A piercing ray of sunshine pokes through a gap in the curtains. The lump in the covers vaguely resembling a 20-year-old woman moaned and the duvet rose higher to cover the mop of bedhead. A hand snuck out around the corner to scoop a mobile phone under the safety of the duvet. The glow of the virtual world seems preferable to the too-bright stream of reality coming through the window at this time in the morning.
A stabbing pain in her head, a result of consistently forgetting to fill her water bottle, finally forces her to emerge and stumble to the bathroom. Two pills and a mouthful of water from the tap helps to numb the ache, and she splashes water on her face. Brushed teeth, smoothed hair, and a spritz of deodorant later, she’s on her way to Sunday lunch. Out the door, headphones on, sunglasses in place. The empty water bottle still sits in its circle of dust on the table.
She walks with her head down against the wind, and turns up her collar to stave off the London chill. A husky voice lilting in her ears drowns out the blare of car horns and the shouts of construction workers. Without missing a beat at the turnstiles, her debit card is in hand well before the station is in sight. On to the train, a corner seat, she sits with a slump, turning to look outside the window. Behind her glasses, she closes her eyes. A 20-minute train ride feels like eternity on Sundays.
A herd of teenage boys thunder onto the train. Five bundles of confidence-driven energy, jostling each other. A coat slips to reveal a football shirt, followed by an avalanche of off-key chants. Of course. Sunday in London - game day. Memories surge forward without asking, forcing the bittersweet nostalgia of innocent match days gone-by to the fore. Her eyes re-open, automatically appraising the newcomers. She pulls her outstretched legs further towards herself, and slides the volume on her headphones up to maximum to match the predictable nerves that come with loud voices in a small carriage.
The train rumbles further out of the city, and at some point a glance around the carriage reveals that the football fans have left, silently trooping out unnoticed while music blared and her eyes were fixed on the blurred landscape outside. She removes one earbud, letting the tinny noise spill out into the silence, and the automated announcement overheard shows her stop is next. All too soon the comforting blur behind the window becomes sharper. Fields give way to familiar cottages, and the train eventually trundles to a stop. She readjusts her sunglasses and steps out into her childhood village.
The short walk home is so familiar she doesn’t need to raise her eyes to look at the monuments to times gone by tucked away behind picket fences. The house party that first branded her best friend a slut for the next two years, the spot where her lovingly made packed lunch would go sailing over the hedge to avoid ridicule at lunch break, the corner where her teenage self had so often jumped at jeering yells thrown from a passing car. Reminders of lessons well-learned.
Destination reached, she finally removes her earbuds and lets herself in, calling into the kitchen as she pushes her shoes off her feet.
“We’re in here,” comes the well-known response and she follows it into the kitchen, immediately enveloped in the buzz of a pre-meal family. Two brothers are laying the table and her mother is scooping food onto plates on the side. The back of her dad’s head can be spotted just above the back of the sofa, as he raises a hand to welcome her without taking his eyes off the football game. She glances at the screen and thinks of her train companions.
“Take a plate, you’re just in time.” Her mum beams, and pulls her further into the kitchen. “The butcher gave me a special cut when I said you were coming home.” The four in the kitchen fill up their plates and gather. Her brothers sit and shuffle their feet, sliding expectant looks at their mother.
“Food’s ready” she trills again, and the father moves towards the table in reverse, eyes still on the screen. His daughter sighs, and leans sideways in her chair, already cringing as she sees her mother’s smile falter then widen again, as she busies herself filling water glasses and asking about the journey. More nostalgia snaps at the heels of the conversation, of times when a daughter could be oblivious to the true dynamics of her family.
The meal passes with trivialities and well-rehearsed conversations that began once with My Day At School and have now been upgraded into My Life In London. Same fillers with a new face. Her head starts to throb again, and she wishes she had thought to pack more pills.
The afternoon passes at a slow crawl, forever counting down the minutes until she can escape back to her flat where the intrusively loud voices at least stay outside the flat rather than forcing their way in via well-meaning comments on weight and dating choices.
Images flash before her eyes of the day: the first pain in her head, the too-bright sunlight that followed her all day, the loud football chants, the probing questions from an inquisitive father, the pressure to bring back stories of a fulfilling life in London, the drone of the TV in the evening, the constant, unavoidable hum of life pushing on.
She closes her eyes, the duvet back in place. She sleeps. She escapes.