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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

Chapter 1 An unexpected fall – Part 2

In between watching Deirdre and Walter strut up and down, as long as they can stay awake Stephen and Margaret spot the gifted and lythe from the fat and clumsy. Like Deirdre’s dancing it’s a bit hit and miss. They usually doze off once the music starts, and resurface snorting and snuffling when the applause kicks in. Then they drift for a while lost in bygone days when, young, gorgeous and agile, they too skimmed endless floors in endless ballrooms all around the world. That tall willowy woman with a tight blonde chignon. Those sumptuous yards of flowing silks, bias cut and eddying in shwooshing waves with every flawless turn. Her partner, slightly taller and angular, spare and pale, has gleaming auburn hair and golden lashed green eyes set high and wide in a long oval face. Time has seen them both crumpled and very small, skin creped, bones eroded and joints calcifying. They are wrinkled and withered and still deep in love.

Stephen and Margaret never notice these creaky impediments as between naps they move in their chairs ever so slightly, in time to the music. They sympathise when Deirdre’s pirouettes stop with a stumble as soon as one foot leaves the floor. They duck when her rampant arms reach full extension. They make sure to keep their feet tucked in. And they are content to let the television give back their shared beauty and the joy. “We’re still here old girl” he says, and she nods lovingly back at shabby remnants and vague hints of glittered copper in his hair, roguish green eyes, freckled cheeks. Once plump lips curl still in a smile that melts her. She tingles and grows warm. She sometimes blushes at the memory of what those lips could do. She falls reckless every time, before turning back to hide in the dancing on the screen, eyes blurred and cheeks burning.

But that was on Saturday and today was an eventful Sunday about to get even more eventful. The three stood peering at the small collection of letters and printed catalogues that had appeared, suddenly it seemed, on their door mat. Deirdre leant to scoop them up, using her Father’s walking frame as an aid and nearly bringing him with her as she bent down. Her Mother’s gnarled and twisted hands reached out ineffectually and hopelessly to catch her Stephen as he teetered. Having long since lost all elasticity or capacity for extension her hands stretched barely a few inches, more in prayer than salvation. Leaning over the frame Stephen caught his breath, and put a hand on her arm. “There there old girl, I’m not done for yet” he wheezed, still out of breath from the earlier bellowing. 

Deirdre, oblivious and still crouched, had her ear to a whistly crack in the door. She waved the letters at them, a frantic request for silence. “Shush will you shush, there’s someone out there” she hissed. “Of course there’s someone out there dear, it will be the dogs coming back with Audrey,” said her mother patiently. “Audrey?” the younger woman replied. “Yes dear, Audrey, you remember our friend, our friend who has been here all weekend with us, our friend who brought you the lovely present from Angus, who has died. You remember the pearls? The pearls Audrey gave you because Angus wanted you to have his Mother’s pearls? And you remember that we stood on the driveway and said goodbye to his ashes, in the box in the boot of her car?” Deirdre’s hand reached to her neck and stroked the triple string of pearls, warm and soft against the draping folds of her neck, but she couldn’t remember Angus or looking into the boot of a car. “There, there it is again, can’t you hear it?” she said instead. Her parents looked from one to the other, sad but resigned. Another little brick had fallen. Deirdre’s mother pushed her cold hands into her pockets and looked out at the gloom expecting to see her dogs and her friend coming back from their last minute walk. “What on earth? What on earth is that? There’s someone on the ground over there, quickly Deirdre, turn on the outside light”. Deirdre did and the three of them moved slowly out into the porch and the pool of light, slightly afraid of what they might find. Behind them the ancient house, blank eyed, sighed and sifted into black.

Peering through the dark they watch enthralled as their two extremely dirty dogs come slowly into focus, wide mouthed with scarlet lolling tongues beating time with their panting. The dogs are just slightly ahead of Audrey who is covered in mud and bits of moss and stick and appears to be crawling on her elbows over the edge of the bank. She too is panting heavily, her mouth opened wide, her teeth bared, her tongue’s pulse possibly beating time along with the dogs’. Random dirty patterns decorate the soft amber of Audrey’s new and as yet unpaid for coat. Her tangled hair, interspersed with globs of dirt and bits of grass, falls over her face and blocks her view. She struggles noisily to get over the top of the bank and as a recognisable amount of filthy wet Audrey appears, her little audience lets out a collective gasp.

