Creative Writing: Fragments
“What can you remember from that time?” asks Linda, gently.
Henna shuts her eyes briefly and involuntarily flinches. Trying to open up that memory box is painful: the process of trying to remember hurts as much as the newly uncovered memories themselves. In that room with the wooden shutters pulled down on the hum of the streets, with Linda, her therapist for the last four months, Henna is still struggling to remember the wedding and the subsequent days leading up to her fleeing from home. The memories are in pieces that refuse to fit together.
“Just snatches from the wedding day and from when I stayed at his house. It feels like the fragments of a broken mirror which I don’t know how to piece together,” replies Henna. Linda looks at her. Henna has dark, almost black, curly hair framing her face; her mouth, downturned now, is expressive and her almond eyes are set in deep mahogany skin. Her feet are up on the well-worn blue armchair and her bare arms are wrapped around herself, slightly paler than her face and legs. Linda knows that what took place ten years ago needs to be unpicked but equally, given Henna’s history, it will only happen when she is ready. She can’t risk Henna running away or shutting down; she ran from previous therapists who pushed her.
“Perhaps it might be easier to write it down?” She ventures. “That way you can write the bits you remember and even if it feels like fragments, it may help release some of those feelings.”
“If I had my way, I would never discuss those things,” mumbles Henna. She closes her eyes and presses her fingertips against the eyelids, “But I know that doesn’t work any more, so I have to try.”
Henna sits in the café in Foyles with her notepad app on her phone gleaming expectantly. She wonders once again how to piece together a narrative when her mind refuses to release the information. What would work? Perhaps starting a list of memories would be a manageable way to piece together what has happened without the gush of pain that occurs every time she tells the story or tries to provide details to Linda.
She writes her title and begins.
What I remember
- I flew out to India on New Year’s Eve with my parents. I had a thought: “if this plane crashes, I will not have to go through with the wedding.”
- I constantly felt nauseous in India and felt like I was shrinking.
- After mum’s threats of killing herself if I did not go through with the wedding, I could not talk to her or dad and kept my headphones on.
- I had one conversation with my eighteen-year-old cousin who I was staying with in India. He had taken me for a drive after dinner.
“I have to leave. Nobody will stop this wedding despite everyone knowing I do not want it,” I had begun.
“Do you want to live alone?” He had replied. “How can you even consider that? What if you died alone? Who will bury you? Who will give you a Muslim janaaza?”
- I went to buy a wedding dress with my aunt. We took a rickshaw from the end of the street. It beeped its shrill horn as it navigated the bumps on the dusty roads, swerving slick boys on scooters. I remember the man in the fabric shop, with his pockmarked chestnut skin and his well-oiled parting, spinning the fabric from the roll and wrapping a length of it around me to see what the maroon would look like against my slightly sallow skin. Even with him holding the fabric, I remember the weight of the heavy garment.
- I had henna patterns drawn on my hands and feet. There were lots of women who came; some of them were my cackling cousins.
(Henna closes her eyes and tries to look down into this scene but her memories of the day remain vague and unclear.)
- As the wedding day approached, I felt even more sickly. I was always cold and I wore an old denim jacket every day. My headphones remained on my head, with Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks playing on a loop.
- Mum tried to speak to me the day before the wedding.
“Let him do what he wants.”
I couldn’t bear to look at her.
She has to start on the wedding day soon but first she needs more tea. She looks around at the gaggle of people occupying seats around her. There is a man with ashen blonde hair and metal-rimmed glasses in an old faded denim shirt, reading The Outsider and sipping from a huge mug. Two girls, one black and the other white, both with pixie haircuts, are engrossed by what they are watching on an iPad. Henna feels both detached and comforted by the presence of strangers and their everyday activities. Activities that can be observed without feeling like your guts are churning and you might throw up at any moment.
She orders another peppermint tea from the man with spiky hair and big geeky glasses; the smell of the mint in the tea bag soothes her as she stirs in some honey. She looks at the notepad and continues.
- The religious man with the craggy skin conducted the nikah in the morning.
“Tujhe ye rishta kabul he?” Do you accept this marriage? He asked, peering into my bowed face. I was in one room and Abdul, the chosen ‘husband’, was in another. I do not remember my response.
- I cannot remember the evening reception, but I remember these things: I did my own hair and put on the wedding dress. I do not remember what it felt like on my body and against my skin. My sister was nearby but she did not speak to me. I remember at the time that she/they/all of them had said I was trying to get attention by objecting to the wedding.
