Brenda wasn’t convincing herself very well, so first she would have breakfast and order a food delivery for her brutal husband. The thought eased her conscience. He would have to open the door himself, or risk getting stuck in the hall in his wheelchair. This thought started to undo the conscience easing but didn’t. Instead Brenda chewed her cheek to stop smiling.
In the hotel lobby Deepa Chaudhary was still at her desk when Brenda came up to reception to check out. Deepa was approaching the end of a twelve hour shift and looking forward to lunch with her Naani. She cooks with her Naani, first because her Naani likes to have her grand-daughter’s help, but mainly because Deepa found she was learning about food and enjoying the connection with India. She had learned how to roll rotis, how to make railway lamb curry and sabzi. “Make a little ball and then roll it, ha like this” Naani would tell her nodding sideways and handing her a baby rolling pin. Naani would throw mustard seeds and cumin into a hot frying pan and tell Deepa, “now, now add the garlic and ginger, and some turmeric”. They would stand side by side, cosy aromas wafting, mustard seeds fading to pale grey, spitting and popping. The image slid comfortingly across Deepa’s tired mind, and she fancied the hands on the clock moved faster.
But time cannot be tempted. Deepa reminds herself that the slice of time belonging to the Premier Inn is approaching its edge. She will move to a bigger hotel, a hotel to teach her about sales, about housekeeping and luxury suites, about VIP guests and banqueting, a hotel that exposes her to more than itinerant airport wanderers. She will meet a better class of one night stands and creepy businessmen, she’ll learn to spot frauds and liars, and she’ll come to recognise lonely women on the run.
Deepa listened carefully and kindly as Brenda, still slightly pink from the extreme shower, tried to explain that she wanted to do an online shop before she left. As Brenda mumbled, she could keep neither her voice nor her eyes raised. Brenda’s low tones were trying to explain a whole life in a handful of scrappy disconnected words and broken phrases. Slightly bewildered Deepa looked across the counter at the anxious face, eyes glancing nervous and unfocused, creamy spit accumulating at the corners of the mouth. The details were a tangle, but gradually Deepa understood that Brenda wanted to arrange a food delivery from Asda and needed help logging on to the hotel’s internet using her ’phone. Slightly relieved that the problem could be so easily solved, Deepa beamed her beamiest smile, “Here’s the code” handing over a slip of printed paper with an encouraging nod. She watched entranced as Brenda worked to disentangle her elegant cardigan and large handbag from her suitcase’s telescopic handle. It was somehow not as tall as it should be. The handbag’s strap but not the cardigan came suddenly free, and Brenda was obliged to follow the suitcase as it shot with unexpected speed towards a nearby chair. Deepa watched Brenda fall face first over the chair, before Deepa realised she was open mouthed and staring and turned her glance away.
Brenda rearranged herself to be face up in the chair and caught her breath, watching the suitcase closely for any signs of further malfeasance. It remained still, slightly smug, unperturbed, the big handbag sitting innocently by, the cardigan aloof and elegant tiptouching the floor. For a few minutes Brenda fiddled with the phone glancing frequently at Deepa’s code, back and forth, tap, tap, tap, back and forth, heavy sighs, deep frowns, tap, tap, tap, more sighs more back and forth glancing, fidgetting from cheek to cheek in her chair. Eventually Deepa could take it no longer. “Can I help?” she called to Brenda. “Would it be easier to do on a laptop from the business centre.” Brenda, aware that her fingertips were mostly trembling inanely over the screen was making no progress at all. “It’s just that I, I’m not used to these things. I usually have the computer” she ventured. She omitted that her husband would generally stand over her shoulder barking orders about what groceries he wanted her to choose. Brenda also omitted the cuffs across the back of her head if she made a mistake. Fear makes for many mistakes.
With Deepa’s help Brenda eventually logged onto her Asda account. Then Deepa, calm and focused, clicked and clicked until Brenda said that’s it. “This should be enough for a week or so”. Deepa smiled over her shoulder, glad to have helped with the strange mix of goods. Brenda had chosen not to go with her usual order. Instead she had Deepa click on vegan ready meals masquerading as meat, miscellaneous smoked fish, tinned pilchards, liver and kidneys. To this was added wholemeal bread, celeriac, turnips, scotch bonnet chilis and fennel and a tin of catfood which Brenda hoped he would eat in desperation. She left out chocolate biscuits, roasted peanuts, sausages, crisps and lager. She also left out bread, milk, tea and butter, substituting instead almond milk, camomile tea, margarine and the least appetising crackers she could find. She remembered the last bits her credit card details and then it was done. Another minor moment that was Brenda’s and only Brenda’s.
Deepa checked Brenda out of her room. “Nothing to pay” she said, taking back the plastic key card. “See you again soon I hope”. Deepa glanced at her watch as Brenda left the desk. Soon Deepa would be at home with Naani. Deepa was unaware that once home she would soon be feeling dizzy and slightly sick, as Naani and her parents explained that Naani was going home. ”Naani is going back to India” Naani was saying, “Naani is living with your Aunty again”. She was already there bathed in the heat and the stink of New Delhi, hearing the city’s endless beep beep traffic, drunk with cooking aromas, the stench of refuse, pollution, incense and magic mysteries, scents of home. “Deepa don’t look so sad” Naani would soon be saying “I am leaving for you behind our cooking. You soon will be coming and you will be seeing me and be seeing your Aunty too again. Ma and Pa are happy. Ha?”, Naani will say. Naani will remind her grand-daughter, “every day Deepa you are cooking now, cooking for your Ma and Pa for little sister Neena. The future it is bright for you Deepa.” Deepa will stay in shock for much of the afternoon as she struggles to sleep. But before Deepa is on her way back to work that evening she already knows she will expand her college course to include catering and that she will go to see her Naani in India soon.