“Yes, Maria, it’s me again. I hope I’m not interrupting when dinner is already served.”
“Ah, my son. Not at all. You see, today is a special day so the lady Joyce allowed the young ones to name their favourite dishes. You know how that turned out. At least a dozen dishes tonight and we’ll all be properly changed to make it a ceremony. The..”
“Wait a minute, Maria. What’s so special about today that warrants a ceremony?” His sixth sense told him at once. Something was coming up that’d not be to his liking, something worse than nasty. Even as he spoke, his head was already changing gears, processing data. Evaluating and re-evaluating. Assessing and reassessing. Getting on his marks for the get set and go. Calibrating and recalibrating.
“They visited their lady Mamma today and talked to…”
“WHAT?” His mind was off like a bat out of hell. Jesus Christ, NO!
“…her and sang and all. The lady Joyce arranged…”
The lady fucking Joyce. “You mean she took my children to their mother’s sickbed?”
“You sound angry. No need to. The children have been bouncing all over the place like those balls in the TV lottery…”
“Get me Joyce on the phone. No, wait, Maria! Get me the children first, okay?”
“As you wish.”
This couldn’t be true. Clinique regulations allowed no children in neurology or psychiatric or whatever-they’re-called wards. No that he’d even wanted to try it, but the children have never been anywhere near their mother’s suite. How could Joyce have managed to make them break their own rules? Perhaps the million dollars had been too rush an idea, too wrong. Joyce a legion of angels? Forget it. She only needed to be Joyce, a Napoleon in the wrong century. Or rather something larger than Napoleon because in the right century Joyce would have seen to it that Napoleon never crossed the Pyrenees.
Bouncy, just as Maria had described. Except that it was Joyce, not the children.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing…”
“Whoa!” she tinkled a giggle. “Hold your galley oars, Norseman. I’m on the chaise longue with the children all over me gasping for warm hugs and loving kisses from their father and I’ve just tapped speaker, Pappa. Watch your Ps and Qs.”
Thor and Odin. He pictured the chaise longue on the enormous black and white checkerboard marble floor in the entry hall next to the commode with the telephone. But then… two, three, four beats. No sound of children. He heard the piano being played in the background. In the piano lounge where he’d himself plucked on the thing with his children on his lap, pawing away with streaks of laughter. All of them. The twins even crawled on the keys to everybody’s huge amusement. Who was now playing? He identified the music. His guess was Loyana and Norska. Doing their best with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites. Piano concert in A minor. Possibly surrounded with the rest of the children and Patricia and Maria and everybody else. Maybe Joyce had just torn herself off from the rest of the audience to come to the phone.
“I want to talk to my children, Joyce. Get them.”
“They’re my children too, Norseman.” She said this with a strength of character that would disperse an army.
“I don’t remember ever proposing to you, Joyce.”
“But you propositioned. A hundred per.” A thrust. He’d started this, right? Turning to old pages. He was the one who initiated this nasty bend.
A hundred per.
“I definitely didn’t.” It was somehow true, wasn’t it? She wasn’t the only one who could thrust a hundred fucking per. “You were a relief gift, Joyce. Nicely wrapped and offered. Now, I want to talk to my children.”
A relief gift. As if Joyce had been delivered by workers from the United Nations’ World Food Programme or the more recent World Food Council to Erik, the starving Ethiopian. Jupiter and Apollo. This slant was very wrong. This wasn’t the time nor the place for it. She suddenly wished Khira had never persuaded her. But the persuasion hadn’t been difficult at the time because she’d been twenty, not yet married and dying to try out a European and especially to experience that Special Kissing that she, like Khira, had known nothing about until the morning after Khira’s wedding. But Joyce never even got that Special Kissing from the man. “C’m’ere, my pretty girl. I want to reach the deep recesses where my wife’s little fingers couldn’t reach, hmm?” he’d murmured in her ears. Then proceeded to make her almost die with ecstasy for nights.
Traditionalist Khira kept her husband high and dry for God knows how many months – every time – before and after she brought a baby into the world. In those nights of ecstasy Joyce had filled the Mansion with the inevitable noises.
“Driving me out of my mind with it, you selfless egoist. I should have sent you two to the bungalow.” That was seventeen-year-old Khira’s comment. “Blame your own slavery to traditions, my well-bred maiden, not me. But he denied me that intimate kissing I madly wanted to experience." "Did you ask him, love of my girlhood?”
Joyce had shaken her head. “Didn’t know how to.”
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Joyce ripped her thoughts away from that wrong slant and told Erik, “Call back in two and a half hours to say your long distant goodnight, Erik. The children are preparing for dinner, and as you know, in this part of my family preparing for dinner involves more than jus washing hands.”
