November 29, 2013 | by Shafinaaz Hassim
Diary of a First Wife

If you have killed someone in your life and you just haven’t been caught, it’s not really a secret. Sharifa knew that. She knew more than anything how true that was, because there was a steady trickle of blood that dripped down her nose. It was a sign and so she was sure that everyone knew what she had done.

As long as there wasn’t a body to be found, no one would know what to do about it.

And until then, she would never see the inside of a jail cell.

But it didn’t make it easier.

Farid was dead.

That wasn’t her fault. But she had to pay the price for his death. Her children paid the price. His estate went into the hands of his mother and Sharifa had no idea how long she would have a roof over her head. She would have to find a way to support her two daughters.

Rajia was dead too.

And no one missed her, least of all Sharifa. After all, who would miss a man’s mistress now that he was dead and buried? Certainly not his widow …

She dunked her head into the wash basin one more time, using her hands to cup more of the cool water splashing out of the tap, and then onto her face. Index finger and thumb pinched her nose to release any last drops of blood before they dipped under the tap for respite. Cleansed and cooled once again, she splashed water over her head and then in the nape of her neck. Her eyes returned to the mirror; they were sunken under a layer of darkened skin, wet hair plastered to her face, she looked the picture of death. How fitting it would be if she was acting in a crime movie, she thought.

A watermark of Rajia’s face appeared in front of her face. It was a vision that followed between her dreaming and waking moments. She stood back from the washbasin. The vision erupted into laughter, the same raucous laughter that the mocking Rajia was accustomed to when making her point at any of their numerous encounters. And then the image faded. Everything did: memories, emotions and her immediate surroundings. She grabbed the edge of the washbasin as her knees caved in, sending her into the cool lap of the tiled bathroom floor.

When she regained consciousness, the cold white tiles had been treated to a layer of her vomit. Saliva seeped out of her mouth, ridden with the putrid waste product of her anxiety-ridden intestines. She lifted herself from the floor, peeling the soiled dress and underwear off her body before stepping into the shower.

She closed her eyes as the cool water shot out of the shower head and hit her face.

It jolted her skin, her body, and her senses. It also gave rise to a new flash of memories.

An image of Rajia laughing haunted her once more. Then came an image of her awkward mangled body lying in a pool of blood, one that Sharifa’s nightmares had replayed in the months that she contemplated murdering the woman. That same mockery on Rajia’s face twisted to reveal her horror and surprise at how swiftly death came to a stabbed abdomen. Sharifa opened her eyes, gasping for breath after having taken in too much water from overhead. She reached for a tiled wall to steady her.

Her hands were shaking.

She had thought so often of how easy her life would be if Rajia was gone.

The taste of salt on her lips alerted her to more blood pouring out from her nose. She put her hand to her upper lip to collect the trickle, wiping it off before dipping her head backwards. Eyes shut again involuntarily, to reveal more flashes from that night. It seemed like a long time had passed since then but it was just two nights ago. The night of their wedding anniversary when she would have preferred to be left at home alone, in memory of their miserable marriage. Now with Farid gone, what was there left to do but reminisce in the peace of her solitude. No more wild parties where the swirling dancers were almost half your age. No more drugs and alcohol that seeped into your skin when he tried to kiss you. No more Rajia.

Farid’s death had cleaned up her life.

One good thing had come of his drug abuse: an overdose of cocaine went straight to his heart. Stopped it. In a way that his womanising had never been able to. Not even she, as his wife, could ever come close to heart-stopping encounters.

Drugs claimed his life. And in so doing, it cleaned up hers.

And so on that fateful night, Rajia had returned to their home. She had been drinking. It was almost six weeks since Farid’s body had been lowered into a muddy grave. She hadn’t seen much of Rajia in that time. Rajia hurled abuse at Sharifa, blaming her for Farid’s death. And claiming that he had been married to her. Married? Was she delusional? Farid would have had his affairs. But he would never have married anyone of them. Sharifa was sure of it. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was already married to Sharifa. Rather, he was too afraid of his mother ever discovering his indiscretions. And so there would be no formal acknowledgment. No marriages. He would never do that to his mother. She gritted her teeth, remembering the first time in their marriage when she had suspected him of an affair. All he could say was, ‘I would never do that to my mother; do you know what that would do to her?’

