When Maryam’s father brought home the mangoes that Sunday, her brother Zain leapt for the gold-and-silver ribbons in the shopping bag, and threw them at her as he always did.
“Maryam ki Shadi!” He yelled, capering about her, on his toes to dodge the book or shoe or whatever missile came to her hand. She would chase him round and round the house, both of them laughing, until Mama put a stop to their nonsense. They would flee giggling up the stairs with the mangoes they’d filched in the commotion, and gobble them all up.
Maryam got up slowly, dusted her head and went back inside without even looking at him. He blinked in astonishment at the gold-and-silver ribbons spread-eagled on the grass, then jumped as Papa called him to lend a hand with the fruit.
Maryam was twenty-three. She was in the last semester of her M.A., a tall willowy girl with eyes that scintillated in the candles they lit for dinner when the light went. She was chock-full of fun and gig, ripe for every rag and dare. She was a girl, of course, and quite as squealy as the rest of them when it came to moths and lizards; but he secretly preferred her to all the brothers he might have had.
He dumped the mangoes and grapes in front of Mama, who was darning Papa’s blue shirt. “Papa’s home,” he said.
“Is he? Did he bring the lentils I asked for?”
“I don’t know. Mama, is Maryam ill?”
“Maryam? No, why, what happened to her?”
“Oh nothing much.” He strolled out, chewing his lip, and aimed a kick at the door in passing, which earned him a sharp reprimand.
She’d been acting funny for weeks. For one thing she wouldn’t play football anymore, and when he knocked her lame-duck excuses to flinders she hurled him bodily out of her room. Plus, she’d to mooning about in window-seats, and once he saw the sheen of tears in her eyes. But Maryam didn’t cry like that, not ever! When Maryam cried the whole neighbourhood heard it and shuddered.
Mama and Papa were getting just as bad, whispering together in corners, grouchier than the school principal if you so much as entered the room. Everyone had gone nuts. He shrugged and tossed up his bat, catching it deftly before it demolished Mama’s precious swan-vase. If the stupid girl didn’t want to play, it was perfectly fine by him.
At lunch the table was shrouded again in a silence mumbled commonplaces could not puncture. He rapped his plate impatiently with his fork, cleared his throat pointedly, and made sundry other attempts to bring the three mechanically chomping robots who were supposed to be his family to life. In desperation he took to slurping, but subsided when his father’s head jerked back irately.
Even cricket was spoilt, he fumbled three catches because he couldn’t concentrate, and the rest of his class team swore and appeared ready to pitch into him instead – but they did win, so it came off without a fight.
In the incurably insouciant fashion of boys he’d forgotten it completely by nightfall, however, and lounged in whistling to breakfast next morning. Maryam stuck out her tongue almost in her old manner, and he scowled back with delight.
“You’ll be late for school at this rate, loser” she said.
“So will you, your hair’s still dripping wet!”
“Maryam’s not going today.” Said Mama.
“Why? You said she’s not sick.”
“I’m not going because I’m not going. End of story.”
“Mama, that’s not fair!” He bit into his egg and bread. “Why does she get the day off and I never do?”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Zain.”
“But why?” he persisted, swallowing hurriedly.
“Oh, you’ll find out soon enough” said Maryam, with a pretty decent assumption of indifference, but he could see the red creeping up her cheekbones.
He went to school, and forgot his grievances as he played volleyball and wrestled equations. When he got back home Mama was waiting for him. She gave him a brand-new steam-pressed black suit.
“Bathe and put it on. And mind you don’t spoil it.”
“We’re going out?”
“No, we have guests.”
“You don’t know them. They’re Papa’s friends, so make sure you behave yourself.”
When he went downstairs Mama was washing the porcelain tea set, alone.
“Where’s Maryam?” He asked, shaking water out of his ears. “Why isn’t she helping you?”
“She’s getting dressed. You come here and help me!”
Willy-nilly, he did.
The guests came a little after twilight. They certainly weren’t like any friends of Papa he’d seen before. There was a thin balding man and a fleshy wife who kissed Mama as though she meant to suck off the cheek. Behind them came two dumpy girls who seemed not to know how exactly to smile. And finally there was a youngish sort of fellow with square hands that kept returning to his pockets. Papa was talking to the two men earnestly about everything and nothing, Mama was chatting in the hateful squeaky girly way to the balloon-faced aunty. The dumpy girls were trying to look at him without looking at him and he was trying to look at them without looking at them. Of Maryam there was absolutely no sign.
