The Marriage Scrappage Scheme

Brenda was darning her husband’s socks when the radio presenter interrupted a gardening segment to bring an announcement from the Iron Lady’s Government.

The government will be launching the Marriage Scrappage Scheme tomorrow,” the presenter said.

She slid from her stool and headed to the living room door. Jack, her husband, was slouched on the sofa, with the television on mute. She closed the door, shuffled back to her stool and turned up the volume.

The Government are offering the chance for women to trade in old, tired husbands for new ones.”

Brenda smoothed out the once black sock. She couldn’t believe she was sitting on an uncomfortable stool, darning her husband’s socks because he didn’t like paying for new ones. The holey sock only came from the supermarket. It wasn’t even from the expensive range.

“From Monday you will be able to take your old models along to any local dealership and receive a discount on newer, more economical and environmentally friendly husbands-”

“What’s that bloody presenter babbling on about?” Jack said, standing in the doorway, scratching dried up dribble from his stubble.

“Nothing, nothing,” Brenda said, turning off the radio.

“I’m thirst. Make me a tea and get dinner ready soon. I’m heading out to the pub later,” Jack said. His hand rested on the permanently stained worktop, next to the kettle.

“I’m busy with your socks.”

He ran his fingers through his greasy mullet and then headed back to his armchair.

Brenda threw the screwed up sock at the door.

 ***

Even before the town’s clock tower chimed in the working day, Brenda in her best black power suit was being led through the black wood and chromed themed showroom of the local Husband Dealership. Jack followed, dragging his feet, snarling at the brand-new husband models, posing on the stage.

Susie, Head of Sales, in her doctor-style coat and white plastic gloves, escorted Brenda to the sterile-looking consultation room. Brenda wished she had lean legs to wear mini skirts and maybe Jack would have been more attentive. They would probably be sleeping in the same bed.

Brenda took a deep breath as she took a seat next to the glass-top desk. Only a Victorian typewriter cluttered the desk, along with a completed Rubik’s Cube. She bought Jack one, once. It never made it out of the packaging.

“I heard about the Marriage Scrappage Scheme-”

“Oh yes. We’ll see if your husband is eligible,” Susie said, feeding a piece of paper into the typewriter.  “Jack, you’ll need to go the servicing area.”

Jack continued reading his magazine.

Jack,” Brenda said, trying to get his attention.

“Alright woman, stop nagging me,” he said, tucking the magazine under his arm and headed out of the door.

“Please don’t hold that against him. It’s because he has such good concentration,” Brenda said, twisting the handle of her handbag around her fingers.

“Get yourself a coffee from the vending machine. I’ll Service Jack and then we can see if we can get you a new husband,” Susie said.

She wasn’t interested in picking out a younger husband. She could hear the shrill voices of her neighbours, calling her a ‘cradle snatcher.’ She planned on heading to the upper floors and hunting for a bargain in the second-hand section. Brenda found Jack on one of the upper floors twenty years ago, around the time of The Beatles. She really thought she could change him from his sofa hugging habits. The salesman convinced her that a project would be good for a young lady. He even kissed the back of her hand to seal the deal.

For the first year, Jack went grocery shopping with her, sat quietly in the hairdressers while she got a perm and he also went swimming with her too. It all started to go wrong when Brenda had the third miscarriage. Dinner times, once full of chat were now filled with the sounds of the clinking knives on plates. Then his parents died, followed shortly by her parents. He moved to the spare room around the same time. He said it was insomnia. But whenever Brenda put her head around the door, when she got up for her usual late night coco, he was snoring away.

The idea of living alone was tempting. She could finally have floral wallpaper in the living room and display her fairy trinkets on the mantelpiece. Some of her friends were already on their sixth husband. She wasn’t going to be like the rest of them with a list of ex-husbands.

“Brenda, I did you proud,” Jack said as he sat down. He struggled to do his buttons on his shirt and kept swearing under his breath. Brenda rushed over and immediately took charge.

“Brenda, you don’t have to worry about him anymore. There are technicians who’ll sort out Jack,” Susie said, smiling her perfect smile as she came back into the room. “It’s great news that Jack works for the local micro chip company and I have spoken to him about bringing work home and that it needs to stop, really.”

Brenda had never come across piles of paperwork from the office and he didn’t even own a suitcase. He sat there oblivious of the conversation.

“You’ve done a good job with your husband. I read through his previous servicing and MOT paperwork. He’s well dressed, has a good education and doesn’t smoke. However there are still a few key areas that he underperforms. He didn’t know how to rewire a plug, couldn’t identity a screwdriver and was uncertain on how to put up a shelving unit.”

Brenda chewed her nails.

“He has a fear of gardening,” Susie said, peering over the top of her glasses.

“He has always cut the grass bi-monthly and sits in his shed for hours at the weekend.”

“It has amplified his fear of gardening.”

