It’s a blessing whenever the postman brings them someone else’s letters. It’s the only time she can go out alone. Outside she can be brave, walking upright and unafraid along open lanes, redelivering a stranger’s post.
Brenda Mordrake’s world is one of fear. The fear is visceral, a clawing, grasping talon, clutching all the time deep inside, twisting every thought, every word rendering words empty, voided. Fear of saying the wrong thing, fear of feeding him the wrong food, fear of forgetting to turn the on telly when his favourite programmes were due. Fear is her cage, cast iron, immutable.
His fear does not cage him: it is an enemy to be battled. He fears exposure, being named a fraud, admitting that the injuries weren’t so bad, the confession that the accident did not destroy his life. Once the pins were in and the bones renewed he mostly recovered. He isn’t as lame as he pretends. Fractures to pelvis, spine and thigh healed. But always he’s in so much pain he can’t walk, he said. Efforts to show willing and work with all the helpful people paid off because they believed him. And hidden, his surreptious exercises slowly built meagre strength in joints and bones. He can stand and walk, not fast or far, but fast and far enough to aim a powerful arm and clenched fist in Brenda’s direction. It’s Brenda’s fault because it will be her fault, if they get found out. He is afraid and fear is his enemy. He wants to hurt her more. The enemy gives him license.
In the beginning Brenda believed his fiction, believed he really couldn’t stand or walk even a little bit. She believed it until she saw him walk across the room when he thought she was out. She was parking the car after a trip to the village off licence, when a shape moved across the tar grimed window. It was only a shadow but she knew. Her heart had briefly fluttered with misplaced hope, hope that now the smacks were rarer and the kicking foregone as part of the charade, they might go back to where they started. Back to misremembered moments of briefly lived splendour.
The hope sizzled and fried in angry air as soon as she crossed the threshold, struggling with the shopping, praying he hadn’t noticed her arrive home. The slap’s force knocked her down, onions flying across the floor, milk carton spewing its contents over everything else in the bag. “You want to watch who you’re watching girl,” he’d spat before turning away and walking ramrod straight with tiny steps back to his couch and the television. She lay for a moment, crumpled on the beer tins, milk leaking slow and wet, her face throbbing against the dirty wall. She notices ants wiggling along the floor, dessicated flies, upside down cheesy bugs and hot tears soaking into dust. She struggles to her feet, faint and dizzy and brings him a McEwan’s fished from her shopping bag. Anxiously she wipes away the milk with her sleeve. She pulls the ring top and hands it over. He snarls up at her, eyes narrow, icesplintered, violent. Dirty chewed fingers grip a half-smoked Marlborough as he watches Brenda bend to pick up newspapers fallen to the floor. She keeps her face as far as possible from his other empty fist.
Delusions and caution undone, kicks, smaller and stampier, returned. Fear rose ever present between them, a black tension, no space for anything else. Permanent. Her only excursions were Brenda’s occasional postal deliveries and the elaborate shared pantomimes with the wheelchair, the crutches with their carefully padded handles, the artificial heaving of him in and out of the car at the supermarket, the pub. She breathes in his sweat, stinking stale like onions and still intoxicating and fights tears for all those lost promises. He likes to see her cry in public, adds drama and pathos to his situation, makes him a hero in his own play. Sometimes he pinches the underside of her arm to help her along. He says it’s just his way, and “I know it doesn’t really hurt, eh girl, does it?” as he pinches again, twists and watches for the tears.
But the post was another thing. He can’t risk some nosy parker coming looking for a missing gardening catalogue or water bill, so he sends her out to take it to the right house. It was a cherished freedom and she wondered if there would ever be a day when she would have the courage to ask for help, tell some stranger on a rainy doorstep she needs a friend, not even a friend, just someone, anyone who could break the crushing spell, help her break her silence.
Late on Sunday afternoon she brings him a cup of tea and a cake, standing patient until he’s woken fully from his nap and is ready to take it. She hopes the tea won’t go cold. Dismissed and sitting quietly in her scruffy chair, Brenda watches him go through yesterday’s post, looking for his next appointment letter, his betting statement. He tosses a handful of letters onto the carpet and grunts. “You’d better get these back before they miss them and come asnooping”. Brenda’s never dared question why he thought people would come to them in search of lost post. She looks at him, warily, considering the safest way to answer. He’s giving her a mock grin, as he bites into his Bakewell tart, though the grin looks like a smile. She smiles back, as she turns on the television and hands him the remote. Before she leaves Brenda empties the ashtray and brings him another beer. She takes away his empty cup and plate. Dutiful, caring, pretending she’s still in love not fear. “Shan’t be long” she trills and coat in hand heads out of the little bungalow towards the lane.
She knew she wouldn’t be long as soon as she felt the hard cold rain pelting down on her head. She knew she wouldn’t be long because the threat of his anger would drive her back, before any sort of long had a chance to take hold. She knew she wouldn’t be long because she never was, never was. She knew. The lane is slick seal grey with debris from the windy storms strewn across her path. Dead colours and icy air. Transient sticks and leaves buffeted in the wind. Rainmade bumps of stones and mud a random little landscape, fettered and passive earth and air. But there are no walls and for a few scant minutes no fear.