just wasting your time right? Your parents have already decided.”9 “I know, but he has to show some interest, I’m not just going to gift myself over to him. I even gave him the rope by pseudo-proposing, you know, to give him an idea that I don’t mind being with him.”13 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  “Oh, now you don’t? You’re confusing, girl, make up your mind already. No wonder he is so unsure if you want this or not.”3 “Well, do you see any other way here? Oblige me.”2 “What interest do you want him to show? He is already talking to you, that is as far as a man can get, if he doesn’t want you, he wouldn’t even make the effort.”11 “I don’t know, I’ve seen the way people talk on the phone with the people they love, we have never spoken on the phone. He doesn’t even tell me he misses me and that sort of things. I don’t think he even wants to have my phone number.”23 “You want him to pine for you? Or worse lie to you that everything is rosy?”6 “Isn’t that what suitors should do? Pine for their suitors.” Maryam asked, baffled that Nafeesah would even ask her that.5 “Wait a minute did you just say, love? Ya Allahu, Maxy, do you love Ya Mubarak?”9 “Feenah! That is outrageous. You know what I mean. At least there should be a mutual likeness between us if we are going into this… this thing. I don’t mean some fire-cracking-earth-moving love. I have no place for that in my life anymore and you should know better.”22 Nafeesah sighed from the other end. “Do you want a halaal relationship?” “I think we’ve already passed that stage.”4 “What? Maryam!” Nafeesah chided. 4 “No, not that. Ya Rabbi! I think I’ve earned a little more than that from you. Much more! I mean we have already been to a Froyo shop, we’ve spoken in seclusion, we supervised this kiddies summer group together at least a couple of times, Wafiyya was there too. Annnd… He knows the type of bras I wear so believe me when I say, we have passed that stage.”14 “Wa iyazubillahi Maryam you have been corrupted. Laa haula fi shi’atillah. Get back home!”48 “Don’t die on me girl, it isn’t as bad as it sounds. I just want to make it right from this point onward. You know, keep it halaal and all.”4 “In sha Allah you will. Just make sure you don’t go out with him alone. You sure as heck shouldn’t discuss any apparel with him certainly not your bra! Lord of mercy, Maxy what were you thinking?! You shouldn’t be in the same room with him alone, you have an advantage of not talking on the phone so you are good on that part, I don’t trust you two on the phone. You can text him, and when he wants to have a talk, Wafiyya should be there as a chaperone. You ask him sensible questions that concern your future and discuss each other’s visions to see if you are compatible with each other and know where you differ to see if you can compromise. That is how courtship is done the halal way.”20 “Thank you, now I have a game plan. Even though, you sounded just like Uncle J. “6 “Whose niece am I, after all? I’ve been taught well.” Maryam laughed, she could picture her friend flicking her imaginary collar. 2 “Wafiyya said Ya Mubarak texted her earlier. He said he wants us to talk in the evening. I’m scared, do you think he is going to say no? It has almost been a week since I asked him to say something, to at least make a move. We haven’t met since then. Do you think he has finally realized that this was all a mistake and he is backing out?” Maryam asked.7 “He must be insane if he says that. He won’t, just sit and watch him do his thing.”3 “Alright.” *** Maryam sat and watched. When twenty minutes had passed, and Wafiyya had gone to get some water she looked up at him, still pacing the sitting room as if he was in pain. 2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  “Are you going to say it or should I go and sleep?” She asked, giving him a choice glare. 11 Mubarak turned around then back at her, he folded the sleeve of his navy blue button-down shirt, the tip of his tongue brushed his now dry lips. He let out a sigh. “Okay, I’ve been nervous before, I’ve once been speechless. Actually, make that several times yet I was never both at the same time. But you want answers, and I’m ready for this.” 6 Her brows rose. Maryam had never thought she would get to witness this. But by Allah, she was enjoying every bit of it. Seeing Mubarak Umar Bugaje flustered was the cutest thing in the world. His pout was cuter, his stubble-beard framing the pout even more so. But then his pout aside she would die for a flustered Mubarak Bugaje. 