An extract from The Ashes in the Boot Chapter 5

It was while Brenda and Audrey were busy navel gazing and some two days after Brenda had established herself in Audrey’s basement guestroom. At the bungalow in Great Leigh a waning Ford Fiesta is parking wonky on the lane near the drive. The car belongs to Luke and Brenda’s neighbours and it cannot be seen behind a large delivery van with Asda painted in bright and cheery green on its side. As they get out of the car, the occupants of the Ford Fiesta also cannot be seen. Renée Sagemill and Ann Apio have lived in Great Leigh for about as long as Luke and Brenda and for most of that time have observed from a distance a miserable couple living a miserable life. Private miseries keep Ann and Renée tightly squeezed within the confines of their own often silent routines. They know little about Brenda and Luke, except that she’s the carer and he is wheelchair-bound.

But lately, following a series of dreadful losses (the dog, the ancient stagleaf fern, a  final parent or two) Ann and Renée’s constraints have eased a little. They need no longer suffer that fraught blend of guilt and defiance that was their only counter to the sniping and nastiness of their remaining parents. That the remaining parents remained no longer afforded Ann and Renée a previously unfamiliar and unexpected freedom. They were still moving out of the fog to appreciate what that freedom should mean to them, as individuals and as a couple. But less caught up in their own anxieties, they had started to notice the shouts and crying. Ugly sounds and energies seeped from their neighbours’ ill-fitting windows and doors. They had started to notice that Brenda was shakey and dishevelled when she helped her husband from his wheelchair into the car. They had observed that as she tried to lift his legs, she would sometimes crouch over unexpectedly and utter a small cry. And they had noticed that in the last few days, Brenda was nowhere to be seen.

“Shall we then? Shall we just go and check? What’s a good excuse? I know it’s nosey and none of our business, but we haven’t seen her in days.” Renée looked at Ann with a hard eye. She’s always so nosey, so concerned about other peoples’ stuff. “Look, if you want to barge in on complete strangers, go ahead. But I’m not coming with you. I’ll just wait here.” And Renée folded her arms and turned her head away to stare elsewhere. As Ann clambered out of the car and set off with rapid little steps towards the bungalow, her mind was winding itself too tight and her breathing was starting to stop. What would she say? Should she start with an apology for intruding? Or should she just pretend to be popping in to say hello. How lame is that. Back in the car Renée sighs and leans over to the back of the car to retrieve one of the staghorn ferns. They had bought them in a two for one: a back up if one died, which it wouldn’t. No more dying they had agreed. “Ann” she hisses striding low and fast. “Ann, I’m coming too. We can give them this.”

The couple and their fern round the van to see Luke standing almost upright on the threshold. He’s leaning against the doorframe to pick up bags of groceries. The women look at each other, small frowns and downturned mouths. A light breeze lifts the fern’s antler shaped leaves, a green stag testing the air. As the Asda van pulls away, Ann and Renée as one move closer into the tall leylandii hedge to see what happens next. It’s a first to see Luke Mordrake fully upright and unexpectedly tall. They watch as he moves back and forth carrying many shopping bags into his house. He didn’t move with any particular nimbleness or grace, but he was erect and mobile. The wheelchair was nowhere in sight. The two women again exchanged glances and continued to spy unseen until all the shopping bags had been removed.


The cleft of a hill blocks a miserly sun, rising slow and lazy. Her thin smock clings chill and comfortless and yet she does not move. The cold wraps around her goosepimpled skin, blue, tightwoven. And in her clenched hand the phone is buzzing. She holds it tighter to feel its motion and moves deeper into the undergrowth. Scratches are innumerable, skin tingling with pain, blood and water. Sleepy birds an anxious rustling somewhere deeper in. She shivers and cleaves tight to the ground no longer certain that this is any fun. 

Am I scaring you yet? The message from an unknown but known sender. It’s been going on all night this game, this cat and mouse thing. Touch table tennis, dirty words and dirt all over her body, her mind satiated with shifting equilibriums. Fear. Focus. Shared imperatives to arouse and thrill, but going too far now. Is it becoming murderous or is that just more of the resonance?

She can’t get out. He knows she is there, huddled in her dirty damp dress, shivering under the shrubs. Sparrows are starting to chatter, the slope still blocks the light, but light is coming stealthy and toxic. Sparrows and light together they betray her. Dress rending a sad small cry as she creeps slowly higher and sees a crouched form. It creeps menacing slow in the paling darkness as the night gently seeps away. A rock and a break in the shrubs to her right and she reaches out and throws herself into the open. 

He sees only a screaming banshee as she jumps down from her small vantage point, unseen rock in hand. The blood seeps slowly into his eyes as he cries out but he cannot remember the safe word. She raises her hand again and brings down the rock hard so close, its mass splitting her nails and grazing his head. He looks up at her fury, mouth gaping and lap wet. Into his open maw she drops a handful of stones and damp earth. From his open hand she takes the car key and walks out into the rising sun.

