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‘Look, is there any way we can delay the start by a few minutes? We really, really need to get her some glasses. She can’t see without them.’

‘No, madam. If she’s not in her place in thirty seconds I’m afraid we’ll have to start without her.’

‘Then can I go in? I could read her the questions?’

‘But I can’t write without my glasses.’

‘Then I’ll write for you.’

‘Mum …’

Jess knew she was beaten. She looked over at Nicky and gave a vague shake of her head that said, I don’t know what to do.

Nicky crouched beside her. ‘You can do this, Tanze. You can. You can do this stuff standing on your head. Just hold the paper really, really close to your eyes and take your time.’

She was staring blindly into the hall. Beyond the door the students were shuffling into place, dragging chairs under desks, arranging pencils in front of them.

‘And as soon as Mr Nicholls gets here we’ll bring the glasses in to you.’

‘Really. Just go in and do your best and we’ll be waiting here. Norman will just be on the other side of the wall. We all will. And then we’ll go and get some lunch. Nothing to stress about.’

The woman with the clipboard walked over. ‘Are you going to take part in the competition, Costanza?’

‘Her name’s Tanzie,’ Nicky said. The woman didn’t seem to hear. Tanzie nodded mutely and allowed herself to be led to a desk. She looked so damned little.

‘You can do it, Tanzie!’ His voice burst out of him suddenly, bouncing off the walls of the hall, so that the man at the back tutted. ‘Back of the net, Titch!’

‘Oh, for goodness’ sake,’ someone muttered.

‘Back of the net!’ Nicky yelled again, so that Jess looked at him in shock.

And then a bell rang, the door closed in front of them with a solid thunk, and it was just Nicky and Jess on the other side, with a couple of hours to kill.

‘Right,’ said Jess, when she finally tore her gaze away from the door. She put her hands into her pockets, took them out again, straightened her hair and sighed. ‘Right.’

‘He will come,’ said Nicky, who was suddenly not entirely sure he would.

‘I know that.’

The silence that followed was long enough that they were forced to smile awkwardly at each other. The corridor emptied slowly, apart from one organizer who murmured to himself as he ran his pencil down a list of names.

‘Probably stuck in traffic.’

‘It was pretty bad.’

Nicky could picture Tanzie on the other side of the door, squinting at her papers, looking around for help that wouldn’t come. Jess stared up at the ceiling, swore softly, then tied and retied her ponytail. He guessed she was doing the same.

And then there was the sound of a distant commotion and Mr Nicholls appeared, running down the corridor like a crazy man and holding aloft a plastic bag that looked as if it might be entirely full of pairs of glasses. And as he launched himself at the desk and started arguing with the organizers – the kind of argument that comes from someone who knows there is no way in the world he is going to lose – the relief Nicky felt was so overwhelming that he had to go outside, slump against the wall and drop his head to his knees until his breathing no longer threatened to turn into a huge, gulping sob.

It was weird saying goodbye to Mr Nicholls. They stood by his car in the drizzle and Jess was acting all oh-I-don’t-care, even though she obviously did. And Nicky really wanted to thank him for the whole hacking thing, driving them all that way and just being, you know, weirdly decent, but then Mr Nicholls went and gave him his spare phone and he was so choked that all that came out was this weird strangulated ‘Thanks.’ And then that was it. And he and Jess were walking across the campus car park with Norman, and both of them were pretending they couldn’t hear Mr Nicholls’s car driving away.

They stopped by the corridor, and Jess stashed their bags in the cloakroom. Then she turned to Nicky and brushed non-existent fluff from his shoulder, and her voice was so brusque that for a moment he didn’t notice her jaw was really really tight. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘let’s go and walk this dog, shall we?’

It was true that Nicky didn’t talk much. It wasn’t that he didn’t have stuff to say. It was just that there was nobody he really wanted to say it to. Ever since he had gone to live with Dad and Jess, when he was eight, people had been trying to get him to talk about his ‘feelings’, like they were a big rucksack he could just drag around with him and open up for everyone to examine the contents. But half the time he didn’t even know what he thought. He didn’t have opinions about politics or the economy or what happened to him. He didn’t even have an opinion about his birth mum. She was an addict. She liked drugs more than she liked him. What else was there to say?

Nicky went to the counselling for a bit, like they said. The woman seemed to want him to get mad about what had happened to him. Nicky had told her he wasn’t angry because he understood that his mum couldn’t look after him. It wasn’t as if it was personal. If he had been any kid she would have dumped them just the same. She was just … sad. He had seen so little of her when he was small that he didn’t even really feel like she was anything to do with him.

But the counsellor kept saying: ‘You must let it out, Nicholas. It’s not good for you to internalize what happened to you.’ She gave him two little stuffed figures and wanted him to act out ‘how your mother’s abandonment made you feel’.

Nicky didn’t like to tell her that it was the thought of having to sit in her office playing with dolls and being called Nicholas that made him feel destructive. He just wasn’t a particularly angry person. Not with his real mum, not even with Jason Fisher, although he didn’t expect anyone to understand. Fisher was just an idiot who didn’t have the brainpower to do anything but hit out. Fisher knew on some deep level that he had nothing. That he was never going to be anything. He knew that he was a phoney, and that nobody liked him, not really. So he turned it all outwards, transferred his bad feelings to the nearest available person (See? The therapy had done something useful).

