‘A man who shut a door in your face, two bottles of rot-gut wine and a car park.’
‘I’m not knocking it.’
She didn’t explain what made her worry so much about the kids. He thought back to Nicky’s face and decided not to ask.
She had a scar under her chin from when she’d fallen off a bike and a piece of gravel had lodged in it for two whole weeks. She tried to show him but the light in the car wasn’t strong enough. She also had a tattoo on the base of her spine. ‘A proper tramp stamp, according to Marty. He wouldn’t talk to me for two whole days after I got it.’ She paused. ‘I think that’s probably why I got it.’
Her middle name was Rae. She had to spell it out every single time.
She didn’t mind cleaning but she really, really hated people treating her like she was ‘just’ a cleaner. (He had the grace to colour a little here.)
She hadn’t had a date in the two years since her ex had left.‘You haven’t had sex for two and a half years?’
‘I said he left two years ago.’
‘It’s a reasonable calculation.’
She pushed herself upright, and gave him a sideways look. ‘Three and a half. If we’re counting. Apart from one – um – episode last year. And you don’t have to look so shocked.’
‘I’m not shocked,’ he said, and tried to rearrange his face. He shrugged. ‘Three and a half years. I mean, it’s only, what, a quarter of your adult life? No time at all.’
‘Yeah. Thanks for that.’ And then he wasn’t sure what happened, but something in the atmosphere changed. She mumbled something that he couldn’t make out, pulled her hair into another ponytail and said maybe it was really time for them to be getting some sleep.
Ed thought he would lie awake for ages. There was something oddly unsettling about being in a darkened car just arm’s length from an attractive woman you had just shared two bottles of wine with. Even if she was huddled under a SpongeBob SquarePants duvet. He looked out of the sunroof at the stars, listened to the lorries rumbling past towards London, listened to the dog in the rear seats whimper in his sleep and thought that his real life – the one with his company and his office and the never-ending hangover of Deanna Lewis – was now a million miles away.
He turned his head, wondering if she’d been watching him. ‘No.’
‘Okay,’ came the murmur from the passenger seat. ‘Truth game.’
He raised his eyes to the roof.
‘Go on, then.’
He couldn’t come up with anything.
‘You must be able to think of something.’
‘Okay, why are you wearing flip-flops?’
‘That’s your question?’
‘It’s freezing out. It’s been the coldest, wettest spring since records began. And you’re wearing flip-flops.’
‘Does it bug you that much?’
‘I just don’t understand it. You’re obviously cold.’
She pointed a toe. ‘It’s spring.’
‘So. It’s spring. Therefore the weather will get better.’
‘You’re wearing flip-flops as an expression of faith.’
‘If you like.’
He couldn’t think how to reply to this.
‘Okay, my turn.’
‘Did you think about driving off and leaving us this morning?’
‘Okay. Maybe a bit. Your neighbour wanted to smash my head in with a baseball bat and your dog smells really bad.’
‘Pfft. Any excuse.’
He heard her shift in the seat. Her feet disappeared under the duvet. He could smell her shampoo. It made him think of Bounty bars.
‘So why didn’t you?’
He thought for a minute before he responded. Perhaps it was because he couldn’t see her face. Perhaps it was because some time between the third and fourth glass he had decided she was okay. Perhaps the drink and the late hour had lowered his defences because he wouldn’t normally have answered like he did. ‘Because I’ve done some stupid stuff lately. And maybe some part of me just wanted to do something I could feel good about.’
Ed thought she was going to say something. He sort of hoped she would. But she didn’t.
He lay there for a few minutes, gazing out at the sodium lights and listening to Jessica Rae Thomas’s breathing and thought how much he missed just sleeping near another person. Most days he felt like the loneliest man on the planet. He thought about those tiny feet and their highly polished toenails. Then he saw his sister’s raised eyebrow and realized he had probably had too much to drink. Don’t be an idiot, Nicholls, he told himself, and turned so that he had his back to her.
Ed Nicholls thought about his ex-wife and Deanna Lewis until the soft, melancholy thoughts evaporated and only the stone-hard anger remained. And then suddenly it was cold and pale grey outside and his left arm had gone to sleep and he was so groggy that it took two whole minutes to figure out that the banging he could hear was the security guard knocking on the driver’s window to tell them they couldn’t sleep there.
There were four different types of Danish pastry at the breakfast buffet, and three different types of fruit juice and a whole rack of those little individual packets of cereal that Mum said were uneconomical and would never buy. She had knocked on the window at a quarter past eight to tell them they should wear their jackets to breakfast and stuff as many of each of them as they could into their pockets. Her hair had flattened on one side and she had no makeup on. Tanzie guessed the car hadn’t been that much of an adventure after all.
‘Not the butters or jams. Or anything that needs cutlery. Rolls, muffins, that kind of thing. Don’t get caught.’ She looked behind her to where Mr Nicholls seemed to be having an argument with a security guard. ‘And apples. Apples are healthy. And maybe some slices of ham for Norman.’
‘Where am I meant to put the ham?’
‘Or a sausage. Wrap them in a napkin.’
‘Isn’t that stealing?’
‘It’s just taking a bit more than you’re likely to eat at that exact moment. You’re just … Imagine you’re a guest with a hormone disorder and it makes you really, really hungry.’
