‘Seriously. You can’t do your optimism tricks on this one. Whatever happens, I’m probably going to lose everything.’
‘So? That’s my default position.’
‘But I might have to go away.’
‘I might, Jess.’ His voice was uncomfortably firm.
And she spoke before she knew what she was saying. ‘Then I’ll wait,’ she said.
She felt his head tilt towards her, a question. ‘I’ll wait for you. If you want me to.’
He took three calls on the final leg home, all on hands-free. His lawyer, a man with an accent so grand he should have been announcing the arrival of the Royal Family at dinner, told him he was due at the police station the following Thursday. No, nothing had changed. Yes, said Ed, he understood what was happening. And, yes, he had spoken to his family. The way he said it made her stomach tense. She couldn’t help herself afterwards. She reached over and took his hand. When he squeezed it back he didn’t look at her.
His sister rang to say his dad had had a better night. They had a long conversation about some insurance bonds that his father had been concerned about, some keys that were missing from a filing cabinet, and what Gemma had had for lunch. Nobody talked about dying. She said to say hello and Jess shouted hello back and felt a bit self-conscious and a bit pleased at the same time.
After lunch he took a call from a man called Lewis, and they discussed market values and percentages and the state of the mortgage market. It took Jess a while to realize he was talking about Beachfront.
‘Time to sell,’ he said, when he rang off. ‘Still. Like you said, at least I have assets to dispose of.’
‘What’s it all going to cost you? The prosecution?’
‘Oh. Nobody’s saying. But reading between the lines, I think the answer is “most of it”.’
She couldn’t work out if he was more upset than he was letting on.
He tried to call someone else, but the answer phone kicked in. ‘It’s Ronan here. Leave a message.’ He hung up without saying anything.
With every mile, real life moved steadily towards them like an encroaching tide, cold, unstoppable. Jess thought about the fact that there was a whole swathe of his life she knew nothing about, and tried not to think about bubbles.
They finally arrived back shortly after four. As the Audi pulled into the street the rain had eased to a fine drizzle, the road looked oily with damp, the sprawling Danehall estate struggling to show spring promise. There was the little house, somehow smaller and scruffier than Jess remembered it and, oddly, like something that had nothing to do with her. Ed pulled up outside, and she peered out of the window at the peeling paintwork on the upstairs windows that Marty had never got round to painting because he said, really, you had to do a proper job, sanding it first and taking off the old paint and using filler to plug the gaps, and he had always been either too busy or too tired to do any of it. Just for a moment, she felt a wave of depression wash over her at the thought of all the problems that had been sitting there waiting for them on their return. And all the greater ones that she had created in her absence. And then she looked at Ed, who was helping Tanzie with her bag, and laughing at something Nicky said, leaning over to hear him better, and it passed.
He had stopped at a DIY superstore about an hour out of town – his detour – emerging with a great box of stuff that he had to wrestle into the back alongside their bags. It was possible he needed to tidy his house before he sold it. Jess couldn’t think what you would do to that house to make it any nicer.
He dropped the last of the bags by the front door and stood there, holding the cardboard box. The children had disappeared immediately to their rooms, like creatures in some sort of homing experiment. Jess felt embarrassed then by the cluttered little house, the woodchip wallpaper, the long row of battered paperbacks that snaked along the hall.
‘I’m going back to my dad’s tomorrow.’
A reflexive twinge at the thought of his absence. ‘Good. That’s good.’
‘Just for a few days. Until the police thing. But I thought I’d put these up first.’
Jess looked down at the boxes.
‘Security camera and motion-activated light. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours.’
‘You bought that for us?’
‘Nicky got beaten up. Tanzie plainly doesn’t feel safe. I thought it would make you all feel better. You know … if I’m not here.’
She stared at the box, at what it meant. She felt suddenly overwhelmed by the fact that this man had considered these things and wanted to protect them. She spoke before she knew what she wanted to say. ‘You – you don’t have to do that,’ she stammered. ‘I’m good at DIY. I’ll do it.’
‘On a ladder. With a busted foot.’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘You know, Jessica Rae Thomas, at some point you’re going to have to let someone help you.’
‘At some point you’re going to have to stop calling me Jessica Rae Thomas.’
‘I can’t help it. I like it.’
She liked it too. ‘Well, what shall I do, then?’
‘Sit down. Stay still. Put your injured foot up. And then afterwards I’ll walk into town with Nicky and we’ll buy a disgustingly unhealthy waste-of-money takeaway because it might be the last one I get for a while. And then we’ll sit here and eat it and afterwards you and I will lie around gazing in awe at the size of each other’s stomachs.’
‘Oh, my God, I love it when you talk dirty.’
So she sat. Doing nothing. On her own sofa. And Tanzie came and sat with her for a while and Ed went up a ladder outside and waved the drill at her through the window and pretended that he was going to fall off until it made her anxious. ‘I’ve been in two different hospitals in eight days,’ she yelled at him through the window, crossly. ‘I do not want to make it a third.’ And then, because she was not very good at sitting still, she sorted some dirty washing and put a load in, but after that she sat down again and just let everyone else move because she had to admit that resting her foot was a lot less painful than trying to do things on it.
