‘We’re nearly there! It’s all good, Tanze. Nothing to worry about.’
‘Do you think I’ll sleep tonight?’
‘Of course you’ll sleep tonight.’
‘But if I don’t I might do really badly.’
‘Even if you don’t sleep you’ll do fine. And I’ve never known you not sleep.’
‘I’m worried that I’ll worry too much to sleep.’
‘I’m not worried that you’ll worry. Just relax. You’ll be fine. It will all be fine.’
When Jess kissed her she saw that she had chewed her nails right down to the quick.
Mr Nicholls was in the garden. He walked up and down where she and Tanzie had been half an hour earlier, talking avidly into his phone. He stopped and stared at it a couple of times, then stepped up onto a white plastic garden chair, presumably to get better reception. He stood there, wobbling, utterly oblivious to the curious glances of those inside as he gesticulated and swore.
Jess gazed through the window, unsure whether to go and interrupt him. There were a few old men in the bar, gathered around the landlady as she chatted from the other side. They looked at her incuriously over their pints.
‘Work, is it?’ The landlady followed her gaze through the window.
‘Oh. Yes. Never stops.’ Jess raised a smile. ‘I’ll take him a drink.’
Mr Nicholls was seated on a low stone wall when she finally walked out. His elbows were on his knees and he was staring at the grass.
Jess held out the pint and he stared at it for a moment, then took it from her. ‘Thanks.’ He looked exhausted.
‘No.’ He took a long gulp of his beer. ‘Nothing’s okay.’
She sat down a few feet away. ‘Anything I can help with?’
They sat in silence. The pub was shabby but she quite liked it. It was so peaceful there, with nothing around them except the breeze rippling across the moors, the distant cries of birds and the gentle hum of conversation from inside. She was going to say something about the landscape, when a voice broke into the still air.
‘Fuck it,’ Mr Nicholls said vehemently. ‘Just f**k it.’
It was so startling that Jess flinched.
‘I just can’t believe my f**king life has turned into this … mess.’ His voice cracked. ‘I can’t believe that I can work and work for years and the whole thing can fall apart like this. For what? For f**king what?’
‘It’s only food poisoning. You’ll –’
‘I’m not talking about the f**king kebab.’ He dropped his head into his hands. ‘But I don’t want to talk about it.’ He shot her an angry look.
Jess took a sip of her beer. She didn’t really like beer, but it had been on special. Upstairs the bathroom window opened and a little burp of steam emerged.
‘That’s the thing. Legally, I’m not meant to talk to anyone about any of this.’
She didn’t look at him. She had learnt this trick long ago: when Nicky first came to them, the social worker had said he would open up a lot more if Jess didn’t make eye contact with him. They were like animals, men. They found too much direct contact threatening.
‘I can’t tell a soul. I mean legally.’
She stretched out a leg and gazed at the sunset. ‘Well, I don’t count, do I? I’m a cleaning wench.’
He let out a breath. ‘Fuck it,’ he said again.
And then he told her, his head down, his hands raking his short dark hair. He told her about a girlfriend whom he couldn’t think how to let down nicely, and an ex-wife who never quite left him alone, and how his whole life had come crashing down. He told her about his company and how he should have been there now, celebrating the launch of his last six years’ obsessive work. And how instead he had to stay away from everything and everyone he knew all the while facing the prospect of prosecution. He told her about his dad who was sick, and who was going to be even sicker when he heard what had happened. And he told her about the lawyer who had just rung to inform him that shortly after he returned from this trip his presence would be required at a police station in London where he would be charged with insider trading, a charge that could win him up to twenty years in prison. By the time he’d finished she felt winded.
‘Everything I’ve ever worked for. Everything I cared about. I’m not allowed to go into my own office. I can’t even go back to my flat in case the press hear of it and I do another stupid thing and let slip what’s happened. I can’t go and see my own dad because then he’ll die knowing what a bloody idiot his son is.’
Jess digested this for a few minutes. He smiled bleakly at the sky. ‘And you know the best bit? It’s my birthday.’
‘Today. It’s my birthday.’
‘Today? Why didn’t you say anything?’
‘Because I’m thirty-four years old, and a thirty-four-year-old man sounds like a dick talking about birthdays.’ He took a swig of his beer. ‘And what with the whole food-poisoning thing, I didn’t feel I had much to celebrate.’ He looked sideways at her. ‘Plus you might have started singing “Happy Birthday” in the car.’
‘I’ll sing it out here.’
‘Please don’t. Things are bad enough.’
Jess’s head was reeling. She couldn’t believe all the stuff Mr Nicholls was carrying around. If it had been anyone else she might have put her arm around them, attempted to say something comforting. But Mr Nicholls was prickly. And who could blame him? It felt like offering an Elastoplast to someone who had just had an arm amputated.
‘Things will get better, you know,’ she said, when she couldn’t think of anything else to say. ‘Karma will get that girl who stitched you up.’
He pulled a face. ‘Karma?’
‘It’s like I tell the kids. Good things happen to good people. You just have to keep faith …’
‘Well, I must have been a complete shit in a past life.’
