google-site-verification: googlec7224cac6d883d54.html Nora by Charles J Harwood: January 2014

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 16.3

Nora has a Job to Do
Amy took the initiative. ‘Mr. Jonas, I’m sorry to disturb you, it seems the problem we had yesterday just got a little er…complicated.’
Vince didn’t appear to be listening. He proceeded to lift a whisky glass and pour himself a finger’s width of scotch. He screwed the top. Amy ventured on, ‘Er…Mr. Jonas, this is…’
‘Nora. I’m a nurse.’                          
Vince grabbed a fistful of ice from the bucket without using the tongs. He dropped a few chunks into his glass with a clink. ‘Did you get my plane tickets, Amy?’
Amy seemed gratified Vince had ignored Nancy’s greeting. ‘Yes, the flight is scheduled for Monday.’
Vince agitated the liquid. The follicles at his hairline had now grown back as well as the gash in his eyebrow. Nancy guessed his teeth no longer glowed in the dark. He closed his eyes and took a nip. His eyes had been closed and his skin had possessed the pallor of gesso. The seam of an eyelid betrayed a gleam. This gave her the impetus. ‘I’m pleased to meet you again, Mr. Jonas.’
Vince paused, looking at her. He tilted his glass again. This time, he eyed her as he downed the dregs. Nancy grew acutely aware of her blouse sliding against her breasts as she breathed. She adopted a cool cadence. ‘If you don’t mind my saying, I wouldn’t call this a bedroom. A bedroom is a place for sleep, not for watching TV or for conducting business.’ She alluded to his drinks trolley. ‘And certainly not for drinking.’
Vince deposited his whisky glass onto the drinks trolley with a rap. ‘I will take note of your thoughts…Nora, but I believe you are confusing the role of a nurse for a housekeeper.’ His throaty tone grew quiet for emphasis. ‘If this is the case, perhaps you could resolve the problem of the dust in here and perhaps rearrange my drinks trolley whilst you’re at it.’
‘Mr. Jonas…’
‘Amy, this is the second time this individual has found herself in my private quarters. Did I not make myself perfectly clear I do not wish to be disturbed by anyone, press, nurse or otherwise?’
Amy salvaged a morsel of composure for Nancy’s benefit. ‘She says she could enforce prosecution unless I let her see you, Mr. Jonas. What I’d like to do is kick her butt for every step o’ that staircase from top to bottom.’
Vince’s eyes did a mini roll beneath lids at half-mast. ‘If I want somethin’ to happen, Amy, I expect you to make it happen.’
‘I’m just tryin’ to explain myself so that you can understand how this intruder tricked her way past me.’
‘Explanations do not interest me, Amy.’
‘But she’s done this twice, now, Mr. Jonas. I’m pretty mad at myself for lettin’ that happen. I’m sorry for letting you down.’
Vince didn’t reply. He lifted his whisky glass once more and allowed the ice-melt to slide into his mouth. He worked on it before swallowing. He wiped the dampness on the back of his hand.
Nancy ventured a contribution, ‘this room could be very restful, Mr. Jonas.’ She looked about. ‘…with a few small changes.’
Vince deposited his glass once more upon the drinks trolley. ‘Amy, show Nora out and…’ Without looking at her, he added, ‘take a few days off.’
Amy didn’t seem to like what this insinuated. Her mouth puckered as she crossed her arms. With a sharp jerk of the head, she beckoned at Nancy. Nancy stepped towards the door and was surprised by a smart tug at the upper arm. Amy dished out a most vicious form of ushering as she steered Nancy through the door. To Vince, Amy had appeared to regain her cool PA-head. Nancy knew different.
Only on reaching the foot of the stairs, did Amy let it out. ‘You have heard it from the man himself now, Nora. Your services aren’t needed here. And guess what?’ She brandished Nancy’s badge. ‘I ain’t callin’ the police on you; not for trespassin’, not for harassment. Oh, no. I’m gonna work a little overtime to check you out myself, Nora...’ She read her name. ‘Nora Clements. Once I’m done, I’m gonna call the police and fill them in on everything.’ With that, Amy showed Nancy the door once again.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 16.2

