Iím seeing red.
Everywhere I look I see different shades -- rubies and crimsons, burnt umbers and rusts, sunsets and burgundies. I never knew so many reds existed.
What is all this red stuff? Itís on my clothes, my hands and all over my body. Am I the victim of some frenzied knife attack by our friendly neighbourhood psycho, or have my twin sisters, Fizz and Roma, made the mistake of pinching my make-up again, provoking me to ensure that they never do it again? Stealing oneís CrŤme de la Mer must surely carry the death sentence.
Then I realise itís nothing more sinister than layers upon layers of maroon and scarlet georgette, and the appliquť of henna on my hands. For a moment Iím giddy with relief. But the relief is short-lived when I realise the georgette is my zardosi-embroidered lehenga choli jora.
Or in plain English: my wedding dress. Red is the colour worn by an Asian bride, and it appears that the bride is me, Amelia ĎMillsí Ali.
Try as I might, I canít move. Iím desperate to reach out and grasp something solid, to cling to it like a barnacle, in order to stop my life spinning out of control. But every finger is heavily ringed with wedding gold. I focus all of my effort and concentration into wiggling those poor fingers. If Iíd put this much effort into revising for my finals Iíd have got a first for sure. Not that Iíll probably have much use for a first in English Literature where Iím headed once this is over. My chapatti-making skills will be far more useful.
Whoís the bridegroom anyway? With my luck itís probably a goat-herder with a body odour problem rather than Atif Aslam, Pakistanís lushest singer. Or, knowing the Alisí preference for Ďkeeping it in the familyí, some interbred third cousin with a monobrow and more overbite than Goofy. How can my parents do this to me? The inkís barely dried on my degree certificate and already theyíve shipped me back home to Pakistan.
Except it isnít home, is it? My homeís here, in Bradford.
I canít sneak a look at my intended thanks to the weight of the headdress, the sohna, which is practically bolted into my skull. Its purpose, Iím sure, is to keep my head bowed and my gaze modestly on the floor. Good brides are supposed to be demure, sad and a little afraid at the thought of the wedding night, a daunting prospect for any virginal bride, especially if your parents have made the decision for you. My mother finds Terry Wogan attractive, for heavenís sake. God only knows who sheís lined up for me.
Do I really want to know?
With the sort of effort normally reserved for Olympic weightlifters I lift my head very slowly and, as I do so, almost take out the auntie-ji on my left.
I take a deep breath. How bad can it be?
I know itís rude to stare, and I donít want you to think my parents have done a terrible job of raising me as a respectful and dutiful Muslim daughter, but I canít help myself. I have just never seen so much hair in one place.
First thereís the monobrow; it looks like someoneís glued a furry draft excluder on his forehead.
Then thereís the massive mole sprouting a lone hair the exact width of piano wire.
And I canít even see his mouth. How does he breathe with all the fuzz blocking his nasal passages? Maybe he has gills.
And if his face is that hairy, what must the rest of him be like?
I am so out of here.
Oh, Allah-ji. I think Iím about to have a full-blown panic attack. Breathe, Mills, breathe.
Then something else stops me in my tracks.
He. Is. Wearing. Make-up.
For those of you not familiar with Asian weddings, this may provide you with a false picture. Youíre probably imagining me standing next to a Boy George lookalike circa 1980, all pouting pink lips, slashes of blusher and emerald eyeshadow.
I wish. Iíd be over the moon.
No. My groom is wearing surma, black kohl that, traditionally, female family members use to line the groomís eyes. Not often a problem, except the loving mummy-ji who did this must have all the motor skills of Mr Bean and the make-up sense of Marilyn Manson, because he is a dead ringer for Chi Chi the giant panda. I half-expect him to start munching on a bamboo shoot.
You get my gist. This is not a sexy look.
Now, in Bollywood movies this is the part where the heroine cries ĎNahin!í Ė ĎNo!í Ė just when she is on the brink of taking her vows and realises she simply cannot marry the guy with the foul breath/nostril hair/monobrow who is sitting next to her. Thatís right, folks, you guessed it, the guy chosen by her parents, who are proudly expecting her to shout, ĎYes! Yes! Yes!í But our heroine loves another, and cannot live without him. Just as sheís contemplating suicide (by Veet inhalation?) her bruised and battered lover Ė who has survived the dishum dishum session with the local thugs hired by her parents to beat the crap out of him so that he couldnít gatecrash the wedding Ė miraculously appears on a white charger Ö
I look around frantically but alas I have no one true love (Atif Aslam has yet to make it to Yorkshire) and souped-up Ford Escorts are more popular in Bradford than white chargers.
I canít go through with this! I simply canít! Around me the room starts to fray around the edges, then blurs and dips alarmingly, like a fairground ride. Before I can stop myself Iím screamingÖ
I wake to pitch darkness. My heart is thudding frantically against my chest and I am drenched in icy sweat. The duvet is tangled tightly around my body and my copy of The Canterbury Tales has slipped from the bedside table and lies across my head. There is an awful crick in my neck and my hands tucked beneath the pillow tingle as I withdraw them. My dark hair tickles my nose.
Oh Allah-ji, thank you. Thank you! Iím still in my own bed. Iím not at the wedding from Hell. Iím not getting married.
