“Can you hear me?”
“Yes but I can’t see you, you need to turn your camera on.”
“Diane, you’re on mute.” Emma watched as Chris gesticulated wildly trying to send a signal to Diane.
“Wow, Zoe, is that your new house? It’s lush!”
“Thanks. We’re starting to feel settled now.”
“Well, you’ll certainly have had time to do it up since we’ve all been ‘working from home’.”
Emma sighed and saw Zoe roll her eyes. She had never met anyone who did quote marks with their fingers until she started working for Chris’ team. It was ironic that his hand signals were so irritating, given that he tied himself in linguistic knots trying not to offend anyone. She watched as more of her colleagues appeared on the screen. The wine expert was sitting quietly, looking slightly awkward. He looked younger than she’d expected. Most of the wine buffs she knew were well over 40 with a slightly florid complexion. He wasn’t that much older than her. She looked over her shoulder as Tom appeared from Cara’s bedroom and gave her a thumbs up. That was a relief. If she was sparked out already that meant she wouldn’t appear wanting milk in the background of the Zoom call.
Matt’s face appeared on the screen. “You alright Matt? You look a bit groggy babe.” That was how Sophie talked to everyone. Even the chief executive was ‘babe’.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Had a disco nap on the sofa and woke up with a bit of a headache.”
Sophie screeched with laughter. “You’re a proper party animal, aren’t you?” Matt just smirked. Emma could see that the image was a bit fuzzy, but he did look bad.
“Right then, have we got everyone?” Chris had adopted the manner that he used to bring team meetings to attention. Emma could see Zoe’s eyebrows heading upwards again. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I know that we’d much rather be having a team do in person, but I think a Zoom version will make an excellent substitute. I’m sure we’ll be back to a Christmas party with everyone from the office this time next year. Sorry, did someone say something?”
Emma was fairly sure she’d heard a snort of derision from Diane. She’d be retired this time next year and would be spared the annual meal with interminable speeches from everyone in senior management.
“Anyway,” Chris continued, “I’ll hand you over to Adam, our wine expert.”
“Thank you. As Chris said, I’m Adam. I’m a certified sommelier and in normal times I run parties like these in person. Zoom is a new innovation for us but it’s been great to bring people together. Can I just check that everyone has had their catering box delivered?”
A mixture of nods and thumbs up filled the screen.
“Great. Please open them up if you haven’t already.”
Emma had never been to an organised virtual party before. She didn’t feel that drinking gin with her sister-in-law over FaceTime really counted. Earlier that afternoon a delivery driver had turned up bearing a large cardboard box with a clear window in the top. She’d been able to see a selection of cheeses, but as she opened it up she discovered that there were a series of miniature bottles underneath, each with a different variety of wine. Everything was labelled so they could match up the two. She opened the first bottle and poured it into her glass.
Emma was having more fun than she’d expected to. Adam knew his stuff. He was also better at audience participation than his non-COVID job suggested he would be.
“Soph, you’ve frozen again.”
“I don’t think she can hear you Chris.” Sophie was a still image, paused with a glass of wine fixed to her lips.
“You were all statues then” she laughed, “sorry about this, my internet connection’s rubbish.”
“Matt, are you having any crackers with that?” It was the first time Zoe had spoken. Emma thought it was an interesting choice of words to break the silence.
“Nah. Not a fan. No carbs before Marbs and all that.”
“Yeah, because we’ll all be jetting off any time now.”
“Let’s hope, hey?” Emma felt that Zoe’s sarcasm often flew entirely above Chris’ head.
“Right then, let’s move on to the next pairing. This is a Californian Pinot Noir. It’s a lovely light red wine and goes beautifully with – Matt, are you OK?”
Matt was clutching his head. Emma had the distinct impression that he was trying to dig his brain out with his fingers. He groaned, then disappeared as he fell off the sofa.
Sophie made a sound then her camera froze again. Everyone else was silent.