And there was something so good about having everyone just potter around her, listening to the sound of Ed’s drill and catching his eye through the window as he attached the camera and called at her to come, come and look. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had done something to the house and it hadn’t been her. ‘Is that okay?’
She limped outside to see him. He stood back on the garden path, gazing up at the front of the house. ‘I figured if I put it there it’ll catch anyone who comes not just in your front garden but who hangs around outside. It’s got a convex lens, see?’ She tried to look interested. She was wondering whether once the children had gone to bed she could persuade him to stay over.
‘And often, with these sorts of things, you find that just having a camera there is a deterrent.’
Would it really be that bad? He could always sneak out before they woke up. But, then, who were they really kidding? Nicky and Tanzie must have guessed something was going on, surely.
He was standing in front of her.
‘All I have to do is drill a hole there, and feed the wires in through that wall. Hopefully I can put a little junction just inside and it should be fairly simple to connect it all up.’
He wore the satisfied look that men assume when in possession of power tools. He patted his pocket, checking for screws, then looked at her carefully. ‘Were you listening to a single thing I’ve said?’
Jess grinned at him guiltily.
‘Oh, you’re incorrigible,’ he said, after a minute. ‘Honestly.’
Glancing around to make sure nobody was looking, he hooked his arm gently around her neck, pulled her close and kissed her. His chin was thick with stubble. ‘Now let me get on. Undistracted. Go and dig out that takeaway menu.’
Jess limped, grinning, into the kitchen, and began rootling through the drawers. She couldn’t remember the last time she had ordered a takeaway. She was pretty sure none of the menus were up to date. Ed went upstairs to connect up the wiring. He shouted down that he was going to need to move some furniture to get at the skirting.
‘Fine by me,’ she yelled back. She heard the rumbling, thunderous sound of large things being dragged around the floor above her head, as he tried to access the electricity, and marvelled again that somebody other than her was going to do it.
And then she lay back on the sofa, put a fresh bag of ice on her foot, and started going through the fistful of old menus that she had uncovered in the tea-towel drawer, unpicking the pages of those splashed with sauce, or yellowed with age, weeding out the restaurants that were miles away, or long closed. She was pretty sure the Chinese didn’t exist any more. Some business with environmental health. The pizza place was unreliable. The curry-house menu looked pretty standard, but she couldn’t shake the thought of that curly little hair in Nathalie’s Jalfrezi. Still, chicken balti. Pilau rice. Poppadums. She thought of what he’d said about the two of them, side by side, gazing in awe at each other’s stomachs. And then she forgot the curry and just thought about his n**ed stomach.
She was so distracted that she didn’t hear his footsteps as he came slowly down the stairs. ‘Jess?’
‘I think this one will do it.’ She held up the menu. ‘I’ve decided a hair of unknown provenance is a small price to pay for a decent jal –’
It was then that she saw his expression. And what he held, disbelieving, in his hand.
‘Jess?’ he said, and his voice sounded as if it belonged to someone else. ‘Why would my security pass be in your sock drawer?’
Jess stayed in bed for almost two days.
Nicky came downstairs and she was just sitting on the sofa staring straight ahead of her, like she was in a trance. The Black & Decker drill sat on the windowsill and the ladder was still propped against the front of the house.
‘Has Mr Nicholls gone to get the takeaway?’ Nicky was a little annoyed that he didn’t get to ask for onion bhajis.
She didn’t seem to hear him.
Her face was sort of frozen. She gave a little shake of her head and said, quietly, ‘No.’
‘He is coming back, though, right?’ he said, after a minute. He opened the fridge door. He didn’t know what he expected to find. There was a pack of shrivelled lemons and a half-empty jar of Branston pickle.
There was a long pause. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. And then, like she’d forgotten she’d said it, ‘I don’t know.’
‘So … we’re not getting a takeaway?’
Nicky let out a groan of disappointment. ‘Well, I guess he’ll have to come back at some point. I’ve got his laptop upstairs.’
They’d obviously had some kind of row, but she wasn’t behaving like she did when she and Dad had had a row. Then she would slam a door and you’d hear her muttering, ‘Dick,’ under her breath, or wearing that really tight expression that said, Why do I have to live with this idiot? yet not saying anything when he shouted at her because of the children. Now she looked like someone who’d just been given six months to live.
‘Are you okay?’
She blinked and put a hand to her forehead, like she was taking her temperature. ‘Um. Nicky. I need … I need to lie down. Can you … can you sort yourself out? There’s stuff. Food. In the freezer.’
In all the years Nicky had lived with her, Jess had never asked him to sort himself out. Even that time she’d had flu for two weeks. Before he could say anything, she turned and limped upstairs, really slowly, leaving him with it all.
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