About half an hour passed like this, and he sat stock-still, like the guard Max and Juan had taken for a statue in Guilty or not Guilty, imagining what the dumpy girls would say if he told them they were as ugly as his class-teacher.
Mama went out with a swishing creak. The door opened again, and Zain looked up expectantly; she was probably bringing in the snacks.
It wasn’t Mama. It was – Maryam.
And it wasn’t Maryam at all. She was wearing a full-skirted sky-blue sari of georgette – but Maryam hated georgette! – And – and lipstick, for crying out loud, and powder, and eyeliner. Maryam!
He wanted to shout, to shake some sense into her head, but he was transfixed. Now the dumpy girls were waddling forward, the balloon-faced woman was cooing over her, and Maryam didn’t even grimace at him over the wobbly horn clip. She kept her eyes on her mehndi-stained feet. And why the deuce was the blasted girl blushing?
For about half a minute after she had presented the sandwich tray to everyone in turn, she stayed, perched on the edge of the only straight-backed chair, looking up in timid, fleeting glances.
“Maryam, one of your friends is on the phone.” Mama announced as she wheeled in the tea-trolley, and Maryam glided from the drawing room. Mama was lying and Maryam knew it but she went anyway.
From the doorway she did shoot him one quick grin, and within a few days things slid back to normal, more or less. Maryam played football as enthusiastically as ever, and Mama shouted at the two of them for a good quarter of an hour when she shot it through the window of the dining-room. But she hadn’t given over her crack-pot daydreaming and star-gazing in broad daylight. He didn’t understand, but eventually he learnt to accept it with a shrug. Girls were crazy in ways no sane man ever did understand. As long as she was playing football, though, she must be all right.
His mid-term exams were approaching, and everyone conspired to make his life miserable. In frustration he gave up trying to watch TV in his fifteen minute breaks, because Mama kept grilling him on Math and Papa on Bio, and Maryam had developed an obsession with History. Of course Maryam had exams too, but no one ever policed her; it was taken for granted that she would top her class, or very nearly.
On the last day of his exams he came home with a savage resolve to play football and watch Naruto and behead anyone who dared to oppose this laudable project. He kicked open the lounge door with a whoop, for this one day he knew he privileged, that even Mama would say nothing. He had not, however, expected her to beam at him, or Papa to laugh his booming laugh and say “Rascal!’ so indulgently. As for Maryam, she snuck her tongue into her cheek, and thumbed her nose, standing behind Mama so that only he could see her.
“Ooh! Gulab Jaman!” There was a full dish of them on the table, and he quickly grabbed two handfuls.
“Easy, kiddo, they’re not running away,” said Maryam, flicking him on the ear.
“What’s the idea? End of Exams party?“
Mama and Papa exchanged glances. “Not quite,” said Mama. Maryam was twitching her dupatta and wouldn’t look at him.
“Your sister is engaged to be married.”
“Wha – “He nearly choked. “The deuce? She’s engaged to – who’s she engaged to, precisely? Maryam doesn’t know any boys!”
“The son of a friend of your father.”
“Maryam doesn’t know any boys!” chortled Papa. “Your son’s growing into a fine scamp.”
“You’ve met him, Zain. Remember, they visited us once, about two weeks before your exams.”
“Who? Oyé!” he jumped. “Not the drippy article with the balloon-faced mum and the dumpy sisters? So that’s why you were all acting weird!”
“Zain! Don’t be rude about your elders!”
“If you marry him, Maryam, you’ll have that loony as your mother-in-law. Ugh!”
“Zain, that’s enough!”
“And you’ll have to let her kiss you, and you’ll have to do everything she says, and they’ll all laugh at you because you can’t cook –”
To his utter shock it was Maryam who defended him. “Chill, Mama, he’s just teasing. Come on, kid, want a game?” He caught the ball reflexively, and they raced each other to the garden.
Tired and muddy, they trooped inside well after sunset. Suddenly, at the door of her bedroom, Maryam called him back.
“That balloon face of yours – how horrible a mother-in-law do you think she’ll make?”
“Hell’s afire, what kind of damn’ fool question is that? Stuff it, I’m off to watch Naruto!”
“Come on, what do you think?”
“How under the canopy am I supposed to know? She’s a kissy, cooey, fussy old cretin, and she makes me want to kick something. ‘Sides that, I don’t know anything about her, okay?”
“But most people make you want to kick things, so that’s not saying very much, is it?”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t ‘very much’ to say! Get lost!”
“Right,” grinned Maryam. “You don’t have very much to say? That’ll be the day … You’d better get to bed, you loser, I can hear Mama on the stairs.”
