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.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 5

By about midnight Brenda was tired. The adrenaline was spent, the anticipation, the buzz of what was intended to be a shortlived life of crime was fading. A sodium orange glow was spreading out towards her, beckoning her on far and far away from the darkness. She needed a bed for the night, somewhere with a car park visible from the road, so that the police would see it. Brenda pulled into a petrol station to ponder what to do next and how to do it. It didn’t take long to work out that there was a whole handbag full of possibilities sitting right beside her. But no, rummaging through a stranger’s personal items was not part of the plan. And yet, Brenda reasoned, the plan wasn’t really working as intended, so perhaps it was time to come up with another one.

First she opened the wallet in search of cash for petrol, before someone in the shop started to notice her. She needn’t have worried. The spotty young man with greasy black hair straggled around his face was absorbed in Candy Crush, amazed as he approached level fifteen for the first time ever. He kept pushing back his hair, wiping his nose on the back of his grubby hand, swiping and swiping and swiping unaware of the customer on the forecourt.

In the handbag were many cards, most of them fairly new and all with the special wavey thing. But Brenda decided that filling up wasn’t a good idea, nor was spending the cash she had found in the purse. That would be stealing she reasoned. But putting just £30’s worth of fuel in the car with a wavey card, that would be alright. A little extra petrol would be enough to get her further away. It would be additional evidence of her crime, even though topping up petrol wasn’t really proper theft. This confusing logic made Brenda’s head ache, but she decided it made some sort of sense for someone clever enough to work it out, even if it wasn’t her. She put the cash back in the purse and buried it amongst the peppermints, minus one. She hadn’t realised how hungry she was. Some minutes later Brenda had broken the young man’s Candy Crush spell and, slightly dizzy with her victory, was driving away from the petrol station. Now she need a cheap hotel where she could do the wavey thing again.

The wavey thing was just the start. Brenda’s resistance was fast fading. She searched the car’s various pockets and storage cubbyholes. In one she found a universal phone charger, but having plugged it into her mobile had immediately unplugged it. She cut short a platoon of missed calls marching in from her other life. But she needed the phone to find a hotel that charged less than £30 a night. With ruthless impatience Brenda deleted all the messages and missed call notifications. Brutal and cold, she didn’t read them. They were for someone else. A Premier Inn wanted £29 a night and has free parking at Gatwick Airport. Surely they would find her there? At two in the morning the police had probably stopped looking for stolen cars. And she could get a reasonable night’s sleep before they came for her.

Checking into the hotel Brenda made sure to take in the little suitcase, proud of its gleaming black lines and four wheels. She had to practise a little to get it going in a straight line, but once she got the hang of it she swung into the Premier Inn reception bold and brave and with only minor entanglement with the revolving door. She waved a stranger’s wavey card, and listened patiently as the lady behind the desk explained something about hard or soft pillows. Deepa Chaudhary, on work experience as part of her hotel management course, noted the worn and tired clothes and their exhausted inhabitant. Was that blood on her cheek? But Deepa was trained not to judge by appearances and the credit card had gone through and she had a suitcase. Deepa pointed to where breakfast would be served later, and called “Have a good night”. She watched as Brenda’s suitcase turned neatly but unexpectedly in front of her, almost tripping her up and heading for the bar instead of going with Brenda to the lift.

As Brenda, still in her clothes, lay down on the tightly made bed, she looked at the black suitcase trying to imagine its contents. She mumbled and drooled slightly into crisp bright white pillow slips and fell into a deep and redeeming sleep. Eventually she wrenched the sheets and duvet out from under the mattress and still in her clothes wrapped herself in a fuzzy warm cocoon, ready for rebirth.

**********

When the ambulance arrived the pain in Audrey’s ankle was a screaming aria. Her face was itchy with dried tears, random hairs stuck along her cheeks, across her eyes. The paramedics were on the edge of her consciousness, clean and tidy in smart uniforms with mysterious pockets attached to their belts. Audrey couldn’t look at them. She mumbled answers to their questions, watched listlessly as they plied their various instruments and smiled encouragingly at her. Eventually they brought in a wheeled gurney, pristine clean, swathed in white too quickly stained with Audrey’s slow drying mud and soggy clothes. As they started wheeling her away Audrey was crying again. Stephen and Margaret standing at the front door holding hands tight with Deirdre were also crying for Audrey. It was probably the exhaustion. “You’ve all the experience too” said Deirdre sadly, inspecting what she had retrieved from her nose after many minutes’ burrowing effort. The paramedics reminded them “once we get her to the Victory, she’ll be in good hands, don’t you worry,” but no one laughed except Deirdre. Audrey was spent and wheezing and tears that had nothing to do with her ankle, pounding less now under the influence of cocodamol, were falling. But these were different tears, these tears had been bound up too tight for too long and would wait no more. They slid down her face, whittling in the dirt the lines of some other story, some other score. As the ambulance doors slammed shut, Audrey let out a little sob and then a long lonely wail. She couldn’t see a paramedic turn and raise her carefully shaped eyebrows at her companion behind the wheel. “More than an ankle I’d say,” he muttered before catching her eye and turning towards the main road, blue lights flashing indigo on falling rain and the puddles’ gleam.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 4

