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He didn’t want to think about her.

He didn’t want to see her face every time he closed his eyes.

He would go. He would leave here, and get a new place, and a new job, and he would start again. And he would leave all this behind. And things would be easier.

A shrill noise – a ringtone he didn’t recognize – shattered the silence. His phone, recalibrated with Nicky’s preferences. He stared at it, at the rhythmically glowing screen. Caller unknown. After five rings, when the sound became unbearable, he finally snatched it up.

‘Is Mrs Thomas there?’

Ed held the phone briefly away from himself, as if it were radioactive. ‘Is this a joke?’ he said, putting it back to his ear.

A nasal voice, sneezing: ‘Sorry. Awful hay fever. Have I got the right number? Parents of Costanza Thomas?’

‘What – who is this?’

‘My name’s Andrew Prentiss. I’m calling from the Olympiad.’

It took him a moment to collect his thoughts. He sat down on the stairs.

‘The Olympiad? I’m sorry – how did you get this number?’

‘It was on our contacts list. You left it during the exam. I have got the right number?’

Ed remembered Jess’s phone being out of credit. She must have given the number of the phone he’d given to Nicky instead. His head dropped into his free hand. Someone up there had quite a sense of humour.

‘Yes.’

‘Oh, thank goodness. We’ve been trying you for days. Did you not pick up any of my messages? I’m calling about the exam … The thing is, we discovered an anomaly when we were marking the papers. The first one contained a misprint, which made the algorithm question impossible to solve.’

‘What?’

He spoke as if reciting a well-worn series of statements. ‘We noticed it after the final results were collated. The fact that every single student failed the first question was a giveaway. It wasn’t picked up on initially as we had several different people marking. Anyway, we’re very sorry – and we’d like to offer your daughter the chance to resit. We’re doing the whole thing again.’

‘Resit the Olympiad? When?’

‘Well, that’s the thing. It’s this afternoon. It had to be a weekend as we couldn’t expect students to miss school to do it. We’ve actually been trying to reach you all week on this number but we got no response. I only tried you the one last time on the off-chance.’

‘You’re expecting her to get to Scotland in … four hours?’

Mr Prentiss paused to sneeze again. ‘No, not Scotland this time. We had to take the space available to us. But looking at your details I see this might work out better for you, seeing as you live on the south coast. The event is scheduled to take place in Basingstoke. Are you happy to pass the message on to Costanza?’

‘Uh …’

‘Thanks so much. I suppose these things are only to be expected in our first year. Still, one more down! I only have one more entrant to reach! The rest of the info is on the website if you need it.’

An almighty sneeze. And the phone went dead.

And Ed was left in his empty house, staring at the handset.

40.

Jess

Jess had been trying to persuade Tanzie to open the door. The school counsellor had told her it would be a good way to start rebuilding her confidence in the outside world, as long as she was in the house. She would answer the door, safe in the knowledge that Jess was behind her. That confidence would slowly stretch to other people, to being in the garden. It would be a stepping stone. These things were incremental.

It was a nice theory. If Tanzie would only agree to do it.

‘Door. Mum.’

Her voice carried over the sound of the cartoons. Jess was wondering when to get tough with her on the television-watching. She had calculated last week that Tanzie now spent upwards of five hours a day lying on the sofa. ‘She has had a shock,’ Mrs Liversedge had said. ‘But I think she’d feel better sooner if she was doing something a little more constructive.’

‘I can’t answer it, Tanze,’ she called down. ‘I’m standing here with my hands in a bowlful of bleach.’

Her voice, a whine, a new development these last days: ‘Can’t you get Nicky to open it?’

‘Nicky’s gone to the shop.’

Silence.

The sound of canned laughter echoed up the stairs. Jess could feel, if not see, the presence of whoever was waiting at the door, the shadow behind the glass. She wondered if it was Aileen Trent. She had arrived uninvited four times over the last two weeks with ‘unmissable bargains’ for the children. She wondered if she’d heard about Nicky’s blog money. Everyone on the estate seemed to know about it.

Jess yelled down, ‘Look, I’ll stand at the top of the stairs. All you have to do is open it.’

The doorbell rang again, twice.

‘Come on, Tanze. It’s not going to be anything bad. Look, put Norman on the lead and bring him with you.’

Silence.

Out of sight, she let her head drop down and wiped her eyes in the crook of her arm. She couldn’t ignore it: Tanzie was getting worse, not better. In the last fortnight she had taken to sleeping in Jess’s bed. She no longer woke, crying, but crept across the hallway in the small hours and simply climbed in, so that Jess woke beside her with no idea of how long she had been there. She hadn’t had the heart to tell her not to, but the counsellor said pointedly that she was a little old to do that indefinitely.

‘Tanze?’

Nothing. The doorbell rang a third time, impatient now.

Jess waited, her ears trained on the silence. She was going to have to go down and do it herself.

‘Hold on,’ she called wearily. She began to peel off her rubber gloves, and then she stopped as she heard the footfall in the hallway. The lumbering, wheezing sound of Norman being tugged along. Tanzie’s sweet voice entreating him to come with her, a tone she only used with him these days.

