Nadia finds solace in the fact that Daniel has no idea. He has no idea that his wife, though in another country, is fully aware of the sordid affair he has embarked on with her friend. He has no idea that she reads his emails daily to keep abreast of his misdemeanors, and he is naively unaware that the ‘I love you toos’ and the ‘I can’t wait to see yous’ are completely, utterly, unwaveringly untrue.
Poor, ignorant Daniel just doesn’t have a clue that his wife is merely buying time until she returns to Dubai before she unleashes the true extent of her fury.
It is this feeling of empowerment, of having the upper hand, that gives Nadia just enough peace of mind to fall asleep at night. Albeit an uncomfortable, restless kind of sleep that never lasts more than an hour or two. And during her waking moments, she plots her revenge. Whether lying in bed and staring up at the childish ceiling adorned with glow-in-the-dark stars, or ploughing through a painfully quiet meal with Yasmine, Nadia cannot think of anything other than seeking justice.
Before Daniel metamorphosed into a lying, cheating, scheming son-of-a-bitch, Nadia took pride in her ability to rationalize with serene detachment. But months of emotional abuse have taken its toll on her personality, and she has recently discovered a side to her that previously remained dormant.
The initial hurt, pain and self-loathing has worn off and in its place sits a cloud of bitterness, and a desire to get her revenge.
“What do you want to do today?” Yasmine asks as she enters the dim kitchen to find her sister standing at the sink and staring out of the window, her view obstructed by the faded lace curtain intended to afford them a degree of privacy from their neighbours.
“Something that involves lots of walking,” Nadia replies, turning around and offering her sister the slightest of smiles. “In two days I’ll be back in the desert, back to using a car instead of my legs, and back to the sweltering heat. Let’s make the most of what London has to offer.”
“Yalla, so choose. Camden or Covent Garden?” Yasmine says with faux chirpiness, taking note of the sadness in Nadia’s eyes and trying to pretend that it has gone unnoticed. “Or anywhere else for that matter. It’s your day, you choose.”
It has not been easy for Yasmine to ignore Nadia’s weak countenance since she has returned, but whenever she opens her mouth to say something, she takes one look at her sister’s sunken eyes and snaps it closed. As they tidy up the breakfast mess, she makes a conscious decision to force herself to ask her sister what the hell is going on, regardless of how the answer will make either of them feel. After all, they are family, siblings, blood. They are supposed to help each other in times of need, irrespective of whether or not help has been sought.
An hour later, the sisters are walking arm in arm through the colourful stalls in Camden Lock, weaving their way through the crowds of people while Nadia tries not to stare at the punks with their fluorescent hair and piercings, the Goths with their pale faces and black attire, and the hippies with loose, flowing shirts and baggy trousers.
Months in the Middle East have made Nadia forget what true diversity is. People say that Dubai is a melting pot of cultures, but walking through Camden Town makes Nadia realize that every person in Dubai is almost exactly the same as everyone else from their nationality. There is no originality. So while Dubai is definitely a mix of cultures, it is more like a stir fry than a melting pot. Every ingredient its own, without merging with the next.
Their arms laden with haggled goods, Yasmine and Nadia finally sit down at the centre of the market with rich cheese crepes and devour them silence, grease dripping down their fingers. Nadia tries her best to absorb the atmosphere around her, but she is unable to fully merge into the ambience with Daniel's memory still looming above her.
Noticing the frown on Nadia's face, Yasmine takes a deep breath, and before she loses her nerve, begins to speak.
“Listen Nadia,” she begins, nervous at the prospect of upsetting her sister. "I know something's wrong." She falters as Nadia's expression changes from wistfulness to wariness but ploughs on regardless.
"Wait, let me finish," she says, avoiding her sister's eyes. "Please don't pretend that everything's okay when it's not. I know something's wrong. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it's bad enough to turn you into… this."
Yasmine reiterates her point by gesturing at Nadia's painfully thin body, at the sallow skin stretching over her bones, the pools of black surrounding her eyes, and the worry lines etched on her forehead like carvings on a stone statue.
Nadia looks down and says nothing, shame and panic rising within. She was hoping that Yasminewould never work up the courage to ask her what was wrong. She was hoping she wouldn't have to admit to her younger sister that she had failed.
