The Covered Cleaner
(Part 4 – Zyrafete)
Back to The Covered Cleaner (Part 3).
Chapter 8 – Getting to know a niqaabi
College work, cleaning and a desperate need to clean her own apartment prevented Nicole from carrying out any of her plans for the next few weeks. Mohammad had another party. This time he had a large number of guests and Nicole was run off her feet. With the bonus afterwards was a note asking if she knew anyone who could help her at future events of the kind. Nicole wondered about the veiled student, but first she would have to get to know her.
Her chance came the next day. An afternoon lecture was cancelled so she had time for a leisurely lunch. As she walked from the servery with her tray she noticed the veiled girl sitting in the corner. She went over and said
“Do you mind if I join you?”
She had not expected an answer and was already sitting down when the girl shook her head and moved her things to make more room for Nicole. Nicole put down her food and got a pad and pencil from her bag.
She wrote: “I don’t suppose you want to speak when men are present, but are you happy to write?”
“Of course” was the immediate reply, followed by “But how did you know I would not want to speak?”
Nicole put some food in her mouth and answered: “It’s a long story, and I’ll tell you sometime, but what’s your name? Mine’s Nicole. Should I write or are you happy for me to talk to you?”
“I’m Zyrafete and I am studying economics. I do not mind very much if you speak but it may be easier for you to eat if you write.”
They chatted silently for some time before Zyrafete indicated that she had to go. Nicole had finished her meal and had had an idea. If she could see Zyrafete somewhere where no-one else was present they could talk.
“Would you like to come to my apartment for coffee sometime? Then we can chat and I will tell you my story? I live near the junction of Van Ness and Market Street. Could you get there easily?”
Zyrafete paused before replying. “I could get there but my father does not like me being out at night, so it will have to be a day when we do not have classes all the time.”
They eventually agreed on the following Tuesday, after Zyrafete’s classes finished.
The following day as Nicole was taking her tray to a table in the college canteen, Mark came up beside her.
“Mind if I join you?” He asked. I saw you yesterday but you were talking to the girl in the veil so I didn’t interrupt.”
They chatted as they ate their meal.
Eventually, as they finished their drinks Mark blurted out “Would you like to go to the cinema with me this evening?” and sort of collapsed into his chair, obviously having worked himself up to giving the invitation.
Nicole thought about the offer for a split second before saying yes. She really felt comfortable with Mark and was sure that she could trust him. They chatted a bit more and then went to their lectures. She found it difficult to concentrate, with her planned visit from Zyrafete and her outing with Mark to think of, but eventually the lecture ended and she thankfully slipped out of the college and back to her apartment.
Waiting for her was a note from UPS saying that they had tried to deliver a package and could she ring to agree a suitable time. This must be the material for her corset. But the only time she was planning to be at her apartment during the day was when Zyrafete came to visit. Oh well, it was only a parcel being delivered, so she need not talk about its contents. So she rang UPS and arranged a time on the Tuesday when she knew she would be back from the college. It was a long time to wait, but she had plenty to do when the materials arrived.
She had agreed to meet Mark at seven at the Hyde Street cable car terminus at 7.30, and by 6.30 was choosing what to wear and putting on her makeup. She wanted to dress the way he liked but so far most of her clothes were second hand and she had not yet had a chance to alter them all to fit properly. In the end she chose her original white blouse and a dark green skirt, plus a black belt and black shoes, She felt it needed a hat, but she didn’t have one and it would have looked a bit over the top in SF in the 21st century. She was at the cable car terminus by 7.15, fretting every time a man came into view that wasn’t Mark. At last he appeared, saw her and hurried across. By the look on his face he liked what he saw. They caught the next cable car to Union Square where they headed for the cinema. The film was not bad, but afterwards Mark suggested that they went for a meal at a nearby restaurant. He was charming and attentive for the whole evening without being too pushy. In fact he was so polite that Nicole wondered if she would have to take the initiative if she wanted the relationship to develop. But she decided to let the evening take its course. On the way back she took his hand, and he did not pull away but he didn’t put his arm round her as she had hoped. When they parted at the Powell Street cable car terminus Mark pecked her on the cheek, nothing more. Oh well, thought Nicole and took the BART train home. On the train she thought about how to catch Mark. He was obviously attracted to her but was very shy. She would have to help him along, she decided, but how? Eventually she decided to ask him to join her next time she went to the re-enactment group meeting.