Brenda looked up from the floor at the shining knight in black silouetted armour and understood, weeping and abject that this must stop before he kills her, before she makes of him a murderer. Beyond fear, beyond pain, beyond lies, rising whispers, screams in silence. It must be over. There is no more left in her to take it, no part of her body that has not been bruised or wounded, no internal organ that has not absorbed a resonating blow, and no part of her mind that can still step aside to watch it all keep happening. As she watches wary and waiting for the next blow he growls “need a slash, clean yourself up”. He tiny steps away and she understands. Tell someone. Tell social services, tell the neighbours, tell the police. That is the only way, the only way out. But social services won’t be here for a few days, and the neighbours won’t believe her, will be too scared to believe her, see her wounds, believe her bruises. The police then. They’ll probably ignore her. Everyone does she reasoned. But they must listen, must see. So she will get herself arrested.

She waits until she hears the splashy jangling sound of recycled lager hitting water and struggles breathless to her feet. Wincing as she sneaks out into the hallway she grabs her coat and shoves eager feet into still wet shoes. Teeth clenched, her coat pulled tight around her, she runs, mouth shut grim tight, silent. In her coat pockets she has a set of keys, a Nectar card, a handful of change, a blood stained tissue from some other day’s wounding, and a highend mobile phone provided by social services but with no charge. In terror that he might be fool enough to risk being seen and follow her, Brenda runs fast along the lane in the almost dark, remembering to avoid the puddles and curiously conscious that if she gets too wet she might spoil the car seats and carpets. She must be careful, quiet and quick, in case anyone is watching. And the car might not be there still. Panic at what might happen if it was gone drove her faster, lungs burning, legs crying out, eyes streaming, bruises pounding a drum beat’s reminder. But with all this somewhere in the back of her brain an exhilaration drives her, a new fear and a sense of power she has never before experienced. She’s laughing and weeping into the rain.

She passes no one as she hurries through the lanes, only an ambulance, lights blazing in the dark, blue accusing eyes. We see you. We see you. Do you see the pounding in Brenda’s head? Do you feel the throbbing of the bruises on her back, to her face? Do you see the blood not drying in her hair, sending soft amber streaks along her wet cheeks? No, you do not because you cannot see. No you do not because Brenda is very good at hiding such things. Look harder and you might see.

When she reaches Turzel House, Brenda can see no lights blue or otherwise in the kitchen, only a hint of light creeping out from around heavy curtains in some other room. Feeling like someone else, not even pretending, really feeling like someone else she opens the car door with a confidence that she really owns, even though as Luke’s wife Brenda has never been confident. Fearless she slings her wet coat into the back seat, knowing that it would absolutely land on the seat but not caring at all if it landed on the floor. Bold and brazen she doesn’t even look.

As soon as the door shuts, the car’s clever sensors come alive and a friendly message on the dashboard tells Brenda to press the brake together with the illuminated on button to start the car. As she does so, a powerful engine explodes quietly into hungry life, the radio muttering something murmury, barely audible about a long dead composer. Keeping an eye on the front door of the house, Brenda puts the car into reverse and turns it around with unexpected alacrity. She nurses the engine with cautious stealth rather than pushing it to roar with power anxious, not yet to draw attention to her theft. It’s too soon, still too close. Brenda breathes deep and slow, cossetted in rich deep leather, cossetted knowing that her once handsome man’s days of punching her are over. Brenda is new, a thief stealing someone else’s car. She will very soon be arrested, but for a little while she would stay in this expensive stolen car’s embrace. Her life is changing. Vague thoughts of spending the night in jail soothed the pains in her head and back. Watching the wipers adjust their speed to the rain’s intensity, she turned off the car’s lights and smiled.

