Anna was not one to look twice at anything or anyone. Everyone looked twice at her though. They couldn’t help it.
Most people don’t bother looking twice at insignificant details, so unsurprisingly she wasn’t particularly popular. People thought Anna was either arrogant, or stupid, or both. But I knew that when she did look twice at something, even more rarely someone, that look could take hours, it could take days. I’ve spent my whole life waiting for her to look at me like that.
The sun’s come out today. It has to since it’s the day when spring floods the river and, bloated with water, it bullies dirty shards of ice downstream. I come here, to an ugly, slimy corner, where the river collects all the precious things. From my concrete and rusty iron deck, I stare down the short, steep drop to the finest display of rotting trash and weeds below, looking for Anna. Sometimes there are other people sitting on the benches looking at the wide arc of the river as it bends around the corner, but they don’t know about Anna’s secret corner.
On our last day together, we walked through the park and down the avenue of trees which ran alongside the river. Our voices were muffled and pushed together by the damp air; only the noise of splitting ice was sharp enough to cut through it. We went down to that same corner, which juts out like an elbow into the thick brown water. Our conversation can’t have been important, since when I think it I can’t remember the actual words she said, just the tone of her voice and her eyes pinching at the corners when she looked into the wind.
It was enough, though, to make it our place. Everything started there and when I lean over the railings, my heart rises up in my chest in the expectation of seeing her face down there, hidden behind matted and muddy hair, gently slapping against the water.
I’ve only been to a morgue once. It was very clean and very quiet. The wide and sparsely furnished corridors were soothing. Dying is so busy, almost noisy, but death is nothing. While I waited outside the room where her body, her corpse, was, a few leaves blew through my head: what I could wear tomorrow, the first lines of a bad poem, the closest bus routes. I could see her brother signing the documents through the small glass window, he wouldn’t be much longer. I didn’t want to go back in to look at her again while he was still there. Her face was as blank as a sheet of paper. It made me jealous. I wanted to lie down next to her, to be tagged and filed away into the same dark drawer.
Anna had never shared her brother’s attachment to wealth, status and authority: she had thrown it away the moment she understood what it was. I’d never bothered to get to know him that well, but he still carried the same arrogant elegance. There was no effort to his pained expression, to his nauseous, puffy cheeks, the casual elegance of his expensive clothing. He obviously had no recollection of our single brief interaction.
‘When was the last time you saw her?’
There’s an immediately obvious, and hilarious, response to this question. I had to at least give it a little scratch.
‘We’ve crossed paths once or twice since, we lost touch, but otherwise this afternoon, evening, was…I’m so sorry.’
He looked at the floor. Yes, he remembered me now. I probably wouldn’t be able to get away with dropping in the family nickname he’d been trying to drop for a few years already (Cheddar). With no invitation he started talking at me:
‘He said it was far too late the, the…’
‘…he said she’d drowned, had been in the water for hours already. The police aren’t…’
It wasn’t a shock for me, since I knew exactly how long she had been in the water, but I looked shocked for his sake. He was really struggling with the etiquette: as far as he was aware I hadn’t seen Anna for years, even then he’d only heard me mentioned a couple of times, so it was apparently a complete coincidence that I’d found her in the water.
The thrill from knowing that I knew more about his sister than he had ever done soared inside me. I laughed at him as he teetered on the brink of his emotional range. He could have spoken to me about every detail of Anna and I would have been able to know them and love them even more. This was the only time he would be able to share his grief with an equal, but instead, he allowed his pride to tear him apart with guilt for not knowing her better. I was glad. Anna and my story was one to which he, and everyone else, would only ever know the beginning and the very end, and I had fabricated that end. The middle was mine and I would not let him, or anyone else, share a single moment of it.
Of course, I knew she had already been dead for a few hours. Of course I could have identified the body without his assurance, and of course, I could have easily refuted his lie that the victim had no reason to end her life, but that would have been to share my story.
He engaged the necessary social niceties and politely brought our interaction to a thankfully neat close. I claimed to have a car outside to avoid leaving with him in the taxi he’d already so efficiently ordered. I needn’t have bothered since he had already begun to distract himself with the funeral arrangements – invitations, lilies, pallbearers and estranged cousins. We wasted time exchanging numbers, since not for a moment would I go to their funeral. I waited for him to leave before going back into the oversized filing room where Anna was now alone and waiting for me.
