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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 year’s 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 Marty’s 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. He’d 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 couldn’t 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.

She’d 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 didn’t 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. She’d tried to talk to him a couple of times, but he’d just pulled the duvet over his head and said he couldn’t cope. It was around then that he’d suggested he might go home to his mum’s 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,’ she’d said, stroking his hair. She remembered thinking how long it had been since she’d touched him. ‘Go for a couple of weeks. You’ll 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 she’d had to eat at Nathalie’s, telling her what Norman had done while she was out. She combed Tanzie’s hair, then sat on her bed and read her a story, like she was a much younger child, and just for once Tanzie didn’t tell her that actually she’d 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.

‘Don’t say it, Marty. Don’t 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 wasn’t 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.’

‘He’s about as likely to start a fight as the Dalai bloody Lama. We’re talking about a boy who can’t 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, she’d be lucky if a single person ‘remembered’ what they’d 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 Marty’s 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? It’s Mr Tsvangarai.’

‘Oh. Mr Tsvangarai, I’m sorry. It – it’s not a great time –’ She held out her hand in front of her. It was shaking.

‘I’m sorry to call you so late but it’s a matter of some urgency. I have discovered something of interest. It’s called a Maths Olympiad.’ He spoke the words carefully.

‘A what?’

‘It’s 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, that’s really nice, Mr Tsvangarai, but we have quite a lot going on here right now and I don’t 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, you’d have at least the first year of your St Anne’s 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.

‘What’s the catch?’

‘No catch. Well, you have to do advanced maths, obviously. But I can’t 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 isn’t 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 Tanzie’s 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 she’s a girl. But we have to decide quickly. You see, this year’s Olympiad is only five days away.’

Five days. The deadline for registration at St Anne’s was tomorrow.

She stood in the middle of the room, thinking. Then she ran upstairs, pulled Mr Nicholls’s 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 (£187, including the £13 it would cost to get to the coach station) and the cost of putting Norman in kennels for a week (£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 driver’s 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

[email protected]: Don’t forget what I told you. Can remind you of deets if you lose the card.

[email protected]: I won’t forget. Whole night engraved on my memory. ;-)

[email protected]: Did you do what I told you?

[email protected]: I did. Thanx.

[email protected]: Let me know if you get good results!

[email protected]: Well, based on your past performance, I’d be amazed if it was anything but! ;-0

[email protected]: Nobody’s ever done for me what you did for me.

[email protected]: Really. It was nothing.

[email protected]: You want to hook up again, next weekend?

[email protected]: Bit busy at the mo. I’ll let you know.

[email protected]: 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 don’t 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 I’m uninhibited.’

The detective removed his glasses and gave him a hard look. ‘Email sex? Really? That’s what you were doing here?’

‘Well, no. Not in that case. But that’s not the point.’

‘I would suggest it is totally the point, Mr Nicholls. There are reams of this stuff. There’s 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”.’

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