Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 2

“I need some other clothes. I mean, I have to get something else.” And she adds trying for laughs, “I can’t stand up in these all the time, can I?” Aretta gave her an appraising look and steered her towards the ladies trousers. With a skillful eye she guessed Brenda’s size and chose a pair of jeans that had barely been worn. Pimlico. Brenda, amazed at the skill, the attention and the clothes accumulating on Aretta’s sturdy arm, could only nod. “You can try them on in here” Aretta said warm and kind. “I’ll see what else I can find.” Some forty pounds later Brenda has had more new clothes in one go than she has had in all her adult life. And she had some jewelry and shoes, even a handbag of her own.

Later that day, while Brenda was parading about the kitchen in selected outfits and getting ready for the boiler man to arrive, Aretta was sighing to her husband. “These women, they never ask for help. They’re so afraid. It’s like a disease.” Michael looked up from his despatch box at his lovely wife, “It is a disease, but they are just the symptoms. You see it’s almost worse because you cannot help her except with her clothes. You said the same last week, the same problem, women with bruises, women who don’t know how to get help, women who won’t tell.” 

Some of the clothes that Aretta has found for Brenda look almost new. They are modern, stylish and Brenda doesn’t recognise herself when she puts them on. She settles on a pair of loose fitting linen trousers in navy blue. The Meringo cardigan looks especially nice with them, moonlight shining over midnight. Aretta has also picked out a sequin embellished tee shirt in pale green which works wonderfully with the navy and cream. Brenda has paid careful attention to Aretta’s advice, memorised the combinations, but still spent the afternoon in the kitchen mixing up different combinations, just to see. To Brenda’s eye all the outfits work. Aretta was right about all of it. When it’s almost time for the boilerman to arrive, Brenda finds herself combing her hair, and stealing a swipe of lipstick from Audrey’s dressing table. But when Brenda hears the doorbell ring she drags her hand across her mouth to wipe it away. When Brenda heaves open the door, Mimis Chipman is standing deferential and polite. “That door wants planing” he smiled and handed her his card.

Brenda ushered him in, pulling at her teeshirt and wishing she knew what she was supposed to say to a boiler repair man. This boiler repair man is younger than Brenda, dark haired, olive skinned and strong looking. As she notes the width of his shoulders, the powerful forearms, she shrinks away and carefully peers at his card. “I am sorry I couldn’t come last week. It was a mess and I hope you’ve been ok without the boiler” his eyebrows raised in enquiry. “Oh, yes, yes it’s fine. I um I yes.” Brenda smiled. They stood there awkwardly for a few moments, Mimis waiting to be shown the boiler, Brenda wondering what she might be supposed to do. “It’s in here” she said, “this way” before stopping at the kitchen door having no idea where the boiler was or even what it looked like. Mimis waited expectantly for a moment and then, “right” he said, “I’ll just get my tools from the van. Shall I bring a dust sheet or do you want to use your own?” Brenda knew about dustsheets for painting but had no idea where one might be hiding in Audrey’s house. Mildly confident she said “er, er you, er you can bring yours”. As soon as Mimis was heading for his van Brenda racked her brains as to where a boiler might be lurking. It wasn’t downstairs in the basement she was sure. And why would it be? It could only be in the kitchen. But she had looked in every cupboard and not seen a boiler. 

Mimis was carting in a large toolbox and noticed Brenda’s slight flush under her messy grey hair. “Lead the way” he said brightly and as Brenda shifted her weight from foot to foot, he jokingly said “is it gone missing then absent in the line of?” “Well you see, I don’t really know. Where should it be? It isn’t in the kitchen …”. “Shall we look upstairs” Mimis replied, unaware of the effect this simple sentence was having on Brenda. She blushed “yes, that’s it, it’s probably upstairs, in the bathroom perhaps.” And as she headed that way Mimis watched her bare heels clip the stairs and found a line running unbidden in his head “her blue veined feet unsandaled were”. It was from Christabel he was pretty sure. And then unexpectedly he said it aloud followed by “Coleridge”. And Brenda turning on the stair saw, she was quite certain, a man who wasn’t there and said so. It was the only bit of poetry she could remember. Mimis was drawing a blank. “Yesterday upon the stair I saw a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today, I wish that man would go away” Brenda repeated. “It’s not really a poem, more a nursery rhyme I think. But it’s the only poetry I can remember. I don’t know why I said it. I can see you’re really there”. Brenda felt oddly bashful and slightly too warm in her Merino cardigan as she moved on towards the bathroom, following her Mimis was frowning slightly.

There skulking in a floor to ceiling cupboard was a fairly new combi gas boiler. Mimis spread out his dustsheet and started unpacking his tools. “What was that about the feet?” Brenda asked with some trepidation. Her own were entirely blue with cold, not just the veiny parts. “It’s from Christabel, the poem, Coleridge. I can’t remember all of it, just bits. I’m quite keen on poetry you know.” Brenda adrift in confusion tried to answer. The best she could manage was, “… poetry? Would you like a cup of tea?” Mimis smiled wide “I’d prefer a strong black coffee if you have it?” And Brenda scuttled bluefooted and relieved back down to the kitchen, but the black coffee was to prove tricky. There was no instant coffee in Audrey’s house, and Brenda had no knowledge of any other sort. There was just the strange machine and the kettle. She put the kettle onto boil and pressed a switch on the machine to see if it made a difference. Nothing. Inert. Unwilling. Unhelpful. Unfulfilling as to Mimis’s request. And then soundlessly he was there, suddenly present, at her elbow, watching with a quizzical expression as Brenda looked back at the kettle, her hand resting on the coffee machine. “Can I help? You’re looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, if you don’t mind me saying.” He grinned. “Shall I do it? Let me help. We drink a lot of coffee in my house.”

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 1

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.

Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 6

Mrs Snipcock said, “Hah! That’ll teach you. I’ll be spending Tuesday mornings at Mega Bingo then, thank you very much.” Mega Bingo in Tooting High Street, was Mrs Snipcock’s other vice and she was already looking forward to the addition of next Tuesday to her thrice weekly session plus jacket potato with beans and a double portion of grated cheddar on top. She carried on chatting to herself as she shifted upstairs, vacuum cleaner and polish in hand. Brenda was blushing as the depth and scope of her crime began to sink in. An accident, a terrible accident and she’d stolen the car. Two hours later when Mrs Snipcock banged the front door shut behind her, Brenda was only just beginning to rouse herself from the shock and horror of what she had done.

