Readings — From the January 2019 issue

Whisky Lullaby

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From “Majed,” which appears in Elsewhere, Home, a collection that will be published next month by Black Cat. Aboulela is a novelist and playwright and was the first recipient of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000.

“What are you doing?” Hamid couldn’t see her properly because he didn’t have his glasses on. She was blurred over the kitchen sink, holding the bottle in her hand. She was not supposed to be holding that bottle. How did she get hold of it? He had hidden it behind the DVDs late last night. He had washed his glass carefully over the kitchen sink, gargled with Asda Protect then crept into bed beside her, careful, very careful not to wake her or the two youngest ones. Majed slept in the cot in the corner of the room; the newborn baby slept with them in the double bed so that Ruqiyyah could feed her during the night. During the night when Hamid had to go to the toilet he tried to be careful not to wake them up. Though sometimes he did, bumping into Majed’s cot, stumbling on a toy. One night he had found himself, almost too late, not in the toilet but surrounded by the shoes that littered the entrance to the flat. He was startled into full consciousness by the baby crying.

“Ruqiyyah, what are you doing?” He should make a lunge at her, stop her before it was too late. It was precious stuff she was threatening to pour down the drain. But the whole household was in his way. A pile of washing waiting to go into the washing machine, the baby, sunk down and small, in her seat on the floor. She was creamy and delicate, wearing tiny gloves so that she would not scratch herself.

The kitchen table was in his way. Majed sat in his high chair covered in porridge, singing, banging the table with his spoon, Sarah talked to him and chewed toast. Robin scooped Rice Krispies into his mouth while staring at the box: Snap, Crackle, and Pop flying and things you could send for if your parents gave you the money.

Ruqiyyah put the bottle down. But only because there were plates and baby bottles in the sink. She started to wash them up, water splashing everywhere.

She looked at Hamid and shook her head.

Hamid groaned. He was relieved he couldn’t see her eyes, her blue eyes filled with tears maybe. She had not always been Ruqiyyah, she once was someone else with an ordinary name, a name a girl behind the counter in the Bank of Scotland might have. When she became Muslim she changed her name, then left her husband. Robin and Sarah were not Hamid’s children. Ruqiyyah had told Hamid horror stories about her previous marriage. She had left little out. When she went on about her ex-husband, Hamid felt shattered. He had never met Gavin (who wanted nothing to do with Ruqiyyah, Robin, and Sarah and had never so much as sent them a bean), but that man stalked Hamid’s nightmares. Among Hamid’s many fears was the fear of Gavin storming the flat, shaking him until his glasses fell off, “You filthy nigger, stay away from my family.”

“Ruqiyyah, wait, I’ll get my glasses.” He looked at the children. He looked back at her, made a face. When the children finished their breakfast and headed toward children’s TV, they could talk. They couldn’t talk in front of Robin. He was old enough to understand, pick up things. He was sensitive. Hamid ruffled Robin’s hair, said something jolly about Snap, Crackle, and Pop. Robin smiled and this encouraged Hamid to be more jocular. Whenever Hamid was stressed, he changed into a clown. The hahaha of laughter covered problems. Hahaha had wheels, it was a skateboard to slide and escape on.

“I’ll get my glasses.” He stumbled away. He needed the glasses. The glasses would give him confidence. He would be able to talk, explain. She was so good, so strong, because she was a convert. But he, he had been a Muslim all his life and was, it had to be said, relaxed about the whole thing. Wrong, yes it was wrong. He wasn’t going to argue about that. Not with Ruqiyyah. Instead he would say . . . he would explain, that on the scale . . . yes on the scale (he was a scientist after all and understood scales), on the scale of all the forbidden things, it was not really so wrong, so bad. There were worse, much worse, the heavies, the Big Ones: black magic, adultery, abusing your parents (something the dreadful Gavin had done—pushed the old dear round her living room—may he rot in Hell on account of this for all eternity and more). Hamid would explain. . . . Once he put his glasses on and the world cleared up, he would explain. Human weakness, etc., and Allah is all-forgiving. That’s right. Then a sad, comic face. A gentle hahaha. But she could counter that argument about forgiveness. He must be careful. She would say that one has to repent first before one could be forgiven. And she would be right. Of course. Absolutely. He had every intention to repent. Every intention. But not now, not this minute, not today. A few more days, when he got himself sorted out, when this bottle was finished, when he finished his PhD, when he got a proper job and did not need to work evenings at Asda.