Nancy has Business to Attend To
‘It is in your best interests to know that anyone who obstructs without good cause a registered nurse from administering appropriate treatment to a patient, said person can be held accountable by the said nurse: Section 9 of the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act 1997. As I have previously informed you, it is a sack-able offence to commit such an obstruction. Now, you have my ID, you have proof I knew Mr. Fairchild in person and we both know Mr. Jonas is not receiving adequate nursing care.’
Amy’s eyes had suspended without a blink. Nancy gave a small nod and stepped past her through a miasma of Amber Mystique. Nancy didn’t hesitate to board the stairs. Within a reception area befitting Country Magazine featuring oak, stone and tinted glass, a mobility stairlift stamped a black blot. The leather seat conjoined the griffin Newell post like a mutated Siamese twin. Following the curves of the staircase, a steel rail flinted grey against the sage walls. The sight incited undefined rage that echoed to an earlier time. Nancy wouldn’t touch the railing on her ascent; she would scale the steps, hands unaided.
Amy called after her, ‘look, he’s only been out of hospital a few weeks!’
Not a Nice Nurse
Nora by Charles J Harwood
Nancy rapped upon Vince’s door. Somewhere below, male voices chattered. The Lamborghini party, she deduced. On the other side, mutterings of a different quality took her attention. She pushed the door ajar. Behind her, Amy’s tapping footfalls took a surge.
Scotch, jasmine oil and black coffee scented the air. On the TV a host of The Money Programme muttered but no one was listening. Eggshell satin sheets on Vince’s bed had been creased in convolutions that would imprint seams upon the flesh. High pillows would suggest the occupant preferred to sit, even in slumber. The drinks trolley had seen a restock: tonic water, scotch, Bourbon and brandy. A drinks dispenser and ice bucket oversaw several whisky glasses. A mini fridge took the furthest corner, a sixties retro, American chic. A row of suits formed the backdrop; several cosseted tuxedos and ties. Barbells rested atop a small bookcase that contained what appeared to be ledgers. Nancy edged forward and the rear rim of a wheelchair emerged. Amy’s footfalls had now stopped directly behind Nancy. Amber Mystique once again overtook Nancy’s breathing space.
Vince’s voice surfed through the TV’s newspeak. ‘Yeah… tomorrow. You can expect me at the Park Plaza at around…eight. Marcus is bringing Blakemoors…Yeah. The attorney.’ Vince’s brash tone failed to curtail the hoarseness of a post-flu quality. His discourse seemed to hinder Amy from what she was dying to do.
In a rush of boldness, Nancy stepped into the room. Amy remained at the door, perhaps thinking she had gained the advantage by holding back. Vince continued to converse into his mobile. He wore a blue and black silk pyjama top and gym slacks. His slippered heels rested upon footplates. His neck now bore a different dressing to the one she’d seen the last time – smaller, a taped pad that served more as a concealer rather than a dressing, she thought.
Nancy now stood almost level with Vince’s chair, a new model by the looks of it. Her feelings evoked by the stairlift washed over her again. A high-tech, gadgety sort of thing with huge wheels, the mod-con would have made Sheila’s mobility scooter look more like a trike. He was aware of her presence, she could sense it, yet he continued to conduct himself as though still alone in his room. ‘…We’ll be postponing the next meeting by a couple days, maybe a week…yeah… Takin’ a flight… to catch some sun, what else? This weekend.’ Vince chuffed. ‘You can keep this cursed rain.’ And then he abruptly ended the call. Without turning, he wheeled himself towards the drinks trolley.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 16.1

Nurse Nora
AMY stood as upright as a builder’s post. Each hand cupped an elbow, each foot planted squarely upon the porch steps. Like a painting, her form fitted the dark archway precisely. Nancy maintained a proper gait, conveying a strictly formal visit. Her skirt whispered; her Oxfords pummelled the shingles beneath. Amy’s features grew more distinct though no easier to read. Nancy clutched the handle of her satchel-bag surprised by a damp residue. Small teeth gnashed at her breastbone. Nancy feared her reflexes would betray her and the satchel-bag would slip from her grasp and tumble onto the shingles.
Nancy killed the steam on the last leg of her journey. She drew past the Lamborghini and alighted upon the Lakeland slabs to stand before Amy. Amy had not moved throughout. She had ladled on the teal eyeshadow today, perhaps to mask the fraught lines radiating from the lower lids of her eyes. She looked no less pissed though.
Her plum lips barely moved upon the utterance, ‘you’ve got a bloody nerve comin’ back here. Didn’t I make myself clear…?’
Nancy cut her off. ‘Yes, you did, and did you know that I have the powers to report you and get you sacked?’
Amy’s teal eyelids drew over in shock. A molar glinted in a half-scowl. ‘Who the hell are you?’
Nancy lifted her chin, surprising even herself. ‘My name is Nora.’
‘Nora?’
‘Yes, Nora. I’m a nurse.’ The pulse at her throat nudged against her mandarin collar.
Amy’s hands slipped from her elbows. Quickly, she recovered. ‘You ain’t no nurse.’ Her eyes grew fixed. ‘And Mr. Jonas has all the care he needs.’
Nancy wanted to tell her in Glebe Hollow terms she was a stupid cow, but such vernacular would not do here. ‘I have reason to believe that this is not the case,’ Nancy asserted smoothly.
Amy’s fingers tightened about her elbows. ‘Not that’s it’s any of your business, but you’ve seen for yourself he is under the care of a private clinic.’
‘Manipulating someone’s legs with a little essential oils is not the same as proper nursing care. It’s just frill.’ A wellspring of silken lies was beginning to open up within her; a defense mechanism driven by age-old shame where her mother sat in the centre. ‘I’ve been standing at those gates all afternoon I’ve seen a Porsche and a Lamborghini roll in. I have never known a nurse drive either. This tells me Mr. Jonas has received no nursing care during this period. Every patient undergoing rehabilitation needs a nurse around the clock. Nursing forms the mainstay of a person’s recovery.’ Mainstay? Nancy was getting beyond herself.
‘Who do you work for?’
‘I work on a contractual basis.’
‘How convenient. Like whom?’
‘One of my clients happens to be Mr. Fairchild, Mr. Jonas’ former PA.’
Amy sneered. ‘Bullshit.’
‘We met through a mutual friend at Dennis’s restaurant in Birmingham where Leon used to dine from time to time. Leon had a bad smoking habit which he wanted to kick. CBT and acupuncture had failed him, so we tried nicotine patches and the good old fashioned logbook.’
Amy’s eyes narrowed, crimping the sides of her nose. ‘I knew Leon well enough. He never mentioned you.’
Nancy slipped her hand into her jacket pocket and produced one of Vince’s business cards. ‘Mr. Fairchild was firm about discretion. Sadly, he is no longer with us and I break this discretion at my own risk in order to explain myself. I believe Mr. Jonas does not hand out his personal details unless he trusts the contact.’
Nancy handed the card to Amy.
Amy glared at it. ‘Where the hell did you get this?’
‘Mr. Fairchild and I worked together for several weeks. He had cut down his smoking significantly by this time. I am devastated he did not live to kick the habit.’
Amy was still staring at the business card, visibly troubled.
Nancy’s voice came out clipped. ‘I wish to see Mr. Jonas.’
Amy scoffed. ‘It’s my business to know everybody who comes here.’
‘And is it your business to humiliate visitors who are trying to do their job?’
Amy bunched her lips into a tight seam. ‘I need an ID.’
Nancy sensed Amy’s barriers folding. Without pause, Nancy produced a laminated badge and a copy diploma from Coventry University, bearing her name and credentials.
Amy afforded Nancy’s offering but a cursory appraisal, obviously bluffed. ‘I’m gonna check this out.’

