Midnight Games – Madeehah Reza

Image by Mohamed Nuzrath from Pixabay 

Midnight Games

The summer night was short, its air laden with heat and traces of burnt barbecues. A rare breeze would pass through the cul-de-sac, carrying soft fragrances of citrus fruits and woody perfumes that emanated from number forty-three.

The neighbours had been whispering about number forty-three all day. A squashed house with winter fairy lights draped across its brickwork, it always had at least three cars stationed in the square driveway. From lunch till dinnertime, guests had flowed through the house like a running stream, endless in excitement and glittering dresses.

And now, at six minutes past midnight, the neighbours grumbled at the ceaseless noise that echoed within its four walls, often spilling on to the street through an open window.

The Amins, however, couldn’t hear their grievances. They had a wedding to prepare.

*

Mrs Amin, the mother of the bride, hopped between four different steaming pots. She had found herself turning on the stove after the last of the guests left, only half an hour ago. Mr Amin insisted on home cooked food for the wedding afterparty—when half the extended family would return to their house—and this fell primarily on the shoulders of the harried mother.

A hum of conversation flowed between two other women in the kitchen. The slender, older lady was Mrs Amin’s sister, Auntie Lulu. A seasoned veteran of family weddings, she had prepared and delivered the ceremonies of her younger siblings and four children. Next to her sat Mr Amin’s younger sister-in-law, Shaniya. A glittering purple scarf was wrapped delicately around her hair and tossed over her shoulders. Both women sipped at mugs of tea while chopping, dicing, and wrapping an assortment of food. Bowls and baskets of freshly cut fruit and mishti desserts sat atop the kitchen counter.

“Where is my niece?” said Lulu. “She hasn’t tried my gajar halwa yet; I know it’s her favourite.”

Mrs Amin shook her head. “I sent her to bed early. She’s been up since six in the morning, poor thing.”

Lulu snorted as she wrapped cling film over the bowl filled with sweetened carrots. “Sleep? I don’t think any of us slept the night before our wedding.”

“My cousins insisted on having a karaoke party the night before mine,” said Shaniya, sighing wistfully.

Mrs Amin glanced up at the ceiling with worry as she stirred several spices into browning onions. “This is why I told everyone to keep the noise down—hey, Sami! Stop making a mess!”

A gaggle of children ran through the kitchen and into the hallway, gathering at the bottom of the stairs. United by their unruly dark curls and big, brown eyes, they chittered as loud as chimpanzees, unrestricted by the absence of a strict bedtime. A squat boy with rosy cheeks stood on the second-to-last step and addressed his tribe in the dimly lit hallway.

“Listen guys, we have to be quiet now, alright?” said Sami Amin, the baby brother of the bride.

“They can’t hear us, not with all the grownups shouting over each other,” said a dimple-faced cousin of his called Aisha.

“We need to surprise them though. We want the best snacks, don’t we?” said Sami. There was a chorus of agreement. “Then we’re gonna go get what’s ours. Appi took the big box of crisps and chocolates and fizzy sweets and we don’t have any.” His little face knitted into a frown. “And she took Mum’s best samosas! Left us all the burnt ones.”

A ripple of shock ruffled the children.

Samosas were serious business. Especially Mrs Amin’s ones. Each warm, crisp pastry burst with keema and diced potatoes, all laced with delicious spices. Sami and his sisters loved their mother’s samosas dearly, but she only made them on special occasions. That meant they were as rare and enchanted as gold. Wonderful, triangular pieces of gold.

The small tribe advanced up the steps with Sami pausing to shush them twice. As they reached the narrow landing they stopped before the first door. The light within the bride’s room was off, the door shut completely.

“What’s she doing in there?” asked a gap-toothed cousin called Yusuf. “I thought she’d be with the others.”

“Mum said she needs her beauty sleep.”

Sami waved a small hand over to the far side of the landing. They gathered around this door and listened to the voices pulsating from the other side. A loud cheer was quickly followed by a collective groan.

“I don’t know if we should do this,” said Yusuf, his bottom lip quivering. “They could kick us out.”

“If you want, you can sit with the uncles. I think they’re talking about politics,” hissed Aisha.

Yusuf shuddered at the thought and shrank to the back of their group. Sami put his hand on the doorknob and counted down from three on his fingers.

“GO!” he yelled as he flung the door open. The tribe of chimpanzees rushed in, screaming at the tops of their voices, and climbed on top of the bed to seek out their treasure.

“What are you doing!” shrieked Nadia Amin, the younger sister of the bride. “You ruined our game!”

