In Bruges: Introducing Anna
Anna sat still, her silent grey eyes staring into space, seemingly unaware of the many people milling around her. She was awkwardly hunched over, perhaps cold in her thin marl-grey hooded jacket, which she had left unzipped revealing the faded lilac t-shirt underneath; the top fell frumpily over her breasts. She never wore things to a flattering fit. She was too self-conscious. Her average-brown hair hung in messy, yet unassuming, waves down her face, stopping at just the wrong sort of length – too long to be short and too short to be long. It wasn’t a pretty length. Her mother had made her wear it long as a child. This was a manner of rebellion.
She had inherited her mother’s delicate features – a thin nose and full rosy lips. Delicate they may’ve been, but not interesting, and not terribly appealing. Not timelessly beautiful as they were on her. Anna’s eyebrows emphasized this lacking, thin and neat but unflattering, they were wrongly shaped for her face.
Her petite frame was folded into the surprisingly comfy-looking green velvet chair upon which she rested; legs were crossed and body leant forward in an uncomfortable manner, with her left arm resting on the plastic yellow tablecloth. Her black trainers were visible under the table – cheap copies of converse sneakers that were at odds with the traditional cobbles beneath their thin soles. Bruges was known for its cobbles.
A pint of beer sat nonchalantly at arms length in front of her, forgotten; it was full and untouched. A well-worn black leather menu was its only company, and it was unopened and ignored. She was too wrapped up her in thoughts, and her dazed-nerves, to be hungry. Her solitude was emphasized in the frenzied open-front cafe that she had chosen, made worse by the central location of the popular square within which it was situated. She had picked it as a meeting point for this very reason.
Her apparent dullness, as she sat there waiting, stood in stark contrast with the vibrant liveliness of the bodies surrounding her; their spirit encroaching on her physical space, without managing to actually reach her. She remained alone, caged in by her silent turmoil. The person for which she waited didn’t seem to be coming. Those silent-grey eyes of hers were still fixed on a reality that only she could see, only she could know.
Part one: A return to isolation
Anna was trapped. Her mother had failed to show, and now she was trapped. She had managed to spend her last money, and sell her last possessions, to get together enough for a coach ticket back to London. The whole process of going to see her mother had been a waste of time, and a waste of her last resources. Now, she had nothing, and no one.
She was currently sat on a doorstep in a dismal alleyway near where she had disembarked form that long cramped coach journey, near Victoria Coach Station. What now? The thought ran in circles in her brain, bouncing and rebounding endlessly. She was scrunched forward on the step, with her skinny arms hugging her knees, and her pointy chin digging in to the top of her arm; she let it stay there as the pain didn’t bother her. Mental pain seemed to hurt so much more these days.
She really didn’t know what to do.
They would get her eventually, She knew they would. How much did she owe again? It didn’t matter. Enough. Enough that she knew she couldn’t pay it. She viscously scratched a non existent itch on her thigh with her ragged nails, till she felt it enflame. Maybe she should’ve stayed in Bruges. Camped outside her mother’s house. She kept scratching. What good would that have done anyway? More pain via cold stares and harsh words. Her leg was now bleeding through her opaque leggings. No. She’s had no choice but to come back and face up to this. Deal with it. It would have chased her forever otherwise, haunted her every thought and dream.
As she thought that a shiver of longing for something she wished more than anything that she could forget instantaneously shot through her body, as quick as a bullet ripping through soft tissue, and just as damaging. Just as agonising. A feeling of want so strong that most people could never know the like.
Deal with it Anna.
She wiped the blood from her fingernails onto her light grey jacket, staining it irrevocably. Somehow she had to deal with it. She couldn’t go back there. Not under any circumstances. She would rather take the bullet.
Part two: The woman with pink nails
Pamela took the brush from the varnish pot and carefully finished her final nail; the pop-art pink was as cheerful as she had hoped it would be. The carriage was gently rocking as she painted but she still managed it just fine, no smudges. She gently returned the lid and proceeded to sit with her hands flat against the small pull-down table. She wasn’t unaware of the strange look she was getting from passengers boarding at this stop, but she didn’t care. She had been painting her nails on the train for nigh on ten years now; every morning she put it on, and every evening, on the train home, she took it off. It was always a bright colour: neon or glitter, or anything else that could be seen from the other side of the train.
With one finger she artfully adjusted her newly purchased tortoise-shell glasses, sliding them back up her nose. She saw as she put her hand down again that the pink of her nails clashed with the bright purple jumper that she had just put on, not ten minutes ago. She liked that they clashed.
