Mrs Brooker by Jane Branson
The photographer was due at 11 o'clock. At just after seven, Mrs Brooker stepped along the red-brick path, her fingers folded around her secateurs. The distant end of the garden was bright, the sun glinting off the greenhouse. But the rosebed was still in shadow, the flowers dewy, the largest blossoms bowing low, their faces wide and beseeching.
Sixty years ago, it was, that her father showed her how to find the first leaf below each spent flower, place the blades just so, make the cut clean and sharp. ‘Then a new bud can grow,’ he told her. She could see him still, crouching on the grass, nodding encouragement, his eyes kind. She could see herself, a ribbon in her hair, lips pressed together in her serious way, placing the snipped stem in his open palm.
She stroked a still-sealed bud, sunshine yellow squeezing to a peachy tip, creamy white fading to deep pink. At this time of year, the summer days still long, dead-heading was an almost daily job.
The sun crept across the lawn and warmed the back of her legs.
She should go in.
Leaving the trug beside the shed, she returned to the house, tidied her overshoes onto the rack, pushed her feet into slippers. She was well practised and didn’t make a sound. Along the passage upstairs, the wooden floors creaked randomly as the house warmed. No footsteps, not yet. She hung up her cardigan and made a pot of tea.
At the kitchen table, she ate a slice of white bread, thickly spread with butter like her father used to have with a wedge of cheese for his supper. From outside the dining room, the hall clock chimed the quarter-hour. At nine, she would serve the anniversary breakfast. Kippers, George wanted. Mrs James had bought them yesterday, and dusted everywhere, and ironed the best cloth. The anniversary gifts had been wrapped by the girls at Finningtons last week. ‘A golden anniversary? Congratulations, madam. Goodness, that's worth a celebration, isn't it sir?’ The packages would be set on napkins at the table. She knew he had chosen pearls, large as the marbles the boys used to roll down the hall, oppressively white. She shuddered. But she would wear them, and he his cufflinks. Her woollen skirt and matching jacket were hanging on the padded mannequin in the dressing- room.
A noise above. She stood up, quickly as her joints allowed, wincing as the chair scraped on the old linoleum. The table must be laid, and the kippers poached, before he came downstairs.
Later, she sat stiff and still as the photographer fiddled with the sunshade. She listened vaguely to the clicking noises of the levers on his camera. She held a half-smile on her face and willed her shoulders not to shrink away from George, whose arm lay stretched along the back of the bench. His tweed jacket brushed her hip. He was a very physical man, leaving on every surface and in every moment an impression of himself. He’d insisted on laying the pearls around her neck, his fingers cold as he fumbled with the clasp. They were the wrong length – too long to nestle above her collar, too short to sit smoothly on her chest. She thought of the seabed where they’d once hidden, shiny secrets trapped inside crusty shells.
She was uncomfortably aware of her bunions squeezed inside her shoes. Gleaming wine-red Oxfords with a stiff buckle that made the top of her feet bulge. The brown round- toed brogues would have been just as smart – even these low heels were too much for her now. But he’d insisted. The red went with the thread in her skirt, he’d said. And now they wouldn't even be on show. He’d decided they would sit on the garden bench, their feet and his stick tucked out of sight.
Birdsong drifted from somewhere behind. She made out the sweet chirr of a robin. She and George had been still so long the little thing was probably darting up behind them, closer and closer, but she couldn't turn to look. George's wheezy breaths became heavier as he controlled his lack of patience. The smell of tobacco and tweed was so familiar she could, with a little effort, nose out the roses behind her. If she inhaled strongly, careful not to let her shoulders rise, the scent of some was distinct from others. The new golden hybrid that Cecil and Annie had brought her last week was the most recent addition – a pretty, single bloomer she knew would need training. Some of the roses were nearly as old as her marriage. She had dug the beds with her father, the summer she and George moved in.
She shifted unobtrusively. Her left hip was beginning to hurt. The equipment still wasn't ready. She looked at the photographer, a youngish man, slim and fair. His hair flopped heavily onto his forehead as he bent over, left hand trembling as he made his adjustments. The silence was growing heavy. George never spoke to trade unless he had to.
‘Do you have everything you need?’ She tried to make her voice gentle but in her own ears she sounded quavery and cross. The photographer looked up.
‘Oh yes, madam. Won't be a moment.’ He smiled briefly.
‘May I fetch you some water?’ She would like to move. ‘Or there’s home-made lemonade? It's so hot – ’
‘Oh no, madam. Please stay where you are.’ His voice was higher and more urgent than before, and she realised how silly she was being.
‘Oh! Of course, I see.’
