Anna looked to her left, viewing the platform and the city with an inspective gaze. The familiar buildings carried with them the shade of her former life, uninhabited except by a flurry of moving spirits darting individually towards their singular goals. Every so often, in the glass window, she caught small glimpses of her own reflection. She attempted not to look.
The train pulled to a halt. Inside of the carriage, as if from a trance, the dormant figures exploded into action, taking their place within the aisle and pulling at the luggage overhead. Anna chose to wait. She did not want to speed up proceedings more than it was necessary. Checking her watch, she assembled a timeline of the day so far; she had plenty of time to spare before she was expected.
After a sufficient amount of time had passed, and the procession within the aisle had begun to move, Anna stood up. An older gentleman in a wide brimmed hat grabbed her luggage for her. She thanked him and moved down the aisle towards the exit.
Stepping upon the platform amidst the rabble she walked in an indiscriminate direction. High buildings towered above her bearing the marks of an industrial past. Behind her she trailed her luggage, admiring these buildings with an occasional glance. To an extent she found that the city was almost exactly the same as it had been when she had left it, though some areas seemed strangely alien, effected by some small addition or alteration performed during her absence.
It had been two years since she had last been home. That was the amount of time she had managed to successfully ignore her parents’ pleas for. Even now she arguably wouldn’t have returned if she did not feel obliged to, prompted by her grandmother’s illness, and her own sense of right and wrong.
Her grandmother, Rose, had once been a strong, virtually immovable character in her prime, but this had all changed in recent times. These characteristics had since been abandoned due to old age and poor health, replaced by a frailty and dependence on others. Because of this the young girl felt it was her duty to return home; it was the least she could do, considering the circumstances.
Anna moved away from the main street, ensconcing herself on a bench facing the back of the post office. It was here that she fell again into private meditation. She remembered fondly the features of her beloved grandmother: the oversized glasses, cream-coloured clothing, and the jovial smile that would occupy her wrinkled face. In addition, she also recalled the familiar, ironical scent of lilies that permeated her childhood, and the benevolent blue eyes that nursed her in her infancy. She owed it to her to return.
Anna took a small phonebook from her handbag and began pressing a series of digits; it was her parents’ number. She pressed another key on her phone to dial, and then listened patiently with the device held towards her ear.
‘Hello, this is Catherine speaking,’ said a female voice, picking up the phone.
She did not answer; instead, Anna was busy thinking about the last phone conversation that she had had with her mother three months before, which had ended in a bitter row. The voice spoke again in repetition.
‘Ann, is that you? Can you hear me? I think the signal’s bad.’
Anna brought herself to speak at last, taking a deep breath.
‘Hi mum, yeah, it’s me.’
‘I thought it might be. I think my phone stopped working for a second.’ Anna’s mum moved the phone from one ear to the other, causing a natural break in the conversation, before continuing. ‘Anyway, are you okay? I got worried when you didn’t call me; your father said you would before you left.’
‘I’m fine Mum. Honest. My phone battery was low so I turned the power off; that’s why I didn’t call.’ A businessman in a suit sat down on the bench opposite from Anna, unfurling a newspaper. Her mother continued to talk.
‘Okay, as long as you’re fine. I was just checking’ stated the older woman. ‘Did you catch your train on time?’
‘Yeah I did. Everything’s fine, you can stop worrying about me.’ As Anna was talking, in the background she heard a child beginning to cry. She allowed this noise to fade before attempting to speak again. ‘How are things at home?’
There was a pause.
‘They’re…they’re fine. I’m just getting lunch ready now. What time are you getting here?’ The sound of the child crying re-joined the conversation, punctuating sporadically.
‘I’ll be there soon. I’ve just got something I need to do first. I’ll let you know later.’
The two exchanged farewells, the elder voice injecting particular enthusiasm into her parting comment. Anna gave out a plain goodbye and ended the call.
