He eased himself back into his seat. ‘I’ll be fine,’ he whispered. ‘Should be fine now.’
Mum reached back through the seats and mouthed, ‘Plastic bag.’ Tanzie handed over hers. ‘Just in case,’ she said cheerfully, and opened her window a bit.
Mr Nicholls drove really slowly for the next few miles. So slowly that two cars kept flashing them from behind and one driver sat on his horn really angrily as he passed. Sometimes he veered a bit across the white line, like he wasn’t really concentrating, but Tanzie registered Mum’s determined silence and decided not to say anything.
‘How long now?’ Mr Nicholls kept muttering.
‘Not long,’ said Mum, even though she probably had no idea. She patted his arm, like he was a child. ‘You’re doing really well.’
When he looked at her, his eyes were anguished.
‘Hang on in there,’ she said quietly, and it was like an instruction.
And then, about half a mile further along, ‘Oh, God,’ he said, and slammed the brakes on again. ‘I need to –’
‘Pub!’ Mum yelled, and pointed towards one, its light just visible on the outskirts of the next village. ‘Look! You can make it!’
Mr Nicholls’s foot went down on the accelerator so that Tanzie’s cheeks were pulled back in G-force. He skidded into the car park, threw the door open, staggered out and hurled himself inside.
They sat there, waiting. The car was so quiet that they could hear the engine ticking.
After five minutes, Mum leant across and pulled his door shut to keep the chill out. She looked back and smiled at them. ‘How was that Aero?’
‘I like Aeros too.’
Nicky, his eyes closed, nodded to the music.
A man pulled into the car park with a woman wearing a high ponytail and looked hard at the car. Mum smiled. The woman did not smile back.
Ten minutes went by.
‘Shall I go and get him?’ said Nicky, pulling his ear-buds from his ears and peering at the clock.
‘Best not,’ said Mum. Her foot had started tapping.
Another ten minutes passed. Finally, when Tanzie had taken Norman for a walk around the car park and Mum had done some stretches on the back of the car because she said she was bent out of shape, Mr Nicholls emerged.
He looked whiter than anyone Tanzie had ever seen, like paper. He looked like someone had rubbed at his features with a cheap eraser.
‘I think we might need to stop here for a bit,’ he said.
‘In the pub?’
‘Not the pub,’ he said, glancing behind him. ‘Definitely not the pub. Maybe … maybe somewhere a few miles away.’
‘Do you want me to drive?’ Mum said.
‘No,’ everyone said at once, and she smiled and tried to look like she wasn’t offended.
The Bluebell Haven was the only place within ten miles that wasn’t fully booked. It had eighteen static caravans, a playground with two swings and a sandpit, and a sign that said ‘No Dogs’.
Mr Nicholls let his face drop against the steering-wheel. ‘We’ll find somewhere else.’ He winced and doubled over. ‘Just give me a minute.’
‘You said you can’t leave the dog in the car.’
‘We won’t leave him in the car. Tanzie,’ said Mum. ‘The sunglasses.’
There was a mobile home by the front gate marked ‘Reception’. Mum went in first, and Tanzie put the sunglasses on and waited outside on the step, watching through the bubbled-glass door. The fat man who raised himself wearily from a chair said she was lucky as there was only one still available, and they could have it for a special price.
‘How much is that?’ said Mum.
‘For one night? In a static?’
‘And it’s seven o’clock at night and you had nobody in it.’
‘Someone might still come.’
‘Yeah. I heard Madonna was having a swift half down the road and looking for somewhere to park her entourage.’
‘No need to be sarky.’
‘No need to rip me off. Thirty pounds,’ Mum said, pulling the notes from her pocket.
‘Thirty-five.’ Mum held out a hand. ‘It’s all I’ve got. Oh, and we’ve got a dog.’
He lifted a meaty hand. ‘Read the sign. No dogs.’
‘He’s a guide dog. For my little girl. I’d remind you that it’s illegal to bar a person on the grounds of disability.’
Nicky opened the door and, holding her elbow, guided Tanzie in. She stood motionless behind her dark glasses while Norman stood patiently in front of her. They had done this twice when they’d had to catch the coach to Portsmouth after Dad had left.
‘He’s well trained,’ Mum said. ‘He’ll be no trouble.’
‘He’s my eyes,’ Tanzie said. ‘My life would be nothing without him.’
The man stared at her hand, and then at her. His jowls reminded Tanzie of Norman’s. She had to remember not to glance up at the television.
‘You’re busting my balls, lady.’
‘Oh, I do hope not,’ Mum said cheerfully.
He shook his head, withdrew his huge hand, and moved heavily towards a key cabinet. ‘Golden Acres. Second lane, fourth on the right. Near the toilet block.’
Mr Nicholls was so ill by the time they reached the static that it was possible he didn’t even notice where they were. He kept moaning softly and clutching his stomach and when he saw the word ‘Toilets’ he let out a little cry and disappeared. They didn’t see him for the best part of an hour.
Golden Acres wasn’t gold and didn’t look anything like even half an acre, but Mum said any port in a storm. There were two tiny bedrooms, and the sofas in the living room turned into another bed. Mum said that Nicky and Tanzie could stay in the one with twin beds, Mr Nicholls could go in the other and she would have the sofa. It was actually okay in their bedroom, even if Nicky’s feet did hang over the end of his bed and everywhere smelt of cigarettes. Mum opened some windows for a bit, then made up the beds with the duvets and ran the water until it came hot because she said Mr Nicholls would probably want a shower when he came back in.
