Take a deep breath. You can do this.
She wrapped her scarf more securely around her and put her hand in her coat pocket to feel the small notes carefully folded there. Another deep breath to beg her racing heart to slow and she stepped out the door.
The sky was a dreary grey today and the wind swirled the leaves around her feet as she stood on the doorstep. At the crossing she paused, never sure if the cars would actually stop here or not. The man behind the wheel gestured impatiently at her as she hesitated and then screeched off behind her while she still had one foot in the road.
Hurrying along the way, she hugged the wall of the building as she went, pulling in to let a couple of women in business suits pass, their knee length straight skirts showing off shapely calves leading down to toweringly high heels. How do they walk so fast? she wondered. She wore thick socks inside the sandals she’d arrived in to keep her feet warm under her long skirt.
The store was brightly lit and as she walked in a bell sounded to mark her entrance. The cashier glanced up at her and her gaze lingered a moment before she went back to her task.
The aisles were narrow, the shelves stuffed full of produce and boxes and cans. She wasn’t sure where to go. She spotted baskets of bread at the back and walked that way, the warm smell filling her senses as she neared it. This bread was white like hers but big, with a hard crust that hardly gave when she pressed it. And already cut in slices, too narrow. It would go dry so fast.
Someone shouted something across the aisle and she turned to see one of the store clerks glaring at her, pointing at the bread. What had she done wrong? Her hand flew to her head but her hair was still covered, and she looked around frantically for her mistake. He came closer and gesticulated more and she gathered she wasn’t supposed to be touching each of the bread loaves. She picked up the one closest to her, slipped it into one of the paper bags and backed away quickly, feeling his frown following her down the aisle.
The fridge section was overwhelming. So many kinds of cheese! All different shapes and sizes, although some of them looked mouldy already and she wondered what kind of shop would leave bad produce out on the shelves. Here was one with a picture of a sheep on the front. Maybe it would taste like the ones from home?
She turned down the next aisle and spotted her immediately; no one else in this neighbourhood had skin ebony black. She was tall and thin and proud. They’d never exchanged a word but at night she heard her tossing in her bed across the room, sometimes crying out in fear. Once her towel had slipped as she came out the bathroom and she’d seen it then, the deep scar across her belly. She’d looked away quickly, not wanting to own this secret. She had enough of her own.
Her room mate hadn’t seen her yet and she didn’t really want to be seen so she turned to go down the other aisle but saw as she turned, a hand slipping a small package into a large pocket. She froze, her breath stuck in her throat and then hurried away towards the other side of the shop. A thief. She was a thief. What did they do to thieves here? It had never been worth the risk at home although Allah knows there were many times she’d wanted to. But if you were caught, they’d mark you forever so that your shame was known to everyone you met.
At the checkout, she put her two items down on the conveyer belt and waited as the old lady in front of her slowly packed her things into a cotton bag and chatted with the young cashier whose black hair had strange blue stripes in it, her eyes ringed with darker kohl than she’d worn on her wedding day. The sounds of their conversation floated over her like music, and she remembered for a moment her old neighbour, Asefa Hamidi, and the way she grumbled to herself and everyone as she walked through the small market each morning.
Her turn and the items were quickly swiped through the machine and she looked at the little green shapes on the screen and felt a rush of panic overcome her. Hand in her pocket, she pulled out the two notes and looked at them, trying to see if any of the shapes on them corresponded to those on the screen.
The cashier said something to her and reached over to take one of the notes from her, counted out some coins and gave them back one at a time, speaking slowly as she placed each one in her palm. That’s two, three euro and fifty, sixty, five cents change.
She smiled in relief at the funny looking girl and slipped the coins in her pocket. Nodding her head in thanks she picked up her pre-sliced bread and sheep’s milk cheese and headed towards the door, readjusting her scarf over her hair out of habit as she stepped outside again and turning back towards the relative safety of the centre.
My writing course assignment this week was to write outside my comfort zone. Fiction is still relatively new for me and I find it harder than the kind of writing I normally do here and elsewhere. But here is my offering for today, inspired by some of the incredibly brave women I met in Brussels.