* * *
Half an hour passed and Anna found herself within a residential neighbourhood, visiting a friend. Moving down the street confidently, past a row of semi-detached houses, she soon recognized the old wooden gate that marked the entrance to her destination. Approaching she unpinned the lock, crossing the boundary into the front garden and making her way up the footpath to the red door that completed its ascent. Above in an upstairs window Anna noticed someone stirring, a phantom from her past clouded in a heap of smoke. The door opened suddenly in front of her.
‘Oh my god. Anna, is that you? I saw you coming up the path.’ A tanned, middle-aged woman stood before her in the doorway. She continued speaking. ‘I didn’t even know you were back. Robyn is upstairs at the moment. Do you want me to go and get her?’
Anna smiled politely.
‘If that’s okay.’
‘Of course it is, it’s no problem at all. Step in, you can put your case over there if you want to.’ She pointed to an empty space by the wall. ‘I’ll go make some tea. You take two sugars, right?’ Anna nodded in agreement.
The woman turned, positioning her head by the bottom of the stairs.
‘Robyn, come down here! There’s someone here to see you.’ There was no reply from the upper half of the house, though Robyn’s mother did not seem to mind; she walked towards the kitchen to fix the tea leaving Anna alone at the bottom of the stairs.
‘Is it okay if I go up?’ inquired Anna, still standing by the stairs on her own. The woman returned from the kitchen, having heard her speak.
‘That’s fine. I’ll leave the tea outside the door on a tray when it’s ready. Just let me know if you want anything else.’
Anna climbed the steep staircase up to the second floor, admiring the photographs that adorned the walls to either side: family photographs of weddings, and class pictures. In the latter photographs of uniformed children she recognized herself. She was the chubby figure in the middle row, wearing an ill-fitting maroon sweatshirt and skirt. Next to her in the photograph was Robyn; she was in contrast quite thin, and had wild hair, and both rows of teeth exposed to the camera.
Anna knocked twice and waited at the door of her friend’s room upon completing the climb up the flight of stairs. Behind it there was a shuffling and a quiet squeak; the door swung open.
‘Anna!’ Robyn called at the sight of her friend, gripping her by the waist and holding her tight. ‘How are you? It’s been fucking ages. What is it now? Like a year or something, right?’
‘Yeah. I just thought I’d stop by. How are you?’ Robyn loosened her grip.
‘I’m good thanks. Did my mum give you any trouble getting in?’
‘No, why would she?’
They both stepped into the room. Surrounding them were band posters and ticket stubs pricked into the wall with safety pins.
‘No reason, it’s just my grandparents caught me smoking the other day. She’s been weird with me ever since. She hasn’t been letting me see anyone.’
‘Are you serious? That’s pretty rough. Well, at least you’ve got me now.’
‘Yeah. You should consider yourself lucky you got in though. She must like you more than my other friends. I can’t blame her.’
Anna moved to the window; beside it on the ledge there was a cigarette resting in an ashtray. A faint smell of cigarette smoke and lemon-scented air freshener hung in the air. The other girl walked over to the door and checked it was shut; then she moved across the room back towards the bed and grabbed some papers from a nearby drawer. Underneath a pillow she had hidden her stash of tobacco.
‘I can’t be too careful. She knows it’s all I do up here, but when she catches me she goes berserk. You should see it, she gets this vein up here.’ Robyn pointed to her forehead with her free hand, her finger and thumb on the other holding the paper that she had folded. ‘It’s so weird.’
She added the tobacco and a filter to the inside of the fold and proceeded to roll the cigarette, licking across the top of the excess paper when she was done.
‘What brings you home anyway?’ asked Robyn, trying to locate a lighter.
‘Oh, it’s my grandmother. She’s sick. I got a call like a week ago telling me to come home.’
‘Really? That’s shit. I met her, right? At your 18th.’ She took a break from searching for her lighter to focus on the conversation.
