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MRS BUGAJI     CHAPTER 1

MRS BUGAJI CHAPTER 1

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MRS BUGAJI CHAPTER 1
KATSINA, NIGERIA. 33 MAY, 2007 She'd chosen it for the acceptance. It wasn't perfect, but to her, it was the best. The best dress to wear when she met him, her mother had said. 10 "Marriage" she tested the word with distaste on her lips, she clutched the dress to her chest and stood in front of her tall frameless mirror, and tried it with a little chivalry. "Wedding," she whispered faking a grin.15 She covered her head with her veil, trying a coy "Nikaah". 13 Nope, nothing was working. No sparkles, or butterflies, no rumbling fear or excitement; like it always happened to her. She flung the pink dress carelessly over her bed. 4 Pink, it was supposed to bring out the beauty of her dark skin. Her mother said pink did that to her. It brightened her complexion and made her glow. But Maryam loved black more. She didn't know what was wrong with black. Or what was wrong with her relationship status that her parents wanted to courier her to a world afar all decked up in pink, yelling "take me, accept me because no one wants me."44 She grunted. It wasn't a secret hidden tightly in the Pandora box, it was well known that Maryam Muhammad Maigoro was a drag and a nuisance. At least someone would have her. She huffed out some air. Just a nuisance.17 That was Maryam's thought on Monday. Monday was the worse day of her life. But it may become the best day of her life from now onwards if they wanted her. 10 She was startled when her door flew open. The wall forcefully stopped it with a thud making her wince. 2 "Maryam you are not taking a backpack to Europe!"21 Hajiya Aisha stormed in the room looking horrified. There she found her daughter sprawled on top of her bed. Everything was in its place. The room with twin separate beds, mostly brown with a cream smooth bedspread on both beds. On the one her daughter occupied, except for a tiny dent made by her daughter's small derrière the room looked untouched, a brown and creme rug covered the floor- no suitcase in sight- unlike a room of a twenty-two-year-old girl travelling to Europe for the first time, the next day.14 "Where are your things?" She asked, her eyes wide, were fixed on the sole bag in the room. "Mama, I'm not relocating there, do you want me to pack the whole house? They will send me back from the Airport."18 Hajiya Aisha pushed into the room, her eyes roamed the small room two of her four daughters shared. She opened the closet door to see if her daughter had her things stashed somewhere in there that would be worthy of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they'd gotten.11 "What will you use there?" She flipped through the first rows of black jilbaabs. "Ya Allahu. Are these what you used to wear? You have no clothes! You don't have a single coloured dress, Maryam."27 "I have four, and I've packed all four of them. I've also packed a toothbrush, some underwear and a deodorant, you need not worry about that. Besides, I can always shop there." Seeing that her mother would soon go hysteric on her, Maryam moved forward and held her mother's shoulders tentatively with both hands, who despite being of moderate height, was a head shorter than her.4 "Breathe, Mama, I've read somewhere that I can mix and match and get to wear six pieces of clothes for 3 weeks. You see? I'm covered. I got two extra outfits. They are new and coloured too. I can use some time while there and shop a bit to last me the days until I got settled."33 Hajiya Aisha placed her fingers on her forehead as if to support it from falling off her face. 13 "Maryam, look at me, you will not ruin this. Not this time, not this one. Do you get me? So now will be the right time to drop all the drama, and get things done the way they should be." There was finality in her mother 's voice. 9 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Maryam held her lips between her teeth, refraining from saying anything that she was sure would not sound good to her mother's ears. She was not doing that. Instead, she nodded. 2 "Good. Now get a trolley, perhaps The Pierre Cardin." She muttered, exasperated then gave her a dismissive hand and moved towards the door. 10 Maryam stopped herself from telling her mother it was fake. 24 Her mother, Hajiya Aisha was beautiful, of medium height and graceful. She was so fair and supple, she glowed. Those genes passed on to her other siblings. Her mother always had her sweet smelling hair beautifully styled or braided into thin cornrows that came down her back, at least she got that part of genes passed down to her. 5 Her mother cherished the gold ensemble of her jewellery collection, which was why she refused to let go of them even after their drastic lifestyle change when her father made a slightly wrong investment choice that cost him his position on the top echelon of the Katsina Sesame seeds market. It was the first time he had tried something out of the family business -expanding the horizon he had said- and it was the last time he brought in business for the family. They liked to call it the dip.15 Her mother's dresses were always exquisite, that's why she thought Maryam should only wear the finest of clothes, especially now when she was going on 'the journey' of a lifetime. Her feet always painted with henna, red so bright sometimes dark. Her mother was beautiful. But all that her mother was, Maryam wasn't. She wished her mother would get that someday. 2 "I have a bag," Maryam called after her mother and plopped back on her bed. Missing her pillow she hit the headboard, making her groan. That must be for almost rolling her eyes at her mother. "Astagfirullah." She mumbled.11 "I have a bag full of clothes I hate, and now I may go to Europe headless." She massaged her head with the heal of her palm, alternating between the two. A jarring buzz startled her before she realized it was coming from her pillowcase, a place she hid her phone just to get away from the outer world. 6 "The owner is dead." She said into the mouthpiece and switched the phone off. She sometimes really wished she was. 37 She sighed and leaned back, this time making sure not to miss her pillow, it took a lot to die and dying must hurt, her head still hurt. It would have been a pathetic matter. But she was sad to actually find that somewhere in a corner in her deep dark heart she really wished she would just die. She didn't want a backpack, she didn't even want to go to London. 21 They wouldn't even call it that, they called it "Europe" to make it sound exotic. Or to make people believe she was actually globe-trotting. Yeah, she really wished she could just die and go to Barzakh and keep waiting for qiyaamah. Maybe, just maybe in Jannah, someone may actually take her. The real Maryam.37 Yes, and there she would gist with the real Nana Aisha. Even better. 18 She drifted to sleep, dreaming of Yogurt and gardens and a young beautiful Arab woman. 21 Nana Aisha, mother of the believers.13 ***** "Maryam Muhammad Maigoro, wake up don gidanku." 14 Maryam scrambled up from her bed, disoriented. She scratched her burning thigh with vengeance. "Why are you mad Feenah?"2 "Why am I mad?" Her friend smacked her again. 2 "Ahh!" "Who is travelling without telling me?" Smack! "Who is getting married without me?" Smack! Smack! "Who is breaking the sacred-bond vow? Who is mad?"24 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Maryam's hands went up in defence. "Ouch! I get it, I get it. I am mad, don't you dare hit me again. You are going to finish my flesh." 3 "You're going to get married! Who will go to school with me, what about our plans? We're starting our masters here, ring a bell? Who will I call at midnight to diss about my day? Who would I whine about my monthly breakout with?"12 "No, I'm going for a short while, there is a phone network in London, you see? There is a difference, the marriage part will only take place if I don't meet the groom-to-be, and believe me I have every intention of meeting him, so be rest assured, I will be back in a few short weeks and our vow still holds in sha Allah."16 "Graduate together, marry together. Just not each other's husbands, because I'm going to kill you if you lay your eyes on my man."49 Maryam rolled her eyes, pushing her friend's ankara head wrap backwards it almost fell off her head. "As if they ever see me. By the way, we graduated together." She scooted off the bed and ran to her closet. She came back with her backpack. "Now that you are here, you can help me pack. Mama keeps saying this is not enough, I wonder what else I should put in here. I've got everything. I'll get a sweater when I go there. Baba gave me his long coat, can you believe it?"2 Nafeesah's mouth went slack as Maryam plopped her backpack on the bed. She walked past her friend to the closet, coming back with an armful of clothes. She climbed a side chair and peeped over the top closet bringing down a huge black bag, which was covered in white dust. She went into the en-suite only to come out with a wet rag. She began dusting the bag. 7 "No, I'm not taking that!" Maryam shook her head vigorously, eyes wide. "Are you trying to smuggle me out of the country in that?"2 "Yes you are taking it, no offence, but I don't want him to see you in your baggy black dresses, he would think you're mourning the wedding before it even takes place. I do plan on marrying Abubakar, you see, so, I'm not asking you to go there in your full-time-nun-mode. Go there, enjoy yourself- just don't get married there- I will kill you if you do. Now you are having a UK-poshed masters degree in a few short months, and I will be stuck here with my unfulfilled reading fantasy. Waiting to read what you write." Nafeesah finished, her teeth clenched.11 Maryam could only see one thing, she was crazy. If she had an insane best friend like Nafeesah, then she was officially crazy.5 "Okay, pack away. You are going to check that thing in. There is no way I'm going to drag something that is twice my size into the plane. And I am going on a vacation."5 "There are trolleys there, you know. Village girl. Vacation, masters or marriage whatever excuse they gave you, they are shipping you away from here."4 "Whatever, I already hate married life."2 Nafeesah narrowed her eyes at Maryam, "You haven't even met the groom, yet."7 "That's because there won't be a groom, I know him since I was 0-years-old. Which is why I also know that he will hate me at first sight, with that thing you're packing for me. Imagine him receiving me at the airport to find me carrying something that resembles our ancestor's dead body, bundled in black!"51 Nafeesah squinted at her, "Okay, he will hate you a little if you put it that way, but he wouldn't meet you like that. You will be in