A perpetual leaden sky and dimly lit Victorian tenement confined her here for more than twenty years. Most days in Finnieston, rain drizzled from murky clouds, and there was no escape from the damp here, everywhere, outside, inside, seeping into her bones. On the main road, Scots in colorless gray coats trudged the pavement past the chippy, the pubs, and the newsagent. Pallid faces betrayed a drab existence under the rule of the Iron Lady. In front of the tenement, urban land lay disused and unkempt.
All these years she could barely endure the grim loneliness, but good Pakistani women were supposed to stay inside the home – so he said. And stepping into this world outside was like going into a maze of incoherence.
Wrenched from everything she knew – a world she understood – to be brought to a bleak unchanging dystopia. Broken homes, inescapable addiction, and angry cursing children – here, there was no place for morals, there was no respect for anything except sharab, the drink.
Liquor had never touched her tongue, and she could not understand its exalted place in life here, only imagining some spiritual possession under its influence. She was brought into a culture she feared would take her children away from her – and it did. They spoke the language of the alien culture, they dressed in the way of the alien culture and – they left.
At her wedding in Pakistan, before she came, she had been taken inside a doli, a wooden chariot carried by four male relatives, to a stranger – to a man who was already her husband, before she had met him.
“You are a blessed bride,” she was told. “You are going to the West, where you will prosper and be happy.”
She turned away from the window, away from her supposed utopia, back to the pale wallpaper embossed with red velvet damask. The face-size repeating pattern, a curved diamond shape swathed in feathery flourishes, looked out at her from all four walls. Once a background of satin white trailed by delicate ivory scroll, the yellowing paper now encased her in endless gloom.
* * *
She had not known how to change things, she had not known who to ask for help. Sometimes she had run from his rage and wept at the doorstep of Mrs. McLaughlin. The children, Bilqis and Tasleem, had known where she was when they came home from school to a locked front door. Drinking tea, weeping, thanking Mrs. McLaughlin, she would take her leave to return to her rightful place.
Sometimes it hurt, and so she had called the doctor.
“It’s just a bruise, why did you ask for a doctor’s home visit?” Doctor Smythe had grumbled. “There’s nothing to be done except rest and stay in.” Still he gave her pills for her tears and sadness.
She was mocked by her husband. “You see, you are complaining about nothing, and wasting the doctor’s time.”
She had cried out for help to others: police, neighbors, the community, the mosque, and to her ghosts. Finally, neighbors grew tired of the screams and the police came.
“Do you want to charge him or not?” was all that was offered to her.
In her moment of weakness she said “Yes”. Angered by her audacity, humiliated by the judge’s mere chastisement, now he was gone. She was alone.
From the moment she said yes, she became a prisoner of shame. A woman alone, a woman with no husband, a woman deserted: she could not face people outside, other Pakistanis, glaring white neighbors, and she could hardly write to her family and cause them hurt and worry thousands of miles away in Pakistan.
That first night alone her fear of shame grew into flickering shadows wandering her room, and heavy velvet curtains shuddered and strained to keep out a gusty draft from old windows. In the thin shaft of light cast by a cloud-smothered moon, the damask flourishes writhed and rippled, dancing with the shifting shadows. All the while the wind whispered ‘sharam, shame, sharam’. She buried her face under the warm folds of her razai until her mind was quiet.
When she dared to look up, the damask pattern appeared as faces watching and examining her, while a figure took its form from mingling shadows on the paper. It crept out from within the wallpaper and she heard it pacing to and fro. Her heart began palpitating, and nausea took hold of her. When the full moon lifted its shroud of clouds and filled the darkness, the thing of coalesced shadow and shame stood before her. It was Sharam in a pin-striped night-black suit, snake green eyes glistening greedily.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I want you to believe that all hope is lost,” Shame said, his fork tongue darting. “I want you to believe that change cannot occur, and that you will never be able to show your worthless self to others.”
“I have suffered enough shame,” she protested.
“There is yet more to come before you end your life,” said Sharam. “Then, I want you to surrender your shame-ridden soul.”
Before she could argue with him, plead with him, he began to fade. For a moment she thought she saw his neck coil snake-like, before he slithered back into the wall, his face becoming at one with the damask.
