In the beginning, I liked the fact that Yasir was already married. It meant he had more to give. It meant that even during a time where decapitated bodies had decorated the streets of Xamar, this man was overflowing with the will to care and provide for another woman. And who wouldn’t want that? A man so full of it that he could love twice over.
But then she left him, his old woman. He never mentioned her after that, though there were rumours that she married his best friend years later. Only a pair of her black strappy heels remained in his side of the wardrobe and he didn’t let me remove them. At least I never saw anything else. They didn’t have any children together and he didn’t keep any photos of her so I pretended she had never existed. The poor wench was as fictional as Cinderella.
It was a day of heavy snowfall in London and Yasir was writing a research paper on the sofa next to me. I was wearing his shirt and wiping my runny nose on the sleeve. He had already complained twice about the volume of the TV, but how was I supposed to watch Dirty Dancing with the volume on low? I wanted to memorise the words of the soundtrack so I could pronounce them better, roll them around in my mouth and sing them out loud. I turned to him and asked him why we had never danced together, ever. He said he didn’t dance. I said he didn’t have to do much, just hold my waist and let me wrap my arms around him so we could move in time to a slow melody. He grunted and returned to his paper. I asked him how come he’s never bought me flowers or called me words like ‘baby’? What’s that point of marrying me if he couldn’t be romantic? I got angry, I stood up dramatically and began to rant. He grabbed my wrist and yanked me back down with so much force my jaws clanged together. He said he already married for flowers and sweet nothings, now shut up and lower the volume. In the morning I thought the sun had rose in the west.
My son has been dead ten years. His bitter boyish scent still haunts the living room and the bathroom; it even overpowers the lavender bushes outside. It knocks on the window at night and calls to me when I am smothered by sleep paralysis and I can’t do anything but inhale deeply, letting him in. When Muna went to university I got stomach ulcers from all the worrying. I called her every morning checking to see if she had prayed fajr but it was really my faith that had slipped down into the gutter and looked up occasionally to snigger at me. You sound tired hooyo, she’d say. No macaan, I’m fine. Did you hand in your poetry essay on time? I did that months ago, hooyo. Oh yes of course, cadey.
Juliette was her name. Eritrean, short, always sounded like she was about to cry so we had that in common. She knocked on our neighbourhood doors tirelessly for weeks. Let me tell you the truth about Jesus, she said. No, let me tell you the truth about Jesus I replied. She nodded and laughed warmly. Challenge accepted. I let her in and suddenly realised as I was stirring the cardamom into the shah that I didn’t remember the story of Prophet Jesus (AS). Just that he was born to the virgin Maryam and that she was an exceptionally patient and God-loving woman. So instead of a debate we sat down and watched Coronation Street. She told me about her first time in England and how she had to work in Angel for a gentleman’s club where all kinds of unholy things happened. Since then, she had found the Lord and dedicated her life to helping others find Him too. She did it to atone. Atone. I said it out loud, it sounds like something only important people do. It sounds like something Oprah Winfrey might have had to do at some point in her life. I really liked Oprah. On the couch eating small slices of carrot cake and drinking Somali tea with Juliette, I thought of doing something really bad and then spending years trying to atone for it. Through atonement I could find something to devote myself to and be born anew.
I was devoted to my marriage, but I wasn’t proud of that. I had watched thirty years pass me by without making anything of myself. I never bought myself new clothes though I could afford to, I wore the same pair of shoes until they fell apart, I would eat last every night after waking up to the wails of an animal and realising it was my stomach. Penance. I wanted to be a nurse at some point, I bought all of the right books and enrolled at King’s University but Yasir said the commute was too far. When I suggested a more local, albeit less prestigious university, Yasir said that he was ill and that I needed to be home each day to look after him. Where was this illness? In his head probably. He would come home each day at some hour after midnight and pass out on the sofa smelling of qaat. An unsaved number would call him all night but I would never answer, out of fear of what I might hear at the end of the line. I would fall asleep in a cold sweat.
My son died because he was stabbed to death on a bus by a boy from a rival gang. I didn’t even know that he was in a gang; I thought it was normal for teenage boys to go around in groups as they used to do in Xamar. When I heard the news I rushed to the hospital half dressed. In the rush I didn’t even put on my jilbaab, my sweat-drenched hair was matted against my forehead. In the ICU, Muna said hooyo? With a question mark, as if she was questioning everything about my existence, as if I was standing before her naked. And I was. I sat beside my son, 14 then, rubbing his temples as the machine beep beep beeped steadily in the background. I cried and wailed when the beeps became irregular and the doctors asked me to step aside so that they could try to salvage what was left of his heartbeat. But it was too late. It all happened so quickly. I stuck my nails into my skin until I cut past the peachy golden frontier and my nails were stained red. My son had lost too much blood. Yasir was nowhere to be found that night.