Picture this

It was hot. The air shimmered with noise, sweat, heat, and cigarette smoke hung languid in the air. Summer Saturday. 1962. Protest march. Protest celebration. Camping. They were talking just a metre or two away, laughing, looking in the direction of the television camera, but not into it. Oozing youth, novel, fresh. The sound guy’s got his hand up high and the furry microphone is swaying just above their heads. They don’t stop their chat. They don’t bother. Music chat matters more.

It was humid. The air dripped wet and warm and all around the people were pressing in and trying to get closer to the two men. Two men who had just been on the bandstand inside the tent. The two men who might be famous. The taller of the pair was smoking and smirking, scanning the crowd. The other was just smiling guileless and happy, pleased to be playing with this great man. Young. He wasn’t tired or hot or scanning the crowd. He was just excited to be there. Excited to be playing, to be heard. Excited to be with the others supporting the movement. The movement. It was movement everywhere. Swarms of people there for the politics, there for the music. Television crews there to fill their channels. Disarmament. Ban the bomb. Peace. And there were those who came only to be entertained, to dance, to get legless, to have a tale to tell on Monday at the office. The long day and evening and night stretched ahead, sliding along an open road. Time was moving too.

It was anxious. An atmosphere crackling with energies, bouncing and absorbing sound and light. Unseen, unrecognised, unacknowledged desire simmered. Watching the two musicians a young woman with a gap in her front teeth and a mass of swept back dark hair. She was struggling trying to work out how to talk to them. She wanted to tell them how much she liked their music. Truly. She wanted to say how much she admired their trumpeting and drumming. Truly. She wanted just to say. Truly. But each time she started coming forward, trying to frame the words with her worried lips and dry tongue, she somehow got stuck. No sound came out. Truly.

It was temptation. Her hand raised to her mouth, fingers pulling softly on her lower lip, and still they two stood chatting and oblivious. At least one was oblivious. She could hear them going on about one of the numbers, a solo here, a rim shot there and what the rest of the set should look like. Who should go first. When. The signal. And no words for her even though she was so close. But a sly glance as a cigarette is puffed. She didn’t see it through the smoke and the short cough that followed. She felt her wedding ring heavy on her hand as her fingers worked some more at her lip. The shimmer of someone else’s gold mingling with the warm air’s golden shimmer and the light that shone on the two men in front of her.

It was noisy. From the tent behind her she could hear musicians tuning up again, running through random bits of scales, strumming and plinky plonking on an ancient upright. They were getting ready for the next set and the two men lifted their chins ever so slightly, aware of their own absences. She must do it now, must move forward, must take control of her nerves and somehow tell them how much she loves what they do, how much she wants to be part of it. Truly. And how much it matters that they share so much of themselves. And how her love and adulation is crushing her. Truly.

It was beginning. “What’s this bird doing? Hovering, what? Do you think she’s after a fag?” talking over her, to her, at her. And as the taller one turns to offer her a lighted cigarette she’s turning, head down, faced flushed and gone. As she hurries anxious fingers shift the gold band around and around. As she twists and twists she finds the golden band sliding off into her open palm and as sudden she turns back to the two men. She slips the ring into her handbag, reaching in one smooth movement for the cigarette. “Don’t mind if I do. Maureen.” “Tony.” And as his young colleague’s eyes grow wider, Tony takes Maureen by the arm and heads towards the tent where the sound of the music is getting more insistent. “Come on. We’re on. Let me get you a drink before we start.” He looks back over his shoulder with a leer and a wink and he drops an arm over her shoulder, a shadow in the sunshine. She stares up wide-eyed, blushing, her fingers once again on her lip. Her intentions shifting. As Tony and Maureen move away and disappear, the producer approaches the camera and the sound man lowers his boom. “That’s a wrap. I’ll show it to her later. That’ll be an interesting one eh?” he jokes. The smiling drummer looks at his shoes and wonders what the two others are talking about. He hears the scales getting louder and the banging of drums, his drums, call him back. Alarmed for his music he hurries away. He gives the woman no thought and is already immersed. But on the bandstand he sees her sip her cider and watch a trumpet player who’s mind he can hear is elsewhere.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 4

The stack of bills and the stack of unopened letters sat side by side on the desk’s green leather inlay, tidy, prim and unassuming. Brenda looked at the piles reproachfully for the story she understood they told and the depth of her own deceit they were witnessing. She interrogated a couple of the paintings on the wall. Smug young women too thin in fantastic fabrics in dazzling shapes and shades did not reply. How should they know what Brenda should do next? What her choices are. The choices facing Brenda were meagre indeed and all of them too much for her to face apart from the nonchoice, the choice that said do nothing. Sit still and safe in someone else’s life until they come to reclaim it. And then whatever happened next would be someone else’s choice not Brenda’s. Explaining this to her static observers, Brenda felt fresh walls go ip around the reality of who she currently was and what she had done and the unreality of participating uninvited in someone else’s life.

