Our father had a mantra he used to deliver with the zeal of a revivalist preacher: My Daughters Will Become Educated Women.
Baba’s dream of education for himself died along with his father, our giddu Mohammed, who had a heart attack on the runway at Tunis Airport as he waited to fulfil his life’s ambition of going on Hajj to Mecca. “I wanted to finish my schooling, but I had to become the man of the house and earn money,” Baba would say. “Because I was the oldest.” That’s why he ended up running a greengrocers in North London instead of hobnobbing with dignitaries at the United Nations as he had planned.
“If you died early, would Leila have to become the man of the house and earn money too?” I said once.
Leila was my older sister – anxious scrutiniser of timetables at bus stops, grabber of my hand when crossing the road, doer of homework on a Friday, not a Sunday. Unlike me, she didn’t make facetious jokes.
“Don’t be so stupid, Iman,” said Baba.
Denied the thrill of education first-hand, he sought it vicariously. “Mrs Brown’s an educated woman,” he’d say, Mama nodding like someone had put a motor in her head. “She must’ve read every book ever written!”
Mrs Brown was our upstairs neighbour in the small Victorian block where we rented a two-bedroom flat. She was a librarian. Despite being a Mrs, she lived alone; I never plucked up the courage to ask her what had happened to Mr Brown. Judging by her two grown-up children, who only seemed to visit at Christmas, she was older than my parents, although she looked less care-worn and creased.
“It must be her face cream,” said Mama. “You can see she uses expensive cream, not any old rubbish off the shelf.” Her voice was excited. I could tell it lifted her spirits to think of expensive face cream being used so close to home.
Mrs Brown cast her spell on our family in different ways. It was her voice that magnetised Baba: “You can tell she’s a real English lady,” he’d say. “It’s the way she speaks – so clear and elegant! I want you girls to talk like that too. Not like those terrible people on that programme you always watch: ‘Ang ang ang ang!’” he’d say, making a sound like a dog worrying at a ball of elastic bands. This was supposed to be Cockney.
Baba wore his best jumper whenever he went upstairs to speak to Mrs Brown, the blue patterned one with the matching socks. Only 100% wool would do for a real English lady.
For Leila, Mrs Brown’s appeal lay in her enormous collection of books, which resembled a library itself. Hardbacks and paperbacks spilled off the shelves and onto the mantelpiece and coffee table, a state of affairs that Mama and Baba would’ve labelled “messy” rather than “educated” in a lesser human being. Leila would borrow Mrs Brown’s books and together they’d pick over them afterwards in a way that made me seethe with jealousy.
“Yes, Leila,” Mrs Brown would say in her friendly yet understated manner, “you’re absolutely right about the similarities between those two novels. How perceptive of you!” Leila would blush and smirk while I dug my nails into my palms.
Mrs Brown’s magic sprang from a shallower source for me: her silky brown hair, shot through with shimmering threads of silver, her golden skin, which was paler than ours though darker than any other English person’s, and her big hazel eyes. I found her beautiful, although Baba disagreed: “She’s plain,” he said once, in an oddly catty tone, his face scrunched up in an expression that reminded me of Caroline, the meanest girl in my class. “Why do these English ladies think it’s a crime to wear lipstick? And no gold jewellery, only cheap silver. Not like …” He gestured at Mama, a rare compliment that made her lift her head in surprise.
Mrs Brown always smelt wonderful too, sweet yet musky, familiar in a dreamlike way. I’d look for any excuse to stand close to her, letting her perfume transport me to a secret garden within myself. “Would you like to try some, Iman?” she said, when Leila and I were at her flat and my eyes latched onto a silver bottle sitting on her dining table, still in its plastic wrapping. “You can open it for me as a favour.”
For our mother, Mrs Brown’s special quality was that she spoke French, so Mama, whose English was limited, finally had someone to talk to other than me and Leila. Mama and Baba didn’t so much talk as exchange information through curt nods and tongue-clicks. It unsettled me when I went to other children’s houses and saw their parents talk to each other as if they were friends, not a married couple.
Anyone listening to Baba would’ve been surprised to learn that he already had an educated woman in his home – in his very own bed, no less. Although he hardly ever mentioned it, Mama had been to college in Tunis and was a bookkeeper before she married him and moved to England and had us. In England, she wasn’t an educated woman, she was just a brown woman who scoured the shops for bargains, trundling a tartan trolley.
“I want to work again,” Mama would say sometimes. “I can’t live like this. And we need the money.”
“I know, I know,” he’d reply. “But what can you do here without the language? It’s not easy.”
“I’ll work in the shop with you. I’ll help you and learn English that way, like you did, then you won’t need to employ an assistant.”
“I’m not having you standing on your feet serving people all day! You’re better than that. I’ll buy you a sewing machine,” he said. “The big shops employ women to finish things off for them.”
“No!” she said, “I don’t like sewing.”