Brenda pulled out of the driveway, looking left and right and left again, almost daring him to have followed her. Her defiance overcome with reason, Brenda set off in the opposite direction to home, knowing that when she went back it would be with at least two police officers, maybe even a police dog. She passed no one on the empty lanes, no walkers, no cyclists, no cars. As she reached the next village she turned on the headlights and set off in search of a larger road. Radio 3 was playing jazz now and Brenda figured that once she found a main road, she had about an hour or so before the police pulled her over and asked for her driving license. With glee she knew she had no licence to show and with glee she expected her crime would be even worse. 

She passed cars and people coming out of pubs, buses swishing and swooping in and out of the traffic, filled with faceless strangers, groaning along. Sometimes she tried to smile at them lane to lane, but was afraid her guilt would show. Instead of looking at the people and the traffic she focused only on driving and driving, waiting, listening to the radio, the news, the music, the evening play, the book at bedtime. The car carried her warm and safe and endlessly towards tomorrow. But there came no blue lights, there came no sirens and Brenda was yet further and further away in an alien beyond.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 2

When she reaches Turzel House Brenda notes with small wistful envy lights glowing in the kitchen, amber beams reaching out a welcome through the decaying afternoon. A warm embrace instead of a clout about the head beckoned. But her visit would be the same as the last time, if she tried to tell the people there. She would once again mumble tongue-tied and embarrassed, and then as she turns away be thankful that the couple are too old to hear her and their daughter too soft in the head to remember.

Brenda felt with squeezing shame her frail courage fade, and as she passes the snazzy car in the driveway knows she will not even knock on the door this time. She will shove the post through the letterbox and make her way straight back to the bungalow. But passing the car she got a brief glimpse of someone else’s life spread out across the front passenger seat. There was a gaping handbag full of stuff, most visible an unclipped wallet with many, many credit cards. There was a key fob too, and a crumpled map, Toffee Crisp wrappers, an old fashioned Filofax open showing next week’s activities, comfy flat shoes on the passenger side floor. It was all just sitting there. “Some people have no sense” Brenda muttered, tut tutting as she offloaded the post. Turning quickly away from the door she passes the car again, but this time comes closer to check that there really was all that stuff just sitting there in an unlocked car. Tut tut.

The wind battered her, speeding her along to malevolence, vice and a shrinking self. A passive, prematurely grey haired annoyance, Brenda is a long way from the clever pretty girl who passed her Civil Service exams so long ago. It was just luck, she tells herself again as she reminds herself again that she loves him. He just has a temper, is angry, impotent. It’s not his fault. He doesn’t really mean it. She shouldn’t be so clumsy and slow when he is in so much pain. He needs her, needs her love. But a whisper says she isn’t clumsy and he isn’t really in pain. And the whisper says he’s been a bit that way inclined, even before a car fell on him. He’s been a bit that way inclined, since they came back from honeymooning in Bognor. He’s been that way inclined for over twenty years now, wheelchair or not. It’s worse now that she knows he’s a fake. This is power, but power and Brenda have never met. Brenda ignores the rain and wind, and grubby birds struggling to fly straight against the weather. She tells herself again she’ll take anything she has to take for the man she loves. She’ll lie for the man she loves. Love trumps lies and shame, she says.

And so as she walks Brenda chooses a different picture. Far away from the formless huddled shape, she is no longer in grubby jeans and leaking shoes. Her worn out parka, its zip broken and velcro fuzz filled, is not torn and damp. Instead Brenda sees their wedding day. She is 26 wearing a pale blue suit and a little hat with blue feathers. The long since sold strand of pearls her mother had given her are around her neck, matching pearls in her recently pierced ears. Her new shoes are too high and tip her forwards, so she has to turn her toes out to keep her balance. She walks clumsily and clings to his beefy arm tight in a borrowed suit that smells of mothballs. She remembers him smiling, telling her it was their new beginning and things were changing. Her smile stayed beamy bright all through the service, all through the day. She never noticed the dancing menace flickering in his watchful eyes.

Luke Mordrake is tall, brawny and strong, with big powerful hands the nails permanently blacked with engine grease, even at his wedding. His hair that day was a mass of shining waves, wet and diamond dropped and bouncing in a brisk seaside wind. Roughly parted it framed a tense oval face with large brown eyes and a star dazzled smile that flashed only occasionally. His mouth holds still to a dangerous, half cruel shape. Over the years full lips have twisted steadily nasty and thin, a narrow and ugly leer.