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 15.3

Nancy lunched at a communal table overlooking Stone Road. Burroughs’ porky aid with a penchant for silk shirts and Cuban heels complemented Nancy on her attire. Nancy had purchased two: a Marks & Spencer linen-blend navy blue jacket and matching skirt lined with silk. The neck opened out to a mandarin-collared blouse; white, lightly ruffed on the seams and fitted to the waist. Nancy thanked him in a starched manner she didn’t recognize and sipped her coffee.
Silk-shirted man, Just Call Me Stu didn’t seem to mind and bade her a good day. ‘And to you,’ Nancy returned with a small smile.
Nancy had left her cheap shoes at Weaver’s Street. Today she wore John Lewis black Oxfords with heels and leather uppers. She liked the way her nylon tights whispered against her skirt as she walked. She liked the way her bloused enfolded her every curve as an amour. Her mother would have given her pride a royal knocking. Bex would have told her the Jonas shoot had rendered her head too big for the average doorframe. Beneath the silk lining, Nancy would always be a slapper from Glebe Hollow. But here, no one can see, no one can judge.
Nancy picked up her black leather satchel-bag and took her Fiat Punto for a spin in the country.
You jumped-up bloody cow.
Nancy throttled up and switched on the radio. The Bee Gees’ Jive Talkin’ soulful arpeggio rendered her brain a-stutter. From the second bar on, she mumbled the lyrics before pulling up behind a hawthorn hedge, providing the perfect screen.
You can take the woman out of Glebe Hollow but you can never take the Glebe Hollow out of the woman.
Nancy killed the radio, got out. Since her previous visit, the lawns had been cleared of dead leaves. The turf now exhibited immaculate bands of two-tone chlorophyll. Before long, her index finger was depressing the buzzer on the intercom system. Somewhere above, a whirring grazed the air. Nancy didn’t look. The wrought iron bars slashed through the glamorized fort at the head of the shingled driveway. It remained so. The intercom system remained silent.
She didn’t depress again. The drone told her the security system had detected her presence. A breeze fondled the fine strands around her crown. She shifted between heels, but remained resolutely within shot of the overhead camera.
She could picture the visual feed to whomever within. An overhead view of a lone woman, starchly-dressed, satchel-bag in hand and arms clasped in front. Hardly surprising she hadn’t brought a reaction, really. Tomorrow, she would bring her ankle boots and a scarf to guard against the cold. Perhaps she might even bring a hot flask of coffee and a packet of digestive biscuits. Amy couldn’t accuse Nancy of trespassing or criminal damage and as for harassment, it was early days yet. Nancy reckoned such offences would inflict less fury upon the PA than the sight of a woman standing at the foot of her assigned gates, dunking digestive biscuits into the lid of her flask.
A black Porsche levelled up beside her. Tinted windows barred Nancy a view of the occupants inside. The gates emitted a click and a whir. The Porsche motioned indifference in the manner by which it edged forwards too close for comfort. With majestic grandeur, the gates accepted the Porsche, which slowly crunched up the driveway.
Nancy remained at her station. Amy wanted Nancy to stow herself in whilst the gates were open. Nancy knew better than that. Amy could legitimately enforce a charge of trespassing which would not do; Nancy would deprive Amy the satisfaction. Satchel-bag in the other hand now, Nancy remained at the foot of the gates once they had closed.
A second car, this time a green Lamborghini pulled up alongside Nancy. The occupant, Vince’s accountant, Nancy reckoned, kept his eyes firmly ahead. The gates clicked. The gates whirred. The Lamborghini banked forward.
Sunlight made its debut at around three o’clock. Nancy closed her eyes and allowed the October sun to bathe her face. The rumble of a perfectly-tuned engine stirred the stillness once more. Nancy didn’t open her eyes. The sound came from the grounds. Porsche or Lamborghini? Next time she would pay closer attention to the sound-profile of such engines that ferried Vince’s visitors. Porsche, definitely Porsche. The gates clicked, a mechanism whirred. Gates open. The clutch bit as the Porsche nosed forwards. Nancy peeped – one eye smudged by lashes. She’d been right. The gates closed behind her. The black aerodynamic shape slid from view.
Nancy took up her former position facing the gates. The sunlight faced-off the teeth of a cloud. The cloud skimmed past, spurring a cavorting of leaves around the gate posts. It seemed the raking of leaves was akin to a woman’s proverbial work, in that it is never done. Nancy’s arms goose-rashed and that’s when she noticed. Lodged between the central slats of wrought iron and an eagle crest, a mini Amy nestled – only far off at the building’s entrance. She wore black flared trousers and a red double-breasted jacket. Her face, a beige dot was hard to read.
A click, a whirr. Nancy watched the gates stir from its moorings. This activation was not on account of the Lamborghini of earlier, as it remained at the head of the driveway. The iron slats drifted slowly across one by one. Amy disappeared and reappeared behind each passing. The gates’ mighty hinges gave a judder at the arc’s terminus. Only when the gates were fully open did Nancy step over the threshold.

