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Nigel drove them home. She tried to give him some money but he waved her away gruffly and said, ‘What are neighbours for?’ Belinda cried as she came out to greet them.

‘We’re fine,’ she muttered dully, her arm around Tanzie, who still shook intermittently. ‘We’re fine. Thank you.’

They would call, the vet said, if there was any news.

Jess didn’t tell the kids to go to bed. She wasn’t sure she wanted them to be alone in their rooms. She locked the door, bolted it twice, and put an old film on. She went around the house and secured every window, drawing the curtains and propping a chair underneath the back-door handle just for good measure. Then she made three mugs of cocoa, brought her duvet down and sat under it, one child on each side of her, watching television that they didn’t see, each alone with their thoughts. Praying, praying that the telephone wouldn’t ring.

34.

Nicky

This is the story of a family who didn’t fit in. A little girl who was a bit weird and geeky and liked maths more than makeup. And a boy who liked makeup and didn’t fit into any tribes. And this is what happens to families who don’t fit in – they end up broken and skint and sad. No happy ending here, folks.

Mum doesn’t stay in bed any more, but I catch her wiping her eyes as she washes up or gazing down at Norman’s basket. She’s busy all the time: working, cleaning, sorting out the house. She does it with her head down and her jaw set. She packed up three whole boxes of her paperback books and took them back to the charity shop because she said she’d never have time to read them and, besides, it’s pointless believing in fiction.

I miss Norman. It’s weird how you can miss something you only ever complained about. Our house is weirdly quiet without him. But since the first forty-eight hours went past, and Mr Adamson said he was in with a chance, and we all cheered down the phone, I’ve started to worry about other stuff. We sat on the sofa last night after Tanzie went to bed and the phone still didn’t ring and then I said to Mum, ‘So what are we going to do?’

She looked up from the television.

‘I mean, if he lives.’

She let out a long breath, like this was something that had already occurred to her. And then she said, ‘You know what, Nicky? We didn’t have a choice. He’s Tanzie’s dog, and he saved her. If you don’t have a choice then it’s actually quite simple.’

I could see that even though she really did believe this, and it might actually be quite simple, the extra debt is like a new weight settling on her. That with each new problem she just looks a bit older, and flatter and wearier.

She doesn’t talk about Mr Nicholls.

I couldn’t believe after how they’d been together that it could just end like that. Like one minute you can seem really happy and then nothing. I thought you got all that stuff sorted when you get older, but clearly you don’t. So that’s something else to look forward to.

I walked up to her then, and I gave her a hug. And that might not be a big deal in your family, but I can tell you in mine it is. It’s about the only stupid difference I can make.

So this is the thing I don’t understand. I don’t understand how our family can basically do the right thing and yet always end up in the crap. I don’t understand how my little sister can be brilliant and kind and some sort of damn genius, and yet pretty much everything she loves has disappeared, just because she’s a bit different. I don’t understand how it is that she now wakes up crying and having nightmares and I have to lie awake listening to Mum pottering across the landing at four a.m. trying to calm her down, and how she stays inside in the day, even though it’s finally warm and sunny, because she’s too afraid to go outside any more in case the Fishers come back to get her. And how in six months’ time she’ll be at a school whose main message is that she should be like everyone else or she’ll get her head kicked in, like her freak of a brother did. I think about Tanzie without maths, and it just feels like the whole universe has gone mad. It’s like … Morecambe without Wise, or Jaffa Cakes without the orange. I just can’t imagine who Tanze will even be if she doesn’t do maths any more.

I don’t understand why I had just got used to sleeping and now I lie awake listening for non-existent sounds downstairs, and how now when I want to go to the shop to buy a paper or some sweets I feel sick again and have to fight the urge to look over my shoulder.

I don’t understand how a big, useless, soppy dog, who has basically never done anything worse than dribble on everyone, had to lose an eye and get his insides rearranged just because he tried to protect the person he loves.

Mostly, I don’t understand how the bullies and the thieves and the people who just destroy everything – the arseholes – get away with it. The boys who punch you in your kidneys for your dinner money, and the police who think it’s funny to treat you like you’re an idiot, and the kids who take the piss out of anyone who isn’t just like them, whether they’re posh and at a maths competition, or a stupid, ignorant idiot who doesn’t know the difference between a username and a password. Or the dads who walk right out and just start afresh somewhere new that smells of Febreze with a woman who drives her own Toyota and owns a three-piece with no marks on it and laughs at all their stupid jokes like they’re God’s gift and not actually a slimeball who lied to all the people who loved him for two whole years. Two whole years.

Mum always told us that good things happen to good people. Guess what? She doesn’t say that any more.

I’m sorry if this blog has just got really depressing but that’s how our life is right now. My family, the eternal losers. It’s not a story, really, is it? It’s a flipping cautionary tale.

35.

Jess

The police came on the fourth day after Norman’s accident. Jess watched the officer coming up the garden path through the living-room window and for one stupid minute she thought she had come to tell her Norman had died. A young woman; red hair pulled back in a neat pony tail. One Jess hadn’t seen before.

