18 minute read

The Power of a Lie

The Power of a Lie


Shahireh Sharif

Amongst the familiar and anonymous faces of work colleagues and acquaintances saying their last goodbyes to my father, he was the only one that I recall. That said, if it weren’t for his tight embrace and the genuine-looking tear in his eye as he offered his condolences, I might not have remembered him three days later when I was waiting for a taxi. He pulled over and offered me a lift. I told him I was going to Baharestan which apparently was on his way. His car, a white Peykan Javanan overtaken by the stench of lingered tobacco, had miniature prayer beads dangling from its rearview mirror. He had a tattoo on his upper arm, mostly covered by the short sleeve of his off-white T-shirt. He didn’t seem the type that my father would associate with. I asked him how he knew my father and his response added to the aura of mystery that surrounded him. “We must talk about that, but not now.” He suggested we met up after the seventh day of my father’s departure ceremony. His response to such a simple and basic question didn’t make sense. I don’t normally care for people who make everything more complex than necessary. Any other time I would have made an excuse and walked away. But how could I miss the opportunity of knowing something about one of my late father’s unusual acquaintances. I agreed to meet up. The only information that he offered on that occasion was his name, Majid. Four days later, as I joined the men in the close family and friends circle in the local barber to have our beard – the sign of mourning – shaved, I was still thinking about Majid. I wondered if he should have been included.

Next day, I arrived at the coffee shop a few minutes before our appointment. Majid was already there. He was sitting at a table in the corner, staring into an empty space in front of him. I followed his gaze and got to an exposed white wire that covered the short distance between the electricity socket and a fluorescent, wall-mounted light. Majid startled as I said hello. I asked for coffee. Majid ordered tea. He sat back in his chair, his left hand stroking his stubble; he was looking at the menu card on the table, a deliberate attempt to avoid eye contact? I took a tissue from the semi-circle napkin holder on the table and wiped clean the sweat beads on my forehead. The row of tissues was packed vertically. Even the cinnamon scent in the air appeared forced and synthetic as if from an aerosol. I wished I hadn’t agreed to meet with Majid. Neither of us said anything for a while. I looked at the couple sitting at a table next to us. The man kept talking nonstop and the murmur of his voice echoing back from the woman’s wide shoulder pads was beginning to get painful. The young waiter reappearing at out table was a blessing. Now we had our drinks to divert our attention to.

It is ridiculous, we are here to talk. Finally, with a shaky voice, I asked, “so Majid agha how did you know my father?”

He put a sugar cube in his mouth before drinking a sip of his tea. “I didn’t know him” was all he said before getting back to drinking his tea. As he spoke, in my mind I was going over terrifying scenarios that he might have told me in response to my question. So, I heard his actual response with a delay, or maybe it was the echo of his voice that I heard. I glanced at the woman at the next table. How I hated this fashion trend. Majid slurped his tea and continued, “No! I didn’t know him, but I knew of him and I became aware of his death by reading the obituary column in the paper.” He took another sip from his tea. “I knew then the time had come for you to know the truth.” “And what truth would that be, Sir?” I swallowed, waiting to be hit with some nasty news.

“The fact that I am your uncle, your mother’s brother.” I sighed. What he was saying was a lot more digestible than the nightmares that I had imagined. A lost uncle I could dealt with. “How come I have never met you, then?” He finished the rest of his tea, and only as he was putting the empty glass beaker back on the table did he resume. “Because of the man who was buried seven days ago. He was also the reason that you never knew your real mother.” I stood up, I was fully aware that the couple in the coffee shop were staring at us but it didn’t make me lower my tone of voice. This time though, my words did not echo back from the woman’s shoulder pads, instead they were absorbed by them. “Now, Sir, I came here in good faith, but what gives you the right? I don’t know what your game is but have some respect for the deceased.” I took out a note of currency that would more than cover our bill, and put it on the table then walked out. Majid followed me outside the coffee shop and held my arm. “Please ask your relatives about your real mother. We talk when you are ready to talk.” He handed me a piece of paper with a number written on it. “I can be contacted on this number; let me know when you want to talk.” I walked aimlessly through the streets trying to make sense of what Majid was saying. In the end I decided he was talking nonsense. I ripped the paper with his phone number in two and put the pieces in my pocket to drop them in a bin later. After a couple of hours, I got into a taxi and went home.