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Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 15.2

Nancy went into Sheila’s bedroom to assemble a hospital bag. Sheila thought she looked like a pig without her mascara. Tissues and chocolate boxes littered the place. Last year’s snow globes anchored stacks of Ibiza postcards in place. Clothes cascaded over the bed-board, smelling of wardrobe and sale deodorant. Nancy’s heel barreled over a cluster of cheeky mugs from Great Yarmouth. All had been stained with fortified dregs.
Nancy found a flask of navy rum behind the curtain. She could have emptied the amber nectar down the sink and felt good about it. She could have exorcised the room of clutter with the aid of bin bags and detergent. Nancy gathered night clothes, toiletries and makeup for Sheila and left the room untouched.
Nancy nudged the curtains aside. A road bollard cast an ashen glow over a wilted fence opposite. She feared spotting a figure there, two figures and possibly a van or a police car. Press interest was converging to a point. With the photos out, no one could argue Nancy hadn’t entered the limo on the night of the crash. Vince wasn’t talking. Unchecked speculation would bleed out like ink on blotting paper.
The limo knew. The truth had been imprinted upon the crumpled fascias and the shattered glass. Once the interior had been immaculate, not a scratch in sight. Now, even the air within had been contorted; gouges on the leather seats, blood on her dress, a dagger shaped like India, an incision doused with the very stuff she had imbibed at the Hatchet Inn. He wouldn’t have chosen her to save his life. That may be, but the fact remained, he now belonged to her.
Nancy took the Fiat Punto out for a drive at five am. Nancy filled her up at the Eaton Road garage before parking near the Boot pub opposite the hospital. The onset of the rush hour traffic spurred her on. Adam Bede ward had clicked over to the day shift. A ward nurse checked Nancy in. Quietly, Nancy drew back Sheila’s curtains. Sheila’s beige form emitted rhythmic grunts in slumber. Her chin rested on her chest and her shoulders sagged. Beside her, a profusion of get-well cards stood to attention.
A cheeky one from Alexis: ‘I’m no doctor, but I’m pretty sure a margarita will clear your head.’ Carla: Get well soon so I can stop being so nice.’ Cora’s mum: Stop feeling so sorry for yourself, we got some partyin’ to do!’ Sheila belonged to the folks of Glebe Hollow in equal measure, it seemed. Nancy deposited Sheila’s’ hospital bag onto the chair next to the bed and returned to her car.
Coventry had stirred to life once Nancy had parked near the Belgrade Theatre. She withdrew cash in bulk; no credit card transaction to leave a trail. Self belief burgeoned with each purchase. No one here knew her, but she encountered herself on a newsstand outside West Orchards. The Daily Mail: The One that Got Away: Questions over Girl in Jonas’ Shoot. Egyptian eyes, festooning ringlets and lip-gloss came together to form the quintessential party girl no one could associate with the woman now perusing the headline.
Louisa would be panicking by now. Without a mind, Nancy’s guided her Fiat onto the A46 out of Coventry. Only the signs for Kirkby Magnor concerned her now. Before long, Nancy was turning off at Barford for the A429. A mile outside the civil parish of Wellesbourne, Nancy found herself tunnelling through a canopy of huge chestnuts towards a green. Cottages and paddocks radiated out from a central hub. Nancy continued up Stone Road towards a large Edwardian house with huge bays.
Matt Burroughs overseer of the Cheap Sleep Hostel greeted her on the doorstep. A rangy man with a dark beard, he could have played base for a progressive rock band in the seventies. The interior belied the exterior, being desperately in need of modernization. The place smelled of bean broth and singed dust. Nancy noticed hessian patches in the brown carpet as he led her to the second floor. ‘Are you visiting long? Burroughs asked.
‘It depends,’ Nancy replied.
Burroughs nodded, abstracted. A cagooled man and presumably his son clopped by.
The landing tapered to a narrow hall on the top floor. Burroughs opened a cream door pimpled with paint drips leading to a loft room overlooking a paddock. A small circular window brought a quaint aspect to an otherwise plain room with a sloping ceiling. A tallboy and a bunk-bed were the only furnishings. Nancy opened the tallboy to find a mirror and several wire hangers within. ‘It’s perfect,’ Nancy said and paid cash up front.
He handed her the keys. Burroughs’ courtesy and economy of questions suited her well.
Nancy deposited her bag on the bed and unpacked. The top floor comprised two bedrooms and a shared shower. At this time of year, few lodgers had taken rooms and the entire floor remained exclusively hers. Waterstains skirted the walls and the splash-backs had been lined with stick-on plastic tiles embossed with fleur-de-lis. The boiler clattered as the hot water system activated. The meandering pipes rendered the temperature adjuster apathetic. But with her face scrubbed of makeup and her hair gathered in a bun, she had cast off Sheila’s party girl daughter of Weaver’s Street. She felt liberated, lighter if somewhat bleak.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 15.1

