The final instalment from memories of my lone trip to California in 1997
Standing on The Golden Gate Bridge, we must present an odd sight by anyone’s standards. I am trying not to look like a typical tourist but am failing miserably as I point the camera and exclaim at the views. My friend clutches the straw hat to her head in an act of desperation, lest the wind snatch it from her and send it flying across the bay. Her skirts have given up and billow in the wind.
Annie is wearing full make-up and high heels, making her tower head and shoulders above me. I feel very under dressed next to her in my jeans and casual T-shirt, not to mention vertically challenged.
A cackle escapes her lips and she begs a passer-by to take our photograph. Oh no, am I to be captured forever on film, with Annie at my side, grinning manically into the lens? I smile bravely and the kind stranger passes me back the camera.
“Thank you very much,” I say.
“Say, you from Australia?” he asks in a friendly manner. I shake my head, explaining that I am in fact from England.
“Oh, you get a lot of fog over there don’t you?” he asks innocently. I am tempted to yell,
“NO!, whatever gives you that idea?” but instead I gently put him straight and he walks on, probably wondering at the uncommon sight we present.
We drive back towards San Jose where I have been invited to spend my final night in the ‘Tomb of Dolls’ otherwise known as Mom’s living room.
We have stayed in Motel 6s, visited the Redwoods and camped in the mountains. We have avoided some rough-looking lumber-jacks and eaten supper cooked on a camping stove beneath the stars. Annie has laid out her crystal ball and her tarot cards and proceeded to read my fortune much to the interest of the other campers. We have paddled in the Pacific and driven along Highway one. We have met a Man-Mountain Sheriff and witnessed an attempted armed robbery at a petrol (gas) station.
We have travelled through the Napa Valley and driven along the Silverado Trail seeing Old Faithful and A Petrified Forest. At every turn I have experienced nothing but friendliness from the people I have had the good fortune to meet. (The would-be-robbers apart) As for Annie, well, I may have reservations about her true identity. I may believe she is hiding something from me – in fact I am sure she is hiding something from me – but suddenly none of that is as important as it seemed. I am about to leave and I have had an amazing time. I haven’t just seen California, or at least a small part of the same, I have flown 5000 miles across the globe, alone. I have managed to cope without husband or family to turn to and though I have missed them beyond belief, I have discovered that I can survive.
As for Annie, well, Annie is just Annie.
My bags are packed and my passport safely stowed. There are only a few hours to go before I drive up to San Francisco Airport and wave goodbye to all this.
Annie’s Mom has been looking at some photographs and videos of my family and we have spent a pleasant evening in which stories and presents have been swapped.
I help stack the dishes and it is a while before I notice that Annie has slipped away.
Excusing myself, I take a walk around the garden and find her moping on the stoop to the trailer. Sensing a downward shift in her mood I attempt to lighten things a little.
She says little and I see that she is genuinely upset. Oh dear, my visit was always going to come to an end but somehow, poor Annie is taking my departure far harder than she ought.
Her reluctance to let me go has made itself known in the past day or two. Emotionally, she is a wreck. One failed marriage, numerous relationships with either sex that have not lasted, all have left her vulnerable and likely to attach herself to the nearest friendly face. I have been that friendly face for the past three weeks.
I could liken it to a typical ‘Doctor-Patient’ relationship with hindsight. It has been a while since Annie had anyone to “take-her-as-she-is”. My acceptance of all her shortcomings with only a few protests has made me a valuable ally. I have listened to her problems and offered advice here and there. Now, her reliance on me is showing.
I do believe that some people come into our lives for a short time, for a purpose. Did I come into Annie’s to make her re-evaluate her life? I certainly didn’t intend her to place such a reliance on me that my inevitable departure could cause such distress. Perhaps Annie has come into my life to teach me not to take it for granted. Seeing how Annie’s life has panned out, brings my own into sharp focus and makes me appreciate it all the more.
Inevitably, there have been times during my trip when I have been aware that Annie regards me as a friend she would care to keep here. Equally, there have been times when I have found her so selfish and blinkered that I doubted she remembered my existence. Still, emotions are delicate things and Annie’s have been all over the place.
