Nicky didn’t look at his blog for almost ten days. He had written that post when Norman was hurt and he was so full of anger that he had had to get it out somewhere. He had never felt rage, real rage, where he had wanted to break stuff and hit people before, but for days after the Fishers had done what they did, Nicky felt it. It boiled in his blood like poison. It made him want to scream. For those awful few days at least, writing it down and putting it out there had actually helped. It had felt like he was telling someone, even if that someone didn’t really know who he was and probably didn’t care. He just needed to know that someone would hear what had happened, would see the injustice of it.
And then, after his blood had cooled, and they heard that the Fishers were going to have to pay, Nicky felt, weirdly, like an idiot. It felt like that thing when you tell someone a bit too much and you feel exposed and spend the following weeks praying they’ll forget what you told them, afraid they might use it against you. And what was the point of putting it out there, anyway? The only people who’d want to look at a blog like that were the kind of people who slowed down to look at car crashes.
He opened it up at first because he was going to delete it. And then he thought, No, people will have seen it. I’ll look even more stupid if I take it down. So he decided to write a short thing about the Fishers being evicted and that would be the end of it. He wasn’t going to name them, but he wanted to post something good so that if anyone ever did come across what he had written they wouldn’t think his whole family were completely tragic. He read through what he’d written the previous week – the emotion and the rawness of it – and his toes actually curled with shame. He wondered who out there in cyberspace had read it. He wondered how many people in the world now thought he was an idiot as well as a freak.
And then he reached the bottom. And he saw the comments.
Hang on in there, Gothboy. People like that make me sick.
Your blog got sent to me by a friend and it made me cry. I hope your dog is okay. Please post and let us know when you get a chance.
Hey Nicky. I’m Viktor from Portugal. I don’t know you but my friend linked to your blog on Facebook and I just wanted to say that I felt like you did a year back and things did get better. Don’t worry. Peace!
He scrolled down some more. There was message after message. Kind, helpful, friendly. He put his blog into a search engine: it had been copied and linked hundreds, then thousands of times. Nicky looked at the statistics, then sat back in his chair and stared in disbelief: 2,876 people had read it. In a single week. Almost three thousand people had read his words. More than four hundred of them had taken the trouble to send him a message about it. And only two had called him a wanker.
But that wasn’t all. People had sent money. Actual money. Someone had opened an online donation account to help with the vet’s fees because they wanted Norman to be okay and left a message telling him how he could access it using a PayPal account.
I can’t donate enough to put your sister through school, but I can put something towards a new puppy for your sister if your dog doesn’t make it. I’m glad she has you.
Hey Gothboy (is that your real name??) have you thought of a rescue dog? That way something good might come out of it. I enclose a contribution! Rescue centres always need donations ;-)
A little something to help with the vet’s bills. Give your sister a hug from me. I’m so mad at what happened to you all.
My dog got hit by a car and was saved by the PDSA. I’m guessing you don’t have one near you. I thought it would be nice, as someone helped me, to help you a little. Please accept my £10 towards his recuperation.
From a fellow girl maths geek. Please tell your little sister to keep on. Don’t let them win.
It had gone viral. There were 459 shares. Nicky counted a hundred and thirty names on the donations page, two pounds being the smallest donation, and two hundred and fifty the highest. A total stranger had sent two hundred and fifty pounds. The final tally sat at £932.50, the last having come in an hour previously. He kept refreshing the page and staring at the figure, wondering if they had put a full stop in the wrong place.
His heart was doing something really strange. He placed his palm against his chest, wondering if this was what it felt like to have a heart attack. He wondered if he was going to die. What he wanted to do, though, he discovered, was laugh. He wanted to laugh at the magnificence of total strangers. At their kindness and their goodness and the fact that there were actual people out there being good and nice and giving money to people they had never met and never would. And because, most crazy of all, all that kindness, all that magnificence, was sitting there just because of his words.
Jess was standing by the cupboard holding a parcel of pink tissue when he scooted into the living room. ‘Here,’ he said. ‘Look.’ He pulled at her arm, dragging her over to the sofa.
‘Put that down.’
Nicky opened the laptop and placed it on her lap. She almost flinched, as if it was actually painful for her to be so close to something that belonged to Mr Nicholls.
‘Look.’ He pointed at the donations page. ‘Look at this. People have sent money. For Norman.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Just look, Jess.’
She squinted at the screen, moving the page up and down as she read, then reread it. ‘But … we can’t take that.’
‘It’s not for us. It’s for Tanzie. And Norman.’
‘I don’t understand. Why would people we don’t know send us money?’
‘Because they’re upset about what happened. Because they can see it wasn’t fair. Because they want to help. I don’t know.’
‘But how did they know?’
‘I wrote a blog about it.’
‘You did what?’
‘Something Mr Nicholls told me. About finding your people. I just … put it out there. What was happening to us.’
Nicky switched pages then and showed her the blog. She read it slowly, her brow furrowed in concentration, and he felt a bit strange, like he was showing her part of himself that he didn’t show anyone. Somehow it was harder to show all that emotional stuff to someone you knew.