Her husband would be seething if he could see her now. At first glance she know she appeared to be as any other middle aged woman with a name like Pam. If one had seen her leave her the house this morning then she would have matched that description with precision. Upon sitting down for her 65-minute train journey she had commenced her morning ritual of transforming into something more spirited, more herself.
Firstly she had drawn half of her dull middle-aged bob up with a sparkling clip, featuring pink Swarovski crystals. They sat nicely against her chestnut brown hair, with only a few grey strands scattered here and there. Then she had changed her jumper, and pulled her pink fake-leather handbag from the checked holdall that lay next to her on the seat, transferring the more treasured contents, which she would need for her workday. Then had come the matter of painting her long and unbitten nails.
Having given them a good half-an-hour to dry she went to pull her make-up bag from her quite large holdall. As she put her hand into the depths of its recesses she tried to ignore the commotion going on besides her; a woman, who seemed to be not much older than she was, was making an immense fuss about someone being sat in ‘her seat’. Only, the reservations hadn’t been put on the seats, so it wasn’t ‘her’ seat at all. There were in fact plenty of free seats that she could claim as ‘hers’ within spitting distance of where the woman stood, leant on a single crutch as she ranted. It wasn’t even a busy train, it was mid-morning; the lack of reservations really didn’t matter. That was one bonus to only working part-time, she noted, the fight for a seat in the 8:00 crush was a thing of her past.
The view from the window, as she continued to fiddle in her bag, flew by in a blaze of sparkling blue and flawless green. It was actually cold outside, but, my, wasn’t it clear! One couldn’t tell the temperature outside from looking, as she did from the gentle warmth of a moving train carriage. What smooth perfect colours did nature show her through the glass of her window; they were so perfect that she found herself wishing that she could get off the train here. Right here. She could lay in the meadow all day, staring up at the unfettered expanse of sky above her.
Her fingers finally wrapped themselves around her sequin-embellished make-up bag, and she gave it a firm tug to release it from the realms of stuff within which it was contained. She left thoughts of jumping from trains in the bag and began touching up her Max Factor powered face with touches of rouge, a trendy bit of kit that her daughter would’ve of certainly stolen from her had she been here, a thought that sadden her momentarily. As a young girl from the seats opposite her asked her to watch her things, while she went to the toilet one could assume, she wordlessly nodded her ascension, and began dabbing expensive highlighter onto the bags under her eyes.
As the girl was taking to her seat again Pam was returning her precious bits of kit to their bag. Transformation complete, she thought with satisfaction. Timed perfectly too she noted, as the speaker system crackled into life. The dulcet tones of the train conductor announced that her stop, the last stop actually, was next, so she pulled on her black PVC jacket before standing to disembark; a different person to the woman that had stepped on an hour earlier.
Pam was at work within the half hour, and hadn’t long been sat at her desk before her first person was shown in. The girl was dismal looking. Misery dripped from her every gesture. Her hunched posture and thin frame, matched with her demeanour told her a familiar story. She was a drug addict who was trying to get money to fuel her addiction. Pam had not a drop of sympathy for such matters, given her daughters history, and before this girl had even sat down in front of her she had decided that no money would be granted. She would have to fend for herself, and stop her filthy habits. Drugs did nothing put heap destruction on the families of those that took them. She knew this from experience, she wasn’t being harsh; she mused to herself as she fingered her glossy pink nails.
As Anna left the council office she dragged her bag along the littered floor behind her. An empty coke can flew along the pavement as she walked. That was helpful she noted bitterly, as the can came to a stop in the gutter. The damn woman had barely given her one look before shooing her away.
“Go and get medical help dear,” she had patronisingly advised her, as she showed her towards the exit.
“We can’t help you until you do”, the woman had said reprovingly, shutting the door behind her.
Anna hadn’t argued. What was the point? Her past was following her like a bad smell she just couldn’t shake, apparently refusing to let her do anything without it.
Part three: The women wearing hijab.
She stepped down from the train behind a woman, much older than her, wearing a shiningly ugly PVC jacket. Why she wanted to draw such attention to herself she had no idea. She couldn’t understand that urge to draw looks from others. Looks from her own husband were bad enough, never mind those of every man in London. As she walked down the platform towards the ticket machine she kept her arms tight by her side, clasping her bag strongly with the uncovered fingers of her left hand, and clutching her ticket in her right. She was keeping every limb as close to her body as she could, as if she was enclosed in a body-tight protective bubble, and she was attempting to keep herself contained fully.
