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Nicky was sweating on the verge, waiting for them to locate his stash. Tanzie was a pale, silent ghost a few feet away, hugging Norman’s 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 Tanzie’s 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 hadn’t she done what she should have done in the first place and just given Ed Nicholls back his stupid roll of money?

But he didn’t 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 didn’t too. ‘And you are …’

‘Edward Nicholls. I know this woman. What is it? Car trouble?’ He stared at the Rolls as if he couldn’t 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‘Out-of-date tax disc,’ Jess muttered, trying to ignore the hammering in her chest.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 I’m driving it home again.’

‘You’re 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 don’t have any.’

They both turned towards her.

‘The car isn’t insured. I’m not insured.’

She could see Mr Nicholls staring. What the hell? The moment they entered the details they would see it anyway. ‘We’ve 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 it’s not my car.’ She kicked at a stone on the grass. ‘That’s the next thing you’re going to see when you do your whole database thing.’

‘Did you steal the vehicle, madam?’

‘No, I did not steal the vehicle. It’s been sitting in my garage for two years.’

‘That’s not an answer to my question.’

‘It’s my ex-husband’s car.’

‘Does he know you’ve taken it?’

‘He wouldn’t know if I had a sex change and called myself Sid. He’s 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 she’s obviously really, really sorry. And given the hour, I think the kids need to go home.’

‘She’ll be charged with driving without tax and insurance. Your name and address, madam?’

Jess gave it to Policeman Number One. She couldn’t 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 it’s registered under a SORN, which means –’

‘That it shouldn’t be driven on a public road. I know.’

‘You know. Shame you didn’t think about that before you came out, then, isn’t 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 o’clock at night if I hadn’t been desperate? You really think I just sat there this evening in my little house and thought, I know. I’ll take my kids and my bloody dog and just go and get us all into a whole heap of trouble and –’

‘It’s 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 won’t find me on your damned database because I’ve never done anything wrong –’

‘Or you just never got caught.’

Mr Nicholls’s 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 you’ll need to pay to get this …’ the officer couldn’t 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 I’m not allowed to drive it?’

She was testing his patience, she could see. But she couldn’t 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. I’d advise you to remove all your belongings before the tow truck arrives. Once it leaves here we cannot be held responsible for the vehicle’s 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.

‘I’ll give you a lift,’ Mr Nicholls said.

Jess stepped away from him. ‘Oh. No. No, thank you. We’re fine. We’ll walk. It’s not far.’

‘It’s 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. ‘I’m headed back that way.’ He nodded towards the town. ‘You know where I live.’

Tanzie and Nicky didn’t speak, but Jess watched Nicky limp towards the car and start to haul out the bags. She couldn’t make him carry all that stuff home. She wasn’t sure he could even walk that far in his present state.

‘Thank you,’ she said stiffly. ‘That’s very kind of you.’ She couldn’t 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 Nicholls’s immaculate car, staring straight ahead at the road. She wasn’t sure she had ever felt more uncomfortable. She could feel, even if she couldn’t see, the children’s stunned silence at the evening’s 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 couldn’t 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 Tanzie’s last chance of going to St Anne’s.

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 didn’t know. Of course he didn’t 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? We’re 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 Nicky’s 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 dealer’s.’

‘So where were you trying to get to?’

‘Scotland.’ She rubbed her nose. ‘It’s 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. I’d never heard of one either until a week ago. Like I said, it’s a long story.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

Jess looked into the back seat, at Tanzie, who snored gently. She shrugged. She couldn’t say the words.

Mr Nicholls suddenly caught sight of Nicky’s face. He stared, as if seeing it for the first time.

‘Yeah. That’s 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 couldn’t 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. I’m 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 world’s most malevolent hangover.’ He paused. ‘I also have a vague memory of being an arsehole. Possibly for the second time.’

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