And so she had endured that as an explanation, very early in their marriage as his wife of two years. After that it became commonplace. And now, eleven years later, she was using it as an explanation to excuse the crazy idea that he might have married someone without her knowledge, without her consent. Like that was going to count for anything. It was absurd how things needed to make sense sometimes. But he wouldn’t do that to his mother. So she could be sure that Rajia wasn’t his wife as she claimed to be.

And well, it didn’t matter now. Farid was gone.

It took a while to get out of the shower when the sound of the gushing water so easily closed off the noisy world outside her home. Sharifa heard the doorbell ring just as she turned down the water, and rushed to dry herself off before wrapping her head in a towel and then reaching for a dressing gown. She ran downstairs barefooted, and was breathless by the time she opened the door to face Amin Khan, who had been both Farid’s friend and lawyer. She was surprised to see him. But she wasn’t pleased. Amin didn’t feature on her list of favourite people.

‘And what brings you here?’ she asked.

‘Business,’ he said making his way into the inner sanctum of her home. He was quite familiar with the house. Farid and Amin had no doubt partied in here when she was away at her mother’s place. Now none of that would take place here. No Farid. Her life was clean.

Once the stark blackness of Amin’s leather shoes had sunk into the plush beige of her fur-carpeted lounge, he spun around to face her, pointing a large envelope towards her.

‘Farid’s final will and testament,’ he said.

She faltered before reaching for it, and she settled onto the edge of a couch before she opened it. What was she hoping to find anyway? Her mother-in-law had made it clear that she wasn’t entitled to anything. That she had done nothing good for Farid and that her punishment would be to have nothing. She didn’t even realise that Farid had had a will compiled, never mind that she might be in it.

‘He’s left you the house as a gift, shall we say?’ Amin said.

A gift. That was some consolation. What about the children? She hadn’t even begun to think about all that.

‘There is another thing, Sharifa,’ he said. ‘Rajia …’

‘What about Rajia?’ she asked.

‘Rajia was found dead this morning,’ he said. The curtness in his voice seemed to dissolve. ‘Her car careened into the ZooLake in the late hours of Friday night. Apparently she was drunk,’ he shrugged.

Sharifa didn’t trust herself to say anything. Why was he telling her this? She remained silent, waiting to hear him out.

‘I thought that you should know,’ he said. He seemed to be searching her face for a reaction.

She did know. She had been following Rajia that night. Wanting to know where she went. Wanting to ask her more questions. Wanting to take back what was rightfully hers. And she had seen it. A part of her felt that she should have never have let the woman drive off drunk and angry. But she didn’t really care at the time. Still, she didn’t say anything to Amin. It would complicate her life too much. She had imagined herself killing the woman for months, even though she knew she could never do such a thing. And now she was gone. Just like that.

‘Sharifa, the reason that I’m telling you all of this is that Rajia had a son. Farid’s son.’

Sharifa was glad that she was seated. Her blood pressure seemed to take a dive; a spell of dizziness enveloped her.

‘That’s impossible,’ she said. It couldn’t be true.

‘Well, it’s true,’ Amin said as though he had read her mind. ‘Rajia was Farid’s wife. He bought her a car and an apartment in her name. But she isn’t mentioned in the will. Farid wanted it that way. And the child’s name is Suhail. He’s eight years old.’ Amin paused, allowing this new information to seep into Sharifa’s mind before he continued. ‘He’s mentioned in the will. So are your two daughters. There are three individual trust accounts set up for each of them to access when they reach twenty-one. Neither you nor Rajia will have access to those he said, just in case any of you were to get married again after his demise. Anyway, I have to leave. If you have any questions, give me a call. I can show myself out.’

 

When Amin’s car had backed out of the driveway and she was sure that she was alone once again, Sharifa leaned back into the couch, and brought her knees up to her chest, hugging them close to her. The shock seemed to stop the tears that threatened to burst forth. Her chest hurt. Her head hurt. Her breathing skipped in short spurts.

The image of her tiny baby boy came into view. Her firstborn. The son that she had given to Farid in the second year of their marriage. The baby who lived to be two days old before an infection closed his eyes for good. She would have named him Kabir or Gulzar: the name of a poet. But Farid wanted to name him Suhail. Before they could officially decide on a name, the infection took over and baby’s lungs failed. He didn’t survive through the second day; her baby was dead. And it was a year of darkness to follow for her and for their marriage. When Sharifa finally managed to fall pregnant again, her life had become riddled with anxiety. There was little communication between her and Farid. He worked longer hours. His moods fluctuated, and she began to suspect that there might be another woman in his life. She confronted him. He denied it, saying that he wouldn’t do that to his mother. So that was that.