She was hoping that she wouldn’t have to confess that she wasn’t enough for her husband.
"Please," Yasmine implores, taking her sister's hands in hers and finally looking into her eyes. "Tell me what's going on. Maybe I can help you, maybe I can't. Either way, talking about it will make you feel better."
The silence stretches itself around them, further strengthening the wall Nadia has built around her. It refuses to reveal even the smallest crack, its defiance irritating Yasmine, who is equally as stubborn. She refuses to let go of Nadia's hands or break eye contact. She doesn’t understand why her sister cannot bring herself to confide in her. She wonders what has happened to the Nadia she used to know, the one who was generous with her smiles yet cutting with her wit. This Nadia has forgotten how to smile with her eyes. This Nadia has no energy for wit.
"You're my sister. I love you. Seeing you like this without knowing why is killing me," Yasmine pleads, almost ready to give up. "Is it work? Too much pressure? Friends? The lack thereof? "
There is still no response from Nadia, and Yasmine feels her blood begin to boil. How is she supposed to help if she doesn’t know what is wrong? What is she supposed to say? She remembers all the times Nadia was there for her; through their parents' divorce, their subsequent remarriages, the second divorces. She helped her through years of being dragged from one country to another, constant bullying at school. Yasmine remembers the way Nadia would prise her emotions out of her, relentless in her pursuit to know what was going through her unstable mind.
Yet here she was. Unyielding. She could see what her silence was doing to Yasmine, yet she refused to surrender.
Nadia, oblivious to the emotions running through her sister's veins, struggles to breathe as claustrophobia overcomes her. Yasmine’s insistence makes the walls around her close in on her even more and she feels a wave of dizziness wash over her.
Please don’t make me say it.
"What is it Nadia?" Yasmine continues, her voice harder than before as she squeezes Nadia's hands, her frustration growing with every second that passes. "What is it? Are you bored? The luxurious Dubai lifestyle not good enough for you anymore?"
Nadia snaps out of her trance as if a bucket of water has been thrown over her head.
"Boredom?" she scoffs, yanking her hands out of Yasmine's grip, her eyes narrowed in disdain. "You think mere boredom can do this to me? You think that I want to have my baby sister staring at me with her big eyes like I'm some kind of freak show?"
"So what the hell is it then? What is so awful that you can't even tell me, your own flesh and blood?" Yasmine retorts, her tone matching her sister's. Although she feels bad about pushing Nadia to this level, she is also relieved that the wall Nadia has built around her is beginning to crumble, and that she is finally getting some answers.
"You just don’t get it, do you?" Nadia hisses, standing up. "You think I like looking like this? You think I don't know I look like a skeleton? That it's somehow escaped my notice that I've aged ten years in the past ten weeks? You think I came to London for pity? For an interrogation? I came here for peace God dammit Yasmine! I just wanted a break from wondering about who my husband was cheating on me with now. What I did to make him hate me so much. What I was supposed to do with my life now. There. I said it. Happy?"
Nadia moves so abruptly that she knocks one of their shopping bags off the table. Yasmine reaches out for her but she shoves her hands away from her, grabs her handbag and walks away, her heart pounding furiously and her pulse thumping in her ears, drowning out all the noise around her. She sees nothing as she pushes through the crowds of people, but feels as if they are closing in around her, suffocating her, preventing her from breathing. She breaks into a run, everything around her becomes a blur, and all she sees is Daniel. Daniel laughing, Daniel smiling, Daniel sleeping. Daniel cheating.
"Oi watch it," a voice cries out as Nadia slams into a passerby, almost knocking him over. He grabs onto her waist just as she almost falls to the ground. Her body presses against him and the shock prevents her from pulling away immediately. Panting heavily, she mumbles an embarrassed sorry and then disengages herself.
"No worries love," he replies, watching her with amusement as she attempts to straighten herself out, still mortified. "Hang on a second," he adds, staring intently at her face. "Haven't we met before?"
The shamefaced Nadia finally brings herself to look at the man insisting on conversing with her, and then does a double take as recognition dawns on her. There, in front of her, is quite possibly the best looking black guy in the whole of London. One she remembers meeting before.
