I admit it’s been some years since I last wrote fiction. Lately, this blog and other writing projects have required me to write in first-person, still in a creative, considered way, but not always entirely made up. Lately, while sorting through my portfolio, I discovered this short story I wrote some time back. I wrote it about four years ago and it went on to be selected for publication in Mslexia and won two writing awards too. I rarely read my stories back, once they are done, they are sort of done, so it was an indulgence for me to read this and remember putting this together. I thought you might like to see it, too.
Spots of damp perspiration pop through Mark’s shirt surfacing onto his skin as he swallows the smoggy night’s heat, clutching the paper bag Amina has asked him to hold tightly to his chest in order to give his clammy hands something to do.
He stands behind her, patient yet awkward, while Amina argues with the shop seller. The shop seller, plump and short, is showing her several thin shawls spun of wool as fine as silk which fall weightlessly like the paper wings of dead moths as he shakes them out, but Amina is argumentative in her mother tongue. Mark does not know what she is saying but he hears a sarcasm in her laugh that he has not heard before, a ring of clipped spite that chimes her class, her confidence and her self-assured status before this man, who merely sells shawls. Amina is not like this in London, he silently observes.
Mark is not like this either. In Lahore, he lacks purpose. There is little for him to do so he stands behind Amina, holding her shopping or one of the numerous handbags she has suddenly acquired, feeling passive and uncomprehending and of no real use.
Lahore is not like their week in Rome, when Mark read to Amina aloud from their guidebook every morning over cappuccinos and cornetti, affecting an Italian accent to make her laugh, her lips flicking flakes of sweet pastry everywhere.
It is not like their weekend in Paris, when Amina reached out for Mark’s hand and he led her over the Pont de Sully, deftly shunning the Left Bank for the Right, winding her this way and that through quiet, unpopulated streets in the expertise he’d so proudly gleaned in his gap year so many years ago. It is not like the time they walked through the Lake District one damp autumn, their route studiously plotted by Mark the night before while Amina soaked in a pedestal tub in their luxury B&B. Lahore is not like that at all, he thinks.
He has showed her many places and many cities, holding them open and unfolded for her in the palm of his hand like a pop-up greeting card for her to stroll about in next to him, both of them side by side. But Mark does not know Lahore. He cannot place himself in it like a cardboard cut out. He can show her nothing here and he waits for her instead, to lead him and talk for him in an unknown tongue he cannot decipher.
Only she does not. She is at ease here, in the city where she was born and brought up. She does not look to Mark for directions and nor does her hand slip into his the way it usually always does in London or wherever they have been, where they loop arms or her fingers search for his inside his pocket as if inside their own little magnetic field. It is not because they are careful with their affection in this different city, this different place; on the contrary there are couples, hand in hand, everywhere. But it is because Amina is different here. Sometimes Mark thinks she has simply forgotten he is there.
“Chalo.” Amina says abruptly, her hair a straight dark sheet swinging at her shoulders. “Let’s go,” she orders, stepping straight-backed and empty-handed towards the door. Mark follows.
It is dark outside, but her sunglasses still push back her hair. The shop seller is scooping up his fine, feathery shawls one by one. Now he must fold them all again. He shakes his head with a sorry smile and a chubby shrug to Mark as if to say, “Women!” Mark nods and presses his lips inwards together by way of a wordless reply, following Amina out the door, the paper bag holding the beaded flat shoes she bargained half an hour for, even though the original price was one she could more than easily afford, still clutched to his chest.
Outside, the humidity rises all around him bursting in his face like an over-filled balloon and it hits him once more, a sudden, tight ache binding his entire body. He is relieved when Amina tells her driver to take them home. In the backseat of the car, she curls her legs underneath her and rests her head on Mark’s shoulder but it is too hot for him still and her knees press into his uncomfortably. He shifts. She looks across at him and sits upright instead.
In Lahore, Mark reads gestures, not guidebooks. He reads privilege in the nonchalance of Amina’s family’s casual stance as they lounge on their sofas every afternoon wearing thin, cool linens when the tea trolley, wheeled out by the kitchen boy, comes out like clockwork. He reads expectations in Amina’s father, as he invites Mark into his study for a sip of bootlegged wine to chat about how much a deposit for a house in London might cost. He reads stiffness in the driver and the maids who never quite meet his gaze. He has nothing to do, and he reads the unspoken words around him and wonders why he is here at all.
Most of all, he reads Amina. She is a new edition in Lahore, a volume untouched. She smells new. She is shinier and more polished here in her family house, with its immaculate lawns behind high gates, than she is in in their small, rented two-bedroom flat in west London. There, they casually brunch on weekends eating toast without plates in crumpled nightclothes covered in crumbs. Here, Mark observes she is always pristine, her face poised and made up, while she waits impatiently for the maid to fill her china cup with weak English breakfast tea.
