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Authors: A.S. Byatt

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BOOK: The Matisse Stories
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‘Did you have a good holiday?’

Oh idyllic. Oh yes, a dream. I wish I hadn’t come back. She’s been to a solicitor. Claiming the matrimonial home for all the work she’s done on it, and because of my daughter. I say, what about when she grows up, she’ll get a job, won’t she? You can’t assume she’ll hang around mummy for ever, they don’t.’

‘I need to look particularly good this time. I’ve won a prize. A Translator’s Medal. I have to make a speech. On television.’

‘We’ll have to make you look lovely, won’t we? For
the honour of the salon. How do you like our new look?’

‘It’s very smart.’

‘It is. It is. I’m not quite satisfied with the photos, though. I thought we could get something more intriguing. It has to be photos to go with the grey.’

He worked above her head. He lifted her wet hair with his fingers and let the air run through it, as though there was twice as much as there was. He pulled a twist this way, and clamped it to her head, and screwed another that way, and put his head on one side and another, contemplating her uninspiring bust. When her head involuntarily followed his he said quite nastily, ‘Keep still, can you, I can’t work if you keep bending from side to side like a swan.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘No harm done, just keep still.’

She kept still as a mouse, her head bowed under his repressing palm. She turned up her eyes and saw him look at his watch, then, with a kind of balletic movement of wrists, scissors and finger-points above her brow, drive the sharp steel into the ball of his thumb, so that
blood spurted, so that some of his blood even fell on to her scalp.

Oh dear. Will you excuse me? I’ve cut myself. Look.’

He waved the bloody member before her nose.

‘I saw,’ she said. ‘I saw you cut yourself.’

He smiled at her in the mirror, a glittery smile, not meeting her eyes.

‘It’s a little trick we hairdressers have. When we’ve been driving ourselves and haven’t had time for a bite or a breather, we get cut, and off we go, to the toilet, to take a bite of Mars Bar or a cheese roll if the receptionist’s been considerate. Will you excuse me? I am faint for lack of food.’

‘Of course,’ she said.

He flashed his glass smile at her and slid away.

She waited. A little water dripped into her collar. A little more ran into her eyebrows. She looked at her poor face, under its dank cap and its two random corkscrews, aluminium clamped. She felt a gentle protective rage towards this stolid face. She remembered, not as a girl, as a young woman under all that chestnut fall, looking at her skin, and wondering how it could grow into the crepe, the sag, the opulent soft bags. This was her face,
she had thought then. And this, too, now, she wanted to accept for her face, trained in a respect for precision, and could not. What had left this greying skin, these flakes, these fragile stretches with no elasticity, was her, was her life, was herself. She had never been a beautiful woman, but she had been attractive, with the attraction of liveliness and warm energy, of the flow of quick blood and brightness of eye. No classic bones, which might endure, no fragile bird-like sharpness that might whitely go forward. Only the life of flesh, which began to die.

She was in a panic of fear about the television, which had come too late, when she had lost the desire to be seen or looked at. The cameras search jowl and eye-pocket, expose brush-stroke and cracks in shadow and gloss. So interesting are their revelations that words, mere words, go for nothing, fly by whilst the memory of a chipped tooth, a strayed red dot, an inappropriate hair, persists and persists.

If he had not left her so long to contemplate her wet face, it might not have happened.

On either side of her mysteries were being enacted. On the left, a head was crammed into a pink nylon bag,
something between a bank-robber’s stocking and a monstrous Dutch cap. A young Chinese man was peacefully teasing threads of hair through the meshes of this with a tug and a flick, a tug and a flick. The effect was one of startling hideous pink baldness, tufted here and there. On her right, an anxious plump girl was rolling another girl’s thick locks into snaky sausages of aluminium foil. There was a thrum of distant drums through the loudspeakers, a clash and crash of what sounded like shaken chains. It is all nonsense, she thought, I should go home, I can’t, I am wet. They stared transfixed at their respective ugliness.

He came back, and took up the scissors, listlessly enough.

‘How much did you want off?’ he said casually. ‘You’ve got a lot of broken ends. It’s deteriorating, you haven’t fed it while I’ve been away.’

‘Not too much off, I want to look natural, I…’

‘I’ve been talking to my girlfriend. I’ve decided. I shan’t go back any more to my wife. I can’t bear it.’

