Salimah heard the front door slam. Ibrahim had left their house for his early morning shift. Reluctantly, she got out of her bed, shivering slightly as the house was never quite warm enough. Omar and Farihah were still asleep, so she had time to wash and say her dawn prayers before dealing with the children. Drawing back the curtain, she saw that the streetlight was still emitting its sickly glow, while the rest of the street was plunged in darkness. Over the wrought iron fence she could see the churchyard, the gravestones looming masses against the grass. Further away in the distance, Canary Wharf flickered, its sparkling lights adding a incongruously glamorous backdrop to Salimah’s immediate surroundings of Victorian terraces, each small front garden signalling the socio-economic background of its inhabitants with unerring accuracy: here, an aspirant box tree in a square metal container, there a defiant multicoloured display of geraniums. Salimah’s home said little about her. Even the lightbulbs hung on their flexes with no shades to shield their glare, but the house itself was scrupulously tidy, every surface reflecting back the light like a mirror.
She showered and dressed and then, went to pray. Intoning the familiar words, she felt her mind calm and become still and was halfway through when a noise in the room startled her enough for her heart to pound uncomfortably for a few seconds. Eventually she discovered the source of the noise; the scroll inscribed with verses from the Qur’an that she had hung on the wall had fallen from its hook. Carefully hanging it back up, she made sure it was fastened firmly. A sound from the room the children shared made her go to them. Omar was still fast asleep, but Farihah was up in her cot, gripping the sides and staring at her mother with an intense, questioning gaze. Salimah picked her up, enjoying the feeling of the small, warm body wrapped in hers. She went downstairs with the little girl, leaving Omar to wake by himself and come down.
It was daylight by now and as Omar had not emerged Salimah left Farihah in her highchair for a moment and went upstairs to check on him. He woke up when she stroked his cheek, but she noticed he felt a little hotter than usual to touch. She sighed. This could mean foregoing her trip to the market and Brick Lane. Standing by the door, while the three year old reluctantly got out of bed, she felt a sudden, icy chill. It was as though someone had opened a window directly behind her; the feeling was so strong she even looked around. Of course, there was nothing there. But she shivered and decided to put on her warmest veil rather than any of the lighter ones she sometimes wore.
A couple of hours later, she was wandering down Whitechapel Market with the two children safely stowed in their pram. Omar still was not his normal lively self and was napping, long eyelashes flat on his cheeks. Passing a stall of fruit and vegetables, jackfruit, okra and bunches of herbs, Salimah found herself transported for a moment back home as she inhaled the distinctive warm tang of coriander. She was in the kitchen, holding onto her mother’s bright sari while her mother prepared supper, her hands stained with intricate patterns of henna as she chopped the herbs with expert speed. And then she was back on the windswept street where for a moment even the beloved faces of her children seemed unfamiliar, the faces of strangers, part of a life that might easily not have been hers. Salimah was officially not the ‘pretty one’, that honour had belonged to Asna, whose luminous skin and whose eyes, large, limpid and richly fringed like the sleeping Omar’s, had always seemed fit for a Bollywood star. Salimah’s mother had whispered to her once: ‘Someone will always watch over you, my darling’. But Asna married young and went to England, their mother died, and Salimah was left at home.
‘Salamu Alaykum, what do you want today?’ asked the stall holder in Bangla.
Salimah bought two bunches of coriander and some chillis and hung the striped shopping bag over the handles of the pram. Omar woke up and started whining as he had spotted the ice cream shop next to Whitechapel station. Wearily, Salimah steered the pram away.
‘1, 2. 1, 2. Bethnal Green? Anyone going to Bethnal Green? You got a bleeding heart, love? Is your heart bleeding?’ came the disembodied voice of the office manager. White noise.
‘Oh shut up.’ Sheila on reception.
‘76 I got something for you. Can you hear me 76?’
Ibrahim switched off the radio. He wasn’t going to Bethnal Green, he was going home. The night had begun on Brick Lane with four noisy City boys wanting to be ferried from the curry house they were gracing with their presence to a strip joint in Hoxton. They had only tipped a pound, despite the fact that one of them had been sick in the back of the cab. The night continued with a drunken set of Rag Week students dressed as Alice in Wonderlands and Ronald McDonalds. One of the Ronalds was unable to remember where he lived, so Ibrahim had had to cross the Mile End Road three times. The scent of pine from the air freshener hanging in the front of the cab and the smell of vomit from the back seat mixed with the strident perfume of the Alices had made his head ache. As he didn’t drink, the boredom of listening to the rambling chat from the back seat intensified his exhaustion – it was now 3.30 a.m. – but it was at last time to go home.
He found a spot for the cab outside the front door of the house. Meticulously tidy as always, he took his cleaning kit out of the back of the cab to replenish the air fresheners and tissues. He was startled to see Salimah sitting at the kitchen table in her nightgown and overcoat. All the lights were on.