your pink dress."7 Oh, let me die already. Maryam rolled her eyes.3 ***** It had all began as a joke one month ago, a Monday in April. Coming home to her mother's smokey jollof rice was a dream. Maryam still hadn't figured out if her mother's jollof rice was smokey because she had finally nailed the original taste, or if she was always too busy with visitors to time the dish correctly, whichever was it, she loved her mother for leaving the bottom part for her. 39 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Eldest of four siblings, Maryam was expected to know all that a girl was supposed to know in the kitchen. And she did, but she had no idea it all had to be put to use this soon.4 That evening after taking back her plate she did the dishes. Her sister, Surayya had come into the kitchen with stealth. Whenever Surayya did the stealth-walk it meant trouble. She was about to reveal something that should remain hidden.6 "Baba wants to see you." She said. "That is scary Sury." Surayya nodded, confirming her sister's thoughts. "He looks scary."6 "Oh my God, do you think he knows?" Her sisters and she considered her affair with writing to be their topmost guarded secret, so if it turned out to be an exposed affair, she didn't know how her father would take that. Especially if he knew the contents of her books.25 "Just go in and find out. But Mama looks happy."5 "Oh oh, not a good combo." "I think they are planning on doing something, maybe they got you a car."6 Maryam glared at her sister. Surayya knew her weakness over having her own car, it was her number two dream- after becoming the next Virginia Woolf- but that was never going to happen because her parents were currently sharing her mother's car. And her mother would have a fit if she learned of her secret writing life. So, it would only be logical her father got himself a car first before he got her one. Even though she suspected he was holding back getting a new car on purpose. He had not replaced his car since the dip. 2 Her heart logged in her throat when she saw the exact expressions her sister had just described, etched on her parents' faces. 2 "Baba..." "Aha! Daaso, come in have a seat." Okay! This was a huge red flag. That was the queen's treatment, something worth crying was definitely coming. Her father always made sure she was relaxed before he made her cry, like when he told her that her cat had died. Mus-mus. He had given her a packet of eclairs, she was six.36 Then when he told her that she didn't get her JAMB cut off marks, six years ago. He made her eat ice cream, then he sat her down and told her the bad news. 19 Now there was a sweating can of Maltina waiting for her on the side table and her mother was smiling, definitely odd, if it was bad news why would her mother be smiling? But a scary news was definitely coming. 7 "So, I've spoken with your Aunt Kulthum, all the necessary arrangements have been made, hopefully by next month if everything is ready you will go there. See the city and when you get your bearings, you start your studies at the beginning of the school session. Your admission has been confirmed. But for now, while you are there you can have a talk with Mubarak and see what comes of it."16 Maryam had missed the part where her father had just told her she was having her masters degree at a university in the UK in the near future, her brain sifted all that and only caught the part where they were sending her to see a man. Her cousin, and see if things would work out with him as if at twenty-two she was a hands-down, nobody wanted her, maybe if she was shown around the world she would be lucky enough. 5 "Baba, how can you say what you just said?" Upon all people, she least expected her father to say that to her. To agree to anything of the sort to happen.2 "Ke!" Her mother scolded, and she clasped her mouth with both palms, realizing her blunder. 4 "I'm sorry Baba, but I thought you loved me, how could you gift me away?"10 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "Who said you were gifted away?" Her mother asked. "Have you sold me then? Oh God! That will be worse, who will buy me? All bony and black?" Her father was not smiling. So this was not a joke, they were serious, and she was going across continents under the guise of some study-plan so a Man -her cousin- would assess her and see if she was cut to his taste and give his go-ahead for a wedding. Why would they waste their precious time and resources?3 They should have just sent her mirror reflection to him and he wouldn't have any difficulties making the choice, after all, she was tall, frameless and shapeless just like the mirror standing in her room. 27 It had been what, three? Four years since she last saw him? No man would want a wife like her, they should have saved their air tickets and all the time entailed in the process. They should save their millions and just pay a fraction of that for the same in Nigeria, her father could use the change and get himself a car. 8 "Do I have to go Baba?" "Yes, everything has been finalized. We've already told you, your admission has been confirmed."2 "Admission is not finality. I can go to Abuja or Kano or even continue in Zaria for my master's when I'm through. And why wouldn't he come here? I can just study here. Why do I have to go at all?"18 "He is busy." Her mother interrupted again. Maryam blinked, oh now she saw it, it wasn't about her studies not even about a stupid vacation. They didn't even bother to ask her which course she wanted to pursue, they just assumed, or decided for her.11 "He is busy? I am writing my PGD exams in a few weeks, Mama, I am also busy."4 "You are on holidays. Besides, which is better? Doing your PGD here or having a stellar master's degree in Europe?" Maryam wanted to cringe at the 'Y' word again. But her mother continued, "That way you two will understand each other more."13 Somehow she felt her mother was behind all this marriage scheme. Even though Aunt Kulthum was her father's sister, her mother claimed her more for obvious reasons. 16 She wouldn't be surprised if she was the one that first suggested the alliance to her aunt, which would be humiliating and doubly awkward considering, the cousin they wanted to pair her with didn't exactly have a 'stellar' record when it comes to marriage.10 "Mama, he ran off on his wedding day, why would you think he wouldn't do that again?"14 "He doesn't love that girl, his brother does, and that is why she is now married to his brother. Now shut up and go back inside, you need to start getting ready."30 Maryam had turned to her father for help. But he shrugged. "Your Aunty Kulthum has called, she requested for you specifically. I've given my consent."5 She didn't know why, but she just felt like her folder had just been menacingly signed, sealed and stamped, CLOSED!9 ***** That was a month ago, now all plans had been set in motion, she was to leave to a country where she knew none but her aunt and her family, among which was a man who had no idea she was going to be his bride. They told her he didn't know yet, that she was to be a surprise. 21 A surprise indeed. Who would reveal the identity of a nuisance before she showed face? From all the plethoras of relatives they had, they decided she was his match, everybody knew why. She wasn't taken, and he was the rebellious one, so they would make the perfect match.8 Get ready Ya Mubarak our worlds are about to be toppled, for life! She mused. 3 Her Aunt Kulthum had three sons and two daughters. Maryam had always fancied Bilaal, the middle brother, but he had always been closed off, so untouchable, sometimes she considered him boring, he only made sense when he talked numbers. He had helped her on some of her tough assignments whenever he was in town, after all. 36 She had even tried setting him up with her friend Nafeesah once when they came on vacations from the UK, but he wouldn't budge. 17 Ya Mubarak, now that she thought of him, since the beginning of all the commotion, she hadn't once thought of him as a person. She had only thought of him as the weapon of life destruction to her already skewed life. He wasn't doing much of a damage, the damage had already been done, he was just cremating her. 8 He was more of the laid back type, an out there person, who had all the girls flocking around him, wherever he set foot in. She hated those ladies-magnet types, they seemed to think the world started and ended with them. 21 Her cousin Mubarak was no exception, he had it all going for him, some hot-shot attorney working for his family's company which was a heavyweight in London's investment development and real estate financial market. With the good looks and an ego that matched. Mubarak was the 'it' man, and she wasn't exactly the definition of an 'it' girl.2 Now, look what she got herself into. Where was the king and where was the street mouse? 4 She was sure he was going to shout No! from the rooftop of his mansion or castle or whatever those kinds of people lived in. Better yet, he might even run away on their wedding day, that would be so cool. Her very own plot twist. Except she wouldn't have a replacement groom like his once-ditched bride did when he skipped their wedding. She would be lucky if anybody noticed her there. She always went unnoticed. 12 On the rare occasions that she did get noticed, she was just there. Plain old, tall shapeless amoeba. Years ago people called her paper, some still did. Paper was her other name. 77 Here comes your paper Mubarak Umar Bugaje. "A walking-talking paper." She whispered. 35 ***** LONDON, ENGLAND.8 APRIL, 2007 Two strokes, it only took two strokes of her eyelashes over the supple skin of her cheeks to break his control. He had to look, he couldn't just look away. 4 Mubarak Umar Bugaje was dimly aware of the glasses clinking, the clatter of the cutleries, a chair on his right being scraped over the marble floor of the dining room and the quiet commanding voice of his father speaking. Yet all Mubarak could think of were those eyelashes. The flutter- featherlike, batting his senses awake. Of what they covered beneath, doe-like, moist and true. Her eyes were... truthful.30 Hajiya Kulthum coughed, taking him out of his fixed-gaze. Alhaji Umar sitting at the head of the table, passed her a glass of water. And Mubarak was plunged back to his thoughts, that could have been them, that could have been him by her side.10 He was doing it again! It was official, he was the most disgusting man ever to live on the face of the earth. 