Next morning she truanted on Dr Alpert, changed trains at London Victoria and made her way down through the postal codes until, the other side of Balham, she thought she recognised the way the streets curled and dovetailed across the swell of a hill. “Orchid Nails”, read the signs outside the station: “Minty Pearls Dental Clinic”. Anna descended from the train and wandered thoughtfully along staring into the windows of empty houses. She had no plan. She favoured quiet residential avenues and a particular kind of four-bedroom mock-Tudor, with laurels and a slip of driveway to one side of its front garden. The shabbier a place looked, the more likely it was to hold her attention. By mid afternoon she thought she might be in Sydenham Hill. She had covered miles under the enamel light, trespassed on the hard standings of a dozen middle class homes. She was exhausted. Her ankles hurt. She was lost. It wasn’t the first time she had done this.
Sydenham Hill turned out, in point of fact, to be Norbiton, a place named after the suburb in an Edwardian novel. Anna sat down with a cup of tea in the station cafe and emptied her bag on to the table. It was full of the usual silt–ends of make-up, a single glove, an address book bloated with the names of people she never saw anymore, her phone with its flat battery. There were receipts folded into very small squares, foriegn coins and coins no longer in circulation. There was an old outboard computer drive: this, she took up.
It was perhaps two inches by three, with curved, organic-looking edges, its smooth dull surface interrupted at one end by a line of firewire ports–one of those objects which, new and exciting in its day, now looked as dated as a cigarette case. Michael had left it with her, along with some instructions, putting his warm hand over Anna’s–they were in a railway cafe just like this one–and urging her:
“You will remember, won’t you ?”
All she could remember now was being afraid. When you’re afraid of everything, especially each other, you have to walk away; consign each other to the world.
Anna had arrived in Norbiton between trains. She drank a second cup of tea and stared out with vague good will at the empty platform, where everything had a thick fresh coat of paint. After about twenty minutes an old man was helped into the cafe by some railway staff. He had outlived himself. His bald brown head seemed too big for his neck; his underlip, the colour of uncooked liver, drooped in exhausted surprise at finding himself still there. They sat him at Anna’s table, where he banged her feet and legs about with his stick, shoved the contents of her bag carelessly across the table towards her, and, as soon as he was settled, began eating salmon sandwiches directly from a paper bag. His hands were ropy with veins, the skin over them shiny and slack. He ate greedily but at the same time with a curious lack of interest, as if his body remembered food but he didn’t. As he ate he whispered to himself. After some minutes he put the bag down, leaned across the table and tapped Anna’s hand sharply.
“Ow,” said Anna.
“Nothing is real,” he said.
“I’m sorry ?”
“Nothing is real. Do you understand ? There are only contexts. And what do they context ?” He gave Anna an intent look; breathed heavily a few times through his mouth. “More contexts, of course!” Anna, who had no idea how to respond, stared angrily out of the window. After a moment he said, as if he hadn’t already spoken to her, “I have to get on the next train. I wonder if you would be kind enough to help me ?”
“I wouldn’t, no,” Anna said, collecting up her things.
It was almost dark when she arrived home. Marnie had left irritable messages on the answerphone. “Pick up, Anna. I’m really very cross with you. It’s not the first time you’ve let the doctor down like this.” Anna made herself an omelette and ate it in the kitchen standing up, while she rehearsed what she would say to Marnie. The last of the daylight was fading out of the sky. James the cat jumped up on to the kitchen top and begged. Absent-minded with guilt, Anna gave him more of the omelette than she had intended to.
–Empty Space, 2012