So when Jess said they should go for a walk, a little bit of Nicky was wary. He didn’t want to get into some big conversation about his feelings. He didn’t want to discuss any of it. He was all braced to deflect, and then she scratched her head a bit, and said, ‘Is it just me, or does it feel a bit weird without Mr Nicholls?’

This was what they talked about:

The unexpected beauty of some of Aberdeen’s buildings.

The dog.

Whether either of them had brought plastic bags for the dog.

Which of them was going to kick that thing under the parked car so that nobody trod in it.

The best way to clean the toes of your shoes on grass.

Whether it was actually possible to clean the toes of your shoes on grass.

Nicky’s face, as in did it hurt. (Answer: no, not any more.)

Other bits of him, as in did they (no, no, and a bit, but it was improving.)

His jeans, as in why didn’t he pull them up so that his pants weren’t always showing?

Why his pants were actually his own business.

Whether they should tell Dad about the Rolls. Nicky told her she should pretend it had been nicked. What would he know? And it would serve him right. But Jess said she couldn’t lie to him because that wouldn’t be fair. And then she went quiet for a while.

Was he okay? Did he feel better for being away from home? Was he worried about going home? This was where Nicky stopped talking and started shrugging. What was there to say?

This was what they didn’t talk about:

Tanzie. She hung in the air between them the whole way around that university campus. Nicky could picture her, tongue wedged in the side of her mouth, head down, scribbling away in her own little world of numbers. He knew Jess was doing the same.

What it would be like if they actually went home with five thousand pounds.

If Tanzie went to that school and he left school before sixth form, whether Jess would want him to pick her up from St Anne’s every day.

The takeaway that they would definitely get tonight in celebration. Possibly not a kebab.

That Jess was plainly freezing, even if she insisted she was fine. All the little hairs on her arms were standing bolt upright.

Mr Nicholls. Most notably, where Jess had actually slept the previous night. And why they had kept stealing looks at each other like a pair of teenagers all morning, even while they were grumping at each other. Nicky honestly thought she thought they were all stupid sometimes.

But it was kind of okay, the talking thing. He thought he might even do it more often.

They were waiting outside the doors when they finally opened at two o’clock. Tanzie walked out in the first batch, her furry pencil case clutched in front of her, and Jess held out her arms wide, all braced for celebration.

‘So? How was it?’

She looked at them steadily.

‘Did you muller them, Titch?’ said Nicky, grinning.

And then, abruptly, Tanzie’s face crumpled like it had done when she was little and fell over, and there was a three-second gap between whatever Bad Thing had just happened and a gigantic Bad Thing Wail coming out.

Jess grabbed her and pulled her close, maybe to reassure her, maybe to hide the shock on her face, and Nicky put his arm around her on the other side, and Norman sat there on her feet, and as the other kids filed past, some of them chatting, a few silent as they looked at Tanzie, she told them what had happened, through muffled sobs.

‘I lost the whole first half-hour. And I didn’t understand some of their accents. And I couldn’t see properly. And I got really nervous and I kept staring at my paper and then by the time I got the glasses it took me ages to find a pair that fitted me and then I couldn’t even understand the first question.’

Jess scanned the corridor for the organizers. ‘I’ll talk to them. I’ll explain what happened. I mean, you couldn’t see. That’s got to count for something. Maybe we could get them to adjust the score to take it into account.’

‘No. I don’t want you talking to them. I didn’t understand the first question, even when I got the right glasses. I couldn’t make it work the way they said it should work.’

‘But maybe –’

‘I messed it up,’ Tanzie wailed. ‘I don’t want to go over it. I just want to go.’

‘You didn’t mess anything up, sweetheart. Really. You did your best. That’s all that matters.’ Jess kept stroking her back, as if that could make it all better.

‘But it’s not, is it? Because I can’t go to St Anne’s without the money.’

‘Well, there must be … Don’t worry, Tanze. I’ll work something out.’

It was her least convincing smile ever. And Tanzie wasn’t stupid. She cried like someone heartbroken.

Nicky had honestly never seen her like that. It actually made him want to cry a bit too. ‘Let’s go home,’ he said, when it became unbearable.

But that made Tanzie cry harder.

Jess looked up at him, her face bleached and completely lost, and it was like she was asking him, Nicky, what shall I do? And the fact that just for once even Jess didn’t know made him feel like something had gone really wrong with the world. And then he thought: I really, really wish Jess hadn’t confiscated my stash. He didn’t think he had ever needed a smoke more in his life.

They waited there in the hallway as the other competitors fell into groups or shared sandwiches or retreated into cars with their parents and just for once Nicky realized he did feel angry. He was angry with the stupid boys who had put his little sister off her stroke. He was angry with the stupid maths competition and its rules that wouldn’t bend a tiny bit for a little girl who couldn’t see. He was angry that they had come all this way across an entire country just to fail again. Like there was nothing this family could do that turned out right. Nothing at all.

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