"You're the guy from the tube," she says without thinking, and then curses herself for letting him know that she remembers him. Feeling more embarrassed than ever, she wills her face not to turn red as she looks down at the grey pavement, unable to meet his piercing gaze, and stares at his feet instead. He's wearing white trainers, and she wonders, quite banally, how he manages to keep them so clean in a rainy country.
"So you remember," he grins, puffing out his chest. "Seems like you can't stay away from my lap."
"If you say so," Nadia responds, not knowing what else to say. Her heart is still beating a little too fast, and she is unsure as to whether it is due to the physically exertion, the adrenaline, or the good looking stranger who seems to have a knack of showing up when she needs to be pulled out of a black hole. She decides that she doesn’t want to know what it is that is making her so flustered.
"Anyway, I'm sorry once again," she says indifferently. "Take care…" Hoisting her bag onto her shoulder, she begins to walk away.
"Hey, hang on a second," the guy calls out, jogging to catch up with her. "Don't you think you owe me a drink at least?"
"For what?" Nadia glances at him sideways without slowing down, resenting the intrusion of her personal space but kind of enjoying it at the same time. It has been so long since she allowed this kind of attention. And although she feels a twinge of guilt, the white gold band on her ring finger suddenly feeling like lead, she shoves the uneasiness aside and reminds herself that her husband is currently sleeping with her friend. Surely this gives her the right to engage in a little harmless banter with an attractive black guy.
"For what?! For physically assaulting me, not just once, but twice!"
"Does it look like I drink?"
"I don’t know. I never judge a book by its cover."
"Well I don’t."
"Not even hot chocolate? On a cold winter's day?"
Nadia stops walking, Camden Town tube station now right in front of her, and she looks at the stranger, not knowing what to say. Most of her wants to laugh off his advances without a second thought, but another part of her, the part that longs for some kind of male attention, the part that needs to feel desired, tempts her into reconsidering his offer. He has, after all, saved her from falling flat on her face twice. And he obviously likes her. Maybe he can help her forget about Daniel, at least for an hour or two, if nothing else.
"You know what? Why not? But you're inviting me."
"My pleasure, m'lady!"
For the first time in weeks, Nadia breaks into a genuine smile as they walk into the warm station, and for the first time in months, she feels like a woman.
Daniel used to always make Nadia feel like a woman. It was one of the reasons she fell so deeply in love with him. With Daniel, she was never bland, never tired, never weak. She was always sexy, alive, confident, strong. According to him, she was exquisite. Like a porcelain doll in an antique shop, apparently. She used to feign offence, and would ask him if he was implying that she was old. Sometimes he would say yes, other times he would say no. Either way, they would laugh, or he would tickle her, and she would feel like the most beautiful thing in the world.
Their first few months of marriage were perfect. They hated being away from each other, and every moment apart was spent in longing. They would cook together, clean together, sleep together, shower together. They became so close that Nadia forgot what it was like to be just her, not one half of Daniel and Nadia. She was so in tune with his feelings that she often knew what he wanted to say before he said it. She could read him like children's book. Whenever he squinted, she suggested having a nap, whenever he began to fidget, she dragged him out for a walk, and whenever he stared out of the window, she knew to leave him alone.
Until one day, everything she did was wrong. The book was no longer in English. She didn’t know what the letters were.
The naïve Nadia, with her heads in the clouds, didn’t even realize he was unhappy until he had already made up his mind about Dubai. And by that time, it was too late.
Looking back, deep in her heart, Nadia knows that she is partly to blame for the disintegration of her marriage. She knows that it didn’t break down overnight, that it was a gradual erosion of self-worth, self-confidence, self-belief. A slow, painful emasculation process that stripped Daniel of everything he ever though he was.
And when he stopped believing in himself as a husband, he stopped believing in them as a couple. And when he stopped believing in them, it was over.
Nadia, still as naïve as ever, kept thinking that maybe things would be okay.
"Are your eyes always this sad?" Prince Charming asks Nadia as they walk through Regent's Park, their hands stuffed into their coat pockets, and their noses red from the chilly March wind.
