google-site-verification: googlec7224cac6d883d54.html Nora by Charles J Harwood: December 2013

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 5.4

The lights rebounded against each side of the windscreen. The death-car’s fishtail battered her into a ragdoll state, but she barely noticed. The row of lights burned at the centre of her existence. Would these be the terminus? Would she be getting off here? How deep is the fall…? How deep? The pores of her body flew open in a creeping rash. The limo plummeted with majesty into its magnificent skid and the streetlights approached in a hypnotic dance. A nanosecond imprinted a vision of Leon wrestling the steering wheel; behind him, Vince pitched about like a showroom dummy. He seemed unimpressed…or entranced, she wasn’t sure. Another flicker. The chassis emitted a sickening roar. Scorched oil spiked the air. Would the floor open up beneath and suck her onto the bandsaw below?
Pleaaase!
The cab collapsed into a tilt. The streetlights vanished from view and streaked comet-like around the cab windows. Those infernal railings quivered on speeding past. Nancy’s neck pulsed against the torque. Her jaw ached and her skull oscillated with the scream of metal scoring tarmac. How deep…? The railings reappeared, merging together in transparent imprints. How deep..?
The screeching hit a timbre that clawed at her ears. The chaos flickered into a blur she daren’t contemplate. And when the railing shot back into view, they no longer quivered but stood to attention no more than ten feet away.
In an instant, the grille connected with steel. The spine of the car convulsed. A headlight exploded, the other lit a nightmare of twisted spindles against a black void. Nancy’s head reeled from the fairground spin. But gravity was shifting. The limo groaned. Sensing the same force, Leon pushed against the back of his seat. No one uttered a sound. The railings buckled like card. The limo slipped frontwards in a penitent bow. Nancy’s seatbelt cut into her midriff. Her limbs, her neck, her internal organs slipped forwards. Her feet batted the floor in a futile attempt to defy gravity. How deep…how deep…?
The engine continued to roar in midair. But serenity enclosed her. Gravity desisted. A hairline crack shot across her window. Hair fanned her face. Her spine rebounded against the upholstery. Light flashed across the interior. This is the door to her very soul. The fall is deep, as deep as…. The limo forced outside of presumed destiny became no longer a mass of metal, but an entity liberated. She mourned her enclosure. A multitude of safety fixtures had seen their finest hour. And all in the name of her. An exalted gasp escaped her.
A wall of gravel faced-off the windscreen. Her bubble of clarity imploded. Thunder burrowed into every joint from her feet to her neck. Her stomach sloshed against her abdominal wall, bringing simultaneous nausea and hunger. Air jetted from her nostrils; her eyelids flickered. A rocky floor-scape advanced against the windscreen. PleaseGod! A round of detonations inched it closer. The bonnet yielded like tin. Bleached pebbles cut from shadows scored into her retinas. Glass rippled into a million daggers strung together.
She could stand it no more. She begged desperately for everything to stop but the floor-scape plummeted. Her chin struck her chest. She gritted her teeth. The cab pitched backwards in an endless arc. In an instant, her head weighed a ton. Her nape slammed against the back of her seat. Her throat closed up. The cab ceiling filled her vision. Would this be her final image?
Her seat pulsed. The rear wheels shunted gravel; her ribcage shunted her lungs. She grunted air she never thought possible and a nettle rash shimmered across her chest. She begged the sensation wouldn’t spread. But silver wings swarmed across her vision. Was she still falling backwards? Was this the light in her deepest, darkest hour? And when she hits the bottom, what would await her?

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 5.3

The whirr of the engine masked the rain. The limo edged forwards and paused at the filters. From here, Nancy could see a convoy of break-lights delineating the contour of the A45. Vince’s quiet tone clipped the air. ‘I think it’s time we took a detour, Leon.’
‘Sure.’
The limo got moving in spite of the congestion. Quadrangles of light shifted eerily across the seats, creating the illusion of a swirling exterior around a stationary cab.
Nancy’s tailbone rocked with the shift in direction. The limo gained speed once Leon had cut into a narrow lane. Darkness now pressed against the windows. Nancy could sense no motion although the engine’s murmur conveyed effortless power. The windows of the cab became a mirror of the interior. She could see Leon’s profile on the reflection of the front passenger window. He could see him. That is if she looked. Nancy kept her sights diverted. That brief but burning scrutiny would come back to haunt her. He would never remember her face. She was one of many faceless subjects who earned him silver bottle-tops. Still, that look, that…that sizing-up A page bearing his face would instill a swift turning of the page.
Nancy checked her bag and the sight of her mobile provided assurance. She would ring in sick from work. Nancy would become invisible for a while. The media attention could not possibly have much sustenance. After all, what is there to print about yokels?
Leon’s disc player cut in. A Bee Gees number offered reprieve from the silence. Vince’s tone came dryly. ‘Very funny.’
Leon’s bluesy lilt had been resumed. ‘It all began with the Brothers Gibb, Mr. Jonas.’
And then he embarked upon a flat offering of How Deep is Your Love? Nancy could picture Vince’s porcelain white teeth flashing in the gloom as his chuckles rippled the air.
Nancy closed her bag and tucked it into the gap between her thigh and the door. She would be glad when the ride was over.
‘They don’t write songs like that no more, Mr. Jonas,’ Leon finally said.
The lower corner of the windscreen flickered. Before she could register what she had seen, a sonic pulse forced a pressure wave into her eardrums. The floor quaked beneath her feet; the chassis jerked to the right as though the grille had been snagged by rope. For an instant, the flickering shadows seemed to rear up into a solid wall and crash against the windows. But all she could see was a narrow funnel of light in front. The road capered insanely. Branches whipped the windscreen leaving a sappy imprint. Leon’s head jerked to the left like an eastern European puppet in silhouette. The door panel smashed her shoulder; her seatbelt seized her in a molar-rattling embrace. Copper basted the roof of her mouth; her scalp mottled hot and cold. She became the pinion from which everything spun, like a fairground carousel on a tumble down a hill. Barry Gibb’s arpeggio continued to caress the air just beneath the tortured sounds of an endless seam of bolts at sheering point. The limo screeched; the cab clashed. Gooseflesh scuttled across her back. An ominous radiance now lit up the lower right corner of the windscreen. A web of scratches flickered against a landscape in flux. And then she pictured a tyre blowout. She pictured the wheel arch pounding against the tarmac, emitting a plethora of sparks. Rubber, slapped the passenger windows like demented bats.
She could see nothing yet sensed she was tumbling not forwards but downwards with horrible force. The road, complete with catseyes receded away in a sickening freefall that flattened her against her seat. A pair of headlights screeched past. Her stunned windpipe would not permit a sound.
Please make it stop!
Her knuckles hardened into a rigor mortis on the edge of her seat. And that’s when she saw them… a row of streetlights ahead. Their beams pooled over railings. The railings appeared to tassel a bridge…or perhaps an overpass. She hated that bridge being there. She hated the way those railings fluoresced against a black background offering no sense of scale to what lay beyond. All they did was torment her. She imagined a void concealed; a void miles deep, or perhaps without end.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 5.2