As usual she could feel the eyes of others upon her, in an angry fashion mostly, as she moved through the busy station. Strange she thought, how hard it was to stop people looking at you. How difficult it was just to blend in. At least she wasn’t inviting the attention. At least she wasn’t consciously trying to attract the sexual gaze of the entire male population, as Western women did.
The tinkling sounds of skilled fingers upon keys floated into her ears as she kept soldiering on through the crowds of different people that were milling in clumps throughout the concourse. An old man was seated at the communal piano, and it was his efforts that she could hear. He was dressed in an old-looking grey corduroy suit, and his wafer-thin frame was hunched over the keys in concentration, or passion, she couldn’t tell which. His black trilby hat was tipping back and forth with his head, as it bobbed enthusiastically along with the music. She knew that he came here most days to play, and the tourists lapped it up like kittens with milk. She’d seen many sit down with him on the bench, enthusiastically joining in much to the detriment of the man’s pleasant key jingling. He seems to love the company though.
It did not take her long to walk to her office; she volunteered for a women’s charity not far from St. Pancreas station. Her husband allowed her this much, which was nice of him. He could prevent her if he wanted to, after all it may distract her from looking after their home.
Sometimes, (only sometimes), she wondered whether her hijab did indeed keep her from mans gaze, or whether it was just designed by men like her husband to keep her trapped in. Was she simply hidden in a cage of her own wearing, unable to reach out to anyone, and unable to be free? What would it be like to be as a Western girl, shaking her long hair out freely, without inhibition? That was something she rarely did, even in the comfort of her own house. That would involve being vain you see – and that was not morally right.
For women it was not right anyway.
Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, says men are allowed vanity. He says that in the Koran it tells you that Mohammed looked in a bowl of water to check his appearance before seeing friends; thus, men could check their appearance regularly. Women were not allowed such luxury, as this would bring chaos on society: if women are vain it is to invite the looks of men, and this means sexual immorality. Sexual immorality means chaos. So it is upon the women to remain dignified, in order to save society.
Only, in London it didn’t seem to be working. Chaos was winning. As she sat down she adjusted the folds of material she was wearing, and turned her computer on. The sounds of a shy knock could be then heard, through the loud whirring of her ancient desktop.
“Come in”, she yelled.
A young woman entered, wearing practically see-though clothes. She was clearly vulnerable, and looked distraught. Her leggings were opaque, and so worn in places that she could see the girl’s skimpy underwear. Her lilac t-shirt may have hung loosely, but she could still see her bra’s outline. The girl was very thin. Her hair was strung in clumps down her face, as if she had slept without brushing it for days. Her marl-grey jacket was unzipped, and filthy. She thought she could discern blood on it, and her leggings actually, which were torn slightly where the blood was.
“Please.” She said, in a small voice. “I need help. I need money. I have no-where else to go.”
“I can’t just give you money, there is a long process. I have to interview you first; you’re meant to make an appointment at reception. Then someone else assesses your case, and then we help you. You won’t get much though – maybe five pounds a week if that. You’d be better off going to the council for help. Our services are mainly designed for refugees and asylum seekers, who cannot get the council’s help. You can, and should go to them.”
The girl looked on in despair, every word spoken making her head droop more.
“They won’t help me.” She was so subdued that she could barely hear her. “And that’s not enough. Please I’m in danger, is there anywhere safe that I can go? Just for a few nights? There is a man… he…”
There’s always a man involved. If only these girls would stay away from men that wanted to take advantage of them. If only they dressed with modesty, protecting themselves. This girl seemed to be on drugs – and was likely a prostitute. It must be her pimp that was coming after her. That was a situation that no girl should find herself in, but it wasn’t something you could come back from. That was a profession with no return, in her opinion. It was definitely not within her charities remit to help such girls; there were other charities for that sort of thing.
“Well I cannot save you from yourself, whatever you have done can be redeemed but certainly not by me. You will have to do it yourself. I can’t help you I’m afraid. We have nothing for you. Try religion, look to a God. He may forgive you. He may help you. Failing that, try a different charity, prostitution isn’t something we help with.”
She pulled her scarf tighter round her neck; this was why she wore hijab, she realised. So that she could reach paradise, and when she reached paradise, Allah would free her from the drudgery of wanton western society; only then could she be truly free.
