Past Burdens

‘You may have convinced everyone else Sara,’ sneered Sajeda, ‘but I’m not persuaded by this sudden transformation of yours.’1

Blocking the entrance to the prayer room, preventing Sara from entering, she raised her right hand and jabbed it towards her heart. Forlornly, Sara looked back at the one person she had always respected and trusted; the words hurt her, but she did not respond. She glanced at the fair skinned Indian woman, her hair covered beneath a white cotton scarf; she was one of the people who had led her this way unknowingly, persuading her silently with her character that she needed to reform herself. It hurt that she seemed to view her with such contempt now.

‘After all your lies, your disgusting behaviour. Everyone else may have forgiven you, granted you a new beginning, but not me.’ She paused for a moment, searching for the words which described her feelings. ‘I don’t trust you at all,’ she concluded in the end when the words did not come.

‘Fine,’ whispered Sara, scared of the echo in the empty corridor. The soles of her shoes squeaked loudly on the polished white floor, glowing beneath the florescent lighting. ‘But Allah knows what’s in my heart.’

The sky dark blue outside and the Library now closed, Sara wanted to do her Isha prayer before she left the building, entering the cold, frosty air. She stepped forward two paces and the girl in the flower-patterned salwar kameeze finally moved aside. Sajeda watched as the door to the prayer room creaked open. ‘I’m watching you Sara,’ she said, a second before she descended the stairs from which she had emerged ten minutes earlier.

Alone inside the prayer room and seated on one of the worn mats on the green carpet, Sara began to cry. With one hand she unclipped the pin under her chin, with the other she pulled the black scarf from her head, heaping the cloth in her lap. ‘What’s the point?’ she whined audibly, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not strong enough.’

On the wall to her right there was a poster with Arabic calligraphy in gold emblazoned across it, its English meaning printed below in small uniform characters. She could not read it from her place on the floor, but the artistic curves were beautiful. On the opposite wall there was a large poster showing the Kaaba in Mecca, taken from one of the mosque’s minarets—a million worshippers at sunset, prostrating in white. Sara gazed at the golden words—words revealed on a dusty mountain top fourteen hundred years earlier—and then at the photograph of Mecca. It helped to empower her for a minute, bringing her back to feet; standing with her face towards Arabia, she restored her headscarf and prepared to pray.

A moment later she was heading down the stairs, uttering complaints against herself and then excuses. She would do her prayer when she got home, she said, once her tears had dried and she was in the mood to meet her Lord. The calm smile that had existed on her face before now gone, she took each step slowly until she reached the last. There, with the waft of cigarette smoke and scent of marijuana, a crowd of students emerged from the stairs to the basement, the bar emptying as the college shut down for the night. Sara followed them to the main doors, but held back at the top of the sandstone steps as they dispersed into the night.

‘Hey Sara, how’s it going?’ began a familiar voice drifting through the heavy glass doors behind her.

She turned to see Karen, looking dizzy, shuffling through, her eyes narrow and breath sour. Sara shrugged her shoulders. ‘I don’t see you around much these days,’ stuttered her inebriated friend, ‘What’s new?’

‘Nothing much,’ she sighed. ‘In fact, nothing at all.’

‘You don’t look happy.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘I’m not really.’

‘Thought you’d found faith. Thought everything was meant to be rosy now.’

Sara moved down the steps, one at a time, her old friend walking on her left. She shrugged her shoulders again. ‘Life is never that simple, is it?’

The sky above them revealed a couple of stars, outshining the city’s glow, and the moon was bright, lightening the darkness around it. There was no wind in the air, just a hanging chill. Sara pushed her hands down into the deep pockets of her thick winter coat and hunched her shoulders, a cloud of condensation spiriting through her lips. Beside her, Karen wrapped a multicoloured woollen scarf around her neck, hiding the shoulders of her blue denim jacket, and pulled a matching hat down over her ears. ‘I miss you, you know?’ Karen told her, ‘We used to have good times together.’

Stopping at the bottom of the steps, Sara looked into her friend’s eyes. ‘We had some bad times as well, didn’t we? I don’t miss them.’ Her eyes skipped towards the stone slabs beneath her feet. ‘Yes, I’m feeling down,’ she said, ‘but I wouldn’t go back to those days. No way.’

‘You make it sound so bad.’

‘Look,’ exclaimed Sara, suddenly irritated again, ‘all that rubbish just keeps coming back on me.’ Looking to her left, she saw Sajeda making her way out of the building. The sight of her moved her from Karen, her head bowing away immediately. ‘Whatever I do, it comes back,’ she yelled to her friend as she stormed away, ‘Yes, we had a few good times, but all I remember, all I’m made to remember is the detritus we called having a good time. Sorry, but I’m trying to start again here. Won’t anybody let me?’

Her way home followed almost the same route as Sajeda’s, but her anger forced her to make a detour in the opposite direction. The cold biting her, she skirted the Student Union building and emerged onto a hidden square. Her pace quickened, for the shadows of men meeting beneath the trees beyond the chain link fence frightened her. Every sound on her way disturbed her until she reached the sanctuary of the busy street with its cars passing by perpetually. The advice that female students should not walk home alone after dark unheeded in a moment’s anger, Sara walked quickly, regretting her sudden defeat.

  1. I found this fictional encounter in a folder on my computer called, ‘Fragments’. I’m finding some of these old fragments quite interesting, years after I put them there.

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