A spasm seized her epiglottis as though lemon juice had passed through. Silently, Nancy retracted from the door. She stifled a cough. With increased urgency, she retraced her steps back to the restaurant. The diners had become faceless blurs; the music, discordant. In a split second, Nancy mapped the clearest route out of here. She didn’t care if she jarred a table or scuffed a shoulder. Those glass doors would see her through before Leon or Vince spotted her. The view outside drifted towards her too slowly. Her throat throbbed with palpitations; her breaths became shallow. After ten paces, she extended her arms. She pushed against the glass and glided through.
And that’s when her oversight struck her. Her handbag. She’d left it in the limo along with her purse and mobile.
Without looking back, she darted towards the passenger door and knew an instant before touching the handle that the central locking had engaged.
Shit, shit, shit!
Beneath the hiss of the drizzle, Dennis’s glass doors swished. Nancy gritted her teeth then forced her expression into a carefree smile. It was one of the hardest things she had ever had to do. She turned to see Leon clopping his way towards her. ‘Hey, Nancy.’ Bemusement skewed his smile. ‘What’s up?’
A raindrop flecked her eye, blurring Leon’s form. ‘I’m such a fool,’ she forged on and blinked the image clear.’ I had just got out of the car to…to get a little air when I realised I had left my bag in the car.’
To get a little air? Nancy instantly rued this line when the chill had already permeated her dress.
The skin at the bridge of Leon’s nose puckered up. ‘Well, that ain’t a wise thing to do, Nancy, especially on a might like this.’
Nancy gave a conceding blink. ‘No, no it’s not.’
Leon hesitated expecting Nancy to add something. Nancy firmly sealed up a gushing addendum that would do her no favours. Without taking his hand from his pocket, he pointed the fob and the limo’s lights flashed. The doors clunked.
Discomfiture stiffened her motions as she let herself in. Leon closed the door behind her and took up his post at the driver’s seat. The back of his neck was smooth, like burred leather; as blank as the expression she knew he now wore. She felt certain it was a well-honed look that gave him the advantage in any situation. Instead of inserting a disc, he emitted a soft, tuneless whistle.
Nancy sensed tautness in the air. ‘You were referring to me, weren’t you?’
Leon didn’t reply immediately. His whistling stopped. ‘What’s that?’
‘Earlier on, when you were discussing shares, you were talking about me.’
Leon ladled in his disarming bluesy lilt. ‘Now what would give you that idea?’
Nancy decided not to pursue the subject. Trust her to come out and say it. Nancy was good at that – say things, create an atmosphere, kill the mood. And to what end? She would probably never see Leon again.
He read her look. ‘Hey, don’t take it the wrong way.’
On glancing up, Nancy could see that Leon had adjusted his rearview mirror so that she could see his eyes. She afforded him a cool look. His eyes slackened in what she believed to be a punt at sincerity. ‘Look, there’s somethin’ you gotta understand about Mr. Jonas. He…he don’t live a normal life like you or I. Don’t be fooled by how laid back he seems; he ain’t one for sittin’ still. That’s the nature of the man that got him into this business. I know this ‘cause I oversee his diary. He does a lot of stuff behind the scenes and his schedule gets pretty harsh. Only trouble is, he needs some sort of light relief.’ Leon exhaled a regrouping sigh. ‘Look, what I’m trying’ to say is, it can be kinda a curse for him. Imagine it, twenty hours’ drill on each stretch. The day gets tedious. He needs a little…shall we say, recreation. It lightens the load.’
Nancy wondered if she had given herself away. Did he know what she had overheard earlier? On glancing away, she spotted Vince descending the steps of Dennis’s restaurant. She decided that Vince would win the bet – unanimously. She wouldn’t answer her phone, she wouldn’t take calls. She would sink to the bottom of Glebe Hollow. But she would have to make herself scarce at her job. Everyone would be looking at her, demanding from her, gossiping about her. But that wasn’t the worst part. The papers would find dirt, or someone would dish it out. No one must ever speak to her mother.
Cool air caressed her cheek as Vince opened the door and sat inside. Now carrying his coat over his arm, he placed it on the seat beside him. Leon had adjusted his rearview mirror to its previous angle. Only his tie could now be seen.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 5.1

