Soul Sisters by Reshma Ruia
A large woman with a dimpled chin lives in a rented room on a quiet street in West Didsbury. Her name is Caroline and she has different coloured eyes. The right eye is Farrow and Ball grey, not rain grey, she tells the newsagent as she buys a packet of fags, feeling clever as she says it. Her left eye is puddle-brown. She can’t lend her eyes more poetry.
She works as a filing clerk in the archives at Jacob Stoner & Sons, a Jewish textile company on the outskirts of the city. It is an unhurried job that consists of directing research students to the relevant records on Victorian spinning and weaving practises. Few take the trouble of climbing down the thirty steps to the basement, where Caroline has her office, leaving her plenty of time to read. But on that day she is filling in for a sick colleague and has spent most of her time fielding queries about damaged zippers and import duties on leather shorts from China. She’d nipped out for lunch and was certain it was him. He has the same stooping shoulders and sandy hair that turns gold when the sun hits it. She keeps up with him as far as she can, until he disappears into a side street and she loses him. But it’s not Mark. How could it be Mark? He has moved south, to Cheltenham with a new woman in his new life.
The whole experience leaves her on edge, as though she’s swallowed something disagreeable and it makes her impatient to get back to her room. Once home, she puts on her blue velour track suit with its faded bleached back pocket and her fluffy slippers and feels better. It is time to reach for her book.
This is Caroline’s third reading of Narshida Malik’s novel, ‘The Nightingale of Kansas’. The bruised cover shows a blindfolded bird inside a cage. Some pages are folded into little origami fans with entire passages highlighted in neon yellow. Caroline doesn’t treat reading as a spectator sport. The scribbled comments and underlined passages are the milestones by which she navigates her life. Unfeeling brutes, Caroline scribbles on page fifty-five, straight after this: the boys came up to me as I stood in the queue at Macdonald’s. I stepped back unsure of what to do. ‘Aren’t you boiling in this Mrs Osama Bin Laden? What are you-a letterbox? How will you post the burger?’ I pushed past them and ran home, their spit hanging on my niqab. They made me feel ashamed to be me. (Page 55, ‘The Nightingale of Kansas’)
Caroline underlines the last line and stops reading. She closes her eyes and sinks back on the bed, the book nestling between her breasts. She remembers the warm July Saturday, the heat felt like a razor blade cutting her skin. She was window shopping at the Arndale Centre. Hot and sticky, she’d bought herself an ice-cream. A gaggle of school boys snorted as they walked by. ‘Percy Piiiig…’ Their voices still rang in her ear. At forty two, she is surprised that she can still be surprised by the careless cruelty of the human male.
She sighs, gets up and helps herself to some bread and jam. She thinks about calling her mother, telling her about how she’d almost seen Mark and lost him. But she decides not to. ‘Wake up, Caroline. Stop day dreaming and hiding in them bloody books.’ She can hear her mother’s voice.
He had walked out on her on her fortieth birthday, leaving her stranded at the George and Dragon, alone with her half-finished cider. It was the royal wedding, their local was strung with union jacks and men spilt on to the pavements gripping pints of lager. Women stood together, dreaming of their own Prince charming. The pub had put up a giant screen in the car park and there was much oohing over the bridesmaid’s dress. Caroline felt quietly proud that day, standing in that car park, staring at that screen, proud to share her birthday with a royal celebration.
Mark had told her to come inside.
‘We’ll miss the wedding vows,’ she complained but followed him. All the tables were empty, but Mark led her to the farthest one, the one near the Ladies.
‘The thing is, Caroline,’ he said. ’I don’t think I can love you anymore.’ He laid his hands flat on the oak table and studied his fingers as though they were arrows telling him which way to run.
A roar came from outside and Caroline wasn’t sure if it was what Mark said or if it was the crowd cheering Prince William on. She spent the afternoon sitting on the toilet, her head in her hands.
He’d found someone else. It was as simple as that.
* * *
Caroline flicks on the lights and switches on the television. She wants noise. The news is on-another bomb explosion in Kabul or maybe it is Baghdad, she can’t be sure. She looks at the images. It looks like a video game. She hopes Narshida is okay, even though she knows Narshida lives in America, but one can never tell with novelists. Their research can lead them anywhere. Especially someone like Narshida. At times Caroline feels that every word she reads is written with a pen dipped in blood.
Narshida’s photo is sellotaped on the fridge. She’d found it in an old Time Magazine in her dentist’s waiting room. The picture shows a woman with troubled eyes, her mouth is full and dark. Caroline imagines it a crimson red. She walks up to the photo and strokes the deep lines running down the sides of the mouth. They look as though they are being pulled by a marionette’s string.