"Of late, yes," she replies, surprising herself with her honesty. Prince Charming is far easier to talk to than she expected, and she finds herself admitting things she would never admit to someone she actually knows. In fact, he doesn’t even know her name, she doesn’t know his, and she cannot help but find this sense of anonymity strangely liberating.
"Of late? What century are we in?" he teases, and she shoves him in response, feeling shy all over again. In just three short hours, Prince Charming has already succeeded in crawling under Nadia’s skin, and during these three, short hours, she has barely thought about Daniel and her thirst for revenge. The absence of Daniel and payback plots from her cluttered mind is refreshing, and in those three hours, London has burst into colours. Through the grey, she is noticing the vivid green grass, the splatters of bright yellow as Spring's first daffodils emerge from the ground, the painfully blue sky decorated with tufts of cartoon-like clouds.
And then there’s the chocolate of Prince Charming’s skin, the specks of gold in his coffee coloured eyes, his soot coloured hair. It is easier to forget Daniel who teetering on the brink of baldness, when she is next to someone far superior in the looks department.
It’s a shame he’s not Muslim, she thinks for a fleeting moment, before shoving the thought into a dusty corner of her mind. She cannot allow herself to open a door of possibilities. It’s just today, she chastises herself. Nothing more. There will be no tomorrow. You don’t need anymore complications in your life.
There is a familiar sound in the distance and Nadia stops mid-step and mid-thought to listen.
"What –" Prince Charming begins, and Nadia hushes him, her eyes closed.
"Shh…can you hear that?" she whispers.
"That voice in the distance? It's so amazing. Listening to it, you'd think we were somewhere in the Middle East, yet here we are, in a public park in the middle of London…"
"The adhaan, you mean?" Prince Charming asks, and Nadia opens her eyes in surprise.
"That's very culturally aware of you," she half-teases, secretly impressed. "You must know that it’s time for prayer then. Mind if we go to the mosque so I can pray?"
They start walking again, towards the minaret in the distance. It is partly hidden by the trees surrounding the mosque, and when the golden dome is finally within sight, Nadia stops again to devour her eyes. Prince Charming watches her in amusement, and she catches him looking at her and shrugs helplessly.
“It’s just so beautiful!” Nadia says, smiling sheepishly and turning to face the minaret again. “I know it must seem weird to you, and I don’t even know how to explain it myself, but right now, I’m in a pretty dark place and my faith is the only thing that’s keeping me going.”
She stops talking and glances at Prince Charming from the corner of her eye, wondering what his reaction to her open testimony of faith is. There is no disgust, pity, or even confusion in his expression though. Rather, he appears to be deep in thought, so she continues, searching deeper within herself to articulate what she is experiencing.
“Just when I’m about to fall, something will happen to remind me of why I was created. Like, I’ll see a mosque, or I’ll hear the adhaan, or I’ll come across a verse in the Qur’an that touches me, and suddenly, it’s like everything will be okay again.”
They reach the entrance to the courtyard and pause for a moment. Nadia wonders if Prince Charming will wait for her outside or whether he is curious enough to venture into the peaceful grounds with her.
"I'll let you in on a secret," he says, his voice light but the look in his eyes strangely serious. Nadia says nothing and waits for him to continue, assuming that he will confess that he has been inside a mosque before.
“I actually converted to Islam a few years ago.”
Nadia stares at Prince Charming in shock. This is definitely not the confession she was expecting.
“Erm, okay,” she says eventually, unsure whether to be pleased or troubled by this short, simple admission of fact that has suddenly and drastically altered the dynamics between them. All this time, there was no possibility of anything ever happening between them. It was supposed to be nothing more than a beautiful afternoon between two strangers who would never cross paths again. It was this lack of possibility that Nadia found so liberating and that allowed her to open up in a manner usually alien to her.
“Don’t look too thrilled,” Prince Charming says wryly, noting Nadia’s wary expression.
“Sorry, it’s just… I don’t know. I didn’t expect this.”
“Well, why don’t you go and pray, I’ll do the same, and I’ll meet you back here in about 15 minutes?”
They walk together through the spacious courtyard and part ways when they reach the foyer of the mosque. Nadia slips into the women’s section, taking off her black cashmere coat and unwrapping her grey hijab as she does so. Rolling up the sleeves of her slightly fitted black woolen jumper and taking off her boots and socks, she sits on a stool and begins performing ablution, the hot water instantly heating up her cold skin. She dries her face, arms and feet using tissue paper and then stares at herself in the mirror, wondering what it is about her that Prince Charming likes so much.
