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One of the solicitors leant forward. ‘We actually have quite a strong defence, Mr Nicholls. I think that given the lack of your handwriting on the cheque – their only substantive piece of evidence – we can successfully claim that Ms Lewis used your account for her own ends.’

‘But I did give her the cheque.’

Paul Wilkes leant forward. ‘Ed, you need to be clear about this. If you plead guilty, you substantially increase your chance of a custodial sentence.’

‘I don’t care.’

‘You will care, when you’re doing twenty-three hours in solitary in Winchester for your own safety.’

He barely heard her. ‘I just want to tell the truth. That’s how it was.’

‘Ed,’ his sister grabbed at his arm, ‘the truth has no place in a courtroom. You’re going to make things worse.’

But he shook his head and sat back in his chair. And then he didn’t say anything more.

He knew they thought he was odd, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t bring himself to look exercised by any of it. He sat there, numb. His sister asked most of the questions. He heard Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 blah blah blah. He heard open prison and punitive fines and Criminal Justice Act 1993 blah blah blah and he sat there and he honestly couldn’t make himself care less about any of it. So he was going to prison for a bit? So what? He had lost everything anyway, twice over.

‘Ed? Did you hear what I said?’

‘Sorry.’

Sorry. It’s all he seemed to say these days. Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Sorry, I wasn’t listening. Sorry I f**ked it all up. Sorry I was stupid enough to fall in love with someone who actually believed I was an idiot.

And there: the now familiar clench at the thought of her. How could she have lied to him? How could they have sat side by side in that car for the best part of a week, and she hadn’t even begun to let on what she had done?

How could she have talked to him of her financial fears? How could she have talked to him of trust, have collapsed into his arms, all the while knowing that she had stolen money right out of his pocket?

She hadn’t even needed to say anything in the end. It was her silence that told him. The fractional delay between her registering the sight of the security card that he held, disbelieving, in his hand, and her stuttering attempt to explain it.

I was going to tell you.

It’s not what you’re thinking. The hand to the mouth.

I wasn’t thinking.

Oh, God. It’s not –

She was worse than Lara. At least Lara had been honest, in her way, about his attractions. She liked the money. She liked how he looked, once she had shaped him according to what she wanted. He thought they had both understood, deep down, that their marriage was a kind of deal. He had told himself that everybody’s marriages were, one way or another.

But Jess? Jess had behaved as if he were the only man she had ever truly wanted. Jess had let him think it was the real him she liked, even when he was puking, or with his face bashed up, or afraid to meet his own parents. She had smiled sweetly and let him think it was him.

‘Ed?’

‘Sorry?’ He lifted his head from his hands.

‘I know it’s tough. But you will survive this.’ His sister reached across and squeezed his hand. Somewhere behind her the child screamed. His head pulsed.

‘Sure,’ he said.

The moment she left he went to the pub.

They had fast-tracked the hearing, following his revised plea, and Ed spent the last few days before it took place with his father. It was partly down to choice, partly because he no longer had a flat in London that contained any furniture, everything having been packed for storage, ready for the completion of the sale.

It had sold for the asking price without a single viewing. The estate agent didn’t seem to find this surprising. ‘We have a waiting list for this block,’ he said, as Ed handed him the spare keys. ‘Investors, wanting a safe place for their money. To be honest, it will probably just sit there empty for a few years until they feel like selling it.’

It dawned on him then that nearly all the flats around him had slowly emptied; the evenings he had arrived home and been surprised by how few lights were on in the block now made sense. For a brief moment Ed wanted to snatch back the keys. How can that be right? What about all the people who need somewhere to live? But he swallowed his protest. As soon as both properties were sold, he had to find some smaller, cheaper option, once he knew what was left. Once he knew where, and whether, he was likely to be able to get another job. It felt weird not to know where that was likely to be.

For three nights Ed stayed at his parents’ house, sleeping in his childhood room, waking in the small hours and running his fingers across the surface of the woodchip wallpaper behind his headboard, recalling the sound of his teenage sister’s feet thundering up the stairs, the slam of her bedroom door as she digested whatever insult their father had apparently directed her way this time. In the mornings he sat and had breakfast with his mother in the too-silent kitchen and slowly grasped that his father was never coming home. That they would never see him there again, flicking his paper irritably into straight corners, reaching without looking for his mug of strong black coffee (no sugar). Occasionally she would burst into tears, apologizing and waving him away as she pressed a napkin to her eyes. I’m fine, I’m fine. Really, love. Just ignore me.

In the overheated confines of Room Three, Victoria Ward, Bob Nicholls spoke less, ate less, did less. Ed didn’t need to speak to a doctor to see what was happening. The flesh seemed to be disappearing from him, melting away, leaving his skin pulled translucent over his skull, his eyes great, bruised sockets: Death was claiming him.

They played chess. Talking tired him but, oddly, he could play chess. He often fell asleep mid-game, drifting off during a move, and Ed would sit patiently at his bedside and wait for him to wake again. And when his eyes opened, and he took a moment or two to register where he was, his mouth closing, and his eyebrows lowering as he took in the state of play on the board, Ed would move a piece and act as if it had been a minute, not an hour, that he had been missing from the game.

