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One Plus One / (by Jojo Moyes, 2014) -

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One Plus One /    (by Jojo Moyes, 2014) -

One Plus One / (by Jojo Moyes, 2014) -

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: 245
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One Plus One / (by Jojo Moyes, 2014) -
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2014
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Jojo Moyes
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Elizabeth Bower, Ben Elliot, Nicola Stanton, Steven France
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upper-intermediate
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13:06:39
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

One Plus One / :

.doc (Word) moyes_jojo_-_one_plus_one.doc [1.26 Mb] (c: 3) .
.pdf moyes_jojo_-_one_plus_one.pdf [1.86 Mb] (c: 3) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: One Plus One

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Jojo Moyes THE ONE PLUS ONE To Charles, as ever. 1. Jess The irony did not escape Jessica Thomas that she lost the best job shed ever had because of a diamond. Not because she stole it but because she didnt. Jess and Nathalie had cleaned Mr and Mrs Ritters holiday home for almost three years, since the Beachfront holiday park was part paradise, part building site. Back when the developers promised local families access to the swimming pool, and assured everyone that a large upmarket development would bring benefits to their little seaside town, instead of sucking out what remained of its life. The Ritters were standard occupants. They came down from London most weekends with their children. Mrs Ritter generally stayed on throughout the holidays while her husband stayed in the city. They spent most of their time on the manicured stretch of the beach, and visited the town only to fill up their people-carrier with diesel or to top up their groceries at the retail park. Jess and Nathalie cleaned their spacious, Farrow-and-Ball-painted four-bedroom home twice a week when they were there, and once when they werent. It was April and, judging by the empty juice cartons and wet towels, the Ritters were in residence. Nathalie was cleaning the en-suite bathroom and Jess was changing the beds, humming along to the radio that they carried between jobs. As she whipped off the duvet cover she heard a sound like the crack of a high-velocity air rifle. Living where she did, she knew this sound well. She could have bet money that there were no air rifles at Beachfront. Her gaze was caught by something glittering on the floor. She stooped by the window and picked up a diamond earring between her thumb and forefinger. She held it up to the light, then walked next door to where Nathalie was on her knees, scrubbing the bath, lines of dark sweat outlining her bra strap. It had been a long morning. Look. Nathalie climbed to her feet, squinting. What is it? Diamond. It fell out of the bed linen. That cant be real. Look at the size of it. They gazed at the earring, as Jess rotated it between finger and thumb. Lisa Ritter isnt going to have fake diamonds. Not with their money. Cant diamonds cut glass? She ran it speculatively down the edge of the window. Great idea, Jess. You just keep going until her window falls out. Nathalie stood up, rinsed her cloth under the tap. More importantly, wheres the other one? They shook out the bed linen, peered under the bed, sifted through the deep pile of the beige carpet on their hands and knees, like police at a murder scene. Finally Jess checked her watch. They looked at each other and sighed. One earring. Your basic nightmare. Things they had found while cleaning peoples houses: False teeth An escaped guinea pig A long-lost wedding ring (they were given a box of chocolates for this) A signed photograph of Cliff Richard (no chocolates; owner denied all knowledge) Money. Not just small change, but a whole turquoise wallet stuffed full of fifties. It had fallen behind a chest of drawers. When Jess handed it over to the client a Mrs Linder, who had rented number four Beachfront for three months over the summer she had looked at it in mild surprise. I was wondering where that had gone, she said, and pocketed it without a backward look, as you would a mislaid hair slide or a remote control. Guinea pigs aside, it was not as great as you might think, turning up valuables. One earring or a pile of loose notes, and clients would give you that vague, sideways look, the flicker in their eyes that meant they were wondering if you had pocketed the rest. Mr Ritter would definitely assume they had taken the other earring. He was the kind of man who made them feel guilty just for being in his house. That was on the days he deigned to acknowledge they were there. So what do we do? Nathalie was bundling up the duvet cover, ready for the laundry. Leave it on the side. Well just write a note saying we couldnt find the other. They usually left a note or two out during their rounds, saying what theyd done. Or a polite reminder that they were owed money. Its the truth. Should we say we shook out all the bedding? Whatever. I just dont want her thinking we took it. Jess finished writing, and placed the earring carefully on the piece of paper. Mrs Ritter might already have the other one. She might be glad we found it. Nathalie made the face that said Jess would look on the bright side of a nuclear apocalypse. Personally, I think I would have known if there was a diamond the size of an eyeball in my bed. She dumped the dirty laundry outside the bedroom door. Right. You vacuum the hall, and Ill change the kids beds. If we get a wiggle on, we can be at the Gordons by half eleven. Nathalie Benson and Jessica Thomas had cleaned together every weekday for four years, the somewhat uninspired moniker Benson and Thomas Cleaning Services on the side of their little white van. Nathalie had stencilled A Bit Dirty? Can we Help? underneath for two whole months until Jess pointed out that half the calls they were getting were nothing to do with cleaning. Nearly all their jobs were in Beachfront now. Hardly anybody in the town had the money or the inclination to hire a cleaner, except for the GPs, the solicitor and the odd client like Mrs Humphrey, whose arthritis stopped her doing it herself. She was one of those old women who believed cleanliness was next to godliness, her lifes worth previously measured in starched curtains and a freshly scrubbed front step. Sometimes they suspected shed saved up a whole forty-eight hours of conversation just for the hour that they were there. Wednesdays they did Mrs Humphrey after their Beachfront jobs, the Ritters and the Gordons, and, if they were lucky, whichever of the holiday cottages the other cleaning firms had failed to turn up for. Jess was lugging the vacuum cleaner along the hall when the front door opened. Mrs Ritter called up the stairs, Is that you, girls? She was the kind of woman to whom all women, even those collecting their pensions, were girls. I had the best girls night out on Saturday, she would say, her eyes rolling with mischief. Or, So off I went, to the little girls room but they liked her. She was always cheerful, and wore her money lightly. And she never treated them like cleaners. Nathalie and Jess exchanged looks. It had been a long morning, theyd done two ovens already (what kind of people roasted pork on holiday?), and Mrs Humphreys tea tended to be the colour and consistency of stair varnish. Ten minutes later they were sitting round the kitchen table, while Lisa Ritter pushed a plate of biscuits towards them. Go on, have one. If you eat them, I cant be tempted. She squeezed a non-existent roll of fat over her waistband. Nathalie and Jess could never agree if shed had work. She was the kind of woman who floated somewhere in the carefully maintained hinterlands between forty and sixty-something. Her tinted chestnut hair was set in soft waves, she played tennis three times a week, did Pilates with a private instructor, and Nathalie knew someone at the local salon, who said that she was waxed to within an inch of her life every four weeks. Hows your Martin? Still alive. To the best of my knowledge, Natalie said. Oh, yes. She nodded, remembering. You did tell me. Finding himself, was it? Thats the one. Youd have thought he might have found himself by now. There was enough of him. Mrs Ritter paused, and gave Jess a conspiratorial smile. Your little girl still got her head stuck in a maths book? Always. Oh, theyre good children, yours. Some of these mothers round here, I swear they dont know what their lot are doing from dawn till dusk. That Jason Fisher and his friends were throwing eggs at Dennis Grovers windows the other day. Eggs! It was hard to tell from her voice whether she was more shocked at the act of aggression or the waste of good food. She was in the middle of a story about her manicurist and a small, incontinent dog, breaking off repeatedly as she was overcome with laughter, when Nathalie held up her phone. Mrs Humphreys tried to call, she said, pushing back her chair. Wed better get off. She slid off the stool and made her way out to the hallway to fetch the cleaning crate. Well, the place looks lovely. Thank you both so much. Mrs Ritter reached up a hand and patted her hair into place, briefly lost in thought. Oh, before you go, Jess, you wouldnt give me a hand with something, would you? Most of the clients knew Jess was good at practical things. There was barely a day where somebody didnt want help with some grouting, or picture-hanging, jobs they swore would only take five minutes. Jess didnt mind. If its a big job though I may need to come back, she said. And charge , she added silently. Oh, no, Lisa Ritter said, walking towards the back door. I just need someone to help me with my suitcase. I cricked my back on the plane, and I need someone to get it up the steps for me. Plane? I went to see my sister in Mallorca. Well, now the children are at uni, Ive got all this time to myself, havent I? I thought it would be nice to have a few days mini-break. I left Simon to it, bless him. So when did you get back? She looked at Jess blankly. You saw me! Just now! It took a couple of seconds to hit. And it was a good job that she was already headed outside into the sun because Jess felt the colour actually drain from her face. That was the problem with cleaning. It was a good job on the one hand if you didnt mind other peoples stains and pulling lumps of hair out of other peoples plugholes (she didnt, funnily enough). Jess didnt even mind that most of those who rented holiday homes seemed to feel obliged to live like pigs for a week, leaving mess they wouldnt sit in at home because they knew there was a cleaner coming. You could work for yourself, organise your own hours, pick and choose your clients when times were good. The downside, weirdly, was not the crappy clients (and there always was at least one crappy client), or the dirt, or that scrubbing someone elses toilet somehow left you feeling like you were one step lower on a ladder than you had planned to be. It wasnt even the constant threat from other companies, the leaflets through your clients doors and the promises of cheaper by the hour. It was that you ended up finding out much more about other peoples lives than you really wanted to. Jess could have told you about Mrs Eldridges secret shopping habit: the designer-shoe receipts she stuffed into the bathroom bin, and the bags of unworn clothes in her wardrobe, the tags still firmly attached. She could tell you that Lena Thompson had been trying for a baby for four years, and used two pregnancy tests a month (rumour had it she left her tights on). She could tell you that Mr Mitchell in the big house behind the church earned a six-figure salary (he left his payslips on the hall table; Nathalie swore he did it deliberately) and that his daughter smoked secretly in the bathroom and lined up all her cigarette butts in neat rows on the window ledge. If she was that way inclined, she could have pointed out the women who went out looking immaculate, hair faultless, nails polished, lightly spritzed with expensive scent, who thought nothing of leaving soiled knickers in full view on the floor, or the teenage boys whose stiff towels she didnt want to pick up without a pair of tongs. There were the couples who spent every night in separate beds, the wives insisting brightly when they asked her to change the spare-room sheets that theyd had an awful lot of guests lately, the lavatories that required a gas mask and a HAZCHEM warning. And then every now and then you got a nice client like Lisa Ritter and popped over to vacuum her floors and came home with a whole load of knowledge you could really have done without. Jess watched Nathalie walking outside, the cleaning crate under her arm, and saw with a terrible clarity what was going to happen next. She saw the bed upstairs, immaculately made with clean linen, the polished surfaces of Mrs Ritters dressing-table, the cushions neatly plumped on the little sofa in the bay window. She saw that diamond, sitting where she had left it with her scrawled note on the dresser, a tiny glittering hand grenade. Actually, Jess said, hauling the suitcase past Nathalie, can I have a quick word, Nat? She tried to catch her eye, but Nathalie was busy gazing at Mrs Ritters shoes. I love your pumps, she said breathlessly. Do you, Nathalie? I got them while I was away. They were an absolute bargain. Mrs Ritters been to Spain, Nat, Jess said pointedly, stopping beside her. A mini-break . Nathalie glanced up and smiled. Nothing. She got back this morning . Lovely, said Nathalie, beaming. Jess felt panic rising inside her, like an unstoppable tide. I tell you what, Ill carry this upstairs for you, she said, pushing past Mrs Ritter. You dont have to do that! Its no bother. She wondered if Lisa Ritter had registered the strange set to her face. She could make it upstairs, she thought. She could run into the bedroom, fetch the earring, stuff it into her pocket and shove Nathalie into the car before she could say anything, and Mrs Ritter would never know. They would decide what to do about it later. But even as she hurled herself through the back door some part of her already knew what would happen. So did Jess tell you? She was halfway up the stairs. Nathalies voice carried, as clear as a bell, through the open window. We found one of your earrings. We thought you might have the other one put by. Earrings? said Mrs Ritter. Diamond. I think its a platinum setting. Fell out of the bed linen. Youre lucky we didnt vacuum it up. There was a short silence. Jess closed her eyes, stood very still on the stairs and waited as the inevitable words floated up to her. How was I supposed to know Mrs Ritter doesnt have pierced ears? They sat in the cleaning van, slumped in their seats. Nathalie was smoking. She had given up six weeks ago. For the fourth time. I dont look at peoples ears. Do you look at peoples ears? I think you must have been mistaken, Lisa Ritter had said, her voice quivering slightly with the effort, as she held it in her hand. Its probably my daughters, from when she came home last time. Shes got a pair just like it. Of course, Jess said. It probably got kicked in here. Or carried in on someones shoe. We knew it would be something like that. And she knew right then, when Mrs Ritter turned away from her, that that would be it. Nobody thanked you for bringing bad news to their door. Nobody wanted a cleaner knowing their bad business. Eighty pounds a week, guaranteed. And holiday pay. Nathalie let out a sudden scream. Bloody hell. I actually want to find the tart who owns that bloody earring and thump her for losing us our best job. Maybe she didnt know he was married. Oh, she knew. Before shed met Dean, Nathalie had spent two years with a man who turned out to have not one but two families on the other side of Southampton. No single man keeps colour-coordinated scatter cushions on his bed. Neil Brewster does, Jess said. Neil Brewsters music collection is sixty-seven per cent Judy Garland, thirty-three per cent Pet Shop Boys. At the end of the road a padded toddler toppled gently onto the ground like a felled tree and, after a brief silence, let out a thin wail. Its mother, her two armloads of shopping bags perfectly balanced, stood and stared in mute dismay. Look, you heard what she said the other week shed get rid of her hairdresser before shed get rid of us. Before she got rid of the cleaners. Thats different. She wont care whether its us or Speedicleanz or Maids With Mops. Nathalie shook her head. Nope. To her, from now on, well always be the cleaners who know the truth about her husband. It matters to women like her. Theyre all about appearances, arent they? The mother put down her bags and stooped to pick up the toddler. A few houses away, Terry Blackstone emerged from under the bonnet of his Ford Focus, a car that had not run in eighteen months, and peered out to see what was making all the noise. Jess put her bare feet up on the dashboard and let her face fall into her hands. Bugger it. How are we going to make up the money, Nat? That was our best job. The house was immaculate. It was basically a twice a week polishing job. Nathalie stared out of the window. And she always paid on time. And she used to give us stuff. Jess kept seeing that diamond earring. Why hadnt they just ignored it? It would have been better if one of them had stolen it. Okay, so shes going to cancel us. Lets change the subject, Nat. I cant afford to cry before my pub shift. So, did Marty ring this week? I didnt mean change the subject to that . Well, did he? Jess sighed. Yup. Did he say why he didnt ring the week before? Nathalie shoved Jesss feet off the dashboard. Nope. Jess could feel her staring. And no, he didnt send any money. Oh, come on. Youve got to get the Child Support Agency onto him. You cant carry on like this. He should send money for his own kids. It was an old argument. Hes hes still not right, Jess said. I cant put more pressure on him. He hasnt got a job yet. Well, youre going to need that money now. Until we get another job like Lisa Ritters. Hows Nicky? Oh, I went round to Jason Fishers house to talk to his mum. Youre joking. She scares the pants off me. Did she say shed get him to leave Nicky alone? Something like that. Nathalie kept her eyes on Jess and dropped her chin two inches. She told me if I set foot on her doorstep once more shed batter me halfway to next Wednesday. Me and my what was it? me and my freakazoid kids. Jess pulled down the passenger mirror and checked her hair, pulling it back into a ponytail. Oh, and then she told me her Jason wouldnt hurt a fly. Typical. Its fine. I had Norman with me. And, bless him, he took an enormous dump next to their Toyota and somehow I forgot I had a plastic bag in my pocket. Jess put her feet back up. Nathalie pushed them down again and mopped the dashboard with a wet wipe. Seriously, though, Jess. How long has Marty been gone? Two years? Youve got to get back on the horse. Youre young. You cant wait around for him to sort himself out, she said, with a grimace. Get back on the horse. Nice. Liam Stubbs fancies you. You could totally ride that. Any certified pair of X chromosomes could ride Liam Stubbs. Jess closed the window. Im better off reading a book. Besides, I think the kids have had enough upheaval in their lives without playing Meet Your New Uncle. Right. She looked up, wrinkled her nose at the sky. Ive got to get the tea on and then Ive got to get ready for the pub. Ill do a quick ring-round before I go, see if any of the clients want any extras doing. And, you never know, she might not cancel us. Nathalie lowered her window, and blew out a long trail of smoke. Sure, Dorothy. And our next job is going to be cleaning the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road. Number fourteen Seacove Avenue was filled with the sound of distant explosions. Tanzie had calculated recently that, since hed turned sixteen, Nicky had spent 88 per cent of his spare time in his bedroom. Jess could hardly blame him. She dropped her cleaning crate in the hall, hung up her jacket, made her way upstairs, feeling the familiar faint dismay at the threadbare state of the carpet, and pushed at his door. He was wearing a set of headphones and shooting somebody; the smell of weed was strong enough to make her reel. Nicky, she said, and someone exploded in a hail of bullets. Nicky. She walked over to him and pulled his headphones off, so that he turned, his expression briefly bemused, like someone hauled from sleep. Hard at work, then? Revision break. She picked up an ashtray and held it towards him. I thought I told you. Its from last night. Couldnt sleep. Not in the house, Nicky. There was no point telling him not at all. They all did it around here. She told herself she was lucky he had only started at fifteen. Is Tanzie back yet? She stooped to pick up stray socks and mugs from the floor. No. Oh. The school rang after lunch. What? He typed something into the computer then turned to face her. I dont know. Something about school. It was then that she saw it. She lifted a lock of that dyed black hair, and there it was: a fresh mark on his cheekbone. He ducked away. Are you okay? He shrugged, looked away from her. Did they come after you again? Im fine. Why didnt you call me? No credit. He leant back and fired a virtual grenade. The screen exploded into a ball of flame. The numbers on the table. If its about me, I was there on Friday. They must have just not seen me. He replaced his earphones and went back to the screen. Nicky had come to live with Jess full time eight years previously. He was Martys son by Della, a woman hed gone out with briefly in his teens. He had arrived silent and wary, his limbs thin and elongated, his appetite raging. His mother had fallen in with a new crowd, finally disappearing to somewhere in the Midlands with a man called Big Al, who wouldnt look anyone in the eye and clutched an ever-present can of Tennents Extra like a hand grenade in his oversized fist. Nicky had been found sleeping in the locker rooms at school, and when the social workers called again, Jess had said he could come to them. Just what you need, Nathalie had said. Another mouth to feed. Hes my stepson. Youve met him twice in four years. And youre not even twenty. Well, thats how families are, these days. Its not all two point four. Afterwards, she sometimes wondered whether that had been the final straw; the thing that had caused Marty to abdicate responsibility for his family altogether. But Nicky was a good kid, under all the raven hair and eyeliner. He was sweet to Tanzie, and on his good days he talked and laughed and allowed Jess the occasional awkward hug, and she was glad of him, even if it sometimes felt as if she had basically acquired one more person to feel anxious about. She stepped out into the garden with the phone and took a deep breath, her stomach a knot of anxiety. Um hello? Its Jessica Thomas here. I had a message to call. A pause. If its about Nicky, I did check his study-periods rota. He said he was allowed to do revision at home and I thought that this was how they Mrs Thomas, I was calling you about Tanzie. A clench of panic. She glanced down at the number, registering. Tanzie? Is is everything all right? Sorry. I should have said. Its Mr Tsvangarai here, Tanzies maths teacher. Oh. She pictured him: a tall man in a grey suit. Face like a funeral directors. I wanted to talk to you because a few weeks ago I had a very interesting discussion with a former colleague of mine who works for St Annes. St Annes? Jess frowned. The private school? Yes. They have a scholarship programme for children who are exceptionally gifted in maths. And, as you know, we had already earmarked Tanzie as Gifted and Talented. Because shes good at maths. Better than good. Well, we gave her the paper to sit last week. I dont know if she mentioned it? I sent a letter home but I wasnt sure you saw it. Jess squinted at the sky. Seagulls wheeled and swooped against the grey. A few gardens down Terry Blackstone had started singing along to a radio. He had been known to do the full Rod Stewart if he thought nobody was looking. We got the results back this morning. And she has done well. Extremely well. Mrs Thomas, if youre agreeable they would like to interview her for a subsidized place. She found herself parroting him. A subsidized place? For certain children of exceptional ability St Annes will forgo a significant proportion of the school fees. It means that Tanzie would get a top-class education. She has an extraordinary numerical ability, Mrs Thomas. I do think this could be a great opportunity for her. St Annes? But shed need to get a bus across town. Shed need all the uniform and kit. She she wouldnt know anyone. Shed make friends. But these are just details, Mrs Thomas. Lets wait and see what the school comes up with. Tanzie is an extraordinarily talented girl. He paused. When she didnt say anything, he lowered his voice: I have been teaching maths for almost twenty-two years, Mrs Thomas. And I have never met a child who grasped mathematical concepts like she does. I believe she is actually exceeding the point where I have anything to teach her. Algorithms, probability, prime numbers Okay. This is where you lose me, Mr Tsvangarai. Ill just go with gifted and talented. He chuckled. Ill be in touch. She put down the phone and sat heavily on the white plastic garden chair that had been there when theyd moved in and had now grown a fine sheen of emerald moss. She stared at nothing, in through the window at the curtains that Marty always thought were too bright, at the red plastic tricycle that she had never got round to getting rid of, at next doors cigarette butts sprinkled like confetti on her path, at the rotten boards in the fence that the dog insisted on sticking his head through. Despite what Nathalie referred to as her frankly misguided optimism, Jess found her eyes had filled unexpectedly with tears. There were lots of awful things about the father of your children leaving: the money issues, the suppressed anger on behalf of your children, the way most of your coupled-up friends now treated you as if you were some kind of potential husband-stealer. But worse than that, worse than the endless, relentless, bloody exhausting financial and energy-sapping struggle, was that being a parent on your own when you were totally out of your depth was actually the loneliest place on earth. 2. Tanzie Twenty-six cars sat in the car park at St Annes. Two rows of thirteen big shiny four-wheel-drives faced each other on each side of a gravel path, sliding in and out of the spaces at an average angle of 41 degrees, before the next in line moved in. Tanzie watched them as she and Mum crossed the road from the bus stop, the drivers talking illegally into phones or mouthing at bug-eyed blond babies in the rear seats. Mum lifted her chin and fiddled with her keys in her free hand, as if they were actually her car keys and she and Tanzie just happened to have parked somewhere nearby. She kept glancing behind her. Tanzie guessed she was worried she was going to bump into one of her cleaning clients and they were going to ask what she was doing there. She had never been inside St Annes, although shed been past it on the bus at least ten times because the NHS dentist was on this road. From the outside, there was just an endless hedge, trimmed to exactly 90 degrees (she wondered if the gardener used a protractor) and those big trees where the branches hung low and friendly, sweeping out across the playing fields as if they were there to shelter the children below. The children at St Annes did not swing bags at each others heads, or bundle up in huddles by the corner of the playground, backing someone against the wall to tax their lunch money. There were no weary-sounding teachers trying to herd the teenagers into classrooms. The girls had not rolled their skirts six times over at the waistband or backcombed their hair. Not a single person was smoking. A lot of them wore glasses. Her mother gave her hand a little squeeze. Tanzie wanted her to stop looking so nervous. Its nice, isnt it, Mum? She nodded. Yes. It came out as a squeak. Mr Tsvangarai told me that every single one of their sixth-formers who did maths got A or A starred. Thats good, isnt it? Amazing. Tanzie pulled a bit at Mums hand so that they could get to the heads office faster. Do you think Norman will miss me when Im doing the long days? The long days. St Annes doesnt finish till six. And theres maths club on Tuesdays and Thursdays so Id definitely want to do that. Tanze, she said, and stopped. Mum. Look . There was a girl walking along reading a book. Actually reading a book. Nicky said if you walked across the playground reading a book at McArthurs you got battered. You had to hide them, like cigarettes. Her mother glanced at her. She looked really tired. She was always tired, these days. She put on one of those smiles that wasnt really a smile at all, and they went in. Hello, Mrs Thomas. Hello, Costanza. Its very good to meet you. Do sit down. The headmasters study had a high ceiling, as white and perfectly decorated as a wedding cake. Little white plaster rosettes sat every twenty centimetres, and tiny rosebuds exactly halfway between them. The room was stuffed with old furniture and through a large bay window a man on a roller could be seen travelling up and down a cricket pitch. On a small table somebody had laid out a tray of coffee and hand-made biscuits. It took Tanzie a few minutes to realize they were for them. Can I have one? she said, and the headmaster pushed them towards her. Of course. Mouth closed, Mum murmured. They were so good. You could tell they were homemade. Mum used to make biscuits before Dad left and they were just like these. She sat down on the edge of the sofa and gazed at the two men opposite. The one with the moustache smiled like the nurse did before she gave you an injection. Mum had pulled her bag onto her lap and Tanzie could see her holding her hand over the corner where Norman had chewed it. Her leg was jiggling. This is Mr Cruikshank. Hes the head of maths. And Im Mr Daly. Ive been head here for the past two years. She shook their hands and smiled back. Tanzie should have shaken their hands, but all she could hear were the words head of maths. She looked up from her biscuit. Do you do chords? We do. And probability? That too. Mr Cruikshank leant forward. Weve been looking at your test results. And we think, Costanza, that you should sit your GCSE in maths next year and get it out of the way. Because I think youd rather enjoy the A-level problems. She looked at him. Have you got actual papers? Ive got some next door. Would you like to see them? She couldnt believe he was asking. She thought briefly of saying, Well, DUH, like Nicky did. But she just nodded. Mr Daly handed Mum a coffee. I wont beat around the bush, Mrs Thomas. You are well aware that your daughter has an exceptional ability. We have only seen scores like hers once before and that was from a pupil who went on to be a fellow at Trinity. Tanzie nodded, although she was pretty sure she didnt want to be a fellow. Everyone knew girls were better at maths. He went on and on then. She tuned out a bit because she was trying to see how many biscuits she could eat so what she heard was for a very select group of pupils who have a demonstrably unusual ability we have created a new equal-access scholarship. Blah, blah, blah. It would offer a child who might not otherwise get the advantages of a school like this the chance to fulfil their potential in Blah, blah. While we are very keen to see how far Costanza could go in the field of maths, we would also want to make sure that she was well rounded in other parts of her student life. We have a full sporting and musical curriculum. Blah, blah, blah Numerate children are often also able in languages blah, blah and drama thats often very popular with girls of her age. I only really like maths, she told him. And dogs. Well, we dont have much in the way of dogs, but wed certainly offer you lots of opportunities to stretch yourself mathematically. But I think you might be surprised by what else you enjoy. Do you play any instruments? She shook her head. Any languages? The room went a bit quiet. Other interests? We go swimming on Fridays, Mum said. We havent been swimming since Dad left. Mum smiled, but it went a bit wonky. We have, Tanzie. Once. May the thirteenth. But now you work on Fridays. Her smile went really strange then, like she couldnt hold the corners of her mouth up properly. Mr Cruikshank left the room, and reappeared a moment later with his papers. She stuffed the last of the biscuit into her mouth, then got up and went to sit next to him. He had a whole pile of them. Stuff she hadnt even started yet! She began going through them with him, showing him what she had done and what she hadnt, and in the background she could hear Mum and the headmasters voices rumbling away. Were very conscious of the pitfalls, psychological and otherwise, that can occur if children are only encouraged to go in one direction blah, blah, blah If Costanza comes to us, while we would consider her mathematical ability an asset, her pastoral care would be It sounded like it was going all right. Tanzie let her attention travel to what was on the page. It might have been renewal theory. Yes, Mr Cruikshank was saying quietly, his finger on the page. But the curious feature of renewal processes is that, if we wait some predetermined time and then observe how large the renewal interval containing it is, we should expect it to be typically larger than a renewal interval of average size. She knew about this! So the monkeys would take longer to type Macbeth ? she said. Thats it. He smiled. I wasnt sure youd have covered any renewal theory. I havent, really. But Mr Tsvangarai told me about it once and I looked it up on the Internet. I liked the whole monkey thing. She flicked through the papers. There was tons of it. The numbers sang to her. She could feel her brain sort of humming she wanted to read them so much. She knew she had to go to this school. Mum, she said. She didnt usually interrupt, but she was too excited and forgot her manners. Do you think we could get some of these papers? Mr Daly looked over. He didnt seem to mind about the missing manners. Mr Cruikshank, have we any spares? You can take these. He handed them over! Just like that! Tanzie began flicking through them. Outside a bell rang and she could hear children walking past the office window, their feet crunching on the gravel. She poked her head up to look at them. She wanted to see if any others were reading books. So what happens next? Well, wed like to offer Costanza Tanzie a scholarship. He lifted a glossy folder from the table. Heres our prospectus, and the relevant documentation. The scholarship covers ninety per cent of the fees. Its the most generous scholarship this school has ever offered. Usually fifty per cent is our maximum, given the extensive waiting list of pupils hoping to come here. The new scholarship is designed to recognize children with unusual levels of ability. Like me, Tanzie said. Like you. He held out the plate towards her. Somehow they had replaced the biscuits on the plate with new ones. This really was the greatest school ever. Ninety per cent, Mum said. She put her biscuit back on her saucer. I do appreciate that there is still a considerable financial commitment involved. And there would also be uniform and travel costs, and any extras she might want, like music or school trips. But I would like to stress that this is an incredible opportunity. He leant forward. We would love to have you here, Tanzie. Your maths teacher says youre a joy to work with. I like school, she said, reaching for another biscuit. I know lots of my friends think its boring. But I prefer school to home. They all laughed awkwardly. Not because of you, Mum, she said, and helped herself to another. But my mum does have to work a lot. Everyone went quiet. We all do, these days, said Mr Cruikshank. Well. Its a lot for you to think about. And Im sure you have other questions for us. But why dont you finish your coffee, while we talk, and then Ill get one of our pupils to show you around the rest of the school? Then you can discuss this between yourselves. That evening Mum went up to Nickys room and got him to hook the computer up to Skype. Every Sunday she would text Dad half an hour before, and he would set up the computer at Grandmas so that Tanzie could speak to him. She would sit at Nickys desk and try not to be distracted by the little image of herself in the corner. It always made her look like she had a really weird-shaped head. Except it wasnt Sunday. Tanzie was downstairs in the garden throwing a ball for Norman. She was determined that one day he would fetch it and bring it back. Tanzie had read somewhere that repetition increases the probability of an animal learning how to do something by a factor of four. She wasnt sure Norman could count, though. They had got Norman from the animal shelter when Dad first left and Mum stayed awake for eleven nights in a row worrying that they would be murdered in their beds once everyone realized hed gone. Brilliant with kids, a fantastic guard dog, the rescue centre said. Mum kept saying, But hes so big. Even more of a deterrent, they said, with cheery smiles. And did we mention hes brilliant with kids? Two years on, Mum said Norman was basically an enormous eating and crapping machine. He plodded around the house shedding hair and leaving evil smells behind him. He drooled on cushions and howled in his sleep, his great paws paddling the air as if he was swimming. Mum said the rescue centre had been right: nobody would break into their house for fear Norman would gas them to death. She had given up trying to ban him from Tanzies bedroom. When Tanzie woke up in the morning he was always stretched across three-quarters of the bed, hairy legs across her mattress, leaving her shivering under a tiny corner of duvet. Mum used to