She has such lines too. ‘Do something Caroline, slap on some foundation, some lippy,’ her mother said after Mark’s exit. ‘You got to look young to find another man.’ And Caroline tries. She goes to Boots, pulls out Narshida’s picture from her bag and tells the gum-chewing girl at the makeup counter. ‘Make me like her.’ But she comes back home the same Caroline Wheeler.
She starts keeping a notebook labelled ‘Narshida’. The book has a set of questions she means to ask her one day. She writes down question number 86. Can there ever be an end to sadness? In those early days after Mark walked out on her she forgot to get out of bed, or go to work. Her weight dropped.
* * *
Narshida Malik saved her. She’d gone to the local library one winter afternoon, her fleecy pyjamas peeping underneath her coat, and stood bewildered in front of the shelf of new arrivals. Mrs Smith, the librarian came over and asked if she needed help.
‘Do you have any instruction manuals on how to be happy? Some sort of DIY?’ Caroline tried not to cry, but the tears came anyway. Mrs Smith patted her hand and handed her a box of tissues.
‘Why would you need that, my dear?’ She had an old-fashioned way of speaking ‘We’re not engines that need fixing. But I have just the book for you, dear. You will adore, The Red Rose of Kabul by Narshida Malik. She is a foreigner, but she is very clever. Every word falls like a tear drop.’
‘What is it about?’ Caroline had asked politely, her eyes scanning the shelves for some quick-fix book with a bold, bright cover.
‘It’s about a woman whose husband abandons her and goes off to war,’ Mrs Smith said, her eyes smiling kindly from behind her red framed spectacles. ‘That’s men for you…always chasing skirts and glory,’ she added.
Caroline wondered whether Mark was seeking glory and not a skirt when he walked out on her. She read the novel in one sitting, rooting every step of the way for Noor, the proud protagonist who defies tradition.
Life did not have to end just because your man walked out of the door, the seasons still changed; she still had a brain and a healthy body. (pg. 70, The Red Rose of Kabul). Caroline copied the words out in her notebook. And so began her love affair with Narshida. She went through the library’s entire collection of Narshida Rashid’s books.
* * *
Soon after she googled Narshida and discovered that her parents were political exiles who had fled Afghanistan for San Francisco. Narshida had degrees from Berkley and Columbia and had never been to Afghanistan, but she felt the pain of her people. She couldn’t stop crying for her country’s lost years, she said in an interview in Vogue.
‘Lost Years.’ Caroline feels the same since Mark has left, the hours she spent with him slowly drip-dripping away. She writes to Narshida’s publisher in New York. The letters come back unanswered.
* * *
‘How’s life, Caroline?’ It’s her brother Tom calling from London and the question is a technicality. They are siblings, but their planets spin on different axis.
‘The usual, Tom,’ she replies and waits.
‘Are you sure you’ve not got your head buried in one of them… Arab woman’s books?’ he asks.
‘Narshida is of Afghan heritage, Tom, not Arab and moreover she is an American citizen.’ She spells out the distinction carefully.
‘Well, guess who’s coming to town,’ Tom says.
Caroline rings in sick at work the next day and spends the day shopping for something new to wear. She chooses a red silk dress. On her way home, she stops by the library and shows it to Mrs Smith. They agree the dress is beautiful.
‘Fit for a bride, not that you’d want to be one, dear,’ Mrs Smith says. ‘I bet it cost a fortune?’
‘I wanted the best,’ Caroline replies. ‘How else will she know it’s me?’
* * *
She rings Tom when she reaches Euston station. He can’t meet her, ‘Important stuff at the office.’ She imagines him at his desk: tense shoulders, face pressed against a computer screen. ‘Your ticket for the book reading will be waiting at the box office,’ he says.
Caroline can’t stand the anticipation. The day is a blur. She has a vague memory of crowds rushing past and a mushroom pizza at the Pizza Hut by Trafalgar square, and lugging around her Cath Kidston shopping bag crammed full of books that need to be signed.
She is early. A Sikh attendant directs her to the foyer bar where she can wait. Caroline orders a bottle of Shiraz, a packet of crisps and opens her notebook and begins to write.
Question 90: Can I persuade you to hold a reading in Manchester? There is a lovely old lady from the local library. She is a fan too. Maybe I will even cook for you. My ex-husband Mark loved my cooking.
When she looks up, her bottle is empty and there is a queue outside the auditorium.
