Nicky looked up. In the rear-view mirror Ed watched him remove his ear-buds. When the boy saw him looking, he glanced away.
‘Do you design games?’
‘Not games, no.’
‘Well, for the last few years we’ve been working on a piece of software that will hopefully move us closer to a cashless society.’
‘How would that work?’
‘Well, when you buy something, or pay a bill, you wave your phone, which has a thing a bit like a bar code, and for every transaction you pay a tiny, tiny amount, like nought point nought one of a pound.’
‘We would pay to pay?’ said Jess. ‘No one will want that.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong. The banks love it. Retailers like it because it gives them one uniform system instead of cards, cash, cheques … and you’ll pay less per transaction than you do on a credit card. So it works for both sides.’
‘Some of us don’t use credit cards unless we’re desperate.’
‘Then it would just be linked to your bank account. You wouldn’t, like, have to do anything.’
‘So if every bank and retailer picks this up, we won’t get a choice.’
‘That’s a long way off.’
There was a brief silence. Jess pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them. ‘So basically the rich get richer – the banks and the retailers – and the poor get poorer.’
‘Well, in theory, perhaps. But that’s the joy of it. It’s such a tiny amount you won’t notice it. And it will be very convenient.’
Jess muttered something he didn’t catch.
‘How much is it again?’ said Tanzie.
‘Point nought one per transaction. So it works out as a little less than a penny.’
‘How many transactions a day?’
‘Twenty? Fifty? Depends how much you do.’
‘So that’s fifty pence a day.’
‘Three pounds fifty a week,’ said Jess.
‘One hundred and eighty-two pounds a year,’ said Tanzie. ‘Depending on how close the fee actually is to a penny. And whether it’s a leap year.’
Ed lifted one hand from the wheel. ‘At the outside. Even you can’t say that’s very much.’
Jess swivelled in her seat. ‘What does one hundred and eighty-two pounds buy us, Tanze?’
‘Two supermarket pairs of school trousers, four school blouses, a pair of shoes. A gym kit and a five pack of white socks. If you buy them from the supermarket. That comes to eighty-five pounds ninety-seven. The one hundred is exactly nine point two days of groceries, depending on whether anyone comes round and whether Mum buys a bottle of wine. That would be supermarket own-brand.’ She thought for a minute. ‘Or one month’s council tax for a Band D property. We’re Band D, right, Mum?’
‘Yes, we are. Unless we get re-banded.’
‘Or an out-of-season three-day holiday at the holiday village in Kent. One hundred and seventy-five pounds, inclusive of VAT.’ She leant forward. ‘That’s where we went last year. We got an extra night free because Mum mended the man’s curtains. And they had a waterslide.’
There was a brief silence.
Ed was about to speak when Tanzie’s head appeared between the two front seats. ‘Or a whole month’s cleaning of a four-bedroom house from Mum, laundering of sheets and towels included, at her current rates. Give or take a pound.’ She leant back in her seat, apparently satisfied.
They drove three miles, turned right at a T-junction, left onto a narrow lane. Ed wanted to say something but found his voice had temporarily disappeared. Behind him, Nicky put his ear-buds back in and turned away. The sun hid briefly behind a cloud.
‘Still,’ said Jess, putting her bare feet up on the dashboard, and leaning forward to turn up the music, ‘let’s hope you do really well with it, eh?’
Jess’s grandmother had often stated that the key to a happy life was a short memory. Admittedly that was before she got dementia and used to forget where she lived, but Jess took her point. She had to forget about that money. She was never going to survive being stuck in a car with Mr Nicholls if she let herself think too hard about what she had done. Marty used to tell her she had the world’s worst poker face: her feelings floated across them like reflections on a still pond. She would give herself away within hours and blurt out a confession like one of those North Koreans. Or she would go crazy with the tension and start plucking at bits of the upholstery with her fingernails.
She sat in the car and listened to Tanzie chatting, and she told herself she would find a way to pay it all back before he discovered what she had done. She would take it out of Tanzie’s winnings. She would work it out somehow. She told herself he was just a man who had offered them a lift and with whom she had to make polite conversation for a few hours a day.
And periodically she glanced behind her at the two kids and thought, What else could I have done?
It shouldn’t have been hard to sit back and enjoy the ride. The country lanes were banked with wild flowers, and when the rain cleared the clouds revealed skies the azure blue of 1950s postcards. Tanzie wasn’t sick again, and with every mile they travelled from home she found her shoulders starting to inch downwards from her ears. She saw now that it had been months since she had felt even remotely at ease. Her life these days held a constant underlying drumbeat of worry: what were the Fishers going to do next? What was going on in Nicky’s head? What was she to do about Tanzie? And the grim bass percussion underneath it all: Money. Money. Money.
‘You okay?’ said Mr Nicholls.
Hauled from her thoughts, Jess muttered, ‘Fine. Thanks.’ They nodded awkwardly at each other. He hadn’t relaxed. It was obvious in his intermittently tightened jaw, in the way he was deep in thought behind his sunglasses, at the way his knuckles showed white on the steering-wheel. Jess wasn’t sure what on earth had been behind his decision to offer to drive, but she was pretty sure he had regretted it from the moment Tanzie had first wailed that she needed a sick bag.