To me and Leila, she said, “So I’m too good to work in a shop but not too good to become a monkey on a sewing machine like those women in Coronation Street?” She brooded over it, frowning, then she said, “I have to talk to Mrs Brown about this. I have to get her to help me.”
A few days later, when she picked me up from school, Mama said, ‘Mrs Brown’s coming round for dinner tonight. Late, when he’s home. You’ll be in bed, so you won’t see her this time.’
My heart raced in indignation as I scurried alongside her.
“You can’t stay up late tonight, hbibti,” she added, her mouth twisted in amusement as she looked down at my flushed cheeks and pursed lips. “I know you want to see her, but didn’t you say you’ve got a maths test tomorrow? You’ll need to sleep, otherwise your sister will start nagging at you and I haven’t got time to deal with your bickering tonight.”
“It’s not fair!” I said. “Just because I’m the youngest …” I was nine then, a number that counted for nothing in the face of Leila’s lofty thirteen.
“This dinner is for me, my darling,” she said. “Not for you and Leila this time.” Something about the emphatic way she said me scared me. Who was this me who had nothing to do with us, her daughters, and who wanted to arrange things all for herself? I waited for her to put her arm around me and squeeze my shoulders, the way she did when she knew I was upset or disappointed, but she kept walking briskly, eyes straight ahead, as if this me was running along in front of us and needed to be watched more closely than I did.
All Mama’s special food came out for Mrs Brown that evening: fish fried in garlicky batter, red rice with onions and prawns, tahini and baba ghanoush, salads that dazzled in their multicoloured glory. She made me and Leila gulp ours down standing up in the kitchen before she shooed us out of the way: “Hurry up, ya Iman, go to bed now. Never mind your teeth, one night won’t hurt you. Leila, go and do your homework in our bedroom – it’s about time someone used that desk he wasted so much money on.” The desk was rosewood, a Victorian gentleman’s escritoire with a green leather writing surface. Baba bought it as a present for himself when we moved into the flat. Leila and I were the only ones who ever used it.
“Bouthaina!” I heard Mrs Brown exclaim as Mama brought out the food from the tiny kitchen. “My goodness! You shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble!”
After that, I heard mostly sounds, not words, from my listening post behind the bedroom door. I heard Mama’s voice labouring away in a language I knew must be English: jerky, halting fragments, pitched higher than her usual voice, as if her vocal cords were quivering under an unnatural strain, punctuated by rapid bursts that could only be Arabic or French. I heard Baba’s voice responding in a low, contained rumble. And I heard Mrs Brown’s voice, strong and melodious, weaving in and out of theirs, keeping the ensemble in harmony, preventing any ugly notes from creeping in: “Don’t you agree, Hamdi? … importance of education … wonderful thing … perhaps become a secretary in due course … equipped … girls with their homework …”
Waver of wands, weaver of dreams. That’s how Mrs Brown transported Mama to the promised land: Tottenham College of Technology, to learn English and IT. Mama needed her magic; her own must’ve stopped working when she moved to London, if she’d ever had any in the first place.
Mama never did become proficient in English – she seemed unable to hold the words in her mouth for too long. Her vocabulary did expand, however, to include a selection of Anglo-Saxon expletives, which she unleashed on Baba and Mrs Brown when she caught them together two years later, kissing by the communal cupboard on the landing upstairs. Mrs Brown sold her flat and moved out. Baba stayed, but his swagger left him, defeated by his own guilt and Mama’s icy contempt, which never thawed. Tarnished by association, even his mantra became more of a whisper than a shout.
Years later, I saw Mrs Brown again. Leila and I had both left home by then, me to go to university on the other side of London, Leila to take a job as an English teacher in Dubai. Mama and Baba remained alone in their flat, locked in an endless dance of misery and need.
I was in my second year of university, studying psychology and criminology and feeling full of the tragedy of life. My first boyfriend and I had recently broken up after discovering mutual infidelity. I had a cold and no money, and I was due to sit an exam in two days. Mrs Brown was standing in the classic fiction section of the bookshop around the corner from my hall of residence. The silver in her hair had almost replaced the brown. She stood like a question mark in front of me, engrossed in something she’d picked off the shelf. My first thought was that she had no reason to be in a bookshop when she already lived in a library. My second was that she looked alone, fragile, and sad. Perhaps she always had, but we’d never noticed, blinded as we were by the spell she’d cast on us. It didn’t occur to me to say hello, any more than I would’ve spoken to an old photo on a wall. As I walked past her, I caught a whiff of her perfume. Sweet and musky, familiar and strange. The tears it brought to my eyes were for me and for her. For Leila so far away and Mama and Baba getting old in their flat.
About The Author
Ola Mustapha is from London. She has had short stories published in Aesthetica, The Galway Review and Quince. She is obsessed with foxes and follows them on Instagram when they’re not available in real life.
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