Ed liked order. He liked to know what was coming. Everything about this woman suggested the kind of … boundarylessness that made him nervous.
He walked halfway back up the path, trying to formulate the right words. As he approached the house, he could just hear them talking behind the half-closed door, their voices carrying across the little garden.
‘I’m going to tell him no.’
‘You can’t, Jess.’ The boy’s voice. ‘Why?’
‘Because it’s too complicated. I work for him.’
‘You clean his house. That’s not the same thing.’
‘We don’t know him, then. How can I tell Tanzie not to get in cars with men she doesn’t know, and then do exactly that?’
‘He wears glasses. He’s hardly going to be a serial killer.’
‘Tell that to Dennis Nielsen’s victims. And Harold Shipman’s.’
‘You know way too many serial killers.’
‘We’ll set Norman on him if he does anything bad.’ The boy’s voice again.
‘Yes. Because Norman has been so useful, protecting this family in the past.’
‘Mr Nicholls doesn’t know that, does he?’
‘Look. He’s just some bloke. He probably got caught up in the drama last night. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to do it. We’ll – we’ll just let Tanzie down gently.’
Tanzie. Ed watched her running around the back garden, her hair flying out behind her. He watched the dog shambling back towards the door, half dog, half yak, leaving an intermittent snail trail of drool behind him.
‘I’m wearing him out so that he’ll sleep most of the journey.’ She appeared in front of him, panting.
‘I’m really good at maths. We’re going to an Olympiad so I can win money to go to a school where I can do A-level maths. Do you know what my name is, converted to binary code?’
He looked at her. ‘Is Tanzie your full name?’
‘No. But it’s the one I use.’
He blew out his cheeks. ‘Um. Okay. 01010100 01100001 01101110 01111010 01101001 01100101.’
‘Did you say 0101 at the end? Or 1010?’
‘0101. Duh.’ He used to play this game with Ronan.
‘Wow. You actually spelt it right.’ She walked past him and pushed the door. ‘I’ve never been to Scotland. Nicky keeps trying to tell me there are herds of wild haggis. But that’s a lie, right?’
‘To the best of my knowledge they’re all farmed these days,’ he said.
Tanzie stared at him. Then she beamed, and sort of growled at the same time.
And Ed Nicholls realized he was headed for Scotland.
The two women fell silent as he pushed the door open. Their eyes dropped to the bags that he picked up in each hand.
‘I need to get some stuff before we go,’ he said, as he let the door swing behind him. ‘And you missed out Gary Ridgway. The Green River Killer. But you’re fine. They were all short-sighted. And my glasses are long.’
It took three-quarters of an hour to leave town. The lights were out on the top of the hill and that, combined with Easter-holidays traffic, slowed the queue of cars to a bad-tempered crawl. Jess sat in the car beside him, silent and oddly awkward, her hands pressed together between her knees. He guessed she knew that he’d overheard the whole conversation. She had barely said a single word since they’d left her house.
The boy – Nicky – sat on the other side of the dog to his sister. He had the air-con on, but it couldn’t disguise the smell of the dog, so he turned it off and they sat with all four windows open instead. And into this odd silence, Tanzie kept up a constant stream of chatter.
‘Have you been to Scotland before?’
‘Where do you come from?’
‘Do you have a house there?’
‘Why are you staying here then?’
He had some work to sort out, he said. It was easier than ‘I’m awaiting possible prosecution and a jail term of up to seven years.’
‘Do you have a wife?’
‘Not any more.’
‘Were you unfaithful?’
‘Tanzie,’ said Jess.
He blinked. Glanced into the rear-view mirror. ‘Nope.’
‘On Jeremy Kyle one person is usually unfaithful. Sometimes they have another baby and they have to do a DNA test and usually when it’s right the woman looks like she wants to hit someone. But mostly they just start crying.’
She squinted out of the window.
‘They’re a bit mad these women, mostly. Because the men have all got another baby with someone else. Or lots of girlfriends. So statistically they’re really likely to do it again. But none of the women ever seem to think about statistics.’
‘I don’t really watch Jeremy Kyle,’ he said, glancing at the satnav.
‘Nor do I. Only when I go to Nathalie’s house when Mum’s working. She records it while she’s cleaning so she can watch it in the evenings. She has forty-seven episodes on her hard drive.’
‘Tanzie. I think Mr Nicholls probably wants to concentrate.’
Jess was twisting a strand of her hair. She had her feet up on the seat. Ed really hated people putting their feet on seats. Even if they did take their shoes off.
‘So why did your wife leave you?’
‘I’m being polite. You said it was good to make polite conversation.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Jess said.
‘Really. It’s fine.’ He addressed Tanzie through the rear-view mirror: ‘She thought I worked too much.’
‘They never say that on Jeremy Kyle.’