The Filofax she had retrieved from Audrey’s handbag was on the desk where she had placed it in readiness for Audrey’s return. Opening the Filofax she learnt more about Audrey from her blood type (B) and her car number plates (one scratched out), to her passport and driving license numbers. There was also an emergency contact detail listing Fiona Bellamy’s address and phone number. Brenda read through the neatly penned entries for flights and Eurostars, for appointments and coded notes, for a death and a funeral entries for which told Brenda that the dead husband’s name was Angus. Returning to the piles on the desk Brenda observed to herself that the bills were mostly directed to Audrey and that the letters with their oddly threatening demeanour mostly had Angus’ name on them. 

The Filofax documented a diminishing number of appointments over the course of the year amidst complicated travels between England and France. There were a couple of curious references to “A away” and sometimes “A away (again?)”. As Brenda sat at the sumptuous desk in the immaculate room, watching the elegant trees beyond the windows swaying gracefully, she started to wonder if Audrey’s reality was not quite so perfect. But Brenda had no idea, no idea at all. She watched the steadying trees in the park and took a closer look at the bills matching their dates to activities in the Filofax. There was no particular reason for doing this, but Brenda was looking for symmetry, reliability, patterns that perhaps would give her solace.

One of the bills was from a funeral home, clearly for arranging Angus’ final resting place and the many trappings that went along with it. Brenda glanced at the figures in a state of mild shock. When her Aunty had died her Uncle had arranged and paid for everything. When he had died he had already organised the funeral and prepaid it. Luke and Brenda were not involved. Uncle John had left his house to a veteran’s charity, contents and all and left no trace for Brenda to mourn. All she had from her years with them was the battered old suitcase she’d left with. When Luke’s Mum had died his older brothers handled everything and although Brenda and Luke were at the service, he didn’t want to stay for the wake. In contrast, judging by the bills, Angus Saxton’s send off was nothing short of spectacular. Charges were made for arranging the service, providing a coffin, the coffin itself, celebrant, string quartet, cremation, vehicles, flowers, disbursements, doctors’ fees, more celebrant fees, and a matt teal nickel and silver urn with a black velvet lined and fully personalised oak presentation box. And the VAT. Over £12,000 in all for the coffin alone, more than Brenda had ever seen on a bill before. She pretended to write out a cheque to Hadley Cottage Funeral Services, but couldn’t bring herself to sign the empty envelop on which she had drawn a picture of a blank cheque.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 3

This second message Brenda didn’t delete and actually did read. She pondered it for a while and considered what would happen next, if she answered. But the idea of responding, of engaging at all, petrified her and the trembling started up again. Brenda thought she could feel tears starting and forcing shut her eyes she realised that the tears were more than starting. They dribbled down her shaking cheeks and into her opening mouth as the howl began to erupt, loud long and forcing her to breathe in sudden gut-wrenching sobs. Her diaphragm and abdomen were heaving painfully, driving alien sounds out of her gaping mouth in an animal roar. The awful sound skated across the kitchen’s granite surfaces and the walls reverberated in a horrible near silent echo. Brenda half collapsed into a low crouch. Slowly, agonisingly and still howling she crept wretched on hands and knees to a refuge under the kitchen table. There she stayed in tight ball until the keening started to ease and the sobs were subsiding into a series of breathy wet intakes of air that threatened to choke her. Eventually Brenda still stuttering and weeping slow and sad and afraid went out into the garden and stared into the light surrounding her. She stood on the wet grass feeling her shoeless feet getting colder and damper, hearing vaguely distant traffic sounds, random music, birds. The sounds of some other life, the sounds of a stranger’s other world, a world where Brenda had no place.

She looked again at the phone and wanted to draft a reply, but her fingers were shaking too much to even keep any sort of a grip on the device. She wanted to do the expected thing, the normal thing, the thing that she needed more than anything to be true. She wanted to text that she was ok but not at home, she wanted to text that she was taking a break, that she’s not in the neighbourhood or even in the county. She wanted to text that she was with a friend, but this was also not true. She paused. Instead of tapping out the letters of something like what Brenda thought might be considered normal and sending the message, Brenda just stayed standing very still. Her heaving chest was settling into more and smaller breathy breaths. Her face was beginning to dry a little as the tears turned slowly into a thin tight layer on her reddened face. She could feel the salt start to itch slightly. She waited for her chest to rise more steadily, noting unexpectedly that the pain in her back and ribs was not as bad as it was. She admired the dedicated and efficient way some baby sparrows were working at their shredding. They were systematically picking leaves of one of Audrey’s bushes dropping selected slivers onto the ground in a random mess. Some leaves were shredded more than others and some were tested and then left in place on their branch. It all seemed so very important, so very present.