17 “Uhun…” She nodded, even though she was really considering what his response would be, seeing how his forehead glistened with perspiration. “I think we can work together. If I look past… everything.” His eyes scanned her.11 Maryam’s eyes stayed glued on him. “You know, me and you, I think we may have some common ehm… we can work it out and see. Did you get me?”11 She narrowed her eyes at him. “No. I don’t. Since when have we become some engine parts? You may want to elaborate. You see in our village…”40 Mubarak brushed his hand over his head. “Oh, Lord! Mairo, would you just forget about the village thing I said for once and listen to me. Would you do that? Please. Maryam?”20 This was the last day, he wouldn’t have her causing any trouble, it had to be finalized now in this sitting. Baba would be waiting to get a response from him the next day, he wouldn’t go without one, too much was at stake. There wasn’t even time for him to reflect on Maryam not being his type and all. He needed her to say yes, and he would figure it out from there.5 Maryam tried to conceal her smile. “You just called me Mairo again.”11 “Sorry, Maryam, Mary, Inna Isah, The mother of Isah, choose the one you prefer and it shall be yours, because by Allah if you dare interrupt me again, I may die without telling you that yes, I want to take you, crazy, duck-cover and all. And that I would go crazy myself if you don’t stop torturing me and stop pretending that you don’t know that I want you to be my wife. And be with me for the rest of my life. There, I said it all. Now please…”104 “Whoah, this is… this just went from zero to hundred real fast. But it is the best thing a boy has ever said to me ever, not that you are a boy….” Realizing that she may end up saying more than necessary, she caught herself in time, cleared her throat and sighed. “Okay, you are a full grown man, and thank you for the long speech and all but I have to think about this.” 54 When their eyes locked, she was sure she had pushed his limits, he was at the snapping point but he forced a smile on his face. 6 “What would it take for me to get a response right now?”4 “A lot actually,”6 “Go ahead.” Mubarak folded his hands over his torso. Maryam darted her eyes around the room, looking for the nearest exit in case she would need it. Why was Wafiyya taking long?10 “Uhm, do you smoke?”15 Mubarak’s forehead creased, he unfolded his arms. But her eyes were unmoving, she wouldn’t miss a beat, she had to know all these things, that was the essence of courtship, after all, to know if they were compatible or not. Their lifestyle, their goals not just a bunch of sweet nothings, which was missing in their case. So it wouldn’t hurt to do it at least for positivity, seeking Allah’s pleasure. 5 “No, I don’t.” Maryam nodded, “Alcohol?” Mubarak shook his head.6 “Do you club?” STORY CONTINUES BELOW  He let out a sigh and rolled his eyes. “You know what? Forget this.”13 “Yes or no, Ya Mubarak, you asked me what it will take. Well, this is what it takes, just let me know, and if you have any such questions regarding me, I’ll gladly answer you. And the answer is no, to all of the above.”2 “I hang out with my friends.” He didn’t know why he felt the need to elaborate but he did, “Not in a club.”6 Maryam narrowed her eyes on him, “Friends?”4 Mubarak’s forehead creased as he looked at her. Hajiya I love you so much, he muttered. He had to chant that before he responded. “Yes, friends. Just friends.” 8 “Okay, I just hope we won’t be having any problems with them because I need my writing space, the quietness, the ambience and all when you have them around. And nobody goes to my kitchen.”28 “Done. No friends in the house when you are working. No kitchen sharing too.” Maryam almost smiled when he regarded her writing as work. At least she would give him a credit for that. 12 “Do you date? As in… you know.” “Maryam, I’m marrying you. You’ve dashed all chances of that happening in case you haven’t noticed.”11 Maryam pursed her lips, for a moment Mubarak thought she was about to cry, “You need to tell me, all your dirty secrets.”21 Mubarak threw his head back and laughed hard. “I need to know, seriously Ya Mubarak.” “I used to, not currently though,” he said.4 “Sure?” “Yes.” “Okay, it is a yes, then.”8 Maryam saw the little tilt of his lips, a tell-tale of a smile. “Congratulations,” he said.6 “You don’t know what you’ve just signed up for.” She said, her voice suddenly gruff. 12 “I could say the same about you, but let’s not let the evil eye fall on it, shall we? I think congratulations are in order.” Maryam still felt he had his angle in all of this scheme, but then who was she fooling, so did she. 4 “Okay, thank you. May it be a blessing for us and a means to righteousness.” She truly hoped her prayer got answered, she needed it. But Mubarak went quiet, she could almost see his struggle, then he gave a faint nod. 10 “Ameen.” he finally said. “Good.” Mubarak closed his eyes and shook his head. “That… was not an “I love you,” so let it not get into your head.”15 “Thank God it wasn’t, because this is better. Now go tell them you said yes, King.” Maryam wanted to shriek and dance. But she cocked her brow at him and sucked her cheek in, a remedy for her mouthiness. “This will do. For now. It isn’t like I am shouting the three sacred words from the rooftop either.” Ah! Let him have it, she wasn’t going to repeat them or say them first. “And thank you, I’ve never had a fiancé before.”12 The corner of Mubarak’s eyes crinkled, this time he actually smiled at her. “I’ve never had a wife before.”15 Maryam laughed. The sound soothed the crevices deep within him, places he had long forgotten existed. It shocked him. 10 “I’m not your wife,” she said.6 Mubarak blew out some air as if breathing suddenly became a difficult task for him. He needed to leave now before he reconsidered everything. 