Chapter 9 – First visit
The next few days went all too slowly as Nicole waited for Zyrafete’s visit and the delivery of the corset materials. One moment of inspiration came when Nicole thought of looking in the library to find out how best to welcome Zyrafete. She quickly discovered that there were some foods which were out, including anything containing pork. It looked as though coffee was OK, though she was not sure that Zyrafete would appreciate the instant variety. But she was likely to drink fruit juice. Hospitality would dictate that there were various small snacks on offer. On Nicole’s budget there couldn’t be anything too expensive, but her next trip to the local supermarket solved that problem.
Meanwhile she was having difficulty concentrating on her studies but she decided that she needed to get ahead as much as possible so that she could put some time into making the corset. Each time she looked at her instructions she realised how big a job she had taken on. She also decided to cut out the lunchtime visit to the cafeteria because it took up too much time so she did not run into Mark, Adam or Zyrafete. But it paid off as she soon had her next two assignments complete ahead of schedule.
Eventually Tuesday morning dawned. Nicole was awake soon after dawn. She tidied her living room, vacuumed the floor and put away anything she thought might cause problems during Zyrafete’s visit, as she still knew very little about her. She prepared some glasses and made sure the orange juice was in the fridge. She so wanted the visit to go well, but really did not know what she was going to talk about as she had nothing in common except that they were two girls in San Francisco studying at the same school.
By half an hour before Zyrafete was due Nicole was a bunch of nerves. When the door bell rang she nearly jumped out of her skin. She pulled herself together and went to answer it. It was the UPS driver with her parcel. She signed for it and took it into the bedroom. She tried to open it but it was well sealed so she went to the kitchen for a knife. The parcel was soon open, the contents spread on the bed. Nicole realised again what a big job she had taken on. The material was beautiful, but the stays were fearsome, long and very stiff. She sorted through the contents of the parcel and tried to work out how each part would be used in the pattern.
She was lost in thought about her new corset when the doorbell rang again. She looked at her watch: half an hour had flown by. This must be Zyrafete. She rushed to the door and opened it, welcoming in the girl standing there. She suddenly thought that she could see so little of her that it could have been any young woman. It made her realise just how anonymous she was when she was wearing niqaab herself.
Remembering herself, she showed Zyrafete into the living room and went to the kitchen to fetch the orange juice and glasses. When she got back, to her surprise, Zyrafete had removed her veil. She spoke:
“Since we are just two women there is no need for me to keep covered. Are you comfortable if I take off my khimar as well?”
Nicole was briefly silent as she realised that it was the first time she had heard Zyrafete speak. She quickly pulled herself together and answered:
“Of course, whatever is comfortable for you.”
She thought to herself that she must not let herself be distracted so easily. She looked at Zyrafete. She was slim with olive skin and shining dark hair which hung to her waist. She was wearing a long dress in a beautiful green fabric with ornamental sewing around the top, sleeves and hem. Below it she was wearing matching trousers.
“Your clothes are beautiful” Nicole ventured, not knowing quite how to start the conversation.
“In Pakistan they wear lots of bright colours like this”, responded Zyrafete. “It is not what I would have worn in my home country, but the clothes there are not very modest, so I prefer this style.
“Where do you come from?” asked Nicole, grateful for the opening.
“I have lived in San Francisco for eight years“, answered Zyrafete, “so this is my home now. All my family is here. But before that we lived in a small country called Yugoslavia. For a long time it was a communist country but for hundreds of years before that it was muslim. When Communism fell most people went back to being muslim. But for many people it is just a way of life, not a religious belief. Many girls wear very short skirts and brief tops in summer and flaunt themselves. I was never happy like that, though I did not feel able to wear a veil because so few women did. The old women wore headscarves and Turkish style trousers but not the young ones. But things got very difficult. The part of the country called Serbia was Orthodox Christian and they ran the government. It was very difficult for the muslims to get jobs. They stopped us learning our language. Eventually my parents decided to move to America. I am very glad we did as a year later there was a war and many thousands of the muslims were killed. Now it is fairly peaceful but the country is very poor and I don’t want to go back.”
“When we moved here my father knew a little English and managed to get a job. My mother has never learnt English so she does not go out much. But my parents were determined that I should do better than they had, and sent me to a school to learn English when we arrived, even though it was hard for them to find the money. They have encouraged me to get a good education. My father cannot understand why I wear niqaab, though my mother has some sympathy, but they do not prevent me. And I expect that when I have finished college they will try to find a muslim husband for me. I don’t want that as if I have a muslim husband he will want me to stay home and have a large family. I would like to work for a while at least, and see something of the world.”
Nicole couldn’t resist revealing that she also wore niqaab:
“You will probably be surprised, even shocked maybe, when I tell you that I also sometimes wear niqaab. In fact once I was wearing niqaab and sitting in the park near the chocolate factory when you came and sat on the next seat. I recognised you by your textbooks. But I didn’t approach you because we could not speak. But I need to explain. It was the only time I had worn niqaab out of doors. I wanted to see what it felt like and how people treated me.”