6 This year had been a terrible year for Mubarak, more like a sinusoidal wave, first, it was a flat line - boring routine, then it was rooftop terrific, then it became borderline insane and right now he was disgusting. So, yes, his year had been graphically a tidal wave. 5 He had found the love of his life, and even left his former life because she was the keeper. And then he lost her. Now he had to stare at the love of his life across the family dinner table, clinging to his brother, smiling up at his brother. Seeking assurance, protection and support. All that he had once promised to give her. The promise of a beautiful future. It wouldn't have pained a lot if she wasn't seeking all those against him. 23 Something singed within him. 8 Shifting his gaze a few short inches to his left he found his brother, Bilaal. He would bet his BMW their hands were intertwined underneath the table. The thought made him drop his spoon making it clatter on the marble floor, the sound jarring.42 Taking a sharp intake of breath, he distantly heard his mother telling him to be careful. He bent to pick it up, peeking under the table and almost sobbed in agony and defeat, he was staring at his worse nightmare. Their fingers were indeed twined into each other's, just beneath the table in the presence of the whole family. Right in his face, their joined hands were glaring at him. Shoving it to his face that they got the world.89 His world. 17 The unfortunate thing was, he couldn't do a thing about it because the love of his life was now his brother's wife. Yet, here he sat across the dining table languidly staring at her, his eyes sure, unblinking and intimidating as heck, hoping to pin her down with a look that would elicit guilt within her. But her eyes fell on their joined hands, and for a moment... Just for a moment, Mubarak thought how soft her hand must have felt against his brother's, but he wouldn't know that because she had never let him touched her hand. 4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Yeah, definitely the most disgusting man ever to live on the face of the earth, considering his brother was also the brotherly love of his life. 4 God! This was too much. He looked away, and asked for the pitcher of water, he felt the little jug would do nothing to quench his burning heart. 8 But his mother wouldn't even pass the jug to him. To his left his youngest sister, Wafiyya ate without a care what was going on around her. The long walnut dining table put his father at the other end.5 "We'll make a stop at Durban first, so the number of days depends on what we conclude with the Regional managers." "Baban Mubarak, I believe you can tell us all about the meeting after dinner." Hajiya Kulthum had a thing about segregating business talks and family discuss on her dinner table. It was off limits. Mubarak didn't blame her, with two sons and a husband who worked in the same firm, the last thing she wanted was hearing about a lease, procurement acquisition and lands around her beautifully moulded tuwo, or her exotic Thai cuisine. And with the thick bone of contention that was always there like the elephant in the room with his family, there was almost nothing left to discuss whenever they got around to talking. Except for Real estate. 4 Right now, Mubarak was aware that his father's 'business trip talk' was directed at their mother and he wasn't involved in the conversation, so he assumed that was his welcome note.2 He could feel the unease emanating from the tension that laden the room. Every clink of spoon intensified it. 3 Mubarak had just been back from his little jaunt, a trip that threw them all in their present quandary. And now here he was the one without the woman. All thanks to the little act he had pulled off on his wedding day. 8 The wedding day. 2 He would give all he owned as ransom to forget the events of that day, the action and reaction, the feelings. Ya Allah, the feelings were awful. He had died a thousand deaths. 2 Mubarak pushed back his chair and stood from the table, leaving half of his couscous and lamb tagine untouched. It was a miracle he still hadn't exploded, but one more smile from his brother, Bilaal, to his precious porcelain beauty of a wife, Sa'imah, would be his trigger. 14 Sa'imah... Ya Allah! The name alone did things to him he had no idea a name could do that to the heart of a two-hundred-pound-man. 18 He didn't think his father- who had been moving the conversation all evening- or Hajiya- his still scalded mother- would offer to mop up his remains off the floors of the dining room. No thank you. 4 No explosions tonight.4 He walked out to his room, an extension, east of the family room on the ground floor. The stark white interior of the room did nothing to brighten his mood. A light breeze picked up the sheer curtains that flowed down the tall windows. Mubarak walked over there, hoping the breeze could ease him up. 1 She couldn't have fallen in love with his brother that fast, could she? It had just been a little over a month. How long had it taken for him to realize that he was in love with her? An hour? A day? The moment he realized the fierce need in him to go back and soothe away the pain he saw in those doe eyes, to protect her in the secretary's office in WAS corporation, South Korea, that was the moment he knew something new was happening to him. Something that had never happened to him that strongly before. 11 But it was all in the past now. The only problem? Mubarak was still consumed by her. He didn't know what got to him, he always told himself he wouldn't lose control ever again, but that pep talk always got thrown out the window whenever he came face to face with her. Which, from the look of things was going to keep happening an awful lot of times.4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW He pulled the thick grey drapes over the sheer curtain. His nerves needed more air than this to cool off. Pacing the room, he couldn't think of any way out at the moment. He had no idea what a stronghold she had on him, until now, now that he couldn't turn around even for his brother's sake, and that was, to say the least considering his brother was his life. He couldn't help but think things may work out, there must be a way out. And tonight when he was sure of his earlier doubts -they weren't as close as they were letting on to the world- hand holding be damned, he felt his hope surge forward. He sounded pathetic even to himself, but love was pathetic and so was his life. 2 He brought his phone out, the action took an effort, but for what he had in mind, he needed to feel the weight of his deeds. He drafted a message. For her. "You belong to me, trust me he was forced into this, he doesn't want this nor does he want you, he is my brother I know him more than you do, don't say I didn't warn you."24 When he hit send he knew he deserved to be shot.24 **** Mubarak's head hurt a lot, he hadn't slept much the previous night. All he could see when he closed his eyes was his new nightmare-turned-reality. When his mother told him there was a family dinner the previous day, he had never anticipated she meant the whole family, new members inclusive. But he showed face, right at the moment his brother and Sa'ima had made an entrance. All that flooded his head was the peach Jilbaab, Sa'ima was wearing. She looked everything-he-wasn't-supposed-to-think-of-his-brother's-wife to be.6 Argh! He needed some air, he couldn't go on like this, especially if he was going to stay within the house, especially if he was ever going to get back into his mother's good books. 2 He needed to see his mother and try his possible best not to be an idiot in her presence. That was what his parents had been calling him since his precipitate return to the house two days ago. He had been back in the City for more than a week but stayed at a hotel, until he came up with a plan. The plan they still hadn't come around to hearing any of. Yet. Which he had an intention of changing before sunset by the will of Allah. 2 Showered, he dressed in a dark grey three-piece-suit and a crisp white shirt beneath. His eyes scanned the drawer that housed his ties. He went with a silver tie and a matching square that had thin slanted stripes on it. It was his first day back at work, he needed to dress to impress. He finished off with his perfume. 4 He didn't bother with his bed, coming from his room he headed straight to the back doors that led him to the massive transitional-style kitchen, his mother's domain. The Bugaje mansion with over ten rooms and two floors was spread on a five hectares of land in Kensington. The mansion was one of his father's masterpieces. At sixty-three, Umar Bugaje still lived with standards, and the architect in him was all for lavish designs. 8 His mother's kitchen was his favourite part of the house, most of their beautiful moments as a family came from that room. The aroma of lemongrass and ginger filled his nostrils when he came in. The brew of which his mother- sitting under the bright morning sun that streamed through the large french windowpanes of the kitchen- sipped from. She sat there fair, wise, glowing with kind eyes and slightly aged.7 His brows furrowed, he was sure the little stunt he had pulled off had placed those shadows under her eyes, he wished he could turn back the hands of time and do everything right, but this was what he had, and he was going to make the best out of it. 4 "Assalamu alaikum," he greeted, standing next to her little white three-seat wicker nook bench. Her favourite sitting spot in the kitchen. The breakfast corner. He took one of the grey suede winged-back chairs opposite her and sat. 2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Hajiya Kulthum paused from her book, only to answer him in a demure tone. And her face was pressed nose-deep back into her literature. He knew better not to interrupt her new quest. As it was, he would be late for work, and his father was the last person he wanted to be at a crossroad with. Not on this day. He took his leave, hoping to catch her early in the evening. But she was out when he got home, a repercussion for staying off work without notice. It felt as if his father had cached all his leftover work for him to get on once he returned. And from the workload he found, Bugaje senior had done it with vengeance. He hated that they knew he would return, yet they took control of his life before he did.7 *** The next morning marked Mubarak's second official day at work, he glanced at his still unpacked bag sitting next to the foot of his bed and made a mental note of doing something about it once he returned home. He made a stop at the light-filled kitchen to refill his coffee in his travel mug and left. Despite having several sips from his mug, he was still not quite awake. He wondered how some people did it, and still be active and productive. He, on the other hand, was always late but thank God for a quick save he managed to be a bit productive. A bit didn't cut it with his father. With his father, it was either all or nothing. 