It was cold sitting there so Brenda crept cautiously down the basement steps to begin her investigation of Audrey’s house, bottom to top. The basement was dimly lit by small ceiling height windows, and she found herself in a cosy little guestroom with an en suite bathroom. She was alone for at least a week and no one knew where or who she was. It was as if she didn’t exist. She would stay here, out of the way, hidden and preparing for reinvention, although she wasn’t sure into what.

Now there are choices to be made, a whole vista of possibilities stretches before her, but she can’t see them. Brenda’s first decision is to read through Audrey’s Filofax. It said no one was coming to the house this week except an Ocado delivery on Tuesday which is today and a man coming to fix the boiler also today, but later. Audrey has an appointment to meet C in St. J on Wednesday at noon. No number. The daughter, Brenda knew, was somewhere far away.

Brenda fetches the suitcase from the car, carrying it bold and brave up the narrow stairs to a nonbedroom that looks like a study. A halfstair up past a bathroom tiled in greys and pale greens, and she’s in Audrey’s bedroom, a space warm with spiced oils and shades of subtle rose. Mrs Snipcock has traced lawnlike stripes on the plush damask carpet and polished every surface in the ensuite bathroom to a dazzle. Brenda places the small suitcase on the massive bed and slowly unpacks. Who is this tidy organised woman? Can I have her life? Would she mind if Brenda borrowed some clothes from that rack she’d glimpsed in the study perhaps? Yes she would. Would she mind if Brenda accepted the Ocado delivery? Probably not. Brenda puts everything back in the suitcase, making sure that it is exactly as she found it, leaving it on the floor and closing the door behind her. She explores three more rooms marked with anonymous convention, ending at last at the top of the house hemmed in with rooftops and views of chimney pots. Everywhere is tidy organised. Even the boxes of papers and files are neatly arranged, numbered, dated, labelled.

Returning to the study she sees more of Audrey. Shelves are stacked with fashion magazines organised by date in regimented rows. On the walls are framed prints of clothes, designers, strange blockish art and paintings of shoes, all against blood red walls. The huge bay window is curtained in heavy black velvet and the window seat a riot of satin cushions in reds and pinks that Mrs Snipcock has arranged with geometric precision. The furniture is old, polished and carefully positioned. Every picture placed just so. The rack of clothes behind the desk confuses Brenda, but she daren’t touch anything. Looking out across the room through the large bay window, Brenda could see the square with its gated gardens steaming, as spring sunshine hit the damp greens. In the study Brenda finds pictures of a young woman, and one of mother and child, from some other world. Now she knows that Audrey looks like. And Fiona. They are on some azure blue seafront, eyes squinting, a slight breeze rustling their hair. Audrey is taller than her daughter, heavier, with a deep tan glowing through a fine white lawn shirt. Her teeth are perfect and she seems to be laughing. A man features in many pictures. Jolly big, sunglasses hiding much of his face in most of them. There are pictures of them together, all against that amazing sky. All of them smiling and happy. It’s almost suspicious.

Brenda finds letters, all neatly organised, filed, tidy, perfect. Invoices to clients in dwindling numbers. There are many books organised by genre, and author name, and publication date. In a desk drawer there is a stack of bills neatly held in a bulldog clip and arranged by amounts owing. They go from quite high to eyewatering and Brenda is amazed as she tots it all up in her head. Other drawers hold pencils and pens, paper clips, coloured pencils and sketch books, fabric scraps, colour combinations and strange shapes, annotated. She reads aloud: “Block print ambers and gold. Leopard skin prints. BAFTA”. This is Audrey. Brenda has no knowledge that can help her put it all together. But the numbers, those bills, the blue skies and smiles tell something of the tale.

Settled back in the basement, rather than sprawling too much across Audrey’s life, Brenda wonders what should happen next. Luke’s world is gone, he can’t reach her, but what should happen now, and what should happen after that? She won’t turn on the phone yet even though the original plan and the revised one to wait for Audrey to come home, apologise to her and ask for help wasn’t going to work. But Brenda hasn’t had to make a decision for herself in years, so where to start? Food. Tea. Watch the television. Have a nap. The answering machine might help. She listens to the answering machine messages again, all of them. She builds up more pictures of Audrey and her daughter, whose name she now knows is Fiona. When the phone rings again Brenda is ready. Years of lying to social services have left her surprisingly adept at deceit. 

“Audrey Saxton’s phone”, she purrs. “Hello Audrey good, this is Leonie, Camilla’s new assistant.” “Hello Leonie” says Brenda in her best telephone voice. “This is Brenda. I am sorry Audrey isn’t here at the moment, can I help you?” Heat rising across her throat and flushing hot her face make Brenda’s voice sound breathy and slightly distant. “Oh, it’s just that Camilla has to cancel this week’s session. She’s stuck in Cornwall unexpectedly and won’t be back in town until next week. We’re sorry for the late notice, but wanted to let Audrey know to save a wasted journey. Do you think she could just put it on the bill?” “Of course, Leonie, don’t worry about it. I’ll make sure Audrey gets the message. Is there anything else?” There wasn’t and Brenda hung up the phone letting out a long sigh and making a note in Audrey’s Filofax that the meeting with Camilla was cancelled. She was beginning to think clothes were involved.

Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 5

On a plate, a microwaved almond croissant, the third after ineffective guesses at using a microwave and many wasted crumbs. And a couple of shortbread fingers from the tin; much safer. A cup of tea. The milk in the fridge is still fresh. Today’s Tuesday. Andrey Saxton can’t have been gone long. The radio talking about things that have no meaning, and Brenda is watching the world in Audrey Saxton’s small back garden. Tits and a robin sip water from a stone birdbath, precisely positioned at the absolute centre of the lawn. The garden is also immaculate and tidy, combed almost. The birds bounce in and out, hopping around the flowerbeds, pecking at tender leaves, tepid sunlight working to bring winter’s shrubs back to life. Clumps of daffodils interspersed with crocuses droop under their weight of rain. Overhanging trees are trimmed not to overhang too far and are also dripping. Crystals scatter the lawn.

