I drove around listlessly for a while, before the sinking sun forced me to make a decision. I couldn’t go to my parents’ house. Besides the fact that I didn’t want to worry them unnecessarily, I wanted to be alone right now…so that meant going somewhere where I could be alone. Not many options for that for a lone woman. I didn’t want to check into a hotel and where was I going to find…an…empty…house…
The wheels in my head turning now I impulsively took the familiar turn. I knew where I wanted to go. An empty house…with the beach right there…a perfect place to clear my mind. I pressed the accelerator, driving with a renewed purpose, and soon the familiar gate loomed up to my right. Praising Allah that mummy and them left a spare set of house keys with the gate remote by the old woman who lived opposite, I turned left and hooted at the gate.
“Fazila!” Amina Ma, as we called the friendly old woman, peered at me in surprise, “what a nice surprise! Come in!” She moved aside to let me precede her into the house.
“No, no, Amina Ma, I just came to collect the keys for the house and gate. I’ll drop by later inshaAllah,” I replied quickly.
Amina Ma turned and looked at me curiously, “you want the house keys? You didn’t bring yours?”
“No, in the rush I forgot to get them,” I replied briefly.
“Oh. You alone, ma?”
I sighed inwardly, impatient to be off. “Jee, but Ahmed will be joining me soon.” Like ten years from now.
“Okay, let me go get them. Come in and make yourself comfortable. I won’t be long.” She shuffled off.
I perched at the edge of the sofa in the lounge, tapping my foot impatiently. I just hoped Amina Ma didn’t chance to speak to mummy or anyone else that I knew anytime soon. I didn’t want to deal with anyone for like the next few years!
“You okay, ma?” I jumped, startled out of my thoughts. I hadn’t even heard her approaching.
“Jee. Jazakallah. I’ll see you soon, inshaAllah,” I said, smiling at her and giving her a brief hug before I moved to the door again.
“No problem. Make sure you come, huh!”
“InshaAllah!” I called back with a wave as I got into the car. The poor old woman must be so lonely, living all by herself in this remote area. I almost felt bad for rushing out of there so fast. But I had no energy for anyone else right now.
I entered the house and moved around, throwing open the windows to let in the fresh air. I breathed in deeply, gazing at the ocean. The sun was already low on the horizon. I needed to go pray my asr.
I prayed my asr then went out onto the deck and sat at the edge of the pool, dipping my legs in the cold water. I blanked out my mind and just…felt. Felt the wind blow against my face and toss my hair about. Felt the cold water swirl against my legs. Felt the salty mist in the air, caressing my face with the wind. And felt the first stirrings of peace within me.
I sat there, watching the red orb sink slowly into the fiery water, then came back inside to find my phone ringing off the hook. It stopped ringing, giving me just enough time to glance at the screen…eight missed calls…before it started up again.
He must have seen the note then.
How could a day that started off so well end so badly?
I had left my wife with a kiss on her smiling lips. I had sent her a random text at around lunch time, just to tell her that I was thinking of her. And when my work finished early for once I decided to go home straight after asr and surprise her. Maybe we could go out for a little while after maghrib or esha… instead I came home to a cold house and no wife.
I ran into mummy by my room door. She was just turning the handle to go in. “Oh, Ahmed!” She exclaimed in surprise when she saw me, “you’re here early today! I was just going to look for Fazila. Don’t know where she’s got to!”
“Oh,” I said, slightly puzzled, “don’t worry, I’ll go look for her.”
I went in and shut the door behind me. The room was empty so I checked in the bathroom. Also empty. I frowned in puzzlement. If she wasn’t upstairs or downstairs, where was she? Had she gone out? Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen her car outside when I came in…
That’s when I saw the scrap of paper fluttering on my bedside table…the corner pinned under the lamp. I took it without much interest…and the words leaped out at me.
Panic. It formed a cold fist in my stomach and wrapped it’s tentacles around my throat, squeezing me in it’s tight grasp. I re-read the words, trying to read between the lines…and noticed some of the words smudged as though drops of liquid had been sprinkled on them. No, not just any liquid. Tears. A great many tears. The knot in my stomach got tighter.
I grabbed my phone and frantically called her. There was no answer. In full blown panic mode now I dialled her number again and again while pacing up and down my room and mumbling durood under my breath. Allah, let her be safe.
