Seema forgot about the chapati toasting on the skillet until it burnt and set off the smoke alarm. It was tea time, but since Latif had delivered his suggestion in the morning, his breath still sour from sleep, she hadn’t been able to concentrate on much. She knew he was waiting for a sign from her that she was all right with it, and would be by his side, and so, she’d found ways to avoid him. She had taken a long bath and made several unneeded trips to the loo, vacuumed the stairs barely coated in a day’s layer of dust, and performed extra verses and devotions for each of her prayers.
‘Everything okay in there?’ he called from the sitting room. There was a hesitance in his voice, a little extra concern, as though he were responsible for the shrill, ringing sound.
‘Fine,’ she shouted, matter-of-fact. ‘I’ll be in in a minute.’
She turned the cooker off and opened a window. Looking out at their square lawn, she remembered, not for the first time that day, the weekend that they’d viewed the house ten years ago, when it was a new build. Latif had come into some inheritance and his cab company was doing well. When the estate agent had shown them the kitchen, the room now choking, she’d said to Seema, ‘Great isn’t it? Just the right size for two,’ and whispered in her ear, ‘or three.’ Seema smiled at the time. She’d been thirty-three then, when her hair was thick and swooped to her navel, when she had her salwar kameez tailored in the latest fashions, when there’d still been a glint of hope for an ‘or three’.
Outside in the thin spray of rain, she scattered the singed remains of flatbread for the birds in-between the washing line and herb patch where coriander and mint grew. Recently, she’d spent more time planting flowers and plucking weeds, and was proud that the garden finally looked as immaculate as indoors. As she admired a row of hydrangeas, she vowed to herself that whatever would change from here, she’d put her foot down on one thing: they would not move from their beloved three-bedroomed home in Pleasington, in the posh part of Blackburn. On this condition, she’d accept that a second wife would soon be living with them, a much younger woman than her, one able to bear Latif his first child, and preferably a son at that.
By the time she went back inside, the alarm had stopped. She took a tray of food to Latif and nodded at him once. It was enough to let him know that she had conceded.
‘I was sure you weren’t going to disappoint me Jaan,’ he said, and ate a bite of spiced chicken and spinach. ‘You’re right to get on board with this. It’ll give us a much-needed boost, perk things up a bit, eh?’
She rolled her eyes. It had been a while since he last jaaned her. ‘If it’s what you really want,’ she said. ‘But we’re not moving house.’
‘Why would we? Big enough for everyone here.’
‘Let’s hope so.’
‘You’re a good woman, Seems. The best there is out there. I mean, if you could have had kids, we wouldn’t really be going through all of this.’
She put her forearm over her stomach as if to protect her womb from hearing.
‘I know, I know, it’s not your fault. It’s God’s will, isn’t it? If this is how we’re meant to get a son, then this is how it will be.’
Usually she’d agree on the point about the will of God. It was something she’d comforted him with many times before. But instead she said, ‘I’ll make us a cup of tea,’ and left, her shoulders sagging with defeat. As soon as her back was turned, he switched the television on to the cricket.
Back at the hob, she poured milk into a saucepan with teabags and sugar, put it over a high heat, and leaned on the fridge wondering where they’d find this new wife.
If it was left to Latif, he’d suggest going to Pakistan and he’d want to take her with him. In their twenty-six years together since their traditionally arranged marriage, they’d not been apart for more than a day, out of custom and habit. He’d probably spend months in his native village, chest puffed like a feudal lord spoiling what was left of his family in the Punjab with gifts and money until one of them swindled him. She pictured a cousin or uncle offering up a scrawny dairymaid they knew for the price of a car or a ticket to England. He tended to be naive with those who deserved distrust, and vice versa.
She shivered, shook her head, and stirred slowly. Things had changed since they visited the mountains of Murree for their honeymoon, that first and last trip back to the country they’d left as toddlers. Muggings at gunpoint, violence in the streets, harassment in the bazaars, they were all on the rise. That’s what sister Uzma from the local mosque had told her. A woman from Pakistan might end up being dishonest. Then again, what if she wasn’t? If she was truthful and beautiful and young and slim, they’d have a whole cricket-team’s worth of children and never return to Blackburn. Seema would live and die in the shadow of her husband and his new perfect partner, in a land she no longer recognised or cared much for, a place she was almost sure felt the same about her.
She crushed a cardamom pod between her back teeth, threw it into the bubbling chai, and decided that she’d have to get right ‘on board’ as Latif had said. She needed someone impartial to talk to, who wouln’t judge her or ask questions, someone who had answers. No, she didn’t need someone. People were never neutral. She needed something. She’d have to search on the internet.