At this rate she was never going to get rid of him.

“Another major thing is his lack of typing skills,” she said, folding her arms.

“He has done an evening computer course,” Brenda pleaded. “Jack, will you show her your certificates?”

He shrugged.

“Did you leave them at home?”

“These things happen.”

“Look Jack, stop talking like you’re a crossword clue. Did you attend the course?”

“In a way, yes. I went to the first session and then decided computers were not the future.”

“What happened to the course fees?”

Jack stared at the floor.

“The pub, right? And betting, right?”

Jack smirked.

“Do you want to end up in some scrap yard?”

“I’m sorry to interrupt but my ten o’clock appointment is waiting,” Susie said.

“So, can you take him off my hands?”

“I’m afraid Jack doesn’t meet the necessary requirements for The Marriage Scrappage Scheme.”

“See dear, you can’t get rid of me,” Jack said, smirking.

“Make sure you put on the paperwork that he’s a liar too,” Brenda said, pulling on her jacket.

“It will bring down his value,” Susie said.

“At the moment I don’t really care,” Brenda said, scooping up Jack’s service reports and stuffing them into her bag.

“You could restore him?” Susie said, leading Brenda out of the side exit. She didn’t want other customers getting upset by any potential outbursts.

“That’s what I have been doing for the past twenty years. He has worn me down. No one said it was like a prison sentence,” Brenda said, hunting through her bag for a tissue.

“Well it was lovely to have met you both,” Susie said, giving an over the top smile. She shoved a Husband Catalogue into Brenda’s hands.

“But-” Brenda started to say but the door had already slammed in her face.

 ***

The ‘For Sale’ postcard wasn’t in the local shop window for more than a day when Brenda got a phone call. The mature-sounding woman sounded enthusiastic on the phone. It was a good sign, surely, Brenda thought as she pushed the vacuum over and over the same spot in the hallway. The champagne was already chilling in the fridge. Brenda couldn’t stop smiling as she laid out her eternal-bow tea set on the coffee table, alongside a neat pile of Jack’s service and maintenance paperwork. She wanted Jack taken away, today. To get him out from under her feet, while she vacuumed, she had sent him to the corner shop to fetch a broadsheet newspaper. She wanted the woman to see Jack sitting in his chair, near the television with The Financial Times on his knee.

The chime of the doorbell woke Brenda from her daydream of cooking for one. Brenda found a woman with a poodle perm and bug-eye spectacles standing next to a balding man in a Hawaiian shirt, huddled together on her doorstep. Brenda tried her hardest to keep smiling.

“Hello, I’m Samantha McBateman, I called you this morning.”

“Oh yes,” Brenda said, poking her face through the small gap between the door and the doorframe.

“Are we too early?” The man said.

“Sorry, I’m not interested in part exchanges,” Brenda said, her hand lingering over the door chain.

“This is my husband, George. We are here to see if Jack is suitable for our daughter,” Samantha said.

Brenda fully opened the door.

“I’m not going to get rid of the husband. He’s my best friend,” Samantha giggled as she took sat down on the sofa.

“Lovely, lovely,” Brenda said, looking at her watch. “I’m sorry Jack isn’t here at the moment. He popped out to get a newspaper.”

She poured them each a cup of tea and listened to their story about finding each other out via a walking club. They joked about saving the money and avoiding pushy sales people. Brenda nodded as she looked out the window, hoping to see Jack.

“Our daughter never married and well-” George said.

“And well, her career has taken over her life,” Samantha said, interrupting her husband.

The McBatemans nodded enthusiastically as Brenda showed off his MOT certificates. She was beginning to buzz. She wanted to load up the VHS tape player with her Romancing The Stone video so she could watch it as soon as Jack left. He didn’t like Michael Douglas. He thought the actor was his competition. She restrained herself and instead pulled out Jack’s childhood pictures.

After another round of tea and half of Brenda’s special chocolate digestives were eaten before Jack came through the door. His time keeping was a bit a disappointment but she knew the couple would still be impressed. The McBatemans stood up to shake Jack’s hand but immediately sat back down. Jack’s freshly ironed shirt was now untucked and covered in a brown stain, his hair was tangled and messy and the overpowering smell of the pub and cigarettes hid the delightful aroma of his aftershave. Brenda snatched the tabloid paper, which had a naked woman on the front cover and shoved it down the back of the sofa.

“’ello, my name is Jack and I’m very good ‘usband material,” he said, bowing. He put out his hand but George didn’t move from the chair.

“What are you doing?” Brenda said, trying to use a hankie to remove the dirt from his shoes.

“Dutch courage,” Jack said and flopped down on to his armchair.

“I think-” Samantha started.

“Hold on, what’s this? He said, tugging at one of the cushions. Jack pulled out the Husband Catalogue.

Brenda tried to snatch the catalogue.

He snarled at her and then threw it across the room. Samantha ducked as the catalogue slid down the back of the sofa.

