Anna Rendell woke up on the morning of her twenty-fifth birthday and realised she’d never lived a day in her life.
Not lived , anyway. Not lived as people should live.
She sat up and looked around her bedroom. It was her bedroom, because it had her bed in it, where she slept; it led into the dressing room where her clothes were stored; it was the only room where she could close the doors and reasonably expect that if someone wanted to come in, they would at least knock, even if they didn’t wait for an answer.
But as she looked around, she realised she hated it. It didn’t look like a room someone actually lived in. It looked like a hotel room, in some kind of expensive boutique hotel with a pretension to minimalism. The walls were white, the bedclothes were white, the furniture - what there was - was white. There were no pictures, no ornaments. Everything she owned was hidden behind a white door, and if she left anything out, it would be promptly put away by one of the changing cast of staff that were constantly waiting, just out of sight, to make sure no one ever left a single stamp of living on this empty house.
The house was not entirely empty. There was one other person - Anna’s older sister, Elsa. When their parents had died, when Elsa was eighteen and Anna only fifteen, Elsa had been left as her sister’s guardian, and had taken the job very seriously indeed.
She had overseen Anna’s education, and made sure it was a good one, made sure that Anna worked hard. She’d brought her back here, to their parents’ house, and she’d made sure that she met the right people and did the right things. And nothing else. Anna didn’t know what use that education had been, when she’d never worked a day in her life - never needed to, never been permitted to. All she did was go to the gym, and take tea with her friends - none of whom she liked, or who liked her - and do charity work, which meant sitting in dull meetings where no one ever made a decision, or attend lunches and balls where she had to constantly watch herself and her behaviour.
Everyone thought she was rich. But despite the house, the car, the credit card, the charity donations - she didn’t have a single penny she could call her own and actually spend as she wished. Her parents, in their wisdom, had locked their money up tight in a trust. Elsa could use it for herself and for Anna’s expenses. But Anna would only be able to take her share once she married, or once she turned thirty, whichever came first.
The credit card bill went to Elsa. And Elsa only approved of a handful of shops. She didn’t agree with travelling (and oh, how Anna longed to jump onto a plane, or a boat, or a train going further than the city). She had Ideas about what Anna should wear, and if she didn’t like something Anna had bought, she’d have someone return it. Elsa herself only wore white, or very pale pastels, and she thought that Anna should do the same; and never, never pink or red, not with Anna’s auburn hair.
And today was her birthday. She didn’t think Elsa would plan anything, as such. Doubtless there was an extremely tasteful gift wrapped perfectly in white paper, somewhere in the house. Tasteful to Elsa and her associates, anyway - Anna was quite sure it wouldn’t be to her taste. What she’d really love was something bright, and colourful, and completely useless - a painting for her wall, a rug for her floor, a scarf or maybe a completely impractical necklace. She’d seen a woman in town, once, wearing a necklace made of huge beads in bright primary colours, and almost gasped out loud. Imagine owning something like that, and being able to keep it, and wear it and look at it whenever you wanted.
When she was thirty. Anna had a lot of plans for when she was thirty. So many, in fact, that it wouldn’t be possible to do them all - but that didn’t matter. She would do some of them.
Or perhaps she would get married first. That would also give her the freedom she wanted, though perhaps not the independence; and the older she got, the less likely it seemed that it would happen. Elsa would only steer Anna towards young men she thought were suitable, and they were all as bland and colourless as everything else in her life. Better to wait here in limbo for another five years than shackle herself to one of them .
Quietly - there was nothing to make noise, there was no one to make noise with - Anna rose, and got ready. She opened the doors of her dressing room and looked at the line of dresses hanging neatly, in colour order, though none of them were what she would call colourful. Well, today she didn’t even feel like the pale blue or the mint green or lemon yellow - she took down a white sundress, and a white cardigan to match. She wasn’t good at wearing white, it was true, but someone else always seemed able to get the stains out; and white was the colour that got the most approving looks from her sister. And it might as well be white. If she couldn’t wear what she wanted, white would do.
She put up her hair in a low chignon, and she put in her silver earring studs and strapped her thin silver watch round her wrist. That much jewellery was acceptable. Then she went downstairs to breakfast.
Elsa was already at the table; normally she would have chided her sister gently for being late (it was almost three minutes past eight), but as it was her birthday, she seemed to be allowing Anna a little licence. “Happy birthday,” was all she said, and handed over the gift and a white envelope. Anna thanked her and put them to one side; she couldn’t open them at the table. Elsa nodded and returned to her breakfast. They ate in silence.
It wasn’t until they were both finished, and the plates had been spirited away, that Elsa spoke again. “Do you have any plans for today, Anna?”
