“I’m just off the shops.” She shouts. “Want anything?”
“Wha?” The sound is a grunt, a waking snore dragged out of him by the surprise of being distracted from the telly, masquerading as words. “No, I’m fine.”
She rolls her eyes. “Okay. Back soon.” She gets no answer so, after one last look in the mirror to adjust her headscarf, she leaves.
It’s a bright but cold day. The wind ruffles the hem of her dress as she shields her eyes against the glare. In passing, a couple of neighbours nod polite greetings, but otherwise the streets are quiet.
Reaching the shops, her surroundings get busier. A lot of women, many older, going about their daily messages. Some kids looking to spend their pocket money. A smattering of couples and lone men.
Then she sees the gang. Five of them, all in their early twenties; shaven heads, bomber jackets and hostility in their eyes. The nearest one has a patch on his arm featuring the St George’s cross.
Just go about your business, she tells herself.
But her heart is pounding. She can feel sweat forming on her brow and under her arms. She had seen the quotes all over the news: “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” She wasn’t wearing a burka, of course. Just a head scarf, her face visible, but that was a nuance easily lost to the stupor of blind hatred.
They have spotted her now. Of course. That’s why they are out here at all; looking for easy pickings. She decides to abandon the shops and pick up her pace, to get away from here.
The jibes start low and tame. “Look at that rag on her head!” The volume increases and the tone gets harsher as they follow her and draw courage from one another. “Suicide bomber!” “Brainwashed!” “Muzzie scum!” “Allah is a paedo!”
They draw looks. Mutterings. At least one person starts filming. But nobody intervenes. She pushes on, her followers looming closer and bolder.
“What’s the hurry love? Forgot your suicide bomb at home?”
As red as her face is, as trembly as her legs are, the sheer stupidity of it nearly stops her dead. Are they fumbling for words, reflexively vomiting out whatever incoherent vagaries they hope will get a rise?
She turns a corner. It’s a blind alley, a dead end, and now the gang block the way back out. She takes several deep breaths before turning.
“Why are you running love?”
Why indeed? Surely they’re just feminists, here to liberate her from the weight of oppression that holds the scarf on her head. She has to bite down a rush of hysterical laughter.
“You don’t have to wear that thing, you know. You don’t have to do whatever Mohammed tells you.”
Now she can’t hide her expression. Mouth twisted and eyebrow raised, incredulous that he’s not blushing at the inanity of his own words.
“Mohammed? I’m not a Muslim.” She says.
That stumps them, but only for a moment. “Yeah you are! Why are you wearing that?”
She sighs, then shrugs before undoing it and pulling it off her head.
Their expressions shift almost in slow motion, every reaction over exaggerated as they take in each new detail.
The lack of hair on her head.
The opening on her crown. The realisation that it’s actually a mouth. One filled with pointed teeth.
The way she tilts forward. The worrying leer on her face as her second mouth opens. As it stretches, expanding the width of her head.
The tongue that whips out, twice as long as she is tall, and grips the leg of the lead agitator.
The secondary and tertiary layers of teeth that they missed earlier. The way they grind in different directions, like the teeth of a chainsaw.
When their leader is dragged into her head mouth, his body torn apart by three rows of sharp, grinding teeth, they snap out of it. Perhaps it is the stench of blood and viscera as it sprays them that brings them to their senses.
Only one gets out of the alley, and not very far. She has led them far away enough from the shops that their cries go unheard.
As she re-ties her headscarf, she wonders if her husband will notice how long she was out. She shrugs. It’s not her fault.
He can blame Boris Johnson.