Too Soon

by Farhana Khalique

She bit into the peppermint too soon. And then she knew. Her eyes widened, darting around the carriage. A suit, backpacks, a pushchair. Why were they so normal, when everything had changed? She looked at the wrinkled wrapper in her hands, blue already bleeding into white. All because she hadn’t waited, just a little longer. She closed her eyes, then crushed the powdery pieces between her teeth. She wished she could keep crushing, grind away her very bones, until she was just grains of regret on a train seat, specks of doubt in the air.

*

Ten months ago:

He was late. But there was traffic, so she understood.

She was too fluttery anyway. The idea that it could all be falling into place. Meeting the man she’d talked to everyday for the last fortnight, ever since they’d met on the singles website. First, they just spoke about themselves. Job, hobbies, family, the religious and cultural stuff, dreams, desires. He was the extrovert, which was cool, she was more of a listener. He was fun and made her feel special. He said she was sweet and made him laugh. She knew her parents wouldn’t object either. Unlike other friends who’d had arranged marriages, her parents weren’t pushing her into one. But, at twenty-nine, she did want to settle down soon. Either way, he ticked all the boxes so far.

And such a change from the others! From the barely legible passport-seekers, to the not-really-serious email ping-pongers, to the got-more-issues-than-a-baggage-handler-troll. Then Rayid came along. Someone who knew what he wanted and how to go about it. She’d turned him down at first. But he’d persisted. “Was it really that far? Only a couple of hours on a train…” He’d wooed her, she laughed to herself, wondering if that counted. Guess it was hard for him too, he was a bit older and had been searching longer. Then they were both online that night… And now here she was in Birmingham, one Saturday in spring, “halfway” between her London and his Leeds. She entered the Bullring, discretely checking herself in every shop window she passed, re-applying the lip balm she kept chewing off.

They found each other outside Debenhams. She spied him first. He was tall, with thick dark hair and a sunny face. Just like his photos, thank god. She straightened her mouth, then he saw her and they put their phones away.

“Mayaaa…” his arms were as wide as his smile.

“You’re late.”

“Am I being told off already?”

“Damn right you are.”

He dropped his arms.

Then she smiled back and asked him to describe just how awful his drive was.

Later, at a table in Cafe Nero, they got some of the big questions out of the way.

“Well?”

Maya took a sip of her lemonade, then put it down with a quiet thud.

“Well. We’ve only just met. It might never happen. So don’t your hopes up…”

He clutched his chest, faking a gasp.

“…but, if it does,” she laughed, “I understand. They’re your parents, you’re the only son, you’re not just going to ditch them. It’s our culture and I respect that. So, yeah, I’m open to the relocation thing. On certain conditions, of course.”

“Oh, we’ll discuss all that later,” he leaned back in his chair. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, anyway. You’ll love Leeds more than London.”

“Never! Besides, I’ll be back every weekend.” She stuck out her tongue.

He just smiled. And then tried to steal her drink.

“Don’t you dare!” she shrieked. “Not my fault you got the sickly-sweet strawberry. Can’t go wrong with lemon.”

He made a show of putting up his hands, before settling back in his seat, amused and content to watch her.

The afternoon whizzed by. Her insides dipped and bobbed when they parted at the ticket barriers, before she had to catch her train.

“So, next time London, yeah? None of this halfway business!”

“Why don’t you come to Leeds, Miss Modern, Independent Woman?”

“You first, Mr ’Sposed-to-be-a-Gentleman.”

“Let’s see. Hopefully I’ll have more time then.”

“Make sure you do!”

She grinned, then legged it towards her platform.

“Got home safe.  Had a lovely time :)  Fill you in later x,” she texted her friends, who’d asked how the day went. However, she was a bit more vague when her mum greeted her and asked her how the shopping trip went.

*

Six months ago:

Spring blurred into summer and they were in Hyde Park one Friday, lunching on treats from a nearby Tesco Metro. After a couple more meet ups in Birmingham (he’d been too busy to venture further it seemed, and she hadn’t wanted to rock the boat), he’d finally come to London to see her and she couldn’t stop smiling. She’d suggested they just chill out in the park, so she’d brought a large picnic blanket from home. It was bulkier and heavier than she thought it would be and he wasn’t that bothered about a picnic, but she didn’t mind. At least he was here.

“He was definitely flirting,” said Rayid.

“Noo, he was just being nice, I was flustered-”

“’Cause I was standing so close to you?” He said sweetly.