‘Excuse me, excuse me…yes, family …friend of the author…special reserved seat…,’ she shouts, pushing past people, breathless by the time she gets to her seat. Her red dress is like a flag unfurled. Tom hasn’t got her the front row. But at least she has an, unrestricted view of the stage.
She’s late. Isn’t she?’ She turns companionably to her neighbour. The bespectacled girl with a head scarf scowls and mutters something.
* * *
Lights dim. A woman appears on stage. Caroline wants the crowd to stop snivelling and shuffling and scratching. The woman clears her throat and gives a short introduction.
‘She’s wrong about that date. It was actually 1988 that Narshida first went to California,’ Caroline whispers to herself and edges forward in her seat, her knees squashed together. The woman explains that Narshida is in the middle of a global world tour launching her new book. Film rights have already been bought by Hollywood.
‘That’s my girl.’ Caroline’s chest puffs out in pride.
The crimson velvet curtains part and Narshida stands before her. Her head is covered with a brown silk scarf and a turquoise necklace shines at her throat. The crowd applaud, but Caroline stays silent. Her hands are shaking as she lifts her camera and stands up. Murmurs of disapproval rise. Narshida is staring at her, framed in her lens, her black hooded eyes still and mysterious. The interviewer shoots up from her chair and grabs the mike.
‘Please, no photographs. Narshida doesn’t like the flash.’
The interview starts. Caroline leans forward, tilts her head so she can hear clearer. Narshida reads in an American voice, flicking through the pages of her new novel, ‘The Nightmare of Baghdad.’
‘I won’t let you go out without wearing the hijab. What will the world say? Nadia shook her head. You are my brother, not my protector. I will dress and live how I want…’
Narshida stops reading and looks at the audience. A woman starts clapping. She shuts her up with one raised hand and continues. Caroline listens but something doesn’t make sense. The words jumble together. They sound noisy and flat. She looks around. Rapt hands move across paper jotting down phrases. She yawns and fidgets. What is wrong with her?
The reading finishes. Narshida shuts her book and turns to the interviewer.
‘I won’t be taking any personal questions, so please don’t ask me about my dog, my lover or the kind of flowers I like to smell.’
The crowd titters and a few raise their hands. A girl holding a mike walks towards Caroline. The insides of Caroline’s thighs are damp with sweat. Her breath is sour. This is her moment to shine.
‘Do you have a question?’ The interviewer frowns. The mike hovers over Caroline’s mouth like a missile. She opens her notebook with the questions but no sound comes out of her mouth. She sneezes.
She sits, head bowed, listening to the others. There are questions about Narshida’s writing. A man shyly admits he has based his PhD research on her. Narshida nods and announces that she is aware of quite a few such dissertations. She lifts her hand to cover her mouth.
* * *
People rush to form an orderly queue for the signing. Caroline takes her place, her bag of books unzipped, and ready. It is clear to her that Narshida is playing a game of hide and seek. Only with Caroline will she reveal her true vulnerable self. They are soul sisters after all. They have been through so much together.
It takes her forty-five minutes to reach the table where Narshida sits, pen poised. She wears a diamond ring and a Rolex watch on her wrist. The organiser hands out post it notes for the crowd to write out their names.
‘Only one name, one book, no personal messages.’ She reminds them.
Caroline writes her name, and then she adds, Please meet me for a coffee. I know you are being brave but I can recognize your pain. We are soul sisters.
She places the novels in front of Narshida like corpses awaiting resurrection. Narshida signs one, pushes away the rest and reads the note. She begins to laugh.
‘What soul sisters…what pain? I just signed a fucking movie deal. Angelina Jolie’s playing the lead. I’m off to Cannes next year.’
People are nudging Caroline out of the way.
* * *
She’s missed the last train home. Couples hurry past, heads bowed, hands entwined, the click of their heels like a wedding march. A thousand stars scar the sky. She leans on the railing, watching the river, sleek and shiny with night time lights. The bag with the unsigned books cuts into her shoulder.
She opens her bag, lets the books slip out into the waters below.
‘I don’t need you anymore,’ Caroline whispers to the darkness and smiles.
Reshma is the author of ‘Something Black in the Lentil Soup’, described in the Sunday Times as ‘a gem
of straight-faced comedy.’ Her second novel, ‘A Mouthful of Silence,’ was shortlisted for the 2014 SI Leeds Literary Prize. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various International anthologies and magazines and also commissioned for Radio 4. She has a PhD and Masters with Distinction in Creative Writing from Manchester University and post graduate and undergraduate degrees from the London School of Economics. Born in India, but brought up in Italy, her narrative portrays the inherent tensions and preoccupations of those who possess multiple senses of belonging.