The Quick Shop bell. She’d heard it since the age of twelve. A pop in for crisps, coke and a chat with Mr. Dennison, then pick up a bottle of voddie or southern comfort before leaving. A complicit understanding negated any questions on Mr. Dennison’s part. It’s for Sheila. Everybody knew it was for Sheila. The words burst forth. ‘I might just as well have poured the vodka down her throat.’
Dr. Kamat allowed the silence to hang. ‘Miss Hutchens...’
Nancy’s vision finally blurred over. ‘I took the coward’s way out. I didn’t do anything. I just sat by and let it happen.’
‘We will do all we can,’ Dr. Kamat tried to assure. ‘I will leave you to speak with her now.’
Nancy allowed Dr. Kamat to lead her to the head of the ward where he nodded before departing.
Nancy parted the curtained cubicle to encounter one pervading colour: beige. Sheila’s peroxide hair wilted over her jaundiced face. Without her makeup, Sheila’s eyes looked small. Beneath the bed sheets, Nancy spotted a swollen ankle and a dressing. All beige. Nancy shifted her eyes away.
Sheila beckoned at Nancy. ‘Hi’ Babe, comer over ‘ere.’
Nancy was reluctant to do so. Sheila seemed perky considering what had happened. She was enjoying the attention. She seemed almost childlike. ‘Come on, Nance,’ she persisted. ‘You don’t have to stand there like that. Come ‘ere.’
Nancy stepped over. A faint blend of malt whisky and disinfectant wafted over her. Sheila encircled Nancy within a profusion of squeezing, patting and sloppy kisses. A seldom occurrence, the exchange was awkward. Nancy emerged feeling robbed somehow. The embrace was not for Nancy but her mother. Sheila breathed the words onto Nancy’s cheek. ‘You know I love ya, don’t ya?’
The sentiment needled. Love. The word only seemed to emerge at times like these. Nancy pulled away. ‘You’re still pissed.’
Sheila put on her self-pity. ‘Don’t be mean.’
‘You’re still pissed. You only speak that way when you’ve had a few.’
Sheila withdrew her arms and crossed them over her chest. ‘Well done, Nancy, you’ve just spoiled the moment, like you always do. Go over there, then. Go on. Sulk. I don’t care.’
A sour lump pulsed in Nancy’s throat. ‘Stop it, Mum.’
But Sheila was done with Nancy for now, waving her off. ‘You’re forever sulking at me from the doorway like you’re…you’re eavesdropping or somethin’.’ Nancy watched her mother turn away, her croak dipping to a grumble. ‘I don’t know what the fuck you want from me anyways.’
A monitor bleeped somewhere. Nancy picked up her bag. ‘I’ll come by tomorrow,’ she said staunchly. The sour lump continued to pulse. ‘I’ll bring some mags and chocs, Okay, Mum?’
Sheila didn’t reply.
On exiting the ward, Nancy saw Neil and Alexis pushing the doors open. Alexis clutched a showy bunch of roses. Neil carried a bright pink envelope. They didn’t see her. Nancy took the stairs to avoid crossing paths. She took a quiet route from the hospital back to Bedworth. She turned off Eaton Street and cruised past the Glebe Hollow shops. She then pulled up behind the Hatchet Inn.
The tavern typified many in the area. A particularly dour example of a prewar brick building with a sagging roof, Glebe Hollow’s meeting place had a shallow profile, being only twenty feet or so deep. Edwardian cornices had since crumbled and an upstairs window had been boarded up. Nancy had not stepped inside since the age of eighteen. Sheila had spent more of her waking hours in there than anywhere else.