mutter about hairs and hygiene but Tanzie didnt mind. She and Norman had a special bond. She knew that one day he would show it. Theyd got Nicky when she was two. Tanzie went to bed one night and when she woke he was in the spare room and Mum just said he would be staying and he was her brother. She didnt know if they had a special bond, even though they were actually 50 per cent related. Tanzie had once asked him what he thought their shared genetic material was, and hed said, The weird loser gene. She thought he might have been joking, but she didnt know enough about genetics to check. She was rinsing her hands under the outside tap when she heard them talking. Nickys window was open and their voices floated out into the garden. Did you pay that water bill? Nicky said. No. I havent had a chance to get to the post office. It says its a final reminder. I know its a final reminder. Mum was snappy, like she always was when she talked about money. There was a pause. Norman picked up the ball and dropped it near her feet. It lay there, slimy and disgusting. Sorry, Nicky. I just need to get this conversation out of the way. Ill sort it out tomorrow morning. I promise. You want to speak to your dad? Tanzie knew what the answer would be. Nicky never wanted to talk to Dad any more. Hey. She moved right under the window and stood really still. She could hear Dads voice. Everything all right? Dad sounded tense. She wondered if he thought that something bad had happened. Perhaps if he thought Tanzie had leukaemia he might come back. She had watched a TV film once where the girls parents divorced and then got back together because she got leukaemia. She didnt actually want leukaemia though because needles made her pass out and she had quite nice hair. Everythings fine, Mum said. She didnt tell him about Nicky getting battered. Whats going on? A pause. Has your mum decorated? Mum asked. What? New wallpaper. Oh. That. Grandmas house had new wallpaper? Tanzie felt weird. Dad and Grandma were living in a house that she might not recognize any more. It had been 348 days since she last saw Dad. It was 433 days since shed seen Grandma. I need to talk to you about Tanzies schooling. Why is she playing up? Nothing like that, Marty. Shes been offered a scholarship to St Annes. St Annes? They think her maths is off the scale. St Annes . He said it like he couldnt believe it. I mean I knew she was bright, but He sounded really pleased. She pressed her back against the wall and went up on tippy-toes to hear better. Perhaps hed come back if she was going to St Annes. Our little girl at the posh school, eh? His voice had puffed up with pride. Tanzie could imagine him already working out what to tell his mates at the pub. Except he couldnt go to the pub. Because he always told Mum he had no money to enjoy himself. So whats the problem? Well its a big scholarship. But it doesnt cover everything. Meaning what? Meaning wed still have to find five hundred pounds a term. And the uniform. And the registration fee of five hundred pounds. The silence went on for so long Tanzie wondered if the computer had crashed. They said once weve been there a year we can apply for a hardship fee. Some bursary or something where, if youre a deserving case, they can give you extra. But basically we need to find the best part of two grand to get her through the first year. And then Dad laughed. He actually laughed. Youre having me on, right? No, I am not having you on. How am I meant to find two grand, Jess? I just thought Id Ive not even got a proper job yet. Theres nothing going on round here. Im Im only just getting back on my feet. Im sorry, babe, but theres no way. Cant your mum help? She might have some savings. Can I talk to her? No. Shes out. And I dont want you tapping her for money. Shes got worries enough as it is. Im not tapping her for money, Marty. I thought she might want to help her only grandchildren. Theyre not her only grandchildren any more. Elena had a little boy. Tanzie stood very still. I didnt even know she was pregnant. Yeah, I meant to tell you. Tanzie had a baby cousin. And she hadnt even known. Norman flopped down at her feet. He looked at her with his big brown eyes, then rolled over slowly with a groan, as if it was really, really hard work just lying on the floor. He kept looking at her, waiting for her to rub his tummy, but she was trying too hard to listen. Well what if we sell the Rolls? I cant sell the Rolls. Im going to start the weddings business up again. Its been rusting in our garage for the best part of two years. I know. And Ill come and get it. I just havent got anywhere to store it safely up here. The voices had that edge now. Their conversations often ended up like that. They would start off with Mum being all nice and then something would happen so that they both got really clipped and tense with each other. She heard Mum take a deep breath. Can you at least think about it, Marty? She really wants to go to this place. Really, really wants to go. When the maths teacher spoke to her, her whole face lit up like I havent seen since Since I left. I didnt mean it like that. So its all my fault. No, its not all your fault, Marty. But Im not going to sit here and pretend that you going has been a barrel of laughs for them. Tanzie doesnt understand why you dont visit her. She doesnt understand why she hardly gets to see you any more. I cant afford the fares, Jess. You know that. Theres no point you going on and on at me. Ive been ill. I know youve been ill. She can come and see me anytime. I told you. Send them both at half-term. I cant. Theyre too young to travel all that way alone. And I cant afford the fares for all of us. And I suppose thats my fault too. Oh, for Christs sake. Tanzie dug her nails into the soft parts of her hands. Norman kept looking at her, waiting. I dont want to argue with you, Marty, Mum said, and her voice was low and careful, like when a teacher is trying to explain something to you that you should already know. I just want you to think about whether there is any way at all you could contribute to this. It would change Tanzies life. It would mean she never has to struggle in the way that we struggle. You cant say that. What do you mean? Dont you watch the news, Jess? All the graduates are out of work. It doesnt matter what education you get. Shes still going to have to fight. Shes still going to struggle. He paused. No. Theres no point us going further into hock just for this. Of course these schools are going to tell you its all special, and shes special, and her life chances are going to be amazing if she goes, et cetera, et cetera. Thats what they do. Mum didnt say anything. No, if shes bright like they say she is, shell make her own way. Shell have to go to McArthurs like everyone else. Like the little bastards who spend all their time working out how to bash Nickys face in. And the girls who wear four inches of makeup and wont do PE in case they break a nail. She wont fit in there, Marty. She just wont. Now you sound like a snob. No, I sound like someone who accepts that her daughter is a little bit different. And might need a school that embraces it. Cant do it, Jess. Im sorry. He sounded distracted now, as if hed heard something in the distance. Look. Ive got to go. Get her to Skype me Sunday. There was a long silence. Tanzie counted to fourteen. She heard the door open and Nickys voice: That went well, then. She leant over and finally rubbed Normans tummy. She closed her eyes so she didnt see the tear that plopped onto it. Have we done any lottery tickets lately? No. That silence lasted nine seconds. Then Mums voice echoed into the still air: Well, I think maybe wed better start. 3. Ed Ed was in the creatives room drinking coffee with Ronan when Sidney walked in. A man he vaguely recognized stood behind him; another of the Suits. In their sombre grey, with their end-of-the-world expressions, they resembled a pair of Jehovahs Witnesses. Weve been looking for you. Well, you found us. Not Ronan, you. He studied them for a minute, waiting, then threw a red foam ball at the ceiling and caught it. He glanced sideways at Ronan. Investacorp had bought half-shares in the company a full eighteen months ago but they still thought of them as the Suits. It was one of the kinder things they called them in private. Do you know a woman called Deanna Lewis? Why? Did you give her any information about the launch of the new software? What? Its a simple question. Ed looked from one to the other. The atmosphere was strangely charged. His stomach, a packed elevator, began a slow descent towards his feet. We may have chatted about work. No specifics that I remember. Deanna Lewis? said Ronan. You need to be clear about this, Ed. Did you give her any information about the launch of SFAX? No. Maybe. What is this? The police are downstairs searching your office, with two goons from the Financial Services Authority. Her brother has been arrested for insider trading. On the basis of information that you gave them about the launch of the software. Ha-ha-ha! Funny. Deanna Lewis? Our Deanna Lewis? Ronan began to wipe his spectacles, a thing he did when he was feeling anxious. Your Deanna Lewis? We knew her back in college. Did you now? Well, her brothers hedge fund made two point six million dollars on the first day of trading. She alone cleared a hundred and ninety thousand on her personal account. They werent laughing. Her brothers hedge fund? Yes, his hedge fund. I dont understand, Ronan said. What is this? Ill spell it out. Deanna Lewis is on record talking to her brother about Ed telling her about the launch of SFAX. She says Ed said it was going to be enormous. And guess what? Two days later her brothers fund is among the biggest purchasers of shares. What exactly did you tell her? Ronan stared at him. Ed struggled to gather his thoughts. When he swallowed it was shamefully audible. Across the office the development team were peering over the tops of their cubicles. I didnt tell her anything. He blinked. I dont know. I might have said something. Its not like it was a state secret. It was a fucking state secret, Ed. Its called insider trading. She told him you gave her dates, times. She told him the company was going to make a fortune. Then shes lying! Shooting her mouth off. We were having a thing. You wanted to bone the girl, so you shot your mouth off to impress her? It wasnt like that. You had sex with Deanna Lewis? Ed could feel Ronans myopic gaze burning into him. Sidney lifted his hands, turned to the man behind him. You need to call your lawyer. But how can I be in trouble? Its not like I got any benefit from it. Michael Lewiss hedge fund was the biggest single investor in Mayfly in the week before SFAX went live. I didnt even know her brother had a hedge fund. Sidney glanced behind him. The faces suddenly found something interesting to look at on their desks. And he lowered his voice. You have to go now. They want to interview you at the police station. What? This is nuts. Ive got a meeting in twenty minutes. Im not going to any police station. And obviously were suspending you until weve got to the bottom of this. Ed laughed at him. Are you kidding me? You cant suspend me. Its my company. He threw the foam ball up in the air and caught it, turning away from them. Nobody moved. Im not going. This is our company. Tell them, Ronan. He looked at Ronan, but Ronan turned away. Ed looked at Sidney, who simply shook his head. Then he looked up at the two uniformed men who had appeared behind him, at his secretary, whose hand was at her mouth, at the carpet path already opening up between him and the office door, and the foam ball dropped silently onto the floor between his feet. Deanna Lewis. Maybe not the prettiest girl, but definitely the one who scored highest on Ed and Ronans campus-wide Girls Youd Give One Without Having To Drink A Fourth Pint First points system. As if shed look at either of them. He guessed that when she walked through the computer-science centre they had worn the same expressions as a basset hound watching a passing hamburger. Hed bet shed never once registered him in the whole three years, apart from that time when it was raining heavily and she was at the station and asked him for a lift back to halls in his Mini. He had been so tongue-tied the whole time she was in the passenger seat he had said barely a word, except a vaguely strangled, No worries, when he let her out at the other end. Those two words somehow managed to cover three octaves. She gave him a look that told him he was watching too many Australian soaps, then stooped to peel the empty crisps packet from the sole of her boot, dropping it delicately back into the footwell. If Ed had it bad, Ronan had it worse. His love weighed him down like a cartoon dumbbell, his hopes for it based on evidence less substantial than dust motes. He wrote her poetry, sent anonymous flowers on Valentines Day, smiled hopefully at her in the dinner queue and tried not to look crushed when she failed to notice. He grew philosophical in the end. It only took three years. Ed and he had both understood that someone so pretty, so far up the campus pecking order, wouldnt make time for either of them. And after they had graduated, set up their company, and swapped thinking about women for thinking about software until software became the thing they actually preferred thinking about, Deanna Lewis fell into that weird pocket of reminiscence you bring out when youve had too much to drink and want to show your co-workers you had some kind of social life at university and didnt spend the entire three years stuck behind a screen. Oh Deanna Lewis, they would say to each other, their eyes distant, like they could see her floating in slo-mo above the other drinkers heads. Or occasionally, of some other girl standing at the bar: Shes nice. But shes no Lewis. And then, three months ago, some six months after Lara had left, taking with her the apartment in Rome, half the contents of his stock portfolio, and what remained of Eds appetite for relationships, Deanna Lewis had contacted him via Facebook. She had been based in New York for a couple of years, but was coming back and wanted to catch up with some of her old friends from uni. Did he remember Reena? And Sam? Was he around for a drink at all? Afterwards, he was ashamed that he hadnt told Ronan. Ronan was busy with the new software upgrade, he told himself. It had taken him ages to get Deanna out of his system. He was in the early stages of dating that girl from the not-for-profit soup place. Why stir it all up again? The truth was, Ed was still stuck in his post-divorce slough. He hadnt had a date in for ever. And a bit of him wanted Deanna Lewis to see what he had become since the company was sold a year previously. Because money, it turned out, bought you someone to sort out your clothes, skin and hair. It bought you a personal trainer. Ed Nicholls no longer looked like the tongue-tied geek in the Mini. He wore no obvious signs of wealth, but he knew that, at thirty-three, he carried it like an invisible scent around him. They met at a bar in Soho. She apologized: Reena did he remember Reena? had blown them out at the last minute. She had a baby . She lifted a faintly mocking eyebrow as she said this. Sam, he realized long afterwards, never showed. She never once asked about Ronan. He couldnt stop staring at her. She looked just the same, but better. She had well-cut dark hair that bounced on her shoulders like a shampoo advert, and had lost the traces of puppy fat around her cheeks. She was nicer than he remembered, more human. Perhaps even golden girls were brought down to earth a little, once out of the confines of university. She laughed at all his jokes. Every now and then he glanced sideways to see her blinking at him and registered her brief flash of surprise that he was not the person she remembered. It made him feel good. They parted after a couple of hours, and a little piece of him was surprised when she called two days later to suggest they hook up again. This time they went to a club and he danced with her, and when she lifted her hands above her head, he had to focus really hard not to picture her pinned to a bed. She was just out of a relationship, she explained, over the third or fourth drink. The break-up had been awful. She was not sure she wanted to be involved in anything serious. He made all the right noises. He told her about Lara, his ex-wife, and how she had said her work was always going to be her first love, and that she had to leave him to save her sanity. Bit melodramatic, Deanna said. Shes Italian. And an actress. Everything with her is melodramatic. Was, she corrected him. She kept her eyes on his as she said it. She asked him about work was blunt in her admiration of what he had done with the company. I mean Im a total tech klutz, she said. But it sounds amazing. She had picked up the beginnings of an American accent. Her leg rested against his. He tried to explain it. She watched his mouth as he spoke, which was oddly distracting. He told her everything: the first trial versions he and Ronan had created in his bedroom, the software glitches, the meetings with a media tycoon who had flown them to Texas in his private jet and sworn at them when they refused his buyout offer. He told her of the day theyd gone public, when he had sat on the edge of his bath watching the share price go up and up on his phone, and begun to shake as he grasped quite how much his whole life was about to change. Youre that wealthy? I do okay. Define okay. He was aware that he was this close to sounding like a dick. Well I was doing better until I got divorced, obviously I do okay. You know, Im not really interested in the money. He shrugged. I just like doing what I do. I like the company. I like having ideas and translating them into things that actually work for people. But you sold it? It was getting too big, and I was told that if we did, the guys in suits could handle all the financial stuff. I was never interested in that side of things. I just own a lot of shares. He stared at her. You have really nice hair. He had no idea why on earth he said this. Shed kissed him in the taxi. Deanna Lewis had slowly turned his face to hers with a slim, perfectly manicured hand and kissed him. Even though it was more than twelve years since they were at university twelve years in which Ed Nicholls had been briefly married to a model/actress/whatever some little voice in his head kept saying: Deanna Lewis is kissing me. And she wasnt just kissing him: she hitched up her skirt and slid a long, slim leg over him, apparently oblivious to the taxi driver, pressed into him, and kissed his face, his neck, and slid her hands up his shirt until he couldnt speak or think, and when he came to pay outside his flat, his words came out thick and stupid, and he not only didnt wait for the change but didnt even check what was in the wad of notes he handed the driver. And the sex was great. Oh, God, it was good. She had porn moves, for Christs sake. With Lara, in the last months, sex had felt like she was granting him some kind of favour dependent on some set of rules that only she seemed to understand: whether he had paid her enough attention, or spent enough time with her or taken her out to dinner, or understood how hed hurt her feelings. Sometimes she would turn silently away from him afterwards like hed done something awful. When Deanna Lewis looked at him naked, her eyes seemed to light up from inside with a kind of hunger. Oh, God. Jesus Christ. Deanna Lewis. Afterwards, she had lain in bed, lit a cigarette, and said, I hardly smoke any more, but after that and chuckled throatily. I might take it up myself. And then, after she had finished her cigarette, she had given him head so good that he had suspected the downstairs neighbours would be lighting cigarettes too. She stayed with Ed the night after, and went home reluctantly. She was living with her brother in Fulham in the week, and at weekends in Bristol with her parents. That first week she emailed daily and rang him three times. He didnt tell Ronan. He instant-messaged her from his bed, his laptop a glowing ocean in the middle of his vast duvet, and tried not to think about her. They were just mucking around, he told himself. It was nothing serious. It wasnt as if Ronan was ever likely to bump into her. Besides, he and Deanna were both just out of bad break-ups. They had discussed how cynical they were about relationships, how it was good to find your feet alone. And then one night hed had a few drinks. Hed been feeling a bit melancholy. Hed paused for about thirty seconds, then typed: Come out with me this weekend. I cant, came the reply. Why? Broke. Ed thought of the way her long dark hair felt entwined in his fingers. He thought about how nice it had been just to have someone in his head who wasnt Lara. And he wrote: Ill pay. Come. She arrived on Friday night. They walked round the local bars, took a trip down the river, had a pub lunch. She linked her arm in his and he found himself staring at her fingers and exclaiming silently, Deanna Lewis! Im sleeping with Deanna Lewis! She was funny and sparky. She had this way of smiling that made you smile right back. And it was just so good to have guilt-free sex with someone whom you werent afraid might steal your wallet while you were asleep. On Sunday night they had a good meal, drank a lot of champagne, and then headed back to his place, and she had worn these crazy black silk knickers with ribbons at the sides that you could just pull undone so that they slid slowly down her thighs like a ripple of water. She rolled a joint afterwards, and he didnt normally smoke but he had felt his head spin pleasurably, had rested his fingers in her dark silky hair and felt like life was actually pretty good. And then she said, I told my parents about us. He was having trouble focusing. Your parents? You dont mind, do you? Its just been so good feeling like I belong in something again, you know? Ed found himself staring at a point on the ceiling. Its okay, he told himself. Lots of people tell their parents stuff. Even after two weeks. Ive been so depressed. And now I just feel she beamed at him happy. Like madly happy. Like I wake up and Im thinking about you. Like everythings going to be okay. His mouth felt oddly dry. He wasnt sure if it was the joint. Depressed? he said. Im okay now. I mean, my folks were really good. After the last episode they took me to the doctor and got me pills. And they definitely helped. They do apparently lower your inhibitions, but I cant say that anyones complained! HA-HA-HA-HA! He handed her the joint. I just feel things very intensely, you know? My psychiatrist says Im exceptionally sensitive. Some people bounce through life. Im not one of those people. Sometimes I can read about an animal dying or a child being murdered somewhere in another country, and I will literally cry all day. Literally. I was like it at college too. Dont you remember? No. She rested her hand on his cock. Suddenly Ed felt fairly certain it was not going to spring to life. She looked up at him. Her hair was half over her face and she blew at it. Its such a bummer losing your job and your home. You have no idea what its like to be really broke. She gazed at him as if weighing up how much to tell him. I mean properly broke. What what do you mean? Well like I owe my ex a load of money but Ive told him I cant pay him. I have too much on my credit card right now. And he still keeps ringing me, going on and on about it. Its very stressful. He doesnt understand how stressed I get. How much are you talking about? Oh. A fair bit. How much? He wasnt sure he wanted to know. She told him. As his jaw dropped, she said, And dont offer to lend it to me. I wouldnt take money from my boyfriend. Makes things too complicated. But its a nightmare. Ed tried not to think about the significance of her use of the word boyfriend. He glanced down at her and saw her lower lip tremble. He swallowed. Um are you okay? Her smile was too swift, too wide. Im good! Thanks to you, Im really fine now. She ran a finger along his chest. Anyway. Its been lovely not having to think about it. Its been heaven going out for nice dinners without wondering how I can afford it. She kissed one of his nipples. That night she slept with one leg slung over him. Ed lay wide awake, wishing he could ring Ronan. She came back the following Friday, and the Friday after that. She didnt pick up on his hints about things he had said he had to do at the weekend. Her father had given her the money for them to have a meal. He says its such a relief to see me happy again. He had a cold, he told her, as she came skipping across the road from the Tube station. Probably best not to kiss him. I dont mind. Whats yours is mine, she said, and attached herself to his face for a full thirty seconds. They ate at the local pizza place. He had started to feel a vague, reflexive panic at the sight of her. She had feelings about things all the time. The sight of a red bus made her happy, the sight of a wilted pot plant in a cafandN233; window made her vaguely weepy. She was too much of everything. She smiled at too many people. She was sometimes so busy talking that she forgot to eat with her mouth closed. At his apartment she peed with the bathroom door open. It sounded like a visiting horse was relieving itself. He wasnt ready for this. She was just too needy. Too erratic. Too everything. Ed wanted to be on his own in the apartment. He wanted the silence, the order of his normal routine. He couldnt believe he had ever been lonely. That night he had told her he didnt want to have sex. Im really tired. Im sure I could wake you up She had begun to burrow her way down the duvet and he actually had to haul her upwards. There followed a tussle that might have been funny in other circumstances: her mouth poised to plug onto his genitals, him desperately hauling her up by the armpits. Really. Deanna. Not not now. We can snuggle then. Now I know you dont just want me for my body! She pulled his arm around her and emitted a little whimper of pleasure, like a small animal. Ed Nicholls lay there, wide-eyed, in the dark. He had forgotten, in the four years that he had been dating and married Lara, how swiftly someone could pivot 180 degrees in your imagination from the most desirable person you had ever seen to someone you would gnaw your own limb off if it meant escaping. He took a breath. So Deanna um next weekend I have to go away for business. Anywhere nice? She ran her finger speculatively along his thigh. Um Geneva. Ooh, nice! Shall I stow away in your case? What? I could be there waiting for you in your hotel room. When you come back from your meetings, I could soothe your troubled brow. She reached out a finger and stroked his forehead. It was all he could do not to flinch. Really? Thats nice. But its not that kind of trip. Youre so lucky. I love travelling. If I wasnt so broke Id be back on a plane in an instant. You would? Its my passion. I loved being a free spirit, going where the whim takes me. She leant over, extracted a cigarette from the packet on the bedside table and lit it. So youd like to travel again? Id be off like a shot. He had lain there for a bit, thinking. Do you own any stocks and shares? She rolled off him and lay back against her pillow. A few. I think my grandma left them to me. A hundred shares in some building society and another two hundred in Woolworths. Hah. She half laughed. And dont suggest I bet on the stock market, Ed. I havent got enough left to gamble with. It was out before he really knew what he was saying. Its not a gamble. What isnt? Weve got a thing coming out. In a couple of weeks. Its going to be a game changer. A thing? I cant really tell you too much. But weve been working on it for a while. Its going to push our stock way up. Our business guys are all over it. She was silent beside him. I mean, I know we havent talked a lot about work but this is going to make a serious amount of money. She didnt sound convinced. Youre asking me to bet my last few pounds on something I dont even know the name of? You dont need to know the name of it. You just need to buy some shares in my company. He shifted onto his side. Look, you raise a few thousand pounds, and I guarantee youll have enough to pay off your ex-boyfriend within two weeks. And then youll be free! And you can do whatever you want! Go wherever you like! There was a long silence. Is this how you make money, Ed Nicholls? You take women to bed and then get them to buy thousands of pounds worth of your shares? No, its She turned over and he saw she was joking. She traced the side of his face. Youre so sweet to me. And its a lovely thought. But I dont have thousands of pounds lying around right now. The words came out of his mouth even before he knew what he was saying. Ill lend it to you. If it makes you money, you pay me back. If it doesnt, then its my own fault for giving you dud advice. She started laughing and stopped when she realized he wasnt joking. Youd do that for me? Ed shrugged. Honestly? Five grand doesnt really make a big difference to me right now. And Id pay ten times that if it meant you would leave. Her eyes widened. Whoa. That is the sweetest thing anyones ever done for me. Oh I doubt that. Before she left the next morning he wrote her a cheque. She had been tying her hair up in a clip, making faces at herself in his hall mirror. She smelt vaguely of apples. Leave it blank, she said, when she realized what he was doing. Ill get my brother to do it for me. Hes good at all this stocks and shares stuff. What am I buying again? Seriously? I cant help it. I cant think straight when Im near you. She slid her hand down his boxers. Ill pay you back as soon as possible. I promise. Here. Ed reached over for a business card, and took a step backwards. Thats the name of the company. And do this. I promise itll help. Cant have you feeling hemmed in! He smothered the warning voice in his head. His faux cheer bounced off the apartment walls. Ed answered almost all of her emails afterwards. He was cheerful, non-committal. He said how good it was to have spent time with someone who understood how weird it was just to have got out of a serious relationship, how important it was to spend time by yourself. She didnt answer that one. Oddly, she said nothing specific about the product launch or that the stock had gone through the roof. She would have made more than andN163;100,000. Perhaps she was busy sticking pins into a picture of him. Perhaps she had lost the cheque. Perhaps she was in Guadeloupe. Every time he thought about what he had done his stomach lurched. He tried not to think about it. He changed his mobile-phone number, telling himself it was an accident that he forgot to let her know. Eventually her emails tailed off. Two months passed. He took Ronan on a couple of nights out and they moaned about the Suits; Ed listened to Ronan as he weighed up the pros and cons of the not-for-profit soup girl and felt hed learned a valuable lesson. Or dodged a bullet. He wasnt sure which. And then, two weeks after the SFAX launch, he had been lying down in the creatives room, idly throwing a foam ball at the ceiling and listening to Ronan discuss how best to solve a glitch in the payment software when Sidney, the finance director, had walked in and he had suddenly understood that there were far worse problems you could create for yourself than overly clingy girlfriends. Ed? What? A short pause. Thats how you answer a phone call? Seriously? At what age exactly are you going to acquire some social skills? Hi, Gemma. Ed sighed, and swung his leg over the bed so that he was seated. You said you were going to call. A week ago. So I thought, you know, that you must be trapped under a large piece of furniture. He looked around the bedroom. At the suit jacket that hung over the chair. At the clock, which told him it was a quarter past seven. He rubbed the back of his neck. Yeah. Well. Things came up. I called your work. They said you were at home. Are you ill? No, Im not ill, just working on something. So does that mean youll have some time to come and see Dad? He closed his eyes. Im kind of busy right now. Her silence was weighty. He pictured his sister at the other end of the line, her jaw set, her eyes raised to Heaven. Hes asking for you. Hes been asking for you for ages. I will come, Gem. Just Im Im out of town. I have some stuff to sort out. We all have stuff to sort out. Just call him, okay? Even if you cant actually get into one of your eighteen luxury cars to visit. Call him. Hes been moved to Victoria Ward. Theyll pass the phone to him if you call. Okay. He thought she was about to ring off, but she didnt. He heard a small sigh. Im pretty tired, Ed. My supervisors are not being very helpful about me taking time off. So Im having to go up there every weekend. Mums just about holding it together. I could really, really do with a bit of back-up here. He felt a pang of guilt. His sister was not a complainer. Ive told you Ill try and get there. You said that last week. Look, you could drive there in four hours. Im not in London. Where are you? He looked out of the window at the darkening sky. The south coast. Youre on holiday? Not holiday. Its complicated. It cant be that complicated. You have zero commitments. Yeah. Thanks for reminding me. Oh, come on. Its your company. You get to make the rules, right? Just grant yourself an extra two weeks holiday. Be the Kim Jong-un of your company. Dictate! Another long silence. Youre being weird, she said finally. Ed took a deep breath before he spoke. Ill sort something. I promise. Okay. And ring Mum. I will. There was a click as the line went dead. Ed stared at the phone for a moment, then dialled his lawyers office. The phone went straight through to the answering machine. The investigating officers had pulled out every drawer in the apartment. They hadnt tossed it all out, like they did in the movies, but had gone through it methodically, wearing gloves, checking between the folds of T-shirts, going through every file. Both his laptops had been removed, his memory sticks and his two phones. He had had to sign for it all, as if this was being done for his own benefit. Get out of town, Ed, his lawyer had told him. Just go and try not to think too much. Ill call you if I need you to come in. They had searched this place too, apparently. There was so little stuff here it had taken them less than an hour. Ed looked around him at the bedroom of the holiday home, at the crisp Belgian linen duvet that the cleaners had put on that morning, at the drawers that held an emergency wardrobe of jeans, pants, socks and T-shirts. Get out of town, Sidney had said. If this gets out youre seriously going to fuck with our share price. Ronan hadnt spoken to him since the day the police had come to the office. He stared at the phone. Other than Gemma, there was now not a single person he could call just to talk to without explaining what had happened. Everyone he knew was in tech and, apart from Ronan, he wasnt sure right now how many of those would qualify as actual friends. He stared at the wall. He thought about the fact that during the last week he had driven up and down to London four times just because, without work, he hadnt known what to do with himself. He thought back to the previous evening when he had been so angry, with Deanna Lewis, with Sidney, with what the fuck had happened to his life, that he had hurled an entire bottle of white wine at the wall and smashed it. He thought about the likelihood of that happening again if he was left to his own devices. There was nothing else for it. He shouldered his way into his jacket, picked a fob of keys from the locked cupboard beside the back door and headed out to the car. 4. Jess There had always been something a bit different about Tanzie. At a year old she would line up her blocks in rows or organize them into patterns, then pull one or two away, making new shapes. By the time she was two she was obsessed with numbers. Before she even started school she would go through those books you can get full of maths problems and ask questions, like, Why is a one written as 1 and not 2? or tell Jess that multiplication was just another way of doing addition. At six she could explain the meaning of tessellate. Marty didnt like it. It made him uncomfortable. But then anything that wasnt normal made Marty uncomfortable. It was the thing that made Tanzie happy, just sitting there, ploughing through problems that neither of them could begin to understand. Martys mother, on the rare occasions that she visited, used to call her a swot. She would say it like it wasnt a very nice thing to be. So what are you going to do? Theres nothing I can do right now. Wouldnt it feel weird, her mixing with all the private-school kids? I dont know. Yes. But that would be our problem. Not hers. What if she grows away from you? What if she falls in with a posh lot and gets embarrassed by her background? What? Im just saying. I think you could mess her up. I think she could lose sight of where she comes from. Jess looked over at Nathalie, who was driving. She comes from the Shitty Estate of Doom, Nat. As far as that goes, I would be happy if she got early-onset Alzheimers. Something weird had happened since Jess had told Nathalie about the interview. It was as if she had taken it personally. All morning she had gone on and on about how her children were happy at the local school, about how glad she was that they were normal, how it didnt do for a child to be different. The truth of it was, Jess thought, that Tanzie had come home from the interview more excited than she had been in months. Her scores had been 100 per cent in maths and 99 per cent in non-verbal reasoning. (She was actually annoyed by the missing one per cent.) Mr Tsvangarai, ringing to tell her, said there might be other sources of funding. Details, he kept calling them, although Jess couldnt help thinking that people who thought money was a detail were the kind who had never really had to worry about it. And you know shed have to wear that prissy uniform, Nathalie said, as they pulled up at Beachfront. She wont be wearing a prissy uniform, Jess responded irritably. Then shell get teased for not being like the rest of them. She wont be wearing a prissy uniform because she wont be bloody going. I havent got a hope of sending her, Nathalie. Okay? Jess got out of the car, slamming the door and walking in ahead of her so that she didnt have to listen to anything else. It was only the locals who called Beachfront the holiday park; the developers called it a destination resort. Because this was not a holiday park like the Sea Bright caravan park on the top of the hill, a chaotic jumble of wind-battered mobile homes and seasonal lean-to tents: this was a spotless array of architect-designed living spaces set among carefully manicured paths and lodges, in tended patches of woodland. There was a sports club, a spa, tennis courts, a huge pool complex, which the locals were not allowed to use after all, a handful of overpriced boutiques and a mini-supermarket so that residents did not have to venture into the scrappier confines of the town. