Brenda and Donald had been blessed with a corner house, and when Maggie Thatcher brought in the Right to Buy it from the council, they snapped it up. The big garden had been great when the boys were small, but now they could extend, make space for Simon, their youngest, and his wife. Teena, with a double ‘e’ rather than an ‘i’ – an affectation, when all was said and done, and a typical choice of name by her mother who walked round with her nose in the air. Brenda didn’t hold with it, and wrote the wedding card to ‘Simon and Tina,’ spelt the proper way, claiming it was a slip of the pen when Simon pulled her up on it. She couldn’t be doing with this Ms business either. What was wrong with being a Mrs? Ms sounds like Bzzz. And why get married when you won’t take your husband’s name?
The wedding had been a grand affair, two hundred guests, and though it’s the bride’s family that should stump up the money, Brenda and Donald had done their bit. Now they could help by providing a home for the kids. A wedding’s all well and good, but a place to live – that’s a gift for your child.
Simon and Teena lived in the house with Brenda and Donald while the building work went on, sleeping in Simon’s room. The girl didn’t lift a finger. Wet towels left on the floor … and the noise! Jesus, they didn’t hold back, the two of them, even in the knowledge that his parents were sleeping on the same landing. Brenda stepped out of the bedroom once, when she heard their door open in the night, after a session of groaning and giggling and bedsprings bouncing. Teena in a scanty dressing gown, tripping along the corridor. ‘Is someone sick?’ Brenda had said. ‘I wondered, what with the noise.’ The girl just laughed, and flitted into the bathroom, her gown barely pulled closed, and she’d not a stitch on beneath.
Donald and Simon did the work on the extension, at weekends, after a long week on building sites, doing the same kind of work. To be fair and honest, there were bricks and sand and lengths of two-by-four that found their way from the site to home, just bits here and there that wouldn’t be missed. It all helped. Meanwhile, Ms Teena, sat in the kiosk at Woolworth’s, selling cigarettes, lighters and boxes of matches, picking at her nails and gassing to her friends in between serving the odd customer.
Brenda dropped the extension into the conversation whenever she could, especially when she was talking to Barbara next door, who hadn’t even bought her council house, but lorded it up with the photo of her daughter in a graduation cap and gown on the mantelpiece. She’d say that the floors were being levelled, the windows chosen and about to be fitted, that there would be central heating. Barbara sniped behind her back, she was sure of it, but none of it hurt as, after all, Brenda had her child next door to her, whereas Barbara’s grand grammar school and university daughter had moved to Scotland, and she hardly ever saw her grandchildren.
As the work went on, Donald and Simon put in a connecting door between the house and the extension. When the kids moved in, it gave Brenda a chance to roam at will while they were at work. Sure, Teena didn’t mind at all if Brenda cleared the breakfast dishes and left them gleaming, draining next to the sink, or picked up the wet towels and dropped them in the machine, ran a cycle when she noticed that Teena hadn’t bothered to do so, hung them out on the line, brought them in later and folded them, and never a word of thanks for any of it.
Brenda could still hear them at night, and on a Sunday afternoon – at it – for the walls weren’t as thick as they might have been, and Simon bringing her a cup of tea afterwards, when she didn’t do a thing for him. Spoilt, that Teena, and didn’t know it. Living high on the hog, she was, holidays and meals out, and hardly ever cooked a dinner for Simon when he came home from a hard day’s work. A freezer full of pizzas and ready meals in that new kitchen, built and paid for by Brenda and Donald. And half the time she sent Simon out for Chinese or chips. She wouldn’t keep that figure for long at that rate.
Brenda hadn’t had that much, when she and Donald started out, scarcely a stick of furniture to call their own, rented rooms, shared bathroom. Then, going back to her time in the children’s home, she’d not much to call her own at all: clothes labelled, not even certain of getting your own knickers back from the laundry, smocks and shoes and socks provided, but nothing nice.
Few people knew about it, certainly not Barbara, nor about the child she’d had before she met Donald. Not even he knew about that. The one thing she’d learned was how to keep a good house, how to wash and scrub floors, how to iron shirts, and keep it all at bay, the thoughts that crept in if she allowed them to. So she didn’t mind, really, that slip of a thing being slovenly, as it gave Brenda something to do after her few hours in the school kitchens and in the playground, watching the kiddies during breaks.
Still, she did hope for Granny duties. How handy it would be to have your grandchildren next door, how handy for Simon and Teena and for Brenda herself. A new lease of life, it’d give her. She watched the little ones at school, and thought how she’d love a little girl, like the child she’d given up, how she’d do her hair and buy her lovely clothes and toys. Colourful ribbons and hair slides, she’d buy. She’d only had brown ribbons at the children’s home, and no-one had curled her hair or had it cut nicely. The clothes would be of soft stuff, not the rough material the smocks were made of. And there would be no-one forcing her grandchild onto her knees with a bucket and brush to scrub the floor. But then the thoughts were coming back, of those days, and the best thing to do would be to take down the nets and soak them in the sachets of whitener you could get at Woolworth’s, to take her mind off it.