Their daughter, Sadia, was born later that year, almost eleven years ago. Layla was born four years later. After two daughters and a failing marriage, Farid seemed to have given up on the idea of having a son. His life had moved into a new realm. Sharifa and the girls saw very little of him during the week when he worked long hours, and even less on the weekends when he partied with friends like Amin and Rajia. Friends. Rajia made little visits to ensure that Sharifa knew that she had a place in Farid’s life. And the rumours made denying it futile. But Sharifa had no idea that he had married Rajia, let alone the fact that they had a son together, an eight-year-old son. And Rajia had been right after all. In her drunken stupor, she had ranted the truth, wanting Sharifa to accept what Farid hadn’t allowed her: formal recognition of their marriage, and her status as his second wife. But she didn’t say that she was the mother of his only son. That new piece of information hurt Sharifa more than the idea that Farid had had another wife. She tried to recall the blurred events of the night that Rajia came over.

 

Dressed in black jeans and an old T-shirt, she looked nothing like the image she usually carried across: slinky dresses, nine-inch heels and perfect make-up and hairdo. Instead, her hair was tousled in an untidy knot above her head and her eyes bloodshot and sunken in dark pools, tell-tale signs of intoxication and insomnia.

‘Look at you all high and mighty in this big fancy house of yours,’ Rajia slurred. ‘You live like a queen! Farid gave you everything! And you gave him nothing. You couldn’t even give him a son!’ Rajia said.

‘You have no right to barge into my house and scream at me,’ Sharifa said. The anger and fear of the confrontation filled her throat.

‘Farid is dead. And it’s all because of you. It’s your entire fault,’ Rajia sobbed. ‘You killed him. You killed my husband.’

‘Are you crazy, woman? Farid used you. He loved women. You were just another one of those to him,’ Sharifa spat, somewhat satisfied to be able to gloat. She was the wife. Rajia was nothing; she was just a pastime, a trophy like one of his flashy sports cars.

‘He married me,’ Rajia said slowly. ‘I was his wife, damn it!’

Sharifa erupted into a fit of laughter.

Rajia picked up a Venetian vase from the side table in the dining hall where they stood and threw it at Sharifa. It missed, hit the wall behind where she stood and crashed to the floor instead.

‘Get out of my house, you liar!’ Sharifa said. ‘Farid is gone. I don’t have to put up with the dirt he left behind him. Get out!’ she screamed.

Rajia turned to leave, grabbing the framed photograph of Farid in the hallway as she left.

‘Give that back!’ Sharifa called out, running behind her.

Rajia had already slipped into her car and was backing out of the driveway. The car rammed into the garbage rack on the edge of the garden before it backed out into the road. She had Farid’s picture. The only one in which he had smiled at a camera held in Sharifa’s hands, a photograph that she had taken when they were on vacation in Bali almost ten years ago. Sadia was still a baby. They had tried to make things work just that one time. It was the only thing she had to remind her that she had once loved this man, and that perhaps he had loved her. And now that memory was speeding off into the darkness in Rajia’s car.

Sharifa grabbed her car keys and ran out to her car, not caring to lock the house or check on the girls who were asleep upstairs. Thanks to a set of traffic lights before a busy intersection, Rajia’s car had been forced to slow down and, she managed to catch up with the black BMW sedan. She followed it through the side roads of Westcliff where she lived, before it made its way towards the Zoo Lake. Rajia’s choice of route made no sense to Sharifa but she continued to follow at a distance. Rajia’s car had slowed down and then just as suddenly accelerated towards the Lake. Minutes later, Sharifa slammed on the breaks when she realised what the other woman had done: Rajia had driven her car into the lake; dark waters quickly swallowed the car. There was no fuss, as though nothing catastrophic had just taken place. She had transferred from one realm into another. The same eerie stillness continued into the night.

Sharifa woke from her reverie in a sweat. Her body shook from the memory of that night and the guilt that hung over her conscience. She had secretly hoped for this woman’s death. And when she had gotten to see her die, she felt responsible. Nausea enveloped her body. From where she was seated in the lounge, the kitchen sink was the closest place to dash to. Her insides retched until she was too weak to stand. Running water helped to rinse her mouth, her face, and some of the kitchen sink, too. But it did nothing to clear her conscience.

She made her way to the small prayer room beside the kitchen and fell to the carpeted floor before passing out.

 ‘Mummy, wake up. Mummy, are you okay?’ Sadia was stroking her hair as her head lay rested on her little girls lap. Her vision regained focus to find her younger daughter, Layla, sitting on the floor beside them watching her with just as much concern.

