A hair waved at her, long and black, from between the bagel slices. She plucked it and pulled, grimacing at the green avocado mush slathered over the end. Its weight made the thin filament droop towards her wrist. Dropping it quickly into the tin foil spread on her lap, she took another bite of her sandwich.
The sandwich went: golden brown- pink ham- iceberg lettuce- green mush- golden brown. Before starting she had peered at the mush, expecting the strong french mustard which she had never been able to like. But guacamole was a pleasant surprise. She had that, and a fancy rhubarb yoghurt, an apple, and a Galaxy bar. She was slightly perturbed by the calorie count, but, feeling hungry and tired at the break, she could almost pretend that during dance she had burned off her breakfast.
She was sitting with the other chorus girls on the soft leather couches in the centre of the atrium. They had one hour for lunch on Saturday and the vocal coach had exhorted them to use this time to learn lines. ‘You may not be professional’, she had said that morning, ‘but we want the effect to be WOW, you know, WOW, not, ‘they were good- for volunteers’’. Anna had seen the audition call on Facebook two weeks ago, and signed up in a flurry of resolve. Now she felt exposed. She struggled to remember the choreography, and was mortified when they told her to improvise ‘tribal dance’. She liked lunchtime because it meant there were only three hours left, and a full five days before the next rehearsal.
She noticed a smaller knot of girls diligently pouring over a script in the corner, but most were just chatting about college or their weekend plans. The few boys who had tried out skulked on the fringe of the group, finding themselves, despite concerted efforts to socialise, ignored. One hovered more tenaciously, interjecting a couple of times into gaps of conversation, but none of his efforts gathered momentum and eventually he slunk away. The girl beside Anna said to her in a hushed voice,
‘Have you notice the really tall lad during the conquest scene? He’s going for it.’
‘Yeah’, said Anna, ‘yeah, I’ve decided not to make eye contact.’
‘Oh my god, I was so close to laughing.’
‘Fair deuce to him, I suppose, for trying. It’s just tough because the line between energy and- whatever, is pretty thin.’
‘Totally, oh my god. He’s full on leering at me, I couldn’t handle it’.
Someone sitting opposite suddenly piped up, ‘Does anyone find it difficult not to break in that last bit?’
Girls began to laugh, and there were various hollers and murmurs of agreement.
‘Massive elephant in the room’, said the girl to Anna’s ear again. Anna could see her smirking.
Another hair was poking out above the ham. This time it was shorter, coarser, and grey. She dragged it away and shook it into the foil. What an amusing way to observe your mother getting older, to realise the hairs in your sandwiches were now turning silver. Then it seemed ironic, in the face of her own stunted maturity- a twenty-five year old still receiving packed lunches from her mum. Most of the others in the chorus were in secondary school.
She saw the very tall boy emerge from the boys’ bathroom down the corridor, and felt her mouth upturn at the corner. She glanced at the girl beside her. He was taller than everyone else in the cast by about two feet, but the effect was cruelly accentuated by a thick, dark fringe swept to the side of his head. For some reason he chose not to wash this fringe often, and it was obvious. He always wore black, black t-shits and trousers, and converse with his name daubed in biro by the rim of the soles and on the back of the floppy, grunged-up tongue. It was kind of horrible to be laughing at him. After all, the show worked so much better when the actors were expressive, and she had left college feeling absolutely certain that she wasn’t cool. But his efforts made her cringe.
A conversation about jobs was happening around her.
‘I’m a speech and language therapist, in St Michaels? It’s this tiny hospital in Dun Laoighre, right opposite the cinema there?’
Jemma was talking, an attractive girl with straight, honey coloured hair and an easy smile. She was the type of person with a knack of dressing as herself and owning it, with slightly funky patterned tops and high waisted jeans.
‘Ya, it’s good like, but it’s good doing something different you know? It’s definitely good to get out of your bubble’.
A girl with a bob of mousy-coloured hair and acne turned to Anna. ‘Did you say you worked there?’
A couple of the others turned to them, and Anna felt herself shrink into the seat.
