The mobile lay on the kitchen counter, the screen light blazing. Then it went off. Zuzannah swallowed down the sour taste rising in the back of her throat. She picked up the phone, swiped the screen and re-read the message.
You don’t belong here.
It was from an unknown number, but she recognised it. It was the same number that sent her a series of hostile messages over the last month. All the messages were listed in conversation mode. At first she ignored it, but it was starting to bug her. She tried to think who it could be, who in her network could have her number. Her stomach twisted at the thought of it being someone she might know. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. She had to stay calm. They, whoever they were, would not get to her.
It could be anyone. Her number was not exactly top-secret. It appeared on notice boards and contact lists of organisations where she volunteered. Her heart sank. She planned on volunteering until she got a job. Despite applying everywhere, job prospects were dismal for people like her. They didn’t say it in so many words, but she understood. The interviewers asked if she would remove her headscarf for the job. Her answer was “No”, and she guessed so was theirs. None of them got back to her.
Katy Perry started singing You held me down, but I got up. Already brushing off the dust. Zuzannah flinched at the sound of her mobile ringing in her hand. She peeped at the screen and smiled.
“Hi Zoë!” A pause. “Oh sorry, I got… delayed. Is it ten o’ clock already?” She glanced at her watch and hopped off the kitchen bar stool. “I’m on my way. Give me five minutes.”
She grabbed her purse off the kitchen counter and jolted out the door. The anonymous messages were getting to her. She had forgotten about their weekly Saturday brunch. Zoë was already at Ethiopia Cafe and she was not happy.
“You know I don’t like waiting!” Zoë threw her hands up in the air when Zuzannah entered the cafe. Parting palm leaf fronds and bead curtains, she made her way to Zoë’s table.
“Yeah, I know. Sorry. I’m here now.” She tried her sweetest smile and patted Zoë’s shoulder.
Zoë rolled her eyes and kissed her friend, once on each cheek and one more, middle-eastern style. She sat down, picked up her cigarette from the ashtray and laid her elbow on the table so that the cigarette rested near her face. She studied Zuzannah with her kohl rimmed eyes.
“You okay?” she took a deep drag. “You look flustered.” She blew out smoke and it hovered like a cloud.
“Do you mind?” Zuzannah waved smoke out of her face. “I’m flustered, because I basically ran all the way here.”
Zoë leaned over the table, and smoothed Zuzannah’s hijab, folding it neatly and tucking stray hairs underneath it. “Now you don’t look like a crazy mad woman.”
Zuzannah bowed her head, hiding the blush rising on her cheeks. She patted her silk hijab, tugging the safety pin under her chin into its proper position. Satisfied it was neat, she sat straighter in her chair. “Thanks.” she mumbled.
A waitress brought a macchiato and a latte. “I took the liberty of ordering for you.”
“I wouldn’t expect anything less from you.” Zuzannah laughed at her audacity and sipped her latte. “Hazelnut?”
“Yeah, what do you think?”
“Not bad.” It tasted good. Sweet and mildly nutty. She stifled a giggle. A bit like Zoë.
Zoë leaned back in her chair and grinned. She flipped her hair to one side, revealing a side-shaved hairstyle. Zuzannah smiled. People were always surprised they were friends let alone besties. She appeared so conservative, and Zoë so free-spirited.
Katy Perry sang again. Zuzannah reached into her purse for her phone, was about to answer, then stopped. Unknown number. She stiffened. She threw it back in her purse.
“You’re not going to get that?” Zoë raised an eyebrow.
“I don’t want to.”
“What? Why? It might be important. It might be a guy.” She lingered on the word guy and gave a lopsided smile.
“I doubt it. If it is a guy he needs to work on his pick up lines. Malice isn’t very attractive.” Zuzannah exhaled, relieved to finally tell someone about the disturbing messages.
Zoë frowned. “What do you mean?”
Zuzannah sighed, took her phone out of her purse and showed Zoë the series of messages.
Go back to your country, you filthy rotten scum.
We won’t let you take over our country with your backward cult.
Take that rag off your head. Or I’ll do it for you.
There were others, with foul tasting language. She spared Zoë the distastefulness.
Zoë clasped her hand over her mouth. Her eyes grew wide and wet. “Zuzannah…” Then a tear rolled down her cheek, and she went over to her, pulled her close in an embrace. Zoë might appear tough, but she had a soft heart.
