When Anya saw the girl on the bus, she didn’t say anything to her about the letter. She was used to typing out bad news for people, learning every detail of their suddenly diminished life expectancy before they found out about it for themselves. It was what she was paid to do.
The secretary before her had perhaps wanted to be helpful, leaving all those medical diagrams taped to the wall above the desk. There was a heart that looked like a rack of lamb trussed up by spidery ventricles to each side, and two coloured sketches of someone called Betty Boop. In the picture on the left Betty wore a suspender belt with a red heart on it, and painted-on eyelashes that went all round her saucer eyes. In the right-hand version she had empty eye sockets, a huge cranium and a tiny skeleton. When Anya asked her boss who Betty Boop was he’d said she was a character in a classic – old – cartoon. It was just there for fun. Boop-boop-de-boop he said, then laughed when Anya didn’t.
Anya took the posters down and bought a second-hand glossary of medical terms in a charity shop to keep on her desk, and after a while the sparse trickle of words and phrases started to thicken into sentences that scared the life out of her. She tried to distract herself by poring over their phonetic pronunciations, repeating them like a mantra, just as her mother used to mutter her way through her morning and evening prayers as she stirred tea leaves into the pot, not believing any more, but not quite disbelieving enough to abandon them. What follows after tea? she joked to Anya as she sat in her school uniform staring at the table sleepily, and then, when Anya shrugged her shoulders, being a teenager, refusing to play along: The resurrection of the dead, you silly girl! Anya remembered the way the gilt cup holder had caught the light, and her mother smiling at her own joke.
It was a stupid old Russian joke, Anya thought. She still didn’t find it funny. It made her feel ill. It was enough to make her cry, to think of her mother laughing, saying, You silly girl! It’s just a joke.
Anya was planning on leaving early that day, but she had noticed the girl in the waiting room. She reminded Anya of herself when she was young: with long, dark hair, and a nervy look on her face. Anya had left her file until last, not wanting to know what was in it, by which time it was nearly four-thirty and she had to hurry through the letter like all the rest if she was to catch the five-fifteen.
Outside, it was raining hard. When she had first arrived in this country, delivered from one grey airport to another, the first thing Anya had noticed was the glistening rain that fell on the fur jacket her mother had given her as a going-away present, weighing it down. And it had been warm, compared with what she was used to. She’d put the fur at the back of the wardrobe, and bought anoraks and windcheaters better suited to the damp Welsh coast. She’d thought about selling it from time to time, but she hadn’t, not until Malcolm lost his job. Instead, she’d gathered her new coats about her, blanketing her homesickness with layers of fleece and gore-tex.
The driver tore her ticket off the machine and she walked down the middle of the bus, signalling hello to the man from the library and exchanging glances with the girl. She went to her usual seat, and looked out of the window at the hedgerows rising and falling as the bus left the edge of town, taking the road south.
Her mother had said she would regret it, leaving everything she knew behind, especially her, Anya’s only mother. Her mother who had given her everything. Who washed the net curtains every week and put cheerful pot plants outside the flat’s front door in the concrete hallway. Who scrubbed the graffiti off the lift doors herself if she had to. Who always did her best, especially for her daughter, who was going to become an English teacher, she was sure of it. You will be top of the class, she had said, peering at the dried-out tea leaves at the bottom of Anya’s glass. You will use your languages. You will make money! All these predictions had turned out to be true, although Anya’s mother had been given to believe by the tea leaves that Anya would be rich, a teacher in a good school; that they would move to another flat and she would be kept comfortable by her daughter for whom she had slaved – slaved – to keep and feed. She locked the door of the flat at night because of the yobs who hollered up and down the stairwells, and sometimes during the day too, when she went shopping, with a clear conscience. You’re better off doing your homework anyway than hanging around with those hoodlums! she said. Anya got through her homework as well as she could in spite of the boys’ howls from the lift shaft. Good, her mother nodded, checking it over when she came home from the market Sennaya Ploschad with a full basket (although she couldn’t read English – all she could see was that the handwriting was neat). Very good! Now wash your hands. No matter how often Anya washed her hands, and she washed them often then, too often, like her mother, they still smelled of cabbage and smetana.
The smell that the men brought onto the bus with them was something else, something like shrimp paste. They got on at the bus stop outside a Chinese takeaway, herding each other down the aisle, tripping over their own feet, filling up the empty seats wherever they could find a space.
‘They’re drunk,’ Anya said out loud, surprised. It was still early.
She thought the girl might turn round, say something, or smile, at least, but she didn’t move. She was wearing small white earphones and tapping one foot lightly and rhythmically in time with whatever it was she was listening to. The group had concentrated itself around her. They smiled at her, holding onto the metal poles to stop themselves sliding off their seats.
