Mala sat at the supper table with her husband, Abdul, and watched from under her lashes as he glanced at his watch. For six weeks now he had come home from work, had a shower, and said that he had to go back out and oversee some after-hours installations. Mala had believed him. It was the week leading up to the American elections, and there was a rush for satellite dishes to be able to watch the event. But the elections had come and gone. The American president was being allowed a second term to see how many wars he could fit into four years.
After some weeks Mala remarked that seeing as so many satellite dishes had been installed, maybe she could get an increase in her allowance. Abdul gave her five hundred rand extra for food that week, and didn’t argue when she said she needed money for a new muffler for the car. He didn’t know, but from all her scrimping over the years, Mala had thirty-eight thousand rand saved up in a private account.
“Always keep a little one side for a rainy day,” her mother had been fond of saying. “And never tell a man everything. You tell a man all your secrets and you get beaten with the same whip.” Mala had listened. She was a God-conscious woman, but she also believed that a woman had to have a special “rainy day” account in the event of trouble which no one need know about. She shaved off a few rand here and there, and kept many of her secrets to herself. The secrets she told would not come to haunt her one day. Her mother’s advice had always been sound, and she sensed that there was precipitation up ahead. A storm was brewing.
Watching him now all decked out and grand in a blue shirt and cream jacket, smelling of Drakar, she knew that while there might very well be a call-out for an installation, that that wasn’t the highlight of his night. She even knew the name of the woman. She knew because she had taken some of her hard-earned savings and paid an unemployed security guard to follow Abdul. “If you don’t find anything, don’t make anything up,” she’d said.
After two nights, the spook reported back with an address, and a sealed envelope with three photographs and a dossier. He told her that he had found her husband having a cosy meal with a young woman with red hair near the boats at the Waterfront. Mala hadn’t wanted to see the woman’s face yet; she wasn’t ready for the opposition yet and wanted to fantasize a bit about how she would handle the matter. She kept the envelope in her underwear drawer and waited until her husband had been followed for a week, before she sat down with his dossier. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw who it was. Without thinking, she lifted the receiver and dialled one of the numbers provided by the security guard and asked to speak to Ruby Davids.
“You bitch,” she said, when Ruby answered the phone. “Does your mother know what you’re up to? Having an affair with my husband? You’re my neighbour! You pluck chickens at County Fair, for God’s sake!”
“Fuck you!” Ruby said, and hung up.”
Mala stared at the receiver in her hand. She felt her legs trembling under her robe. It was real; not a suspicion anymore, but reality. Ruby hadn’t denied the affair. Abdul was cheating on her. There was no more evidence she needed.
She didn’t know what to do. She was trembling so hard, she didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The bastard had cheated on her. And how many other women had he cheated with that she didn’t know about? She sat on the edge of the couch in the living room and watched the phone. A part of her wanted to call Ruby back, but another part of her said not to do it. Shouting and screaming wasn’t going to make things better. Abdul had to pay, not the girl, although the girl would learn some lessons the hard way, she hoped.
She had waited too long. A woman always knew and she had known deep down inside. She had made remarks, but not strong enough to challenge him. She had been playful towards him, even though she had felt nothing inside. Her own playfulness had taken flight long ago. You didn’t become playful with a man who no longer found you attractive. Women accepted their aging men with their fat bellies and dog breath without a whimper. But a man would betray you for a hot dog and a roll, and go on as if nothing had happened.
She watched her husband now. What did she feel about him? She had made steak, potatoes and salad, and watched him poke his fork into a pea. He wasn’t hungry, or was saving his appetite. She didn’t mind. She would not confront him. She had known long ago the kind of man she was married to. A wife always knew, even when she pretended that the marriage was fantastic, and in the privacy of her bedroom cried into the pillow. But it was a hard thing to acknowledge. She had never thought that the day would come when she would be unattractive to him.
As he fiddled with the fork on his plate she thought of the wonderful times they had spent together walking in the park with the kids, or gone out for a family dinner, and how she would rush to bathe the kids when they got home and put them to bed so the two of them could have their own time together. But that was in the past; it was all over now. She had noticed his renewed tricks in the bedroom. He was doing things with her he had never done before. There was a reckless come-with-me abandonment that excited her and at the same time made her feel sick. He was not the limp noodle he had been a year ago. He was adventurous. He touched her in all the right places and brought her to pleasure against her will.
“You’re all decked out. Are you going out?” she asked.
