The New Room

Entry by: writerATGJFYSYWG

24th October 2022
I am clearing out some papers when I find them. Letters from twenty years ago, in your unfinished cursive. Schoolgirl spelling mistakes: defiantly for definitely; only one m in commitment. It’s the handwriting that transports me straight back to your old, teenage bedroom (do you remember how we taught ourselves French up there, writing and rewriting je suis, tu es, nous sommes and je serai, tu seras, nous serons).

Your teenage bedroom is a large, bright room in your parents’ tall, terraced house. There is a wall of white wardrobes in which your salwar kameez are permanently on show, radiating with primary colours, sparkling in the sunshine. In the other half of the wardrobe, behind the closed doors, tower stacks of art materials: stretched canvases, colours, geometric designs. You’re going to continue with your painting, you say, no matter what.

We sit in a pool of sunlight on the carpet and swap books. You give me Of Mice and Men – I still have the copy with your inscription penned on the inside front cover: 'I’m giving this book to you because of its important message about friendship.' Even at sixteen you give the impression of looking back over your life, as if you’ve already had all your experiences.

Another time, perhaps a year later, just before you are about to go off, you hand me Pride and Prejudice and say if I want to understand what you’re going through, I should read it. I have no idea what you’re talking about, having never read any Austen and knowing nothing, really, of your culture. Still, we go on for a time, swapping A Level essays and imagining our futures. When it comes to your turn, you speak with excitement about what your parents have arranged for you. Perhaps you have decided you’re going to have the Elizabeth Bennett experience. I am too naïve to think you might have doubts; they are buried deep, away from your parents’ gaze. They’re eager for you to be happy and, being a dutiful daughter, you will grant their wish. We sit together in that first bedroom of yours eating chocolate oranges and drinking cups of tea and deciding on our futures, as if we can engineer our own fates.

Not long after and still at your house, we sit in the living room, this time in a circle of aunties. What I am trying to avoid looking at is the startling vision of you without your hijab. All those afternoons lying on your sunlit carpet, all those sisterly secrets between us, and I have never seen your hair. Until now. The room is filled with all sorts of women whom you’ve never once spoken about, and here you are, just casually wearing your hair. As if you wear it and show it every day of your life. Have they seen your hair before, I begin to wonder, and feel at once a distance between us that has been signalled in the weeks preceding, but that we ignored like an accidental splotch of paint on the carpet. Your hair is black and full and gives your face an entirely new shape. You sit across from me. We don’t speak but I watch you nod and obediently hold out your hands for henna patterns.

The room is noisy with advice and warnings and sudden shouts across the circle. Your mum brings in a platter of brown rice and chicken and chapattis, and she kneels down next to me to ask if I would like my hands decorated too.

These memories are prompted by the letters in my hand. You wrote them twenty years ago: hurried scribbles made during lectures whilst you are trying to get an education; sealed and posted before you exit the building to be met by your husband who has been waiting outside all that time, fretful of you bettering yourself above him. Don’t write back, you scrawl. His parents don’t like you sending letters. And don’t keep calling the house. I’ll write again.

Another letter, three months later, is longer and written apparently in the library. He is waiting outside, you write. But I don’t care. He can wait all day, I have an essay to finish. In it, you detail the meals you are expected to cook for his family, but say there is hope of getting your own place soon, just the two of you where it will be much easier. He won’t be influenced by his parents so much; it is really only his parents who are the problem. They are the ones who say you would be pregnant by now if you weren’t going off to the university all the time.

The last letter in the pile is brief. There has been a big family blow up. Ultimatums have been delivered and your parents are called in to make you submit to your husband’s will. They see how sick you’ve become, how reduced by the bullying. They wonder where their daughter has gone because you sit in the middle of the room, empty eyes staring blankly ahead, whilst his family fight over the scraps of your life.

The next time I see you is back at your family’s terraced house. You are tucked away in the small box room at the back. It seems dark in here: the curtains are always drawn. Did it once belong to your brother? It is a teenage boy’s bedroom - a halfway house; a twilight. You lie in the single bed.

I am away at university, and in my final year I don’t come home much. I write to you: long letters about the books I’m reading, the plays I’m in. I wonder if you have kept those. There are no more letters from you.

After graduation, I return to our small home town before catapulting my way out into the world. I knock on your door. I find you in your final bedroom of your parents’ tall, terraced house. It is only with hindsight that I know it is your final bedroom and that two years later you will meet him, your second husband, when you’ve broken free of our small home town.

There is light again in this new room. It is forward-facing, bright and airy. Your sketches are blu-tacked to the walls, the wardrobe, the desk. You talk of your plans. You say there is a scholarship, a housing scheme, a relocation programme; you have a contact, there’s a community, you know of a group…

You make it to London before I do, and by the time I get there you are already set up in a new-build flat overlooking Victoria park. There is an empty room in the flat below, you tell me in a letter, and won’t it be nice to live so close to each other?

I put this post-script letter with the rest of the bundle and return them to their box. Perhaps in twenty years time I’ll find them again and be reminded of that first room where we sat in pools of sunlight and swapped stories across the carpet.