She was coming in response to reports about an RTA, she said, as she opened the door.

‘Don’t tell me,’ Jess said, walking back down the hall to the kitchen. ‘The driver’s going to sue us for damaging his car.’ It was Nigel who had warned her this might happen. She had actually started to laugh when he said it.

The officer looked at her notebook. ‘Well, not at the moment, at least. The damage to his car seems to be minimal. And there have been conflicting statements as to whether he was exceeding the speed limit. But we’ve had various reports about what happened in the lead-up to the accident and I was wondering if you could clarify a few things?’

‘What’s the point?’ Jess said, turning back to the washing-up. ‘You lot never take any notice.’

She knew how she sounded: like half the residents of this estate – antagonistic, braced for confrontation, hard-done-by. She no longer cared. But the officer was too new, too keen, to play that game.

‘Well, do you think you could tell me what happened anyway? I’ll only take five minutes of your time.’

So Jess told her, in the flat tones of someone who no longer expected to be believed. She told her about the Fishers, and their history with them, and the fact that she now had a daughter who was afraid to play in her own garden, even though Jess had repaired the hole in the fence. She told her about her daft cow-sized dog who was racking up bills at the vet’s roughly equivalent to if she had bought him a suite in a luxury hotel. She told her how her son’s sole aim now was to get as far from this town as possible, and how, thanks to the Fishers having made a misery of his exam year at school, this was unlikely to happen.

The officer didn’t look bored. She stood, leaning against the kitchen cabinets, and taking notes. Then she asked Jess to show her the fence. Jess didn’t bother going outside. ‘There,’ she said, pointing through the window. ‘You can see where I’ve mended it, by the lighter wood. And the accident, if that’s what we’re calling it, happened about fifty yards up on the right.’ She watched her walk outside, and turned back to the sink. Aileen Trent, pulling her shopping trolley, gave her a cheery wave over the hedge. Then, when she registered who was in the garden, she ducked her head and walked swiftly the other way.

PC Kenworthy was out there for almost ten minutes. Jess almost forgot about her. She was unloading the washing-machine when the officer let herself back in.

‘Can I ask you a question, Mrs Thomas?’ she said, closing the back door behind her.

‘That’s your job,’ Jess said.

‘You’ve probably been through this a dozen times already. But your CCTV camera. Does it have any film in it?’

Jess watched the footage three times after PC Kenworthy called her into the station, sitting beside her on a plastic chair in Interview Suite Three. It chilled her every time: the tiny figure, her sequined sleeves glinting in the sun, walking slowly along the edge of the screen, pausing to push her spectacles up her nose. The car that slows, the door that opens. One, two, three of them. Tanzie’s body language. The slight step backwards, the nervous glance behind, back down the road. The raised hands. And then they’re on her and Jess cannot watch.

‘I’d say that was pretty conclusive evidence, Mrs Thomas. And on good-quality footage. The CPS will be delighted,’ she said cheerfully, and it took Jess several seconds to grasp that she was serious about this. That somebody was actually taking them seriously.

At first Fisher had denied it, of course. He said they were ‘having a joke’ with Tanzie. ‘But we have her testimony. And two witnesses who have come forward. And we have screenshots of Jason Fisher’s Facebook account discussing how he was going to do it.’

‘Do what?’

Her smile faded for a minute. ‘Something not very nice to your daughter.’

Jess didn’t ask anything else.

They had received an anonymous tip that he used his name as his password. The div, PC Kenworthy said. She actually said ‘div’. ‘Between us,’ she said, as she let Jess out, ‘that hacked evidence may not be strictly admissible in court. But let’s just say it gave us a leg up.’

The case was reported in vague terms at first. Several local youths, the local papers said. Arrested for assault of a minor and attempted kidnap. But they were in the newspapers again the following week, and named. Apparently the Fisher family had been instructed to move out of their council house. The Thomases were not the only people they had been harassing. The housing association was quoted as saying the family had long been on a last warning.

Nicky held up the local newspaper over tea and he read the story aloud. They were all silent for a moment, unable to believe what they had heard.

‘It actually says the Fishers have to move somewhere else?’

‘That’s what it says,’ Nicky said.

‘But what will happen to them?’ Jess said, her fork still halfway to her mouth.

‘Well, it says here, they’re going to move to Surrey, to near his brother-in-law.’

‘Surrey? But –’

‘They’re not the housing association’s responsibility any more. None of them. Jason Fisher. And his cousin and his family. They’re moving in with some uncle. And, even better, there’s an exclusion order preventing them from returning to the estate. Look, there’s two pictures of his mum crying and saying they’ve always been misunderstood and Jason wouldn’t hurt a fly.’ He pushed the newspaper across the table towards her.

Jess read the story twice, just to check he’d understood it correctly. That she’d understood it correctly. ‘They actually get arrested if they come back here?’

‘See, Mum?’ he said, chewing on a piece of bread. ‘You were right. Things can change.’

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