‘Alright?’ one of them said to the girl. Anya knew him. Malcolm used to work with him.
The girl nodded and looked out of the window.
Anya could see him thinking about trying again, then he glanced round and saw her.
‘Hiya, Ans,’ he shouted down the bus, so that the rest of them all turned to stare as well. ‘You alright?’
‘I’m well, thank you, Jack,’ she said. Her voice sounded so quiet, compared with his. She cleared her throat. ‘And you?’
He got up and came over, almost falling into her lap as the bus took a corner.
‘Can’t complain,’ he said sitting down next to her. He took a cigarette out of his pocket, put it to his mouth and lit up. The girl gave him a look and he put it away again. ‘How’s Malc keeping?’
‘Good,’ Anya said. She could smell the factory on him, that mixture of raw meat and something sanitised, the spray they used to hose down the abattoir at the end of the day, almost sweet. It reminded her of the early days of her marriage, when Malcolm would rush home from his shift, and they would go to bed straightaway and then get up again to make supper. He didn’t eat meat himself, he said, stroking her shoulder. Did she cook vegetarian food? he asked. Of course, she’d said. Anything but cabbage! He laughed. You’re so funny, he said, and she smiled because no one else ever said that to her.
‘What’s he up to, these days, old Malcs?’ said Jack.
‘This and that.’ It was a phrase she’d learned from Malcolm since he was made redundant. ‘How about you? What’s all this?’
She looked over at the rest of the group, who were shouting across the aisle to each other so loudly that even the girl must be able to hear, despite her headphones. The lad sitting across the way from Jack was eyeing the girl.
‘Leaving do. Emyr here’s been given his marching orders,’ Jack said, reaching for his cigarette again. ‘Last in, first out.’
That was how it had been with Malcolm. She nodded, looking at Emyr, sitting there like a boy who’d been taken to the headmaster for doing something wrong, his teacher’s hand on his shoulder. Only Jack’s hand was like the joints of meat he sliced into chunks all day: huge and unrefined, marbled with veins in unexpected places.
Jack drew on his cigarette, leaning over her to open a window so the driver wouldn’t notice the smoke. He was starting to look like his father, with his flat cap and his slowly wizening face. Anya could tell from the way Emyr glanced over at Jack’s reddened, chafed skin, the bits of dried skin round his lips, the flesh that hung from his turkey’s neck, and his smoker’s gasping reach for breath, that he himself would never be like that. He would never get old.
‘It’s not just Emyr neither,’ Jack belched. ‘They’re saying there’ll be more next time.’
‘They reckon the boss is going to be done for trading horsemeat. Might get shut down.’
‘And has he?’
‘There’s a lot of stuff we been cutting up we got no idea what it is. Could be anything.’
He took another drag on his cigarette. Anya coughed, and he put it out under his shoe.
Dust and mud had dried on the bus windows so you could hardly see out. They were on a long flat stretch of road with the sea on one side and hills on the other. Villages made up of chip shops and semi-detached villas close to the road came and went, the darkening spaces in between becoming more drawn out each time.
‘Where you from, then?’ Emyr said to the girl, out of nowhere.
The girl took her time to answer. She looked Emyr up and down. She probably didn’t have to work hard to catch a boy’s attention, Anya thought. Anya had never had much of a chance that way, although one of the boys in the stairwell used to look at her. She’d always been with her mother so she’d never dared look back, but she still remembered how much she’d wanted to. But her mother let her go down in the early mornings to collect the post from the mailbox in the lobby, before anyone else was up. Her mother didn’t know that she had a penfriend in England. Her teacher had arranged one for all the class. Anya’s penfriend was called Connie. She had blonde hair and cystic fibrosis. Sometimes her parents wrote her letters for her, when Connie was under the weather. Anya used to be sick with disappointment if she saw the parents’ writing on the envelope.
‘Down the road,’ the girl said. Her voice was deeper than Anya had expected, and louder, too, as she talked over whatever it was her earphones were pumping out.
‘By the caravan park?’ said the boy.
The girl thought for a moment.
‘Just after that,’ she said.
‘Where?’ he persisted.
Anya leaned forward, waiting for the answer.
‘Up from the village,’ said the girl.
‘How far up?’ Anya asked. ‘That’s where I live. Up there.’
The girl turned round, and looked at Anya as if she was noticing her for the first time. There was something transparent about her eyes, as if she wasn’t all that interested in other people’s feelings. She must dye her hair, Anya thought; it didn’t look natural. Anya had never touched hers, even when it started to become streaked with grey. Her mother said she should, when Anya sent her pictures. You are getting to be so old! she said. You’d look much better if you went to the hairdresser’s now and again.
