At Longbourne House Audrey was calm, musing, as she watched the nurse remove the syringe, that it wasn’t important if Mrs Snipcock got the message or not. The day looked promising. Perhaps a little outing on the terrace would be in order. She drifted off wondering how much fuss she should make about borrowing a phone cable, deciding on balance that the calls to Cumin Elk & Fancy or Flom and Millichop could wait. Afterall the debts would have to and they, like Audrey, weren’t going anywhere.
Under the same promising day’s sky, the answering machine has told a goggle-eyed Brenda that Audrey’s clients can expect their new wardrobe samples next week. Like the nice voice on the message, Brenda wonders would Audrey like the usual venue booked or to host them at home? Looking through Audrey’s Filofax, Brenda pretends to choose Tuesday week and using a well-buttered piece of toast as Audrey’s phone pings a message to the kind lady who is arranging the clothes, the invites and the venue. What life is this? Brenda is starting to talk to herself more loudly and even to answer her own questions. But this question hasn’t got an answer. For a middle-aged much bullied woman who’s only ever been to Bognor and Great Leigh and its surrounds, the London territory, a London life, is unmapped. She’s parochial, but Brenda hasn’t always been deadminded. She had already been accepted into the civil service before she finished school, but those soul turning eyes got in the way. All memory of the exam, her affinity with numbers, the top marks, the job offer, all of it drowned in that liquid brown. Brenda married Luke instead and now it was all so far away as to be forgotten.
“Clothes are the problem” Brenda said hesitantly to the kitchen cupboards through a bite of Audrey’s phone. She repeated her words to the presenter on the radio and tapped in a buttered message to the answering machine lady: problem is clothes. Problem is, Brenda doesn’t have any unless she pilfers shamelessly from her absent and unknowing host. Washing out her pants every evening was one thing, but the nasty jeans and sweat shirt wouldn’t dry and were now distinctly pongy. Brenda was determined, almost. She checked the time on the hob clock and consulted Audrey’s diary. The Ocado delivery was due today between noon and two o’clock this afternoon. The boiler man was coming at four. Her phone sitting on Audrey’s immaculate granite was buzzing. Luke again. Brenda watched the phone skittering across the glitter and caught it as it fell and Luke gave up. The phone. A world was waiting. Yes. Find the router, hope the codes are on it. Yes. Now what? Find something that does searching. Keep an eye on the time. Hah! Soon. Only been twenty minutes and then. Charity shops and Audrey’s address. Directions from your location said there are two nearby, just close enough to make it there and back in time for the boiler man if Ocado arrives by two, which it might well do. All this trivial activity, all this independent action, all these decisions were intoxicating, thrilling even.
Banging again from the hall and this time Brenda is ready and has practised her grinning and gushing, “hello, great to see you” and the lady driver smiling says “gorgeous day isn’t it” and starts heaving what appears to be colour coded shopping across the threshold. “… well yes, yes it is” says Brenda watching the numerous bags accumulating. “That’s about it.” Mrs Ocado finally says and Brenda smiling back has made her choice. “Yes. That’s about it. I’m doing it today. I am. I’m about it too.” It wasn’t the sort of response Mrs Ocado was expecting and her instincts told her to shift sharpish before the conversation turned weirder. “Off I go. See you next time. Or rather I won’t as I’ll be moving on.” “And me. I won’t see you. I’ll be moving on.” Brenda called to her retreating back. “And me” she repeated, half to herself and again, “and me”. Brenda put the shopping away with immense precision, keeping everything aligned as far as she could, a far cry from the usual shoving of stuff random and messy into the cupboards of the Great Leigh bungalow under Luke’s scathing eye.
Then having surveyed the kitchen for traces of any activity or mess, Brenda picked up the door keys. She remembered to get one of Audrey’s business cards from her desk so that she knew where to return to, and some cash from Audrey’s purse which Brenda replaced with an IOU. Phone, cash and keys safely stowed in her smelly jeans pockets and following the map on her phone, she headed for the Sue Ryder shop some few hundred yards and many corners away. The traffic beyond the little square where Audrey lived was terrifying and the crowds parting around Brenda barely noticed the shabby looking woman peering into her phone and constantly checking for road names, missing traffic lights and tripping on the pavement cracks. Somehow she had the idea that London would be smooth and even and its streets comprehensively named. Brenda passed her destination several times, caught in tides of Chinese tourists dragging luggage towards Victoria Station. After the third time Brenda recognised the shop, and successfully navigated her way across the shoals to fall inside the silence and a curious smell that brought to mind old people and fabric softener.Brenda had no idea what she wanted. Racks and racks of clothes lined the walls and interior of the shop, narrow causeways separated dresses, skirts, trousers, tops, shoes and accessories. Like Brenda they were all anonymous, patient and waiting, like Brenda, for a new life. On a Tuesday afternoon the shop is quiet and the volunteers chatting in the back have taken note of Brenda’s worn and shapeless clothes before one of them comes over. “Can I help you?” The voice is heavily accented and Brenda is embarrassed to find herself staring at a beautiful African face shining out underneath a mad arrangement of colours towering high on the lady’s head. And even more embarrassed to find herself blushing. Aretta noted the blush of surprise, the yellowing bruise on Brenda’s cheek and the manky clothes she was wearing, no bag, messy hair, no makeup and broken looking shoes. She can recognise the signs. “I know what, let’s look together for you.” She flashed an encouraging, generous smile, and gestured to the nearest rack. Brenda nodded inanely and squeezed out a smile, keeping her hands deep in her pockets, fist tight and fearful of being found out, found out a thief, a runaway, squatting in someone else’s home, having never seen a woman quite like this one. Being bold with Mrs Ocado who looked pretty much like her, that was alright. But being bold in the shade of this amazing looking lady in her riotous colours and beads was impossible.