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‘It’s fine,’ she said, as blood rushed to her ears. ‘Really.’

Nicky had opened the car door. The cool air made Tanzie stir. She rubbed her eyes and blinked at Jess. Then she gazed slowly around her at the car, the last hour re-registering on her face. ‘Does this mean we’re not going?’

Jess gathered up the bags at her feet. This was not a conversation to have in front of an audience. ‘Let’s go inside, Tanze. It’s late.’

‘Does this mean we’re not going to Scotland?’

She smiled awkwardly at Mr Nicholls. ‘Thanks again.’ She hauled her bags out onto the pavement. The air was surprisingly chill. Nicky stood outside the gate, waiting.

Tanzie’s voice crackled with sudden knowledge. ‘Does this mean I don’t get to go to St Anne’s?’

She tried to smile. ‘Let’s not talk about it now, sweetie.’

‘But what are we going to do?’ said Nicky.

‘Not now, Nicky. Let’s just get indoors.’

‘You now owe the police five grand. How are we going to get to Scotland?’

‘Kids? Please? Can we just go indoors?’

With a groan, Norman heaved himself off the back seat and ambled out of the car.

‘You didn’t say we’ll sort something out.’ Tanzie’s voice was panicked. ‘You always say we’ll sort something out.’

‘We’ll sort something out,’ Jess said, dragging the duvets out of the boot.

‘That’s not the voice you use when we’re really going to sort something out.’ Tanzie began to cry.

It was so unexpected, that at first Jess could do nothing but stand there in shock. ‘Take these.’ She thrust the duvets at Nicky, and leant her upper half into the car, trying to manoeuvre Tanzie out. ‘Tanzie … sweetheart. Come out. It’s late. We’ll talk about this.’

‘Talk about me not going to St Anne’s?’

Mr Nicholls was staring at his steering-wheel, like this was all too much for him. Jess began apologizing under her breath. ‘She’s tired,’ she said, trying to put her arm around her daughter. Tanzie shifted away. ‘I’m so sorry.’

It was at that point Mr Nicholls’s phone rang.

‘Gemma,’ he said wearily, as if he’d been expecting it. She could hear an angry buzzing, as if a wasp had been trapped in the receiver.

‘I know,’ he said quietly.

‘I just want to go to St Anne’s,’ Tanzie cried. Her glasses had fallen off – Jess hadn’t had time to take her to the optician to fix them – and she covered her eyes with her hands. ‘Please let me go. Please, Mum. I’ll be really good. Just let me go there.’

‘Sssh.’ A lump rose in Jess’s throat. Tanzie never begged for anything. She just wasn’t made that way. ‘Tanze …’ On the pavement, Nicky turned away, as if he couldn’t watch it.

Mr Nicholls said something into his phone that she couldn’t make out. Tanzie had begun to sob. She was a dead weight. It was as if she was refusing to leave the car.

‘Come on, sweetheart,’ Jess said, tugging at her.

She had braced herself against the door. ‘Please, Mum. Please. Please. I’ll be really good.’

‘Tanzie, you cannot stay in the car.’

‘Please …’

‘Out. C’mon, baby.’

‘I’ll drive you,’ Mr Nicholls said.

Jess’s head bumped against the door frame. ‘What?’

‘I’ll drive you to Scotland.’ He had put down his phone and was staring at his steering-wheel. ‘Turns out I’ve got to go to Northumberland. Scotland’s not that much further. I’ll drop you there.’

Everyone fell silent. At the end of the street there was a burst of laughter and a car door slammed. Jess straightened her ponytail, which had gone askew. ‘Look, it’s really nice of you to offer but we can’t accept a lift from you.’

‘Yeah,’ said Nicky, leaning forward. ‘Yeah, we can, Jess.’ He glanced at Tanzie. ‘Really. We can.’

‘But we don’t even know you. I can’t ask you to –’

Mr Nicholls didn’t look at her. ‘It’s just a lift. It’s really not a big deal.’

Tanzie sniffed and rubbed at her nose. ‘Please? Mum?’

Jess looked at her, and at Nicky’s bruised face, then back at Mr Nicholls. She had never wanted to sprint from a car so badly. ‘I can’t offer you anything,’ she said, and her voice emerged with a weird break in the middle. ‘Anything at all.’

He raised one eyebrow, swivelled his head towards the dog. ‘Not even vacuum my back seats afterwards?’

The breath that left her chest probably sounded slightly more relieved than was diplomatic. ‘Well … okay, that I can do.’

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Then I suggest we all get a few hours’ sleep and I’ll pick you up first thing tomorrow.’

11.

Ed

It took Edward Nicholls about fifteen minutes after he had left Danehall estate to question what the bloody hell he had just done. He had agreed to transport his stroppy cleaner, her two weird kids and an enormous reeking dog all the way to Scotland. What the hell had he been thinking? He could hear Gemma’s voice, the scepticism with which she had repeated his statement: ‘You’re taking a little girl you don’t know and her family to the other end of the country and it’s an “emergency”. Right.’ He could hear the inverted commas. A pause. ‘Pretty, is she?’

‘What?’

‘The mother. Big tits? Long eyelashes? Damsel in distress?’

‘That’s not it. Er …’ He couldn’t say anything with them all in the car.

‘I’ll take both those as a yes, then.’ She sighed deeply. ‘For Christ’s sake, Ed.’

