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Where were you?

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Where were you, when it happened?

Where were you? 

 

Were you in your own head, safely tucked away inside your skull, watching your life unfold in front of you, like a secret, nosy spectator? Or did you leave your body, drifted away somewhere, far away enough so that whatever was happening at the very moment would only ever get to you muffled, dimmed and unclear in every way? Or were you exactly where you were, painfully aware, and pleading with every fibre of your being that you could split apart and flee and hide, only leaving an empty shell to deal with the moment that was about to turn into a trauma in a matter of seconds?

 

We are affected by our worst experiences and memories differently. We turn inwards and never go back out to face what happened to us. We run, catching distance from ourselves, pretending what happened, happened to someone else entirely. We are stuck in the moment so much that we let it define who we fundamentally are. We blame and find faults, endlessly, in ourselves. We start to accept our unacceptable behaviour, because our trauma justifies it. We restrict ourselves, because we think we deserved whatever happened to us. We keep quiet, because it didn’t really happen and even if it did, it wasn’t so bad. Someone must’ve had it worse, surely.

 

We become wonderfully imaginative trying to separate our trauma from us. We run faster, starve longer, sink deeper. We alter our bodies, change our appearance to carve out a new being, one that didn’t take a heavy blow from existence. We remain still, exactly where we’ve always been, hoping our history would be erased the next time we blink, trying to look at the world anew, but it is still the same. 

 

Anne Lister could clearly, vividly see, and easily place herself at, every traumatic turning point in her life. She’d taken note of them all, voluntarily or not, and she had come to observe that not all of them, or what she remembered about them, had something to do with where it had taken place, or where she had been at the moment, but rather with how she’d felt, where her mind had escaped to, or where she had finally internalized the event. The episodes themselves had, in time, become nebulous in her memory, but certain sounds, smells, sights and sentiments could cook up an internal storm in seconds. Each of them had at least one sharp image, an unfalteringly precise visual stage that always appeared from the fog of her thoughts, should her mind happen to wander. 

 

Eliza’s hospitalization - At York station, in a train that was constantly trying to leave the station, but never got anywhere. She kept seeing the same cars in the car park and the rail yard’s rusty ruggedness again and again.

 

The death of her brother - Collapsed next to her backpack in the hallway, having just returned from a 10-day excursion to the Lake District. Throughout the funeral she felt her mind and body were still on the Helvellyn Ridge. Sam had become analogous to a clear-blue sky, high wind and happy exhaustion.

 

Mariana’s wedding - Sadly, exactly where it had happened. She had tried to think of anything and everything else, but it had been as if her body was more finely tuned than ever to notice and remember every minute detail of the chapel, the priest, the flowers, the horrid condition of her cuticles. Her heart rate had accelerated with every word the priest had spoken, and she’d felt like her lungs had been filled with her rushing blood, making her fear if she opened her mouth it’d gush out. The feeling had not abated even when Mariana had snuck away from Charles at the reception to come kiss her. Anne still sometimes felt the way, when they were close.

 

The death of her mother - Driving home from York, having to pull over to vomit. She can hear the cars speed past her, she can smell the muddy field and damp forest floor. The funeral was followed by a 2-month trekking trip and summit attempt on an 8k in the Himalayas. Nearly resulted in her own death.

 

The death of her uncle - in the hallway, at home, performing CPR on him. Didn’t work, obviously enough. Often, her uncle’s dry-faced, displeased solicitor joins her in the memory, sitting on the mahogany bench by the door, enumerating to her rather tediously what her uncle had left to her in his will. Everything.

 

Leaving Maria alone in Paris - Getting her takeaway coffee from the Starbucks at Gare du Nord, repeatedly extending her shaking hands to take the cup, having left Maria just a letter trying to explain herself. It had felt a bit like running away from home. Or just running. 

 

But now, before she opened her eyes, she couldn’t quite figure out where exactly she was. She felt heavy and soft, and she was lying down, and whatever she was lying down on was not terribly uncomfortable, but not something she was familiar with, either. It smelled dusty and warm, and it was much too light to be either her preferred waking hour (comfortably before 7 am every morning) or her own bedroom. She pondered, whether there was a reason for her memory to have blanked out momentarily to this extent, and she had a hovering hunch it was nothing pleasant. 