Audrey’s face was tear streaked, grubby and red. She was gasping open mouthed at the air and moving with extreme care, clutching the dogs leads for some sort of balance and cursing the terrier for his enthusiasm. “Get an ambulance” she panted as she hooked her elbows further onto the drive and the relative stability of the gravel. The dogs heaved her along a few centimeters closer to the pool of light, desperate to reach their own place of safety. “Get me an ambulance immediately I think I’ve broken my ankle,” she whimpered weak and desperate. Then the tears came back despite her efforts to hold them in and she grisled pathetically in a tiny incoherent voice that she’d fallen down “this damn bank” trying to get back up it.

Audrey is struggling to pull herself together, mustering all her strength. She calls through clenched teeth, “Quickly! Deirdre, dial 999 on the telephone. Now!” Audrey, her hands still tightly wrapped in dog leads, was now heaving herself onto her knees, leaning on the ancient Lab whose bulk and general immobility could support her a little. Together they inch towards Deidre and her parents. Audrey, her fine woolen trousers sodden and cold, her coat a complete mess is sniveling, the Labrador’s lead wound tight around her hand. The terrier she lets go and it gleefully follows Deirdre into the house. Deirdre is his one and only real true love. Deidre knows where the biscuits live and the biscuits were calling him.As she headed for the kitchen Deirdre was repeating in a singsong voice nine nine nine, nine nine nine, nine nine nine, and as she listened to the ring of a distant phone, was trying hard to remember what should happen next. She knew it was important so she knitted her brow in concentration and stared at the filthy carpet and hummed to herself. As she waited, Deirdre saw Alistair dive back and forth between her and her parents and their burden. They had managed to lodge Audrey’s soft frame between them and, using the walker as support were moving very, very slowly out of the dark and inching towards the house. This novelty eclipsed all thoughts 

The Ashes in the Boot – Chapter 1 An unexpected fall

“Shall I, shall I just for a moment go for you? Then you’ve no need to go out until later. It’s so wet.” Smiling benignly a tall well-built woman in her late fifties deftly clips leads onto an ancient drooling and slightly scabby Labrador and an excitable terrier bouncing up and down making the task somewhat of a challenge. He was leaving footprints and tiny scratches on her highly polished boots and making excitable little squeaking sounds. The woman, in an expensive coat that she hadn’t yet worked out how to pay for, soon pushed off into the dreary afternoon and became invisible. Grubby daffodils struggled to remain upright in the soggy ground and it was raining. Holding tight to the leads, Audrey looked at the flowers with some sympathy. She headed for the dilapidated summerhouse on the lower lawn and said to the dogs “once around and back will do you, won’t it boys”.

An hour or so later and two very, very old people are peering out of their gloomy hall window, anxious for their friend and for their precious puppies. “But where are they?” said one to the other, eye to watery, red rimmed eye. And then in unison they bellowed with surprising vigour, “Deirdre, go out and look for Audrey”. The marginally older of the two immediately thought the better of it and added just as loud, “No, no don’t go Deirdre. No need we’ll just wait until Audrey comes back”. “She’ll get lost again” he hissed a breathless breath at his wife. She smiled back nodding and marvelling as always at her dashing husband’s immense wisdom. She hadn’t really heard what he said, but noted fondly the remnants of Marmite toast crumbs settled comfortably in his stubble, and the way he clutched just slightly too tightly at her hand. Deirdre already in wellies, uncomfortably on the wrong feet, ambled up and looked on mildly confused and wondering what should happen next. Sharp eared she had heard her father and almost remembered getting lost once before. She wasn’t sure that she had liked it and seemed to remember buses being involved. “Right” she said making her own slightly relieved decision to remain. She used her wobbling parents in turn to steady herself as she struggled to pull off the wellies, which as well as being on the wrong feet were rather too tight.

Darkness was reaching in to softly remind them that the day was nearing it’s close. The three of them, the slightly worried parents and the 74 year old child, stayed at the window watching for Audrey to appear from the rising gloom. When the draft from the cracks in their ancient front door got a little too much, they edged away to move back to the toasty kitchen where the kettle had been whistling for quite some time. “There she is!” said Deirdre as they turned away from the grimy window. “Oh no it isn’t her” as she watched a woman she didn’t recognise walking away from the house. By the time her parents looked out of the window the woman, a neighbour who occasionally popped by for no particularly reason, had gone. The neighbour had a strange way of starting her sentences, getting flustered and then leaving midsentence. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if… ” And then she would turn away. It had happened several times of late.

