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‘Something.’

‘I’ll explain later.’

‘No. You wait. Hold on.’

He heard the muffled sound of a hand over a phone. Possibly a clenched fist. ‘Sandra. I need to take this outside. Back in a …’ Footsteps. And then, as if someone had turned the volume up to full blast: ‘Really? Are you f**king kidding me? Really?’

Ed stared at the booth across the restaurant. An old couple sat side by side, saying nothing, eating their fish and chips with methodical accuracy. He had thought this would be a good time to do it. How could it have been any worse?

‘I’m sorry.’

‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. I can’t believe it. It’s tomorrow, Ed. Do you have any idea how hard Mum’s worked to pull it together? Deirdre, Simon, the Grahams, that couple from down the road they’re always going on about? They’re all coming. They’re coming because Mum and Dad want to show you off. Do you have any idea how much they’re looking forward to seeing you? Dad sat down last week and worked out how long it had been since they last saw you. December, Ed. That’s four months. Four months in which he’s got more and more sick and you have f**king well failed to do anything useful other than send him some stupid f**king magazines.’

‘He said he liked the New Yorker. I thought it gave him something to do.’

‘He can barely f**king see, Ed. As you’d know if you’d bothered to come up. He likes bloody magazines if there’s someone to read them to him. And Mum gets so bored reading those long pieces that her brain actually starts to seep through her ears.’

On and on she went. It was like having a hairdryer turned on full strength in his ear.

‘Mum is so freaking desperate to see you. She’s actually cooked your favourite food rather than Dad’s for their anniversary lunch. That’s how much she wants to see you. And now, twenty-four hours before the actual thing, you just announce that you can’t come? Just like that? No explanation? What the hell is this? I can’t believe you. I defended you to Auntie Sheila when she said that that job was making you self-important, when she said you were getting too grand for your own family. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether she was right.’

His ears actually grew warm. He sat there, closed his eyes. When he opened them, it was twenty to two. The Olympiad would now be more than three-quarters through. He thought of Tanzie in that university hall, her head bent over her papers, the floor around her littered with redundant spectacles. He hoped for her sake that, faced with a page full of figures, she would relax and do the thing she was so plainly made to do. He thought of Nicky, sloping around outside, perhaps trying to find somewhere for a sneaky smoke.

He thought of Jess, seated on a holdall, the dog at her side, her hands clasped together on her knees as if in prayer, convinced that if she wished hard enough, good things would finally happen.

‘You are a bloody disgrace for a human being, Ed. Really.’ His sister’s voice was choked by tears.

‘I know.’

‘Oh, and don’t think I’m going to tell them. I’m not doing your damned dirty work for you.’

‘Gem. Please – there is a reason –’

‘Don’t even think about it. You want to break their hearts, then you do it. I’m done here, Ed. I can’t believe you’re my brother.’

Ed swallowed hard as she put down the phone. And then he let out a long slow, shuddering breath. What difference? It was only half of what they would all say if they knew the truth.

This way he could just be an uncaring, too-successful son. Too busy to see his family. Better than an utter failure. An embarrassment. A man who broke his father’s heart.

It was there, in the half-empty restaurant, seated on a red leatherette banquette and facing a slowly congealing breakfast he didn’t want that Ed finally understood how much he missed his father. He would have given anything just to see that reassuring nod, to watch that somehow oddly reluctant smile break over his face. He hadn’t missed his home for the fifteen years since he had left it, yet suddenly he felt so homesick that it overwhelmed him. He sat in the restaurant staring out of the faintly greasy window at the cars whizzing past on the motorway and something he couldn’t quite identify broke over him like the rolling of a vast wave. For the first time in his adult life – despite the divorce, the investigation, the thing with Deanna Lewis – Ed Nicholls found he was fighting back tears.

He sat and pressed his hands into his eyes and tightened his jaw until he could think about nothing other than the feeling of his back teeth pressing against each other.

‘Is everything okay?’

The young waitress’s eyes were vaguely wary, as if she were trying to assess whether this man was going to be trouble.

‘Fine,’ he said. He had meant to sound reassuring, but his voice cracked on the word. And then, when she didn’t seem convinced: ‘Migraine.’

Her face relaxed immediately. ‘Oh. Migraine. Sympathies. They’re buggers. You got something for it?’

Ed shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.

‘I knew there was something wrong.’ She stood in front of him for a moment. ‘Hold on.’ She walked over to the counter, one hand reaching up to the back of her head, where her hair was pinned into an elaborate twist. She leant over, fumbling towards something he couldn’t see, then walked back slowly. She glanced behind her, then dropped two pills in a foil casing on his table.

‘I’m not meant to give customers pills, obviously, but these are great. Only thing that works for mine. Don’t drink any more coffee, though – it’ll make it worse. I’ll get you some water.’

He blinked at her, then down at the pills.

‘It’s okay. They’re nothing dodgy. Just Migra-gone.’

‘That’s very kind of you.’

‘They take about twenty minutes. But then – oh! Relief!’ Her smile wrinkled her nose. Kind eyes, under all the mascara, he saw now. A sweet, open face. A face whose emotions had not yet been battered by experience.