For the second time that day she found herself sat in an alley. This time she was near Kings Cross St Pancreas; all the businessmen and women were coming to and fro from its many entrances, they were all in a terrible hurry. All of them were too busy to pay attention to anyone but himself or herself – so many people ignoring each other all at the same time. All of who were also ignoring her.
She was exhausted. She had walked miles today, with no food. She had sipped some water from the taps in the toilet, and tried to clean up a bit, but she hadn’t wanted to spend too long in there; for fear the Muslim charity worker came in after her and threw her out. Not that that would’ve mattered. She couldn’t get much lower to be fair. Christ she was tired. So tired.
The woman hadn’t helped her. She hadn’t known what to make of her, except that she was a prostitute apparently.
She let her head fall against the cool bricks upon which she was propped, and closed her eyes. Just for a second.
Part four: The woman that looks like a man
Francesca sat on the train with her long legs crossed tightly; even then her knees brushed the seat in front. Her friends called her Frankie. Most people called her Frank. This, she knew, was because she had a manly appearance. From a sidelong glance you may think she was male – she was lanky yet big boned. Her jaw was wide as a man’s, and her chest was non-existent.
Her jeans were of the wide sort – unfashionable for a woman. On her feet were a pair of man’s trainers, they were silver with blue piping, and they too were unfashionable. Neither told you that Frankie was a woman from looking. The first real sign she was a she, not a he, was the slight pink decoration on her top, and the purple hippy-style floating top she had on. Even her handbag was ambiguous – it had skull-and-crossbones on the front and could easily be a man-bag. You may have thought it would be the long hair that would give it away, but strangely it wasn’t. It was unkempt; simply washed and brushed with no styling whatsoever. It was as if she had let it grow with no styling, no fancy cuts, since childhood.
In fact, she had; her mother trimmed it for her every eight weeks. She would sit there nervously still as her mother carefully snipped away the ends, before roughly twisting it all up into a pious bun for her, which was the only style Frankie was allowed. Even now she wouldn’t dare do anything but have it either fully down, or in a bun. She hadn’t ever looked at a pair of straighteners with the urge to use them.
She didn’t mind traveling on her own. It wasn’t like she daren’t leave her mother or anything. God knows she would move to another continent if she didn’t think that she would just follow her. Anyway. She was more than used to her own company. The gentle, swaying and rocking of the carriage relaxed her as she read her book, one of the Game of Thrones series, which she held very neatly so as not to crumple the pages. The humdrum background noise of conversation, shifting luggage, opening doors, and train-upon-track noise did not disturb her. She was quite often alone in a bustling place – the noise of the general world didn’t belong to her. It didn’t touch her, and she couldn’t touch it back; so it didn’t bother her. Right now she was watching a dragon hatching anyway.
Unsurprisingly then, she was headed to the British Library, whose doors lay close to the station that she getting off at; Kings Cross St. Pancreas. As the train pulled near the station she became more aware of the conversation going on around her, having put her book down and returned to Earth. A group of teenage boys were speaking of a Muslim woman who looked to be in her late thirties, dressed in hijab, who was sat forward of them. She either couldn’t hear them or was pretending not to.
Either way they weren’t being very nice – something about bombs and terrorism. And worse. As they jeered they sat in laddish positions, kicking their legs, which were clad in trendy jeans, out in front of them; completely blocking the aisle. They all had expensive-looking trainers on, and sports jackets. They were flicking empty cans and folded up crisp packets at each other as they laughed. As the train stopped they gave her one last jeer before running up the aisle, and leaping off the train. She followed in a dignified way, as if she hadn’t heard a word they’d said. Maybe she hadn’t.
Frankie followed, briskly moving through the station ignoring all the sounds of its chaotic atmosphere; she had her head in the library already. She could almost smell the fantastic mustiness in her nostrils.
She spent a good three hours or so in the library. Maybe more, before realizing she should get home. Her mother would worry. Leaving the library she crossed the road to get a quick bite to eat from a nice café she knew of, which she normally stopped at before returning home. As she was on the way she saw the dark alleyway up ahead that she normally rushed past. Except as she approached she could hear something was going on. She paused and checked behind her, there was no one else around. It was still daylight but overcast, and she was scared.
“What. Did you honestly think we wouldn’t find you? Hey?”
She heard a gruff laugh that made her shiver.
“We knew you were here before you’d gotten off the coach. Thick bitch. You got it then? Well?”
Sounded like he knew the answer to his question already. She heard a muffled scream and a whimper that she took for a no. Frankie had her hands pressed to her jeans, clinging on so tight they aching. She could hear the sound of her heart beating.