VINCE was posturing at the mirror combing his hair. Leon was fingering a cigarette at his side. A morsel of ash fell to the floor. ‘We could cut in on Dennis’s poker night. He’s got a circle goin’.’
Vince coiffed a forelock without replying.
‘…but that chick’s still waiting; in the limo.’
‘What chick?’                    
Leon emitted a guffaw that rebounded against the porcelain enclosure.
But Vince retained his sobriety. ‘What sort of fuck name is Nora?’
‘I keep tellin’ you, it’s Nancy.’
‘She’s a yokel.’
Leon took drag. He held the smoke in his lungs before exhaling two streams through his nostrils like a dragon. ‘I was hopin’ to get one of the other two, you know, perhaps the one who flashed her tits, but they went off somewhere in a taxi.’
Vince’s expression remained sedate as he smoothed down the back of his hair. ‘Shame.’
‘So what do you reckon?’
Vince inserted his comb into his breast pocket. He crossed his arms without taking his eyes from the mirror. ‘Let’s see…’ Leon took another drag and listened attentively.
‘When the shots come out tomorrow, she’ll grab any offer going, right down to the seediest model agency. Her fat, self-appointed manager mom will tell her to play it cool as this could be the big time. After a week of floundering against the maws of obscurity, Nora will sack her and go public about how Mom ruined my life. Her mom will reply by airing some dirt, underage sex, drugs, alcohol abuse, after which, Mom and Nora will succumb to obscurity and eat humble pie to the manager of the local supermarket.’
Leon wedged his dog-end between his teeth and brought his hands together in a slow clap. ‘Very good, Mr. Jonas. Very good.’
Leon stubbed out his cigarette. ‘Well, I would have dittoed you on that one if I had bagged one of the other two. Given the chance, they would have gone out in a supernova of debauchery and loved every minute of it. This bird’s slow, she’s got a longer fuse…I kinda liked her.’
Vince merely shrugged at this. ‘Unless she goes dirty, the rags won’t have much to fill the columns with. After all, what’s there to write about yokels?’
Leon gave a wry snort. ‘She sells insurance for Christ’s sakes!’
Vince inserted his hands beneath the taps until the sensor released water. ‘Okay, so the yokel’s got somethin’ to hide, but I think it’s the same old hack that’ll make the tabs look tired.’
‘She’s a small town chick. I think the paper’s’ll take her to their hearts, y’know, the underdog shit, the outsider that makes good against all the odds.’
Vince yanked a paper towel from the dispenser. ‘Hmm. I believe you got me a dud this time, Mr. Fairchild.’
‘C’mon, I think she’s got some life in her.’
Vince proceeded to wipe his hands. ‘So you think she’ll go dirty?’
‘I didn’t say she’d go dirty.’
‘Oh, so if she goes dirty, do I win?’
‘Now, hold on a minute!’
‘You can’t have it both ways.’
Vince balled up the paper towel and lobbed it long range into the bin. ‘Remember that other chick? Er…Brenda… Brenda…’ He clicked his fingers.
‘Barbara. Now, don’t start on her again.’
Vince tendered Leon a look… that look. ‘You owe me.’
Leon’s smirk surfaced against his will. ‘May I remind you she sold that story about the doodah with the transvestite police officer after the two weeks I had specified?’
‘I said she’d go dirty.’
‘Yeah, okay, but not before the two weeks were up.’
Vince’s face remained deadpan. ‘Okay, let’s make a decision on this one. If the yokel goes out of print in a week, dirt or no dirt, I win. If she holds out for a month, you get double.’
Mirth dimpled Leon’s cheeks. ‘You’re pretty cocksure of yourself, Man. Just remember, it don’t matter how small the snippet, even if it’s on the back page of a parish magazine.’
‘No cheatin’, Leon.’
‘Hey, you should know me better than that.’
Leon’s paw disappeared into the back pocket of his trousers. Nancy expected to see a wallet; she expected him to dish out some twenties, or even fifties. Instead, he palmed up silver coins. He tossed a handful onto the marble top. Vince kept his eyes on Leon. With conceited economy, Vince slotted arrowed digits into the breast pocket of his coat and counted out a handful of his own. He chucked them onto the pile.
Leon seemed satisfied.
They shook.
As Leon collected the pile and placed them into a small drawstring bag, she realised they weren’t coins, but beer bottle tops.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 4.3

