She peered over her shoulder then, as if half expecting the arrival of a prank television crew. But Ed stabbed out his PIN, grabbed the carrier bag and ran for the car. He heard, ‘No manners,’ in a strong Scottish accent, as he left.
There was nobody in the car park when he returned. He pulled up right outside the door, leaving Norman clambering wearily back onto the back seat, and ran inside, down the echoing corridor. ‘Maths competition? Maths competition?’ he yelled at anyone he passed. A man pointed wordlessly to a laminated sign. He bolted up a flight of steps two at a time, along another corridor, and into an anteroom. Two men sat behind a desk. On the other side of the room stood Jess and Nicky. She took a step towards him. ‘Got them.’ He held up the carrier bag, triumphantly. He was so out of breath he could barely speak.
‘She’s gone in,’ she said. ‘They’ve started.’
He looked up at the clock, breathing hard. It was seven minutes past twelve.
‘Excuse me?’ he said to the man at the desk. ‘I need to give a girl in there her glasses.’
The man looked up slowly. He eyed the plastic bag Ed held in front of him.
Ed leant right over the desk, thrusting the bag towards him. ‘She broke her glasses on the way here. She can’t see without them.’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I can’t let anyone in now.’
Ed nodded. ‘Yes. Yes, you can. Look, I’m not trying to cheat or sneak anything in. I just didn’t know her glasses type so I had to buy every pair. You can check them. All of them. Look. No secret codes. Just glasses.’ He held the bag open in front of him. ‘You have to take them in to her so she can find a pair that fits.’
The man gave a slow shake of his head.
‘Sir. We can’t allow anything to disrupt the other –’
‘Yes. Yes, you can. It’s an emergency.’
‘It’s the rules.’
Ed stared at him hard for a full ten seconds. Then he straightened up, put a hand to his head and started to walk away from him. He could feel a new pressure building inside him, like a kettle juddering on a hotplate. ‘You know something?’ he said, turning around, slowly. ‘It has taken us three solid days and nights to get here. Three days in which I have had my very nice car filled with vomit, and unmentionable things done to my upholstery by a dog. I don’t even like dogs. I have slept in a car with a virtual stranger. Not in a good way. I have stayed places no reasonable human being should have to stay. I have eaten an apple that had been down the too-tight trousers of a teenage boy and a kebab that for all I know contained human flesh. I have left a huge, huge, personal crisis in London and driven five hundred and eighty miles with people I don’t know – very nice people – because even I could see that this competition was really, really important to them. Vitally important. Because all that little girl in there cares about is maths. And if she doesn’t get a pair of glasses that she can actually see through, she can’t compete fairly in your competition. And if she can’t compete fairly, she blows her only chance to go to the school that she really, really needs to go to. And if that happens, you know what I’ll do?’
The man stared.
‘I will go into that room of yours and I will walk around every single maths paper and I will rip it into teeny-tiny pieces. And I will do it very, very quickly, before you have a chance to call your security guards. And you know why I will do this?’
The man swallowed. ‘No.’
‘Because all this has to have been worth something.’ Ed went back to him and leant close to him. ‘It has to. And because right now, at this exact minute, I really, really don’t feel like I have anything left to lose.’
Something had happened to Ed’s face. He could feel it, in the way it seemed to have twisted itself into shapes he had never felt before. He could see it in the way the man was staring at him. And he could feel it in the way Jess stepped forward and gently put her hand on his arm and handed the man the bag of glasses.
‘We’d be really, really grateful if you took her the glasses,’ she said quietly.
The man stood up and walked around the desk towards the door. He kept his eyes on Ed at all times. ‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he said. And the door closed gently behind him.
They walked out to the car in silence, oblivious to the rain. Jess unloaded the bags. Nicky stood off to the side, his hands thrust as far into his jeans pockets as he could manage. Which, given the tightness of his jeans, wasn’t very far.
‘Well, we made it.’ She allowed herself a small smile.
‘I said we would.’ Ed nodded towards the car. ‘Shall I wait here until she’s finished?’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘No. You’re fine. We’ve held you up long enough.’
Ed felt his smile sag a little. ‘Where will you sleep tonight?’
‘If she wins, I might treat us to a fancy hotel. If she loses …’ She shrugged. ‘Bus shelter.’ The way she said this suggested she didn’t believe it.
She walked around to the rear door of the car. Norman, who had glanced at the rain and decided not to get out, looked up at her.
Jess stuck her head through the door. ‘Norman, time to go.’
A small pile of bags sat on the wet ground behind the Audi. She hauled a jacket out of a bag and handed it to Nicky. ‘Come on, it’s cold.’
‘So … is this … it?’ The air held the salt tang of the sea. It made him think suddenly of Beachfront.
‘This is it. Thank you for the lift. I … we … all appreciate it. The glasses. Everything.’
They looked at each other properly for the first time, and there were about a billion things he wanted to say.
Nicky lifted an awkward hand. ‘Yeah. Mr Nicholls. Thanks.’