Mala got up and carried her plate to the sink. “I need four hundred rand for the doctor tomorrow.”
He looked up briefly. He didn’t ask what was wrong. He pushed back his plate, took out his wallet, and gave her the money. When he was gone, Mala washed up the few dishes, switched off the kitchen light, and went to the bathroom. There, she took off her robe, and stood on the scale. She was pleased. It had been a slow process, but worth it. She had lost five kilos in six weeks. If she kept up with her regimen of walking and healthy eating, she would soon reach her desired goal. She was looking forward to her appointment with the doctor her friend, Julie, had told her about. It wasn’t a proposition any of her other Muslim friends would have entertained. It was vanity, and wrong to perpetrate such an act upon the body. But she was determined to find out for herself. Julie was much older than her husband and had had her brow lifted, taking ten years off her age. Julie didn’t feel bad or guilty about it. It was buying insurance for ten more years at her job.
The next morning Mala got dressed in an elegant cream dress which fit her for the first time in six years, combed her bobbed hair, and put on a black scarf. She drove to the foreshore clinic and entered the plush offices of Dr Leon Wessels overlooking the docks. She was nervous, and tried not to look at the other women in the waiting room. But she had seen everything in the few seconds it took to give her name at the desk and sit down. On her right was a girl in her twenties with some kind of dressing on her upper cheeks, on the other side was a woman in her fifties with arched brows and swelling under the eyes.
She picked up a magazine from an end table. It was like a bolt from the heavens when the first article the magazine opened to, was about a housewife who’d gone for a chin tuck, reacted to the anaesthetic, and died. She got a fright. What was she doing there in a plastic surgeon’s office? She was vain and scratching where it didn’t itch. And for what? To prove that she was still young, that a man might still find her attractive? She didn’t want to win anyone back. Why must you win someone back who doesn’t want to be found? And why was the onus always on the woman to keep things fresh and exciting? A woman doesn’t want a fat man with the intelligence of a jelly fish either, but she remains loyal, she keeps the home fires burning. She doesn’t want a gymnast in bed. She wants a man who will love her and be loyal to her and one she can share her innermost feelings with. Abdul might appreciate her as the mother of his children, but he had no idea who she was. He did not even know that her left breast was markedly smaller than the right breast.
A few minutes later it was her turn to go into the office. Dr Wessels was a tall, good-looking surgeon in his forties, with a boyish grin. She watched him smiling at her, making some small talk. She didn’t know how to start.
“I don’t know if I should even be here; it’s so embarrassing, being Muslim and having this vanity - but I’m curious. I would like to know if maybe I could do something about my face – freshen it up a bit. I always look tired.”
Dr Wessels smiled, and came to her side of the desk, and sat down. He handed her a mirror. “Show me what’s bothering you. What you would like to see changed.”
Mala looked at herself in the mirror, and pointed to her brows. “They seem to have dropped. And I don’t like this,” she moved her hand along the side of her jaw. It’s a bit jowly.” She didn’t know if she was using the right word, but was sure he understood.
The surgeon understood. He was adept at reading the little fears women presented when they came for the first time. He was in the vanity business after all and could smell fear the moment she stepped through the door. He could tell by her clothes and her manner what her procedure would be. He knew how her face might be improved, or her clothes to fit better, but needed the woman herself to point out what she wanted.
It was with great care that he chose his words. “Well,” he began, using both thumbs on either side of her temples, to gently lift the skin. “I could do a brow lift. It would open your eyes a bit more, and make a big difference.”
Mala looked at herself in the mirror. She had used her fingers in the exact spot to manipulate her appearance.
“I could also do some fat injections here,” he pointed to the deep lines under her eyes. “We take the fat from your body. It would get rid of that tired look.”
“Of course, it won’t get rid of this,” he continued, touching the side of her jaw. “You need a mini lift, and some lipo structure.”
“Yes. I would take out some of the fat here,” he pointed to a spot lower down on the cheek, and under the chin. “Your face will have a smoother look.”
“Is the mini lift dangerous?”
“There’s risk in all surgery. Infection, bleeding; anything can happen. But ten days before surgery, you’ll stop taking Vitamin E and some other medications we’ll tell you about, to minimise the risk. Are you on hormone replacement?”
“You’ll have to stop that a good month and a half before surgery.”
Mala had other questions, and asked them. Dr Wessels handed her a typewritten sheet, and explained everything. Finally, there was only one question left.
“And the cost, doctor?”