‘Come on. You still have property. You have cars. You have your brain. You have expensive lawyers. You can work this out.’
‘How come you’re such an optimist?’
‘Because things do come right.’
‘And that’s from a woman who doesn’t have enough money to catch a train.’
Jess kept her gaze on the craggy hillside. ‘Because it’s your birthday, I’m going to let that one go.’
Mr Nicholls sighed. ‘Sorry. I know you’re trying to help. But right now I find your relentless positivity exhausting.’
‘No, you find driving hundreds of miles in a car with three people you don’t know and a large dog exhausting. Go upstairs and have a long bath and you’ll feel better. Go on.’
He trudged inside, the condemned man, and she sat and stared out at the slab of green moorland in front of her. She tried to imagine what it would be like to be facing prison, not to be allowed near the things or the people you loved. She tried to imagine someone like Mr Nicholls doing time. And then she decided not to think about it and hoped quite hard that Nicky hadn’t used up all the hot water.
After a while, she walked inside with the empty glasses. She leant over the bar, where the landlady was watching an episode of Homes Under the Hammer. The men sat in silence behind her, watching it too or gazing rheumily into their pints.
‘Mrs Deakins? It’s actually my husband’s birthday today. Would you mind doing me a favour?’
Mr Nicholls finally came downstairs at eight thirty, wearing the exact clothes he’d worn that afternoon. And the previous afternoon. Jess knew he had bathed, as his hair was damp and he had shaved.
‘So what’s in your bag, then? A body?’
‘What?’ He walked over to the bar. He gave off a faint scent of Wilkinson Sword soap.
‘You’ve worn the same clothes since we left.’
He looked down, as if to check. ‘Oh. No. These are clean.’
‘You have the exact same T-shirt and jeans? For every day?’
‘Saves thinking about it.’
She looked at him for a minute, then decided to bite back what she had been about to say. It was his birthday after all.
‘Oh. You look nice, though,’ he said suddenly, as if he’d only just noticed.
She had changed into a blue sundress and a cardigan. She had been going to save it for the Olympiad, but had figured that this was important. ‘Well, thank you. One has to make the effort to fit one’s surroundings, doesn’t one?’
‘What – you left your flat cap and dog-haired jeans behind?’
‘You’re about to be sorry for your sarcasm. Because I have a surprise in store.’
‘A surprise.’ He looked instantly wary.
‘It’s a good one. Here.’ Jess handed him one of two glasses she had prepared earlier, to Mrs Deakins’s amusement. ‘I figure you’re well enough.’
‘What is this?’ He stared at it suspiciously. They hadn’t made a cocktail here since 1987, Mrs Deakins had observed, as Jess checked the dusty bottles behind the optics.
‘Scotch, triple sec and orange juice.’
He took a sip. And then a larger one. ‘This is all right.’
‘I knew you’d like it. I made it specially for you. It’s called a Mithering Bastard.’
The white plastic table sat in the middle of the threadbare lawn, with two place settings of stainless-steel cutlery and a candle in a wine bottle in the middle. Jess had wiped the chairs with a bar cloth so that there was no green left on them and now pulled one out for him.
‘We’re eating al fresco. Birthday treat.’ She ignored the look he gave her. ‘If you would like to take your seat, I’ll go and inform the kitchen that you’re here.’
‘It’s not breakfast muffins, is it?’
‘Of course it’s not breakfast muffins.’ She pretended to be offended. As she walked towards the kitchen, she muttered, ‘Tanzie and Nicky had the rest of those.’
When she arrived back at the table, Norman had flopped down on Mr Nicholls’s foot. Jess suspected Mr Nicholls would quite like to have moved it, but she had been sat on by Norman before and he was a dead weight. You just had to sit there and pray that he shifted before your foot went black and fell off.
‘How was your aperitif?’
Mr Nicholls gazed at his empty cocktail glass. ‘Delicious.’
‘Well, the main course is on its way. I’m afraid it’s just the two of us this evening, as the other guests had prior arrangements.’
‘Waterloo Road and some completely insane algebraic equations.’
‘You know us too well.’ Jess sat down in her chair and, as she did, Mrs Deakins picked her way across the lawn, the Pomeranians yapping at her feet. With the same care as a head waiter holds up cordon bleu dishes in a five-star restaurant, she held aloft two plates upon each of which sat a huge foil-clad pie and chips.
‘There you go,’ she said, placing them on the table. ‘Steak and kidney. From Ian up the road. He does a lovely meat pie.’
Jess was so hungry by then she thought she could probably have eaten Ian. ‘Fantastic. Thank you,’ she said, laying a paper napkin on her lap.
Mrs Deakins stood and gazed around, as if seeing the setting for the first time. ‘We never eat out here. Lovely idea. I might offer it to my other customers. And those cocktails. I could make a package of it.’
Jess thought about the old men in the bar. ‘Shame not to,’ she said, passing the vinegar across to Mr Nicholls. He seemed temporarily stunned.
Mrs Deakins rubbed her hands on her apron. ‘Well, Mr Nicholls, your wife is certainly determined to show you a good time on your birthday,’ she said, with a wink.
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