1 “Yet. In sha Allah I’m going to make you my wife, Maryam. Soon.” And this time he said it with more conviction. 19 When he left the living room, Maryam jumped and danced. Then the next thing she saw was Mubarak back at the door and her veil hanging from the chandelier, he looked from her to the material with a scowl. She dragged it but they both heard the ripping sound. Mubarak shook his head, stepped forward, unhooked it from the chandelier and gave it back to her before turning his back on her. 77 “Your earing has fallen off. You may want to pick it up before you take your next step.”23 Ya Rabbi and he always had the last word. She smiled and bent to the floor.2 At least I have my headtie on. She mused, now giggling. 7 *** That was a mean alley-oop you caught from Ibrahim. You totally blindsided Hasan, Bugaje.” Tyler Meyers said, patting Mubarak’s back. + “Thank you. Hasan had it coming. You did well too.” Mubarak said, guzzling down some water from his bottle. Bilaal removed the towel that hung from his neck, picking up his duffel bag, “So how are the survival talks going?” He said once they were away from the boys.2 Mubarak swiped the remnant of water from his mouth with the back of his hand. “It’s a yes, we’ll work on it. Let’s just hope I live to witness it.”6 Bilaal chuckled, “Why are you so mean? We’ll have you eat your words back in a few short days.”14 “Like heck you will.” Mubarak smacked Bilaal’s head.2 “Easy there. What? Everyone knows how captivating Maryam is, especially with her ‘spoken essays’.”2 “Bilaal, I still have that mailing address.”2 “Hey, Bugaje you wanna catch Ocean’s Thirteen tonight? It’s showing at Barbican.” Tyler said coming towards the brothers.6 “Sorry Ty, I have to pull in a fast one tonight, got tons of reports waiting for me, let’s do that next week.” “Okay see you around.” He turned to Bilaal, “B, we took five charges tonight, that was a good game.”11 Bilaal high fived Tyler before they moved out of the court. “So, bros, do we have a date?” “I don’t know, didn’t give it a thought, but will be reporting back to Baba tonight, they’ll discuss it with Uncle Muhammad and we shall see what will work. Can’t believe I’m saying this. But I can’t wait for all of this to be over.”6 Bilaal rose his brows, he knew exactly what his brother was feeling, it got scary to the hilt at first, but he just hoped his brother would find it good at the end, just like he had with Sa’ima.12 “I don’t envy you. But it will be well in sha Allah.” Bilaal said, squinting at the outdoor light. “Yeah. Thanks for the boost, Bilaal.” Bilaal chuckled and ducked because he knew what was coming next. 6 *** Maryam couldn’t wait for Nafeesa’s bi-weekly call to come, so she called her. And somehow she couldn’t get the excitement out of her voice when she spoke. 2 “Yes, you heard it right. Everything has been set in motion.”2 “What! Sury will kill you when she finds out, she has been waiting to hear this for ages.” “I called her first, I’m not going to risk making him a widower before I set foot in his house, am I?”29 Nafeesah chuckled. “Maxy, you are crazy.”16 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  “Thank you, now disconnect this thing and promptly call Abubakar. I think he may be calling you now because I kind of let it slip that we may have a date.”4 “See this shameless girl, are you setting the date yourself?”4 “Ask Umma, how many days had it been since she had finished her kola nut? Hajiya Mama has done it all. She had been at work since the day I took off from Abuja. I did nothing.”2 “Maa sha Allah, I’m proud of you girl. It shall be well with you in sha Allah, for agreeing to do this for Allah’s sake and their happiness. You’ve really shown great strength, may Allah bless it for you. I’ve always known you are made for great things.”14 “Ameen. You know, somehow, it actually feels normal. I don’t feel constricted in this or downtrodden. At least I know we are on the same page with him. We joke about it and I don’t think we are on the hate-page anymore.”3 “I am glad to hear that, now I know my Abubakar is safe.”7 “Nutcase, who is taking your black prince when I have my fair King? Now let me leave you to make that call. Ma’assalam.”24 Nafeesah’s laughter filled her ears before she disconnected. 