It was while Brenda and Audrey were busy navel gazing and some two days after Brenda had established herself in Audrey’s basement guestroom. At the bungalow in Great Leigh a waning Ford Fiesta is parking wonky on the lane near the drive. The car belongs to Luke and Brenda’s neighbours and it cannot be seen behind a large delivery van with Asda painted in bright and cheery green on its side. As they get out of the car, the occupants of the Ford Fiesta also cannot be seen. Renée Sagemill and Ann Apio have lived in Great Leigh for about as long as Luke and Brenda and for most of that time have observed from a distance a miserable couple living a miserable life. Private miseries keep Ann and Renée tightly squeezed within the confines of their own often silent routines. They know little about Brenda and Luke, except that she’s the carer and he is wheelchair-bound.
But lately, following a series of dreadful losses (the dog, the ancient stagleaf fern, a final parent or two) Ann and Renée’s constraints have eased a little. They need no longer suffer that fraught blend of guilt and defiance that was their only counter to the sniping and nastiness of their remaining parents. That the remaining parents remained no longer afforded Ann and Renée a previously unfamiliar and unexpected freedom. They were still moving out of the fog to appreciate what that freedom should mean to them, as individuals and as a couple. But less caught up in their own anxieties, they had started to notice the shouts and crying. Ugly sounds and energies seeped from their neighbours’ ill-fitting windows and doors. They had started to notice that Brenda was shakey and dishevelled when she helped her husband from his wheelchair into the car. They had observed that as she tried to lift his legs, she would sometimes crouch over unexpectedly and utter a small cry. And they had noticed that in the last few days, Brenda was nowhere to be seen.
“Shall we then? Shall we just go and check? What’s a good excuse? I know it’s nosey and none of our business, but we haven’t seen her in days.” Renée looked at Ann with a hard eye. She’s always so nosey, so concerned about other peoples’ stuff. “Look, if you want to barge in on complete strangers, go ahead. But I’m not coming with you. I’ll just wait here.” And Renée folded her arms and turned her head away to stare elsewhere. As Ann clambered out of the car and set off with rapid little steps towards the bungalow, her mind was winding itself too tight and her breathing was starting to stop. What would she say? Should she start with an apology for intruding? Or should she just pretend to be popping in to say hello. How lame is that. Back in the car Renée sighs and leans over to the back of the car to retrieve one of the staghorn ferns. They had bought them in a two for one: a back up if one died, which it wouldn’t. No more dying they had agreed. “Ann” she hisses striding low and fast. “Ann, I’m coming too. We can give them this.”
The couple and their fern round the van to see Luke standing almost upright on the threshold. He’s leaning against the doorframe to pick up bags of groceries. The women look at each other, small frowns and downturned mouths. A light breeze lifts the fern’s antler shaped leaves, a green stag testing the air. As the Asda van pulls away, Ann and Renée as one move closer into the tall leylandii hedge to see what happens next. It’s a first to see Luke Mordrake fully upright and unexpectedly tall. They watch as he moves back and forth carrying many shopping bags into his house. He didn’t move with any particular nimbleness or grace, but he was erect and mobile. The wheelchair was nowhere in sight. The two women again exchanged glances and continued to spy unseen until all the shopping bags had been removed.