“Oh. Yes. I’m having lunch with Donna and Portia.” Donna and Portia were not particularly nice or interesting women, but they’d invited themselves to have lunch with Anna on her birthday, so she supposed she would. Oh, no, wait - was Elsa asking because she’d planned something? For a moment’s Anna’s spirits soared. “Why do you ask?”
“Stephanie asked me to tell you that the doctor’s office rang. They wanted to reschedule your annual check-up to today, it’s now at 3pm. I’m sure you’ll be done with lunch by then.”
Stephanie was Elsa’s personal assistant. Anna stared at her sister, open-mouthed. “But it’s my birthday,” she said. Goodness, she couldn’t think of anything worse than having the lengthy annual check-up on her birthday, with all the poking and prodding - internal and external - and blood tests and goodness knew what, they always managed to think of something new.
Elsa looked at her, the barest hint of puzzlement showing on her face. “You just said you had time.”
“I mean - I guess -”
“Then there’s no problem.”
Elsa stood, picking up her coffee cup. “Have a nice lunch,” she said. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
“See you at dinner,” Anna said, quietly.
Should she move the appointment again? She probably could. Stephanie would raise an eyebrow, but she’d make the call. Or Anna could ring herself, of course. But Elsa….it was probably easiest just to do it. Get it over with. Anna would time how long it took and allow herself a window of Birthday Time tomorrow.
Anna had nothing to do that morning. She read a little, and she walked in the garden, and she thought about going shopping but there wasn’t anything she wanted, or at least nothing she wanted that she would be allowed to have. So after a while she walked all the way up through the empty bare house and into the attic. If she walked carefully round the old pieces of furniture still stored up here - nice furniture, warm wood with carved designs, mirrors with golden curving frames, chairs with little curly feet and rich red velvet cushions - she could reach the window at the end. Anna pulled over one of the chairs (brushing it down first so that she wouldn’t cover her white dress in dust), and sat looking out. From here, you could see right over the garden and the fence, right over the other houses and out to the woods on the horizon. The trees were green and resplendent in the late spring. Anna put her chin in her hands and imagined them swaying slightly in the breeze. She’d walked in those woods, more than ten years ago, when her parents had been alive and everything had been different. She wondered if the bluebells were out.
Anna fumbled in her pocket and pulled out her phone. She didn’t have her headphones, but no one would hear her all the way up here, if she turned the volume low. She needed a little - just a little - John Foster to help her through today. He had definitely recorded a song about bluebells - or that always made Anna think of the bluebells, shimmering like the sea under the branches of the trees in the wood. She set it playing, tinny through the phone speakers, and closed her eyes. The sun through the window was instead being filtered through the leaves of the trees. She couldn’t smell dust, but the rich earth, teeming with green things pushing their way to the light. Maybe she wouldn’t travel, when she had her freedom; maybe she’d just go up to the woods and lie down in a clearing until her soul was clean. However much time that took.
Oh, no, speaking of time, she was going to be late for her lunch - the boring lunch she didn’t want to have, but was apparently all her birthday would be, so she’d better go and try and enjoy it. What else was there to do?
Despite the sun, the town centre was cold between the buildings. Anna’s toes froze in her white sandals (what a silly, impractical colour for a shoe - but they went with the dress) as she walked towards the restaurant. She hadn’t chosen it, Portia had - and Anna knew why, it was because she knew Anna would pick up the bill. And what did that matter? She didn’t actually have to pay it, but she still resented it, somewhere deep down. It was Anna’s birthday and maybe she’d rather eat somewhere different. Maybe she’d rather go to somewhere where you were served a decent plateful of food, food you could recognise, rather than a set of coloured blobs and smears that meant you were still hungry even as you left the place.
Her friends - she didn’t have any others, so Anna supposed that after all she’d rather claim them as such than not - were already there, and soon they were settled at their table, with glasses of wine and plates of what was probably meant to be food. Portia was talking about her dog, as usual. Anna knew that she did genuinely love the dog, but she wished Portia could talk about something else for just two minutes.
“I wish I could have a dog,” she said, when Portia paused for breath. “But Elsa’s allergic.”
“I can’t imagine Elsa with a pet,” Donna said.
“Elsa would have a cat, with long white hair,” Portia said, “And a diamond collar.”
“No, she’d just have tropical fish,” Donna said. Anna bit the inside of her lip. Why did everything always end up being about Elsa?
At half-two Anna made her excuses, paid the bill, and went out into the square. She’d meant to call a cab, but it was a nice day after all - perhaps she’d walk, it wasn’t far to the doctor’s office.
As she was leaving the square she heard someone call her name, and turned.
“Anna, please! Call me Lillian.”
“Oh, I can’t call a teacher by her first name.”
“I haven’t been your teacher in a long time. It’s Lillian. How are you, dear?”
