You Are Here – Joanne Phillips

Just after ten on a glorious Friday morning in June, Jenna Robson packed an overnight case and strolled out of her family home. She stopped at the end of the gravel drive and glanced back, taking in the blank judgement of the deep-set windows, the dismissive sneer of the red front door. Her hand curved over the top of the cold stone gatepost; how many years had she stood like this, chatting to the postman or to Tom from next door, or waiting for Marty to manoeuvre their Volvo out of the narrow driveway and onto the lane? She traced the pock-marked stone with her finger, then allowed her gaze to travel south, through a gap in the silver birches that flanked the road opposite their elevated house, across the fields that dropped away into the Cheshire plain, and on towards a distant city where she had lived in what felt like another lifetime. She might not be able to see it from here, but she could feel its pull. The house that Jenna had shared with Marty and the girls for years looked on impassively. ‘I’ll be back soon,’ Jenna told an inquisitive blackbird that appeared to be watching her with interest. Then she felt bad for lying. She tipped the suitcase onto its wheels. The bird took flight, followed by a noisy flock of sparrows, and Jenna flinched, grimacing. She gave the gatepost a final loving pat, and the house a final wary glance, then headed down the lane towards the bus stop. When the time had come to pack – which was about three seconds after Marty left for work that morning – Jenna had run upstairs and chosen the smallest suitcase from the set of three last used on a girls-only trip to Portugal. She’d tied her fine blonde hair into a top-knot, rolled up the sleeves of her navy sweater, and set to work. The suitcases were nestled inside each other; she’d had to unzip the largest one first, then the middle one, and then pull the smaller attaché case from its snug, happy nest. It had made her sad, separating it from its siblings. When she shoved the others back under the bed, she imagined them saying goodbye, and the thought touched her deeply.

Jenna knew then that she would need to get a grip on her emotions if she was going to make it through this weekend in one piece. She remembered now how Marty had called the smallest suitcase ‘carry-on’ luggage when they went on their honeymoon. It wasn’t until they got on the plane that Jenna understood what the term carry-on meant in this context: she’d never been on holiday before and had assumed, for some inexplicable reason, that it was a reference to the Carry On films she’d watched with her dad as a kid. Consequently, Jenna had never been able to take packing seriously since. Even this morning, doing the most serious packing of her life, Jenna had felt a little light-hearted. She’d thrown in her underwear willy-nilly, making no effort to pair-up bras and knickers. Her alarm clock had been pitched from a distance of about two metres, and watching it land silently and disappear into a froth of satin and silk, Jenna hadn’t been able to suppress a smile. Laid alongside the suitcase were two industrial-sized black bin bags. Jenna planned to make this as easy for Marty as she could. She had given it a lot of thought and it seemed the kindest course of action. Also, the most efficient. How would it help Marty to see bits of her lying around the place for months after she’d gone? And it would only prolong her leaving – how easily she could imagine those late-night phone calls after a glass or two of whisky: You need to come get your cookery books, Jenna, and what about your winter jumpers? Dress shoes, old letters, photographs, that china sheep your mother gave you. Half the DVD collection, the anorak that lives under the stairs. There would always be something if you let yourself get pulled back by things. People, though.

They were another matter entirely. Jenna planned to walk out of this house with one small suitcase, and right now she had no way of knowing if she would ever be able to come back. So the packing had proceeded as it must, efficiently, ruthlessly, every item considered before being given its designation: suitcase, charity shop, or garage. The problem was this: What exactly should she take with her to her new life? As she packed, Jenna imagined herself trudging out of this grand old house, dragging her suitcase behind her, old before her time, an all-but-forgotten version of herself. But as she walked down the lane, past the late-blossoming apple trees and the heavy, drooping magnolias, something amazing might begin to happen. A light might start to glow inside her: it would transform her skin, her face, her hair. By the time she reached the bus stop, she’d look at least five years younger. Maybe ten. While on the bus, Jenna’s imaginary transformation would continue. The light would become a cleansing stream, washing her from head to toe, clearing away years of frustration and shame. By the time she emerged, she would be an entirely different person. She’d step off the bus and turn her face to the sun. Now, she was the Jenna of twenty-one years ago – or possibly an even better version. And there was Andre, just as she had left him, just where she had left him, waiting for her. His arms would be outstretched, supplicating, ready to take her with him this time, never to let her go … Ridiculous fantasy, of course.

‘Ridiculous, stupid woman.’ Jenna chided herself under her breath in the voice she always used when she told herself off. But she finished her packing all the same and zipped the case shut with a satisfying pzzzttt. ‘Ridiculous idea, all of this,’ she said as she lifted the case down the ornate staircase, one thickly carpeted step at a time. ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid.’ Andre wouldn’t actually be waiting for her, at the bus stop or anywhere else. The fact was, he didn’t even know she was coming. Not as such. Not in so many words. But there was no time to worry about that now. Sometimes Marty came home for lunch, and Jenna absolutely couldn’t risk being here if he returned. Eleven thirty was her deadline and it was already ten forty-five. She hadn’t had breakfast yet, although eating was the last thing on her mind. In the kitchen, however, progress was halted by the sight of so many more signs of herself. How could she possibly remove everything that might remind Marty of her? She began to feel annoyed with Marty, as though he himself had set her this challenge.

‘Well,’ she said to her ugly, dusty spice rack, ‘he’ll just have to get rid of you himself, won’t he, if he doesn’t like seeing you there?’ And to her cupcake apron: ‘I won’t be needing you anymore where I’m going!’ (She didn’t plan to cook or bake in Andre’s kitchen. They would eat out every night, or else grab a take-out dinner on the way back from the theatre or the cinema.) Still, she left the apron hanging on its hook, not having the heart to throw it away, and she wondered, not for the first time, which would be more distressing for Marty: to have everything of hers gone in one fell swoop, or to keep being reminded of her absence by, say, noticing her apron one day and imagining her wearing it and baking his favourite upside-down-spiced-pear-pudding. Oh, enough of Marty and his feelings. ‘Enough!’ she said out loud and flounced out of the kitchen. As if he ever noticed her apron. (Or her, for that matter.) It had been years since she’d baked exclusively for him. When they were first married, she had spent entire days preparing cakes and pastries for him to try. ‘Here,’ she’d say, presenting a Victoria sandwich to him on a silver cake-base. ‘Taste this. See if you can guess the secret ingredient.’ And Marty would smile while he ate, kissing her with icing sugar lips. Jenna always tasted her own creations through Marty’s kisses, it seemed. ‘The secret ingredient is… mmm, now let me see…’ Marty would take another slice and curl her into the crook of his arm.

And then, ‘It’s love!’ he would announce, and they’d laugh together, smug and satisfied with themselves and with each other. Jenna shook the memory away and squared her shoulders. It did no good to dwell on the past. ‘Onwards,’ she said through gritted teeth, and she unrolled another black bin sack before firmly closing the kitchen door. But things weren’t proceeding as smoothly as she’d planned. She would just be getting into the swing of it when some object would hit her in the chest with a memory. The silver compact on her dresser, for example. Shaped like a butterfly, each wing opening to reveal a tiny mirror. It was true that Marty had bought this on their fifth wedding anniversary, but why did she have to remember that day in so much detail right now? It wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t seemly. She was leaving the man, walking out, moving on.


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Updated: 14 January 2022 — 11:03

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