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‘We’re buying stuff off Aileen Trent?’ Nicky watched her open the gate and close it carefully behind her.

Jess couldn’t hide the way her cheeks coloured. ‘Just this once.’

He stared at her. ‘You said we had no money.’

‘Look, it’s to take Tanzie’s mind off the school thing when I have to tell her.’ Jess had made her decision on the way home. The whole idea was ridiculous. They could barely keep their heads above water as it was. There was no point even trying to entertain it.

He kept staring at her. ‘But Aileen Trent. You said –’

‘And you’re the one who just told me Tanzie was getting bullied because of her clothes. Sometimes, Nicky …’ Jess threw her hands into the air. ‘Sometimes the ends justify the means.’

Nicky’s look lasted longer than she felt entirely comfortable with. And then he went upstairs.

‘So I’ve brought a lovely selection of things for the discerning young lady. You know they all love their designer labels. I took the liberty of bringing a few extra bits, even though you said you weren’t interested.’

Aileen’s ‘shop’ voice was formal, with overly precise diction. It was quite odd, emerging as it did, from someone Jess had seen regularly ejected by force from the King’s Arms. She sat cross-legged on the floor and reached into her black holdall, pulling out a selection of clothes and laying them carefully on the carpet, co-ordinating separates in layers.

‘There’s a Hollister top here. They’re all into Hollister, the girls. Shocking expensive in the shops. I’ve got some more designer stuff in my other bag, although you did say you didn’t require high-end. Oh, and two sugars, if you’re making one.’

Aileen did a weekly round of this end of the estate, her skin waxy, her big black holdall on wheels trundling behind her. She was as much a local fixture as the postman, and as regular. ‘You’ve got to be professional to thrive in business,’ she would observe sagely, pale eyes blinking slowly within her spectral face.

Jess had always issued a firm thanks-but-no-thanks. Nobody on the estate ever talked about where Aileen got her bargains, her knock-down prices with the tags still on, but everyone knew. Jess always told Marty she didn’t like the example it set the kids.

But that was before.

She picked up the layered tops, one stripy, the other a soft rose. She could already see Tanzie in them. ‘How much?’

‘Ten for the top, five for the T-shirt, and twenty for the trainers. You can see from the tag they retail for eighty-five. That’s a serious discount.’

‘I can’t do that much.’

‘Well, as you’re a new client, I can do you an introductory bonus.’ Aileen held up her notebook, squinting at the figures. ‘You take the three items and I’ll let you have the jeans too. For goodwill.’ She smiled, her missing tooth gaping cheerfully. ‘Thirty-five pounds for a whole outfit, including footwear. And this month only I’m throwing in a little bracelet. You won’t get those prices in TK Maxx.’

Jess stared at the perfect clothes laid out on the floor. She wanted to see Tanzie smiling. She wanted her to feel that life held the potential for unexpected happy things, not just a harassed, overworked mother who never had time to spend with her, and an absent father who communicated once a week through a computer screen.

She wanted her to have something to feel good about when she gave her the news.

‘Hold on.’

She walked through to the kitchen, pulled the cocoa tin from the cupboard where she kept the electricity money. She counted out the coins and dropped them into Aileen’s clammy palm before she could think about what she was doing.

‘Pleasure doing business with you,’ Aileen said, folding the remaining clothes and placing them carefully in the bin bag. ‘I’ll be back in two weeks. Anything you want in the meantime, you know where to find me.’

‘I think this will be it, thanks.’

She gave Jess a knowing look. Yeah. They all say that, love.

Nicky didn’t look up from his computer when Jess walked in.

‘Nathalie’s going to bring Tanzie back after maths club. Are you going to be okay here by yourself?’

‘Sure.’

‘No smoking.’

‘Mm.’

‘You going to do some revision?’

‘Sure.’

Sometimes Jess fantasized about the kind of mother she could be if she wasn’t always working. She would bake cakes with the children and let them lick the bowl. She would smile more. She would sit on the sofa and actually talk to them. She would stand over them at the kitchen table while they did their homework, pointing out mistakes and ensuring they got the best possible marks. She would do the things they wanted her to do, instead of always answering:

– Sorry, love, I just have to get the supper on.

– After I’ve put this wash on.

– I’ve got to go, sweetie. Tell me when I get back from my shift.

She gazed at him, his unreadable expression, and she had a weird sense of foreboding. ‘Don’t forget to walk Norman. But don’t go round near the off-licence.’

‘As if.’

‘And don’t spend the whole evening on the computer.’

He had already turned back to the screen.

She hoicked up the back of his jeans. ‘And put your pants away before I can’t help myself and give you the world’s biggest wedgie.’

He turned and she glimpsed his brief smile. As Jess walked out of his room she realized she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen it.

5.

Nicky

My dad is such an arsehole.

6.

Jess

The Feathers public house sat between the library (closed since January) and the Happy Plaice (11 a.m.–11 p.m., all year round), and in the right light, inside, it was possible to believe it was still 1989. Des, the landlord, had never been seen in anything but faded tour T-shirts, jeans and, if it was cold, a blouson leather jacket. On a quiet night, if you were unlucky, he would detail the merits of a Fender Stratocaster against a Rickenbacker 330 or recite with a poet’s reverence all the words to ‘Money For Nothing’.