2 *** Hajiya Kulthum was responding to her emails when her bedroom door opened with a Salam. She looked up from her desktop computer when Mubarak came into the room. Her face eased into a smile as he strode in. He sat on the brown soft rug that lay at her feet. She was waiting for him to say something, she had seen the look on his face when he came in, it was one that carried a lot of things to say. But he just placed his head on her knees and kept quiet. That was so unlike Mubarak, and it got her worried. 30 “Mubarak, are you alright?”2 There was silence before he spoke. “Hajiya, you know I love you, right? A lot.” “Of course I do, what is up with you?” Mubarak sighed and looked up at his mother. “Was that why you made me do it? Because you know I wouldn’t say no?”18 Hajiya Kulthum stilled and for a moment she feared if what he said was true. Had she used her power over him to subdue him or had she done so to make him tread the right path? She held her breath when she asked, “Are you saying no now?”4 “No, actually, I’m here to tell you that we’ve reached an agreement and we both are ready to take the next step in sha Allah. You can pick a date.”18 “We can?” Hajiya Kulthum’s brows rose, her breath was back into her lungs with a whoosh, she had no idea how tensed she had been until he said those few words. 2 “That is what you want, right?” “Yes, silly. But of course your opinions matter, Ya Rahman come here, you have no idea how this news has gladdened my heart. May Allah bless it for you. May He bless you with obedient children that will be the coolness of your eyes and do to you more than you do to us in goodness.”15 Mubarak smiled. “Ameen, Hajiya. There is just one problem.”6 Hajiya Kulthum’s hand left her son’s, “A problem?” “I need some sets of extra ears to listen to all her stories.”41 She swatted him with her hand, one landing solid on his back. “Gidanku, go away from this place. You are incorrigible.”8 “I love you too, Hajiya,” Mubarak said still laughing, the joy in his mother’s eyes holding his heart in a fist. Had he known this was the joy he could give his mother with his acceptance, he would have done so at the utterance of Maryam’s name that first night. 27 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Now he was into this, he had to make things work by hook or by crook. Especially if he was to maintain his niche in his parents’ sight. For a moment there, he thought his father would act on his threat of stepping him down at work. That was something he wasn’t ready to settle with, he had worked so hard to reach where he was, he wasn’t going to lose it over a monosyllabic word he could have uttered to a girl. 2 If it meant taking Maryam as his wife to gladden his mother’s heart and remain as the chief Legal officer at Bruno and Bugaje, then he was happy to fill in the shoes. 18 It wasn’t like he would be chained down by the marriage. 2 What would chain him down was certainly the girl’s feistiness and elusiveness, God! She was one vivacious girl.16 *** Now that Mubarak had said yes, and Maryam had also given her consent. Their parents were both set to get them knotted. It was surreal. Maryam was not fatally in love with Mubarak, but he was a nice man if she took away his self-appreciation, and since she loved interacting with nice human beings, why not make one live with her for the rest of her life, albeit with a clear-cut expectation of what their relationship would be like? 3 He was a bit out there, but from the little she had observed of him, he tried to put the deen in his day to day life, and he adored his mother. 6 And she had seen him at work, he was so dedicated to what he did once he got himself to focus. So, becoming Mrs Bugaje may not be as bad as she thought it would be. Her only problem was what now? What if what he saw of her now wasn’t how he envisioned his wife to be, he was doing this only out of duty. Just like she was?8 She had heard several times, it was better to marry a man that loved you more than to marry someone you love more. 13 But in their case, none of them was in love, how then would they do this marriage thing? 4 He still hadn’t known her deepest fears. How would he protect her from them? She hadn’t known his deepest secrets how would she be a cover for him?8 She knew what she was going into, but they were both doing it for the same purpose, to appease their parents. She knew the risk Mubarak was taking by accepting her, despite his reputation of having any girl he wanted, he had to end up with her, she couldn’t begin to fathom how much he wanted to right what went wrong between him and his parents.4 Maryam had always wanted to ask him what made him leave but was still wary of the answer she would get from him. 4 On her part, she could see a life with Mubarak, it wasn’t like she had a long list of suitors before him. But if someone was willing to go to any extreme to please his parents, that should say a lot about the person’s sense of duty and character, right? 