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The Firstborn

With the last embers of the sun fading behind a cloud, the trill of crickets and chirrup of a nightjar filled the air. An evening breeze picked up and carried Nazir’s scent past me — woody and sweet with notes of spice, cinnamon perhaps. He stuffed his hands deep in the pockets of his shearling jacket pensively. I turned to face him and walked backwards on the barely trodden path, watching the wind whip his hair back and forth. 

“I think I am asking if there’s anything you think I need to know,” he said. 

Ah, tactful, I thought. We both knew that things like this don’t hold up under too much scrutiny. He would not pry and I would not have to lay the entrails of my life bare. 

“I am married,” I said, “I don’t want to be misleading about that.”


“So that could potentially get knotty,” I added, mulling over how to leave him an opening without overtly encouraging anything untoward. 

“Not necessarily,” he said. “Not if we keep it simple.” 

I hit a tuft of grass with the back of my heel and lost my balance but caught myself in time. Instinctively he reached out to steady me, pulling me back in step beside him.   

“I like you, cheri,” he said with tenderness so disarming it might as well have been a spell. “I want to keep talking.” 

“That sounds simple enough,” I exhaled, tingling with delight. 

A misty rain made us turn back and arrive at the trailer with wet hair and damp patches on our shoulders. Celeste and her kittens met us at the veranda, meowing and scaling our pants for attention. I lingered outside petting and brushing their fur while Nazir brought out milk and canned soup. 

“I hope you don’t mind if I don’t light a fire today. The aircon will warm us up faster,” he said. 

Inside we hung up our coats and dried our heads with towels. The trailer was surprisingly roomy, with a double bed at the far end, a fully equipped kitchen, toilet and two-seater dining table. The jumpsuit I had so thoughtfully chosen to spend the evening in was damp from wading in drenched grass and Nazir had to find me harem pants and a t-shirt to change into. At the dining table, I folded my knees up to my chest and kneaded my cold, stiff toes back to warmth while he scrolled on his phone looking for music to play. 

“What do you want to listen to?” he asked. “I heard you listening to pop rock in the car. I find myself listening to more moody music. That might be a bit much for you.”

“Put on anything you like,” I said. A boring answer, but I didn’t want to listen to my own music. Just for one evening, I wanted to forget who I was and be fully immersed in another’s life. He put on an Indie playlist which did not surprise me one bit. As he gathered onions and tomatoes around a chopping board, I began perusing through a stack of books on the floor next to me. 

“Oh, you weren’t kidding,” I said, spotting an old book we had talked about weeks prior. “You have ‘The End of the Affair’.” 

“I do,” he said, wiping a tear on his sleeve from the onions he was chopping. “From my mother’s personal library. I have more boxes full of books under the bed. There was nowhere else to put them after we moved.” 

After his father’s passing, Nazir’s mother had put his sari shop and their building in Ngara up for sale. She and his little sister, Arsh, had joined his maternal family in London while he stayed behind. I had asked him what it was like to be all alone here and he’d said that he never felt alone. 

“Ever?” I had pressed, and he’d said, “No more than I felt when I was with them.” I didn’t know whether to be impressed or heartbroken for him. 

“Sounds like you liked it,” he said, dropping a stick of butter on a pan over low heat. 

“I did, I like stories about people’s failings. The more sordid, the better.” 

“People’s failings,” he repeated. “Is that how you see it?” 

“Aren’t they? Failings, I mean.” 

“I suppose you’d see it that way, being a kind of perfectionist,” he said, sauteing onions in butter. The aroma of spices filled the little cabin as he poured spoonfuls of curry into the pan. “Or maybe perfectionist isn’t the right word. I mean to say that you are a bit self-critical. A lot self-critical, actually.”

“I … pfft. I don’t know if that’s true.” 

“I don’t think it’s your fault, or even that it’s a fault per se. But you do it out of a fear of disappointing people, especially your parents, in my opinion.” 

“Don’t we all?”

“In varying degrees, yes. But I think your fear is so great that you sacrifice yourself to do what everyone else wants or expects of you, in comparison to your brother, for example.” 

“Is that a bad thing?” 

“I’m not speaking in terms of good and bad here,” he said, adding thick pieces of marinated chicken to the pan. I isolated the smell of ginger and garlic from the aromatic swirl. “Sometimes a thing is just a thing, you know?”

