‘I’ll be fine.’ His face was a blank. ‘Anyway. I sort of want to hear what he says.’
Mr Nicholls saw Nicky to the front door. She watched her stepson, his long, lanky legs in his skinny black jeans, his diffident, awkward way of standing as the door opened to let him in. The blonde woman tried to smile at him. She peered surreptitiously past him at the car. It was possible, Jess observed distantly, that she was actually frightened of her. The door closed behind them. Jess shut her eyes, not wanting to see them there, in that house. Not wanting to imagine what was going on behind that door.
And then Mr Nicholls was in the car, bringing with him a blast of cold air. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘It’s okay. We’ll be back before you know it.’
They sat in a roadside café. She couldn’t eat. She drank coffee, no longer caring if it would leave her awake. Mr Nicholls bought a sandwich and just sat there, opposite her. She wasn’t sure he knew what to say. Two hours, she kept telling herself. Two hours and then I can have them back. She just wanted to be home then. She wanted to be back in the car with her children, away from here. Away from Marty and his lies and his new girlfriend and pretend family. She didn’t care about anything else. She watched the clock hands edge round and let her coffee cool. Every minute felt like infinity.
And then, ten minutes before they were due to leave, the phone rang. Jess snatched it up. A number she didn’t recognize. Marty’s voice. ‘Can you leave them with me tonight?’
It knocked the breath clean out of her.
‘Oh, no,’ she said, when she could find her voice. ‘You don’t get to keep them, just like that.’
‘I’m just … trying to explain it all to them.’
‘Well, good luck with that. Because I’m damned if I understand it.’ Her voice lifted in the little café. She saw the people at the nearby tables turn their heads.
‘I couldn’t tell you, Jess, okay? Because I knew you’d react like you did.’
‘Oh, so it’s my fault. Of course it is!’
‘We were over. You knew it as well as I did.’
She was standing. She wasn’t aware of having got to her feet. Mr Nicholls, for some reason, stood too. ‘I couldn’t give a flying f**k about you and me, okay? But we’ve been living on the breadline since you left, and now I find out you’re living with someone else, with your brand-new sofa and your shiny car, supporting her kids. Even as you said you couldn’t lift a finger for ours. Yes, it’s just possible I’m going to react badly to that one, Marty.’
‘It’s not my money I’m living on. It’s Linzie’s money. I can’t use her money to pay for your kids.’
‘My kids? My kids?’ She was out from behind the table now, walking blindly towards the door. She was dimly aware of Mr Nicholls, summoning the waitress.
‘Look,’ said Marty, ‘Tanzie really wants to stay over. She’s obviously upset about this maths thing. She asked me to ask you. Please.’
Jess couldn’t speak. She just stood in the cold car park, her eyes closed, her knuckles white around the phone.
‘Plus I really want to sort things out with Nicky.’
‘You are … unbelievable.’
‘Just – just let me sort things out with the kids, please? You and I, we can talk afterwards. But just tonight, while they’re here. I’ve missed them, Jess. I know, I know it’s all my fault. I know I’ve been rubbish. But I’m actually glad it’s all out there. I’m glad you know what’s going on. And I just … I want to move forward now.’
She stared ahead of her at the car park. In the distance a police car’s blue lights flashed. Her foot had begun to throb. She stood in the car park and put her hand against her face and finally she said, ‘Put Tanzie on.’
There was a short silence, the sound of a door. Jess took a deep breath.
‘Tanze? Sweetheart? Are you okay?’
‘I’m fine, Mum. They’ve got terrapins. One has a gammy leg. It’s called Mike. Can we get a terrapin?’
‘We’ll talk about it.’ She could hear a saucepan clash in the background, the sound of a tap running. ‘Um, you really want to spend the night? You don’t have to, you know. You just … you do whatever makes you feel happy.’
‘I would quite like to stay. Suzie’s nice. She’s going to lend me her High School Musical pyjamas.’
‘Linzie’s daughter. It’s going to be like a sleepover. And she has those beads where you make a picture and stick it together with an iron.’
There was a brief silence. Jess could hear muffled talking in the background.
‘So what time are you picking me up tomorrow?’
She swallowed, and tried to keep her voice level. ‘After breakfast. Nine o’clock. And if you change your mind, you just call me, okay? Any time. And I’ll pick you up straight away. Even if it’s the very middle of the night. It doesn’t matter.’
‘I’ll come any time. I love you, sweetie. Any time you want to call.’
‘Will you … will you put Nicky on?’
‘Love you. ’Bye.’
Nicky’s voice was unreadable. ‘I’ve told him I’ll stay,’ he said. ‘But only to keep an eye on Tanze.’
‘Okay. I’ll make sure we’re somewhere close by. Is she … the woman … is she okay? I mean, will you all be okay?’
‘Linzie. She’s fine.’
‘And you – you’re all right with this? He’s not …’
There was a long silence.
‘Are you okay?’