‘She’s too angry?’

‘She’s let herself go. It’s her own fault. She’s let herself
go altogether. She’s let her ankles get fat, they swell over her shoes, it disgusts me, it’s impossible for me.’

‘That happens to people. Fluid absorption …’

She did not look down at her own ankles. He had her by the short hairs at the nape of her neck.

‘Lucian,’ said the plump girl, plaintively, ‘can you just take a look here at this perm, I can’t seem to get the hang of this.’

‘You’d better be careful,’ said Lucian, ‘or Madam’ll go green and fry and you’ll be in deep trouble. Why don’t you just come and finish off Madam here—you don’t mind, do you, dear? Deirdre is very good with your sort of hair, very tactful, I’m training her myself—I’d better take a look at this perm. It’s a new method we’re just trying out, we’ve had a few problems, you see how it is…’

Deirdre was an elicitor, but Susannah would not speak. Vaguely, far away, she heard the anxious little voice. ‘Do you have children, dear, have you far to go home, how formal do you like it, do you want backcombing … ?’ Susannah stared stony, thinking about Lucian’s wife’s ankles. Because her own ankles rubbed
her shoes, her sympathies had to be with this unknown and ill-presented woman. She remembered with sudden total clarity a day when, Suzie then, not Susannah, she had made love all day to an Italian student on a course in Perugia. She remembered her own little round rosy breasts, her own long legs stretched over the side of the single bed, the hot, the wet, his shoulders, the clash of skulls as they tried to mix themselves completely. They had reached a point when neither of them could move, they had loved each other so much, they had tried to get up to get water, for they were dying of thirst, they were soaked with sweat and dry-mouthed, and they collapsed back upon the bed, naked skin on naked skin, unable to rise. What was this to anyone now? Rage rose in her, for the fat-ankled woman, like a red flood, up from her thighs across her chest, up her neck, it must flare like a flag in her face, but how to tell in this daft cruel grey light? Deirdre was rolling up curls, piling them up, who would have thought the old woman had so much hair on her head? Sausages and snail-shells, grape-clusters and twining coils. She could only see dimly, for the red flood was like a curtain at the back of her eyes, but she knew
what she saw. The Japanese say demons of another world approach us through mirrors as fish rise through water, and, bubble-eyed and trailing fins, a fat demon swam towards her, turret-crowned, snake-crowned, her mother fresh from the dryer in all her embarrassing irreality.

‘There,’ said Deirdre. ‘That’s nice. I’ll just get a mirror.’

‘It isn’t nice,’ said Susannah. ‘It’s hideous.’

There was a hush in the salon. Deirdre turned a terrified gaze on Lucian.

‘She did it better than I do, dear,’ he said. ‘She gave it a bit of lift. That’s what they all want, these days. I think you look really nice.’

‘It’s horrible,’ said Susannah. ‘
I look like a middle-aged woman with a hair-do.

She could see them all looking at each other, sharing the knowledge that this was exactly what she was.

‘Not natural,’ she said.

‘I’ll get Deirdre to tone it down,’ said Lucian.

Susannah picked up a bottle, full of gel. She brought it down, heavily, on the grey glass shelf, which cracked.

‘I don’t want it toned down, I want,’ she began, and stared mesmerised at the crack, which was smeared with gel.

‘I want my real hair back,’ Susannah cried, and thumped harder, shattering both shelf and bottle.

‘Now, dear, I’m sorry,’ said Lucian in a tone of sweet reason. She could see several of him, advancing on her; he was standing in a corner and was reflected from wall to wall, a cohort of slender, trousered swordsmen, waving the bright scissors like weapons.

‘Keep away,’ she said. ‘Get off. Keep back.’

‘Calm yourself,’ said Lucian.

Susannah seized a small cylindrical pot and threw it at one of his emanations. It burst with a satisfying crash and one whole mirror became a spider-web of cracks, from which fell, tinkling, a little heap of crystal nuggets. In front of Susannah was a whole row of such bombs or grenades. She lobbed them all around her. Some of the cracks made a kind of strained singing noise, some were explosive. She whirled a container of hairpins about her head and scattered it like a nailbomb. She tore dryers from their sockets and sprayed the puce punk with sweet-smelling foam. She broke basins with brushes and
tripped the young Chinese male, who was the only one not apparently petrified, with a hissing trolley, swaying dangerously and scattering puffs of cotton-wool and rattling trails of clips and tags. She silenced the blatter of the music with a well-aimed imitation alabaster pot of Juvenescence Emulsion, which dripped into the cassette which whirred more and more slowly in a thickening morass of blush-coloured cream.

