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At first when she didn’t come down he had thought it was just because she and Mr Nicholls had had an argument, and she was being all melodramatic about it. He and Tanzie hovered outside her bedroom, discussing it in whispers. Then they took her in some tea and toast but she was just staring at the wall, even though the window was still open and it was getting cold outside. She hadn’t seemed to notice. Nicky closed the window and put the ladder and the drill back in the garage, which seemed really enormous without the Rolls in it. And when he came back a couple of hours later to collect her plate the tea and toast were still there, just congealing on the bedside table beside her.

‘She’s probably exhausted from all the travelling,’ said Tanzie, like an old lady.

But the next day Jess stayed in bed. When Nicky went in, the covers were barely rumpled and she was still wearing the exact same clothes she’d gone to bed in.

‘Are you ill?’ he said, opening the curtains. ‘Do you want me to call the doctor?’

‘I just need a day in bed, Nicky,’ she said quietly.

‘Nathalie came round. I said you’d call her. Something about cleaning.’

‘Tell her I’m ill.’

‘But you’re not ill. And the police pound rang up to ask when you’re picking up the car. And Mr Tsvangarai rang up but I didn’t know what to say to him so I just let him leave a message on the answerphone.’

‘Nicky. Please?’ Her face was so sad that he felt bad for even saying anything. She waited a moment, then pulled the duvet up to her chin and turned away.

Nicky got breakfast for Tanzie. He felt oddly useful in the mornings now. He wasn’t even missing his stash. He let Norman into the garden and cleaned up after him. Mr Nicholls had left the security light out by the window. It was still in its box, which had become damp because of the rain, but nobody had nicked it. Nicky picked it up, brought it inside and sat there, looking at it.

He thought about ringing Mr Nicholls, but he didn’t know what he would say if he did. And he felt a bit weird asking Mr Nicholls to come back a second time. If someone wanted to be with you, after all, they just made it happen. Nicky knew that better than anyone. Whatever had gone on between him and Mum seemed serious enough that he wasn’t sure he should interfere. It was serious enough that he hadn’t come back for his laptop.

He sorted out his room. He went online for a while, but he was bored of gaming. He stared out of the window at the roofs of the high street and the distant orange brick of the leisure centre and he knew he didn’t want to be an armour-clad droid shooting aliens out of the sky any more. He didn’t want to be stuck in this room. Nicky thought back to the open road, and the feeling of Mr Nicholls’s car taking them vast distances, that endless time when they didn’t even know where they were headed next, and he realized that, more than anything, he wanted to be out of this little town.

He wanted to find his tribe.

Nicky had given it some considerable thought and concluded that by the afternoon of Day Two he was entitled to feel a little freaked out. School was due to start again after the weekend, and he wasn’t sure how he was meant to look after Jess as well as Titch and the dog and everything else. He vacuumed the house and rewashed the load of damp laundry that he found sitting in the washing-machine, which had started to smell musty, and Tanzie helped him peg it out. He walked with her to the shop and they bought some bread and milk and dog food, and although he didn’t show it to Tanze he was quite relieved that there was nobody hanging around outside to call him ‘fagboy’ or ‘freak’ or whatever. And Nicky thought maybe, just maybe, Jess had been right and that things did change. And that maybe a new stage of his life was finally beginning.

A short time later, as he was going through the post, Tanzie arrived in the kitchen. ‘Can we go back to the shop?’

He didn’t look up. He was wondering whether to open the official letter addressed to Mrs J. Thomas. ‘We’ve just been to the shop.’

‘Then can I go by myself?’

He looked up then, and started a little. She had done something weird to her hair, putting it up on one side with a load of glittery slides. She didn’t look like Tanzie.

‘I want to get Mum a card,’ she said. ‘To cheer her up a bit.’

Nicky was pretty sure a card wasn’t going to do it. ‘Why don’t you make her one, Titch? Save your money.’

‘I always make her one. Sometimes it’s nice to get a shop card.’

He studied her face. ‘Have you got makeup on?’

‘Only a bit of lipstick.’

‘Jess wouldn’t let you wear lipstick. Take it off.’

‘Suze wears it.’

‘I don’t think that’s going to make Jess any happier about it, Titch. Look, take it off and I’ll give you a proper makeup lesson when you get back.’

She pulled her jacket from the hook and left. Mum had let Tanzie walk to the shop and back since she was nine.

‘I’ll rub it off on the way,’ she called, over her shoulder.

‘Take Norman with you,’ he yelled. Then he made a cup of coffee and carried it upstairs. It was time to sort Jess out. Saying those words to himself made Nicky feel weirdly grown-up. It was time to sort Jess out.

The room was dark. It was a quarter to three in the afternoon but she hadn’t even bothered opening the curtains. ‘Leave it on the side,’ she murmured. The room held the fug of unwashed bodies and undisturbed air.

‘It’s stopped raining.’


‘Jess, you need to get up.’

She didn’t say anything.

‘Really. You need to get up. It’s starting to honk in here.’

‘I’m tired, Nicky. I just need … a rest.’

‘You don’t need rest. You’re … you’re the household Duracell Bunny.’

‘Please, love.’

‘I don’t get it, Jess. What’s going on?’

She turned over, really slowly, then propped herself up on one elbow. Downstairs the dog had begun to bark at something, insistent, erratic. Jess rubbed at her eyes. ‘Where’s Tanzie?’