He found his glasses near the bed, between the baby lotion and the zinc and castor oil. He put them on and felt better, more focused, more in control. Ruqiyyah hadn’t yet dealt with this room. There were nappies on the floor, folded up and heavy. She had, though, stripped the sheets off Majed’s cot. There were soft cartoon characters on the plastic mattress. Hamid rescued the prayer mat off the nappy-covered floor and dropped it on the unmade bed. He opened the window for the smells in the room to go out and fresh air to come in.

Outside was another gray day, brown leaves all over the pavement. A gush of rainy air, a moment of contemplation. Subhan Allah, who would have ever thought that he, Hamid, born and bred on the banks of the Blue Nile, would end up here with a Scottish wife who was a better Muslim than he was. Why had he married her? Because of the residence visa, to solve his problem with the Home Office once and for all. A friend had approached him once after Friday prayers (he did sometimes go to the mosque for Friday prayers, he was not so useless) and told him about Ruqiyyah, how she was a new convert with two little ones, how she needed a husband to take care of her. And you, Hamid, need a visa . . . . Why not? Why not? Ha ha. Is she pretty? Ha ha. There had been a time in Hamid’s life when the only white people he saw were on the cinema screen, now they would be under one roof. Why not? He brushed his teeth with enthusiasm, sprayed himself with Old Spice, armed himself with the jolly laugh and set out to meet the three of them.

Robin’s shy face, the gaze of a child once bitten, twice shy. A woman of average height, with bright anxious blue eyes, her hair covered with a black scarf, very conservatively dressed, no makeup. He breathed a sigh of relief that she was not lean like European women tended to be. Instead she was soft like his own faraway mother, like a girl he had once longed for in the University of Khartoum, a girl who had been unattainable. And if on that first meeting Ruqiyyah’s charms were deliberately hidden, they were obvious in her one-year-old daughter. Sarah was all smiles and wavy yellow hair, stretching out her arms, wanting to be carried, wanting to be noticed. After the awkwardness of their first meeting, a lot of hahaha, tantrums from Robin, desperate jokes, Hamid stopped laughing. He entered that steady place under laughter. He fell in love with the three of them, their pale needy f­aces, the fires that were repressed in them. His need for a visa, her need for security, no longer seemed grasping or callous. They were all swept along by the children, his own children coming along, tumbling out soon, easily. Two years ago Majed, three weeks ago the baby. At school, when Ruqiyyah and Majed went to pick up Robin, no one believed that they were brothers. Ruqiyyah with her children: two Europeans, two Africans. The other mothers outside the school looked at her oddly, smiled too politely. But Ruqiyyah could handle the other mothers. She had once escaped Gavin to a Women’s Refuge, lived with rats and Robin having a child’s equivalent of a nervous breakdown.

He must make it to the kitchen before she poured the Johnnie Walker down the sink. He was angry. His secret was out, and now that it was out, it could not go back in again. If she was suspicious, why hadn’t she turned a blind eye, why had she searched for the proof? It wasn’t fair. These were his private moments, late at night, all by himself, the children asleep, Ruqiyyah asleep. The whole soft sofa to himself, a glass of whisky in his hand, the television purring sights that held his attention, kung fu, football, sumo wrestling, Prince Naseem thrashing someone. Anything that blocked out the thesis, the humiliating hours spent mopping up the floor at Asda, the demanding, roving kids. Anything cheerful—not the news, definitely not the news. The last thing he wanted at that time of night were his brothers and sisters suffering in the West Bank. His own warm, private moments, the little man on the bottle of Johnnie Walker. That little man was Johnnie, an average sort of guy, and because he was walking, striding along with his top hat, he was a Walker, Johnnie Walker. Or perhaps because he was Johnnie Walker he was represented as walking, striding along happily. It was interesting, but at the end it didn’t matter and that was what Hamid wanted at that time of night. Things that didn’t matter. At times he took his glasses off, let the television become a blur, and he would become a blur too, a hazy, warm, lovable blur. Nothing sharp, nothing definite. The exact number of years he had been a PhD student. Don’t count, man, don’t count. Laughter blurred things too. Hahaha. His thesis was not going to make it. He must, his supervisor said, stretch himself. His thesis now, as it stood, was not meaty enough. There was a lot of meat in Asda, shelves of it. When he cleaned underneath them, he shivered from the cold. Not meaty enough. Johnnie Walker was slight and not at all meaty and he was all right, successful, striding along brimming with confidence. Why shouldn’t a man with an unfinished thesis and an ego-bashing job at Asda sit up late at night, once in a while, settle down in front of the television and sink in. Sink into the warmth of the whisky and the froth of the TV. Once in a while?