The midmorning sun was soon warm on Brenda’s head and the Merino cardigan across her shoulders somehow helped to calm her. Brenda tapped many times with many corrections eventually to send a message of reassurance and as her hands began once more to tremble, she quickly sent it. Brenda hurried back indoors to the safety of her special chair where she sat with her arms folded round her upraised knees until the shaking finally stopped. Slowly she focused on the kitchen and the silent air’s emptiness and started to breathe more carefully and more deeply. Occasional gulps and the remnants of chilling wetness clinging to her cheeks diminished as Brenda reached to the small table by her side and gathered up the pile of bills she had come across in Audrey’s desk.

Brenda intended to open the calculator on her phone, but instead she immediately pressed to switch it off as a new torrent of notifications started flooding onto the screen. Breathing deeply and stretching her legs out to place her wet feet slap on the floor Brenda kept still, banishing the quivers and shakes, breathing her own focus, staring at the cooker clock, waiting for it to click in silence to the next number. Then going slowly from bill to bill Brenda methodically added up the amounts, focussing on the numbers, the numbers, the numbers. Not trusting her memory or her arithmetical powers, Brenda went up to Audrey’s study in search of a calculator. Sitting at the desk she was aware that the room’s muffled calm enveloped her. She was surrounded by beautiful unthreatening things, and no hidden danger lurked. Some semblance of someone else’s serenity help her. It was beginning to ease the fear that cruised her consciousness looking for prey. With immense care and focus Brenda added it all up. When she saw the total she blushed a little, marginally affected that what she had had in her head matched what was on the calculator’s little screen. “Just luck,” she said quietly and then turned her attention to the heap of official looking but unopened letters accumulating on the desk. Their contents, Brenda was certain, told a story of their own but she didn’t yet dare to open them. Instead she ordered them according to the dates on their postmarks and their geographies: British and French and a couple from America.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 2

The combination of the water multiplier on his tongue and buccal surfaces. with the transfer of chili juice from fingers to eyes was indeed almost joyful to witness for both women. Luke struggled to affect a fresh snarl but his second wave of intense, burning agony this time in his eyes, made it impossible to frame any sort of sentence, snarling or otherwise. Ignoring Luke’s distress with remarkable composure Renée said: “I hope you understand how serious this is” with an impressively austere expression and no hint of a smile. “We shall be making a report. I think it’s fair to say it’s over for you Mr Mordrake, don’t you Ann?” Ann held her face as still as possible, and could only nod her agreement. “Where is your wife Mr Mordrake? I am sure she is aware of the situation, and I am afraid she will have some questions to answer, as do you, Mr Mordrake.” This last with a slightly smug little smile, as she leaned towards his wet and still weeping face. “I told you. She’s gone. Scarpered. Disappeared” he managed to say as open mouthed he did his best to air his tongue. His eyes were inflamed, weeping and his eyelids were swelling nicely. “And when do you expect your wife back?” said Ann for whom all nursey kindnesses had drained away. “The fuck if I know”. Ann and Renée watched their patient coughing again, as he bent over the table his torso leaning on his forearms, and silently considered this new development. Where was Brenda? Had she finally had enough and left him? She wouldn’t dare. Or would she?

Renée and Ann shared a glance and both wondered how this was going to work. They could both picture Luke claiming that he’s only recently been able to stand, that the pain was under control expecting his wife to lie to back him up. But without Brenda how would that work? Who would believe him after this? And where Brenda was at present, was not actually relevant for the current situation. Ann waited patiently as Renée went through the various things that would happen next. She felt slightly sorry for the blubbering burnt lipped fool who was sticking to the first rule of lying, groaning even now that he was in pain, not just in his mouth and eyes. He was sticking fast to the principle that even if you’re found out, don’t admit the lie. But Luke Mordrake lacked the imagination to maintain the charade, so he never thought to ask for the wheelchair or if they could help him into it. A saturation of lies was rising slowly around him and he was drowning.

As Luke’s coughing subsided and he got up to hobble to his cigarettes, Renée was finishing her explanation of what happens next. “ … benefit stops straightaway because clearly you do not meet the immobility criteria and fraud officers will be visiting you. They will interview you under caution and you and your wife will have to pay back all the money you’ve claimed, possibly since the accident but definitely since you came home from hospital. There may also be penalties.” Luke sucked on his cigarette watching Renée’s thin lips give word to his greatest fear and felt himself trembling and a warmth passing its way down his leg to soak soft and tepid into his slipper. The shaking was getting worse but as Ann stepped towards him slightly anxious and asking, “are you alright Mr Mordrake” he pulled back his shoulders, scrabbled with his parts and hissed “fuck off the both of you, fuck off before you get hurt”. The two women backed a step away and Renée, still steely, said “yes, I think that’s a good idea. We’ll be in touch with your wife to let her know what’s going on.” And with that they stepped out into the morning sunshine.

