She remembers the first scarf, deep red with a thin blue stripe. For days she carried it in her bag, takes it out, wraps it around her neck, runs a nail along the stripes,practise wrapping it around her head, tucking her hair underneath the fabric.
The first scarf is the hardest they say, that first marking of difference, the first tangible proof of a journey started, the first symbol that cannot be ignored by friends and family.
Sitting with her new friends,over coffee, sweet cakes,her blond hair marking her out as different, more so even than her pale skin, she longs to belong, her head neatly swathed in brightly coloured fabric, arms covered, even on the warmest days and so, one day,she leans into her bag and quietly wraps the scarf around her head.
The other girls smile,nod their approval and one, her lipstick and high heels a perfect match for her scarf, leans forward, across the table and ties the loose ends of material into a beautiful,elegant knot.
But, she is cowardly, her collection of scarves grows, all chosen to match outfits, accessorize, but, sometimes, when she sees her parents’ friends, old college mates, she pulls the scarf down, wraps it around her neck, shakes her hair out, makes eye contact and smiles.
She attends a class, reads the Quran in English, is trying to learn Arabic, the words, which flow like quicksilver from the mouth of her teacher, stick, lead like to the roof of her mouth.
She changes her scarf, chooses a dull black fabric, wraps it tight around her face, all hair hidden, face wiped clean of make up.
Sometimes when she hears the call to prayer,she feels,fears that her heart will burst with joy, with certainty of the shape of the day to come.
Her first burka, she remembers jokes from college, does my bum look big in this ? The fabric,black, of course, covers her, removes definition, hidden inside, she moves freely, glides in public places, a hint of red trousers, a whisper of blue shirt. She admires the flashes of colour against the dull of the burka.
She feels both visible and invisible, men’s eyes slide over her, brother from the mosque nod respectfully, the others don’t know how to look, lack signifiers, visual clues, don’t know how to grade her.
She continues to study, sometimes the Prophet seems to speak directly to her. Her life is full, busy, structured, broken up by 5 block of prayer, but it’s not enough. She begins to trawl the Internet, finds other women, stern, committed, their faces hidden, eyes staring into the video camera, hands covered by thin cotton gloves.
The first time she wears nikab, she struggles to recognise herself in the plate-glass windows in the big supermarket. She has vanished, nothing of her left, two blue eyes staring out.
By this time, she has met R, he glows with certainty, introduces her to other men who gather in front rooms of small terraced houses, she sits quietly in kitchens with the other women, takes food, glass cups of black, sweet tea into the men, passes dishes around, keeps her eyes averted and listens carefully.
Rs’ beard is silky, brown against the white of his skin. At night when they lie, chastely, modestly, walls decorated with the blessed words of the Prophet, in the back bedroom of another terraced house, in another northern town, they talk or rather, he talks and she listens, talk of revolution, of taking a stand, of jihad and she feel herself come alive, looks down at her own white skin against the blue of the bed sheets and is almost surprised. Her own skin looks unfamiliar to her now, her body is vanishing as the purity of the teachings flows through her.
They travel abroad, go underground, become part of a network of angry young people. Sometimes when she sits in make shift mosques, hair covered, face veiled, gloved, body wrapped in black, she wonders if the other women even know if she white, wonders if now, it would make any difference.
And then R says that he is ready. Prepares a video, leaves instructions for it to be up-loads, afterwards and heads off to the tube station, rucksack on his back.
She misses him, prays for strength, wants to be as certain as he was and when it comes, the call, she answers with a quiet determination, prepares herself for martyrdom.
She dresses carefully, even though no-one can see what she is wearing and then shrouds herself in black and leaves the cheap backstreet hotel.
She walks towards the shopping centre, catches her reflection in the wall of mirrors, blue eyes shinning out from the veil, she shifts the her shoulder bag, it’s unaccustomed weight and takes a deep and pushes open the glass doors of the mall.