‘You’ve acted like I’m bugging you all day. I apologized for the thing in the pub the other night. I’ve done what I can to help you out here. And yet still I get the feeling I’ve done something wrong.’
‘You – you haven’t done anything wrong,’ she stammered.
He studied her for a minute. ‘Is this, like, a woman’s “There’s nothing wrong” when actually what you mean is that I’ve done something massive and I’m actually supposed to guess? And then you get really mad if I don’t?’
‘You see, now I don’t know. Because that “no” might be part of the woman’s “There’s nothing wrong.”’
‘I’m not speaking in code. There’s nothing wrong.’
‘Then can we just ease up around each other a bit? You’re making me really uncomfortable.’
‘I’m making you uncomfortable?’
His head swivelled slowly.
‘You’ve looked like you regretted offering us this lift since the moment we got into the car. In fact, since before we got in.’ Shut up, Jess, she warned herself. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up. ‘I’m not even sure why you did it.’
‘Nothing,’ she said, turning away. ‘Forget it.’
He stared ahead of him out of the windscreen. He looked suddenly really, really tired.
‘In fact, you could just drop us at a station tomorrow morning. We won’t bother you any more.’
‘Is that what you want?’ he said.
She drew her knees up to her chest. ‘It might be the best thing.’
They sat there in the silence. The skies darkened to pitch around them. Twice Jess opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Mr Nicholls stared through the windscreen at the closed curtains of the hotel room, apparently deep in thought.
She thought of Nicky and Tanzie, sleeping peacefully on the other side, and wished she was with them. She felt sick. Why couldn’t she have just pretended? Why couldn’t she have been nicer? It would only have been for a couple of days. She was an idiot. She had blown it all again.
It had grown chill. Finally, she pulled Nicky’s duvet from the back seat and thrust it at him. ‘Here,’ she said.
‘Oh.’ He looked at the huge picture of Super Mario. ‘Thanks.’
She called the dog in, reclined her seat just far enough for it not to be touching him, and then she pulled Tanzie’s duvet over herself. ‘Goodnight.’ She stared at the plush interior a matter of inches from her nose, breathing in the new-car smell, her mind a jumble. How far away was the station? How much would the fare cost? They would have to pay for an extra day’s bed and breakfast somewhere, at least. And what was she going to do with the dog? She could hear Norman’s faint snore from behind her and thought grimly that she was damned if she would vacuum that rear seat now.
‘It’s half past nine.’ Mr Nicholls’s voice broke into the silence.
Jess lay very still.
‘Half. Past. Nine.’ He let out a deep sigh. ‘I never thought I’d say it, but this is actually worse than being married.’
‘What – am I breathing too loud?’
He opened his door abruptly. ‘Oh for Christ’s sake,’ he said, and set off across the car park.
Jess pushed herself upright and watched him jogging across the road to the mini-mart, disappearing into its fluorescent-lit interior. He reappeared a few minutes later with a bottle of wine and a packet of plastic cups.
‘It’s probably awful,’ he said, climbing back into the driver’s seat. ‘But right now I couldn’t give a toss.’
She gazed at the bottle.
‘Truce, Jessica Thomas? It’s been a long day. And a shitty week. And, spacious as it is, this car isn’t big enough for two people who aren’t talking to each other.’
He looked at her. His eyes were exhausted and stubble was starting to show through on his chin. It made him seem curiously vulnerable.
She took a cup from him. ‘Sorry. I’m not used to people helping us out. It makes me …’
‘I was going to say, it makes me think I should get out more.’
He let out a breath. ‘Right.’ He glanced down at the bottle. ‘Then let’s … Oh, for crying out loud.’
‘I thought it was a screw top.’ He stared at it as if it was just one more thing designed to annoy him. ‘Great. I don’t suppose you have a bottle opener?’
‘You think they’ll exchange it?’
‘Did you take the receipt?’
He let out a deep sigh, which she interrupted. ‘No need,’ she said, taking it from him. She opened her door and climbed out. Norman’s head shot up.
‘You’re not going to smash it into my windscreen?’
‘Nope.’ She peeled off the foil. ‘Take off your shoe.’
‘Take off your shoe. It won’t work with flip-flops.’
‘Please don’t use it as a glass. My ex did that once with a stiletto and it was really, really hard pretending that champagne smelling of feet was an erotic experience.’
She held out her hand. He finally took his shoe off and handed it to her. As he looked on, Jess placed the base of the wine bottle inside it and, holding the two together carefully, she stood alongside the hotel and thumped them hard against the wall.
‘I suppose there’s no point me asking you what you’re doing.’
‘Just give me a minute,’ she said, through gritted teeth, and thumped again.
Mr Nicholls shook his head slowly.
She straightened up and glared at him. ‘You’re more than welcome to suck the cork out, if you’d rather.’
He held up his hand. ‘No, no. You go ahead. Broken glass in my socks is exactly how I hoped to end tonight.’