When she had finished—and she went on, she kept going, until there was nothing else to hurl, for she was already afraid of what must happen when she had finished—there was complete human silence in the salon. There were strange, harshly musical sounds all round. A bowl rocking on a glass shelf. A pair of scissors, dancing on a hook, their frenzy diminishing. Uneven spasmodic falls of glass, like musical hailstones on shelves and floors. A susurration of hairpins on paper. A slow creaking of damaged panes. Her own hands were bleeding. Lucian advanced crunching over the shining silt, and dabbed at them with a towel. He too was bloodied—specks on his shirt, a fine dash on his brow, nothing substantial. It was a strange empty battlefield, full of glittering fragments and sweet-smelling rivulets and
puddles of venous-blue and fuchsia-red unguents, patches of crimson-streaked foam and odd intense spills of orange henna or cobalt and copper.

‘I’d better go,’ she said, turning blindly with her bleeding hands, still in her uncouth maroon drapery.

‘Deirdre’ll make you a cup of coffee,’ said Lucían. ‘You’d better sit down and take a breather.’

He took a neck brush and swept a chair for her. She stared, irresolute.

‘Go on. We all feel like that, sometimes. Most of us don’t dare. Sit down.’

They all gathered round, the young, making soothing, chirruping noises, putting out hands with vague patting, calming gestures.

‘I’ll send you a cheque.’

‘The insurance’ll pay. Don’t worry. It’s insured. You’ve done me a good turn in a way. It wasn’t quite right, the colours. I might do something different. Or collect the insurance and give up. Me and my girlfriend are thinking of setting up a stall in the Antique Hypermarket. Costume jewellery. Thirties and forties kitsch. She has sources. I can collect the insurance and have a go. I’ve had enough of this. I’ll tell you something, I’ve
often felt like smashing it all up myself, just to get out of it—like a great glass cage it is—and go out into the real world. So you mustn’t worry, dear.’

She sat at home and shook, her cheeks flushed, her eyes bright with tears. When she had pulled herself together, she would go and have a shower and soak out the fatal coils, reduce them to streaming rat-tails. Her husband came in, unexpected—she had long given up expecting or not expecting him, his movements were unpredictable and unexplained. He came in tentatively, a large, alert, ostentatiously work-wearied man. She looked up at him speechless. He saw her. (Usually he did not.)

‘You look different. You’ve had your hair done. I like it. You look lovely. It takes twenty years off you. You should have it done more often.’

And he came over and kissed her on the shorn nape of her neck, quite as he used to do.

L’artiste et le modele reflétés
dans le miroir
, 1937

Art Work

In 1947 Matisse painted
Le Silence habité des maisons.
It is reproduced in Sir Lawrence Gowing’s
, only very small and in black and white. Two people sit at the corner of a table. The mother, it may be, has a reflective chin propped on a hand propped on the table. The child, it may be, turns the page of a huge white book, whose arch of paper makes an integral curve with his/her lower arm. In front, a vase of flowers. Behind, six huge panes of window, behind them, a mass of trees and perhaps sunlight. The people’s faces are perfect blank ovals, featureless. Up above them, in the top lefthand corner of the canvas, level with the top of the window, is a chalked outline, done as it might be by a child, of a round on a stalk, above bricks. It is a pity there are no
colours but it is possible, tempting, to imagine them, sumptuous as they were in what Gowing says was ‘the reconciliation which is only within the reach of great painters in old age’. The pictures, Gowing says, have extraordinary virility. ‘At last Matisse is wholly at ease with the fierce impulse.’ It is a dark little image on the page, charcoal-grey, slate-grey, soft pale pencil-grey, subdued, demure. We may imagine it flaming, in carmine or vermilion, or swaying in indigo darkness, or perhaps—outdoors—gold and green. We may imagine it. The darkness of the child may be black on black or black on blue or blue on some sort of red. The book is white. Who is the watching totem under the ceiling?

