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A clench of panic. She glanced down at the number, registering. ‘Tanzie? Is … is everything all right?’

‘Sorry. I should have said. It’s Mr Tsvangarai here, Tanzie’s maths teacher.’

‘Oh.’ She pictured him: a tall man in a grey suit. Face like a funeral director’s.

‘I wanted to talk to you because a few weeks ago I had a very interesting discussion with a former colleague of mine who works for St Anne’s.’

‘St Anne’s?’ Jess frowned. ‘The private school?’

‘Yes. They have a scholarship programme for children who are exceptionally gifted in maths. And, as you know, we had already earmarked Tanzie as Gifted and Talented.’

‘Because she’s good at maths.’

‘Better than good. Well, we gave her the paper to sit last week. I don’t know if she mentioned it? I sent a letter home but I wasn’t sure you saw it.’

Jess squinted at the sky. Seagulls wheeled and swooped against the grey. A few gardens down Terry Blackstone had started singing along to a radio. He had been known to do the full Rod Stewart if he thought nobody was looking.

‘We got the results back this morning. And she has done well. Extremely well. Mrs Thomas, if you’re agreeable they would like to interview her for a subsidized place.’

She found herself parroting him. ‘A subsidized place?’

‘For certain children of exceptional ability St Anne’s will forgo a significant proportion of the school fees. It means that Tanzie would get a top-class education. She has an extraordinary numerical ability, Mrs Thomas. I do think this could be a great opportunity for her.’

‘St Anne’s? But … she’d need to get a bus across town. She’d need all the uniform and kit. She – she wouldn’t know anyone.’

‘She’d make friends. But these are just details, Mrs Thomas. Let’s wait and see what the school comes up with. Tanzie is an extraordinarily talented girl.’ He paused. When she didn’t say anything, he lowered his voice: ‘I have been teaching maths for almost twenty-two years, Mrs Thomas. And I have never met a child who grasped mathematical concepts like she does. I believe she is actually exceeding the point where I have anything to teach her. Algorithms, probability, prime numbers –’

‘Okay. This is where you lose me, Mr Tsvangarai. I’ll just go with gifted and talented.’

He chuckled. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

She put down the phone and sat heavily on the white plastic garden chair that had been there when they’d moved in and had now grown a fine sheen of emerald moss. She stared at nothing, in through the window at the curtains that Marty always thought were too bright, at the red plastic tricycle that she had never got round to getting rid of, at next door’s cigarette butts sprinkled like confetti on her path, at the rotten boards in the fence that the dog insisted on sticking his head through. Despite what Nathalie referred to as her frankly misguided optimism, Jess found her eyes had filled unexpectedly with tears.

There were lots of awful things about the father of your children leaving: the money issues, the suppressed anger on behalf of your children, the way most of your coupled-up friends now treated you as if you were some kind of potential husband-stealer. But worse than that, worse than the endless, relentless, bloody exhausting financial and energy-sapping struggle, was that being a parent on your own when you were totally out of your depth was actually the loneliest place on earth.

2.

Tanzie

Twenty-six cars sat in the car park at St Anne’s. Two rows of thirteen big shiny four-wheel-drives faced each other on each side of a gravel path, sliding in and out of the spaces at an average angle of 41 degrees, before the next in line moved in.

Tanzie watched them as she and Mum crossed the road from the bus stop, the drivers talking illegally into phones or mouthing at bug-eyed blond babies in the rear seats. Mum lifted her chin and fiddled with her keys in her free hand, as if they were actually her car keys and she and Tanzie just happened to have parked somewhere nearby. She kept glancing behind her. Tanzie guessed she was worried she was going to bump into one of her cleaning clients and they were going to ask what she was doing there.

She had never been inside St Anne’s, although she’d been past it on the bus at least ten times because the NHS dentist was on this road. From the outside, there was just an endless hedge, trimmed to exactly 90 degrees (she wondered if the gardener used a protractor) and those big trees where the branches hung low and friendly, sweeping out across the playing fields as if they were there to shelter the children below.

The children at St Anne’s did not swing bags at each other’s heads, or bundle up in huddles by the corner of the playground, backing someone against the wall to tax their lunch money. There were no weary-sounding teachers trying to herd the teenagers into classrooms. The girls had not rolled their skirts six times over at the waistband or backcombed their hair. Not a single person was smoking. A lot of them wore glasses. Her mother gave her hand a little squeeze. Tanzie wanted her to stop looking so nervous. ‘It’s nice, isn’t it, Mum?’

She nodded. ‘Yes.’ It came out as a squeak.

‘Mr Tsvangarai told me that every single one of their sixth-formers who did maths got A or A starred. That’s good, isn’t it?’

‘Amazing.’

Tanzie pulled a bit at Mum’s hand so that they could get to the head’s office faster. ‘Do you think Norman will miss me when I’m doing the long days?’

‘The long days.’

‘St Anne’s doesn’t finish till six. And there’s maths club on Tuesdays and Thursdays so I’d definitely want to do that.’

‘Tanze,’ she said, and stopped.

‘Mum. Look.’ There was a girl walking along reading a book. Actually reading a book. Nicky said if you walked across the playground reading a book at McArthur’s you got battered. You had to hide them, like cigarettes.

