She was only joking – so why did everyone, from work colleagues to waitresses, take her words the wrong way?
There was one of those sudden silences in the office. Someone stifled a giggle, then conversation resumed, rather louder than was necessary.
Stan unhitched himself from his perch on Brenda’s desk.
“Want to come and pick up those invoices?” He grabbed her arm and hustled her out of the office into the warehouse, carefully closing the door behind them.
“Honestly, Bren! You can’t speak to the Boss like that!”
“Like what?” She raised her eyebrows and spread her hands. “It wasn’t me who said there wasn’t any point in the lorry driver offering to give him a lift. He can’t climb into those cabs because they’re too high and he’s too fat. He said it – not me.”
“Yes, but you don’t have to agree with him and then tell him he could’ve used the electric tail-lift!”
She saw the grin he was trying to hide.
“I was only joking. He knows that.”
“Let’s hope he does – or you’ll be out on your ear.”
“Come on, Stan! He’s the Boss, so he can’t take a joke? You should have heard the one he told me a couple of weeks ago.”
“There’s a time and place. And a roomful of office staff isn’t it.”
“Anyway, it just sort of came out. I didn’t plan to say it.”
“One of these days that tongue of yours is going to get you into real trouble.” He tapped her on the head. “Engage Brain Before Employing Mouth. Save you no end of bother.”
“I can’t help it,” she said rebelliously. “If people have no sense of humour, that’s their problem, not mine.”
“It isn’t always funny,” said Stan.
Brenda was very glad to put the office behind her and get home that afternoon.
She dumped the shopping in the kitchen and put the kettle on.
There hadn’t been the sound of voices from the sitting room, but surely Ian should be back home from school by now? Perhaps he’d like a cup of tea, too? He’d said his girlfriend might be coming back with him so they could do their homework together. She’d go and see.
She shoved open the sitting room door. There was a hasty scramble of textbooks and a pile of notes riffled gently onto the floor.
Side by side on the settee, Ian and his girlfriend looked up innocently from their homework.
“Hi, Mum! Is it that time already?”
Brenda was pleased to see them. It would be nice to hear about someone else’s day. She wanted to forget her own.
“Hello!” she said brightly. “And what have you two been up to?”
Ian’s girlfriend flicked him a look, her face blotching with embarrassment.
“Gotta go. Text me later, yeah?”
She swept up a hurried armful of books and fled. Ian flung his pen across the room and looked daggers at Brenda.
“Mum! You just couldn’t leave it out, could you?”
“What?” Genuinely puzzled, Brenda couldn’t see what he was upset about.
“Saying things. You’re always showing me up in front of my friends – saying things.”
“What did I say?” Brenda felt hard done by. “I only wanted to know how your day was, that’s all. What’s saying things about that?”
He slumped into the cushions.
“Well, it didn’t sound like that. It sounded like… oh, never mind. She’ll dump me now, and she’s the fittest girl in the school. It’s all your fault.”
Brenda’s sense of injury grew.
“I didn’t mean anything. Why does everyone have to take everything I say the wrong way?”
She stomped out of the room, seething. Life was definitely not fair. From now on, she wouldn’t say anything at all. See how they liked that.
“You get out of bed the wrong side, Brenda? You haven’t said a single word all morning.”
Brenda cast him a look of resigned and saintly obedience.
“Merely obeying instructions, Stanley. That’s all.”
“Oh, come on!” Stan said, when he’d figured it out. “I never said don’t talk. I said don’t talk without thinking.”
“If I don’t say anything, nobody can take it the wrong way and start giving me grief,” Brenda said, with the air of one proving a point. She looked at the stuff being loaded onto a lorry. “This for A S Robinson? Thank goodness for that. They’ve been on the phone asking for this lot every day for the past week.”
She walked back into the warehouse, but nearly tripped over a large box with A S R scrawled across it.
“Here, haven’t you forgotten…?” she began, then stopped. Ten-to-one I’ll get moaned at if I say anything, she thought virtuously. Better keep quiet, like everyone seems to want.
Stan came through the large open doors, dusting his hands. Outside in the loading bay, the lorry rumbled into life.
“Glad to get rid of that. Couldn’t move in here –”
As he went to shut the door, his gaze fell on the box sitting in lonely state on the floor and spun round, but it was too late. The lorry was already through the gate and turning into the traffic.
He turned an accusing glare on Brenda.
“What’s the matter with you, Brenda? You saw we’d missed that. Why didn’t you shout?”
Brenda felt guilt staining her cheeks, but she glared back at him.
“What do I know? I thought you must have left it there for a reason.”
He frowned, and she had the feeling he saw more than she’d like.
“No, you didn’t. You were just being bloody-minded.”
She denied it angrily. The entire world seemed to be misunderstanding with intent, and she was fed up with it.