Tanzie opened all the cupboards, which were made of chipboard, one after another, shut the floral curtains, and inspected the chemical loo in the bathroom, then pressed her nose to the window and counted all the lights in the other static caravans. (Only two seemed to be occupied. ‘That lying git,’ said Mum.)
While they waited for Mr Nicholls to come back, she studied the map from his car, running her fingers along the routes. ‘We’ve got plenty of time,’ she said. ‘Plenty. It’ll be fine. And look! More quiet time for you to revise.’ She sounded as if she was actually reassuring herself.
She had put her phone on to charge for precisely fifteen seconds when it rang. She started and picked it up, still plugged into the wall.
‘Hello?’ She sounded like she thought it might be Mr Nicholls, calling from the toilet block for more paper again. ‘Des?’ Her hand flew to her mouth. ‘Oh, God. Des, I’m not going to make it back in time.’
A series of muffled explosions at the other end.
‘I’m really sorry. I know what I said. But things have gone a bit crazy. I’m in …’ She pulled a face at Tanzie. ‘Where are we?’
‘Near Ashby de la Zouch,’ she said.
‘Ashby de la Zouch,’ Mum repeated. And then, her hand in her hair, ‘Ashby de la Zouch. I know. I’m really sorry. The journey didn’t quite go as I planned and our driver got sick and my phone ran out and with all the … What?’ She glanced at Tanzie. ‘I don’t know. Probably not before Tuesday. Maybe even Wednesday. It’s taking longer than we thought.’
Tanzie could definitely hear him shouting then.
‘Can’t Chelsea cover it? I’ve done enough of her shifts … I know it’s the busy period. I know. Des, I’m really sorry. I’ve said I –’ She paused. ‘No. I can’t get back before then. No. I’m really … What do you mean? I’ve never missed a shift this past year. I – Des? … Des?’ She broke off and stared at the phone.
‘Was that Des from the pub?’ Tanzie liked Des from the pub. Once she had sat outside with Norman on a Sunday afternoon, waiting for Mum, and he had given her a packet of scampi fries.
At that minute, the door to the caravan opened, and Mr Nicholls pretty much fell in. ‘Lie down,’ he muttered, pulled himself briefly upright, then collapsed onto the floral sofa cushions. He looked up at Mum with a grey face and big hollow eyes. ‘Lying down. Sorry,’ he mumbled.
Mum just sat there, staring at her mobile.
He blinked at her, registering the phone, and muttered, ‘Were you trying to reach me?’
‘He’s sacked me,’ Mum said. ‘I don’t believe it. He’s bloody sacked me.’
She wouldn’t have slept much anyway, given that she now had to worry about having lost her job at the Feathers, as well as everything else. But Jess spent most of that night looking after Mr Nicholls. She had never seen a man be so ill without actually coughing up a kidney. By midnight he was a shell. There was literally nothing left in him. ‘I feel better, I feel better,’ he would insist, trying to sound reassuring. And then half an hour later he would grab at the bucket she had pulled from under the sink and cough up a thin string of green bile.
The night took on a weird, disjointed quality, the hours running into each other, fluid and endless. She gave up trying to sleep. She stared at the caramel-coloured, wipe-clean walls of the caravan, read a bit, dozed. Mr Nicholls groaned beside her, occasionally getting up to shuffle backwards and forwards to the toilet block. She closed the kids’ door and sat waiting for him in the little caravan, sometimes dozing on the far end of the L-shaped sofa, handing him water and tissues when he staggered in.
Shortly after three, Mr Nicholls said he wanted a shower. She made him promise to leave the bathroom door unlocked, took his clothes down to the launderette (a washer-dryer in a shed) and spent three pounds twenty on a sixty-degree cycle. She didn’t have any change for the dryer.
He was still in the shower when she arrived back at the caravan. She draped his clothes from hangers over the heater, hoping they might dry a bit by morning, then knocked quietly on the door. There was no answer, just the sound of running water, and a belch of steam. She peeped around the door. The glass was clouded but she could make him out, slumped and exhausted on the floor. She waited a moment, staring at his broad back pressed against the glass panel, an oddly beautiful, pale inverted triangle, then watched as he lifted his hand and ran it wearily over his face.
‘Mr Nicholls?’ she whispered, behind him, then again, when he didn’t say anything. ‘Mr Nicholls?’
He turned then, and saw her, and perhaps it was the water, but she wasn’t sure she had ever seen a man look more defeated. His eyes were red-rimmed and his head sunk deep into his shoulders.
‘Fucksake. I can’t even get up. And the water’s starting to go cold,’ he said.
‘Want me to help?’
‘No. Yes. Jesus.’
She held up the towel, whether to shield him or herself, she wasn’t sure, reached in and turned off the shower, soaking her arm. Then she crouched down, so that he could cover himself, and leant in. ‘Put your arm around my neck.’
‘You’re tiny. I’ll just pull you over.’
‘I’m stronger than I look.’
He didn’t move.
‘You’re going to have to help me here. I’m not up to a fireman’s lift.’
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