Tomorrow morning he would pop by first thing, apologize and explain that something had come up. She’d understand. She probably felt weird about sharing a car with a near-stranger too. She hadn’t exactly jumped at the offer.

He would donate something towards the kid’s train fare. It wasn’t his fault the woman – Jess? – had decided to drive an untaxed, uninsured car, after all. If you looked at it on paper – the cops, the weird kids, the night-time joyriding – she was trouble. And Ed Nicholls did not need any more trouble in his life.

With these thoughts in his head, he washed, brushed his teeth and fell into the first decent sleep he’d had in weeks.

He pulled up outside the gate shortly after nine. He had meant to be there earlier but couldn’t remember where the house was, and given that the estate was a sprawling mass of identikit streets, he had driven up and down blindly for almost thirty minutes until he recognized Seacole Avenue. It was only the pub that got him there in the end.

It was a damp, still morning, the air heavy with moisture. The street was empty, apart from a ginger cat, which stalked its way along the pavement, its tail a question mark. Danehall seemed a little less unfriendly in daylight, but he still found himself double-checking he’d locked the car once he’d stepped out of it.

He gazed up at the windows, hoping he’d got the right place. Pink and white bunting hung in one of the upstairs rooms, and two hanging baskets swung listlessly from the front porch. A car sat under a tarpaulin in the next driveway. But the real giveaway was lumbering slowly around the front garden, pausing only to lift its leg against a child’s bicycle. Jesus. That dog. The size of it. Ed pictured it lolling over his back seat the previous evening. A faint echo of its scent had remained when he climbed back in this morning.

He opened the latch of the gate warily, in case it went for him, but it simply turned its enormous head with mild disinterest, walked to the shade of a weedy tree and flopped down on its side, lifting a desultory front leg as if in the vague hope it might get its stomach scratched.

‘I’ll pass, thanks,’ Ed said.

He walked up the path and paused at the door. He had his little speech all prepared.

Hi, I’m really sorry but something very important has come up with work and I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to take the next couple of days off. However, I’d be happy to contribute something to your daughter’s Olympiad fund. I think it’s great that she’s working so hard at her studies. So here’s her train fare.

If it sounded a little less convincing in his head this morning than it had done last night, well, it couldn’t be helped. He was about to knock when he saw the note, half attached to the door with a pin, flapping in the breeze:

FISHER YOU LITTLE WASTE OF SKIN I HAVE TOLD THE POLICE THAT IF ANYONE BREAKS IN IT WILL BE YOU AND THEY ARE WATCHING

As he straightened up the door opened. The little girl stood there. ‘We’re all packed,’ she said, squinting, her head tilted to one side. ‘Mum said you wouldn’t come but I knew you would so I said I wouldn’t let her unpack the suitcases until ten. And you made it with fifty-three minutes to spare. Which is actually about thirty-three minutes better than I estimated.’

He blinked.

‘Mum!’ She pushed the door open. Jess was standing in the hallway, as if she had stopped dead halfway down it. She was wearing a pair of cut-off jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her hair was clipped up. She did not look like someone preparing to travel the length of the country.

‘Hi.’ Ed smiled awkwardly.

‘Oh. Okay.’

She shook her head. And he realized the child had been telling the truth: she really hadn’t expected him to turn up. ‘I’d offer you a coffee, but I got rid of the last of the milk before we set off last night.’

Before he could answer, the boy sloped past, rubbing his eyes. His face was still swollen, and now coloured an impressionist palette of purples and yellows. He gazed at the pile of holdalls and bin bags in the hall and said, ‘Which of these are we taking?’

‘All of them,’ said the little girl. ‘And I packed Norman’s blanket.’

Jess looked at Ed warily. He made to open his mouth, but nothing came out. The entire length of the hallway was lined with battered paperbacks. He wasn’t sure why that surprised him.

‘Can you pick up this bag, Mr Nicholls?’ The little girl tugged it towards him. ‘I did try and lift it earlier because Nicky can’t pick stuff up right now but it’s too heavy for me.’

‘Sure.’ He found himself stooping, but stopped for a moment before he lifted it. How was he going to do this?

‘Listen. Mr Nicholls …’ Jess was in front of him. She looked as uncomfortable as he did. ‘About this trip –’

And then the front door flew open. A woman stood in jogging bottoms and a T-shirt, a baseball bat raised in her hand.

‘DROP THEM!’ she roared.

He froze.

‘PUT YOUR HANDS UP!’

‘Nat!’ Jess shouted. ‘Don’t hit him!’

He lifted them slowly, turning to face her.

‘What the –’ The woman looked past Ed at Jess. ‘Jess? Oh, my God. I thought someone was in your house.’

‘Someone is in my house. Me.’

The woman dropped the bat, then looked in horror at him. ‘Oh, my God. It’s – Oh, God, oh, God, I’m so sorry. I saw the front door and I honestly thought you were a burglar. I thought you were … you know who.’ She laughed nervously, then pulled an agonized face at Jess, as if he couldn’t see her.

Ed let out a breath. The woman put the bat behind her and tried to smile. ‘You know how it is around here …’

He took a step backwards and gave a small nod. ‘Okay, well … I just need to get my phone. Left it in the car.’

He edged past her with his palms up and headed down the path. He opened and shut the car door, then locked it again, just to give himself something to do, trying to think clearly over the ringing in his ears. Just drive off, a little voice said. Just go. You never have to see her again. You do not need this right now.

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