3 Which was why when he parked his BMW in the basement of the office building, he hurried to the bank of elevators, absently greeting the receptionist and the doorman. His hand held a folder that would no doubt be his work for the whole day. He loved his work but long-term structural plans weren't on top of his favourite things to work on. 4 His messenger bag was strapped across his chest. As the Chief legal officer at Bruno and Bugaje real estate and investment group headquarters in London Mubarak Bugaje was saddled with a lot of confidential responsibilities. His bosses, his father being the Director, counted on him to always deliver. He had never let them down for the nine years he had worked with the firm- until he took the jaunt.2 He brushed his hand over his curly Fulani hair, rubbing his nape to ease the tension there. The elevator dinged at his arrival on his father's floor. He wasn't surprised to find his father's assistant waiting, almost biting her nails off, near the bank of elevators. Mubarak smiled at the middle-aged brunette with a perennial smiling face. He exuded an irresistible charm that always worked with her. Only this morning her smile was dimmed by...6 "Boy, you really need to step up your timing game. Stop riling up the boss in the morning." "Good morning, Hannah." He said, beaming at her, cheerful as always. He received a glare and a folder from her, and she didn't bother answering his greetings. "He becomes difficult when he gets grouchy in the morning..." She turned to look at him briefly. "God, you look... awful. What have you done to yourself? Look at your eyes!" "Thank you. I'm rebooting."17 The left elevator chimed, just as a couple of men walked out. Mubarak winked at Hannah. She stopped at her desk in the medium chrome-outfitted office. "Thank you. I guess that is how people who get dragged out of bed by their bosses early in the mornings tend to look like."2 "It is 10 am. We start work at 8:30 here." His hand was on the door when she called out. "Mobarak, he is... touchy." A pulse leapt at his temple. "Thanks for the heads-up." He said. The large frosted glass door that shielded the office was itself as intimidating as the man sitting behind the door. Saying a little prayer, he turned the handle. The cold interior greeted him, sunlight illuminated the room through the floor to ceiling windows that lined the two sides of the corner office overlooking the square mile. STORY CONTINUES BELOW His father's dark eyes met his from across the room. Dressed in a navy jacket suit with a crisp white shirt beneath it. Umar Bugaje was made of coarse material. His dark looks a dominating presence in every room. Mubarak eased off a button from his suit jacket. 2 "Assalamu alaikum, Baba." "Wa alaikumussalam." Umar Bugaje dropped his pen and leaned back, sitting straight against his power chair. "Do you wish to terminate your employment with us?"8 Okay, grouchy was an understatement Hannah, this was a full-blown fuse. "No, I'm sorry, I had a headache, slept in late." He stopped in front of the sleek executive desk that covered a good size of the large office. Bruno and Bugaje didn't settle for less, which was why even their offices were designed to match their reputation. 2 "Do you have the drafts?" The drafts. "Yes, uh... here. We still need to review the Mittal's contract. My team and I are on it." His father's gaze was still unfaltering when he kept the folders on the desk and took a seat in one of the visitors chairs placed in front of it. "Good, try to stay employed until then. Where are we with Leeds?"4 "I've set up a meeting with them to see if they are good with our terms. Long-term will be good with Leeds." "I want a direct report on that." "Yes, sir." Mubarak liked to keep things strictly professional when at work, most of the times he had to resort to calling his father anything but Baba. He nodded and rose to leave, he was almost at the door when his father called out to him. "Try and talk to your mother while you are at it."2 That made him turn around completely. That was unexpected coming from his father, this only meant either of two things, either he meant he needed none of his explanations to believe him, or it meant he was exempting himself from this talk, which would be horrible if that were the case. He looked at him thoughtfully then thanked him and walked out of the office. 4 *** When next he stopped by his mother's room for 'the talk', Hajiya Kulthum his lovely mother still incensed, had increased the volume of her Qur'an reciter, some Qaari reciting with a beautiful Tangheem went on and on, he had no choice than to leave her to it. 10 He needed to have a talk with his mother, there was an imminent risk of an explosion about to take place if he didn't. 2 When he found her in her usual spot the next morning, he greeted her with a salaam and pulled out the winged-back chair. He sat facing his mother and took her reciter to turn it off. "Hajiya, I get it. I don't deserve to be heard, but for Allah's sake, for your sake. Give me a chance to say a word. Just one word, okay maybe two or three. But I promise you I'll be out of your hair. For Allah's sake, Hajiya."2 Now her eyes softened, she closed them briefly, exhaled and looked up, he knew it was difficult for her to consider his plea. But if she did, he would forever be grateful, even he wouldn't forgive himself for what he did. 4 "You have one minute and then you are out of this place." "Ten seconds will do." She gave him a hard glare, which he deserved, seeing that from her viewpoint, he might as well have told her that he had ruined three lives for something as trivial as a ten-second excuse. 8 "Sorry."4 "Your time is almost up, young man." "Hajiya, you raised me." When she fixed her gaze on him, waiting in anticipation on him, nonchalantly he rose his dark brows with a shrug. He wished there was more he could tell her, but at this point, he didn't think he could tell her anything without ruining everything more than it had already been ruined. 4 "That's it?"2 He nodded. Hoping as much as he loved to take his next breath that she knew who she raised. The only problem was, she wouldn't reconcile the boy she had raised with the man that was her culprit today. 2 "Please give me that Hajiya, you know me, you know who you raised, if I tell you that, can you have it in your heart to forgive me the pain I caused you? It is irreparable I know, and selfish of me to ask, but for your love and mercy Hajiya wallahi I'm selfish, and I'm not ashamed of that. Please forgive me, you raised me and that's all I'm asking you to give me. Believe in this person you raised."4 "How can you say that? The man I raised wouldn't hurt an ant. Do you have any idea what your actions have caused? Bilaal had to..."2 "I know, I know, I'm sorry, and I'll fix everything. I promise I'll fix it, the last thing I want is Bilaal to suffer because of my actions. I will right my wrong."7 "You'd better." She said and she was up. Her leaving the kitchen was the second hardest thing Mubarak had to witness after that doomed wedding day. The first of course was seeing Sa'ima with Bilaal, or Sa'ima in Bilaal's house, or Sa'ima in any of his thoughts. 12 Having these thoughts, Mubarak knew his day would really be awful. Now he had to see her to appease his mind, his sanity.4 No, he needed to stay away, but if only his heart told him the same, it would have been easier to pay heed. *** When Mubarak saw Sa'ima again, staying away was the last thing he wanted to do. He approached her, caging her right in his mother's domain. First in his sister's room then at the firm, he hadn't slept much that night. When next he saw her, he had lost himself and he just wanted to take her out of his head and out of his system.11 Why was he finding such a single act so much difficult to do?Maybe it was because he still had a chance with her? He knew it was not too late for her to leave his brother. He had looked it up, according to the shari'ah, she wouldn't be off limits to him, if his brother released her. He knew his brother was just being kind to her, he couldn't have started loving her in just a few weeks.19 She could come to an agreement with Bilaal and he would release her honourably, he saw it in her eyes, that evening when he came into the house and found them preparing dinner with Hajiya and his sister Wafiya, she was as aware of him as he was of her, yes he saw fear too, but he understood it must be from the guilt of still having feelings for him while she was married to his brother. But he told her to talk to Bilaal, if only she had done so, this would all be over. 20 He knew they would be okay. 3 Mubarak stood at the kitchen doorway, partially leaning on the mahogany that framed the entrance as he watched her do everything with arresting precision, how she measured the mayonnaise from the jar, into a bowl, added a squeeze of lemon to it, sprinkled some salt, and a crush of black pepper. Every movement of hers synched with a feeling within him, subtle, squeezing, fierce, crushing and undulating... a deep feeling, enough for him to make her see reason. 26 He still remembered the phone call he got from her father on their wedding eve. And as he watched her now it ached a lot, not being able to relate everything to her. 8 He had started losing it during the past few days that he had been back in London, at some point he felt like losing it all. Scratch that, he was losing it all now.10 Mubarak continued to watch as Sa'ima transferred the salad dressing into a container, she moved to the refrigerator, her red veil deftly covering her head, trailing after her. She looked so angelic, pure, innocent making his heart hitch in his chest. So he moved, covering the tormenting distance between them. When she closed the refrigerator door he was standing next to her, immediately making her eyes dilate with fear. He hated that he put that in her. He wanted to touch her so bad it hurt. 22 The container she held dropped to the floor and she quickly averted her eyes to the mess. He saw the slight tremble of her jaw before she scrambled to pick it up. Leaning on the counter beside him to brace himself Mubarak watched her, giving her time to calm down. He didn't want to put her in a fix. Why was she so scared of him? 4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "Leave it, it's acrylic and it's unbreakable."3 She looked up fiercely, he saw her throat work and fear clearly written in her eyes, "I will not talk to you, leave."4 This was crazy, he knew he should leave her but he didn't. He couldn't. He needed to do something, get something, find a solid ground to hold on to. He held on to something and it moved, soft, delicate, beneath his hold, and he was soon breathing down her face. 4 "You have not relayed my message." He said, his teeth gritting against each other, her back was now against the refrigerator. He was so mad, but his subject of aggression was still unknown to him. He couldn't figure if he was mad at her, or his brother or himself for leaving. 