He smiled. “I’ll take you out to Theresa, who makes the theatre bookings. She’ll give you a breakdown.”
Mala thought it clever that the doctor left the quotations to another member of the staff. That way there was no bargaining for a better price.
“I have to think about it, of course.”
“Of course. Don’t feel under pressure to do this. Think about it all you want.”
Mala followed him out to reception, into another office, where he handed a piece of paper to Theresa, a perky, Julia Roberts type who was busy looking through a pile of accounts. There were no old or ugly people working in his office. The furniture was posh, the lamp on the corner table was antique, the carpet was cream with a good under-padding, the music, a classical piece by Albinoni, played in soft undertones; everything about the office spelled wealth.
“This is Mala,” he said to Theresa. “Can you please give her a quotation for the listed procedures?”
Mala hesitated. “Can you add a lipo structure to that?”
“Of course.” A few minutes later Theresa handed her a white envelope. It was all Mala could do not to open it before she reached the car. Her breath caught when she saw the amount: R45,000 if she decided to do everything.
She sat behind the steering wheel of the car a long time before she drove off. R45,000 was a lot of money, even for revenge. It was vain and wrong to cut into her body and carve out a new model. How could she justify spending that kind of money on herself? She could feed the poor. She could go to Mecca. She could leave Abdul and start a new life. Wasn’t this the rainy day she’d been saving for?
That night at supper, she was quiet. Abdul picked up on her mood. “Are you okay?”
She looked at him. “I need ten thousand rand.”
“Ten thousand? What would you need that kind of money for?”
“It’s for a worthy cause.”
“What is the cause?”
“You’ll know soon.”
He sat slumped in his chair, still in the same clothes.
“No installations tonight?” she asked.
“No. I’ve been working a lot lately. I’ve neglected some things around the house.”
She looked up. Had she heard him right? Her first thought was that Ruby had dumped him. What did he think? That a seventeen-year-old was really in love with him and would stay with him forever? Young girls take off. And it was too late for a conscience. She had become strong.
“Are you able to give me the money?”
“I told you; ten thousand.”
“It’s a lot of money. Are you planning something big?”
He came to stand next to her at the sink. She felt his hot breath in her neck. “I’ll see tomorrow what there is in the business account. You want to come upstairs?”
Her toes curled in her shoes. “I have a few things to do still. I’ll come up later.”
He looked at her dressed in a black pants and a burgundy top. “You’ve lost weight. I like it.”
“Thanks. I’m thinking of going away for a few weeks with Julie.
She has family in London.”
“What? You want to go on a holiday? You never told me you wanted to go overseas.”
“We never talked.”
He looked at her curiously and then went upstairs. Mala stayed in the kitchen until she was sure he had fallen asleep. She went into the bathroom, and looked at her face in the mirror. Not an old face, she thought, but weary with the scratches of time. Was she going to do it?
Three weeks later, she got up at five in the morning, and spent extra time with her prayers. Her husband had had three installations the previous night and still hadn’t come home. She wasn’t upset; she wasn’t even worried that something might have happened to him. She simply ceased to care. She didn’t want sex out of pity. She believed that in some corner of his heart he loved her like a good pair of slippers one didn’t throw out, but it no longer mattered.
She heard a car stop outside. It was Julie, coming to pick her up. Her bag with the few items of clothing and toiletries was ready. Julie waited for her in the car. A silver Mercedes drove up and stopped in front of Julie’s car as she came out the front door.
Abdul looked guilty. “I’m sorry I’m so late,” he said. “I got held up.”
“Don’t be sorry,” she said, walking towards Julie’s car. “An installation that takes a long time is a good thing for you, isn’t it? Tonight I want to tell you my plan.”
“It is just after dawn. Where are you going?”
“I have to hurry. Julie’s waiting for me.”
“Is something wrong with you, Mala?”
She turned to him with her hand on the car door. “There was, but not anymore. I can’t tell you how great I feel. I’ll tell you my plan when I see you. It’s a great plan, Abdul. You won’t lose any benefits. We have a huge house, too huge for just two people. I’ll stay on if I get my own room, get the car transferred to my name and get ten thousand a month for housekeeping. I will still make your food and press your shirts and keep a Muslim home, but I’m not sharing your bed anymore. If you want sex, you can pay me a thousand rand for the pleasure. It’s allowed, isn’t it if the wife agrees? I hope so because I’m paying a lot of money to a doctor to get myself ready for you.”