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‘Hey, Dad.’

Jess watched Ed struggle to hide his shock. He stooped towards him and hesitated, before touching his father lightly on the shoulder.

‘Edward.’ His voice was a croak, but there was still something weighty within it.

‘Doesn’t he look well, Bob?’ said his mother.

His father studied him from under shadowed lids. When he spoke, it was slowly, and with deliberation, as if he had an allotted number of words to use.

‘No. He looks like someone beat the living daylights out of him.’

Jess could see the new colour on Ed’s cheekbone where his sister had hit him. She found herself reaching unconsciously towards her injured lip.

‘Where’s he been, anyway?’

‘Dad, this is Jess.’

His father’s eyes slid towards her. His eyebrow lifted a quarter of an inch. ‘And what the hell happened to your face?’ he whispered to her.

‘I had an argument with a car. My fault.’

‘Is that what happened to him?’

She didn’t blink. ‘Yes.’

He regarded her for a moment longer. ‘You look like trouble,’ he said. ‘Are you trouble?’

Gemma leant forwards. ‘Dad! Jess is Ed’s friend.’

He dismissed her. ‘If there’s one small advantage to having very little time left then surely it’s that I can say whatever I like. She doesn’t look offended. Are you offended? I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name. I don’t seem to have any brain cells any more.’

‘Jess. No. I’m not offended.’

He kept staring.

‘And, yes, I probably am trouble,’ she said, holding his gaze.

His smile was slow to arrive, but when it came she could see, fleetingly, how he must have looked before he got ill. ‘Glad to hear it. I always liked girls who were trouble. And this one has been head-down in front of a computer for far too long.’

‘How are you, Dad?’

His father blinked. ‘I’m dying.’

‘We’re all dying, Dad,’ Gemma said.

‘Don’t give me your social-worker sophistry. I am dying uncomfortably rapidly. I have few faculties left, and very little dignity. I will probably not make the end of the cricket season. Does that answer your question?’

‘I’m sorry,’ Ed said quietly. ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been.’

‘You’ve been busy.’

‘About that …’ Ed began. His hands were thrust deep in his pockets. ‘Dad. I need to tell you something. I need to tell you all something.’

Jess stood up hurriedly. ‘Why don’t I go and get us some sandwiches? Leave you to talk.’

Jess could feel Gemma assessing what she knew. ‘I’ll get drinks too. Tea? Coffee?’

Bob Nicholls’s head turned towards her. ‘You’ve only just got here. Stay.’

Her eyes met Ed’s. He gave a tiny shrug, like it was really not going to make any difference.

‘What is it, dear?’ His mother put a hand out to him. ‘Are you all right?’

‘I’m fine. Well. I’m sort of fine. I mean I’m healthy. But …’ He swallowed. ‘No I’m not fine. There’s something I have to tell you.’

‘What?’ Gemma said.

‘Okay.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Well, here it is.’

‘What?’ said Gemma. ‘Jesus, Ed. What?’

‘I’m being investigated for insider trading. I’ve been suspended from my company. Next week I have to go to a police station where I will in all likelihood be charged and I may go to prison.’

To say the room fell silent was an understatement. It was as if someone had come in and sucked out all the available air. Jess thought she might pass out briefly from lack of oxygen.

‘Is this a joke?’ said his mother.

‘No.’

‘I really could go and get some tea,’ Jess said.

Nobody paid her any attention. Ed’s mother sat down slowly on a plastic chair.

‘Insider trading?’ Gemma was the first to speak. ‘This – that’s serious, Ed.’

‘Yeah. I do get that, Gem.’

‘Actual insider trading, like you see on the news?’

‘That’s the one.’

‘He’s got good lawyers,’ Jess said.

Nobody seemed to hear.

‘Expensive ones.’

His mother’s hand had risen halfway to her mouth. She lowered it slowly. ‘I don’t understand. When did this happen?’

‘A month or so ago. The insider-trading bit, anyway.’

‘A month ago? But why didn’t you tell us? We could have helped you.’

‘You couldn’t, Mum. Nobody can help.’

‘But prison? Like a criminal?’ Anne Nicholls had gone quite pale.

‘I think if you’re sent to prison you pretty much are a criminal, Mum.’

‘Well, they’ll have to sort it out. They’ll see that there’s been some kind of mistake, but they’ll sort it out.’

‘No, Mum. I’m not sure it’s going to work out like that.’

There was another long silence.

‘Are you going to be all right?’

‘I’ll be fine, Mum. As Jess said, I have good lawyers. I have resources. They have already established that there was no financial gain for me.’

‘You didn’t even make money out of it?’

‘It was a mistake.’

‘A mistake?’ said Gemma. ‘I don’t get it. How do you do insider trading by mistake?’

Ed straightened his shoulders and gazed steadily at her. He took a breath, and his gaze flickered towards Jess. And then he looked up at the ceiling. ‘Well, I had sex with a woman. I thought I liked her. And then I realized she wasn’t who I thought she was and I sort of wanted her to go away without it all getting messy. And what she wanted to do was travel. So I made a snap decision and told her a way I thought she could make a little extra money to pay off her debts and go travelling.’