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays Benson and Thomas cleaned the two three-bedroomed rental properties that overlooked the clubhouse, then moved on to the newer properties: six glass-fronted modernist houses that stood on the chalk cliff and looked straight out across the sea. Mr Nicholls kept a spotless Audi in his driveway that they had never once seen move. A woman who said she was his sister came once with two small children and a grey-looking husband (they left the place immaculately clean). Mr Nicholls himself rarely visited, and had never, in the year theyd been doing it, used either the kitchen or the laundry room. Jess made extra cash doing his towels and sheets, laundering and ironing them weekly for guests who never came. It was a vast house; its slate floors echoed, its living areas were covered with great expanses of sea-grass matting and there was an expensive sound system wired into the walls. The glass frontages gazed out onto the wide blue arc of the horizon. But there were no photographs on the walls, or suggestions of any kind of actual life. Nathalie always said that even when he came it was as if he was camping there. There must have been women Nathalie once found a lipstick in the bathroom, and last year they had discovered a pair of tiny lacy knickers under the bed (La Perla) and a bikini top but there was little to suggest anything else about him. Jess thought of her own house, the narrow, creaking stairs, the peeling wallpaper, and unusually (she rarely thought about clients houses in relation to her own that truly was the way to madness) she felt briefly wistful for all this space. This was a man whod never had to put a clothes rail on the upstairs landing, or run out of space for bookshelves. This was a man whod never fretted about how to find a registration fee. Hes here, muttered Nathalie. As they closed the front door, a mans voice echoed down the corridor, his voice loud, his tone argumentative, as if on the telephone. Nathalie pulled a face at Jess and walked slowly through the hallway. Cleaners, she called. He did not respond, but he must have heard. The argument continued the whole time it took to clean the kitchen (he had used one mug, and the bin held two empty takeaway cartons). There was broken glass in the corner by the fridge, small green splinters, as if someone had picked up the larger pieces but couldnt be bothered with the rest. And there was wine up the walls. Jess washed them down carefully. The place smelt like a brewery. And he was still arguing. She couldnt hear what he was saying, as his door was partially closed and too far away, but even muffled and at a distance his frustration was evident. She and Nathalie worked in silence, speaking in murmurs, trying to pretend they couldnt hear. When they had finished the kitchen Nathalie moved on to the living room and Jess headed down the hall. She did the downstairs loo, then the dining room, with its untouched bleached oak table and perfectly matched chairs. She dusted the picture frames with a soft cloth, tilting the odd one a centimetre or two to show theyd been done. Outside on the decking sat an empty bottle of Jack Daniels with one glass; she picked them up and brought them inside. While she washed up, she thought about Nicky, who had returned from school the previous day with a cut ear, the knees of his trousers scuffed with dirt. He shrugged off any attempt to talk about it. His preferred life now consisted of people on the other side of a screen; boys Jess had never met and never would, boys he called SK8RBOI and TERM-N-ATOR who shot and disembowelled each other for fun. Who could blame him? His real life seemed to be the actual war zone. She thought about Tanzie, and how shed looked while talking to that maths teacher. Ever since the interview Jess had lain awake, doing calculations in her head, adding and subtracting in a way that would have made Tanzie laugh. The scholarship would not leave her head. It had lodged in there like toothache, and Jess worried away at it, trying every possible way to build financial mountains out of molehills. She sold her belongings. She ran through mental lists of every single person she might be able to borrow money from and who wouldnt mind if it took time to pay it back. She considered the most likely, and the most unlikely people her mother, her aunt Nell in Dorset, the retired teacher she used to clean for who always said he could see that Tanzie was a bright girl but while she might have been able to beg fifty pounds here and there, there was nobody who would lend ten times that much. Nobody she knew even had it. The only people likely to offer Jess money were the sharks who circled the estate with their hidden four-figure interest rates. She had seen neighbours who had borrowed from friendly reps who turned gimlet-eyed, hanging over them like financial vultures. And again and again she came back to Martys words. Was McArthurs comp really so bad? Some children did well there. There was no reason why Tanzie shouldnt be one of them, if she kept out of the way of the troublemakers. The hard truth of it was there like a brick wall. Jess was going to have to tell her daughter that she couldnt make it add up. Jess Thomas, the woman who always found a way through, who spent her life telling the two of them that it would All Work Out, couldnt make it work out. She finished the dining room in which no dining had ever taken place, and observed with some distant part of her that the loud talking had stopped. Mr Nicholls must finally be off the phone. She hauled the vacuum cleaner down the hallway, wincing as it bumped against her shin, and knocked on the door to see if he wanted his office cleaned. There was silence, and as she knocked again he yelled suddenly, Yes, Im well aware of that, Sidney. Youve said so fifteen times, but it doesnt mean It was too late: she had pushed the door half open. Jess began to apologize, but with barely a glance the man held up a palm, like she was some kind of a dog stay then leaned forwards and slammed the door in her face. The sound reverberated around the house. Jess stood there, shocked into immobility, her skin prickling with embarrassment. I told you, Nathalie said, as she scrubbed furiously at the guest bathroom a few minutes later. Those private schools dont teach them any manners. Forty minutes later they were finished. Jess gathered Mr Nichollss immaculate white towels and sheets into her holdall, stuffing them in with more force than was strictly necessary. She walked downstairs and placed the bag next to the cleaning crate in the hall. Nathalie was polishing the doorknobs. It was one of her things. She couldnt bear fingerprints on taps or doorknobs. Sometimes it took them ten minutes to leave an address. Mr Nicholls, were 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 hed 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 youve dressed up as Woody Allen. He wore a suit like a twelve-year-old forced to go to a christening. Mr Nicholls. 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. They waited. Um, wed 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 havent paid us in three weeks. And theres 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 couldnt be expected to remember such things. How much is that? One hundred and thirty-five all together. He flicked through the notes. I dont have that much cash. Look, Ill 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 wasnt 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 wont let me put off paying week after week. She couldnt 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 couldnt afford. Ill 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 didnt 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 didnt care. Even the way he handed out the money suggested he was giving her something she wasnt 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. Whats that in Normans basket? Nothing. 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 supermarkets cheery value label. It was as if every time she opened the cupboard someone was yelling at her, HEY! YOURE POOR! Nicky stooped, and tugged at the piece of fabric, so that the dog reluctantly got to his feet. Its a white towel. Jess, its an expensive one. Normans got hair all over it. And dribble. He held it up between two fingers. Im going to wash it later. She didnt look at him. Is it Dads? No, it is not your dads. I dont understand Its 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 shes like. But she likes what I make. I mean shes happy in them. Shona Bryants the one who said our house was weird because we had too many books. Shona Bryants an idiot. He leant down to stroke Norman. Oh. And we got a reminder from the electric company. Jess let out a small sigh. How much? He walked over to the pile of papers on the sideboard and flicked through. Comes to more than two hundred altogether. She took out a packet of cereal. Ill sort it. Nicky opened the fridge door. You should sell the car. I cant sell it. Its your dads only asset. But he could be using it to earn money. And then he could pay you some. Sometimes Jess wasnt entirely sure why she kept defending him. There isnt anywhere safe to keep it at his mums. Anyway. Hell sort it out when hes back on his feet. Now, go on upstairs. Ive got someone coming. She could see her walking up the back path. Were buying stuff off Aileen Trent? Nicky watched her open the gate and close it carefully behind her. Jess couldnt hide the way her cheeks coloured. Just this once. He stared at her. You said we had no money. Look, its to take Tanzies mind off the school thing when I have to tell her. Jess had made her decision on the way home. The whole idea was ridiculous. They could barely keep their heads above water as it was. There was no point even trying to entertain it. He kept staring at her. But Aileen Trent. You said And youre the one who just told me Tanzie was getting bullied because of her clothes. Sometimes, Nicky Jess threw her hands into the air. Sometimes the ends justify the means. Nickys look lasted longer than she felt entirely comfortable with. And then he went upstairs. So Ive brought a lovely selection of things for the discerning young lady. You know they all love their designer labels. I took the liberty of bringing a few extra bits, even though you said you werent interested. Aileens shop voice was formal, with overly precise diction. It was quite odd, emerging as it did, from someone Jess had seen regularly ejected by force from the Kings Arms. She sat cross-legged on the floor and reached into her black holdall, pulling out a selection of clothes and laying them carefully on the carpet, co-ordinating separates in layers. Theres a Hollister top here. Theyre all into Hollister, the girls. Shocking expensive in the shops. Ive got some more designer stuff in my other bag, although you did say you didnt require high-end. Oh, and two sugars, if youre making one. Aileen did a weekly round of this end of the estate, her skin waxy, her big black holdall on wheels trundling behind her. She was as much a local fixture as the postman, and as regular. Youve got to be professional to thrive in business, she would observe sagely, pale eyes blinking slowly within her spectral face. Jess had always issued a firm thanks-but-no-thanks. Nobody on the estate ever talked about where Aileen got her bargains, her knock-down prices with the tags still on, but everyone knew. Jess always told Marty she didnt like the example it set the kids. But that was before. She picked up the layered tops, one stripy, the other a soft rose. She could already see Tanzie in them. How much? Ten for the top, five for the T-shirt, and twenty for the trainers. You can see from the tag they retail for eighty-five. Thats a serious discount. I cant do that much. Well, as youre a new client, I can do you an introductory bonus. Aileen held up her notebook, squinting at the figures. You take the three items and Ill let you have the jeans too. For goodwill. She smiled, her missing tooth gaping cheerfully. Thirty-five pounds for a whole outfit, including footwear. And this month only Im throwing in a little bracelet. You wont get those prices in TK Maxx. Jess stared at the perfect clothes laid out on the floor. She wanted to see Tanzie smiling. She wanted her to feel that life held the potential for unexpected happy things, not just a harassed, overworked mother who never had time to spend with her, and an absent father who communicated once a week through a computer screen. She wanted her to have something to feel good about when she gave her the news. Hold on. She walked through to the kitchen, pulled the cocoa tin from the cupboard where she kept the electricity money. She counted out the coins and dropped them into Aileens clammy palm before she could think about what she was doing. Pleasure doing business with you, Aileen said, folding the remaining clothes and placing them carefully in the bin bag. Ill be back in two weeks. Anything you want in the meantime, you know where to find me. I think this will be it, thanks. She gave Jess a knowing look. Yeah. They all say that, love. Nicky didnt look up from his computer when Jess walked in. Nathalies going to bring Tanzie back after maths club. Are you going to be okay here by yourself? Sure. No smoking. Mm. You going to do some revision? Sure. Sometimes Jess fantasized about the kind of mother she could be if she wasnt always working. She would bake cakes with the children and let them lick the bowl. She would smile more. She would sit on the sofa and actually talk to them. She would stand over them at the kitchen table while they did their homework, pointing out mistakes and ensuring they got the best possible marks. She would do the things they wanted her to do, instead of always answering: Sorry, love, I just have to get the supper on. After Ive put this wash on. Ive got to go, sweetie. Tell me when I get back from my shift. She gazed at him, his unreadable expression, and she had a weird sense of foreboding. Dont forget to walk Norman. But dont go round near the off-licence. As if. And dont spend the whole evening on the computer. He had already turned back to the screen. She hoicked up the back of his jeans. And put your pants away before I cant help myself and give you the worlds biggest wedgie. He turned and she glimpsed his brief smile. As Jess walked out of his room she realized she couldnt remember the last time shed seen it. 5. Nicky My dad is such an arsehole. 6. Jess The Feathers public house sat between the library (closed since January) and the Happy Plaice (11 a.m.11 p.m., all year round), and in the right light, inside, it was possible to believe it was still 1989. Des, the landlord, had never been seen in anything but faded tour T-shirts, jeans and, if it was cold, a blouson leather jacket. On a quiet night, if you were unlucky, he would detail the merits of a Fender Stratocaster against a Rickenbacker 330 or recite with a poets reverence all the words to Money For Nothing. The Feathers was not smart, in the way that the Beachfront bars were smart, and it did not serve fresh seafood or fine wines and family-friendly menus to screaming children. It served various kinds of dead animal with chips, and it scoffed at the word salad (what it really liked was crisps: it stocked no fewer than twenty-eight varieties). There was nothing more adventurous than Tom Petty on the jukebox, a battered dartboard on the wall, and a carpet from which, in the mornings, the odour of beer and old cigarettes was so strong that locals had been known to arrive at work partially drunk because they had strolled past too slowly. But it was a formula that worked. The Feathers was that rare thing in a seaside town: busy all year round. Is Roxanne here? Jess pinned up a new strip of pork scratchings as Des emerged from the cellar, where he had been tying on a fresh barrel of real ale. Nah. Shes doing something with her mother. He thought for a minute. Healing. No, fortune-telling. Psychiatrist. Psychologist. Spiritualist? The one where they tell you stuff you already know and youre meant to look impressed. Psychic. Thirty pound a ticket, theyre paying, to sit there with a glass of cheap white wine and shout, Yes! when someone asks did someone in the audience have a relative whose name began with J. He stooped, slamming the cellar door shut with a grunt. I could predict a few things, Jess. And I wont charge you thirty pound for it. I predict that man is sitting at home right now, rubbing his hands and thinking, What a bunch of muppets. Jess hauled the tray of clean glasses out of the dishwasher and began stacking them on the shelves above the bar. Do you believe all that old bollocks? No. Course you dont. Youre a sensible girl. I dont know what to say to her sometimes. Her mothers the worst. She reckons shes got her own guardian angel. An angel. He mimicked her, looking at his own shoulder and tapping it. She reckons it protects her. Didnt protect her from spending all her compensation on the shopping channels, did it? Youd think that angel would have had a word. Here, Maureen. You really dont want that luxury ironing-board cover with a picture of a dog on it. Really, love. Put a bit into your pension instead. Miserable as Jess felt, she couldnt help but laugh. It was hard not to in the pub. The men at the bar were gentlemanly (as far as men who belched the alphabet could be called gentlemanly), the talk was cheerful, and it meant that for two nights and two lunchtimes a week she did not sit at home with a pile of someone elses laundry worrying about things she could not control. Youre early. Des looked pointedly at his watch. Shoe emergency. Chelsea slung her handbag under the bar, and fixed her hair. I got chatting online to one of my dates, she said, to Jess, as if Des wasnt there. Hes absolutely gorgeous. All Chelseas Internet dates were gorgeous. Until she met them. David, his name is. Hes looking for someone who likes cooking, cleaning and ironing. And the odd trip out. To the supermarket? said Des. Chelsea ignored him. She picked up a dishcloth and began drying glasses. You want to get yourself on there, Jess. Get out and about a bit instead of mouldering in here with this lot of droopy old ballsacks. Less of the old, you. The football was on, which meant that Des put out free crisps and cheese cubes, and, if he was feeling particularly generous, mini sausage rolls. Jess had taken home the leftover cubes, with Dess blessing, to make macaroni cheese, until Nathalie had told her the statistic for how many men actually washed their hands after going to the loo. The bar filled, the match started, the evening passed without note; she poured pints in the commentary gaps, silent against the blare of the satellite television on the far wall, and thought, yet again, about money. The end of the month, the school had said. If she didnt register by then, that was it. Jess could save for a year and see if she could try to get her in at twelve, but there was no guarantee that the scholarship would still exist. She was so deep in thought that she almost didnt hear Des until he dumped a bowl of Quavers on the bar beside her. I meant to tell you. Next week weve got a new till coming. Its one of those where everythings written down. All you have to do is touch the screen. She turned away from the optics. A new till? Why? That one is older than I am. And not all the barmaids can add up as well as you, Jess. The last time Chelsea was on by herself I cashed up and we were eleven quid out. Ask her to add up a double gin, a pint of Websters and a packet of dry-roasted and her eyes cross. Weve got to move with the times. He ran his hand across an imaginary screen. Digital accuracy. Youll love it. You wont have to use your brain at all. Just like Chelsea. Cant I just stick with this? Im hopeless with computers. Youll be fine. Were going to do staff training. Staff training. Half a day. Unpaid, Im afraid. Ive got a bloke coming. Unpaid? Just tap-tap-swipe on a screen. Itll be like Minority Report . But without the bald people. Mind you, well still have Pete. PETE! Liam Stubbs came in at a quarter past nine. Jess had her back to the bar and he leant over it and murmured, Hey, hot stuff, into her ear. She didnt turn round. Oh. You again. Theres a welcome. Pint of Stella, please, Jess. He glanced around the bar, then said, And whatever else you have on offer. We have some very nice dry-roasted peanuts. I was thinking of something a bit wetter. Ill get you that pint, then. Still playing hard to get, eh? She had known Liam since school. He was one of those men whom you knew would break your heart into tiny pieces if you let him; the kind of blue-eyed, smart-mouthed boy who ignored you all the way through years ten and eleven, laughed you into bed when you lost your braces and grew your hair, then gave you nothing more than a cheery wave and a wink for ever after. His hair was chestnut brown, his cheekbones high and lightly tanned. He ran a flower stall in the market and whenever she passed he would whisper, You. Me. Behind the dahlias, now, just seriously enough to make her miss her stride. His wife had left him about the same time as Marty had departed (A little matter of serial infidelity. Some women are so picky), and six months ago, after one of Dess lock-ins, they had ended up in the ladies loos with his hands up her shirt and Jess walking round wearing a lopsided smile for days. She and Marty had lived like an irritable brother and sister by the time he left. Sometimes he said he was tired. Mostly he said she put him off with her nagging. Jess sometimes thought she missed it, but she didnt miss him. She was taking the empty cardboard crisps boxes out to the bins when Liam appeared at the back gate. He walked up to her with a sort of silent swagger so that she had to back slowly against the wall of the pub garden. He had a smile on his face like they were both in on some private joke. He stood so that the entire length of his body was just inches from hers and said softly, I cant stop thinking about you. He held his cigarette hand well away from her. He was a gentleman like that. I bet you say that to all the girls. I like watching you move around that bar. Half the time Im watching the football, and half the time Im imagining bending you over it. Who says romance is dead? God, he smelt good. Jess wriggled a bit, trying to get herself out from under him before she did something shed regret. Being near Liam Stubbs sparked bits of her to life that she had forgotten existed, like those joke birthday candles that insist on reigniting long after youd blown them out. So let me romance you. Let me take you out. You and me. A proper date. Come on, Jess. Lets make a go of it. Jess pulled back from him. What? You heard. She stared. You want us to have a relationship ? You say it like its a dirty word. She slid out from under him, glancing towards the back door. Ive got to get back to the bar, Liam. Why wont you go out with me? He took a step closer. You know it would be great His voice had dropped to a whisper. And I also know I have two kids and two jobs and you spend your whole life in your car, and it would take about three weeks for you and me to be bickering on a sofa about whose turn it was to take the rubbish out. She smiled sweetly at him. And then we would lose the heart-stopping romance of exchanges like this for ever. He picked up a lock of her hair and let it slide through his fingers. His voice was a soft growl. So cynical. Youre going to break my heart, Jess Thomas. And youre going to get me fired. He was the man you never dared take seriously. She thought he probably liked her because she was the only woman round here who didnt. I take it this means a quickies out of the question? She extricated herself and made her way towards the back door, trying to make the colour subside from her cheeks. Then she stopped. Hey, Liam. He looked up from stubbing his cigarette out. You dont want to lend me five hundred quid, do you? If I had it, babe, you could have it. He blew a kiss as she disappeared back indoors. She was walking around the bar to pick up empties, her cheeks still pink, when she saw him. She actually did a double-take. He was sitting in the corner alone, and there were three empty pint glasses in front of him. He had changed into Converse trainers, jeans and a T-shirt and he sat staring at his mobile phone, flicking at the screen and occasionally glancing up when everyone cheered a goal. As Jess watched, he picked up a beer and downed it. He probably thought that in his jeans he blended in, but he had incomer written all over him. As he glanced towards the bar, she turned away swiftly, feeling her brief happy mood evaporate. Just popping downstairs for some more snacks, she said to Chelsea, and made for the cellar. Ugh, she muttered, under her breath. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. When she re-emerged he had a fresh pint and barely looked up from his phone. The evening stretched. Chelsea discussed her Internet options, Mr Nicholls drank three more pints and Jess disappeared whenever he got up to the bar, juggled debts and imaginary lottery wins and tried not to meet Liams eye. By ten to eleven, the pub was down to a handful of stragglers the usual offenders, Des called them. Chelsea put on her coat. Where are you going? She stooped to apply her lipstick in the mirror behind the optics. Des said I could leave a bit early. She pursed her lips. Date. Date? Who goes on a date at this time of night? Its a date at Davids house. Its all right, she said, as Jess stared at her. My sisters coming too. He said it would be nice with the three of us. Chels, have you ever heard the expression booty call? What? Jess looked at her for a minute. Nothing. Just have a nice time. She was loading the dishwasher when he appeared at the bar. His eyes were half closed and he swayed gently, as if he was about to embark on some free-form dance. Pint, please. She shoved another two glasses to the back of the wire rack. Were not serving any more. Its gone eleven. He looked up at the clock. His voice slurred. Its one minute to. Youve had enough. He blinked slowly, stared at her. His short, dark hair was sticking up slightly on one side, as if at some point during the last hour, he had started to slide down the banquette. Who are you to tell me Ive had enough? The person who serves the drinks. Thats usually how it works. Jess held his gaze. You dont even recognize me, do you? Should I? She stared at him a moment longer. Hold on. She let herself out from behind the bar, walked over to the swing door, and as he stood there, bemused, she opened it and let it swing back in her face, lifting a hand and opening her mouth as if to say something. She opened the door again and stood there in front of him. Recognize me now? He blinked. Jess could almost hear the cogs of his brain working. Are you Did I see you yesterday? The cleaner. Yes. He ran a hand through his hair. Ah. The whole door thing. I was just having a tricky conversation. Not now, thanks tends to work just as well, I find. Right. Point taken. He leant on the bar. Jess tried to keep a straight face when his elbow slipped off. So thats an apology, is it? He peered at her blearily. Sorry. Im really, really, really sorry. Very sorry, O Bar Lady. Now can I have a drink? No. Its gone eleven. Only because you kept me talking. I havent got time to sit here while you nurse another pint. Give me a shot, then. Come on. I need another drink. Give me a shot of vodka. Here. You can keep the change. He slammed a twenty on the bar. The impact reverberated through the rest of him so that his head whiplashed back slightly. Just one. Actually, make it a double. Itll take me all of two seconds to down it. One second. No. Youve had enough. Dess voice broke in from the kitchen. Oh, for Christs sake, Jess, give him a drink. Jess stood for a moment, her jaw rigid, then turned and emptied the optic twice into a glass. She rang up the money, then silently placed his change on the bar. He downed the vodka, swallowing audibly as he put the glass down, and turned away, staggering slightly. You forgot your change. Keep it. I dont want it. Put it in your charity box, then. She gathered it up and shoved it at his hand. Dess charity of choice is the Des Harris Holiday In Memphis Fund, she said. Really. Just take your money. He blinked at her, and took two unbalanced steps to the side as she opened the door for him. It was then she noticed what he had just pulled from his pocket. And the super-shiny Audi in the car park. Youre not driving home. Im fine. He batted away her protest. There arent any cars around here at night anyway. You cant drive. Were in the middle of nowhere, in case you havent noticed. He gestured at the sky. Im miles away from everything, and stuck here, in the middle of fucking nowhere. He leant forward, and his breath was a blast of alcohol. Ill go very, very, slowly. He was so drunk that peeling the keys from his hand was embarrassingly easy. No, she said, turning back to the bar. I wont be responsible for you having an accident as well as everything else. Go back inside, and Ill call you a taxi. Give me my keys. No. Youre stealing my keys. Im saving you from a driving ban. She held them aloft, and turned back towards the bar. Oh, for Chrissakes, he said. He made it sound like she was the last in a long line of irritations. It made her want to kick him. Ill get you a taxi. Just just sit there. Ill give you your keys back once youre safely inside it. She texted Liam from the phone in the back hall. Does this mean I get lucky? he replied. If you like them hairy. And male. She walked back outside and Mr Nicholls was gone. His car was still there. She called him twice, wondering if hed headed off to a bush to relieve himself, then glanced down and there he was, fast asleep on the outside bench. The angle of his limbs suggested he had simply keeled over sideways from his seated position and passed out. She thought, briefly, about leaving him there. But it was chilly, and the sea mists were unpredictable, and he would likely wake up without his wallet. Im not taking that, Liam said, through the drivers window, as his taxi pulled into the car park. Hes fine. Hes just asleep. I can tell you where hes got to go. Nuh-uh. Last sleeper I had woke up and vomited all down my new seat covers. Then somehow perked up enough to do a runner. He lives on Beachfront. Hes hardly going to do a runner. She glanced down at her watch. Oh, come on, Liam. Its late. I just want to get home. Then leave him. Sorry, Jess. Okay. How about I stay in the car while you drop him off? If hes ill, Ill clean it up. Then you can drop me home. He can pay. She picked up Mr Nichollss change from where he had dropped it on the ground beside the bench, and sifted through it. Thirteen pounds should do it, yes? He pulled a face. Ah, Jess. Dont make it hard for me. Please, Liam. She smiled. She placed a hand on his arm. Pretty please. He gazed down the road. All right. But if hes sick its thirty quid for the lost earnings. And youll have to clean it up. She lowered her head to Mr Nichollss sleeping face, then straightened and nodded. He says thats fine. Liam shook his head. The flirtatious air of earlier had evaporated. Oh, come on, Liam. Help me get him in. I need to go home. He lay with his head on her lap, like a sick child. She didnt know where to put her hands. She held them across the back of the rear seat, and spent the whole journey praying that he wouldnt be sick. Every time he groaned, or shifted, she wound down a window, or leaned across to check his face. Dont you dare, she told him silently. Just dont you dare. They were two minutes from the holiday park when her phone buzzed. It was Belinda, her neighbour. She squinted at the illuminated screen: Boys have been after your Nicky again. Got him outside the chip shop. Nigels taken him to hospital. A large cold weight landed on her chest. On my way she typed. Nigel says hell stay with him till youre there. Ill stay here with Tanzie. Thanks Belinda. Ill be as quick as I can. A drumbeat of anxiety began a tattoo in her chest. Mr Nicholls shifted and let out an elongated snore. She stared at him, at his expensive haircut and his too blue jeans, and was suddenly furious. She might have been home by now if it wasnt for him. It would have been her walking the dog, not Nicky. Here we are. Jess directed him to Mr Nichollss house, and they dragged him in between them, his arms slung over their shoulders, Jesss knees buckling a little under his surprising weight. He stirred a little when they reached his front door, and she fumbled through his keys, trying to find the right one, before she decided it would be easier to use her own. Where do you want him? said Liam, puffing. Sofa. Im not lugging him upstairs. Hes lucky we lugged him anywhere at all. She pushed him briskly into the recovery position. She took his glasses off, threw a nearby jacket over him, and dropped his keys on the side table that she had polished earlier that day. And then she felt able to speak the words: Liam, can you drop me at the hospital? Nickys had an accident. The car sped through the empty lanes in silence. Her mind was racing. She was afraid of what she might find. What had happened? How badly was he hurt? Had Tanzie seen any of it? And then, under the fear, the stupid, mundane stuff, like, Will I be hours at the hospital? A taxi from there would be at least fifteen pounds. Bugger Mr Nicholls and his stupid vodka. You want me to wait? said Liam, when he pulled up at AandE. Could you? Ill only be two minutes. I just need to find out how bad it is. She was out of the door before he had even stopped the car. He was in a side cubicle. When the nurse showed her in through the curtain, Nigel rose from his plastic chair, his kind, doughy face taut with anxiety. Nicky was turned away, his cheekbone covered with a dressing and the beginnings of a black eye leaking colour into the socket above it. A temporary bandage snaked its way around his hairline. It was all she could do not to let out a sob. Theyre going to stitch it. But they want to keep him in. Check for fractures and whatnot. Nigel looked awkward. He didnt want me to call the police. He gestured in the general direction of outside. If youre all right, Ill be getting back to Belinda. Its late Jess whispered her thanks, and moved over to Nicky. She placed her hand on the blanket, where his shoulder was. Tanzies okay, he whispered, not looking at her. I know, sweetheart. She sat down on the plastic chair beside his bed. What happened? He gave a faint shrug. Nicky never wanted to talk about it. What was the point, after all? Everyone knew the score. You looked like a freak, you got battered. You still looked like a freak, they still kept coming after you. That was the immovable logic of a small seaside town. And, just for once, she didnt know what to say to him. She couldnt tell him it would all be all right, because it patently wasnt. She couldnt tell him the police would get the Fishers, because they never did. She couldnt tell him that things would change before he knew it, because when you were a teenager your life really only stretches in your imagination about two weeks ahead, and they both knew that it wasnt going to get better by then. Or, probably, any time soon after that. She took his grazed hand and held it in both of hers. Itll be okay, you know, she said quietly. It does get better than this. You need to keep hold of that. Really. It does get better. His gaze slid briefly over and met hers, and then he looked away. He all right? said Liam, as she walked slowly back out to the car. The adrenalin had leached out of her, and Jesss shoulders slumped with exhaustion. She opened the rear door to fetch her jacket and bag, and his eyes, in the rear-view mirror, took it all in. Hell live. Little bastards. I was just talking to your neighbour. Someone ought to do something. He adjusted his mirror. Id teach them a lesson myself if I didnt have to watch out for my licence. Boredom, thats what it is. They dont know what else to do with themselves but pick on someone. Make sure you got all your stuff, Jess. She had to half climb into the car to reach her coat. And as she did, she felt something under her feet. Semi-solid, cylindrical. She moved her foot, reached down into the footwell, and came up with a fat roll of bank notes. She stared at it in the half-dark, then at what had fallen down beside it. A laminated identity card, the kind you would use at an office. Both must have fallen out of Mr Nichollss pocket when he was slumped on the back seat. Before she could think about it she stuffed them into her bag. Here, she said, reaching into her purse, but Liam raised a hand. No. Ive got it. Youve enough on your plate. He gave her a wink. Give one of us a ring when you want picking up. On the house. Dans cleared it. But No buts. Out you get now, Jess. Make sure that boy of yours is okay. Ill see you at the pub. She felt almost tearful with gratitude. She stood there, one hand raised, as he circled the car park, so that she heard him as he shouted out of the drivers window: You should tell him, though, if hed just try to look a bit more normal, he might not get his head bashed in so often. 