20 August, 1988
The fat brown envelope hit the hall floor at 9:20am precisely. Anna had been stirring her tea, hovering near the door, and she snatched it up. “Royal Holloway, University of London”, it said across top of the envelope. This was it. She tucked it under her arm and took it upstairs with her mug of Quick Brew.
Sitting on her bed, she took a fortifying sip of tea and tore open the envelope. She poured the considerable contents onto the red and white striped duvet.
And felt faint.
Registration with the campus doctor, registration with your halls of residence, registration with your course, registration with your halls of residence dining hall, registration with the Student Union, registration with the college library and the university library, protocol for dining, college ID card, library card, do NOT walk on the grass in the Founders’ Quad…
She flicked through each thick wad of instructions and forms before flopping down on the bed. How was she going to manage all on her own? She couldn’t face it, and so she did what she normally did in such situations, which was not face it. Gathering all the bumf into a pile, she threw it at the foot of her bed and went back downstairs. It had been a full half hour since she’d played Gribbly’s Day Out on the Commodore 64, and it wasn’t going to play itself. Time she hit that joystick.
3 October, 1988
Her suitcase was packed, and so was the entire house. Today was the day the family were emigrating to Spain. Yes, the very same day Anna went to university. Her family had always been superbly dysfunctional. So, she had thrown various items of clothing, books and stationery into a large, faded blue case in the hope that she’d need them. And all the while the shouts and laughter of removal men echoed around the increasingly empty house.
She struggled downstairs with her case and saw her younger brother and sister sitting on the lounge floor, watching television. The television was now the only item in the room. No sofa, no coffee table, no curtains. It looked as though Marie and Luke probably hadn’t noticed they’d gone – they were glued to The Waltons.
Well, this was it. Her last day in the home where she’d lived for seven years, the longest in one place of her short life. Most of those years had been frightening and uncertain, but the last one had been good. Her father had laid off the vodka, she had cycled to the local college instead of going miles by bus and train to school, and she’d actually been able to enjoy a year of normal childhood. And today, that precious time ended.
When she dragged her case out to the bright orange Sierra estate (with go-faster stripes, though no furry dice), she took her last look at her home. Blue-painted window frames, a huge old magnolia tree that shed its petals like confetti every spring, and the hole in the lawn where her Swingball had fitted.
Well, her future awaited. Her mother would bring her case and boxes in the car while she rode her brand-new scooter. Her father had bought her the scooter last week, in the local town. As they were both leaving their unworldly, 18 year-old-daughter totally alone in the country, Mr and Mrs Fairchild had been so generous as to purchase her a tiny, low-powered scooter. Mr Fairchild had taken Anna out for one practice drive – well, on the way back from the showroom – shown her how to fill it with petrol, and that was it. She was now on her own.
She made it to the campus in one piece. It was only a few miles away, a fact which would make her homesickness much, much worse over the coming months. She was near home, but her home was now closed and locked to her.
She struggled up to her room with her stuff, threw open the door, and depression settled over her like a thick, wet fog.
Breeze blocks. Cinder blocks. Whatever you want to call them. Unremitting grey. Not so much as a lick of magnolia to relieve the gloom. And the room was a tiny, prison-like cell. Well, not exactly like a prison cell in that a prison cell would have had better décor. The bed, though, was almost certainly from some kind of penitentiary establishment. Narrow, and with the thinnest of mattresses. Anna dumped her stuff on it and looked around the confines of the lockup. Oh.
She remembered saying goodbye to her mother in the car park. Her mother actually shed real tears, though when she was reunited with her eldest daughter later that year, she had already cast her aside in favour of her younger sister, Marie. Anna had no idea that this was the end of her place in the family. Of being her mother’s confidante, trusted aid, and friend. Not that any daughter should be her mother’s “friend” before the age of 18, but – dysfunctional.
So, Anna, trudged back up the breeze block stairs to her breeze block cell and sat on the bed, utterly dejected. She took out her guitar and began to play. Someone thumped on the ceiling. She put the guitar down. Looked at her watch – one hour until dinner time.
It began to get dark outside.