‘So, how much is the vet?’ he said, when he could see that she’d finished.
She spoke like someone in a daze. ‘Eight hundred and seventy-eight pounds. And forty-two pence. So far.’
Nicky lifted his hands in the air. ‘So we’re okay, yes? Look at the total. We’re okay!’
She looked at him and he could see on her face the exact expression he must have worn half an hour previously.
‘The kindness of strangers,’ he said.
She lifted her hand to her mouth. ‘I just can’t believe that people would send money to someone they don’t even know.’
‘It’s like you said. Good things do happen.’ Nicky wanted her to smile. He wanted her to feel like he did, like a door had opened onto a world he hadn’t even known about, full of kind people and the possibility of happiness.
‘It’s good news, Jess! Be pleased!’ And for a minute her eyes brimmed with tears. And then she looked so confused that he leant forward and hugged her. This was his third voluntary hug in three years.
‘Mascara,’ she said, when she pulled back.
‘Oh.’ He wiped under his eyes. She wiped hers.
She leant forward and ran a thumb under the outer edge of his eye.
Then she let out a breath and suddenly she was a bit like the old Jess again. She stood up and brushed down her jeans. ‘We’ll have to pay them all back, of course.’
‘Most of them are, like, three pounds. Good luck with working that out.’
‘Tanzie will sort it.’ Jess picked up the pink tissue parcel, and then, almost as an afterthought, she shoved it into a cupboard. She pushed her hair from her face. ‘And you have to show her the messages about maths. It’s really important she sees those.’
Nicky looked upstairs towards Tanzie’s bedroom. ‘I will,’ he said, and just for a minute his mood dipped. ‘But I’m not sure it’s going to make any difference.’
Norman came home. Mr Adamson gave them a discount because, he said, the case had been ‘fascinating’. Jess had thought he was referring to Norman’s injuries, but it turned out one of the veterinary nurses had read Nicky’s blog after Tanzie had mentioned it, and the vet had meant he was fascinated that Norman had, against all expectations and his normal characteristics, roused himself to try to protect Tanzie.
‘And we have to help a hero, don’t we, old chap?’ he said, patting Norman’s side. The way the vet spoke to him, and the way that Norman immediately flopped to the ground for a tummy scratch, made Jess think this was not the first time he’d done it. As the vet dropped right down onto the floor she caught a glimpse of the man beyond the careful professional manner. His broad smile, the way his eyes crinkled when he looked at the dog. And she heard Nicky’s phrase running through her head, as it had done for days: the kindness of strangers.
‘I’m glad you made the decision you did, Mrs Thomas,’ he said, pushing himself back onto his feet while they diplomatically ignored the pistol crack of his knees. Norman stayed on his back, his tongue lolling, ever hopeful. Or perhaps just too fat to get up. ‘He deserved his chance. If I’d known how his injuries had come about I would have been a bit less reticent about proceeding.’
Jess paid with her pre-loaded credit card. She put twenty pounds in the animal charity box. Yes, it could probably have been usefully spent elsewhere, but it felt like the right thing to do.
Tanzie stayed pressed close to Norman’s enormous black body as they lumbered home, clutching his lead like a lifeline. The walk from the vet’s was the first time she had been outside in three weeks and hadn’t insisted on holding Jess’s hand.
Jess had hoped that having him back would lift her daughter’s spirits. But Tanzie was still a little shadow, tailing her silently around the house, peering around corners, waiting anxiously beside her form teacher at the end of the day for Jess’s arrival at the school gates. At home she read in her room, or lay silently on the sofa watching cartoons, one hand resting on the dog beside her. Mr Tsvangarai had been off since term restarted – some family emergency – and Jess felt a reflexive sadness when she pictured him discovering Tanzie’s determination to push mathematics from her life, the disappearance of the singular, quirky little girl she’d been. Sometimes she felt as if she had simply traded one unhappy, silent child for another.
St Anne’s rang to discuss Tanzie’s orientation day at the school, and Jess had to tell them that she wasn’t coming. The words were a squat dry frog in her throat.
‘Well, we do recommend it, Mrs Thomas. We find the children settle a lot better if they’ve familiarized themselves a little. It’s good for her to meet a few fellow pupils as well. Is it a problem with getting time off from her current school?’
‘No. I mean she – she’s not coming.’
A short silence.
‘Oh,’ said the registrar. Jess heard her flicking through papers. ‘But this is the little girl with the ninety per cent scholarship, yes? Costanza?’
She felt herself colour. ‘Yes.’
‘Is she going to Petersfield Academy instead? Did they offer her a scholarship too?’
‘No. That’s not it,’ Jess replied. She closed her eyes as she spoke. ‘Look, I don’t suppose … Is there any way you could … increase the scholarship any further?’
‘Further?’ She sounded taken aback. ‘Mrs Thomas, it was already the most generous scholarship we’ve ever offered. I’m sorry, but there’s no question.’
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