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When the hallway had emptied finally Jess reached into her back pocket and wrenched out a small rectangular card. She thrust it at him. ‘Call Mr Nicholls.’

‘But he’s halfway home by now. And what can he do?’

Jess bit her lip. She half turned away from him, then back again. ‘He can take us to Marty.’

Nicky stared at her.

‘Please. I know it’s awkward, but I can’t think what else to do. Tanzie needs something to help her up again, Nicky. She needs to see her dad.’

He was back within half an hour. He had just been down the road, he said, having a bite to eat. Nicky thought afterwards that if he had been thinking more clearly he might have wondered why Ed hadn’t gone very far, and why it had taken him so long to get a snack down him. But he was too busy arguing with Jess.

‘I know you don’t want to see your dad but –’

‘I’m not going.’

‘Tanzie needs this.’ Her face had that determined set, where you knew she was making out that she was taking your feelings into account but actually she was just going to make you do what she wanted you to do.

‘This is really not going to make anything better.’

‘For you, maybe. Look, Nicky, I know you have very mixed feelings about your dad right now, and I don’t blame you. I know it’s been a very confusing time –’

‘I’m not confused.’

‘Tanzie is at rock bottom. She needs something to give her a lift. And Marty is not that far away.’ She put out a hand and touched his arm. ‘Look, if you really don’t want to see him when we get there you can just stay in the car, okay? … I’m sorry,’ she said, when he didn’t say anything. ‘To be honest, I’m not exactly desperate to see him either. But we do have to do this.’

What could he tell her? What could he tell her that she would believe? And he supposed there was five per cent of him that still wondered if he was the one who was wrong.

Jess turned to Mr Nicholls, who had been leaning against his car watching silently. ‘Please. Will you give us a lift to Marty’s? His mum’s, I mean. I’m sorry. I know you’ve probably had enough of us and we’ve been a complete pain, but … but I haven’t got anyone else to ask. Tanzie … she needs her dad. Whatever I – we – think of him, she needs to see her dad. It’s only a couple of hours from here.’

He looked at her.

‘Okay, maybe more if we have to go slowly. But please – I need to turn this round. I really need to turn this round.’

Mr Nicholls stepped to one side and opened the passenger door. He stooped a little so that he could smile at Tanzie. ‘Let’s go.’

They all looked relieved. But it was a bad idea. A really bad idea. If only they’d asked him about the wallpaper Nicky could have told them why.

22.

Jess

The last time Jess had seen Maria Costanza was the day she had delivered Marty to her in Liam’s brother’s van. Marty had spent the last hundred miles to Glasgow asleep under a duvet, and as Jess stood in her immaculate front room and tried to explain her son’s breakdown she had looked at her as if Jess had personally tried to kill him.

Maria Costanza had never liked her. She’d thought her son deserved better than a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl with a home-dye and glittery nails, and nothing Jess had ever done since had changed her fundamental low opinion of her. She thought what Jess did with the house was peculiar. She thought the fact that Jess made most of the children’s clothes herself was wilfully eccentric. It never occurred to her to ask why she made their clothes, or why they couldn’t afford to pay someone else to decorate. Or why when the overflow blocked it was Jess who ended up under the sink wrestling with the U-bend.

She had tried. She really had. She was polite, and didn’t swear, or pick at bits of herself in public. She was faithful to Marty. She produced the world’s most amazing baby, and kept her clean, fed and cheerful. It took Jess about five years to grasp that it wasn’t her. Maria Costanza was just one of life’s lemon-suckers. Jess wasn’t sure she had ever seen a smile break spontaneously over her face, unless it was to report some piece of news about one of her friends or neighbours: a slashed tyre or a terminal illness, maybe.

She had tried to ring her twice, on Mr Nicholls’s phone, but got no answer.

‘Granny’s probably still at work,’ she told Tanzie, ringing off. ‘Or perhaps they’ve gone to see the new baby.’

‘You still want me to head over there?’ Mr Nicholls glanced at her.

‘Please. I’m sure they’ll be home by the time we get there. She never goes out in the evening.’

Nicky’s eyes met hers in the mirror and slid away. Jess didn’t blame him for being negative. If Maria Costanza’s reaction to Tanzie had been lukewarm, her discovery that she had a grandson she hadn’t even known about was met with the same enthusiasm as if they had announced a family case of scabies. Jess couldn’t tell if she was offended that he had existed for so long without her knowledge, or whether her inability to explain him without referring to (a) illegitimacy and (b) that her son had been involved with an addict meant that she just found it easier to ignore him altogether. It was one of the reasons why, when Marty had announced, six months after he’d left, that he was feeling a bit better so they should all come up and stay, it had been quite easy to say no on the grounds of cost.

‘You looking forward to seeing Daddy, Tanze?’ Jess turned in her seat. Tanzie was leaning against Norman, her face solemn and exhausted. Her eyes slid to Jess’s and she gave the smallest of nods.

‘It will be great to see him. And Granny,’ Jess said brightly. ‘I’m not sure why we didn’t think of it sooner.’

It was as she went to ring Marty that she realized he’d been on voicemail for as long as she could remember. They only ever spoke via Skype or on his mobile, which was rarely switched on. That, she thought, was going to change. A lot of things were going to change.

