This time too, her mother’s friend Karima arranged things. She had seen Sabrina easily take charge of serving the guests at the latest baby shower and had once again confirmed: “I’m not going to rest until I see that girl married.”
Sabrina had the kind of beauty that was admired by the ageing matrons in her family; her hair fell over her shoulders in thick, glossy clusters. When straightened, it grazed her lower back and fluttered with the slow, practiced movement of her hips when she moved. Her eyes may not have been the sought-after green or blue but they were expressive, arched with bold, dark brows like the wings of a crow in flight. She had no inharmonious features, no crooked nose, no thick nostrils, and no protruding teeth. Her features were delicate, set against porcelain skin, contrasting strikingly with the eyebrows that she hated, that the old ladies loved.
They were aware of her age, thirty-three, and wept inwardly for such a waste of fine girl. All around them it seemed, flirty little minxes barely out of their teens were flaunting engagement rings, wedding rings, rounded bellies and babies. Here was this quiet, composed, domestic girl growing crow’s feet and grey hairs. Growing portly. Growing heavy, her clock ticking. At this point even if a man did turn up he probably wouldn’t be quality. That was the worst of it. Girls past thirty had to think twice before refusing a divorcee or someone uneducated, one who’s balding, paunchy, past his prime. Their romantic ideals would have to take the back seat and give way to ugly practicality; a man with a car, a steady job, a clean record, a clean bill of health, no kids. The matrons knew this, and knew that Sabrina knew this, and so they wept.
Being an unmarried woman, Sabrina lived at home. She had four older brothers. Her mother had wished for a girl, and her daughter’s name had been inspired by the expression ‘sabr y’nel’: patience pays. All the same, Tata Houria had over the years only accumulated experience raising males, and had brought her up in the same firm but playful, off-hand manner. Financial circumstances had also forced her to put the girl in her brothers’ hand-me-downs. Being a naturally gangling, gawky, unfeminine child, Sabrina had embraced this, and had buried her insecurities beneath page-boy haircuts, unpierced ears and sports jackets. Her brothers’ friends had treated her like a mascot, carrying her on the shoulders to football matches, teaching her to swim and play sports. Her introduction to romance, nonetheless, had come at the hands of these unpolished Romeos; they used to send her with notes and cheap little gifts for the girls they liked, and she had found it exhilarating.
Gradually, adolescence crept in and softened the sharp angles of her frame and face. The neighbourhood boys couldn’t treat her like a toy anymore, and this forced her into the company of girls. Hesitantly at first, she began to experiment with dresses and hairstyles and boy bands. The clincher was being told she was pretty, once, twice, enough times to acquire a new self-consciousness, rooted in pride, not embarrassment.
Her brothers were married now, and they worried about her life of looming spinsterhood. The selfish side of them though, found relief in her presence at home, diligently caring for their ageing parents, spending half her wages on them. They also used Sabrina as a free babysitter at weekends and whenever she was off work – that was another thing matrons loved about her; she was very maternal. Still, her brothers were willing to sacrifice these comforts to see her settled, and they teased her mercilessly about the ever-lengthening list of men she had turned down.
Auntie Karima, her mother’s old neighbour and confidant, had long since taken matters into her own hands. They were capable, busy hands. She knew women at the mosque who were scouring the city for ‘good, family girls’ to marry their ‘good, family boys.’ Her neighbours, in-laws and distant relatives often asked her if she knew anyone suitable for so-and-so. If they sought a girl of thirty years and upwards, she would propose Sabrina, and she would be full of praise. “You should see her, sister,” she would whisper between prayers, “you’d go crazy! Such a face, such manners! Educated, mind you. She studied business. She works for Italians and she speaks their language ki l‘adjeb… and she’s a proper woman… helpful, so amiable, always there when you need her at weddings and things, not saying a word. There aren’t many like her, sister… a little picky, that’s why. That’s why she isn’t taken yet.”
Good, family boys had begun to appear in steady procession since the day Auntie Karima had taken matters into her own hands. Their mothers phoned Sabrina’s mother, their sisters called Sabrina, sometimes the men called themselves. The next step was determined by how conservative the family was; ideally, the boy was open to meeting her at a restaurant or café where they could determine in peace and anonymity whether or not they were right for each other. Often, their mothers pushed for the tiresome alternative, a visit at home, and so the house would have to be scrubbed and scoured for their arrival. She would make cakes to showcase her skills, and she would spend hours parading in outfits for her mother and grandmother to determine what would make her look young and thin. On the day, though she would grumble that it was unnecessary, she would go to have her hair styled and she was meticulous with her make-up.
Then the thrilling, last-minute rush. Sofas would be rearranged and the house would be doused in flowery deodoriser, and everybody stepped into the posh house slippers.
The doors were opened with a flourish, and Sabrina was stowed away in a bedroom to be revealed later, like a present. First, the suitor would have to blush and mumble under the gaze and mild interrogation of her father and brothers. Then she made a brief appearance, where the men’s mothers, being old matrons themselves, gasped at this vision with cascading hair and glowing face and rejoiced. Then the potential couple would be allowed a little privacy in one of the rooms to discover each other. Then Sabrina refused.
As a rule, the mothers and sisters had been too generous with their praise; the men were never that handsome, nor very tall, nor particularly interesting. What infuriated her most was how vague these well-meaning women’s definition of ‘educated’ was. Once, the man was declared to have ‘studied abroad’, and that had amounted to a six-week baking course in Hackney where he had balked at bread and never returned. Then came the self-made men; those who had left the country young, made a mint and then returned to settle down in their homeland. Others had abandoned their studies, daunted by the prospect of years at the university, and gone into business. Here her attention was drawn to the man’s sh’tara, his spunk, his drive, his comfortable home, his shiny car. No he doesn’t have a moustache like your uncle Ahmed’s! Ya Rebbi, you’re so particular about these details! He can shave it off, he can fix his teeth. No, you don’t need to have things in common. What did couples know about each other in your grandmother’s time? Still got married, didn’t they? Still had kids!
So it went. After each disappointment, Sabrina stamped her feet, declared that she would accept no more introductions, that she was fine in her father’s house, that she didn’t need a man. But she had read many books and had seen many films so the glimmer of hope inside her resisted extinguishment, and it swelled with every new opportunity. She humoured the nagging mothers and insipid sisters and the bland, bland gentlemen who wanted nothing but ‘their parents’ good wishes’ and she endured hours of awkward dialogue and awkward silence. She sacrificed weekend after weekend to play hostess. She grew frustrated but not cynical; her foot, when it wasn’t being stamped, remained poised, ready to receive the glass slipper, one day.
This time, auntie Karima had learned from her past failures and actually asked about the man before introducing him. Yes he did get a proper education, he did have a respectable job. No he didn’t have a strange name! Well yes, he did live at home, but he didn’t have any sisters and his mother was an angel.
Sabrina’s phone number had been duly transmitted, and she had been waiting three days for the call. For dignity’s sake, she had to resist the urge to jump up every time she heard her ringtone.
There it was again. Heaving a shaky sigh, she picked up her phone. She didn’t recognise the number, so she knew it would be her next mystery man. She gathered her strength and wits for the conversation that might, after all, seal her fate. Maybe this one would be the one.