‘Nearly there.’ The photographer lifted his head a fraction and sent her another half-smile. ‘Just tightening this.’
He twisted a lever into place and took a step back. The tripod lurched and the young man grabbed at it. On the back of the bench, behind her ear, she felt George’s fist clenched.
With the camera righted, the young man took a folded handkerchief from his trouser pocket and wiped his face. Mrs Brooker dropped her gaze to the arm of the old garden bench. The wood had been lightened by years of sun. It had stood on the patio opposite the French doors since – when was it? She couldn't remember exactly, but before the war. Her hand lay there, like something that didn’t belong to her. The skin was livery, with veins standing up like ridges. She hadn't aged as handsomely as the chair.
‘Are you ready?’
She jumped. George was glaring at her. Pinkly, she nodded. ‘Smile then, woman.’
‘Thank you for coming in this evening, Mrs James,’ said Mrs Brooker as the plates were cleared. ‘The beef was delicious. Wasn’t it, George?’
‘What?’ His head jerked up. ‘Oh, yes. You did us proud.’
Mrs James nodded, pushing open the door with her bottom and disappearing towards the kitchen. George levered himself out of his chair.
‘A special brandy, I think, don’t you?’ At the side table, he made a business of
opening the tantalus and sliding out the decanters until he found what he was looking for.
‘And one for you, dear?’
It was their routine, every anniversary and birthday. A small measure for him and a larger one for her. It was the sign. At least it meant no words had to be exchanged.
The table shone in the candlelight. The evening would soon be over. She sipped at the plummy, warm liquid, hoping it would do its job quickly.
‘Were you pleased with how it went – the photograph?’
‘Well, I don’t know yet, do I?’ He smeared a hand across his moustache. ‘Ruddy well hope so, the price Melville is charging. Don’t know why he didn’t come himself. Chap he sent seemed a bit of a fairy to me.’ He gulped at his drink. ‘Did you see the way he quivered?’
‘He was just a little nervous. Understandable, don’t you think, in the circumstances?’
‘You are known about the town, dear. You were Councillor Brooker. Mayor Brooker.’
He corrected her. ‘The Worshipful The Mayor. Yes, yes. I suppose that’s true.’ He smiled unpleasantly, showing the latest gap in his teeth. The lower set was a full denture. ‘Chatted away to you afterwards though, didn’t he, that chap?’
‘Yes. Once he relaxed.’ She’d insisted on refreshments – had fetched the jug and three glasses on a tray while the young man dismantled the equipment. George had fumbled on the ground for his stick and refused a drink. He’d gone stomping indoors to The Times while she poured sweet lemonade and Mr Finley sipped it gratefully and told her, reddening a little, about his failure to get into the army.
‘He told me his wife is expecting any day.’ ‘Poor bastard.’
‘He was charming.’
‘Charming, eh?’ His voice mimicked hers. ‘Well, you’ve always been a fool for strange young men.’
Mrs Brooker looked down into her glass and swirled her brandy, until it rose perilously close to the rim.
They’d been married thirteen years and a day. That anniversary was lace, and he’d booked the overnight train to Bruges. Those were the times of George’s grand gestures. He’d been promoted again and the boys were both away at school from Sunday night to Friday afternoon. He took her to bed as soon as they arrived at the hotel.
Afterwards, he went to rustle up some tea and she lay, half-propped on the bolster pillow and her breasts exposed, with the sheet tugged lazily to her waist. The sight would please him, when he came back. She was tired and sore, but happy, thinking of the days ahead when they would walk the lanes arm-in-arm. He’d promised a boat trip and a lace parasol and a full set of new tablecloths. Sunshine drifted through the heavy yellow drapes and burnished the thickly-painted walls, giving the room a lemony glow.
They argued over dinner though, when she realised they would not be home in time to see the boys that weekend.
‘Of course we won’t.’ He said, tearing at his chicken with a rather blunt knife. ‘We don’t leave here ‘til Sunday morning and there’s a wait at Ostend for the boat. We’ll be lucky to be back by midnight. My mother has agreed to have the boys and she’ll get them off to school on time.’ He chewed and swallowed. ‘I told you all this.’
‘You didn’t, George. I only knew yesterday we were coming at all.’ She speared a
chunky piece of carrot and kept her voice light. ‘Can we not go back a day earlier?’
‘No, we cannot.’ Gravy sprayed through his furious whisper. She glanced sidelong at the elderly couple at the next table. ‘Good God, woman – do you realise how long I’ve been planning this trip?’
She laid her fork on her plate and lifted her wine glass, put it down and poured water into their crystal tumblers. She focused on the dark middle of the candle flame and felt her eyes filling with tears.