At the table, Brenda arranges the letters collected from the hall floor according to date and size. Her little heaps tell her that counting today it has been only four days since Audrey was here. An hour goes by and the radio is getting boring, but she doesn’t dare change the channel in case she can’t put it right again. She finishes another croissant, this time plain. She doesn’t want to be greedy. It’s mainly to practise with the microwave before she forgets how to do it, and wasting food is worse than merely stealing it. She starts a list and begins with: make list and adds say sorry. Chewing on Audrey’s pen, Brenda jumps at the sound of noisy struggles at the door.

She switches off the radio, grabs her pen and list, and rushes to the hall and to the nearest door, praying that it will open. It’s the one to the basement and crouching down on the steps she draws the door to, until only a sliver of hallway is visible. Brooms and mops hang on the back of the door and Brenda holds their singsong banging still, as a chill draft from the outside ripples towards her. Crumbs on the hall carpet dance up. She hears a voice: “bloody thing wants planing”.

And then “Audrey are you here? It’s me. Are you here?” The voice bounced along the hall and into the kitchen along with its owner. An energetic and sparsely build woman, black eyed and fierce looking was calling some more, and feeling the kettle before topping it up. Surveying the many croissant crumbs and empty mug she shouted once again for Audrey, but this time much louder. But Audrey wasn’t there. Odd. She must’ve missed her. Mrs Snipcock waited for the kettle to boil, opening the patio doors and lighting a cigarette as she found a mug and a camomile tea bag. Camomile soothed her ulcer. Over her tea and cigarette Mrs Snipcock decided where she would clean and what she could get away with leaving until next time. Audrey’s car was there, so she was probably in town, most likely at one of those meetings that ended with lunch. It was raining again so she could ignore the outside terrace.

The phone rings once more making Brenda jump and Mrs Snipcock sigh, and this time it’s Audrey herself. “Mrs Snipcock,” says Audrey “… can you hear me? Can you pick up the phone? It’s Audrey.” A long pause and then a click as Audrey gives up. Mrs Snipcock stares at the ’phone. Since it was Audrey Mrs Snipcock determined to not answer it, in case she got into trouble. It might be a trick. The incident with the purple dress and that writer was still livid. “I’m not getting into trouble again” Mrs Snipcock said to the phone, sucking on what was left of her cigarette. Reminiscing aloud why this was so, she set to with the washing up from Brenda’s breakfast whisking the drooping flowers from sink to bin. “I don’t know what came over me. I just had a moment of madness. It was your fault, you weren’t here again. No one was so I don’t know why, but I just had to answer it and be Fiona.” She repeated loudly and in a high pitched faux posh voice: “My Mother’s unavailable at the moment. Can I help you?” Mrs Snipcock repeated it a couple of times, strutting in time out towards the garden to flick her cigarette end into next door’s garden. She repeated snatches of the lengthy discourse on this dress or that dress and which shoes and should she wear a fascinator or a hat or nothing. Mrs Snipcock as Fiona had then advised that the figure hugging off the shoulder minidress in purple silk would be ideal, agreeing that a larger size although unavailable, might be more comfortable, if dinner was involved. Yes, the shoes should be the metallic pink stilettos, teetering risk aside. And the almost matching fascinator, neither purple nor pink, would be lovely.

Despite the anxious concerns about the nipple skimming neckline; her abundance of dimpled back and shoulder fat; and the undulating doughiness of the minor celebrity writer’s knees and thighs, she had agreed, shoes and all. Mrs Snipcock had left a note to that effect she reminded the empty air. Brenda could hear snatches of her monologue as Mrs Snipcock cleaned the front sitting room and continued talking all the while as if she were Fiona. Sitting on the basement stairs, Brenda’s picture of Audrey was starting to come into focus.

It had taken Audrey considerable effort and tact to reverse the purple-dress-and-pink-stilettos decision, a mere few hours before the red carpet beckoned. She managed it by the skin of her perfectly enameled teeth and before irrevokable damage was done to Audrey’s reputation and that of her client. In fact the decidedly porky writer of a highly successful recipe book had swept all before her. A long navy dress of heavy taffeta showed off ample cleavage, framed in a flattering collar, and long loosely flowing sleeves added elegant grace to every movement. Her flat silver pumps obviated all possibility of teetering into the arms of unwilling strangers and her puckered knees and thighs were nowhere to be seen.

A few minutes later and the phone rings again, Mrs Snipcock looking on waiting for the answering machine and Brenda holding her breath and straining to hear. Six rings and then the click as the answering machine kicks in: “Mrs Snipcock it’s me again. I think you must be there by now, so please pick up the phone.” No response from Mrs Snipcock. After the fourth attempt the exasperation is clear as the answering machine clogs up: “Mrs Snipcock I really don’t mind if you answer the phone, and I have to tell you that I shall be away for a couple of weeks, so there is no need to come next week. I’ve broken my ankle down in the country, visiting friends. I can’t drive or come home yet and wanted you to know. Please pick up the phone. I shall be at Longbourne House retreat. I don’t have my phone charger. I’ll see you in a couple of weeks or so. No need to come next week. I know it’s a chore coming when there’s nothing much to be d .” Click as the answering machine ran out.

Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 4

An answering machine kicks in. “Mummy it’s me, just to let you know I’ve finally got to Furnace Creek and am in the hotel. Won’t be able to contact you for a few days as we’ll be shooting out in the desert and there probably won’t be signal. Sorry I missed you before I left. Hope all’s well with Stephen and Margaret”. The phone hangs up. Brenda likes the sound of the daughter’s posh voice, and scrawls her mind through the message in search of more clues about Audrey Saxton. Now she knows Audrey is a mother, but why hasn’t she come home? And where is she without her car? And where is Furnace Creek? Shooting?

Somewhere far away on the edge of Death Valley Fiona cut the call and immediately returned to the bar to finish her fourth marguerita and continue her quest. She was so close, it could surely not be much longer before the sound guy finally succumbed. Fiona had been watching him from behind her hair since they met at the gate at Heathrow airport. He was definitely her type: short, wiry, fit, with thin brown hair and a high hairline that would soon be chasing the cute little bald patch already shining on the back of his head. His eyes were dark blue and his nose the straightest ever, sharp, almost painful. His ears stuck out but not to the same degree and his teeth stood in a tidy row beneath a slightly too long expanse of gum and behind lips set in a cheeky smile. His skin was pearly pale with an irregular sprinkling of stubble.