“I told Maria I wanted to talk to my children, not to…”
“And I told Maria to keep mum and tell the children nothing. I don’t want you ruining my children’s most remarkable day in the last week. Call them after they’ve enjoyed their supper, Erik, and not a minute before.”
“I want to talk to my children!”
“Fine. Jump in the Star Two and come on over. Then you can talk to them all you wish. They want you to reassure them that the promise you made never to let their darling Mamma become roots in a box six feet deep is still valid, Norseman. By the way, I need Star One immediately at my disposal. I have another family in Kenya and need a lot of flexibility to juggle my stays in…”
“Who gives you the fucking right, you assuming…”
“Bitch? How cultivated, Uncultured One.” She used Grandfather Solomon’s description of Erik from the very first time Solomon set eyes on the man his granddaughter brought home as a potential husband. Joyce made sure he heard her stretching out on the chaise longue by patting the pillows and making appropriate noises of a totally relaxed and contented person. “I wish Khira was a fly on the wall. But—the right? I actually went on ahead and self-certified. You’re out of it as long as you keep away from Khira and the kids. Maybe I should get hold of Old Bill. Must be a way to organise extradition so you can have a taste of Kenyan prisons. Or maybe I should simply get some media people. That’s about the size of it when I imagine you, Norseman. But then I think of the love of my girlhood, helpless on her sickbed, and my children here, confused and just about orphaned…”
She let the last word crawl along, as if baiting him to say something against that fact.
Joyce messed up his routine. Or tried to. She was telling him things, not asking. It was a new edition of the Joyce-Erik pact. Threatening him with coppers and a lot of hoo-hah in the media. The way she said Norseman to him in the last few days made it sound as derogatory as that other N-word for Africans.
“Joyce, you forget whom you’re talking to.”
“Not a chance, Norseman. You’re no more than Gangland Mr Big.”
“I have influential friends.” Jesus, what’s this? Joyce was chilling his balls again.
“The very sort that I have too, thanks to my sweetie’s money and her trust in me.” The man’s conscious was beyond repair anyway. Needs a good kick in his stubborn head just to hitch up his emotional IQ a little higher.
“What are you talking about? Listen, I’m far from enjoying myself out here, you know.”
“Bet you’re in your office, right?” Erik’s business endeavours were forever on an upward trajectory. Sure, the guilt has a strong grip on him. She’d witnessed it as he cried while he told her what he’d done to his wife. It was beyond enduring, the guilt, while his helplessness in the face of his children’s suffering proved to be unbearable. She knew all that, she was a woman. A wife. Reading men’s inner thoughts wasn’t climbing Mt Everest.
Erik considered the question even while wondering why he bothered to. But technically he was still in the office. He was in the penthouse of the Lindqvist Building. He looked forward to the dinner with Nick and Diana. He’d found it difficult to keep a lid on his excitement at being back on board. Captain of his ship. Or rather admiral of his fleet. But Joyce was threatening him. Threatening was not a good way for a woman in dealing with people. Too basic. Appeal rather to strengths, to the intelligence. Gudinna would handle this like a true goddess. But then Gudinna was unique. Nobody and nothing like her in the known universe. Yet jaundicing Joyce behaved as if he’d committed a dereliction of duty. For God’s sake he was in a tight spot he’d had to get out of. Right now his mind was going like the clappers. But Joyce was the greatest thing at the moment for his wife and children.
“Did something get away with your tongue or are you simply drafting a business report, Norseman?”
Christ. “All elegance and finesse, aren’t you, Joyce?”
“That’s me. Every single cell embroidered with elegance and finesse. Call later, all right? I’ve got to terminate this call before the kids storm in here and catch me having a heart to heart with the cause of their misery and beloved Mamma’s deep sleep.”
Jesus. But never let an adversary – which Joyce was now determined to be – know what you’re thinking. “Okay, you win. But please tell me how the children took, erm, things at the Clinique. I mean… You know what the hell I mean, Joyce. At least tell me that.”
“Don’t worry, they’re fine. This was better than leaving them to cope with whatever their imagination conjured up. They could see her ‘sleeping’, talk to her, touch her, feel her warmth, kiss her inert face and hands, sing her and their favourite songs to her with that radio cassette recorder you never thought to get her. And Danielle was there all through it to gauge things. The kids were as good as could be expected under the circumstances. And they get better and talk more freely about Mamma’s ‘deep sleep’ with every passing hour. Call later.”
“Thank you, Joyce.”
This woman was a right royal pain, but you had to doff your hat for her.