Short Story: Johnson

I have four guests coming around for dinner later today. One, two, three, four. Susan from work, Matilde from work, Hassan from work, Hassan’s wife, who isn’t from work, but whom I wanted to thank for all her Pakoras and what-have-yous with… whatever food we’re serving for them today.

The house needs to look perfect. Not IKEA-showroom ‘perfect’ – no, no, that won’t do – but it must seem quite so nonetheless.  I need to make it known that we – Karen and I – are not like those couples who obsessively clean and bleach things down. We do like to let our children play. They can get their crayons out sometimes; once, I even let them use watercolour paints in the living room. Yes, they should be very grateful indeed to have parents like me… I mean, us.

Two of Jake’s paintings have been lovingly displayed on the top compartment of our fridge. Three of Gemma’s miniature paintings have their place, in a straight line, of course, on the bottom compartment. Ooh, and I need to check the bathroom for any signs of messiness. It’s probably true what they say – about how judgemental people can be when it comes to others’ bathrooms.

We don’t really actually use all those ‘designer’ shower gels and body cremes that we keep being gifted with at those abysmal work New Year’s parties. Still, it won’t do to have the ones we normally use, out, for everyone to gawk at. So I pour out some of the product from the ‘designer’ bottles, and place them on the shelf. The blue-y ones on one side, and the more reddish ones on the other. And, of course, the kids’ toothbrush holder in the middle – the Disneyland one. Our guests just have to know that we’ve been to Disneyland. We’re good parents, we are.

Next, Gemma’s room. Bed made, check. Things in good order, yes. But the pots of kiddy slime that currently plaster her desk. No! We can’t have them thinking that my precious daughter is only like any other abhorrent little child. The thought of them thinking that my Gemma is fascinated by… goo. Preposterous, absurd. My Gemma is a little genius, and she has three certificates from school to prove it. “Karen, darling! Have you seen the Blu-tack anywhere?”

Jake: my firstborn. Heir to whatever titles I may claim to have, all-round apple of my eye. But why oh why, Jake, do you insist on keeping all those books of yours under your bed, away from view? How else are my guests going to know that you’re an avid reader? I’ve seen your books. You’ve been reading about (what’s it called again? Dinosaur facts and stuff? Paleo… Paleology? Oh, no, yes —) palaeontology – since you were barely six years old! Okay, now where’s your sports gear? Also under your bed? Wait, what’s this? Football certificates, framed, and on your wall? Atta-boy, son, atta-boy!

My mug collection, everything in its correct place. The one from Berlin, the one from Jerusalem, the one from Athens. We need to let people know that we are a well-travelled bunch. After all, what’s the point in having something – an experience, or a brilliant trait – if it cannot be shown, known?

Karen has informed me of the fact that she thinks I only do all of this stuff before dinner parties because I’m “given to exhibitions of tasteless showiness”. But I always think, shut up woman. I married you for your pretty face and for your hourglass figure, mainly. Don’t give me all that, all those big words. What could they possibly even add to your character – to your role as my wife?

My wife plays tennis. The evidence: framed pictures lining the hallway. Sometimes, my wife and I play tennis together. The evidence: more picture frames, in our living room, of course. She’s perfect for me, Karen is. We are both so in sync with one another, so undeniably compatible. We both like brown bread and we both work in the financial sector!

We’re serious people, too. See, I, for one, really like to follow the advice of renowned architects when it comes to interior decor. I do like reading those stylish urban magazines. Put the most recent edition on the coffee table, naturally – the one that talks about the value of rustic vases. Five minutes after reading that article, I purchased four of said ornaments online – the most expensive ones I could find, naturally. 

We’re also interesting people, don’t get me wrong. Our home is not black and white. We have coloured rugs. Our kettle is blue. And did I mention, we like to put our children’s artistic creations up on the fridge. My best friend’s half-Muslim; Hassan from work knows this. I think we’re quite liberal, as parents, and as people.

Karen, your hair. Your hair, Karen. Why does it look so messy? A French braid, Karen. Tie it into a French braid. How do I tell her to tie it into a French braid, without sending her off into another one of those strops of hers? I can’t have her embarrassing me, in front of them. Hassan’s wife, by contrast to this sorry woman, seems like she is quite a cheerful lady. I have never seen her frown, not once. Actually, maybe the Botox on her forehead has something to do with it. Oh, and her Pakoras – have I told you about her Pakoras? Heavenly!

Karen only knows how to make sandwiches. Sandwiches made with brown bread. I loved this about her for a short while. But, boy, do I crave some homemade stew sometimes. Some Pakoras. Our solution, a happy compromise: we buy homemade food from a local bistro. Arrange it on plates to look like Karen made it. And everyone’s a winner! Well, except me, of course. I’m married to her!