The damasks bled and danced before her every night, those Satanic faces of Shame on the wall. By day, she scraped and scratched at the paper. The yellowing paper peeled away, like onion skin, the layers never ending – the snake skin of Shame. And the velvet emboss came away on her fingers like congealed blood.
The electricity was cut off, and for a time she lived in the darkness of Sharam’s hell.
She sold her wedding jewelry to pay for electricity and water and heat and the Iron Lady’s poll tax– twelve bangles, a necklace enameled with green and red, heavy dangling earrings, her nath, and her tikka – all pure Pakistani gold.
Now she had no choice. She had to venture outside to survive in her new existence.
At the Social Security Office, the gori white woman behind the counter had stared hatred at her – every word she uttered was met with contempt in the eyes of the gori. She could feel Shame pacing back and forth behind her, smiling with pleasure, gloating. She wanted to tell him to leave, but then the gori would see her curse and not give her what she needed.
Outside the office, a gathering of men, mostly young, were in her way.
“Join the Socialist Workers! Solidarity and revolution is the only way out!” A young man with excited gray eyes thrust a thin newspaper into her hands. “Rise up against Thatcher. Look at what her greedy capitalism has done to Glasgow. Men are out of work and turning to the drink.”
“Aye, we’re all turnin’ into alc’ys,” an older man piped in. “Thatcher doesn’y like Pakis either.”
“Tam, Paki is not the right word.” The younger man spoke like a scholar.
“Oh Aye?” Mr. Tam’s heather blue eyes scoured her face in surprise. “Wha’ is it then?”
“Pakistani,” the young scholar enunciated.
Mr. Tam shook his head. “Ne’er heard of it.”
She had looked over her shoulder then, and saw that the smirk had gone from Shame’s face. He feared these people that did not want to be trod on, that were unshameful, brazen, an army preparing to wage war against all demons who sucked the soul of the nation. She sneered atSharam as he faded, and she lingered for a few moments among the socialists, savoring her fleeting victory.
* * *
Her life alone went on for years.
Monday was time to throw leftover roti to the pigeons, to sit for a while on the bench by the derelict land, while the birds finished their feast. Afterwards, if she had saved enough for some meat, she would go to the halal butcher’s shop, and sometimes ask for something special, like paya sheep’s trotters, or maghaz sheep’s brains.
She left the blackened Victorian tenement block behind her. On the main road, Argyle Street, double-decker buses riding past the pubs of Finnieston coughed out black smoke that smelled like paint. In the daylight these pubs were closed and quiet. There were so many here, one on every corner. The pubs of Finnieston were dark windowless houses of haram. The drunkies went in on Friday night for purgatory between here and hell, their faces sickly white, leeched of all self-worth. When their doors opened, the darkness spilled out into the gray-white air, that smoke from the fires of hell within.
At the place where the pigeons pecked something had changed. A sign had been put up:
DO NOT THROW FOOD TO THE BIRDS. THIS ENCOURAGES VERMIN AND IS UNHYGENIC.
She turned her back on the shouting sign, sat on the bench under a sullen white sky, and did what she always did: tearing the rotis and feeding the gray birds.
Three older boys not quite men, sauntered by, swigging ale from bottles. One of them pointed a large stick he was holding at her salwar. “Did ye nae notice? Yer still in yer pajamas,” he said. They laughed at her. But they did not loiter and kept walking, going on their mission to do mischief, uttering fuckn’ this and fuckn’ that in their wake.
A policeman approached, eyeing the boys in the distance. He stopped at the sign and stared at it for a while, and then turned to her. “No see the sign, hen? Ye canny be doing that anymore. Put yer chapatis away.”
Where would she put the old rotis now? It was haram to put Allah’s food in the rubbish. She wanted to ask the policeman this question, but his gaze returned to the truants, and he strode away in pursuit of his young felons. When he was out of sight, she furtively dumped the rotis on the ground and rushed away from the scene of her crime.
Wednesday was when she put her washed clothes up on the pulley in the kitchen, already infused with the smell of meat and spices. There was nowhere else to dry them. There was no bagh, like the garden filled with roses in her home in Pakistan. Mr. Gallagher, who lived on the ground floor below her tenement, grew a few roses next to the dump shed, but their sweet fragrance was snatched by the stale stench of empty ale bottles and half-eaten fish suppers.
Thursday was her turn to mop the Close stairs. She mopped and mopped until the concrete steps reeked of pine and bleach, extinguishing the whiffs of ever present smoke and sharab. She tipped out the bucket of blackened water onto the pavement outside.
