Lights were flicking on in the other cabins. He glanced up, and there were silhouettes in windows that he hadn’t known were there, figures looking out at him. He cupped himself as best he could with one hand and half walked, half ran for the towel, which was lying, muddied, halfway along the path, a glowing, crumpled pennant. As he walked, he lifted his other hand towards them as if to say, Nothing to see here (given the cold night air, this had swiftly become true), and a couple of them shut their curtains hurriedly.
She was sitting where he had left her. ‘Do you know how much you’ve drunk tonight?’ he yelled, through the open door. ‘How much dope you’ve smoked? You could have killed yourself. You could have killed us both.’
He wanted to shake her, to show her the madness of what she had just done. ‘Are you really so determined to dig yourself deeper and deeper into more crap? What the hell is wrong with you?’
And then he heard it. She had her head in her hands and she was crying into them, a soft, desolate sound. ‘I’m sorry.’
Ed deflated a little, hitched the towel around his waist. ‘What the hell were you doing, Jess? You must know this is crazy behaviour.’
‘I wanted to get them. I couldn’t leave them there. With him.’
He took a breath, made a fist and released it. ‘But we’ve discussed this. They’re absolutely fine. Nicky said he’d call if there were any problems. And we’re going to get them first thing tomorrow. You know that. So what the hell –’
‘I’m scared, Ed.’
‘Scared? Of what?’
Her nose was bleeding, a dark scarlet trickle winding its way down to her lip, her eyes smudged black with mascara. ‘I’m scared that … I’m scared that they’ll like it at Marty’s.’ Her face crumpled. ‘I’m scared they won’t want to come back.’
And Jess Thomas came to rest, gently, against him, her face buried in his bare chest. And finally Ed put his arms around her and held her close and let her cry.
He had heard religious people talk about having revelatory experiences. Like there was one moment where everything became clear to them and all the crap and ephemera just floated away. It had always seemed pretty unlikely to him. But then Ed Nicholls had one such moment in a log cabin beside a stretch of water that might have been a lake, or might well have been a canal for all he could tell, somewhere near Carlisle. You see, he had once known a woman who had told herself she could do anything – and then decided she could do nothing; a woman who, finding herself at her lowest, did her best to push everyone away. And he realized in that moment that he had to make things right. He felt her injustices more fiercely than he had ever felt anything for himself. He realized, as he held her to him and kissed the top of her head and felt her cling to him, that he would do anything he could to make her happy, and her kids, and to keep them safe and give them a fair chance.
He didn’t ask himself how he could know this after four days. It just seemed clearer to him than anything he had worked out in entire decades before.
And so he told her. He told her, in the quiet tones of someone offloading a confession, that it would be okay. That he would make it okay. Because she was the most amazing woman he had ever met, and it was as simple for him as knowing that he couldn’t not make it okay. And when she lifted her swollen eyes to his, frowning as she tried to make sense of what she was hearing, Ed Nicholls mopped her bleeding nose, and he dropped his lips gently onto hers, and he did what he had wanted to do for the past forty-eight hours, even if he had been initially too dumb to know it. He kissed her. And when she kissed him back – tentatively at first, and then with a fierce, gratifying passion, her hand stealing up to his neck, her eyes closing – he picked her up (he was starting with the broken toe), carried her back to the house, and in the only way he could offer that he was sure wouldn’t be misunderstood, he tried to show her.
Because, in that one moment, Ed Nicholls saw that he had been more like Marty than he was like Jess. He had been that coward, who spent his life running from things rather than facing up to them. And that something had to change.
‘Jess?’ he said, softly, into her skin, some time later, as he lay awake, marvelling at the 180-degree swings of life in general. ‘Will you do something for me?’
‘Again?’ she said sleepily. Her hand rested lightly on his chest. ‘Good God.’
‘No. Tomorrow.’ He leant his head into hers.
She shifted, so that her leg slid across his. He felt her lips on his skin. ‘Sure. What do you want?’
He gazed up at the ceiling. ‘Will you come with me to my dad’s?’
So Jess’s favourite saying, next to ‘It’s all going to be fine’ and ‘We’ll work something out’ and ‘Oh, Christ, NORMAN’ is that families come in all different shapes and sizes. ‘It’s not all 2.4 now,’ she says, like if she says it enough times we’ll all have to actually believe it.
Well, if our family was a weird shape before, it’s pretty much insane now.
I don’t really have a full-time mum, not like you probably have a mum, but it looks like I’ve acquired another part-time version. Linzie. Linzie Fogarty. I’m not sure what she makes of me: I can see her watching me out of the corner of her eye, trying to work out if I’m going to do something dark and Gothic, or chew up a terrapin or something. Dad said she does something high up in the local council. He said it like he was really proud, like he’s gone up in the world. I’m not sure he ever looked at Jess the way he looks at her.
For about the first hour after we got here I just felt really awkward, like I basically just acquired one more place to feel like I didn’t fit. The house is really tidy and they don’t have any books, unlike ours, where Jess has stuffed them into pretty much every room except the bathroom and there’s usually one by the loo anyway. And I kept staring at Dad because I couldn’t believe he’d been living here like a totally normal person while lying to us all the time. It made me hate her, like I hate him.
