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Jess pressed on, glad that nobody could see her shame. ‘If I could get the money together by next year would you consider deferring her place?’

‘I’m not sure whether that would be possible. Or even if it would be fair to the other candidates.’ She hesitated, perhaps suddenly conscious of Jess’s silence. ‘But of course we’d certainly look at her favourably if ever she did want to reapply.’

Jess stared at the spot on the carpet where Marty had brought a motorbike into the front room and it had leaked oil. A huge lump had risen into her throat. ‘Well, thank you for letting me know.’

‘Look, Mrs Thomas,’ the woman said, her voice suddenly conciliatory, ‘there’s still another week to go before we have to close the place. We’ll hold it for you until the last possible minute.’

‘Thank you. That’s very kind of you. But, really, there’s no point.’

Jess knew it and the woman knew it. It wasn’t going to happen for them. Some leaps were just too big to make.

She asked Jess to pass on her best wishes to Tanzie for her new school. As she put the phone down Jess could hear her already scanning her lists for the next suitable candidate.

She didn’t tell Tanzie. She suspected she already knew. Two nights previously she discovered Tanzie had removed all her maths books from her cupboard and stacked them with Jess’s remaining books on the upstairs landing, inserting them carefully between thrillers and a historical romance so that she wouldn’t notice. Jess removed them carefully and put them in a neat pile in her wardrobe, where they couldn’t be seen. She wasn’t sure if this was saving Tanzie’s feelings or her own.

Marty received the solicitor’s letter and rang, protesting and blustering about why he couldn’t pay. She told him it was out of her hands. She said she hoped they could be civil about it. She told him his children needed shoes. He didn’t mention coming down at half-term.

She got her job back at the pub. The girl from the City of Paris had apparently disappeared to the Texas Rib Shack three shifts after she’d started. Tips were better and there was no Stewart Pringle making random grabs at your backside.

‘No loss. She didn’t know not to talk during the guitar solo of “Layla”,’ Des mused. ‘What kind of barmaid doesn’t know to keep quiet during the guitar solo of “Layla”?’

She cleaned four days a week with Nathalie, and avoided number two Beachfront. She preferred jobs like scrubbing ovens, where she was unlikely to accidentally look through the window and catch sight of it, with its jaunty blue and white for-sale placard. If Nathalie thought she was behaving a little oddly, she didn’t say anything.

She put an advert in the local newsagent’s offering her services as a handy-woman. No Job Too Small. Her first job came in less than twenty-four hours later: putting up a bathroom cabinet for a pensioner in Aden Crescent. The old woman was so happy with the result that she gave Jess a five-pound tip. She said she didn’t like having men in her house and that in the forty-two years she had been married to her husband he had only ever seen her with her good wool vest on. She recommended Jess to a friend in the sheltered housing who had a washer needed replacing and a carpet gripper. Two other jobs followed, also pensioners. Jess sent a second instalment of cash to number two Beachfront. Nathalie dropped it in. The for-sale sign was still up.

Nicky was the only one in the family who seemed genuinely cheerful. It was as if the blog had given him a new sense of purpose. He wrote it most evenings, posting about Norman’s progress, chatting with new friends. He met up with one of them IRL, he said, translating that for Jess: ‘In Real Life’. He was all right, he said. And, no, not like that. He wanted to go to open days at two different colleges. He was speaking to his form tutor about how to apply for a hardship grant. He’d looked it up. He smiled, often several times a day and without being bribed, dropped to his knees with pleasure when he saw Norman wagging his tail in the kitchen, waved unselfconsciously at Lola, the girl from number forty-seven, who, Jess noticed, had dyed her hair the exact same shade as his, and played an air-guitar solo in the front room. He walked into town frequently, his skinny legs seeming to gain a longer stride, his shoulders not exactly back, but not slumped, defeated, as they had been weeks earlier. Once he wore a yellow T-shirt.

‘Where’s the laptop gone?’ Jess said, when she went into his room one afternoon and found him working away on their old computer.

‘I took it back.’ He shrugged. ‘Nathalie let me in.’

‘Did you see him?’ she said, before she could stop herself.

Nicky’s eyes slid away. ‘Sorry. His stuff’s there but it’s all boxed up. I’m not sure he stays there any more.’

It shouldn’t have been a surprise but as Jess made her way downstairs she found herself holding her stomach with both hands, as if she had been winded.

38.

Ed

His sister accompanied him to court several weeks later, on a day that woke still and hot, and the traffic crawled as if the heat had slowed the very movement in London’s veins. Ed had told his mother not to come too. By that time they were never sure, day by day, whether it was a good idea to leave Dad for any length of time. As they crawled across London, his sister leant forwards in her taxi seat, her fingers tapping impatiently on her knee, her jaw set in a tight line. She was clearly even tenser than he was. Ed felt strangely, perversely relaxed. The weight of other, future, losses hung over him, making today’s troubles seem trivial.

The courtroom was almost empty. Thanks to the unholy combination of a particularly grisly murder at the Old Bailey, a political love scandal, and the public meltdown of a young British actress, the two-day trial had not registered as a big news story, just enough for an agency court reporter and a trainee from the Financial Times. And Ed had already pleaded guilty, against the advice of his legal team.