“You won’t find her.” Luke shouted as they headed for the door. In his simmering head he was already planning his welcome for when Brenda came back. He knew she would. And he was certain that Brenda would come back groveling. “Bitch” he said setting a match with satisfaction to the package of chilis. As their pungent and unexpectedly asphyxiating fumes rose Luke’s coughing resumed with profound violence and as he tossed his little bonfire and cigarette into the sink he could barely spit out the word “bitch”. It came out of his tightened larynx as a wheezy whisper soft, enfeebled. Caved over once again he heard the car’s gears getting a pasting as Renée and Ann eventually pulled away. Underneath the burn in his lungs he could feel a rising panic brewing and the fear he had so long buried coming to the surface and once more he wept wet, stinking, afraid and alone.

As Renée thrust her car mostly into gear, Ann was already looking up Brenda’s mobile number. She sent a terse message, requesting that Brenda text her back because she and Renée needed a word with her about Luke. Safe in Audrey’s basement Brenda’s breath stopped when she saw there was a message and it was all she could do to stop herself from deleting it. So she did, on the basis that whatever it was they could work out how to solve it themselves, without her. Safe. Silent. But Brenda had underestimated their social services habit of concern. “What should we do? She’s not the sort to run away is she?” Ann’s question came freighted with fear. “Is she?” she repeated and Renée stopped the car and turned off the engine. “She might be in danger Ann. We don’t know what that man’s really capable of. We’ve both seen the signs, and we both know she won’t ask for help. We might even be too late already.” A sobering reality started filtering into the two women’s brains, totally overwhelming the screaming horns coming from behind. “Let’s give it a day”, Renée said absentmindedly waving on the traffic, not noticing that the light ahead of them was red. Ann nodded and read out the address of their next visit. She sent the message again to Brenda again adding a PS. R u ok. Pls let us know.

Chapter 6 A visit from social services and a missing person’s report – Part 1

Brenda always appreciated the gentle way Ann squeezed her hand and put her head slightly to one side. There was often a kind look, and sometimes anxiety in the district nurse’s grey eyes, particularly when Brenda had to push down her sleeves to cover the marks. There was no kind look in her eyes today as Ann and Renée came into the bungalow, the sound of their approach masked by the noise of the Asda man driving away. Nor was there much kindness in the eyes of her colleague from social services as they stepped over empty lager cans into the hall. Both wondered where Brenda was and why Luke was standing in the kitchen swearing as he unpacked the Asda shop. Renée Sagemill had already noted the folded wheelchair in the corner and the filth all over the kitchen. She glanced at Ann as the two took in the dirty dishes stacked in the sink and on the draining board, ready meals packaging strewn on the counter tops under half unpacked shopping. And Luke upright and leaning into the counter as he threw groceries viciously across the room. “What is this crap?” he mumbled unaware of his audience, as he flung the Asda own brand vegan veggi burgers into the growing heap of leeks and celeriac and other rejects.

The visitors coughed slightly as one and Luke turned taking in a deep breath, dank and dirty, stale. Peering through the smoke, his cigarette held tight at the base of his fingers he took another breath “What the fuck.” he muttered before pasting is most charming smile across his face: “ladies, ladies …” he pulled on his victim gallant persona, smiling smiling but, following their eyes to the wheelchair he knew the game was up. The smile fell and the winning tones melted away. “You can’t come in here without knocking, without asking. No right” he spat, taking a small hostile step towards them before theatrically falling back against the sink. “Mr Mordrake” Renée replied sweetly but with a streak of shining steel, “Mr Mordrake, we always come straight in so that you don’t have to get out of your wheelchair and to save Mrs Mordrake the trouble. Hmm?” “You know this. But I think you might perhaps, have forgotten we were coming this morning? Too excited with the shopping perhaps?” she continued, eyebrows raised, brow wrinkled and the smile still in place. “Hmm?” she said again as she cast her eye over the ugly mess already crawling with flies despite the early season. Luke stared blank and angry, confused, resistant, first at Renée and then at Ann standing slightly behind her. He raised his fist and elbow high, armpit shining bright white and hair clumped, thrust a pointed finger at her and then at Renée, “you,” he struggled, “you and you, you cows”. Found out and with no one at hand to blame he seethed in swirling defensive fury. Undone he was speechless, soundless but for spitty, hissy breaths, impotent, trapped, enraged, powerless.