“They’ve left some letters. Postman!” said Deirdre triumphant. It was a Sunday afternoon, but no one challenged her. Her parents couldn’t be sure that the letters weren’t leftover from yesterday. In Turzel House where simply getting a bite of lunch was an achievement, knowing if the post on the mat was today’s or some other day’s didn’t really matter. What did matter was if it was a Saturday but today was not Saturday, because Saturday had been yesterday.

Saturday was the most important day of the week for Turzel House because that was when the dancing was on the television. Saturday was when Deirdre could practise her Paso doble with online support, as Deidre regularly explained to her parents. That the television wasn’t really an online channel and that only one of the dances, if any, was likely to be a Paso doble didn’t really matter. It all depended on which bit of the boxset made it into the DVD player. Sometimes it was the same DVD for several months. For Stephen and Margaret the pleasure and the pride were always the same and for Deirdre as long as it was Saturday when she danced, not much else mattered.

Once she was in costume and had finished her warming up plies and tendus, Deirdre would declare with unquestionable authority, “I’m nearly ready to overload a video onto the InstaApp” and her parents impressed would nod, oblivious to what she was on about. The interweb completely baffles them but their clever and determined daughter had nailed it they were sure. At least she might have. Deirdre’s Paso doble improved week to week, they were certain. Watching her in the shining purple polyester dress she’d found in a jumble sale in 1972, prancing with feathers and ribbons tangled around her plump neck, they feel immense pride, mostly. Watching Deidre hop and wheel is as enjoyable to Stephen and Margaret as watching the dancers on television. They love the swirl of lavish sequined costumes, wild with colour and high heels skimming dangerously close to hems and ankles, yet rarely do the dancers misstep. Deirdre parades up and down, swirls her best, her heavy frame with arms outstretched follows an invisible partner. He’s a mysterious, raven haired and steely eyed Argentinian called Walter.

The Three Bees: And then the cold came

When he woke up Curly was extremely cold, much colder than he had ever been before. Alone and almost immobile he was afraid. But he could feel the rising sun warming the walls and roof of the hive and slowly he found he could move a little bit, then more as his body temperature rose above 9º. Curly had spent the night quietly creeping as close as he dared towards the middle of the hive. He had moved cautiously amongst the almost sleeping bees, gleaning meagre warmth as he went. The scent of propolis was calming and he could take sips of honey from uncapped cells as he moved cautiously amongst dozing workers. They noticed his slow comings and goings not at all. Back in his hiding place and as the sun rose higher, Curly watched the worker bees heading for the exit. He noticed that fewer than usual were going out to forage and wondered what was happening in his home.

Bees can only survive the winter if they can keep the hive’s temperature at around 32-34º Centigrade. This they can only do if there are enough bees. Weak colonies rarely survive the winter.

Curly chewed on a sliver of propolis that he’d found on the floor during one of his nocturnal rambles. Sticky with honey it must’ve been broken off from somewhere when they were murdering the drones. “Wondering is what you do best,” he whispered to himself. “…it’s your strength, your power. It’s the only thing no other bee in this colony can do the way you do.” Then as an afterthought he said aloud ”and it’s what you must do now.” Curly thought the propolis might be useful for defence if the workers found him, so he tucked it under a forelimb. It was somehow comforting. “Foolish boy” he said resuming his conversation with himself. “I’d have no chance. Propolis stick or not. I must understand what is going on and why everything seems to be slowing down.” Curly got himself in tight behind the broken and overhanging comb that had been his camp for the night to think it all through. He noted the facts: drones evicted from the hive, drones with their wings snipped off, drones going out and not coming home again. What could it mean, why were they not staying in the hive, especially now it was getting cold. Then he understood. They were being discarded. Curly didn’t understand why, but he did understand that drones still around once summer was over were somehow surplus to requirements.