They drove in silence. Tanzie dozed, resting against the dog. Nicky sat and watched the darkening sky in silence. She didn’t feel like putting music on. She didn’t dare let the children see how she felt about what had happened in Aberdeen. She couldn’t let herself think about it. One thing at a time, she told herself. Just get Tanzie back on track. And then I’ll work out what to do next.

‘You okay?’

‘Fine.’ She could see he didn’t believe her. ‘She’ll feel better once she sees her dad. I know it.’

‘She could always do another Olympiad, next year. She’ll know what to expect then.’

Jess tried to smile. ‘Mr Nicholls. That sounds suspiciously like optimism.’

He turned to her and his eyes were full of sympathy.

She was relieved to be back in his car. She had begun to feel oddly safe there, like nothing really bad could happen while they were all inside it. She tried to imagine the reception they would get from Marty’s mother, especially once the older woman discovered they were all going to have to stay with her overnight. Jess pictured being in the front room of Costanza’s little house, trying to explain the events that had led them there. She pictured Marty’s face when she told him about the Rolls-Royce. She saw them all waiting at a bus stop tomorrow, the first stage in an interminable journey home. She wondered briefly whether she could ask Mr Nicholls to mind Norman till they got back. Thinking about this made her remember how much this whole escapade had cost, and she pushed the thought away. One thing at a time.

And then she must have nodded off, because someone had hold of her arm.

‘Jess?’

‘Nngh?’

‘Jess? I think we’re here. That satnav says this is her address. Does this look right to you?’

She pushed herself upright, un-cricking her neck. The windows of the neat, white terraced house gazed unblinking back at her. Her stomach lurched reflexively.

‘What’s the time?’

‘Just before seven.’ He waited while she rubbed her eyes. ‘Well, the lights are on,’ he said. ‘I’m guessing they’re home.’

He turned in his seat as she pushed herself upright. ‘Hey, kids, we’re here. Time to see your dad.’

Tanzie’s hand gripped Jess’s tightly as they walked up the path. Nicky had refused to get out of the car, saying he’d wait with Mr Nicholls. Jess decided she’d let Tanzie go in before she went back and tried to reason with him.

‘Are you excited?’

Tanzie nodded, her little face suddenly hopeful and, just briefly, Jess sensed that she had done the right thing. They would salvage something out of this trip, if it killed her. Whatever issues she and Marty had could be sorted out later. They paused to gaze at the peach-coloured rosebush that sat halfway along the path, placed, Jess always thought, to snag the unwary. Two new small barrels sat by the front steps, filled with a purple flower she didn’t recognize. She straightened her jacket, smoothed the hair from Tanzie’s face, leant forward and wiped a bit of something from the corner of her mouth, and then she rang the doorbell.

Maria Costanza saw Tanzie first. She gazed at her, and then up at Jess, and several expressions, none quite identifiable, flickered rapidly across her face.

Jess answered them with her cheeriest smile. ‘Hey, Maria. We, um, were in the area, and I just thought we couldn’t pass without seeing Marty. And you.’

Maria Costanza stared at her.

‘We did try to call,’ Jess continued, her voice a sing-song, and odd to her ears. ‘Quite a few times. I would have left a message but …’

‘Hi, Granny.’ Tanzie ran forwards and threw herself at her grandmother’s waist. Maria Costanza’s hand went down and she let it rest limply against Tanzie’s back. She had dyed her hair a shade too dark, Jess noted absently. Maria Costanza stayed like that for a moment, then glanced at the car, where Nicky stared out impassively from the rear window.

God, would it kill you to express some enthusiasm, just once? Jess thought. ‘Nicky will be over in a minute,’ she said, keeping the smile firmly on her face. ‘He’s just woken up. I’m … giving him a moment.’

They stood and faced each other, waiting.

‘So …’ Jess said, when she didn’t speak, and peered past the older woman down the hall.

‘He – he’s not here,’ Maria Costanza said.

‘Is he at work?’ She had sounded more eager than she had intended. ‘I mean, it’s lovely if he’s feeling … well enough to work.’

‘He’s not here, Jessica.’

‘Is he ill?’ Oh, Christ, she thought. Something’s happened. And then she saw it. An emotion she was not sure she’d ever seen on Maria Costanza’s features. Embarrassment.

Jess watched her attempt to cover it. She glanced behind her, folded her arms.

‘So where is he?’

‘You … I think you should talk to him.’ Maria Costanza brought a hand to her mouth, as if to prevent herself saying more, then extricated herself gently from her grandchild. ‘Hold on. I’ll get you his address.’

‘His address?’

She left Tanzie and Jess standing on the doorstep, and disappeared down the little hallway, half closing the door behind her. Tanzie looked up quizzically. Jess smiled reassuringly. It wasn’t quite as easy as it had been.

The door opened again. She handed over a piece of paper. ‘It will take you maybe one hour, maybe an hour and a half, depending on the traffic.’ Jess registered her stiff features, then looked past her to the little hallway, where nothing had changed in the fifteen years she had known her. Nothing at all. And somewhere in the back of Jess’s head a little bell began to chime.

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