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My first thought upon seeing her from across the room: she has no eyes.
We sat on facing chairs in the living room under a picture window full of sky disappearing, though it was two o’clock in the afternoon. I didn’t look straight at her face, so as not to appear rude. I marked her hands to which my eyes were drawn. They reminded me of the hands you see in a Da Vinci painting, long-fingered, graceful and pale, their only decoration a wedding set with an ostentatious diamond that looked like a lethal weapon.
She sat writing in a notebook in her lap, her feet touching the pool of light from a Tiffany lamp, not a Tiffany-style lamp but the real thing. Its radiance brought out the lush green of the plants—I didn’t know their names, just that there were a lot of them—and showed layers of dust on all the expensive-looking surfaces, covered with cheap bric-a-brac and silver-framed photographs, the silver beginning to blacken.
The rest of the furniture huddled up in the shadowy background. Besides the dust, the other jarring note in that elegant room hung on the wall, behind the Tiffany lamp. It was a two foot square canvas, a crude portrait. Even had it been well-executed, the subject was banal: a fawn-eyed girl in a red frock, lounging in a cane chair, a white cat in her lap. An inept hand trivialising the female form, with the audacity to sign it, like a proper artist, in block capitals in the left-hand corner: DH.
‘I am Dr Nye,’ said the woman in front of me, stiff and artificial as a mannequin. The words came out of her mouth as if they were on a cassette tape. ‘It’s very nice to meet you. Can you please tell me your name again?’
Her hands had a different agenda, holding each other over the notebook as if in love. Not surprising, as they were the most beautiful thing about her. Her hands and her translucent blonde hair, sculpted into a golden helmet.
When I got up the nerve to look her full in the face, it was as if the hands belonged to someone else. Her downturned face was plain and toad-like, with thin lips in a mouth that seemed to stretch back to her ears. Three inner tires of fat circled her midriff; there was a faint squeaking as she leant forward. The hands separated so that one could write, then sought each other again.
Then her eyes lifted from her lap and I saw why at first glance she appeared to have none: her eyebrows and lashes were colourless as a spider’s web, with irises that terrible pale blue, almost white, that gives even the most ordinary expression a tinge of insanity.
I cleared my throat, dry with nerves. ‘My name is Leonora. My mother named me after the actress who - ’ was a famous opera singer with Gilbert & Sullivan, I was going to say, but she interrupted me.
‘We don’t watch television here.’ She showed her teeth, long and brown. ‘Vile, filthy muck.’
My heart sank. But what could I do? I didn’t want to be out on the street in two days. ‘Oh, I don’t watch it either,’ I said.
‘It’s odd that you have such an old-fashioned name. Do you think that perhaps you were meant to be here? In England, I mean. Instead of from the colonies.’ She bent over the notepad; as she didn’t look up, perhaps she didn’t expect an answer. ‘Sometimes I think I shouldn’t. Be here, I mean. I often think I should have been born a black baby in Africa, so I could experience Third World poverty first-hand.’
What on earth can you say to that?
‘Though you wouldn't understand, coming from the most uncivilised country on earth.’ She capped her pen, re-examining what she’d written, and looked up. ‘I do hope you didn’t have much trouble finding our little domicile.’
‘Oh no,’ I lied, relieved to be able to smile, ‘it was no problem at all.’ Of course I’d got lost trying to find the house, this waterfront town-house that must have cost them a fortune, which they appeared to have, and spare. Most couldn’t afford to live in these old Surrey Dock properties, renovated for the wealthy and the purpose-built professionals.
‘How old are you?’ Dr Nye asked.
I looked over her shoulder at the painting. ‘Twenty-five,’ I lied again, cutting off four years with one blow.
Her brow furrowed. ‘I don’t know. I’ve had problems in the past with the older ones. Still...’ She giggled, an inappropriate affect. ‘Mustn’t be too particular or I’ll never find my replacement. Now, Leonora, here is the deal.’
She expected me to work Monday to Friday, seven hours a day, from 8.15 am to 3.15 pm. In exchange for that I got £30 per week and my own flat.
‘You might like to take extra jobs to supplement your wages; unlike many other employers we don’t frown on that, as long as you meet our expectations. You will have had your breakfast before you come down, but you may have lunch in the house. The job entails—’ and she launched off into a description of housework, detailing all the boring horrid jobs that I nodded over, yes, yes, I love to dust. I live to iron. Don’t look at your watch, Nick won’t mind waiting a bit longer.
‘Do you know what I do?’
I shook my head, too busy looking interested to answer.
‘Would you like to guess?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t know much about... you’re a doctor?’
She sighed. ‘I am one of south London’s pre-eminent experts in neurology and neurosurgery, based at St. Waltheof Melrose’s Hospital in Southwark. Do you know what “neurology” means, Leonora?’