“Fadheelah…oh, Alhamdulillah! Where you?” The words couldn’t come out fast enough.
“Never mind where I am. I’m safe.”
“Princess…please tell me what’s going on. What did mummy do?”
“I don’t have the energy to rehash all that right now, Ahmed,” she sounded weary and drained. I swallowed hard.
“Where are you, princess? Have you gone to your mum’s?”
“No, I haven’t. Don’t tell my family anything! They don’t know anything and this will worry them for nothing. Let your parents think I’ve gone there but don’t tell them anything.”
“Okay, I promise I won’t tell anyone anything but at least tell me where you are! It’s not safe for you to be out alone like this, especially at night.”
“I can’t tell you, Ahmed. I need to be alone right now.”
“I understand that, princess. I won’t come after you…but at least let me know when you’re gonna leave to come back home. I can come pick you up and follow you back home. It’s not safe at night.”
“I’m not coming back tonight, Ahmed. I don’t know when I’ll be back.”
“What???” I yelled, then lowered my voice with effort, “Fadheelah, what’s wrong? You’ve never done this before.”
“I know, right? I should have done this sooner,” she laughed harshly.
Worry bloomed within me, mixed with the panic that was swirling around inside me. What was going on?? “Princess, I swear I won’t tell anyone where you are and I won’t come there myself. I’ll give you your space if that’s what you want. But please tell me where you are. I’m going out of my mind with worry here.” Desperation lent an edge to my voice.
Fadheelah sighed, a long, drawn-out sound. “Fine. But you have to keep your promise. No telling anyone where I am and no coming after me. No matter how much time I spend here.”
It was the hardest thing I ever did but I shakily promised to honour her wishes.
I exhaled in part relief. That was better than some random hotel or whatever. “Okay. It’s fine. You can stay there for as long…” I swallowed, “as long as you want. But I’ll keep phoning or texting you to find out if you’re okay. Bear with me. And princess,” my voice thickened with emotion born of fear…fear like I’d never before felt in my life, “I love you. I love you so much.”
“I love you too, Ahmed,” her tone softened, “but I need to find myself. Give me that time. I need to know where to go from here.”
“Wherever it is…we’ll go together. Okay? We’re together in this. You’re not alone. You have me.”
She didn’t reply to that and that hurt me more than anything she’d said.
Had we really drifted apart that much in the space of a few months?
I wiped my tears as I hung up. Ahmed had sounded so panicky, so lost and afraid, it almost made me pack up and run back into his arms. But those arms hadn’t protected me from his mother. Those arms hadn’t shielded me from her cruel insults and hate-filled barbs. If I went back I would be stuck in the same rut again…and those arms wouldn’t be there to pull me out. Could I go back if it meant living in that house again? I wasn’t sure anymore. I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to give even another inch. I was all wrung out. And nobody was looking at my happiness here. I had to look out for myself because no one else would…
I had a simple supper of cheese on toast and tea. I ate outside on the deck, preferring the cool outdoors to the stifling interior. I was sipping on the last of my tea when my phone beeped.
Hey, salaams! What’s up? How did the tea party go?
Zee. That girl always had the most uncanny timings. It was as though she had some sixth sense when it came to me, that allowed her to sense my moods. I had mentioned today’s tea party to her as a by-the-way thing, including her in my musings of just who mummy had invited.
Wassalaam. Not so good.
I could never lie to her…she knew me too well. Not that I would have thought about lying anyways. The one person who knew me in and out was Zee.
Why? What happened?
Don’t want to talk about it now. But it was a disaster.
Mother inlaw at work again?? Is this about her?
Yeah. Who else.
That bloody witch!!!
A moment later my phone rang.
“Zee, I really don’t wanna talk about it,” I said with a sigh, “and don’t call her names. You wouldn’t want to give a person like her your good deeds, would you?”
“Trust you to be Miss Rational at a time like this! Okay, so where are you?”
“Seascape…the beach house.”
“You escaped with Ahmed? Good for you! Take my advice and don’t go back.”
“Not with Ahmed. I’m alone.”
“What??? Why? Is there problems between you and Ahmed as well?”
“No, nothing like that. I just need to be alone.”