‘Yeah, she really liked you.’
‘Ah well, there you go then, she’s a woman of fine taste.’ Both girls smiled. Robyn lifted the rolled cigarette to her lips and walked over to the window, holding a lighter that she had found in a jacket strewn across her bed. Before lighting it, she asked her friend a question on her mind. ‘Hey, I was wondering, have you sorted things out with your parents?’
‘Not really, I mean, my mum doesn’t seem as mad anymore, which is good. It’s just I’m afraid it’s going to get heated again when I go back to the house. I don’t know what to do about it all. This whole thing’s a mess.’
Robyn pushed the window away from her and lit the cigarette. After it had lit, she inhaled turning back to face Anna who was now sitting on the edge of the bed. She exhaled the smoke in the direction of the open window and smiled comfortably. Behind them, there was a knock at the door. The two girls spun towards the source of the sound. They could hear a rattling of cups being placed in the hallway. They retrieved the cups, allowing the contents to cool, and then they continued their discussion once again.
‘It’ll be okay. Hey, if not, I have a sleeping bag spare if you find yourself needing a place to crash.’
‘Thanks, I should be okay though.’
Anna viewed the room. Around her the furniture was stickered with slogans and symbols appertaining to pot culture. The room hadn’t changed, and neither had its occupant. Robyn was still the same rebellious figure that had sparked a quiet admiration in the former girl. All the trademarks were still there: the over reliance on profanity to express a simple point, the smoking habit developed in the first year of high school, and that devilish grin that enticed all around her to partake in her whims. She was the same old Robyn. Nothing had changed.
From this point on the conversation winded down. Anna knew she was only delaying the inevitable by staying longer. She had to face her parents sometime, and whether it was now or later it would be equally as difficult to face up to. She finished her tea, and reminisced briefly about old times, before breaking the news to Robyn that she had to leave. Neither party said goodbye. They both promised to call each other, and that was that. Anna placed the empty cup on the tray upon leaving and grabbed her luggage that she had left in the hallway by the side of the stairs.
* * *
After leaving Robyn’s, she travelled back to the old house, taking her time. The streets ahead of her unfolded her past. Between the manicured lawns and the colourful homes she saw a reflection of her previous life, untouched. Things had not changed here. They were exactly the same as they had always been. It was as if the whole area had been contained, despite the best efforts of the outside world to corrode what lay within. Anna did not know whether to despise this preservation, for its idyllic ignorance, or to find comfort here amongst this artefact of time. Her uncertainty produced an uneven result. She held contempt for the trees that stared dumbly towards her, for the blind lamps that dotted her path; but for the school gates and the alleys that were imprinted with memories of her youth she held an appreciation.
Outside the rain poured, creating a backdrop to the raised voices and screaming inside. Anna grabbed her things frantically and loaded them into her suitcase, only for her mother to unpack them immediately after. Her father stood by the computer desk, almost motionless, viewing the events. Every so often he would be implored to speak, prompting him to parrot his wife’s concerns in a condescending tone to the girl. She carried on packing regardless.
She passed the public park where she had had her first kiss. It had not altered through the years, at least from what she could see. She paused outside and watched as a pregnant woman strolled by within the confine of the park, pushing a pram. For the moment all was peaceful.
The arguing had stopped. Now she was alone in her room. Her parents were downstairs. She continued to pack, throwing items from across the room into the suitcase. Tears began to form in her eyes. Outside of the house a car horn blasted.
Anna came to her old road. She stepped onto the footpath, her mother hiding meanwhile behind the frosted glass with tears streaming down her face. In front of her house a group of children were kicking a football about the place. She listened to their shouts as she paced forward. An older girl got out of a vehicle, grabbing her luggage. She strode forward, watching them as she moved. Taking a seat and resting her head against the back of the chair, she wiped her tears. She was getting closer every second. She watched her friend climb once again into the driver’s seat. Behind her an engine roared.