“Honestly, Madge,” she said when she met her friend at lunchtime in the little cafe. “I can’t do a thing right. If I say something, it’s wrong. If I don’t say something, it’s wrong.
“Now Stan’s got the hump because he’s had to send that box of fittings with another lorry and that’s going to take them out of their way and that’ll make them late, yada yada yada.
“It wasn’t my fault, but the way everyone goes on, you’d think I sat on the stuff deliberately.
“How was I supposed to know they’d missed it, not kept it back for some reason?”
“Never mind,” Madge said soothingly. “These things happen.”
“Well, why don’t they happen to someone else for a change?” Brenda muttered.
Madge picked up the menu. “Forget it, Bren. What do you fancy?”
The waitress wasn’t their usual one. Young and obviously new to the job, she took their order, carefully writing it down in a loopy schoolgirl hand.
After a few minutes, she brought their soup and set it in front of them with care but, as Brenda picked up her roll, she saw the bottom was coated with a greenish mould. She laughed and showed Madge before turning to call over her shoulder as the waitress was scurrying back towards the kitchen.
“Hey! Have you got a lawnmower I could use with this?”
The girl hastened back, going scarlet as she saw the roll.
“I’m awfully sorry, Madam. I must’ve taken it from the wrong bin.”
“Could it have been the dustbin?” Brenda asked innocently, hiding the urge to giggle behind a straight face.
“Bren!” hissed Madge. “Stop it!”
The young waitress looked ready to burst into tears.
It’d happened again, Brenda realised with a little shock. She hadn’t meant to be nasty. She’d been joking. Only joking.
“Is there a problem, Madam?”
The manageress materialised by the table and nearby diners turned to stare.
Brenda’s ready tongue deserted her and she subsided into her seat in silence as Madge smoothed over the trouble.
“Thanks, Madge,” she whispered after the girl had brought fresh rolls. “See what I mean? I can’t open my mouth without putting my foot in it.”
“Don’t be daft! You didn’t mean to be rude, did you?”
“Of course I didn’t. I say something and it comes out sort of wrong or I’m just making a joke – that’s all it ever is. And I’ve never said anything to upset you, have I?”
“Oh, I’m used to you,” Madge answered obliquely.
Brenda pushed her soup bowl away moodily.
“Stan says I should Engage Brain before Employing Mouth.”
Madge set her hand on Brenda’s.
“It might be a good idea, but don’t stress too much. It’s only that it’s all happened at once.” She twinkled gently at her friend. “You can go months without getting up anyone’s nose!”
Brenda smiled reluctantly.
“It’s all very well saying think before I say something. I just wish I could remember to do it.”
Got any juice, Mum?” Ian asked, appearing in the kitchen with his girlfriend in tow.
Brenda smiled. So much for his being dumped because of something she’d said. She could have told him so.
“There’s some in the fridge. Have a look, you’re nearest.”
Ian opened the fridge. The picture of a gigantic Sumo wrestler was stuck to the door.
“Big Bom? Who’s that?” giggled Ian’s girlfriend, reading the caption circling the wrestler’s mountainous stomach.
“Big Bum? That’s Mum!” Ian laughed. “Miss World 1980. The neighbourhood Kim Kardashian.”
His girlfriend nudged him sharply in the ribs.
He saw Brenda’s scarlet face, and his own flushed as bright a red as he remembered how sensitive she was about her weight.
Brenda forced a laugh.
“You watch it, or I’ll set him on you and he’ll squash you flat.
“Anyway, the Miss World thing was 1981.”
It was only a joke, she told herself. She knew he wasn’t being deliberately unkind, but Ian’s remark had stung.
And she didn’t want him to start making her mistakes – because Stan was right. Sometimes it wasn’t funny.
Later, Ian came up behind her and gave her a hug.
“Look – what I said, right? I didn’t mean it. I think you’re cool. Like a mum should be. And anyway, you’re nowhere near as big as Fatso.”
As a compliment, it was a bit back-handed, but Brenda recognised an olive branch when she saw it.
She also saw an opportunity.
It might be more difficult for her, with her track record of coming out with inappropriate remarks, but if she could prevent Ian from going down that path in the first place…
“OK, let’s do a deal, then. I won’t say things you don’t like, if you do the same.”
“Fair enough!” he agreed. “Bet you crack before I do!”
“I won’t,” she said, with sudden confidence, looking at the fridge door.
She rubbed an affectionate finger over Big Bom. He already helped to stop her snacking when she shouldn’t, and she’d just realised he could have another job, too.
She’d take a copy of his picture, frame it and put it on her desk. She’d write his name in large red letters around his portly paunch, and only she would know what it stood for.
Brain In Gear Before Opening Mouth!
Our My Weekly Favourites series of short fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
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