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He couldn’t believe it was so easy. ‘Won’t he hack me back, though?’

Mr Nicholls put down his phone. ‘I’m going to take a punt here. But a boy who can’t think further than his own name for a password is not really overflowing with computer skills.’

They sat there in the car and waited, refreshing Jason Fisher’s Facebook page again and again. And, like magic, things began to change. Man, Fisher was such a douche. His wall was full of how he was going to ‘do’ this girl or that girl from school, or how so-and-so was a slag and how he’d battered pretty much everyone outside his crew. His messages were much the same. Nicky glimpsed one message that had his name in it, but Mr Nicholls read it really fast and just said, ‘Yeah. You don’t need to see that one,’ and scrolled up. The only time he didn’t sound like a douche was when he messaged Chrissie Taylor and told her that he really liked her and did she want to come round his house? She didn’t sound too keen, but he kept messaging her. He said he’d take her out somewhere ‘really dope’ and that he could borrow his dad’s car (he couldn’t – he was under-age). He told her she was the prettiest girl in school and that she was doing his head in and that if his mates knew she’d made him like this they’d think he was ‘a mentalist’.

‘Who says romance is dead?’ Mr Nicholls murmured.

And so it began. Jez messaged two of Fisher’s friends and told them that he had decided he was anti-violence, and didn’t want to hang out with them any more. He messaged Chrissie and told her that he still liked her but he had to get himself sorted out before he went out with her because he’d ‘picked up some stupid infection what the doctor says I need to get medicine for. I’ll be nice and clean when we get together though, eh?’

‘Oh, man.’ Nicky was laughing so much that his ribs hurt. ‘Oh, man.’

‘Jason’ told another girl called Stacy that he really liked her and that his mum had picked out some really nice clothes for him if she ever wanted to go out, and the same thing to a girl called Angela in his year whom he had once called a scuzz. And Jez deleted a new message from Danny Kane, who had tickets for some big football match and said Jason could have one but he’d have to let him know by the end of the day. Which was today.

He changed Fisher’s profile picture for an image of a braying donkey. And then Mr Nicholls stared at the screen, thinking, and picked up his mobile. ‘Actually, I think we should leave it there, mate, just for now,’ he to told Jez.

‘Why?’ said Nicky, when he put down the phone. The donkey thing was kind of excellent.

‘Because it’s better to be subtle. If we just stick to his private messages for now it’s entirely likely that he won’t even spot them. We send them, then delete them at this end. We’ll turn off his email notifications. And so his friends, and this girl, will just think he’s become even more of an idiot. And he won’t have a clue why. Which is kind of the point.’

He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe someone could just mess with Fisher’s life like that.

Jez rang back to say he’d logged out, and they shut down Facebook. ‘And that’s it?’ Nicky said.

‘For now. It’s only a bit of fun. But it made you feel better, right? And he’s going to clean up your page so that none of the stuff Fisher put up is there any more.’

It was a bit embarrassing then because when Nicky breathed out he did this kind of shudder. He did feel better. It wasn’t like it really solved anything, but for once it was nice not to feel like the butt of the joke.

He messed with the hem of his T-shirt until his breathing went back to normal. It was possible Mr Nicholls knew because he looked out of the window like he was really interested even though there was nothing there apart from cars and old people.

‘Why would you do all this? The hacking thing and driving us all the way to Scotland. I mean, you don’t even know us.’

Mr Nicholls stared out of the window at the car park and just for a moment it was like he wasn’t really talking to Nicky any more. ‘I sort of owe your mum one. And I guess I just don’t like people crapping all over other people. Bullies didn’t start with your generation, you know.’

Mr Nicholls sat there for a minute, and Nicky was suddenly fearful that he was going to try to make him talk about stuff. That he’d do that thing the counsellor did at school, where he tried to act like he was your mate and said about fifty times that anything you said would be ‘just between us’ until it sounded a little creepy.

‘I’ll tell you one thing.’

Here it comes, Nicky thought. He wiped at his shoulder, where Norman had left a drool.

‘Everyone I’ve ever met who was worth knowing was a bit different at school. You just need to find your people.’

‘Find my people.’

‘Your tribe.’

Nicky pulled a face.

‘You know, you spend your whole life feeling like you don’t quite fit in anywhere. And then you walk into a room one day, whether it’s at university or an office or some kind of club, and you just go, “Ah. There they are.” And suddenly you feel at home.’

‘I don’t feel at home anywhere.’

‘For now.’

Nicky considered this. ‘So where was yours?’

‘Computing room at university. I was a bit of a geek. I met my best mate Ronan there. And then … my company.’ He looked a bit serious after he’d said that.

‘But I’m stuck there until I finish school. And there’s nothing like that where we live, no tribes.’ Nicky pulled his fringe down over his eyes. ‘You do things Fisher’s way or you stay out of his way.’

‘So find your people online.’

‘How?’

‘I don’t know. Look up online groups for things you’re … interested in? Lifestyle choices?’