He was almost whispering now, but it was a stage whisper, an angry whisper. It made every hair on her body stand to attention.
“You. Are going to pay for this child. Think you can steal from me did you? I gave you a damn chance to give it back, to give the whole damn lot back and you haven’t. Think I give a shit that you’ve ‘cleaned your life’ up? Well I don’t. I couldn’t care less. Besides you don’t look fucking clean to me, you look like a fucking whore. I don’t care anyway. All I care about is the big fucking bag of heroin you fucking stole. Well I’m gonna tell you I have fucking had it. And so have they. No more patience girl because you are now nothing but a loose end that I have to tie up. And trust me I am going to have fun tying you up…”
Frankie had heard enough. Whatever was happening she certainly shouldn’t be listening to it. She made a decision in a heartbeat, turned on her heels and pretty much ran back to the station. She didn’t say a word to anyone; she didn’t buy a drink, or stop for food. She ran. She didn’t stop running until she was safe at home. She normally felt trapped at home, but that night she more than glad to be so. Trapped meant safe.
She didn’t tell her mother what she’d heard. She didn’t say anything to anyone. She just tried to forget. She took herself back to her own little world that evening and told herself that she had imagined it all. Nothing had happened.
She knew this was it. Her hands were raw from the rope wrapped round her wrists, cutting off the circulation to her hands. He had strung them up the beam in the ceiling of the drug den within which they dealt their drugs from. She had unwittingly collapsed right around the corner from it. Not that it mattered – they would have found her anyway.
She had been surprisingly relieved when he had found her propped up against the brick wall of the alley; a sad relief that came with the knowledge that it was all over.
She hadn’t realised that she could scream as loud as she did when he had picked her up by the neck and smashed her forcefully against the cold hard surface of the wall. Her eyes had rolled back with the intensity of the pain; it had made her feel alive again.
All she could do was whimper in reply to his questions about the money. She knew whatever she said to him was futile anyway. The raging anger in his eyes told her it was coming. She just hoped that he didn’t drag it out for too long.
She was tired. So very tired.
The room was full of people. Nobody had really known the girl, Anna; yet they had come in droves to pay their respects at her death. For some reason it had touched them all. A young girl murdered in pure daylight, yet no one heard her, no one helped her; she died in the middle of London, in one of its busiest areas.
Yet no one heard her screams.
She was found strung from a ceiling in an abandoned shop near an alleyway in Kings Cross. She had been raped and tortured, she was barely recognisable so the police had murmured, on the quiet to each other. It was so sad. They had identified her as a young girl called Anna, whose family lived in Bruges, Belgium. She had come here for University and got in with the wrong crowd, got addicted to drugs and dropped out. Her parents had disowned her when they discovered she had taken the thousands they had given her for University and spent it all on heroin. She eventually ran out of the stolen money and resorted to theft; she ended up stealing heroin from a ferocious drug dealer. A couple of months later she was forced into rehab by the police, after being caught for another theft, in a shop this time. But having managed to clean herself up through this time in rehab she found she had to run to escape her recent past, unable to find a future that wasn’t haunted by it.
Looking around the memorial you would see a variety of people.
Pam, with her pink nails that weren’t pink, was there with her husband. The Muslim lady was there in full hijab, with her husband. Frankie was there, with her mother. As they wandered around the room, after the service, they were each unaware of why they had felt compelled to be there, even Frankie had forcibly forgotten; they had just felt an urge to be there.
They strolled right past each other at the service, and the wake afterwards, without recognition.
If they had actually been looking, if they had actually seen each other at that service, they should have realised that they knew each other. They should have seen each other and recognised a fellow woman whose pain was clearly inked into their eyes for all to see. They should have observed that they were each and all trapped in different ways. They each boarded the same train nearly every day, and yet were unable to recognise each other in such poignant circumstances.
Perhaps it would dawn on them eventually that they could have reached out to Anna that day. Each of them could have made a distinct difference to her life, or lack of it. They could have saved her. But they didn’t. Through fear, or ignorance, they didn’t. Each woman was trapped in her own unique manner, and from inside their cages they were unable to reach far enough through the bars to help her. Each was held back by their own demons. After all, how can anyone help somebody else be free if they can’t even help themselves be free?
This was my very first proper short story! I am quite proud of it actually! It leads on from my character sketch, In Bruges: Introducing Anna. Please follow me for regular updates, or share my posts if you like them. Thank you!