It was true. Mark never worried about disappointing anyone. Not Mom and Dad, not guests on tour, not even himself. I was maybe the only person he ever tried not to disappoint, that rascal, and I loved him so much for it. Or was I simply afraid to disappoint him? Perhaps more afraid that he might disappoint Mom and Dad, and wind the yoke of being the ‘good one’ tighter around my neck? 

“In part I think it must be a firstborn thing. You guys don’t get a lot of leeway to wander from the path of parental expectations. That’s how come Noreen has a double major in Law and Political Science,” Nazir said of his elder sister, “And Arsh dropped out of Fashion school to sew costumes for a theatre troupe.” 

A firstborn thing? 


Mundia is a firstborn too and he never failed to remind me. In fact, it was one of his central defences when he wasn’t deflecting, stonewalling or playing the world’s biggest fool. We’d had a run-in over it just months before. He’d returned from a weekend with his boys, pumped so full of himself he could’ve put a puffer fish to shame. The moment he walked through the door whistling and smiling to himself, I knew he was spoiling for a fight.

It was late evening and I was making rice and red bean stew for dinner. He strode around the kitchen, taking the lids off each dish and sniffing with disdain. 

“There’s no meat?” he asked. 

“We ran out,” I answered, watching him drain the last of his beer from a can. 

“You could’ve bought some across the street,” he needled me, knowing that I hated it when he tried to foist his share of chores onto me.

“Mmh. I could have,” I nodded. 

Sensing that I wasn’t taking the bait, he tried again over dinner. 

“Leilei upgraded his car,” he started. 


“Yeah, he’s driving a new Forester now.” 

“Oh, good for him. Sounds like they’re doing well these days.” 

“Eeh apparently Kami started a cosmetics line on Insta and it’s taken off.”

“I saw that,” I said, even though the details didn’t quite line up. She hadn’t started a new cosmetics line; she had brought in a Turkish skin-care line on a multi-level network marketing structure. A pyramid scheme. 

“Have you ever thought about doing something like that?” Mundia asked, and there it was. The familiar segue into discussing my shortcomings, and all the ways in which my career and lifestyle choices were the cause of his stagnancy. 

“I already have a career.”

“Yeah, but you have a lot of downtime in between your trips.” 

“That time is for me to rest.”

“You spend two, three weeks at a time just bumming around the house —”

“Because my trips also last two to three weeks at a time.” 

“With a side hustle like Kami’s, you may actually find that it’s more lucrative to hire a driver than take these trips. Heck, I’ll pay the driver for you if that’s what the problem is.”

My counter argument had always been that I loved my work, I loved travelling. I loved working in the family business and I paid my fair share of bills at home. Between the two of us, we made enough for a decent living, but if the goal was to offset Mundia’s feelings of inadequacy then we would never have enough.  

“Is that all you think my work is? Just driving a bunch of tourists around?” 

“Isn’t it?”

“You do know that I have a degree in Tourism Management, don’t you?”

“You don’t need a degree to drive from point A to B and play ‘spot the monkey’. At most you need a driver’s licence and a good set of eyes.” 

I could’ve said, “You don’t need a degree to shake down defaulters either. At most you need muscle and you don’t even have that!” But instead I said, “If you want to sell cosmetics so badly, you quit your own job and leave me out of it.” 

“It’s different for me. I had to quit uni because Dad died and someone had to run the auction house.” Ah. The old, reliable sob story. 

“You were four units away from completion and as I recall, your mom didn’t even want to keep the business going. No one asked you to run it. No one asked you to quit school!” 

“No one had to ask me! I’m the firstborn son, it was my duty to protect Dad’s legacy!” He said. 

I felt such seething hatred for him at the time, suggesting that I abandon the family business when Mark’s missteps had us all under so much strain already. And for what? To keep up with kina Leilei? Nkt. And why was I the one who had to leave my job? Why couldn’t he leave his? 

It didn’t occur to me that he might have the same fear of disappointing his family as I did. But when I thought about it that night in the trailer, it was as clear as spring water. Mundia lived to have his uncles clap him on the shoulder and tell him what a good, solid man he’d grown into. How proud his father would’ve been.

Really, it was my fear colliding with his. Who would’ve thought?


To be continued…