NANCY pulled up outside her house to see a shadow on the porch steps. Please not now. Since her landline had lain quiet, bar the hospital call, she hoped the press attention was fizzling. Not a reporter, it seemed; the figure’s carriage more befitted Bex. Even on a cold night such as this, Bex insisted upon wearing short skirts and court shoes. Her large overcoat made her look like an oilrig.
 Nancy killed the engine and got out. Bex appeared subdued, but not enough to say sorry. ‘Hurry up, you mong, its cold out here.’ Her way of saying she’d known Nancy long enough not to let a small matter of inflicting gouges on skin to stand in the way of a toxic friendship. Nancy didn’t look at her as she inserted the key and let her in.
Bex took the lead and perched herself on the sofa. She tucked her knees demurely beneath her. ‘Look, I heard about your mom,’ she began.
Nancy shrugged.
‘I came as soon as I heard. Danny told me everything. It’s shit, isn’t it?’
‘What do you want, Bex?’
‘You have such a low opinion of me, don’t you?’
‘You drew blood.’
‘I’m sorry, all right? It’s me fingernails, they’re a bit sharp, that’s all.’
The usual Bex reflex of self-denial. A fusion of assertiveness and going too far. Nancy eyed the newspapers sticking out of Bex’s coat pocket. ‘Why don’t you just cut the condolences and get to the point, Bex? You obviously have something you want to show me.’
Bex gave a sanctimonious smirk. ‘You are such a sullen bitch, Nancy.’ She untucked a newspaper and leafed through with aplomb. She slammed the reams onto the coffee table. ‘Fuckin’ Cora,’ she huffed.
Nancy read the headline: What’s in Store for Core: Life after the Jonas Crash, Trauma Victim Rebuilds her Life.
Bex slammed a second newspaper on top. ‘Fuckin’ Cora.’
Cora Splashes out: Jonas Crash Victim has Retail Therapy at Selfridges in Oxford Street.
Bex slammed a third on top. ‘Oh, and there’s fuckin’ Cora again.’
Cora says: Jonas Made Indecent Proposal before the Crash.
‘We’ve got to do something about her.’
Nancy quickly drew her eyes from the final headline. ‘Like what?’
‘She’s a liar, a freeloader and a tart. Apparently, she was bullied at school before suffering the private hell of bulimia. You remember how she used to flick spit at kids’ hair with a ruler? Bully my royal but! As for bulimia, she just downed a load of Fantas and chips to fatten up her tits. Everybody knows what she is, yet the press‘re still yakking on about her.’ Bex gathered up the newspapers and stuffed them back inside her pocket. ‘She was snapped the other day just for chavving about town with some third-division footballers. Her skirt’s so short you could see the tat on her arse.’
The silver bottle tops in Vince’s overcoat. ‘She’s gone dirty.’
‘What?’
‘She’s gone dirty. I give her two weeks.’
Bex’s eyebrow twitched at this. She never questioned the obscure. Her lower lip curled beneath her teeth before carrying on as though Nancy had not spoken. ‘I could dish out some real dirt on her. That’d shut her up.’
The tension headache of earlier started to bite. ‘Look, Bex, I’ve had a rough evening…’
‘Come in with me, Nancy. We could play her at her own game, fill some columns of our own. We’d have lots of clout together.’
Nancy lengthened the term to three weeks, a month. Does it count if a third party assists?
Bex’s false fingernails flashed in the gloom. ‘I know the press’ ve been bugging you. I’ve seen ‘em waiting outside your house. You should have told me about the shoot, Nancy. You’ve forgotten where you came from. You’re ashamed of us, aren’t you? Are you ashamed that your mom got blotto in the Hatchet bogs?’
Nancy kneaded her skirt in a fist. ‘Shut up, Bex.’
‘Come in with me, Nance. Please. Let’s have some fun in bringing down that jumped-up cow.’
Two months.
‘No one can argue with photos, Nance. You were there, right next to Jonas. You’ve got tons more whack than her. You could bring her down with just one word.’
The stain on the floor shaped like a witch on a broomstick. The reap of forty years. She’s a belly of iron, has our Sheil. She’s a party girl.
Nancy closed her eyes a moment.
‘Who’s to argue that you weren’t there, in the crash? You could have, Nance. You so easily could have.’
Nancy’s fist began to shudder. ‘I think you should leave now, Bex.’

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 14.5

She lifted the glass and drained half the contents. Her tonsils convulsed as the cold spirits passed through. Wet, yet dry and sour activated memories long dormant. Her eighteenth birthday, getting pissed with Alexis; meeting her first boyfriend, Gary Chapman at the Percival per Friday night for vodka shots; hobbling round Bedworth town centre with Bex and Cora with a bottle of cider. Friends forged from social drinking came quickly and easily, Nancy noticed. Enemies too. Once, Nancy had passed out on the steps of Boot’s chemist. Sheila thought it was funny. Nancy had lots of friends.
Bono’s Dad surprised her with a forceful shoulder hug. ‘Here’s some heartfelt words to take with yer.’ Nancy’s drink quivered in her hand. ‘Your mom’s a good ‘un. She livens the place up like its Christmas, she does. She’s A-one and any daughter of hers is a pal ‘o mine. Tell her that from Donnie Higgs. She’ll know who I am.’
Nancy’s tight smile slipped. Slowly, she placed the glass back on the bar. ‘Sure,’ she uttered.
Ralph called over, ‘Give Sheila me best too, won’t you?’
Nancy took her bag and retreated from the bar.
‘Where you going?’ Bono’s Dad asked.
Nancy didn’t turn. ‘Just to powder my nose.’
The smell of damp leaves wafted over her face as she pushed the doors open. Laughter from the barroom rippled the air. Somebody clapped. Nancy paused at the toilet door. She pushed through. Rain had soaked into the smell of disinfectant and urine. No longer exhibiting cartoon cocks and admissions of sex, the doors had been painted blue. The tissue dispenser was empty and a solitary mirror had mottled with age.  A dark stain on the floor drew her eye. Nancy approached. The stain appeared darker on one side than the other. The shape vaguely resembled a witch on a broomstick, only the broomstick had begun to fade out into the surrounding flagstones. The witch’s profile stretched out in anamorphosis towards the cubicle door. A lower vantage point would resolve this distortion. The disinfectant had failed to lift the oils of Sheila’s vomit, which had now soaked into the stones.
So far as Nancy could remember, the toilets had always looked like this. Sheila had probably used these toilets more than the one beneath her own roof. Once, Sheila had been eighteen. Her porcelain eyes and petite figure would have turned heads. Barefaced and challenging, Sheila imprinted the brains of teachers and employers who encountered her in their lives. A tearaway fondly reminisced, only the reality might not have been so palatable.
Once it had not been too late. Even in her twenties waitressing for Witherspoons without a GCSE to her name and snagged by motherhood, Sheila had her chance. Somewhere in her thirties, her life had become more forged. Now Nancy could see that Sheila was incapable of comprehending anything beyond Glebe Hollow. The Hatchet Inn had seen Sheila enter its doors four times per week for almost forty years. So much time spent somewhere should have something to show for, shouldn’t it? Sheila’s life story had been embossed within its doors – her birthdays, her Christmases, her ups and downs, her relationships and afternoon swifties. It had all ended with a dark stain in the shape of a witch on a broomstick upon the toilet floor. Albert Wheeler would go over the stain tomorrow with his wet mop, and the day after that until the stain could no longer be seen.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 14.4