Her face, void of even a smear of Vaseline let alone any makeup, looks plain and tired. She pinches her cheeks in a pitiful attempt to add a little colour, but even that isn’t enough to brighten her complexion. Sighing, she wraps the scarf back around her head and pins it place before climbing the stairs to the prayer area.
The women’s prayer hall is almost empty, with the exception of a couple of Arab-looking women sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall, reading the Qur’an. Nadia looks around the room, at the familiar thick, red carpet, the glistening chandeliers, and the magnificent dome, engraved with verses from the Qur’an, and remembers the times she would come here to get away from whatever was bothering her. It used to be her secret hideaway, her respite from the outside world. The emotions connected to the room are intoxicating, and Nadia blinks tears away from her eyes.
In Dubai, she had nowhere to go. Everywhere was unfamiliar, uninviting. There was no place that she could look upon with fondness, nowhere that held special memories.
The imam begins the prayer, his melodic voice filling the hall, and Nadia joins the line of women in prayer, as they follow the imam through all the various motions. When her forehead touches the soft carpet, she feels tears rush to her eyes again, and this time, they fall down her cheek.
When the congregational prayer is over, Nadia holds up her hands and offers her personal supplications to God, begging him to help her through the darkness, to give her the strength to leave Daniel, and to give her a sign that the future holds some form of happiness for her.
She sits in prayer for over an hour, and it is only when her phone beeps with an incoming text message that she remembers that there is someone waiting for her outside. She tries to get up quickly, but her knees are sore from kneeling for so long, and even her feet have fallen asleep. Hobbling over to the shoe rack, she somehow manages to put her boots back on as she stumbles down the stairs, hoping that Prince Charming hasn’t given up on her and left.
Rushing out into the courtyard, her coat still in her hand, Nadia is confronted by the ice-cold wind as she looks around the empty area for Prince Charming, cursing herself for forgetting all about him. Her hijab flailing in the wind and the tip of her nose already turning red, she struggles to put her coat back, her heart already beginning to ache with loneliness.
Don’t be such an idiot. You only knew him for a few hours, she tells herself as she does up the buttons with cold, stiff fingers. But those few hours were more real than the thousands of hours before it, and Nadia knows in her heart that soulmates are hard to come by. It is not every day you meet someone and feel so drawn to them, so inexplicably intertwined with them.
If he hadn’t been Muslim, she would have easily walked away, telling herself that nothing could possibly happen.
But he was. Which meant that one day, if not today, or even next year, when she was ready, when her wounds were beginning to heal, something could have happened.
Shoving her hands back into her pockets, she walks away, each step laden with a newfound emptiness, one that was different from the emptiness she felt the day before.
“Don’t tell me you’re leaving me after making me wait almost an hour for you!”
Nadia spins around to find Prince Charming jogging up to her, holding his coat in his hands with a bewildered expression on his face.
“Oh, you’re still here? I thought you had left,” she mumbles indifferently, her heart skipping a beat. His presence breathes life into her and now that he hadn’t actually disappeared, and she had confessed her true feelings to herself for no reason, Nadia feels more disorientated than ever.
“You didn’t think I was going to stand out in the cold all that time did you? I was in the bookshop. Anyways, it’s freezing out here. Let’s go and get something to eat. You up for it?”
“Yeah, why not,” she concedes, still trying to remain impassive whilst acutely aware that their relationship was beginning to take a dangerous turn.
Oh screw it, she thinks as they walk up Park Road, past rows and rows of grandiose apartments. It's not like Daniel gives a shit. Is it really so bad if I enjoy this man's company for the next two days?
Prince Charming stop outside Mumtaz, an Indian restaurant Nadia has never been to before, and gestures for her to follow him inside. As they open the door, they are welcomed by a blast of heat and Nadia takes off her coat before she begins to perspire. As she does so, she notices Prince Charming running his eyes over her body with appreciation. They make eye contact and he blushes, embarrassed at being caught out.
“Nice jumper,” he says sheepishly, looking away.