She took away his coffee mug, as if to protect him from himself. Ed found himself thinking about Jess. Good things happen. Sometimes when you least expect them.

‘Thank you,’ he said quietly.

‘You’re welcome.’

And then his phone rang. The sound echoed in the roadside café and he gazed down at the screen as he stemmed the sound. Not a number he recognized.

‘Mr Nicholls?’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s Nicky. Nicky Thomas. Um. I’m really sorry to bother you. But we need your help.’

21.

Nicky

It had been obvious to Nicky that this was a bad idea from the moment they had pulled into the car park. Every other kid at that place – apart from maybe one or two at the most – was a boy. Every single one was at least two years older than Tanze. Most looked like they were not unfamiliar with the Asperger’s scale. They wore wool blazers, bad haircuts, braces, the overly scruffy shirts of the properly middle class. Their parents drove Volvos.

The Thomas family were Aldi to their Waitrose, generic ketchup to their pesto. Tanzie, in her pink trousers and denim jacket with the sequins and felt flowers that Jess had sewn on, was as out of place as if she had been dropped there from outer space.

Nicky knew she was uncomfortable, even before Norman had broken her glasses. She had grown quieter and quieter in the car, locked in her own little world of nerves and car-sickness. He had tried to nudge her out of it – this was actually an act of epic selflessness as she smelt pretty bad – but by the time they had hit Aberdeen she had retreated so far inside herself that she was unreachable. Jess was so focused on getting there that she couldn’t see it. She was all tied up with Mr Nicholls, the glasses and the sick bags. She hadn’t considered for a minute that kids from private schools could be just as mean as kids from McArthur’s.

Jess had been at the desk registering Tanzie and collecting her name tag and paperwork. Nicky had been checking out Mr Nicholls’s phone, so he hadn’t really paid any attention to the two boys who went and stood next to Tanzie, as she peered up at the desk plan at the entrance to the hall. He couldn’t hear them because he had his ear-buds in, and he was listening to Depeche Mode without really noticing anything at all. Until he caught sight of Tanzie’s crestfallen face. And he pulled an ear-bud from one ear.

The boy with the braces was staring at her, a slow up and down. ‘You are at the right place? You know that the Justin Bieber fan convention is down the road?’

The skinnier boy laughed.

Tanzie looked at them with round eyes.

‘Have you been to an Olympiad before?’

‘No,’ she said.

‘Quel surprise. I can’t say many Olympians bring furry pencil cases. Have you got your furry pencil case, James?’

‘I think I forgot mine. Oh dear.’

‘My mum made it for me,’ Tanzie said stiffly.

‘Your mum made it for you.’ They looked at each other. ‘Is it your lucky pencil case?’

‘Do you know anything about string theory?’

‘I think she’s more likely to know about stink theory. Or … Hey, James, can you smell something unpleasant? Like vomit? Do you think someone’s a bit nervous?’

Tanzie ducked her head and bolted past them into the loos.

‘That’s the Gents!’ they cried, and fell about laughing.

As the boys made to walk into the main hall Nicky stepped forward and put his hand on the back of Braces’ neck. ‘Hey, kid. HEY.’

The boy spun round. His eyes widened. Nicky moved in, so that his voice was a low whisper. He was suddenly glad that he had a weird yellow tinge to his skin and a scar on the side of his face. ‘Dude. A word. You ever speak to my sister like that again – anyone’s sister – and I will personally come back here and tie your legs into a complex equation. You got that?’

He nodded, his mouth open.

Nicky gave him his best Fisher Psycho Stare. Long enough for the boy to do one of those massive Adam’s-apple-bobbing gulps. ‘Not nice being nervous, is it?’

The boy shook his head.

Nicky patted him on the shoulder. ‘Good. Glad we’re straight. Go do your sums.’ He turned and began to walk towards the loos.

One of the teachers stepped in front of him then, one hand raised, his face questioning. ‘Excuse me? Did I just see you …’

‘… wishing him luck? Yes. Great kid. Great kid.’ Nicky shook his head, as if in admiration, then headed for the Gents to fetch Tanzie.

When Jess and Tanzie emerged from the Ladies, Tanzie’s top was damp where Jess had scrubbed at it with soap and water, her face blotchy and pale.

‘You don’t want to pay any attention to a little squit like that, Tanze,’ Nicky said, climbing to his feet. ‘He was just trying to put you off.’

‘Which one was it?’ Jess’s expression was flinty. ‘Tell me, Nicky.’

Yeah. Because Jess going in all guns blazing was going to be exactly the start to the competition that Tanzie needed. ‘I … um … don’t think I could recognize him. Anyway, I sorted it.’

He kind of liked the words. I sorted it.

‘But I can’t see, Mum. What am I going to do if I can’t see?’

‘Mr Nicholls is getting you some glasses. Don’t worry.’

‘But what if he doesn’t? What if he doesn’t even come back?’

I wouldn’t have done, Nicky thought, if I were him. They had totalled his nice car. And he looked about ten years older than when they had set off.

‘He’ll come back,’ Jess said.

‘Mrs Thomas. We need to start. Your daughter has thirty seconds to take her seat.’

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