18 Would she have chosen the best of men to be her spouse in any other circumstances? She may have died a spinster if this had not happened. The first and last time something close to this had happened, it had unleashed fury in the family. 13 She could remember the chaos, the tension, leaving home… Ya Rabbi, that was awful. She would give anything to avoid a repeat of that dark moment in her life. That was when she decided to have the most real talk with Mubarak. 13 *** “I have a confession to make,” Maryam said, on Sunday night when Mubarak had met her at the gazebo. 4 It was a warm evening, and talking at the gazebo offered an unspoken comfort to them both. 2 “Don’t tell me you have a thing for the Mafia now, that will really be a thing of concern for the citizens.”9 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  Maryam didn’t smile and that elicited a frown on Mubarak’s strong face. 2 “You asked me why I wanted to marry you the other day at the park.” Mubarak looked at her across the glass table between them. “Yes?” “I’m using you,” she blurted.12 Mubarak reared his head back, his brows almost hit his hairline. “What?!”4 “I need a husband. LIke ASAP, and somehow Allah sent you my way. Now, I’ve once made a promise to myself, and that is never to be ungrateful to Allah. I try to stick to my promise. So I’m using you to fill that gap in my life.”23 Mubarak’s scowl deepened, and Maryam was forced to look away, she hated to see that look on people’s face, and she hated it more when he looked at her like she was this kitten stuck in a dark pit and needed urgent rescue. 2 “Why do you need a husband so much?”11 “Have you ever been roused from sleep at 3 am by Hajiya or Baba asking you ‘kai yaya ka ke ciki ne?’ As if there is a free market for women and you will just stroll down Edgeware-road and pick up a wife?” 26 A vein in his temple pulsed but he didn’t say a word. 2 “Well, my mother has roused me at odd hours of the night every other night for the past five months telling me to produce a husband or leave her house.57 So, when your proposal came from Hajiya, it was as if she would tie the knots at the spot. I wanted to be free of her so bad, when I came down here I was willing to spoil everything and go back so that she would disown me and send me packing. Don’t ask me where I planned to go. But I wanted that so bad, I had planned your rejection script before we even met. I am so tired, of her needless reminder of my worthlessness just because my time is not due yet. Just because I am Maryam.” 46 Mubarak closed his eyes briefly, he nodded in understanding, but he really couldn’t put himself in her stead even if he tried, he couldn’t imagine going through her pain. Something clogged his throat. He cleared it. Or at least tried to.4 “Why didn’t you tell her this?”3 Maryam’s wide molten eyes widened, “Do you know my mother?”4 This time he nodded in understanding, “Hm. So, what changed your mind about not ruining things?”2 “I saw the way you look at your brother’s wife, I saw the fear in her eyes when she was in your proximity. And I knew that sometimes we have to see beyond our pains, sometimes the person next to us needs saving more than we do. I knew then, you needed saving as much if not more than I.”22 Mubarak rose from his seat and paced the floors of the gazebo, his hands went to his nape, he rubbed his palm there and let out a sigh, “And you saved me, putting yourself at stake?”4 “No, you saved yourself. You had to be so determined and focused to do what you did, that coupled with some other reasons made me change my mind.”2 The corner of his lips twitched, and she knew what he was thinking, “Don’t you think it, Mafia King.”4 Now he was smiling full-on, “What! I didn’t ask you to tell me, you did. How can I help it if the image keeps popping in my head whenever you talk about the wedding. Besides…”4 “Murderer!” Maryam said, gritting her teeth.9 “Don’t. Stop it!” Mubarak said, his eyes suddenly flaring with something sinister. 2 Maryam blinked, she sensed she had misstepped somewhere, this was not the first time she had called him that, why did she feel like he sounded so… bitter, he was laughing just a second ago. 4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  “I’m sorry,” she quickly said. “Uhm.. So, now you know my reason.” There was a shift in his features, some sort of ease replaced his agitation.”Well, I also have a confession to make.”4 “You do? What would that cost me?”4 “Consider it quid pro quo.”14 Maryam rolled her eyes, “Okay, English Mr CLO.”4 “I’ll need a favour in return too.”2 “What is it?” “This wedding? It should be just nominal, with impropriety. At least until we both get our bearings right, and we are sure of our feelings about it and all. About each other and the marriage itself. I don’t