Brenda is fond of that wedding day picture, an embellished fantasy taylored for the wild open air of a moment’s freedom. Hidden and lost in romantic yesterdays Brenda can forget that she’s his sport, entertainment when the television’s over, when his meagre quota of local old friends has sloped off full of beer and home made pizza. They shoulder relief like a hod of bricks when the visit is over, and return less often for fear of its weight.

But Brenda’s image of Luke on their wedding day is changing. Once hard and sharp edges are smudging, getting softer, the colours are less saturated, less intense. Hurts and bruises once overwritten with those edges and colours, are showing through. As Brenda walks through the blustering rain, tears seep into the colours of this turbulent afternoon. They blur the shapes of seagulls swirling high and far from home and Brenda sees ragged black crows, wiping carelessly across the wet sky. She hears the crows caw. Mournful half-hearted notes fade into clouds, their soft pencil marks washing away away in the tired drizzle. Brenda struggles against the wind. Brenda can write her image no darker. With every blow its shapes and shades are slowly fractured, indistinct, anonymous.

In a craze of splintered romantic memories, she opened the door and he was already bellowing “where the bloody hell have you been”. “Just taking the post to Turzel House, that’s all. I haven’t been more than half an hour. It’s still early for tea, but I’ll get you another tinny from the fridge”. She came into the smokey room, snooker click click clacking and whispering across the green and as she proffered the can, he rose up from the sofa, mighty and somehow amplified. Brenda took a step back, looking up at him her hand outstretched, the beer quivering in its can and drops spilling out onto the carpet. “I …” was all she managed before the impact knocked her across the room, even though she thought she’d held herself limp enough to withstand it, at least just to land on the floor. Head ringing and eyes blurring she caught her breath as on hands and knees she waited for the next blow. He wouldn’t stop she knew until she had paid for her jolly spirits, her moments of freedom. He was leaning on the wall, bracing himself and delivering a stamp to her back as she tried to get herself up. Her face, crammed hard against the mostly empty bookshelf, is a singing red and bleeding, sympathetic slow, a tender caress along her cheek mingles ruby red with tears and pain. She coughs and cries “please, no, I didn’t mean it”, not knowing what she didn’t mean. And he steps carefully around her prone form to tread hard on an outstretched hand. “Didn’t you?” and he pushes his weight down into his heel as hard as he can, hoping for a crunch or at least some more begging and tears.

Chapter 3 Brenda steals a car and Audrey has an operation – Part 1

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.

Chapter 2 The Funeral – Part 2

At the other end of the telephone she was sighing mostly with relief. Stephen and Margaret had meant a lot to Angus, particularly as underwriters of some of his schemes although Audrey was unaware of this, and she didn’t want his passing to go without them. She had the solution in a flash of fateful inspiration. The idea to bring the funeral to them caused some minor consternation, but overall seemed a reasonable idea. “Can you do that?” wondered Margaret, “is it legal?” Stephen asked, but for Audrey there was no question. The ashes had been in the boot since she’d collected them from the crematorium. They and she would be on their way to Great Leigh on Saturday morning. They would spend a delightful weekend together and then Audrey would return home to begin her new life, a life where she would strive to overcome the Angus shaped hole he had left for her. There were many other, different shaped holes that, unbeknownst to Audrey, were waiting for her to tumble into.

The second funeral at Great Leigh would be her final act of mourning Audrey decided. Then she would focus on what Angus had instructed when he whispered through paper dry lips: “get the cash, turn it all into cash, fast”. And then he had wheezed and coughed, his eyes swimming blue and steely alive through his tears until the steel softened and the sparkled blue turned flat and empty.

At Turzel House they all agreed it was a lovely gesture for Audrey to bring a version of the funeral to them. It was unfortunate it was so very wet, on the day of the private service. A persistent rain and ragged wind bullied them into a formless damp and aged huddle. They stood visibly shivering on the wet weed riddled gravel, unable to move for fear of intrusive crunching, turning slowly blue, their limbs approaching the tenor of marble. It was an incongruous little crew, umbrellas in icycled hands, looking sad and listening with earnest patience to Audrey as she read out the address in her best church voice. When it came to the singing (always the best part Stephen had whispered to his wife), they perked up and three of them managed a credible rendition of Jerusalem. Deidrie sang the tune from Andy Pandy, followed by brief snatches of the Sailor’s Hornpipe which she remembered she was fond of, possibly from Blue Peter.