“She wants to trade me in for a catalogue clone.”

Brenda tried to smile at the McBatemans. They were staring at the carpet.

“Are ya getting rid of Mister Caribbean over there?” Jack said, getting up from his chair and plonking himself down, next to Samantha. He squeezed Samantha’s thigh.

Samantha jumped up and knocked the teapot on the floor. The pieces smashed and scattered over the carpet. Brenda wanted to mourn her beautiful teapot but instead she had to hold Jack back from George’s fist.

“We really should head off,” Samantha said.

“I haven’t shown you the rest of Jack’s paperwork and-”

“We’ve seen enough,” George said.

“He isn’t normally like this. I think it’s the nerves,” Brenda said, gripping George’s arm, trying to pull him back.

“Please let go of me.”

“Just stay,” Brenda said, still gripping George’s arm.

“No,” Samantha said, rushing out of the door.

She chased after them, down the garden path, in her slippers. She could see the neighbours peering around their net curtains. She didn’t care anymore. She bashed on their car window but the McBatemans drove away.

Jack was already in his room with the door locked when she came back into the house.

Brenda hugged her teapot.

 ***

A slender woman in a power suit, with her hair scrapped back into a severe ponytail, stood at Brenda’s back door. She hugged a Filofax and towered over Brenda. It was the woman whose business card had fallen through the letterbox that morning.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Ms Singer said, walking around, inspecting the house.

“I was told you could help,” Brenda said, following behind.

“Your husband’s service history file satisfies me.”

“I don’t really know what you do.”

“I buy ‘neglected’ husbands. I then restore him back to his original self and then sell,” Ms Singer said, tucking her Filofax under her armpit. “Hassle free Husband extractions.”

“My husband isn’t neglected.”

“Of course.”

“Did you want to meet Jack?”

“My extraction team deal with first contact.”

“Do you have references from previous jobs?”

“I could provide them but aren’t you desperate to get rid of your husband?”

“Did my neighbour tell you this? She’s a nosy-”

“You have your Lover living here, don’t you?” Ms Singer said.

“Lodger.”

Edward was the new man in her life. He could cook, held a good conversation, had a top executive job in the city and had lots of energy in other departments. Plus he wasn’t going bald too. It made Brenda want to wear lipstick and buy flowery dresses.

“I’m going to offer two thousand pounds.”

“Yes please,” Brenda said. Edward told her not to accept the first offer but she couldn’t help herself.

“Great,” Ms Singer said, counting out the twenty pound notes. “The price includes his possessions, too.”

“Fantastic,” Brenda said, snatching the cash.

 ***

Brenda collapsed into Jack’s old chair, freshly upholstered with the most of the money set aside for the wedding, and switched on the telly to watch Live Aid. Her feet hurt from standing on all day in high heels. She should have taken them off after the ceremony and put on her slippers but she wanted to impress Edward’s parents. They seemed to look down their noses at her John Lewis dress and fake silver necklace from Marks and Sparks. It wasn’t a deliberate mistake, using the wedding money. It was the thing she could think of that would help cure the tears just before bedtime. She told Edward that it was happiness, of course. It meant they had to have a wedding buffet at their house but Edward understood. Only the neighbours and Edward’s parents turned up too. Ms Singer made an appearance but only to tell Brenda that Jack was re-homed. She stayed for three drinks, boasting about Jack’s new glamorous lifestyle in Spain and how he had met Duran Duran while on a cruise. Brenda just smiled but she knew Jack would have been sea sick for the whole of the journey. When she left, she handed over a business card, telling Brenda to give her a call when it was time.

From her chair, she could see Edward, in the kitchen, putting cling-film over the leftovers from the buffet. He was nodding along to some opinion piece on the radio. She turned up the volume of the telly and tired to enjoy the screeching of some band she didn’t recognise. She didn’t want to know if it was an announcement about a Wife Scrappage Scheme. Her loan for Edward would probably wipe out her value. She didn’t even want to think about the saggy sections of her body or even contemplate the gaps in her service file.

“Did you enjoy yourself today?” Edward said, coming into the living room, still wrapping the leftover ham in tin foil.

“It was wonderful.”

“Tomorrow we’ll get you to the hairdressers and banish those grey hairs forever,” he said, using his winning smile. It was the same one he used in the catalogue to seduce her.

Brenda sunk further into her seat. He was going to give her minor improvements and sell her to some dingy sales man who ran an office out of a porter cabin. She stroked the arm of the chair. She might have preferred the old cover.

————————

Jessica Patient wrote stories when she was younger in refillable notepads with illustrations of ponies with thin bodies and fat legs. Her short stories have appeared at 3:AM Magazine, The Beat, Metazen, The View from Here Magazine and many other places. She writes a blog, www.writerslittlehelper.blogspot.com. Jessica lives in Bedfordshire, England.