16 She looked right into his eyes, and that fear was gone. It was replaced by rage. "Why don't you do it yourself, you think you scaring me off will make me panic and submit to your whims?"8 "You have betrayed our deal, you said you were going to talk to him, you can't do this." Why didn't she do it? Was she now okay with being Bilaal's wife? Ya Allah, this was draining.20 "Mubarak, are you drunk? If you are it is such a pity, and if you are not I will like to inform you that you can do the task yourself, your brother is also in this house and he can walk in right now, I don't think you want him to see you squaring his wife like this." He could tell she was bluffing, but she still hadn't given him a sign for him to know that he still had a chance with her. 4 A pain stabbed his chest and he ground his teeth together, he stood feet apart still caging her.9 "I know you haven't told him, I don't know what else you've said to him to make him believe you. But unless you are still playing his head he will find out soon enough. Or I can do us both a favour and tell him everything, what do you say about that?" 5 He hated doing this, he hated her father more. 7 "Why? I can do the honours myself, my husband is my confidant, I'd like to tell you that I have kept nothing from him, and I'll like to see you try to break my home, if you think you're going to keep threatening me with this for me to say yes to you then you are highly delusional. That would happen only in your sick dream, but I am too priceless even for that. I only appear in the noblest of dreams, not trashy ones, I will only appear as a nightmare to you, Mubarak Bugaje."33 Mubarak's eyes softened, so did his stance, he was leaving a breathing room now between them, "I knew it, you've not breathed it to him, this is just a bluff." He leaned in closer to her, his lips right next to her ear. Her eyes widened, and he could tell the fear was back. 8 He was suddenly consumed by her, he could only smell her perfume, a fruity scent, that left him giddy for more, wrong, wrong, wrong. But oh so right! "I'm going to have you first before he does. Then I will see how your claim of nobility goes. Hmm?" He let his thumb trail the side of her jaw, and went down tracing the curve of her lips, he didn't know why he was doing this. But he wasn't even thinking until she pushed his hand away from her.28 Then placed her hands on his chest and shoved him with all her might, he moved because she had caught him unawares. 9 Mubarak bent down holding his knees, what had just possessed him, to act the way he did? He wasn't that much of a monster to behave in such a way, that too with his brother's wife. Ya Allah, it hurt a lot. A tear dropped from his eyes. 20 A movement caught his eyes and he turned to meet his younger brother's hard gaze on him. Salis. He had no idea his brother was home, not that he cared if anyone witnessed what just happened. They'd all caused this misery upon him. 9 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "That was not right Ya Mubarak, how could you let this consume you? Please let go of her. I know it was a hasty decision to get them married before you give your reasons, but she is now Ya Bilaal's you need to keep your distance, you know what will happen if Hajiya hears about this, and worse if Ya Bilaal seesQ you cornering his wife."11 Mubarak glared at Salis, at twenty-five, his little brother liked to think of himself as the counsellor in the family. That was not going to cut it with him. Anyone who would ask him to leave Sa'ima was his sworn enemy, they had no idea what it took for him to leave her that day, on their wedding day. With the hope that when it was all over he would come back and explain things to her only for him to hear that the wedding had taken place. With his brother. 40 It hurt him that she wouldn't trust him enough to wait and hear from him. His eyes gleamed with tears. It hurt him that he could do this to his blood. It hurt him that his brother would do this to him, despite knowing how he felt about her. 3 But then he had sent that damning message to his brother on the wedding morning. A one-liner that changed their lives. "I'm sorry, I can't do this," it said. 2 "Leave." Mubarak now sneered at his brother. When Salis stared agape at him, he decided to leave the space for him. No one would get to him, not even himself, which was why it would be better if he shut everyone out. 15 He headed to his room and fired up his computer after a detour to his praying corner, hopefully for the first time if he ordered his brain to focus on something, it may do just that.4 ***** Mubarak had succeeded in shutting things out of his head for a while after he performed an ablution and prayed two units of prayers, seeking Allah's forgiveness for what he just did. He sat on the bed with his laptop. Just then he jerked up from his work, to see the storm that threatened to knock his door off its hinges. Keeping his computer off his laps, he straightened to his full height to look at the intruder, but it was already too late before he saw it coming, it had landed hard on his face, his whole being resonated upon the impact. It took a while for him to orient himself after the most hurtful physical blow he had ever taken, landed on his face. 8 Bilaal!33 Mubarak staggered on his feet his neck twisted from the pain, and his face bore the brunt of the burn. Somehow he wasn't surprised to see his brother there, outraged. He had hoped so for a while. As weird as it sounded even to himself. 4 He held his hand to his face nursing the blow, it would definitely bruise. An awful bruise. Moving his jaws to make sure they were still in place; he contemplated leaving the room, but something inside him had snapped, Bilaal had no right to do what he did. Not now, not when he should have known better. He lunged forward. Giving his brother a taste of his own medicine.6 None of them was relenting from the scuffle. Right and left hooks and jabs exchanged, a couple of choke-holds later, Bilaal panted.2 "That was for touching my wife. You back off from her, Sa'ima is now mine and if you are a Milquetoast to face the reality then I'm sorry to say this but you need to grow up already and be a man. I don't have to tell you the implications of what you are doing you already know that. But this will be the last time you come near my wife with whatever face. She is off limits.36 If you still loved her why did you leave her in the first place, huh? Is it some kind of sick joke to you? Just for the thrill, because you are too insensitive to care about other people's feelings? How could you even do that? She is my wife!"9 That first blow hadn't hurt as much as these words hurt coming from his brother, how could he? They loved each other, they left things for each other. they sacrificed everything and anything for each other, yet the one time he told him he couldn't do it, his brother had let off his back and went on to love the one woman he was only capable of loving. No, little brother what you did was unfair, I was wrong, but you weren't a saint either. 13 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Mubarak smirked at his brother, "I see someone is entwined with love." he said, flicking the collar of his shirt, he had always dangled the bone in front of his brother, and he always took the bait. He wouldn't miss this for the life of him. Even if it was the only way he could get back at him. "How is she, little brother? Is she that good, making you throw jabs like that, she must have really gotten you hooked. But it's not your fault her beauty does tha.." 9 He only saw the shadows, before Bilaal shoved him with his shoulder throwing him off balance, something cracked within him, making him frunt, it hurt like crazy. He grunted. He was on his back when Bilaal went down on him straddling him. His knuckles met his midriff hitting him just below his rib-cage, God! Since when did his brother pack some mean punches like that? Damn! Sa'i, what an excellent muse you are.19 He had had enough, that was all he was giving Bilaal, he should let it all out, if it were him, he would do worse knowing someone had come close to touching his woman, which was what he just did this evening.4 God! I'm an awful human. 6 He hit solid beneath his feet, bracing his legs on the bedside, Mubarak pushed back and sat up, he gripped Bilaal in a choke-hold across the shoulders and this time around the brothers exercised their strength as no one was willing to back down. They tumbled about the marbled and carpeted floor, thrashing anything and everything in the wake of their frustration. 7 The room was in shambles when they both sat at the opposite ends of the room; panting, gasping for air. 9 Mubarak wheezed, out of breath, darn he should have had this on tape. What would his brother think if he asked for a rematch? "Great... work...out, it's been long," he said, stretching his neck to loosen a knot there. 5 "Bully, you throw a mean punch," Bilaal said, glaring at him, his hand bracing his left arm to relieve his injured shoulder from its weight. Yes, he had to tend to that one, Mubarak was aware of how bad that pull would be before he made his move. 3 Yes, definitely a disgusting, mean, awful human. 2 "I have to go to the clinic for my jaw, I think you've dislocated something there, gosh what on earth has possessed you?" Mubarak mumbled in apparent pain, he turned wincing, looking at where his brother sat on the floor his back against the wall, with one outstretched leg and one bent knee. 8 He narrowed his eyes into slits, "I think you should come with me too, you are going to have someone look at that shoulder of yours." He breathed heavily before he let out a harsh laugh, "By the way. Is she worth it?" he grunted, the pain becoming more prominent in his jaw.5 Bilaal's forehead creased. "If she is worth you throwing punches at me, then imagine what she is worth to her husband. She is rightfully mine, hence she is not yours to chat up, threaten, or freaking touch. Keep your hands to yourself, brother. Trust me there would be blood the next time you try something like that." 25 Nice one, keep telling me that, don't you think I know? What do you think made me resort to hitting you, dummy? I was there first and you had to lay claim on her before me, idiot, suck it up, you hijacked my girl, when I was indisposed. Well more like saving the world. Same difference.14 He sounded whiny even to himself, so he didn't bother vocalizing any of that, instead Mubarak tasted the salt and iron in his mouth "Mean, you have me splattering blood already." Shifting to the left, he dug out a facial tissue from his jeans pocket and spat saliva mixed with blood onto it. "She is strong alright. You want me to let you in on a little secret?" 