‘No, not there, in a different hospital’, she replied, overly brightly.
It might have petered out then, but Jemma probed further, in a friendly, welcoming way.
‘Where was that?’
‘Just in the Mater, for the summer.’
‘What were doing?’
‘I was working as a care assistant.’
‘Yeah’ – she didn’t want to bore these people, it was always hard to get the balance right- ‘I was considering applying for medicine, so i thought that would give me a chance to see more what it was like.’
‘What did you do in college?’
‘Ohhh. And how did you find the hospital then?’
‘Oh. Yeah. It was kind of awful.’
Jemma nodded vigorously, almost grinning. ‘Yeah, I can imagine. That’s the worst job in there.’
’It was a bit grim.’
There were only one or two still listening now, but that was ok, those who were looked mildly interested.
‘Were people nice to you?’, asked Jemma.
‘Not’, she hesitated, ‘Not really. You kind of get to hate doctors after a while.’
It suddenly occurred to her that one of the girls assembled might be studying medicine, or have relatives who were doctors.
‘I mean like, they’re obviously super busy, and we’re nobodies.’
‘No, I totally get you’, Jemma’s lips were pursed in sympathy, ‘the multidisciplinary staff is really under appreciated.’
Anna looked down at her sandwich. She caught glimpse of yet another hair, and made a mental note to remove it when she had less attention from the crowd. Jemma had moved on to subject of nurses, complaining about how badly they were treated. She made some non-specific hums in response, to indicate she was of like-mind, but was distracted by the gap between the slices of bagel. Many more prickly hairs peeping through, like a thin layer of fuzz between the ham and lettuce. It was like looking up at a night sky, and, on noticing one lone glimmering pin-prink, gradually realising a vast sea of companion star-lights, twinkling together beyond the firmament. Looking at the night sky always made Anna feel insignificant. This bagel was unsettling in a different way.
‘So you don’t think you want to do medicine any more?’
It was the mouse-bob girl. Anna shook her head.
‘I don’t really know what I want to do.’
It was true. In that moment she felt overwhelmed by the truth of it. She was sitting there, with no problems, abled bodied, paralysed by the options before her. The world seemed both vast, and very, very small, every adventure a cliched parody of itself. Maybe she didn’t have a special talent, or passion, or initiative; maybe that was why she could make nothing happen. But, sitting on a plastic chair of the respiratory ward in the middle of the night, while the dementing man she had been assigned to groaned and swiped at his IV, she had thought ‘I hate this’. And now, in the chorus of her community musical, she was embarrassed.
That morning on Facebook, she had seen a post from a girl she knew vaguely at college, describing her delight at being signed with an agency in London. She, this girl, was one of the everyone else for whom the best was blossoming, but- it wouldn’t sting so much if Anna could just find herself doing something she enjoyed.
There were too many strands. She’d picked out as many as she could stomach but now it actually seemed more mohair sandwich than lunch. She turned over the upper half of bread, curious, exposing the pink slab of meat with guac squeezed out over the edges. She retched. It was covered with dirt. There was wispy carpet fluff, and black speckles of indeterminate dust, and near the perimeter, squatting grossly, a matted tuft of what looked like red thread (from the kitchen carpet?) and wiry black and grey hairs all knotted together in a straggly ball. The bedraggled, fur-ball made her feel sick. Averting her eyes, she uncrumpled the tin foil as best she could and placed the remains of her bagel inside. Then she clenched the crackling package into a tight lump and headed to the bin.
By now she knew that the feeling of being useless came in waves. At some point during the afternoon session, it drifted; after all, she was patently very lucky, she could gather herself. When they were allowed a five minute break for water, someone suggested that they meet up and go to the cinema, and the burden of insecurity immediately lightened. The disgust inspired by the filthy meat lingered, however, and she kept wondering whether or not she needed to go to the bathroom. She remembered, during the reprisal, that their dog at home was black and grey and that he slept at the foot of the Aga, behind the counter. Mum must have dropped half of the bagel, and carried on, sure that she had stooped to rescue in good time.
She kept dancing.