‘But I haven’t got a hormone disorder.’
‘But you could have. That’s the point. You’re that hungry, sick person, Tanze. You’ve paid for your breakfast, but you need to eat a lot. More than you would normally eat.’
Tanzie folded her arms. ‘You said it was wrong to steal.’
‘It’s not stealing. It’s just getting your money’s worth.’
‘But we didn’t pay for it. Mr Nicholls did.’
‘Tanzie, just do as I say, please. Look, Mr Nicholls and I are going to have to leave the car park for half an hour. Just do it, then come back to the room and be ready to leave at nine. Okay?’ She leant through the window and kissed Tanzie, then trudged back towards the car, her jacket wrapped around her. She stopped, turned back and shouted, ‘Don’t forget to brush your teeth. And don’t leave any of your maths books.’
Nicky came out of the bathroom. He was wearing his really tight black jeans and a T-shirt that said WHEVS across the front.
‘You’re never going to get a sausage in those,’ she said, staring at his jeans.
‘I bet I can hide more than you can,’ he said.
Her eyes met his. ‘You’re on,’ Tanzie said, and ran to get dressed.
Mr Nicholls leant forward and squinted through his windscreen as Nicky and she walked across the car park. To be fair, Tanzie thought, she would probably have squinted at them too. Nicky had stuffed two large oranges and an apple down the front of his jeans and waddled across the asphalt like he’d had an accident in his trousers. She was in her jacket, despite feeling too hot, because she’d packed the front of her hoodie with little packets of cereal and if she didn’t wear her jacket she looked like she might be pregnant. With baby robots.
They couldn’t stop laughing.
‘Just get in, get in,’ said Mum, throwing their overnight bags into the boot and almost shoving them into the car as she glanced behind her. ‘What did you get?’ Mr Nicholls set off down the road. Tanzie could see him glancing in the mirror as they took turns to unload their haul and hand it forward to her.
Nicky pulled a white package from his pocket. ‘Three Danish pastries. Watch out – the icing got a bit stuck to the napkins. Four sausages and a few slices of bacon in a paper cup for Norman. Two slices of cheese, a yoghurt, and …’ He tugged his jacket over his crotch, reached down, grimacing, tensing, and pulled out the fruit. ‘I can’t believe I managed to fit those in there.’
‘There’s nothing I can say to that that’s in any way appropriate mother-son conversation,’ Mum said.
Tanzie had six small packets of cereal, two bananas, and a jam sandwich that she’d made out of toasted white bread. She sat eating while Norman stared at her and two stalactites of drool grew longer and longer from his lips until they were pooling on the seat of Mr Nicholls’s car.
‘That woman behind the poached eggs definitely saw us.’
‘I told her you had a hormone disorder,’ Tanzie said. ‘I told her you had to eat twice your bodyweight three times a day or you would faint in their dining room and you might actually die.’
‘Nice,’ said Nicky.
‘You win on numbers,’ she said, counting out his items. ‘But I win extra points for skill.’ She leant forward and, as everyone watched, she carefully lifted the two polystyrene cups of coffee from her pockets, packed out with paper napkins so that they would stay upright. She handed one to Mum and the other she placed in the cup holder next to Mr Nicholls.
‘You are a genius,’ Mum said, peeling off the lid. ‘Oh, Tanze, you have no idea how much I needed this.’ She took a sip, closing her eyes. Tanzie wasn’t sure if it was that they’d done so well with the buffet, or just that Nicky was laughing for the first time in ages, but for a moment she looked happier than she had done since Dad left.
Mr Nicholls just stared like they were a bunch of aliens.
‘Okay, so we can make sandwiches for lunch with the ham, cheese and sausages. You guys can eat the pastries now. Fruit for pudding. Want one?’ She held an orange towards Mr Nicholls. ‘It’s a bit warm still. But I can peel it.’
‘Uh … kind of you,’ he said, tearing his gaze away. ‘But I think I’ll just stop at a Starbucks.’
The next part of the journey was actually quite nice. There were no traffic jams once they’d got out of town and Mum persuaded Mr Nicholls to put on her favourite radio station and sang along to six songs, getting louder with each one. She would do this thing where when she didn’t know the lyrics she just substituted random words like ‘custard tarts’ or ‘bald-headed policeman’ and sometimes it made Tanzie cringe but today it was really funny. She made Tanzie and Nicky join in too and Mr Nicholls looked fed up at first but Tanzie noticed that after a few miles he was tapping the steering-wheel like he was sort of enjoying himself. The sun got really hot and Mr Nicholls slid the roof back. Norman sat bolt upright so that he could scent the air as they were going along and it meant that he didn’t squish them into each door, which was also nice.
It reminded Tanzie a bit of when Dad lived with them and they would sometimes go on outings in his car. Except Dad always drove too fast and got grumpy when Mum asked him to slow down. And they could never agree on where to stop and eat. And Dad would say he didn’t understand why they couldn’t just blow some money on a pub lunch and Mum would say that she’d made the sandwiches now and it would be silly to waste them. And Dad would tell Nicky to get his head out of whatever game he was playing and enjoy the damn scenery and Nicky would mutter that he hadn’t actually asked to come, which would make Dad even madder.
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