Renée and Ann stood patient and waiting, Ann amazed at the strength in that forearm, Ann oddly fascinated by Luke’s long and knuckly dirty-nailed finger, and Renee curdled with anger. Anger not just at Luke, at the pretense she’s missed and at what she would have to go through to resolve it. Anger at the work, the retributions, the guilt, the consequences, but most of all anger that she’d been so complacent, so fooled. The defenses already were forming in her head. He was a tricksy one. Difficult. Protected, shielded by his wife. It wasn’t her fault. Tricksy, that’s it. And where was the wife? Where was Brenda? “Where is Mrs Mordrake?” she asked. The question should have fallen like an axe but instead it was fuel to an already flashing fire. Luke stared defiant, livid and threatening “How the fuck should I know. Gone. Gone since Sunday night.” as he tore at the package of sweet chilis, rightly thinking them a tasting treat, wrongly thinking them raspberries or something, and underestimating just how tasty they might be. Tossing a Scotch Bonnet into his grinning maw and chewing mouth open and laughing, he thrust his face towards each of them in turn, menacing, threatening. His aggressive stance, his idea that he was a lion of terror would horrify and drive them to quivering silence. 

Leaning in even closer to Renée Luke snarled, “boo you cunt”, oozing malevolence and violence as she and Ann stepped back. In this split second they stared at him in gratifying horror, but as Luke worked up to bellow “Fuck off out of it”, the angrily chewed Scotch Bonnet suddenly awoke and let rip to suddenly render Luke a crouching mess, screaming and grasping at his mouth. He had one hand clamped on the table’s edge and the other scrabbling between his throat and his tongue, arrayed with many pieces of burning bright ripe and red chili. The eyes were reddening and starting to flood. The menacing shout he had intended for Ann and Renee turned into a squeal of pain and he was coughing not bellowing, choking not screaming primordial loud, and spluttering in seering agony as the chilis worked their matchless magic. Luke’s eyes streamed and his face was turning an alarming shade of puce, as he spat and clawed away from his mouth what remained of the half chewed chili flicking it in little pieces onto the kitchen table. Flies bounced away in alarm and Ann crouched to retrieve the discarded cigarette. Renée helped Luke into a chair, hitting him with some satisfaction smartly on the back and noting that he was moving quite capably. “Get some water” she told Ann briskly. Ann, who had been raised in Jaipur until she was a teenager, was about to remind Renée that water makes the burning worse. It spreads the chili oil over a wider surface area. Bread’s the thing. A moment’s pause was enough. Nah she said to herself and she handed Luke a cup of water, smiling gently at him as he slurped and rubbed his tearing eyes. The chili remnants on his fingers added to the spectacle Ann noted with mild, ever so mild, concern.

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 7

Brenda had been flattered, amazed that this gorgeous man, a man with a known reputation as a flirt in the village had shown even the slightest bit of interest in her. He had started politely, offering to drop the car to her once it was ready. “If you could give me a lift back, that would be nice”, as he flashed a smile and ran his hand through his shining black hair. It was probably the only time in his life that he would ever use the word nice in a sentence addressed to Brenda.

A couple of dates in the local pub, collecting her from work at the local council, and he knew he was almost there with this young girl. Her parents were dead and she lived with her Aunty and Uncle neither of whom ever smiled. He didn’t know if they liked him or not. It was hard to tell. Brenda never smiled either, except when she talked about the bloody civil service exam. That was the only worry for Luke, that she would go ahead and follow that path. It was a path that lead to too much power. Money for a start, she’d be earning but much as this tempted him it was easy enough to persuade her that all he wanted was to have her at home, to know that she would be there when he can home from work, to know that they would be together every evening, all weekends and that they could go on holidays together. “You know you’re the one for me, you do know that don’t you Brenda?” It had been in the Spread Eagle, his favourite pub because of its high ceilings and cheap sometimes flat beer. Brenda had remarked on the sticky carpets and Luke had nearly lost it but hid his anger with a slurp of beer and a glance at the dartboard. “Fancy a game of darts?” He had said, and although Brenda was rubbish at the game he couldn’t help but be impressed how fast she was at scoring, from the 501 start to the finishing triple 19, every shot was scored in a second. He liked that the other blokes playing were also impressed, at least at first he liked it. But then a muttered “You don’t wanna show off like that darlin’, no, you don’t do you?” And Brenda looked wide eyed back at her hero, who had won four games straight, and said “no, no of course not.” She took her time with the arithmetic that evening and always, whenever they were in the pub and she was watching Luke play darts with his mates.

From the short courtship to the sparse little wedding was a matter of weeks. They moved in with Luke’s Mum, a grey and rough handed woman who smoked even more than Luke did. She would patrol the house when they were both at work, leaving cigarette ash on their bed and in the bathroom sink. Brenda occasionally visited her Aunty and Uncle, but they were never much pleased to see her and Luke didn’t like it so she gave it up. Soon they bought the bungalow and on the day they moved in he told her “now everything changes, now it’s just you and me”. Brenda had beamed up at him from her unpacking, wordless and smiling with no idea that what he meant was anything other than romance. They’d managed sex once or twice at his Mum’s but it was all a bit hit and miss, mostly miss. Neither of them seemed competent, passion was largely absent and Brenda said sorry for getting it wrong. “It’s being here,” Luke had told her, “me Mum’s in the next room, puts me off a bit.” And he would try again before punching the pillow hard and rolling away. In the bungalow everything changed. Luke’s Mum wasn’t in the next room, he sometimes tried again, and he always punched Brenda hard before rolling away.