I could do with a degree in Psychology right now. Without this, I do what I can to smooth the way forward.
Our conversation is difficult. I am a little perturbed when Annie remarks that maybe she should kidnap me. My niggling worries that I have come to California to meet someone who might well be an axe murderer for all I know, surface for a second.
Of course, she is joking. This attempt at humour is encouraging at least and we make a little progress. Annie’s mood lifts a little. The conversation gets a little easier.
The hundreds of pairs of eyes greet me as I make my way back into the living room. ‘Mom’ has pulled out the sofa bed for me. I arrange the covers and take a while to look around me one last time. I swear there are more dolls here than before if that is possible.
Tonight they seem less scary but still, a feeling of unease sweeps over me. It occurs to me that if this was a horror film then this is about the time I would settle into a false sense of security, only to find that I had been swallowed up by the tomb of dolls and become one of them –sentenced to a lifetime within these walls.
My imagination runs wild and I have written several scenarios in my head, none good, by the time sleep finally claims me.
I am up with the lark. I have breakfasted and completed my packing and am ready to leave by the time Annie comes in. She makes no reference to the previous night’s conversation, possibly because her mother is hovering around and fussing over me. We must have our photographs taken out in the yard, Stepdad, Mom and me, Annie, Mom and me, Stepdad Mom and Annie. The combinations run their course and I am grateful when we are at last heading for the airport in the battered old camper van.
I would very much like Annie to leave me at the entrance. She doesn’t want to. She wants to accompany me as far as she can, in her wheelchair of course. So, we buy a few magazines for me to read on the plane and have a final cup of coffee together before I check my case in.
We have had a couple of rolls of film developed and I give her copies of the photographs we took on our travels. She declares she must give the one of me and her grandma to that same lady and I remember ‘grandma’ with a smile. I recall the arguments caught on film that I witnessed and the doll, safely tucked into my suitcase for my youngest daughter. So, she refers to her granddaughter as ‘he’? So what?
Annie appears to be a little more in control today and has even decided to make plans to move out of the trailer and get something done about her hip and her lack of teeth. I am pleased for her.
I am aware that my mind has already switched to thoughts of my homecoming and although I try to give Annie my fullest attention, my head is already elsewhere. Realising this, she finally concedes that I need to go.
I hurry towards the departure lounge. Annie stands in the crowd to wave. I catch a glimpse of her wild hair beneath its now infamous straw hat and then she is gone.
A strange thing happens as I step through the sliding doors that block out sight and sound of the recent past. Alone for the first time in three weeks, despite the crowd of travellers around me, I slip back into my own skin and am pleased to find that it still fits perfectly.
I find a seat and allow myself a wry smile. What an adventure I have just had!
I drink in the solitude that is mine to enjoy. Other people are caught up in their own lives and do not encroach on mine. By the time we board the plane I have fully returned to myself. I close my eyes and remember the past three weeks, running through our adventures in my mind and smiling at some, wincing at others. I scribble in my notebook as details emerge and need to be written down. One day I will share them.
I am hardly aware of my immediate travelling companions despite the fact that they are two burly Rugby players who are squeezed into seats adjacent to mine with some difficulty. They are friendly and polite. We exchange a few words but my thoughts play on, mostly uninterrupted.
As the plane hovers above Heathrow, some nine or ten hours later, with no fog in sight, it occurs to me that I am the same yet not the same person who made the outward journey.
There are many ways of ‘finding oneself’ and this has certainly been one of them.
Postscript March 2011:
We corresponded for a short while on my return but it seemed that Annie had reached a turning point in her life. She made plans and followed them through. She had the hip operation she needed. She confronted her ex-husband, reclaimed her belongings and began to set her life in order. I don’t know if she ever got any teeth.
There was no more advice or sympathy to hand out. My job was done. Our ‘friendship’ came to a natural end.
Despite this, I think we both learnt lessons that will last us a lifetime. I certainly don’t regret going, after all I had an amazing time and what is life without a few risks and a taste of adventure?
Unanswered questions remain unanswered for now and that is probably for the best. There is little to be gained by conjecture. Truth is often stranger than Fiction.