Nancy speed-dialed. Bex’s ring tone commenced. Brian Ferry had now finished. A trance anthem from the Ministry of Sound now cannibalized the air. Nancy knew Bex’s ring tone now sang, ‘an idiot’s trying to call you, pick up, you jerk!’ Bex’s ring tone droned on. Nancy’s irk grew. Bex was a pathological poacher of male attention. She was probably snogging some creep from the bar right now. The ring tone kept on. ‘Come on,’ Nancy uttered between her teeth. ‘Stop head-butting the headboard and answer the ruddy phone.’
That’s when Bex’s ring tone cut to voicemail. Nancy ended the call, not bothering with Cora. Judging by her condition on leaving the Nexus, she would be cavorting a coma by now.
Dennis’s frontage remained deserted. Rain began to fleck the windows. Suddenly, the idea of calling a taxi little appealed. At this time of night, the fare would be dear and she would have to walk alone on unfamiliar streets until she was out of range of the limo.
The reality of talking to celeb mags began to sink in. At some point, her phone would start ringing; knocks would come to the door. She would have to formulate a story, some answers. Her account of this evening would lie somewhere between the harsh truth and the embellishments she had nearly dished out to Bex. Yes, they had chatted – a little. Vince had been polite and courteous, and yes, he had expressed a wish to one day tame his playboy lifestyle and settle down. He had dropped her home after pecking her on the cheek. And no, she will never want to wash her cheek again.
It began to dawn on Nancy that her evening may yield limited interest to the tabloids. She may appear on page twenty of the Post. Chat et al may include a small photo of her and Vince within a montage of other celeb snaps as they exited nightclubs. She might be found on the front page of the Nuneaton Telegraph or the Coventry and Warwickshire News. Her life before and after the event may continue to look much the same.
Or no. Perhaps not entirely. Her mother would take an interest in her daughter. She would don her best dressing gown, hobble down the stairs in her best slippers and pour herself a cuppa fortified with Southern Comfort. And then her dogged inquisition would commence. ‘Ow did you meet him, then?’ she would croak. ‘What did ‘e say to yous?’ And then she would cadge what little credit Nancy could glean from the event. ‘Yous a pretty gal,’ she would declare, ‘just like me when I was your age. I turned a few heads, I c’n tell you. But you got your gran’s eyes, lovely eyes. Dark. And us Hutchens clan know how to hold our own with the upper classes. We ain’t all scrubbers.’ She would slurp her tea. ‘This could be a good thing for us, Nance. You could spruce yourself up good. I could get us an appointment with that photographer bloke next to the brokers. He’s cheap, he is, did our Carla’s christening. He could put together a fab portfolio for you. Then we could go round Cov, put the word out to agents and that.’
Nancy closed her eyes and groped for the door handle. She pushed the lever down and let herself out. The drizzle on her face provided a welcome diversion from her previous thoughts.
A rush of warm air and herb marinade bathed her skin as she pushed the doors open. The place did indeed appear fully booked. Collective exchanges interspersed with the clinking of plates hung over the tables. A string rendition of a Beatles number, which might have been the Long and Winding Road, played out in the background. Robbie Probert would have called this place a faggot’s den. He would have ordered a curry and get slowly pissed as a kick out against this elitist establishment that prohibited jeans and were the offspring of Thatcherism. He would laugh at these fascist bastards. Deep down, Nancy knew he nursed a deep resentment towards the prosperous. Or was it a progressive society?
Nancy primly straightened the skirt of her cocktail dress as she dodged her way through the tables. Her eternity earrings swung as she moved. She could see no sign of Vince or of Leon within any party. God, what was she doing? A lozenge-faced man with frazzled hair watched wryly as she squeezed between two tables. From nowhere, a maitre d’ stepped her way. Nancy quickly veered off towards an archway bearing the signs, la femme and l’homme.
Although she had done her best to look the part for the shoot, Nancy still wondered if her makeup was too heavy and her dress too cheap for a place like this. Even so, she thought she looked better than some of the muttons overdoing the costume jewellery.
Nancy swiftly sought out the sanctuary of the ladies’ before the maitre d’ could catch up with her. The door presented a tiled access way, but only to the men’s room. Leon’s voice on the other side of the door stopped her in her tracks. At that instant, she spotted a sign for la femme just around the corner. Only now, Leon’s voice had snagged her to the spot. The door to the men’s room was already ajar. A slither of light streamed through, and with it, a splinter of indignation. How could they be chatting away like this knowing she was sitting in the limo like a prize idiot?
She brought an eye to the gap, careful not to nudge the door and could just see them standing at the urinals.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 4.2