Tension-headache gathered at her temples as she approached the pub. The thick panel door gave a squeak as she pushed through. The interior hadn’t changed much. Predominantly brown, a small entryway led into a lounge, a barroom and toilets. Nancy continued into the lounge. Old yeast and burnt chips had stamped a bouquet into the fabric. Aged photos spiced the walls; racehorses, farm scenes and dogs. Bon Jovi’s Living’ on a Prayer played out on the stereo. Three men sat drinking at a table near the bar. Nancy ground her molars and ambled inside. Behind the bar, Danny wheeler’s dad, Albert Wheeler wiped beer glasses. This was Sheila’s world, the heart of Sheila’s life, a life that Nancy didn’t understand.
As Nancy approached, Albert, wall-eyed and pot-bellied, stacked the beer glasses in a rack. He smiled amicably as Nancy rested her bag on the top. ‘Good evening,’ he grunted, ‘what’ll you fancy?’
She could feel the eyes of the three men behind her. Sheila had done this countless times. Why couldn’t Nancy? She squared her shoulders. ‘Gin and tonic please,’ she replied with a small smile.
‘Good lass, comin’ right up.’ Albert grabbed a glass and pushed it beneath an overhead dispenser. A shadow drifted over the bar. Guinness wafted over her. Nancy didn’t turn but retained her small smile.
 ‘Are you who I think you are?’ came a Back Country baritone. Albert deposited her gin and tonic onto a mat before her. Nancy paid up.
‘Yous Sheila’s daughter, aren’t you?’ the baritone persisted.
Nancy turned to find a man who could’ve been Bono’s dad standing next to her, only shorter and stouter. His broad grin rendered his mouth lipless.
‘Yes, I am,’ Nancy replied.
Albert cut in with a throaty chortle. ‘By Christ! I’d forgotten she got a daughter! How have you been, Pet? I’ve not seen your pretty face here for quite a while.’
Nancy shrugged at this. ‘I’ve been…busy.’
Bono’s Dad hollered over to his table of two, ‘Hey, Ralph, this is Sheil’s daughter!’
A skinny man with an oversized goiter lifted his beer to her. ‘How you doin’ Sheil’s Daughter?’
Nancy merely nodded, her smile growing thin.
Albert stuck her change in the till. ‘I’m…er sorry about what happened to your mum, Lass. I called the ambulance as soon as I realised what happened.’
Bono’s Dad plonked his Guinness down after taking a nip. ‘Don’t you fret, Lass, she’s a belly of iron, has our Sheila. She’s a party girl. Some of us are just made that way. It’s a gift. Here…’ he slid Nancy’s gin and tonic towards her. ‘You ain’t touched your drink.’
Nancy fondled the glass. In the next room, a vending machine fanfared a five-note bar. She lifted the glass and pressed her upper lip against the rim. Condensation tickled her tongue. She licked the ice as it clinked against her teeth. For once, she challenged an inner resistance. Nancy would go the other way; she would try to appreciate and to understand.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 14.3

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.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 14.2