Curly was hungry again, but didn’t dare move. He sucked on the no longer sticky propolis, wondering why he felt so hungry when surely sleepy would have been more likely. Food. Food was obsessing him and his supply was strictly limited to the oversucked piece of old propolis. It’s flavour reminded Curly of his younger days as a newly hatched drone, days when the sun warmed the hive all day long and darkness came only once he and his brothers were safe and asleep. Darkness and food, the one too much of and the other too little of, and the traffic in the hive getting thinner and the drone population collapsed to nothing, soon only to him and only then if he could stay hidden. Curly could hear them, still shoving out drones. Soon he sensed a new instruction to a platoon of workers. They were moving to the warmest part of the hive, in the middle where Mother and most of the brood were. They were charged with routing out any remaining drones still hiding in the hive. “Their surplus to requirements, get them out.”

Numbers were not Curly’s strong suit, he was after all just a bee and a male bee at that. But he did understand the workings of his home, and that everything had purpose and function, and that everything contributed to the well-being of the colony. The purpose of drones was to do something on the outside, something that only the best of drones could do. For the rest of them, they had no further role in the hive so they were dispensable. It was just a matter of time before the drone patrol found him, or he became immobilised and died as the temperature fell. He had managed to keep moving by stealth in the night, but that was never going to work long term. He was already exhausted. Curly understood that there were two options: die of starvation and cold, cowering in a secret corner of the hive, or let the drone patrol find and mutilate him before tossing him from the hive. 

But there must be some other possibility, he thought to himself. That possibility could lie in some sort of negotiation. “I’ll talk to them” he said shivering as the chill sunk into his joints, slowing his blood, softening his senses. But who should he talk to? Who is in charge of the drone patrol and why? Who decides that the drones must go? Curly crept out from his sticky shelter and started cleaning off the honey, not just because he was hungry and it was so very tasty. He wanted to look his best, his most impressive, big, strong, smart. His antennae were droopy though and he was overwhelmed with apathy, a laziness in his body that his sleepy mind struggled to overcome. As he moved he felt warmer, but he could only move slowly through the crowds of workers. He did his best to move as he and his brothers used to move: with confidence and self-assurance, fearless. Only the drone patrols knew that they were to catch drones, so the rest of the bees kept busy with their various tasks. The reasoning was sound and Curly soon found himself in the midst of a mass of workers, struggling to get to a group of hungry grubs. Curly passed over numerous cells wherein he could see tiny specks, eggs, eggs that had only recently been laid soon to be nurtured into grubs and hatch as fully formed bees.

Then he had it. “Mother” he said aloud and twittered his antennae in response to the added buzz of a few hundred workers, turning their antennae towards him. It took no more than a few seconds for a bossy worker bee to signal to Mother, although what the signal meant baffled Curly because Mother did not appear. Instead a group of seven, slightly rough looking bees approached him. Curly knew that as soon as the seven sisters recognised him as a drone, he would have to talk fast. He sensed that the drone patrol was already coming for him, and quickly. Best to start the conversation immediately before the seven or the patrol reached him. “You need me” he said, watching the movement of their antennaee, trying to divine what they were thinking. The movements were subtle, invisible almost. Slightly louder and with more patience he called to them “Mother needs me. You all need me, because I am bigger than you but don’t need so much food”. Curly had no idea where that had come from, nor did he really understand what he was saying. The seven sisters had Curly in a tight ring, antennae now straight up and forward, faces expressionless, forelimbs interlinked. They did not speak, they just held him there, penned and waiting for the drone patrol to arrive. Curly could see Mother coming slowly closer, her entourage fussing, cleaning, feeding, grooming her as the small group approached the seven sisters. Curly heard a lazy drawl “what is it, what do you want now, isn’t it enough that these cells are all full of my lovely eggs, of lovely grubs. What else do you want?” “Take her away” Curly heard a nearby voice growl. It came from the ring of bees around him, but none of them appeared to have spoken. “Now” a hiss came from another direction, as Mother drifted off to sleep a hindleg dipped into an empty cell. The group of courtiers, gave her a little shove and then a couple of kicks to get the massive bee moving on, as instructed. Curly was speaking fast, desperate to convince the seven to call off the patrol. “I can help with the cold. I can help keep her warm, and the brood. I can. I can keep her laying. You need me. I can help the colony survive. It’s getting colder, you know this. You need me.”