“’Cause I couldn’t find my Clubcard! Dunno why I have it, I always forget ’til they ask…”

“Still,” he said, tearing a blade of grass, “try not to be so friendly with guys. They’re only after one thing.”

Maya frowned.

“It’s true.”

She rolled her eyes, but couldn’t help feeling flattered that he’d notice.

“You don’t make eye contact and smile so much for no reason. Look, just ask any guy you know.”

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I’ll be sure to write you a report on what they all say.”

“All? How many do you know?”

“Eh?”

“How many guys are you friends with?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t counted… What’s all this?”

He paused, then burst into loud laughter.

“Your face!”

“That wasn’t funny,” she looked away, eyes fixed on a cloud.

“I’m sorry.”

Was he?

“Truly. Can I have some food now, please?”

She laughed at that, then dished out their snacks.

He took a big bite from his sandwich, then she half-joked, “Was that our first fight?”

He almost choked, “’course not!”

“Good. ’Cause I’d hate it if you finally came all the way to London to see me, just to argue about some bloke in Tesco.”

“Baby, I would never come all this way to do that…”

He looked at her so long that her face started to heat up.

“…I had a meeting in Canary Wharf, anyway,” he winked.

“What? I thought you were free today, that’s why you came down?”

“I am free, that was just a quick thing at H.Q. this morning. Does it matter? I’m here now.”

He was, but did it? She buried the buzzing that had begun inside her and said instead, “I guess. Oh, and I’m not your baby.”

“Not yet.” He grinned wickedly.

She rolled her eyes again, but was happily confused.

“…Maya?”

“Oh, sorry?”

“Is your profile still online?”

She raised her eyebrows. It was, but she hadn’t logged into the website since they’d met. That reminded her, she’d received email notifications of direct messages, perhaps she should reply, even if it was just to say she was, er…

“Why?” She said carefully.

“Come on, Sherlock. I’m not interested in anyone else now. I just want to focus on you. Don’t you?”

Talk about direct.

“Yeah,” she admitted, shy.

“So… shall we take our profiles offline?”

“Okay.”

“Good girl.”

He smiled so broadly that she didn’t mind the last phrase. He was serious about her. And… the picnic blanket was a flying carpet, hovering over a realm of possibilities. She’d have to steer carefully, though. As much as her family wanted her settled one day, she knew they’d be less than impressed if she didn’t consult them soon. But she was still getting to know Rayid and didn’t want to share him just yet.

It was dusk when she got home.

“Hi, love,” her dad greeted her, “long day at work? I’ve just put the kettle on if you want one?”

“Just one appointment in the afternoon, took a while, though. And thanks, but I’m fine, I’ll just get changed…”

“Okay,” he smiled as she scarpered up the stairs.

“…he suggested that we take our profiles offline :) :),” she tapped into her phone.

“Aww!! What did you say?? Looking forward to hearing the details when we see you!!!” came one response.

“I knew it. Glad you had a nice time. And glad he finally came to London to see you,” came another.

Maya frowned at that, but didn’t correct her friend. She’d almost forgotten about his work meeting. Everyone was busy though, nothing wrong with killing two birds with one stone, right?

The kettle screamed, so she shoved on her PJs and went downstairs. Her brothers were nowhere to be seen and her mum seemed to be out, so she thought she’d fry some samosas in case her dad wanted any with his tea. If she could arrange a picnic for another man, she could at least set the table for her own dad.

*

Five hours ago:

“Well?”

Maya gazed at him, helpless.

Rayid laughed at that, then she was really confused.

“Oh, don’t give me that look! You’re on your own this time!”

But the laughter never reached his eyes, which were pained.

She knew why, of course.

“I can’t,” she mumbled.

The smile vanished. “Can’t? Surely, Maya, it’s been long enough. I mean, you should have some idea by now. It’s not really fair, is it…?”

She winced. She’d always tried so hard to please everyone. Perhaps she’d always known that was impossible. That Rayid wouldn’t wait forever.

“I just don’t know yet…”

“It’s been ten months!” There was no hiding the frustration this time. He softened his tone, “Look, why d’you think you don’t know? Maya, I’m trying to understand, to help you understand, but you’ve got to talk to me…”

Talk? They talked every day. That wasn’t it.

Perhaps it really was just the distance.

That was why they were meeting “halfway” again, in that Cafe Nero in the Bullring, one Sunday in winter. She’d known from day one that if things progressed she’d have to move, perhaps it was finally sinking in. Which wasn’t so bad of course, people went to the other side of the world if they had to, and Leeds wasn’t exactly Timbuktu.