On his wedding day to Layla, Yasir called me like he had just closed a business deal. Like I said, he always has room for more love. When he told me he was going to take her to Paris I let out an animal cry. What’s wrong, he asked? I was hurt to the core. He had once told me that he didn’t have time for romance, he turned his nose up at cliché Hollywood films where they always end up in Paris and now he was taking her there. I hurriedly told him that I was going to Rome with Juliette. He said I was ridiculous and that I should stay at home, take care of myself and pick up the phone more. He would be back in two months. As soon as that call ended I called Juliette and told her I needed to get away. She had a friend in Rome who could give us somewhere to stay for a week or so. I asked Yasir to send me some more money and I booked my flight.
The first time I wore heels it was the pair belonging to Yasir’s ex-wife. I stupidly wore them to the airport and they were slightly too small so they pinched the back of my feet and left blisters. But I felt powerful.
Rome was like being in a mirage. Everything was blurry and oily and all the colours melted together in the horizon like some of the paintings Juliette took me to see in the museums. If I squinted I could pretend I was on the coast in Xamar with its white Italian architecture. The expanse of water beyond the city was identical to the one I had swum in as a carefree girl in my baati. We ate and went on long walks whilst trailing the sun along behind us at the end of a string. Men stared at me and the women glared and I could tell it was because of the way my hips swayed from side to side when I walked in those heels. Juliette didn’t walk like that. I never wanted to sleep early. Juliette would say her prayers at the end of her bed and once she was done she would ask me why I wasn’t getting ready for bed. It was dark, but the moon was beckoning me and I wanted to live. God, I wanted to live!
When Yasir called to ask me where I was, I told him straight away. I said I was in Rome with a friend; I didn’t even bother to mention Juliette. Come home at once, he said. Where is home? I asked. He was long gone and the sofas I didn’t sit on had started to gather up dust. He said he would pull Muna out of university so that she could look after me and I told him that if he did that I would kill him. He hung up. That day I was silent at breakfast and at lunch, but at dinner time I crooned a sad Somali nursery rhyme about a mother who had left home. Hooyo’s not home, she’s taken her shoes.
Back in London, things went back to normal. I was alone again, but Yasir stopped by at least once a day and almost always brought gifts and wads of cash. To atone. One day he complained of an intense pain in his lower back and I nursed him all night whilst Layla left many missed calls. It felt good to be the one he called to after all.
Then came the sin. I made a reservation at a posh restaurant in Waterloo and called Yasir. It pained me that I had to persuade him to have dinner with me. Me, his wife. Dress smart, I said. Shit, he could even bring Layla for all I cared; she might be in the mood for a fancy dinner too. I wore the strappy heels in the wardrobe and was glad that Yasir didn’t notice. He just noticed my new walk and said that I attracted too much attention. This pleased me. I liked that he gripped my hand harder. At dinner he talked about Layla like he was talking about a hard day at work. I ordered the most expensive food on the menu and picked a bit of seaweed from between his teeth with the end of my nail. Then I excused myself to go to the bathroom.
Juliette knew of the plan all along. At first she wasn’t supportive of it; she said that it was a sin, a huge sin. She said I shouldn’t tamper with the sanctity of marriage; I should turn the other cheek. But when I sat down with her with tears in my eyes, explaining what I had endured for thirty years, she cried too. I told her that I was sandwiched between an unforgettable first marriage and a new woman. I was the butter that melted in between the bread that couldn’t be tasted.
When I went to the bathroom I called her and she told me she was ready. In the bathroom, I put on a long navy coat, took off my hijab and covered the contours of my face with my auburn cloud of hair. I even put on a pair of shades. Then I slipped out of the restaurant like a thief.
The air was warm and oily like it had been in Rome. Juliette was standing on the bridge waiting for me, jumping up and down with excitement, or anxiety. She handed me my packed bags and held me close. Where will you go? She asked. I’ll tell you when I get there…it’s just so… I understand, she said. Pray about it. I nodded and hugged her hard.
My taxi to the airport was driven by a Somali man. He told me he had five kids and that he had another son on the way. Out of pure curiosity, I asked him if he would ever marry a second wife. I think he misunderstood me because he called me in the middle of the night as I was about to board my flight.
Where did I go? Xamar? Rome? Paris? Never Paris, that place is tainted now with the scent of Layla and her footprints on the cobbled streets. I won’t tell you where I went because it doesn’t matter.
All you need to know is that hooyo majoogto. Hooyo is gone. And she has taken her shoes.
Salma Ibrahim (@SalmaWrites ) is a 22 year old aspiring novelist and short story writer from London. Her interests are art, culture, and social enterprise. She believes that cute cat videos are a form of therapy.
Related country: Somalia