Back home, in the kitchen she’d kept spotless, was a picture. It hung by the back door, and Anna-Lee had walked past it so often that she didn’t see it any more. If she’d been asked to describe her kitchen, she’d talk about the double stove, and the wonderful gas hobs. She’d talk about her large fridge and the separate freezer, and all the racks she had on the wall for hanging her utensils. With a sparkle in her eyes she’d talk about her herb garden, all the hand-painted pots that grew on a bookcase, so quaint and individual (or so she thought), and yet so practical. The faded picture on the wall wouldn’t even be a footnote.
Now, as she waited backstage, with nothing around her but vanity lights and mirrors, it was that little picture that she missed.
“It was of Thailand,” Anna-Lee said out loud.
“What was?” her very confused handler asked. Sara, the woman’s name was, or was it Zara? Anna-Lee hadn’t heard properly when they’d been introduced and she’d left it too long to ask again now. The best she could do was to say it quickly and mumble slightly, and hope that everyone else assumed she’d said the right thing. None of that boded well for what she was here to do.
“The picture that we have hanging in our kitchen. It was of Thailand, one of their temples or something.”
“That’s nice. A photo from a trip you took?”
“Oh no. No, I’ve never been.” Never wanted to, but Anna-Lee was scared to say anything like that. It didn’t take much for the press to make a story, and what if they grabbed that and decided that she had something against Thailand? That wasn’t it at all; she didn’t want to go because she’d never been bothered by foreign travel at all. She hadn’t cared much for any sort of travel, not that it had meant much in the last few months.
“A souvenir from a friend then?” Sara/Zara asked.
“I presume so. I can’t remember where we got it, actually. It’s just always lived there. I think it’s a painting, but one of the very good ones, that looks like a photo. It’s hard to tell any more though, it’s been so faded by the sun.”
“That sounds well-loved. Is it your favourite picture then?”
“I guess.” Not at all, actually. But how else could Anna-Lee explain why she’d randomly mentioned it. Sara/Zara lived for these events and the travelling, and her face seemed to be glued into a permanent smile. The more they had to do, the more people they had to see and the more they had to speak, the more alive she looked. Even with – or perhaps, because of – all her education and qualifications, would she understand the idea of home-sickness? Anna-Lee doubted it, and she didn’t want to give her handler any more ammunition for thinking she was a small-minded country bumpkin.
Anna-Lee inhaled deeply and looked at herself in the mirror. The neon lights highlighted her face far more than the kitchen spotlights had, and under all the make-up Anna-Lee barely recognised herself. The face she remembered, the one in her wedding pictures, had been a slightly dumpy yet utterly happy woman. This… skeleton in front of her was little more than a shadow.
“How do you put up with all the travelling?” Anna-Lee asked, and immediately wished she hadn’t when she realised that Sara had gone back to reading things on her tablet.
“Hmm? Oh, you get used to it. Sleep when you can, never turn down the chance to have a shower, and take any hot meal that’s offered.”
“You make it sound easy. I guess it’s a young person’s game though. Not for the likes of oldies like me.”
“Some people take to it better than others. Regardless of age.” Although the smile was supposed to reassure her, Anna-Lee just felt like that was another poke at her for not trying hard enough.
Fine by me, Anna-Lee thought. Just let me go home.
But home was worse than the strange rooms, all with their funny smells of other people and too many cleaning products. Completely different was better than too-close to the same.
“Ugh,” Anna-Lee said. “I feel like this is ageing me, like I’m putting on a year every day I’m on the move.”
At last Sara put her tablet down and fixed her full attention on her client, and Anna-Lee wished she could bury her face in her hands. The last time she’d done that though she’d been yelled at by the make-up artist, and had been late going out.
“It’s not just the travelling that’s getting to you,” Sara said. “You’ve been through a lot, and you’re still trying to process it. I know it can’t be easy, having to go over all of this everyday, but we’re so grateful that you are. You can make a real difference doing this. Just remember that, okay?”
“Yeah. Of course.” How could Anna-Lee not, when so many people said it to her every day. When they said it, or when they cried on her shoulder and told her their own stories, she felt a warm rush about what she was doing. But as soon as she was alone the weight of it all hit her.
Not that she dared tell anyone. They thought little enough of her as a person already, that much was obvious from the way they talked over her head, or patted her hand as they made plans.
“Was this what you always wanted to do?” Anna-Lee asked all of a sudden.
“What? Oh, no. I guess I always wanted to work in the public sector, but I didn’t have any specifics. Besides, I don’t think ‘public relationship manager and event organiser’ would’ve gone down so well with the careers teacher.”
