Heat scorched the back of his neck as he shuffled along the crowd-lined road that led from the centre of town to the cliff-top. Shutting out the jeers and heckling was easy as he held his head high, eyes focussed on a point in the distance. Ignoring the sting of sharp stones was more difficult but he was determined to give them nothing to feed their need for entertainment.
Each step felt like a hundred. The chains around his ankles hampered his movement and the manacles dug into his bones, chafing his skin. Blood ran between his toes. He could smell its sticky sweetness blending with the stale odour of his unwashed body.
The lash of a whip cut into his back. He swallowed the cry of pain that nearly burst from his lips and forced himself forward, past the clock tower that tolled the last minutes of his life.
Up ahead loomed the scaffolding; a tall wooden edifice , standing like a giant against the blue of the ocean. The rope and noose swayed gently in the breeze, gaping and ready for his neck. The crowds would surge behind him, circling like vultures, waiting for the crack of his bones as the support was kicked from beneath his feet.
Death no longer bothered him. There was nothing for him in this life. Always an outsider, since he’d arrived in this town, he was tolerated only because of his skill as a carpenter and the haunting melodies he could tease from his fiddle. Talent wouldn’t save him this time but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now Beth wasn’t here. He didn’t want to think of her, didn’t want to sink into that well-worn abyss of pain and anger. He kept his eye on the towering gallows, his end and his beginning. Soon he and Beth would be together again. He would be happy once more as he had been before the sickness dragged her down. The anticipation fuelled his spirits, giving him strength. He smiled inwardly. The bastards could chain his body but they would never hold his mind.
More stones struck him. Someone even hurled rotten tomatoes along with shouts of “Child Killer” and “Murderer”. Sour smelling juice dripped down his cheek, staining the ragged, grubby shirt he was wearing.
The accusations hurt more than the missiles pounding his body. No one wanted to hear the truth. They only wanted to find someone to point the finger at; to blame for the misfortune that hung over this town. Let them believe that his death would break the curse. They’d soon learn otherwise. He’d seen what lay ahead, just as he’d seen his own demise in the visions that plagued his nights. It was one of those visions that told him where the child would be found. He knew the consequences of speaking out but he couldn’t leave her where she fell, prey to any hungry animal. It wasn’t right. She needed a proper burial. So he carried her back, limp in his arms.
Seagulls circled above, squawking loudly while the townsfolk crowded round him, squawking equally loudly on the ground. Reaching the cliff edge, he stopped walking and turned to face his decriers. A sea breeze gave relief from the heat of the sun and, as he breathed its freshness, he caught a hint of perfume in his nostrils; Beth’s perfume. She was waiting for him.
The clock chimed three times. In those few moments of distraction, he threw himself over the edge of the cliff, down into the water below, cheating them of the entertainment of watching his dying breaths.
Patches of low-lying mist frost the lake close to where Jessica sits. Moonlight halos dark clouds, casting an ethereal glow over the night as memories ripple through her mind.
On warm summer nights, she loved to sit here with her father, anticipating the moment when he drew on his pipe, blew smoke rings; always the prologue to a new story.
‘Dad,’ she calls but her only answer is an echo. As her hand feels the empty space beside her, tears escape.
Lifting her face to the sky, she notices the moon emerge between clouds. Held by its luminescence, she can’t look away, and as she gazes, its glow becomes a clock face. The second hand starts to spin anti-clockwise.
She smells the leafy aroma of tobacco, hears a familiar voice begin;
‘A boat moved slowly across the lake….’
Imaan wipes sweat from her face with the back of her hand tasting the salty droplets that slip between her lips. Already the sun has dismissed any stray breezes that dare linger from night. Light scorches through the attic window casting checkered shadows onto the wall opposite. Later there will be no escape from the heat but in the early morning Imaan is grateful for whatever coolness still remains. This heatwave England is experiencing is as unexpected and unwelcome as her current situation.
Sitting on the bed, she watches the door, picking at the hem of her shalwar kameez with the jagged nail of her index finger. A few weeks ago, her nails were neatly shaped and polished, her hair straightened and make-up carefully applied. She knows she looks a mess but is beyond caring. There’s no one to see and nowhere to go. It feels like a lifetime since she was in the sixth form common room chatting and laughing with Deesha and Rida, talking about boys, their plans for university and dreams for the future.
