Mum was gathering up his things. ‘That’s the worst bit,’ she said. ‘He just wants to be left alone.’
‘Doesn’t 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 didn’t even notice it was way past bedtime.
She nudged Nicky very gently with her finger. ‘Does it hurt?’
‘Does what hurt?’
‘What do you mean?’ He looked at her like he didn’t know what she was talking about.
‘Well … it’s a funny shape.’
‘So’s yours. Does that hurt?’
‘I’m fine, Titch. Drop it.’ And then, when she stared at him, ‘Really. Just … forget it. I’m fine.’
Mum came in and put the lead on Norman. He was lying on the sofa and didn’t 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.’
‘Because we’re leaving. For Scotland.’
She made it sound perfectly normal.
Nicky didn’t even look round from the television. ‘We’re leaving for Scotland.’ He pointed the remote control at the screen, just to check.
‘Yup. We’re going to drive.’
‘But we haven’t got a car.’
‘We’re taking the Rolls.’
Nicky glanced at Tanzie, then back at Mum. ‘But you haven’t got insurance.’
‘I’ve been driving since I was twelve years old. And I’ve never had an accident. Look, we’ll stick to the B roads, and do most of it overnight. As long as nobody pulls us over we’ll 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. ‘There’s a maths competition that could change our lives and it’s in Scotland. Right now, we haven’t got the money for the fares. That’s the truth of it. I know it’s not ideal to drive, and I’m not saying it’s right, but unless you two have a better idea then let’s just get into the car and get on with it.’
‘Um, don’t we need to pack?’
‘It’s 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wouldn’t be visible from the street. Then she climbed back into the half-eaten driver’s 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 don’t 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. Don’t play Nintendo right now.’
‘Well, surely we just go north.’
‘But where is north? I haven’t 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 don’t know. I’m asking you!’
‘Let me see.’ Tanzie reached through from the back and took the map from Nicky’s 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 can’t 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 couldn’t walk upside down. Not like spiders. ‘It’s not working.’
‘Nicky, you’ll have to map-read.’ She looked over, exasperated. ‘Nicky.’
‘Yeah. I will. I just need to get these golden stars. They’re five thousand points.’ Tanzie folded the map as best she could and pushed it back through the front seats. Nicky’s 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 didn’t recognize, and now a new hotel. Mum said they were looking for the M3 but Tanzie hadn’t 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. It’s making it impossible to concentrate. Nicky. I really need you to read the map.’
‘He’s 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 we’ll end up in Southampton.’
‘But that’s the wrong way.’
‘That’s 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. He’s farted. Mum, I’m suffocating.’
‘Nicky, please can you read the map.’
Tanzie remembered now that Mum hated driving. She wasn’t good at processing information quickly enough. She always said she didn’t 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. ‘I’m 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 – it’s 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 Norman’s collar.
‘For Christ’s sake, can you just –’
‘I meant the next one. This one takes us miles out of the way.’
‘We’ve been on the road almost half an hour and we’re 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 didn’t 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 isn’t the time to tell you I brought my stash with me.’
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 she’d 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 hadn’t actually looked up the whole no-insurance thing yet. So there was that to look forward to.
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