7. Jess She dozed through the small hours on the plastic chair, waking occasionally from discomfort and the sound of distant tragedies in the ward beyond the curtain. She watched the newly stitched Nicky as he finally slept, wondering how she was supposed to protect him. She wondered what was going on in his head. She wondered, with a clench of her stomach that no longer seemed to go away, what was coming next. A nurse popped her head around the curtain at seven and said shed made her some tea and toast. This small act of kindness caused her to fight back embarrassed tears. The consultant stopped by shortly after eight, and said Nicky would probably spend another night in while they checked that there was no internal bleeding. There was a shadow they hadnt quite got to the bottom of on the X-ray and they wanted to be sure. The best thing Jess could do would be to go home and get some rest. Nathalie rang to say shed taken Tanzie to school with her kids and that everything was fine. Everything was fine. She got off the bus two stops before her house, walked round to Leanne Fishers, knocked on her door and told her, with as much politeness as she could muster, that if Jason came anywhere near Nicky again she would have the police on him. Whereupon Leanne Fisher spat at her and said if Jess didnt fuck right off shed put a brick through her effing window. There was a burst of laughter from within the house as Jess walked away. It was pretty much the response shed expected. She let herself into her empty home. She paid the water bill with the council-tax money. She paid the electric with her cleaning money. She showered and changed and did her lunchtime shift at the pub, so lost in thought that Stewart Pringle rested his hand on her arse for a full thirty seconds before she noticed. She poured his half-pint of best bitter slowly over his shoes. What did you do that for? Des yelled, when Stewart Pringle complained. If youre so okay with it, you stand there and let him rest his hand on your arse, she said, and went back to cleaning the glasses. She has a point, Des said. She vacuumed the entire house before Tanzie came home. She was so tired that she should have been comatose, but in fact she was so angry it was possible she did it all at double speed. She couldnt stop herself. She cleaned and folded and sorted because if she didnt she would take Martys old sledgehammer down from the two hooks in the musty garage, walk round to the Fishers house and do something that would finish them all off completely. She cleaned because if she didnt she would stand in her overgrown little back garden, lift her face to the sky and scream and scream and scream and she wasnt sure shed be able to stop. By the time she heard the footsteps on the path, the house floated in a toxic fug of furniture polish and kitchen cleaner. She took two deep breaths, coughed a bit, then made herself take one more before she opened the door, a reassuring smile already plastered on her face. Nathalie stood on the path, her hands on Tanzies shoulders. Tanzie walked up to her, put her arms around her waist and held her tightly, her eyes shut. Hes okay, sweetheart, Jess told her, stroking her hair. Its all right. Its just a silly boys fight. Nathalie touched Jesss arm, gave a tiny shake of her head, and left. You take care, she said. Jess made Tanzie a sandwich and watched her wander away into the shady part of the little garden with the dog to do algorithms and told herself she would tell her about St Annes tomorrow. She would definitely tell her tomorrow. And then she disappeared into the bathroom and unrolled the money she had found in Mr Nichollss taxi. Four hundred and eighty pounds. She laid it out in neat piles on the floor with the door locked. Jess knew what she should do. Of course she did. It wasnt her money. It was a lesson she drummed into the kids every day: You dont steal. You dont take what is not yours. Do the right thing, and you will be rewarded for it in the end. Do the right thing. So why didnt she take it back? A new, darker voice had begun a low internal hum in her ear. Why should you give it back? He wont miss it. He was passed out in the car park, in the taxi, in his house. It could have fallen out anywhere. It was only luck that you found it, after all. And what if someone else from round here had picked it up? You think they would have handed it back to him? Really? His security card said the name of his company was Mayfly. His first name was Ed. She would take the money back to Mr Nicholls. Her brain whirred round and round in time with the clothes-airer. And still she didnt do it. Jess never used to think about money. Marty handled the finances, and they generally had enough for him to go down the pub a couple of nights a week, and for her to have the odd night out with Nathalie. They took the occasional holiday. Some years they did better than others, but they got by. And then Marty got fed up with making do. There was a camping holiday in Wales where it rained for eight days solid and Marty became more and more dissatisfied, as if the weather was something to be taken personally. Why cant we go to Spain, or somewhere hot? hed mutter, staring out through the flaps of the sodden tent. This is crap. This isnt a bloody holiday. He got fed up with driving; he found more and more to complain about. The other drivers were against him. The controller was cheating him. The passengers were tight. And then he started with the schemes. The pyramid scheme they joined two weeks too late. The knock-off T-shirts for a band that fell out of the charts as quickly as it had arrived. Import-export was the thing, he told Jess confidently, arriving home from the pub one night. He had met a bloke who could get cheap electrical goods from India, and they could sell them on to someone he knew. And then surprise, surprise the someone who was going to sell them on turned out not to be the sure thing Marty had been promised. And that years summer turned into the wettest on record. And the few people who did buy them complained that they blew their electricity supply, and the rest of them rusted, even in the garage, so their meagre savings turned into a pile of useless white goods that had to be loaded, fourteen a week, into Martys car and taken to the dump. She still had the plugs under the stairs. And then came the Rolls-Royce. Jess could at least see the sense in that one: Marty would spray it metallic grey, then rent himself out as a chauffeur for weddings and funerals. Hed bought it off eBay from a man in the Midlands, and made it halfway down the M6 before it conked out. Something to do with the starter motor, they said, peering under the bonnet. But the more they looked at it, the more seemed wrong with it. The first winter it spent on the drive, mice got into the upholstery so they needed money to replace the back seats before he could rent it out because who wanted to sit on seats held together with duct tape on their wedding day? And then it turned out that replacement upholstered Rolls-Royce seats were about the only thing you couldnt get on eBay. So it sat there in the garage, a daily reminder of how they never quite managed to get ahead, and the reason why her freezer had to live in the downstairs hall. Shed taken over the money when Marty had got ill and started to spend most of each day in bed. Depression was an illness, everyone said so. Although, from what his mates said, he didnt seem to suffer it on the two evenings he still managed to drag himself to the pub. She had peeled all the bank statements from their envelopes, and retrieved the savings book from its place in the hall desk and had finally seen for herself the trouble they were in. Shed tried to talk to him a couple of times, but hed just pulled the duvet over his head and said he couldnt cope. It was around then that hed suggested he might go home to his mums for a bit. If she was honest, Jess was relieved to see him go. It was hard enough coping with Nicky, who was still a silent, skinny wraith, Tanzie and two jobs. Go, shed said, stroking his hair. She remembered thinking how long it had been since shed touched him. Go for a couple of weeks. Youll feel better for a bit of a break. He had looked at her silently, his eyes red-rimmed, and squeezed her hand. That had been two years ago. Neither of them had ever seriously raised the possibility of him coming back. She tried to keep things normal until Tanzie went to bed, asking what shed had to eat at Nathalies, telling her what Norman had done while she was out. She combed Tanzies hair, then sat on her bed and read her a story, like she was a much younger child, and just for once Tanzie didnt tell her that actually shed rather do some maths. When Jess was finally sure she was asleep she rang the hospital, who said that Nicky was comfortable, and that the consultant was coming around again first thing, after which they thought he could probably be discharged. The X-rays had thrown up no evidence that his lung was punctured, and the small facial fracture would have to heal by itself. She rang Marty, who listened in silence, then asked, Does he still wear all that stuff on his face? He wears a bit of mascara, yes. There was a long silence. Dont say it, Marty. Dont you dare say it. She put the phone down before he could. And then the police rang at a quarter to ten and said that Fisher had denied all knowledge. There were fourteen witnesses, she said, her voice tight with the effort of not shouting. Including the man who runs the fish-and-chip shop. They jumped my son. There were four of them. Yes, but witnesses are only any use to us if they can identify the perpetrators, madam. And Mr Brent says it wasnt clear who was actually doing the fighting. He let out a sigh, as if these sorts of calls were an endless chore, as if she should know what teenage boys were like. I have to tell you, madam, the Fishers claim your son started it. Hes about as likely to start a fight as the Dalai bloody Lama. Were talking about a boy who cant put a duvet in its cover without worrying it might hurt someone. We can only act on the evidence, madam. His flat tone said he had heard it all before. The Fishers, she thought, as she slammed down the phone. With their reputation, shed be lucky if a single person remembered what theyd seen. For a moment Jess let her head fall into her hands. They would never let up. And it would be Tanzie next, once she started secondary school. She would be a prime target with her maths and her oddness and her total lack of guile. The thought of it made her go cold. She thought about Martys sledgehammer in the garage. She thought about how it would feel to walk down to the Fishers house and The phone rang. She snatched it up. What now? Are you going to tell me he beat himself up too? Is that it? Mrs Thomas? She blinked. Mrs Thomas? Its Mr Tsvangarai. Oh. Mr Tsvangarai, Im sorry. It its not a great time She held out her hand in front of her. It was shaking. Im sorry to call you so late but its a matter of some urgency. I have discovered something of interest. Its called a Maths Olympiad. He spoke the words carefully. A what? Its a new thing, in Scotland, for gifted students. A maths competition. And we still have time to enter Tanzie. A maths competition? Jess closed her eyes. You know, thats really nice, Mr Tsvangarai, but we have quite a lot going on here right now and I dont think I Mrs Thomas. Hear me out. The prizes are five hundred pounds, a thousand pounds and five thousand pounds. Five thousand pounds. If she won, youd have at least the first year of your St Annes school fees sorted out. Say that again? He repeated it. Jess sat down on the chair, as he explained in greater depth. This is an actual thing? It is an actual thing. And you really think she could do it? There is a category especially for her age group. I cannot see how she could fail. Five thousand pounds , a voice sang in her head. Enough to get her through at least the first year. Whats the catch? No catch. Well, you have to do advanced maths, obviously. But I cant see that this would be a problem for Tanzie. She stood up and sat down again. And of course you would have to travel to Scotland. Details, Mr Tsvangarai. Details. Her head was spinning. This is for real, right? This isnt a joke? I am not a funny man, Mrs Thomas. Fuck. FUCK. Mr Tsvangarai, you are an absolute beauty. She could hear his embarrassed laugh. She thought he was less embarrassed by her swearing than that she was probably the first woman ever to have called him a beauty. So what do we do now? Well, they waived the qualifying test after I sent over some examples of Tanzies work. I understand they are very keen to have children from less advantaged schools. And, between you and me, it is, of course, an enormous benefit that shes a girl. But we have to decide quickly. You see, this years Olympiad is only five days away. Five days. The deadline for registration at St Annes was tomorrow. She stood in the middle of the room, thinking. Then she ran upstairs, pulled Mr Nichollss money from its nest among her tights, and before she could think she stuffed it into an envelope, scrawled a note, and wrote the address in careful letters on the front. She would pay it back. Every penny. But, right now, she didnt have a choice. That night, Jess sat at the kitchen table, studied the figures and worked out a rough plan. She paid off the minimum on her credit card, sent a holding letter to the gas company disputing her bill (that should buy her at least a month), and wrote cheques to the creditors whom she knew wouldnt wait, like the housing association. She looked up the cost of three train tickets to Edinburgh, laughed a bit hysterically, then looked up coach tickets (andN163;187, including the andN163;13 it would cost to get to the coach station) and the cost of putting Norman in kennels for a week (andN163;94). She put the palms of her hands into her eye sockets and let them stay there for a bit. And then, when the children were asleep, she dug out the keys to the Rolls-Royce, went outside, brushed the mouse droppings off the drivers seat and tried the ignition. It turned over on the third attempt. Jess sat in the garage that always smelt of damp, even in high summer, surrounded by old garden furniture, bits of car, plastic buckets and spades and the empty boxes for air-conditioning units, letting the engine run and thinking. Then she leant forward and peeled back the faded tax disc. It was almost two years out of date. And she was uninsured. She stared at it, then turned off the ignition and sat in the dark as the engine ticked down and the smell of oil gradually faded from the air, and she thought, for the hundredth time: Do the right thing. 8. Ed Ed.Nicholls@mayfly.com: Dont forget what I told you. Can remind you of deets if you lose the card. Deanna1@yahoo.com: I wont forget. Whole night engraved on my memory. ;-) Ed.Nicholls@mayfly.com: Did you do what I told you? Deanna1@yahoo.com: I did. Thanx. Ed.Nicholls@mayfly.com: Let me know if you get good results! Deanna1@yahoo.com: Well, based on your past performance, Id be amazed if it was anything but! ;-0 Deanna1@yahoo.com: Nobodys ever done for me what you did for me. Ed.Nicholls@mayfly.com: Really. It was nothing. Deanna1@yahoo.com: You want to hook up again, next weekend? Ed.Nicholls@mayfly.com: Bit busy at the mo. Ill let you know. Deanna1@yahoo.com: I think it worked out well for both of us ;-) The detective let him finish reading the two sheets of paper, then slid them towards Paul Wilkes. Have you got any comment on those, Mr Nicholls? There was something excruciating about seeing private emails laid out in an official document. The eagerness of his early replies, the barely veiled double-entendres , the smiley faces (what was he? Fourteen?) viewed in the cold light of an interview room, made something inside him shrivel. You dont have to say anything, Paul said. That whole exchange could be about anything. Ed pushed the documents away from him. Let me know if you get good results. I could have been telling her to do something sexual. It could be, like, email sex. At eleven fourteen a.m.? So? In an open-plan office? So Im uninhibited. The detective removed his glasses and gave him a hard look. Email sex? Really? Thats what you were doing here? Well, no. Not in that case. But thats not the point. I would suggest it is totally the point, Mr Nicholls. There are reams of this stuff. Theres a paper trail of the two of you meeting twice. You talk about keeping in touch he flicked through the papers to see if I can help you out some more. But its not how it sounds. She was depressed. She was having a bad time getting rid of her ex. I just wanted to make things a little easier for her. I keep telling you. Ed Pauls voice was a warning bell. Just a few more questions. They had questions, all right. They wanted to know how often he had met Deanna. Where they had gone. What the exact nature of their relationship was. They didnt believe him when Ed said he didnt know much about her life. They didnt believe him when he said he knew nothing about her brother. Oh, come on! he protested. Youve never had a relationship based on sex? Miss Lewis doesnt say it was based on sex. She says the two of you were involved in a close and intense relationship, that you had known each other since your college days, and that you were determined to make her go ahead with this deal, that you pressed it on her. She says she had no idea that in taking your advice she was doing anything illegal. But shes shes making it sound like we had much more of a relationship than we did. And I didnt force her to do anything. So you admit that you gave her the information. Im not saying that! Im just saying I think what my client is saying is that he cannot be held responsible for any misconceptions Ms Lewis might have held about their relationship, Paul Wilkes interjected. Or what information she might have passed on to her brother. And we were not having a relationship. Not that kind of relationship. The detective shrugged. You know what? I dont really care what the nature of your relationship was. I dont care if you knobbed her halfway to next Wednesday. What is of interest to me, Mr Nicholls, is that you are on record as having given this young woman information, which, on the twenty-eighth of February, she told a friend was going to bring us some serious profit. And which her and her brothers funds bank accounts show did in fact bring them some serious profit. An hour later, bailed for a fortnight, Ed sat in Paul Wilkess office. Paul poured them both a whisky, and they sat in silence while Ed drank his. He was becoming oddly used to the taste of strong alcohol in daylight hours. I cant be held responsible for what she told her brother. I cant go around checking whether every potential partner has a brother who works in finance. I mean who does that? Surely theyre going to see that. Paul leant back in his chair and sighed, like someone well used to explaining the obvious. The chain comes back to you. She and her brother made a barrow-load of money, and they did it illegally on information you gave her. I was trying to help her. Well, you certainly did that. But the SFA and the SOCA wont care what your motives were, Ed. Can we stop talking in acronyms? I have no idea who youre talking about. Well, basically, try and imagine every serious crime-fighting body that has anything to do with finance. Or crime. Thats basically who is investigating you right now. You make it sound like Im actually going to be charged. Ed put the whisky on the table beside him. I think its extremely likely, yes. And I think we may be in court pretty quickly. Theyre trying to speed up these cases. Ed stared at him. Then his head sank into his hands. This is a nightmare. I just I just wanted her to go away, Paul. I want this to go away. Well, the best we can hope for at the moment is that we can convince them that youre basically just a geek who was in over his head. Great. You got any better ideas? Ed shook his head. Then just sit tight. I need to do something, Paul. I need to get back to work. I dont know what to do if Im not working. Im going nuts down there in Nowheresville. Like I said, I know the prosecutors want to get this sewn up quickly. But if I were you Id stay put for now. The SFA may well leak this and then the shit is really going to hit the fan. Ive drawn up a statement saying youre completely innocent and that we have every confidence your name will be cleared once this goes to court. But the moment this gets out, the media are going to be all over you like a bad suit. The best thing you can do is hide out down there in Nowheresville for another week or so. Paul scribbled a note on his legal pad. Ed gazed at the upside-down writing. Do you think this will get into the papers? I dont know. Probably. It might be a good idea to talk to your family, anyway, just so theyre prepared for any negative publicity. Ed rested his hands on his knees. I cant. You cant what? Tell my dad about all this. Hes sick. This would He shook his head. When he finally looked up, Paul was watching him steadily. Well, thats got to be your decision. But, as I said, I think it would be wise for you to remain somewhere out of reach when it all blows up. Mayfly obviously doesnt want you anywhere near its offices until its all sorted. Theres too much money riding on the product launch. So you need to steer clear of anyone associated with the company. No calls. No emails. And if anyone does happen to locate you, for Gods sake, dont say anything. To anyone. He tapped his pen, signalling the end of the conversation. So basically I hide in the middle of nowhere, keep schtum , and twiddle my thumbs until I get sent to prison. The lawyer just stood, closed the file on his desk. Well, were putting our best team on it. Well do our best to make sure it doesnt come to that. Ed stood, and made to leave, slowly digesting the fact that his lawyer had not denied any of it. Paul opened the door to show him out. And next time, Ed? Just tell her youre not really interested. Saves a whole lot of trouble. Ed stood blinking on the steps of Pauls office, surrounded by office workers and lead-stained buildings, couriers tugging helmets from sweaty heads, bare-legged secretaries laughing on their way to eat sandwiches in the park, and felt a sudden pang for his old life. The one with his Nespresso machine in his office and his secretary nipping out for sushi, and his apartment with the views over the city, and the worst thing that afternoon being the prospect of having to lie on the couch in his office and listen to the Suits drone on about profit and loss. He had never really measured his life by that of anyone else but now he felt cripplingly envious of the people around him with their everyday concerns, their ability to get on a Tube back to their own homes, their families. The simple pleasures of going for a meal with friends, to stretch out in front of the television with his arm around someone. What did he have? Weeks of being stuck in an empty house, with nobody to talk to, facing the prospect of imminent prosecution. He thought back to the previous week, to waking up on his sofa at Beachfront with no idea how he had got there, his mouth as dry as if it had been packed with cotton wool, his glasses neatly folded on the coffee-table. It was the third time in as many weeks that hed been so drunk he couldnt remember how hed got home, the first time he had woken with empty pockets. He wasnt really a drinker. Lara had always insisted alcohol gave you belly fat and complained that he snored if he had more than two. He wanted a drink right now like he had rarely wanted anything. Because here was the thing: he missed work more than he had ever missed his wife. He missed it like a constant mistress; he missed having a routine. For almost five years now his day had run to the worlds most regular timetable: 7.00 a.m. get up, drink coffee 7.30 a.m. meet personal trainer, shower, walk to work, second coffee with Ronan 9.00 a.m. work 8.30 p.m. finish work, maybe have a quick drink at the bar downstairs with Ronan, walk home, maybe stay up and do a bit more work It had been orderly. Reassuring. Satisfying. And now every morning that Ed Nicholls woke up he had to think of a reason just to get dressed. He had to convince himself that his life wasnt over. Get a grip, Nicholls. He took a breath. Think logically. There is a way round every problem. There is always a way round. He checked his phone (new, only three imported contacts). There were two voicemail messages from Gemma. Nobody else had called. Ed sighed and pressed delete, then set off along the sun-baked pavement towards the car park. Ed sat for a while in his empty flat, got a bite to eat at a pizza restaurant, sat again in his flat, and then, because he had no reason to stay in the city, he climbed back into his car and drove towards the coast. Deanna Lewis danced before him the whole way out of London, spinning around against the rain-spattered windscreen like a cut-price dervish. He thought about those big brown eyes, half closed in apparent pleasure, wrinkling in delight at one of his jokes. He saw them gazing directly into his, as if allowing him to see straight into her. His thoughts darted around like silverfish. How could he have been so stupid? Why had he not thought about the possibility that she would tell someone else? Or was he actually missing something more sinister here? Had she and her brother planned this? Was it some sort of psychotic revenge strategy for dumping her? He drove and his brain hummed with questions. His skin prickled with anger, and with every mile it grew. He might as well have given her the keys to his flat, his bank-account details, like his ex-wife, and let her wipe him out. That would actually have been better. At least he would have kept his job, his friend. Shortly before the Godalming exit, overcome with rage, he pulled over on the motorway and dialled her mobile number. He had to try to remember it, as the authorities had taken his old phone, with all the contacts on, as part of their search for evidence. What the hell did you think you were doing? he wanted to yell at her. Why would you even do that to somebody? What the hell did I ever do to you that justified demolishing my whole life and leaving me in so much rubble? But the number was dead. Ed sat in a layby, his phone in his hand, feeling his rage dissipate. He hesitated, then rang Ronans number. It was one of only a handful he knew off by heart. It rang several times before he answered. Ronan Im not allowed to talk to you, Ed. He sounded weary. Yeah. I know. I just I just wanted to say Say what? What do you want to say, Ed? The anger in his voice was a silencer. You know what? I dont actually care so much about the insider-trading thing. Although obviously its a bloody disaster for the company. But you were my mate. My oldest friend. I would never have done that to you. A click, and the phone went dead. Ed sat there and allowed his head to drop onto the wheel for a few minutes. He waited until the humming in his mind leached away to nothing, and then he indicated, pulled out slowly and drove towards Beachfront. The phone rang just as he was coming off the dual carriageway. He looked at the glowing screen, sighed, and pressed a button on the hands-free set. What do you want, Lara. He didnt say it like a question. Hey, baby. How are you? Uh not so good. Oh, no! What is the matter? He never knew if it was an Italian thing, but she had a way, his ex-wife, of making you feel better. She would cradle your head, run her fingers through your hair, fuss around you, cluck maternally. By the end it had irritated him, but now, on the empty road at dead of night, he felt nostalgic for it. Its a work thing. Oh. A werk thing. That instinctive bristle in her voice. Ed wondered if she had thought he was going to say he missed her. He had known marrying Lara wasnt a good idea. You know that thing where people say, Even as we stood at the altar I knew in my gut that it wasnt right, and you think, You idiot! Why the hell did you go ahead with it, then? Well, that was him. He had been that man. They had got married because he knew Lara really, really wanted it and hed thought it would make her happy. It had taken him about two weeks to realize marriage wasnt going to make her happy at all. Or, at least, marriage to him. Its fine, Lara. How are you? Mamma is driving me crazy. And there is a problem with the roof at home. Any jobs? She made a sound with her teeth against her lips. I got a call-back for a West End show and then they say I look too old. Too old! You dont look too old. I know! I can look sixteen! Baby, I need to talk to you about the roof. Lara, its your place. You got a settlement. But they say its going to cost lots of money. Lots of money. I have nothing . He kept his voice steady. What happened to the settlement? There is nothing. My brother needed some money for his business, and you know Papis health is not good. And then I had some credit cards All of it? I dont have enough for the roof. Its going to leak this winter, they said. Eduardo Well, you could always sell the print you took from my apartment in December. His solicitor had implied it was his own fault for not changing the locks on the doors. Everyone else did, apparently. I was sad, Eduardo. I miss you. I just wanted a reminder of you. Right. Of the man you said you couldnt stand to even look at any more. I was angry when I said that. She pronounced it engry. By the end she was always engry. He rubbed at his eyes, flicked the indicator to signal his exit onto the coast road. I just wanted some reminders of when we were heppy . You know, maybe the next time you miss me you could take away, like, a framed photo of us, not a fourteen-thousand-pound limited-edition print of Mao Tse-tung. Her voice dropped to a whisper. It filled the dark confines of the car, almost unbearably intimate. Dont you care that I have no one to turn to? Her voice was feline, a soft, sad growl. It made his balls tighten reflexively. And she knew it. Ed glanced in his rear-view mirror. Well, why dont you ask Jim Leonards? What? His wife called me. Shes not very happy, funnily enough. It was only once! Once I went out with him. And it is nobodys business who I date! He heard her roar of outrage. Could picture her, one perfectly manicured hand raised, fingers splayed in frustration at having to deal with the most annoying man on earth. You left me! Am I supposed to be a nun my whole life? You left me, Lara. On the twenty-seventh of May, on the way back from Paris. Remember? Details! You always twist my words with details! This is exactly why I had to leave you! I thought it was because I only loved my work and didnt understand human emotions. I left you because you have a tiny dick! Tiny, TINY dick! Like a pawn! You mean prawn. PRAWN. CRAYFISH. Whatever is smallest thing! Tiny! Then I think you actually mean shrimp. You know, given you just walked off with a valuable limited-edition print, I think you could at least have granted me lobster. But sure. Whatever. He heard the Italian curse, the clumsy slamming down of her phone. He drove for several miles that later he would not recall driving. And then he sighed, turned on the radio, and fixed his gaze on the seemingly endless black road ahead. Gemma rang just as he was turning down the coast road. Her name flashed up on the hands-free and Ed answered before hed had time to think about why he shouldnt. It felt like every time his phone rang it was just so that somebody could yell at him. Dont tell me. Youre really busy. Im driving. And you have a hands-free thing. Mum wanted to know if youre going to be there for their anniversary lunch. What anniversary lunch? Oh, come on, Ed. I told you about it months ago. Im sorry. I havent got access to my diary right now. He could hear her taking a breath. Theyre going to let Dad out next Tuesday. So Mums doing a special lunch at home for them. She wanted us to be there. You said youd be able to come. Oh. Yeah. Yeah what? You remember? Or yeah, youre coming? He tapped his fingers on the steering-wheel. I dont know. Look, Dad was asking for you yesterday. I told him youre tied up with a work project but hes so frail, Ed. This is really important to him. To both of them. Gemma, Ive told you Her voice exploded into the interior of the car. Yeah, I know, youre too busy. Youve told me youve got a lot on. Youve told me youve got stuff going on. I have got stuff going on! You have no idea! Oh, no, I couldnt possibly hope to understand, could I? Just the stupid social worker who doesnt earn a six-figure fucking salary. This is our dad, Ed. This is the man who sacrificed everything to buy you a fucking education. He thinks the sun shines out of your backside. And hes not going to last much longer. You need to get down there and show your face and say the things that sons are meant to say to their dying fathers, okay? Hes not dying. How the fuck would you know? You havent been to see him in two months! Look, I will go. Its just Ive got to Why do you keep making excuses? Im not making excuses, Gem Bullshit. Youre a businessman. You make stuff happen. Make this happen. Or I swear I Im losing you, Gem. Sorry, the receptions really patchy here. I He began to make ssssh noises, then reached over, pressed a button. The phone went dead, but not before he detected the muffled cry of Arsehole! He turned on the radio. It was a monotone programme about milk yields. He changed the channel, but the music was abrasive and shrieky and reminded him too much of his sister. He tried a classical music station (too melancholy) and commercial local radio (DJ too irritating) before giving up and turning it off again. The phone rang. He looked at the number and ignored it. It rang again. He ignored it. The third time he sighed, then pressed the button. One lunch, she said, her social-work voice on, all calm and conciliatory. One little lunch, Ed. Thats all Im asking. He spotted a police car up ahead, and checked the speedometer, half braced for tangled metal. A filthy Rolls-Royce, one headlight dimmed, sat half up on the verge under the orange glow of a sodium light. A small girl stood beside it holding an enormous dog on a lead. Her head swivelled slowly as he passed. I do understand that you have a lot of commitments, and your job is really important. We all understand that, Mr Big Swinging Technodick. But just one awkward family lunch with your sick father and your overworked, underpaid do-gooder sister. Would that be too much to ask? Hang on, Gem. Theres an accident. Beside her a ghostly teenager boy? girl? with a shock of dark hair, stood with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumped and, turning briefly away from a policeman who was writing something, another child no, a small woman, her hair tied back into a scrappy ponytail. She was lifting her hands in exasperation in a gesture that reminded him of Lara. You are so annoying! He had driven a further hundred yards before he understood the jolt that went through him. He knew that woman. He racked his brain: bar? Holiday park? He had a sudden image of her taking his car keys, a memory of her removing his glasses in his house. What was she doing out there with children at this time of night? He pulled over and glanced into the rear-view mirror, watching. He could just make out the group. The little girl had sat down on the dark verge, the dog a mountainous black lump beside her. Ed? Are you okay? Gemmas voice broke into the silence. Afterwards he wasnt entirely sure what made him do it. Perhaps it was an attempt to delay his arrival back in that empty house to sit staring at a television screen until the small hours. Perhaps it was the strangeness of it that making himself part of such a scene seemed no longer an odd thing to do in a life that had gone so far off the rails. Perhaps it was just that he wanted to convince himself, against all available evidence, that he was not entirely an arsehole. Gem, Ill have to call you back. Its someone I know. He pulled over and did a three-point turn, driving back down the dimly lit road slowly until he reached the police car. He pulled up on the other side of the road. Hi, Ed said, lowering the window. Can I help? 9. Tanzie They let Nicky out at a quarter to five. Tanzie handed over the Nintendo shed brought on the bus from home and watched silently as he played with grazed fingers. Her happy mood had disappeared a bit when she first saw Nickys swollen face. It didnt really look like him and shed had to make her eyes stay very firmly on his when they would have liked to go somewhere else, even to the stupid picture of galloping horses on the wall opposite, which didnt even look like horses. She wanted to tell him about how theyd registered at St Annes, but it was hard to think about it too much in that little room, with the smell of hospitals in her nose and Nickys eye all the wrong shape. He made funny little sounds as he walked, and tried to close his mouth over them, like he didnt want to let on how much it hurt. Tanzie found herself thinking, The Fishers did this, the Fishers did this, and she felt a bit scared because she couldnt believe anyone they knew would do this for no reason. Mum had to have all the usual arguments with the hospital people about how, no, she wasnt his actual mum, but as good as. And, no, he didnt have a social worker. And it always made Tanzie feel a bit odd, like Nicky wasnt a proper part of their family, even though he was. When Nicky got up to go down the corridor she put her hand gently into his, and even though normally he would have told her to Scoot, small fry or one of the other stupid things he said, he just squeezed her fingers a bit and his swollen mouth gave her this little smile, like just for once she was allowed (or at least until he said, Tanze, mate, I do actually need to go to the loo now). Mums face was all pale, and she kept chewing her lip, like she wanted to say a lot more than she did. Nicky didnt look at her once. And then, when lots of doctors and people arrived