In the street below the working day begins. Cars hoot impatiently, a dog barks and a group of kids are arguing at the bus stop. It’s been the same every weekday morning. Imaan tries to work out how long she’s been locked in this room but time is as stagnant as the air she breathes. Days blend to nothing; each one as empty as the last; punctuated only by the arrival of food trays, escorted trips to the bathroom and her mother’s tearful pleading.
‘Why do you always make life so difficult for everyone, Imaan. Ahmed is a good catch. He is rich, a good business head; the ideal husband. You know these last few years haven’t been easy for your father. The factory is in trouble and Ahmed has promised to help him. This is his only hope of avoiding closure. Surely you want to help him?’
On and on her mother her mother nags, shovelling on the pressure until Imaan longs to hold her hands over her battered ears and scream until there’s nothing left inside.
Just four little words is all it would take to leave this room.; four words that stick in her throat like a giant fishbone. No matter how much she wants to please her father she can’t bring herself to say aloud ‘I will marry Ahmed.’ Her father has told her enough times to always tell the truth and that lying has consequences yet now he wants her to do just that, because it is in his interest.
He refuses to listen when she begs him not to force her to marry Ahmed. When she tells him that Ahmed scares her, he laughs and says
‘That’s natural. All brides are scared. Ask Ammi how she felt when she agreed to marry me. ’
Imaan shakes her head but says nothing. Argument is futile. His only concerns are the business, family reputation and his name at the mosque. What she thinks is irrelevant.
The truth is, Ahmed terrifies and nauseates her. At forty five, he is twenty years older than her with eyes that are steel-cold, nicotine stained teeth and a body bloated from all the rich sweets he stuffs noisily into his mouth. She shudders at the thought of his fat stumpy fingers touching her body.
Her tears have no impact. There is no reasoning with her father. His decision is an immovable object.
‘No daughter of mine will bring dishonour on my name. You will do as I say willingly or by force.’
Alone in her room, she wonders what happened to her ability to charm him into giving her whatever she wanted. It’s as if he locked his love away along with her computer, iphone, television and other western influences he removed when she refused to agree to this marriage. He even went through her wardrobe removing jeans, tops and shoe .
She felt sick as he unplugged her laptop; her only link to the outside world and her friends. ‘ I need it to do my course work,’ she pleaded as he dumped the machine in a cardboard box, ‘ it has to be finished by September. You know I need top grades to get into medicine.’
‘Ahmed wants a wife to cook and care for him. That’s all you need to learn. Leave the studying for your brothers.’
‘But Abu, I’ve always wanted to be a doctor.’
‘Better you pay attention how to make good chapattis than waste time daydreaming.’ he said before locking her in.
Downstairs the bathroom door shuts. Pipes gurgle and groan as the shower runs. Forty five minutes later the front door slams and her dad’s Mercedes backs out of the driveway. Imaan anticipates her mother’s footsteps on the stairs. The routine never changes. As soon as her father has left for the factory, her mother opens her bedroom door to let her out to use the bathroom. When she returns her breakfast is on a tray in the doorway.
As she sits to eat, the door is locked again, sealing her back in her prison. Mechanically, she eats the overdone toast spread thinly with margarine. It tastes of burnt cardboard but she forces herself to keep chewing, swallowing it down with gulps of milky coffee.
Afterwards, she lies down on her bed, gazing at the swirling pattern on the ceiling, trying to work out ways to escape. Ideas take her in circles, going nowhere. It passes the time but short of breaking down the door, which would bring everyone running, there is no way out of this nightmare. Even if she did manage to escape the house, where would she go, what could she do? Deesha and Rida would be too scared to help her and it wouldn’t be fair to put them in that position.
It’s no use. She is well and truly trapped. Whatever she does, the result will be the same. Still she can’t bring herself to say the words.
That evening she has another visitor; her eldest brother Ali. He takes the stairs two at a time, like a soldier marching into battle.
‘You selfish bitch,’ he yells, shoving her against the wall. Abu spoilt you, always giving you what you want yet when he asks you for one little favour in return, what do you do, refuse? You only care about yourself, never thinking of others. What am I supposed to do if the factory goes under? Who will feed your nephews? You?’
