No one noticed when Anna got home, and no one noticed that she didn’t eat any dinner. She went up to her bare, sterile room and she lay on the bed, looking at the ceiling. If anyone came in they would only see my head and my hair, she thought, all in white as I am, on these white sheets. She looked down at herself and pulled her hands up into her sleeves. If I were to die right now then they would just have to carry me out, straighten the counterpane, and everything in the world would keep going the same as it always has. They’d have to tell Elsa, of course, otherwise she might not realise I wasn’t here any more.
A year. One more summer, one more autumn, one more winter, then maybe a slice of spring. And that was all.
She wondered what would happen when she told Elsa.
She’d drag her back to the doctor, that’s what would happen. She’d ask a thousand questions, and she’d insist on that referral, and they’d go to the city; and there would be so many doctors, and so many more white rooms like this one. Anna would be poked and prodded and half her blood would be run through machines; and they’d cut her open and poke around in there as well, and post her into MRI machines and goodness knew what. A year to live, and that’s how she’d spend it.
Maybe...maybe she didn’t have to tell Elsa straight away.
Maybe she didn’t have to tell her at all.
Anna slept very little that night. By the time the sun finally rose, the sunrise filling the white room with some colour for once, she’d made up her mind. On the stroke of 9am, she rang the doctor’s office, and said she’d like to cancel her appointment for next week, please. No, she didn’t want to reschedule. Yes, she’d call back if she changed her mind. Thank you.
And then she went out. It seemed like a good day to buy a red dress.
The dress was perfect. It was a rich, deep, cranberry red; it was fitted at the top with a skirt that swirled beautifully; it showed a little more cleavage than Anna was used to, but still fairly respectable - other people she knew showed a lot more, certainly. None of her shoes went with it, of course. It needed sparkly shoes. Fortunately, the shop sold those too, and a matching necklace.
Anna’s daring didn’t quite extend to wearing the dress at home. She quailed a little at Elsa seeing it, and wasn’t sure she wouldn’t end up changing, and then when she got home the dress - and shoes, and necklace - would have disappeared. But she had a charity tea this afternoon, and her outfit was perfectly appropriate. Elsa wouldn’t be there, and no one else would think anything of it.
She changed quickly in the Ladies in the reception of the hotel, and on a whim, brushed her hair down too. Her hair waved naturally, and usually had to be pulled back to keep it neat - but today she didn’t feel like looking neat. She pinned a little of it back from her face and peered at herself in the mirror. She hadn’t brought any make-up, and her freckles were showing something awful - but nothing she could do about it now.
The tea was taking place in the main ballroom. Anna gave her ticket to the staff member at the door, took a deep breath, and went in.
She did get a few odd glances. She suspected a few acquaintances didn’t recognise her immediately. Anna took a drink and said a few hellos, then she stood to one side and looked around.
It suddenly struck her how pointless this all was. No one wants to be here, she thought. They’d all rather be at home or on the golf course or conducting their tedious extra-marital affairs, but it’s for charity so here they are. Imagine how much better the charity would do if they all just donated the same amount but no one had to book the room or buy the drink or arrange for the tiny food. Anna snagged what she suspected was some kind of deconstructed cucumber sandwich from a tray. It was actually quite good. If this is an afternoon tea, though, surely there should be cake?
She took another miniscule sandwich and wandered over to the staff member who seemed to be overseeing the waiting staff. “Excuse me,” she asked him, “Is there any cake?”
“Mm. It’s not a criticism, I was just wondering. These are very good, by the way.”
“Thank you. There will be a selection of fancy cakes and meringues served after the speech from the charity representative.”
“Oh, okay. Thank you.” Anna paused. Did she want to listen to a speech? Was that really how she wanted to spend her hours on Earth, that were apparently very precious?
“D’you think I could get a cake to go?” she said. “I have to leave now. Medical reasons.”
The man hesitated, then he shrugged and disappeared towards the kitchen. Anna surveyed the room again - there was no one here she actually, actively wanted to talk to - and thought about what she could do instead. She could go anywhere. The thought was thrilling but also a little terrifying.
She remembered meeting Mrs Davies yesterday. Mrs Davies - Lillian - had been her Science teacher, back when she had gone to the local secondary school (her father hadn’t really approved of private education, he thought it gave the wrong mindset. Her sister did approve of it, or maybe she just approved of paying money to make Anna someone else’s problem, so she’d done her A-levels at a boarding school where she’d known no one and no one wanted to be friends with the girl who cried all the time). Mrs Davies - Lillian - had been an excellent teacher, friendly and enthusiastic and full of a passion for Science and nature. Anna was not at all surprised to find her spending her retirement engaging in a little light environmental protest. She’d also been Anna’s Girl Guide leader, and taken her camping a couple of times when she was twelve or thirteen. Oh, she’d love to see her again, and have a proper chat.