Silver tokens, red hotels, and a rainbow of property cards were strewn about the floor. The four older cousins sat on the carpet around a square board of Monopoly. Nadia glared at her brother, the two of them locked in a staring match as the heist reached its peak.

Sami shouted in her face. “We came for what’s ours!” He jumped over his sister and grabbed the plastic bowl of golden-brown samosas behind her. “Guys, I’ve got it!” His tribe shook their fists in victory, some holding chocolates, others with handfuls of fizzy sweets and crisps under their arms. “Let’s go!”

They left the room as quickly as they’d arrived, a trail of destruction left in their wake.

“Those brats ruined everything,” said Ameera, rubbing her tired eyes. “What’s the point of even playing?”

Faisal stretched his arms and yawned. His usually clean chin had sprouted the beginnings of a small beard. “I didn’t even want to play. I’m just gonna go to bed—”

“No.” Nadia clicked her fingers at him and pointed to the floor. “You, sit. We barely started so we’re just going to clear up and start again.”

Saima pushed her glasses up her nose and checked her phone. “You do realise we have to get up in, like, six hours?”

Nadia scooped her long hair into a big bun. “These things always run late. We won’t even leave the house before eleven, I guarantee it.”

After a long day of serving guests and being told ‘she was next’, Nadia was determined to carve out time for at least one game with her cousins before the formalities started up the following day.

Each of them placed their silver token back on Go.

“This is such a long game,” moaned Faisal. He hopped off the floor and on to the bed, lying belly-down to face them. “Why can’t we do something short, like Mario Kart?”

Saima rolled the dice across the board. “TV’s occupied by the uncles,” she said mournfully.

“And this is a fun game!” said Nadia. She ignored the heavy silence.

They were all just exhausted, she told herself.

She had fished out Monopoly from the back of a cupboard in her search for an extension cord for the fairy lights. Board games had been a staple in her family, especially between her and her older sister. Before Sami was born, the two girls would pull out their favourites and argue for hours into the night over who was the true winner.

Once, they came home after riding their bikes on the street outside and messed around with a cheap eyeshadow palette that came free with a magazine. Later, in the deepest part of the night and embroiled in a game of Battleship, her sister cried out in triumph after sinking the last of Nadia’s ships. Nadia sulked as her mother snapped their light off in irritation and closed the door. In the sliver of streetlight that spilled through the window, her sister’s face shimmered in leftover gold powder, grinning at Nadia like a mischievous pixie who hid in the shadows.

After moving the silver horse three places, Ameera reached out to her right. Her hand met the empty carpet. “They took all the food!”

“Why are you complaining?” said Nadia. “You ate nearly all the samosas.”

Ameera hugged her knees and said nothing. Her pointed face turned a shade of crimson as she frowned intently at the board.

“Faisal, wake up!” said Saima, shaking her brother. He stirred from the bed and raised a sleepy head before it lolled on the edge of the mattress again. She rolled her eyes. “Lightweight. He can never stay awake.”

She reached over to his pile of money before Nadia slapped her hand away.

“And what do you think you’re doing?”

“Simple,” began Saima, “it’s the law of inheritance. As Faisal’s sister, I rightfully inherit all his goodies.”

Ameera scoffed. “Have you invented a new way of cheating?”

“Look, let’s just put it all in the centre and whoever lands on—”

“Since when have I ever cheated?” said Saima with a sly smile.

“Wouldn’t be your first time,” muttered Ameera. “You always do this.”

“Maybe you’re just a sore loser.”

“Or maybe I don’t want to play this stupid game anymore!” Ameera threw her cards down and stormed out of the room, kicking the pieces in her way.

Nadia’s shoulders wilted. “I swear this always happens whenever you guys come round.” She picked up the scattered pieces and dropped them into the cardboard container. “Why is it so difficult to play just one game?”

Saima placed a hand on top of Nadia’s. “We’re still playing though, right?”

“No point if there’s only two of us.”

“Well, let me wake up Faisal—oi, lazy bum—”

“Leave it,” said Nadia as Saima raised a cushion in the air. “Maybe we just should go to bed.”

But Nadia didn’t want to sleep. Once she slept, morning would come. And in the morning, there would be a different life to step into. Weddings were happy occasions, so she’d kept quiet over the past few days. She didn’t want anyone to know there was a small pit of sadness coiling at the bottom of her stomach.

It’s not that she wasn’t happy for her sister, far from it. Nadia only wished she could hold on to her for a little longer. She wouldn’t always be there for her, like she thought sisters were meant to be. They’d once shared a room together, a life. Now the house would always feel smaller, like a favourite shirt that no longer fit quite right.