Her mother glanced at her. She looked really tired. She was always tired, these days. She put on one of those smiles that wasn’t really a smile at all, and they went in.

‘Hello, Mrs Thomas. Hello, Costanza. It’s very good to meet you. Do sit down.’

The headmaster’s study had a high ceiling, as white and perfectly decorated as a wedding cake. Little white plaster rosettes sat every twenty centimetres, and tiny rosebuds exactly halfway between them. The room was stuffed with old furniture and through a large bay window a man on a roller could be seen travelling up and down a cricket pitch. On a small table somebody had laid out a tray of coffee and hand-made biscuits. It took Tanzie a few minutes to realize they were for them. ‘Can I have one?’ she said, and the headmaster pushed them towards her.

‘Of course.’

‘Mouth closed,’ Mum murmured.

They were so good. You could tell they were homemade. Mum used to make biscuits before Dad left and they were just like these. She sat down on the edge of the sofa and gazed at the two men opposite. The one with the moustache smiled like the nurse did before she gave you an injection. Mum had pulled her bag onto her lap and Tanzie could see her holding her hand over the corner where Norman had chewed it. Her leg was jiggling.

‘This is Mr Cruikshank. He’s the head of maths. And I’m Mr Daly. I’ve been head here for the past two years.’

She shook their hands and smiled back. Tanzie should have shaken their hands, but all she could hear were the words ‘head of maths’. She looked up from her biscuit.

‘Do you do chords?’

‘We do.’

‘And probability?’

‘That too.’

Mr Cruikshank leant forward. ‘We’ve been looking at your test results. And we think, Costanza, that you should sit your GCSE in maths next year and get it out of the way. Because I think you’d rather enjoy the A-level problems.’

She looked at him. ‘Have you got actual papers?’

‘I’ve got some next door. Would you like to see them?’

She couldn’t believe he was asking. She thought briefly of saying, ‘Well, DUH’, like Nicky did. But she just nodded.

Mr Daly handed Mum a coffee. ‘I won’t beat around the bush, Mrs Thomas. You are well aware that your daughter has an exceptional ability. We have only seen scores like hers once before and that was from a pupil who went on to be a fellow at Trinity.’

Tanzie nodded, although she was pretty sure she didn’t want to be a fellow. Everyone knew girls were better at maths.

He went on and on then. She tuned out a bit because she was trying to see how many biscuits she could eat so what she heard was ‘… for a very select group of pupils who have a demonstrably unusual ability we have created a new equal-access scholarship.’ Blah, blah, blah. ‘It would offer a child who might not otherwise get the advantages of a school like this the chance to fulfil their potential in …’ Blah, blah. ‘While we are very keen to see how far Costanza could go in the field of maths, we would also want to make sure that she was well rounded in other parts of her student life. We have a full sporting and musical curriculum.’ Blah, blah, blah … ‘Numerate children are often also able in languages …’ blah, blah ‘… and drama – that’s often very popular with girls of her age.’

‘I only really like maths,’ she told him. ‘And dogs.’

‘Well, we don’t have much in the way of dogs, but we’d certainly offer you lots of opportunities to stretch yourself mathematically. But I think you might be surprised by what else you enjoy. Do you play any instruments?’

She shook her head.

‘Any languages?’

The room went a bit quiet.

‘Other interests?’

‘We go swimming on Fridays,’ Mum said.

‘We haven’t been swimming since Dad left.’

Mum smiled, but it went a bit wonky. ‘We have, Tanzie.’

‘Once. May the thirteenth. But now you work on Fridays.’

Her smile went really strange then, like she couldn’t hold the corners of her mouth up properly.

Mr Cruikshank left the room, and reappeared a moment later with his papers. She stuffed the last of the biscuit into her mouth, then got up and went to sit next to him. He had a whole pile of them. Stuff she hadn’t even started yet!

She began going through them with him, showing him what she had done and what she hadn’t, and in the background she could hear Mum and the headmaster’s voices rumbling away. ‘We’re very conscious of the pitfalls, psychological and otherwise, that can occur if children are only encouraged to go in one direction … blah, blah, blah … If Costanza comes to us, while we would consider her mathematical ability an asset, her pastoral care would be …’

It sounded like it was going all right. Tanzie let her attention travel to what was on the page. It might have been renewal theory. ‘Yes,’ Mr Cruikshank was saying quietly, his finger on the page. ‘But the curious feature of renewal processes is that, if we wait some predetermined time and then observe how large the renewal interval containing it is, we should expect it to be typically larger than a renewal interval of average size.’

She knew about this! ‘So the monkeys would take longer to type Macbeth?’ she said.

‘That’s it.’ He smiled. ‘I wasn’t sure you’d have covered any renewal theory.’

‘I haven’t, really. But Mr Tsvangarai told me about it once and I looked it up on the Internet. I liked the whole monkey thing.’ She flicked through the papers. There was tons of it. The numbers sang to her. She could feel her brain sort of humming she wanted to read them so much. She knew she had to go to this school. ‘Mum,’ she said. She didn’t usually interrupt, but she was too excited and forgot her manners. ‘Do you think we could get some of these papers?’

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