And then Tanzie thought that while she did love Dad she probably preferred this trip without him.
After two hours Mr Nicholls said he needed to stretch, and Norman needed to wee, so they stopped at the edge of a country park. Mum put some of the buffet haul out and they sat in a little clearing in the shade at a proper wooden picnic table and ate. Tanzie did some revision (prime numbers and quadratic equations), then took Norman for a walk around the woods. He was really happy and stopped every two minutes to sniff at something, and the sun kept sending little moving spotlights through the trees and they saw a deer and two pheasants and it was like they were actually on holiday.
‘You okay, lovely?’ Mum said, walking up with her arms crossed. From where they stood they could just see Nicky talking to Mr Nicholls at the table through the trees. ‘Feeling confident?’
‘I think so,’ she said.
‘Did you go through the past papers last night?’
‘Yes. I do find the prime-number sequences a bit difficult, but I wrote them all down and when I saw the sequencing laid out I found it easier.’
‘No more nightmares about the Fishers?’
‘Last night,’ Tanzie said, ‘I dreamt about a cabbage that could rollerskate. It was called Kevin.’
Mum gave her a long look. ‘Right.’
They walked a bit further. It was cooler in the forest, and it smelt of good damp, mossy and green and alive, not like the damp in the back room, which just smelt mouldy. Mum stopped on the path and turned back towards the car. ‘I told you good things happen, didn’t I?’ She waited for Tanzie to catch up. ‘Mr Nicholls is going to get us there tomorrow. We’ll have a quiet night, get you through this competition, and you’ll start at your new school. Then, hopefully, all our lives will change a little for the better. And this is fun, isn’t it? This is a nice trip?’
She kept her eyes on the car as she spoke and her voice did that thing where she was saying one thing and thinking about something else. Tanzie noticed she’d put her makeup on while they were in the car. She had half turned away from Mr Nicholls, held up her compact and put on the mascara even though every time it went over a bump she ended up with a black blob on her face. Tanzie wasn’t really sure why she bothered. She looked perfectly nice without it. ‘Mum,’ she said.
‘We did sort of steal the food from that buffet, didn’t we? I mean, if you look at it proportionally, we did take more than our share.’
Mum stared at her feet for a minute, thinking. ‘If you’re really worried, when we get your prize money we’ll put five pounds in an envelope and send it to them. How does that sound?’
‘I think, given the items we took, it would probably be nearer six pounds. Probably six pounds fifty,’ Tanzie said.
‘Then that’s what we’ll send them. And now I think we should work really, really hard to get this fat old dog of yours to run around a bit, so that (a) he’s tired enough to sleep the next leg of the journey, and (b) it might encourage him to go to the loo here and not fart his way through the next eighty miles.’
They hit the road again. It rained. Mr Nicholls had had One of His Phone Calls with a man called Sidney and talked about share prices and market movements and looked a bit serious, so Mum didn’t sing for a bit. Everyone was quiet. She tried not to sneak looks at her maths papers (Mum said it would make her sick) and Nicky’s Nintendo had run out of power again so he just stared out of the window and sighed a lot. That part of the journey seemed to take for ever. Nicky was having one of his quiet days. Tanzie wanted to talk to him, but you could tell when he didn’t want to talk as his mouth just turned into a straight line and he wouldn’t meet your eye. Tanzie’s legs kept sticking to Mr Nicholls’s leather seats and she was sort of regretting wearing her shorts. Plus Norman had rolled in something in the woods and she kept getting this whiff of something really bad, but she didn’t want to say anything in case Mr Nicholls decided he’d had enough of them and their stinky dog so she just held her nose with her fingers and tried to breathe through her mouth and only let herself open her nostrils every thirty lampposts.
It rolled on. The weather cleared. They headed past Coventry and up towards Derby, with its ring roads and its big dark red factories, and she gazed at the landscape as it got wilder and woollier, and let the numbers run through her head in little strings, trying to do calculations in her head without actually looking at them so she wouldn’t get nauseous.
Mr Nicholls’s phone rang and a woman immediately started shouting at him in Italian. He just turned it off without saying anything.
Mum sat in the front and counted the money in her purse. She had £63.91, but she hadn’t yet seen that one of the ten-pence pieces was actually foreign money so it was going to be £63.81 unless she could get someone else to take it.
He looked up. Mr Nicholls was watching him in the rear-view mirror.
‘You want to borrow my phone? It doesn’t have many games on it, but you could log onto Twitter or Facebook or whatever it is you lot are into these days.’
‘Really?’ Nicky pushed himself upright from his slumped position.
‘Sure. It’s in the pocket of my jacket.’
Mum took it out and handed it to him. ‘Be very careful with it, Nicky.’
‘I’ve deactivated the PIN. Just … you know, no movies.’
‘Cool.’ Nicky didn’t actually smile – he didn’t really do smiling much any more, Tanzie thought – but you could tell he was pleased.
‘Not you, Tanzie.’ Mum’s voice came across the seats. ‘Don’t you look at it or you’ll get sick.’