‘Salamu Alaykum. What’s wrong?’
‘It’s happened again’. Ibrahim sighed.
‘What’s happened this time?’
Under the harsh lighting the whites of her eyes looked sore and her mouth looked pinched. The photograph of their wedding day back in the village was still on display on the windowsill. Salimah was dressed in her red and gold wedding sari, her usually solemn face smiling up at him. This morning she seemed very different to that young girl, yet it had only been four years since he had married her and brought her here.
‘I cleaned the kitchen and then I was making some chicken – the one you like with spinach – while the children were taking their nap. I had my back to the storage cupboards and I was quite busy, you know, chopping up the onions. Then suddenly there was this loud noise, the doors of two of the cupboards opened behind me and everything fell out, the flour and the chickpeas landed on the door and made it all dirty again. And I feel cold. I’ve been feeling cold all day.’
Her hands were wrapped up inside the overcoat. Ibrahim went over to the cupboards and examined the shelves. She had tidied up but he could imagine an explosion of flour and mess. Nothing seemed to be near the edge of the shelves, and everything was safely in its box or packet. He looked under the stairs for his tools and checked the shelves with a spirit level, as he had done before. No, the shelves were not crooked in anyway. The units were cheap but fairly new. He shook his head.
‘I can’t see anything wrong. Are you sure you hadn’t left something on the edge?’
She was close to tears; he could hear it in her voice. He shivered. All this superstition was getting to him. He didn’t need this, he wanted to sleep.
‘I only feel peace when I am in the garden.’
Salimah’s garden at the back of the house looked bleak now but in summer it would be bright with tier upon tier of chillis, squash and spinach, tomatoes and beans trained up canes and trellis. She had learned how to handle the sticky and dense London soil and grow the plants she remembered from home. The children and the garden were what made her happy, he thought, and felt another wave of irritation.
Asna offered Salimah another samosa but Salimah shook her head.
‘Acha. You’re looking too thin.’
‘I can’t eat much. I feel ill all the time. The only time I feel better is if I stay away from the house’.
Asna looked across the room at the children playing. She was proud of the lounge; she had had it decorated in a pale pink and it looked out onto a well-kept patio garden. Her eldest boy was showing Omar his toy collection, while Farihah was playing with the tea-set that Asna had got out for her. Her teenage daughter was too grown up for it now.
‘Have you been to see the doctor?’
‘I tell him about the chills I’ve been getting but he can’t find anything wrong with me. He says I’m depressed and wants to give me pills.’
‘ You don’t think… he could be right?’
‘You’ve felt it. When you came around the other day you said you could feel how cold it was downstairs. And then you lost your purse.’
‘I’m always losing it!’
‘You said you’d put it in the kitchen, and it wasn’t there. Why would you have left it in the bedroom? You didn’t go in there.’
‘The kids must have moved it.’
‘I know there’s something going on. I can feel it.’
‘What did the Imam say?’
‘He said some holy verses to make it go away. But it isn’t gone. You know why I think that is?’ ‘You tell me.’
‘It’s something to do with that graveyard. I went to the council and asked us if they could help us find somewhere different to live, but it’s going to take a long time’.
Asna watched Salimah, who was slumped in her armchair and staring at the door. It was difficult; they had spent so long apart. She had left as a seventeen-year-old bride when her sister was just eleven. So many years when they could only talk on the telephone, miles apart, when they could have been together. Not enough visits back home, not enough to assuage the ache of missing her mother, not enough to keep her going through the grief after her mother died. Asna was proud of her marriage and her husband who now ran three successful shops, her stylish house and her kids. Her eldest daughter was at secondary school now and doing really well, and her boy was good at maths like his father. She wanted the same things for her sister.
‘What does Ibrahim say?’
‘Oh, he’s working every night, I hardly see him and he’s so tired. I think he is angry with me’.
The Curate was busy putting his notes together to prepare for the latest local history walk he was leading that Saturday. He loved to explore architecture, the traces of life lived hundreds of years ago that still survived unacknowledged in the modern chaos of the city. He loved the city farm, with its collection of hardy-looking Gloucester Old Spots, and went there often to visit the ruins of a mediaeval monastery that sat there unnoticed and unvisited except by a herd of athletic miniature goats. He would personally scrub away sprayed-on tags proclaiming the might and dominance of the Stepney Massive, or the same sort of graffiti he remembered from his own school days in Surrey, differing only in the types of names and the breadth of knowledge and inventiveness of the sexual techniques described, when they appeared on the walls of his beautiful church. He felt a thrill of pleasure when he looked around the stone building that sheltered his flock as it had done for centuries, withstanding even the Blitz. It had been a bit of luck to get a challenging, inner city parish, that had a church at its centre as old and beautiful as this. The Curate knew God didn’t care about architecture, but was honest enough to admit to himself that he did.
