‘So, yes, your mum is quite right, and you absolutely don’t have to go,’ Ed said. ‘But I have to admit that, personally, I would quite like to see you whup those boys at maths. And I know you can do it.’
‘Go on, Titch,’ Nicky said. ‘Go and show them what you’re really made of.’
She looked round at Jess. And then she turned back and pushed her glasses up her nose.
It’s possible that all four people held their breath.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘But only if we can bring Norman.’
Jess’s hand went to her mouth. ‘You really want to do this?’
‘Yes. I could do all the other questions, Mum. I just panicked when I couldn’t get the first one to work. And then it all went a bit wrong from there.’
Jess took two more steps down the stairs, her heart racing. Her hands had started to sweat in her rubber gloves. ‘But how will we get there in time?’
Ed Nicholls straightened up, and looked her in the eye. His expression was both determined and oddly unreadable. ‘I’ll take you.’
It’s not easy driving four people and a large dog in a Mini, especially not on a hot day and in a car with no air-conditioning. Especially if the dog’s intestinal system is even more challenged than it once was, and if time constraints mean you have to go at speeds of more than forty miles an hour with all the inevitable consequences that brings. They drove with all of the windows open, in near silence, Tanzie murmuring to herself as she tried to remember all of the things she’d become convinced she’d forgotten, and occasionally pausing to bury her face in a strategically placed plastic bag.
Jess map-read, as Ed’s new car had no built-in satnav, and tried to steer a route away from motorway traffic jams and clogged shopping centres. Within an hour and three-quarters, all conducted in a peculiar near-silence, they were there: a 1970s glass and concrete block with a piece of paper marked OLYMPIAD flapping in the wind, taped to a sign that said ‘Keep Off the Grass’.
This time they were prepared. Jess signed Tanzie in, handed her a spare pair of spectacles (‘She never goes anywhere without a spare pair, now,’ Nicky told Ed), a pen, a pencil and a rubber. Then they all hugged her and reassured her that this didn’t matter, not one bit, and stood in silence as Tanzie walked in to do battle with a bunch of abstract numbers, and possibly the demons in her own head. The door closed behind her.
Jess hovered at the desk and finished signing the paperwork, acutely conscious of Nicky and Ed chatting on the grass verge through the open door. She watched them with surreptitious sideways looks. Nicky was showing Mr Nicholls something on Mr Nicholls’s old phone. Occasionally Mr Nicholls would shake his head. She wondered if it was his blog.
‘She’ll be cool, Mum,’ said Nicky, cheerfully, as Jess emerged. ‘Don’t stress.’ He was holding Norman’s lead. He had promised Tanzie they would not go more than five hundred feet from the building, so that she could feel their special bond even through the walls of the examination hall.
‘Yeah. She’ll be great,’ said Ed, his hands thrust deep in his pockets.
Nicky’s gaze flicked between the two of them, then down at the dog. ‘Well. We’re going to take a comfort break. The dog’s. Not mine,’ he said. ‘I’ll be back in a while.’ Jess watched him wander slowly along the quadrant and fought the urge to say that she would go with him.
And then it was just the two of them.
‘So,’ she said. She picked at a bit of paint on her jeans. She wished she had had the chance to change into something smarter.
‘Yet again you save us.’
‘You seem to have done a pretty good job of saving yourselves.’
They stood in silence. Across the car park a car skidded in, a mother and a young boy hurling themselves from the back seat and running towards the door.
‘How’s the foot?’
She gazed down at her white tennis shoes. ‘No.’
He ran his hand over his head and stared at the sky. ‘I got your envelopes.’
She couldn’t speak.
‘I got them this morning. I wasn’t ignoring you. If I’d known … everything … I wouldn’t have left you to deal with all that alone.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said briskly. ‘You’d done enough.’ A large piece of flint was embedded in the ground in front of her. She kicked at some dirt with her good foot, trying to dislodge it. ‘And it was very kind of you to bring us to the Olympiad. Whatever happens I’ll always be –’
‘Will you stop?’
‘Stop kicking stuff. And stop talking like …’ He turned to her. ‘Come on. Let’s go and sit in the car.’
‘No … thank you.’
‘I just … Can’t we talk out here?’
‘Why can’t we sit in the car?’
‘I’d rather not.’
‘I don’t understand. Why can’t we sit in the car?’
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know.’ Tears sprang to her eyes. She wiped at them furiously with the palm of her hand.
‘I don’t know, Jess.’
‘Then I can’t tell you.’
‘Oh, this is ridiculous. Just come and sit in the car.’
‘Why? I’m not going to stand out here unless you give me a good reason.’
‘Because …’ her voice broke ‘… because that’s where we were happy. That’s where I was happy. Happier than I’ve been for years. And I can’t do it. I can’t sit in there, just you and me, now that …’
Her voice failed. She turned away from him, not wanting him to see what she felt. Not wanting him to see her tears. She heard him come and stand close behind her. The closer he got the more she couldn’t breathe. She wanted to tell him to go but she couldn’t bear it if he did.