‘Hey, baby,’ she said to Layla.

‘You’ve been sleeping a long time, Mummy,’ Layla said.

‘Are you okay, Mum? Do you need to see a doctor?’ Sadia asked.

‘I’m fine now, my darlings,’ Sharifa said weakly. ‘I was just tired, so I needed some rest.’ She lifted herself into a seated position and reached for the wall to steady herself. She had no idea what the time was, but moonlight flickered through the organza curtains. She had vague images of how she had made her way to the prayer room. The nausea was gone, but the information that she had all seeped back into her mind. Images from the night of Rajia’s accident merged with images from the past. They seemed to have been reawakened by her few hours of sleep, having riddled her dreams. Images of Rajia, the accident, and of Farid’s picture floating at the bottom of the lake resurfaced. She recalled memories of her daughters swimming in the home pool with Farid. And of her two-day-old baby, Suhail. He would have been twelve years old.

And somewhere in the recesses of Johannesburg, there was an eight-year-old little boy, just a little older than Layla, who had the same name. Suhail.

Sharifa wanted to meet him.

Amin had been sceptical about their visit. But in the end he agreed to take them to meet Suhail. Sharifa had spent all week wondering what he would be like. What did he look like? Did he have Farid’s height and arresting smile? Did he have his mother’s piercing gaze, olive skin? Either way, she admitted that he would be a good-looking little boy. Her hands were clammy on the drive to see him. Amin said nothing most of the way. The girls chattered excitedly about the prospect of meeting a new friend. She hadn’t told them anything except that they were going to meet a little boy whose parents had died. Sadia had accepted what she said with lips pursed. Layla had a whole bunch of questions about whom he lived with and who fed him and who dressed him for school. Sharifa had no idea but the questions made her wonder, too.

‘You still haven’t told me who he lives with,’ Sharifa asked Amin.

‘Childcare,’ he said. By now they had driven up to a red brick building that looked like an old school.

‘What do you mean childcare?’ she asked. ‘Didn’t Rajia have any siblings, parents?’ She realised that she had known nothing about the woman.

‘Well, yes …’ Amin said. He offered nothing more.

Sharifa was astonished that they might have left him with some NGO.

Sharifa looked around the playgrounds as the car came to a halt in the parking area.

Gold letters were emblazoned over the entrance to the building. The sun’s reflection made it difficult to read all of the title, but the words ‘Mary Jane Home for …’ stood out.

Amin turned to look at her, and then slipped out of the vehicle to help the girls out of the car.

They followed him silently into the foyer.

A middle-aged lady peered at him from behind the reception desk. ‘Yes?’

‘We have an appointment with Sister Mary,’ he said. ‘We’re here to see Suhail Farid Ismail.’ Sharifa held her breath. Sadia and Layla were just out of earshot to have heard that Suhail held the same surname as they did. But there were a few more questions creating havoc in her mind. Why would Rajia’s relatives leave her little boy in a welfare home?

Sister Mary approached from the office across the reception hall.

‘Mr Khan,’ she greeted Amin. ‘Pleased to meet with you again.’

Amin greeted her with a polite smile before turning to Sharifa. ‘This is Mrs Ismail,’ he said. ‘Farid’s first wife.’

Sister Mary’s hand jutted out from her nurse’s outfit towards Sharifa. Sharifa shook it lightly, uncomfortable by the introduction. It felt as though Rajia had already been here before her. Had Rajia left her son here so that she could continue her partying lifestyle with Farid? It made Sharifa angry to think.

‘Please come with me; Suhail has been waiting anxiously to meet his mother’s friends,’ she said with a smile, evidencing her use of discretion.

Sharifa and the girls followed behind Amin as Sister Mary led them through a small maze of hallways until they reached an inner courtyard. Light shot into the building along with flashes of green from the potted trees and plants. They stepped out into the atrium-like space.

Some children played with marbles at a table. Sharifa squinted into the sunlight. Sister Mary approached the table and stood behind a little boy whose head shone from the sun that bounced off his golden crop of hair. He looked up smiling; his eyes sparkled with the same mischief she had seen so often in Farid’s eyes when he was younger. The same zest for life. That same glee. His hands reached to the sides of his seat. Instead of lifting him off it, he used them to rotate and then to propel his wheelchair towards them.

Sharifa felt the nausea overcome her. A gush of air seemed to rush from her head to her abdomen. But she held her ground as the little boy stopped in front of her.