There is an inhabited silence in 49 Alma Road, in the sense that there are no voices, though there are various sounds, some of them even pervasive and raucous sounds, which an unconcerned ear might construe as the background din of a sort of silence. There is the churning hum of the washing-machine, a kind of splashy mechanical giggle, with a grinding note in it, tossing its wet mass one way, resting and simmering, tossing it the other. A real habitué of this noise will tense him or herself against the coming banshee-scream of the spin-cycle,
accompanied by a drumming tattoo of machine feet scrabbling on the tiles.

The dryer is chuntering too. It is not a new dryer, its carbon brushes are worn, it thumps and creaks and screeches in its slow circling. The mass of cloth inside it flails, flops with a crash, rises, flails, flops with a crash. An attentive ear could hear the difference in the texture and mass of the flop as the sleeves and stockings are bound into sausages and balls by the fine straps of petticoats and bras.

In the front room, chanting to itself, for no one is watching it, the television is full on in mid-morning. Not loudly, there are rules about noise. The noise it is making is the wilfully upbeat cheery squitter of female presenters of children’s TV, accented with regular, repetitive amazement, mixed in with the grunts and cackles and high-pitched squeaks of a flock of furry puppets, a cross-eyed magenta haystack with a snout, a kingfisher blue gerbil with a whirling tail, a torpid emerald green coiled serpent, with a pillar-box red dangling tongue and movable fringed eyelids. At regular intervals, between the bouts of presenter-squitter and puppet snorts and squawks, comes, analogous to the spin-cycle,
the musical outbursts, a drumroll, a squeal on a woodwind, a percussion battery, a ta-ta ta TA, for punctuation, for a roseate full-frame with a lime-coloured logo T-NE-TV.

On the first floor, behind a closed door, the circular rush and swish of Jamie’s electric trains can be heard. Nothing can be heard of Natasha’s record-player, and Natasha cannot hear the outside world, for her whole head is stuffed with beating vibrations and exploding howls and ululations. She lies on her bed and twitches in rhythm. Anyone coming in could well hear, from the other side of the corridor, the twangling tinny bumps made by the baffled sound trying to break out of its boxer-glove packaging. Natasha’s face has the empty beatific intelligence of some of Matisse’s supine women. Her face is white and oval and luminous with youth. Her hair is inky blue-black, and fanned across her not-too-clean pillows. Her bedspread is jazzy black forms of ferns or seaweeds, on a scarlet ground, forms the textile designer would never have seen, without Matisse. Her arms and legs dangle beyond the confines of the ruffled rectangle of this spread, too gawky to be an odalisque,
but just as delicious in their curves. White, limp, relaxed, twitching. Twitches can’t be painted.

From Debbie’s room comes the sound of the typewriter. It is an old mechanical typewriter, its noises are metallic and clicking. It chitters on to the end of a line, then there is the clash of the return, and the musical, or almost musical ‘cling’ of the little bell. Tap tap tap tap tappety tappety tappety clash cling tappety tap tap. A silence. Debbie sits over her typewriter with her oval chin in her long hands, and her black hair coiled gracefully in her neck. It is easy to see where Natasha’s ink and ivory beauty comes from. Debbie frowns. She taps a tooth (ivory lacquer, a shade darker than the skin) with an oval nail, rose madder. Debbie’s office, or study, is very cramped. There is a drawing-board, but if it is not in use, it is blocked up against the window, obscuring much of the light, and all of the vision of pillar-box red geraniums and cobalt-blue lobelias in a window box on the sill. Debbie can work at her desk or work at her drawing-board, but not both at once, though she would like to be able to, she is the design editor of
A Woman’s Place
, of which the, perhaps obscure, premise is that a
woman’s place is not only, perhaps not even primarily, in the Home. Debbie is working at home at the moment because Jamie has chicken pox and the doctor is coming, and the doctor cannot say at what time he will or won’t call, there is too much pressure. Jamie has the same inky hair as his mother and sister, and has even longer blacker lashes over black eyes. He has the same skin too, but at the moment it is a wonderfully humped and varied terrain of rosy peaks and hummocks, mostly the pink of those boring little begonias with fleshy leaves, but some raging into salmon-deeps and some extinct volcanoes, with umber and ochre crusts. It was Jamie who was watching the TV but he cannot stick at anything, he itches too wildly, he tears at his flesh with his bitten-down nails, he rubs himself against chairs. Debbie stood him on a coffee table and swabbed and painted him with calamine lotion, creating a kind of streaked sugar or plaster of Paris mannikin, with powdery pinky-beige crude surfaces, rough make-up, failed paint, a dull bland colour, under which the bumpy buds of the pox heated themselves into re-emergence. ‘War-paint,’ Debbie said to her son, squeezing and stippling the liquid on his round little belly, between his poor hot legs. ‘You could
put stripes of cocoa on,’ said Jamie. ‘And icing sugar. That would make three colours of stripes.’ Debbie would have liked to paint him all over, with fern-green cake dye and cochineal, if that would have distracted or assuaged him, but she had to get the piece she was writing done, which was about the new wave of kitchen plastic design, wacky colours, staggering new streamlined shapes.

