Veiled (Short Story) 2016
"Veiled" featured in the 2016 “Beneath This Skin” Edition of Aké Review (2016)
The Aké Festival is held annually in Abeokuta, Nigeria.
The 2016 theme's focus centered on issues around identity, race and individuality.
"Veiled" being my first non-speculative fiction published.
by Stephen Embleton
A gust of wind blasted Prunelle from the side as the bus came to a stop a few feet in front of her. Panicked, she reflexively grabbed at the soft cloth covering the lower half of her face.
"All okay," she thought. She touched and tweaked its position as she took the few steps forward and into the warmth of the waiting vehicle.
She tried to ignore the weary look from the driver and quickly scanned her bus pass, heading as far into the back of the bus as she could go. The seats ran parallel to the sides of the bus, but fear of eye contact forced heads up at the advertisements or down at the grimy floor.
Prunelle seated herself at the far end of a three or four person chair, gripping the cold steel pole for support. The bus jerked into motion and she settled in for her fifteen-minute journey to the fruit and vegetable market at Warwick Junction.
Umgeni Road was wide and empty at this time, the morning a dull grey before the gold of the sun hit the streets and the cram of traffic. She faced the parallel river on the other side of the coal storage plants and railway line. Her raised vantage gave her a view of the steadily moving, murky waters gliding silently along with her and the bus.
Mesmerised by the gentle to-and-fro of her transport, she was, for a time, unaware of the other people boarding the bus; in her own world behind her veil.
A shout from the bus driver and a halting brake brought her back to her morning commute. A flustered pedestrian emerged from the road and onto the pavement, arms flailing at the driver.
Prunelle took a moment to glance at the other passengers; head fixed, eyes darting around.
She noticed a young woman looking up from her book at her from the front of the bus. Prunelle quickly looked down at the floor, pins and needles rushing up her chest and neck.
After a few moments the same woman passed in front of Prunelle and sat down next to her.
Prunelle edged away, as close to the pole as possible and tightening her grip on the steel.
"Morning," the young woman said.
"Morning," Prunelle replied without turning to face her. She kept her head and eyes fixed downward.
"Are you from here?"
"I mean are your family from around here?"
"Oh, yes," Prunelle said. "I'm from Durban. And you?" Damn, why did I ask that?
"Yes, well no, not Durban. Joburg actually. But South Africa, yes."
Peculiar answer, she thought, and glanced around to see if other passengers could overhear them.
"That's a lovely pattern on your burka."
Prunelle flinched from the woman's hand raised in her direction.
"Sorry, I wasn't going to-"
"That's OK, sorry," Prunelle stuttered, feeling her forehead flush with sweat.
"I was just looking at your burka. It has a lovely floral pattern on it."
"My burka?" Prunelle said, confused.
"Yes, covering your face."
"Oh, my veil you mean?"
"Ah, veil." The woman looked wary.
"I think you mean a niqab."
"A burka is a body-covering cloth, while a niqab is a veil covering the face."
"Well, your niqab is lovely," the woman said and carried on smiling at her.
"I call it a veil. A niqab is worn by Muslim women."
"You're not Muslim?"
Prunelle had to take a moment rather than go with her natural instinct to snort. "I'm not Muslim, no."
She looked over her other shoulder, out the window, hoping the young woman would see her discomfort and not continue her attempts at conversation. She felt the stare of the young woman boring into the back of her head. But she held her gaze outside.
Into Dadoo Street and the road and pavements were bustling with pedestrians, minibus taxis and shopkeepers rolling up their metal gratings and security gates, exposing their wares behind the stained and mottled glass.
The morning sun was slowly sliding down the sides of the buildings; every now and then a gap from an alleyway let through a beam of sunlight. Prunelle squinted as the bus passed a sari shop, glittering fabrics flowing in the early morning breeze and light. Her neck began to protest and so she faced the dim interior of the bus once again; and the possibility of more conversation.
From her peripheral vision she could see the woman look around, and then back.
"In this day and age why wear a veil."
Prunelle had to stop herself from twitching as the woman raised her hands to air quote 'veil'.
"It's not religious, it's personal choice," she said abruptly. She considered that, then added, "More a personal comfort than a choice, really."
"You choose not to proudly present yourself to the world?"
"Proudly? No, I wouldn't proudly present any part of myself to the world, thanks." Prunelle chuckled.
"But surely you are a beautiful woman under there. And I don't mean for any man to have to drool over you either.
Prunelle took in a deep breath and slowly let it out.
"It's a man that put me here. A man that brought me to this place that I'm in and I deal with that lesson every day."
"Ha!" The woman slapped her knees. "A man makes you do this? A man has forced this on you?"
Noticing the woman's high-minded tone as she forced the words 'a man' out of her mouth, Prunelle turned a fraction towards her.
"That's not what I mean."
"But you've let a man dictate how you live your life." Again, the emphasis.
"I've let a man's beliefs about what a woman is or should be affect my life. Yes. That was unavoidable."
"It is always avoidable".
"Not always. Sometimes you are put in a position where you are confronted. You are taken by surprise and your world changes. That change is therefore you, whether you like it or not."
"You don't have to accept that. People can't inflict their beliefs on you."
"Someone can't inflict their beliefs on you?" Prunelle repeated. "Unfortunately they can. In fact they can inflict their hatred, their anger and their brute force on you."
"They are not allowed. They should respect you and-"
"Respect? I would love respect. I would love respect of who I am. I would love respect of my space, but here you are."
Prunelle looked outside the window to get her bearings. She wasn't about to miss her stop because of this girl.
"I'm sorry, but I can't sit by and see someone covering up who they are for someone else's beliefs."
"I cover myself because of what someone else's beliefs did to me. I cover myself up for me."
"You are capable of anything you want."
"I used to believe that. Before, I was vain; I thought I could conquer the world. Do I deserve this? Possibly. In some way, obviously I deserved it because here I am. But I'm a different person because of this. I'm a different person and will never be that young, outgoing girl I once was. Oh, I will try. I will be myself, but from behind this veil, this niqab as you'd call it. I see it as a veil. It is soft and reassuring in its touch. The thought of it not being there sends my dreams into nightmares in the dark. I mourn the person I was."
"But, you are-"
"I will forever flinch at a raised hand. I will forever feel anxiety leaving my home to be seen by the world."
Prunelle stretched her neck to get a view of the road outside the bus exit door.
"This is my stop." She got up, awkwardly swaying with the momentum of the bus and pressed the buzzer. "As I said, I don't do this for religious reasons. Please respect that."
"I respect that every woman today deserves respect to be herself." With that, the woman leaped up.
Prunelle felt the scratch of a nail and the sudden burst of cool air on her exposed face. Then she heard a sharp intake of breath, the woman realising what she had done.
A rush of adrenaline propelled Prunelle forward and out of the bus. She could barely breathe with her hand white-knuckled tightly over the scarred and gnarled burn marks of her face. She could still hear the woman's astonishment. She felt that same feeling every morning, when she hoped they weren't there; hoped she was herself again.