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He pulled a face. ‘Ah, Jess. Don’t 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 he’s sick it’s thirty quid for the lost earnings. And you’ll have to clean it up.’

She lowered her head to Mr Nicholls’s sleeping face, then straightened and nodded. ‘He says that’s 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 didn’t know where to put her hands. She held them across the back of the rear seat, and spent the whole journey praying that he wouldn’t be sick. Every time he groaned, or shifted, she wound down a window, or leaned across to check his face. Don’t you dare, she told him silently. Just don’t 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. Nigel’s taken him to hospital.

A large cold weight landed on her chest. On my way she typed.

Nigel says he’ll stay with him till you’re there. I’ll stay here with Tanzie.

Thanks Belinda. I’ll 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 wasn’t for him. It would have been her walking the dog, not Nicky.

‘Here we are.’

Jess directed him to Mr Nicholls’s house, and they dragged him in between them, his arms slung over their shoulders, Jess’s 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. I’m not lugging him upstairs.’

‘He’s 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? Nicky’s 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 A&E.

‘Could you? I’ll 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.

‘They’re going to stitch it. But they want to keep him in. Check for fractures and whatnot.’ Nigel looked awkward. ‘He didn’t want me to call the police.’ He gestured in the general direction of outside. ‘If you’re all right, I’ll be getting back to Belinda. It’s late …’

Jess whispered her thanks, and moved over to Nicky. She placed her hand on the blanket, where his shoulder was.

‘Tanzie’s 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 didn’t know what to say to him. She couldn’t tell him it would all be all right, because it patently wasn’t. She couldn’t tell him the police would get the Fishers, because they never did. She couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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. ‘It’ll 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 Jess’s 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.

‘He’ll live.’

‘Little bastards. I was just talking to your neighbour. Someone ought to do something.’ He adjusted his mirror. ‘I’d teach them a lesson myself if I didn’t have to watch out for my licence. Boredom, that’s what it is. They don’t 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 Nicholls’s 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. I’ve got it. You’ve enough on your plate.’ He gave her a wink. ‘Give one of us a ring when you want picking up. On the house. Dan’s cleared it.’

‘But –’

‘No buts. Out you get now, Jess. Make sure that boy of yours is okay. I’ll 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 driver’s window: ‘You should tell him, though, if he’d 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 she’d 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 hadn’t 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 she’d 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 Fisher’s, 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 didn’t f**k right off she’d 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 she’d 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 you’re 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 couldn’t stop herself. She cleaned and folded and sorted because if she didn’t she would take Marty’s 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 didn’t she would stand in her overgrown little back garden, lift her face to the sky and scream and scream and scream and she wasn’t sure she’d 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 Tanzie’s shoulders. Tanzie walked up to her, put her arms around her waist and held her tightly, her eyes shut.

‘He’s okay, sweetheart,’ Jess told her, stroking her hair. ‘It’s all right. It’s just a silly boys’ fight.’

Nathalie touched Jess’s 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 Anne’s tomorrow. She would definitely tell her tomorrow.

And then she disappeared into the bathroom and unrolled the money she had found in Mr Nicholls’s 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 wasn’t her money. It was a lesson she drummed into the kids every day: You don’t steal. You don’t 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 didn’t she take it back?

A new, darker voice had begun a low internal hum in her ear. Why should you give it back? He won’t 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 didn’t 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 can’t we go to Spain, or somewhere hot?’ he’d mutter, staring out through the flaps of the sodden tent. ‘This is crap. This isn’t 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.

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