‘Yes,’ the girl said. ‘Up there.’
Emyr watched the girl, his eyes were glazed over by the beer. He was someone who could be easily deceived, Anya thought. He looked angry at the idea that he was being taken in.
‘Nice tits,’ he said to the girl. ‘Are they real?’
She had barely taken the headphones out of her ears when he started to throw up, mouthfuls of vomit that landed at her feet.
The driver parked up by the nearest field and threw the men off the bus.
‘What you doing?’ Jack said, as they staggered down into a ditch, the automatic doors already closing behind them. ‘We’re miles from the Ffarmers.’
‘Not my problem,’ the driver said.
‘How we supposed to get home?’
‘Get a taxi.’
It had stopped raining, but the sky was heavy with more. In the field they flailed around in wet barley that came up to their waists, trying not to lose each other, so that the next day passing commuters would wonder at the shapes they’d made among the rows of wickered spikelets, flattening them under their weight. Only Jack and Emyr seemed to know what to do. As the bus pulled back out onto the road Anya saw Emyr climbing up onto Jack’s shoulders, holding his mobile up as high as he could, trying to get a signal.
When Anya had said she was going to England on an exchange, her mother had liked the idea of it at first. It had suggested she would be getting something, or someone, in return. But Anya had come to Wales, not England, and never come back, and no one had come to take her place. She’d written a letter to explain. Her mother hadn’t answered for a long time. Finally, she sent a postcard: No better than a mail-order bride! she wrote. Malcolm had laughed and said Anya was more perfect than any woman he could have sent for by mail order. He had blushed, because he wasn’t used to saying such things. Anya had put her mother’s postcard on the mantelpiece, behind the clock. She wrote back by airmail at Christmas. She hoped the vandals on the stairs weren’t causing too much trouble. She wished her mother a happy new year.
Anya stood up. So did the girl.
‘Are you getting off at this stop?’ Anya said to her. Normally she was the only one. Their house was up a deserted, bumpy track on the outskirts of the village.
The girl nodded. Anya thought she should say something about seeing the girl at the hospital earlier today. Maybe she should ask her what she’d been doing there, to get the conversation going. Then they could come on to the letter. Anya could tell her she knew what was in it.
The bus was out of sight already. Anya looked over her shoulder before she made her way up the lane. The girl was winding up her earphones and putting them in her handbag. Anya started walking up the hill, more quickly than usual.
Beyond the caravan park the sun was veiled by thinning clouds. Tall hedges to each side of the lane were garlanded with cow parsley, white saucers of delicate petals balancing on thin stems. As Anya got higher up the track she saw pink bearded iris and bluebells coming through the undergrowth. She breathed in the summer smells, still juicy and damp after the downpour. She was surrounded by acres of wildness and quiet, apart from the rooks clattering in the sycamore tree at the top of the hill. The deep, dank greenness all around her was already sprouting up above her shoulders, forcing its way out of the soil. She could feel life breathing through the earth, carrying her with it.
She wished they’d had children. Malcolm had always wanted children.
As she got closer to the house she knew she would see the television screen flickering in the window and hear canned laughter. When he came to the door she would know from his flushed face that he had dozed off while he was waiting for her. What’s for supper? he would ask straightaway, and she would feel bad for leaving him alone all day.
She wanted to talk to her mother. After they’d eaten she would phone her mother. Perhaps she would find a cheap ticket online, go and see her before it was too late.
She put her hand to her chest. Her heart was burning itself out of breath. The pain frightened her. She tried to breathe deeply but that just made it worse. She slowed down, although she was still afraid of the dead quiet of the lane behind her. She thought of her mother saying her evening prayers, her old knees pressing into the rug by the bed. She glanced down the hill again.
When Malcolm opened the door she could tell he’d been worrying, wondering where she was.
‘How did it go?’ he said.
She hadn’t phoned through with the results. She’d promised she would but she knew that once she said it out loud the two-dimensional heart from her poster at work would leap off the paper, pumping out of time, keeping her awake at night, and the cartoon pin-up skeleton would come out with Boop-boop-de-boop, and if she fell asleep she would dream about flicking through a glossary trying to find the word – what was it again? – the word for whatever it was that was wrong with her.
And she pulled it out of her bag, this last letter she had typed today with her name and address on the envelope, and passed it to him. He read it and took her to sit down in the easy chair. He made tea for her on the stove the way her mother did because he knew she liked it, and she drank it quickly, even though it was too thick, with the leaves not properly strained. She was thirsty and there was that catch at her throat again. As she drank she looked up at the window and she saw a shadow that made her think of the girl, her fine, dark hair feathering out behind her, crossing over the yard to the sycamore tree in the twilight.
Illustration by Dean Lewis