Deal or no deal
[ fiction - july 10 ]
The problem with you, Brenda, is you - you're your own worst enemy. It was comments like this that made Brenda feel a little mad. Not because she felt insulted or crazy, but because she didn't understand what was meant by it.
One person who liked to say this kind of thing was her sister, Margaret. But Brenda didn't have time to dwell too long on such things; she was busy being busy and she was normally busy being busy doing things for Margaret.
Brenda picked up her sister's children, Damian and Alicia, and dropped them off at school each morning.
"Don't stop at the gates and gawp," Margaret advised her. "They'll sweep you up into the dog rescue van with all the other bitches." "That's definitely insulting," thought Brenda, "but I still don't know what she means."
Margaret's children weren't any less brutal: "Don't put your smelly bum on the seat next to me," yelled Damian from the back of the bus so everyone could hear.
"She's a paedo," squawked a smirking Alicia, who was six going on a wicked sixty-six. Plain embarrassing, but no one said anything or tried to call social services.
Brenda would take them to the primary school gates, hand them their sandwiches, crisps and fizzy drinks, and then wave them goodbye. They never waved back, but she always stayed there waiting just in case, until they were safely indoors. Then it was off to collect the shopping from Mr Patel's for her neighbour, Mrs Doherty, who had problems with her legs and her drains.
Mr Patel always greeted her with a smile.
"How's Brenda this morning?" he'd ask.
"Brenda is doing fine," she replied. "And I'm doing fine too."
"Hey, hey, funny one, Brenda. I like that. Very smart reply."
No one, except Mr Patel, ever said her name with anything approaching his kindness or respect, and no one ever complimented her like he did. She liked to linger in his shop, to keep out the cold, to feel his warmth.
"Icy weather, Brenda. When's it going to stop?"
"On Sunday; I heard it on the radio this morning."
"Good, good. No need for a weather girl when I've got you, eh?"
"No," and Brenda blushed.
She picked up Mrs Doherty's shopping bags and waved goodbye through the shop window. And Mr Patel waved back.
Mrs Doherty was waiting at her door.
"Have you got your drains sorted, Mrs D?" asked Brenda.
"I've rung them a thousand times but they never turn up."
"Would you like me to go in and see them?"
"Silly girl, that wouldn't do no good, would it?"
"Okay, Mrs D. Here's your shopping and your change"
"Thank you, Brenda. You take care now."
"And you, Mrs D. Knock on the window if you need..." but the door slammed shut before she could finish what she was saying.
Then it was next-door to feed Mr Pearson's cat. He never seemed to feed it and so it had become a habit. And now he was dead she saw no reason to stop. She had known Mr Pearson was dead because the sweet sickly smell coming through his letterbox reminded her of when she had nursed her mother, and she had died. No one else seemed to know though, and the smell had been wafting out of the door for weeks now.
Brenda's day was busy with activities right up until two. Then it was back to the bed-sit she'd lived in since leaving her mother's house. She liked to get her feet up and eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich with a cup of strong tea. The sandwich reminded her of a family holiday to Butlins at Bognor Regis in 1988. An American boy called Clint had shown her how to make one, and she's been eating them ever since. She wrote to him every week for three years and received one reply from his mother saying he was doing fine and had just gone off to serve his country against Iraq. Brenda still has the card tucked into the side of the mirror above her gas fire.
Twenty minutes of Radio 5 chatter and then it was off to pick up the children from school. On Fridays she treated them to a McDonalds, which made them even more maniacal than usual.
This Friday when she arrived with them at her sister's house, Margaret wanted to know why she was late.
"I nearly rang the police."
"But I always take them to McDonalds on a Friday," replied Brenda.
"Lucky you! Spending your mad money like you've actually earned it."
"I've got you a Super Mac."
"Big Mac! What about my milk shake?"
"Strawberry, wasn't it?"
"Chocolate! Fuck! Fuck! You never get it right."
"Give it here, then."
"I'll see you Monday."
"Bye, Damian and Ali..." But the door slammed before she was able to hear if they replied.
Brenda loves Mr Pearson's house because it's similar to the one she used to share with her mother. When he died, Mr Pearson had left his back door unlocked. After leaving the children she lets herself in and brings his cat in with her.
She drags his emaciated body along the upstairs landing and into his bedroom; tucks him tight in his bed, and presses a rolled up blanket against the crack at the bottom of the door to keep the smell in.
She hurries downstairs to make herself a cup of tea, and then settles down on the sofa to watch her favourite programme, Deal or No Deal. She puts her feet up on one of his chairs but is careful to put a newspaper on the seat so not to leave a mark. She reaches into a carrier bag and pulls out her burger - she'd been too nervous earlier to eat it in front of her niece and nephew.
"Luxury," she says. "If you could see me now, Mum, I think you'd be proud. This is really roomy," and she twiddles and pokes out her toes to make her point.