She knew exactly where Bennett’s Field was. She remembered, when she was a little girl, walking down there with her father. The footpath ran down the side of the field, and then skirted the edge of the woods. You had to stay on the footpath as far as the old oak tree, because the land on either side belonged to someone else, but the corner of the field and a small patch of the woods belonged to her father.
The memory stopped her short. Yes. It belonged to him. At some point when the farmland had been chopped up and parts of it sold, a small amount of the field and a corner of the woods had been bundled in with some other land her father had bought to develop. She thought so, anyway. She couldn’t see how it would have been sold, unless the developers of the field had bought it - there was no reason anyone would have told Anna about that.
She ducked out of the room and leant against the corridor wall. Imagine if it was still theirs - she would gladly, happily let the protestors stay on their corner of the field, make whatever observations they needed to in their corner of the woods. How did she find out?
Anna knew where her lawyer’s office was. She’d heard her parents’ wills being read there, and she’d been there on a handful of other occasions since she came of age, to sign odd documents and make her own will at Elsa’s insistence. It was only four’o’clock. She ran down outside and found a taxi.
Mr Owens was very obliging, and agreed to see her, despite the short notice. Anna suspected he might have some sympathies with the bats; very soon the pair of them were looking at the map, and Anna was thrilled to see that she was correct.
“I think someone used to live there, many years ago,” Mr Owens said. “Although there’s no building there now, and you’d never get planning permission - the only access is along the public footpath, no utilities. So it’s not worth anything.”
“I don’t want to live there,” Anna said, though she did, a little. “But I could camp there if I wanted, couldn’t I?”
“Yes, of course.”
“With some friends, maybe.”
“If you liked. Of course, if the wood does become a Site of Special Scientific Interest, that would affect you, too.”
“That would be alright.” Anna traced the outline of the little patch of land on the map. “And if they build on the rest of the field?”
“Then they might give you access, but maybe not. They tried to buy this land, as you know,” he said.
“I didn’t, no.”
“Your sister didn’t tell you? They weren’t willing to pay what she was asking. To be quite honest, I advised her to take whatever she could get, they were the only people who might have given you anything for it. Like I said, it’s worthless.”
“Unless you’re a bat,” Anna said absently. Had Elsa been being greedy, or had she just not wanted to sell?
“Well, I suppose that’s true.”
“Can I have a copy of this map, please?”
“You can take that one, if you like. Was there anything else?”
“No, that was all. Thank you so much for seeing me.”
“No problem at all, Miss Rendell. I’m glad I could help.”
“I might go away for a few days,” Anna announced over breakfast the next morning.
Elsa looked up from her paper. “Really?” she said.
“To where? With whom?”
“Um, you know I used to be in Guides? My old Guide leader invited me to go camping with her and some friends.” Anna buttered her toast without looking up. “I’ll have to get some camping things but there’s that shop on the retail park, isn’t there? I’ll run over there this morning.”
“Camping?” Elsa looked horrified. “Why would you want to do that?”
Anna shrugged. “Felt like it. You won’t even notice I’m gone.”
Elsa pulled a face. “I don’t think you’ll enjoy that at all, Anna. Camping! In a tent?”
“If I remember right, that’s how it goes.” Anna looked up. “If I don’t like it, I’ll come back. It’s not far.”
“How long for?”
“I don’t know. I’ll have my phone.”
“And where will you charge it?”
“I’ll get a solar charger.”
“And where exactly are you going?”
“Um. Bennett’s Field.”
Elsa dropped her paper. “Not that - Anna! You know they’re squatting illegally. That’s not camping, it’s a protest. What will you do if the police get involved?”
“Mm. But, if they moved over a bit to the north - and I was there - it wouldn’t be illegal, as such, would it.”
Elsa was quiet for a while, watching her sister’s face. Then she said, “I didn’t know you knew about that land.”
“Dad told me. A long time ago.”
“You don’t have to actually stay with them. You could just give them permission, if that’s what you want. And stay here.”
“I think I’d like to go, thanks.”
Elsa looked at her again, for a long moment, then she picked up her newspaper. “As you wish.”
Anna took a big bite of her toast. That had been easier than she expected.