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.

Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book edited by Devon Cox

Constance Wilde, born in 1858, was the wife of Oscar and the mother of his two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Two years after her marriage to Oscar Wilde in 1884, Constance started an autograph book for which she continued to collect entries until 1896. There are 62 in all, mostly provided by invited contributors during Constance’s At Home events. But by 1896, her husband was in prison having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and Constance was in exile in Italy. After Constance died in 1898, two years before Oscar, the whereabouts of the autograph book were unknown. 

It resurfaced at auction in 1987 and Mary Hyde bequeathed it to the British Museum in 2003. The British Museum kindly gave the Oscar Wilde Society permission to produce a facsimilie reproduction of the book. Joan Winchell, a longstanding member of the society, donated funds to make possible the book’s production. Devon Cox managed the project.

Constance’s autograph book is an unparalleled window into manners, behaviour, expectations and the nature of celebrity in late nineteenth century London. Constance was very considered in her invitations to contribute to her autograph book, so it has entries from a diverse group of men and women, from Prime Ministers and actors to musicians and spiritualists. And it has some interesting omissions, such as Oscar’s soon to be growing group of male friends.

The entries range from the profound to the peculiar. G. F. Watts painter and sculptor put “our greatest happiness should be found in the happiness of others” and “you did not promise to be her mother-in-law” is playwright Elizabeth Merivale’s rather odd contribution. And although her husband’s renown was obviously helpful in gaining signatures, the autograph book clearly reflects Constance’s independent values, spirit and aspirations. Oscar’s entry, the second in the book following that of Oliver Wendell Holmes, is unsurprisingly the most intimate of all. It reads: “from a poet to a poem” and although Oscar has used this line elsewhere in his work, it is no less touching an expression of his respect and admiration for his wife. At least at the time, when she was still the love of his life.

So why should we care about the autograph book of a woman long dead and buried, who died tragically young and whose life was so overshadowed by her glamorous husband? Isn’t this little autograph book just an elaborate form of name-dropping, of literary showing off? Yes, it is an exercise in name dropping, but these names are not just collected, Constance Wilde has deliberately curated them and this is part of the fascination of the book. The names so assiduously gathered, reflect some sliver of Constance’s spirit and values. Artists and poets feature heavily, as do actors including Henry IrvingEllen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt.

In the beginning of their marriage Oscar’s fame and notoriety dominated Constance’s life, and then shame and notoriety were ascendant. They forced Constance to leave the country and change her and her children’s names. First glamour and then misery. But somewhere in that glorious and successful phase of Oscar’ life, first as a heterosexual man, then as a bisexual one and then homosexual, Constance was in love and happy. Oscar too was in love and happy. The autograph book was mostly created during this period of their lives, when Constance was emerging as a socially and politically independent woman. A woman sufficiently confident and bold to hold her own in Oscar’s orbit, albeit fleetingly.

Constance was his soul mate and lover, intellectually for a little while and briefly physically. But Oscar was a serial explorer both intellectually and sexually, so it never was going to last long. Apart from their two boys, there are very few expressions of Constance in Wilde’s life. Her autograph book gives us a small shred of insight into the woman and her life with one of the world’s greatest authors. With contributions from artists such as James Whistler and William Morris, from politicians such as Gladstone, through to authors including Mark Twain and George Meredith, the book reflects Constance Wilde’s life and times but also her eclecticism. It’s a wonderful thing indeed. 

Devon Cox has overseen the production of the project and even if you don’t fancy reading all the musings in the book, his introduction alone is worth the purchase. You can buy it here: https://oscarwildesociety.co.uk/autograph-book/

PS Is it just me or is there a striking similarity in looks between Constance and Bosie?

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.

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 4

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.

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 3

“Coffee and poetry.” Brenda said rather pointlessly. “That’s nice”. Awkward and feeling ashamed at the confusion of her own thoughts and emotions she retreated to the armchair that had been her refuge when she first arrived at Audrey’s house. “Is the boiler fixed?” Mimis smiled over the machine, and opening the cupboard above it took out a jar of gleaming coffee beans and filled the hopper. “This is a nice machine” he said admiringly.” “Yes. It’s fixed” he added and Brenda feeling that she really ought to ask said “what was wrong” before realising that she really shouldn’t have asked this since she was supposed to be Audrey who would know why she had called in a boiler repair man. “There was a blockage,” he said and then continued “the scrimble cocks and whisnoskles were …” At least that is what Brenda started hearing before she glazed over. The coffee machine was working its magic and Brenda in fascination handed Mimis a mug and the sugar bowl. “I’ve made enough for two.” Brenda has never been very fond of coffee but having only ever had the instant sort, that’s probably unsurprising. Mimis handed her a halfful mug, she sipped and coughed a little and “just wait until you get the taste” he said and Brenda blushed.

