‘Mr Nicholls, we’re going now.’
He was standing in the kitchen, just staring out through the window at the sea, one hand on the top of his head like he’d forgotten it was there. He had dark hair and was wearing those glasses that are supposed to be trendy but just make you look like you’ve dressed up as Woody Allen. He wore a suit like a twelve-year-old forced to go to a christening.
He shook his head slightly, then sighed and walked down the hallway. ‘Right,’ he said distractedly. He kept glancing down at the screen of his mobile phone. ‘Thanks.’
‘Um, we’d like our money, please.’
Nathalie finished polishing, and folded her cloth, unfolding it and folding it again. She hated money conversations.
‘I thought the management company paid you.’
‘They haven’t paid us in three weeks. And there’s never anyone in the office. If you want us to continue we need to be up to date.’
He scrabbled around in his pockets, pulled out a wallet. ‘Right. What do I owe you?’
‘Thirty times three weeks. And three weeks of laundry.’
He looked up, one eyebrow raised.
‘We left a message on your phone, last week.’
He shook his head, as if he couldn’t be expected to remember such things. ‘How much is that?’
‘One hundred and thirty-five all together.’
He flicked through the notes. ‘I don’t have that much cash. Look, I’ll give you sixty and get them to send you a cheque for the rest. Okay?’
On another occasion Jess would have said yes. On another occasion she would have let it go. It wasn’t as if he was going to rip them off, after all. But she was suddenly sick of wealthy people who never paid on time, who assumed that because seventy-five pounds was nothing to them it must be nothing to her too. She was sick of clients who thought she meant so little that they could slam a door in her face without so much as an apology.
‘No,’ she said, and her voice was oddly clear. ‘I need the money now, please.’
He met her eye for the first time. Behind her Nathalie rubbed manically at a doorknob. ‘I have bills that need paying. And the people who send them won’t let me put off paying week after week.’
She couldn’t get it out of her head: the flat dismissal of his palm, the way he had just slammed the door in her face.
He frowned at her, as if she was being particularly difficult. It made her dislike him even more. She wondered, for a moment, whether to tell him to stick his stupid job. But there were some principles you couldn’t afford.
‘I’ll have to look upstairs,’ he said, disappearing. They stood in uncomfortable silence as they heard drawers being shut emphatically, the clash of hangers in a wardrobe. Finally he came back with a handful of notes.
He peeled some off without looking at Jess and handed them over. She was about to say something – something about how he didn’t have to behave like an utter dickhead, about how life went that little bit more smoothly when people treated each other like human beings, something that would no doubt make Nathalie rub half the door handle away with anxiety. She didn’t care. Even the way he handed out the money suggested he was giving her something she wasn’t quite entitled to. But just as she opened her mouth to speak his phone rang. Without a word Mr Nicholls spun away from her and was striding down the hallway to answer it.
‘What’s that in Norman’s basket?’
Jess was unpacking the groceries, hauling items out of the bags with one eye on the clock. She had a three-hour shift at the Feathers and just over an hour to make tea and get changed. She shoved two cans to the back of the shelves, hiding them behind the cereal packets. She was sick of the supermarket’s cheery ‘value’ label. It was as if every time she opened the cupboard someone was yelling at her, ‘HEY! YOU’RE POOR!’
Nicky stooped, and tugged at the piece of fabric, so that the dog reluctantly got to his feet. ‘It’s a white towel. Jess, it’s an expensive one. Norman’s got hair all over it. And dribble.’ He held it up between two fingers.
‘I’m going to wash it later.’ She didn’t look at him.
‘Is it Dad’s?’
‘No, it is not your dad’s.’
‘I don’t understand –’
‘It’s just making me feel better, okay? Can you put that stuff over there in the freezer?’
He slouched against the kitchen units, peering out into the front garden. In the breeze the clothes dryer whirled around, the pegged cleaning cloths flying out like pennants above the potted geraniums and the bicycle Jess had painted a glittery pink that peeled off like clumps of nail varnish.
‘Shona Bryant was taking the mickey out of Tanzie at the bus stop. Because of her clothes.’
‘What about her clothes?’ Jess turned to Nicky, a can of tinned tomatoes in her hand.
‘Because you make them.’
‘How does she know I make them?’
‘She asked Tanzie where they came from and Tanzie just told her. You know what she’s like.’
‘But she likes what I make. I mean – she’s happy in them.’
‘Shona Bryant’s the one who said our house was weird because we had too many books.’
‘Shona Bryant’s an idiot.’
He leant down to stroke Norman. ‘Oh. And we got a reminder from the electric company.’