Head down, Imaan focuses on the corner of her Hijab, forcing back tears that blur her vision. Ali looms above her. The flat of his palm hits the side of her face. She gasps with shock
‘Well?’ he screams , his mouth so close to her she can smell the alcohol on his breath. She is expected to be a good Muslim daughter yet he can break any rule he wants.
He grips her arm so tightly she knows she will be bruised in the morning. ‘Get your selfish arse downstairs and tell Abu you will marry Ahmed.’
He drags her to the door, pushing her downstairs and follows her reluctant progress into the living room. She doesn’t want to go through with this but she loves her little nephews and couldn’t bear to picture them crying hungry. Swearing on the Koran she forces the four loathsome words over her tongue.
‘There, that wasn’t so difficult was it?’ Her mother says, giving her a hug and kiss on the cheek. ‘I was just the same when I met your father but look how happy we are now. Love comes with time.’ Imaan stands in front of her; stiff and hollow as a mannequin.
Days pass in a blur of wedding planning activity. Imaan is taken here and there, measured for her wedding outfit, nails done, hair trimmed and she never speaks a word.
On her wedding day, she looks out of her attic window. For the first time in weeks the sky has turned grey and stormy. The oppressive heat is ready to crackle with thunder as if it knows how she feels. Tonight she will sleep in Ahmed’s bed and the thought turns her stomach inside out.
Her mother comes in to help her dress. It’s easiest to pretend this is happening to someone else. If she’s not there, it can’t hurt.
Afterwards, she remembers nothing of her wedding. She’s so tired when they finally reach Ahmed’s house; all she wants to do is sleep.
‘Thank goodness that’s over,’ he says, taking off his jacket and loosening his tie. ‘All those stupid people hanging onto my coat tails. Why are you standing there like an idiot? Kitchen’s through there and I’m hungry. I need proper food, not that crap we had to eat this afternoon.’
Imaan wonders how he can be hungry after all the food that was served at the wedding; food her father paid for. She shrugs but does as asked without question, pleased with the fragrant curry she makes with the few ingredients in his cupboard.
When she sets the plate of food in front of him, he looks at it as if it were vomit. ‘What’s this muck?’ With a long sweep of his arm he knocks it to the floor. ‘Now, clear up this mess.’
It’s a shock when the first time his fist slams into her stomach. She tries to please him and avoid the explosion of anger but nothing she does is ever right. With each punch and kick another piece of her falls to the floor where it dies. He’s careful only to strike where bruises won’t show and when she sees her family, her father is all smiles. The factory is doing well thanks to Ahmed. He thinks the man is a knight in polished armour and Imaan knows there is no point disagreeing, he won’t listen to anything said against her husband. Only money and his name matter. Her father doesn’t see beyond his own needs.
She loses her first baby in the toilet following a particularly brutal beating. She can’t remember what it was she did wrong. In the solitude of the bathroom her tears flow as fast as the blood that flushes down the bowl.
Her fourth miscarriage grips her as she is shopping in Sainsburys. She stands in the vegetable aisle, bent over, sobbing in pain, while blood drips down her legs onto the white polished floor of the supermarket. The supervisor calls an ambulance.
Late that night, when she is lying between the crisp white sheets, watching shadows on the ceiling, one of the nurses sits in the chair by her bed.
‘You don’t have to go back, you know,’ the nurses says.
Imaan looks at the young Indian girl who is not much older than her.
‘There are people who can help you, all you have to do is ask. Take this and read it. I’m here till eight if you want to talk.’ She hands Imaan a leaflet.
The leaflet gives information on the Forced Marriage Unit with a number to call. When she reads Rupa, Jazdeep and Leila’s story, Imaan cries. It’s a relief to know she’s not alone. There is a glimmer of hope but that hope is edged with fear. Will she be brave enough to admit to the truth and face the risk of losing her family. She loves her mum and dad. The thought of being cut out of their lives scares and hurts her but going home to Ahmed terrifies her even more. If she stays, he will kill her; if she leaves he will do the same if he finds her.
By the time light seeps through the windows of the ward, Imaan has made up her mind. She wants to live and this is her only chance.