“But that is jumping ahead. The story starts when I looked for a job. I found one as a cleaner for a Saudi Arabian gentleman. But a condition of the job was that I wore niqaab when I was working. At first I was horrified, but then I had a sort of dream. I was lying in my room that night and saw a photo of my great great grandmother who was modestly dressed but looked beautiful. I decided both to take the job and to dress more modestly all the time. You have seen that I now wear long skirts, high necked tops and long sleeves. At work I wear niqaab and a khimar, and when my boss entertains and I act as waitress I also wear an inner veil and a gag, so that I am completely anonymous and not tempted to speak. To be honest I now feel very comfortable in niqaab, though I was very hot that day in the park!”
Zyrafete laughed. “So was I. That is one of the downsides. But as you say one has wonderful anonymity. I too wear a gag when I am out such as at the college. By the way it was very kind of you not to ask me to speak that day.”
“I had been reading about Muslim behaviour,” explained Nicole, “and had a good idea that you would not speak when men were around. I did not expect you to be gagged as I thought you would be used to keeping quiet in public.”
“I am used to it, but it is easier not to be tempted” responded Zyrafete.
“When I am not wearing niqaab I want to wear Victorian style clothes when possible,” said Nicole, “but that is proving hard work and expensive. And I am not sure how often I shall wear a corset!” she laughed.
“A corset? What’s that?” asked Zyrafete.
Nicole got up and picked up the photo of her grandmother.
“You see how small my grandmother’s waist was. Well, that was because she always wore a corset. All ladies did in those days. I have found a pattern on the net and have just ordered that materials to make one but it will be a lot of work. And my waist is an awful lot bigger than grandmother’s.”
They continued chatting until Zyrafete had to leave. As she was putting on her niqaab Nicole thought to ask her a question: “How do you manage on the bus? Do you have a pass?”
Zyrafete had already put on her gag, but pulled it down to her chin.
“My pass has a photo of me which shows my face and nothing more. No bus driver has ever asked me to uncover, though I think the law says they can. I tell you what. Let’s plan to meet in the park one day soon and go for a trolley ride along the promenade. You will see that it is no problem.”
They fixed a date the following week. Nicole would come to the park after her cleaning job and sit on the seat she had used before. Then they would know each other. Zyrafete put her gag back, finished dressing and left, and Nicole went back to her corset kit. By the end of the day she had matched up all the materials with the instructions and had actually made a start. It was fiddly but not difficult. The instructions emphasised that the important thing was for the sewing to be neat and strong, and for the fit to be right, though Nicole was not quite sure how something so tight could be a good fit.
Chapter 10 – Slow progress with the corset
Somehow with her college work and cleaning, Nicole didn’t find as much time as she hoped to work on the corset. Then Mohammad asked her to serve at a dinner again in the evening. It was not so gruelling as the last time but Nicole again felt that it needed two of them and wondered about asking Zyrafete if she was interested. They would not be speaking when they met in the park but she could write a note beforehand and give it to her. By the time the day came round for her meeting with Zyrafete she had made a good start on the corset, but then she was invited by Alan to another evening with the re-enactors in two weeks, and she decided that she wanted to wear it for that event.
Come the morning of her meeting with Zyrafete she made sure she was wearing the lightest possible blouse and long skirt when she left her apartment. She finished her cleaning on time and walked slowly down to the park below the old chocolate factory. It was a beautiful day, clear blue skies but a bit of a breeze. Dozens of boats were sailing in the bay. She made sure she had her note pad and pencil in the top of her purse, along with the message for Zyrafete, and went to the seat she had sat on before. But no-one joined her. She had just decided that Zyrafete was not coming – perhaps her father was being difficult – when she saw a woman in niqaab approaching, but accompanied by another woman who was wearing a headscarf and long coat but no veil. They sat down, and Zyrafete, who it was in the veil, gave Nicole a note. Nicole opened it:
“This is my mother, Aferdita. I told her about you and she decided that she had to meet you. I hope you do not mind her joining us today.”
Nicole didn’t know what to say, but after a minute wrote at the foot of the note:
“I am pleased to meet her, though if she does not speak English I am not sure she will enjoy the day.”
Zyrafete quickly responded: “On the contrary. She rarely gets out because she cannot speak English. She is very excited about this trip. I can translate what you write.”
Nicole was more relaxed now that she didn’t feel that Aferdita was there to spy on them.
“Please tell her that I am delighted to meet her and hope she enjoys the day with us.”
But at the same time Nicole was thinking about whether it was the right time to ask Zyrafete about the job.
