The skull was heavy, hard and warm and it knocked against Adiljan’s knees on the way up the stairs.
Amina ran down to help and the two young men accompanied the whole family up to the apartment, everyone lugging fresh sacrificial meat.
Before long, Amina had seen the entire sheep arrayed warmly along the second kitchen bench. She would put it in the fridge later. Firing up the cooking pot, she scooped ingredients from the prepared piles in the kitchen and made four bowls of mutton soup and four bowls of tea for the men.
They sat in the living room and ate and drank as fast as possible then got up and left. The two younger men had more sheep to slaughter. The old man and his grandson would spend the day visiting every house that offered them a salaam and accepted one in return, eating the tiniest bit of mutton and slurping down the quickest bowl of boiling tea before moving on to the next house and the next. In each house the women and girls stood waiting to serve them. And in turn the husbands and sons and grandsons of their houses would come and execute exactly the same manoeuvre in Amina’s apartment.
Once they had left Amina slipped out of her orange plastic kitchen shoes and padded barefoot onto the deep reds and blues of the carpet’s traditional design. The white lace curtains were newly washed and pulled back to welcome the weak sun reflecting off the snow in the courtyard. She had directed Ibrahim to wash all four sides of the double glazing yesterday and he had done a passable job. She moved to the window and saw a couple of neighbours on their way to her stairwell.
Less than a week after the sacrifice festival, while each family was enjoying its own freezer full of lamb, Amina received a phone call from a faraway city.
“Are you Amina Ibrahim?”
“Yes.” On marriage, Amina had taken her husband’s given name as her last name.
“Rahima Ibrahim is your daughter?”
“This is the Public Defendant’s office. Your daughter has been arrested for heroin trafficking. If you like, I can make arrangements to work on her case. The cost will be two thousand. Call me back on this number when you have the money.”
Amina sat with her hands cupped around the phone and rocked back and forth. “Balam, balam. My child, my child.” She would have to pay the public defendant’s office, and she’d need the release fee. Where would she and Ibrahim get the money? She entered her husband’s number into the phone.
She had not chosen him herself. Thirty-year-old Ibrahim had been picked out by her mother and father and the wedding arranged before Amina had known anything of it. At that time the law was already in place that a girl could not be married off without her consent. Yet as soon as Amina turned sixteen her mother forged her signature on the permission papers and informed her she was married. Amina had sat under the dining table and wept, insisting she would not go with that man until finally her mother told her that her choices were to marry Ibrahim or be beaten to death. There was no getting out of it. Her mother had six other younger children to care for and Amina was old enough.
She cleared the telephone screen. Where was the man?
It was her turn to host the next women’s Chai event. The women at the monthly Chai were ladies of the same age that had been meeting together since primary school days. Every month each woman took two hundred to the Chai as a gift for the hostess. And each month a different hostess collected all the cash. Money circled the group, with each woman able to plan on receiving one thousand once every ten months.
But just one thousand was not going to be enough. The Chai ladies were not well off. More than half struggled to collect just the two hundred needed to attend each monthly event. Which of them had the money to give her a loan on top of that? Why did she have such penniless friends? Why had none of them sought for more in their lives? For anything more than to keep that extra bit of money away from the men each month?
Those women knew nothing but primary school and marriage. They got together every month and all they did was talk about their children and grandchildren. She used to be like them until her stories filled sour with grief and loss. They hear about her cleaning job and tell her she is doing “black work”; the sort of labouring only desperate and underfed migrant workers do with shovels, sledge hammers, buckets of sand and concrete. What does it matter? Clutching their handbags on their laps. Those bags are so beautiful, but inside them is nothing but a handkerchief and front door key. Let them talk. You can’t spend someone’s good opinion at the bazaar. In her handbag is money.
She cleared the telephone screen and punched in Ibrahim’s phone number again. Sometimes she would go out leaving him details to prepare certain food, or pick up something from the shops but the fool always chose his own method and timing to do things. One evening after work Ibrahim had come to her in the kitchen while she was kneading dough for noodles.
“That fellow who owns the downstairs restaurant came up today,” he had said. “He asked to rent our apartment as a dormitory for his employees.” Ibrahim told her how much they had offered to pay.
Amina had turned around from the workbench. “With that money we could rent an apartment with an extra bedroom. There would be room for the grandchildren, and money left over to pay for groceries.”
“This is our home,” he had said, eyes swimming.
She had turned back and pummelled the dough into the base of the bowl. “Is this place not ours to do with as we wish?”
Amina got up and walked to the window with the phone at her ear. She pulled out a grey rag from behind an indoor plant and scraped it along the dry window ledge. The windows had been built with a stone bench jutting into the apartment and the couple used this for a row of indoor plants. By the glass the plants took full advantage of the short days and pale light of winter and their roots benefitted from the radiator which warmed the stone from below. Ibrahim watered them daily. Once a week he would give the plants a half turn to interrupt their desperate strain towards the weak semi-arctic light. His indoor garden revolved in slow-motion, like television footage of dinner plates twirling on the tall bamboo rods of a stage performer. A philodendron shot leaves out on new stems, budding another leaf and another in a journey away from the origin of growth. But what the plant intended as linear escape ended up curled around the base of the pot.
She waited for the phone ring out, then put it down on the stone ledge. She needed to get to her youngest daughter. A train would be cheapest, but the tickets were sold out months in advance, so it was not an option. She needed to buy an aeroplane ticket. Miriam and Yacobjan could find that money. Miriam would gladly give the money for her sister. She would visit them tomorrow.
The phone buzzed with Ibrahim’s return call.
“Fingers too busy to answer the phone?”
“And your other hand?”
“My other hand smokes, too.”
Amina picked three yellow leaves off a struggling geranium. “Will you come home?”
“I always do.”
“There is a matter to discuss.”
“I’ll finish this cigarette and come.”