Despite telling myself that I did not believe Majid, I found myself taking the old family photo album from one of the boxes in the storage room and looking through the photos. The earliest photo I found of my childhood was a faded Polaroid photo of my mother holding me in her arms. I took the two pieces of paper from my pocket and Sellotaped them together. I read Majid’s number aloud.

It was almost nine o’clock but I scooped up the photo album and went to my aunt. She was surprised to see me but as always received me with a big hug. I apologised for appearing on her doorstep that late. We went to the kitchen. She was clearly half way through her meal. She added another plate for me and sliced two tomatoes, putting he pieces in an oval serving dish next to a couple of Kotlets. “We have vegetable Kotlets and I have made plenty,” she said, filling my plate.

“Was I adopted?” I asked without any introduction.

She nearly dropped the serving dish. I stood up and took the dish off her, pulled a chair out and help her to seat down. There was a short silence before she broke into tears.

“Why are you asking this?”

“There is no photo of my mother being pregnant or of me when I was smaller than a toddler.” I held the album in front

of her face.

“For God sake! The day that my poor sister took you home was the happiest day of her life.” She pushed the photo album away. “You know how strict your father was. God bless his soul! He didn’t like his wife posing for photos and she respected his wish.” Tears started to roll down her face. “They were good to you; they loved you, didn’t they? What is this questioning? Has anyone said something?”

I passed her a tissue. She continued. “They have never short-changed you; you were like a real son to them.”

“Like a real son!”

She started sobbing, “No, no, I didn’t mean that.”

“Please don’t cry.”

“Your father, God bless his soul, hasn’t been buried for long. Why are you making him turn in his grave? What should they have done for you that they haven’t already?”

“Please aunt, I am not denying that they loved me ... and I love them, but I need to know.” I sat on a chair next to her, held her hand in mine. Gently, I said, “don’t I deserve to know the truth? Please auntie tell me the truth.”

“Who have you been taking to?”

“So, it is true then?”

“No, I never said that.”

“You didn’t have to say it aloud. I was adopted, wasn’t I?”

“You were loved. Your mother became a different person with you, almost an angel.

“Why didn’t they tell me that I was adopted?”

She wiped her eyes. It took a while before she responded. “Your father was adamant. No one was to talk about your past.”

“My past! What past? I was only a baby. How could I have had a past?”

She got up and walked to the sink and splashed her face with water. She looked much paler when finally she sat and stayed motionless at the table.

“Please eat something,” she said finally. I looked at her and remained quiet. “Yes, let’s forget all this nonsense and eat.” She pushed my plate nearer to me and held up the basket of bread.

“I’m sorry but I can’t leave things alone.”

“Your father’s spirit isn’t happy when you dig up the past. You are my caring, sweet, loving nephew. Can we focus on that, please – for me?”

“Auntie, I love you and you’ll always be my dear aunt, no matter what. But I must find out who I am. Since a few hours ago, I’ve been in limbo. The person that I thought I was, never existed and suddenly a person with a completely new identity has replaced that being. Can you imagine how confusing this is for me?”

“I know dear, I know. But what brought this on?”

“I was contacted by someone who said he was my real uncle.”

“Real uncle? Where was he all this time? Who is he?”

“I don’t know. Until a few hours ago, I didn’t even know I was adopted. I don’t know my real mother’s name, never mind knowing where her brother has been all this time.”

“Biological mother dear. Your real mother was my sister, who looked after you and loved you, remember?”

I picked up the jug of water on the worktop. “May I?”