2 Bilaal didn't even flinch.2 "You won't respond anyway, so I am just going to say it. She didn't crack, not even once. And trust me I have been very persuasive."2 "This is all a game for you, right?" Bilaal asked, his nose flaring with the residue of his rage.2 "Not as it is for you." Bilaal stilled, looking back at him. Mubarak gave him a knowing smirk, "Oh don't you think I know what you are playing at? What you did there?" Bilaal lunged at him again this time targeting his nose. Gosh! This was the most brutal of all. He thought he might have just pissed his pants. 10 "Ouch! What the heck... " Mubarak grunted, clenching his nose agonizingly, he rolled on the floor, looking up with a bloody nose and smiled, "Don't worry your secret is safe with me." He winked at Bilaal and rose from the floor. That was for special effects, he had no intention of divulging such secrets, but since they were in the zone his brother should have it too.7 "Go and get her, those wounds won't heal on their own, you have her at least to nurse them for you." But then he couldn't help it, so he smiled and added "For now." he clicked his tongue against his cheek.11 Bilaal glared at him and got up from his position painfully. He walked to Mubarak's closet, took a fresh shirt and peeled what was left of his ruined green shirt from his sore body. He flung the shirt over his shoulders, which made him grunt in pain. He worked the buttons fast without his gaze straying from Mubarak's. 2 That was when Mubarak's eyes landed on the shirt that just slipped up his brother's arm. "You took the white one!" he bellowed.2 Bilaal pulled the sleeves down, putting the cuff buttons in place, "Next time think before you ruin my green shirt!"14 He didn't know why his brother was so obsessed about the orderliness of things, but he knew one thing, you want to piss off Bilaal, ruin his stack of things. You want to ruin his night, borrow his shirts. 2 Now for him, it was a different story, You want to piss Mubarak off? Take his girl, and his brother had not only taken his girl, but he had also married her and made her fall in love with him. That was the biggest blow life had ever dealt him. And now he was sore all over. First, he needed a hot shower then he needed to hit the clinic, he could use his advice himself.7 Then he would have a serious talk with his heart and brain. His heart needed to take the back seat.22 **** PRESENT DAY + MAY, 2007 Maryam had just hung her towel over the wooden bathroom door to air when she heard the knock on her bedroom door. Thankful she had just worn her old black and grey Pakistani trouser and shirt, so she picked up her scarf and draped it. 2 "No, Sury, let me take it to her. You will drop it."2 She heard the hushed voices, and tamped her laughter down, those two were at it again. Maryam swung the door open, making them both straighten up, Surayya and Nafeesah stared back at her with widened eyes. It was almost 7 pm, and Nafeesah was back after she had left earlier with a curt "I'll be right back" In Nafeesah's definition that meant, "I'll show up but don't wait up."2 Poor Uncle J must have been dragged out of the house for this mission. Nafeesah lived in an estate ten-minutes away from Maryam's house since their move after 'the dip'. 4 That didn't dampen their frequent rate of visits to eachother's house. Now they glanced over their shoulders checking to see if someone was in the hallways when they saw that it was clear, they barged into the room. Nafeesah closed the door behind them. Surayya ploughed straight to her own bed. 2 "Alright girls, now will be the time to tell me if I am safe." Maryam said, following them each with a pinned look. "What are you hiding Feenah, I don't like pranks. And I especially hate yours."6 "Okay, this isn't a prank, just a little something from us, I just thought I should give you this." Maryam's eyes widened as Nafeesah produced a white box, presenting her with it. "By the way, this isn't a 'forget me not' gift."4 Maryam rolled her eyes, "Who wants that from you? You are going to invade my dreams anyway. But you really didn't have to do anything for me."4 Nafeesah shoved the box into her hands. Maryam's mouth hung open, it was an electronic organizer, with handwriting interface attached, meant to take a quick note or ideas. 5 "You know Uncle J and his gadgets, he gave it to me, and you are the one who is serious about this writing stuff so it may come in handy for you. You have to read the manual to figure it out though I know nothing about this stuff."7 Maryam cut her off by pulling her into a tight hug. "Thank you so much, this is so thoughtful of you."4 "Please ladies, do you need a handkerchief? Because I really can't stand your tears." They turned to Surayya, who had been watching them from where she lay on her bed which was next to Maryam's. 2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "Alright, now what have we got here? I see you are ready to fill in the giant bag." Maryam followed Nafeesah's gaze to the edge of her bed, where all the packages lay scattered. She closed her eyes in abject humiliation. 2 "Are those...?" Nafeesah started. Maryam quickly turned to Surayyah. Whose eyes were now focused on the subject of distress in the room. "I'm just going to see what Tim-Tim is up to," Surayya said, eyes still wide and was out of the room in a second. Nafeesah and Maryam both turned to look at the scattered packages, her mother must have brought them to her when she was in the bathroom, Maryam thought. 2 "I can't believe this!" she said as she kept all the creams aside, "I can't believe this, Ya Rabbi..." She refused to let the tears flow, instead, she turned to Nafeesah, "Remind me to ask Baba if Mama is really my mother, because right now I am having a serious doubt about it."23 "Maryam, forget about these, what would a mere cream in a tube do to you? They are just creams. It won't hurt, maybe it is just her way of showing her love."6 Maryam turned to face Nafeesah, who was shorter than her by several inches, fair-skinned, with a round face, round eyes and pink lips that popped her complexion. Nafeesah was one of those girls who wouldn't find it difficult to get anything their size at the market, which wouldn't surprise Maryam if her best friend thought her mother's intentions were pure. 4 Nafeesah wasn't a shocking beauty, but she got what it took for a man to seek her number in a gathering full of pretty young girls. Maryam had never felt diminished or intimidated by her presence, people called her pretty herself, most of the time people called her that Maryam felt like it was an insult. 4 They put her feelings to confirmation after they saw beyond her face. Now with Nafeesah, it was a different case, she liked hanging out with her because she was her sole support system sometimes she even got into real trouble for her. Despite all odds, their friendship only grew stronger.2 Nafeesah was of the rare types that would stand by one when they were ridiculed behind their backs. That was exactly what Nafeesah always did for her. If a stranger could do that to her, why then would her own mother find it difficult to do such? Heaving a sigh, Maryam responded to her friend. 2 "Or maybe she is just sick and she wants to keep me trapped, in her quest to make me someone I'm not."8 Nafeesah's eyes widened at that. "That is harsh. You do realize you are talking about Mama?"5 Maryam dropped a bottle of lotion with a thud. "I know, Feenah, don't you think I know? Life is harsh. Up until she started it, I had never been bothered about it all, well I was bothered a little bit. But she made it a big deal. Now my mother is obsessed with everything in a tube or in a powdered form, she even gave me a sackful of rice powder concocted with plantain and God-knows-what. Am I going to hell because I haven't grown a set? Why doesn't she leave me alone? It isn't happening. So what! Nobody even cares."39 "She is just worried, Maryam." Nafeesah tried to console her friend and also keep a balance, she understood where the two were both coming from. Her friend wanted to be left alone to deal with all that was going on around her. And her mother was pushing her, thinking she was helping matters. Not knowing her way of caring was what was making it all worse. 2 "Say what, let's pack all these in a bag and once you go there you decide if you want to grow a set or not. If you do then chuck them down if you don't then throw them down the bridge for all you care. But for her sake and the efforts she put in procuring these for you, don't dump it in her trash. Please." Nafeesah scrunched up her face, pleading with her.24 STORY CONTINUES BELOW She looked too adorable for Maryam to burst her bubbles. "Okay, done. Do or ditch. I get it, I can do this. Only because you say so."2 "That's like my girl. Now push them to me, let's bag'em up. One day we are going to write a cream story. Or create a factory for those. I can come up with a brand name."4 "Try nosy-mothers," Maryam said and they both laughed. 11 While Nafeesah was packing the creams and tabs, Maryam's only thought was, may Allah make her not die from them. She'd rather die from hitting her head on a headboard or in her sleep or maybe on the flight to London than from some tissue enlargement cream. Ya Allah, why was she so obsessed with death?!79 Now she was to leave in a few hours. Her father would drive her to Abuja where she would board her flight the next day. And it surprised her how much she was going to miss being here. 2 She thought she had nothing to lose, but then she had her sisters, her friends, her father, even though he wasn't her favourite person right now, she would miss him like crazy. She may be happy to get out of her mother's scrutiny too, but she would surely miss her and her bottom pot jollof rice. 12 One thing she looked forward to in London was the anonymity of it all, no one would spare her odd glances, because no one knew her and no one would care about her. Yes, that was liberation. 6 She packed her charger and laptop in her backpack since it wasn't occupied by her clothes anymore. 2 And she was all set. **** "Yaaya Mimie, are you taking your drafts with you?" Surayya came into the room the next morning holding two long notebooks under her hijab. After Nafeesah had left last night, they didn't get a chance to talk more, they all went to bed late. And this morning, the house woke with the excitement of her departure. "Uhm, no keep those for me, I've packed my laptop."6 Surayya was quiet, she could see how withdrawn her sister had become, which was so unlike her usual bubbly self, she took a step towards her. "You're still thinking about it Yaaya Mimie. You should stop worrying, all will be good in sha Allah, it is just a flight."4 Maryam scoffed. "You know that is the least of my concerns." Yes, Surayya knew if her sister was anything then fearful was not that thing. She had seen her in action, after all. 2 "Now, what are you going to do?" "Well, we have to see what 'Europe' offers."4 They both laughed. "You can tell them, Yaaya Mimie." Maryam shook her head. "There is a reason they are the parents if they think this is good for me, then Europe, here comes Daaso."17 Surayya hugged her unexpectedly. And before she could pry her hands off of her, she was crying making Maryam freeze, Surayya was not a crier. 