It has been an hour since he last called, promising to be home in 20 minutes. He was already 45 minutes late when he had finally bothered to check his phone and respond to her three missed calls. In that hour and forty-five minutes, his dinner has turned stone cold and is almost inedible. But he has already eaten with his friends, despite being fully aware that Thursday nights are 'family night'.
He doesn’t really care that his wife has been waiting for him with a churning stomach, reluctant to start eating without him and destroying the 'family night' concept she was forced to create in a desperate attempt to see him more. Neither is he particularly perturbed that she spent over two hours roasting a leg of lamb to perfection, had painstakingly prepared and stuffed courgettes with rice and minced meat and had even bothered with a salad, a yoghurt dip, saffron rice and homemade lemon juice with mint. Daniel is, after all, so wrapped up in his own life (work, friends, internet perving, offroading) that he barely notices Nadia anymore. New haircuts are lost on him, sexy lingerie rarely rustles up interest down below and tears just turn him into stone.
Nadia is painfully aware of it all.
That evening, she sits at the carefully laid dining table in a simple red summer dress that she bought from Oasis on a whim, hoping that her husband would notice it and pay a compliment, dangly Monsoon earrings hanging from her ears and her crazy curly hair left loose and sexy. She has had her monthly Brazilian, her legs are smooth enough to be in a Gillette ad and her lips are painted a daring scarlet, matching her dress.
When she first got married, she didn’t feel the need to make such an effort – she could walk around in faded flannel pyjamas with holes in them and her husband would still look at her as if she were a priceless jewel. Now, she finds herself spending more and more time on her appearance, desperately trying to catch his interest, anxious to make him happy in some way or another, wondering when she became so meaningless to him.
With each second that eventually turns into a minute, Nadia becomes more and more resolved to make her marriage work. With her first class Biology degree from King's College London and her Masters in Environmental Biology from Imperial, she is used to succeeding and when she married Daniel, she thought that she had also succeeded in finding the perfect husband as well. Sexy, attentive and deep, he wooed her with profound poetry that he had written himself, long, sensual love letters and a willingness to massage her feet during balmy summer evenings in Regent's Park.
His spirituality had also drawn her to him. A recent convert to Islam, he was so thirsty for knowledge, yearning to learn more and more about the new way of life he had adopted, that his eagerness shone through in every pore of his translucent skin and Nadia, with her staunch faith, was drawn to him like a beggar to a generous merchant.
She would have been happy to continue living in their dark, basement flat in North London, while she consulted for an energy company and he worked on the novel that would change the world. Only a five-minute walk from her sister's place, her flat may have been tiny but it felt like a proper home. Nadia loved having her family nearby, which was why she didn’t mind paying a slightly higher rent for the Zone Two address, loved the proximity to the local mosque and Islamic bookshop, and the fact that the tube station was only ten minutes away (in trainers - in heels it was more like twenty), was an added bonus.
Daniel also seemed to like living in Arsenal, unperturbed by the abundance of immigrants (after all, with his US passport and Swiss upbringing, he was a foreigner himself), the pigeon droppings that littered the pavements and the regular muggings.
The poet in him romanticised his life and he fancied himself as a renaissance writer, struggling with poverty, trying to find fulltime employment whilst indulging in a passionate affair (well, marriage), with a beautiful, Middle Eastern woman. Until his jobless state slowly began to strip him of his ego, his sense of manhood, his self-respect. Every time he came across Islamic sayings that emphasised the husband's duty of taking care of his wife, reiterating the fact that the wife's income is purely her own and a husband has no claim over it unless the wife chooses to share it with him, he began to feel less like a man, less like a husband and less like a Muslim.
Daniel being Daniel though, he kept the queasiness in his stomach and the loss of power in his limbs to himself. Until one day, he announced that he had been offered a job in Dubai and he was hoping that Nadia would move out there with him. She did. She worked out her noticed period at her company, gave away the little furniture she had, packed up her clothes and boarded an economy class flight to Dubai.
And now, she lived in a spacious two bedroom apartment (courtesy of the X University, where Daniel worked), had found a new job that she could actually walk to and she spent her evenings waiting around for Daniel, who always seemed to be busy with everything and everyone but her.
At 9.36pm, two hours and 36 minutes after her husband was supposed to be home, Nadia finally carves herself a piece of rock hard lamb, serves herself a small portion of limp salad and ignores the stuffed courgettes – Daniel's favourite – altogether. At 9.49pm, she has finished repeatedly rearranging the food on her plate and when washing her hands in the bathroom sink, realises how pitiful she looks. She stares at her huge, black eyes rimmed with kohl, pale cheeks, pert cleavage and slender arms feeling disgusted with herself. When she remembers the matching red lingerie underneath, and the agony she went through getting waxed, a wave of nausea washes through her body.
He doesn’t even care, she tells herself slowly. Turning the tap on full blast, she scrubs her face with aggression, until her skin becomes pink and raw, rid of every inch of makeup. Her eyes turn red as she relentlessly rubs them until the kohl also disappears down the sink.
Pulling off her new dress and underwear, she stuffs them all into the bathroom bin and shivering slightly, she wraps her arms around her thin body and looks at her naked reflection. Her collar bones are protruding and her skin is beginning to strain over her hips and ribs. She never used to be this thin. She used to relish in her curves, enjoying feeling like a real woman, but since she has moved to Dubai, she has learnt that she detests eating alone. The pounds have slipped off as she spends less time eating and more time playing with the food on her plate, waiting.
Forcing her lethargic limbs into cotton pyjamas, Nadia makes herself a cup of green tea and climbs into bed with it. She opens her bedside cabinet and takes out a bundle of papers, anxious to remember why she married Daniel in the first place, desperate to find a reason to continue trying. Choosing a leaf randomly, she begins to read.
Nadia, my angel, my savior, he wrote one evening, when they were at the brink of falling in love, when she was still wary of his advances, still unsure of the depth of his feelings for her.
I can’t concentrate on anything – not my thesis, my lectures or even my friends. Every time my mind begins to focus on what it should be focusing on, my heartstrings tug it back to where it belongs – with you. When I became Muslim, I thought I had finally discovered my purpose in life, I had found a sense of peace and solace that had warmed my soul with its radiance. But now, even those intense emotions have been displaced. I live, I breathe, for you.
She stares at the words written by a man consumed with love and longing and tries to understand how, in a little over a year, he has forgotten. She traces her fingers over the indentations on the page, running them over the small neat print, wondering if he would ever feel the same towards her as he used to. Goosebumps form on her bare arms and she rubs them, shivering slightly, her teeth beginning to chatter despite the air conditioning being switched off and December night being far from cold.
She falls asleep with the letter still in her hand, the lamp still on and the cup of green tea still full. When Daniel comes home at midnight, he sees the dinner table still set, the food still on it, and stops. His heart pounding, he tiptoes into the bedroom and finds his wife curled up in a foetal position, clutching a piece of paper in her right hand. He slowly eases it from her hand and glances at his elegant font. The words glare up at him in accusation. Why couldn’t she just understand that things were no longer the same? He crumples up the page and tosses it into the bathroom bin, and when he does, notices the red cloth inside. He takes out the dress and looks at it in embarrassment, guilt finally creeping into his heart.
Red is his favourite colour.