want us mixing up some infatuation as something more just because we are rebounding from what we have both lost. You, your self-worth and me what would-have-been.”11 “That works for me.” Maryam agreed without even batting an eye.6 “You are good with that?” He narrowed his eyes at her, as if he was anticipating some resistance from her. But Maryam nodded.2 Mubarak’s gaze drilled through her, “That means no expectations from each other, not even after the wedding.”11 Maryam’s heart almost leapt in her chest. “You mean…?”8 “No attachments, only necessary calls, no sit-down chats, love letters. Nothing, we should maintain our individuality and see if things would change. Which I doubt, considering you just called me a murderer.”14 “That is your name! You allowed me to use it instead of your other name. I remember some pretty dangerous threats that came with the warning too.”4 Mubarak shook his head. “Are you sure we shouldn’t share the name? Because you are about to send me to an early grave.”3 “Really? Is it my killer smile or my shocking eyes?” She wiggled her brows at him.28 Mubarak’s gaze went to her eyes, and remained fixated to the molten orbs. “So people do tell you that your eyes are shocking?”7 “Yes, when you have the only blue-grey eyes among all the browns you get that a lot, some would consider you a witch too. Others would coerce you to remove the contacts you are wearing.” She shrugged. She was smiling but her eyes teared up, she quickly sniffed them back. “I guess you know what I mean, considering your brother shares that oddity too.”14 “I get it. Not just him, people often wonder why I speak so fast.”4 It was Maryam’s turn now to scowl.”They do?” Well that was odd, considering his voice was one to soothe… okay not that. She cleared her voice.4 “Shocking, right?” “Well, next time they say that, tell them your wife-to-be says you have the most beautiful voice ever.”49 “Now, does she think so?” He crooked a brow and Maryam had to do her best not to stare and stay locked to the spot. 2 “That pretty much sums up my confession, do you have anything more to say? Ya Rabbi, I feel so much lighter, at least now I will know that I’m not deceiving you into believing I’m also into this.”7 “Right, it is refreshing to start on a clean slate. I commend your honesty.”4 Maryam smiled, and Mubarak swore the colors of her eyes just swirled, he blinked twice.9 “Thank you for understanding, I guess I should go up now, Hajiya may be looking for me.” “Where is your chaperone?” He asked.4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  “She said we were too sweet for her ears. She took a break.”8 “I guess now you have nothing to fear then. Considering, this isn’t even a real deal.”4 “Yup! As nugatory as the suds.”2 Mubarak nodded, the corner of his mouth twitching with the beginning of a smile. “Good.” There was a momentary silence before he spoke again, ‘”Listen, about ruining things to make her feel bad? Please don’t. There is nothing that beats being a mother. She deserves a little grace from you. Try and give her that. Trust me, you’ll feel much better. Even though there are things we can use to put them in order, don’t let it be this. Nothing is worth ruining your life for. Not even a husband down Sout Kensington.”4 Maryam held her lips between her teeth, as if thinking over his words. “Thank you, I’ll try.” She swallowed. “Good, you’ll be fine in sha Allah.”3 Maryam nodded, hoping he was right on this one. “Good night, Maryam.”3 “Good night, Ya Mubarak.” But her night wasn’t good. For some reason, she had turned in her bed more times than she had breathed in it. What had she just signed up for?2 **** LONDON, ENGLAND. SEPTEMBER, 2007 “Take this we may need it. They are printouts of your admission letter. Everything is in the envelope. You’ll receive your ID card and other necessary things when we get there.” Maryam took a flap-back leather folder from Hajiya Kulthum, she couldn’t believe this was happening, she was finally enrolling in the University of London, Birkbeck. 4 She flipped the flap open and brought out the letter that would be her future. Maryam blinked at the letter she held. Her heart lodged in her throat and her eyes went wide. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe. 1 “Maryam are you alright?” Maryam shoved the letter back into the envelope and straightened her back. She nodded her eyes filled with tears.3 “Ya Allah, come here and sit down.” Hajiya Kulthum sat down with her on the beige and gold lounge chair in the corridor. “What is wrong with you? Do you want to wait a while?”2 Maryam took in a quick breath. Wiping the dampness at the edge of her eyes. “I’m fine.” She smiled. “I’m good, It’s just that…” “Ya Allah, is it Mubarak?” Hajiya asked, her hand to her chest, she couldn’t help but notice the girl had been off since morning, and she didn’t miss the way Mubarak had rushed out that morning, was it in relation to what was wrong with Maryam, what had he done to her?2 “No Hajiya, we are good.” “Do you want to talk about it?” “I just found out that my dream of becoming a writer might just be fulfilled. Thank you.”1 “For what?” “You changed the course for me, right?” Maryam blinked at her aunt in confusion. “No, your father filled out everything. He didn’t tell you?”4 “Baba? No, he didn’t. I thought…” Maryam smiled, she wiped the tears that came gushing from her eyes, “I’m just surprised. I had no idea he knows.”17 “Come on, go and freshen up let’s go, we are getting late.” Maryam nodded, she hugged the folder to her chest and went to her room. She squealed once in there and raced to the bathroom, she washed her face and dressed it with a puff of face powder and a smear of lip gloss. After adjusting her headscarf, she came out to the long corridor and found Hajiya Kulthum waiting for her with a bright smile on her face.2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW  ** “Baba, you knew? How? I saw it, you changed the course for me from Economics to Creative writing. I thought you’ve always wanted me to go for Economics, that was why I was doing that PGD…”2 Alhaji Muhammad laughed from the other end of the phone. “How was your registration?” “Alhamdulillah. It went well, we are through with it. Thank you so much, I still can’t believe it.” “You should thank your sister. She told me you are still writing. When I spoke to your Aunt about it, she suggested Creative writing will be suitable for you, she has also informed me of how you had helped out with the poetry project in her summer classes.”2 Maryam’s eyes were still teary, “But how did you make it possible? I learned that a sample of one’s work had to be submitted and reviewed before they got an entrance.” “Surayya gave me some notebooks containing your drafts, we looked at it and I gave it to an editor friend of mine, Malam Sani, who went over it and made the necessary corrections. We submitted that.”9 Maryam felt her throat constrict with chafed emotions. And there she thought her father had also played a part in making her study a course that wasn’t her choice, without knowing that he was pulling all his resources to see that she had achieved her dreams. This made up for the pain she had felt the night he snorted at the idea of writing as a profession. 6 “Thank you, Baba. You are the best!”4 “You are the first best Daaso. Have you decided on when you’re coming home?”1 “We’ve not discussed it yet, my classes begin in a week or two.” “Okay, I’ll talk to your aunt and we shall see a feasible date for you. Your mother said there are some preparations to be made for the wedding and you have to come down early for that.”4 “The wedding? Has a date been proposed?” “We were thinking December in sha Allah, you will be done with your first term by then. That way, you’ll use your break to settle in your new home.”2 Maryam’s eyes popped out, the wedding during the holidays! That meant more time spent at home, which meant more interactions with Mubarak. The past few months were enough, she couldn’t take more. 4 “Uhm, can it happen later? Or a bit earlier?” It was only after she had said it had she thought of how her statement must have sounded to her father. 7 Desperate. 10 “I see you’ve changed your mind about Mubarak.”4 “Baba please…” Maryam closed her eyes as if she was in his presence. 2 Alhaji Muhammad laughed. “Don’t worry we shall find a date convenient for both of you in sha Allah.” “Send my regards to Mama and the girls.” “Fatima said she has only spoken to you three times since you left.” Maryam laughed, that was her sister’s way of blackmailing their father to call her. “Where is she? I miss her too.” Within a moment, Fatima’s voice was on. “Yaya Mimie, how is London? Did you get my earphones? And don’t forget about the strawberries and my cardigan. Yaa Zuby has taken mine, the one with the flower patterns.”2 Maryam laughed, “Timtim you’ll get them all when I’m coming home, in sha Allah.” “Alright, be safe. Pray hard when you get on the plane.”4 Maryam’s laughter died on her lips, she knew her sister Fatima was the only one who freely spoke about the incident, but every time she made reference to it, Maryam was transported back to that day. 5 The day they lost her.79 Forcing a smile on her lips, Maryam cleared her voice. “I will in sha Allah. We will talk later, thank you for the call.” “You are welcome.” “Alright, take care.” “Okay. Say hello to Yaya Mubarak and tell him not to forget about our talk.”1 Maryam’s forehead creased, ‘their talk’? But knowing Timtim with her slithering ways, she smiled and disconnected the phone. 2 Letting out a heavy sigh, Maryam clenched her eyes shut, she quickly wiped the tears that made their way to the edge of her eyes. She needed to be stronger than this.2 ***

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