But it wasn’t just Leeds. It was leaving her home, her city, her job, her friends, moving in with someone else’s family. Wasn’t it?

“Maya? My?”

“I know it’s been… a while,” she said, “but that was inevitable given how far apart and how busy we are. It’s such a big decision, though. I just need to know… that…”

“Oh, it’s normal to have doubts, no one’s ever a hundred per cent,” he waved a hand. “It’s not like the movies. But I know I want to move things forward, tell our parents. Don’t you?”

Well, yes… Yes. Of course she did. To get married and move on with her life. Someone to love, to have fun with, build her dreams.

“Tell me again what it’ll be like. I know we won’t really know until it happens, but give me as clear a picture as possible.”

“Well, you’re the imaginative one, but okay. We’ll be together, Maya. You’ll like the house, the area. You’ll make new friends, you could even find something part-time. When you’ve settled. You’ll be taken care of.”

Settled… She pictured dust, floating down. It sounded easy. In many ways, it would be. She had been so tired of searching. Waiting. Hoping. Being disappointed. Then Ash had breezed into her life.  It could work – no, it would work. What else was she waiting for? She wasn’t looking for perfection. Okay, so he was a little pushy, but she could be such a ditherer. Opposites attracted, right?

Taken care of… He squeezed her hand.

“Well, I could settle in better if I look beforehand, go for interviews. It’ll be easier to settle and make friends if I already had my job lined up-”

“We’ve discussed this. You should get used to the family and the house first. Starting a new job is really stressful! You don’t want to risk putting a strain on the more important things straight away, do you?

Settle… Get used to…

She moved her hand away.

He blurted, “Don’t you always say that you hate your job anyway? Okay, maybe not ‘hate’, but you hate taking work home, I know you do. I mean, you don’t even have to work at all, I earn enough-”

“I’m not just going to be a house-wife.”

“That’s not what I want either! You know that…”

She did. And yet…

“Look, you are worrying for no reason. They’re gonna love you. You’ll be absolutely fine. It’s not like you’re leaving forever. We’ll come and visit your family all the time.”

She could almost see it, see herself there…

“Maya?”

It was… nice.

My!

But was it enough?

*

Now:

She had to go, catch her train. He urged her to stay longer, he’d buy her another ticket, but she couldn’t.

That was when he asked her to decide. Today.

She stared.

“Decide that you’re going to tell them, and just do it. Or… it’s over.”

She froze.

“Please, Maya. Make the right decision.”

He was serious.

“Look, here…” she heard rustling as he pulled out a peppermint from his pocket. “Just take one more moment – while you eat this!” he gave a strangled laugh. “Make it last as long as you want, before it dissolves, but decide. You’ll know by then that it’s me. Us. If not… then I guess you’ve decided.”

Mechanically, she took it.

He grabbed her and hugged her tightly, and she was too numb to protest.

Then he loosened his grip and she slipped away.

As the train pulled out of New Street, she was still reeling. Surely, he was bluffing? He wouldn’t let her go that easily? Start all over again with someone else? She was glad that she was sitting down.

“Tickets, please,” a uniform materialised, so she rummaged in her bag. As he marked her ticket, her eyes fell on the mint.

The guard walked away and she took it out. An individually wrapped, blue and white “Mint imperial”. It was probably on the table at Rayid’s last business meeting.

She opened it and popped it in her mouth. A small, hard, perfect sphere. It was comforting to roll around between her teeth and tongue, the strong, cold taste making her feel a little less queasy.

Had he planned it all along? What was he doing with it, did he even like mints? She was surprised that she didn’t know. She twisted the wrapper between her fingers, watching creases form and chase each other, like fractured glass. She was tired, but restless. All that time… it was almost up. She couldn’t focus. Think!

She bit into the peppermint too soon. And then she knew. Her eyes widened, darting around the carriage. A suit, backpacks, a pushchair. Why were they so normal, when everything had changed? She looked at the wrinkled wrapper in her hands, blue already bleeding into white. All because she hadn’t waited, just a little longer. She closed her eyes, then crushed the powdery pieces between her teeth. She wished she could keep crushing, grind away her very bones, until she was just grains of regret on a train seat, specks of doubt in the air.

Farhana Khalique is a female fiction writer, of Bangladeshi background, born and raised in South-West London. She is currently living and teaching English in East London. Follow her on Twitter @HanaKhalique