in his room, Mum told Tanzie to wait outside and she walked up and down the long antiseptic corridors, reading her papers and working on her algebra. Numbers always made her feel better. If you treated them properly they always did what they were meant to do like there was a magical order all around that you could unlock if you had the right key. Nicky was dressed when she went back in. He walked out of the room really slowly, and he remembered to thank the nurse. Nice lad, isnt he? she said. Polite. Mum was gathering up his things. Thats the worst bit, she said. He just wants to be left alone. Doesnt really work like that round here, though, does it? The nurse smiled at Tanzie. Take care of your brother, eh? As she walked towards the main entrance behind him, Tanzie wondered what it said about their family when every single conversation they had now seemed to end with a funny look and the words Take care. Mum made dinner and gave Nicky three different-coloured pills to take, and they sat watching television on the sofa together. It was Total Wipeout , which normally made Nicky pretty much wee himself laughing, but he had barely spoken since they returned home, and she didnt think it was because his jaw hurt. He looked weird. Tanzie thought about the way those boys had jumped on him and the woman who had dragged her into the shop so that she wouldnt see and she tried to block out the thought because the sound of them hitting him still made her stomach go a bit funny, even though Mum said she would never, ever let it happen again, and she was not to think about it, okay? Mum was busy upstairs. Tanzie could hear her dragging drawers out and going backwards and forwards across the landing. She was so busy she didnt even notice it was way past bedtime. She nudged Nicky very gently with her finger. Does it hurt? Does what hurt? Your face. What do you mean? He looked at her like he didnt know what she was talking about. Well its a funny shape. Sos yours. Does that hurt? Ha-ha. Im fine, Titch. Drop it. And then, when she stared at him, Really. Just forget it. Im fine. Mum came in and put the lead on Norman. He was lying on the sofa and didnt want to get up and it took her about four goes to drag him out of the door. Tanzie was going to ask her if she was taking him for a walk but then the really funny bit was on where the wheel knocks the contestants off their little pedestals into the water and she forgot. Then Mum came back in. Okay, kids. Get your jackets. Jackets? Why? Because were leaving. For Scotland. She made it sound perfectly normal. Nicky didnt even look round from the television. Were leaving for Scotland. He pointed the remote control at the screen, just to check. Yup. Were going to drive. But we havent got a car. Were taking the Rolls. Nicky glanced at Tanzie, then back at Mum. But you havent got insurance. Ive been driving since I was twelve years old. And Ive never had an accident. Look, well stick to the B roads, and do most of it overnight. As long as nobody pulls us over well be fine. They both stared at her. But you said I know what I said. But sometimes the ends justify the means. What does that mean? Mum threw her hands up in the air. Theres a maths competition that could change our lives and its in Scotland. Right now, we havent got the money for the fares. Thats the truth of it. I know its not ideal to drive, and Im not saying its right, but unless you two have a better idea then lets just get into the car and get on with it. Um, dont we need to pack? Its all in the car. Tanzie knew Nicky was thinking what she was thinking that Mum had finally gone mad. But she had read somewhere that mad people were like sleepwalkers it was best not to disturb them. So she nodded really slowly, like this was all making perfect sense, and she fetched her jacket and they walked through the back door and into the garage, where Norman was sitting in the back seat and giving them the look that said, Yeah. Me too. She climbed in. It smelt a bit musty, and she didnt really want to put her hands down on the seats because she had read somewhere that mice wee all the time, like non-stop, and mouse wee could give you about eight hundred diseases. Can I just run and get my gloves? she said. Mum looked at her like she was the crazy one, but she nodded, so Tanzie ran and put them on and thought she probably felt a bit better. Nicky eased his way gingerly into the front seat, and wiped at the dust on the dashboard with his fingers. Tanzie wanted to tell him about the mouse wee but she didnt want to alert Mum to the fact that she knew. Mum opened the garage door, started the engine, reversed the car carefully out onto the drive. Then she climbed out, closed and locked the garage securely, then sat and thought for a minute. Tanze. Have you got a pen and paper? She fished around in her bag and handed her one. Mum didnt want her to see what she was writing but Tanzie peeped through the seats. FISHER YOU LITTLE WASTE OF SKIN I HAVE TOLD THE POLICE THAT IF ANYONE BREAKS IN IT WILL BE YOU AND THEY ARE WATCHING She got out of the car and pinned it to the bottom part of the door, where it wouldnt be visible from the street. Then she climbed back into the half-eaten drivers seat and, with a low purr, the Rolls set off into the night, leaving the glowing little house behind them. It took them about ten minutes to work out that Mum had forgotten how to drive. The things that even Tanzie knew mirror, signal, manoeuvre she kept doing in the wrong order, and she drove leaning forwards over the steering-wheel and clutching it like the grannies who drove at fifteen m.p.h. around the town centre and scraped their doors on the pillars in the municipal car park. They passed the Rose and Crown, the industrial estate with the five-man car wash, and the carpet warehouse. Tanzie pressed her nose to the window. They were officially leaving town. The last time she had left town was on the school journey to Durdle Door when Melanie Abbott was sick all down herself in the coach and started a vomit chain reaction around the whole of Five C. Just keep calm, Mum muttered to herself. Nice and calm. You dont look calm, said Nicky. He was playing Nintendo, his thumbs a blur on each side of the little glowing screen. Nicky, I need you to map-read. Dont play Nintendo right now. Well, surely we just go north. But where is north? I havent driven around here for years. I need you to tell me where I should be going. He glanced up at the signpost. Do we want the M3? I dont know. Im asking you! Let me see. Tanzie reached through from the back and took the map from Nickys hands. What way up do I hold it? They drove round the roundabout twice, while she wrestled with the map, and then they were on the ring road. Tanzie vaguely remembered this road: they had once come this way when Mum and Dad were trying to sell the air-conditioners. Can you turn the light on at the back, Mum? she said. I cant read anything. Mum swivelled in her seat. The button should be above your head. Tanzie reached up and clicked it with her thumb. She could have taken her gloves off, she thought. Mice couldnt walk upside down. Not like spiders. Its not working. Nicky, youll have to map-read. She looked over, exasperated. Nicky. Yeah. I will. I just need to get these golden stars. Theyre five thousand points. Tanzie folded the map as best she could and pushed it back through the front seats. Nickys head was bent low over his game, lost in concentration. To be fair, golden stars were really hard to get. Will you put that thing down! He sighed, snapped it shut. They were going past a pub she didnt recognize, and now a new hotel. Mum said they were looking for the M3 but Tanzie hadnt seen any signs for the M3 for ages. Beside her Norman started a low whine: she figured they had around thirty-eight seconds before Mum said it was shredding her nerves. She made it to twenty-seven. Tanzie, please stop the dog. Its making it impossible to concentrate. Nicky. I really need you to read the map. Hes drooling everywhere. I think he needs to get out. She shifted to the side. Nicky squinted at the signs in front of them. If you stay on this road I think well end up in Southampton. But thats the wrong way. Thats what I said. The smell of oil was really strong. Tanzie wondered whether something was leaking. She put her glove over her nose. I think we should just head back to where we were and start again. With a grunt Mum swung the car off at the next exit and went round the roundabout. Turning corners made the tendons in her neck stand out like little steel cables. They all tried to ignore the grinding noise as she turned the wheel to the right, and headed back down the other side of the dual carriageway. Tanzie. Please do something with the dog. Please. She looked up and pointed towards the turn-off for the town. What am I doing, Nicky? Coming off here? Oh, God. Hes farted. Mum, Im suffocating. Nicky, please can you read the map. Tanzie remembered now that Mum hated driving. She wasnt good at processing information quickly enough. She always said she didnt have the right synapses. Plus, to be fair, the smell now seeping through the car was so bad it made it hard to think straight. She began to gag. Im dying! Norman turned his big old head to look at her, his eyes sad, like she was being really mean. But there are two turnings. Do I take this one or the next? Definitely the next. Oh, no, sorry its this one. What? Mum wrenched the car off the dual carriageway, narrowly avoiding the grass verge, and onto the exit slip. The car juddered as they hit the kerb and Tanzie had to let go of her nose to grab Normans collar. For Christs sake, can you just I meant the next one. This one takes us miles out of the way. Weve been on the road almost half an hour and were further away than when we started. Jesus, Nicky, I It was then that Tanzie saw the flashing blue light. She stared up at the rear-view mirror, then turned to look out of the back windscreen, disbelieving. She willed it to go past, to be racing to the scene of some accident. But instead it drew nearer and nearer, until those cold blue lights filled the car. Nicky swivelled painfully in his seat. Um, Jess, I think they want you to pull over. Shit. Shit shit shit . Tanzie, you didnt hear that. Mum took a deep breath, adjusted her hands on the wheel as she started to slow. It will be fine. It will all be fine. Nicky slumped a little lower in his seat. Um, Jess? Not now, Nicky. The blue light was pulling over too. Her palms had begun to sweat. It will all be fine. I guess this isnt the time to tell you I brought my stash with me. 10. Jess So there she was, standing on the grass verge of a dual carriageway at eleven forty at night with two policemen who were both acting not like she was a major criminal, which was sort of what shed expected, but worse like she was just really, really stupid. Everything they said had a patronising edge to it: So are you often in the habit of taking your family out for a late-night drive, madam? With only one headlight working? Were you not actually aware, madam, that your tax disc is two years out of date? They hadnt actually looked up the whole no-insurance thing yet. So there was that to look forward to. Nicky was sweating on the verge, waiting for them to locate his stash. Tanzie was a pale, silent ghost a few feet away, hugging Normans neck for reassurance. Jess had only herself to blame. It could hardly get any worse. And then Mr Nicholls turned up. Jess almost laughed then: the whole thing was so ridiculously awful. She felt the remaining colour drain from her face as his window wound down and she saw who it was. And she realized exactly what was going to happen next, which was that he was going to tell the policemen: You know what? As well as driving a car that is uninsured and without a valid tax disc and probably contains a quarter-ounce of skunk somewhere in that mouse-infested upholstery, this woman is a THIEF. And a million thoughts flashed through her head like who was going to mind the children when she went to prison, and if it was Marty, would he remember things like the fact that Tanzies feet grew occasionally and buy her new shoes instead of waiting until her toenails curled in on her toes? And who would look after Norman? And why the hell hadnt she done what she should have done in the first place and just given Ed Nicholls back his stupid roll of money? But he didnt say any of that. He just took in the scene and said, Need some help? Policeman Number One turned slowly to look him over. He was a barrel-chested man with an upright bearing, the kind who took himself seriously, and bristled if everyone else didnt too. And you are Edward Nicholls. I know this woman. What is it? Car trouble? He stared at the Rolls as if he couldnt believe it was actually on the road. You could say that, said Policeman Number Two. Out-of-date tax disc, Jess muttered, trying to ignore the hammering in her chest. I was trying to drive the kids somewhere. And now I guess Im driving it home again. Youre not driving anywhere, said Policeman Number One. Your car is now impounded. The tow truck is on its way. It is an offence under Section Thirty-three of the Vehicle Excise and Registration Act to drive on a public road without a valid tax disc. Which also means your insurance will be invalidated. I dont have any. They both turned towards her. The car isnt insured. Im not insured. She could see Mr Nicholls staring. What the hell? The moment they entered the details they would see it anyway. Weve had a bit of trouble. I was desperate. It was the only way I could see to get the kids from A to B. You are aware that driving your car without tax and insurance is a crime. She stared at her feet. And carries a possible jail sentence. And its not my car. She kicked at a stone on the grass. Thats the next thing youre going to see when you do your whole database thing. Did you steal the vehicle, madam? No, I did not steal the vehicle. Its been sitting in my garage for two years. Thats not an answer to my question. Its my ex-husbands car. Does he know youve taken it? He wouldnt know if I had a sex change and called myself Sid. Hes been in north Yorkshire for the past You know, you really might want to stop talking now. Mr Nicholls ran a hand over the top of his head. Who are you, her lawyer? Does she need one? Driving without tax and insurance is an offence under Section Thirty-three Yeah. You said. Well, I think you might want to get some advice before you say any more Jess. Jess. He looked at the policemen. Officers, does this woman actually need to go to the station? Because shes obviously really, really sorry. And given the hour, I think the kids need to go home. Shell be charged with driving without tax and insurance. Your name and address, madam? Jess gave it to Policeman Number One. She couldnt muster a sorry face. She was so cross with herself that she could barely get the words out. She watched him turn away and repeat it into his walkie-talkie. Whatever came over the airwaves seemed to satisfy him because when he turned back he looked at the kids and nodded. The car is registered to that address, yes. But its registered under a SORN, which means That it shouldnt be driven on a public road. I know. You know. Shame you didnt think about that before you came out, then, isnt it? He gave her the kind of look that teachers reserve for making eight-year-olds feel small. And something in that look pushed Jess over the edge. You know what? she said. You honestly think I would have driven my kids anywhere at eleven oclock at night if I hadnt been desperate? You really think I just sat there this evening in my little house and thought, I know. Ill take my kids and my bloody dog and just go and get us all into a whole heap of trouble and Its not my business what you were thinking, madam. My issue is you bringing an uninsured, possibly unsafe vehicle onto a public road. I was desperate, okay? And you wont find me on your damned database because Ive never done anything wrong Or you just never got caught. Mr Nichollss hand landed on her shoulder. Uh, Jess? I think maybe you should stop now. The two policemen gazed at her steadily. On the verge, Norman flopped down with a great sigh. Tanzie watched it all in silence, her eyes great hollows. Oh, God, Jess thought. All she sees around her now is chaos. She bit back her words, mumbled an apology. You will be charged with driving without the appropriate documents, Mrs Thomas, Policeman Number One said, handing her a slip of paper. I have to warn you that you will receive a court summons, and that you face a possible fine of up to five thousand pounds. Five grand? Jess started to laugh. But you can go now. Five grand ? And youll need to pay to get this the officer couldnt bring himself to say car out of the police pound. I have to tell you there is a fifteen-pound charge for every day that it remains there. Perfect. And how am I supposed to get it out of the pound if Im not allowed to drive it? She was testing his patience, she could see. But she couldnt stop herself. Five grand. You tax it and insure it like everybody else and then you can take it away. Or you pay a garage to fetch it. Id advise you to remove all your belongings before the tow truck arrives. Once it leaves here we cannot be held responsible for the vehicles contents. Of course. Because obviously it would be way too much to hope for a car to be safe in a police pound, she muttered. Jess But, Mum, how are we going to get home? There was a brief silence. The policemen turned away. Ill give you a lift, Mr Nicholls said. Jess stepped away from him. Oh. No. No, thank you. Were fine. Well walk. Its not far. Its three miles. Tanzie squinted at her, as if trying to assess whether she was serious, then clambered wearily to her feet. Jess remembered that under her coat Tanzie was in her pyjamas. Mr Nicholls glanced at the children. Im headed back that way. He nodded towards the town. You know where I live. Tanzie and Nicky didnt speak, but Jess watched Nicky limp towards the car and start to haul out the bags. She couldnt make him carry all that stuff home. She wasnt sure he could even walk that far in his present state. Thank you, she said stiffly. Thats very kind of you. She couldnt look him in the eye. What happened to your boy? Policeman Number Two said, as Nicky dropped his holdall at her feet. Look it up on your database, she snapped, and walked over to the pile of bags. They drove away from the police in silence. Jess sat in the passenger seat of Mr Nichollss immaculate car, staring straight ahead at the road. She wasnt sure she had ever felt more uncomfortable. She could feel, even if she couldnt see, the childrens stunned silence at the evenings turn of events. She had let them down. She watched the hedgerows turn to fencing and brick walls, the black lanes turn to streetlights. She couldnt believe they had only been gone an hour and a half. It felt like a lifetime. A five-thousand-pound fine. An almost-certain driving ban. And a court appearance. Marty would go mental. And she had just blown Tanzies last chance of going to St Annes. For the first time that evening Jess felt a lump rise in her throat. You okay? Fine. She kept her face turned away from Mr Nicholls. He didnt know. Of course he didnt know. For a brief, terrifying moment after she had agreed to get into his car, she had wondered if this was a trick. He would wait until the police had gone, then do something dreadful to pay her back for her theft. But it was worse. He was just trying to be helpful. Um, can you turn left here? Were down there. Go to the end, turn left, then the second turning on the right. The picturesque part of town had fallen away half a mile back. Here on Danehall, the trees were skeletal even in summer and burnt-out cars stood on piles of bricks, like civic sculptures on little pedestals. The houses came in three vintages, depending on your street: terraced, pebble-dashed, or tiny and built in maroon brick with uPVC windows. He swung the car round to the left and into Seacole Avenue, slowing as she pointed to her house. She looked round at the back seat and saw that during the short drive Tanzie had nodded off, her mouth hanging slightly open, her head resting against Norman, who leant half his bulk against Nickys body. Nicky looked out of the window impassively. They were turning them out of the Hare and Terrier, and groups of men stood smoking on the corner, some preparing to go home, others looking for an excuse not to. You might not want to hang around too long, she said, nodding towards them. Your car is the same model as the local skunk dealers. So where were you trying to get to? Scotland. She rubbed her nose. Its a long story. He waited. Her leg had started to jiggle involuntarily. I need to get my daughter to a Maths Olympiad. The fares were expensive. Although not as expensive as getting pulled over by the Old Bill, it turns out. A Maths Olympiad. I know. Id never heard of one either until a week ago. Like I said, its a long story. So what are you going to do? Jess looked into the back seat, at Tanzie, who snored gently. She shrugged. She couldnt say the words. Mr Nicholls suddenly caught sight of Nickys face. He stared, as if seeing it for the first time. Yeah. Thats another story. You have a lot of stories. He turned back in his seat and looked straight ahead at the men on the corner. Jess couldnt work out if he was deep in thought or if he was just waiting for her to get out of the car. Thanks. For the lift. It was kind of you. Yeah, well, I owe you one. Im pretty sure it was you who got me home from the pub the other night. I woke up on my sofa with my car safely in the pub car park and the worlds most malevolent hangover. He paused. I also have a vague memory of being an arsehole. Possibly for the second time. Its fine, she said, as blood rushed to her ears. Really. Nicky had opened the car door. The cool air made Tanzie stir. She rubbed her eyes and blinked at Jess. Then she gazed slowly around her at the car, the last hour re-registering on her face. Does this mean were not going? Jess gathered up the bags at her feet. This was not a conversation to have in front of an audience. Lets go inside, Tanze. Its late. Does this mean were not going to Scotland? She smiled awkwardly at Mr Nicholls. Thanks again. She hauled her bags out onto the pavement. The air was surprisingly chill. Nicky stood outside the gate, waiting. Tanzies voice crackled with sudden knowledge. Does this mean I dont get to go to St Annes? She tried to smile. Lets not talk about it now, sweetie. But what are we going to do? said Nicky. Not now, Nicky. Lets just get indoors. You now owe the police five grand. How are we going to get to Scotland? Kids? Please? Can we just go indoors? With a groan, Norman heaved himself off the back seat and ambled out of the car. You didnt say well sort something out. Tanzies voice was panicked. You always say well sort something out. Well sort something out, Jess said, dragging the duvets out of the boot. Thats not the voice you use when were really going to sort something out. Tanzie began to cry. It was so unexpected, that at first Jess could do nothing but stand there in shock. Take these. She thrust the duvets at Nicky, and leant her upper half into the car, trying to manoeuvre Tanzie out. Tanzie sweetheart. Come out. Its late. Well talk about this. Talk about me not going to St Annes? Mr Nicholls was staring at his steering-wheel, like this was all too much for him. Jess began apologizing under her breath. Shes tired, she said, trying to put her arm around her daughter. Tanzie shifted away. Im so sorry. It was at that point Mr Nichollss phone rang. Gemma, he said wearily, as if hed been expecting it. She could hear an angry buzzing, as if a wasp had been trapped in the receiver. I know, he said quietly. I just want to go to St Annes, Tanzie cried. Her glasses had fallen off Jess hadnt had time to take her to the optician to fix them and she covered her eyes with her hands. Please let me go. Please, Mum. Ill be really good. Just let me go there. Sssh. A lump rose in Jesss throat. Tanzie never begged for anything. She just wasnt made that way. Tanze On the pavement, Nicky turned away, as if he couldnt watch it. Mr Nicholls said something into his phone that she couldnt make out. Tanzie had begun to sob. She was a dead weight. It was as if she was refusing to leave the car. Come on, sweetheart, Jess said, tugging at her. She had braced herself against the door. Please, Mum. Please. Please. Ill be really good. Tanzie, you cannot stay in the car. Please Out. Cmon, baby. Ill drive you, Mr Nicholls said. Jesss head bumped against the door frame. What? Ill drive you to Scotland. He had put down his phone and was staring at his steering-wheel. Turns out Ive got to go to Northumberland. Scotlands not that much further. Ill drop you there. Everyone fell silent. At the end of the street there was a burst of laughter and a car door slammed. Jess straightened her ponytail, which had gone askew. Look, its really nice of you to offer but we cant accept a lift from you. Yeah, said Nicky, leaning forward. Yeah, we can, Jess. He glanced at Tanzie. Really. We can. But we dont even know you. I cant ask you to Mr Nicholls didnt look at her. Its just a lift. Its really not a big deal. Tanzie sniffed and rubbed at her nose. Please? Mum? Jess looked at her, and at Nickys bruised face, then back at Mr Nicholls. She had never wanted to sprint from a car so badly. I cant offer you anything, she said, and her voice emerged with a weird break in the middle. Anything at all. He raised one eyebrow, swivelled his head towards the dog. Not even vacuum my back seats afterwards? The breath that left her chest probably sounded slightly more relieved than was diplomatic. Well okay, that I can do. Right, he said. Then I suggest we all get a few hours sleep and Ill pick you up first thing tomorrow. 11. Ed It took Edward Nicholls about fifteen minutes after he had left Danehall estate to question what the bloody hell he had just done. He had agreed to transport his stroppy cleaner, her two weird kids and an enormous reeking dog all the way to Scotland. What the hell had he been thinking? He could hear Gemmas voice, the scepticism with which she had repeated his statement: Youre taking a little girl you dont know and her family to the other end of the country and its an emergency. Right. He could hear the inverted commas. A pause. Pretty, is she? What? The mother. Big tits? Long eyelashes? Damsel in distress? Thats not it. Er He couldnt say anything with them all in the car. Ill take both those as a yes, then. She sighed deeply. For Christs sake, Ed. Tomorrow morning he would pop by first thing, apologize and explain that something had come up. Shed understand. She probably felt weird about sharing a car with a near-stranger too. She hadnt exactly jumped at the offer. He would donate something towards the kids train fare. It wasnt his fault the woman Jess? had decided to drive an untaxed, uninsured car, after all. If you looked at it on paper the cops, the weird kids, the night-time joyriding she was trouble. And Ed Nicholls did not need any more trouble in his life. With these thoughts in his head, he washed, brushed his teeth and fell into the first decent sleep hed had in weeks. He pulled up outside the gate shortly after nine. He had meant to be there earlier but couldnt remember where the house was, and given that the estate was a sprawling mass of identikit streets, he had driven up and down blindly for almost thirty minutes until he recognized Seacole Avenue. It was only the pub that got him there in the end. It was a damp, still morning, the air heavy with moisture. The street was empty, apart from a ginger cat, which stalked its way along the pavement, its tail a question mark. Danehall seemed a little less unfriendly in daylight, but he still found himself double-checking hed locked the car once hed stepped out of it. He gazed up at the windows, hoping hed got the right place. Pink and white bunting hung in one of the upstairs rooms, and two hanging baskets swung listlessly from the front porch. A car sat under a tarpaulin in the next driveway. But the real giveaway was lumbering slowly around the front garden, pausing only to lift its leg against a childs bicycle. Jesus. That dog. The size of it. Ed pictured it lolling over his back seat the previous evening. A faint echo of its scent had remained when he climbed back in this morning. He opened the latch of the gate warily, in case it went for him, but it simply turned its enormous head with mild disinterest, walked to the shade of a weedy tree and flopped down on its side, lifting a desultory front leg as if in the vague hope it might get its stomach scratched. Ill pass, thanks, Ed said. He walked up the path and paused at the door. He had his little speech all prepared. Hi, Im really sorry but something very important has come up with work and Im afraid Im not going to be able to take the next couple of days off. However, Id be happy to contribute something to your daughters Olympiad fund. I think its great that shes working so hard at her studies. So heres her train fare. If it sounded a little less convincing in his head this morning than it had done last night, well, it couldnt be helped. He was about to knock when he saw the note, half attached to the door with a pin, flapping in the breeze: FISHER YOU LITTLE WASTE OF SKIN I HAVE TOLD THE POLICE THAT IF ANYONE BREAKS IN IT WILL BE YOU AND THEY ARE WATCHING As he straightened up the door opened. The little girl stood there. Were all packed, she said, squinting, her head tilted to one side. Mum said you wouldnt come but I knew you would so I said I wouldnt let her unpack the suitcases until ten. And you made it with fifty-three minutes to spare. Which is actually about thirty-three minutes better than I estimated. He blinked. Mum! She pushed the door open. Jess was standing in the hallway, as if she had stopped dead halfway down it. She was wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her hair was clipped up. She did not look like someone preparing to travel the length of the country. Hi. Ed smiled awkwardly. Oh. Okay. She shook her head. And he realized the child had been telling the truth: she really hadnt expected him to turn up. Id offer you a coffee, but I got rid of the last of the milk before we set off last night. Before he could answer, the boy sloped past, rubbing his eyes. His face was still swollen, and now coloured an impressionist palette of purples and yellows. He gazed at the pile of holdalls and bin bags in the hall and said, Which of these are we taking? All of them, said the little girl. And I packed Normans blanket. Jess looked at Ed warily. He made to open his mouth, but nothing came out. The entire length of the hallway was lined with battered paperbacks. He wasnt sure why that surprised him. Can you pick up this bag, Mr Nicholls? The little girl tugged it towards him. I did try and lift it earlier because Nicky cant pick stuff up right now but its too heavy for me. Sure. He found himself stooping, but stopped for a moment before he lifted it. How was he going to do this? Listen. Mr Nicholls Jess was in front of him. She looked as uncomfortable as he did. About this trip And then the front door flew open. A woman stood in jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, a baseball bat raised in her hand. DROP THEM! she roared. He froze. PUT YOUR HANDS UP! Nat! Jess shouted. Dont hit him! He lifted them slowly, turning to face her. What the The woman looked past Ed at Jess. Jess? Oh, my God. I thought someone was in your house. Someone is in my house. Me. The woman dropped the bat, then looked in horror at him. Oh, my God. Its Oh, God, oh, God, Im so sorry. I saw the front door and I honestly thought you were a burglar. I thought you were you know who. She laughed nervously, then pulled an agonized face at Jess, as if he couldnt see her. Ed let out a breath. The woman put the bat behind her and tried to smile. You know how it is around here He took a step backwards and gave a small nod. Okay, well I just need to get my phone. Left it in the car. He edged past her with his palms up and headed down the path. He opened and shut the car door, then locked it again, just to give himself something to do, trying to think clearly over the ringing in his ears. Just drive off , a little voice said. Just go. You never have to see her again. You do not need this right now. Ed liked order. He liked to know what was coming. Everything about this woman suggested the kind of boundarylessness that made him nervous. He walked halfway back up the path, trying to formulate the right words. As he approached the house, he could just hear them talking behind the half-closed door, their voices carrying across the little garden. Im going to tell him no. You cant, Jess. The boys voice. Why? Because its too complicated. I work for him. You clean his house. Thats not the same thing. We dont know him, then. How can I tell Tanzie not to get in cars with men she doesnt know, and then do exactly that? He wears glasses. Hes hardly going to be a serial killer. Tell that to Dennis Nielsens victims. And Harold Shipmans. You know way too many serial killers. Well set Norman on him if he does anything bad. The boys voice again. Yes. Because Norman has been so useful, protecting this family in the past. Mr Nicholls doesnt know that, does he? Look. Hes just some bloke. He probably got caught up in the drama last night. Its obvious he doesnt want to do it. Well well just let Tanzie down gently. Tanzie. Ed watched her running around the back garden, her hair flying out behind her. He watched the dog shambling back towards the door, half dog, half yak, leaving an intermittent snail trail of drool behind him. Im wearing him out so that hell sleep most of the journey. She appeared in front of him, panting. Right. Im really good at maths. Were going to an Olympiad so I can win money to go to a school where I can do A-level maths. Do you know what my name is, converted to binary code? He looked at her. Is Tanzie your full name? No. But its the one I use. He blew out his cheeks. Um. Okay. 01010100 01100001 01101110 01111010 01101001 01100101. Did you say 0101 at the end? Or 1010? 