Deal or no Deal makes Brenda very heated. She has her favourite numbers - Damian's and Alicia's birthdays, her own and Margaret's; the number of her house she shared with Mum; the date Clint's mum wrote to her, and last of all, the date of her Mum's birthday: the 12th. That's the number she hopes will be in her box if she ever gets onto the programme. Not that she'll ever try to, because she'd be frightened of embarrassing herself and her family. In her dreams, the number 12 serves as a kind of memorial; and as a starting point for discussion so she can tell Noel Edmonds how nice her Mum had been.
Today, Alex, a hairdresser from Edinburgh is chosen along with his box marked 12, and Brenda is straight off the sofa and roaming the room.
"Go, Alex, go! You can do it!" she shouts, and Mister Pearson's small tabby shoots for cover under the dining room table.
In the first few rounds, Alex rides his luck but is still left with the possible jackpot of £250,000. Brenda is a flurry of optimistic activity and excitement, taking large gulps of her tea as she paces the room.
In round five, Alex spectacularly loses boxes containing 100,000, 75,000 and 50,000. Noel Edmonds puts a consoling arm on Alex's shoulder and Brenda's slumps into the sofa, her face drenched in hot tears. The tabby jumps on her lap to lick her cheeks.
In the studio, the Banker rings. Noel Edmonds picks up the phone and tuts throughout the call.
"Nasty banker, nasty banker!" yells Brenda.
Alex is made a paltry offer to stop the game by the Banker but the holy grail of 250,000 still beckons from the horizon.
"You only live once," declares Alex. "I came here with a plan and I'm determined to see it through."
Brenda repeats his words like a holy mantra: "You only live once. I came here with a plan and I'm determined to see it through." The audience go wild. Perched on the edge of the sofa, Brenda claps and playfully brings the tabby's front paws together to clap as well.
The front doorbell rings.
"This could be the biggest decision of your life," suggests Noel, and Alex nods in agreement.
"Ask the question, Noel?" he says.
"£10,000, Alex. Deal or no deal?"
"No deal, Noel."
"No deal," repeats Brenda.
Alex is a gambler: the audience are in ecstasy; they whoop and holler and so does Brenda.
The doorbell rings again.
The penultimate round; there are only five boxes left to choose: four holding insignificant prizes, one with the big one.
Alex gets lucky this time. Three boxes are chosen and ejected from the game. The audience stir up into a gladiatorial frenzy but Brenda is awed into silence. She understands immediately that Alex is now left with the possibility of choosing 50 pence or £250,000. A cathedral solemnity suddenly takes over the studio as the audience realise too. This is bigger than life or death. The Banker makes his final call.
The doorbell rings again, and this time Brenda hears it.
"Go away," she whispers but the bell keeps on ringing.
Noel looks more serious than it's possible to be. "Alex, I wasn't lying before but now really is the biggest decision of your life: £75,000."
Someone taps the lounge window. Brenda sees their hand through the nets; a ghostly palm shaking the pane.
"Alex, think clearly, £75,000 is a lot of money," counsels Noel.
Brenda remembers the time when they came and found her with her mother's dead body in their home. She'd answered the bell that time to let them in; and had ended up locked in Granges Retreat for three years.
"Even for you this takes the biscuit," Margaret had said on her one visit there. "How could you let Mum get into that kind of state, you're worse than an animal."
So Brenda knows better than to answer the door now.
"I'm not here," she mutters under her breath.
"Ask me the question, Noel," says Alex.
"£75,000, Alex. Deal or no deal?"
There is a voice at the letter box: "Brenda, I know you're in there. I saw you let yourself in. Is everything okay?" It's Mrs Doherty.
"I'm not really here, Mrs D, but everything is okay," and as she says it, Brenda crouches at the doorway leading into the hall.
"No deal, Noel," says Alex firmly.
"Brenda, there's a terrible racket and smell in there. Is Mr Pearson having problems with his drains too?"
Brenda is caught in nowhere land between the television and Mrs Doherty's voice at the letter box, between Alex's fate and her own.
Noel's tongue circles his lips in anticipation: "Alex, I hope and pray that the box in front of you contains £250,000 and not just fifty pence. Let's open the box now and see."
"Brenda, I can't stand here all day, my legs won't take it. You have thirty seconds to let me in or I'll have to call your sister."
The seconds pass without reply.
"Are you opening the door or not?"
Brenda goes determinedly on all fours into the hall to answer the question.
"No deal, Mrs D," she yells up through the letter box. "No deal!"
Behind her, Brenda can hear the crowd celebrating and going mad like there's no tomorrow. She rushes back into the lounge, closing the door behind her. She turns the sound on the television up to maximum.
Alex punches the air and is engulfed by a throng of ecstatic well wishers. Some of the audience wipe away tears; others chant Alex's name.
Brenda scoops up Mr Pearson's tabby and dances wildly round the room.