“Of course.” She passed me a glass and went and got the ice cube tray out of the freezer.

“Not for me, thanks.”

She put the tray back in the freezer.

“Please, Auntie, I beg of you. Tell me all you know.” I drank a full glass of water. I hadn’t known how thirsty I was.

She sat back at the table. “There is not much that I know. One day I was told that I am an aunt.” She thought for a short while. “I don’t know, I don’t know anything.” She started to sob again. “No one talked about it when they took you home. And afterwards, when we saw you, we all fell in love. It didn’t matter how you ended up in my sister’s arms. Your mother, God bless her soul, used to say that you were a gift from God, and we all went along with that.” She dried the corners of her eyes.

I poured her some water. She took a sip and continued. “Have you ever been treated badly by anyone in the family?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“So, let’s forget this and eat.” She seemed calmer and was smiling at me “Let’s get some food in you.”

When I got home the first thing that I did was take down the framed picture of me and my parents from the back wall. It was taken at my graduation ceremony. I took a long look at my mother’s proud smile then left the picture on the coffee table with the back of the frame facing up.

Lying in bed, I tried visualizing my biological parents. I stared at the artex pattern on the white ceiling until it resembled an eye. What colour eyes does she have? Light brown just like her brother Majid? I didn’t know if my parents were still around and, if they were, if they were even interested in me. Why hadn’t they approached me themselves? Why did they put me up for adoption in the first place?

Despite the unusually mild weather for autumn, I felt a chill. I got up and went back to the sitting room. I put the framed photo back on the wall, then went to my father’s bedroom and took my mother’s aubergine scarf blanket. Her scarf wrap was always kept on my father’s bed ever since her departure. I wrapped myself in her shawl and rolled around in bed. The bedside clock read 5am.

When next I awoke, I was still facing the bedside table. It took a while for my eyes to function normally and be able to read the time. 11am. 11! I dressed in a hurry and rushed out.

I didn’t have to explain my late arrival at work. I had only recently returned to work after the funeral and I wasn’t officially classed as a fully functioning member of the team yet. Colleagues were still popping in and out of my office offering their condolences. Some older colleagues had stories to tell about the bravery of my father. His dedication to the tasks in hand came up many times. I couldn’t concentrate on my work at all. I took the piece of paper with Majid’s phone number, stretched my fingers across the Sellotaped part to make it easier to read the number. I dialled.

“I was expecting you, I knew you’d call.”

How could he – particularly as my decision was not even certain to myself until a moment ago?

In response to my silence he continued, “Where are you now?”

“At work.”

“I’m not very far and can pick you up in about 30 minutes.

By the rear entrance of the building.”

“Do you want to ask for the address first?”

“I know the address. You work at the same office as your late father.”

I remained silent.

“I know more about you than yourself.”

I put the phone down.

“OK, I’m here now and you have my full attention,” I said the moment I got into his car.

He parked a block away from my office and twisted towards me. “I can tell you about your mother.”

The tightness of the space and the lingering tobacco smell was getting to me. “Do you mind if we get out of the car and talk?”

“A fantastic idea!” He locked the doors and we walked away from the main road. The noise of the traffic reduced, making talking easier.”

“Do you know how long I wished for an opportunity like this … you know, to walk with you, talk with you? Get to know you?”

He had his hands in his pocket and was taking small steps. I smirked. “Get to know me? You seem to know more about me than myself. I have to rely on you to tell me who I am.”

I slowed down to his pace.

“It isn’t easy to hear that the past is different to what you were told, I know.”

I wished he’d get straight to the point. “What is this past that you are talking about?” I said.

“It’s not that easy for me to talk about the past, you know.” He took a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket and held it in front of me.

“No thanks, I don’t smoke.” At least he didn’t know that I was a non-smoker.

He lit one for himself, put his lighter in his pocket. We walked down a pathway. “I never knew who my sister – your mother, that is – was married to.” He looked in my eyes as he continued. “Their marriage was arranged within the organization. She married one of her kind.”