And then Menez’s dark brown voice monotoned through loud and clear. ‘Hey, Vincent, you got my message.’
Robbie Probert, devotee of the Church of Chelsea would be having a silent aneurysm if he could hear this now. Vince merely cocked a wry grin. ‘Hey, wanker, you’re lookin’ real good on the bench. Next time, I’ll get Leon send you some hot cocoa.’
Menez’s chortle bristled through the speaker. ‘I don’t need no cocoa to give me a nice, warm feelin’.’
‘Well, maybe you should stop thinkin’ of the other players in that way. Ain’t it time you came out?’
Before Menez could reply, Leon cut him off. His timing suggested this was a little game Leon and Vince had played many times before. Their chuckles rippled in the air and Nancy fidgeted. She flexed her fingers and wedged her hands beneath her thighs. Her eyes skittered sheepishly in Vince’s direction. Vince’s mirth had already dropped from his face. ‘I need a piss.’
Leon’s voice remained dry. ‘We can stop off at Dennis’s restaurant. It’s just a mile from the Bullring.’
Nancy watched Vince grind his jaw. His non-reply implied he conceded. Brian Ferry continued to massage the airwaves with his Slave to Love. Never had the passion in a song relate so little to the present situation. Coventry was twenty minutes from the next stop yet it might as well have been ten hours. Perhaps she could make her leave then, call a taxi from outside John Lewis’s. The idea of cutting her journey short would have branded her as crazy to her friends. She was being a boring tit again.
At that moment, Vince glanced her way. For a micro second, their eyes met. A hot balloon exploded within her ribcage. His dark lashes hooded his eyes in a half-leer. Black pupils set upon slate scored into her. Was he laughing at her? The shadows beneath his eyes suggested so. He was horribly handsome. She would rather encounter the leer of Gavin, the goggle-eyed publican of the Felix Holt than to take this memory home. Once, Vincent Jonas was a two-dimensional image on celebrity mags. He was as real to her as Bono or Prince William. He was a throw-away pinup or object of scorn. Now, he had invaded a part of her brain too close for comfort.
He had looked at her.
Only, he hadn’t. He had the look, the sort that could elevate and electrify the recipient, but also hurt.
Not once had any of her four boyfriends in her lifetime had ever made her feel the way Vince had made her feel at that moment. She doubted that anyone in Glebe Hollow ever could.
Nancy turned away and gazed at the water droplets on the window. She knew Vince was now gazing ahead, basking in his former indifference. Their meeting of eyes had been pure accident. He would have no recollection of looking at her and probably would fail to give a description of her face once she had been dropped off.
She hated him.                   
The limo slowed at a junction and turned off Heath Street. Leon pulled over outside a classy restaurant. A placard declared in Roman italics that Dennis’s is now overbooked for the evening. The place was anything but grand. Leaded bay windows framing diners implied exclusivity.
The engine cut and Leon turned to face her. ‘Make yourself right at home, Nancy. We’ll be on our way after a short break.’
She gave a small nod, although she suspected a protestation would have made little difference. Leon got out, closed the door then opened the passenger door for Vince. Vince unclipped his seatbelt and got out. His brogues clopped onto the pavement. She watched the two of them make their way into Dennis’s restaurant.
The moment they had disappeared through the glass doors, automation seized her. She rummaged through her bag for her mobile, but not to call a taxi, but to call Bex. A squalid side of her wanted to tell Bex that she was now in Vincent Jonas’ limo. Nancy had been ‘chatted up’ by Vince’s PA and had performed a shoot next to Vince as they had exited the Nexus nightclub. ‘Don’t believe me?’ she could hear herself say, ‘check out the Birmingham Post tomorrow. No, check out the Daily Mail, the Star or wait for Heat, Hello or Chat.’ Nancy could feel a barrage of words volleying for an outlet. Bex for once wouldn’t have got a syllable in. ‘Me and Vince chatted for hours,’ Nancy wanted to add. ‘He told me about the pressures of being in the public eye, said one day, he’d like to settle down, have a family. He asked about my interests. I told him I love travelling, meeting people and partying. I didn’t tell him I sell insurance. Well, it’s hardly glamorous, isn’t it?’

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 4.1

THE limo moved off at a majestic pace. Jaywalkers skittered across the road. They darted towards the limo and veered into the shadows as the limo gained speed. The jazz funk was too soft. Discomfiture permeated every nerve of her body, rendering her rigid. Bex would have lowered the strap of her dress had she been sitting here now. And she would not have honored her oath of silence. She would be giggling or dishing out her daring cheek. Nancy had no doubt that Leon’s dry humour would commandeer; his guise for keeping the upper hand forever preserved. And Bex would never know.
Cora would be quieter but no pushover. She could be sly, ingratiating herself into a longer ride. Her broken heel would be instrumental. She would say she’d sprained her ankle and get Vince to massage her feet. But how was Nancy any better? She was a pretender, saddled with a past she hated to contemplate. Bex’s drunken stints always forced murky memories to the surface and freeze Nancy up into a statue. Occasions of revellry were the worst. Propositions rendered her tongue-tied, defensive and standoffish. Nancy was probably the most unfitting selection of the three for Vince’s shoot.
Still, how anyone could submit their faculties to yeast pee? Nancy couldn’t bear the false sentiments, the empty promises and the hammy declarations. She remained the outsider, branded by a mother who believed drink made her a fun person to be with. Only since Nancy had got sacked from her caring job, did she realise it wasn’t the drink she feared, but the betrayal. Nancy feared her trust had been pummelled to shreds by a person who traded in her former self for dumbing-down, for selling herself out to booze.
A rustling sound severed her thoughts. Vince was inclined forwards and was rummaging through a drawer of garments he’d pulled out from beneath a rear compartment. He fished out a shirt from Savile Row. She knew this because the label was still on the wrapper. Her sights rebounded in a half-attempt to look away. She watched expressionless as Vince unbuttoned his overcoat and place it on the seat between them. He proceeded to unbutton his shirt. ‘Change the disc, Leon,’ he uttered, ‘I fancy something classic, something smooth.’ His tone clipped the air in a dark resonance that she wagered rarely rose in volume.
Roxy Music’s Avalon dulcet tones seeped from the stereo as Vince stripped off his shirt and crumpled it atop his jacket. Vince had a torso to flaunt but he did anything but. He oozed indifference; not scorn, not denial of her presence, just indifference. The seam at the centre of his torso rippled as he contorted his shoulders and sheathed his arms one by one into his shirt. Dark down tracked this seam in an ever thicker assemblage from his navel to the waistline of his trousers. His chest wasn’t hairy. Coiled strands flecked his sternum and his nipples. This exposed broad expanses of flesh; brown, toned and lightly scented with expensive cologne. Yes, expensive, because one odour such as apple or mint didn’t overpower. His comprised a subtle blend that came together to form a new scent entirely; a little oaky, yet with the tang of sap.
Bex would have ogled brazenly and mouthed OMG! Yes, Vince’s proportions pleased the eye, but the manner in which he buttoned his shirt up to the collar implied he knew this. His display was not for Nancy’s benefit. In fact, his inappropriately-timed changing of shirt served to underline the disdain she had seen on his face. Her place in his compartment was on loan. Nothing in here was hers, not even the memory of watching him change his shirt.
Leon’s soulful voice cut into Brian Ferry’s intones. ‘How are the shares doin’?’
Vince whipped his tie around his collar and tucked it under. He brusquely looped the tongue and fed the end through. ‘Down, he replied gutturally. ‘Definitely down.’
Leon whistled. ‘That bad?’
Vince adjusted the tension until the knot sat square. ‘The situation is desperate.’
Roxy Music’s synths filled a segue. ‘You mean like Chelsea’s own goal?’
Vince snorted. ‘Positively.’
Nancy detected a subtext to this exchange but couldn’t interpret the meaning.
Vince piped up again. ‘And there was no need to remind me about Chelsea.’
Leon returned with a throaty chortle. ‘Sorry, Vince. By the way, Menez sends his regards.’
Menez was a name Nancy knew well. Chelsea’s star striker, Menez had played alongside the likes of Rooney and Gerrard for the England squad in the last two cups. Her ex, Robbie Probert obsessed on Menez’s defection from Manchester United. Strange how Menez was the best striker in the Premier League until he left. And then (according to Rob) he became shit. Vince’s next words caused her to blink in disbelief.
‘Get him on the speaker, will you?’
Nancy couldn’t help mouthing the very name she had become sick of hearing. Vince donned his coat and reclined into his seat as though Leon were merely patching through his mother.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 3.3