Out on the terrace they stood side by side watching birds barrelling their ways to roost. Mimis quiet and Brenda suddenly awash with shame and guilt, aware that she couldn’t keep on lying. Had to stop the lying and tell someone. Tell him. “I’m not really Audrey Saxton you know. I’ve never even met her. I am a burglar I suppose. Not a proper burglar you understand. I’m still here you see, and burglars go off don’t they, with the stuff, I mean, they take what they’re stealing away and I haven’t gone away you see. But I shouldn’t really be here at all. But Audrey is away. She’s in hospital but I’ve never met her. I had nowhere else.” This sudden uncontrolled outpouring came from a very deep down somewhere, welling up from the depths of Brenda’s stressed brain, and she started to cry. “I’m so sorry, I am really so sorry. Please don’t tell anyone.”

Mimis, reeling slightly and understanding that he would be at this job a little longer, stayed speechless sipping on his coffee for comfort, hearing the blackbird’s shrill and frantic goodnight cries. Brenda found herself doing the same, snot oozing its way into the cup before she could swipe it away with her hand. She turned to him, snot and coffee neatly smeared to one side of her nose and said “I know I’ve done wrong, but I really didn’t mean to.” The wide open eyes, the brown coffee moustache plus snot, the imploring gaze held Mimis quite still. He was somewhere between fear and confusion and concern and tenderness. This mad woman might really be a burglar who tried to murder Audrey, for all he knew. She might be even Audrey deranged and off her head on pills. What should Mimis do with this curious tale? “What’s your name then” he said, “if it isn’t Audrey?”

Brenda looked at the floor and mumbled her name. “… and I haven’t any money and Audrey will come back next week. I’m sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you not to come to fix the boiler.” This was sounding slightly more normal, and although he couldn’t quite work out what pattern to put the various details into, he said  “Right. Well that’s ok because I can just leave a bill. You don’t need to worry about it. Audrey will be back, the boiler’s fixed and you’re staying here, looking after the place for her”. Put like this, it sounded almost rational and Brenda managed a tiny smile and a sniff “is that really alright? I am telling the truth, really I am”. Mimis put his arm on hers retracting it almost immediately as she recoiled. “Shall we go indoors and if you like we can talk.” Then he added, “I’m really a poet, not a boiler man. This is just a job.” And as he said it Mimis remembered that the poet thing was his own private secret. No one except his Papou knew about Mimis’s poems and Papou was dead.

But he didn’t tell Brenda this.

After Mimis left, Brenda went down to her basement room and watched television for six hours, wide awake and not in the least bit hungry. She tried but failed to marshall the facts of her situation, finally falling asleep instead. Brenda woke with a panic to the sound of her own snores and once again tried to marshall facts. They were these:

She hadn’t really stolen a car because the car was parked outside the house of its rightful owner. She wasn’t a criminal because she hadn’t stolen anything, well not much, and hadn’t broken into someone’s house, not really because she’d used a key.

And if she wasn’t a criminal, who would arrest her and why? This was a serious worry because without police company Brenda did not dare to return home to Great Leigh.

When she eventually dozed off again, it was to the sound of Mimis’s voice and an image of blue feet. In the morning she switched on her phone and waded through the torrent of messages. The last few were from the woman at social services who coordinated Luke’s appointments. Brenda deleted them. They looked like the same messages as yesterday she pondered. Her thoughts went back briefly to Luke who was at that moment having an awkward conversation with the nice ladies from social services.

And anyway, she was living another life, someone else’s life: the Ocado delivery, the telephone calls and the word gym in the Filofax for Friday. All of these little reference points brought back hinted memories of her own other life, the life before Luke, the life working at the local council after school as a cleaner, the life that promised a career when she left school. And she remembers the life of the woman who’s been faking it for years, all to benefit a bully. The morning light filtered down hitting the mirror and casting long shadows on the primrose yellow carpet. With a deep sigh Brenda got up and stared at herself in the mirror. And looking in the mirror what does she see? How should she grasp this wonderful chance to be someone else for a little while? And where is Audrey?

Chapter 5 The boiler man – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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