 

She opened her eyes slowly, and her eyes first caught a large, handsome red velvet carpet. She followed the edge of the carpet across the floor to meet a heater past its best days covered in dust. Above the heater, on a stony windowsill, an array of houseplants bathed in the bright grey daylight that had woken her, too. Sleepy, her eyes swept the room. The dusty smell was probably thanks to the numerous piles of books and papers that grew everywhere and reached varying heights. On both sides of the window, two large dark bookshelves housed a legion of volumes. Anne felt sorry for the works, especially the ones that had been shoved in between the flowerpots on the windowsill. They seemed to act as much as humidity collectors and decorative items as books.  

 

The window was big and drafty, but then again, she thought, remembering now where she was, it was the only window in this flat, save for that sorry shutter in the corner that acted as a kitchen. Anne blinked. She could hear the water running in the bathroom. Richie was awake then, too. 

 

For a moment, Anne was puzzled as to how she’d gotten to Soho in the first place. She didn’t remember arriving here, but she did remember leaving Hastings in a hurry. That was a bit foggy too.

 

Hastings. She struggled to remember the town, the apartment in which she’d lived for almost a year. It was impossible to remember Vere’s face, hear her voice, smell her scent. In her place, there ached a blurry stump, a remnant of something that hardly existed, and was now muted and murky to Anne. She knew what had happened; just she couldn’t remember any of it happening to her. But it must’ve been why she was here, crash landed on Richie’s worn, oversized, poison green sofa. So she took note:

 

Break-up with Vere - After an indefinite amount of sleep, Richie’s sofa. 

 

Anne took a deep, tired breath, feeling like she had not breathed for the last 24 hours at all. She watched a house spider sprint across the red carpet and vanish somewhere under the heavy, horrid, dust-ridden golden brown curtain that hung forgotten by the left side of the window. She didn’t flinch at the spider; Shibden was replete with them, anyway. Besides, killing it wasn’t an option. Richie had lived in this flat for decades now, and they’d come to highly value their eight-legged companions, who helped keep other pests at bay. They had, Anne thought, probably given a name to all the spiders that frequented their quarters. Last night, Anne remembered distantly, as Richie had let her in, one had gone out. Richie had called it Bartholomew. 

 

Anne heard Richie come out of the bathroom, and the scent of shampoo, and the smell of damp, hot air momentarily filled the living room. She heard Richie’s light steps, and detected they’d stopped by the sofa to see if Anne was alive.

 

“One of your friends hid under the curtain” Anne croaked, and could sense her friend flinching at her sudden words.

 

“And another has had some sleep, I see” Richie replied, “good morning.”

 

“I’m not in a position to evaluate the quality of it” Anne responded, not moving. The spider appeared from behind the curtain and ran up the wall to the windowsill, vanishing into the large flower pot that housed an overgrown monstera. 

Richie sat down on the arm rest and sought to look Anne in the eye, but Anne kept her eyes low.

 

“What time is it?” Anne asked, suddenly feeling a chill, her body waking from its warm slumber. 

 

“A bit past ten.” Anne was roused. She jolted up and turned to face Richie angrily.

 

“And you let me sleep?”

 

“Reckoned you needed it” Richie raised a brow, and the only thing telling Richie Anne quietly admitted they were right to have done so, was a sharp long exhale from Anne. Richie stood up, absent-mindedly caressed Anne’s hair, and made their way to the far left corner of the flat.

 

“Breakfast?” Richie called to her.

 

“Coffee, if anything” Anne placed her feet slightly cautiously on the floor. Who knew, if some of Richie’s friends were living under the sofa. When she sat up, her heavy braid glid from over her shoulder to rest against her chest. The only thing she remembered doing with her hair yesterday, now that she thought back to it, was rake her fingers through it throughout the train ride from Hastings to London Bridge.

“Did you braid my hair last night?” she spoke to Richie, fiddling with the dry ends.

 

“Yes. Not without consent, however” she heard Richie over the sound of running water. That would mean coffee soon, she hoped. She took a deep breath and sprung up, suddenly aching all over, but refusing to acknowledge that. She was wearing her own boxers and her own t-shirt. Good. Some sense of self, some structure had clearly remained. She took a few steps before reaching the sad kitchen corner, and started rummaging through the ancient cupboards and drawers covered in a thin, sticky layer of dated kitchen grease. 

 

“Are you looking for something specific, or is this a house search?” Richie sounded somewhat annoyed. They’d been sympathetic enough last night, and Anne had appreciated it, and certainly did not need their sympathy any longer. 

 

“Scissors.” 

 

“This is a house of no self-harm, young lady.”

 

“To cut my hair” Anne rolled her eyes. 

 

“What, now?”

 

“Yes, now. It’s dragging me down.” Anne was frustrated and she slammed shut the drawer she’d been checking. 

