14:00 Outside Patisserie Valerie on Great Cumberland Place
Simon was walking to his appointment when he saw her. Swathed all in black, even the eyes, more a mound of material than a human being. He was not prejudiced, racist, certainly not an Islamaphobe, but that really was too much. How could she live like that? So separated from the rest of the world. Even her hand that held the coffee cup was gloved. Open-minded and liberal thought he might be, that was wrong.
“Can I help you?”
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“You were staring at me. Is something up?”
Her voice, slightly muffled by her veil, had the unmistakable accent of a British Asian. He wasn’t surprised: our home-grown Muslims are often far more fanatical than the imported ones. That’s why he’d never had an issue with Syrian immigrants. Just look at the 7/7 bombers…
“I wasn’t staring at you.”
“Yes you were, very clearly. Is there something that I can help you with?”
He felt awkward; he didn’t need this, certainly not now. He glanced at his watch. Only an hour away…
“No, no, I’m sorry, I…”
“No, come, please, have a coffee with me. My shout.” She motioned with her gloved hands to the waiter. “How do you take it?”
Simon was torn. This was all incredibly embarrassing but at the same time he wanted to talk to this veiled phantom. He had stared at her and he did want to know what it was like to live in such a way. And here was his chance. But the appointment, he had to be ready, on top of his game…”
“Well the thing is, I have an appointment at three and I…”
“Which gives you an hour to drink a single cup of coffee. Plenty of time. Don’t be scared; I’ve not got a bomb hidden under here you know.”
“No, I never imagined… yes, alright then, I shall… and thanks, for the coffee I mean. It’s very kind of you.”
“It’s nothing,” she replied. “Shamira Begum by the way. I’d shake your hand but we’re not meant to have contact like that with unrelated men.”
“But talking is ok?”
“Sure it is. So long as we do not deliberately make our voices sound provocative or sexy. It’s all about the modesty see. You don’t find my voice too sexy I hope.”
“No, not at all… I mean, well, it is a nice voice, but… I…”
“Simon, I was joking. Sit down and tell me what you want.”
The coffees came. Simon sipped his. Shamira skilfully lifted her veil from the side and sipped hers too. Not an inch of her skin was revealed.
“My name’s Simon by the way, Simon O’Neill. And yes, I did stare. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have but, well… I’ve always wondered what it must be like to live and dress like you do.”
“Lots of people wonder about it, but thanks for your honesty and maybe I can satisfy that curiosity. But for starters, my husband doesn’t force me to wear the veil, before you ask. In fact, I’m not even married. It is my choice.”
“I never imagined that he did. That stereotype might have rung true once upon a time but today I guess it is more of a choice based on religious convictions.”
“And lifestyle choice. I dress like this because I find it liberating. People don’t judge me on how I appear: my race, looks and so on. Dressed like this, they have to engage with the real me.”
“I appreciate that, but how can it be liberating? I mean, aren’t you hot under all those layers and the gloves and even your eyes are hidden. How can you see clearly? Surely it must be difficult.
“Not really. I don’t usually wear the eyeveils, certainly never while driving or reading. They’re only down today necause it’s so bright and sunny. It’s the same as looking through sunglasses. And as for the rest, whilst they can be warm sometimes, at the same time they’re loose so there’s a free flow of air. Certainly more comfortable than high heels and skin-tight jeans.”
A young lady wearing just those walked past them on the street, talking into her phone. Simon’s eyes were immediately drawn to her but he purposefully shifted them back to his coffee companion whose eyes he now realised, he could just about discern behind her veil. He wondered what she looked like. She sounded young but was she eighteen or thirty-eight? And was she beautiful or ugly? She was an enigma… and she wanted to be.
“I’m sorry… about the staring. I know it’s rude…”
“Forget it, I get it all the time. People might not be staring at me in a sexual way but whatever you wear; I don’t think you can ever cure the curiosity. But anyway, enough about me, what about you Simon O’Neill, tell me about your life?”
If he hadn’t been talking to an obviously fundamentalist mound of material, Simon would have sworn that was the start of a chat-up.
“Not much to say. Also single, thirty, work as a journalist…”
“Whoa! Stop right there! A journalist, eh? I think you’d better leave!”
“What do you mean?”