0101. Duh. He used to play this game with Ronan. Wow. You actually spelt it right. She walked past him and pushed the door. Ive never been to Scotland. Nicky keeps trying to tell me there are herds of wild haggis. But thats a lie, right? To the best of my knowledge theyre all farmed these days, he said. Tanzie stared at him. Then she beamed, and sort of growled at the same time. And Ed Nicholls realized he was headed for Scotland. The two women fell silent as he pushed the door open. Their eyes dropped to the bags that he picked up in each hand. I need to get some stuff before we go, he said, as he let the door swing behind him. And you missed out Gary Ridgway. The Green River Killer. But youre fine. They were all short-sighted. And my glasses are long. It took three-quarters of an hour to leave town. The lights were out on the top of the hill and that, combined with Easter-holidays traffic, slowed the queue of cars to a bad-tempered crawl. Jess sat in the car beside him, silent and oddly awkward, her hands pressed together between her knees. He guessed she knew that hed overheard the whole conversation. She had barely said a single word since theyd left her house. The boy Nicky sat on the other side of the dog to his sister. He had the air-con on, but it couldnt disguise the smell of the dog, so he turned it off and they sat with all four windows open instead. And into this odd silence, Tanzie kept up a constant stream of chatter. Have you been to Scotland before? Where do you come from? Do you have a house there? Why are you staying here then? He had some work to sort out, he said. It was easier than Im awaiting possible prosecution and a jail term of up to seven years. Do you have a wife? Not any more. Were you unfaithful? Tanzie, said Jess. He blinked. Glanced into the rear-view mirror. Nope. On Jeremy Kyle one person is usually unfaithful. Sometimes they have another baby and they have to do a DNA test and usually when its right the woman looks like she wants to hit someone. But mostly they just start crying. She squinted out of the window. Theyre a bit mad these women, mostly. Because the men have all got another baby with someone else. Or lots of girlfriends. So statistically theyre really likely to do it again. But none of the women ever seem to think about statistics. I dont really watch Jeremy Kyle , he said, glancing at the satnav. Nor do I. Only when I go to Nathalies house when Mums working. She records it while shes cleaning so she can watch it in the evenings. She has forty-seven episodes on her hard drive. Tanzie. I think Mr Nicholls probably wants to concentrate. Its fine. Jess was twisting a strand of her hair. She had her feet up on the seat. Ed really hated people putting their feet on seats. Even if they did take their shoes off. So why did your wife leave you? Tanzie. Im being polite. You said it was good to make polite conversation. Im sorry, Jess said. Really. Its fine. He addressed Tanzie through the rear-view mirror: She thought I worked too much. They never say that on Jeremy Kyle . The traffic cleared, and they headed out onto the dual carriageway. Ed put his foot down. It was a beautiful day, and he was tempted to take the coast road, but he didnt want to risk getting caught in traffic again. The dog whined, the boy played silently with a Nintendo, his head down in intense concentration, and Tanzie grew quieter. He turned the radio on a hits channel and for a moment or two he started to think this could be okay. It was just a day out of his life, if they didnt hit too much traffic. And it was better than being stuck in the house. The satnav reckons about eight hours if we dont hit any jams, he said. By motorway? Well, yeah. He glanced left. Even a top-of-the-range Audi doesnt have wings. He tried to smile, to show her he was joking, but she was still straight-faced. Uh theres a bit of a problem. A problem. Tanzie gets sick if we go fast. What do you mean fast? Eighty? Ninety? Um actually, fifty. Okay, maybe forty. Ed glanced into the rear-view mirror. Was it his imagination or had the child grown a little paler? She was gazing out of the window, her hand resting on the dogs head. Forty? He slowed. Youre joking, right? Youre saying we have to drive to Scotland via B roads? No. Well, maybe. Look, its possible shes grown out of it. But she doesnt travel by car very much and we used to have big problems with it and I just dont want to mess up your nice car. Ed glanced into the rear-view mirror again. We cant take the minor roads thats ridiculous. It would take days to get there. Anyway, shell be fine. This car is brand new. It has award-winning suspension. Nobody gets sick in it. She looked straight ahead. You dont have kids, do you? Why do you ask? No reason. It took twenty-five minutes to disinfect and shampoo the back seat, and even then every time he put his head inside the interior Ed got a faint whiff of vomit. Jess borrowed a bucket from a petrol station and used shampoo that she had packed in one of the kids bags. Nicky sat on the verge beside the garage, hiding behind a pair of oversized shades, and Tanzie sat with the dog, holding a balled tissue to her mouth, like a consumptive. Im so sorry, Jess kept saying, her sleeves rolled up, her face set in a grim line of concentration. Its fine. Youre the one cleaning it. Ill pay for you to get your car valeted afterwards. He raised an eyebrow at her. He was laying a plastic bin bag over the seat so that the kids wouldnt get damp when they sat down again. Well, okay, Ill do it. It will smell better, whatever. Some time later they climbed back into the car. Nobody remarked on the smell. He ensured his window was as low as it could go, and began reprogramming the satnav. So, he said. Scotland it is. Via B roads. He pressed the destination button. Glasgow or Edinburgh? Aberdeen. He looked at Jess. Aberdeen. Of course. He looked behind him, trying not to let the despair seep into his voice. Everyone happy? Water? Plastic bag on seat? Sick bags in place? Good. Lets go. Ed heard his sisters voice as he pulled back onto the road. Ha-ha-ha Ed. SERVED. It began to rain shortly after Portsmouth. Ed drove through the back roads, keeping at a steady thirty-eight all the way, feeling the fine spit of raindrops from the half-inch of window he had not felt able to close. He found he had to focus on not putting his foot too far down on the accelerator the whole time. It was a constant frustration, going at this sedate speed, like having an itch you couldnt quite scratch. In the end he switched on cruise control. Nicky fell asleep. Jess muttered something about him only coming out of hospital the previous day. He half wanted to ask her what had happened, but he wasnt sure he wanted to know quite how much trouble this family was likely to be. Given the snails pace, he had time to study Jess surreptitiously. She remained silent, her head mostly turned away from him, as if he had done something to annoy her. He remembered her in her hallway now, demanding money, her chin tilted (she was quite short) and her unfriendly eyes unblinking. And then he remembered her behaviour at the bar, that she had had to babysit him all the way home. She still seemed to think he was an arsehole. Come on, he told himself. Two, three days maximum. And then you never have to see them again. Lets play nice. So do you clean many houses? She frowned a little. Yes. You have a lot of regulars? Its a holiday park. Did you Was it something you wanted to do? Did I grow up wanting to clean houses? She raised an eyebrow, as if checking that he had seriously asked that question. Um, no. I wanted to be a professional scuba diver. But I had Tanze and I couldnt work out how to get the pram to float. Okay, it was a dumb question. She rubbed her nose. Its not my dream job, no. But its fine. I can work around the kids and I like most of the people I clean for. Most of. Can you make a living out of it? Her head shot round. What do you mean? Just what I said. Can you make a living? Is it lucrative? Her face closed. We get by. No, we dont, said Tanzie, from the back. Tanze. Youre always saying we havent got enough money. Its just a figure of speech. She blushed. So what do you do, Mr Nicholls? said Tanzie. I work for a company that creates software. You know what that is? Of course. Nicky looked up. In the rear-view mirror Ed watched him remove his ear-buds. When the boy saw him looking, he glanced away. Do you design games? Not games, no. What, then? Well, for the last few years weve been working on a piece of software that will hopefully move us closer to a cashless society. How would that work? Well, when you buy something, or pay a bill, you wave your phone, which has a thing a bit like a bar code, and for every transaction you pay a tiny, tiny amount, like nought point nought one of a pound. We would pay to pay? said Jess. No one will want that. Thats where youre wrong. The banks love it. Retailers like it because it gives them one uniform system instead of cards, cash, cheques and youll pay less per transaction than you do on a credit card. So it works for both sides. Some of us dont use credit cards unless were desperate. Then it would just be linked to your bank account. You wouldnt, like, have to do anything. So if every bank and retailer picks this up, we wont get a choice. Thats a long way off. There was a brief silence. Jess pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them. So basically the rich get richer the banks and the retailers and the poor get poorer. Well, in theory, perhaps. But thats the joy of it. Its such a tiny amount you wont notice it. And it will be very convenient. Jess muttered something he didnt catch. How much is it again? said Tanzie. Point nought one per transaction. So it works out as a little less than a penny. How many transactions a day? Twenty? Fifty? Depends how much you do. So thats fifty pence a day. Exactly. Nothing. Three pounds fifty a week, said Jess. One hundred and eighty-two pounds a year, said Tanzie. Depending on how close the fee actually is to a penny. And whether its a leap year. Ed lifted one hand from the wheel. At the outside. Even you cant say thats very much. Jess swivelled in her seat. What does one hundred and eighty-two pounds buy us, Tanze? Two supermarket pairs of school trousers, four school blouses, a pair of shoes. A gym kit and a five pack of white socks. If you buy them from the supermarket. That comes to eighty-five pounds ninety-seven. The one hundred is exactly nine point two days of groceries, depending on whether anyone comes round and whether Mum buys a bottle of wine. That would be supermarket own-brand. She thought for a minute. Or one months council tax for a Band D property. Were Band D, right, Mum? Yes, we are. Unless we get re-banded. Or an out-of-season three-day holiday at the holiday village in Kent. One hundred and seventy-five pounds, inclusive of VAT. She leant forward. Thats where we went last year. We got an extra night free because Mum mended the mans curtains. And they had a waterslide. There was a brief silence. Ed was about to speak when Tanzies head appeared between the two front seats. Or a whole months cleaning of a four-bedroom house from Mum, laundering of sheets and towels included, at her current rates. Give or take a pound. She leant back in her seat, apparently satisfied. They drove three miles, turned right at a T-junction, left onto a narrow lane. Ed wanted to say something but found his voice had temporarily disappeared. Behind him, Nicky put his ear-buds back in and turned away. The sun hid briefly behind a cloud. Still, said Jess, putting her bare feet up on the dashboard, and leaning forward to turn up the music, lets hope you do really well with it, eh? 12. Jess Jesss grandmother had often stated that the key to a happy life was a short memory. Admittedly that was before she got dementia and used to forget where she lived, but Jess took her point. She had to forget about that money. She was never going to survive being stuck in a car with Mr Nicholls if she let herself think too hard about what she had done. Marty used to tell her she had the worlds worst poker face: her feelings floated across them like reflections on a still pond. She would give herself away within hours and blurt out a confession like one of those North Koreans. Or she would go crazy with the tension and start plucking at bits of the upholstery with her fingernails. She sat in the car and listened to Tanzie chatting, and she told herself she would find a way to pay it all back before he discovered what she had done. She would take it out of Tanzies winnings. She would work it out somehow. She told herself he was just a man who had offered them a lift and with whom she had to make polite conversation for a few hours a day. And periodically she glanced behind her at the two kids and thought, What else could I have done? It shouldnt have been hard to sit back and enjoy the ride. The country lanes were banked with wild flowers, and when the rain cleared the clouds revealed skies the azure blue of 1950s postcards. Tanzie wasnt sick again, and with every mile they travelled from home she found her shoulders starting to inch downwards from her ears. She saw now that it had been months since she had felt even remotely at ease. Her life these days held a constant underlying drumbeat of worry: what were the Fishers going to do next? What was going on in Nickys head? What was she to do about Tanzie? And the grim bass percussion underneath it all: Money. Money. Money. You okay? said Mr Nicholls. Hauled from her thoughts, Jess muttered, Fine. Thanks. They nodded awkwardly at each other. He hadnt relaxed. It was obvious in his intermittently tightened jaw, in the way he was deep in thought behind his sunglasses, at the way his knuckles showed white on the steering-wheel. Jess wasnt sure what on earth had been behind his decision to offer to drive, but she was pretty sure he had regretted it from the moment Tanzie had first wailed that she needed a sick bag. Um, is there any chance you could stop with the tapping? Tapping? Your feet. On the dashboard. She looked at her feet. Its really distracting. You want me to stop tapping my feet. He looked straight ahead through the windscreen. Yes. Please. She let her feet slide down, but she was uncomfortable, so after a moment she lifted them and tucked them under her on the seat. She rested her head on the window. Your hand. What? Your hand. Youre hitting your knee now. She had been tapping it absentmindedly. You want me to stay completely still while you drive. Im not saying that. But the tapping thing is making it hard for me to focus. You cant drive if Im moving any part of my body? Thats not it. What is it, then? Its tapping. I just find tapping irritating. Jess took a deep breath. Kids, nobody is to move. Okay? We dont want to irritate Mr Nicholls. The kids arent doing it, he said mildly. Its just you. You do fidget a lot, Mum. Thanks, Tanze. Jess clasped her hands in front of her. She sat and clenched her teeth and concentrated on staying still, trying to focus on the good, which was that Mr Nicholls hadnt changed his mind. It had been almost sixty miles now and he hadnt changed his mind. And when you were basically responsible for an entire household, it was kind of nice not to be in charge for a while. She let her head fall back against the headrest, closed her eyes and cleared her mind of money, of Martys stupid car, of her worries for the children, letting them float away with the miles, and she tried to let the quiet hum of an expensive engine pass through her; she let the breeze from the open window ripple over her face and the music fill her ears and just briefly she felt like a woman in a different sort of life altogether. They stopped for lunch at a pub somewhere outside Oxford, unfurling themselves and letting out little sighs of relief as they cracked joints and stretched cramped limbs. Mr Nicholls disappeared into the pub and she sat on a picnic table and unpacked the sandwiches she had made hastily that morning when it turned out they were going to get a lift after all. Marmite, said Nicky, arriving back and peeling apart two slices of bread. I was in a rush. Have we got anything else? Jam. He sighed, and reached into the bag. Tanzie sat on the end of the bench, already lost in maths papers. She couldnt read them in the car, as it made her nauseous, so she wanted to take every opportunity to work. Jess watched her scribbling algebraic equations on her exercise book, lost in concentration, and wondered for the hundredth time where she had come from. Here, said Mr Nicholls, arriving with a tray. I thought we could all do with some drinks. He pushed two bottles of cola towards the kids. I didnt know what you wanted so I got a selection. He had bought a bottle of Italian beer, what looked like a half of cider, a glass of white wine, another cola, a lemonade and a bottle of orange juice. He had a mineral water. A small mountain of different-flavoured crisps sat in the middle. You bought all that? There was a queue. I couldnt be bothered to come back out to ask. I I havent got that much cash. He looked at her as if she was the weird one. Its a drink. Im not buying you a house. And then his phone rang. He grabbed it and strode off across the car park, already talking as he went. Shall I see if he wants one of our sandwiches? Tanzie said. Jess watched him stride along the lane, one hand thrust deep in a pocket, until he was out of sight. Not just now, she said. Nicky said nothing. When she asked him which bit hurt the most, he just muttered that he was fine. Itll get easier, Jess said, reaching out a hand. Really. Well have this break, get Tanze sorted and work out what to do. Sometimes you need time away to sort things out in your head. It makes everything clearer. I dont think whats in my head is the problem. She gave him his painkillers, and watched him wash them down with cola, then stretch out his gangly limbs tentatively. In the car, she had tried to move the dog so that Nicky wasnt pressed up against the door, but it was tough. Norman was too wide to fit in the footwell. He could sit up in the middle of the back seat they actually put a belt round him for a while but then he would gradually slump until he was horizontal; a canine landslip, his head on Tanzies lap, his great backside shoving Nicky along the leather seat. Nicky took the dog off for a walk, his shoulders hunched, and his feet dragging. She wondered if he had cigarettes. He was out of sorts because his Nintendo had run out of charge some twenty miles back. Jess wasnt sure he knew what to do with himself when he wasnt surgically attached to a gaming device. They watched him go in silence. Jess thought of the way his few smiles had steadily grown fewer, his watchfulness, the way he now seemed like a fish out of water, pale and vulnerable, in the rare hours he was out of his bedroom. She thought of his face, resigned, expressionless, in that hospital. Who was it who had said you were only as happy as your unhappiest child? Tanzie bent over her papers. Im going to live somewhere else when Im a teenager, I think. Jess looked at her. What? I think I might live in a university. I dont really want to grow up near the Fishers. She scribbled a figure in her workbook, then rubbed out one digit, replacing it with a four. They scare me a bit, she said quietly. The Fishers? I had a nightmare about them. Jess swallowed. You dont need to be scared of them, she said. Theyre just stupid boys. What they did is what cowards do. Theyre nothing. They dont feel like nothing. Tanze, Im going to work out what to do about them, and were going to fix it. Okay? You dont need to have nightmares. Im going to fix this. They sat in silence. The lane was silent, apart from the sound of a distant tractor. Birds wheeled overhead in the infinite blue. Mr Nicholls was walking back slowly. He had straightened up, as if he had resolved something, and his phone was loose in his hand. Jess rubbed at her eyes. I think Ive finished the complex equations. Do you want to see? Tanzie held up a page of numbers. Jess looked at her daughters lovely open face. She reached forward and straightened her glasses on her nose. Yes, she said, her smile bright. I would totally love to look at some complex equations. It took two and a half hours to do the next leg of the journey. Mr Nicholls tapped the steering-wheel as if they were stuck in a jam (they werent), took two calls during the journey, one from the woman called Gemma, which he cut off (his ex-wife?) and one that was obviously to do with his business. He said he would ring them later. He was silent for a whole forty minutes after hed taken the second. A woman with an Italian accent called just after they pulled into a petrol station, and at the words Eduardo, baby Mr Nicholls ripped his phone from the hands-free holder and went and stood outside by the pump. No, Lara, he said, turning away from them. Weve discussed this Well, your solicitor is wrong No, calling me a lobster really isnt going to make any difference. Nicky slept for an hour, his blue-black hair flopping over his swollen cheekbone, his face briefly untroubled in sleep. Tanzie sang under her breath and stroked the dog. Norman slept, farted audibly several times, and slowly infused the car with his odour. Nobody complained. It actually masked the lingering smell of vomit. Do the kids need to grab some food? Mr Nicholls said, as they finally drove into the suburbs of some large town. Jess had already stopped noting which. Huge, shining office blocks punctuated each half-mile, their frontages bearing management- or technology-based names shed never heard of: ACCSYS, TECHNOLOGICA and MEDIAPLUS. The roads were lined with endless stretches of car parks. Nobody walked. We could find a McDonalds. Theres bound to be loads of them around here. We dont eat McDonalds, she said. You dont eat McDonalds. No. I can say it again, if you like. We dont eat McDonalds. Vegetarian? No. Actually, could we just find a supermarket? Ill make sandwiches. McDonalds would probably be cheaper, if its about money. Its not about the money. Jess couldnt tell him: if you were a single parent, there were certain things you could not do. Which were basically the things that everyone expected you to do: claim benefits, smoke, live on an estate, feed your kids McDonalds. Some things she couldnt help, but others she could. He let out a little sigh, his gaze fixed ahead. Okay, well, we could find somewhere to stay and then see whether they have a restaurant attached. I had kind of planned wed just sleep in the car. Mr Nicholls pulled over to the side of the road and turned to face her. Sleep in the car? Embarrassment made her spiky. We have Norman. No hotels going to take him. Well be fine in here. He pulled out his phone and began tapping into a screen. Ill find a dog-friendly place. Theres bound to be somewhere, even if we have to drive a bit further. Jess could feel the colour bleeding into her cheeks. Actually, Id rather you didnt. He kept tapping on the screen. Really. We we dont have the money for hotel rooms. Mr Nichollss finger stilled on the phone. Thats crazy. You cant sleep in my car. Its only a couple of nights. Well be fine. We would have slept in the Rolls. Its why I brought the duvets. Tanzie watched from the rear seat. I have a daily budget. And Id like to stick to it. If you dont mind. Twelve pounds a day for food. Maximum. He looked at her like she was mad. Im not stopping you getting a hotel, she added. She didnt want to tell him shed actually prefer it if he did. This is nuts, he said finally. It was only when he turned back to the wheel that it occurred to her he might not want to leave them alone in his car. They drove the next few miles in silence. Mr Nicholls had the air of a man who was quietly pissed off. In a weird way, Jess preferred it. Two, three days max, she told herself. In fact, shed just let him drop them at the maths competition and tell him they would make their own way back. She wasnt sure she could take more than another forty-eight hours of being stuck in a car with him. And if Tanzie did as well as everyone seemed to think she would, they could blow a little of her winnings on train tickets. The thought of ditching Mr Nicholls made her feel so much better that she didnt say anything when he pulled into the Travel Inn. Ill be back in a minute, he said, and walked off across the car park. He took the keys with him, jangling them impatiently in his hand. Are we staying here? Tanzie said, rubbing at her eyes and looking around. Mr Nicholls is. Were going to stay in the car. It will be an adventure! Jess said. There was a brief silence. Yay, said Nicky. Jess knew he was uncomfortable. But what else could she do? You can stretch out in the back. Tanze and I will sleep in the front. It will be fine. Mr Nicholls walked back out, shielding his eyes against the early-evening sun. She realized he was wearing the exact same outfit she had seen him wear in the pub that night. They had one room left. A twin. You guys can take it. Ill see if theres somewhere else nearby. Oh, no, she said. I told you. I cant accept any more from you. Im not doing it for you. Im doing it for your kids. No, she said, trying to sound a little more diplomatic. Its very kind of you, but well be fine out here. He ran a hand through his hair. You know what? I cant sleep in a hotel room knowing that theres a boy who just got out of hospital sleeping in the back seat of a car twenty feet away. Nicky can have the other bed. No, she said, reflexively. Why? She couldnt say. His expression darkened. Im not a pervert. I didnt say you were. So why wont you let your son share a room with me? Hes as tall as I am, for Christs sake. Jess flushed. Hes had a tough time lately. I just need to keep an eye on him. Whats a pervert? said Tanzie. I could charge up my Nintendo, said Nicky, from the back seat. You know what? This is a ridiculous discussion. Im hungry. I need to get something to eat. Mr Nicholls poked his head in through the door. Nicky. Do you want to sleep in the car or in the hotel room? Nicky looked sideways at Jess. Hotel room. And Im not a pervert either. Am I a pervert? said Tanzie. Okay, said Mr Nicholls. Heres the deal. Nicky and Tanzie sleep in the hotel room. You can sleep on the floor with them. But I cant let you pay for a hotel room for us, then make you sleep in the car. Besides, the dog will howl all night. He doesnt know you. Mr Nicholls rolled his eyes. He was clearly losing patience. Okay, then. The kids sleep in the hotel room. You and I sleep in the car with the dog. Everyones happy. He didnt look happy. Ive never stayed in a hotel. Have I stayed in a hotel, Mum? There was a brief silence. Jess could feel the situation sliding away from her. Ill mind Tanze, said Nicky. He looked hopeful. His face, where it wasnt bruised, was the colour of putty. A bath would be good. Would you read me a story? Only if it has zombies in it. Jess watched as he half smiled at her. And that smile was what broke her. Okay, she said. And tried to fight the wave of nausea at what she had just agreed to. The mini-mart squatted, illuminated, in the shadow of a logistics company across the road, its windows bright with exclamation marks and offers on crispy fish bites and fizzy drinks. She bought rolls and cheese, crisps and overpriced apples, and made the kids a picnic supper, which they ate on the grassy slope around the car park. On the other side the traffic thundered past in a purple haze towards the south. She offered Mr Nicholls some, but he peered at the contents of her bag and said thanks but hed eat in the restaurant. She suspected he wanted a break from them. Once he was out of sight, Jess relaxed too. She set the kids up in their room, feeling faintly wistful that she wasnt in with them. It was on the ground floor, facing the car park. She had asked Mr Nicholls to park as close to their window as possible, and Tanzie made her go outside three times, just so she could wave at her through the curtains and squash her nose sideways against the glass. Nicky disappeared into the bathroom for an hour, the taps running. He came out, switched on the television and lay on the bed, looking simultaneously exhausted and relieved. Jess laid out his pills, got Tanzie bathed and into her pyjamas, and warned them not to stay up too late. And no smoking, she warned him. Seriously. How can I? he said, grumpily. Youve got my stash. Tanzie lay on her side, working her way through her maths books, locked into a silent world of numbers. Jess fed and walked the dog, sat in the passenger seat with the door open, ate a cheese roll and waited for Mr Nicholls to finish his meal. It was a quarter past nine, and she was struggling to read a newspaper in the fading light when he appeared. He was holding a phone in a way that suggested he had just come off another call, and he seemed about as pleased to see her as she was him. He opened the door, climbed in and shut it. Ive asked Reception to ring me if anyone cancels their booking. He stared ahead at the windscreen. Obviously I didnt tell them Id be waiting in their car park. Norman was lying on the tarmac, looking like hed been dropped from a great height. She wondered whether she should bring him in. Without the children in the back, and with the encroaching darkness, it felt even odder to be in the car beside Mr Nicholls. Are the kids okay? Theyre very happy. Thank you. Your boy looks pretty bashed up. Hell be fine. There was a long silence. He looked at her. Then he put both hands on the wheel, and leant backwards in his seat. He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, and turned to face her. Okay so have I done something else to upset you? What? Youve acted like Im bugging you all day. I apologized for the thing in the pub the other night. Ive done what I can to help you out here. And yet still I get the feeling Ive done something wrong. You you havent done anything wrong, she stammered. He studied her for a minute. Is this, like, a womans Theres nothing wrong when actually what you mean is that Ive done something massive and Im actually supposed to guess? And then you get really mad if I dont? No. You see, now I dont know. Because that no might be part of the womans Theres nothing wrong. Im not speaking in code. Theres nothing wrong. Then can we just ease up around each other a bit? Youre making me really uncomfortable. Im making you uncomfortable? His head swivelled slowly. Youve looked like you regretted offering us this lift since the moment we got into the car. In fact, since before we got in. Shut up, Jess, she warned herself. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. Im not even sure why you did it. What? Nothing, she said, turning away. Forget it. He stared ahead of him out of the windscreen. He looked suddenly really, really tired. In fact, you could just drop us at a station tomorrow morning. We wont bother you any more. Is that what you want? he said. She drew her knees up to her chest. It might be the best thing. They sat there in the silence. The skies darkened to pitch around them. Twice Jess opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Mr Nicholls stared through the windscreen at the closed curtains of the hotel room, apparently deep in thought. She thought of Nicky and Tanzie, sleeping peacefully on the other side, and wished she was with them. She felt sick. Why couldnt she have just pretended? Why couldnt she have been nicer? It would only have been for a couple of days. She was an idiot. She had blown it all again. It had grown chill. Finally, she pulled Nickys duvet from the back seat and thrust it at him. Here, she said. Oh. He looked at the huge picture of Super Mario. Thanks. She called the dog in, reclined her seat just far enough for it not to be touching him, and then she pulled Tanzies duvet over herself. Goodnight. She stared at the plush interior a matter of inches from her nose, breathing in the new-car smell, her mind a jumble. How far away was the station? How much would the fare cost? They would have to pay for an extra days bed and breakfast somewhere, at least. And what was she going to do with the dog? She could hear Normans faint snore from behind her and thought grimly that she was damned if she would vacuum that rear seat now. Its half past nine. Mr Nichollss voice broke into the silence. Jess lay very still. Half. Past. Nine. He let out a deep sigh. I never thought Id say it, but this is actually worse than being married. What am I breathing too loud? He opened his door abruptly. Oh for Christs sake, he said, and set off across the car park. Jess pushed herself upright and watched him jogging across the road to the mini-mart, disappearing into its fluorescent-lit interior. He reappeared a few minutes later with a bottle of wine and a packet of plastic cups. Its probably awful, he said, climbing back into the drivers seat. But right now I couldnt give a toss. She gazed at the bottle. Truce, Jessica Thomas? Its been a long day. And a shitty week. And, spacious as it is, this car isnt big enough for two people who arent talking to each other. He looked at her. His eyes were exhausted and stubble was starting to show through on his chin. It made him seem curiously vulnerable. She took a cup from him. Sorry. Im not used to people helping us out. It makes me Suspicious? Crabby? I was going to say, it makes me think I should get out more. He let out a breath. Right. He glanced down at the bottle. Then lets Oh, for crying out loud. What? I thought it was a screw top. He stared at it as if it was just one more thing designed to annoy him. Great. I dont suppose you have a bottle opener? No. You think theyll exchange it? Did you take the receipt? He let out a deep sigh, which she interrupted. No need, she said, taking it from him. She opened her door and climbed out. Normans head shot up. Youre not going to smash it into my windscreen? Nope. She peeled off the foil. Take off your shoe. What? Take off your shoe. It wont work with flip-flops. Please dont use it as a glass. My ex did that once with a stiletto and it was really, really hard pretending that champagne smelling of feet was an erotic experience. She held out her hand. He finally took his shoe off and handed it to her. As he looked on, Jess placed the base of the wine bottle inside it and, holding the two together carefully, she stood alongside the hotel and thumped them hard against the wall. I suppose theres no point me asking you what youre doing. Just give me a minute, she said, through gritted teeth, and thumped again. Mr Nicholls shook his head slowly. She straightened up and glared at him. Youre more than welcome to suck the cork out, if youd rather. He held up his hand. No, no. You go ahead. Broken glass in my socks is exactly how I hoped to end tonight. Jess checked the cork and thumped again. And there a centimetre of it protruded from the neck of the bottle. Thump . Another centimetre. She held it carefully, gave it one more thump, and there it was: she pulled the rest of the cork gently from the neck and handed it to him. He stared at it, and then at her. She handed him back his shoe. Wow. Youre a useful woman to know. I can also put up shelves, replace rotting floorboards and make a fan belt out of a tied stocking. Really? Not the fan belt. She climbed into the car and accepted the plastic cup of wine. I tried it once. It shredded before wed got thirty yards down the road. Total waste of MandS opaques. She took a sip. And the car stank of burnt tights for weeks. Behind them, Norman whimpered in his sleep. Truce, Mr Nicholls said, and held up his cup. Truce. Youre not going to drive afterwards, are you? she said, holding up her own. I wont if you wont. Oh, very funny. And suddenly the evening became a little easier. 13. Ed So these were the things Ed discovered about Jessica Thomas, once shed had a drink or two (actually, four or five) and stopped being chippy. The facts of her life, other than the other things he just observed, which were that she tied her hair back for no reason when she felt awkward, as if she needed to be doing something, and that she had a laugh like a seals bark big, abrupt and awkward, at odds with her size and shape. Her lean figure betrayed that she did physical work for a living, her roots had grown out some months earlier, and she wore cheap jeans. He slightly hated himself for noticing, but Lara used to point out things like denim colour and stitching and it was one of those weird things, unlike the date of Laras birthday, that had stuck with him. The boy wasnt actually her kid. He was the son of her ex and her exs ex and, given that both of them had effectively walked out on him, she was pretty much the only person he had left. Kind of you, he said. Not really, she said. Nicky is as good as mine. Hes been with me since he was eight. He looks out for Tanzie. And, besides, families are different shapes now, right? It doesnt have to be two point four any more. The defensive way she said it made him think she had had this conversation many times before. The little girl was ten. He did some mental arithmetic, and Jess cut in before he said a word. Seventeen. Thats young. I was a wild kid. I knew everything. I actually knew nothing. Marty came along, I dropped out of school, and then I got pregnant. I wasnt always going to be a cleaner, you know. My mum was a teacher. Her gaze had slid towards him, as if she knew this fact would shock. Okay. Retired now. She lives in Cornwall. We dont really get on. She doesnt agree with what she calls my life choices. I never could explain that once you have a baby at seventeen there are no choices. Not even now? Nope. She twisted a lock of hair between her fingers. Because you never quite catch up. Your friends are at college, youre at home with a tiny baby. Your friends are starting their careers, youre down the housing office trying to find somewhere to live. Your friends are buying their first cars and houses and youre trying to find a job that you can fit round childcare. And all the jobs you can fit round school hours have really crappy wages. And that was before the economy went splat. Oh, dont get me wrong. I dont regret having Tanzie, not for a minute. And I dont regret taking Nicky on. But if I had my time again, sure, Id have had them after I had done something with my life. It would be nice to be able to give them something better. She hadnt bothered to put the seat back up while she told him this. She lay propped on her elbow facing him under the duvet and her bare feet rested on the dashboard. Ed found he didnt mind them so much. You could still have a career, he said. Youre young. I mean you could get an after-school nanny or something? She actually laughed. A great seal-bark Ha! that exploded into the interior of the car. She sat bolt upright, and took a swig of her wine. Yeah. Right, Mr Nicholls. Sure I could. She liked fixing things. She did odd jobs around the estate, from rewiring plugs to tiling peoples bathrooms. I did everything around the house. Im good at making stuff. I can even block-print wallpaper. You make your own wallpaper. Dont look at me like that. Its in Tanzies room. I made her clothes too, until recently. Are you actually from the Second World War? Do you save jam jars and string too? So what did you want to be? What I was, he said. And then he realized he didnt want to talk about it and changed the subject. She had seriously tiny feet. As in she bought child-sized shoes. (Apparently they were cheaper.) After shed said this he had to stop himself sneaking looks at her feet like some kind of weirdo. Before shed had children she could drink four double vodkas in a row and still walk a straight line. Yup, I could hold my drink. Obviously not enough to remember birth control. He believed her: they drank two bottles of wine and he thought she had twice as much as he did, and while she did relax a bit, there wasnt a point at which he thought she was even a bit drunk. She almost never drank at home. When Im working at the pub and someone offers me one I just take the cash. And when Im at home I worry that something might happen to the kids and Ill need to be together. She stared out of the window. Now I think about it, this is the closest thing Ive had to a night out in five months. A man who shut a door in your face, two bottles of rot-gut wine and a car park. Im not knocking it. She didnt explain what made her worry so much about the kids. He thought back to Nickys face and decided not to ask. She had a scar under her chin from when shed fallen off a bike and a piece of gravel had lodged in it for two whole weeks. She tried to show him but the light in the car wasnt strong enough. She also had a tattoo on the base of her spine. A proper tramp stamp, according to Marty. He wouldnt talk to me for two whole days after I got it. She paused. I think thats probably why I got it. Her middle name was Rae. She had to spell it out every single time. She didnt mind cleaning but she really, really hated people treating her like she was just a cleaner. (He had the grace to colour a little here.) She hadnt had a date in the two years since her ex had left. You havent had sex for two and a half years? I said he left two years ago. Its a reasonable calculation. She pushed herself upright, and gave him a sideways look. Three and a half. If were counting. Apart from one um episode last year. And you dont have to look so shocked. Im not shocked, he said, and tried to rearrange his face. He shrugged. Three and a half years. I mean, its only, what, a quarter of your adult life? No time at all. Yeah. Thanks for that. And then he wasnt sure what happened, but something in the atmosphere changed. She mumbled something that he couldnt make out, pulled her hair into another ponytail and said maybe it was really time for them to be getting some sleep. Ed thought he would lie awake for ages. There was something oddly unsettling about being in a darkened car just arms length from an attractive woman you had just shared two bottles of wine with. Even if she was huddled under a SpongeBob SquarePants duvet. He looked out of the sunroof at the stars, listened to the lorries rumbling past towards London, listened to the dog in the rear seats whimper in his sleep and thought that his real life the one with his company and his office and the never-ending hangover of Deanna Lewis was now a million miles away. Still awake? He turned his head, wondering if shed been watching him. No. Okay, came the murmur from the passenger seat. Truth game. He raised his eyes to the roof. Go on, then. You first. He couldnt come up with anything. You must be able to think of something. Okay, why are you wearing flip-flops? Thats your question? Its freezing out. Its been the coldest, wettest spring since records began. And youre wearing flip-flops. Does it bug you that much? I just dont understand it. Youre obviously cold. She pointed a toe. Its spring. So? So. Its spring. Therefore the weather will get better. Youre wearing flip-flops as an expression of faith. If you like. He couldnt think how to reply to this. Okay, my turn. He waited. Did you think about driving off and leaving us this morning? No. Liar. Okay. Maybe a bit. Your neighbour wanted to smash my head in with a baseball bat and your dog smells really bad. Pfft. Any excuse. He heard her shift in the seat. Her feet disappeared under the duvet. He could smell her shampoo. It made him think of Bounty bars. So why didnt you? He thought for a minute before he responded. Perhaps it was because he couldnt see her face. Perhaps it was because some time between the third and fourth glass he had decided she was okay. Perhaps the drink and the late hour had lowered his defences because he wouldnt normally have answered like he did. Because Ive done some stupid stuff lately. And maybe some part of me just wanted to do something I could feel good about. Ed thought she was going to say something. He sort of hoped she would. But she didnt. He lay there for a few minutes, gazing out at the sodium lights and listening to Jessica Rae Thomass breathing and thought how much he missed just sleeping near another person. Most days he felt like the loneliest man on the planet. He thought about those tiny feet and their highly polished toenails. Then he saw his sisters raised eyebrow and realized he had probably had too much to drink. Dont be an idiot, Nicholls, he told himself, and turned so that he had his back to her. Ed Nicholls thought about his ex-wife and Deanna Lewis until the soft, melancholy thoughts evaporated and only the stone-hard anger remained. And then suddenly it was cold and pale grey outside and his left arm had gone to sleep and he was so groggy that it took two whole minutes to figure out that the banging he could hear was the security guard knocking on the drivers window to tell them they couldnt sleep there. 