But then Tanzie said something at supper, and Linzie burst out laughing, and it was this really goofy, honking laugh – FOGHORN FOGARTY, I thought – and she clamped her hand over her mouth and she and Dad exchanged a look like it was a sound she should have tried really, really hard not to make, and something about the way her eyes wrinkled up made me think maybe she was okay.
I mean, her family has just taken on a weird shape too. She had two kids, Suze and Josh, and Dad. And suddenly there’s me – Gothboy, as Dad calls me, like that’s funny – and Tanze, who has taken to wearing two pairs of glasses on top of each other because she says the one pair isn’t quite right, and Jess going nutso on her drive, and kicking holes in her car, and Mr Nicholls, who definitely has a thing about Mum, hanging around and calmly trying to sort everyone out like the only grown-up in the place. And no doubt Dad has had to tell her about my biological mum, who might also end up on her drive shouting one day, like that first Christmas after I moved in with Jess where she threw bottles at our windows and screamed herself hoarse until the neighbours called the police. So, all things considered, Foghorn Fogarty might legitimately be feeling like her family isn’t quite the shape she expected either.
I don’t really know why I’m telling you this. It’s just it’s three thirty a.m. and everyone else in this house is asleep and I’m in Josh’s room with Tanzie and he has his own computer (both of them have their own computers, Apple Macs, no less) and I can’t remember his codes to do any gaming, but I’ve been thinking about what Mr Nicholls said about blogging and how somehow if you write it and put it out there your people might come.
You probably aren’t my people. You’re probably people who made a typo while doing a search on discount tyres or p**n or something. But I’m putting it out here anyway. Just in case you happen to be anything like me.
Because this last twenty-four hours has made me see something. I might not fit in the way that you fit with your family, neatly, a little row of round pegs in perfectly round holes. In our family we’ve had to whittle at our pegs and our holes because they all belonged somewhere else first, and they’re all sort of jammed in and a bit lopsided. But here’s the thing. I realized something when Dad sat down and told me it was good to see me and his eyes got all moist: my dad might be an arse, but he’s my arse, and he’s the only arse I’ve got. And feeling the weight of Jess’s hand as she sat by my hospital bed, or hearing her try not to cry down the phone at the thought of leaving me here – and watching my little sister, who is trying to be really, really brave about the whole school thing, even though I can tell her world has basically ended – it all made me see that I do sort of belong somewhere.
I think I sort of belong to them.
Ed lay propped against the pillows, watching her do her makeup, painting out the bruises on her face with a little tube of concealer. She had just about covered the blue bruise on her temple where her head had bounced off the airbag. But her nose was purple, the skin stretched tight over a bump that hadn’t been there before, and her upper lip bore the swollen, oversized look of a woman who had ill-advisedly indulged in backstreet fillers. ‘You look like someone punched you in the nose.’
Jess rubbed her finger gently over her mouth. ‘So do you.’
‘It did. My own car, thanks to you.’
She tilted her head, gazing at his reflection behind her. He had this slow lopsided grin, and his chin was a giant bristly shadow. She couldn’t not smile back.
‘Jess, I’m not sure there’s really any point trying to cover it. You’re going to look bashed up whatever you do.’
‘I thought I’d tell your parents, sorrowfully, that I walked into a door. Maybe with a bit of a furtive sideways look at you.’
He let out a sigh and stretched, closing his eyes. ‘If that’s the worst they think of me by the end of today, I suspect I’ll be doing quite well.’
She gave up on her face, and shut her makeup bag. He was right: short of spending the day pressed against an ice-pack, there was little she could do to make it look less battered. She ran a speculative tongue over her sore upper lip. ‘I can’t believe I didn’t feel this when we were … well, last night.’
She turned and crawled up the bed until she was lying full length along him. She knew this man. She knew every inch of him. She couldn’t believe that they had not even properly met each other a week previously. He opened his eyes, sleepily, reached out and toyed lazily with a lock of her hair.
‘That’ll be the sheer power of my animal magnetism.’
‘Or the two joints and a bottle and a half of Merlot.’
He hooked his arm around her neck and pulled her into him. She closed her eyes briefly, breathing in the scent of his skin. He smelt pleasingly of sex. ‘Be nice,’ he growled softly. ‘I’m a bit broken today.’
‘I’ll run you a bath.’ She traced the mark on his head where it had hit the car door. They kissed, long and slow and sweet, and it raised a possibility.
‘Are you okay?’
‘Never felt better.’ He opened one eye.
‘No. About lunch.’
He looked briefly serious, and let his head fall back on the pillow. She regretted mentioning it. ‘No. But I guess I’ll feel better when it’s done.’
She sat in the loo, agonizing in private, then rang Marty at a quarter to nine and told him she had something to sort out and that she would now pick the children up between three and four. She didn’t ask. From now on, she had decided, she was just going to tell him how it was going to be. He put Tanzie on the phone and she said nothing about the evening but demanded to know how Norman had coped without her. The dog was stretched out in front of the fire, like a three-dimensional rug. She wasn’t entirely sure he’d moved in twelve hours, apart from to eat breakfast.
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