It seemed to her that he hadn’t noticed Fiona and her uniform straight brown hair, the regulation parting, the trendy too thick eyebrows and that made him even more desirable. But he had, along with the predatory look writ so large across her pretty face. And if he had been of a mind for a bit of posh, he would have accepted her offer to sit in an adjacent expanse of slippy purple Premier Economy seat on the plane. But he wasn’t and teasing Fiona was more fun than shagging her at this point. She was oblivious. He watched her flick back her hair as she came back through the bar door, putting her phone away. Aware that she was watched as Fiona swung up onto her stool, she was sure it wouldn’t be long. The move was impressive Dave had to concede. It showed off long strong legs sliding out of a wraparound skirt, that fell open across her lap almost immediately. Fiona grabbed at the fabric and gave him a look. “Not yet my boy, not yet” she said in a low voice intended to tease. It was probably the least provokative line he had heard in a long time, still “But soon darlin’” he whispered back and ran a forefinger along her thigh. Fiona tried to hold his gaze, but Dave turned away to down another inch or so of his beer. She’s going to have to work for this one he thought and whispered, “You’re not ready yet luv, wait awhile”.

Lines like these would be his entertainment for the next few days, watching this toff not getting her way, sinking lower and lower to tempt him. And then as the sun drops suddenly out of the sky and the crew are getting ready to head into town, Dave whispers to her. “Over there in five. Then we’ll catch the bus with the others”. Fiona blushing, gushing, touches his hip and looks long and dark, not seeing the dark returned: “on my way”. Urgent and fast and rough in an empty production trailer, on the floor, wastebin flying, cables useful to hold her wrist tight to the deskleg, one hand below, his face pressed hard to her mouth and he pushes sudden, urgent, one knee on the floor, one pinning her leg as she fails to kick him away. And people outside could watch the trailer rock and hear Fiona’s muffled cries. He knew they’d seen her flirt, seen her tease, seen her look. He knew they’d smile for her. He took care to leave no visible marks and to tenderly wipe away her tears,“alright darlin’? What you wanted luv?”. He held tight her hand and forearm as they got on the bus heading for the hotel. Fiona, shocked, sore, humiliated and striving for dignity said in a quaking voice for her small audience: “nothing like a bit of rough of an evening”. Dave looked out of the window, “nothing like”. Their fellow passengers didn’t get it. Fiona kept out of his way for the rest of the shoot.

Watching the soft glow of morning grow and move into her space, Brenda must choose. Sit there with her tired flowers, or creak herself into action to move off of this chair into alien territory, into a stranger’s home. After a couple of false starts wrenching herself from the chair’s tenacious embrace, Brenda gets herself upright. The clock on the hob says it’s now nearly nine o’clock and the silence gives her confidence. She moves around the room, looking at cookbooks and a complicated looking coffee machine. She finds Marmite in a cupboard with miscellaneous packets and dried goods, a whole shelf full of chilli sauces arranged in size order in the fridge where there are also some very stinky cheeses sealed tight in plastic boxes. The kitchen drawers are meticulously organised, utensils arranged according to width, carefully confined in slatted holders. There is also milk in the fridge and a freezer full of neatly named and dated foods, including quite a lot of almond croissants. There are all manner of teas in bags and loose, and lots of biscuits in a labelled tin. Many of the cookbooks are in French and only a couple look at all used. Tea towels match the apron and immaculate oven gloves hanging near the cooker. Brenda waters sagging pots of parsley and basil, leaves her flowers soaking in the sink. 

Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 3

Brenda stepped out into the new morning air of Gatwick Airport, far from scents of mustard seeds and ginger. Soft pale Merino wool wrapped about her covering the dirty jeans and bleach stained sweatshirt in elegant folds. Their tapered edges lifted feather light in a slight breeze as Brenda wheeled her not-her suitcase out into the morning. It was drizzling slightly so she hurried to the car carefully keeping the cardigan’s edges away from the puddles, unaware that she almost looked confident. She stowed the luggage and then climbed cautiously behind the wheel with all of the cardigan safely inside the car.

The police would surely come for her soon, but as she pulled onto the M23 heading for Croydon she began to hope that it wouldn’t be straightaway. Meeting Audrey Saxton would be awkward, but at least she could find out when Audrey had noticed her car gone from the drive at Turzel House. And would she even be home, without her car? Trains? Friends? The intrigue kept Brenda calm as she cruised north in her immaculate new world. The friendly voice on the satnav was another encouragement although Brenda couldn’t quite follow the French. It didn’t matter, reading the map on the screen was enough. And soon she’d got the hang of agosh and adrat.

The motorway grew steadily slower and more clogged and Brenda’s driving less bold, as London sucked in all comers. The weather had turned from raining a slow drizzle to pounding hard and rhythmicly on the windscreen. The wipers’ variable speeds added to the visual and aural clamour. Outside the morning’s soft shades were heading for gloomy grey afternoon, turning slowly colourless as the day breathed in the light and breathed out dusk bit by bit and dusk was winning. Negotiating heavy traffic was a new and nerve racking  experience, but Brenda figured an accident wouldn’t matter because the police would come. Her nails chewed, her belly empty she pulled off the motorway and headed for the warm orange glowed car park of a Sainsbury’s superstore. Flowers she decided. Flowers she can buy with her Nectar card unexpectedly forgotten in her pocket, and not locked in his drawer with her driving license and her expired passport. There are enough points on it to buy a sandwich, some salt and vinegar crisps and a fizzy drink as well as flowers. Watching shoppers to-ing and fro-ing, irrationally anxious he might appear, Brenda sits in the car, careful not to drop crisp crumbs and bits of cheese. The scent of chrysanthemums rises soft and encouraging.

By the time Brenda reaches Pimlico it is dark and the rain is easing. Glittered pavement stretches away from Brenda, sitting still and watchful in the dark and silent car. A dark and silent house, black bricked, wet, moonshined. The house stares out at the night. Blank, faceless, its uncurtained windows gleam back dead and anonymous. No one home. It takes a long time before Brenda dares fish out the front door keys and gather up her little bouquet of slightly tired chrysanths. Stepping out into the night away from her haven Brenda moves super slow towards the house, keys in hand, flowers crushed in the crook of her arm, the handbag tight to her chest. She has no idea what she’s doing and she’s watching for sly signs of life, a face shining out of a window, light glowing from unseen recesses to expose her.