“Well I don’t want to be picking up the Sun or the Mirror tomorrow and be reading all about ‘My meeting with Shrouded Shamira, a symptom of the Islamic evil sweeping the nation’!”
He laughed though he knew the kind of journalism that she was referring to. “Don’t worry, I don’t write that kind of thing. No politics for me; my stuff is far more frothy.”
“Frothy, eh? Sounds intriguing. So, no stories about Shrouded Shamira, deal?”
They relaxed and talked over the rest of their coffee, but when it was drained, Simon stood up and said, “Sorry Shamira, this has been an absolute pleasure, it really has, but, as I said before, I have an interview to conduct at three.”
“A big one?”
“My biggest yet. If I do well it could open doors so I really don’t want to mess it up.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Talk to her as you’ve talked to me and she’ll be putty in your hands…”
15:10 Lanes of London Restaurant, Marriott Hotel, Park Lane
Simon’s nervousness dissipated the moment Kelly Rettinger stepped into the restaurant late by a full ten minutes. As with the rest of the room – and indeed every room that she ever stepped into – the actress, star of seemingly every blockbuster this year, captivated him. Wearing a plunging cream wrap top (which displayed her famous cleavage to perfection), a curve-hugging charcoal grey maxi skirt (which did the same for her equally famous derriere) and finished off with black high-heels and an elegant black choker, she was the very image of style and sophistication. She was beautiful, incredibly so, even more in the flesh than on the silver screen, and when she flashed her perfect white teeth in a smiled at him and walked over to the table with an intoxicating sway to her gait, he felt himself melt clean away. He stood up, shook her hand and then they kissed, continental-style, cheek-to-cheek, after which she elegantly lowered herself into the chair that he held out for her.
“Are you dining?” he asked.
“No, just a coffee.”
The interview was going badly, terribly in fact. Before this tour de force of style and sex appeal he floundered and gasped for air like a drowning man. He was blowing it and he knew it. He silently thanked God when her mobile rang and she excused herself to talk to a director a thousand miles away.
As he sat waiting he wondered why it was all going so horribly wrong and his mind cast itself back to the other conversation over coffee that he’d engaged in only an hour earlier. She had been another stranger, captivating in her own way, yet, after his initial nervousness and embarrassment, they had spoken so freely and honestly to each other… and had been so relaxed that it had been pure pleasure, not a chore.
His eyes drifted towards the elegant and manicured fingers of Miss Rettinger who was absent-mindedly playing with her teaspoon as she talked and, in an instant, it hit him: this woman was the exact polar opposite of the other! Whereas she desired to be seen, the other avoided it; whereas she deliberately accentuated the power of her sex appeal, the other purposefully eliminated it and whereas she was all about the externals, the other thought only of what is inside. But what did that mean? And how could he save the interview?
Then the idea struck him: imagine that Kelly Rettinger was Shamira Begum… or at least, dressed like her. He looked across at the starlet and tried to imagine her shrouded completely in black cloth with only her voice for him to base his opinions on. It was hard but it might just work…
After Kelly ended her call, the interview changed. Simon relaxed and so did she. They began talking as real human beings, laughing, joking and genuinely enjoying themselves. In fact, behind all the glamour, he discovered that Kelly Rettinger was still the grammar school girl from Grantham who’d got her lucky break. In short, she was good company. She was human.
And when the time came for the interview to end both of them sounded almost disappointed.
And to top it all off, when he’d called for the bill, she had stopped him and said with a smile, “Don’t be silly, this is on me. I haven’t enjoyed an interview so much in years!”
16:30 Outside Patisserie Valerie on Great Cumberland Place
Simon knew that Shamira Begum would be long gone from there, but he returned to the scene of their conversation anyway, partially as a tribute to the encounter that had helped make his biggest interview to date such a success. He ordered another coffee, even though he didn’t need the caffeine, and started to draft the article. Just as his drink arrived though, his phone pinged.
It was an email and not just any email. It was an email from the personal account of Miss Kelly Rettinger no less! With a feeling of excitement, he opened it.
Are you free at 3 tomorrow? I need someone to co-write my autobiography with and I think that you’re the man. Meet me at the Patisserie Valerie on Great Cumberland Place if you are interested.
Hope you can make it!
P.S. This time though, you’re buying the coffee. After all, I paid for the last two
‘Two?’ he thought to himself. ‘But I only had one!’
Then he realised.