Any romantic visions of a shrouded pale vision were shattered by the sharp bite of formaldehyde. It felt like I’d bitten into a warm poppy seed bun, with a fresh crust. It annoyed me that her head was at the wrong end of the table.
Whenever I saw her, I could never believe she was real. The reality of her existence made me short of breath and I had to grasp it in short snatches. Now, in front of her closed grey eyelids, all the air fell out of me. There was still mud and algae on her scalp and under her nails. I wanted to touch her, but her body had nothing for me.
That last day with Anna, where we started this story, had been long in the making. From first encounter, knowing how hard it would hit, we cautiously circled each other, slowly edging out of our shells before retreating again in shyness. It was a game and a dance, more of accident than affair. We always met by chance, always in circumstances which allowed us to idle a few hours together, but never enough to make anything concrete. Our conversations and feelings always carried on where they left off, regardless of how many years had gone between. Despite the distance, each meeting was as fresh as the first, in fact, they became more profound and punchy as the years went on. We reminisced about places we had visited together and took each other to new ones we had found in the meantime and wanted to share. But it was always one-sided – even if I drove she was in control, her feet up on the dashboard, settled in for the journey.
Standing on the concrete deck, the early evening light had caught her hair as she leant over the railing and watched the meltwater circling her corner. Riven with frustration, I hesitated slightly before greedily drawing her close to me by the shoulders. She wasn’t used to this type of affection from me and her shoulders resisted just enough to reduce everything we had shared over those years into mere pleasantries. It was, after all, a pretty weak move.
Anna’s hair had a thickness, a complicated and tangled nest, which I will never forget. This was a moment I had been chasing for years and, exactly as I had dreamt it and wanted it: her face filled with warmth as she saw in me what I saw in her and, expressed more in one gesture than the thousand words which we had wasted on each other, she smiled with relief and lay her head against my body. It spoke clearly and calmly of how and why our life together would be worthy and rich.
In that same moment, everything swam in front of me. All the practical decisions we would have to make about the menial details of our daily lives, the gradually dulled excitement of everyday. The air coming over the water had been soft and warm all day but now, in one instant, the light drained from the sky and took with it the edges of the shadows and all the warmth from the ground. Anna was not a woman I could be with forever. Hers was not a character which was compatible with others’ and hers was not a life that had any path and without a path, she would be lost, and me with her. She knew all of this, and was looking at me closely, openly, helplessly waiting for my reassurance.
I went back to her with a few badly chosen words. They tumbled over each other and I could almost hear the expectation in her eyes being quenched. There were words which express adoration, I tried all of them, but they rang false and only a fool would have believed them. She didn’t even think about rebuking me. We both realised that we had made a promise that neither of us was brave enough to keep.
In one clean, almost practiced movement she was up and out of my half-hearted lurch to stop her. Her knees were bent backwards over the bridge’s low stone wall as she looked back at me.
I had been waiting for years, not understanding why it hadn’t come, for her to look at me again. From the pleading pity in her eyes, it was clear that every time we met, she had given me a second look. She lifted her fingers out to me as she tipped herself off balance and backwards, but this time I didn’t flinch. I stood blankly, greedily feasting on her wild beauty, taking in everything I could in that moment when I was finally in control. I did not need her alive to know her any better than I already did. Even if she was dead, I would still jump at the sight of her in the intimate spaces between a crowd, between the platforms, public elevators, queueing. I would still share new places with her and start old conversations with her afresh. I watched as her hair rushed in front of her face, masking it as she slipped silently into the thick darkness below. The river rose up, sucking at the mud, crashing the ice together and taking Anna into its centre.
Stepping back into the cloudy street light I looked around. A steamy bus rode up the curve of the road and roared past me, otherwise, the street was empty. I had her all to myself, that last look was mine and I would never have to share it. I found her the next day down in that corner, her corner, where no one else knew where to look.
4 thoughts on “Anna by David Douglas-Pennant”
Now, I had a feeling that Something Was Coming all the way through, but the way you did it still surprised me. That’s a good thing. A real good thing.
Well crafted, very believable and enjoyable. Well done!
Both narrator and Anna surpass my understanding. Anna is a mystery and narrator seems ghoulish. Their relationship? I’m probably too literal.
What is so interesting about this is that you only get an idea of Anna due to him. That leaves us wondering how much was true, how much he had fabricated and what had really happened.
It is a lot of fun pondering all of these.