‘I don’t want any fucking water,’ he said. ‘And you’ll drink that fucking wine.’
It was still light when they emerged from the dining room, so she suggested a walk. Her head was swimming with the wine but her tears had retreated. She’d forced herself to eat and chat, thinking of the funny story she could tell the boys about the waiter who served them and his glass eye. They were still too young, she thought, to be sent away. At seven, Cecil was only just losing his baby teeth and his face changed shape, it seemed, every time she saw him. Albert was nearly twelve. Already, he thought himself is arms hung grimly at his sides when she hugged him farewell. Soon he’d be at home only for holidays.
She took her husband’s arm as they turned down Rue du Fil towards the canal. Her silk-covered Louis heels were unsteady on the cobbles and she steered him so that she could tread the smooth gully of the gutter.
‘It was a lovely idea, George. Bringing us here.’
He patted her hand. The wine had softened his ire. ‘Clever of me, wasn’t it?’ He leaned down to her ear. ‘Now, just a short stroll and back to bed, eh?’
The narrow street was lined with a row of lace shops, closed for the night. She stopped at each, exclaiming over the fine designs and delicate work displayed in each window. As the sun dropped too low to reach between the tall buildings, she pointed upwards instead, at the equally intricate stair-step roofs and Gothic gables. George’s pace relaxed and he sauntered with her, even stopping on a quaint bridge to admire a swan and her cygnets sailing through the dusk beneath.
They were circling back to the hotel when he said he needed to pee. He strode away into an alley, leaving her standing alone in the street. For a moment, the darkness was silent and complete. Then she heard a cough – a man announcing himself. She turned and he spoke in French, pointing in one direction and another. He was lost.
She smiled. ‘Je suis desolé. Peut-être si vous parlez plus lentement – ’
When his hand clamped over her mouth she felt strangely unsurprised, as though the whole evening had been leading her to this moment. Her silk shoes scraped on the ground as she was dragged into a doorway, and quickly, horribly quickly, the man had his beery, wet mouth over hers and one hand up her skirts and inside her drawers, his fingers stubbing at her. She clawed and pressed at his hairy coat and tried to free her mouth to shout for George, for anyone, but the man was strong, tall and strong and his other hand was around her neck, so tight she could not breath.
When George yanked him away and sent him running off into the darkness, she sank to her haunches like an animal, her good bead purse clattering to the stones, her gloved hands cradling her neck. She wanted to vomit and spit out the stranger’s foul breath. She wanted to hide away in that doorway forever. George gathered her to her feet, and supported her all the way back to their room, shielding her from the concerned but curious gaze of the concierge. And in the room, he undressed her – gently tugging off each shoe, patiently undoing each tiny button of her dress. He lifted her in his arms and laid her in the bed and got in next to her and stroked her head.
But then, in the middle of the night, she woke to find him on top of her, groping at one breast, groaning as he pushed his way inside. She stared upwards, over his heaving shoulder, to the ceiling where the moon threw a hazy bar of light across one corner of the room.
She and George went up the staircase together like newly-weds, hand-in-hand. He used his stick and she carried the dregs of her brandy and they both had to pause at the top to catch their breath. The smell of roast beef and cabbage lingered. In his room, she helped him take off his jacket and as he dropped his trousers, she placed a cushion on the floor for her knees.
When he sat on the edge of the bed, his excitement was already clear. She swigged back the last of her drink. He gripped her head so hard she knew it would hurt for days. When it was over, mercifully quickly, she spat the tiny salty spoonful of his seed into her empty tumbler and pressed her lips to the sleeve of her blouse. She placed her hands on his old white knees to help herself up.
‘Goodnight, George,’ she said. ‘Happy anniversary, dear.’
It rained overnight. She flung the kitchen window wide, letting in the scent of the jasmine and nicotiana as she boiled the kettle and made up a tray for George. A plate of thinly cut toast, no butter, a small dish of bramble jelly and a spoon. She set the cosy over the teapot and his cup on its saucer and poured in a drop of milk.
The unwashed brandy glass sat beside the sink. She touched two fingers to a tender place above her ear. Taking a firm grip on the tray, she trod carefully into the hall and up the stairs. In George’s room, she drew back the curtains partway. He didn’t stir. His thick white hair was mussed against the pillow, his snores gentle. She stood in the half-light and watched his chest move up and down.
She went all the way down the garden path in her robe. Yesterday’s dead-headed
roses lay wilting in their trug. She lifted her hem over the puddle that had formed at the
door of the greenhouse. It was already sultry inside. The tomatoes breathed with her and
the thought of her father and his green-stained fingers filled her mind as she gathered a
half-dozen ripe fruit into her pockets. They would go with the cold beef for lunch.