14. Tanzie There were four different types of Danish pastry at the breakfast buffet, and three different types of fruit juice and a whole rack of those little individual packets of cereal that Mum said were uneconomical and would never buy. She had knocked on the window at a quarter past eight to tell them they should wear their jackets to breakfast and stuff as many of each of them as they could into their pockets. Her hair had flattened on one side and she had no makeup on. Tanzie guessed the car hadnt been that much of an adventure after all. Not the butters or jams. Or anything that needs cutlery. Rolls, muffins, that kind of thing. Dont get caught. She looked behind her to where Mr Nicholls seemed to be having an argument with a security guard. And apples. Apples are healthy. And maybe some slices of ham for Norman. Where am I meant to put the ham? Or a sausage. Wrap them in a napkin. Isnt that stealing? No. But Its just taking a bit more than youre likely to eat at that exact moment. Youre just Imagine youre a guest with a hormone disorder and it makes you really, really hungry. But I havent got a hormone disorder. But you could have. Thats the point. Youre that hungry, sick person, Tanze. Youve paid for your breakfast, but you need to eat a lot. More than you would normally eat. Tanzie folded her arms. You said it was wrong to steal. Its not stealing. Its just getting your moneys worth. But we didnt pay for it. Mr Nicholls did. Tanzie, just do as I say, please. Look, Mr Nicholls and I are going to have to leave the car park for half an hour. Just do it, then come back to the room and be ready to leave at nine. Okay? She leant through the window and kissed Tanzie, then trudged back towards the car, her jacket wrapped around her. She stopped, turned back and shouted, Dont forget to brush your teeth. And dont leave any of your maths books. Nicky came out of the bathroom. He was wearing his really tight black jeans and a T-shirt that said WHEVS across the front. Youre never going to get a sausage in those, she said, staring at his jeans. I bet I can hide more than you can, he said. Her eyes met his. Youre on, Tanzie said, and ran to get dressed. Mr Nicholls leant forward and squinted through his windscreen as Nicky and she walked across the car park. To be fair, Tanzie thought, she would probably have squinted at them too. Nicky had stuffed two large oranges and an apple down the front of his jeans and waddled across the asphalt like hed had an accident in his trousers. She was in her jacket, despite feeling too hot, because shed packed the front of her hoodie with little packets of cereal and if she didnt wear her jacket she looked like she might be pregnant. With baby robots. They couldnt stop laughing. Just get in, get in, said Mum, throwing their overnight bags into the boot and almost shoving them into the car as she glanced behind her. What did you get? Mr Nicholls set off down the road. Tanzie could see him glancing in the mirror as they took turns to unload their haul and hand it forward to her. Nicky pulled a white package from his pocket. Three Danish pastries. Watch out the icing got a bit stuck to the napkins. Four sausages and a few slices of bacon in a paper cup for Norman. Two slices of cheese, a yoghurt, and He tugged his jacket over his crotch, reached down, grimacing, tensing, and pulled out the fruit. I cant believe I managed to fit those in there. Theres nothing I can say to that thats in any way appropriate mother-son conversation, Mum said. Tanzie had six small packets of cereal, two bananas, and a jam sandwich that shed made out of toasted white bread. She sat eating while Norman stared at her and two stalactites of drool grew longer and longer from his lips until they were pooling on the seat of Mr Nichollss car. That woman behind the poached eggs definitely saw us. I told her you had a hormone disorder, Tanzie said. I told her you had to eat twice your bodyweight three times a day or you would faint in their dining room and you might actually die. Nice, said Nicky. You win on numbers, she said, counting out his items. But I win extra points for skill. She leant forward and, as everyone watched, she carefully lifted the two polystyrene cups of coffee from her pockets, packed out with paper napkins so that they would stay upright. She handed one to Mum and the other she placed in the cup holder next to Mr Nicholls. You are a genius, Mum said, peeling off the lid. Oh, Tanze, you have no idea how much I needed this. She took a sip, closing her eyes. Tanzie wasnt sure if it was that theyd done so well with the buffet, or just that Nicky was laughing for the first time in ages, but for a moment she looked happier than she had done since Dad left. Mr Nicholls just stared like they were a bunch of aliens. Okay, so we can make sandwiches for lunch with the ham, cheese and sausages. You guys can eat the pastries now. Fruit for pudding. Want one? She held an orange towards Mr Nicholls. Its a bit warm still. But I can peel it. Uh kind of you, he said, tearing his gaze away. But I think Ill just stop at a Starbucks. The next part of the journey was actually quite nice. There were no traffic jams once theyd got out of town and Mum persuaded Mr Nicholls to put on her favourite radio station and sang along to six songs, getting louder with each one. She would do this thing where when she didnt know the lyrics she just substituted random words like custard tarts or bald-headed policeman and sometimes it made Tanzie cringe but today it was really funny. She made Tanzie and Nicky join in too and Mr Nicholls looked fed up at first but Tanzie noticed that after a few miles he was tapping the steering-wheel like he was sort of enjoying himself. The sun got really hot and Mr Nicholls slid the roof back. Norman sat bolt upright so that he could scent the air as they were going along and it meant that he didnt squish them into each door, which was also nice. It reminded Tanzie a bit of when Dad lived with them and they would sometimes go on outings in his car. Except Dad always drove too fast and got grumpy when Mum asked him to slow down. And they could never agree on where to stop and eat. And Dad would say he didnt understand why they couldnt just blow some money on a pub lunch and Mum would say that shed made the sandwiches now and it would be silly to waste them. And Dad would tell Nicky to get his head out of whatever game he was playing and enjoy the damn scenery and Nicky would mutter that he hadnt actually asked to come, which would make Dad even madder. And then Tanzie thought that while she did love Dad she probably preferred this trip without him. After two hours Mr Nicholls said he needed to stretch, and Norman needed to wee, so they stopped at the edge of a country park. Mum put some of the buffet haul out and they sat in a little clearing in the shade at a proper wooden picnic table and ate. Tanzie did some revision (prime numbers and quadratic equations), then took Norman for a walk around the woods. He was really happy and stopped every two minutes to sniff at something, and the sun kept sending little moving spotlights through the trees and they saw a deer and two pheasants and it was like they were actually on holiday. You okay, lovely? Mum said, walking up with her arms crossed. From where they stood they could just see Nicky talking to Mr Nicholls at the table through the trees. Feeling confident? I think so, she said. Did you go through the past papers last night? Yes. I do find the prime-number sequences a bit difficult, but I wrote them all down and when I saw the sequencing laid out I found it easier. No more nightmares about the Fishers? Last night, Tanzie said, I dreamt about a cabbage that could rollerskate. It was called Kevin. Mum gave her a long look. Right. They walked a bit further. It was cooler in the forest, and it smelt of good damp, mossy and green and alive, not like the damp in the back room, which just smelt mouldy. Mum stopped on the path and turned back towards the car. I told you good things happen, didnt I? She waited for Tanzie to catch up. Mr Nicholls is going to get us there tomorrow. Well have a quiet night, get you through this competition, and youll start at your new school. Then, hopefully, all our lives will change a little for the better. And this is fun, isnt it? This is a nice trip? She kept her eyes on the car as she spoke and her voice did that thing where she was saying one thing and thinking about something else. Tanzie noticed shed put her makeup on while they were in the car. She had half turned away from Mr Nicholls, held up her compact and put on the mascara even though every time it went over a bump she ended up with a black blob on her face. Tanzie wasnt really sure why she bothered. She looked perfectly nice without it. Mum, she said. Yes? We did sort of steal the food from that buffet, didnt we? I mean, if you look at it proportionally, we did take more than our share. Mum stared at her feet for a minute, thinking. If youre really worried, when we get your prize money well put five pounds in an envelope and send it to them. How does that sound? I think, given the items we took, it would probably be nearer six pounds. Probably six pounds fifty, Tanzie said. Then thats what well send them. And now I think we should work really, really hard to get this fat old dog of yours to run around a bit, so that (a) hes tired enough to sleep the next leg of the journey, and (b) it might encourage him to go to the loo here and not fart his way through the next eighty miles. They hit the road again. It rained. Mr Nicholls had had One of His Phone Calls with a man called Sidney and talked about share prices and market movements and looked a bit serious, so Mum didnt sing for a bit. Everyone was quiet. She tried not to sneak looks at her maths papers (Mum said it would make her sick) and Nickys Nintendo had run out of power again so he just stared out of the window and sighed a lot. That part of the journey seemed to take for ever. Nicky was having one of his quiet days. Tanzie wanted to talk to him, but you could tell when he didnt want to talk as his mouth just turned into a straight line and he wouldnt meet your eye. Tanzies legs kept sticking to Mr Nichollss leather seats and she was sort of regretting wearing her shorts. Plus Norman had rolled in something in the woods and she kept getting this whiff of something really bad, but she didnt want to say anything in case Mr Nicholls decided hed had enough of them and their stinky dog so she just held her nose with her fingers and tried to breathe through her mouth and only let herself open her nostrils every thirty lampposts. It rolled on. The weather cleared. They headed past Coventry and up towards Derby, with its ring roads and its big dark red factories, and she gazed at the landscape as it got wilder and woollier, and let the numbers run through her head in little strings, trying to do calculations in her head without actually looking at them so she wouldnt get nauseous. Mr Nichollss phone rang and a woman immediately started shouting at him in Italian. He just turned it off without saying anything. Mum sat in the front and counted the money in her purse. She had andN163;63.91, but she hadnt yet seen that one of the ten-pence pieces was actually foreign money so it was going to be andN163;63.81 unless she could get someone else to take it. Nicky. He looked up. Mr Nicholls was watching him in the rear-view mirror. You want to borrow my phone? It doesnt have many games on it, but you could log onto Twitter or Facebook or whatever it is you lot are into these days. Really? Nicky pushed himself upright from his slumped position. Sure. Its in the pocket of my jacket. Mum took it out and handed it to him. Be very careful with it, Nicky. Ive deactivated the PIN. Just you know, no movies. Cool. Nicky didnt actually smile he didnt really do smiling much any more, Tanzie thought but you could tell he was pleased. Not you, Tanzie. Mums voice came across the seats. Dont you look at it or youll get sick. Tanzie sighed. It was SO boring being her sometimes. Normans head was really heavy on her lap and she tried to move it gently because her legs were getting pins and needles. She wondered how long it would take them to get to Scotland. She was really, really bored, but she knew that if she said so Mum would get all Were all bored, Tanzie. Theres nothing I can do about it. She started to doze off, her head bumping against the window frame. Mum and Mr Nicholls started talking. It was possible theyd forgotten anyone else was in the car. So, tell me about your wife. Ex-wife. And no thanks. Why not? You werent unfaithful. Im guessing she wasnt, or you would have made that face. What face? There was a short silence. Maybe ten lampposts. Im not sure I would ever have made that face. But no. She wasnt. And, no, I dont really want to discuss it. Its Private? I just dont like talking about personal stuff. Do you want to talk about your ex? In front of his children? Yup, thats always a great idea. They carried on in silence for a few miles. Mum started tapping on the window. Tanzie glanced over at Mr Nicholls. Every time Mum tapped a little muscle tweaked in his jaw. So what shall we talk about, then? Im not very interested in software and Im guessing you have zero interest in what I do. And there are only so many times I can point at a field and say: Oh, look, cows. Mr Nicholls sighed. Come on. Its a long way to Scotland. There was a thirty-lamppost silence. I could sing if you like. We could all sing. Let me see if I can find something Lara. Italian. Model. Model. Mum laughed this great big laugh. Of course. Whats that supposed to mean? Mr Nicholls said grumpily. All men like you go out with models. What do you mean, men like me? Mum pressed her lips together. What do you mean, men like me? Come on. Rich men. Im not rich. Mum shook her head. Noooo. Im not. I think it depends how you define rich. Ive seen rich. Im not rich. Im well-off, yes. But Im a long way from rich. Mum turned to him. He really had no idea whom he was dealing with. Do you have more than one house? He signalled and swung the wheel. I might. Do you have more than one car? He glanced sideways. Yes. Then youre rich. Nope. Rich is private jets and yachts. Rich is staff. So what am I? Mr Nicholls shook his head. Not staff. Youre What? Im just trying to imagine your face if Id referred to you as my staff. Mum started to laugh. My woman-servant. My cleaning wench. Yeah. Or those. Okay, well, what would you say is rich? Mum pulled one of the buffet apples from her bag and bit into it. She chewed for a minute before speaking. Rich is paying every single bill on time without thinking about it. Rich is being able to have a holiday or get through Christmas without having to borrow against January and February. Actually, rich would be just not thinking about money all the bloody time. Everyone thinks about money. Even rich people. Yes, but youre just thinking what to do with it to make more money. Whereas Im thinking how the hell we can get enough of it to get through another week. Mr Nicholls made a sort of harrumphing sound. I cant believe Im driving you to Scotland and youre giving me a hard time because youve misguidedly decided Im some kind of Donald Trump. Im not giving you a hard time. Noooo. Im just pointing out that theres a difference between what you consider to be rich and what is actually rich. There was a sort of awkward silence. Mum blushed like shed said too much and started eating her apple with big, noisy bites, even though she would have told Tanzie off if she had eaten like that. She had come awake again by then and she didnt want Mum and Mr Nicholls to stop talking to each other because they were having quite a nice day, so she put her head through the front seats. Actually, I read somewhere that to qualify for the top one per cent in this country you would need to earn more than a hundred and forty thousand pounds a year, she said helpfully. So if Mr Nicholls doesnt earn that much then he probably isnt rich. She smiled and sat back in her seat. Mum looked at Mr Nicholls. She kept looking at him. Mr Nicholls rubbed his head. I tell you what, he said, after a while, shall we stop off and get some tea? Moreton Marston looked like it had been invented for tourists. Everything was made of the same grey stone and really old, and everyones gardens were perfect, with tiny blue flowers creeping over the tops of walls, and immaculate little baskets of trailing leaves, like something out of a book or maybe Midsomer Murders . There was a faint smell of sheep in the air, and you could hear them in the far distance, and there was this chill in the breeze, as if it was warning you what it could be like on a day that wasnt sunny. The shops were all the kind you get on Christmas cards, in the market square a woman dressed as a Victorian was selling buns from a tray and groups of tourists wandered around taking pictures of everything. Tanzie was so busy gazing out of the window at it that she didnt notice Nicky at first. It was only when they pulled into the parking space that she noticed he had gone really quiet. He wasnt looking at the phone even though, she knew, he had really, really wanted it and his face was all white. She asked him whether his ribs were hurting, and he said no, and when she asked if he had an apple down his trousers that he couldnt get out, he said, No, Tanze, just drop it, but the way he said it, there was definitely something. Tanzie looked at Mum but she was busy not looking at Mr Nicholls and Mr Nicholls was busy making this big to-do about finding the best parking space. Norman just looked up at Tanzie, like Dont even bother asking. Everyone got out and stretched and Mr Nicholls said they were all having tea and cake and it was his treat and please could we not make a big financial deal out of it as it was just tea, okay, and Mum raised her eyebrows like she was going to say something and then just muttered, Thank you, but not with good grace. They sat down in a cafandN233; whose name was Ye Spotted Sowe Tea Shoppe, even though Tanzie would bet there were no tea shoppes in medieval times. She was pretty sure they didnt even have tea then. Nobody else seemed to mind. Nicky got up to go to the loo. And Mr Nicholls and Mum were at the counter choosing what to eat so she clicked on Mr Nichollss phone and the first thing that came up was Nickys Facebook page. She waited for a minute because Nicky got really annoyed if people looked at his stuff, and then when she was sure he really was in the loo she made the screen go bigger so she could read it and then she went cold. The Fishers had posted messages and pictures of men doing rude things to other men all over Nickys timeline. They had called him GIMP and FAGBOY, and even though Tanzie didnt know what the words meant she knew they were bad and she suddenly felt sick. She looked up and Mum was coming back holding a tray. Tanzie! Be careful with Mr Nichollss phone! The phone had clattered onto the edge of the table. She didnt want to touch it. She wondered if Nicky was crying in the loos. She would have done. When she looked up Mum was staring at her. Whats wrong? Nothing. She sat down and pushed an orange cupcake on a plate across the table. Tanzie wasnt hungry any more, even though it was covered with sprinkles. Tanze. Whats wrong? Talk to me. She pushed the phone slowly across the wooden table with the tip of her finger, like it was going to burn her or something. Mum frowned, and then looked down at it. She clicked on it and stared. Jesus Christ, she said, after a minute. Mr Nicholls sat down beside her. He had the biggest slice of chocolate cake Tanzie had ever seen. Everyone happy? he said. He looked happy. The little bastards, Mum said. And her eyes filled with tears. What? Mr Nicholls had a mouthful of cake. Is that like a prevert? Mum didnt seem to hear her. She pushed the chair back with a massive screech and began striding towards the toilets. Thats the Gents, madam, a woman called, as Mum pushed the door open. I can read, thank you, Mum said, and she disappeared inside. What? Whats going on now? Mr Nicholls struggled to swallow his mouthful. He glanced over at where Mum had gone. Then, when Tanzie didnt say anything, he looked down at his phone and tapped it twice. He didnt say anything, just kept staring. Then he moved the screen around like he was reading everything. Tanzie felt a bit weird. She wasnt sure he should be looking at that. Did Is this something to do with what happened to your brother? She wanted to cry. She felt like the Fishers had ruined the nice day. She felt like they had followed them here, like they would never get away from them. She couldnt speak. Hey, he said, as a great big tear plopped down on the table. Hey. He held out a paper napkin towards her and Tanzie wiped her eyes and when she couldnt hide the sob that burst upwards he moved around the table and put an arm around her and pulled her in for a hug. He smelt of lemons and men. She hadnt smelt that man smell since Dad left and it made her even sadder. Hey. Dont cry. Sorry. Nothing to be sorry for. Id cry if someone did that to my sister. Thats thats He clicked the phone off. Sheez. He shook his head and blew out his cheeks. Do they do that to him a lot? I dont know. She sniffed. He doesnt say much any more. Mr Nicholls waited until she had stopped crying and then he moved back around the table and ordered a hot chocolate with marshmallows, chocolate shavings and extra cream. Cures all known ills, he said, pushing it towards her. Trust me. I know everything. And the weird thing was, it was actually true. Tanzie had finished her chocolate and her cupcake by the time Mum and Nicky came out of the loos. Mum put on this bright smile, like nothing was wrong, and had her arm around Nickys shoulders, which actually looked a bit odd now he was half a head taller than her. He slid into the seat beside her at the table and stared at his cake like he wasnt hungry. His face had gone back to how it was before they went away: like a shop dummy so you couldnt see what he was thinking. Tanzie watched Mr Nicholls watching him and wondered if he was going to say anything about what was on his phone but he didnt. She thought maybe he didnt want Nicky to get embarrassed. Either way, the happy day, she thought sadly, was over. And then Mum got up to check on Norman who was tied up outside and Mr Nicholls ordered a second cup of coffee and started stirring it slowly like he was thinking about something. And then he looked up at Nicky from under his eyebrows, and said quietly, So. Nicky. You know anything about hacking? She got the feeling she wasnt supposed to listen so she just stared really hard at the quadratic equations. No, said Nicky. Mr Nicholls leant forward over the table and lowered his voice. Well, I think now might be a good time to start. When Mum came back, Mr Nicholls and Nicky had disappeared. Where are they? she said, looking around the room. Theyve gone to Mr Nichollss car. Mr Nicholls said theyre not to be disturbed. Tanzie sucked the end of her pencil. Mums eyebrows shot somewhere into her hairline. Mr Nicholls said youd look like that. He said to tell you hes sorting it out. The Facebook thing. Hes doing what? How? He said youd say that too. She rubbed at a 2, which looked a bit too much like a 5 and blew away the rubbings. He said to tell you to please give them twenty minutes and hes ordered you another cup of tea and you should have some cake while youre waiting. Theyll come back and fetch us when theyre finished. And also to tell you the chocolate cake is really good. Mum didnt like it. Tanzie sat and finished her unit until she was happy with the answers, while Mum fidgeted and looked out of the window and made as if to speak, then closed her mouth again. She didnt eat any chocolate cake. She just left the five pounds that Mr Nicholls had put on the table sitting there and Tanzie put her rubber on it because she was worried that when someone opened the door it would blow away. Finally, just as the woman was sweeping up close enough to their table to send a silent message, the door opened, a little bell rang and Mr Nicholls walked in with Nicky. Nicky had his hands in his pocket and his hair over his eyes but there was a little smirk on his face. Mum stood up and looked from one to the other. You could tell she really, really wanted to say something but she didnt know what. Did you try the chocolate cake? Mr Nicholls said. His face was all bland, like a game-show hosts. No. Shame. It was really good. Thank you! Your cake is the best! he called to the woman, who went all smiley and twinkly even though she hadnt looked at Mum like that. Then Mr Nicholls and Nicky went straight back out again, striding across the road like theyd been mates all their lives, leaving Tanzie and Mum to gather up their things and hurry out after them. 15. Nicky There was this article in the newspaper once, about a hairless baboon. Her skin wasnt black all over, like youd expect, but kind of mottled, pink and black. Her eyes were black-rimmed, like she had this really cool eyeliner on, and she had one long pink nipple and one black one, like a sort of simian, booby David Bowie. But she was all on her own. It turns out baboons dont like difference. And literally not one baboon was prepared to hang out with her. So she was photographed picture after picture, just out looking for food, all bare and vulnerable, without a single baboon mate. Because even though all the other baboons, like, knew she was still a baboon, their dislike of difference was stronger than any genetic urge they had to stick with her. Nicky thought this one thing quite often: that there was nothing sadder than a lonely hairless baboon. Obviously Mr Nicholls was about to give him a lecture on the dangers of social networking or say that he had to report it all to his teachers or the police or something. But he didnt. He opened his car door, pulled out his laptop from the boot, plugged the power lead into a connector near his gearstick, and then plugged in a dongle so that they had broadband. Right, he said, as Nicky eased himself into the passenger seat. Tell me everything you know about this little charmer. Brothers, sisters, dates of birth, pets, address whatever youve got. What? We need to work out his password. Come on you must know something. They were sitting in the car park. Around them, people loaded shopping into their cars, strolled around in search of a nice pub or tea room. There was no graffiti here, no discarded shopping trolleys. This was the kind of place where they walked actual miles to return a shopping trolley. Nicky would have bet money they had one of those Best Kept Village signs too. A grey-haired woman loading her car beside them caught his eye and smiled. She actually smiled. Or maybe she smiled at Norman, whose big head was hanging over Nickys shoulder. Nicky? Yeah. Im thinking. He tried to clear his head. He reeled off everything he knew about Fisher. He went through his address, his sisters name, his mums name. He actually knew his birthday as it was only three weeks previously and his dad had bought him one of those quad bikes and hed smashed it up within a week. Mr Nicholls kept tapping away. Nope. Nope. Come on. There must be something else. What music does he like? What team does he support? Oh, look hes got a hotmail address. Great we can put that in. Nicky told him everything he knew. Nothing worked. And then he had a sudden thought. Tulisa. Hes got a thing about Tulisa. The singer. Mr Nicholls tapped away at his keyboard, then shook his head. Try Tulisas Arse, Nicky said. Mr Nicholls typed. Nope. IShaggedTulisa. All one word. Nope. Tulisa Fisher. Mmm. Nope. Nice try, though. They sat there, thinking. You could just try his name, said Nicky. Mr Nicholls shook his head. Nobodys stupid enough to use their name as their password. Nicky looked at him. Mr Nicholls typed a few letters then stared at the screen. Well what do you know? he said, and leant back in his seat. Youre a natural. So what are you doing? Were just going to have a little play with Jason Fishers Facebook page. Actually, Im not going to do it. Im uh I cant really risk anything on my IP address right now. But I know someone who can. He dialled a number. But wont he know its down to me? How? Were basically him right now. Therell be nothing tracing this to you. He probably wont even notice. Hang on. Jez? Hey. Its Ed Yeah. Yeah, Im just under the radar for a bit. I need you to do me a favour. Itll take five minutes. Nicky listened as he told Jez Jason Fishers password and email address. He said that Fisher had been creating a few difficulties for a friend. He looked at Nicky sideways as he said this. Just have a bit of fun with it, yeah? Read through his stuff. Youll get the picture. Id do it myself but Ive got to keep my hands super-clean right now Yeah Yeah, Ill explain when I see you. Appreciate it. He couldnt believe it was so easy. Wont he hack me back, though? Mr Nicholls put down his phone. Im going to take a punt here. But a boy who cant think further than his own name for a password is not really overflowing with computer skills. They sat there in the car and waited, refreshing Jason Fishers Facebook page again and again. And, like magic, things began to change. Man, Fisher was such a douche. His wall was full of how he was going to do this girl or that girl from school, or how so-and-so was a slag and how hed battered pretty much everyone outside his crew. His messages were much the same. Nicky glimpsed one message that had his name in it, but Mr Nicholls read it really fast and just said, Yeah. You dont need to see that one, and scrolled up. The only time he didnt sound like a douche was when he messaged Chrissie Taylor and told her that he really liked her and did she want to come round his house? She didnt sound too keen, but he kept messaging her. He said hed take her out somewhere really dope and that he could borrow his dads car (he couldnt he was under-age). He told her she was the prettiest girl in school and that she was doing his head in and that if his mates knew shed made him like this theyd think he was a mentalist. Who says romance is dead? Mr Nicholls murmured. And so it began. Jez messaged two of Fishers friends and told them that he had decided he was anti-violence, and didnt want to hang out with them any more. He messaged Chrissie and told her that he still liked her but he had to get himself sorted out before he went out with her because hed picked up some stupid infection what the doctor says I need to get medicine for. Ill be nice and clean when we get together though, eh? Oh, man. Nicky was laughing so much that his ribs hurt. Oh, man. Jason told another girl called Stacy that he really liked her and that his mum had picked out some really nice clothes for him if she ever wanted to go out, and the same thing to a girl called Angela in his year whom he had once called a scuzz. And Jez deleted a new message from Danny Kane, who had tickets for some big football match and said Jason could have one but hed have to let him know by the end of the day. Which was today. He changed Fishers profile picture for an image of a braying donkey. And then Mr Nicholls stared at the screen, thinking, and picked up his mobile. Actually, I think we should leave it there, mate, just for now, he to told Jez. Why? said Nicky, when he put down the phone. The donkey thing was kind of excellent. Because its better to be subtle. If we just stick to his private messages for now its entirely likely that he wont even spot them. We send them, then delete them at this end. Well turn off his email notifications. And so his friends, and this girl, will just think hes become even more of an idiot. And he wont have a clue why. Which is kind of the point. He couldnt believe it. He couldnt believe someone could just mess with Fishers life like that. Jez rang back to say hed logged out, and they shut down Facebook. And thats it? Nicky said. For now. Its only a bit of fun. But it made you feel better, right? And hes going to clean up your page so that none of the stuff Fisher put up is there any more. It was a bit embarrassing then because when Nicky breathed out he did this kind of shudder. He did feel better. It wasnt like it really solved anything, but for once it was nice not to feel like the butt of the joke. He messed with the hem of his T-shirt until his breathing went back to normal. It was possible Mr Nicholls knew because he looked out of the window like he was really interested even though there was nothing there apart from cars and old people. Why would you do all this? The hacking thing and driving us all the way to Scotland. I mean, you dont even know us. Mr Nicholls stared out of the window at the car park and just for a moment it was like he wasnt really talking to Nicky any more. I sort of owe your mum one. And I guess I just dont like people crapping all over other people. Bullies didnt start with your generation, you know. Mr Nicholls sat there for a minute, and Nicky was suddenly fearful that he was going to try to make him talk about stuff. That hed do that thing the counsellor did at school, where he tried to act like he was your mate and said about fifty times that anything you said would be just between us until it sounded a little creepy. Ill tell you one thing. Here it comes, Nicky thought. He wiped at his shoulder, where Norman had left a drool. Everyone Ive ever met who was worth knowing was a bit different at school. You just need to find your people. Find my people. Your tribe. Nicky pulled a face. You know, you spend your whole life feeling like you dont quite fit in anywhere. And then you walk into a room one day, whether its at university or an office or some kind of club, and you just go, Ah. There they are. And suddenly you feel at home. I dont feel at home anywhere. For now. Nicky considered this. So where was yours? Computing room at university. I was a bit of a geek. I met my best mate Ronan there. And then my company. He looked a bit serious after hed said that. But Im stuck there until I finish school. And theres nothing like that where we live, no tribes. Nicky pulled his fringe down over his eyes. You do things Fishers way or you stay out of his way. So find your people online. How? I dont know. Look up online groups for things youre interested in? Lifestyle choices? Nicky registered his expression. Oh. You think Im gay too, right? No, Im just saying, the Internets a big place. Theres always someone out there who shares your interests, whose life is like yours. Nobodys life is like mine. Mr Nicholls shut his laptop and slid it into a case. He unplugged everything and glanced over towards the cafandN233;. We should head back. Your mum will be wondering what were up to. He opened his door and then turned back. You know, you could always write a blog. A blog? Doesnt have to be under your real name. But its a good way of talking about whats going on in your life. You put a few keywords in, and people will find you. People like you, I mean. People who wear mascara. And who like neither football nor musical theatre. And who have enormous stinking dogs and sisters who are maths prodigies. I bet you theres at least one person like that somewhere. He thought for a minute. Maybe. Perhaps in Hoxton. Or Tupelo. Im not a hairless baboon, you know. What? Nothing. Nicky pulled at his fringe some more, trying to cover the bruise. It had gone this really grim yellow, which made him