Chapter 4 Brenda Goes to London and Listens to Audrey’s Answering Machine – Part 2

Brenda wasn’t convincing herself very well, so first she would have breakfast and order a food delivery for her brutal husband. The thought eased her conscience. He would have to open the door himself, or risk getting stuck in the hall in his wheelchair. This thought started to undo the conscience easing but didn’t. Instead Brenda chewed her cheek to stop smiling.

In the hotel lobby Deepa Chaudhary was still at her desk when Brenda came up to reception to check out. Deepa was approaching the end of a twelve hour shift and looking forward to lunch with her Naani. She cooks with her Naani, first because her Naani likes to have her grand-daughter’s help, but mainly because Deepa found she was learning about food and enjoying the connection with India. She had learned how to roll rotis, how to make railway lamb curry and sabzi. “Make a little ball and then roll it, ha like this” Naani would tell her nodding sideways and handing her a baby rolling pin. Naani would throw mustard seeds and cumin into a hot frying pan and tell Deepa, “now, now add the garlic and ginger, and some turmeric”. They would stand side by side, cosy aromas wafting, mustard seeds fading to pale grey, spitting and popping. The image slid comfortingly across Deepa’s tired mind, and she fancied the hands on the clock moved faster.

But time cannot be tempted. Deepa reminds herself that the slice of time belonging to the Premier Inn is approaching its edge. She will move to a bigger hotel, a hotel to teach her about sales, about housekeeping and luxury suites, about VIP guests and banqueting, a hotel that exposes her to more than itinerant airport wanderers. She will meet a better class of one night stands and creepy businessmen, she’ll learn to spot frauds and liars, and she’ll come to recognise lonely women on the run.

Deepa listened carefully and kindly as Brenda, still slightly pink from the extreme shower, tried to explain that she wanted to do an online shop before she left. As Brenda mumbled, she could keep neither her voice nor her eyes raised. Brenda’s low tones were trying to explain a whole life in a handful of scrappy disconnected words and broken phrases. Slightly bewildered Deepa looked across the counter at the anxious face, eyes glancing nervous and unfocused, creamy spit accumulating at the corners of the mouth. The details were a tangle, but gradually Deepa understood that Brenda wanted to arrange a food delivery from Asda and needed help logging on to the hotel’s internet using her ’phone. Slightly relieved that the problem could be so easily solved, Deepa beamed her beamiest smile, “Here’s the code” handing over a slip of printed paper with an encouraging nod. She watched entranced as Brenda worked to disentangle her elegant cardigan and large handbag from her suitcase’s telescopic handle. It was somehow not as tall as it should be. The handbag’s strap but not the cardigan came suddenly free, and Brenda was obliged to follow the suitcase as it shot with unexpected speed towards a nearby chair. Deepa watched Brenda fall face first over the chair, before Deepa realised she was open mouthed and staring and turned her glance away.

Brenda rearranged herself to be face up in the chair and caught her breath, watching the suitcase closely for any signs of further malfeasance. It remained still, slightly smug, unperturbed, the big handbag sitting innocently by, the cardigan aloof and elegant tiptouching the floor. For a few minutes Brenda fiddled with the phone glancing frequently at Deepa’s code, back and forth, tap, tap, tap, back and forth, heavy sighs, deep frowns, tap, tap, tap, more sighs more back and forth glancing, fidgetting from cheek to cheek in her chair. Eventually Deepa could take it no longer. “Can I help?” she called to Brenda. “Would it be easier to do on a laptop from the business centre.” Brenda, aware that her fingertips were mostly trembling inanely over the screen was making no progress at all. “It’s just that I, I’m not used to these things. I usually have the computer” she ventured. She omitted that her husband would generally stand over her shoulder barking orders about what groceries he wanted her to choose. Brenda also omitted the cuffs across the back of her head if she made a mistake. Fear makes for many mistakes.

With Deepa’s help Brenda eventually logged onto her Asda account. Then Deepa, calm and focused, clicked and clicked until Brenda said that’s it. “This should be enough for a week or so”. Deepa smiled over her shoulder, glad to have helped with the strange mix of goods. Brenda had chosen not to go with her usual order. Instead she had Deepa click on vegan ready meals masquerading as meat, miscellaneous smoked fish, tinned pilchards, liver and kidneys. To this was added wholemeal bread, celeriac, turnips, scotch bonnet chilis and fennel and a tin of catfood which Brenda hoped he would eat in desperation. She left out chocolate biscuits, roasted peanuts, sausages, crisps and lager. She also left out bread, milk, tea and butter, substituting instead almond milk, camomile tea, margarine and the least appetising crackers she could find. She remembered the last bits her credit card details and then it was done. Another minor moment that was Brenda’s and only Brenda’s.

Deepa checked Brenda out of her room. “Nothing to pay” she said, taking back the plastic key card. “See you again soon I hope”. Deepa glanced at her watch as Brenda left the desk. Soon Deepa would be at home with Naani. Deepa was unaware that once home she would soon be feeling dizzy and slightly sick, as Naani and her parents explained that Naani was going home. ”Naani is going back to India” Naani was saying, “Naani is living with your Aunty again”. She was already there bathed in the heat and the stink of New Delhi, hearing the city’s endless beep beep traffic, drunk with cooking aromas, the stench of refuse, pollution, incense and magic mysteries, scents of home. “Deepa don’t look so sad” Naani would soon be saying “I am leaving for you behind our cooking. You soon will be coming and you will be seeing me and be seeing your Aunty too again. Ma and Pa are happy. Ha?”, Naani will say. Naani will remind her grand-daughter, “every day Deepa you are cooking now, cooking for your Ma and Pa for little sister Neena. The future it is bright for you Deepa.” Deepa will stay in shock for much of the afternoon as she struggles to sleep. But before Deepa is on her way back to work that evening she already knows she will expand her college course to include catering and that she will go to see her Naani in India soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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