‘Has she eaten?’

‘Yes. But mostly cereal. I can’t really cook anything more than fish fingers and she’s sick of those.’

She looked at Nicky, then out towards the window, as if weighing something up. And then she said, ‘He’s not coming back.’ And her face sort of crumpled.

The dog was really barking outside now, the idiot. Nicky tried to stay focused on what Jess was saying. ‘Really? Never?’

A great fat tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with the flat of her hand and shook her head. ‘You know the really stupid bit, Nicky? I actually forgot. I forgot I did it. I was so happy while we were away, it was like all the time before had happened to someone else. Oh, that bloody dog.’

She wasn’t really making sense. He wondered if she actually was ill.

‘You could call him.’

‘I tried. He’s not picking up.’

‘Do you want me to go over there?’

Even as he asked he slightly regretted it. Because even though he really liked Mr Nicholls he knew better than anyone that you couldn’t make someone stay with you. There was no point trying to hang on to someone who didn’t want you.

It’s possible she’d told him because she didn’t have anyone else to tell. ‘I loved him, Nicky. I know it sounds stupid after such a short time, but I loved him.’ It was a shock to hear her say it. All that emotion, just blurted out there. But just for once it didn’t make him want to run. Nicky sat on the bed, leant over and, although he still felt a bit weird about actual physical contact, he hugged her. And she felt really small, even though he’d always thought of her as sort of bigger than he was. And she rested her head against him and he just felt really, really sad because for once he did want to say something but he didn’t know what.

It was at that point that Norman’s barking got hysterical. Like when he saw the cows in Scotland. Nicky pulled back, distracted. ‘He sounds like he’s going insane.’

‘Bloody dog. It’ll be that chihuahua from fifty-six.’ Jess sniffed and wiped at her eyes. ‘I swear it torments him on purpose.’

Nicky climbed off the bed and walked over to the window. Norman was in the garden, barking hysterically, his head thrust through the gap in the fence where the wood was rotten and two of the panels had half broken away. It took him a few seconds to register that he didn’t look like Norman. The dog was weirdly upright, his hair bristling. Nicky pulled the curtain back further, and it was then that he saw Tanzie across the road. There were two Fishers and a boy he didn’t recognize and they had backed her up against the wall. As Nicky watched, one of them grabbed at her jacket and she tried to bat his hand away. ‘Hey! Hey!’ he yelled, but they didn’t hear him. His heart thumping, Nicky wrestled with the sash window but it refused to budge. He banged on the glass, trying to make them stop. ‘HEY! Shit. HEY!’

‘What?’ said Jess, swivelling in the bed.


They heard Tanzie’s high-pitched scream. As Jess dived out of bed, Norman stilled for a split second, then hurled himself against the weakest section of the fence. He went through it like a canine battering ram, sending pieces of wood splintering into the air around him. Straight towards the sound of Tanzie’s voice. Nicky saw the Fishers spin round to see this enormous black missile coming for them and their mouths opened. And then he heard the screech of brakes, a surprisingly loud whumph, Jess’s Oh, God, oh, God and then a silence that seemed to go on and on for ever.



Tanzie had sat in her room for almost an hour trying to draw Mum a card. She couldn’t work out what to put on it. Mum seemed like she was sick, but Nicky said she wasn’t really sick, not like Mr Nicholls had been sick, so it didn’t seem right to write a Get Well Soon card. She thought about writing ‘Be Happy!’ but it sounded like an instruction. Or even an accusation. And then she thought about just writing ‘I Love You’ but she’d wanted to do it in red and all her red felt-tips had run out. So then she thought she’d buy a card because Mum always said that Dad had never bought her a single one, apart from a really cheesy padded Valentine’s Day card once when they were courting. And she burst out laughing at the word ‘courting’.

Mostly Tanzie just wanted her to cheer up. A mum should be in charge, taking care of things and bustling around downstairs, not lying up there in the dark, like she was really a million miles away. It made Tanzie fearful. Ever since Mr Nicholls had gone, the house had felt weirdly quiet and a massive lump had lodged itself in her stomach, like something bad was about to happen. She had crept into Mum’s room that morning when she woke up and crawled into bed with her for a cuddle and Mum had put her arms around her and kissed the top of her head. Her hair was a bit greasy and she had no makeup on but Tanzie nestled into her anyway. ‘Are you ill, Mum?’ she’d said.

‘I’m just tired, Tanze,’ Mum’s voice did sound like the saddest, tiredest thing in the world. ‘I’ll get up soon. I promise.’

‘Is it … because of me?’


‘Not wanting to do maths any more. Is that what’s making you sad?’

And then Mum’s eyes filled with tears and Tanzie felt like she’d somehow made things even worse. ‘No, Tanze,’ she said, and pulled her close. ‘No, darling. It is absolutely nothing to do with you and maths. That is the last thing you should think.’

But she didn’t get up.

So Tanzie was walking along the road with two pounds fifteen in her pocket that Nicky had given her, even though she could tell he thought a card was a stupid idea, and wondering if it was better to get a cheaper card and some chocolate or if a cheap card spoiled the whole point of a card full stop when a car pulled up alongside. She thought it was someone going to ask for directions to Beachfront (people were always asking for directions to Beachfront) but it was Jason Fisher.


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