Nora changed sheets and flapped out fresh towels. She listened to stories about cats, quilts, summer storms, fruit prices, cursive handwriting, and types of glue. She wheeled the housekeeping cart slowly from room to room. At some point during this day she would have to go into the falsely welcoming administration office and speak voluntarily to the monstrous Mrs. King.
Her duties took her to lunch time. It was tuna noodle salad day. Although not a fan of fish, Nora took the noodles as a viable excuse to take lunch in the dining hall, thereby postponing her discussion with Mrs. King further.
With a reasonable-sized helping of tuna noodle salad which she intended to eat slowly and chew carefully, Nora took a seat at the widows’ table. Mrs. Tillynaught, Mrs. Brackish, Mrs. Rubens, and Mrs. Balanafeel each eyed her approvingly. Mrs. Tillynaught’s reading glasses, which she never took off, were so thick they made her tiny squinty eyes seem normal sized. Each of the widows picked up their forks in turn. Each greeted her with, “Hello, Nora,” before poking their fork into their tuna noodle salad and gracefully placing a noodle into their mouths. Each then placed her fork down and dabbed her mouth with the folded point of her napkin.
Nora smiled. She tried not to pile too many noodles on her fork and attempted to shove it into her mouth with some class. She smiled and chewed with her mouth closed.
Mrs. Brackish, whose lipstick was pink and already worn around the middle of her mouth, said, “It’s lovely to have this opportunity to eat lunch with you, dear.”
Mrs. Balanafeel nodded her agreement. Her lips were shiny blood red, which picked up her tarnished brown skin beautifully, especially where it bled into the cracks of her lips.
Mrs. Rubens smiled hugely, and her perfect pearly white dentures smiled through her candy-floss pink lips. “Such a charming girl.”
Mrs. Tillynaught, whose lips had a red line carefully drawn all around them and were filled in with an unnatural orange colour, said, “Oh, absolutely charming, I do say! So lovely of you to join us here at the single ladies’ table, Nora!”
To this all the widows tittered like a flock of lost birds was trapped behind so many prettily-painted bars.
“Oh,” said Nora, “I’m not so charming. In fact, the only reason I’m sitting here at all is so I can avoid talking to Mrs. King.”
At this, Mrs. Balanafeel, to her right, tittered again, somewhat less convincingly, Mrs. Rubens, to her left, smiled with sweet oblivion, and Mrs. Tillynaught turned up her hearing aid. Mrs. Brackish said, “I don’t blame you in the least! What a perfectly horrid woman!”
“Who’s horrid?” said Mrs. Tillynaught, now that she could hear.
“Why, that witch Mrs. King, of course!” Mrs. Brackish lowered her voice on “witch” as if she were saying something totally crass and inappropriate. Nora smiled.
The four each placed another bite into their mouths, chewed, swallowed, and dabbed. Nora followed suit, even swiping at her perfectly clean lips with the napkin.
Now Mrs. Tillynaught leaned towards the center of the table, and the rest of the ladies did, too. Mrs. Tillynaught looked Nora right in the eyes, a gaze made exceptionally piercing by the enlarging effect of the reading glasses. “So, Nora,” she said in a sneaky low voice. “Forgive me for being presumptuous, but am I to understand that you have agreed to assist us on our little investigation?”
Nora almost choked on a noodle. “Um…” she said.
The ladies exchanged glances. “Perhaps it is not so wise to discuss it here,” said Mrs. Brackish, glancing around the room at the oblivious elderly diners to her right and left.
Mrs. Tillynaught glanced, too. “Nonsense,” she said. “Everyone here is in agreement. And I mean, everyone!”
“Every resident of Oleander Gardens, you mean. But who’s to say which of the staff are on our side, and which are on hers?” Mrs. Balanafeel hissed out “hers” like an angry snake in a Disney movie.
Nora had to know just what the heck was going on. She put down her fork, dabbed her mouth resolutely, and said, “Will one of you please tell me just what the heck is going on?”
The four ladies gasped in unison. Had she really said ‘heck?’ This girl was getting serious.
Nora attempted to look at them with an eye that said, yes, this girl is getting serious.
Mrs. Tillynaught took off her reading glasses, wiped them on her lipsticky napkin and replaced them, blurring her large-ish eyes with a slight orange shellac.
The four ladies had a short conversation amongst themselves which went a little like, You explain. No, you do it. I can’t, I’m really not good with words. I can’t either. It was always dear Roland, God bless his soul, who did the explaining.
Nora said, “Mrs. Tillynaught, please. Tell me what it is you want from me.”
Mrs. Tillynaught looked at her, eyes swimming through the fog of her orange-coloured glasses. “Nora,” she said. “We need help. And we have all discussed it at great length, and we believe that with your special gift, you’ll be able to help us.”
“I don’t have a gift.”
“Oh, now, no need to be shy.”
“No, nor modest.”
“We’ll pay you.”
“We don’t have much, but we each have something.”
“I have a bone handled silver hairbrush, for example. My granddaughter looked it up on iBay and discovered that it is worth up to twenty-five dollars!”
“That’s EBay, Mrs. Brackish.”
“Yes, well, whichever Bay it is…”
“Nora, will you help us?”
Nora sighed. She didn’t have a gift and she still didn’t know what these nutty old bitties wanted her to actually do. “I don’t want your money, or your… hairbrushes,” she said.
Mrs. Brackish squealed and Mrs. Tillynaught clapped her hands. Mrs. Balanafeel’s eyes brimmed with tears and Mrs. Rubens said, “So, you’ll help us for free?”
“Oh, you are such a dear!” said Mrs. Brackish.
Nora opened her mouth to protest just as each of the ladies turned, their eyes welling over with tears of glee, and whispered to the nearest person at the respective next table. Within moments, the entire dining hall was abuzz with delighted chatter. Here and there old people turned up their hearing aids, adjusted their glasses, and patted each other on the shoulders.
And just like that she was committed. To do something she did not have the first idea about using a gift which she did not possess. She should have just admitted to Mrs. Tillynaught in the first place that she had already told and hence forgotten telling the story of Rodney the parrot trainer umpteen times. But she hadn’t, and now this… whatever this was… had descended upon her.