“That doesn’t sound good. Why didn’t you go to your parents? Should I come pick you up? You can come to my house. No one will dare trouble you there.”
“You’re not at your house yourself,” I pointed out. Zee was due anytime so had gone to her mum’s house to stay, “and I’m fine here. This is the best place for me to be. I just need to be alone.”
“Okay but I’m here whenever you need to talk, okay? Don’t bottle it up, Faz. It’s not healthy.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about me. You worry about yourself and your baby.”
Zee snorted. “Yeah, right! I’ll go punch that woman with my great big belly right now if you tell me to. Send her flying to Timbuktu where she can keep circus monkeys like herself company!”
I started laughing. “Only you can make me laugh at a time like this. Okay, I’m off now. Going to crash. I’m exhausted.”
“Okay. Keep me posted or else I will keep worrying about you. Salaams.”
I replied to her salaam then hung up and went to take a long, hot shower to relax me, then prayed esha and crashed into bed. Sleep eluded me for a long time, thoughts going round and round in my head in a confused jumble, till I finally fell into a restless sleep.
There was only one person who could answer the million questions buzzing around in my head and I went down to find her. She was taking out supper with Humi and looked up as I entered the kitchen.
“Where’s Fazila? She’s really late today.”
I thrust the note in her face, forcing her to clutch at it. “What is this all about? What happened today??”
Mummy glanced down at the note. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Who wrote this??? Fazila??? What a liar! Insulted her infront of the whole town??? How can you believe such stories, Ahmed??”
“My wife is not a liar!” I said through gritted teeth, “something happened today to upset her so much she left this note and went away. I want to know what that something is!”
Mummy’s eyes widened even further. “Are you shouting at me now??? Really, Ahmed! Is that how you’re supposed to talk to your mother???”
Okay, wrong tactic. I took a deep breath and backtracked a bit. “I’m not shouting, mummy. I’m asking you what happened today to upset Fadheelah this much. She’s never gone away like this before. Something must have really upset her.”
“How am I supposed to know??” Mummy snapped, “that girl is just like that! She must be up to no good as usual! I wouldn’t trust her if I were you, Ahmed!”
I stared at her, feeling sick to my stomach. “What has my wife ever done to you to make you hate her so much?” I asked quietly, “she does exactly as you ask her to do. She cooks whatever you tell her to cook, she runs the house exactly your way, she does everything your way. So what’s the problem? What has she done to you to make you hate her so much?”
Mummy laughed harshly. “That’s what you think! You’ll think she’s so perfect! Only I know how she really is! I’m the one who has to stay with her the whole day!”
“Okay, tell me then. Tell me all her bads and evils so I also know,” I promptly replied.
“Okay, I’ll tell you since you want to know so bad! Then don’t blame me for making you hate her! She shouts at me, disrespects me, talks back to me. She organises my kitchen however she likes just to spite me! She runs away in her car everyday and expects me to serve her ready meals when she comes back! That’s just a few things. If I start listing all her bads we’ll be here all night!”
“Fadheelah didn’t mess up your kitchen or anything, she organised it and spring cleaned it to make you happy. She was doing you a good turn but obviously she wouldn’t remember exactly what you put where. Surely something minor like that shouldn’t make you so upset?”
“Of course that’s what she’ll tell you! Why would she tell you the truth?”
“But mummy, how do you know she did it out of spite? You just assumed that. She said she did you a good turn so why not believe her? It’s not like you can prove she did it out of spite.”
That stumped her. I saw her floundering and pushed on. “Also, she goes to teach which we discussed in the beginning. And she offered to make the entire lunch before she left but you refused because you want everything your way. So it’s not her fault that she can’t contribute to lunch. And she does contribute to supper so you can’t say she gets ready meals from you.”
“What discussed?? I told you, don’t let her go teach in the mornings but did you listen?? No, you only want to do what you want! Then you say I mustn’t blame her but if she had listened to me she could have helped me make lunch as well.”
“She already went part time for you, I couldn’t ask her to stop altogether. Teaching is her passion. She loves it, why would I take it away from her?”
“Ya, so you only want me to compromise! Your beloved wife should get everything she wants!” Mummy hissed.