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 6

Dr Saltcake soon shifted the business’ focus to suit his abilities, real and imagined. As a retreat, Longbourne had much less need for staff, far fewer rules to follow and benefited from a fertile seam of wealthy women in need of respite from life. Dr Sandra Lockwith was the only member of staff he retained, figuring that her Americanness would be a value added extra of authority and a possible inducement for American clients. He was right in this at least and together they had build up a solid client base with many neurotic women, American and otherwise coming to Longbourne to heal, nurture their spirits, and generally laze about. Herbert likes women a lot and especially the wealthy ones, those happy to sit and listen to his stories and read his short fiction with uncritical and flattered eyes. He never shares his stories with Dr Sandra, nor indeed does he share much else, anxious that the moth holes in his past might inadvertently be spotted and trip him up. Thus the two of them keep a respectful distance at all times, so respectfully distant that the staff at Longbourne House are all convinced that they’ve been having a torrid affair for years.

Dr Sandra waited until Dr Saltcake finished his paragraph, unaware that he had merely been waiting for what he considered a suitably studious amount of time before noticing her. He raised his eyebrows and she smiled deferentially before being invited to give her weekly update on the upsells and other new business coming along. “… and Audrey Saxton will be leaving tomorrow and has asked for the car to take her home.” “Absolutely. Tell her yes and put a charge of £445 on her bill.” 

While Brenda and Audrey were busy navel gazing and some two days after Brenda had established herself in Audrey’s basement guestroom, at the shabby bungalow in Great Leigh a Ford Fiesta is parking wonky on the lane near the drive. It cannot be seen behind a large delivery van with Asda painted in bright and cheery green on its side. As they get out of the car social worker Renée Sagemill and district nurse Ann Apio observe a man standing almost upright. He’s leaning against the doorframe to pick up bags of groceries. As the Asda van pulls away, they as one move closer into the tall leylandii hedge to see what happens next. Luke Mordrake moved back and forth carrying many shopping bags into his house. He didn’t move with any particular nimbleness, but he was upright and moving. The wheelchair was nowhere in sight. The two women exchanged glances and continued spying on their client until all the shopping bags had been removed.

At first he hadn’t missed her but as he unpacked the many bags looking for something he could eat, Luke was beginning to wonder where Brenda was and why she didn’t answer his messages or calls. His memories of that wet night were hazy, but he knew she’d left before dark and that she wasn’t there when he woke up next morning stiff and cold on the sofa. He’d started by shouting for her, then calling out more gently in his sweetest tones. When that didn’t work he rose cautiously from the sofa, fearing some trick and after half an hour’s painful hobbling around the place had decided she was gone. He made himself a cup of tea, squeezing the tea bag with his thumb against the side of the cup, pressing as hard as he could, watching the dribbles forced reluctantly out. He pictured pressing under her eyes to force the tears and maybe blood too. He pictured pressing her cheeks to force open her mouth so that he could spit into it. He pictured her pressed and broken and he smiled a spiteful smile.

The day was his he decided, his to do as he liked, without bothering with her, without the strain of thinking up new transgressions, new excuses for her punishments. By the time Brenda was wrestling with the Asda app at Gatwick airport he was showered and had changed his clothes. He microwaved a steak and ale pie and mash and settled in front of the television with his cigarettes and a lager. She didn’t come when he called for another, or the next time. Nor did she come to empty his ashtray or bring him a cup of tea and some biscuits. She didn’t come, so he found his phone, plugged it in to charge and sent another abusive message, with many more to follow. Drunk and angry he told himself, “stupid fuckin’ cow’s gonna cop it. Bitch.” It never occured to him that Brenda might have gone for good. He told the television once again what he would do to her when she came back. The television said “he’s the man hoping to strike it, he’s having a word with his captain” and Luke spat back. “I’ll bloody strike it, no word with no captain”. And lost in the game for a few minutes he hears the television say “touch from Lampard was of an accurate nature” and says back “… be more than a fucking touch, the cunt”. Luke watches and the television draws him in and he forgets about Brenda. But when the game is over and their chatting about who did what and something about maintaining a position and through a drunken animation he saw Brenda when he first met her. She’d brought her old banger to the garage for its MOT and Luke saw straightaway that passive anxiety, her innate fear of everything and her fascination as she watched him roll out from under the car, lying there looking up at her both of them wide eyed, but only one of them thinking, this might be the one. He wanted a wife. He was bored of all the girls wanting him, wanting him different, wanting more, wanting. He wanted an old-fashioned woman, a woman who would look after him, not expect too much, not believe that there was anything real behind those oh so male shoulders, the bulging thighs and his musky scents.