“I guess not.” Anna-Lee watched the question bubble on Sara’s lips, before she remembered the case file. Yeah, safer to avoid the subject. In the same way Sara’s restless feet wouldn’t understand Anna-Lee’s roots, the career woman wouldn’t understand the appeal of being a stay-at-home mother.
“Are you ready for your next appearance?” Sara asked instead.
“I think so. I’m just talking about the same stuff, aren’t I?”
“It’ll be the same sort of questions. They might throw in a curve-ball at the end, but it should just be something from your history, rather than an opinion.”
“Such as?” At the start Anna-Lee had done her best to follow along with all the jargon and quick words, but now she was too tired.
“Something like… what’s your favourite memory of your son? Or where did you meet your husband? Something like that.”
“Okay.” Nothing serious then. Just heart-wrenching, not that the businesswoman could appreciate that concept. ‘Please, give us the dearest memories you have of what you’ve lost, so we can bear it to the nation in the hopes of getting more ratings’. If it wasn’t for the thousands of signatures on the petition Anna-Lee would’ve walked away weeks ago. Though she had so many messages saying she wasn’t alone, she’d never felt more lonely.
“Don’t worry if you don’t answer it neatly. Breaking up will probably helped the campaign more, honestly.”
“Okay.” Good to know that’s how you see the world, you piece of flint. The bitter, aching, bleeding fragments of Anna-Lee’s heart was glad she no longer had to worry about her child going into politics. There were worse things than death.
“If you don’t need anything, I’ll go and check how they’re doing out front. I don’t think it’ll be more than ten minutes or so, but I’ll see if they can give us a better estimate. You should eat something, if you can.”
“Yeah, I’ll try.”
Anna-Lee sat still and watched Sara leave, and only when the door clicked shut again did she let out a shuddering breath and collapse onto the dressing table. Every movement was careful around her face, which felt like a wet canvas.
“How has it come to this?” she asked her reflection.
The answer was horribly simple, and generally horrible. In her grief she’d lashed out, and a hand had grabbed her and held her up so she could reach the targets of her anger. It was working, but no one had ever told her that anger and rage were so draining. She never thought she’d miss the extra bodyweight she used to carry, but she felt like an impostor without it.
All she’d ever wanted from life was peace and quiet. Though she knew it broke her mother’s heart, she didn’t want to be rich and successful. Looking after her family was all she ever wanted; to cook, to clean, to clear up after and see them off for whatever they were doing. Maybe she was a traitor to the suffragettes, but it had made her happy.
And then it had all been stolen from her.
Anna-Lee looked herself in the eyes, and realise her eyeliner was already starting to run. Waving her hands in front of her face she tried to dry her tears. Her wedding ring caught in the lights round the mirrors and she froze.
No. Tonight she would cry. She wasn’t acting after all. She was still healing. If it took a river of tears for things to change, than that was what Anna-Lee was prepared to do. Even if she went back to her house, to her immaculate kitchen and the faded picture of Thailand, it wasn’t her home any more. Her choices in life had been made by someone else now, and she would fight to make sure that didn’t happen to anyone else.
After all, wasn’t that what life was supposed to be about; choice.
There was a knock at the door and Anna-Lee was up and moving before Sara had come back in.
“They’re ready for you now,” Sara said, not without a gleam in her eye at the re-invigorated Anna-Lee. Vulture.
They went through the dark corridors, smiling at a dozen people, shaking a few hands, and then a firm hand on the small of her back forced her out on to the stage.
Anna-Lee let the applause wash over her and die down. She thought back to her picture of Thailand, and the life it was tied to. For the first time in her life she had ambition. Whatever it took her, she would make sure that no one else had their perfect life shattered by such an horrific accident.
“Two months ago,” Anna-Lee said when the clapping had mostly stopped. “My husband and son went away for a weekend. That was all it was supposed to be.
“They never returned. They never returned, because our government didn’t think it was important enough to properly regulate the people we entrust with our safety. They call this a terrible accident. I call it negligence. The safety measures are common sense, but they let common sense go in the name of making an extra profit. Is that all our families lives are worth – a few extra hundred pounds worth of profit?
“I call on the government to change the regulations, to make corner cutting like this illegal! They have a duty of care, to protect us and our families! This can not be allowed to continue!”
The applause started up again, with a few whistles from people who weren’t sure how to read the room. Anna-Lee just stood and waved, forcing a smile out, as a row of famous and semi-famous people came and stood by her. Let them take my shine, she thought. If it saves a single family from being torn apart, then it’s worth it. She would happily fade, like the picture of Thailand on her wall, if it meant that someone else could share that top-of-the-line cooker.