“Go to bed? Not on your life! I have a full month of manga to read and episodes to watch and you want me to go to bed?”
“Naruto? What do you like about that silly cartoon?”
“Si-si-“He gagged and spluttered. “You c-ca-ll Naruto - silly?! And. It. Is. Not. A. Cartoon.”
“Cut it out,” said Maryam, unimpressed. “Seriously, now.”
“Well, for one thing, there aren’t any mothers-in-law in it, or annoying elder sisters!”
“Zain, Maryam, time for bed!”
“Ah no!” he moaned, and he sulked all the way as Maryam shooed him across the corridor to his own room.
He was late for breakfast, because the football had totally exhausted him. Mama had to go upstairs to haul him out of bed. It was porridge Maryam was cooking, and the smell drifted right up the stairs. He squirmed. He didn’t like porridge but with Papa there he knew he would have to eat it.
“Have you added the sugar?” Mama asked Maryam.
“Yes, but I’m not sure … I’ll taste it and see …”
“Bring it to me.”
Mama nicked the steaming porridge off the ladle with a practiced dexterity that never failed to amaze them. She brushed her forefinger against her tongue, and went ominously still.
“Maryam, you foolish girl, you’ve put in salt instead of sugar!”
Maryam blanched. “Oh gosh!”
“’Oh gosh’? What’s that supposed to mean, ‘Oh gosh’? What are we going to eat for breakfast now? How many times have I told you to concentrate on what you’re doing?”
“It was an accident, Mama.”
The protest lacked the spirit he had anticipated. Maryam was rocking on the balls of her feet, clutching her book. Her eyes were not wide the way eyes were supposed to be when you were afraid. They were slitted and unfathomably stripped of their sparkle. Papa rustled his newspaper uneasily.
“Oh, let it go … it’s only a bit of porridge! Zain, go and see if there’s any jam in the fridge. We’ll have that for breakfast instead, with toast. There should be enough bread in the house. And if there isn’t any jam we can always fry some eggs.”
“You spoil her entirely too much!” grumbled Mama. “It’s high time she stopped all this silly reading and learnt to pay attention to her work!”
“My work? This useless reading – I was paying attention, Mama. I wasn’t reading when I put in the sugar. I’m sorry, Mama, but please don’t blame the book for it!”
“It’s not the book I’m blaming, it’s you. Do you have to read all the time? You are not a child anymore, Maryam, you’re a woman now, and you need to get over this childish habit of yours. Give me that book and go get the jam!”
“No.” Now she was staring at Mama as though she had never seen her before. “I must read. I will read. Now and always!”
What the f- did Maryam think she was doing? Mama groused about her reading once a week but she always quoted nonsense and laughed. Assuredly she wasn’t crazy enough to retort like that! And she was whiter now than the swan shaped salt-and-pepper holder, shaking like a blancmange – whatever that was supposed to be. Papa’s hand was frozen half-way to his glasses and Mama was swelling very literally like the proverbial toad.
“Maryam, run!” He gasped as Mama lunged, impelled by some strange, ineluctable impulse, his voice withered to a hoarse caw. “Run!”
Maryam stood her ground, trembling but looking Mama right in the face, braced, waiting. Mama snatched the book from her – disjointedly, he noted that the title picture was a little girl with scintillating eyes who was holding a candle – and hurled it across the room.
For seven-and-thirty ticks of the clock no one moved, except that the chests of both women heaved, up and down, faster than the time. His shin was itching and he wanted to scratch it but the command to his hand was paralysed in a limbo on the other side of his brain.
“You are my mother.” Maryam enunciated each syllable slowly, distinctly, painfully, and there were furrows in her face, around the eyes still inscrutable, still dead-dark. “You’ve loved me all my life. And you … What in God’s name will it be like with a total stranger?”
Their world hinged on the answer – Mama’s answer, Papa’s answer, Maryam’s – and, though it would take him a lifetime to realise it – on his answer too. Mama said nothing at all, just turned off the fire and hauled off the pot of ruined porridge to smoulder in the sink. Papa put his glasses back on, and Maryam took a pot of strawberry jam from the fridge and set it quietly on the table before him. The dead-dark furrowing that had first shocked them into silence was eating into her face now, settling into its lines as she toasted the bread, so that in another hour they would all have forgotten how to tell it apart from her smile.
Only the book flopped open on the floor spoke, fluttering its pages plaintively in the exhaust-fan wind, but Maryam never once turned to listen.
About the Author: Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Studying life, languages and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her.