Stage-fright had seized her, that’s all. This apprehension was borne from self-doubt nurtured by a culture of hopelessness and low expectation. Nancy didn’t deserve to be in this shoot. She was an imposter, they would all see. The cameras would record her cheap cocktail dress and her plastic shoes. That’s Nancy, that is, she works at LossLess Insurance at the Parkway Industrial Estate. What is she doing next to Vincent Jonas? What right does she have to enter that limo? She’s a sneak; she’s a cheat and a fraud.
Defiance propelled her forwards anyway. Bex or Cora would be here if not Nancy. Nancy’s mother, her neighbour or her boyfriend’s sister would be here if not Nancy. With that, she stepped onto the kerb. She smiled, gave a little wave and maintained her tenuous link with Vince via the lower joint of her small finger. The maw got bigger but her gut had begun to uncoil itself.
She relaxed her finger and his dropped easily from hers. She raised her right foot and lowered herself into the limo. The acoustics within immediately deadened the noise of the crowd. Tinted glass rendered the flashes green. Pine and polished leather vanquished the former odour of fag smoke, booze and wet overcoats. Every muscle immediately undid itself. What had she been so freaked out about earlier? She was in here; they were out there. She emitted a small sigh and stretched her legs. Warm air caressed her ankles. Her legs hadn’t failed her. She hadn’t given way to gum or dog poop or whatever; her face hadn’t betrayed a grimace or a stupid frown. The amble had gone to plan – or so she believed. The shoot was now done. The pap can now do their part.
Vince followed her in. The seat remained steady as he took his place beside her. An odd concoction of pride and misgiving forbade her from glancing aside. In a formal manner, she pulled her skirt over her knees until the fabric possessed the tension of a drum. The air grew awkwardly still. She remembered Leon’s words: you are not to speak to Mr. Jonas unless he asks you a question. At least the onus of breaking the ice had been taken from her. Leon closed the door with a soft thud. The cab fell silent. And that’s when the urge to glance aside got the better of her.
Vince was staring ahead. His eyelids weighed with disdain, rendering his eyes narrow and his mouth taut. Nancy understood he would prefer this compartment to himself. For a stupid moment, she wished desperately to impress him. She massaged her skirt against her fingers in abashment. The car pitched as Leon got in. A moment later, the engine purred into life. The floor reverberated in a soft rumble. Jazz funk started up on the stereo.
‘Where to, Nancy?’ Leon asked.
Nancy had already decided not to allow Glebe Hollow near Bedworth to escape her lips. ‘Oh, just drop me at Broadgate in Coventry.’
‘Broadgate?’
‘It’s not far from the Godiva statue.’
Leon chuckled at this. ‘Oh, yeah, I know that one, the naked lady on the horse. Sure thing, Nancy.’


Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 3.2

She stopped next to Vince, sneaking a sidelong glance. Vince continued to appraise the photographers at the foot of the steps. His jaw was set but not clenched, and the harsh light etched out his features. A small crowd had gathered around them. Security staff peppered the melee. Several others had cleared a path towards a large black limo ahead. Reflections rebounded from its mirror-like bodywork as the flashes pulsed. Leon coughed. She glanced back and saw him raise an eyebrow. He nodded meaningfully and then she remembered. She carefully brought her hand towards Vince’s and sought out his little finger. She entwined hers with his. She detected no reciprocation from him. His finger felt cool and lax. The tabloids may interpret this holding of fingers as something significant. Her doubtless star-struck expression may reinforce the notion a chemical reaction had been unleashed between them. In reality there was nothing, only a cool, lax finger.
The small congregation was now enclosing them. She caught eyes with strangers – curious, quizzical, sneering and envious. Never had she experienced such fierce attention. She tried to comprehend how some might feel violated, love, hate or become addicted to being scrutinized in this way. Nancy wasn’t sure what she felt at this moment. Most of her life had been ascribed by being invisible and therefore this experience did not fit in to anything she had known. Her hand undertook a gentle tug as Vince stepped out onto the portico steps. The light pulses exploded into blinding white. Nancy’s eyes had little time to react. A green afterimage of the limo fluxed ahead of her. It looked like a coffin; the paparazzi shimmered beneath, like pallbearers. She blinked, confounded.
Her heels clopped onto the lower step. His finger slipped from her upper joint and latched onto the lower nodule. She sensed their finger-link could easily break unless she held on.
Her finger quivered with effort but no one suspected. Nancy and Vince made their way slowly down the steps. Body heat eddied into the cool, damp air. Wet parkas and ciggie smoke permeated her nostrils.
‘Over here, Vince!’ someone hollered. ‘Who’s the fluzey?’ someone else gibed. Catcalls, demands and taunts gathered momentum like a snowball. ‘Giz a smile, nice ass, I’d do her, where are you taking her? Hey, chick, you’ve tucked your knickers into your skirt! Jonas! Jone-ass! Bend over! Want a spare condom? Say cheese! Love the dress! Sharp suit, She’s hot!’ and then, ‘Ain’t she the one who snogged that stripper?’
Nancy’s heel landed on what felt like a pustule of gum. Her ankle canted to the right. Frantic, Nancy engaged muscles deep within her abdomen she didn’t know existed. She must not tilt, she must not tilt. The flashes didn’t relent. The catcalls kept coming. The limo neared ahead. A raindrop flecked her cheek. And the gum compressed into an oily slick.
Barbells seemed to have attached themselves to each corner of her mouth. Her finger ached and her shoulder blades knotted up. Did anyone notice? Would any shot betray a skewed look? Would Bex mock her and say she looked like she needed a shit the next day? Because that’s the sort of thing they did in Glebe Hollow, shove you off the podium with brute force. And then laugh at you. The wise thing to do was to laugh with them, even if you felt like dying inside.
Leon had taken up the front and was opening the passenger door of the limo. The gum had unstuck itself from Nancy’s heel and she found her balance. She licked her lips and smiled anew.
Her heels clopped rhythmically against the pavement as she approached the limo’s maw. Leon waited at the flank, the immaculate usher. Coffee-toned leather seats within the rear passenger compartment emerged from the darkness. A small computer screen, the gleam of glass trinkets and a Satnav glowed within. She suspected a button could be found to satisfy every whim. A salvo of harsh catcalls failed to unlatch her gaze from the gloom within the limo. Gooseflesh tracked a slow ripple from her nape right down to her spine.
What’s the matter with her? Did the maw represent a one way ticket into a world of the unknown? Had she found a way out of one trap only to walk into another? Nancy could picture herself entering the limo, of Vince following her in and of Leon closing the door behind her, but she couldn’t picture herself getting out again. What awaited her on the other side? A suffocating imperative to dart out into the crowd overwhelmed her. She would prefer the drizzle to the closed compartment within that limo. She maintained her pendulum pace despite every hair on her body standing on end.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 3.1

SUCH an ordinary doorway did not represent the grandeur of Vincent Jonas’ dressing room. Mock gas lamps lined the walls casting an intimate glow over mocha panelling. An entire wall had been dedicated to a walk-in wardrobe. Within, Nancy glimpsed racks of shoes, suits, shirts and ties. A chaise lounge, Turkish rug and a drinks bar added decadence to a room she suspected served also for business.
Movement to her right drew her eye. Vince was checking out his appearance in front of a mirror. She couldn’t see his reflection for the oblique view but guessed he was adjusting his tie. Leon had positioned himself behind the chaise lounge, hands clasped at the groin like an usher at a funeral. Nancy kept her reactions in check. She didn’t want to appear flaky in front of two men who saw this routine as just another day at the office. She pinched her lip between incisors and an iron tang blossomed over her tongue. She swallowed it down.
Without warning, Jonas turned – not to face her, but Leon. As though by script, Leon scooped up a long, black overcoat from the back of the chaise lounge and opened it out for Vince. Vince turned and allowed Leon to place it over his shoulders. Leon brushed it down as Vince gazed soberly ahead. Nancy quickly stifled an urge to snigger. Never had she seen such a routine task performed with such gravity. The scene deserved the proverbial banana skin – for Jonas preferably. She would treasure the image of one seen standing next to the likes of Beckham and Barlow fall flat on his backside. Would Leon retain his poker face? Would Leon share a complicit smile with Nancy?  The set of his mouth as he brushed down Jonas’ overcoat suggested not. Nancy had the feeling theirs was a close-knit relationship forged on trust and loyalty.
Nancy swallowed her smile down. She braced herself for when Jonas turned. She would need to jettison her previous thoughts quickly. No one must suspect. She rebooted with a brief closing of eyes and attempted a smile. Oddly this one felt sincere. Deep down, she wanted to impress after all. He was Vincent Jonas. She was about to shake hands or exchange words with an A-list celebrity.
Vincent turned. Nancy put on full beam, certain her molars probably glinted in the dim light. But Vincent didn’t even look at her. He made a beeline straight for the door, pulling at his cufflinks as he did so. He kept on going. The shoulder of his overcoat scuffed against hers on passing. Leon didn’t seem to notice. He donned his Bluetooth and stepped towards her. ‘After you, Nancy,’ he uttered.
For her sake, she held onto her smile. Well, what else had she expected?
Leon maintained a distance of two paces behind as they made their way down the corridor. Jonas continued ahead. A man of immaculate gait, his spine remained true to vertical as his arms and legs worked in faultless sync. Without effort, he gained distance. Before she knew it, he had disappeared through the stairwell door at the other end. In her effort to keep pace, one stiletto veered sideways. Feeling foolish, she kept going, aware of Leon’s presence not far behind.
On reaching the foyer, she spotted him standing at the grand entrance. Sporadic flashbulbs etched out his silhouette. She admired how squarely he stood, unphased by the pandemonium outside and owning the space he occupied. She wished she possessed one iota of such composure. But she didn’t understand the world that had brought him to this point. A spiny orb bristled against her gut. Was she acting na├»ve? What was she about to hurl herself into? A grubby outcrop of Coventry had defined her twenty-five years of existence. She had been mangled into shape by the welfare state, a city comprehensive and a string of meager jobs. Past and future looked the same at this point. Such a fate should have been more frightening than anything that awaited her on the other side of those doors.
But when the papers came out tomorrow, at least she had no current boyfriend to give her the third degree. Who knew, this fifteen minutes of fame could jolt her out of this steeply-banked rut. Someone might consider her perfect for a soap extra, a face for a skin cream advert, or a model for Kay’s catalogue. The idea made her feel like a child bunking off school. She could cheat her way out of a job she should feel grateful for yet hated; she didn’t have to grim it out with those mangled by the same system. Nor be in it together, like Cora and Bex. Like the rest of them in that tin box in the Parkway Industrial Estate.
At this moment Nancy could see she didn’t have to turn up on Monday. She had a choice.
Leon drew up beside her. This spurred her to take a step. She took another. And another. And then she drifted over towards the grand entrance where Vince stood. She could hear Leon uttering something into his Bluetooth. The two other bouncers she had spotted earlier emerged from the entertainment suite. A steady stream of punters was now milling through the other exit, the one from which Nancy had bid farewell to Bex and Cora only minutes earlier.
If only they knew.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 2.3

