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Mr Daly looked over. He didn’t seem to mind about the missing manners. ‘Mr Cruikshank, have we any spares?’

‘You can take these.’

He handed them over! Just like that! Tanzie began flicking through them. Outside a bell rang and she could hear children walking past the office window, their feet crunching on the gravel. She poked her head up to look at them. She wanted to see if any others were reading books.

‘So … what happens next?’

‘Well, we’d like to offer Costanza … Tanzie … a scholarship.’ He lifted a glossy folder from the table. ‘Here’s our prospectus, and the relevant documentation. The scholarship covers ninety per cent of the fees. It’s the most generous scholarship this school has ever offered. Usually fifty per cent is our maximum, given the extensive waiting list of pupils hoping to come here. The new scholarship is designed to recognize children with unusual levels of ability.’

‘Like me,’ Tanzie said.

‘Like you.’ He held out the plate towards her. Somehow they had replaced the biscuits on the plate with new ones. This really was the greatest school ever.

‘Ninety per cent,’ Mum said. She put her biscuit back on her saucer.

‘I do appreciate that there is still a considerable financial commitment involved. And there would also be uniform and travel costs, and any extras she might want, like music or school trips. But I would like to stress that this is an incredible opportunity.’ He leant forward. ‘We would love to have you here, Tanzie. Your maths teacher says you’re a joy to work with.’

‘I like school,’ she said, reaching for another biscuit. ‘I know lots of my friends think it’s boring. But I prefer school to home.’

They all laughed awkwardly.

‘Not because of you, Mum,’ she said, and helped herself to another. ‘But my mum does have to work a lot.’

Everyone went quiet.

‘We all do, these days,’ said Mr Cruikshank.

‘Well. It’s a lot for you to think about. And I’m sure you have other questions for us. But why don’t you finish your coffee, while we talk, and then I’ll get one of our pupils to show you around the rest of the school? Then you can discuss this between yourselves.’

That evening Mum went up to Nicky’s room and got him to hook the computer up to Skype. Every Sunday she would text Dad half an hour before, and he would set up the computer at Grandma’s so that Tanzie could speak to him. She would sit at Nicky’s desk and try not to be distracted by the little image of herself in the corner. It always made her look like she had a really weird-shaped head.

Except it wasn’t Sunday.

Tanzie was downstairs in the garden throwing a ball for Norman. She was determined that one day he would fetch it and bring it back. Tanzie had read somewhere that repetition increases the probability of an animal learning how to do something by a factor of four. She wasn’t sure Norman could count, though.

They had got Norman from the animal shelter when Dad first left and Mum stayed awake for eleven nights in a row worrying that they would be murdered in their beds once everyone realized he’d gone. Brilliant with kids, a fantastic guard dog, the rescue centre said. Mum kept saying, ‘But he’s so big.’

‘Even more of a deterrent,’ they said, with cheery smiles. ‘And did we mention he’s brilliant with kids?’

Two years on, Mum said Norman was basically an enormous eating and crapping machine. He plodded around the house shedding hair and leaving evil smells behind him. He drooled on cushions and howled in his sleep, his great paws paddling the air as if he was swimming. Mum said the rescue centre had been right: nobody would break into their house for fear Norman would gas them to death.

She had given up trying to ban him from Tanzie’s bedroom. When Tanzie woke up in the morning he was always stretched across three-quarters of the bed, hairy legs across her mattress, leaving her shivering under a tiny corner of duvet. Mum used to mutter about hairs and hygiene but Tanzie didn’t mind. She and Norman had a special bond. She knew that one day he would show it.

They’d got Nicky when she was two. Tanzie went to bed one night and when she woke he was in the spare room and Mum just said he would be staying and he was her brother. She didn’t know if they had a special bond, even though they were actually 50 per cent related. Tanzie had once asked him what he thought their shared genetic material was, and he’d said, ‘The weird loser gene.’ She thought he might have been joking, but she didn’t know enough about genetics to check.

She was rinsing her hands under the outside tap when she heard them talking. Nicky’s window was open and their voices floated out into the garden.

‘Did you pay that water bill?’ Nicky said.

‘No. I haven’t had a chance to get to the post office.’

‘It says it’s a final reminder.’

‘I know it’s a final reminder.’ Mum was snappy, like she always was when she talked about money. There was a pause. Norman picked up the ball and dropped it near her feet. It lay there, slimy and disgusting.

‘Sorry, Nicky. I … just need to get this conversation out of the way. I’ll sort it out tomorrow morning. I promise. You want to speak to your dad?’

Tanzie knew what the answer would be. Nicky never wanted to talk to Dad any more.

‘Hey.’

She moved right under the window and stood really still. She could hear Dad’s voice.

‘Everything all right?’ Dad sounded tense. She wondered if he thought that something bad had happened. Perhaps if he thought Tanzie had leukaemia he might come back. She had watched a TV film once where the girl’s parents divorced and then got back together because she got leukaemia. She didn’t actually want leukaemia though because needles made her pass out and she had quite nice hair.

