It was probably the first word she’d learnt. The first word she’d said. It could be her last. No, she had made up her mind, she was going to stand her ground, she was going to dig her heels in. Brenda was not going anywhere!
The spoon tinkled in the china mugs. She made tea strong yet milky, the way that Bill used to like it. He used to joke that the colour matched her tights. The memory made her smile. She stopped stirring suddenly, shaking her head, realising her mistake, admonishing herself for wastefulness. Even after all this time she still made tea for two.
Brenda shuffled in sturdy, sheepskin slippers from the kettle to the small, formica, fold-down table under the window. She peered out onto the garden through the raindrop spattered pane. Unkempt grass, flattened by the rain, encroached upon the moss-strewn patio. Tiny yellow snails and thick, frilly slugs criss-crossed the wet paving slabs. Dead sedum heads connected by a network of glistening spider webs bobbed in the wind. Brambles had claimed squatter’s rights in the perennial beds and aggressive conifers crowded the shrunken garden, their dense foliage shielding it from the weak, autumnal light. What had once been a crisp, formal topiary edge had become a dark, impenetrable barrier, a savage expression of boundary. It had been many years since any neighbour could overlook the garden until Brenda and her house were simply forgotten about…. overlooked. Lucky then that the old woman valued privacy over people. Growing up in ‘the home’, she’d fought, quite literally tooth and nail for her own things, her own tiny space. So when she had found it, in this, her own house, a real home, the world beyond it and the people in it seemed of little import. Only Bill had been worth sharing with. He had been hers too.
She sighed though, admitting to herself that the garden needed some care and attention. If only she had the energy to do something about it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d even ventured out of the house. It was like the forest of thorns that grew up around sleeping beauty. She imagined Bill hacking through it with a righteous sword, come to rescue her. An echo of grief panged in her.
She squinted, trying to bring into focus the relic of a wooden structure. Under the heavy, overhanging evergreens she could just about see a rough surface of flaking paint and perished wood, the mortal remains of Bill’s shed. In her mind’s eye she saw his tools hanging on hooks just as he had left them: his secateurs and shears, his edging knife and bowsaw, all rusting, decayed, unfit for purpose.
A noise, the scraping of a chair on brittle lino, drew her attention back to the kitchen. Her eyes widened. Her mouth made movements but no sound issued. There opposite her, at the table, legs casually crossed, absently swinging a foot, there was Bill. He was poring over a cheap magazine, a copy of ‘Exchange and Mart’. His fingertips were blackened by the ink. She sat staring a while, holding her breath, for fear he might evaporate. What does one say to the ghost of a long dead husband? Finally, she nodded towards the sink,
“That tap’s still dripping”.
He tutted and rolled his eyes wearily. When he saw the mugs, his weathered face cracked into a smile.
“Tea, lovely!” he exclaimed with genuine joy. Two bright, warm words in a cold kitchen. Engrossed again in his browsing, he slid his fingers over the table, searching for a cup. Brenda placed her hand on his. It felt coarse and strong and alive. Her touch startled him. He looked up at her confused.
“I’ve missed you”, she whispered.
He chuckled, saying,
“I’ve been on The Chiltern, not The Trans-Siberian, love”.
It was just as it had always been. He brought no messages from the other side. He gave no sense that he was aware how long he had been gone. He simply teased her just as he always had. She savoured this small moment of tea and simple chit-chat. He gently moved his hand from under hers to take his mug. She watched him intently. Every mannerism, every micro-expression gladdened her heart. Age hadn’t changed his features much. He looked much as he had when she’d first spotted him across the factory floor. She had noted that he looked unkempt, in need of a woman’s care. He had a relaxed, easy manner about him. In his work he seemed self-assured but not arrogant. With the few women that worked there on the assembly line though, he was shy and kind and Brenda had set her cap at him despite the age difference. She looked down at her own sinewy, liver-spotted hands now. The age gap had reversed.
Bill held the magazine at arm’s length and squinted to read the small print.