“Matt? Matt, can you hear me?” Chris was trying to sound authoritative but his voice was pure panic.
Zoe spoke next. “Either his screen’s frozen or he’s not moving.”
Emma looked at the faces of her colleagues. Everyone seemed to be frozen and they couldn’t all have a dodgy internet connection. “Well, we need to do something. He lives on his own, doesn’t he? Does anyone live nearby?”
Adam had gone pale but appeared to be taking action. “I’m just trying to get hold of the boss. What if it’s the food?”
“Yes, that’s exactly the response we need.” Zoe was back to her usual self.
“Do you have an address for him?”
“There might be one on the system, but am I allowed? I mean – GDPR…”
Emma wanted to throttle him. He’d been obsessing over GDPR for the last two years. “I can’t remember the details but I’m sure getting him medical attention counts as a legitimate reason.”
Sophie’s screen came back to life. “I’ve called an ambulance. I went to his for pre-drinks before the summer party.”
“Do you think that could be the cause?” Diane asked. “Too much to drink beforehand combined with not enough food?”
“If he’d had some crackers it would have soaked it up a bit.” Chris agreed.
“I don’t know,” Emma replied. “He didn’t seem drunk. He seemed drowsy, said he had a headache and it looked like he was sweating. Those symptoms ring a bell but I can’t think why.” She had a dim and distant memory of having read about them somewhere in case she needed to recognise them. Why would she have done that?
Adam had lowered his phone. “Can I just check? Did everyone receive a sealed box?” They all nodded and he lifted the phone again. “Yes, they were.” Down the phone went. “Do we need an address for him or is that sorted?” Emma told him an ambulance was on its’ way and he spoke briefly into the phone before hanging up. “It should be obvious if a box has been tampered with. Apparently the delivery driver couldn’t get an answer at Adam’s so he left it with one of his neighbours. He obviously got it OK though.”
“I’ve got it!” Emma cried as the pieces of her memory organised themselves. She registered a uniform row of startled expressions on the screen. “He’s got the symptoms of hypoglycaemia. My granny had type 2 diabetes. I remember looking up the symptoms in case she ever had an attack when I was with her. Zoe, you’re type 1 aren’t you, do you think it could be that?”
“Well maybe, but he isn’t diabetic. If he was he’d know how important it is to dose his carbs properly, especially when we’re having a drink. And let’s face it, if he was we’d all know about it.”
Something in her voice made Emma look at Zoe more closely. She was always heavy with irony but there was something else. It almost sounded like bitterness. She minimised her Zoom screen and opened Facebook. She was friends with Zoe but had muted her early on in lockdown. Editing whose posts she saw had been an essential tool for managing her mental health. If anyone whinged too much she removed them, at least temporarily. She found Zoe’s account and scrolled through. It was relentless. If a post wasn’t something about the NHS it was a complaint about her neighbour and the incessant noise, the state of his garden or the endless procession of delivery drivers.
Sophie had unfrozen again. “Finally! Can anyone hear sirens? Zoe, you live near him now don’t you? Since you moved? He’s in a terrace on Stubbs Road, one of those ones with the stone fan thingy over the door?”
Emma had expected Zoe to scoff at Sophie’s lack of architectural knowledge, but her face was a mask. It reminded Emma of the scene at the end of Psycho where Norman Bates stares silently at the camera. What had she done? Emma returned to Facebook and carried on scrolling until she found a photo of Zoe with the caption ‘our new home!’ It was a terrace with a fan thingy over the door. Emma could hear the sirens sounding somewhere through the speakers.
“Does he leave the back door unlocked Zoe?”
“Matt. He’s your noisy neighbour, isn’t he? They left the box with you and you went round to deliver it. I’d guess that you found him asleep on the sofa and took the opportunity to go and fetch your insulin. Is that how it went?”
Zoe laughed as the sirens got closer and Emma realised she could hear them from two different computers at slightly different times.
“Zoe, what did you do?”
“Nothing you’ll ever be able to prove.”
Her screen went black.