All in all it was a suitably miserable and damp affair bringing more tears to Audrey’s worn out eyes. The rest of her weekend did likewise as Deirdre pestered her with questions about the box mistaking it for a surprise present for her, and explaining that her parents were training to run in the Tunbridge Wells marathon. “I shall be cheering from the sidelines as my knees are too bad for the hills. It’s going to be very exciting.” “But Deirdre dear, your parents are nearly one hundred years old, don’t you think it might be a bit much for them, even with the training?” Audrey said. “Oh no,” Deirdre replied, “they have the advantage of experience you see.”

Experience was the answer to most of Deirdre’s rare challenges to her parents decisions and instructions. “Why?” she might ask, and her parents would gently explain “because we have the experience my dear”. Audrey considered it but decided not to bother explain that experience was one thing, when it resulted from decades of socialising and diplomatic activities all over the world. But it wouldn’t really help with a 26 mile run through hilly Tunbridge Wells and surrounds, especially if one is in one’s midnineties. Audrey resigned herself sadly to the thought that she should let this line of conversation drop and that she should make the most of her time with her decaying Godparents and their child. She should also start thinking about what should happen to Deirdre once Angus welcomed Stephen and Margaret to his world. Angus was an equally unsuitable candidate for a marathon even in his fleeting preflab prime. The thought of the three marathoning somewhere in the far beyond brought a sad smile to Audrey’s face and tears to hover too close, so she switched off her brain and joined her friends to stare at the television. She had soon joined them in a little snooze before Deirdre landed in her lap after yet another failed pirouette. Thus progressed the evening until it was time to take the dogs for their evening walk.

The next morning it was clear the excitement of the on demand funeral had been a bit too much for them all, because everyone overslept. Even Alistair who had inadvertently spent much of the evening out in the rain, having studiously ignored calls to come in from the pretelevision stroll and wee session. Audrey had intended to make an early start back to town and woke with alarm to hear Deirdre banging an ancient tin drum in the hall outside her door, and calling them all to breakfast. Her parents had wisely removed their hearing aids the evening before, but for Audrey the wake up call crashed into a particularly harrowing dream about a cascade of tomato soup tins falling on her as she perused the canned goods in Asda. “Dear, dear, Deirdre please do stop, I’m awake. I’m getting up. Let them sleep”. Deirdre ignored her and tried for a bit of rhythm with the ladle she was wielding, going from the rim to the sides of the drum and back to the middle. It wasn’t long before she dealt herself a sharp blow across her fingers and dropped the drum and ladle, and started crying pathetically, dramatically kicking the drum until it bounced away down the stairs landing close to the kitchen in the perfect spot for someone to trip over it later.

Deidre made herself small, and whimpering and crouched on the floor of the mostly lightless hall, managing to conceal herself almost completely. Coming out of her room, wrestling ineffectually with her dressing gown and slippers determined to get themselves onto the wrong feet, Audrey stumbled over the hunched form and barely managed to catch a stray frond of artificial pot plant in an effort to rebalance. Not having much weight the fake plant flew with her into the banister before going solo to follow the drum down the stairs. The pot plant lacked the weight and bounce of the drum, so it landed lightly at the foot of the stairs on the aging Labrador. He in terror, regained youth’s long forgotten nimbleness just long enough to gurgle a yelp and scrabble a few precious inches along the floor to where the plant had landed, its plastic leaves within chewing range. Such was his age Bertie’s chewing days were long behind him. Instead he mashed his head down onto a new makeshift if slightly spikey pillow. “Sorry” Deirdre mumbled, nursing her bruised hand and then squeezing at it to see if there was blood. There wasn’t. Audrey, having regained her balance if not her poise, reached down to help Deirdre up. Thus began a fateful day.

It wasn’t until midafternoon that the morning’s dramas had settled and the usual routine of a Sunday at Turzel House reasserted itself, minus lunch. By the time Stephen and Margaret were roused and Deirdre had lovingly dressed them according to the ingrained and ancient pattern, it was noon. And by the time a complex breakfast involving reheated fish pie, baked beans and cakes was consumed and cleared away, and after Deirdre had sung her new favourite song for them, it was late in the afternoon. Her departure imminent and a familiar very hot bath fantasy shimmering at the back of her mind, Audrey was in good spirits. They were generous and kind spirits, spirits of magnanimous generosity, but the spirits were unaware that the delicious hot bath, with its scented candles, warm towels and chilled Chardonnay would be postponed for quite some time.