Page 39

‘Right,’ she said, and she wasn’t smiling any more.

Maria Costanza couldn’t hold her gaze. She stooped then, and put her palm against Tanzie’s cheek. ‘You come back and stay with your nonna soon, yes?’ She looked up at Jess. ‘You bring her back? It’s been a long time.’

That look of mute appeal, of acknowledgement in her duplicity, was more unnerving than almost anything she had ever done in the years of their relationship.

Jess swept Tanzie towards the car.

Mr Nicholls looked up. He didn’t say anything.

‘Here.’ Jess handed him the paper. ‘We need to go here.’ Wordlessly he began to program the postcode into the satnav. Her heart was thumping.

She looked in the rear-view mirror. ‘You knew,’ she said, when Tanzie finally put her earphones in.

Nicky pulled at his fringe, gazing out at his grandmother’s house. ‘It was the last few times we’ve spoken to him on Skype. Granny would never have had that wallpaper.’

She didn’t ask him where Marty was. She thought she probably had an idea, even then.

They drove the hour in silence. Jess wanted to be reassuring, but she couldn’t speak. A million possibilities ran through her head. Occasionally she looked into the mirror, watching Nicky. His face was closed, turned resolutely towards the roadside. She began slowly to reconsider his reluctance to come here, even to speak to his father these last few months, casting it in a new light.

They drove through the dusky countryside to the outskirts of a new town and an estate where the houses were box fresh, laid out in careful, sweeping curves, and new cars gleamed outside like statements of intent. Mr Nicholls pulled up in Castle Court, where four cherry trees stood like sentinels along the narrow pavement upon which she suspected nobody ever walked. The house was newly built; its Regency-style windows gleamed, its slate roof shone in the drizzle.

She stared at it out of the window.

‘You okay?’ They were the only two words Mr Nicholls had spoken the entire journey.

‘You wait here a minute, kids,’ Jess said, and climbed out.

She walked up to the front door, double-checked the address on the piece of paper, then rapped on the brass knocker. Inside she could hear the sound of a television, saw the vague shadow of someone moving under bright light.

She knocked again. She barely felt the rain.

Footsteps in the hallway. The door opened and a blonde woman stood in front of her. She wore a dark red wool dress and court shoes, and her hair was cut in one of those styles that women wear when they work in retail or banking but don’t want to look like they’ve entirely given up on the idea of being a rock chick.

‘Is Marty there?’ Jess said. The woman made as if to speak, then looked Jess up and down, at her flip-flops, at her crumpled white trousers, and in the several seconds that followed, the faint hardening of her expression, Jess could see she knew. She knew about her.

‘Wait there,’ she said.

The door half closed, and Jess heard her shout down the narrow corridor. ‘Mart? Mart?’

Mart.

She heard his voice, muffled, laughing, saying something about television, and then her voice dropped. She saw their shadows behind the frosted-glass panels. And then the door opened and he stood there.

Marty had grown his hair. He had a long, floppy fringe, swept carefully to one side like a teenager. He wore jeans she didn’t recognize, in deep indigo, and he had lost weight. He looked like someone she didn’t know. And he had gone quite, quite pale. ‘Jess.’

She couldn’t speak.

They stared at each other. He swallowed. ‘I was going to tell you.’

Right up to that point a part of her had refused to believe it could be true. Right up to that point she had thought there must be some huge mistake, that Marty was staying with a friend or he was ill again and Maria Costanza, with her misplaced pride, just couldn’t face admitting it. But there was no mistaking what was right in front of her.

It took her several seconds to find her voice. ‘This? This is … where you’ve been living?’

She stumbled backwards, now taking in the immaculate front garden, the new three-piece suite, just visible through the window. Her hip bumped against a car on the drive and she put out her hand, to support herself, pulling it away as if burnt when she realized what it was. ‘All this time? We’ve been scratching around for the last two years just to stay warm and fed and you’re here with an executive home and a – a brand-new Toyota?’

Marty glanced awkwardly behind him. ‘We need to talk, Jess.’

And then she saw the wallpaper in his dining room. The thick stripe. And it all fell into place. His insistence that they only speak at set times. The lack of a landline phone number. Maria Costanza’s assurance that he was sleeping whenever she rang outside the usual time. Her determination to get Jess off the telephone as quickly as possible.

‘We need to talk?’ Jess was half laughing now. ‘Yes, let’s talk, Marty. How about I talk? For two years I’ve not made a single demand on you – not for money or time or childcare or help of any kind. Because I thought you were ill. I thought you were depressed. I thought you were living with your MOTHER.’

‘I was living with Mum.’

‘Till when?’

He compressed his lips.

‘Till when, Marty?’ Her voice was shrill.

‘Fifteen months.’

‘You were with your mum fifteen months?’

He looked at his feet.

‘You’ve been here fifteen months? You’ve been here more than a year?’

‘I wanted to tell you. But I knew that you’d –’

‘What – kick off? Because you’re here living a life of luxury while your wife and kids are back at home scrabbling around in the crap you left behind?’