Zyrafete wrote again, in her own language and in English:
“Shall we go for a walk?”
Both other women nodded so they got up and turned towards the sea. They walked past the marine museum and soon reached the trolley terminus. Nicole touched Zyrafete’s arm and showed her a note:
“Can we still go on the trolley?”
Zyrafete scribbled a reply:
“My mother will pay for her ticket in the usual way. Do you have your pass?”
Nicole nodded. After they had been at the stop for a couple of minutes a streetcar pulled up and the passengers got off. It was obviously very old. They got on and chose seats on the side that would be near the sea. Zyrafete sat with her mother with Nicole behind. Nicole wrote a question for Zyrafete: “How far are we going?”
Zyrafete quickly answered: “After a while the trolley route turns inland If we get off there we can stop for a drink and walk back along the bay. I would like to see the seals”
As the streetcar made its way along the promenade, Zyrafete’s mother asked her questions and she wrote down the answers. Sometimes she didn’t know, so translated the question into English for Nicole who wrote an answer if she knew, which Zyrafete then translated into her own language and wrote down for her mother. It was a bit slow but it worked.
Nicole noticed that they received scarcely a glance from the others on the car, many of whom were tourists from other countries. Only once did she notice a boy ask his mother a question about them, and his mother stumbled with a reply, basically telling the boy not to ask questions like that.
All too soon the streetcar turned inland and stopped, and the three of them alighted. It took them a few minutes to cross the road, but they soon came to a café. They each chose a bottle of drink from the chilled cabinet and paid, taking a straw each. Then they found a seat facing the sea, and sat lazily drinking under their veils. Nicole was surprised it had been so easy as she had not known how she could ask for a drink at the counter. They walked a little further and she saw the seals around the pier where they usually congregated, and pointed to them.
Zyrafete scribbled a note: “What are they?”
Nicole wrote “Seals” and Zyrafete thought for a minute and then wrote a phrase for her mother before writing for Nicole:
“I don’t think we have a word for them in my language.”
Once, Nicole had a shock when she saw Adam and Liz walking towards them. Her first reaction was that she did not want them to see her in niqaab, but she immediately realised that they would not know it was her anyway. Her second reaction was puzzlement. Adam was wearing a T-shirt and jeans but Liz was wearing a long skirt and her cloak with the hood up. It was a large hood and hid her face completely. Nicole decided that it must also restrict Liz’s view of the world to little more than the pavement at her feet. She noticed that they were walking very slowly, with Liz leaning on Adam’s arm. Somehow she seemed to glide along but her feet never showed below the skirt. Interestingly, no-one even gave her a second glance even though she was considerably more conspicuous than Nicole and Zyrafete.
It was pleasant sitting there is the sun, but Nicole decided that perhaps they had better move on. She wrote a question for Zyrafete:
“Do you want to go home or would you like to come to my apartment for a while?”
Zyrafete consulted her mother and then replied: “We would be delighted to come to your apartment if it is no trouble.”
So they walked to the trolley stop and waited for one to come along. Again the driver hardly looked at their passes and they found seats easily, though the trolley was fuller this time and they were on the land side. But it did not matter as the route soon turned up Market Street. Eventually, Nicole rang the bell for the stop at Van Ness and they all got off. She led the way to her apartment and beckoned for them to come in. Immediately, Zyrafete reached up under her veil and removed her gag.
“Now we are alone we can speak and uncover“, she said, removing her niqaab.
Nicole quickly removed her niqaab and gag, but kept on her khimar. Somehow, she felt happy while covered up and didn‘t want to take off her khimar. Meanwhile, Aferdita had removed her coat and scarf, revealing a smart long skirt and blouse.
“Aren’t you going to take off your khimar?” asked Zyrafete. Nicole explained how she felt and Zyrafete laughed.
“That’s OK, she responded. I know exactly how you feel. It is kinda safe.”
Nicole poured some fruit juice and found some chips which she put in a bowl. They chatted, with Zyrafete translating for her mother. All too soon, Aferdita indicated that she needed to be home to cook the evening meal. She and Zyrafete put on their outdoor clothes. As they got to the door Aferdita said haltingly:
“Thank you for a very nice day. I hope we may meet again soon.”
Nicole hugged the two other women and they left.
Nicole sat down and thought over the day. She had really enjoyed it and would certainly like to do the same kind of thing again, and Aferdita did not seem that much older than her daughter. Certainly she had enjoyed the outing and doing the same things as her daughter. And in their niqaab they were ignored by both locals and tourists, so that was no problem. The more she wore niqaab the more she liked the privacy it gave her. Somehow she would have to get a set of her own.
The story continues in The Covered Cleaner (Part 5).