The Curate’s latest walk would start on Cable Street. He would explore the Ratcliffe Highway, where sailors from all over the world could once buy wild beasts of all descriptions, from lions and hyaenas to parakeets, moving on to the boundary stone marking the borough of Ratcliffe or ‘Sailortown’ notorious for its taverns, drug dens, brothels and general debauchery for hundreds of years. He would show them Stepney Causeway, where Dr Barnardo asked that one of the doors be kept permanently open after one child came looking for shelter, was turned away and died two days later of starvation on the streets. He thought how a historical distance could make a world where anything or anyone could be bought and sold and life itself was cheap seem exotic and fascinating while in fact the reality must have been – and was still – terrifying.
The Rector approached him as he was rearranging his notes.
‘I have something interesting for you, Andrew,’ he said cheerily. ‘An infestation, you might say.’
‘An infestation?’ Andrew, a serious man, had never understood the Rector’s donnish mixture of learning and levity.
‘A supernatural infestation. A young lady who lives in one of the old houses over there.’ He gestured towards the row of Victorian terraces opposite the graveyard.
‘She has what appears to be a djinn problem. They’re more common than you might imagine’.
‘It’s the same as the word for a genie, but it’s not really a case of Scheherazade, Aladdin, rubbing the lamp and three wishes. This is something more complicated, like a spirit that can do good or evil. She believes it is a Christian djinn, or ghost, or whatever you want to call it. You can come with me when we go to see her.’
‘Isn’t this more likely to be a case of something psychological?’
The Rector sighed.
‘Of course that’s something to consider. But in this case, if it will ease the anxiety of someone in our parish it is seen as worthwhile to say a few prayers of protection or peace, bless the house, that kind of thing. Deliverance, we call it. Besides, what is psychological, and what is not?’
‘I don’t follow you’.
‘Non-believers would have us locate everything that does not fit into their scheme of things in the human imagination. “The sleep of reason produces monsters”, as it says in the wonderful etching by Goya. But if you are willing to accept the possibility of an immortal, why not a monster, too? The Islamic belief is that djinns or genies are a separate part of creation, neither angels nor humans but beings created from fire and possessing free will, so capable of both good and evil. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there are references to creatures similar to genies, too, the Mazikeen, who were children of Adam. These are centuries-old beliefs’.
‘This confirms me in my belief that practical religion is a lot more straightforward than theoretical.’
The Rector smiled at him.
‘Well, Andrew, in this case we’ll be doing a little of both.’
At Salimah’s house, the Rector introduced Andrew to the two women. Salimah had opened the door very swiftly, as though she had been watching out for them.
‘My husband doesn’t know you are coming here,’ she said.
‘He doesn’t approve of all this, he thinks I am imagining things.’
She gestured vaguely, her hand taking in the small hallway and the stairs. They went to sit down in the front room, directly overlooking the graveyard. ‘What will you do?’ Asna asked. ‘I will say a few words, in each room. I will be asking for a blessing, and protection, on the house and its inhabitants. You do not have to join in the prayers, but we will both give responses. You can remain silent, if you wish.’ The Rector smiled kindly at the two sisters, Asna in smart salwar kameez and a bright headscarf, Salimah more dishevelled, as though the high standards of housekeeping apparent around them did not extend to her own appearance. He stood up and started speaking. There was no preamble, no book or candle. The Curate listened to the words and hoped that they would bring the listeners some reassurance.
‘Visit, Lord, we pray, this place and drive far from it all the snares of the enemy.’
They continued from room to room, the small procession seeming overly large in the little house. The Curate admired the garden from the hallway window. ‘Let your holy angels dwell here to keep us in peace, and may your blessing be upon it ever more; through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ It was in the children’s upstairs bedroom that all of a sudden the Curate smelt it. It was a terrible stench, something with such an intensity of decay and horror in it that he almost gagged and rushed to the window.
‘What is it?’
‘You smell it, too?’ asked Salimah.
‘I can’t smell a thing’ said Asna. She was staring at him.
‘It’s horrible! Have you got mice, or rats? I’ve never…’ As he struggled with the old sash window, the smell disappeared.
Salimah shrugged. ‘That’s how it is, I smell it, my boy smells it. The little one, I don’t know, but she wakes up at night sometimes screaming in her cot. My husband can’t smell anything. I’ve done everything I can, I keep all the food hidden away, the council says there’s no mice, there isn’t anything’.
She sounded weary rather than afraid. The Curate noticed for the first time that there were cans of air freshener in every room. The Rector looked at both the women.
‘Excuse me. Shall we continue?’