2 "We love you, you know that right? We truly appreciate you. And I know you will make an amazing wife and an amazing student. So go kill it." She smiled, holding back more tears. "Not Ya Mubarak, please." She added quickly. 10 Maryam laughed, thumbing away her sister's tears. "Trust me, I am not getting involved with him."6 "Please, by all means, do get involved, and give us a call ASAP we will be here doing all the planning. I have a theme set out for your wedding walima. I know you are not all for the dinner and what not. So I got you covered."4 Maryam laughed, At nineteen her sister Surayya was so in love with the idea of marriage. She had always planned and dreamed, she had a catalogue of everything she wanted in her wedding, each had three backups. Maryam wondered if she would have to choose four grooms for her to pull all that off. 5 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Despite her fantasy-marriage dreams, she was an easy-going girl who would never be caught crying, she was tough and soothed the family when the need arose, which was why Maryam was surprised when she had cried earlier. Maryam took her handbag and headed for the door. She was fearless. She reminded herself.4 *** Surayya helped Maryam take the first bag out to the living room. She was going to miss their modest four-bedroom house. She was going to miss the entire Unguwar Alkali, there wouldn't be any place in the world as cosy as Unguwar Alkali. Where there was no demarcation of where one house started and one ended. Home to her ancestors. The only home she had ever known. Well, since 'the dip'. 22 Zubaida her second younger sister took the backpack from her. And Maryam was bombarded with a hug from her side, it was Fatimah their youngest. Maryam would miss her most, she had practically raised her. Now fourteen, Fatima still behaved like her baby sometimes. Coming to her with all her girl-troubles, looking up to her. All her sisters took after their mother in looks. 9 They possessed such a shimmering elegance people envied. 2 Maryam, on the other hand, wasn't that lucky, she got away with slanted light eyes instead of their dark almond-shaped ones. While they were all fair she had her grandfather's dark skin. She loved her skin, she liked to tell people how unique she was, coming from fair parents. But of course, sometimes she was just consoling herself. 34 It got odd having to explain why a person would come out black from two fair parents, some people even gave her a look, questioning her paternity. She had seen them all. But her sisters had always been one thing she wouldn't trade the world for.5 "Yaaya Mimie, I'm going to miss you forever and ever." Fatima sobbed. 4 Maryam's eyes widened, she peeled her sister off her. "Hey, Tim-Tim, Who said I was going away forever and ever? I'm not." "They said you are getting married."2 "Yes, but hello, I have my father's house, I am coming back here for the wedding to take place, it isn't like the wedding has been finalized. So calm down and be rest assured. You still got me." Zubaida rolled her eyes, "You're stifling the queue Yaa Mimie, just do it already! Some people can't wait."13 Maryam smacked her head, laughing she knew she was pulling Surayya's legs. "You can overtake, you know. I'm in no hurry."4 Zubaida, on the other hand, was the bookish one amongst them all, the brainy of the house, her nose was always buried in-between books. The world would topple and she wouldn't even blink from her book. She saved her pocket money to buy literature, just as Surayya spent the same for wedding magazines. When she was in the mood she liked to take a jab at Surayya her immediate older sibling, sometimes she didn't spare Maryam too. 6 And there was Fatima the baby of the family. She gave a hard bargain when it came to affection and attention-seeking as she was Mama and Baba's favourite. With her cherub cheeks and fast-developed body, she was nicknamed Tim-Tim derived from FaTima serving both purposes. She was also close to Maryam, for all her whining she went to their parents, but for solution-seeking problems, she always knew Maryam was her way out. 2 "But Mama has bought Kolanuts saying it is for your wedding," Fatima said.16 Maryam's eyes slid to their mother's bedroom door, which was second on the left from the small living room they were all huddled in. They'd been waiting for their mother to see her off. Her father would drive them to Abuja first, where they would spend the night there to catch the morning flight that would leave the next day. But her sister's declaration jolted Maryam. 2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW She was at her mother's door within a moment. Sure enough, her mother was pushing cartons and brown wraps that looked suspiciously like sacks of kola nuts to the side of her bedside refrigerator when she went in.2 "Mama, what is that?" Her mother's head jerked up, looking at her sheepishly, "Just nothing... let's go, you are getting late, as it is you won't reach early." "Mama whatever you got planning, you may want to delay it. Wait and see how things turn out, to avoid any disappointment."2 Her mother was grinning at her. Maryam felt her stomach turn, she clenched it with her forearms, her mother had not been this happy for a long long time. "Mama are you happy I am leaving?"2 Hajiya Aisha jerked her head back, "What? No, I am just happy you have finally relented."2 "It wasn't like I had a choice," Maryam mumbled. "Here, before I forget." She dipped her hand into her handbag which was hanging from her bag holder behind her bedroom door and fetched a blue notebook. "Take this, have a look at it carefully, it has got all you need. We will miss you." Her mother pulled her into a quick hug before she pulled the door behind them, and ushered them all outside to the waiting car.2 "Yaaya Mimie, please come back to us." Fatima called out. Everyone stilled. 2 Maryam smiled, hiding the tremor of her lips. "In sha Allah I will, Tim-Tim." Maryam dreaded the long journey, she remembered having to go through this when they went for her visa interview in Abuja, now she would top that with a flight the next morning, how relaxing that would be. "Here I come, Europe!" She said dejectedly. 2 **** On the flight, her hand shifted inside her bag and she found her mother's notebook. She contemplated taking a look at it. Anything coming from her mother was worth a double take, but her curiosity got the better of her as her fingers traced the blue hardcover. "...In case anything would happen, nothing will happen, but just for precaution..." A petite blonde in her prim blue and red flight-attendant uniform was telling the passengers in the emergency aisle seats what to do in case of an emergency. She looked really serene for someone trying to scare them into a condition that had a high probability of occurring or not, depending on if they were all destined to die on the same day. 11 Maryam didn't want to hear any of that when she looked down at the notebook, she tuned out the blonde's voice and flipped the first page. Date of birth: 10th May 1974.9 Place of birth: Katsina.2 Full Name: Mubarak Umar Bugaje.11 Profession: Attorney (Chief something Legal, confirm once you get there)14 Favourite food: P...54 "Ya Rabbi!" Maryam flipped the cover back, and leaned into her headrest, clenching her eyes shut. She had no idea she had gasped out loud. Instead of paying attention to all the things that surrounded her or about the fact that she may die any moment, the fact that her mother had given her a portfolio of her cousin like a case file made her want to fade away. She couldn't believe her mother gave her Mubarak's biodata!14 What was she to do with it? Act as if she knew everything about him and they would hit it off immediately? Or had her mother by any chance thought her so dumb she couldn't get to know things like his full name when they met?7 STORY CONTINUES BELOW Unbelievable. She Inhaled deeply and exhaled, may it be well with her. She tossed the notebook back into her handbag, making a mental note to toss it in the trash the moment they touched down. Her mind drifted to the conversation she had with her father on their way to Abuja the previous day. They took her mother's car. Her father drove it as if he were driving on eggshells, so they had enough time above the normally six-hour-drive to the city to talk about things or just keep quiet. "You will be okay." Her father chose to talk, and she wished that he hadn't. She wondered if he was trying to console himself. Maryam opened her eyes and could see his light face, dusted with salt and pepper stubble that was all black a few short years ago. His nose stood firm on his face, his eyes deep-set with knit thick brows that framed them. His once strong jaws, a strong feature that passed down the men of her father's family, now softened a bit. Looking at him now she saw how the events of the past years had taken a toll on him. He was always okay, he always moved and he moved them with him, so they barely noticed how it was dragging him down. Her heart clenched within her chest. 4 "It's okay Baba, I'm good. I'll get over it the moment I set my eyes on the beauty of London." 2 "I know that you will, Daaso. You are my brave little girl." Maryam hadn't hesitated when she said. "You know what she wants won't happen, right?" She hoped with all her heart at least he believed that. 2 There was a brief pause from her father, "Mubarak is a very nice young man, he will take care of you, forget all you've heard about him..." "Not the wedding," Maryam interrupted. It was the last thing she was worried about. Well, maybe not the last but it was the least of her problems right now. 4 "We will be alright." "You've said that four years ago." He didn't speak after that, and she wished he did. They drove to Abuja in silence. 4 Now on the flight to the United Kingdom, when all she could hear was a ding and a chime, a cry of a fussy toddler two seats away from her, some murmurs and a turn of a page from the passenger on the seat next to her, a smile touched her lips, she turned to the window and watched them float through white and grey fluff. 