This bathroom could easily house the upper floor of her two-bed terrace in Glebe Hollow. And nothing in here could be found within a two-mile radius; the substance was too refined, other-worldly – and ideal nicking material for some of the frequenters of the Liberal club round the corner. Part of her would have too. She shoved this squalid part of her aside and confronted her reflection in a full-length mirror. She expected to see an intruder. Instead she saw a creature caught off-guard. Her brow cast angular shadows over her eyes and her mouth was firmly-seamed as though withholding a lie. Her dress at least looked good. The fabric clung pleasingly to her pert breasts, although her hips hung a little low. She had good ankles, slim, tapering. Ankles became a focal point in full body shots. At least she didn’t have fat ankles. And no ladders to be seen.
Nancy fished out her makeup bag. She approached the mirror and brought her mascara brush to her lashes. Her hand tremored. She retracted the brush and drew a deep breath. A better course of action would be to lead in via eye-shadow, easier to apply.
Nancy carefully smudged silver into grey. Having such dark brown eyes required more blending than usual. She didn’t want to ask herself who the hell is that hard-eyed slapper standing next to Vincent Jonas on his preamble down the Nexus steps. The thought of them side by side made her stomach clench into a tight ball.
She applied peach lipstick and a little blusher. Blend. Keep blending. Nancy gathered her hair into a large bun-clip, teasing whorls around her ears. She aimed for a soft, maidenly look. Harsh outlines only gave her away. Was she merely trying to blur herself out? Nancy secured the wing-nut of her crystal earrings. They dangled pleasingly within the whorls of her hair. She could be pretty if she wanted to – a traditional English rose, not borne of fake tans or Botox. Her face could be seen on an Edwardian chambermaid, a forties farm lass or a waitress at Kew just before hitting the big time.
She zipped her bag. Who was she kidding?
A rap came to the door. Nancy gathered her handbag and clopped across the tiles. Her harsh whisper rebounded against the marble tops. ‘Leon?’
His soulful voice came reassuringly back. ‘We’re ready to go, Nancy.’
She opened the door. Leon’s expression was sedate as he took her in. His nod seemed to signify approval. ‘Let’s walk.’ He proffered an elbow.
In automation, Nancy rested her palm on the crook of his arm. Only the silk fabric of his suit resisted. Spiced cotton and spearmint teased her nostrils. ‘Just a few ground rules to guide you, Nancy.’ Leon gently urged her onwards towards the end of the corridor. ‘You are not to speak to Mr. Jonas unless he asks you a question. You are certainly not to speak in public. The pap will do their shoot. Don’t let ‘em phase you, just smile, give ‘em a little wave if you feel so inclined. You don’t have to do much else, just let Mr. Jonas take the lead.
‘You will accompany Mr. Jonas to the limo, soon after which you will be dropped off at a location of your choice.’
Vincent Jonas, the limo, the paparazzi, the shoot. Nancy’s comprehension had regressed to a five-year-old. She could barely take it in.
Leon ended their little stroll at an annex, fronted by a large door. He lowered his elbow. ‘Just one more thing,’ he uttered facing her. ‘As you leave the building, you will link little fingers…’ He gently took her hand and deftly teased her small finger from the others. He entwined his with hers and allowed their arms to drop. The link remained intact. ‘…like this.’
The result suggested a coupling but of the most formal and distant kind. This suited Nancy. She didn’t want to create the wrong impression; the finger-linking also gave something for her hands to do. Still, she was about to make physical contact with one Vincent Jonas.
At that point, Leon gently opened the door.