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Mary Smith - Author, Poet and Journalist

No More Mulberries: Extracts

Over dinner she and Iqbal swapped stories about work. As well as dealing with the usual skin infections and gastric problems, he’d been consulted by Murtaza, the determined hypochondriac from the next village. ‘He swore he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. Insisted he really needed a course of injections. When I said I’d have to examine him,’ Iqbal’s eyes crinkled in amusement, at the memory, ‘he leapt up onto the couch like a nine-year old.’ Miriam laughed with him. Murtaza had been known to gatecrash the women’s clinic in his attempt to acquire medicines.

‘Oh, and I met Mother of Naeem on the road home,’ Iqbal continued. ‘She’s pregnant again. I think she’ll be up to see you soon for a check up.’

Miriam counted on her fingers, saying, ‘It’s barely a year since the last one and this’ll be her fourth. Last time, she’d a problem with her blood pressure so it’ll be good to keep an eye on her.’ She paused. ‘Did she mention why Naeem and Sultan didn’t come for English class today? It’s not like them to miss a lesson.’

‘I told them there wouldn’t be any more classes,’ Iqbal said, mopping his plate with the last piece of nan.

‘What?’

‘They won’t be coming back.’ He popped the bread into his mouth, not looking at her.

‘But why?’ Miriam asked in astonishment. ‘They’re both so keen. And they’ve made such good progress in the few weeks they’ve been coming.’

Iqbal, continuing to chew, looked down at his empty plate and Miriam began to think he wasn’t going to answer her. Finally, he said, ‘I have my position to think about. My reputation. Not only in this village, but the whole district. It’s not right for young boys to be here in the house alone with my wife. People will talk.’

‘Come on Iqbal, Naeem is, what? Thirteen? Sultan is eleven, twelve at the most. How could that cause talk in the village?’

With a glance at Farid, Iqbal switched from Dari to English. ‘Are young boys in Scotland not thinking about sex?’

‘Oh, for goodness sake, yes, of course. Think about it, talk about it, fantasise about it – but not about doing it with a woman who’s nearly forty, the mother of two children.’

Iqbal’s eyes narrowed and his voice was cool. ‘The subject is closed.’

About to protest, Miriam became aware the two children were still sitting in the room. For once Ruckshana had fallen silent, gazing round-eyed at her father. Farid’s head was bowed and she couldn’t see his expression, but knew his face would have the closed, tight look it assumed whenever there was the possibility of an argument. She’d wait until the children were in bed before continuing this discussion. Hoping to dispel the tension in the room she rose to her feet, saying, ‘Come on, Farid, you clear the plates while I bring the mulberries.’

 

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Miriam poured the tea, placing the enamel teapot and dishes of sweets within easy reach of her guests. The almost toothless Zainab reached out a calloused hand, dirt-encrusted fingers adorned with three silver and aquamarine rings, for a sweet, which she sucked noisily while slurping her tea. Miriam tried not to wince. The women settled down to the serious business of catching up on news of the village and surrounding area. Zainab and her sister-in-law Aquila, whose weathered features reminded Miriam of a pickled walnut, had reached a stage in their lives in which they could hand over the burden of work at home to daughters-in-law. With time on their hands for the first time since childhood they visited neighbours, complaining about how lazy their sons’ wives were, gathering and disseminating gossip. They were probably still a few years younger than her mother and occasionally Miriam tried, but failed, to imagine them in Scotland, attending one of her mother’s bridge parties or committee meetings.

The women had already heard about Miriam’s unexpected guests. When she brought the baby through for a feed they shook their heads and clucked their tongues, not holding out much hope for the infant’s survival. The biggest talking point of the day was the forthcoming marriage of one of the village girls to the son of a local landowner. ‘Father-of-Zohra’s done well for himself there,’ remarked Zainab authoritatively, popping another sweet into her mouth.

‘How much was the bride-price? I heard it was …?’

‘Wait a minute,’ Miriam interrupted, ‘which Zohra are we talking about?’

‘Oh, you know her,’ Fatima replied. ‘Her mother and my sister-in-law are cousins.’ From Shinia way – half an hour from here.’ Miriam, once she’d placed the girl, voiced a regret that the young girl was to be married so soon.

‘Soon?’ exclaimed Fatima, chaddar slipping as she shook her head. ‘That one should have been married a long time ago. You should see her at the well, laughing when the boys tease her. Too free, by far.’ She refilled her glass before continuing, ‘Last year at harvest time I saw her hanging around the threshing ground. She brought apples from her father’s orchard for Daud’s young brother.’

Aquila spoke up, ‘And I suppose you never hung around the well when you were young? No giggling to encourage the boys?’

Fatima winked. ‘Maybe – but I didn’t go offering them apples. My father would’ve killed me.’

 

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No More Mulberries