“Where’s your specs?” she enquired. The tone suggested there was a fault to be addressed, that he had lost his glasses…. again. This was how all their conversations went; He was the free spirit, she was the policeman, the jury and judge. That was the arrangement. These were the terms and conditions of their contract. He frowned at her and shook his head, dismissively, like he didn’t need them. She smirked at his vanity, saying,
“You’re still a very handsome man, Bill Cookley, with or without glasses”
He bristled as though he wasn’t remotely interested, then looked at her askance,
“They’re well by the way…Gill and the lads, in case you were interested”
That broke her mood. How typical of Bill, she thought, to ruin a moment by invoking the memory of his sullen daughter. Gillian could suck the joy out of the room with a handful of bitter words and an expression of disdain. Gillian, that miserable needy child, that dark force of nature, that dead-eyed, black hole devouring everything without thought or thanks. No wonder her husband had walked out, she had thought on many occasions. She had said as much to Bill but he would respond merely with a sigh and a bruised expression. He was blind to his daughter’s faults, always ready with an excuse. He had clung to the hope that one day, the cold war between the women in his life would thaw. Scant chance of that now.
Bill fidgeted on his chair. He had something on his mind.
“…She’s been offered a job in New Zealand” he announced, hesitantly, searching her eyes for a flicker of concern or regret even. But this was old news to Brenda.
“I know” she replied flatly. Gillian had been there ten years now. With little more to work with he took his traditional position as his daughter’s advocate.
“It’ll be nice for her and the kids not to have to worry about money for a change, don’t you think?…”
Brenda cast a sharp, judgemental look,
“I managed. There wasn’t a month when I didn’t have to do the sums.” She was beginning to sound shrill. Bill adopted his nodding strategy as a way to curb the excesses of her temper.
“That’s life, Bill!” she continued, “Someone’s got to worry else nobody gets anywhere in life. People like us, we don’t get handed things on a silver platter and you’ve done her no favours by letting her think otherwise.”
Bill patted her hand supportively.
“I know love. I wouldn’t be where I am today without you…” he agreed. Brenda’s lips became thin and tightly pursed. Was that a dark joke? Was she being blamed? Bill interpreted her knitted brow as the expression of remorse he had hoped for. He continued more confidently now,
“…but she’s still young and adventurous. She’ll have a lifetime to settle down in a semi”
Brenda bit back sharply,
“Well, she’s living in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks we can afford to bail her out again from over here when it all falls through!”
There was nothing more to be said on the matter, nothing that either could say that would move the other’s position. It was a well worn path, a heavily rehearsed script. Even death could not change the direction of this feud. Where Gillian was concerned, it always ended in an impasse. They let kind silence cover the problem.
The rain had resumed. It was drilling insistently on the window. Bill returned to flicking through his magazine. It allowed Brenda to inspect him once more, but this time with a critical eye. This was how it had always been. She remembered the nights, furious after a row, (usually caused by Gillian, either directly or indirectly), when she had lay there fuming in bed, grinding her teeth, the bones of her back, ramparts forbidding access. He would bounce into bed beside her, throw an uninvited arm around her and be snoring within five minutes, sleeping like an innocent. And true to form, here he sat, musing over carburettors and caravans as though all was right with the world. She wanted to say, ‘You’re dead by the way, did you know that? You left me to carry on all alone’. She wanted to say, ‘… and that precious daughter of yours?? She’s trying to shoehorn me out of my own home…my home…mine!’. Instead she flicked the edge of the magazine, annoyed, asking,
“Why do you get this…?”
“Just nice to see what I could buy if I took redundancy”
“You’re a skilled worker Bill, no one’s going to offer you redundancy”
Still looking at the ads he remarked,
“Bob’s bought a narrowboat with his pay out, you know. He can go fishing out of his bedroom window”
Brenda raised her eyebrows,
“And that’s what you’d want is it?”
Bill shrugged, still not making eye contact with her. He muttered,
“No lawn to mow or rendering to white-wash? Sounds like bliss to me”
Brenda shook her head in feigned exasperation.