There are many keys and her hand shakes, as one by one Brenda tries the lock. She notices in the mirroring street lights that the bottom of the door is scuffed, so with each key and with every turn she kicks at the scuff marks. And eventually the door groans open and Brenda finds herself slipping on unretrieved post. Her flowers held tight, she slams the door hard behind her and drops the incriminating keys, a murder weapon for someone Brenda no longer wants to recognise. Breathing hard and sweating under her dirty clothes and warming Merino, Brenda sank down onto the letters in relief. No alarms were ringing, no one was stomping down the stairs or rushing in from some dark room to accuse her. She was still alone, it was still just her, slightly less clean with her drooping flowers and her slowly yellowing bruises.

As her back started stiffening and her relieved tears chilled in the cold air, Brenda heaved herself to her feet. Her phone traced a meagre path of light along a wide hallway, past a sitting room and closed doors, leading Brenda into a kitchen. She found a breakfast table and some chairs, a small armchair and side table where she put the phone, its screen filled with missed call notifications and messages. Shaking slightly she stared at the phone until it went black and then switched it off altogether. Night streamed in through a glazed ceiling and there was a clock tick tock ticking soporic soft. Brenda sat down on the chair to wait for what would happen next, with no idea what that might be. Emotionally spent, she clutched the flowers tight in her folded arms and let the bag fall to the floor. She leant her head back with a cautious sigh and waited for Audrey Saxton to come home. Images of speeding cars and crisp crumbs and sandwiches, Sainsbury’s customer toilets, shopping trolleys, a scalding shower, a beautiful long lashed girl, an Asda shopping screen and a black suitcase, flicker and slide silent and random across her emptying mind until she is fast asleep.

Bright sunshine melting through a rain splattered glass roof teases warm at Brenda’s hair, her flowers limp and tired in her arms. Amber softly spreading helps her slowly awaken to see the room around her. Tidy to the point of obsession, every object on the black granite counters is perfectly positioned, straight and equidistant from its neighbour. Tall plants bright green against austere brilliant white walls, stand to attention bathed in dawn’s tepid gold. Brenda cannot focus very well on where she is, the time, the curious light melting all around her. She hears the phone is ringing and starts in panic but Brenda stays in her chair, her safe haven floating on an alien sea.

Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 2

Brenda wasn’t convincing herself very well, so first she would have breakfast and order a food delivery for her brutal husband. The thought eased her conscience. He would have to open the door himself, or risk getting stuck in the hall in his wheelchair. This thought started to undo the conscience easing but didn’t. Instead Brenda chewed her cheek to stop smiling.

In the hotel lobby Deepa Chaudhary was still at her desk when Brenda came up to reception to check out. Deepa was approaching the end of a twelve hour shift and looking forward to lunch with her Naani. She cooks with her Naani, first because her Naani likes to have her grand-daughter’s help, but mainly because Deepa found she was learning about food and enjoying the connection with India. She had learned how to roll rotis, how to make railway lamb curry and sabzi. “Make a little ball and then roll it, ha like this” Naani would tell her nodding sideways and handing her a baby rolling pin. Naani would throw mustard seeds and cumin into a hot frying pan and tell Deepa, “now, now add the garlic and ginger, and some turmeric”. They would stand side by side, cosy aromas wafting, mustard seeds fading to pale grey, spitting and popping. The image slid comfortingly across Deepa’s tired mind, and she fancied the hands on the clock moved faster.

But time cannot be tempted. Deepa reminds herself that the slice of time belonging to the Premier Inn is approaching its edge. She will move to a bigger hotel, a hotel to teach her about sales, about housekeeping and luxury suites, about VIP guests and banqueting, a hotel that exposes her to more than itinerant airport wanderers. She will meet a better class of one night stands and creepy businessmen, she’ll learn to spot frauds and liars, and she’ll come to recognise lonely women on the run.

Deepa listened carefully and kindly as Brenda, still slightly pink from the extreme shower, tried to explain that she wanted to do an online shop before she left. As Brenda mumbled, she could keep neither her voice nor her eyes raised. Brenda’s low tones were trying to explain a whole life in a handful of scrappy disconnected words and broken phrases. Slightly bewildered Deepa looked across the counter at the anxious face, eyes glancing nervous and unfocused, creamy spit accumulating at the corners of the mouth. The details were a tangle, but gradually Deepa understood that Brenda wanted to arrange a food delivery from Asda and needed help logging on to the hotel’s internet using her ’phone. Slightly relieved that the problem could be so easily solved, Deepa beamed her beamiest smile, “Here’s the code” handing over a slip of printed paper with an encouraging nod. She watched entranced as Brenda worked to disentangle her elegant cardigan and large handbag from her suitcase’s telescopic handle. It was somehow not as tall as it should be. The handbag’s strap but not the cardigan came suddenly free, and Brenda was obliged to follow the suitcase as it shot with unexpected speed towards a nearby chair. Deepa watched Brenda fall face first over the chair, before Deepa realised she was open mouthed and staring and turned her glance away.

Brenda rearranged herself to be face up in the chair and caught her breath, watching the suitcase closely for any signs of further malfeasance. It remained still, slightly smug, unperturbed, the big handbag sitting innocently by, the cardigan aloof and elegant tiptouching the floor. For a few minutes Brenda fiddled with the phone glancing frequently at Deepa’s code, back and forth, tap, tap, tap, back and forth, heavy sighs, deep frowns, tap, tap, tap, more sighs more back and forth glancing, fidgetting from cheek to cheek in her chair. Eventually Deepa could take it no longer. “Can I help?” she called to Brenda. “Would it be easier to do on a laptop from the business centre.” Brenda, aware that her fingertips were mostly trembling inanely over the screen was making no progress at all. “It’s just that I, I’m not used to these things. I usually have the computer” she ventured. She omitted that her husband would generally stand over her shoulder barking orders about what groceries he wanted her to choose. Brenda also omitted the cuffs across the back of her head if she made a mistake. Fear makes for many mistakes.

