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‘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 wasn’t a good idea. You know that thing where people say, ‘Even as we stood at the altar I knew in my gut that it wasn’t 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 he’d thought it would make her happy. It had taken him about two weeks to realize marriage wasn’t going to make her happy at all. Or, at least, marriage to him.

‘It’s 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 don’t look too old.’

‘I know! I can look sixteen! Baby, I need to talk to you about the roof.’

‘Lara, it’s your place. You got a settlement.’

‘But they say it’s 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 Papi’s health is not good. And then I had some credit cards …’

‘All of it?’

‘I don’t have enough for the roof. It’s 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 couldn’t 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. ‘Don’t 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 don’t you ask Jim Leonards?’

‘What?’

‘His wife called me. She’s not very happy, funnily enough.’

‘It was only once! Once I went out with him. And it is nobody’s 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 didn’t 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 he’d had time to think about why he shouldn’t. It felt like every time his phone rang it was just so that somebody could yell at him.

‘Don’t tell me. You’re really busy.’

‘I’m driving.’

‘And you have a hands-free thing. Mum wanted to know if you’re going to be there for their anniversary lunch.’

‘What anniversary lunch?’

‘Oh, come on, Ed. I told you about it months ago.’

‘I’m sorry. I haven’t got access to my diary right now.’

He could hear her taking a breath.

‘They’re going to let Dad out next Tuesday. So Mum’s doing a special lunch at home for them. She wanted us to be there. You said you’d be able to come.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

‘Yeah what? You remember? Or yeah, you’re coming?’

He tapped his fingers on the steering-wheel. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Look, Dad was asking for you yesterday. I told him you’re tied up with a work project but he’s so frail, Ed. This is really important to him. To both of them.’

‘Gemma, I’ve told you –’

Her voice exploded into the interior of the car. ‘Yeah, I know, you’re too busy. You’ve told me you’ve got a lot on. You’ve told me you’ve got stuff going on.’

‘I have got stuff going on! You have no idea!’

‘Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly hope to understand, could I? Just the stupid social worker who doesn’t earn a six-figure f**king salary. This is our dad, Ed. This is the man who sacrificed everything to buy you a f**king education. He thinks the sun shines out of your backside. And he’s 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?’

‘He’s not dying.’

‘How the f**k would you know? You haven’t been to see him in two months!’

‘Look, I will go. It’s just I’ve got to –’

‘Why do you keep making excuses?’

‘I’m not making excuses, Gem –’

‘Bullshit. You’re a businessman. You make stuff happen. Make this happen. Or I swear I –’

‘I’m losing you, Gem. Sorry, the reception’s 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. That’s all I’m 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. There’s 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?’ Gemma’s voice broke into the silence.

Afterwards he wasn’t 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, I’ll have to call you back. It’s 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 she’d 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 Nicky’s swollen face. It didn’t really look like him and she’d 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 didn’t even look like horses. She wanted to tell him about how they’d registered at St Anne’s, but it was hard to think about it too much in that little room, with the smell of hospitals in her nose and Nicky’s eye all the wrong shape.

He made funny little sounds as he walked, and tried to close his mouth over them, like he didn’t 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t his actual mum, but as good as. And, no, he didn’t have a social worker. And it always made Tanzie feel a bit odd, like Nicky wasn’t 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’).

Mum’s face was all pale, and she kept chewing her lip, like she wanted to say a lot more than she did. Nicky didn’t 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, isn’t he?’ she said. ‘Polite.’

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