Curly felt his voice rising and struggled to keep it below the pitch of a squeak, tried to pretend he was Burly, big, strong and handsome. He watched and the seven sisters remained still, implacable. Curly had the sense that some other communication, something beyond the pheromone transmissions, beyond clicking mandibles or antennae was going on. It was just a thickening of the air, a pause in breathing perhaps, but then Curly understood that he should continue. He squared his little shoulders and held his antennae steady, still. He said “I can help keep you warm, Mother, the brood, the brood, I can help the brood.” Mother’s entourage were still pulling her leg from the honey cell, and as it dribbled out Curly heard her sigh as she slowly turned to face him, head lolling, her attendants frantically cleaning the honey from her wayward leg.

Ever since Curly, Burly and Twirly had been born all those weeks ago, Curly had noticed that the most important things in his colony were keeping Mother laying, and raising her brood which involved constant attention, recipe finessing and work. It was the brood that grew into worker bees or drones, depending on the diet the nursing bees fed them. It was the brood that would matter most if the hive continued to get colder and darker as the days progressed. Now he was hearing or sensing that what mattered most in what Curly had said was the word “brood”. He continued without really knowing what he was talking about, repeating and repeating that “I can help keep the brood warm, keep them safe. I am a drone that can do more than any other drone, a drone to help the brood.” As he said this the drone patrol arrived and immediately halted some few honeycomb cells away from Curly’s circle of seven sisters. He could sense some hesitation, some sudden reluctance to get closer to the circle. And then the seven moved away and the drone patrol surrounded Curly. His heart was pumping and he instinctively tucked in his wings as tight as they would go as the circle drew tighter, and then inexplicably the bees turned their backs on him. As one, they turned to face away, drawing up their antennae and tightening the ring around Curly. They locked arms.

Curly’s first instinct was to panic and reach for his propolis stick, but then he reasoned, “why are they facing away from me, blocking me in yes, but attacking me, no. And my stick is stuck to my abdomen. And they are locked, so I cannot get away, but I am also protected.” As he mulled over what this meant for his future health and well-being, Curly saw the seven sisters unbundle from their huddle and move in his direction. The platoon ring opened to form a horseshoe and the sisters approached. They bowed their antennae in polite greeting and Curly understood that he had to explain what he meant by keeping safe the brood. The platoon had turned around again and were facing towards him, their eyes brimming with unspoken menace. “You need bees to keep the hive warm. You need the brood at the heart of the nest and insulation against the cold. You need to know when it’s too cold at the outer layer, so you can move bees in and get new ones at the edge and you need to do that before they are immobilised with the cold.” “The cold? What’s the cold got to do with it. We keep them warm until the next group of bees comes to keep the brood warm.”

Up to this point Curly had been guessing that the only way the brood could survive the cold is if the bees somehow block the cold air so that it didn’t reach the brood. But his night in his chilly corner had taught him that at a certain point, lethargy and tiredness threaten to take over. Many times when he had tried to move he had found it almost impossible, despite his every effort. Eventually he had worked out that there was a certain point of coldness at which his body became immobile. The bees were waiting. “You see,” said Curly with increasing confidence, “The bees in the outer layer, might not always be able to move inwards, they might leave it too late, forget, or doze off. When that happens they die and you lose bees that might otherwise help keep the brood warm. I know when they should move. I can tell them, warn them that it’s time to go in closer to the heart of the nest to recover from the cold.” The seven sisters were silent, antennae still eyes searching to see some trick or secret, but there was none. There was just a clever drone, explaining something that they previously had never understood: why did so many of their sisters die when the cold came, even if they were chatting energetically shortly before they fell to the floor of the hive, alive but silent and immobile. They were always dead soon after. Curly stood up a little prouder, a little more himself and added “All I ask is to be allowed to help save the brood, if the cold and the darkness get worse.” He looked at each of the seven earnestly before adding: “All I need is enough food to survive and a place to stay, but not outside.” “Then I can manage the changeovers so that you get the best possible protection as a colony, as guardians of Mother and the brood, when the cold comes.”