‘You gave her inside information.’

‘Yup. On SFAX. Our big product launch.’

‘Jesus Christ.’ Gemma shook her head. ‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this.’

‘And my name hasn’t come out in the press yet. But it will.’ He put his hands into his pockets and looked steadily at his family. Jess wondered if only she could detect that his hand was shaking. ‘So … um … that’s why I haven’t been home. I was hoping I could keep it from you, maybe even sort it out so that you didn’t have to know anything about it. But it turns out that’s going to be impossible. And I wanted to say I’m sorry. I should have told you and I should have spent more time here. But I – I didn’t want you to know the truth. I … didn’t want you to see what a mess I’d made of everything.’

Nobody spoke. Jess’s right leg had begun to jiggle involuntarily. She found a really interesting bit of skin beside her thumbnail and tried to make the jiggling stop. When she finally looked up, Ed was staring at his father. ‘Well?’

‘Well what?’

‘You’re not going to say anything?’

Bob Nicholls lifted his head slowly from his pillow. ‘What do you want me to say?’

Ed and his dad gazed at each other.

‘You want me to say you’ve been an idiot? I’ll say you’ve been an idiot. You want me to say you’ve ballsed up a brilliant career? I’ll say that too.’

‘Bob …’

‘Well, what do you –’ Abruptly, he started to cough, a hollow, rasping sound. Anne and Gemma lurched forward to help him, handing over tissues, glasses of water, fussing and clucking like a pair of hens. It was as if everyone was grateful for being given something to do.

Ed was standing at the foot of his father’s bed.

‘Prison?’ his mother said again. ‘Actual prison prison?’

‘That’s what he said, Mum.’

‘But this is awful.’

‘Sit down, Mum. Deep breaths.’ Gemma steered her mother into a chair.

Nobody moved towards Ed. Why didn’t somebody hug him? Why could they not see how alone he felt right at that minute?

‘I’m sorry,’ he said quietly.

Nobody seemed to hear.

‘Can I say something?’ Jess could bear it no longer. She heard her voice, clear and slightly too loud. ‘I just want to tell you that Ed helped my two children when I couldn’t. He drove us the length of the country, because we were desperate. As far as I’m concerned your son is … wonderful.’

They all looked up. Jess turned to his father. ‘He’s kind, smart and clever, even if I don’t agree with all the things he does. He’s nice to people he barely knows. Insider trading or no, if my son turns out half the man your son is then I’ll be very happy. More than happy. I’ll be ecstatic.’

They were all staring at her.

She added: ‘And I thought that even before I had sex with him.’

Nobody spoke. Ed stared fixedly at his feet.

‘Well,’ Anne gave a faint nod, ‘that’s, er, that’s …’

‘Enlightening,’ said Gemma.

Anne’s voice tailed away. ‘Oh, Edward.’

Bob sighed and closed his eyes. ‘Let’s not get all Hollywood about this.’ He opened them again and signalled for the head of the bed to be raised a little. ‘Come here, Ed. Where I can see you. Wretched eyesight.’ He motioned for the glass again and his wife held it to his lips.

He swallowed painfully, then tapped the side of his bed, so that Ed sat down on it. He reached out a hand and rested it lightly on his son’s. He was unbearably frail. ‘You’re my son, Ed. You might be idiotic and irresponsible, but it doesn’t make the slightest difference to what I feel about you.’ He frowned. ‘I’m pissed off that you could have thought it would.’

‘I’m sorry, Dad.’

His father gave a slow shake of his head. ‘I’m afraid I can’t be much help. Stupid breathless …’ he pulled a face, then swallowed painfully. His hand tightened around Ed’s. ‘We all make mistakes. Go and take your punishment, then come back and start again.’

Ed looked up at him. And Jess saw the boy he must have been: hurt, desperate for his father’s approval. And determined never to let that show.

‘Do even better next time. I know you can.’

It was at that point that Anne started to cry, abrupt, helpless tears that she buried in her sleeve. Bob turned his head slowly towards her. ‘Oh, darling,’ he said softly. And that was where Jess acknowledged that she had finally become an intruder. She opened the door silently and slid out.

She put some credit on her phone in the hospital shop, texted Ed to say where she was, and waited in A&E to get her foot looked at. Badly bruised, said a young Polish doctor, who didn’t bat an eyelid when she told him how she had done it. He strapped it up, wrote a prescription for strong painkillers, handed her back her flip-flop, and advised her to rest. ‘Try not to kick any more cars,’ he said, without looking up from his clipboard.

Jess hobbled back upstairs to Victoria Ward, sat on one of the plastic chairs in the corridor, and waited. It was warm and the people around her spoke in whispers. She may have nodded off briefly. She woke abruptly when Ed emerged from the room. She held out his jacket and he took it without a word. A moment later Gemma appeared in the corridor. They stood facing each other silently. His sister put her hand gently to the side of his face. ‘You bloody idiot.’

His head dipped, hands shoved deep in his pockets, like Nicky.

‘You stupid bloody stupid idiot. Call me.’

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