The traffic cleared, and they headed out onto the dual carriageway. Ed put his foot down. It was a beautiful day, and he was tempted to take the coast road, but he didn’t want to risk getting caught in traffic again. The dog whined, the boy played silently with a Nintendo, his head down in intense concentration, and Tanzie grew quieter. He turned the radio on – a hits channel – and for a moment or two he started to think this could be okay. It was just a day out of his life, if they didn’t hit too much traffic. And it was better than being stuck in the house.
‘The satnav reckons about eight hours if we don’t hit any jams,’ he said.
‘Well, yeah.’ He glanced left. ‘Even a top-of-the-range Audi doesn’t have wings.’ He tried to smile, to show her he was joking, but she was still straight-faced.
‘Uh … there’s a bit of a problem.’
‘Tanzie gets sick if we go fast.’
‘What do you mean “fast”? Eighty? Ninety?’
‘Um … actually, fifty. Okay, maybe forty.’
Ed glanced into the rear-view mirror. Was it his imagination or had the child grown a little paler? She was gazing out of the window, her hand resting on the dog’s head. ‘Forty?’ He slowed. ‘You’re joking, right? You’re saying we have to drive to Scotland via B roads?’
‘No. Well, maybe. Look, it’s possible she’s grown out of it. But she doesn’t travel by car very much and we used to have big problems with it and … I just don’t want to mess up your nice car.’
Ed glanced into the rear-view mirror again. ‘We can’t take the minor roads – that’s ridiculous. It would take days to get there. Anyway, she’ll be fine. This car is brand new. It has award-winning suspension. Nobody gets sick in it.’
She looked straight ahead. ‘You don’t have kids, do you?’
‘Why do you ask?’
It took twenty-five minutes to disinfect and shampoo the back seat, and even then every time he put his head inside the interior Ed got a faint whiff of vomit. Jess borrowed a bucket from a petrol station and used shampoo that she had packed in one of the kids’ bags. Nicky sat on the verge beside the garage, hiding behind a pair of oversized shades, and Tanzie sat with the dog, holding a balled tissue to her mouth, like a consumptive.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Jess kept saying, her sleeves rolled up, her face set in a grim line of concentration.
‘It’s fine. You’re the one cleaning it.’
‘I’ll pay for you to get your car valeted afterwards.’
He raised an eyebrow at her. He was laying a plastic bin bag over the seat so that the kids wouldn’t get damp when they sat down again.
‘Well, okay, I’ll do it. It will smell better, whatever.’
Some time later they climbed back into the car. Nobody remarked on the smell. He ensured his window was as low as it could go, and began reprogramming the satnav.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Scotland it is. Via B roads.’ He pressed the ‘destination’ button. ‘Glasgow or Edinburgh?’
He looked at Jess.
‘Aberdeen. Of course.’ He looked behind him, trying not to let the despair seep into his voice. ‘Everyone happy? Water? Plastic bag on seat? Sick bags in place? Good. Let’s go.’
Ed heard his sister’s voice as he pulled back onto the road. Ha-ha-ha Ed. SERVED.
It began to rain shortly after Portsmouth. Ed drove through the back roads, keeping at a steady thirty-eight all the way, feeling the fine spit of raindrops from the half-inch of window he had not felt able to close. He found he had to focus on not putting his foot too far down on the accelerator the whole time. It was a constant frustration, going at this sedate speed, like having an itch you couldn’t quite scratch. In the end he switched on cruise control.
Nicky fell asleep. Jess muttered something about him only coming out of hospital the previous day. He half wanted to ask her what had happened, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know quite how much trouble this family was likely to be.
Given the snail’s pace, he had time to study Jess surreptitiously. She remained silent, her head mostly turned away from him, as if he had done something to annoy her. He remembered her in her hallway now, demanding money, her chin tilted (she was quite short) and her unfriendly eyes unblinking. And then he remembered her behaviour at the bar, that she had had to babysit him all the way home. She still seemed to think he was an arsehole. Come on, he told himself. Two, three days maximum. And then you never have to see them again. Let’s play nice.
‘So … do you clean many houses?’
She frowned a little. ‘Yes.’
‘You have a lot of regulars?’
‘It’s a holiday park.’
‘Did you … Was it something you wanted to do?’
‘Did I grow up wanting to clean houses?’ She raised an eyebrow, as if checking that he had seriously asked that question. ‘Um, no. I wanted to be a professional scuba diver. But I had Tanze and I couldn’t work out how to get the pram to float.’
‘Okay, it was a dumb question.’
She rubbed her nose. ‘It’s not my dream job, no. But it’s fine. I can work around the kids and I like most of the people I clean for.’
‘Can you make a living out of it?’
Her head shot round. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Just what I said. Can you make a living? Is it lucrative?’
Her face closed. ‘We get by.’
‘No, we don’t,’ said Tanzie, from the back.
‘You’re always saying we haven’t got enough money.’
‘It’s just a figure of speech.’ She blushed.
‘So what do you do, Mr Nicholls?’ said Tanzie.
‘I work for a company that creates software. You know what that is?’
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com