“To live in a damp corridor? and to crap in a bucket in the corner of the room?”
“…to crap in a bucket in the corner of the hull, dear”, he corrected.
They grinned at each other. Bill looked at her impishly, from the corner of his eye,
“This is what I’d buy”, he said as he placed the page down in front of her, “This!” He stabbed at a picture with his finger. He looked up at her like a hopeful child with a catalogue at Christmas.
It was a bike; large, low, shining, black and chrome. Next to the image there was a winged logo. It said Harley Davidson. This was new territory. This wasn’t part of the script. In thirty five years he had never once confessed a yearning for a motorbike, let alone this flamboyant, American statement of freedom. It confused her. He leaned back and winked at her, knitting his fingers behind his head.
“You and me, girl, on the open road!”
She laughed out loud at the ludicrous image his words invoked. His face dropped into disappointment. It clearly wasn’t the reaction he had hoped for. She felt she had somehow failed a test, that she had missed a cue. She leaned in to inspect the item, out of courtesy more than anything else. Her finger traced over the description to the price.
“How much??!”, she gasped.
“It’s a classic”, he explained, as though this might hold some significance for her.
“We don’t have the money for classics, love”.
There was a small buffer of silence between them. It was loaded with Bill’s thoughts.
“We might, if we sell the house”, He offered quietly, adding, “Isn’t like we need the room anymore is it?”
It was then that Brenda remembered, this was ‘that’ conversation, or an iteration of it. She was dizzied by the flash memory and the clarity with which she understood its brutal conclusion. In that last, horrible clash they had bickered about the mortgage, about pensions and early retirement and maybe moving closer to his grandchildren. She had accused him of plotting with Gillian. Bill had said he was sick of breaking his back to pay a mortgage. He had pointed out that his parents had lived and died without owning their own property and that there was more to life than bricks and mortar. He had stood at the back door, rubbing a twinge away. He echoed now what he had said then,
“At the end of the day its just a house, love”
Brenda was distraught. She gave the same response that she had then. She thumped the table,
“No it isn’t Bill! It isn’t just a house”, she insisted, “…Its my home! Its all I have!” adding somewhat superfluously, “and I’m not going anywhere!”
Bill looked at her as though she were a stranger. It was not the words but what had fallen between the spaces that had wounded him. Casting back to that original fight, she remembered that he had looked ashen but she had been too stubborn and embattled at the time to notice. Did he know how unwell he was? Did he know he was on borrowed time? If he did, surely he would not have allowed those cruel and spiteful words to be his last? Brenda screwed up her eyes as though if she couldn’t see him he couldn’t speak. He repeated his last words regardless,
“I love you Brenda and I have always supported you, but by God woman, I will never understand why you refuse to acknowledge your own daughter. Its unforgivable!”.
She glared at him, ashamed and humiliated, lost for words. She couldn’t escape the truth, Gillian was hers, but she held nothing but resentment for the child from the moment she emerged, bloody, angry, entitled. She had left it to Bill to fulfil both parental roles and waited, impatiently for the greedy little interloper to grow up and leave. So Bill had returned from the grave to drink tea and hurl in her face this, the bald and monstrous truth of her once more. But the words were not so painful this time, over time she had come to accept she’d been a terrible mother. It was the look on his face that crucified her. It was that look that informed her that the contract between them was void. Had he not dropped down dead that day, he would surely have walked. The loss washed over her anew. It felt as though a bomb had gone off, right in the middle of her chest, right in the middle of the kitchen, right in the middle of their marriage.
There was noise coming from upstairs, footsteps on the landing. She looked up, still dazed and reeling from the harsh exchange. Her heart was thumping in her ribcage. When she looked back at the chair opposite her, Bill was gone. The extra mug stood steaming up a cloud onto the cold window. Tears of condensation dribbled sadly down the pane. She used a tea towel to wipe it away before she dried her eyes. A stranger’s voice drew her attention now.