I sit up, knees hunched up under my chin, and listen to my breathing as it calms. Somewhere in the distance I hear a siren, and a car swishes past, casting a sweep of orange light across my room. Itís raining and the patter of raindrops on the glass is as familiar and as comforting as the warmth of my own bed. Good old miserable British weather, about as different from the relentless heat and airless nights in Pakistan as any weather could ever be. The house creaks and sighs, and, from the attic conversion, I hear a toilet flush. It soothes me to know my brother, Qas, is also awake. Gradually my breathing returns to normal and the horror of my dream fades. I plump up my pillows, shake out my crumpled duvet and fall back onto my bed.
It was only a dream, Amelia, just a silly dream. Mummy-ji is right; a vivid imagination is such a curse. Maybe itís time I put it to good use.
OK, Iím writing the script this time.
Iím wearing a gossamer-light wedding lehenga. Itís a beautiful pale pink and, as I move, it shimmers like the heat on a summerís day, with over five thousand Swarovski Crystals. Each crystal has been lovingly (and painfully) stitched by hand, and the dress itself is designed by Manish Malhotra, Indiaís premier designer, dresser to the royalty of Bollywood, the Aishwarya Rais, Preity Zintas and Shilpa Shettys who grace the silver screen.
Iím still wearing my sohna bling but this time my head feels like a feather and Iím finding it hard not to smile.
I sneak a look at the man beside me and find myself gazing into eyes the same melting brown colour as warm chocolate buttons. Heís got the cutest dimple and hair as glossy and blue-black as a ravenís wing. Heís wearing an Armani suit, too. Being a girl who really knows her labels Iím impressed. Things are looking up.
Mr Lush has it all. Good looks, style and, beneath that suit, the firm lines of a fit body. High cheekbones, flawless cafť-au-lait skin, darkened here and there by stubble, a curly, kissable mouth. Heís the most attractive man Iíve ever seen, and whatís more, heís staring at me with eyes that brim with passion. Then he winks.
Now thatís more like it!
The only problem is Ė he doesnít actually exist. Maybe Iíve spent far too long reading romances.
My nickname is no coincidence. I was rebranded as Mills after my parents caught me devouring a Mills and Boon novel instead of the intellectual material they thought I was reading for my A-Levels.
I want what most girls want. I want to have my wedding cake and gobble it, too. I want the whole works Ė the dress, the confetti, the honeymoon and the outrageously attractive groom whoís crazy about me. I want a gorgeous husband that Iím in love with.
Whatís wrong with that?
The problem is that Iím not in charge of the search for him.
Find my own husband? Are you kidding?
ĎLove? No such thing! Love comes after marriage,í say all my elders. Yak yak yak, until my ears are practically bleeding. Marriage, they say, is a tradition. Almost all the parents I know have taken their sonís or daughterís marriage into their own hands, because thatís just what happened to them, and to their parents too. No one in our family has ever denied their parentsí wishes. Mummy-ji and Daddy-ji had an arranged marriage when they were really young. I think that mum was only about seventeen and dad couldnít have been more than twenty, and of course it all worked out brilliantly, which is great news for them but more down to luck than judgment if you ask me. Not that you could ever convince them of that.
I donít think I could take the emotional pressure if I donít Ďsee reasoní and agree to their choice. My parents are fantastic. Not fanatics, dictators or control freaks, and all they want for me is my happiness. They see themselves as wholly responsible for this, and if I go against their wishes theyíll be failures and bad parents in the eyes of our community. How could I live with that? I might be a Muslim but believe me I can give the Catholics a run for their money when it comes to guilt.
I sit up and click on my bedside light. The alarm clock reads 4.22a.m. but Iím wide awake. My brain is fizzing with excitement because I am certain Iím on the brink of having a brilliant idea.
I only graduated three weeks ago, but already Mum has been dropping hints about my Ďnext big stepí and somehow I donít think sheís talking about my glittering career as an international magazine journalist. Nope. My parents are not talking about me becoming the next big star of the media world. They are talking about the dreaded S word.
No! Not sex! (Before marriage? No way.)
S for shaadi, Urdu for marriage.
Iíve reached the deadline. A bit like those best-before dates you get on food, which makes me the curdled yoghurt at the back of the fridge or maybe a mouldy heel of cheese. Anyway, after my A-levels, when Iíd reached the grand old age of eighteen, the age when women in our family tend to give in and get married, Iíd rashly promised my olds that of course Iíd eventually get married, but only after Iíd completed my education. I put it right at the bottom of my 'Things To Do (much) Later' list Ė along with lose a few pounds, do sit-ups every night and always take my make-up off before bed-time. But time seems to have been on fast-forward mode and here I am, twenty-two years old and firmly bolted to my shelf with my parents starting to make noises about having nikkah papers to frame next to my degree certificate.
Miss Mills Ali, you have been evicted! Please leave the Big Mother house!
Tomorrow is my cousin Tara's shaadi. My new churidar kurtas are hanging up in my wardrobe and the bargain Jimmy Choos I found on ebay are in pride of place on my chest of drawers so that I can worship them from my bed.
But clothing aside, Iím dreading the whole affair. Every relative for miles around will be there, gobbling free grub and wailing at the sadness of Tara leaving the family home, while endless auntie-jis will be dropping concrete-heavy hints regarding my unmarried state. Mum will be whipped into a frenzy of sentimental paranoia and by the time we leave sheíll be mentally drawing up a shortlist of eligible bachelors for me and probably running up an Everest-sized phone bill calling all her friends in Pakistan for suggestions.
Iím getting a migraine just thinking about it Ė and I donít even get migraines.
So back to my brilliant idea.
My friend Eve always says if you sit in the passenger seat too long you forget how to drive.
Maybe itís about time I learned.