They spend everyday together, but she is further away from him here than she has ever been. There is a self-importance that Amina carries, along with the designer handbags which she has suddenly rediscovered in the walk-in closet of her teenage bedroom, that Mark has not seen in her before and it bristles against him uncomfortably.
It was Amina’s idea to come to Lahore. There were people she said she wanted Mark to meet, relatives and friends, and places she wanted him to see before their wedding. But when they met her old college friends at the Gymkhana members’ club for tea, she left him aside, launching into high-speed conversation in a voice he had never heard her use before. It was only after he jostled her elbow and gave an awkward laugh that she took him by the arm like a child and brought him forward to introduce him, but even then he felt ignored. At numerous family dinners hosted by her rich relatives in honour of their engagement, where he has worn stiff, starched kurtas that itch at his neck, he has stood shifting on his feet, unsure of who to speak to while Amina laughs loudly over some comment some guest makes instead.
Mark wanted to see the Pakistan of the photospreads in his National Geographic magazines but he has seen it only from the backseat through the car window as the driver takes them from markets to shopping malls and back home again.
He has seen street children in torn clothes peer in, leaving marks on the window where their hot breath and their fingers have been. He has seen old withered men polishing shoes at roundabouts, faded Afghani turbans wrapped around their heads. He has seen tailors hanging dyed silks out to dry in oranges and pinks and reds to make clothes for new brides. He has seen glimpses of all of these people and all of these things from his place on the back seat but when he poised his camera ready to capture them, Amina laughed at him and sneered and said: “Honestly Mark. What is there to see? They are so dirty. I would not want pictures of them.”
In Lahore, Amina is changed. In London, they stay up late watching Newsnight and Question Time and listening in earnest to debates about social change. He had thought these things mattered to Amina as they did to him, for at home they share the Sunday papers and listen to Radio 4.
But now he has seen the house where she grew up, grand and gated with its marble floors and mod cons, and he has watched, mildly appalled, when she scolds the maid for not ironing the crinkles out of her clothes or for making her tea too weak, and he feels as if he does not know her at all. He wonders whether she is really happy in their tiny rented flat back in London. He wonders which Amina he will marry. This one, or the one he left behind.
Mark and Amina have planned a small wedding in London for early next spring. Mark was proudly prepared to pay for it all, budgeting carefully and creatively. Amina talks about the wedding most afternoons with her mother and her mother’s friends and her old friends from school, but she never mentions to them the things she had discussed with Mark before. Instead, she talks about venues, fancy hotels and exclusive social clubs that he has never heard of at all. He overhears Amina suddenly considering expensively draped marquees, illuminated and airy, laid out across immense grounds and sees her flick through glossy magazines pointing at pouting models wearing designer Pakistani gowns.
This is entirely new to him. Amina is entirely new to him, spoilt and demanding like a child. “Maybe,” she says, mulling over a bridal spread in a magazine on their last night in Lahore while Mark repacks their suitcase, “Maybe we should marry here, Mark, in Lahore, instead.”
It is not what they agreed. Mark says nothing for a moment and hesitates before saying he had thought she had wanted to marry back home in London, and what about their plans for that? “Your home, or mine?” swipes Amina sarcastically, angrily rising to her feet. Mark is not prepared for this. He is not prepared for a fight, for it happens so rarely normally. They have always agreed on everything before.
Amina is in tears now. She is shouting at him, about not understanding her and not making an effort with her family and her friends. She is shouting at him about how now he must know how it feels to be her when they are in England, left on the outside looking in. She is shouting at him about how ridiculous he has been, waiting for people to talk to him, when he should have spoken to them first. She tells him, spitefully, that people have laughed at him in Urdu; her poor, aimless English fiance lost in Lahore. She tells him he has embarrassed her, just sitting there, saying nothing to no one at all. She tells him to look around and to notice all of the things that she has here, all of the things she has given up to stay in London with him instead.
Mark has never heard her say anything like this before. It had never occurred to him that she might feel as self-conscious in London as he has been here in Lahore, and he wonders whether it could possibly be true. He wonders whether to say something, about how she has been changed here, how he has found her hurtful and haughty and cold, only he does not know how. He is weary of the heat and of the humidity and of the effort being here requires, even though, really, with all the maids and the drivers there is no effort required at all, and he is ready, so ready, to go back home.
So he sits on the bed, with their unpacked suitcase at his feet, and he lets Amina shout and he lets her cry for he knows that tomorrow they will finally leave. It has been a long fortnight, he consoles himself silently in his head, and later, when they finally fall asleep he tells himself it is only these foreign parts which has disjointed them, and nothing else. He tells himself Amina did not mean what she said. He tells himself that she was just tired, and he thinks of how when they land in London, she will reach out for his hand once again.
On the flight, which they sit through mostly in silence, Mark flicks through the few photographs he took. No, he thinks. Lahore was not like their week in Rome or their weekend in Paris, and he deletes the photos, one by one.