Zuzannah buried her face in her hair, her chest growing tight, holding back her own tears. She held onto Zoë.
When they let go, Zoë kept one arm around her shoulder. “How long have you been getting these?”
“For about a month.” Zuzannah’s voice sounded small to her ears.
“A month?! And you didn’t tell me? Have you told the police?”
“What can the police do?” She shrugged, “And I didn’t want to bother you. It didn’t seem important, at first.”
“The police can trace the number, you know, do detective stuff!”
“Maybe… I just want it to stop.” She didn’t think the police could help her. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know who was behind it either. What if it was someone she volunteered with? An acquaintance? A friend? A sour taste rose in her throat. She coughed and swallowed to clear it. She just wanted it to stop. It had to.
The train steered around a bend and the passengers swayed with it. Zuzannah was on her way to the mall. Zoë left for a family gathering where there would be extended family, baklava and barbecue, and lots of nieces and nephews running around. She insisted Zuzannah join them, but she wasn’t in the mood for socialising. Lately, she preferred to stay away from such gatherings where she’d have to force herself to smile and make small talk. A couple of hours at the mall for some lone retail therapy was more appealing. There was this pair of studded ankle boots she had her eye on. It would go perfectly with her skinny jeans.
The feeling gripped her suddenly. She couldn’t explain it, but she felt the odd sensation that she was being watched. Followed. She glanced around at the other passengers. They were all engrossed in their own bubble lives. Some were reading, others were asleep and swaying with the train. A man and a woman deep in conversation. She was about to look away, when they looked at her. Their lips curled in a sneer. Zuzannah felt very aware of her hijab, the silk scraping her cheeks, the safety pin tightening underneath her chin. She offered a shaky smile. The couple turned their backs to her.
I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the – Zuzannah reached into her purse and before taking it out, rejected the call. She swiped the screen to see whose call she cut short. Unknown number. Her pulse quickened. She squeezed her eyes shut, opened them and looked again. Unknown number. Leave me alone! Her heart beat at her ribcage, begging to be noticed. She wanted to disappear. She leaned back in her seat, trying to appear relaxed. She fought the urge to run out of the still moving train. She should have stayed with Zoë.
The train stopped and the doors slid open. She rose and made for the exit, steering well clear of the couple. On the platform, she kept her eyes in front of her and she was carried out of the underground with the wave of rushing commuters. The street was busy, horns blaring, people shouting. A man in a black jacket and baseball cap moved toward her. She ducked into the nearest store. A bookstore. She peered from behind the book displays at the strange man. He walked over to another man, and they fist bumped and half hugged in greeting. She breathed a sigh of relief. He wasn’t coming for her. She left the bookstore and scurried to the mall.
Her mobile’s tune was muffled in the noise of the street. She opened her purse and it belted out, ‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar. Unknown number. She wanted to throw her phone away. Why won’t they leave me alone?
She switched her phone to silent and decided to go home. Shopping lost its lustre now. She felt exhausted. The long months of job hunting, the malicious messages, the couple on the train, it all drained her. After living her whole life in this city, it had succeeded in making her feel like a foreigner. Worse. A foreigner could still be a tourist eager to spend much wanted money. Zuzannah realised she was far worse. She was an outcast. Hated. The enemy. She hadn’t done anything wrong, but the facts didn’t make a difference anymore.
She hurried along, tripping over her feet. The street noises melted into one another coagulating into one mighty racket. The fact was she could remove her scarf for regulations or malevolent stalkers, but it wouldn’t stop her wanting to wear it. She could change her appearance to meet their expectations, but it wouldn’t change who she was or what she stood for. Her heart beat unusually, her breath came in short gasps. A roaring begun in her ears, the street noises receding beyond it. Another disturbing fact glared at her, like a lion eyes its prey with a deadly stare, chasing it then trapping it, blotting out any shadow of hope with its fearsome form : It could get worse.
Mr Jeremy Gould put the receiver down. He pursed his lips and frowned. He had tried calling Zuzannah Rashid many times, but each time there was no answer. He planned to double-check her number with her colleague at The United Mission. They had recommended her for this job and she seemed to have all the qualifications. Exactly what he was looking for. He tapped his forefinger on his desk. Now, if only he could get hold of her.