Turning red herself, Nadia hurriedly plants herself on her chair and clears her throat, anxious to change the subject.
“So why did you become Muslim, but more importantly, why didn’t you say anything to me sooner?” she says, hoping that the question will dampen the charged atmosphere.
“Do you want the long answer or the short answer?”
“How about short, and if it’s interesting, you can tell me the long one later.”
“Alright, here it goes. I met a Muslim girl when I was at Uni, we started dating, I fell madly in love with her but she wouldn’t go all the way as she was a bit strict like that. Hormones, love and a little bit of interest in Islam inspired me to convert, so I did, and we got married in secret.”
Prince Charming pauses and looks at Nadia, who stares back at him in astonishment.
“It’s like something out of a movie,” she says, genuinely intrigued. “Go on, tell me more.”
Prince Charming laughs and takes a sip of sweet lassi. He licks his lips and Nadia tries not to stare at them by focusing on his nose instead.
“Okay, so we got married in secret and obviously did everything married people do. Well, not really, as it was a secret so I couldn’t exactly meet her family or anything.”
“Then she got pregnant. She confided in one of her cousins, who she thought was her friend, who actually grassed her up to another cousin, and before we knew it, her whole family had found out that their precious angel was knocked up. Only the thing is, her bitch cousin failed to tell them that we were married. She only told them the pregnant part.”
“Oh my god.”
“Exactly. So her brothers and her cousins came after me, beat the crap out of me and pretty much left me for dead. Here, see this.”
Prince Charming stands up and much to the horror of the rest of the customers, lifts up his white hoodie to reveal a long, deep scar against his taut torso. Nadia stares at it.
“It’s beautiful,” she says simply, looking away. “So what happened next?”
“Her brother was arrested, but he got out of it as he obviously had a million alibis and they didn’t have enough proof that it was him. And then she disappeared. At first I thought they did something to her. I went crazy looking for her everywhere. But then I heard that she left town and that she didn’t want anything to do with me. The last time I saw her was when she told me she was pregnant. And that was it. I never heard from her again."
“That’s so sad," Nadia whispers, touching her chest with her hand. "So you went through all that for nothing?”
“Yeah that pretty much sums it up.” Prince Charming feigns indifference but it is obvious to Nadia, from the slouch in his shoulders and shadow in his eyes, that he’s still hurting. She leans over and takes his smooth hands into hers, and he looks at her in surprise, but she says nothing.
“So what’s your story?” he croaks after a while, pulling his hands away.
“Long or short?”
“Short of course.”
“I met a guy. Fell in love. Got married. Moved to the other side of the world to be with him. Then found out he’s been cheating on me with various women pretty much from the get go. Only he doesn’t know that I know and I’m working out what to do about it.”
“Ouch. That’s harsh.”
Nadia and Prince Charming eat the rest of their meals in silence, barely tasting any of the strong flavours, both lost in their own thoughts.
“You know, it’s so weird how we know so much about each other but we don’t even know each other’s names,” Nadia says after a while, breaking the comfortable silence they had fallen into. "Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter though."
“How come you never asked me before?” Prince Charming asks, raising his eyebrows.
“I didn’t see a point,” Nadia admits, her voice quiet.
“I see a point.”
There is another silence as Prince Charming weighs up the depth of Nadia's words.
“Well," he says eventually. Nadia looks at him in trepidation, wondering what he will say.
He's going to tell you to forget about it. You're married. He doesn’t want you. You have too much baggage.
"How about we start again then?" he says with a smile, holding out his hand. Nadia laughs in relief, and accepts his handshake with enthusiasm.
"Alright love? My name’s Jayden. Jayden Lynch. What’s yours?” he says in his most charming voice, puffing out his chest like a proud peacock.
“Nadia Ziani,” Nadia replies with an exaggerated coy smile, trying not to laugh.
“Pleasure to meet you Nadia.”
“The pleasure’s mine, Jayden.”
Nadia and Jayden burst into laughter and this time, it is him who reaches across the table and takes her small, cold hands into his. The warmth of his touch runs through her veins and she smiles at him, hoping he doesn’t let go.
Instead, he draws her hand closer to him and brings it slowly up to his lips.