‘Everything’s fine,’ Mum said. She didn’t tell him about Nicky getting battered.

‘What’s going on?’

A pause.

‘Has your mum decorated?’ Mum asked.

‘What?’

‘New wallpaper.’

‘Oh. That.’

Grandma’s house had new wallpaper? Tanzie felt weird. Dad and Grandma were living in a house that she might not recognize any more. It had been 348 days since she last saw Dad. It was 433 days since she’d seen Grandma.

‘I need to talk to you about Tanzie’s schooling.’

‘Why – is she playing up?’

‘Nothing like that, Marty. She’s been offered a scholarship to St Anne’s.’

‘St Anne’s?’

‘They think her maths is off the scale.’

‘St Anne’s.’ He said it like he couldn’t believe it. ‘I mean I knew she was bright, but …’

He sounded really pleased. She pressed her back against the wall and went up on tippy-toes to hear better. Perhaps he’d come back if she was going to St Anne’s.

‘Our little girl at the posh school, eh?’ His voice had puffed up with pride. Tanzie could imagine him already working out what to tell his mates at the pub. Except he couldn’t go to the pub. Because he always told Mum he had no money to enjoy himself. ‘So what’s the problem?’

‘Well … it’s a big scholarship. But it doesn’t cover everything.’

‘Meaning what?’

‘Meaning we’d still have to find five hundred pounds a term. And the uniform. And the registration fee of five hundred pounds.’

The silence went on for so long Tanzie wondered if the computer had crashed.

‘They said once we’ve been there a year we can apply for a hardship fee. Some bursary or something where, if you’re a deserving case, they can give you extra. But basically we need to find the best part of two grand to get her through the first year.’

And then Dad laughed. He actually laughed. ‘You’re having me on, right?’

‘No, I am not having you on.’

‘How am I meant to find two grand, Jess?’

‘I just thought I’d –’

‘I’ve not even got a proper job yet. There’s nothing going on round here. I’m … I’m only just getting back on my feet. I’m sorry, babe, but there’s no way.’

‘Can’t your mum help? She might have some savings. Can I talk to her?’

‘No. She’s … out. And I don’t want you tapping her for money. She’s got worries enough as it is.’

‘I’m not tapping her for money, Marty. I thought she might want to help her only grandchildren.’

‘They’re not her only grandchildren any more. Elena had a little boy.’

Tanzie stood very still.

‘I didn’t even know she was pregnant.’

‘Yeah, I meant to tell you.’

Tanzie had a baby cousin. And she hadn’t even known. Norman flopped down at her feet. He looked at her with his big brown eyes, then rolled over slowly with a groan, as if it was really, really hard work just lying on the floor. He kept looking at her, waiting for her to rub his tummy, but she was trying too hard to listen.

‘Well … what if we sell the Rolls?’

‘I can’t sell the Rolls. I’m going to start the weddings business up again.’

‘It’s been rusting in our garage for the best part of two years.’

‘I know. And I’ll come and get it. I just haven’t got anywhere to store it safely up here.’

The voices had that edge now. Their conversations often ended up like that. They would start off with Mum being all nice and then something would happen so that they both got really clipped and tense with each other. She heard Mum take a deep breath. ‘Can you at least think about it, Marty? She really wants to go to this place. Really, really wants to go. When the maths teacher spoke to her, her whole face lit up like I haven’t seen since –’

‘Since I left.’

‘I didn’t mean it like that.’

‘So it’s all my fault.’

‘No, it’s not all your fault, Marty. But I’m not going to sit here and pretend that you going has been a barrel of laughs for them. Tanzie doesn’t understand why you don’t visit her. She doesn’t understand why she hardly gets to see you any more.’

‘I can’t afford the fares, Jess. You know that. There’s no point you going on and on at me. I’ve been ill.’

‘I know you’ve been ill.’

‘She can come and see me anytime. I told you. Send them both at half-term.’

‘I can’t. They’re too young to travel all that way alone. And I can’t afford the fares for all of us.’

‘And I suppose that’s my fault too.’

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake.’

Tanzie dug her nails into the soft parts of her hands. Norman kept looking at her, waiting.

‘I don’t want to argue with you, Marty,’ Mum said, and her voice was low and careful, like when a teacher is trying to explain something to you that you should already know. ‘I just want you to think about whether there is any way at all you could contribute to this. It would change Tanzie’s life. It would mean she never has to struggle in the way that … we struggle.’

‘You can’t say that.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Don’t you watch the news, Jess? All the graduates are out of work. It doesn’t matter what education you get. She’s still going to have to fight. She’s still going to struggle.’ He paused. ‘No. There’s no point us going further into hock just for this. Of course these schools are going to tell you it’s all special, and she’s special, and her life chances are going to be amazing if she goes, et cetera, et cetera. That’s what they do.’

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