With Deepa’s help Brenda eventually logged onto her Asda account. Then Deepa, calm and focused, clicked and clicked until Brenda said that’s it. “This should be enough for a week or so”. Deepa smiled over her shoulder, glad to have helped with the strange mix of goods. Brenda had chosen not to go with her usual order. Instead she had Deepa click on vegan ready meals masquerading as meat, miscellaneous smoked fish, tinned pilchards, liver and kidneys. To this was added wholemeal bread, celeriac, turnips, scotch bonnet chilis and fennel and a tin of catfood which Brenda hoped he would eat in desperation. She left out chocolate biscuits, roasted peanuts, sausages, crisps and lager. She also left out bread, milk, tea and butter, substituting instead almond milk, camomile tea, margarine and the least appetising crackers she could find. She remembered the last bits her credit card details and then it was done. Another minor moment that was Brenda’s and only Brenda’s.

Deepa checked Brenda out of her room. “Nothing to pay” she said, taking back the plastic key card. “See you again soon I hope”. Deepa glanced at her watch as Brenda left the desk. Soon Deepa would be at home with Naani. Deepa was unaware that once home she would soon be feeling dizzy and slightly sick, as Naani and her parents explained that Naani was going home. ”Naani is going back to India” Naani was saying, “Naani is living with your Aunty again”. She was already there bathed in the heat and the stink of New Delhi, hearing the city’s endless beep beep traffic, drunk with cooking aromas, the stench of refuse, pollution, incense and magic mysteries, scents of home. “Deepa don’t look so sad” Naani would soon be saying “I am leaving for you behind our cooking. You soon will be coming and you will be seeing me and be seeing your Aunty too again. Ma and Pa are happy. Ha?”, Naani will say. Naani will remind her grand-daughter, “every day Deepa you are cooking now, cooking for your Ma and Pa for little sister Neena. The future it is bright for you Deepa.” Deepa will stay in shock for much of the afternoon as she struggles to sleep. But before Deepa is on her way back to work that evening she already knows she will expand her college course to include catering and that she will go to see her Naani in India soon.

Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 1

The day had begun rather differently for Brenda who awoke to silence in a light filled room, airplanes tracing their ways across the sky as they jumped from the runway up into bright rainwashed morning air. Brenda marvels at the quiet, at the stillness of the room, how clean it is. She marvels at the suitcase still shut tight on the floor, and at her hands, dry and rough and bruised, the skin cracked and broken around ragged nails. She wonders at what she has done, imagines him waking up alone, having to get his breakfast, tea, temper flickering. Will he wonder what to do? Will he be picturing her pathetic return and the beating he’ll give her? She shudders herself straight and out of the image. Banishes the grubby kitchen, the chipped and unmatched crockery, the dented, ancient saucepans. This moment, this quiet empty day is her own, at least until they arrest her. She can have a shower, wash her hair, and if she is brave enough maybe even borrow something else to wear from the little black case full of whispered temptations. They are quiet echoes from someone else’s life calling from the other side of the room.

Her room, number 509 and three doors down from the lift she keeps telling herself, has a kettle and teabags and little sachets of instant coffee. There is decaf and caf, plus sugars brown and white and long life milk in little sealed cups. Brenda steals another peppermint from the handbag makes a cup of tea. She watches steam hurry for the window, not reach it and disappear into the airvent. She sits and watches silent stories unfolding away towards unshaped horizons, planes climbing across clouds and light. She pictures lovers holding hands, anxious, excited, moving into alien corridors, seeing no steps and stumbles, seeing no corners, no traps, no fists. She sees business people, glasses and headphones, laptops open, pens and notebooks, intense, concentrated, hunched like gargoyles, many open mouths.

All of them are moving further into worlds Brenda has never seen. She knows the pilots and cabin crews are doing whatever it is they must do to keep their passengers safe and fussed over. She pictures smart uniforms, epaulets of gold, hair slick with product, beauty, elegance. They are images gleaned from stray magazines and television pictures. They are a remote alien world. She looks at her chapped hands, some more at the bruises, and sips her too strong and slightly cold tea. She’s back in bed under the covers, but this time she is naked, her battered skin warming soft in rumpled sheets and pliant duvet curves. Silence and warmth embrace her. Unfamiliar tenderness makes her blush. She dozes and hears the black suitcase calling louder.

After a while Brenda is brave enough to open it. The suitcase contains not much, but what it contains is marvellous to Brenda’s eyes. There are slippers and pajamas and a thick fluffy dressing gown in indigo blue with a wide velvet collar and deep pockets, an inhaler lurking at the bottom. She tries it out, coughing wet, tears falling, throat tickled and itched, bruised muscles renewed in pain. She puts it back. There is a sponge bag full of expensive cosmetics and perfume. Little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, hairbrushes and a comb, all perfect, clean, expensive. There are hair ties and a hairband and a something called root concealer, exotic and baffling to Brenda. She picked it up and unopened ran it along the parted edge of her short, grey and shapeless hair. Once she had been dark haired like him. He used to fondle her hair, his hand at the back of her head grasping tightly, winding her hair around his fingers to wrench her head back, laughing as she cried out, “just a bit of fun silly cow” he would say, showing his teeth but unsmiling. But in time it seemed to Brenda he pulled tighter, harder, laughed less, leaving just the grimace of bared teeth. She cut her hair shorter, bit by bit, going, going, gone. Tried not to look into eyes that can lead a soul astray.

Brenda put back the root concealer. What mattered more than hair products and perfume was the clothes, tightly packed in neat rolls, like sausages. There was a pair of smart court shoes, tights, some socks and a very elegant three quarter length knitted draped cardigan with long and floaty sleeves and side pockets. The cardigan was unimaginably soft, pale as oyster shell, a complex loopy pattern far from Brenda’s usual knit one purl one ribs and stocking stitches. She pulled it to her face, breathing in its softness, its newness, its other person’s scentedness. She put it on, wooly, downy against her bruised and naked skin. Brenda crept back into bed her knees pulled up tight to her chest, wounds soothing under a soft Merino touch. She stayed still with another cup of tea going cold by the bedside and another spate of aircraft climbing alien and unknown across her window.