The office was deserted by the time Nancy had finished her shift. Her drive home transported her back to Hampton in Arden train station. Her carriage ride had been a journey between death and life and Bex didn’t know. Nobody cared. Louisa only cared about the figures. Sales were down again this month. Nancy shouldn’t be here. She should be back in the crashed limo at the foot of the bridge in eternal night. Only, the limo was no longer there.
Nancy pushed open the front door to find the landline ringing. As Nancy picked up the phone and a soft Asian voice conveyed the news, the limo continued to cruise somewhere on the nights side of the lonely train station. Nancy is on autopilot too, as she recites the script, ending with ‘thank you.’
Nancy took a lift to the second floor of the George Eliot hospital. Pine disinfectant tinged the air. Strip-lights buzzed above trolleys, monitors and loitering staff. The night brought a sullen aspect to Adam Bede ward on the Cheveral wing. Nancy drifted towards the desk and immediately spotted Sheila Hutchens’ name printed on the whiteboard.
The nurse at the desk instructed Nancy to take a seat in the waiting room opposite while she call the consultant. Nancy did so. The grid of plastic chairs adjoined two wards of beds. A sallow-faced man lounged in pressure tights reading a newspaper. Opposite, a jowly woman with frizzy hair dozed on high cushions. A drip had been attached to her wrist.
Painkiller administered by drip has a safety valve, Nancy recalled, to prevent overdose. Tampering with the mechanism poses the likely risk of discovery. But painkillers given by hand can be open to abuse. A young ward nurse wheeled a trolley to do the meds Temperature, pulse and blood pressure were recorded next. The Weston Hill Care Centre had a med rota of four hours. Painkillers were kept in a locked cupboard next to the washroom. Only doctors and qualified nurses were allowed a key. Some painkillers in tablet form looked quite similar to one another. Certain brands bore no logo and resembled mint pastels. Patients who had difficulty swallowing were given a powdered form blended with honey and a preferred fruit juice to mask the bitterness. Bert liked strawberry. Another patient, Alice liked orange. Morphine could be added without anyone noticing. Nancy had tried a few drops of the fruit blend herself and likened the flavor to fruit concentrate.
The patients at the Weston Hill Care Centre were quite happy. Everybody loved Nancy. They kept saying so. Nancy had a pretty face that brightened up the day.
‘Miss Hutchens?’
Nancy glanced up to encounter Dr. Kamat’s furrowed expression. A tall doctor in a white overcoat, Dr. Kamat adopted an informal cant to the head to put her at ease. He extended his hand and she stood and took his in a light, dry shake.
‘Miss Hutchens, your mother suffered a blackout due to alcohol overload in her bloodstream. We suspect concussion may have delayed her regaining consciousness.’
Nancy’s face hardened ‘You mean she was pissed.’
Dr. Kamat retained his soft cadence. ‘She was highly intoxicated, yes. I am not happy with your mother’s condition. I have recommended a stay in hospital for a liver scan and possibly a referral to heptology. I fear another drink could kill her.’
Nancy kept a resolute stance. ‘Where was she found?’
Dr. Kamat hesitated. ‘I am told…’ he referred to his clipboard. ‘She was found at the…the Hatchet Inn toilets in Glebe Hollow.’ Dr. Kamat’s doleful eyes drifted back to hers. ‘She was lucky she was lying on her front when she vomited.’
Vomited? A vignette pierced her brain. Her mother’s legs sprawled over the grey flagstones, the cubicle door laden with cartoon cocks and admissions of sex. The stench of sick. The clink of glasses somewhere, indifferent chatter. ‘I should have…’ A spasm cut her words. ‘I should have done something.’
Dr. Kamat spoke quietly. ‘I am sorry, Miss Hutchens.’

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 14.1

HER ANKLES hadn’t looked fat. They tapered from shapely calves in an ideal body-shot. The flashbulbs had bleached out her face, putting emphasis upon her heavily shaded eyes and pink lipstick. She had pulled it off. In her cocktail dress and plastic shoes, she hadn’t looked a hard-eyed slapper.
Next to her, Vince gazed off camera, reticent, his hairline strimmed and an eyebrow cleaved, but handsome in his long, black overcoat. A step ahead of her, he appeared to lead the way, perhaps somewhere to quarrel in private. That’s how he looked, on the edge of a strop. A couple with chemistry, the press might believe. From afar, they did indeed appear to hold hands. Close up, her small digit hung desperately onto his.
Since the pictures had emerged, her landline had been ringing every evening. Nancy had picked up on one occasion, to hear an ingratiating Brummy brogue. Nancy had ended the call before the woman could get her claws in. Nancy spotted someone waiting outside the house after work. Nancy took a detour to the shops. On her return, the figure had gone. Nancy feared this was just the beginning. The press attention would gain momentum once the identity of Vince's latest aficionado had been officially confirmed.
Nancy got the impression she had lost favour with the residents of Glebe Hollow. No one spoke to her, no one ribbed her about the shots, no one even hurled a gibe. The miasma seemed to lie somewhere between jealousy and betrayal.
Nancy’s mother kept going on about it. ‘Why didn’t you tell no one about it, Nancy?’ she demanded. ‘Bloody Cora has. She’s been shoutin’ from the rooftops! What’s the matter with ya? Your trouble is you don’t say nothin’ to no one. You just stand there like a wallflower, lettin’ the world go by. Think of all the exposure you missed out on, the money!’
Cora’s fifteen minutes had yet to expire. If she was seen about town, everybody got into the habit of hollering across the streets, ‘Hey, Cora, have you got into anymore car crashes recently? Who were you with this time?’
Nancy’s team leader, Louisa had started delegating work on Nancy since the news broke, making her stay late to close redundant accounts. As Nancy took a trip to the filing room, Bex grabbed her by the elbow and shoved her against the filing cabinets. ‘Who the bloody hell do you think you are?’ she hissed.
Air rushed though Nancy’s windpipe, but Bex was unapologetic, gnashing her false fingernails into Nancy’s arm. ‘You think you’re so above everybody round ‘ere, don’t you? So high and bloody mighty!’
Nancy tweezed Bex’s fingers away. ‘Get off me, you mad cow!’
Bex’s chin jutted out in a snarl. ‘Picture this, Nance if you can stretch your imagination that far! Three mates go out for a big night, right? You, me and Cora who’ve stuck around this dump since school. You decide to hang back at the club and the next thing I hear, someone is snapped doing a walkabout with Jonas. The police keep the snaps to themselves ‘cause there’s a crash investigation.’
Nancy stared at Bex, fearing Bex’s ensuing words.
‘In the meantime, I’m writin’ witness statements, talking to the cops and wonderin’ what the hell happened. Then I see you around and it’s like, “Hiya, Nance, how you doin’?” “Fine,” you say. “How are you?” “I’m fine, thank you, so what’s new?” “Well,” you say, “Mum’s going to Weston Super Mare in the spring.” “Fab,” I say, and the next thing I see is a fuckin’ snapshot of you walkin’ out of the Nexus with Jonas!’
Nancy knit her lip.
‘You fuckin’ bitch!’ Bex’s spittle sprayed over her chin. ‘How d’ ya think that makes me feel? Huh? And to really rub it in, Cora’s at large lyin’ her head off while you are just so quietly smug! You are so pompous, Nancy, such a bloody snob who thinks you’re above us all!’
Nancy’s cheeks flushed. ‘I…I’m sorry, Bex.’
‘Stuff your sorry, Nancy, I don’t want your sorry!’
Bex wiped the spittle from her face, puckering up her fringe and smudging her lipstick. She backed off. ‘Was it you?’ she asked quietly.
Nancy didn’t understand the question for a moment.
‘Was it you?’ she repeated, firmly this time, ‘in the limo, when it crashed?’
Nancy opened her mouth to speak when Bex stopped her with a warding off gesture. ‘You know what, Nance? I don’t think I want you tell me. I’d rather not put myself in that position.’
With that, she gave Nancy another shove before storming off.