Her face crumpled then. She took a silent breath, put her hand up and wiped at the tears that were running silently down her cheeks. She hadn’t known there were that many tears in her. She didn’t answer Nicky until she could be sure they hadn’t soaked her voice too. ‘I’m fine, lovey. You have a good time and don’t worry about me. I’ll see you both in the morning.’
Mr Nicholls was behind her. He took his phone from her in silence, his eyes not leaving her face. ‘I’ve found us somewhere to sleep where they’ll let us take the dog.’
‘Is there a bar?’ Jess asked, wiping at her eyes with the back of her hand.
‘I need to get drunk, Ed. Really, really drunk.’ He held out an arm and she took it. ‘Plus I think I may have broken my toe.’
So, once upon a time Ed met a girl who was the most optimistic person he had ever known. A girl who wore flip-flops in the hope of spring. She seemed to bounce through life like Tigger; the things that would have felled most people didn’t seem to touch her. Or if she did fall, she bounced right back. She fell again, plastered on a smile, dusted herself down and kept going. He never could work out whether it was the single most heroic or the most idiotic thing he’d ever seen.
And then he stood on the kerb outside a four-bedroomed executive home somewhere near Carlisle and watched as that same girl saw everything she’d believed in stripped away, until nothing was left but a ghost who sat in his passenger seat gazing unseeing through the windscreen; the sound of her optimism draining away was audible. And something cracked open in his heart.
He had booked a holiday cabin on the side of a lake, twenty minutes from Marty’s – or rather his girlfriend’s – house. He couldn’t find a hotel within a hundred miles that would take the dog, and the last receptionist he had spoken to, a jovial woman who called him ‘duck’ eight times, suggested he just go self-catering, and told him of a new place she knew, run by her friend’s daughter-in-law. He’d had to pay for three days – their minimum stay – but he didn’t care. Jess didn’t ask. He wasn’t sure she even noticed where they were.
They picked up the keys from Reception, he followed the path through the trees, they pulled up in front of the cabin and he unloaded Jess and the dog and saw them inside. She was limping badly by then. He remembered suddenly the ferocity with which she had kicked the car. In flip-flops.
‘Have a long bath,’ he said, flicking on all the lights and closing the curtains. It was too dark outside by now to see anything. ‘Go on. Try and relax. I’ll go and get us some food. And maybe an ice pack.’
She turned and nodded. The smile she raised in thanks was barely a smile at all.
The closest supermarket was a supermarket in name only: there were two baskets of tired vegetables, and shelves of long-life food with brand names he hadn’t heard of, sitting, as they might well have done for months, under flickering strip lights. He bought a couple of ready meals, some bread, coffee, milk, frozen peas and painkillers for her foot. As an afterthought he bought a couple of bottles of wine.
He was standing at the checkout when his phone beeped. He wrestled it out of his pocket, wondering if it was Jess. And then he remembered that her phone had run out of credit two days previously.
Hello darling. So sorry you can’t make tomorrow. We do hope to see you before too long. Love Mum. PS Dad sends his love. Bit poorly today.
‘Twenty-two pounds eighty.’
The girl had said it twice before he registered.
‘Oh. Sorry.’ He fished around for his card, and held it out to her.
‘Card machine’s not working. There’s a sign.’
Ed followed her gaze. ‘Cash or cheque only,’ it said, in laboriously outlined ballpoint letters. ‘You’re kidding me, right?’
‘Why would I be kidding you?’ She chewed, meditatively, at whatever was in her mouth.
‘I’m not sure I’ve got enough cash on me,’ Ed said.
She gazed at him impassively.
‘You don’t take cards?’
‘’S what the sign says.’
‘Well … do you not have a manual card machine?’
‘Most people round here pay cash,’ she said. Her expression said it was obvious that he was not from around here.
‘Okay. Where’s the nearest cash machine?’
He thought she was joking. She wasn’t.
‘If you haven’t got the money you’ll have to put the food back.’
‘I’ve got the money. Just give me a minute.’
He dug around in his pockets, ignoring the barely suppressed sighs and rolled eyes from those behind him and by some miracle from his inside jacket pocket and the bottom of his wallet he was able to scrape up cash for everything bar the onion bhajis. He counted it all out and she raised her eyebrows ostentatiously as she rang it up, and shoved the bhajis to one side, where they would doubtless be shoved back into a chiller cabinet some time later. Ed, in turn, shoved it all into a carrier bag that would give way even before he reached the car, and tried not to think about his mother.
He was cooking when Jess limped downstairs. At least, he had two plastic trays rotating noisily in the microwave, which was about as far as he had ever immersed himself in the culinary arts. She was wearing a towelling bathrobe and had her hair wrapped in a white bath-towel turban. He had never understood how women did that. His ex had done it too. He used to wonder if it was something women got taught, like periods and hand-washing. Her bare face was oddly beautiful.
‘Here.’ Ed held out a glass of wine.
She took it from him as if she barely noticed. He had started a fire, and she sat down in front of the flames, apparently still lost in her thoughts. He handed her the frozen peas for her foot, then busied himself with the rest of the microwave meals, following the instructions on the packaging.
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