‘Jess …’

She was briefly silenced as the door opened abruptly. A little girl appeared behind him, her hair a virgin sheet of blonde, wearing a Hollister sweatshirt and Converse trainers. She tugged at his sleeve. ‘It’s your programme, Marty,’ she began, and then she saw Jess and stopped.

‘Go to your mum, babe,’ he said quietly, his gaze flicking sideways. He put his hand gently on her shoulder. ‘I’ll be through in a minute.’

She looked at Jess warily, perhaps picking up on some strange vibration in the air. She was the same age as Tanzie. ‘Go on.’ He pulled the door behind him.

And that was when Jess’s heart actually broke.

‘She … she has kids?’

He swallowed. ‘Two.’

Her hands went to her face, and then her hair. She turned and walked blindly back down the path. She didn’t actually know where she was going. ‘Oh, God. Oh, God.’

‘Jess – I never set out to –’

She spun round and flew at him. She wanted to batter him. She wanted to smash his stupid face and his expensive haircut. She wanted him to know the pain he had put his children through. She wanted him to pay. He ducked behind the car and, almost without knowing what she was doing, she found she was kicking at it, at its oversized wheels, its gleaming panels, the stupid bright white shiny stupid immaculate stupid car.

‘You lied! You lied to all of us! And I was trying to protect you! I can’t believe … I can’t –’ She kicked and felt the faint satisfaction as the metal gave, even as the pain shot up her foot. She kicked again and again, not caring, her fists raining blows on the window.

‘Jess! The car! Are you f**king mad?’

She rained blows down on that car because she could not rain the blows on him. She hit with her hands and her feet, not caring, sobbing with fury, her rasping breath loud in her ears. And when he wrenched her off it, wedging himself between her and the panels, his grip tight on her arms, she felt a momentary flicker of fear that they were into some new realm of craziness now, that her life had spun utterly out of control, and then she looked into his eyes, his coward’s eyes, and there was a loud buzzing in her head. She wanted to smash –

‘Jess.’

Mr Nicholls’s arm was around her waist, easing her backwards.

‘Get off me!’

‘The kids are watching. Come on now.’ A hand on her arm.

She couldn’t breathe. A moan rose up through her whole body. She allowed herself to be pulled a few steps back. Marty was shouting something she couldn’t hear through the din in her head.

‘Come … come away.’

The kids. She looked at the car, and saw Tanzie’s face, wide-eyed with shock, Nicky a motionless black silhouette behind her. She looked to the other side, at the executive house where two small, pale faces watched from the living room, their mother behind them. When she saw Jess looking she lowered the blind.

‘You’re mad,’ yelled Marty, staring at the dented panels of the car. ‘Completely effing mad.’

She had begun to shake. Mr Nicholls put his arms around her, and steered her into the car. ‘Get in. Sit down,’ he said, closing the door once she was inside. Marty was walking slowly down the pathway towards them, his old swagger suddenly visible now that she was the one in the wrong. She thought he was about to pick a fight, but when he was about fifteen feet away he peered into the car, stooping slightly as if to check, and then she heard the rear door open behind her and Tanzie was out and running towards him.

‘Daddy!’ she cried, and he swept her up in his arms and then Jess no longer knew what she felt about anything.

She wasn’t sure how long she sat there, staring at the footwell. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t feel. She heard murmuring voices on the pathway, and at one point, Nicky reached forward and touched her shoulder lightly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, his voice cracking.

She reached behind and gripped his hand fiercely. ‘Not. Your. Fault,’ she whispered.

The door opened finally and Mr Nicholls put his head in. His face was wet, and rain dripped from his collar. ‘Okay. Tanzie’s going to stay here for a couple of hours.’

She stared at him, suddenly alert. ‘Oh, no,’ she began. ‘He doesn’t get to have her. Not after what he’s –’

‘This isn’t about you and him, Jess.’

Jess turned towards the house. The front door was slightly ajar. Tanzie was already inside. ‘But she can’t stay there. Not with them …’

He climbed into the driver’s seat, then he reached across and took her hand. His was ice cold and damp. ‘Tanzie needs to see her dad.’

He spoke to her like someone explaining something to a difficult child. ‘She’s had a bad day and she asked if she could spend some time with him. And, Jess, if this really is his life now, then surely she has to be part of it.’

‘But it’s not –’

‘Fair. I know.’

They sat there, the three of them, staring at the brightly lit little house. Her daughter was in there. With Marty’s new family. It was as if someone had reached in, gripped her heart and ripped it out through her ribs.

She couldn’t take her eyes from the window. ‘What if she changes her mind? She’ll be all alone. And we don’t know them. I don’t know this woman. She could be …’

‘She’s with her dad. She’ll be okay.’

She stared at Mr Nicholls. His face was sympathetic. But his voice was oddly firm. ‘Why are you on his side?’ she whispered.

‘I’m not on his side.’ His fingers closed around hers. ‘Look, we’ll all go find somewhere to eat. We’ll be back in a couple of hours. We stay close by and we can come back for her any time if she needs us.’

‘No. I’ll stay,’ said a voice from behind. ‘I’ll stay with her. So that she’s not by herself.’

Jess turned. Nicky was gazing out of the window. ‘Are you sure?’

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