Brenda knew she must move. She left the Merino cardigan reluctantly on the bed to try out the shower instead. Under a headful of billowing soapsuds she whispered quietly, “This is mine. This is mine, this soapy froth, this hot water, this steamy cubicle, it’s mine”. She tasted tears and soap together turning up the heat close to scalding. The slathered soap turned into a mass of foam that took rather longer to rinse out of her hair than she had expected. Eventually wrinkled and red and bound up in all the hotel towels, Brenda was yeti-like sitting on the edge of the bed considering the clothes in the suitcase. Should or shouldn’t she borrow something to wear? Guilt, scalded bruises, skin and wrinkles were overwhelming her, so Brenda put on yesterday’s grubby clothes with the drapey cardigan on top. And she was clean.

But weirdly the police still hadn’t come. From her window Brenda could see the car waiting in the car park, patient and quiet in plain view. Something seemed to be going wrong with her plan. Brenda rummaged in the stranger’s handbag and looked through the Filofax for the owner’s home address. You can learn a lot about someone from their diary and Brenda learned that Audrey’s home is somewhere in London. She had never driven to London before, but Brenda decided she would take back the car and apologise for stealing it. She would apologise for spending money that didn’t belong to her, for nosing about into someone else’s handbag and luggage, for wearing a cardigan that wasn’t hers, for stealing a morning of her own, for being so very clean. She would explain to Audrey Saxton, who was probably a very nice lady, that she needed help and that this whole mess was her fault. Yes. That was it. It was all her fault and she would explain and make it up to Audrey Saxton somehow. It was all her fault. Yes. She hoped Audrey Saxton wouldn’t mind her borrowing the cardigan. Brenda was sure it would be ok. Then she might be brave enough to tell her why all this had had to happen: “It’s my husband you see. I annoy him” or “my husband needs me and gets very anxious” or simply “my husband beats me but he has eyes that really can turn a soul astray” Brenda said to the wall. “I have to be brave. I can be brave. I will be brave”.  But not just yet. She would explain that her theft was due to the final straw he’d slammed once more hard and heavy on her camel’s back.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 7

Without the phone the empty space was even emptier, so calmly Audrey started to fill it with what would happen once she has the means to make it happen. It is pleasing to her, this curious void, this sense that everything about Audrey Saxton was someone else’s problem, from pain relief and extra pillows, through to getting to the loo and having a shower. This had been a matter of priority soon after breakfast and before a new drug dispensing drip was attached. She had sat on a stool, her foot on the seat of a wheelchair under the careful gaze of another nurse on the other side of the shower curtain. Under falling water and rising steam, it had taken quite a while to rinse out all the dried mud and woodland matter from her tangled hair, but Audrey had a sense of renewal that was improving with the painkillers. Her dirty sheets had been changed and her bed remade by the time she was wheeled feeling clean and fragrant back to the bed by the window. A new Salbutamol inhaler was on the bedside cupboard. More renewal.

The next day Audrey was told that her operation would happen later that afternoon and that subject to how it went she should expect to be discharged in a couple of days time. Dr Abdulaziz Al Mahmoud told her this surrounded by an entourage of eager looking young people in white, stethoscopes slung around their necks, clipboards in hand. Dr Al Mahmoud did not look at them as he rattled off his script at Audrey, dark eyebrows meeting and separating to punctuate his sentences, his voice stopping and starting like heavy traffic, at once impatient and slow. She had found the earnest young people in white oddly fascinating and so managed only to grasp the gist of the conversation. It was the part about how long it would be before she could go home. “And here is your phone” Dr Al Mahmoud said as he stood aside to let Nurse Lucy join the little huddle. They exchanged polite smiles, before Dr Al Mahmoud barked at his students: “any questions, what have we observed?” And they slid away like ectoplasm mumbling questions and what they had observed. Nurse Lucy smiled kindly at Audrey and turned to trail the ectoplasm.

Audrey decided her first task would be to tell her daughter what had happened and then to tell Stephen and Margaret that the car would have to stay in their driveway for a while. It was just a decision, no need to hurry or rush into any action. Then she went back to the nothing, waiting for someone tend to her or feed her or for the rain outside to stop falling. She has no need to panic, she can just stay in this peaceful powerless and beautifully vacant void until they wheel her away for the operation.

Lying there it occured to Audrey that she could get used to this pampered indolence, this unexpected escape from a reality looming on her horizon with increased menace. She knew it was there, but had no real idea of how large it was (extremely large) or how far away it was (not far enough). Lying there hearing only narcotic gurgles and seeing only breeze blown ripples she can push away all thought of money, house, car, Angus’s peculiar instructions and his breathless final words. She pushes it away and off to the edge of the flat roof. When she pushes it completely over the edge, she enjoys the thought of endless descent to somewhere elsewhere, wallowing in her delicious pause. She wants more time. More time.

When it was all over and after lunch the next day, after a little snory nap and after the drugs were wearing thin, Audrey decided it was time to put her plan into place. He foot was swathed in layers of bandages and plaster and velcroed support and impossible to lift and the raindancing on the roof was disappearing into dusk. She was about to ring her daughter when she saw instead a message telling her not to bother trying to reach Fiona this week as she was on her way to a shoot in Arizona. First problem solved. She rang Stephen and Margaret, but only reached the answering machine. Even better because she could just leave an apologetic message that if they didn’t mind her car would be there for a few days. By the time they heard the message Stephen and Margaret thought that the few days were over and that Audrey had arranged for her car’s collection.

The third call Audrey made was to a luxury rehabilitation retreat that accepted American Express and that was not too far away. She checked the calendar on her phone and was glad to see that the advance payment she would make to Longbourne House wouldn’t appear on her next bill, due in a few days. Audrey figures she has four to five weeks to find the £4,500 for her stay. The thought encouraged her, even though there was no chance at all that the money could be paid.

