Page 26

‘Well, perhaps we’ll have one in Aberdeen.’

‘If I win.’

‘You’d better, small fry,’ said Nicky, quietly. ‘If I eat another stale cheese sandwich I’m going to start curling up at the edges.’

Mr Nicholls drove through a small town, then another, and followed the signs to a retail park. It had begun to get dark. The roads were thick with Saturday-evening traffic and beeping cars filled with football supporters, celebrating a match involving teams nobody had ever heard of, their faces joyous, pressed against the windows. The Audi crawled through it all, its windscreen wipers beating a dull, insistent tattoo, then finally stopped outside a supermarket and Mum climbed out with a loud sigh and ran in. They could see her through the rain-lashed window, standing in front of the chiller cabinets, picking things up and putting them down again.

‘Why doesn’t she just buy the ready-made sandwiches?’ muttered Mr Nicholls, looking at his watch. ‘She’d be back out in two minutes.’

‘Too expensive,’ said Nicky.

‘And you don’t know whose fingers have been in them.’

‘Jess did three weeks making sandwiches for a supermarket last year. She said that the woman next to her picked her nose in between shredding the chicken for the chicken Caesar wraps.’

‘And none of them wore gloves.’

Mr Nicholls went a bit quiet.

Jess emerged several minutes later with a small shopping bag, holding it over her head as she ran the short distance to the edge of the kerb.

‘Five to one it’s own-brand ham,’ said Nicky, watching. ‘Plus apples. She always buys apples.’

‘Own-brand ham is two to one,’ Tanzie said.

‘Five to two it’s rubber bread. On special.’

‘I’m going to go right out there and say sliced cheese,’ said Mr Nicholls. ‘What odds will you give me on sliced cheese?’

‘Not specific enough,’ said Nicky. ‘You have to go for Dairylea or cheaper own-brand orange-coloured slices. Probably with a made-up name.’

‘Pleasant Valley Cheese.’

‘Udderly Lovely Cheddar.’

‘That sounds disgusting.’

‘Grumpy Cow Slices.’

‘Oh, come on now, she’s not that bad.’

Tanzie and Nicky started laughing.

Mum opened the door, and held up her carrier bag. ‘Right,’ she said brightly. ‘They had tuna paste on special. Who wants a sandwich?’

‘You never want our sandwiches,’ Mum said, as Mr Nicholls drove through the town.

Mr Nicholls indicated, and pulled out onto the open road. ‘I don’t like sandwiches. They remind me of being at school.’

‘So what do you eat?’ Mum was tucking in. It had taken only a matter of minutes for the whole car to smell of fish. Tanzie thought Mr Nicholls was too polite to say so.

‘In London? Toast for breakfast. Maybe some sushi or noodles for lunch. I have a takeout place I order from in the evening.’

‘You have a takeaway? Every night?’

‘If I’m not going out.’

‘How often do you go out?’

‘Right now? Never.’

Mum gave him a hard look.

‘Well, okay, unless I’m getting drunk in your pub.’

‘You seriously eat the same thing every day?’

Mr Nicholls seemed a bit embarrassed now. ‘You can get different curries.’

‘That must cost a fortune. So what do you eat when you’re at Beachfront?’

‘I get a takeaway.’

‘From the Raj?’

‘Yeah. You know it?’

‘Oh, I know it.’

The car fell silent.

‘What?’ said Mr Nicholls. ‘You don’t go there? What is it? Too expensive? You’re going to tell me it’s easy to cook a jacket potato, right? Well, I don’t like jacket potato. I don’t like sandwiches. And I don’t like cooking.’ It might have been because he was hungry, but he was suddenly quite grumpy.

Tanzie leant forwards through the seats. ‘Nathalie once found a hair in her chicken Jalfrezi.’

Mr Nicholls opened his mouth to say something, just as she added, ‘And it wasn’t from someone’s head.’

Twenty-three lampposts went by.

‘You can worry too much about these things,’ Mr Nicholls said.

Somewhere after Nuneaton Tanzie started sneaking bits of her sandwich to Norman because the tuna paste didn’t really taste like tuna, and the bread kept sticking to the roof of her mouth. Mr Nicholls pulled into a petrol station that squatted by the side of the road, a UFO that had just landed.

‘Their sandwiches will be awful,’ said Mum, gazing inside the kiosk. ‘They’ll have been there for weeks.’

‘I’m not buying a sandwich.’

‘Do they do pasties?’ said Nicky, peering inside, and his voice was full of longing. ‘I love pasties.’

‘They’re even worse. They’re probably full of dog.’

Tanzie put her hands over Norman’s ears.

Mum glanced at Nicky and sighed.

‘Are you going in?’ she said to Mr Nicholls, rummaging around in her purse. ‘Will you get these two some chocolate? Special treat.’

‘Crunchie, please,’ said Nicky, who had cheered up.

‘Aero. Mint, please,’ Tanzie said. ‘Can I have a big one?’

Mum was holding out her hand. But Mr Nicholls was staring off to his right. ‘Can you get them? I’m just going to pop across the road,’ he said.

‘Where are you going?’

He patted his stomach and he suddenly looked really cheerful. ‘There.’

Keith’s Kebabs had six plastic seats that were bolted to the floor, fourteen cans of Diet Coke arranged in its window, a neon sign that was missing its first b, and a rum baba that looked as though it had been there for several decades. Tanzie peered through the window of the car, and watched Mr Nicholls’s walk become almost jaunty as he entered its strip-lit interior. He stared at the wall behind the counter, then spoke to the man, who gestured towards some trays behind a glass screen, then pointed to a huge hunk of brown meat turning slowly on a spit. Tanzie considered what animal was shaped like that, and could only come up with buffalo. Maybe an amputee buffalo.