“Ooh, a nice cuppa! Is that one for me? Thanks”
It was the estate agent. He was tall, slick and far too young to be in any position of authority. She eyed him suspiciously as he took the mug and sat in Bill’s chair. He placed his digital tape measure and tablet down and stretched a long hand across the table. He leant in earnestly. He spoke slowly and loudly,
“Well, Mrs Cookley, I’ve had a good look around. It’s a lovely house. I’m sure someone with an eye for a project will snap it up”
She frowned, repeating,
He coughed awkwardly,
“Well, the décor…”
She looked around the kitchen, hurt and bemused.
“My husband decorated this house”, she pronounced.
The agent smiled insincerely and cast his hand about.
“Tongue and groove and country cottage isn’t to current tastes, sadly. Still, I think we can get a good price for you”. His eyes twinkled as he added, “You’ll be able to treat your grandkids for sure!”
Brenda stood and took the cup of half finished tea from his hand, carrying it to the sink. The conversation was over, the agent just hadn’t realised it.
“Will you be moving to sheltered accommodation?” he shouted after her. Brenda didn’t respond but continued to rinse out the mugs.
“Yes”, he persisted, “You should get a nice little nest egg from this property…”
Brenda remained silent
“I expect you’ll want to go on a few cruises eh? That’s what my nan did. Nice to have both the time and the money to do as you please, eh? Eh, Mrs Cookley? ….Mrs Cookley??”
He craned his head around to see where she might be. At the sink two mugs sat, rim down on the wooden drainer. The tap dripped rhythmically. The kitchen seemed strangely cast in cold shadows. It made him shiver. He got up quickly, unnerved. He became suspicious of a prank, (he was the new boy in the office after all). He turned a few times, scanning the kitchen for hidden cameras and shook his head. He pushed his hand through his hair and grinned to an unseen audience. He imagined them all, his colleagues, gathered around a monitor, splitting their sides. Well, he wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of freaking out. He walked around, downstairs then upstairs, as though he were surreptitiously playing hide and seek. He tried to look nonchalant as he peered behind doors and under beds. In the master bedroom he inspected the photograph in the silver frame that stood like a lone sentry on the dressing table. He leaned down and wiped a thick film of dust from the glass. The young bride in the image looked uncannily like the old lady that had let him in. Some hoaxer had a real eye for detail, he thought. He noticed that his hand had left a print in the dust on the cherry wood veneer. He brushed his hands together and looked around grimacing. There was dust everywhere. How had he not noticed before?
He stood on the landing and listened hard for movement. He waited for someone to leap out from a hidden door and clap him on the back for being such a good sport. The silence was deafening. The house was empty.
A message chimed on his tablet. It made him jump. He tapped it.
“Carl here from James, Blackwood and Dickens acting on behalf of Gillian Cookley. I’m afraid I’m not going to make it. Do let yourself in”.
The agent blinked at the message, dumfounded. It was at this point that he felt something, or saw something, a disturbance in the air perhaps, like a localised heat shimmer. The agent’s eyes became round, the whites encircling his frightened irises. The shapeless shape moved across the landing towards him. The agent was fixed in terror, unable to move. His hand clenched the dusty rail. The formless form moved slowly behind him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood out. It travelled into the bedroom. His eyes followed. The door gently swung almost imperceptibly. He heard a sound like an exhalation and on the air a word, a whisper, light as gossamer,
Then the door slammed shut. The bang echoed around the cold landing, ringing in his ears. The agent looked anxious and clenched now. Beads of sweat sprang from his forehead. Hurriedly he fumbled, trying to zip up his tablet case. He clipped down the stairs, three at a time. He stopped in the hallway to leave a business card on the telephone table, a muscle memory action, for he was certain there was no one to read it.
He felt a huge sense of relief as the front door clunked behind him. He shook his head dismissively and strode down the path. He swiped his phone to life and found some reason, any reason to make a call, it didn’t matter who to. By the time he was on the pavement he was talking loudly, his manner jocular.
The house watched him disappear around the corner and it sighed.