This is a work of fiction, a short story just less than 1700 words. It is my first one of 2016.
Naveen rose early that morning. She showered carefully, then spent some time on her hair. Even though nobody outside the house would see it, she wanted it to look nice under her hijab. She chose a formal outfit to wear. Attending a private exhibition called for darker colours than usual, in her opinion.
Over breakfast, her mum beamed at her attractive daughter. She so loved her girl, and the fact that she was studying to become a pharmacist was a constant source of pride to her. Something to talk about to the other ladies at the community club, or when gathered outside of the mosque. “Tell me again, where is it you are going?”, she asked Naveen. Although she had told her many times before, she smiled as she replied. “The Wellcome Collection, mummy. It is in Euston, near the station. There is a special exhibition on the history of pharmacy. It is by invitation today, for those of us on the course.” Zenia was happy that her daughter was going to something that she regarded as important. Even though the event was open to many students, in her mind, it had been arranged especially for Naveen.
Life in Bracknell had been fairly comfortable for the family. Dad had brought them over from Pakistan when Naveen was still a baby, and her brother Ahbab was almost ten years old. Dad had worked hard in England for many years before that, building up a thriving and respected business. His company made wedding clothes for the Muslim community in the area, and his large shop in Slough attracted customers from all over the south of England. He had returned to visit them often, in the house just outside Karachi. Naveen didn’t remember it of course, and when they went back as a family to visit relatives, she was surprised by what was considered to be an affluent lifestyle there. When Ahbab had gone back to Pakistan to marry and settle down in that country, running his own business, she had been devastated, and still missed him terribly.
School and college had been good days for her too. She had a wide circle of friends, and excelled at most subjects. At first, a career in Medicine had been considered, perhaps becoming a doctor. Then she developed an interest in drugs and treatments, and decided on Pharmacy instead. Her parents insisted on a university close to home, and she gained a place at Reading, close enough to commute to. University life broadened her horizons, and introduced her to people from all faiths, and different walks of life. Unlike many of her fellow students, she did not participate in many activities outside, and certainly did not go out drinking, or attend parties, like some of her friends. But she did join some study groups, and obtained her father’s permission to stay late sometimes, assuring him that they would help her to get better grades. After the first year, it seemed that she would once again do very well indeed, and she looked forward to getting an excellent degree, at the end of the course.
Then everything changed. In just one afternoon.
Daddy had a cousin of sorts. The man lived in Bradford, up in Yorkshire, and owned a successful taxi company in that city. Naveen had never met him, but she had heard him spoken about. He was a widower, with two young daughters, and a son who was almost 21 years old. One day, her parents sat her down, and told her that the cousin had been to visit daddy’s shop. He had proposed that his son and Naveen should marry, once she had finished university, and daddy had agreed. Naveen felt cold inside. Her father was smiling, her mother beaming. “This is a great opportunity for you,” daddy said. “The family is well-respected, and has a good business, which will pass on to the boy. With you working as well, you will have a prosperous life, and be able to have many children.” Naveen stared back at the couple, and it dawned on her that they had learned nothing from their life in England, and also knew little about the daughter they claimed to love so much. There was no debate, no argument. She knew better than to try to go against her father’s wishes. Mum was keen for her to marry too, obsessed with the idea of grandchildren. Naveen emailed her brother in Pakistan, hoping to find an ally. He sent back a curt reply, telling her not to be ungrateful, and to be happy that a good match had been found for her.
She was shown a photograph of a chubby-faced young man, dressed in casual sports clothes, and told his name. She looked up Bradford on the Internet, and did a virtual tour of the house where they lived, using street view. She could not picture herself in the unfamiliar industrial city, a long way from home. The house was small, and in a street with long rows of identical houses, all very different from the area where she had grown up, and felt comfortable in. Naveen sat in her room, close to tears. She was sure it would be very different to how her parents imagined. She would no doubt become a surrogate mother to the two young girls, and be expected to look after her father-in-law, as well as her husband. This ugly terrace house, seen only on a computer screen, would become the prison of her hopes and desires, and destroy the future she had imagined for herself.
For the next few months, she continued her studies and life at university much as normal. There were more groups to join, different circles of friends to be made, and she threw herself into her studies like never before. She remained outwardly the same; studious, respectful to her parents, avoiding any difficult discussion or confrontations. But inside, a part of her had died. She felt betrayed. When the chance came up to visit the exhibition during the summer break, she took it, and put her name forward. Three days before, daddy sat her down, and told her that his cousin and her fiance would be making their first formal visit that weekend. “You will get a chance to know your future husband, my daughter.” He said this with a smile, and no trace of irony. She had just nodded, smiling back at him.
That morning, Mum had tried to give her a packed lunch. Naveen told her, “There is no need mummy, everything is provided.” She went to get her backpack from the cupboard under the stairs, and placed a notebook, some textbooks, and a small digital camera inside. “Don’t forget your phone darling.” Mummy fussed around as she put on her coat and straightened her clothes, looking in the long mirror in the hallway. Naveen turned and looked down at the woman who had given birth to her. She kissed her cheek, and stroked her face tenderly, before leaving the house without a word. The walk to the station was a daily routine for her. Except that this time, she would be on the opposite platform, taking the train east to London. She had done that journey many times in the past, and she knew that once she got to Waterloo Station, she had to get the underground train north, to Euston. She had allowed over two hours for a ninety minute journey, as she didn’t want to be late.
The rush hour commute was in full swing, and the platform was crowded. She couldn’t get a seat in the packed carriage, so stood at the end by the rear door, reading a book to avoid the gaze of fellow passengers. This striking girl attracted many glances. Standing almost six feet tall in flat shoes, with her large, sharp nose, and wide almond eyes, she could have been a fashion model. The journey was uneventful, and she arrived at the venue in good time. She had thought it important to attend, to be seen to be there. Some fellow students chatted to her, familiar faces from courses she attended. She felt warm in her long coat, but kept it on, and buttoned up, for modesty. The exhibition was interesting enough, but Naveen was distracted by thoughts of Bradford, and marriage to a stranger. She walked around with the others, watched the film, and listened to the lecture. But she didn’t even bother to get the notebook out of her backpack, and unlike most of the attendees, she asked no questions at all. When it was over, she nodded goodbyes to those she knew, and walked across to Euston Station.
But she didn’t go inside, not at first. She bought a fruit juice from one of the stands outside, and sat on a bench, staring at the blue sky above. Many travellers were coming and going around the busy terminus. Some wheeled large cases, others, some smartly dressed, checked their watches as they hurried through the doors. Naveen sat for what seemed like a very long time, watching this frantic activity, feeling apart, detached from the hustle and bustle. Finally she checked her own watch. It was after 5 pm, and the busy evening rush had started in earnest. She stood up, and walked inside. Walking past the entrance to the underground, she went up to the large electronic notice board. It flickered around, advising the passengers of train times and destinations, departures, arrivals, and delays. She stared at if for some time, mesmerized by the lights. There were many people gathered around her, perhaps a hundred or more, all looking up at the information display. She could sense their closeness, hear their chatter, see them shouting into mobile phones, until it almost became too much. She thought she might scream, and run back outside. But she didn’t.
She placed the backpack on the ground in front of her legs. Reaching into her pocket for her mobile, she dialled the number preset into the phone.
For some reason, she thought it best to close her eyes as the explosives detonated.