Deanna Lewis’s claims of innocence had been somewhat undermined by the evidence of a friend, a banker, who had apparently informed her in no uncertain terms that what she was about to do was indeed insider trading. The friend was able to produce an email she had sent informing Deanna as much, and one in return from Deanna accusing the friend of being ‘picky’, ‘annoying’, and ‘frankly a little too involved in my business. Don’t you want me to have a chance to move forward?’

Ed stood and watched the court reporter scribbling away, and the solicitors leaning in to each other, pointing to bits of paper, and it all felt oddly anti-climactic.

‘I am minded that you confessed your guilt and that, as far as Miss Lewis and yourself are concerned, this appears to be isolated criminal behaviour, motivated by factors other than money. This cannot be said of Michael Lewis.’

The FSA, it turned out, had tracked other ‘suspicious’ trades Deanna’s brother had made, spread bets and options.

‘It is necessary, however, that we send a signal that this kind of behaviour is completely unacceptable, however it may have come about. It destroys investors’ confidence in the honest movement in markets, and it weakens the whole structure of our financial system. For that reason I am bound to ensure that the level of punishment is still a clear deterrent to anyone who may believe this to be a “victimless” crime.’

Ed stood in the dock trying to work out what to do with his face and was fined £750,000 and costs, and given a six-month sentence, suspended for twelve months.

And it was over.

Gemma let out a long, shuddering breath, and dropped her head into her hands. Ed felt curiously numb. ‘That’s it?’ he said quietly, and she looked up at him in disbelief. A clerk opened the door of the dock and ushered him out. Paul Wilkes clapped him on the back as they emerged into the corridor.

‘Thank you,’ Ed said. It seemed like the right thing to say.

He caught sight of Deanna Lewis in the corridor, in animated conversation with a red-headed man. He looked like he was trying to explain something to her and she kept shaking her head, cutting him off. He stood staring for a moment, and then, almost without thinking, he walked through the throng of people and straight up to her. ‘I wanted to say I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘If I had thought for one minute –’

She spun round, her eyes widening. ‘Oh, f**k off,’ she said, her face puce with fury, and pushed past him. ‘You f**king loser.’

The faces that had swivelled at the sound of her voice registered Ed, then turned away in embarrassment. Somebody sniggered. As Ed stood there, his hand still half lifted as if to make a point, he heard a voice in his ear.

‘She’s not stupid, you know. She would always have known she shouldn’t have told her brother.’

Ed turned, and there, behind him, stood Ronan. He took in his checked shirt and his thick black glasses, the computer bag slung over his shoulder, and something in him deflated with relief. ‘You … you were here all morning?’

‘Bit bored at the office TBH. I thought I’d come and see what a real-life court case was like.’

Ed couldn’t stop looking at him. ‘Overrated.’

‘Yeah. That’s what I thought.’

His sister had been shaking hands with Paul Wilkes. She appeared at his side, straightening her jacket. ‘Right. Shall we go and ring Mum, give her the good news? She said she’d leave her mobile on. If we’re lucky she’ll have remembered to charge it. Hi, Ronan.’

He leant forward and kissed her cheek. ‘Nice to see you, Gemma. Been a long time.’

‘Too long! Let’s go to mine,’ she said, turning to Ed. ‘It’s ages since you saw the kids. I’ve got a spag bol in the freezer we can have tonight. Hey, Ronan. You can come too if you like. I’m sure we could bung some extra pasta in the pot.’

Ronan’s gaze slid away, as it had done when he and Ed were eighteen. He kicked at something on the floor. Ed turned to his sister. ‘Um … Gem … would you mind if I left it? Just for today?’ He tried not to register the way her smile fell. ‘I’ll definitely come another time. I just – There’s a few things I’d really like to talk to Ronan about. It’s been …’

Her gaze flickered between them. ‘Sure,’ she said brightly, pushing her fringe from her eyes. ‘Well. Call me.’ She hoisted her bag onto her shoulder, and began to make her way towards the stairs.

And he yelled across the busy corridor, so that several people looked up from their papers. ‘Hey! Gem!’

She turned, her bag under her arm.

‘Thanks. For everything.’

She stood there, half facing him.

‘Really. I appreciate it.’

She nodded, a ghost of a smile. And then she was gone, lost in the crowds on the stairwell.

‘So. Um. Fancy a drink?’ Ed tried not to sound pleading. He wasn’t sure he was entirely successful. ‘I’m buying.’

Ronan let it hang there. Just for a second. The bastard. ‘Well, in that case …’

It was Ed’s mother who had once told him that real friends were the kind where you pick up where you’d left off, whether it be a week since you’d seen each other or two years. He’d never had enough friends to test it. He and Ronan nursed pints of beer across a wobbling wooden table in the busy pub, a little awkwardly at first, and then increasingly freely, the familiar jokes popping up between them like Whac-A-Moles, targets to be hit, with discreet pleasure. Ed had an almost physical sense of relief at having him nearby, as if he had been untethered for months and someone had finally tugged him in to land. He found himself gazing at his friend surreptitiously, noticing the things he remembered – his laugh, his enormous feet, the way he slumped over, even at a pub table, as if peering into a screen – and those things he hadn’t seen about him before: how he laughed more easily, his new, designer-framed glasses, a kind of quiet confidence. When he opened his wallet to pull out some cash, Ed caught a glimpse of a photograph of a girl, beaming into his credit cards.

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