The kids are sitting on the stairs. They are holding their instructional flash cards. Good; they are doing exactly as they should. My wife, on the other hand, she simply objects to using these cards that I make for her. If she messes up today, without them, it will be entirely her own fault. If she messes up, I will simply not speak to her for two days and half of another one. Then, we will go and play some tennis, take some pictures for Facebook…and maybe we will have some brown bread sandwiches.

Can you keep a secret? I don’t actually like brown bread — not even by a crumb. I only told her I loved it pre-marriage, you see, when I had been trying to impress her, at work. I’m not even sure if she likes brown bread all that much, either. I’m not sure if she thinks anything of anything, most of the time. In fact, I am convinced that the only thing she talks about with her therapist each week is her most recent weight loss venture.

DING DONG. Okay, they have arrived. Everybody in their places. Do not get me wrong. This household belongs to me, and I am its director. Bueno. Now, Door, smiles, 




We each look at the world through our own eyes – through our own subjective perspectives. The way we view others, how we process things that happen to us and around us, the ways in which we examine the beings of the very humans whose eyes meet our own when we look into the mirror. All this, we witness through lenses of varying colours and tones, which may change with time, and which are determined by the cognitive frameworks that lie in place, in our minds. 

Many of us were imbued with certain ideas when we were younger, whose psychological and behavioural repercussions may be quite evident now, in adulthood, but some of which we are now wise enough to recognise as having been quite… detrimental. They were never really necessary in the first place, and we find, now, that we can actually happily do without them.

One of these unhelpful cognitive frameworks, for example, may well be the one that focuses excessively on appearances in lieu of substance. This insidious, suffocating, anxiety-ridden ‘What will people think?’ mentality. In childhood, its beginnings may have come about as a result of excessive scolding from caregivers, for (things that are retrospectively identifiable as having been) pretty harmless things. Outrage and ensuing fear, and the laying-down of certain cognitive frameworks.

I firmly believe that every human being has a ‘core’ in terms of individual personality. We can seek to categorise them (MBTI tests, Enneagram tests, Temperament types, Harry Potter houses, and the like) while also being fully cognisant of the fact that our personalities, in truth, are too complex to be wholly contained by such concise definitions. I do think our ‘core’ personalities were imbued in us by God; I also acknowledge that ‘who we are’ is ever-changing… though the core does tend to remain intact. When we were children – when we were little tabula rasas (relatively speaking; not entirely so) – we were almost undoubtedly closest to our ‘core selves’. Some of us were curious and outgoing and loved playing in the mud; others of us were shy and bookish and neat. And (hopefully) nobody really told us that it was not okay to be like this – to be who we are/were…

Until (presumably) somebody did. Some of us may have faced this phenomenon of personality-based antagonism earlier on in childhood. Maybe some of us never faced it directly, but did so as a result of insidious media influences during fragile points in our development. And, bullying. Maybe from people at school, maybe from siblings, or even from our parents.

What are three – or more, or less – negative attributes that you believe you have?




Some of our self-reproachful conceptions may be founded in some truth. We are undeniably each flawed creatures. But said conceptions become an issue when they are not really founded in reality; when they are a cause of ongoing anxieties; when they hold us back and make us feel like we are, in those respects, far worse than our fellow human beings.

Maybe you have believed, for years and years and years, that you are insurmountably socially awkward and strange. Or not clever at all. Or not ‘masculine’ enough, or ‘feminine’ enough. Maybe when it comes to certain things, you perpetually feel ‘too much’, and for others, you deeply feel ‘not enough’.

Where did these ideas come from? And how, in light of these origins, are we going to find a way to quiet these thoughts, and to put an end to them altogether?

If these ideas have come from another, or from a group of ‘anothers’, it must be known that, just as you view the world through your own cognitive frameworks, others view the world through theirs. People are often quite prone to, for example, projecting their personal insecurities in the form of hurtful statements against others, particularly against those whom they are either envious of, or whom they have deemed to be less powerful than they are.

Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight, we must acknowledge that hefty criticisms (whether they were explicitly transmitted, or done so more implicitly, for example through backbiting) should only really be given any validity by us if we truly respect the people dishing them out. If you do not want to ever become like a certain person, why should their analyses of your being even matter? If anything, disapproval from somebody you want to be rather unlike is a good thing!

People look at you relative to how they look, both at and through, themselves. So if there is an ongoing ‘problem’ with you, it is more likely that there is an ongoing problem with you relative to them. I am not advocating for the display of unreflective and obnoxious behaviour, here. All I am saying is that sometimes ‘issues’ are made into – reified into -issues, quite gratuitously [yes, I very much love this word].