“No, that’s where you’ve got it wrong. You want everything your way and you want everyone around you to compromise. Look at us. We can’t even have a proper conversation without you getting defensive. Humi has to do everything you say, or else…same with me and Dalia and Daddy. You insisted that Fadheelah and I have to stay with you. You threatened me and forced my hand. So the least you can do is compromise, right? Work together with Fadheelah. As a partnership, not leader and subordinate. Don’t think of Fadheelah as beneath you, someone who has to listen to you. Why don’t you take her opinions as well, let her do what she wants as well? She is not your property whom you can order around as you like. She’s a different girl from a different family. Accept her differences and go fifty/fifty with her. That’s the only way this will work, otherwise it will be impossible for us to live in the same house.”
“How dare you???” Mummy hissed, her face white with anger, “I am your mother! My rank is higher than your wife so how dare you tell me we’re equals?? And impossible to stay in the same house?? You’ll stay because you don’t have a choice, do you?? You can’t walk away and you know it! And so long as you live in my house you will live under my rules! Have I made myself clear???”
I pressed my lips tightly together and stared at her. Yes, she had made herself clear. She had made her stance clear from the beginning. I cursed my weakness for the thousandth time as I turned to go. At the very last minute I turned back. “I’m not done here. Something upset my wife and drove her away and I will get to the bottom of this,” I gave her a hard stare then turned and jogged up the stairs to my room.
A timid knock brought me out of my brooding thoughts. “Come in!” I called out, hoping it wasn’t mummy again.
The door opened and Humi peeked in, a nervous look on her face. “Can I come in?”
“Ya, sure…” I waved her in, “what’s up?” I asked, noticing her twisting her hands in her lap as she perched on the edge of the bed.
“I…thought I’ll tell you what happened today. I can see how worried you are…and I saw how upset she was…and I feel horrible even though I did nothing.”
“Yeah, please tell me what’s going on,” I said immediately, straightening from my slouched position on the bed.
Humi glanced nervously at the closed door. “You have to promise you won’t tell mummy or daddy that I told you. Otherwise I’ll be in deep shit with mummy and she’s already in a swell mood.”
“I promise! I won’t tell them who told me. Just tell me.”
So she did. Hesitatingly, with lots of stammering and nervous glances at the door, she told me what had transpired this afternoon. I was speechless with shock, my mouth hanging open in horror as I listened to just how my wife had been humiliated infront of the town’s main gossips.
“But why???” I burst out finally, “why would she do something like that???”
“Who the hell knows?” Humi replied, rolling her eyes, “for attention, maybe? For people to listen to her sob story and feel sorry for her? Or maybe to send a message to Fazila, that do as I say or there will be consequences.”
“But Fadheelah is doing everything she says! Tell me, does Fadheelah shout at mummy and disrespect her like she’s claiming? I don’t believe it but just for the record, does she?”
Humi snorted. “Of course not! She goes so much out of her way to please mummy that sometimes I feel like yelling at her to cut out her martyr act. But she still has that independent streak, you know. She goes to teach and that’s a big black mark against her…she goes to her parents more than once a week sometimes…she’ll just drive off if there’s no work or anything. That’s also a problem for mummy because how dare she leave the house without her permission? So because she isn’t exactly how mummy wants her to be, she’ll never be good enough for mummy. Mummy wants to control her completely and that’s not happening, and that’s making her angry.”
“But that can’t happen!” I exclaimed.
“Exactly, it can’t. So I don’t know why you even bother staying in this house and trying any more. If I were you I’d have packed up and left a long time ago!” She finished bitterly.
I looked at my sister. Lines bracketed her mouth and the corners of her eyes, marks of unhappiness and strain. She was clearly not happy. Were any of us? Ruled with an iron fist by a narcissistic woman (yes, Fadheelah had told me what my mother was and on researching the symptoms I had ticked every one of them as applying to my mother), unable to be truly free. Was it fair to make someone live in an environment like this? I didn’t think so any more. I had been optimistic that this would work out, too optimistic, but now reality was hitting me like a cold slap to my face. There was only one solution to this problem and I could finally admit it to myself.
That document though. That cursed piece of paper that bound me to the conditions stated within. What about that? I heaved a sigh. I had never mentioned the other reason for me sticking to my parents house to Fadheelah. Now I needed to decide. Our sanity versus our lifestyle….our happiness versus our family. Which sacrifice was greater?