The seven sisters turned their heads and formed a tight circle. Antennae were bristling, hind legs scratching backs and wings lifting and falling as they considered Curly’s proposal. They understood that they had little to lose. There were plenty of stores and the Giant Grub had put a lump of sugar paste at the top of the hive, just under the roof. Food wasn’t a problem. The concern was the efficiency of what Curly was proposing. “Wise one, we understand” Curly heard and awash with a new sensation he understood too, as did the drone patrol and all the workers in the hive. Mother even understood. Curly the Wise One could keep his wings and stay. In the muddle of bees he found himself alone. No drone patrol, no council of seven sisters, just the normal business of the hive. He found an uncapped honey cell and feasted until he could eat no more. Then Curly found a quiet corner underneath a well-stocked frame of honeycomb and fell deep asleep. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The Draftsman Launch Imminent (April 2021)

Unlike the actual book production process, reaching the point where a manuscript is finalised has been long and slow. And it’s left plenty of time to ponder that despite advances in digital prepress, the book publishing process is about as efficient as it was in the days of hot metal typesetting. Book people still actually refer to typesetting, even though everyone else calls it page layout and composition. And the idea of variable data novels, where you can have multiple different endings for instance, don’t even think about it. The slow production processes which were up-ended in the 1980s, were of a piece with slow book editing and design processes. But where prepress is now rocket-fast, editorial and design processes for books still seem to take an absolute age. It’s at once frustrating and sobering.

Hot metal type.
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From a writer’s perspective, it’s as well editing takes so long and has to be so drawn out. Reading a novel, even a little one, takes so much time. It requires care and attention to detail, so fixing a dodgy piece of work necessarily takes an age. Editors need plenty of time to recover in between sessions. Whatever the quality or not of a manuscript, editors must also have a vision of what a book is trying to become. And writers must be super-disciplined to avoid the temptation to completely overhaul the thing, rather than make judicious edits as the editor requests. This is especially difficult for writers with a sparrow’s attention span and a memory that dumps every word once it’s saved and filed away somewhere on the desktop. Maybe it’s on a memory stick (which one?), or the laptop or iPad? Or maybe it’s only alive on that extra hard-drive. Wherever it lives, it’s by no means in one’s head any more.

The novel production process only really begins with the editing process. The carefully organised and curated words are just raw material for an editor to advise on what the book is really about, who the characters are and what happens when. The editor sees the manuscript as an independent entity, unhitched from the writer. At each stage in production the thing comes into sharper focus, moves further away from its creator and into the light of its own being. The structural edit, then the copy edit, the proof edits, each add definition for what the finished work will look like. Like bringing a photo into focus or balancing the sound during a live music performance. By the time the author reads the final PDF or three, they are seeing a sharp picture, hearing all of the music. Then when the writer is ready to sign off on the manuscript they often need to have a little lie down, or at least another cup of tea and bar of chocolate.

Where I am now with the Draftsman is the post-signoff-lie-down-with-a-cup-of-tea-eat-more-chocolate stage. I have also approved the cover, so the next thing is to wait. The good news is that as this production saga has been so protracted Unbound has agreed to make advance copies available to all supporters, prior to the launch date of the 29th April. I don’t know when the advance copies will be available, so every delivery van hurtling past the study window makes me jump up, just in case. It’s surprisingly good exercise.

Between now and the launch date we will be working to get some visibility for the book, ideally through online book reviewers. I am working with Barnett’s of Wadhurst, our local bookshop, for an and will hold a launch event at the National Liberal Club in London. Except I have no idea who to invite. I intend to write some reviews of The Draftsman myself, all of which will be about all the things I hate about the book.

Then there is the identity anxiety, a corrosive confusion that won’t go away. Few authors dare not call themself ‘author’ in the beginning. It sounds even more pretentious than saying ‘I’m a writer’ when someone asks you what you do for a living. I’ve been saying ‘writer’ for the last 35 years, because it’s basically been how I have supported myself. I am comfortable with this and inclined to hide behind it. And I’ve had a handful of book-length titles published, am a member of the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Club. Yet to describe myself as an ‘author’ feels just way too bold and far beyond me. Until now; -ish. Now that The Draftsman is done and the publisher is sending the pages to Clays (digital and analogue printers extraordinaire) to be printed, it seems okay to use the word ‘author’. I can nearly, almost, say it without feeling that I somehow grubby other, real, proven and proper authors.

If once we are allowed out, someone says to me, ‘so Laurel Lindström, what do you do for a living?’ I hope I’ll be bold enough to smile and breezily say, ‘I’m an author’. And then I’ll wonder if they spot the paradox in this reply.