‘Oh, man,’ said Nicky, as the man began to carve, and his voice was a low moan of longing. ‘Can’t we have one of those?’

‘No,’ said Mum.

‘How much do you think they are?’

‘Too much.’

‘I bet Mr Nicholls would buy us one if we asked,’ he said.

Mum snapped, ‘Mr Nicholls is doing quite enough for us. We’re not going to scrounge off him any more than we already have. Okay?’

Nicky rolled his eyes at Tanzie. ‘Fine,’ he said moodily.

And then nobody said anything.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Mum, after a minute. ‘I just … I just don’t want him thinking we’re taking advantage.’

‘But is it still taking advantage if someone just offers you something?’ Tanzie said. She was really, really bored of eating cold food out of plastic bags. And she had the feeling that, if they asked him, Mr Nicholls would buy them one.

‘Eat an apple if you’re still hungry. Or one of the breakfast muffins. I’m sure we’ve got a few left.’ Mum began rummaging around in the plastic bag again. Nicky raised his eyes silently. Tanzie let out a sigh.

Mr Nicholls opened the car door, bringing with him the smell of hot, fatty meat. He was grinning as he sat down. His kebab was swaddled in white, grease-stained paper, and shredded green salad bushed from both sides of the meat, like Kitchener’s moustache. Two twin bungee ropes of drool dropped immediately from Norman’s mouth. ‘You sure you don’t want some?’ he said cheerfully, turning towards Nicky and Tanzie. ‘I only put a bit of chilli sauce on.’

‘No. That’s very kind, but no thank you,’ said Mum, firmly, and gave Nicky a warning look.

‘No, thanks,’ Tanzie said quietly. It smelt delicious.

‘No. Thank you,’ said Nicky, and turned his face away.

‘Right. Who wants another sandwich?’ said Mum.

Nuneaton, Market Bosworth, Coalville, Ashby de la Zouch, the signs passed by in a steady blur. They could have said Zanzibar and Tanzania for all Tanzie knew of where they actually were. She found herself repeating Ashby de la Zouch, Ashby de la Zouch, and thinking it would be a good name to have. Hi – what’s your name? I’m Ashby de la Zouch. Hey, Ashby! That’s so cool! Costanza Thomas was five syllables too, but it didn’t have the same rhythm. She considered Costanza de la Zouch, which was six, and then Ashby Thomas, which sounded flat by comparison.

Costanza de la Zouch.

The car slowed for a traffic jam that seemed to be caused by nothing, and they had to double back once when Mr Nicholls took a wrong turning. He seemed a bit distracted.

Costanza de la Zouch.

They had been back on the open road for 389 lampposts when Mr Nicholls said he had to stop the car. Usually it was one of them who asked to stop. Tanzie kept getting dehydrated and drinking too much, then needing a wee. Norman whined to go every twenty minutes, but they could never tell if he genuinely needed one or was as bored as they were and just wanted a little sniff around. Mum was reading again, with the passenger light on, and Mr Nicholls kept shifting around in his seat, until finally he said, ‘That map … is there a restaurant or something up ahead?’

‘You’re still hungry?’ Mum looked up.

‘No. I – I need the loo.’

Mum went back to her book. ‘Oh, don’t mind us. Just go behind a tree.’

‘Not that kind of loo,’ he muttered.

‘Oh.’ Mum picked the map out of his glove compartment. ‘Well, judging by this, Kegworth is the nearest town. I’m sure there’ll be somewhere you could go. Or there might be a services if we can get to the dual carriageway.’

‘Which is closest?’

Mum traced the map with her finger. ‘Hard to say. Kegworth?’

‘How far?’

‘Ten minutes?’

‘Okay.’ He nodded, almost to himself. ‘Ten minutes is okay.’ He said it again, and his face was weirdly shiny. ‘Ten minutes is doable.’

Nicky had his ear-buds in and was listening to music. Tanzie was stroking Norman’s big soft ears and thinking about string theory. And then suddenly Mr Nicholls swerved the car abruptly into a lay-by. Everyone lurched forward. Norman nearly rolled off the seat. Mr Nicholls threw open the driver’s door, ran round the back, and as she turned in her seat, he crouched down by a ditch, one hand braced on his knee, and began heaving. It was impossible not to hear him, even with the windows closed.

They all stared.

‘Whoa,’ said Nicky. ‘That’s a lot of stuff coming out of him. That’s like … whoa, that’s like the Alien.’

‘Oh, my God,’ said Mum.

‘It’s disgusting,’ Tanzie said, peering over the back shelf.

‘Quick,’ said Mum. ‘Where’s that kitchen roll, Nicky?’

They watched as she got out of the car and went to help him. He was doubled over, like his stomach was really hurting. When she saw Tanzie and Nicky were staring out of the back window, she flicked her hand like they shouldn’t look, even though she had been doing the exact same thing.

‘Still want a kebab?’ Tanzie said to Nicky.

‘You’re an evil sprite,’ he said, and shuddered.

Mr Nicholls walked back to the car like someone who’d only just learnt how to do it. His face had gone this weird pale yellow. His skin was dusted with tiny beads of sweat.

‘You look awful,’ Tanzie told him.

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