“Oh, I’m very well, thank you! How are you?”
“I’m wonderful, dear. Just moved back to town to help them out with the bats. Have you heard about the bats? Down in Bennett’s Field?”
“They’re going to build on Bennett’s Field, houses, and of course people have got to live somewhere, but there’s a rare species of bat in the woods right there. The locals have been trying for years to get it recognised as an SSSI - Site of Special Scientific Interest, you know - so they won’t be able to build. But they can’t get there to get the evidence. So,” Lillian’s eyes glinted, “We’re setting up a camp on the field. Just until we can get this sorted out. Once they start building it’ll be too late.”
“Isn’t that - illegal?”
“Oh, not very. Hardly illegal at all. Not the kind of illegal that matters , anyway. What are you up to these days? Want to join us?”
“Oh, no!” Anna said automatically. “I couldn’t - I have to go to a doctor’s appointment -”
Lillian laughed. “I didn’t mean right now! But, the more the merrier. Do you good to get out of the house. And there’s a whole group of us.”
A young man had come out of the Co-op behind her and was waiting, holding a couple of bags. “Recruiting, Lil?” he said.
“Just another ex-student,” Lillian said cheerfully. “I need you all down there so I can boss you about, like old times.”
Now Anna recognised the man. He’d been at school with her, though a couple of years above. Gosh, he’d got tall. And broad, too, in the shoulders.
The man - Kris, she was fairly sure his name was Kris - was looking her up and down. “I wouldn’t bother with this one, Lil,” he said. “She doesn’t look the type. I’ll be in the camper,” and he walked off and down the street.
“Don’t mind Kristoff,” Lillian said. “He’s probably just talking about your lovely shoes, which are so pretty but not really right for the forest. No, you know where we are, Bennett’s Field, in the corner closest to the trees. Bring a tent and a sleeping bag, it’s just like Guide camp. We’d be glad to have you. Bring your friends,” and she walked off, waving. Anna waved back, and stood for a minute.
Then she shook herself. Doctor. She had to go to the doctor. Hopefully the appointment wouldn’t last too long.
The check-up started as it always did. Some samples taken, then questions while the samples were processed somewhere else. Then Anna was checked over, and results came back and the doctor looked at them. And then usually they would be done, but this time the doctor frowned at her computer, and tapped her fingers on the desk. Then she said “Excuse me,” and made a telephone call; then she repeated a few of the tests she’d done before.
Then the doctor said brightly that they had a new scanner, just a few months old, and Anna would need to come into the other room to be scanned. Just one last thing to check, it wouldn’t take long. This way, please.
And now Anna was dressed, and sitting back in the doctor’s office, and barely an hour had passed. But there are those moments that forever split your life into Before and After; the only one she’d known up until now was when the police officers had knocked on the door to tell her and Elsa that their parents had died. But now, this.
It was her heart. The doctor had shown her some lines on a graph, and spoken in a kind and soothing voice. Really, Anna was very fortunate it hadn’t given her any trouble up until now, and without the new scanner they might never have known. Any sudden, severe shock might cause fatal heart failure. And her heart would fail, most likely, within the year. Certainly within eighteen months.
“I’m so sorry, Miss Rendell,” the doctor finished. “I know it’s a lot to take in.”
“Yes,” Anna managed, drawing a shaky breath.
“Now, if you would like, I can refer you to my colleague in the city,” the doctor said. “There are more tests they can run and it’s possible they may be able to do something.”
“What sort of tests?”
“Well, I’m not sure. More scans, I expect, probably investigative surgery. Would you like me to do the referral?”
Anna shook her head. She couldn’t think. A year! A few months more, if she was lucky.
“Perhaps,” the doctor said, in a kinder voice, “You would like to come back in a few days and we’ll talk about it some more.”
“Yes,” Anna said, seizing on that. “Yes, I think so.”
“Now, you don’t need to do anything in particular. Just try to take things calmly. No big shocks. I’ll give you a list of symptoms to watch out for and when to go to the hospital. And I’ll put this all in writing for you, I know these things are hard to take in. We’ll talk again in a couple of days. Miss Rendell?”
“Yes,” Anna said. “Yes, I’ll - go. Thank you.”
Anna was halfway home before she remembered that she could have called a cab. Should have done. After all, she was dying. A laugh escaped her before she could stop it. She’d never lived, and now she was dying.
A loud exhaust coming towards her made her look up. An ancient VW campervan, bright orange, trundled along the road past her, the driver leaning one arm out of the window; it was Kristoff, tapping his hands on the door to the radio, listening with a half-smile on his face as Lillian in the passenger seat talked to him. The air through the open window blew his hair into his eyes and he pushed it out of the way. For a moment his eyes met Anna’s, then the campervan was gone, putt-putting its way down the road towards the woods.