‘Um, is there any chance you could stop with the tapping?’
‘Your feet. On the dashboard.’
She looked at her feet.
‘It’s really distracting.’
‘You want me to stop tapping my feet.’
He looked straight ahead through the windscreen. ‘Yes. Please.’
She let her feet slide down, but she was uncomfortable, so after a moment she lifted them and tucked them under her on the seat. She rested her head on the window.
‘Your hand. You’re hitting your knee now.’
She had been tapping it absentmindedly. ‘You want me to stay completely still while you drive.’
‘I’m not saying that. But the tapping thing is making it hard for me to focus.’
‘You can’t drive if I’m moving any part of my body?’
‘That’s not it.’
‘What is it, then?’
‘It’s tapping. I just find … tapping … irritating.’
Jess took a deep breath. ‘Kids, nobody is to move. Okay? We don’t want to irritate Mr Nicholls.’
‘The kids aren’t doing it,’ he said mildly. ‘It’s just you.’
‘You do fidget a lot, Mum.’
‘Thanks, Tanze.’ Jess clasped her hands in front of her. She sat and clenched her teeth and concentrated on staying still, trying to focus on the good, which was that Mr Nicholls hadn’t changed his mind. It had been almost sixty miles now and he hadn’t changed his mind. And when you were basically responsible for an entire household, it was kind of nice not to be in charge for a while.
She let her head fall back against the headrest, closed her eyes and cleared her mind of money, of Marty’s stupid car, of her worries for the children, letting them float away with the miles, and she tried to let the quiet hum of an expensive engine pass through her; she let the breeze from the open window ripple over her face and the music fill her ears and just briefly she felt like a woman in a different sort of life altogether.
They stopped for lunch at a pub somewhere outside Oxford, unfurling themselves and letting out little sighs of relief as they cracked joints and stretched cramped limbs. Mr Nicholls disappeared into the pub and she sat on a picnic table and unpacked the sandwiches she had made hastily that morning when it turned out they were going to get a lift after all.
‘Marmite,’ said Nicky, arriving back and peeling apart two slices of bread.
‘I was in a rush.’
‘Have we got anything else?’
He sighed, and reached into the bag. Tanzie sat on the end of the bench, already lost in maths papers. She couldn’t read them in the car, as it made her nauseous, so she wanted to take every opportunity to work. Jess watched her scribbling algebraic equations on her exercise book, lost in concentration, and wondered for the hundredth time where she had come from.
‘Here,’ said Mr Nicholls, arriving with a tray. ‘I thought we could all do with some drinks.’ He pushed two bottles of cola towards the kids. ‘I didn’t know what you wanted so I got a selection.’ He had bought a bottle of Italian beer, what looked like a half of cider, a glass of white wine, another cola, a lemonade and a bottle of orange juice. He had a mineral water. A small mountain of different-flavoured crisps sat in the middle.
‘You bought all that?’
‘There was a queue. I couldn’t be bothered to come back out to ask.’
‘I – I haven’t got that much cash.’
He looked at her as if she was the weird one. ‘It’s a drink. I’m not buying you a house.’
And then his phone rang. He grabbed it and strode off across the car park, already talking as he went.
‘Shall I see if he wants one of our sandwiches?’ Tanzie said.
Jess watched him stride along the lane, one hand thrust deep in a pocket, until he was out of sight. ‘Not just now,’ she said.
Nicky said nothing. When she asked him which bit hurt the most, he just muttered that he was fine.
‘It’ll get easier,’ Jess said, reaching out a hand. ‘Really. We’ll have this break, get Tanze sorted and work out what to do. Sometimes you need time away to sort things out in your head. It makes everything clearer.’
‘I don’t think what’s in my head is the problem.’
She gave him his painkillers, and watched him wash them down with cola, then stretch out his gangly limbs tentatively. In the car, she had tried to move the dog so that Nicky wasn’t pressed up against the door, but it was tough. Norman was too wide to fit in the footwell. He could sit up in the middle of the back seat – they actually put a belt round him for a while – but then he would gradually slump until he was horizontal; a canine landslip, his head on Tanzie’s lap, his great backside shoving Nicky along the leather seat.
Nicky took the dog off for a walk, his shoulders hunched, and his feet dragging. She wondered if he had cigarettes. He was out of sorts because his Nintendo had run out of charge some twenty miles back. Jess wasn’t sure he knew what to do with himself when he wasn’t surgically attached to a gaming device.
They watched him go in silence.
Jess thought of the way his few smiles had steadily grown fewer, his watchfulness, the way he now seemed like a fish out of water, pale and vulnerable, in the rare hours he was out of his bedroom. She thought of his face, resigned, expressionless, in that hospital. Who was it who had said you were only as happy as your unhappiest child?
Tanzie bent over her papers. ‘I’m going to live somewhere else when I’m a teenager, I think.’
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