They talked. Not about the important stuff. Ed wasn’t sure either of them were built that way. They talked about cricket, and the weather, and the ridiculous cost of the pay-as-you-go entertainment system at the foot of the bed. Ed’s father talked about the nurse with the dimples who always thought up something funny to tell him. He asked Ed to look after his mother. He worried she was doing too much. He worried that the man who cleared the guttering would overcharge her if he wasn’t there. He was annoyed that he had spent lots of money in the autumn having the moss removed from the lawn and he wouldn’t get to see the results. Ed didn’t try to argue. It would have seemed patronizing.

‘So, where’s the firecracker?’ he said, one evening. He was two moves from checkmate. Ed was trying to work out how to block him.

‘The what?’

‘Your girl.’

‘Lara? Dad, you know we got –’

‘Not her. The other one.’

Ed took a breath. ‘Jess? She’s … uh … she’s at home, I think.’

‘I liked her. She had a way of looking at you.’ He pushed his castle forward slowly onto a black square. ‘I’m glad you have her.’ He gave a slight nod. ‘Trouble,’ he murmured, almost to himself, and smiled.

Ed’s strategy went to pieces. His father beat him in three moves.

33.

Jess

The bearded man emerged from the swing doors wiping his hands on his white coat. He paused in the doorway, like someone who had walked into a room and couldn’t remember why they’d gone in.

‘Norman Thomas?’

Jess had never considered their dog might have a surname.

‘Norman Thomas? Large, indeterminate breed?’ he said, lowering his chin and looking straight at her.

She scrambled to standing in front of the plastic chairs. ‘He has suffered massive internal injuries,’ he said, with no preamble. ‘He has a broken hip and several broken ribs and a fractured front leg and we won’t know what’s going on inside until the swelling’s gone down. And I’m afraid he’s definitely lost the left eye.’ She noticed there were bright smears of blood on his blue plastic shoes.

She felt Tanzie’s hand tighten in hers. ‘But he’s still alive?’

‘I don’t want to give you false hope.’ His voice held the careful modulation of someone who had witnessed drowning men cling to the smallest pieces of driftwood. ‘The next forty-eight hours will be critical.’

Beside her Tanzie gave a low moan of something that might have been joy or anguish, it was hard to tell.

‘Walk with me.’ He took Jess’s elbow, turning his back on the children, and lowered his voice. ‘I have to say that I’m not sure, given the extent of his injuries, if the kindest thing wouldn’t be to let him go.’

‘But if he does survive forty-eight hours?’

‘Then he may stand some chance of recovery. But as I said, Mrs Thomas, I don’t want to give you false hope. He really isn’t a well lad.’

Around them the waiting clients were watching silently, their cats in pet carriers cradled on their laps, their small dogs panting gently under chairs. Nicky was staring at the vet, his jaw set in a tense line. His mascara was smudged around his eyes.

‘And if we do proceed, it’s not going to be cheap. He may need more than one operation. Possibly even several. Is he insured?’

Jess shook her head.

Now the vet became awkward. ‘I need to warn you that going forwards his treatment is likely to cost a significant sum. And there are no guarantees of recovery. It’s very important that you understand that before we go any further.’

It was her neighbour Nigel who had saved him. He had run from his house carrying two blankets, one to wrap around the shivering Tanzie, the other to cover the body of the dog. Go indoors, he had instructed Jess. Take the kids indoors. But as he drew the tartan rug gently over Norman’s head, he had paused, and said to Nathalie, ‘Did you see that?’

She hadn’t heard him at first, over the sound of the crowd, and Tanzie’s muffled wailing and the children crying nearby because even though they didn’t know him they understood the utter sadness of a dog lying motionless in the road.

‘Nathalie? His tongue. Look. I think, he’s panting. Here, pick him up. Get him in the car. Quick!’ It had taken three of Jess’s neighbours to lift him. They had laid him carefully on the rear seat, and had driven in a blur to the big veterinary practice on the outskirts of town. It wasn’t as quick as Mr Miller by the crossroads, but they had an operating theatre and hotlines to all sorts of specialists. Nathalie had cradled Norman on the back seat, crouching in the footwell so that she could support his head. Jess loved Nigel for not once mentioning the blood all over his upholstery. They had rung her from the vet’s and told her to get down there as fast as she could. Under her jacket, she was still in her pyjamas.

‘So what do you want to do?’

Lisa Ritter had once told Jess about a huge deal her husband had done that had gone wrong. ‘Borrow five thousand and you can’t pay it back, and it’s your problem,’ she said, quoting him. ‘Borrow five million and it’s the bank’s problem.’

Jess looked at her daughter’s pleading face. She looked at Nicky’s raw expression: the grief and love and fear that he finally felt able to express. She was the only person who could make this right. She was the only person who would ever be able to make it right.

‘Do whatever it takes,’ she said. ‘I’ll find the money. Just do it.’

The short pause told her he thought she was a fool. But of a kind he was well used to dealing with. ‘Come this way, then,’ he said. ‘I need you to sign some paperwork.’

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