The Thomsons upstairs did ‘Friday night’, dancing and coming back late, singing and arguing on the Close stairs. Friday should be a sacred day of prayer and rest. Here, Friday was a day of sharab, cursing, and shameless dancing. Mrs. McLaughlin did not do ‘Friday night’. She went to pray in Church every Sunday with Mr. Gallagher’s family, and only had sharab on Hogmanay when they all sang ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in the Close.
It was Sunday. The drunkies were stirring from their sharab infested sleep on the pavement. They are not real people. They are the demon followers of Shame. She ran out onto the street, shouting at them. They lugged themselves towards her like flesh-eating zombies.
“What ye want darling?”
“Geez us a kiss.”
“No want a drink hen?”
“Sharam, take your demons away.” She tugged at her hair, hard, desperate to pull the demons out of her head.
One was very close to her now, pouting his lips, his tongue darting. She pushed him, and he fell to the ground, so weak, he couldn’t be real – just a sham, a nukkera of a human. She ran to her tenement flat, bolted the door, and clutched the kitchen meat knife waiting for them. They did not come – yet.
One day they would come. The drunkies would leach into the belly of the Close, taking orders from Sharam, to eat her heart.
Doctor Smythe did not care. He said she was crying wolf, but she knew there was something wrong. “You don’t have chest pain. You’re complaining too much. There’s nothing wrong with your heart.” Sharam was eating her heart and the doctor couldn’t see it.
There was no time left. That night he was coming to finish her heart. She heard them all coming out of their dark houses of sharab, singing and quarreling on the empty main road. The red velvet damask swelled with blood that she smeared across the walls with her diaphanous scarf.
It was after midnight when she went out into the Close to reckon with Sharam. Shame’s darkness was growing all around her, as the whispering wind spoke his name. The mouth of the Close creaked – the drunkies were coming, heaving their flimsy bodies against the door. Her heart was faltering, pounding then stopping, pounding then stopping. She draped her dupatta sodden in blood, across her chest, over her head, and prayed one last time to Allah.
She could not go on, but she did not want to give her soul to Shame. She felt herself falling down the stairs. Shame was coming towards her, through the Close door, his drunkies trailing close behind him.
She did not give herself to Shame. She dreamt one last time of her home in Pakistan. The wind hushed as the walls of the Close dissolved into an open courtyard, arabesque archways, and sun and light and air. She greeted her brother, his wife and children, as they gathered for the evening meal. Setting down a satchel of textbooks after a day of teaching at the local girls’ school, she heeded her mother’s call to tend to stewing goat curry wafting familiar scents of anise, cinnamon, and black cardamon.
It was there she was far from the grasp of Shame, and it was there she let her stuttering heart come to peace.
* * *
Bilqis stands by the first Close on Minerva Street, right below the tenement where her mother had lived, where she herself had once lived. Finnieston, gentrified, the so-called “hippest place in Britain”, is the coveted venue for the UN Climate Change Conference of 2021. The air is unseasonably tepid and an autumn sun threads through a curtain of clouds she has never known to be drawn open. The dark windowless pubs are gone, replaced by glassy remodeled bars. In between, cafés serve cappuccinos, and delicatessens sell decadent gateaux to affluent patrons. The chippy is still there, beckoning with tantalizing odors of oil, vinegar and fish, but everything else is unrecognizable. The derelict land opposite the street has been developed. It was once ruled by the Pakistani kids, playing rounders and games, turning over stones among tufted grasses to see invertebrates squirm, and running through make-believe rugged terrain.
Finnieston had risen like a phoenix from the ashes left by Thatcher’s raging fire of hopeless unemployment, disused shipyards on the River Clyde, and consequent alcohol abuse.
The real people of Finnieston, the people she knew, are gone. Mrs. McLaughlin and Mr. Gallagher have gone. As soon as the new things came, the derelict land filling with gleaming mega stores, the ground floor flats were no longer safe. The change brought strangers to Minerva Street, smashed windows, and many parked cars. Security alarms were installed and the Close door was sealed shut with mechanical buzzers.
Golden domes of a Sikh temple peak from behind where the secondary school once was – not really a school, Bilqis thought, more a penitentiary for wayward children with nothing to do, corporal punishment meted out too often.