The Feathers was not smart, in the way that the Beachfront bars were smart, and it did not serve fresh seafood or fine wines and family-friendly menus to screaming children. It served various kinds of dead animal with chips, and it scoffed at the word ‘salad’ (what it really liked was crisps: it stocked no fewer than twenty-eight varieties). There was nothing more adventurous than Tom Petty on the jukebox, a battered dartboard on the wall, and a carpet from which, in the mornings, the odour of beer and old cigarettes was so strong that locals had been known to arrive at work partially drunk because they had strolled past too slowly.

But it was a formula that worked. The Feathers was that rare thing in a seaside town: busy all year round.

‘Is Roxanne here?’ Jess pinned up a new strip of pork scratchings as Des emerged from the cellar, where he had been tying on a fresh barrel of real ale.

‘Nah. She’s doing something with her mother.’ He thought for a minute. ‘Healing. No, fortune-telling. Psychiatrist. Psychologist.’

‘Spiritualist?’

‘The one where they tell you stuff you already know and you’re meant to look impressed.’

‘Psychic.’

‘Thirty pound a ticket, they’re paying, to sit there with a glass of cheap white wine and shout, “Yes!” when someone asks did someone in the audience have a relative whose name began with J.’ He stooped, slamming the cellar door shut with a grunt. ‘I could predict a few things, Jess. And I won’t charge you thirty pound for it. I predict that man is sitting at home right now, rubbing his hands and thinking, What a bunch of muppets.’

Jess hauled the tray of clean glasses out of the dishwasher and began stacking them on the shelves above the bar.

‘Do you believe all that old bollocks?’

‘No.’

‘Course you don’t. You’re a sensible girl. I don’t know what to say to her sometimes. Her mother’s the worst. She reckons she’s got her own guardian angel. An angel.’ He mimicked her, looking at his own shoulder and tapping it. ‘She reckons it protects her. Didn’t protect her from spending all her compensation on the shopping channels, did it? You’d think that angel would have had a word. “Here, Maureen. You really don’t want that luxury ironing-board cover with a picture of a dog on it. Really, love. Put a bit into your pension instead.”’

Miserable as Jess felt, she couldn’t help but laugh. It was hard not to in the pub. The men at the bar were gentlemanly (as far as men who belched the alphabet could be called gentlemanly), the talk was cheerful, and it meant that for two nights and two lunchtimes a week she did not sit at home with a pile of someone else’s laundry worrying about things she could not control.

‘You’re early.’ Des looked pointedly at his watch.

‘Shoe emergency.’ Chelsea slung her handbag under the bar, and fixed her hair. ‘I got chatting online to one of my dates,’ she said, to Jess, as if Des wasn’t there. ‘He’s absolutely gorgeous.’

All Chelsea’s Internet dates were gorgeous. Until she met them.

‘David, his name is. He’s looking for someone who likes cooking, cleaning and ironing. And the odd trip out.’

‘To the supermarket?’ said Des.

Chelsea ignored him. She picked up a dishcloth and began drying glasses. ‘You want to get yourself on there, Jess. Get out and about a bit instead of mouldering in here with this lot of droopy old ballsacks.’

‘Less of the old, you.’

The football was on, which meant that Des put out free crisps and cheese cubes, and, if he was feeling particularly generous, mini sausage rolls. Jess had taken home the leftover cubes, with Des’s blessing, to make macaroni cheese, until Nathalie had told her the statistic for how many men actually washed their hands after going to the loo.

The bar filled, the match started, the evening passed without note; she poured pints in the commentary gaps, silent against the blare of the satellite television on the far wall, and thought, yet again, about money. The end of the month, the school had said. If she didn’t register by then, that was it. Jess could save for a year and see if she could try to get her in at twelve, but there was no guarantee that the scholarship would still exist.

She was so deep in thought that she almost didn’t hear Des until he dumped a bowl of Quavers on the bar beside her. ‘I meant to tell you. Next week we’ve got a new till coming. It’s one of those where everything’s written down. All you have to do is touch the screen.’

She turned away from the optics. ‘A new till? Why?’

‘That one is older than I am. And not all the barmaids can add up as well as you, Jess. The last time Chelsea was on by herself I cashed up and we were eleven quid out. Ask her to add up a double gin, a pint of Webster’s and a packet of dry-roasted and her eyes cross. We’ve got to move with the times.’ He ran his hand across an imaginary screen. ‘Digital accuracy. You’ll love it. You won’t have to use your brain at all. Just like Chelsea.’

‘Can’t I just stick with this? I’m hopeless with computers.’

‘You’ll be fine. We’re going to do staff training.’

‘Staff training.’

‘Half a day. Unpaid, I’m afraid. I’ve got a bloke coming.’

‘Unpaid?’

‘Just tap-tap-swipe on a screen. It’ll be like Minority Report. But without the bald people. Mind you, we’ll still have Pete. PETE!’

Liam Stubbs came in at a quarter past nine. Jess had her back to the bar and he leant over it and murmured, ‘Hey, hot stuff,’ into her ear.

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