On Debbie’s walls, which are lemon-coloured, are photographs of Natasha and Jamie as naked babies, and later, gap-toothed, grinning school heads and shoulders, a series of very small woodcuts, illustrating fairy tales, a mermaid, an old witch with a spindle, a bear and two roses, and in a quite different style a small painting of a table, a hyper-realist wooden table with a blue vase and a small Rubik’s cube on it. Also, in white frames, two paintings done by a younger Natasha, a vase of anemones, watery crimsons and purples, a dress flung over a chair, blue dress, grey chair, promising folds, in a probably unintentional void.

Debbie types, and cocks her head for the sound of the doorbell. She types ‘a peculiarly luscious new purple, like bilberry juice with a little cream swirled in it’. She
jumps at the sound not of the doorbell but of her telephone, one of the new fluttering burrs, disconcertingly high-pitched. It is her editor, asking when she will be able to make a layout conference. She speaks, placating, explaining, just sketching in an appeal for sympathy. The editor of
A Woman’s Place
is a man, who reads and slightly despises the pieces about the guilt of the working mother which his periodical periodically puts out. Debbie changes tack, and makes him laugh with a description of where poor Jamie’s spots have managed to sprout. ‘Poor little bugger,’ quacks the editor into Debbie ‘s ear, inaudible to the rest of the house.

Up and down the stairs, joining all three floors, surges a roaring and wheezing noise, a rhythmic and complex and swelling crescendo, snorting, sucking, with a high-pitched drone planing over a kind of grinding sound, interrupted every now and then by a frenetic rattle, accompanied by a new, menacing whine. Behind the Hoover, upwards and downwards, comes Mrs Brown, without whom, it must immediately be said, Debbie’s world would not hold together.

Mrs Brown came ten years ago, in answer to an advertisement in the local paper. Natasha was four, and Jamie
was on the way. Debbie was unwell and at her wits’ end, with fear of losing her job. She put ‘artistic family’ in the advertisement, expecting perhaps to evoke some tolerance, if not positive affection, for the tattered wallpaper and burgeoning mess. She didn’t have much response—a couple of art students, one an unmarried mum who wanted to share babysitting, painting-time, and chores, a very old, purblind, tortoise-paced ex-parlourmaid, and Mrs Brown. Mrs Brown had a skin which was neither black nor brown but a kind of amber yellow, the sort of yellow bruises go, before they vanish, but all over. She had a lot of wiry soot-coloured hair, which rose, like the crown of a playing-card king, out of a bandeau of flowery material, tied tightly about her brow, like the towelling of a tennis star, or the lace cap of an oldfashioned maid. Mrs Brown’s clothes were, and are, flowery and surprising, jumble sale remnants, rejects and ends of lines, rainbow-coloured jumpers made from the ping-pong-ball-sized unwanted residues of other people’s knitting. She came for her interview in a not too clean (but not too dirty) film-star’s trench-coat, which she didn’t take off until Debbie had said, dry-mouthed with anxiety, ‘I think you and I might manage
to get on, don’t you?’ And Mrs Brown had nodded decisively, accepted a cup of coffee, and divested herself of the trench-coat, revealing pantaloons made of some kind of thick cream-coloured upholstery linen, wonderfully traversed by crimson open-mouthed Indian flowers and birds of paradise and tendrils of unearthly creepers, and a royal-blue jumper embroidered all over with woollen daisies, white marguerites, orange black-eyed Susans.