- I do not remember being on that stage surrounded by hundreds of strangers. I do not remember my picture being taken. I do not remember speaking or being spoken to. I do not remember eating the wedding food.
Henna shuts her eyes briefly. The wedding night and the days in his house are to follow but she does want to revisit those memories. She closes her notepad app and opens Twitter, scrolling down her feed without reading. She knows she must continue with the list. Linda has told her and Henna knows it to be true: without remembering, she will not feel and process her pain, she cannot therefore recover and will go into shutdown mode whenever she is triggered.
Ten years after a marriage she never consented to, and which has fractured her emotional and mental self, her body and mind have finally had enough of supressing the memories and the associated feelings. She must be reconciled with herself: the two parts of her refuse to be divided any longer. Her breakdown six months previously was testament to that.
Henna wonders how it is possible that she managed to cope for so long before the breakdown. She thinks of the young woman she was, who fled her home at the crack of dawn, and that sleeping man -even in her mind she can never call him her ‘husband’. She only had a plastic carrier bag of clothes, grabbed hastily in the dark so as not to wake him. She struggles to recognise that young woman and wonders if she would have the courage now to do what she had done then.
She goes back to her list.
- His brother drove us to his parents’ house. I could feel his leg pressed up against mine, it felt like lead. I felt sick; I couldn’t breathe.
- There were so many people in the house, swarming like flies. Blood red petals were strewn on the marital bed.
I cannot do this, thinks Henna. This hurts. Her shoulders are tense, her jaw is clenched and her gut is tightening. She will not be sick in Foyles, in this oasis of normality, she tells herself. No, she cannot and she will not: she will continue, like she has for ten fucking years.
- I was crying and barely able to speak. His heavy, hairy, arms pulled me close. The smell of his body was suffocating. I was choking. I slept on the floor that night.
- The following morning I cried. I cried every day I stayed in his house. I remember thinking, ’once I get back home to London, I will somehow extricate myself from this.’
There is not very much detail she can remember from travelling back from India to her family home in London. But of course, it was no longer her home.
This is all she can manage to write about the days before she left home:
- My room was filled with his smell. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t change my clothes in front of him. I could not bear being in my room any more. I hated sleeping in my bed.
Henna takes a deep breath. She shuts her eyes and despite herself, her body deceives her, and she is crying. Painful, hot tears and she squeezes her eyes shut and wills herself to stop. She types.
- My thoughts of that time: I cannot go on for much longer. I am losing control. I cannot breathe. I am drowning.
- The last night. (Henna types this quickly). Mother knew I had not had sex with him. (How?) Mother was dressed in her off-white burka ready for prayer in her room; the prayer mat had been laid. My younger sister was in the corner doing her homework. I was sat on her bed with my knees up and my arms wrapped around my legs, crying.
“I just can’t do this,” I wept.
“Do what? You haven’t even slept with him, what exactly can you not do? You will be a good wife to him.”
“What do you mean ‘a good wife’”? You can’t make me do something I don’t want.” I felt I was drowning, no longer in control of anything.
“’Make you do something?’ Like what?” Her face was contorted. She put one leg on the bed; she was mimicking something. I felt hysterical.
- In the midst of this horror, I had one clear thought: I will not be saved by anyone; no one is waiting in the wings. There is only me and I must save myself.
- I grabbed my passport and the following day, at the crack of dawn, under the guise of going to work, with a plastic bag of clothes, I left that house. My mother was already awake, in time for fajr prayers, and her last words to me as I reached to open the front door were, “make sure you come back early.”
Henna saves her list and turns her phone off. She breathes deeply, as if she were in her yoga class: in and out, in and out. She reminds herself that she is safe now: in this warm bookshop, she is safe. Nobody can harm her. She silently repeats, as she has learnt from Linda, “I am safe, these are just thoughts and feelings and they will pass. Emotions cannot hurt me.”
There is more from that time: the awful emails from her sisters when she left; her family coming to her place of work repeatedly to get her back; her sister reporting all her bank cards stolen so Henna was unable to withdraw money… but she cannot write all this down right now.
She gets up and thinks that Linda will be pleased. This is more than Henna has been able to articulate in all her time with her various therapists. As she puts her phone away and walks towards Charing Cross station for her train home, a busker sings a Coldplay song outside the National Gallery. He has a small gaggle of people around him, and the guitar case in front of him is filling with coins. Henna stops to listen.
Look at the stars
Look how they shine for you
And everything you do
Yeah, they were all yellow
I came along
I wrote a song for you
And all the things you do…
Henna drops a coin in the guitar bag, smiles, and carries on her journey home.