His voice was low in her ear. ‘I’m trying to tell you something.’
She stared at the ground.
‘I want to be with you. I know we’ve made an unholy mess of it but I still feel more right with you doing wrong than I feel when everything’s supposedly right and you’re not there. Fuck. I’m no good at this stuff. I don’t know what I’m saying.’
Jess turned slowly. He was gazing at his feet, his hands in his pockets. He looked up suddenly.
‘They told me what Tanzie’s wrong question was.’
‘It was about the theory of emergence. Strong emergence says that the sum of a number can be more than its constituent parts. You know what I’m saying?’
‘No. I’m crap at maths.’
‘I don’t want to go back over it all. What you did. It’s not like I’m perfect. But I just … I want to try. It might prove to be a huge f**k-up. But I’ll take that chance.’
He reached out then and gently took hold of the belt loop of her jeans. He pulled her slowly towards him. She couldn’t tear her eyes from his hands. And then, when she finally did lift her face to his, he was gazing straight at her and Jess found she was crying and smiling, perhaps the first time she had smiled properly in about a million years.
‘I want to see what we can add up to, Jessica Rae Thomas. All of us. What do you say?’
So the uniform for St Anne’s is royal blue with a yellow stripe. You can’t hide in a St Anne’s blazer. Some girls in my class take them off when they’re going home, but it doesn’t bother me. When you work hard to get somewhere, it’s quite nice to show people where you belong. The funny thing is that when you see another St Anne’s student outside school it’s the custom to wave to each other, like people who drive Fiat 500s. Sometimes it’s a big wave, like Sriti, my best friend, who always looks like she’s on a desert island trying to attract a passing plane, and sometimes it’s just a tiny lifting of your fingers down by your school bag, like Dylan Carter, who gets embarrassed about talking to anyone, even his own brother. But everyone does it. You might not know the person waving, but you wave at the person in the uniform. It’s what the school’s always done. It shows that we’re all a family, apparently.
I always wave, especially if I’m on the bus.
Ed picks me up in the car on Tuesdays and Thursdays because that’s when I have maths club and Mum works late at her handywoman thing. She has three people working for her now. She says they work ‘with’ her, but she’s always showing them how to do stuff and telling them which jobs to go to and Ed says she’s still a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being a boss. He says she’s getting used to it. He pulls a face when he says it, like Mum’s the boss of him, but you can tell he likes it.
She takes Friday afternoons off and meets me at school and we make biscuits together, just me and her. It’s been nice, but I’m going to have to tell her I’d rather stay late at school, especially now I’m going to do my A level in the spring. Dad hasn’t had a chance to come down yet, but we Skype every week and he says he’s definitely going to. He’s got two job interviews next week, and lots of irons in the fire.
Nicky is at sixth-form college in Southampton. He wants to go to art school. He has a girlfriend called Lila, which Mum said was a surprise on all sorts of counts. He still wears lots of eyeliner but he’s letting his hair grow out to its natural colour, which is sort of a dark brown. He’s now a whole head taller than Mum and sometimes when they’re in the kitchen he thinks it’s funny to rest his elbow on her shoulder, like she’s a bar or something. He still writes in his blog sometimes, but mostly he says he’s too busy so it would be okay if I take it over for a bit. Next week it will be less personal stuff and more about maths. I’m really hoping lots of you like maths.
We paid back 77 per cent of the people who sent us money for Norman. Fourteen per cent said they would rather we just gave the money to charity, and we were never able to trace the other nine per cent. Mum says it’s fine, because the important thing was that we tried, and that sometimes it’s okay just to accept people’s generosity as long as you say thank you. She said to say thank you and she’ll never forget the kindness of strangers.
Ed is here literally ALL the time. He sold his house at Beachfront and he now owns a really small flat in London and Nicky and I have to sleep on a put-you-up bed when we’re there but most of the time he stays with us. He works in the kitchen on his laptop and talks to his friend in London on this really cool set of headphones and he goes up and down for meetings in the Mini. He keeps meaning to get a new car, as it’s really hard to fit all of us in when we want to go somewhere, but in a weird way none of us really wants him to. It’s kind of nice in the little car, all squashed together, and in that car I don’t feel so guilty about the drool.
Norman is happy. He does all the things the vet said he’d be able to do, and Mum says that’s enough for us. The law of probability combined with the law of large numbers states that to beat the odds, sometimes you have to repeat an event an increasing number of times in order to get you to the outcome you desire. The more you do, the closer you get. Or, as I explain it to Mum, basically, sometimes you just have to keep going.
I’ve taken Norman into the garden and thrown the ball for him eighty-six times this week. He still never brings it back.
But I think we’ll get there.
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