‘Oh. Here.’ Ed reached into his pocket for the phone he had pulled from the glove compartment, and tossed it to him. ‘It’s a back-up. I – um – don’t need it any more.’
‘Really?’ Nicky caught it one-handed, and gazed at it, disbelieving.
Jess frowned. ‘We can’t take that. You’ve done enough for us.’
‘It’s not a big deal. Really. If Nicky doesn’t take it I’ll only have to send it off to one of those recycling places. You’re just saving me a job.’
Jess glanced down at her feet as if she were going to say something else. And then she looked up, and hauled her hair briskly into an unnecessary ponytail.
‘Well. Thanks again.’ She thrust a hand towards him. Ed hesitated then shook it, trying to ignore the sudden flash of memory of the previous evening.
‘Good luck with your dad. And the lunch. And the whole work thing. I’m sure it will come good. Remember, good things happen.’ When she pulled her hand away he felt weirdly as if he’d lost something. She turned, and looked over her shoulder, already distracted. ‘Right. Let’s find somewhere dry to stick our stuff.’
‘Hold on.’ Ed hauled a business card from his jacket, scribbled a number and walked over to her. ‘Call me.’
One of the numbers was smudged. He saw her staring at it.
‘That’s a three.’ He altered it, then shoved his hands into his pockets, feeling like an awkward teenager. ‘I’d like to know how Tanzie gets on. Please.’
She nodded, her face unreadable. And then she was gone, propelling the boy in front of her like a particularly vigilant shepherd. He sat and watched them, lugging their oversized holdalls and the huffing, recalcitrant dog, until they rounded the corner of the grey concrete building and were gone.
The car was silent. Even in the hours when nobody spoke, Ed had become used to the faintly steamed windows, the vague sense of constant movement that came from being in close confinement with other people. The muffled ping of Nicky’s games console. Jess’s constant fidgeting. Now he gazed around the car’s interior at the long black hairs and ghostly trails of dried slobber across the middle of the rear seat where Norman had been, and felt as if he was standing in a deserted house. He saw the crumbs and the apple core that had been stuffed into the rear ashtray, the melted chocolate, the newspaper folded into the pocket of the seat. His damp clothes hung from wire hangers across the rear windows. He saw the maths book, half wedged down the side of the seat that Tanzie had evidently missed in her hurry to get out, and wondered whether to take it to her. But what was the point? It was too late.
It was too late.
He sat in the grey, bleak car park, watching the last of the parents walking to their cars, killing time as they waited for their charges. He leant forward and rested his head on the steering-wheel for some time. And then, when his was the only car left there, he put his key into the ignition and finally began to drive.
Ed had gone about twenty miles before he became aware of quite how tired he was. The combination of three nights of broken sleep, a hangover and hundreds of miles of driving hit him like a demolition ball, and he felt his eyes drooping. He turned up the radio, opened his windows, and when that failed, he pulled into a roadside café to get some coffee.
It was half empty despite it being lunchtime. In one corner a short-order chef fried something unseen on a griddle dark with grease, his hat pushed back on his head. A couple of suited men sat at opposite ends of the room, lost in mobile phones and paperwork, the wall behind them offering sixteen different permutations of sausage, egg, bacon, chips and beans. Ed grabbed a newspaper from the stand, and made his way to a table. He ordered coffee from the waitress.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but at this time of day we reserve tables for those eating.’ Her accent was strong enough that he had to think quite hard to work out what she had said.
‘Oh. Right. Well, I –’
MAJOR UK TECHNOLOGY COMPANY IN INSIDER TRADING RIDDLE
He stared at the newspaper headline.
‘Mm?’ His skin began to prickle.
‘You have to order some food. If you want to sit down.’
The Financial Services Authority confirmed last night that it is investigating a traded UK technology company for insider trading worth millions of pounds. The investigation is understood to be taking place on both sides of the Atlantic, and involves the London and New York stock exchanges, and the SEC, the US equivalent to the FSA.
Nobody has yet been arrested, but a source within the City of London police said that this was ‘simply a matter of time’.
She’d said it twice before he heard her. He looked up. A young woman, her nose freckled, her natural hair teased and fluffed into a kind of matted arrangement. She was waiting in front of him. ‘What would you like to eat?’
‘Whatever.’ His mouth was the consistency of powder.
‘Um. Do you want me to tell you today’s specials? Or some of our more popular dishes?’
Simply a matter of time.
‘We do an all-day Burns breakfast –’
‘And we … You want the Burns breakfast?’
‘Do you want white or brown bread with that?’
He felt her staring at him. And then she scribbled a note, tucked her pad carefully into her waistband and walked away. And he sat and stared at the newspaper on the Formica table. Over the past seventy-two hours he might have felt like the whole world had gone topsy-turvy, but that had been a mere taster for what had been about to come.
‘I’m with a client.’
‘This won’t take a minute.’ He took a breath. ‘I’m not going to be at Dad’s lunch.’
A short, ominous silence
‘Please tell me I’m hallucinating through my ears.’
‘I can’t. Something’s come up.’
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