 

“Wait” Richie spoke, and Anne was afraid they’d disagree with her. She didn’t have the energy to counter-argue, but Richie continued, “I’ll tie it, so you can donate it.”

 

“No one wants my hair” Anne spat, but turned around anyway, when she saw Richie dug out an elastic band from a pencil stand near the sink. 

 

“As a breast cancer survivor, I can tell you someone wants and needs your hair.” On a better day, Anne might have apologised for her choice of words, but she remained quiet, and Richie didn’t contest her. 

 

“How short?” Richie felt her braid, yanking softly, “you sure? It’s quite handsome.”

 

“I’m handsome with or without. Just above the shoulders.” 

 

Richie took Anne’s braid gently with their slender fingers and tied the elastic band just below Anne’s shoulder line. Anne heard them open a cupboard and grab something, before their hand returned on Anne’s hair. 

 

“Ready?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you trust me?”

 

“Just cut it.” 

 

Anne felt a slight yank, and the prickling sound of hair breaking at the scissor blades sent a shiver on her skin. Her suddenly significantly shorter hair fell free and tickled her neck and shoulders. She turned and saw Richie hold the braid, looking at it down their nose. 

 

“It is ghastly, actually” they admitted, turning the now much less lively piece of hair in their hand. 

 

“Indeed. I’m going to take a shower. Can I borrow a towel?” Anne shook her freshly liberated head. 

 

“There’s clean ones in the cupboard by the door. Top shelf.” Anne nodded and strode back to the living room, dug out her wash bag and made her way to the bathroom, grabbing a soothingly coarse old towel from the hallway cupboard as she went.

 

“Oh, don’t be alarmed!” she stopped at the bathroom door, as Richie called out to her, “Larry lives under the sink now.” 

 

“Wonderful” Anne muttered and pressed the door handle, ready for another encounter with a house spider before her morning coffee. 

 

***

 

Despite the romantic decadence of Richie’s flat, they did have an ironing board and a clean, new iron Anne was grateful to use on her shirt she had, rather uncustomarily to herself, just tossed in her duffel bag and let it crumple. She’d hung her blazer on the coat rack, and was hoping the wrinkles on it would eventually smooth, or she’d have to go for her second-best option - a light grey jersey, one that Vere had gotten her, and one that she found herself disliking more and more by the minute. Richie came to her with a refill on her morning coffee. Anne didn’t appreciate the design of Richie’s biggest coffee mug (a Marvel mug with an Iron Man print), but she welcomed the size of it (460 millilitres). 

 

“I’ll open the shop at 12” Richie spoke as they handed Anne the mug, “will you stay here or go to Canary Wharf?” Anne shook her head and sipped her coffee, before replying.

 

“No. I don’t want to be alone. I’ll probably see if Mary’s in town.” 

 

She left the sentence hanging in the air, waiting for Richie to say something. She could hear their raised eyebrows, but Richie took a while with their words. 

 

“Hmm. Well, you know, you’re welcome to stay here, too.”

 

“I know. I value our friendship and love you deeply, but to be honest, your sofa is a comfortable bed only for someone in so much emotional pain they cannot pay attention to physical discomfort” Anne smirked, and was relieved to see Richie return her grin. 

 

“And has your emotional suffering cooled down enough for you to pay attention to bodily maladies?”

 

“I’m not sure.” 

 

“Then, might I suggest that you think twice before contacting Mary?” Richie was suddenly more direct than Anne had expected them to be, “as your friend, I should hope to spare you from any additional emotional burden now.” 

 

“Hmm” was all Anne was able to say in her defence. Richie sighed.

 

“I suppose you’ve already contacted her.”

 

“Charles is in Cheshire--”

 

“I see.”

 

“Well, what’s the harm, really?” Anne snapped, “it’s not like he hasn’t slept around--”

 

“You’ll never find in me an ardent supporter of monogamy” Richie interrupted calmly, “and frankly, I don’t care about his feelings, or Mariana’s for that matter--”

 

“Oh, how touching. Thank you for worrying about me. However, I can vouch for myself--”

 

“And yet you dash to her every single time you get your fingers burnt.”

 

“Well, not every time, surely.”

 

“She won’t yield, Anne.” Richie was stern now. Anne had to wonder how miserable she must’ve been the night before, as Richie was suddenly so annoyingly protective. And annoyingly right. 

 

“What do you mean?” Anne contested, raising her chin a tad proudly. 

 

“She’s never going to choose you over him. She’s not going to come live with you--”

 

“Yes, yes, thank you, yes, I’m aware of that---” Anne cut them off, nettled. 

