Surraya uncrossed her feet and then crossed them again. She shoved her hands deeper into her pockets, her itchy freezing fingers in search of some warmth. Gosh, it was cold, she thought. She was sitting in the doctor’s office, waiting for her turn. Her throat wasn’t getting any better, and after a week of taking cough syrup, she was back with an even worse case of strep throat. These bloody doctors don’t care about a thing except their bank accounts, she fumed, as she rolled her eyes and slumped back in her chair. She had a sudden urge to strangle someone with a stethoscope.
Suddenly Amira walked into the waiting room and Surraya’s eyes widened. She watched as her neighbour booked her name at the reception desk and came to sit in an empty chair across the room. Surraya’s gaze ran down from Amira’s crumbled dupatta, to her ugly cotton clothes with the ancient design, to the flip flops on her feet. Her dark unkempt black hair was playing hide and seek, with curls popping out from beneath the cloth on her head. There were horrible black bags under her eyes. Her face looked worn and exhausted, as though her affair with sleep had ended years ago. Surraya’s scrutinizing study came down to pause at her neighbor’s bulging belly. She’d heard enough about Amira to know what kind of person she was.
Her husband worked all day, brought money home, and took the kids out on weekends. She used to watch them on Saturday afternoons from her living room window. They lived in the huge bungalow across from her, with the rose bushes and vegetable patch. She had what Surraya believed to be the perfect life, with everything a woman could ask for. Yet the woman always looked sad and depressed, messy and weak. She avoided conversation and if someone did happen to talk to her, she would just snap back or not even reply. People in the community often talked about her; some even said she was ‘a bit in the head’. At a mosque gathering, Naseem the tailor had shared that she had gone round to Amira’s house the day before. She had found the kitchen to be filled with dirty dishes and saw that the kids were in front of the telly, still in their pyjamas. They told her that their mother was asleep upstairs. “It was disgraceful!” she said, her eyes filled with disgust. “The lady was sleeping through the afternoon, she had probably missed her prayers too!” Saeeda, the madrassah teacher, had quickly interjected saying how Amira didn’t even come to the Tajweed classes. She stopped coming after the first few days, she told everyone else disapprovingly. Surraya had listened to all the talk, and for the remainder of that evening, they had giggled, laughed, made up all sorts of stories, and then left after praying salah.
Surraya’s thoughts were interrupted by the entrance of a young handsome man who walked into the waiting room and came and sat next to Amira. He pocketed the car keys he’d been holding and leaned forward to say something to her. She whispered something back and then lifted her head to look up at him. Surraya had never seen this man before and instantly her heart was racing. Could this be what it looked like? She couldn’t believe it! The young man touched Amira’s hand, and with the other hand, he wiped the tears slowly falling from her eyes. Surraya’s eyes darted from the clutching hands to the pregnant belly and she heard herself gasp. Ya Allah.
Opposite Surraya, Amira sat with her brother, Malik, and angrily swept away the tears that were leaking from her already swollen and puffy eyes. Her body hurt, some from the bruises and scars her husband had gifted her the night before, and some from the pain and loneliness that was tearing her heart apart. Her skin condition wasn’t getting any better, forcing her to remain in old cotton dresses. She missed the days when she could wear anything from her wardrobe, from the sequined tops to the embroidered skirts. But now, they were brutal enemies to her. They burnt her skin and caused blazing forest fires to rage constantly throughout her body. Doctors had said it was a serious skin condition. She touched her swollen tummy, thinking about the innocence that lay inside, and suddenly her eyes were stung with fresh tears once more. How was she going to go through this again? She thought of her other three children, her precious little ones, and her mind raced to the horror and discomfort they witnessed a few times already. Their father’s angry beating and their mother’s heart-wrenching screams. Today, she had finally plucked up the courage to ring her brother who had flown in from Ireland. She was terrified about what her husband would do when he found out. She felt Malik squeeze her hand and she gripped onto it.
“It’s all going to be okay, Amira. Please don’t cry,” he whispered. The sight of his sister in so much pain was causing his blood to boil with rage and his anger to dance furiously in his body. He couldn’t wait to get his fingers round the throat of his brother-in-law, but his sister came first. So he sat there, wiping the tears slowly falling from her eyes.
Amira nodded, trying to calm herself. She kept her gaze lowered, and stared at her toes. She was terrified to look up and meet Surraya’s eyes. In her head, she could hear the sniggers, the whispered talk, and the stories she knew people published on living room walls and stolid park benches.