She texted her daughter to tell her where she would be, telling her to collect the car and drive it home, as soon as she got back from the shoot. It seemed a lot to ask, but Audrey was in an asking frame of mind, a frame of mind that was getting used to everything being done for her. Having given instructions to her daughter, her Godparents and Longbourne House’s delightful Dr Sandra. Audrey drifted off, with no trace of guilt that the bill at Longbourne House would very likely but eventually go unpaid. Dr Sandra probably wasn’t really a doctor, just as she Audrey probably wasn’t a real patient, at least of the monied species. How she would cope with the rest of her four week recuperation didn’t occur to Audrey. Today her ankle was fixed. In two days time an expensive ambulance from Longbourne House would collect her and then in a further few days, if she was lucky, the same expensive ambulance would take her home. By then perhaps Fiona will be back and able to stay to help her. By the time all this was done Audrey was too tired to text her clients with an update, and by the time she again remembered to do it she was at Longbourne House where there was only a fragile signal and no one kind enough to lend her a charger. Bliss.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 6

Endless questions, a morphine drip and some extra blankets mark the walls of Audrey’s world for the next few of hours. Nurses have cleaned her up a little and put her onto a bed near the window in the surgery ward, blue and white draping around her, shutting out all the others, all distractions. The only thing she can hear is occasional deep grumbling moans from other prone women. They are all waiting just like her.

Audrey drifts off to sleep but they keep coming and waking her up, checking her pulse, her temperature, her blood pressure, that she isn’t dead. They give her more painkillers and in the morning bring her breakfast. Then sometime when it’s light again they explain that the X-rays from yesterday show a compound fracture that will require an operation. It will be painful and she will need four to six weeks rest. The surgeon will be here soon to explain what they will be doing. Audrey should be patient as this is not a serious injury and there are several women in her ward requiring urgent operations. She might have to wait a couple of days. It depends. It won’t be tonight so what would she like for lunch?

Audrey could hear more moaning and with a slight shudder sat up a little straighter, coughing a little. “Where’s my handbag?” she said doing her best to be brusque and efficient. “I need my inhaler and I need to call my daughter and tell her what’s happened. Where am I by the way?” A young slightly plump nurse, her curly hair fighting hard to escape a tight bun, smiled wide eyed at Audrey, eyelashes upright and at attention. “You’re at the Victory hospital in Lancing, about half an hour from where the ambulance collected you. You’re in good hands, don’t worry”. Her bright little teeth shone shiney and white, and her voice was bubbly and keen. Audrey looked at the bag she had been handed, frowning and turning it over in her hands. “This isn’t my bag,” she said pushing it away. Mildly concerned Nurse Lucy looked from the bag to Audrey and back again, eventually giving it a little stroke and pushing it back towards Audrey. “Yes it is my love, it’s the one you had in the ambulance, the one you came in with yesterday. It’s definitely yours.” And she finished fiddling with the tubes and gurgling paracetamol bag hanging from its stand, drew back the curtains and walked briskly away.

Audrey picked up the tatty brown fabric bag and considered it. She had seen it before, but it definitely wasn’t hers. It was most absolutely not £1150s worth of as yet unpaid for Mulberry Millie Tote bag. The bag on her lap had two warn looped leather handles and a poppa to keep it shut. Gossamer threads of yesterday’s memory started weaving their cautious way back into today’s reality and Audrey heard again the request from a jolly paramedic “Handbag” and a vague image of Deirdre handing over a bag came slowly into focus. Audrey sighed and looked out of the window at a debris strewn flat roof, rainwater ripples chasing litter away into rubbishy corners. Looking down at the brown bag, Audrey fingered it a while before opening it.

Inside were some sweets and ancient copies of Enid Blyton Famous Five stories, two battered, much loved paperbacks. There was a half eaten Twix, both nibbled sticks dusty with anonymous fluff, the toffee hard and the chocolate crumbling. There was a selection of marbles of varying sizes, their colours opaque beneath ancient scars. Some dirty tissues were wadded up tight and hard, and there was an unsharpened pencil but no paper. There were some dog chews and a few alien coins with holes in them. “Denmark” Audrey said softly to herself, “or maybe Japan”. Deirdre’s bag.

Feeling slightly faint and confused, Audrey leant back on the pillows and watched the energetic paracetamol pouch drip drugs into the tube attached to her arm. She watched the bouncing for a little while, saw the ripples on the roof, felt the worn brown fabric of Deirdre’s slightly smelly bag, watched rain patterns dribble randomly down the window. Soundless and still. Commotions around her floated and faded, softly vague miasma. She was held in a moment of pause, a moment when teeming images fighting for attention in her head, all stopped together to turn and face her, offering raised eyebrows and open mouths. What should we do next? And in that moment there oozed into Audrey a strange sense of relief, of having her life suddenly postponed, put on hold and suspended in a moment where she understood that for now, she could do nothing about anything. She could keep no appointments, buy no food. She couldn’t go to the gym or do battle with her char and her broken boiler would stay unfixed. Even Angus, and the mounting disaster that she suspected was coming, could not squeeze into this narrowing space, where only the ripples on the roof, the bubbles in the suspended bag and the now louder echoes of the ward were admitted. Inside this space, she was powerless, impotent and incapable, and she found it restful, intoxicating. She had control only over the angle of her bed, so for reassurance she pressed the up and down buttons to see if they worked. They did. She raised the end of her bed to test if higher or lower would ease her leg at all. It didn’t. Nurse Lucy had got it just right. Listening to the drone of the mechanism’s fading echoes sent her momentarily to sleep. Some hours later, Audrey’s new space called her back from emptiness to watch the rainy window some more.

“I have the phone” she pondered, “…and I have the Amex card and the two fifty pound notes.” And she remembered Angus telling her when he put them into the new leather phone case along with a spare front door key “you can do a lot with an Amex card and two fifty pound notes. Just you wait and see.” Audrey had thought nothing of it at the time, but now she was about to see. Her things were probably stowed in the cupboard beside her bed and impossible for Audrey to reach, so she waited until Nurse Lucy came to take her vitals again. Lucy was slightly less smiley this time, slightly less keen to welcome her new guest, and slightly rumpled with puffy blue grey bags under her eyes. Wayward strands of highlighted blonde corkscrews were heading for the ceiling, truants swaying as she moved. Nurse Lucy retrieved Audrey’s phone from the soft satined depths of a coat pocket and handed it to her. “That coat’s a bit of a mess” she said. “We can get it cleaned for you, if you like.” Audrey smiled noting that the battery in her top of the line iPhone was dead. She was indeed in empty space. “Yes please. Thank you.” Tossing the phone onto the bed she smiled at Lucy “you look exhausted, end of the shift?” Lucy looked back, her eyes dull and her smile limp and picked up Audrey’s phone. “Mmmmm. I can get this charged. I think one of the other nurses has a charger for it.” And she turned away, phone in hand, hurrying away to the end of her shift.