I fold the black scarf into a large triangle - my protective cloak, a beautiful material of safety. Staring at the mirror I drape the hijab over my head with the right side hanging down onto my shoulder, then place the shorter end under my chin. Taking the long side I wrap it behind my head, then pull it over to the left. I fix it into place with my silver sequinned pin. Looking again in the mirror, I notice a solitary hair escaping. I push it back under the scarf and imprison it there. I’m pretty impressed with myself, I still have two minutes left. Sabiha Aunty’s suggestion of using chiffon is good, doesn’t slip as much. Mum walks in and the lecture begins.
“Aisha, why you have to wear this thing? You are the only Muslim girl in the school, why you making life harder for yourself?” I know she’s only worried about me, but her voice is so loud the words practically ring in my ears.
“I’m fine Mum. Don’t worry about it, everyone’s okay with it.” What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her, right? I escape the house in a hurry.
Why do they always start school on these random weekdays? Like why a Wednesday - just to ruin everyone’s week I guess. You can tell it’s the first day of the summer term because the weather has finally stopped sucking. The leaves on the trees flutter in the wind and for the first time in age I see some blue sky. But summer term means exams – year twelve exams! Things are getting serious.
While standing here thinking I realise that trouble is about to start up. I see two boys from the neighbouring school, one fat, one thin, with their scruffy grey uniforms. The thin one has long hair which keeps falling into his eyes. The fat one has a shaved head. They come right up to me.
“Fancy a smoke?” Says the shaved head one. I’m overwhelmed with the stench of cigarette smoke as he sticks his head in my face.
“I don’t smoke.” My lips are cracked and my mouth is dry.
“Is that cos you’re a Moooslim, your mummy and daddy and your Allah wouldn’t like it?” Shaved Head has a deep nasty voice. “Don’t you reckon that’s right Craig?” He says to his skinny friend.
“Probably Rob, that’s what these Pakis are like,” sniggers the skinny Craig boy.
“I don’t want to, okay?” I turn away.
“Go on,” Rob persists, “You’ll like it once you try it.”
I hear Craig whisper, “Pull her scarf off.” I’ve been bullied before but no-one’s ever threatened to remove my scarf. My heart’s pounding and I shuffle backwards but there’s nowhere left to go. I instinctively put my hands to my hijab and pull the edges of the fabric in towards me. The thought of anyone pulling it off is so terrifying, it would be like being naked.
“Try it.” Rob says. He’s practically pushing the cigarettes into my mouth. He stinks of B.O. I keep twisting away. Silently, I start praying to myself in Arabic – Qul ho wal a ho ahad – allah hoos samad lam ya lid wa lam u lud, was lam ya qul la hoo kofo one ahad. I can’t remember what it means, only that it’s to protect you from bad things. I’m only five foot two, these boys tower over me.
As if my prayers are being answered, a hand appears out of nowhere over the boy’s shoulders, grasps his wrist, and yanks it away from my face.
“She said no, okay?” a surly voice says forcefully. “Leave her alone!”
The sunlight in my eyes had made my saviour seem like nothing more than a long shadow but now I see that he’s a tall, broad blonde boy. He pulls Rob’s arm behind his back.
“Alright mate, I got it, I’ll leave her!” Rob winces in pain.
Blonde Boy lets go of his arm.
“What the hell? Go on then hang out with terrorists if you want.” Craig is shouting but he backs away.
“Get out of here!” shouts Blonde Boy his face burning red. The two boys in the grey uniform scuttle away to the other side of the bus stop. They keep staring back at us, muttering to each other and giving us dirty looks.
“You okay?” he finally asks, looking down at me.
“I’m fine.” I stare down at my shoes. “Thank you.”
Beads of sweat are running down my nose, and I wipe them away with the edge of my sleeve. I don’t know what to say, and scramble for the most obvious question I can think of. “Are you new? I don’t think I’ve seen you before” I finally blurt out after a long pause.
The boy smiles, the action like a beacon drawing my gaze to his face. He has the most piercing blue eyes I’ve ever seen. “Yeah, we’ve moved here from London. I’m Darren.”
“I’m Aisha.” I say. Why did you help me? How comes you don’t think like them? I want to ask, but I can’t seem to get the words out.
“I’m joining sixth form at a school called Forest High, do you know it?”
“Oh my God! I go there and I’m in sixth form too.” I grin at him. “How comes you moved here?”
Darren’s smile vanishes. He swallows and stares at the floor with a frown. “Forget it.”
Everything seems to go quiet. The beads of sweat reappear on my nose and I have to wipe them off again. Luckily the bus arrives before it becomes even more awkward.
Darren sits next to me once we’ve clambered aboard. I’m surprised there were loads of vacant seats. I’ve sat next to boys before for class projects and stuff but I’ve never felt so nervous before. It’s like I’m so aware of everything - the shine on my nose, the tiny hole in my tights, the way I can’t stop my hands from fidgeting. I’ve never properly talked to boys other than my annoying younger brothers. He must think I’m so weird.
“Is it always like that?” Darren asks me. “I mean with the bullying and stuff.”
“Pretty much,” I say, “I’ve kind of got used to it.”
“Maybe you could try and stand up for yourself a bit more?” He’s not smiling.
“I do try.”
He stares at me his face all concerned.
I feel my skin prickle. We only met a few minutes ago. How has he already worked me out so easily - are the shyness and awkwardness really that easy to read?
“Why do you care?” I ask and I think he realises that I’m upset.
“I was just trying to help.” He says, “What I mean is that if you’re going to wear that scarf you’re going to have to be tough enough to take what comes with it.”
“They’re the ones with the problem not me. How do you know so much about the hijab anyway?”
Darren’s face flushes. “I just … well, a lot of my friends from my old school used to wear it, and they were tough girls. But I’m not an expert.” His eyes meet mine, there’s a tense pause and then he murmurs, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. Those guys were total losers: they can’t push you about like that. Stupid idiots.”
“Thank you,” I say. My cheeks are so warm right now. He’s so lovely, to get all worked up on my behalf. I’ve never met anyone so nice.
He smiles at me. There’s a little scar by his left eye. I wonder how it appeared there. I focus on the scar and try not to notice how handsome he looks with his blue eyes and blonde curly hair. I’m not meant to notice things like that.