Jess checked the cork and thumped again. And there – a centimetre of it protruded from the neck of the bottle. Thump. Another centimetre. She held it carefully, gave it one more thump, and there it was: she pulled the rest of the cork gently from the neck and handed it to him.
He stared at it, and then at her. She handed him back his shoe.
‘Wow. You’re a useful woman to know.’
‘I can also put up shelves, replace rotting floorboards and make a fan belt out of a tied stocking.’
‘Not the fan belt.’ She climbed into the car and accepted the plastic cup of wine. ‘I tried it once. It shredded before we’d got thirty yards down the road. Total waste of M&S opaques.’ She took a sip. ‘And the car stank of burnt tights for weeks.’
Behind them, Norman whimpered in his sleep.
‘Truce,’ Mr Nicholls said, and held up his cup.
‘Truce. You’re not going to drive afterwards, are you?’ she said, holding up her own.
‘I won’t if you won’t.’
‘Oh, very funny.’
And suddenly the evening became a little easier.
So these were the things Ed discovered about Jessica Thomas, once she’d had a drink or two (actually, four or five) and stopped being chippy. The facts of her life, other than the other things he just observed, which were that she tied her hair back for no reason when she felt awkward, as if she needed to be doing something, and that she had a laugh like a seal’s bark – big, abrupt and awkward, at odds with her size and shape. Her lean figure betrayed that she did physical work for a living, her roots had grown out some months earlier, and she wore cheap jeans. He slightly hated himself for noticing, but Lara used to point out things like denim colour and stitching and it was one of those weird things, unlike the date of Lara’s birthday, that had stuck with him.
The boy wasn’t actually her kid. He was the son of her ex and her ex’s ex and, given that both of them had effectively walked out on him, she was pretty much the only person he had left. ‘Kind of you,’ he said.‘Not really,’ she said. ‘Nicky is as good as mine. He’s been with me since he was eight. He looks out for Tanzie. And, besides, families are different shapes now, right? It doesn’t have to be two point four any more.’ The defensive way she said it made him think she had had this conversation many times before.
The little girl was ten. He did some mental arithmetic, and Jess cut in before he said a word. ‘Seventeen.’ ‘That’s … young.’
‘I was a wild kid. I knew everything. I actually knew nothing. Marty came along, I dropped out of school, and then I got pregnant. I wasn’t always going to be a cleaner, you know. My mum was a teacher.’ Her gaze had slid towards him, as if she knew this fact would shock.
‘Retired now. She lives in Cornwall. We don’t really get on. She doesn’t agree with what she calls my life choices. I never could explain that once you have a baby at seventeen there are no choices.’
‘Not even now?’
‘Nope.’ She twisted a lock of hair between her fingers. ‘Because you never quite catch up. Your friends are at college, you’re at home with a tiny baby. Your friends are starting their careers, you’re down the housing office trying to find somewhere to live. Your friends are buying their first cars and houses and you’re trying to find a job that you can fit round childcare. And all the jobs you can fit round school hours have really crappy wages. And that was before the economy went splat. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret having Tanzie, not for a minute. And I don’t regret taking Nicky on. But if I had my time again, sure, I’d have had them after I had done something with my life. It would be nice to be able to give them … something better.’
She hadn’t bothered to put the seat back up while she told him this. She lay propped on her elbow facing him under the duvet and her bare feet rested on the dashboard. Ed found he didn’t mind them so much.
‘You could still have a career,’ he said. ‘You’re young. I mean … you could get an after-school nanny or something?’
She actually laughed. A great seal-bark ‘Ha!’ that exploded into the interior of the car. She sat bolt upright, and took a swig of her wine. ‘Yeah. Right, Mr Nicholls. Sure I could.’
She liked fixing things. She did odd jobs around the estate, from rewiring plugs to tiling people’s bathrooms. ‘I did everything around the house. I’m good at making stuff. I can even block-print wallpaper.’ ‘You make your own wallpaper.’
‘Don’t look at me like that. It’s in Tanzie’s room. I made her clothes too, until recently.’
‘Are you actually from the Second World War? Do you save jam jars and string too?’
‘So what did you want to be?’
‘What I was,’ he said. And then he realized he didn’t want to talk about it and changed the subject.
She had seriously tiny feet. As in she bought child-sized shoes. (Apparently they were cheaper.) After she’d said this he had to stop himself sneaking looks at her feet like some kind of weirdo.
Before she’d had children she could drink four double vodkas in a row and still walk a straight line. ‘Yup, I could hold my drink. Obviously not enough to remember birth control.’ He believed her: they drank two bottles of wine and he thought she had twice as much as he did, and while she did relax a bit, there wasn’t a point at which he thought she was even a bit drunk.She almost never drank at home. ‘When I’m working at the pub and someone offers me one I just take the cash. And when I’m at home I worry that something might happen to the kids and I’ll need to be together.’ She stared out of the window. ‘Now I think about it, this is the closest thing I’ve had to a night out in … five months.’
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