Nicky registered his expression. ‘Oh. You think I’m g*y too, right?’

‘No, I’m just saying, the Internet’s a big place. There’s always someone out there who shares your interests, whose life is like yours.’

‘Nobody’s life is like mine.’

Mr Nicholls shut his laptop and slid it into a case. He unplugged everything and glanced over towards the café.

‘We should head back. Your mum will be wondering what we’re up to.’ He opened his door and then turned back. ‘You know, you could always write a blog.’

‘A blog?’

‘Doesn’t have to be under your real name. But it’s a good way of talking about what’s going on in your life. You put a few keywords in, and people will find you. People like you, I mean.’

‘People who wear mascara. And who like neither football nor musical theatre.’

‘And who have enormous stinking dogs and sisters who are maths prodigies. I bet you there’s at least one person like that somewhere.’ He thought for a minute. ‘Maybe. Perhaps in Hoxton. Or Tupelo.’

‘I’m not a hairless baboon, you know.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’ Nicky pulled at his fringe some more, trying to cover the bruise. It had gone this really grim yellow, which made him look like he had some weird disease. ‘Thanks, but blogs are … not really my thing. Blogs are like for middle-aged women writing about their divorces and cats and stuff. Or nail varnish obsessives.’

‘Just putting it out there.’

‘Do you write one?’

‘Nope.’ He climbed out of the car. ‘But I don’t particularly want to talk to anyone.’ Nicky climbed out after him. Mr Nicholls pointed his fob and the car locked down with an expensive thunk. ‘In the meantime,’ he said, lowering this voice, ‘we didn’t have this conversation, okay? It wouldn’t go down too well if anyone knew I was teaching innocent kids how to hack into private information.’

‘Jess wouldn’t mind.’

‘I’m not just talking about Jess.’

Nicky held his gaze. ‘First rule of Geek Club. There is no Geek Club.’

‘Good man. Right. You going to walk this disgusting dog of yours before we head off?’

16.

Tanzie

Nobody really wanted to get back in the car. The novelty of spending hours in a car, even one as nice as Mr Nicholls’s, had worn off pretty quickly. This, Mum announced, like someone about to give an injection, would be the longest day. They were all to make themselves comfortable and make sure they’d been to the loo because Mr Nicholls’s aim was to drive almost to Newcastle, where he had found a B&B that took dogs. They would arrive at around 10 p.m. After that, he had calculated that with one more day’s driving they should arrive in Aberdeen. Mr Nicholls would find them somewhere to stay close to the university, then Tanzie would be bright and fresh for the maths competition the next day. He looked at her hopefully. ‘Unless you think you’ve got used to this car enough for me to go above forty now?’

She shook her head.

‘No.’ His face fell a bit. ‘Oh, well.’

He caught sight of the back seat then and blinked. A couple of chocolate buttons had melted into the cream leather seats, and although Tanzie had picked away at them as best she could there was definitely a brown mark. The footwell was covered with mud and leaves from where they had been walking around the woods. Norman’s drool had traced snail trails everywhere. At home she could wipe his jowls with a cloth, but trying to do it in the car made her feel sick. Mr Nicholls saw her looking and gave a half-smile, like it really didn’t matter, even though you could tell that it probably did, and turned back to the wheel.

‘Okay then,’ he said, and started the engine.

Everyone was silent for about an hour, while Mr Nicholls listened to something on Radio 4 about technology. Mum read one of her books. Since the library had closed, she’d bought two paperbacks a week from the charity shop but only ever had time to read one. Sometimes, if Mum was doing extra shifts, Tanzie would find her in the morning lying there with her mouth open and a book propped on her pillow. Because she was not very good at understanding simple equations, their whole house was now full of tattered paperbacks that she swore she was about to read.

The afternoon stretched and sagged, and the rain came down in thick, glassy sheets. They drove past endless rolling green fields, through village after village, moving restlessly in their seats and pulling rucked shirts from the small of their backs. All the villages had started to look pretty much the same after Coventry. Tanzie gazed out of the window and tried to do maths problems in her head but it was hard to focus when she couldn’t do workings out on a pad. It was about six o’clock when Nicky began shifting around, like he couldn’t get comfortable.

‘When are we next stopping?’

Mum had nodded off briefly. She pushed herself upright abruptly, pretending she hadn’t, and peered at the clock.

‘Ten past six,’ Mr Nicholls said.

‘Could we stop for some food?’ said Tanzie.

‘I really need to walk around. My ribs are starting to hurt.’ Nicky’s legs were too long for even this car. His knees were folded up against Mr Nicholls’s seat, and he looked like he was being squashed into the corner by Norman, who lay across him, his big pink tongue lolling out through his teeth.

‘Let’s find somewhere to eat. We could divert into Leicester for a curry.’

‘We’ll be fine with sandwiches.’

Nicky groaned quietly.

‘Do you guys eat nothing but sandwiches?’

‘Of course not. But sandwiches are convenient. And we don’t have time to sit down and eat a curry.’

‘I love curry,’ Nicky said mournfully.

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