Majed lunged into the room. He squealed when he saw Hamid sitting on the bed. “Majed, say salaam, shake hands.” Hamid held his hand out. Majed took his fist out of his mouth and placed it, covered in saliva, in his father’s hand. Then he pointed to his cot, transformed because the sheet wasn’t on it. It wasn’t often that Ruqiyyah changed the sheets. Majed walked over to his cot mumbling exclamations of surprise. He put his hands through the bars and patted the cartoon characters on the plastic mattress. “Mummy’s washing your sheet. You’ll be getting a nice clean sheet,” Hamid said. It was rare that the two of them were alone together. Hamid held him up and hugged him, put him on his lap. He loved him so much. He loved his smell and roundness, his tight little curls and wide forehead. Majed was a piece of him, a purer piece of him. And that love was a secret because it was not the same love he felt for Robin and Sarah. He feared for Majed, throat­-catching fear, while with Sarah and Robin he was calm and sensible. He dreamed about Majed. Majed crushed under a bus and Hamid roaring from the pain, which came from deep inside, which surfaced into sobs, then Ruqiyyah’s voice, her hand on his cheeks, what’s wrong, what’s the matter and the wave of shame with the silent coolness of waking up. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, it’s nothing, go back to sleep. The more he loved Majed and the newborn baby, the kinder Hamid was to Robin and Sarah. He must not be unjust. Ruqiyyah must never feel that he favored their children over Robin and Sarah. It was a rare, precious moment when he was alone with Majed, no one watching them. He threw him up in the air and Majed squealed and laughed. He stood Majed on the bed and let him run, jump, fly from the bed into his outstretched arms. Then he remembered Ruqiyyah in the kitchen. The memory dampened the fun. He sent Majed off to join Sarah and Robin in front of the television and he walked back to the kitchen.

Ruqiyyah was clearing off the table, the baby was asleep in her chair on the floor. With his glasses on now, Hamid could clearly see the whisky bottle. Two-thirds empty, two-thirds. . . . His heart sank—that much . . . ? Or had she already poured some out? No. No, she hadn’t. He knew what she was going to do. She was going to clear the kitchen, wash everything and put it away, then ceremoniously tip the bottle into the empty sink.

She started cleaning up Majed’s high chair. Her hair fell over her eyes. She wore an apron with Bugs Bunny on it. She was beautiful, not like women on TV, but with looks that would have been appreciated in another part of the world, in another century. Her lips were naturally red. He had thought, before they got married, that she was wearing lipstick. She wore hijab when she went out, she got up at dawn and prayed. This seriousness, which he didn’t have, baffled him. Something Scottish she brought with her when she stepped into Islam. The story of her conversion amazed him as much as her stories about Gavin shocked and sickened him. She had read books about Islam. Books Gavin had snatched and torn up. Not because they were about Islam, but because she was sitting on her fat arse reading instead of doing what he wanted her to do.

She wanted to learn Arabic. Hamid would doze in bed, and next to him she would hold Simple Words in Arabic over the head of the baby she was feeding. “How do you say this?” she would ask from time to time, nudging him awake. When Hamid read the Koran out loud (he went through religious spells in Ramadan and whenever one of the children fell ill), she said, “I wish I could read like you.”

He started to help her tidy up. He closed the flaps on the box of Rice Krispies, put it away in the cupboard. When she finished wiping the table and started on the floor, he lifted up the baby’s seat and put it on the table. If she would talk to him, shout at him, it would be better. Instead he was getting this silent treatment. He began to feel impatient. What had made her search for the bottle? A smell . . . ?

Attack is the best form of defense. Laughter blurs things, smoothes them over. Hahaha. He began to talk, he put on his most endearing voice, tried a joke. Hahaha. She didn’t answer him, didn’t smile. She pushed her hair away from her face, poured powder into the drawer of the washing machine. She bent down and began to load the washing into the machine. It was linen, the sheets that had been on Majed’s cot. Hamid said, “But how did you know? Tell me.”

She sat on her heels, closed the door of the washing machine. She said, “You pissed in Majed’s cot. You thought you were in the toilet.” She twisted the dial that started the wash cycle, “I pretended to be asleep. He didn’t wake up.”

There is a place under laughter, under the hahaha.

Hamid saw her stand up, pick up the Johnnie Walker, and pour what was left of it down the drain. She poured it carefully, so that not a single drop splashed on the sink where later the children’s bowls and bottles would wait to be washed.

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