The door creaked open. Labiba Amin, the bride, poked her head around. Her usual mass of curly waves was tamed into a slick ponytail.

“What are you guys doing?” she asked quietly. “I saw Ameera storm past my room. Well, I heard her actually.”

“Nothing,” said Nadia, barely meeting her eyes. “Did we wake you up?”

Labiba sat on the floor and crossed her legs as she leant against the bed.

“Do you think I could sleep?”

She patted Faisal’s head as he softly snored on the duvet. Her hands were traced with warm umber, intricate mehndi designs running all the way up to her elbows. “I couldn’t have any of Mum’s samosas. She said I had to make sure I fit in the dress tomorrow.”

“Today,” corrected Saima as she glanced at her phone again. “We need to get up in… five hours and twenty-two minutes.”

Labiba poked around the board game pieces. “Wow, we haven’t played this in ages.”

“Do you want to play?” said Nadia, the words slow and sticky in her mouth.

The murmurings within the house dissolved into silence as they rolled dice and exchanged fake cash. A blanket of stillness placated the tide of the morning and its promised uncertainty. The three of them stretched across the cramped floor space as every so often Faisal muttered in his sleep from his perch.

Property cards stacked up between the sisters. Saima had gone bankrupt.

“What, you got no other ways to cheat?” teased Nadia.

Saima leaned against the wall and took off her glasses, closing her eyes. “You guys ganged up on me, obviously.”

A low rumble resonated from Labiba’s direction. She grabbed her stomach and groaned. “Oh sure, now I’m hungry. At three in the morning!”

“We’re nearly done,” said Nadia. “But only because I’m winning. I just need to make you bankrupt with the last yellow card. You can give it to me now if you want to go and eat.” All she needed was Leicester Square to make her fifth set complete and effectively push her sister into financial ruin.

Labiba’s dark eyes narrowed. “Very funny. I’m not letting you win; you can’t just take my property from me.”

“Who said anything about taking?” Nadia picked up a wad of cash and sifted through the bills. “I’ll give you two hundred for it.”

“Forget it.”

“Two fifty.”

“Nadia, that’s not how you play!”

“Yeah, but you need to eat, and I want to win.” She fiddled around for more cash, blindly feeling the carpet behind her, before she grabbed a wad of tissue. Nestled within lay a perfectly triangular samosa. A handful of gold. The tissue was stained with some grease and the samosa had gone cold, but Nadia knew it would do the trick.

“Alright, this is my final offer. I’ll trade you Leicester Square… for a samosa.”

They stared at each other in silence. Labiba bit the inside of her cheek, her lips morphing into a thin line as she worked out the risk-benefit analysis of this trade deal.

Saima shrieked with laughter and startled Faisal from his sleep.

“I’m sorry,” she said as she rolled on the floor in tears. “That’s even more ridiculous than me!”

Nadia didn’t budge. She waved the samosa in her sister’s face and watched as the magic spread. Labiba’s brow softened. Her mouth dropped open for the slightest moment.

She stuck out a decorated hand and shook Nadia’s. “You got yourself a deal.”

Samosas, after all, were serious business.

*

Daylight brought with it a haze of chaos and coffee as everyone rushed past one another in the small house. Ameera, in all her icy dignity, refused to discuss the events of the night before and it had taken an army of children to rouse Faisal from his slumber.

Sami ran towards the top of the stairs, dressed in a little suit, before Nadia caught his shoulders.

“Appi, get off me!”

She held him down gently, the bangles on her wrists softly tinkling. “Let her go down first.”

They watched as Labiba tread gently down the stairs in all her finery. Her cream lehenga trailed on the carpet, heavy with jewelled embroidery weaved into the soft fabric that glimmered in the morning light. She was an enchanted princess from a long-forgotten fable.  

Auntie Lulu stood at the bottom of the stairs with a camera in hand. Mrs Amin held a damp tissue in hers.

In the middle of her descent, the bride glanced up and caught her sister’s eyes.

The pit of sadness swelled deep inside Nadia, tempered only by the sight of her sister’s lovely smile, face dewy in make-up and tinged with modest joy. She let go of Sami’s shoulders and returned a brave smile.

It was the first day of a strange new life, but Nadia knew it wouldn’t be so bad. They had left something wonderfully golden behind them.

Madeehah Reza works as a pharmacist in London and has embarked on a Creative Writing MA. She writes short stories and creative non-fiction. She hopes to have a book published in the near future, if only she could climb out of her own thoughts once in a while. Twitter: @madeehahwrites

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