look like he had some weird disease. Thanks, but blogs are not really my thing. Blogs are like for middle-aged women writing about their divorces and cats and stuff. Or nail varnish obsessives. Just putting it out there. Do you write one? Nope. He climbed out of the car. But I dont particularly want to talk to anyone. Nicky climbed out after him. Mr Nicholls pointed his fob and the car locked down with an expensive thunk. In the meantime, he said, lowering this voice, we didnt have this conversation, okay? It wouldnt go down too well if anyone knew I was teaching innocent kids how to hack into private information. Jess wouldnt mind. Im not just talking about Jess. Nicky held his gaze. First rule of Geek Club. There is no Geek Club. Good man. Right. You going to walk this disgusting dog of yours before we head off? 16. Tanzie Nobody really wanted to get back in the car. The novelty of spending hours in a car, even one as nice as Mr Nichollss, had worn off pretty quickly. This, Mum announced, like someone about to give an injection, would be the longest day. They were all to make themselves comfortable and make sure theyd been to the loo because Mr Nichollss aim was to drive almost to Newcastle, where he had found a BandB that took dogs. They would arrive at around 10 p.m. After that, he had calculated that with one more days driving they should arrive in Aberdeen. Mr Nicholls would find them somewhere to stay close to the university, then Tanzie would be bright and fresh for the maths competition the next day. He looked at her hopefully. Unless you think youve got used to this car enough for me to go above forty now? She shook her head. No. His face fell a bit. Oh, well. He caught sight of the back seat then and blinked. A couple of chocolate buttons had melted into the cream leather seats, and although Tanzie had picked away at them as best she could there was definitely a brown mark. The footwell was covered with mud and leaves from where they had been walking around the woods. Normans drool had traced snail trails everywhere. At home she could wipe his jowls with a cloth, but trying to do it in the car made her feel sick. Mr Nicholls saw her looking and gave a half-smile, like it really didnt matter, even though you could tell that it probably did, and turned back to the wheel. Okay then, he said, and started the engine. Everyone was silent for about an hour, while Mr Nicholls listened to something on Radio 4 about technology. Mum read one of her books. Since the library had closed, shed bought two paperbacks a week from the charity shop but only ever had time to read one. Sometimes, if Mum was doing extra shifts, Tanzie would find her in the morning lying there with her mouth open and a book propped on her pillow. Because she was not very good at understanding simple equations, their whole house was now full of tattered paperbacks that she swore she was about to read. The afternoon stretched and sagged, and the rain came down in thick, glassy sheets. They drove past endless rolling green fields, through village after village, moving restlessly in their seats and pulling rucked shirts from the small of their backs. All the villages had started to look pretty much the same after Coventry. Tanzie gazed out of the window and tried to do maths problems in her head but it was hard to focus when she couldnt do workings out on a pad. It was about six oclock when Nicky began shifting around, like he couldnt get comfortable. When are we next stopping? Mum had nodded off briefly. She pushed herself upright abruptly, pretending she hadnt, and peered at the clock. Ten past six, Mr Nicholls said. Could we stop for some food? said Tanzie. I really need to walk around. My ribs are starting to hurt. Nickys legs were too long for even this car. His knees were folded up against Mr Nichollss seat, and he looked like he was being squashed into the corner by Norman, who lay across him, his big pink tongue lolling out through his teeth. Lets find somewhere to eat. We could divert into Leicester for a curry. Well be fine with sandwiches. Nicky groaned quietly. Do you guys eat nothing but sandwiches? Of course not. But sandwiches are convenient. And we dont have time to sit down and eat a curry. I love curry, Nicky said mournfully. Well, perhaps well have one in Aberdeen. If I win. Youd better, small fry, said Nicky, quietly. If I eat another stale cheese sandwich Im going to start curling up at the edges. Mr Nicholls drove through a small town, then another, and followed the signs to a retail park. It had begun to get dark. The roads were thick with Saturday-evening traffic and beeping cars filled with football supporters, celebrating a match involving teams nobody had ever heard of, their faces joyous, pressed against the windows. The Audi crawled through it all, its windscreen wipers beating a dull, insistent tattoo, then finally stopped outside a supermarket and Mum climbed out with a loud sigh and ran in. They could see her through the rain-lashed window, standing in front of the chiller cabinets, picking things up and putting them down again. Why doesnt she just buy the ready-made sandwiches? muttered Mr Nicholls, looking at his watch. Shed be back out in two minutes. Too expensive, said Nicky. And you dont know whose fingers have been in them. Jess did three weeks making sandwiches for a supermarket last year. She said that the woman next to her picked her nose in between shredding the chicken for the chicken Caesar wraps. And none of them wore gloves. Mr Nicholls went a bit quiet. Jess emerged several minutes later with a small shopping bag, holding it over her head as she ran the short distance to the edge of the kerb. Five to one its own-brand ham, said Nicky, watching. Plus apples. She always buys apples. Own-brand ham is two to one, Tanzie said. Five to two its rubber bread. On special. Im going to go right out there and say sliced cheese, said Mr Nicholls. What odds will you give me on sliced cheese? Not specific enough, said Nicky. You have to go for Dairylea or cheaper own-brand orange-coloured slices. Probably with a made-up name. Pleasant Valley Cheese. Udderly Lovely Cheddar. That sounds disgusting. Grumpy Cow Slices. Oh, come on now, shes not that bad. Tanzie and Nicky started laughing. Mum opened the door, and held up her carrier bag. Right, she said brightly. They had tuna paste on special. Who wants a sandwich? You never want our sandwiches, Mum said, as Mr Nicholls drove through the town. Mr Nicholls indicated, and pulled out onto the open road. I dont like sandwiches. They remind me of being at school. So what do you eat? Mum was tucking in. It had taken only a matter of minutes for the whole car to smell of fish. Tanzie thought Mr Nicholls was too polite to say so. In London? Toast for breakfast. Maybe some sushi or noodles for lunch. I have a takeout place I order from in the evening. You have a takeaway? Every night? If Im not going out. How often do you go out? Right now? Never. Mum gave him a hard look. Well, okay, unless Im getting drunk in your pub. You seriously eat the same thing every day? Mr Nicholls seemed a bit embarrassed now. You can get different curries. That must cost a fortune. So what do you eat when youre at Beachfront? I get a takeaway. From the Raj? Yeah. You know it? Oh, I know it. The car fell silent. What? said Mr Nicholls. You dont go there? What is it? Too expensive? Youre going to tell me its easy to cook a jacket potato, right? Well, I dont like jacket potato. I dont like sandwiches. And I dont like cooking. It might have been because he was hungry, but he was suddenly quite grumpy. Tanzie leant forwards through the seats. Nathalie once found a hair in her chicken Jalfrezi. Mr Nicholls opened his mouth to say something, just as she added, And it wasnt from someones head. Twenty-three lampposts went by. You can worry too much about these things, Mr Nicholls said. Somewhere after Nuneaton Tanzie started sneaking bits of her sandwich to Norman because the tuna paste didnt really taste like tuna, and the bread kept sticking to the roof of her mouth. Mr Nicholls pulled into a petrol station that squatted by the side of the road, a UFO that had just landed. Their sandwiches will be awful, said Mum, gazing inside the kiosk. Theyll have been there for weeks. Im not buying a sandwich. Do they do pasties? said Nicky, peering inside, and his voice was full of longing. I love pasties. Theyre even worse. Theyre probably full of dog. Tanzie put her hands over Normans ears. Mum glanced at Nicky and sighed. Are you going in? she said to Mr Nicholls, rummaging around in her purse. Will you get these two some chocolate? Special treat. Crunchie, please, said Nicky, who had cheered up. Aero. Mint, please, Tanzie said. Can I have a big one? Mum was holding out her hand. But Mr Nicholls was staring off to his right. Can you get them? Im just going to pop across the road, he said. Where are you going? He patted his stomach and he suddenly looked really cheerful. There. Keiths Kebabs had six plastic seats that were bolted to the floor, fourteen cans of Diet Coke arranged in its window, a neon sign that was missing its first b, and a rum baba that looked as though it had been there for several decades. Tanzie peered through the window of the car, and watched Mr Nichollss walk become almost jaunty as he entered its strip-lit interior. He stared at the wall behind the counter, then spoke to the man, who gestured towards some trays behind a glass screen, then pointed to a huge hunk of brown meat turning slowly on a spit. Tanzie considered what animal was shaped like that, and could only come up with buffalo. Maybe an amputee buffalo. Oh, man, said Nicky, as the man began to carve, and his voice was a low moan of longing. Cant we have one of those? No, said Mum. How much do you think they are? Too much. I bet Mr Nicholls would buy us one if we asked, he said. Mum snapped, Mr Nicholls is doing quite enough for us. Were not going to scrounge off him any more than we already have. Okay? Nicky rolled his eyes at Tanzie. Fine, he said moodily. And then nobody said anything. Im sorry, said Mum, after a minute. I just I just dont want him thinking were taking advantage. But is it still taking advantage if someone just offers you something? Tanzie said. She was really, really bored of eating cold food out of plastic bags. And she had the feeling that, if they asked him, Mr Nicholls would buy them one. Eat an apple if youre still hungry. Or one of the breakfast muffins. Im sure weve got a few left. Mum began rummaging around in the plastic bag again. Nicky raised his eyes silently. Tanzie let out a sigh. Mr Nicholls opened the car door, bringing with him the smell of hot, fatty meat. He was grinning as he sat down. His kebab was swaddled in white, grease-stained paper, and shredded green salad bushed from both sides of the meat, like Kitcheners moustache. Two twin bungee ropes of drool dropped immediately from Normans mouth. You sure you dont want some? he said cheerfully, turning towards Nicky and Tanzie. I only put a bit of chilli sauce on. No. Thats very kind, but no thank you, said Mum, firmly, and gave Nicky a warning look. No, thanks, Tanzie said quietly. It smelt delicious. No. Thank you, said Nicky, and turned his face away. Right. Who wants another sandwich? said Mum. Nuneaton, Market Bosworth, Coalville, Ashby de la Zouch, the signs passed by in a steady blur. They could have said Zanzibar and Tanzania for all Tanzie knew of where they actually were. She found herself repeating Ashby de la Zouch, Ashby de la Zouch, and thinking it would be a good name to have. Hi whats your name? Im Ashby de la Zouch. Hey, Ashby! Thats so cool! Costanza Thomas was five syllables too, but it didnt have the same rhythm. She considered Costanza de la Zouch, which was six, and then Ashby Thomas, which sounded flat by comparison. Costanza de la Zouch. The car slowed for a traffic jam that seemed to be caused by nothing, and they had to double back once when Mr Nicholls took a wrong turning. He seemed a bit distracted. Costanza de la Zouch. They had been back on the open road for 389 lampposts when Mr Nicholls said he had to stop the car. Usually it was one of them who asked to stop. Tanzie kept getting dehydrated and drinking too much, then needing a wee. Norman whined to go every twenty minutes, but they could never tell if he genuinely needed one or was as bored as they were and just wanted a little sniff around. Mum was reading again, with the passenger light on, and Mr Nicholls kept shifting around in his seat, until finally he said, That map is there a restaurant or something up ahead? Youre still hungry? Mum looked up. No. I I need the loo. Mum went back to her book. Oh, dont mind us. Just go behind a tree. Not that kind of loo, he muttered. Oh. Mum picked the map out of his glove compartment. Well, judging by this, Kegworth is the nearest town. Im sure therell be somewhere you could go. Or there might be a services if we can get to the dual carriageway. Which is closest? Mum traced the map with her finger. Hard to say. Kegworth? How far? Ten minutes? Okay. He nodded, almost to himself. Ten minutes is okay. He said it again, and his face was weirdly shiny. Ten minutes is doable. Nicky had his ear-buds in and was listening to music. Tanzie was stroking Normans big soft ears and thinking about string theory. And then suddenly Mr Nicholls swerved the car abruptly into a lay-by. Everyone lurched forward. Norman nearly rolled off the seat. Mr Nicholls threw open the drivers door, ran round the back, and as she turned in her seat, he crouched down by a ditch, one hand braced on his knee, and began heaving. It was impossible not to hear him, even with the windows closed. They all stared. Whoa, said Nicky. Thats a lot of stuff coming out of him. Thats like whoa, thats like the Alien. Oh, my God, said Mum. Its disgusting, Tanzie said, peering over the back shelf. Quick, said Mum. Wheres that kitchen roll, Nicky? They watched as she got out of the car and went to help him. He was doubled over, like his stomach was really hurting. When she saw Tanzie and Nicky were staring out of the back window, she flicked her hand like they shouldnt look, even though she had been doing the exact same thing. Still want a kebab? Tanzie said to Nicky. Youre an evil sprite, he said, and shuddered. Mr Nicholls walked back to the car like someone whod only just learnt how to do it. His face had gone this weird pale yellow. His skin was dusted with tiny beads of sweat. You look awful, Tanzie told him. He eased himself back into his seat. Ill be fine, he whispered. Should be fine now. Mum reached back through the seats and mouthed, Plastic bag. Tanzie handed over hers. Just in case, she said cheerfully, and opened her window a bit. Mr Nicholls drove really slowly for the next few miles. So slowly that two cars kept flashing them from behind and one driver sat on his horn really angrily as he passed. Sometimes he veered a bit across the white line, like he wasnt really concentrating, but Tanzie registered Mums determined silence and decided not to say anything. How long now? Mr Nicholls kept muttering. Not long, said Mum, even though she probably had no idea. She patted his arm, like he was a child. Youre doing really well. When he looked at her, his eyes were anguished. Hang on in there, she said quietly, and it was like an instruction. And then, about half a mile further along, Oh, God, he said, and slammed the brakes on again. I need to Pub! Mum yelled, and pointed towards one, its light just visible on the outskirts of the next village. Look! You can make it! Mr Nichollss foot went down on the accelerator so that Tanzies cheeks were pulled back in G-force. He skidded into the car park, threw the door open, staggered out and hurled himself inside. They sat there, waiting. The car was so quiet that they could hear the engine ticking. After five minutes, Mum leant across and pulled his door shut to keep the chill out. She looked back and smiled at them. How was that Aero? Nice. I like Aeros too. Nicky, his eyes closed, nodded to the music. A man pulled into the car park with a woman wearing a high ponytail and looked hard at the car. Mum smiled. The woman did not smile back. Ten minutes went by. Shall I go and get him? said Nicky, pulling his ear-buds from his ears and peering at the clock. Best not, said Mum. Her foot had started tapping. Another ten minutes passed. Finally, when Tanzie had taken Norman for a walk around the car park and Mum had done some stretches on the back of the car because she said she was bent out of shape, Mr Nicholls emerged. He looked whiter than anyone Tanzie had ever seen, like paper. He looked like someone had rubbed at his features with a cheap eraser. I think we might need to stop here for a bit, he said. In the pub? Not the pub, he said, glancing behind him. Definitely not the pub. Maybe maybe somewhere a few miles away. Do you want me to drive? Mum said. No, everyone said at once, and she smiled and tried to look like she wasnt offended. The Bluebell Haven was the only place within ten miles that wasnt fully booked. It had eighteen static caravans, a playground with two swings and a sandpit, and a sign that said No Dogs. Mr Nicholls let his face drop against the steering-wheel. Well find somewhere else. He winced and doubled over. Just give me a minute. No need. You said you cant leave the dog in the car. We wont leave him in the car. Tanzie, said Mum. The sunglasses. There was a mobile home by the front gate marked Reception. Mum went in first, and Tanzie put the sunglasses on and waited outside on the step, watching through the bubbled-glass door. The fat man who raised himself wearily from a chair said she was lucky as there was only one still available, and they could have it for a special price. How much is that? said Mum. Eighty pound. For one night? In a static? Its Saturday. And its seven oclock at night and you had nobody in it. Someone might still come. Yeah. I heard Madonna was having a swift half down the road and looking for somewhere to park her entourage. No need to be sarky. No need to rip me off. Thirty pounds, Mum said, pulling the notes from her pocket. Forty. Thirty-five. Mum held out a hand. Its all Ive got. Oh, and weve got a dog. He lifted a meaty hand. Read the sign. No dogs. Hes a guide dog. For my little girl. Id remind you that its illegal to bar a person on the grounds of disability. Nicky opened the door and, holding her elbow, guided Tanzie in. She stood motionless behind her dark glasses while Norman stood patiently in front of her. They had done this twice when theyd had to catch the coach to Portsmouth after Dad had left. Hes well trained, Mum said. Hell be no trouble. Hes my eyes, Tanzie said. My life would be nothing without him. The man stared at her hand, and then at her. His jowls reminded Tanzie of Normans. She had to remember not to glance up at the television. Youre busting my balls, lady. Oh, I do hope not, Mum said cheerfully. He shook his head, withdrew his huge hand, and moved heavily towards a key cabinet. Golden Acres. Second lane, fourth on the right. Near the toilet block. Mr Nicholls was so ill by the time they reached the static that it was possible he didnt even notice where they were. He kept moaning softly and clutching his stomach and when he saw the word Toilets he let out a little cry and disappeared. They didnt see him for the best part of an hour. Golden Acres wasnt gold and didnt look anything like even half an acre, but Mum said any port in a storm. There were two tiny bedrooms, and the sofas in the living room turned into another bed. Mum said that Nicky and Tanzie could stay in the one with twin beds, Mr Nicholls could go in the other and she would have the sofa. It was actually okay in their bedroom, even if Nickys feet did hang over the end of his bed and everywhere smelt of cigarettes. Mum opened some windows for a bit, then made up the beds with the duvets and ran the water until it came hot because she said Mr Nicholls would probably want a shower when he came back in. Tanzie opened all the cupboards, which were made of chipboard, one after another, shut the floral curtains, and inspected the chemical loo in the bathroom, then pressed her nose to the window and counted all the lights in the other static caravans. (Only two seemed to be occupied. That lying git, said Mum.) While they waited for Mr Nicholls to come back, she studied the map from his car, running her fingers along the routes. Weve got plenty of time, she said. Plenty. Itll be fine. And look! More quiet time for you to revise. She sounded as if she was actually reassuring herself. She had put her phone on to charge for precisely fifteen seconds when it rang. She started and picked it up, still plugged into the wall. Hello? She sounded like she thought it might be Mr Nicholls, calling from the toilet block for more paper again. Des? Her hand flew to her mouth. Oh, God. Des, Im not going to make it back in time. A series of muffled explosions at the other end. Im really sorry. I know what I said. But things have gone a bit crazy. Im in She pulled a face at Tanzie. Where are we? Near Ashby de la Zouch, she said. Ashby de la Zouch, Mum repeated. And then, her hand in her hair, Ashby de la Zouch. I know. Im really sorry. The journey didnt quite go as I planned and our driver got sick and my phone ran out and with all the What? She glanced at Tanzie. I dont know. Probably not before Tuesday. Maybe even Wednesday. Its taking longer than we thought. Tanzie could definitely hear him shouting then. Cant Chelsea cover it? Ive done enough of her shifts I know its the busy period. I know. Des, Im really sorry. Ive said I She paused. No. I cant get back before then. No. Im really What do you mean? Ive never missed a shift this past year. I Des? Des? She broke off and stared at the phone. Was that Des from the pub? Tanzie liked Des from the pub. Once she had sat outside with Norman on a Sunday afternoon, waiting for Mum, and he had given her a packet of scampi fries. At that minute, the door to the caravan opened, and Mr Nicholls pretty much fell in. Lie down, he muttered, pulled himself briefly upright, then collapsed onto the floral sofa cushions. He looked up at Mum with a grey face and big hollow eyes. Lying down. Sorry, he mumbled. Mum just sat there, staring at her mobile. He blinked at her, registering the phone, and muttered, Were you trying to reach me? Hes sacked me, Mum said. I dont believe it. Hes bloody sacked me. 17. Jess She wouldnt have slept much anyway, given that she now had to worry about having lost her job at the Feathers, as well as everything else. But Jess spent most of that night looking after Mr Nicholls. She had never seen a man be so ill without actually coughing up a kidney. By midnight he was a shell. There was literally nothing left in him. I feel better, I feel better, he would insist, trying to sound reassuring. And then half an hour later he would grab at the bucket she had pulled from under the sink and cough up a thin string of green bile. The night took on a weird, disjointed quality, the hours running into each other, fluid and endless. She gave up trying to sleep. She stared at the caramel-coloured, wipe-clean walls of the caravan, read a bit, dozed. Mr Nicholls groaned beside her, occasionally getting up to shuffle backwards and forwards to the toilet block. She closed the kids door and sat waiting for him in the little caravan, sometimes dozing on the far end of the L-shaped sofa, handing him water and tissues when he staggered in. Shortly after three, Mr Nicholls said he wanted a shower. She made him promise to leave the bathroom door unlocked, took his clothes down to the launderette (a washer-dryer in a shed) and spent three pounds twenty on a sixty-degree cycle. She didnt have any change for the dryer. He was still in the shower when she arrived back at the caravan. She draped his clothes from hangers over the heater, hoping they might dry a bit by morning, then knocked quietly on the door. There was no answer, just the sound of running water, and a belch of steam. She peeped around the door. The glass was clouded but she could make him out, slumped and exhausted on the floor. She waited a moment, staring at his broad back pressed against the glass panel, an oddly beautiful, pale inverted triangle, then watched as he lifted his hand and ran it wearily over his face. Mr Nicholls? she whispered, behind him, then again, when he didnt say anything. Mr Nicholls? He turned then, and saw her, and perhaps it was the water, but she wasnt sure she had ever seen a man look more defeated. His eyes were red-rimmed and his head sunk deep into his shoulders. Fucksake. I cant even get up. And the waters starting to go cold, he said. Want me to help? No. Yes. Jesus. Hold on. She held up the towel, whether to shield him or herself, she wasnt sure, reached in and turned off the shower, soaking her arm. Then she crouched down, so that he could cover himself, and leant in. Put your arm around my neck. Youre tiny. Ill just pull you over. Im stronger than I look. He didnt move. Youre going to have to help me here. Im not up to a firemans lift. His wet arm slid around her, he hooked the towel around his waist. Jess braced herself against the wall of the shower, and finally, shakily, they stood. Usefully, the caravan was so small that at every step there was a wall for him to lean on. They made their way unsteadily to what would have been the living room and he collapsed onto the sofa cushions. This is what my life has come to. He groaned, eyeing the bucket as she placed it beside the bed. Yup. Jess viewed the peeling wallpaper, the nicotine-stained paintwork. Well, Ive had better Saturday nights myself. She made herself a cup of tea. It was a little after four. Her eyes were gritty and sore, and she felt light-headed. She sat down and closed them for a minute. Thanks, he said, weakly. What for? He pushed himself upright. For bringing loo roll out to me in the middle of the night. For washing my disgusting clothes. For helping me out of the shower. And for not once acting like it was my own fault for buying a dodgy doner from a place called Keiths Kebabs. Even though it was your own fault. See? Now youre spoiling it. He lay back on the pillow, his forearm over his eyes. She tried not to look at the broad expanse of chest above the strategically placed towel. She couldnt remember when she had last seen a mans naked torso other than at Dess ill-advised Pub Beach Volleyball Match the previous August. Go and lie down in the bedroom. Youll be more comfortable. He opened one eye. Do I get a SpongeBob duvet? You get my pink stripy one. But I promise not to regard it as any reflection whatsoever on your masculinity. Where will you sleep? Out here. Its fine, she said, as he started to protest. Im not sure Ill sleep much now anyway. He let her lead him into the tiny bedroom. He groaned as he collapsed onto the bed, as if even that caused him discomfort, and she pulled the duvet over him gently. The shadows under his eyes were ash-coloured and his voice had become drowsy. Ill be ready to go in a couple of hours. Sure you will, she said, observing the ghostly pallor of his skin. Take your time. Where the hell are we, anyway? On the Yellow Brick Road. Is that the one with the God-like Lion who saves everyone? Youre thinking of Narnia. This one is cowardly and useless. Figures. And finally he slept. Jess left the room silently, and lay down on the narrow sofa under a peach-coloured blanket that smelt of damp and furtively smoked cigarettes, and tried not to look at the clock. She and Nicky had studied the map while Mr Nicholls was in the toilet block the previous evening and had reconfigured the journey as best they could. We still have plenty of time, she told herself. And then, finally, she, too, slept. All was silent within Mr Nichollss room well into the morning. Jess thought about waking him, but each time she made a move towards his door, she remembered the sight of him slumped against the shower cabinet and her fingers stilled on the handle. She opened the door only once, when Nicky pointed out that it was just possible he had choked to death on his own vomit. He seemed the faintest bit disappointed when it turned out Mr Nicholls was just in a really deep sleep. The children took Norman up the road, Tanzie in her dark glasses for authenticity, bought supplies from a convenience store and breakfasted in whispers. Jess converted the remaining bread into sandwiches (Oh, good, said Nicky), cleaned the caravan, for something to do, went outside and left a message on Dess answerphone, apologizing again. He didnt pick up. At ten thirty the door of the little room opened with a squeak and Mr Nicholls emerged, blinking, in his T-shirt and boxers. He raised a palm in greeting. He looked disoriented, a castaway waking on an island. A long crease bisected his cheek from the pillow. We are in Ashby de la Zouch. Or somewhere nearby. Its not quite Beachfront. Is it late? Quarter to eleven. Quarter to eleven. Okay. His jaw was thick with stubble, and his hair stuck up on one side. Jess pretended to read her book. He smelt of warm, sleepy male. She had forgotten what a weirdly potent scent that was. Quarter to eleven. He rubbed at the stubble on his chin, then walked unsteadily to the window and peered out. I feel like Ive been asleep for a million years. He sat down heavily on the sofa cushion opposite her, running his hand over his jaw. Dude, said Nicky from beside her. Jailbreak alert. What? Nicky waved a biro. You need to put the prisoners back in the pen. Mr Nicholls stared at him, then turned to Jess, as if to say, Your son has gone mad. Oh, God. He frowned. Oh God what? Following Nickys gaze, Jess looked down and swiftly away. You could at least have taken me out to dinner first, she said, standing to clear the breakfast things. Oh. Mr Nicholls looked down and adjusted himself. Sorry. Right. Okay. He stood, and made for the bathroom. Ill uh I Am I okay to have another shower? We saved you some hot water, said Tanzie, who was head-down over her exam sheet in the corner. Well, actually, all of it. You smelt really bad yesterday. He emerged twenty minutes later, his hair damp and smelling of shampoo, his jaw clean-shaven. Jess was busy whisking salt and sugar into a glass of water and trying not to think about what she had just seen. She handed it to him. Whats that? He pulled a face. Rehydrating solution. To replace some of what you lost last night. You want me to drink a glass of salty water? After Ive spent all night being sick? Just drink it. She was too tired to argue with him. While he was grimacing and gagging, she fixed him some plain toast and a black coffee. He sat across the little Formica table, took a sip of coffee and a few tentative bites of toast, and ten minutes later, in a voice that held some surprise, acknowledged that he did actually feel a bit better. Better, as in able-to-drive-without-having-an-accident better? By having an accident, you mean Not crashing into a lay-by. Thank you for clarifying that. He took another, more confident, bite of toast. Yeah. Give me another twenty minutes, though. I want to make sure Im safe in cars. Ha. He grinned, and it was curiously pleasing to see him smile. Yes. Quite. Oh, man, I do feel better. He ran a hand across the plastic-covered table and took a swig of coffee, sighing with apparent satisfaction. He finished the first round of toast, asked if there was any more going, then looked around the table. Although, you know, I might feel even better if you werent all staring at me while I eat. Im worried some other part of me is poking out. Youll know, said Nicky. Because well all run screaming. Mum said you pretty much brought up an organ, said Tanzie. I was wondering what it felt like. He glanced up at Jess and stirred his coffee. He didnt shift his gaze until she had blushed. Truthfully? Not so different from most of my Saturday nights, these days. He drank the rest and put down his cup. Okay. Im good. The rogue kebab is defeated. Lets hit the road. The landscape altered by the mile as they drove through the afternoon, the hills growing steeper and less bucolic, the walls that banked them morphing from hedgerows into flinty grey stone. The skies opened, the light around them grew brighter and they passed the distant symbols of an industrial landscape: red-brick factories, huge power stations that belched mustard-coloured clouds. Jess watched surreptitiously as Mr Nicholls drove, at first wary that he would suddenly clutch his stomach, and then later with a vague satisfaction at the sight of normal colour returning to his face. I dont think were going to make Aberdeen today, he said, and there was a hint of apology in his voice. Lets just get as far as we can and do the last stretch early tomorrow morning. Thats exactly what I was going to suggest. Still loads of time. Loads. She let the miles roll by, dozed intermittently and tried not to worry about all the things she needed to worry about. She positioned her mirror surreptitiously so that she could watch Nicky in the back seat. His bruises had faded, even in the short time they had been away. He seemed to be talking more than he had been. But he was still closed to her. Sometimes Jess worried he would be like that for the rest of his life. It didnt seem to make any difference how often she told him she loved him, or that they were his family. Youre too late, her mother had said, when Jess had told her he was coming to live with them. With a child that age, the damage has been done. I should know. As a schoolteacher, her mother could keep a class of thirty eight-year-olds in a narcoleptic silence, could steer them through tests like a shepherd streaming sheep through a pen. But Jess couldnt remember her ever smiling at her with pleasure, the kind of pleasure youre meant to get just from looking at someone you gave birth to. She had been right about many things. She had told Jess on the day she started secondary school: The choices you make now will determine the rest of your life. All Jess heard by then was someone telling her she should pin her whole self down, like a butterfly. That was the thing: when you put someone down all the time, eventually they stopped listening to the sensible stuff. When Jess had had Tanzie, young and daft as she had been, shed had enough wisdom to know she was going to tell her how much she loved her every day. She would hug her and wipe her tears and flop with her on the sofa with their legs entwined like spaghetti. She would cocoon her in love. When she was tiny Jess had slept with her in their bed, her arms wrapped around her, so that Marty would haul himself grumpily into the spare room, moaning that there wasnt any room for him. She barely even heard him. And when Nicky had turned up two years later, and everyone had told her she was mad to take on someone elses child, a child who was already eight years old and from a troubled background you know how boys like that turn out shed ignored them. Because she could see instantly in the wary little shadow who had stood a minimum twelve inches away from anyone, from his father even, a little of what she had felt. Because she knew that something happened to you when your mother didnt hold you close, or tell you all the time that you were the best thing ever, or even notice when you were home: a little part of you sealed over. You didnt need her. You didnt need anyone. And, without even knowing you were doing it, you waited. You waited for anyone who got close to you to see something they didnt like in you, something they hadnt seen initially, and to grow cold and disappear, like so much sea mist, too. Because there had to be something wrong, didnt there, if even your own mother didnt really love you? It was why she hadnt been devastated when Marty left. Why would she be? He couldnt hurt her. The only thing Jess really cared about was those two children, and letting them know they were okay by her. Because even if the whole world was throwing rocks at you, if you still had your mother or father at your back, youd be okay. Some deep-rooted part of you would know you were loved. That you deserved to be loved. Jess hadnt done much to be proud of in her life, but the thing she was most proud of was that Tanzie knew it. Strange little bean that she was, Jess knew she knew it. She was still working on Nicky. Are you hungry? Mr Nichollss voice woke her from a half-doze. She pushed herself upright. Her neck had calcified, as bent and stiff as a wire coat hanger. Starving, she said, turning awkwardly towards him. You want to stop somewhere for lunch? The sun had emerged. It shone in actual rays off to their left, strobing a vast, open field of green. Gods fingers, Tanzie used to call them. Jess reached for the map in the glove compartment, ready to look up the location of the next services. Mr Nicholls glanced at her. He seemed almost embarrassed. Actually you know what? I could really murder one of your sandwiches. 18. Ed The Stag and Hounds BandB wasnt listed in any accommodation guides. It had no website, no brochures. It wasnt hard to work out why. The pub sat alone on the side of a bleak, windswept moor, and the mossy plastic garden furniture that stood outside its grey frontage suggested an absence of casual visitors or, perhaps, the triumph of hope over experience. The bedrooms were apparently last decorated several decades previously, and bore shiny pink wallpaper, doilied curtains and a smattering of china figurines in place of anything useful like, say, shampoo or tissues. There was a communal bathroom at the end of the upstairs corridor, where the sanitary-ware was a non-ironic avocado and the pink soap was bisected by dark grey fissures. A small box-shaped television in the twin room deigned to pick up three channels, and each of those with a faint static buzz. When Nicky discovered the plastic Barbie doll in a crocheted wool ball dress that squatted over the loo roll, he was awestruck. I actually love this, he said, holding her up to the light to inspect her glittery synthetic hem. Its so bad its actually cool. Ed couldnt believe places like this still existed. But

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