“Her kind?” The sun came out of the greyish clouds for a brief moment.

“Our father was a builder who died after an accident at work. He had no insurance cover. Our mother had to work in people’s houses to make ends meet – you know cooking, cleaning, anything that needed doing. Three years after my father, mother died of heart disease, too. My sister and I ended up at the state orphanage. Your mother, Mina was two years older than me.”

So, her name was Mina. I repeated her name. “Mina.”

“Mina was still a teenager when she became involved with a political group. After a few years, she changed.” Majid took a long sigh before continuing. “She began attending secret meetings, and demonstrations. I tried to stop her. I told her off many times, but it had no effect. Those people, I think they brainwashed her. She was no longer the sister that I knew.” He stopped in his trail. I stopped, too.

“She was once arrested, caught distributing leaflets encouraging people to join a demonstration.” He drew in a lungful of smoke and coughed. “She spent two years in prison. I visited her, every week I would go to prison, but I was not always permitted to see her. We grow apart.”

He diverted his focus from the point ahead towards me. “I saw her once after she was released. It was about a year later. She contacted me through a third person to arrange a meeting. I begged her to leave the organization, move away with me to a faraway city where neither the state nor the party could find us. She said she couldn’t. She was marrying someone inside the group. Things were complex, and she was too involved, she said. She couldn’t move away.”

Majid lit another cigarette and I wondered how he could have finished the previous one so quickly. He went on. “She told me that she couldn’t stay in touch with me anymore.” Majid turned his face away. “I begged her to walk away.” I remained quiet. There was a green space with a few benches on the other side of the road. I put my hand on Majid’s shoulder and suggested we cross.

He chose a bench facing the road, looking at the cars passing by he continued. “After a while, she arranged for us to meet up again. She was holding you in her arms when she came to see me. Your arrival changed everything. She was ready for a new life. She asked me to help her. The plan was that she would take you away from all the chaos around and the three of us would make a new life together, you, me and her.” He suddenly paused.

It was like a movie. I was watching a movie that I had to catch up with. I was just an observer.

He took a long sigh before turning to yet another cigarette. “That was the last time I saw her. She hoped to build a new life round you. But soon after, their hiding place was discovered. There was an armed fight with the state force and four people living there were shot death. You were the only person who came out alive from that house.” He tossed his lit cigarette on the pavement and held my hands. “The plan was that I look after Mina and her baby, so I applied for a cleaner job in the same orphanage that you ended up. I couldn’t do anything for Mina, I couldn’t save my sister, but I wanted to save you.” He let go of my hands and stood up. “One of the special guard members involved in killing Mina came to adopt you. I heard this from others working in the orphanage. Once they came for you, I followed them. I thought at some point I would steal you and take you away. My sister’s murderer was now looking after her baby. I couldn’t let them win again. But once, when your adopted mum took you out, I saw you together. She was looking at you and making you laugh. It was as if you made her as happy as you made my sister. And when she held you in her arms, I knew that, despite everything, you would be happy with her. I had no right to take that happiness away from you or your adopted mother; even though her husband killed my Mina.” He took his wallet out of his pocket and passed me a headshot of a young girl with my eyes. “For you, this is Mina, your mother.”

I held the photo with both hands to be able to control my shaking hands enough to see my mother’s picture.

Majid continued. “I followed you around for a long time. I have even taken you to your job once. It was reassuring to see you grown up and happy even If I could only look at you from the rearview mirror of my car.”

There was a long silence. He broke it finally. “Attending the funeral, I realised that his wife had died a year ago. I wanted to tell you who you really were. I wanted you to know Mina. My Mina, a brave, loving girl, wanting to escape from the web of politics woven around her. She wanted to break free, just for you.” He lit another cigarette. “She would have been so proud of you, the young man who you have become.”

He put his head down and started to walk back towards his car. I remained seated on the bench gazing at an old picture of a young girl who had my eyes.

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