A clear dialing tone returned. Three or four rounds and then a soft female voice cut in.
The woman had a cosmopolitan cadence that was hard to define – French? Italian?
‘Can I help you?’
Nancy pinched the card between her fingers. ‘I…I’m sorry to bother you. I was enquiring after Mr. Jonas’ health.’
‘Who is this?’
‘I am…I mean, was a good friend of Leon…Leon Fairchild. Mr. Jonas’ PA?’
A pause and then the woman came back, ‘and you are…’
Nancy licked her lips. ‘My name? Er…My name is… Nora…Nora Clements. My husband and Leon used to play poker with another good friend, Dennis. He owns a restaurant in Birmingham.’
The woman did not seem to take this in. ‘Yes, I am sorry that you have lost good friend. Bad news.’
‘Leon was a lovely man. Gracious. And a great card player. I will miss him so much.’
‘Yes, yes, the woman agreed and let the silence hang.’
Nancy’s chest tightened. ‘But Mr. Jonas, has he made any progress. Is he still critical?’
‘Er…er…I am just housekeeper, Mrs. Er…Clements. I have little news about Mr. Jonas.’
Nancy’s heart sank.
‘But I know he will be coming out of hospital to stay here at the end of the month.’
Nancy squeezed the card tighter. ‘Did he…did he say so himself?’
‘I…I do not understand.’
‘Did he express the words himself, that he wished to recuperate at the Retreat?’
‘Oh, no, no. The doctors recommended this. It is closer to the private clinic. It is more peaceful here.’
Nancy could see she could get no more from the housekeeper. ‘Thank you,’ Nancy decided to close. ‘I’m sorry to trouble you.’
Nancy had the notion the crash was still happening all around her; in this room, in the library, at the council offices, in the newsagents, even the sales room walls of LossLess Insurance Company. If she could tear down the grey partitions bearing flo-charts, ab-calendars and whiteboards, she would find fracturing metal and frissoning glass. The grille would be exploding against the granite floor and the seats would be shooting backwards. The world’s indifference crushed her. Something was happening and no one was aware. She wanted to scream it out but feared no one would understand.
Nancy combed her hair. Top to bottom in long sweeps. A black fastener kept every strand from her face. Nancy pulled out the top drawer of her dresser containing a selection of eye-shadow. She went for a pad of white and an accompanying dusting brush. The bristles rested over the powder, snagging particles in between. She raised the brush and the bristles tickled her cheek. A whisper, a white patch, gesso-like. She drew the brush in a loping arc over her lips. She paused. More white. She drew the brush over her nose and blended out into the first mark. A scratching sensation sweeping across. More white. Blending and blending again, over forehead, temple, cheeks and chin.
Nancy settled her fingers onto a black eyeliner pencil. She brought the pencil to the bridge of her nose. She superseded her existing eyebrow with a thick, black line radiating out from bridge to temple. And again, but this time, thicker at the bridge, tapering towards the end. Nancy paused when she sensed someone entering the house. Her mother.
And now the other eyebrow. A matching arc, perfectly symmetrical with the first. The convergence of both eyebrows at the bridge of the nose made her appear angry.
When she was done, she put on Vince’s overcoat. The heavy shoulders sloped away from her neck. If she squinted, she would almost pass for a man.
‘Nancy.’ Sheila’s voice. She was sounding pissed already. ‘Oi, Nance! You didn’t stock up the fridge like I told ya. Alexis and Danny are comin’ later!’
Nancy brought the pencil to her throat. She drew a small slit at the crease just below her voice box.’
‘Nancy!’ Sheila squawked. ‘Are you deaf, or what?’
Nancy rested her hand upon her lap now that she was done. In a guttural croak, she uttered, ‘Change the disc, Leon, I fancy something classic, something smooth.’
‘Change the disc, Leon, I fancy something classic, something smooth.’
‘Oi, Nancy, get your bitchin’ arse down here right now!’
Nancy closed her eyes and held her breath. One, two, three, four, five, six…
‘Christin’ cursed bloody sod! Just wait til you get down ‘ere!’
Seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve…
The downstairs landing fell still. A door slammed. Cutlery crashed. Nancy kept on holding her breath. She wondered how long she would have to wait before passing out. The pressure within her lungs caused her chest to quake and the pulse in her ears to squish. She would never reach the point Vince had reached. The thought terrified her.
She exhaled in a shudder. Later, she would go to the off-license and stock up on crisps, coke, chocolates, vodka and brown ale.