‘Seems, what’s taking so long? Bring us a biscuit too would you?’ Latif hollered over the commentary.
The tea was stewed. Like the chapati it had remained over the flame for too long, but she would serve it anyway.
Bunched up on the sofa they slurped together, him from a saucer, her from a cup. It was like any other evening, as if nothing had happened. He caressed the end of her scarf between his fingertips, and she rubbed a little almond oil on his bald patch. But when an advert interrupted the Test Match, she took the remote and hit standby.
‘So what are we looking for?’ she said, and they decided awkwardly and quickly, like the conversation was causing them both pain, that Latif’s second wife should be childless, between twenty-five and thirty, and able to hold conversation in English. They would consider divorcees and women without both parents, but not daughters of widows. They knew too well the burden a lonely mother could weigh, since Seema’s father had passed.
Once it was over, Latif reached for the last chocolate bourbon. ‘And if she takes more than two samosas in one sitting, we’ll have to say no. If she can’t look after herself, how will she be able to look after me?’ he said, and patted his round belly.
Seema’s laugh surprised them both. ‘I thought this was about you getting a son, an heir to Latif’s Limousines, not losing weight or getting some nookie you old fool.’
‘Don’t worry love. You’ll always be my number one.’ He pinched the loyal flesh surrounding her hips. ‘It’s always going to be you. Only you.’
‘Right.’ She returned his hand. ‘And where do we plan to find number two?’
Latif chewed his bottom lip and in that same hesitant voice said, ‘Pakistan?’
One afternoon a week later in the spare room, Seema found Latif’s Glenfiddich nestled between splintered cricket bats and her old treadle sewing machine. She sat on the carpet against the radiator, legs stretched out with the laptop on her thighs, and took a swig. Usually she only drank to relieve a cold, but this time it was for courage. Emboldened by the whiskey, she prised the computer open, closed the windows she’d viewed over the past seven days – music clips of lovelorn ghazals, scanned photos of them as happy newlyweds in seaside towns from Blackpool to Margate – and started tapping questions into Yahoo:
What’s the oldest age a woman can get pregnant? When can men stop having children? Why does my fifty-four year old husband want to be younger? Can the evil eye make you barren?
And with a second sip:
How can I be sure my husband won’t want to divorce me and live with his other woman? Where to look for my husband’s second wife?
The second wife search threw up pages bursting with religious advice. Virtual imams surfed across message boards, replying to hoards of women panicked by the fear of being usurped. The scholars preached on forums, urging jealousies to be put aside in the name of sisterhood and the understanding that men, by their very nature, are polygamous. There were stories about husbands who didn’t tell their first wives before indulging in another. Perhaps Seema was luckier than she felt. Other tales, though in the minority, were of women shunned by their first husbands through affairs or abuse, and accepted by a second. There were none, and this disappointed her, about women taking on two husbands in the same way. She knew it wasn’t necessarily allowed, but she’d have liked to have read about it nevertheless.
Really what she was after though, was a stranger, a physical intermediary, to oversee the process. She was too bitter to look by herself and yet unable to leave it to Latif. Mementoes of his impulsive decision-making were everywhere. Unused gadgets in the garage, boxes of never-opened flatpack furniture in the loft, and even a car or two in his fleet of taxis that he no longer wanted, having bid for them excitedly at auctions.
Back on the index, she tried to make her search more specific:
Marriage agents to help first wife find second wife for British Pakistani husband. Pakistani marriage agents for Pakistani second wives but not located in dangerous Pakistan. Marriage agents in…
Pausing to think, she took her hands away from the keyboard and looked to the ceiling for ideas.
When she fixed her eyes back on the screen, the search engine had completed the rest of the field for her.
Marriage agents in Dubai.
A link at the top of the page was promoted: Dubai’s Desi Solutions. It was a company running from the Emirates which catered to her dilemma.
She clicked it twice, and was led to a questionnaire which she completed, ticking the couple’s preferences for age, height, weight, skin tone, marital history, family history, and mental history. For the first time in a week, she felt a pang of guilt. She was online shopping for a child-bearer, someone whose sole purpose would be to breed. She was no better than a farmer. She hit send and made a prayer that the form would get muddled in electronic waves.
Anealla is working on a novel and short story collection. Last September, she returned to England from a five-year dance with words in Qatar and the UAE, where she was a journalist at Al Jazeera and The National newspaper. She is the recipient of the Seth Donaldson Memorial Trust.