Opening Extract from Beyond the Storm


She squeezes her eyes tight shut and then opens them wide. As on other mornings, she wonders if perhaps she is dead, and exactly how she would know. The sun has not fully penetrated the maroon silk curtains, but creates a rosy pinkness in the gloom of the bedroom which could be taken as heaven. A moment later the clatter of the drinks trolley in the corridor convinces Anna that it is not heaven, and that she is still alive. She remembers that today is her hundredth birthday.

The continuous preparations have become more than a little irritating, but she tries to keep quiet, to accept it in good humour. Tomorrow is the great day, they kept reminding her, making a ridiculous fuss about it. As though one day makes such a difference, even this day. Doreen had done her usual ‘popping in’ and asking if Anna was excited. She said yes she was, just to please her.

‘But don’t make too many advance preparations. After all, I might die in the night.’

‘Anna! Honestly, shame on you!’

‘There’s no shame in death. What a waste of effort it would be, and such a disappointment for the other residents.’

Doreen didn’t like that.

‘You’re a terrible pessimist, Anna.’

Such a fool. Did she think optimism ensures eternal life?

‘Not at all. I’m not a pessimist – just a realist. We all have to die. In fact, at one day before my hundredth birthday, the chances must be quite high.’

‘Oh Anna, do try to be more cheerful. We’ll all have a lovely day tomorrow.’

Well, she has survived the night and ‘the great day’ has arrived. Eve appears soon after morning coffee. She settles Anna in the wheelchair in a quiet alcove off the main lounge, making sure the maroon cushion (matching the curtains) at her back is plumped up, her shawl symmetrical, and her skirt smoothed over her knees. On the wall opposite is a large mirror with a gilt frame, slightly chipped in places. Anna rarely examines herself in a mirror these days, but in this position she has little choice. The mirror is barely a metre away and shows her entire body, in cruel detail. She stares at her reflection. How tired she looks. And old – so very old, she realises with shock. Her face is small, almost childlike. The flesh, now pale and sallow, has loosened around the jaw, forming two soft jowls. The skin around her eyes has darkened, as if perpetually shadowed by fatigue. Yet, Anna notes with satisfaction, she remains scarcely lined. Always small, she seems to have shrunk into an almost gnome-like form, her body engulfed by the wheelchair. Her legs, discoloured and blotchy from poor circulation, dangle above the floor like a child’s. Her hair has been set in neat waves. Anna is very particular about it – very particular about physical appearance in general. People these days seem happy to look totally ungroomed. Anna tuts out loud to herself at the thought.

‘Mmm?’ says Eve. Anna shakes her head. The hairdresser comes every Thursday and Anna rarely misses an appointment. Her thick, dark curls were once admired by all. Even now, she notices, much black hair shows through the white. She turns her head from one side to the other and looks round to Eve with a soft sigh.

‘I’m getting so grey now.’

Eve laughs.

‘Don’t you think you’re entitled to have some grey hair at a hundred?’ The only image of herself Anna allows to be displayed in her room is a studio photograph arranged as a present for Sam, soon after they first married. In it Anna looks film-star beautiful; her hair is sculpted in forties style, her skin pale and smooth as milk. She gazes aslant at the camera from darkly sultry eyes, a faint, enigmatic smile on her lips. Even now, over seventy years later, it is how she likes to picture herself.

The staff fuss around Anna. Eve crouches by her mother’s chair, always ready to be her interpreter. Anna knows she’s on show, expected to be the life and soul of the party, but she can’t hear, can’t make out what people are asking her.

Doreen looms over Anna, stroking her hand.

‘Are you having a nice time, Anna dear?’ she shouts.

Anna smiles uncertainly up at her, glancing at Eve for reassurance, working out what response is needed.

‘Very nice party, thank you,’ she says. Or rather, ‘sank you’. She’s never lost her accent, even after all these years.

Doreen grins and nods. Behind her a nervous looking young man is shifting from one foot to the other. Doreen stands up and grabs him by the arm. She pulls him down to the level of Anna’s chair.