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 5

Somewhere south of Great Leigh Audrey was having a similar sort of heart to heart chat with herself. The nurses at Longbourne House had started easing up on the pain killers and were teaching Audrey how to move her portly person around on crutches. It wasn’t easy but it was easier though more painful without the morphine. After this morning’s little session, Audrey was recovering with a big fat book. “Well Audrey, how are we today?” Audrey looked up from Our Mutual Friend and noted that Dr Sandra Lockwith could do with some help in the clothes department. “We?” she said, pushing her borrowed glasses down her nose and looking over her shoulder. Dr Lockwith pasted a pretend smile of appreciation under her nose and clasped her hands together, bouncing them slightly on her abdomen and mustering all her persuasive skills. She couldn’t upsell this patient on a medical basis, that was certain. Her doctor’s qualification is based on a ten week course in women’s healthcare from Santa Monica College ten years ago. It wouldn’t stand up to any sort of orthopedic question. It would have to be something more subtle.

“Audrey, you are clearly still not yourself are you?” she said, as she perched herself on the edge of the library desk. “Perhaps we should consider another few days at Longbourne for you? I mean for your state of mind, your confidence, self-assurance, you know. You’ve had a nasty experience. I am sure we can come to an arrangement that would ease the transition back to the outside world? Hmmm? ” This last accompanied by a vague wave in the direction of the tall windows and the sweep of the South Downs glittering in the bright morning light. Audrey followed her arm and smiled. “Not particularly user friendly to a woman in my position, that particular outside world now is it?” Dr Lockwith ignored the sarcasm, looked down at her lap and sighed a sympathetic sigh that only just masked her annoyance. This wasn’t going anywhere. “Are you sure? You really should think about it?” Audrey stared back at her, keeping the rictus in place. “Is leaving us after just a few short days, really the best thing? Why not stay on through the weekend?” Audrey’s eyes were staring fixedly back at Dr Lockwith whose usually steely nerve was starting to turn molten under Audrey’s gaze. “Are you certain you will be able to manage in London, on your own?” she weaseled. Audrey was by no means certain that she would be able to manage in London or anywhere else. But she knew that the American Express bill would soon be arriving and that at the moment there was no possibility of paying it, which meant there could be no chance of extending her time at Longbourne House without the ignominy of being found out. And besides, she knew she had to face the mess. The time for quiet avoidance was ebbing fast away and now that Angus was buried it was time to collect all that she knew about their finances, and work out how best she could burn it all down and start again.

“The thing is Dr Lockwith, I really do feel ready to tackle my own life again. This place has done me a power of good and I am ready, almost, to leave.”  Sandra Lockwith wasn’t about to give up, but determined as she was on her upselling mission she recognised in Audrey’s faux pasted smile that she was beaten. Audrey oozed oily smooth confidence blended with an air of slight impatience. It discouraged further challenge, so Dr Lockwith looked down her long nose and sucked in her lower lip mute and acquiescent. The combination of underbite, missing lower lip and size nine nose combined to give her the impression of a mountain goat. And she dresses like one Audrey thought to herself, returning to her book.

“Well,” said Dr Lockwith to Audrey’s bowed head with a sigh, “you know best what’s best for you” and tweaking her smile ever so slightly held out her hand. “I am going to be away for a few days, so I shan’t be here to wave you off”. Audrey looked up, took her hand and returned the smile with a couple of tweaks of her own, mostly to display her perfect teeth. “I am sure all will be well” she called to Dr Lockwith’s retreating back encouragingly. She almost believed it herself.

When she relayed the conversation to Dr Herbert Saltcake later in the morning, Dr Lockwith was tempted to ask Herbert for any medical reason as the basis for encouraging Audrey to extend her stay. Dr Lockwith trusted Dr Saltcake’s forty years in clinical practise for all medically important decisions. As she watched with fondness his quiet reading of the Lancet, she marvelled at their mutual trust and understanding. She has never asked dear Herbert about his qualifications and medical experiences in Africa. And he has never asked her about what happened in America, perhaps for similar reasons.

Dr Herbert Saltcake is a real doctor, except that he is a doctor of philosophy, rather than of medicine. Years spent in Africa working for an NGO exposed him to more than he expected of illness and disease, and his aptitude for medical diagnosis although only a well polished act, was enough to convince many of his colleagues and their patients that he could be a doctor. And so it was, a habit growing easily and unchecked on fertile ground. His actual expertise was in medieval accounting and financial history, a topic that was surprisingly useful when his brother left him a nursing home. The annoying thing was, that the nursing home was a vibrant and successful enterprise that demanded Herbert’s return from Africa. This in fact turned out to be quite convenient, Herbert having managed to embroil his handsome self in a number of risky relationships, including one with a real doctor who was wanting to get to know him better. So he left and pitched up at Longbourne as Dr Saltcake, legitimately so, but not quite.