She’d seen Teena when she went in. Just a quick hello as she stopped to buy twenty Embassy at the kiosk. Teena was slouching behind the counter, hands propping up her chin, and Brenda said she’d really come in for the whitener, and would Teena like her nets done too? ‘If you like, though I don’t think they need it.’ She signalled for the supervisor, a long lean streak of a lad. She wasn’t allowed to serve family without someone checking, in case she undercharged, or didn’t charge at all. He smarmed across, the cheek of him, said something about how she couldn’t be Teena’s mother-in-law, as she was too young. Brenda smiled in return, though she knew it was just flannel, and she looked every bit her age.
Simon was a late baby – she’d thought she was going through the change, assumed she was. They’d tried for children after the older boy, without success, and came to accept that Paul might be the only one. Brenda and Donald fell into enjoying one another – a good sex life, without the worry of babies or not, so Simon came as a surprise.
But she’d had a hundred of them, really, with the little ones at school that came and went, tiny infants that missed their mums the first week, clinging on to her skirt in the playground; then before you knew it, big enough to gang up and leave lone children crying at the edges of the playground, then on to big school.
She’d see them sometimes, in town, girls now pushing prams with toddlers in tow. ‘Mrs B, you were our favourite dinner lady.’ And Brenda would admire the kiddies, put a coin in the palm of the babies, for their money boxes. Hundreds of them.
Simon, he was the apple, he was. Paul long grown and gone, and no grandchildren from him, either. Simon was not the sharpest tool in the box, but good-hearted and eager, and just the sort of man that a girl like Teena could twist around her little finger.
Teena laughed rather too long at the long streak of a lad’s jokes, then a sly smile, knowing, and she said to Brenda, ‘See you later. Most probably.’
‘You will,’ said Brenda, ‘And Simon. Your husband.’ She glared at the lad as she snapped shut the clasp of her purse. She heard them giggling together as she left.
They used johnnies, so she found out. Condoms, they called them these days. All over the telly, it was, that advert with the iceberg. You could hardly work out what it was on about – AIDS. And then those programmes where they showed how to put them on bananas; not that she’d ever seen one with a bend in it! She wondered what they were doing with them, Simon and Teena, as she thought it was all about the Pill. They’d been married a while, and shouldn’t they be thinking about kiddies by now? She kept her own counsel on this – she knew it wasn’t right to push, and after all, until she found the johnnies, she wondered whether Teena might be having trouble conceiving, as Brenda had herself.
She’d found the johnnies in Teena’s make-up bag. You’d think it would be down to the man, but then, on those programmes about the virus, the disease, they showed how you could make it more fun, sexier, if the woman put in on the man, with their mouths, even, and maybe that’s what Simon and Teena went in for.
It had been curiosity that led Brenda to unzip the bag, to see what make-up the girl had. She couldn’t even claim it had been left open with stuff spilling out, as it was in the back of a drawer underneath her knickers. Brenda knew she had no place looking in there, but it would be hours till anyone came home. She’d finished a pile of ironing, folded the clean towels and put them in the cupboard, and so she went for a prowl around.
Simon didn’t seem happy, she thought, staying on for a drink after work, not in such a rush to come to his wife, and Brenda hated seeing him like that, she hated it. She knew she shouldn’t interfere between a man and his wife, but she did speak to Donald about it, asked if he could shed any light, but he gave her a warning look and said, ‘It’s between the two of them.’ There weren’t rows as such, but there were times when he was out or she was out, and not so many when they were together and out.
Brenda was tired of waiting for the grandchild that she deserved and, who knew, if there were a pregnancy, it might bring the two close again. Accidents do happen, even with the Pill, even with those johnnies – nothing was a hundred per cent.
Brenda was in the extension on another afternoon, and looked in the back of the knicker drawer, unzipped the make-up bag, and there was only two where there had been three before, so they must have made it up. And then a thought – how those programmes had said they had to be snug – no air, no holes, or the sperm could get through. Infection could happen that way, and so could pregnancy. She took a needle from her sewing box, returned to the kids’ bedroom, and made a tiny prick in each of the foil covers, through to the rubber beneath. She zipped up again, tucked the bag to the back of the drawer beneath the undies, and pushed the drawer shut.
Simon and Donald spent Good Friday and Easter Saturday doing some landscaping. There was a patio now, and the lawn had been turfed where the last bits of rubble had been from building the extension.