Nora by Charles J Harwood Chapter 13.1

HE KNEW she wasn’t Chinese, he knew she wasn’t Spanish, he knew she wasn’t Korean. He knew she wasn’t black, and therefore not African, Indian nor Hispanic. She wasn’t tall, she wasn’t short, she wasn’t fat, she wasn’t thin. She didn’t have an eye-patch, she didn’t have an S-shaped scar on her cheek, she didn’t have a nose piercing in the shape of a sickle. She had not uttered a word.
If he closed his eyes, he could picture everything within the cab, from the leather headrests to the alloy door handles, but when he turned his head to where she sat, the visual fabric diffused into a black hole. On occasion he would see an empty seat beside him.
He had looked at her; he remembered doing so. He had looked upon her when he truly believed she would be the last person he would ever look upon again.
Leon would remember her. He remembered everybody. Vince had never considered this an estimable quality. Vince didn’t have to remember. Many so-called virtues irritated him: faith, honesty, empathy, modesty, punctuality, reliability, consistency. Yes, people with such fibre were needed for his business and the world in general. Success cornered him into being a hypocrite. But Leon offered Vince the sort of banter that took the tedium from the cloying silkiness of his life.
Vince hoped she was ugly, sow-faced, saggy-breasted and weak-chinned. But the police had shots of her leaving the Nexus beside him. He could barely stand to look. He could barely stand to hear her name. Nancy Hutchens. She wasn’t ugly. And Vince had been right; she had been none of the above. She had a heart-shaped face, brown hair and brown eyes. She wore a cocktail dress, a tiara of some kind and lots of eyeliner. She would probably not be so pretty the next morning.
The photograph had not jolted his memory. He still could not imagine her on the seat beside him in the limo. He would not have made the connection even by the sight of her face.
The police told him that the woman claimed she had left the limo prior to the crash. Was this true?
Vince hesitated at this revelation. She probably feared exposure or of getting sued. He would rather not speculate but was grateful her wishes accorded with his. Vince decided to confirm this fact. The police had then showed him a photo of some peacock called Cora. Vince would rather it was nobody. A woman who didn’t exist, like the one Leon had picked up at the restaurant after dropping off Nancy and which Vince could not give a description to. A fictional woman. Vince had told the police he couldn’t confirm.
But the truth remained that a non-fictional woman had punctured a hole in his throat from where she had pushed her breaths into his lungs. Why did his life have to be saved in such a repugnant way? Anything else would have been preferable: the hurling of rope over a cliff face; the pressure of a tourniquet over a gushing artery.
But the pain of mangled legs was nothing next to the torture of suffocation. A cold sweat would occasionally descend upon him at the thought of it. Vince had initially thought he had sustained a throat injury before realising Dennis’s recreational sweet had taken a trip of its own. This eucalyptus delicacy comprised onion-like layers beginning with a mellow opium-based narcotic to get him in the mood. Amphetamine next, for a little euphoria in the small hours, concluding with a coke hit. Suck, don’t bite, Dennis had instructed. To elucidate his point, he had molded the sweets into little penises. Suck it, he had said; suck it slow and you will never want the night to end. The shape happened to form the ideal cork for any throat.
Vince had awoken in the hospital bed on account of her. Sunlit squares on the ceiling had fuzzed into focus on account of her. He was still Vince who could speak, think and remember his own name on account of her. He should be grateful. He tried, God how he tried. Thank you. He had uttered the words once to himself in the bathroom. The vocalization spurred a tingling in his larynx and briefly suspended his swallowing reflex.
He had encountered her at his final breath in a deep, dark ditch where he believed daylight would never find him again.
Thank you.
He had clawed at her dress, his vision speckling over and his chest lurching violently, uselessly.
Thank you.
He had finally blacked out at the point at which his fist had stiffened over the hem of her dress.
Thank you.
Vince had not experienced a blinding white light at the end of a tunnel. He did not feel born again. He did not discover a new Vince that looked upon the world with fresh eyes and heightened clarity. If anything, he had become more of a creep.
He would rather have died in the crash like Randy Savage or Marc Bolan. Death by crash had a certain poetry. A survivor sweating and swearing on a calf-stretcher was simply distasteful and undignified.
If she should seek him out, and he hoped she would not, Vince would compensate her. Yes, compensate her in an orderly, proper and business-like fashion. He would then hope to never see her again.