Behind her, the street curves into St. Vincent Crescent, where she had sometimes wandered, exploring its little railed gardens. There was always the danger of Jamie erupting from the last Close on Minerva Street.
“Go back home to Paki-land,” the teen would shout out, a ferocious dog bounding by his side guarding their assumed territory. He had had an ongoing feud with old Mrs. Donnelly in the next Close, the keeper of many stray cats.
“Leave the wee lassie alone!” She would shuffle out of her ground floor flat, armed in a helmet of curlers, furry pompom slippers at her beck and call, and a padded quilted robe, waving a lit cigarette at him. “Tell yer dog to fuckin’ shut up. I’m tryin’ to have a wee smoke.”
Bilqis turns her thoughts away from the memory of the Cerberus of Minerva Street, and back to the tenement she barely recognizes as home, resurfaced, restored to a sandy gold stone façade.
“I am sorry Ami for leaving you,” she whispers to her absent mother. “I have been sorry all these years.”
She had been a rebellious eighteen year old raised in a society that had no space for her mother’s faith, morality, and familial codes of conduct. Her teen years were painful, a difficult eruption into two irreconcilable cultures, each opposing the other at every turn. Life in Scotland revolved around drinking alcohol, Friday nights, and dating as a path to marriage, whereas Pakistanis lived a life of complete abstinence from alcohol, preserved family unity, and arranged marriage.
She had not understood the despair her mother wallowed in, constantly bemoaning the end of her marriage. The visiting counsellor from the mosque, making impossible promises to save the marriage, only perpetuated the need to dwell on the failed union. There was no end to it. Then came the voices and the demons growing more real to her mother as the anguish tore through her. Bilqis could not stay. She had left to go as far away from this place as she could.
Guilt gnaws at her – not only for leaving. She has everything her mother did not have. She has acceptance in her world. As a scientist she is valued for the work that she does. She wed someone of her own choosing – a kind and loving man. And she lives in a house with space for her children to thrive, its scented garden filled with roses.
Bilqis hovers by the mouth of the Close, examining unfamiliar names listed on the buzzer of each of the flats. As she is about to turn away, there is a click and the door unlocks, staying slightly ajar. She places her palm flat on the door. Should she enter? She presses the door inwards and steps over the threshold into the belly of the Close.
She treads on the cool concrete surface and makes her way to the back. The dump shed is now cluttered with plastic bins for recycling and composting food scraps. She sniffs the glorious scent of Mr. Gallagher’s rose garden that has survived the march of time. From this garden enclosed in stone beds on a grassless backyard, a single black rose rises tall, bringing to mind a story her mother retold to Bilqis and her sister often. A prince embarks on a quest to find the only black rose in the world in order to rescue and wed a princess. His journey takes him past many challenges which, of course, he overcomes, and they live happily ever after.
She retraces her steps back to the wide concrete stairs and begins to climb.
On the half landing, in between the ground and first floors, she stops to reconsider her course of action. The Close inhales a gust of wind through the raised window, and it suddenly becomes cold and quiet. She thinks she hears an abused cat screeching outside in the back, smells Mrs McLaughlin’s steaming haggis, and hears a smoker’s cough coming from the Robinsons’ household. Her memory is playing tricks, the past haunting her, but gripped with longing and curiosity, she decides to continue.
She reaches the heavy door to what was once her home and knocks gently.
“Hello?” She waits. “Hello?”
The door opens. Her heart is thrumming with anticipation.
“As-Salam-Alaikum beti.” An elderly Pakistani man wearing salwar kameez greets her. He is very fair with green eyes like the Pashtuns or Afghans.
“Wa-Alaikum As-Salam,” she answers. “I used to live here…”
“Do you want to come in beti?” Kind eyes hold her gaze. She hesitates, but has a strong desire to see her home once more.
The elderly man ushers her in, leads her to the living room, and then leaves to brew some chai for her. As she waits, she feels the busy damask wallcovering looming around her. She rises, moving towards it, to look closer. Her fingers gently trail the velvet embossed damask, a style of wallcovering that had been popular with Pakistanis. As she does so, memories of being in this house race through her head: the cardamom scent of sweet rice for Eid, the fumble of the letterbox flap once a day, the drafty Victorian windows, and the whirr of her mother’s sewing machine. Then, one dark memory shuts out all else: her mother is sitting in bed, glassy eyes fixed on the peeling wallpaper; tears drench her kameez, and a kitchen knife lays by her bed to ward off her demonic hallucinations.