Amin placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. Smile fixed, he stuck his hand out towards Sharifa.

‘Salaam, aunty,’ he said. ‘You were my mother’s friend?’

Sharifa reached for his hand. ‘Salaam,’ she said. She couldn’t bring herself to say his name. And she couldn’t confirm his question.

‘I’m Sadia,’ her older daughter offered. ‘And this is my sister, Layla.’

Layla stood shyly beside her big sister.

‘I’m Suhail,’ he said, eyes sparkling more than ever. ‘Come over and I’ll introduce you to my friends.’ Suhail spun his wheelchair around to move back towards the table where he had been shooting marbles with his friends. The girls followed him, Layla clutching onto Sadia’s skirt as she walked.

Sharifa moved her gaze away from them and looked in Amin’s direction hoping for some explanation. He said nothing.

‘Suhail’s condition is somewhat stable,’ Sister Mary offered. ‘Multiple sclerosis can be very challenging for a vibrant young boy, but his spirit is larger than the disease that stills his movements. And we take the best care of our children here at the Mary Jane Home. You’re welcome to visit him anytime. I just need you to call me before you come in, but otherwise feel free to visit as often as you like,’ she said to Sharifa.

Sharifa nodded. This was a lot to process. Suhail. This beautiful little boy made in the image of his father, was plagued by a muscular disease that had already claimed the use of his legs.

Much of the way Farid’s will was configured made sense now. She had skipped over the part where the lion’s share went to his mother. She knew that would be the case. And she had read the terms for the individual trust accounts for Sadia, Suhail and Layla. But she had only briefly pondered over Farid’s interest in a charitable cause like this society for children with special needs. Farid had set up a trust fund for the organisation with a sizeable property income including them owning this building that housed the children. Farid had done all this because of Suhail’s condition. Suhail, the little boy with bright eyes, who was confined to a wheelchair. Farid’s son. And a brother for Sadia and Layla.

***

The buzz of the referee’s whistle brought Sharifa back to the present moment. She was seated in the grandstand of Norwood High’s sports arena. The sky sparkled with the same merriment that seemed to have enveloped the spectators around her. The crowd was cheering the under-19 paraplegic soccer team; the home team had just scored a 4-1 victory for the tournament. Ten years ago, life seemed so complex compared to now. Across the field, Sadia stood proudly at Suhail’s side while Layla smothered him in kisses, lacing her teenage arms around his neck. Sharifa picked up the kit bag and water bottle at her side and bounded towards them.

‘We did it, Mom!’ Suhail beamed at her.

Tears filled her eyes. ‘You did it, honey! You were amazing! I’m so proud of you,’ she said, winding her arms around him before planting a kiss on his forehead.

‘I couldn’t have done it without you, Mom,’ he said with more than a hint of seriousness in his tone.

She smiled, momentarily stilling the words, not wanting to give in to the lump that was throbbing in her throat.

‘Well, that trophy has your name on it, son!’ she finally said.

Shafinaaz Hassim is a sociologist based in Johannesburg. She is the author of 'Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion -- A South African Perspective' (2007), 'Memoirs for Kimya' (2009), and the critically acclaimed novel on domestic violence 'SoPhia' (2012). Her work has been shortlisted for the University of Johannesburg Creative Writing Prize and the prestigious K Sello Duiker Award 2013, and she has been awarded in Hay Festival's category of top 39 authors under the age of 40 in Africa during the London Book Fair 2014. She is also the editor of the Belly of Fire anthologies for social change series, which was launched in 2011. Her research focuses on biographical narrative in the interplay between personal and political spaces and she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has lectured and presented seminars at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Humboldt University in Berlin and at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

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About Shafinaaz

Shafinaaz Hassim is a sociologist based in Johannesburg. She is the author of Daughters are Diamonds: Honour, Shame & Seclusion -- A South African Perspective (2007), Memoirs for Kimya (2009), and the critically acclaimed novel on domestic violence SoPhia (2012). She is also the editor of the Belly of Fire anthologies for social change series, which was launched in 2011. Her research focuses on biographical narrative in the interplay between personal and political spaces and she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She has lectured and presented seminars at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Humboldt University in Berlin and at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

My Books

Daughters are Diamonds

Honour, Shame & Seclusion- A South African Perspective
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The Garden of Love and Longing (2017)

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Princess Rasgulla and the Ponytail Monster (2017)

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My Social Profiles
Photos on flickr
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