And then the front door opening. Her satisfaction at the sound was tempered by the sudden realization that she should have told Tanzie to tell Aileen to go away. Given half a chance she would be in with her black bag on wheels and straight past her, settling herself on the sofa and her ‘bargains’ spread out on the living-room floor.

But it wasn’t Aileen’s voice she heard.

‘Hey, Norman.’

Jess froze.

‘Whoa. What happened to his face?’

‘He only has one eye now.’ Tanzie’s voice.

Jess tiptoed to the top of the stairs. She could see his feet. His Converse trainers. Her heart began to thump.

‘Did he have some kind of accident?’

‘He saved me. From the Fishers.’

‘He what?’

And then Tanzie’s voice – her mouth opening and the words coming out in a rush. ‘The Fishers tried to get me in a car and Norman bust through the fence to save me but he got hit by a car and we had no money but all these people sent money to us because of what Nicky wrote and then the vet let us off half the bill because he said he’d never met such a brave dog.’

Her daughter. Talking as if she wouldn’t stop.

Jess took one step down, and then another.

‘He nearly died,’ Tanzie said. ‘He nearly died and the vet didn’t even want to give him an operation because he was so sick with infernal injuries and he thought we should just let him go. But Mum said she didn’t want to and that we should give him a chance. And then Nicky wrote this blog about how everything had gone wrong and some people just sent him money. Well, lots of people sent little bits of money. For no reason. And we had enough to save him. So Norman saved me and people we don’t even know saved him, which is sort of cool. But he only has one eye now and he gets really tired because he’s still in recovery and he doesn’t do very much.’

She could see him now. He had crouched down, and was stroking Norman’s head. And she stared at him as if she couldn’t tear her eyes away: the dark hair, the way his shoulders fitted his T-shirt. That grey T-shirt. Something rose up in her and a muffled half-sob came out so that she had to press her arm against her mouth. And then he looked up at her daughter from his low position and his face was deadly serious. ‘Are you okay, Tanzie?’

She lifted a hand and twisted a lock of her hair, as if deciding how much to tell him. ‘Sort of.’

‘Oh, sweetheart.’

Tanzie hesitated, her toe rotating on the floor behind her, and then she simply stepped forward and walked into his open arms. He closed them around her, as if he had been waiting for just that thing, letting her rest her head against his shoulder and they just stayed there, her wrapped in his arms, in the hallway. Jess watched him close his eyes, and she had to take one step back up to where she couldn’t be seen because she was afraid if he saw her she wouldn’t be able to stop crying.

‘Well, you know, I knew,’ he said finally, when he pulled back, and his voice was oddly determined. ‘I knew there was something special about this dog. I could see it.’

‘Really?’

‘Oh, yes. You and him. A team. Anyone with any sense could see it. And you know what? He looks pretty cool with one eye. He looks kind of tough. Nobody’s going to mess with Norman.’

Jess didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to go downstairs because she couldn’t bear him to look at her the way he did before. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t go down and she couldn’t move.

‘Mum told us why you don’t come round any more.’

‘She did?’

‘It was because she took your money.’

A painfully long silence.

‘She said she made a big mistake and she didn’t want us to do the same thing.’ Another silence. ‘Have you come to get it back?’

‘No. That’s not why I’ve come at all.’ He looked behind him. ‘Is she here?’

There was no avoiding it. Jess took one step down. And then another, her hand on the banister. She stood on the stairs with her rubber gloves on and waited as his eyes lifted to hers. And what he said next was the last thing she had expected him to say. ‘We need to get Tanzie to Basingstoke.’

‘What?’

‘The Olympiad. There was a mistake with the paper last time. And they’re resitting it. Today.’

Tanzie turned and looked up the stairs at her, frowning, as confused as Jess was. And then she looked as if a light-bulb had just gone on in her head. ‘Was it question one?’ she said.

He nodded.

‘I knew it!’ And she smiled, an abrupt, brilliant smile. ‘I knew there was something wrong with it!’

‘They want her to resit the whole paper?’

‘This afternoon.’

‘But that’s impossible.’

‘Not in Scotland. Basingstoke. It’s doable.’

She didn’t know what to say. She thought of all the ways in which she had destroyed her daughter’s confidence by pushing her to the Olympiad the previous time. She thought of her mad schemes, of how much hurt and damage their single trip had caused. ‘I don’t know …’

He was still balanced on his haunches. He reached out a hand and touched Tanzie’s arm. ‘You want to give it a go?’

Jess could see her uncertainty. Tanzie’s grip on Norman’s collar tightened. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. ‘You don’t have to, Tanze,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t matter one bit if you’d rather not.’

‘But you need to know that nobody got it right.’ Ed’s voice was calm and certain. ‘The man told me it was impossible. Not a single person in that examination room got question one correct.’

Nicky had appeared behind him, holding a plastic bag full of stationery from his shopping trip. It was hard to tell how long he’d been there.

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