10 It was the beginning of a new dawn. **** Confusion. That was the first feeling that overwhelmed Maryam when she first set foot in London, after a two-hour delay in Abuja for taking off, she wasn't sure she would make it in one piece. She loved kids. A lot. But sitting through a seven-hour flight with a fussy toddler two seats away from her wasn't her definition of a good time. 2 At some point she had to take the fussy two-year-old, Na'eemah, who looked cute with dried tears on her face, so her mother could take a breather. But the moment her ten-minute no-crying time was over, Na'eema started wailing again. 8 Thankfully, she slept an hour before they landed in London and Maryam had never loved silence as she did then. 8 People were coming from every angle, the rush was just too much for her lethargic brain to catch up. She closed her eyes briefly. "Okay Maryam, breathe, you can do this." It all felt surreal, was she really here? Excitement followed right after. She couldn't stop grinning. She couldn't believe she would be thankful for meeting wailing-Na'eema as she did then, but thanks to wailing-Na'eema's mother, Amina, Maryam did not have to go through a lot of asking around or a lot of people following or worse sign-reading to get around the magnificent airport. That would have been murderous. They parted ways with Amina when Amina's husband came to fetch them at the terminal.2 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "Ya Rabbi, I am so going to get lost." In her excitement, she had forgotten to make a call, how would she find them? Who would take her home now? Her eyes were roaming the terminal when she spotted a man in uniform at the waiting lounge, Maryam almost sprinted to him. 4 "Hello, Good evening sir." He gave her a courteous smile and a nod. Maybe that was a bad idea, she thought, but it was better than getting lost. "May I use your phone, please? I want to call home." His eyes travelled the length of her, she had began to think not again! When she realized his eyes were on her hand. 2 "You can do that, you have a cell phone." "Uhm, I have a Nigerian SIM card."2 "You can get a new SIM or roam your phone."11 Her forehead creased, she had no idea what he was talking about, so she gave him her phone. "Can you do it for me, please?" The man took the phone from her and after a little key press and fumbling he shook his head. Dead! She was so lost and dead.2 "It's not working." Maryam wanted to scream, he must have seen the look on her face when he turned to her. "Wait here," he said. She waited, standing. At her feet lay her black bag and the fake Pierre Cardin trolley her mother insisted on, her backpack snuggled against her back and her handbag strapped across her chest. The uniformed man came back after a short while and handed her a pack. 4 "Use this." Her eyes widened, "Oh thank you so much. Thank you, may God bless you and grant you your best wishes." The man set her phone, added some minutes in it and returned the phone to her. Maryam brought out the phone number she had scribbled on her little diary, it was Salis' number, her aunt had told her mother she should call the number when they were at the airport. She had never been so relieved to hear a voice. 8 Salis directed her to where they stood waiting for her outside the waiting area. She almost cried out of relief when she spotted a tall fair-skinned girl in a red and black polka dot dress with a black scarf around her head. She had the dark Bugaje eyes and a thin nose that adorned her face.11 Wafiyya stood right at the exit waving at her. She sought blessings for the man in the uniform for the gazillionth time and hugged the breath out of her cousin. "Welcome, Yaa Maryam," Wafiyya said, still shaken from the hug.2 "Thank you. Assalamu alaikum Yaya Salis." Maryam said, her attention going back to a dark taller version of Wafiyya standing next to her. He replied with a short nod. Maryam suppressed a grin, she wondered what had frozen him from within, he was the most stuck-up person she had ever known. Salis was everything like her Uncle, Umar Bugaje, what he forgot to take was the cheerfulness that came with the family. One day she would tell him life was too short to spend it with a tight face.20 Looking at him now as he slid into his car, she wondered if his cheeks and forehead hurt from frowning. She blew out some air. Rubbing her hands against her Jacket, she warmed away the chill of the evening.9 "So Wafiyya, do you know anywhere I can get some yogurt. Forgot to bring mine from home, and I am starving."29 Wafiyya turned in her seat to look at Maryam who sat in the back seat, she was still slinging her handbag across her chest by the long strap and backing her backpack. She looked like a girl who was about to take a flight. 4 "You eat yogurt when you are hungry?" Salis asked looking from his rearview mirror, mouth slackened a bit. Ah! Finally, something from him. Maryam thought.4 STORY CONTINUES BELOW "No, but I wanted to see if you can still talk, now that we are sure of that, where can we get some yogurt, please?"28 They all laughed, Salis shook his head. "I know just the right place. I do talk, I just pale in comparison with some people." 4 "Good." Maryam sat back in her seat. Wafiyya clamped her mouth with both hands and laughed. Oh, she was going to love this. 12 **** London was London. Everything she expected and more. Here she was in the two-thousand-old ancient city, uprooted from her base and loving everything about it even though she thought she wouldn't love it. First, nobody knew her here, this was like a new beginning for her if the people in it decided to consider her as one of the other millions. 8 All her life, Maryam had only one wish- to blend in. That and to be a writer, now she got this chance even though it came at the cost of her freedom, she didn't care. She loved it.2 Maryam had never dreamed of marriage, not in the way other girls her age had dreamed of it. She hadn't once had a vision of what her wedding attire would be like, or what her husband would be like, she hadn't even dreamed of leaving her father's house to meet her husband, she had spent every ounce of strength in her to deny herself that luxury. Because she knew that would never happen. 5 That never happened to girls like her. 2 She wasn't even surprised or disappointed when Mubarak hadn't shown up to receive her at the airport because she hadn't been expecting him to do that.6 Yet here she was, thousands of miles away from home in pursuit of a future with a husband in it. Not just any husband- A Bugaje husband. Granted, Mubarak didn't hold up to the reputation but that was her mother's wish, and what her mother wished was a command to her. So, that was like a dream fulfilled for her. 2 *** When they reached their destination, Maryam mentally high-fived herself. She was right, it was a mansion, and when it greeted her, she could almost see all her thoughts about this meeting coming true. 2 Wafiyya had not left her dull throughout their journey from the airport to their Kensington residence, she had made sure she had told her a bit about every building or landmark they had passed, not that Maryam was getting it. They were all grey and white buildings showered with lots of lights, to her weary eyes. She was too exhausted to even keep her eyes opened. 2 Hajiya Kulthum stood at the threshold when they arrived. Maryam was in awe of how young and beautiful her aunt always seemed to get whenever she saw her. Standing at a medium height, with fair skin glowing under the foyer light. She took Maryam into a hug. "Maa sha Allah, you are welcome Maryam." 11 Maryam felt dirty when she inhaled the sweet scent coming from her aunt, she looked sophisticated in her brown gown. Her head wrapped beautifully in a scarf, two little gleaming studs adorned her ears. She wore her smile like a part of her, adorning her heart-shaped face. 10 She could see the clear resemblance with her father, but her aunt was looking younger, softer around the edges and more dazzling.5 "Thank you, Aunty Kulthum." "Come in you must be exhausted. Wafiyya, help her with her bag and take her to her room." Her gaze returned to Maryam, "Go on your bags will be brought up, shortly." She said, regarding the black bag and the trolley that made Maryam want to fade away. 2 She wondered who would do the heavy lifting. 2 It had been four years since she had last seen them. She couldn't attend Najma's wedding, Mubarak's younger sister, the first daughter of the Bugaje family. Who now resided in Abuja with her husband, Mu'azzam. They walked up a grand sweep of staircase to a tastefully decorated corridor that screamed Aunt Kulthum's touch all over. Maryam couln't resist smoothing her hand over the sleek wood to see if it would be as gliding as it shone. She wasn't disappointed. From the red Russian runner along the hallways to the Arabian frames that hung on the walls, right to the thick silky beige drapes that flowed down the length of the tall windows, everything screamed elegance in here.6 They stopped at a door that was twice Maryam's height and more than half at width. Wafiyya pushed it open to reveal a good sized bedroom. It was modest, to an eye that was used to seeing mansions, but to Maryam it was huge, it was almost twice the size of her shared bedroom in Katsina. 4 "Here is your room. You can have some rest if you need anything I'll be right next door. Settle in, then we will go down and fix you up for dinner." 2 Maryam smiled at her, which was so painful at this point, considering how sore she was. "Thank you Wafis. " She wanted to take a shower so bad, yet the lavender fluffy bedding looked so inviting she wanted to slip right beneath the comforter and stretch her back. She did the latter. "Oh! Bliss." She purred, closing her eyes briefly. She woke with a jolt. She listened around for a distinct sound, there was nothing just a little hum of something unfamiliar. She looked around the room, and her eyes travelled to her wristwatch. She was soon in the bathroom when she realized she had been sleeping for nine hours. That was crazy, she hadn't prayed isha' and fajr!6 She was still disoriented, after those long hours in flight, the waiting at the airport lounge and the fear of getting lost. It was a miracle she remembered her name. 5 But her misery was not over for the day. When she gave the little bird the wrong twist, she had no idea instead of spouting water it would flood her and cause chaos. 11 The whole bird, spout and mixer came after her, flooding the bathroom, drenching her to the bones. She should have searched for Wafiyya, or Hajiya Kulthum, she should have prayed the moment she was shown her room. Who asked her to sleep and not ask how to operate things in this... this castle?21 She contemplated shouting, but would she just say she didn't know how to operate a birdy tap? What a smart wife she would make. 13 She tried rescuing the amenity, but when she slipped and almost hit her head on the bathtub she shrieked on the top of her voice. ********

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