‘Something to do with medicine,’ I said, trying to look awed. Dr Nye sighed again, hands gripping one another, and I was sure she was going to reply, ‘I’m afraid you’ll never do’ at the same moment someone else slipped into the room, gliding as if on wheels.
A tall stooped man, sporting a pale crest of hair and a clipped goatee that gave him a chin, hovered by the doorway. A faint sad expression diluted his features, though not his eyes which appeared all black iris, no whites. Clothed in tweeds and white collar, his immaculate dress was at odds with his faded brown house-slippers.
‘Oh,’ he said, as if he’d found us naked together on the carpet, and believe me, that was a horrible thought, ‘you’ve company. I’ll just—’
‘No, no, Dr Duncan, please stay. This is Leonora who’s come to interview for the job. Leonora, this is my husband, Dr Duncan Hoon, who is an inventor, and sometimes an artist, in oils. He painted that.’
She pointed at that horrible portrait. I couldn’t believe anyone would want to admit to painting that. I don’t think he did, for he frowned. ‘Dr Duncan, meet Leonora.’
He seemed to lean all the way from the doorway, stretching boneless from that distance; an illusion caused by a single silent bound from the shadows. His hand was pulpous, like squeezing a damp mildewed sponge.
‘How do you do, my dear. Darling,’ this said to his wife, ‘it’s just not working out. I don’t like to complain but you are going to have to sort something right now. I cannot finish the work until you do.’
‘That is what we are just now discussing. What do you think, Leonora? Would you like to work here?’
I almost jumped off my chair in excitement. Looking back, it was foolish of me. I should have said, I’ll let you know. Dr Nye’s nose continued to hike up her face as if there were a bad smell nearby and she spoke to me from the get-go as if I were a moron. Would I have to praise their talents in neuro-wossname and painting the whole time I worked for them? To keep my new home?
From the first the signs were terrible. But I was haunted by a dream I had had before leaving my own country. There was me, sitting on a box, on a long stretch of tarmac, in the middle of a raging storm, homeless, everything I owned beneath me. And now that dream was close to coming true. I didn’t want to be homeless. Homeless looked like that endless stretch of tarmac in a long black night, going on and on and on, no future, no past; no music save the steady drone of wind and rain, punctuated by thunder.
My father had made it quite clear that I had no home with him, as had Fee LaRocca. The Nye-Hoon house was spacious, warm, and right on the River Thames.
And then Dr Nye said the magic words: ‘Would you like to see your new flat?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘yes yes yes. I’d love to come work for you.’
‘Welcome aboard, my dear,’ said Dr Duncan. ‘And as soon as you finish, darling, please - ’
‘Don’t nag me, Dr Duncan.’
He made a strange noise as if his tongue were caught in the back of his throat, and turned on his heel. ‘Then don’t blame me when the place begins to stink!’ he shouted back over his shoulder.
Dr Nye waited until a faraway door slammed. She lifted her shoulders and spoke as if nothing had interrupted our conversation. ‘You look far too young to be on your own, Leonora. Don’t your parents mind you living such a long way from home?’
‘My mother, well - ’ I bowed my head and clenched my fists. I needed this job. ‘I haven’t got a mother. Or a father.’ This at least was partly true.
‘I’m sorry, dear, I shouldn’t have asked. I didn’t mean to upset you. Do you have a British passport?’
I shook my head.
‘When you come here to work for us, I will need to ask for your passport. Standard procedure for every foreigner who comes to work for us... Why are you shaking your head?’
This was it, if I wasn’t careful, they wouldn’t take me, I’d be out on the street, out in the endless silent empty terrain—
‘My passport’s at the Home Office.’ Truth. ‘I’m having an extension on my visa.’ Not.
To my surprise she shrugged, rising out of her seat in one imperious movement. ‘In that case, Leonora, please follow me.’ We reached the doorway; she stopped dead in her tracks. ‘I have had a lot of problems with some of your predecessors—that happens sometimes—and not everybody lasts out their time with us. I hope things will be different with you. I hope... you will take.’
‘“Time”? What do you mean by “time”?’
‘The year you’ll be with us.’
‘You mean—’ I tried not to look at those pale hands dangling motionless off her long fat arms. Some people should be made not to wear short sleeve blouses. ‘You mean, I’m only here for a year?’
‘Everyone stays a year? No matter how good they are at the job?’
She nodded. I felt the second prick of uneasiness.
But she had said the right thing about me being meant to be in England. Because of that, I ignored my gut feeling that the best thing I could have done was to leave Christopher Marlowe House and not stop running until I was as far away from Deptford Strand as possible.
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