It was Brenda that suggested inviting Helen and Barry, Teena’s parents, for Easter Monday. They’d bought a new garden set – table, chairs and a parasol, and Brenda decided on tea on the lawn, if the weather would hold. Scones and jam and cream with china cups and saucers from the best set. There’d be a time when they’d have to put them away, when a grandchild – maybe grandchildren – came along. It would be plastic cups and plates then.
The johnnies in Teena’s bag had been restocked, so Brenda had done the deed again with her sewing needle. She expected news soon. Teena was looking a little heavier, she thought, and today would be the perfect opportunity to make an announcement. She’d been looking a bit subdued the last few days, and seemed unenthusiastic about afternoon tea. Brenda had consulted her about a cloth for the garden table, when she’d dropped by in Woolworth’s, and she’d just shrugged. That supervisor had been hanging around the kiosk at the time, but there wasn’t the laughter and joking that usually went on between them, and no false flattery towards Brenda either. In fact, Brenda could have sworn that Teena was close to tears. Hormonal, perhaps, and that would be natural if her suspicions were true.
Instructions had come through about decaf this and sweeteners that from Helen, and Brenda wondered should she try to bake some of the scones with sweetener, and would such a thing work? Teena’s advice was sought again, but just another shrug.
Simon, too, was less communicative. He’d looked distracted for days, and when she’d asked if he was OK, and said he could talk to his mum about anything, the answer was, ‘Don’t push it, Mum,’ while Donald gave a warning look over the top of his newspaper.
Still, she busied herself with the arrangements, and decided on a cloth rather than not, as they might have to hold the tea indoors if it rained. The day came, and the weather was fine enough to sit out. She rinsed the good plates but no doilies, as they were old-fashioned, and she had bought paper serviettes in a pale yellow to match the cloth, which had spring flowers around the edge. She didn’t want to come across as having airs and graces, but she wanted everything to be just right.
Mid-morning, she heard raised voices through the wall. Not clear enough to work out what they were saying, and when it became apparent that Brenda had stilled herself next to the wall to listen in, Donald turned up the radio.
Helen and Barry parked on the road – a drive would be the next project for the men, meaning taking down a section of privet. Brenda explained this to them as they came in, ushering them straight to the patio and the table, laid with plates and cutlery. ‘Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble,’ Helen said.
‘No trouble at all,’ Brenda said, straightening a cake fork next to one of her best plates.
‘Where is she, your darling wife?’ Helen asked Simon. Teena hadn’t come out to greet her parents, but Simon stepped out of the French windows, accepting a back slap from his father-in-law and offering a peck on the cheek to Helen.
‘Not feeling too well,’ he said, staring down at the table with a frown. ‘She’s having a lie down. She’ll be out later.’
Brenda’s face fell. Her grand afternoon was falling apart. Or could it be the sickness? When she was expecting Simon, it was all day for the first few months. Even the sight of food would start her off. It was probably the smell of the baking.
‘Shall I go in to her?’ Helen said.
‘She’s dozing; maybe, in a bit.’
Brenda buzzed around with decaf coffee and scones and jam. It turned out the sweetener was for the coffee only; Helen tucked into the scones, made with ordinary sugar, and declared them delicious. She declined a third, patting her stomach, which looked as though scarcely a crumb of cake had passed through it in years.
Donald and Barry took off to discuss where the new drive might best be placed, and how to tackle removing the hedge. Simon went to see if Teena was awake, leaving the two mothers to clear away the dishes. It was clouding over, and a wind was catching the edge of the cloth. Helen shook the crumbs from the cloth and folded it.
‘I can’t be sure,’ Brenda said, ‘but I’m wondering about Teena not feeling well. Whether there might be good news.’ The cup that Helen was drying slipped from her grasp for a moment. She caught it before it hit the tiles. ‘Surely not, not with how things are.’ The colour had drained from her face. ‘You must know they’re having problems.’
‘Well, yes. The tests. Simon’s low … you know.’ Helen went back to drying the cups, vigorously balling a corner of the tea towel inside each one.
‘Oh no, that can’t be. He’d have said.’
‘Very little chance of conceiving, apparently.’
Helen placed the last cup on the table and started on the cutlery. There’d be forks in with the knives, spoons in with the forks. The cake slice didn’t belong in the cutlery drawer at all. There was space for it in the sideboard drawer. Everything would be topsy-turvy. It’s what happened when a woman helped in another woman’s kitchen. It would take a while to sort it all out.
Maria C. McCarthy writes poetry, short stories and memoir. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Kent, and was the winner of the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award in 2015 for her story, ‘More Katharine than Audrey’. Her poetry collection, strange fruits and a collection of linked short stories, As Long as it Takes, are published by Cultured Llama. She lives in the Medway Towns. Her website iswww.medwaymaria.co.uk