Later that evening her mother asked her to read from a book the mobile library had just delivered. It was a story of unrequited love, of revenge, and of murder. The next afternoon, they were in the car on their way to the supermarket. Bryony put on the radio. The afternoon play had just begun. It was a strange tale of a woman who had entered into a marriage full of expectation only to find herself enslaved. She could cook well, and in her long lonely hours, she prepared the most sumptuous, exquisite meals for her cold-hearted despot of a husband. Had she but known, she would never have married him. She put her heart and soul into her food, but she knew one day that she would either win him or be rid of him.
Both Bryony and her mother were riveted. They sat in the car park of the supermarket until it ended. Her mother laughed gleefully and patted her knee.
“Food for thought, Bryony. Will he get his just desserts, do you think?” she said teasingly.
Bryony was too shocked to utter a word.
The very idea was abominable. Yet strangely alluring.
Bryony returned home a few days later. The house was a pigsty; dirty plates were piled high on the draining board, the laundry basket was overflowing, and the bathroom was a shambles. She had her work cut out, but she set to it with renewed energy, and within a few hours the house was back to its usual level of orderliness. She shopped and cooked a meal of lemon and herb marinated roast chicken, crisp roast potatoes and steamed vegetables, followed by a pear and berry pie, the pastry light and buttery, the fruit warm and sweet, and her homemade custard silky smooth. She was quite pleased with the results.
He called from the hallway that he was home, and went directly to the drinks cabinet to pour himself a large whiskey. She had already downed a gin and tonic, and then gargled with mouthwash so she did not smell of alcohol. It was not a becoming smell, he insisted, which was ironic really as the first thing he had ever said to her was, ‘Can I buy you a drink?’
The gravy was a little lumpy, he commented. She was out of practice, he said. The chicken was a tad dry. The berry crumble was too tart. The custard was too thick. She promised it would not happen again. He had seconds and thirds, and rounded it off with a satisfied belch and a squeaky-clean plate. His appetite was insatiable – his barrel of a belly attested to it, as did his chronic indigestion and the well-stocked cupboard of medicines and natural remedies. They sat in the living room and watched the programmes he wanted to watch. They went to bed and did what he wanted to do. In readiness, she had already succumbed to the numbing pull of the bottle of gin with no fear that slurred speech would give her away. Very little was required of her in terms of conversation.
This was her life. And now his retirement dawned, looming on the horizon like the darkest, blackest cloud from which there would never be any relief. It struck terror through her.
Her mother was right. Could she bear another twenty years of this?
When the cheerless occasion of their fortieth wedding anniversary came along, it set her thinking. Whenever her daughters rang, which they often did despite what her mother said, she was careful to tell them how much she longed to take a short trip to Shropshire, to visit the places where she had spent her early childhood, and to walk the Long Mynd and go up the Stiperstones before she was too old and creaky to manage those things. They dutifully relayed to their father what a wonderful idea it was that he was going to take her to such a romantic spot. He could hardly do otherwise then. He did not book the hotel they had suggested, although he was quick to accept their offer of paying for their anniversary meal there.
And so, for the first time in forty-five years, there she was on the path, heading in the direction she wanted, with pockets waiting to be filled with a promise of the future. She had assured him there was a pub at the end of the walk that was famous for its lunches. It was that thought that kept him going, that and the two couples they met along the way. He fell into easy company with the men; they were of a sort she thought at first. Their wives were talkative and she soon discovered that Donald was nothing like their husbands. It had always come as a surprise to her that she had yet to meet anyone else quite like him. Didn’t the world abound with men like him and wives like her, or were they the only two?
Over lunch, the men each downed a couple of pints of the local bitter, the wives a glass of wine. Bryony happily joined them, knowing he could hardly disapprove in company. The lunch did not disappoint and the company was convivial and diverting, a vast improvement on the twosome she was resigned to. It transpired that the two couples were staying at The Holly Bush. A sudden rush of envy and anger made her fingers tremble and she knocked over her glass of wine. One of the men insisted on replacing it. It was not Donald, of course, who simply muttered, “Clumsy woman,” and blustered on about how they had been informed the hotel was full to the hilt when they had tried to book a suite there. She caught the look the other couples exchanged, but she had seen it so many times before that it had little effect her, although she wished Donald would shut up before the couples politely made their excuses and left. Her wish did not come true.
“Still, The Three Bells is passable and a lot easier on the old wallet too,” he guffawed. “Top-notch grub and clean as a whistle.” The beer had made him too loud. “Dining at your place tonight, though,” he said. “A special occasion,” he informed them. “Forty-five years ago today Bryony and I walked up the aisle.” She forced a weak smile as the other couples congratulated them and wished them a happy anniversary.
“Drinks are on us tonight if you care to make it a bit of a party. What do you say?” one of the men offered.
Bryony was quick to accept, not caring that the offer was made out of pity for her. She was used to that too.
The men went back to their hotels to read the papers, whilst the ladies took themselves off to the local pottery, and insisted she join them. The pottery was a short drive away, so close to the nature reserve Bryony wanted to visit that she wondered whether fate was conniving with her. Whatever it was, her heart lifted and she began to thoroughly enjoy her outing, enthusing over the brightly coloured, enormously garish pots her companions bought as gifts for their families. She restricted herself to a pie dish, hand painted by an artist who was quite clearly berry mad. It was adorned with clusters of bright red berries, deep purple berries, green berries, orange berries, blue berries, and every other possible colour berry. Quite apt, she thought to herself, and thanked the ladies for taking her out for the afternoon. She politely refused their offer to drive her back with the excuse that after such a hearty lunch, she really felt in need of a brisk walk. She left them perusing the gift shop for more goodies that their children would no doubt offload to the nearest charity shop, and set off after a quick glance at the map.
She did not need the map. The route was etched in her mind, the plastic bags ready in her pockets. The hunting and gathering was about to begin. There was a spring in her step, a light-hearted buoyancy that she had not felt for forty years or more. She could have been tripping along St. Martin’s Lane on a Friday night, her hair glossy, the curls bouncing with each step, a new mini-dress that showed off the sheerest of stockings available on the market, a chic hat, her friends at her side, and her life before her.
But she was very far away from St. Martin’s Lane. She was dressed in a pair of brown cords, a faded fleece, thermal socks, and an old woolly hat, and she was rambling along a track that she hoped would lead her to another kind of life. She was hunting, searching, yes for berries, but for one variety in particular.
Illustrated by Kemi Athene Pennicott.
Savita Kalhan’s new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror, will be published by Troika Books on 1 May 2018.