Bilqis had often just walked away, never comforting her mother, not knowing what to do. The guilt of her inaction becomes unbearable, and now she wants to leave this house.
She twists round to see a suave handsome man with evocative green eyes, dressed in a chalk stripe suit.
“I am Janam,” he says to her.
His words are strange. Janam means ‘guilt’ in Urdu, and it is not a name she has ever heard.
“Do I know you?” she answers the stranger, who is most likely the elderly man’s son.
“I am Sharam’s brother.” His reply stills her heartbeat. She thought Sharam was a demon imagined by her mother, and not a real person.
“Did you know my mother?”
He responds with a smile she cannot read.
A silence forms, wrapping around them, and behind him the endless damask scaling the wall seems to ripple with impatience. The room turns stifling and dizzying.
“I think I should go. I have to be somewhere…I have an appointment. Could you let your father know that I will not be needing chai.”
The young man steps aside , and she quickly makes her way out of the tenement flat, into the Close, that space in between the outside and inside, the thin place, as Mrs. McLaughlin would call it.
As she rushes past the half landing, the window frame judders and the Close gasps a blast of wind that spirals down the stairs after her. Feet slapping through the echoing stone corridor, finally, her hand reaches for the wrought iron handle of the outside door on the ground floor.
“You know who I am.”
She swivels around to see him standing close to her.
“Surrender…” Janam’s unblinking green eyes watch her.
“I am the shadow eating from your conscience, stealing into your dreams, and taking memories of your mother.” He comes too close. “You know who I am. I am Guilt.”
She turns to run from him. Before her first step, a hand takes fierce hold of her wrist. When she pushes back, her own hand slides through Guilt as if he is a mere apparition.
“Surrender. It is the only way to end your pain,” Guilt continues, his eyes darkening to lichen green, his pupils elongated snake-like. She glimpses a forked tongue.
“You’re a demon!”
Swiftly she unravels her mind from disbelief, and spurs on to agency. She thinks hard and recalls tales of the Celtic Otherworld, faeries and spirits. How are these creatures vanquished? Her thoughts turn to a small silver dirk in her handbag, bought as an ornamental souvenir from Princess Square. She gropes frantically until her fingers feel the ridges of the Celtic rope design on the gilt of the Scottish dagger. She draws it out and stabs Janamonce in the heart. Her thrust meets resisting flesh and she pulls back in confusion. Tar-black substance oozes from Janam’s wound, reaffirming this thing is not human. He drops to the ground, the color draining from his face, his reptilian eyes, his suit, until he is at one with the dirty gray, undiscernible on the concrete earth of the Close.
Bilqis stumbles out of the Close onto the pavement gasping, breathing in the reality of her surroundings. For a while she tries to make sense of the encounter. Her mother’s demonic visions and voices were never explained, left untreated. Was there an explanation? Had there been a distortion in her own mind? What happened here is beyond her empirical calculation but she draws from it one conclusion: she can no longer carry the guilt, and must lift the burden before it drives her to insanity.
She whispers a last message to her mother. “Ami, I will remember you in a different way. I will remember you with love, and not with the pain of guilt. I will not be afraid to think of you more, and I will not shun those memories of your love for me, and the time we had together.”
The emboldened sun clears the clouds thinned by climate change, and a mild breeze brushes her skin. With unsteady hands, she checks the clock on her phone. An appointment awaits her for a COVID-19 travel test on Fitzpatrick Place, that comes with the hefty hippy price tag of £125. She decides she must leave behind this place that was once her home, and the dark memories that inhabit it. And so, she begins her departure from Minerva Street. It is time for Bilqis to return to her own supposed utopia – America.
Samia Chandraker (née Mirza) lives and works near Boston, USA practicing as an immigration lawyer with a background in civil liberties. She is currently working on a novel combining magic realism with contemporary events, drawing on her experiences growing up in an immigrant Pakistani family in Scotland. She is a member of the Dream Thieves writing group where she workshops her other projects that include personal essays, short stories, and a non-fiction book mostly exploring culture and identity. Samia has recently been shortlisted for the 2023 Kavya Prize for Scotland’s new and emerging writer of color of distinction. She graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and Harvard Law School.