Salimah was finding it hard to sleep after getting Farihah to settle down. She had tried taking the little girl into her own bed at first but it had not comforted her. None of the household had had much sleep for the last few nights and she had tried teething gel and painkillers in case that was what was causing the problem but it didn’t seem to help. Farihah would be upright in her cot, shrieking and shrieking with real fear on her face. ‘Night terrors,’ Asna would tell Salimah on the phone. But Salimah found that after one of these night-time episodes she would lie awake for what seemed like hours, staring at the cracks in the ceiling or watching shapes form and then disappear again in the patterns of the net curtains.
She heard Ibrahim’s key turn in the lock. She knew his movements as well as her own. He went to the kitchen to put away his things and she heard him clattering about, opening and closing the cupboards. Then he came upstairs and went to the bathroom where she heard him washing. However, after that there was silence. Normally, at this point he would go to say his early morning prayers. Salimah got out of bed, wrapped a shawl around herself and went to look for him. The house was empty. She rang his mobile in panic. ‘Where are you?’ She told him what she had heard. He sounded sleepy. ‘I’m coming home. I just finished my shift. Don’t be silly, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’ ‘It sounded as though someone else came into the house.’ ‘Well, no one did, you said the house was empty. Look, I’ll be home soon, alright?’ He cut off the call. Ibrahim’s presence once he was finally home in bed, his back turned to her and his eyes firmly closed, wasn’t as reassuring as she had hoped.
Later, deep in sleep, Salimah awoke in confusion and terror with Ibrahim’s hands fastened tightly around her neck. She wanted to cry out, but couldn’t. It was like the worst sort of dream, but the pain and fear told her she was awake. Why were his hands so cold? His eyes were open but seemed glazed, not like those of the man she knew. The sense of something evil in the room was very strong now, so strong that Salimah could almost see it. His hands were tightening and Salimah was about to pass out, but she could see her mother’s face flash brightly before her eyes. ‘There will always be someone watching over you.’
With a huge effort she managed to get her hands up to his and pulled at his fingers, pulling them back until his hands loosened their grip for a second, enough for her to pull her upper body from under his and then, kicking and scratching in terror, roll from the bed onto the floor. He got up and started walking towards her, his eyes still with that absent and terrifying stare.
Andrew found Salimah outside the church as he was locking up after the morning service. She was standing looking at the stained-glass window. She smiled at him.
‘It’s beautiful. I’ve never really looked at it properly although I used to walk through the churchyard all the time.’
‘How are you?’
‘Much better. I wanted to come and say thank you for your help. I’m staying with Asna now, with my children.’
‘And your husband?’ A shadow passed over her face.
‘He has moved away from us now. He is living with his brother. I had to hit him with the bedside lamp, when the djinn took him over. I told the police he was sleepwalking because he’d been sleeping so badly. He didn’t believe in the djinn, but it came to him.’
‘I want to show you something. I only found this out recently, when I was researching for the history walk and came across a book about crime in the East End of London.’ He walked with her over to a grave that stood by itself at the edge of the churchyard. ‘The occupant of this grave was originally intended to be a Mr Samuel Reed, a surgical instrument maker. He was a regular churchgoer and lived alone. He was discovered as a suicide in 1810 – he had hanged himself. A letter was found among his effects that confessed to the murder of a young woman ten years previously. The worst of this was that the body of his poor victim, a Miss Lizzy Barnes, who was identified by a locket he had kept among his papers, had been buried in his own home, under the floorboards.’
‘Who was she?’ asked Salimah, her eyes on the grave, where little could be seen except the name and the date, 1800. The inscription read simply ‘May She Rest in Peace’.
‘She was of uncertain occupation, and may have been what they called in those days a fallen woman, or a woman looking for work as a maid or housekeeper, it’s hard to tell. He did not explain why he killed her in his letter, only spoke of “a need and compulsion so strong that it took hold of my mind, despite all efforts to tame it through prayer and good works. A need so strong that I almost fear it will outlive me.” His confession asked that his victim be given a Christian burial in the plot that he had reserved for himself, where we are standing. He also asked forgiveness for his crime. His own body, as he was a self-confessed murderer and a suicide, was buried with a stake through his heart at a crossroad on Ratcliffe Highway’.
‘Where did he live?’ said Salimah, still looking at the gravestone.
The Curate pointed towards the row of Victorian terraced houses where Salimah’s old house stood, now with metal shutters on the windows while the council found a new tenant.
Salimah took a break after she had finished weeding the raised beds in the city farm and went to sit in the arbour she had created above the bench. All around her she could see the fruits of her work: squash whose ripe, plump flesh seemed to invite touching, bright chillis, plump aubergines with purple skins, okra, spinach plants. All around her was beauty, calm and order. In the distance a cock crowed. Salimah herself was no longer thin and pinched, her skin glowed with health and her eyes shone. Sitting by herself in the garden, she thought: now I am home. Now I can live in peace.
This story was originally published in 33 East by Limehouse Books and is available for Amazon Kindle. It is reproduced with their permission.