 

“Are you, though? Are you really?” 

 

“Well, I still care about her very much, and--”

 

“Yes, she cares about you too, Anne, I know that. I know her, and I’ve known you for as long as you two’ve been on and off and on again” Richie stepped closer and took the coffee mug from Anne’s hands. She’d started to tremble minutely, presumably with anger and shock. 

 

“But she keeps you dangling, and it’s not fair.”

 

“Well, she’s not exactly free, either--”

 

“No, but… Anne, come on. She’s talked out of everything and everyone you’ve had. She talked you out of marrying Maria--”

 

“And she was right to do so, that wouldn’t have lasted--”

 

“Maybe so, but that’s your call to make, not Mariana’s.”

 

“What are you trying to convey?” Anne was firm, yearning for this conversation to end with hopefully hers as the winning argument. 

 

“Look, she’s got the best of both worlds. She’s living an easy, wealthy life of comfort, and she’s got you on a call button the minute she longs for company. But where does that put you?”

“On your sofa, apparently” Anne snapped. Richie took a deep breath and sat down on the back of the sofa. 

 

“Exactly. I know she’s got nothing, I hope, to do with your split with Vere, but…” they were quiet for a long while, and Anne lost her patience and turned back to ironing her shirt, “don’t hold her as a last resort. She’s been unavailable to you for years, and you know that.”

 

“What would you have me do, then? Hmm?” Anne retorted, “she’s my friend, first and foremost, and it may not have crossed your mind, but I might just want to talk to her--”

 

“Don’t seek comfort from someone who benefits from your pain” Richie spoke coolly and stepped back, knowing they may have just stretched Anne’s temper and patience to their absolute limit. Anne’s grip on the iron tightened, and she drew a sharp breath.

 

“I know what I’m doing” she finished, her lips tight, brow furrowed. 

 

“Well, as your friend I hope you do” Richie spoke and handed Anne her coffee back, “and I also kind of hope you’ll find a hairdresser before considering a lengthy outing in the public. It’s shorter, sure, but not very civilized.” Anne couldn’t help a smirk. 

 

“Thank you” she took the mug and didn’t flinch, as Richie tenderly caressed her shoulder. 

 

Richie got ready for work, and left some 20 minutes before Anne was ready to face the day. She was evaluating herself in the bathroom. The mirror was old and the light was yellow, but she knew a good deal of her reflection matched reality, bad light or not. She looked tired, tired like never before. Her skin was almost grey and she was unhealthily pale, her hair looking exactly what it was - chopped off in a mindless, pressing hurry. She felt a slight cold sweat all over, which could be due to her diet of coffee and water for the past 1,5 days, the conversation with Richie she’d just barely withstood, or her oncoming rendezvous with Mariana. Which needed to be postponed by an hour or two, as her need for a hairdresser was more dire than she had initially thought. She ran her index finger carefully across her face, over her cheekbones, under her eyes. Her skin was smooth, but clammy, and it was hard to feel the reality of her reflection on her fingertips. She stretched her neck assessingly, and decided she could not be bothered with beautifying herself (what for, she thought somewhat bitterly), and that her shades would have to do for looks for now.  

 

She strode back to the living room, and made sure she had everything packed, before she jotted down a thank you note on a post-it to Richie

 

Thank you for:

 

- 1 night crashing on a sofa in a central London location
- 2 hefty cups of coffee
- Exceptionally talented hairdresser services
- Midnight emergency reception of a very old, faithful, dear friend 

 

I’ll let you know when I’m in town next. May you and your friends cohabit this space in harmony.

 

Yours affectionately, 

AL

 

She knew Richie didn’t expect anything but their Iron Man mug washed, but Anne wanted to thank them, especially as she had been a bit curt to Richie this morning. A note would have to do; it was nigh impossible to be both sorry and vulnerably heartbroken in front of someone, even an old and extraordinarily understanding friend. She picked up her boots and knocked them together to make sure there were no spiders lurking in them, before she slipped them on and glanced around the flat once more. She’d crashed nights here ever since she came to study in the city a million years ago, and it felt homey. Somehow, this time, she felt as if she should no longer be here, at least not feeling like this. It was like her life had been rewinded to square one once again, only she was older and more tired now. Seemed a bit unfair, and she noticed she was frowning. She pulled on her blazer, plucked up her duffle and turned on her heel. 

 

“Goodbye, Larry” she spoke as she fiddled with the door lock, “and whatever your name is, monstera pot.” If possible, the air in the corridor was even stuffier than inside.