We cannot leave the custody of Truth to people; we cannot democratise it, for this can often lead to the championing of falsehood. It is rather telling that some of the best men to have ever lived had scores of opponents and ardent critics who were obsessed with them. In the same vein, some of the worst men to have ever lived had been surrounded by ardent admirers and supporters. We do not leave the determining of truths to the people: we leave this to God, the source of objectivity.

“Since I’ve learned (the reality of) people, I don’t care who praises or criticises me, as they’ll be excessive in both.”

– Malik ibn Dinar 

Are you okay as a person? Is who you are fully ‘okay’? Well, a good way to determine this would be to think about those who are actually worthwhile seeking to please or emulate. What is your current relationship with God like? If you are a Muslim, how do you think Muhammad (SAW) would respond to who you are, and to what your behavioural tendencies might be? If you are Christian, what would Jesus say? [If you are atheist, what would… Keanu Reeves…say?]

Granted that your perceived deep, dark, exceptional, all-encompassing negative traits are not…actual deeply negative traits that harm others, I am sure we can find ways to almost poeticise all of them. Books and movies are replete with characters whom some may deem ‘unintelligent’ because they don’t necessarily flourish at school (but who are intelligent, for instance, ‘street-wise’); characters who may be misconstrued by other characters as being ‘annoying’ because they are very curious and outgoing, or ‘boring’ because they are quite quiet a lot of the time. But fiction certainly teaches us this: the way we come to define people is a matter of perspective. Often, the protagonist of a tale is presented as the ‘good one’, and it does not matter what he or she does: the commitment to seeing and presenting them as the ‘good one’ has already been solidified. Confirmation bias ensues, and this is also true for those characters who are ‘villains’. There is a certain ‘unchangeability’ that is associated with them, for instance through their ‘villainous’ tattoos and facial structures and such. Some real-life people are known to construct heroic and villainous characters out of other people, in a similar regard; we can tend to be rather obstinate with our perceptive definitions of others. Although everyone is deeply complex and ever-changing, we seem to like to cling to stubborn categorisations.

And, we also often see in fiction (which does not entirely represent human reality, granted, but it can certainly be helpfully reflective of it) that certain evidently ‘good’ individuals are not appreciated by those who form major parts of their immediate environments. Take Matilda for example: relative to those around her, she is seen as a show-off, and as an abnormality, among other things. But a change of her environment demonstrates that oftentimes people can only really flourish when given a true chance to; when they are loved.

To love (oneself and others) authentically is to take a balanced approach when it comes to matters of personality. It is to know that we each have our flaws and our unique traits – whether good or bad. It is to commit to self-improvement, without being too harsh on oneself, or on others. If you and another human being are not compatible in terms of who you both are, this is okay. Nothing wrong with them per se (unless there really is, e.g. if they are a narcissist) and nothing wrong with you (unless you are a mean narcissist). We must concern ourselves with that which concerns us: admitting to our weaknesses but in moderate ways, and to our strengths, also in moderate ways. We must not seek out the opinions and the validation of the masses: we should tend to the opinions of those whose opinions are truly worth caring about. And even then, our loved ones (can only) see us from their own perspectives: no other human being will ever be able to hand you a holistic definition of ‘who you are’ on a plate.

To a very high extent, you decide who you are. Who your friends are, how you spend your time. The thoughts that you dismiss, the feelings you nurture or work your way through, the books you read. These things all determine the colours and tones of your personal reality.

See, humanity – both wider, and our own – is merely a collection of stories. The stories that others may tell us, and also the stories that we tell others and ourselves. At a certain point, we come to realise that others do not hold the pens through which our own stories are authored. (After God’s supreme authority) we hold our own pens.

It may be hard to stray from certain modes of writing that our stories have become a little accustomed to, over time. Other authors may have had power over our tales in childhood, and perhaps later on, in cases where one’s personal boundaries were not respected. But we can go back in time, with red pens. We can realise that these people had been influencing our narratives in such ways through their own eyes, their own pens – and projecting much, all the while, perhaps.

When it comes to human experience, we often find that reality is very much what we make of it. But this fact should not function as a cheap way of telling people to simply “Get over” certain things. Let the author of the story dictate what hurt him or her; let him or her decide how to go about making the necessary corrections, moving forward.

Maybe it is true that the past backwards is ‘set in stone’ – in ink on paper. But the past informs everything: the past forwards is what we refer to as the future. Once we make the decision to claim authorship and autonomy over our stories, we can make poetry of it all; fight duels with our pens with anybody who seeks to forcefully impose their own voices over ours. And, we can choose to invite those who truly love us, in.  

Sadia Ahmed, 2020