Mrs Brown does not smile very much. Her face has some resemblance to a primitive mask, cheeks in triangular planes, long, straight, salient nose, a mouth usually tightly closed. Her expression can be read as prim, or grim, or watchful or perhaps—though this is not the first idea that comes to mind—perhaps resigned. She likes to go barefoot in the house, it turns out—she is not used to this level of heating, she explains, implying—or does Debbie misread her?—that the heating is an unhealthy extravagance. She comes up behind you with no warning, and at first this used to irritate Debbie most frightfully, but now she is used to it, she is used to Mrs Brown, her most powerful emotion in relation to Mrs Brown is terror that she will leave. If Mrs Brown is not
Debbie’s friend, she is the closest person to Debbie on earth, excluding perhaps the immediate family. Debbie and Mrs Brown do not share the usual intimacies, they have no common chatter about other people, but they have a kind of rock-bottom knowledge of each other’s fears and pains, or so Debbie thinks, knowing, nevertheless, that Mrs Brown knows more about her than she will ever know about Mrs Brown, since it is in Debbie’s house that the relationship is carried out. Mrs Brown washes Debbie’s underwear and tidies Debbie’s desk, putting Debbie’s letters, private and official, threatening and secret, in tidy heaps. Mrs Brown counts the bottles and sweeps up the broken glass after parties, though she does not partake of the festive food. Mrs Brown changes Debbie ‘s sheets.

Debbie did not ask Mrs Brown at that decisive interview whether Mrs Brown had children, though she was dying to, because she, Debbie, so resents being asked, by those interviewing her for jobs, whether she has children, what she would do with them. She did ask if Mrs Brown had a telephone, and Mrs Brown said yes, she did, she found it essential, she used the word ‘essential’ tidily and drily, just like that, without elaboration. ‘So
you will tell me in advance, if at all possible,’ says Debbie, trying to sound sweet and commonly courteous, ‘if you can’t come ever, if you aren’t going to be able to come ever, because I have to make such complicated arrangements if people are going to let me down, that is, can’t make it for any reason.’ ‘I think you’ll find I’m reliable,’ says Mrs Brown. ‘But it’s no good me saying so, you’ll have to see. You needn’t worry though, bar the unforeseen.’ ‘Acts of God,’ says Debbie. ‘Well, and acts of Hooker too,’ says Mrs Brown, without saying who Hooker might be.

Debbie did find that Mrs Brown was, as she had said, reliable. She also discovered, not immediately, that Mrs Brown had two sons, Lawrence and Gareth, shortened to Gary by his friends but not by Mrs Brown. These boys were already ten and eight when Mrs Brown came to Debbie. Lawrence is now at Newcastle University—’the lodgings are cheaper up there’ says Mrs Brown. Gareth has left home without many qualifications and works, Mrs Brown says, ‘in distribution’. He has made the wrong sort of friends, Mrs Brown says, but does not elaborate. Hooker is the father of Lawrence and Gareth. Debbie does not know, and does not ask, whether
Hooker is or is not Mr Brown. During the early childhood of Natasha and Jamie, Hooker would make sudden forays into Mrs Brown’s life and council flat, from which he had departed before she took to going out to clean up after people like Debbie. One of Mrs Brown’s rare days off was her court appearance to get an injunction to stop Hooker coming round. Hooker was the cause of Mrs Brown’s bruises, the chocolate and violet stains on the gold skin, the bloody cushions in the hair and the wine-coloured efflorescence on her lips. Once, and once only, at this time, Debbie found Mrs Brown sitting on the bathroom stool, howling, and brought her cups of coffee, and held her hands, and sent her home in a taxi. It was Mrs Brown who saw Debbie through the depression after the birth of Jamie, with a mixture of carefully timed indulgences and requirements. ‘I’ve brought you a bowl of soup, you’ll do no good in the world if you don’t eat.’ ‘I’ve brought Baby up to you, Mrs Dennison, he’s crying his heart out with hunger, he needs his mother, that’s what it is.’ They call each other Mrs Dennison and Mrs Brown. They rely on the kind of distance and breathing space this courtesy gives them. Mrs Brown was scathing about the days in hospital,
when she was concussed, after one of Hooker’s visits. ‘They call you love, and dearie, and pet. I say, I need a bit of respect, my name is Mrs Brown.’

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