Tanzie sighed. It was SO boring being her sometimes. Norman’s head was really heavy on her lap and she tried to move it gently because her legs were getting pins and needles. She wondered how long it would take them to get to Scotland. She was really, really bored, but she knew that if she said so Mum would get all We’re all bored, Tanzie. There’s nothing I can do about it. She started to doze off, her head bumping against the window frame. Mum and Mr Nicholls started talking. It was possible they’d forgotten anyone else was in the car.
‘So, tell me about your wife.’
‘Ex-wife. And no thanks.’
‘Why not? You weren’t unfaithful. I’m guessing she wasn’t, or you would have made that face.’
There was a short silence. Maybe ten lampposts.
‘I’m not sure I would ever have made that face. But no. She wasn’t. And, no, I don’t really want to discuss it. It’s …’
‘I just don’t like talking about personal stuff. Do you want to talk about your ex?’
‘In front of his children? Yup, that’s always a great idea.’
They carried on in silence for a few miles. Mum started tapping on the window. Tanzie glanced over at Mr Nicholls. Every time Mum tapped a little muscle tweaked in his jaw.
‘So what shall we talk about, then? I’m not very interested in software and I’m guessing you have zero interest in what I do. And there are only so many times I can point at a field and say: “Oh, look, cows.”’
Mr Nicholls sighed.
‘Come on. It’s a long way to Scotland.’
There was a thirty-lamppost silence.
‘I could sing if you like. We could all sing. Let me see if I can find something –’
‘Lara. Italian. Model.’
‘Model.’ Mum laughed this great big laugh. ‘Of course.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ Mr Nicholls said grumpily.
‘All men like you go out with models.’
‘What do you mean, men like me?’
Mum pressed her lips together.
‘What do you mean, men like me? Come on.’
‘I’m not rich.’
Mum shook her head. ‘Noooo.’
‘I think it depends how you define rich.’
‘I’ve seen rich. I’m not rich. I’m well-off, yes. But I’m a long way from rich.’
Mum turned to him. He really had no idea whom he was dealing with. ‘Do you have more than one house?’
He signalled and swung the wheel. ‘I might.’
‘Do you have more than one car?’
He glanced sideways. ‘Yes.’
‘Then you’re rich.’
‘Nope. Rich is private jets and yachts. Rich is staff.’
‘So what am I?’
Mr Nicholls shook his head. ‘Not staff. You’re …’
‘I’m just trying to imagine your face if I’d referred to you as my staff.’
Mum started to laugh. ‘My woman-servant. My cleaning wench.’
‘Yeah. Or those. Okay, well, what would you say is rich?’
Mum pulled one of the buffet apples from her bag and bit into it. She chewed for a minute before speaking. ‘Rich is paying every single bill on time without thinking about it. Rich is being able to have a holiday or get through Christmas without having to borrow against January and February. Actually, rich would be just not thinking about money all the bloody time.’
‘Everyone thinks about money. Even rich people.’
‘Yes, but you’re just thinking what to do with it to make more money. Whereas I’m thinking how the hell we can get enough of it to get through another week.’
Mr Nicholls made a sort of harrumphing sound. ‘I can’t believe I’m driving you to Scotland and you’re giving me a hard time because you’ve misguidedly decided I’m some kind of Donald Trump.’
‘I’m not giving you a hard time.’
‘I’m just pointing out that there’s a difference between what you consider to be rich and what is actually rich.’
There was a sort of awkward silence. Mum blushed like she’d said too much and started eating her apple with big, noisy bites, even though she would have told Tanzie off if she had eaten like that. She had come awake again by then and she didn’t want Mum and Mr Nicholls to stop talking to each other because they were having quite a nice day, so she put her head through the front seats. ‘Actually, I read somewhere that to qualify for the top one per cent in this country you would need to earn more than a hundred and forty thousand pounds a year,’ she said helpfully. ‘So if Mr Nicholls doesn’t earn that much then he probably isn’t rich.’ She smiled and sat back in her seat.
Mum looked at Mr Nicholls. She kept looking at him.
Mr Nicholls rubbed his head. ‘I tell you what,’ he said, after a while, ‘shall we stop off and get some tea?’
Moreton Marston looked like it had been invented for tourists. Everything was made of the same grey stone and really old, and everyone’s gardens were perfect, with tiny blue flowers creeping over the tops of walls, and immaculate little baskets of trailing leaves, like something out of a book or maybe Midsomer Murders. There was a faint smell of sheep in the air, and you could hear them in the far distance, and there was this chill in the breeze, as if it was warning you what it could be like on a day that wasn’t sunny. The shops were all the kind you get on Christmas cards, in the market square a woman dressed as a Victorian was selling buns from a tray and groups of tourists wandered around taking pictures of everything. Tanzie was so busy gazing out of the window at it that she didn’t notice Nicky at first. It was only when they pulled into the parking space that she noticed he had gone really quiet. He wasn’t looking at the phone – even though, she knew, he had really, really wanted it – and his face was all white. She asked him whether his ribs were hurting, and he said no, and when she asked if he had an apple down his trousers that he couldn’t get out, he said, ‘No, Tanze, just drop it,’ but the way he said it, there was definitely something. Tanzie looked at Mum but she was busy not looking at Mr Nicholls and Mr Nicholls was busy making this big to-do about finding the best parking space. Norman just looked up at Tanzie, like ‘Don’t even bother asking.’
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