It was a vast house; its slate floors echoed, its living areas were covered with great expanses of sea-grass matting and there was an expensive sound system wired into the walls. The glass frontages gazed out onto the wide blue arc of the horizon. But there were no photographs on the walls, or suggestions of any kind of actual life. Nathalie always said that even when he came it was as if he was camping there. There must have been women – Nathalie once found a lipstick in the bathroom, and last year they had discovered a pair of tiny lacy knickers under the bed (La Perla) and a bikini top – but there was little to suggest anything else about him.
Jess thought of her own house, the narrow, creaking stairs, the peeling wallpaper, and unusually (she rarely thought about clients’ houses in relation to her own – that truly was the way to madness) she felt briefly wistful for all this space. This was a man who’d never had to put a clothes rail on the upstairs landing, or run out of space for bookshelves. This was a man who’d never fretted about how to find a registration fee.
‘He’s here,’ muttered Nathalie.
As they closed the front door, a man’s voice echoed down the corridor, his voice loud, his tone argumentative, as if on the telephone. Nathalie pulled a face at Jess and walked slowly through the hallway.
‘Cleaners,’ she called. He did not respond, but he must have heard.
The argument continued the whole time it took to clean the kitchen (he had used one mug, and the bin held two empty takeaway cartons). There was broken glass in the corner by the fridge, small green splinters, as if someone had picked up the larger pieces but couldn’t be bothered with the rest. And there was wine up the walls. Jess washed them down carefully. The place smelt like a brewery. And he was still arguing. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, as his door was partially closed and too far away, but even muffled and at a distance his frustration was evident. She and Nathalie worked in silence, speaking in murmurs, trying to pretend they couldn’t hear.
When they had finished the kitchen Nathalie moved on to the living room and Jess headed down the hall. She did the downstairs loo, then the dining room, with its untouched bleached oak table and perfectly matched chairs. She dusted the picture frames with a soft cloth, tilting the odd one a centimetre or two to show they’d been done. Outside on the decking sat an empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s with one glass; she picked them up and brought them inside.
While she washed up, she thought about Nicky, who had returned from school the previous day with a cut ear, the knees of his trousers scuffed with dirt. He shrugged off any attempt to talk about it. His preferred life now consisted of people on the other side of a screen; boys Jess had never met and never would, boys he called SK8RBOI and TERM-N-ATOR who shot and disembowelled each other for fun. Who could blame him? His real life seemed to be the actual war zone.
She thought about Tanzie, and how she’d looked while talking to that maths teacher. Ever since the interview Jess had lain awake, doing calculations in her head, adding and subtracting in a way that would have made Tanzie laugh. The scholarship would not leave her head. It had lodged in there like toothache, and Jess worried away at it, trying every possible way to build financial mountains out of molehills. She sold her belongings. She ran through mental lists of every single person she might be able to borrow money from and who wouldn’t mind if it took time to pay it back. She considered the most likely, and the most unlikely people – her mother, her aunt Nell in Dorset, the retired teacher she used to clean for who always said he could see that Tanzie was a bright girl – but while she might have been able to beg fifty pounds here and there, there was nobody who would lend ten times that much. Nobody she knew even had it.
The only people likely to offer Jess money were the sharks who circled the estate with their hidden four-figure interest rates. She had seen neighbours who had borrowed from friendly reps who turned gimlet-eyed, hanging over them like financial vultures. And again and again she came back to Marty’s words. Was McArthur’s comp really so bad? Some children did well there. There was no reason why Tanzie shouldn’t be one of them, if she kept out of the way of the troublemakers.
The hard truth of it was there like a brick wall. Jess was going to have to tell her daughter that she couldn’t make it add up. Jess Thomas, the woman who always found a way through, who spent her life telling the two of them that it would All Work Out, couldn’t make it work out.
She finished the dining room in which no dining had ever taken place, and observed with some distant part of her that the loud talking had stopped. Mr Nicholls must finally be off the phone. She hauled the vacuum cleaner down the hallway, wincing as it bumped against her shin, and knocked on the door to see if he wanted his office cleaned. There was silence, and as she knocked again he yelled suddenly, ‘Yes, I’m well aware of that, Sidney. You’ve said so fifteen times, but it doesn’t mean –’
It was too late: she had pushed the door half open. Jess began to apologize, but with barely a glance the man held up a palm, like she was some kind of a dog – stay – then leaned forwards and slammed the door in her face. The sound reverberated around the house.
Jess stood there, shocked into immobility, her skin prickling with embarrassment.
‘I told you,’ Nathalie said, as she scrubbed furiously at the guest bathroom a few minutes later. ‘Those private schools don’t teach them any manners.’
Forty minutes later they were finished. Jess gathered Mr Nicholls’s immaculate white towels and sheets into her holdall, stuffing them in with more force than was strictly necessary. She walked downstairs and placed the bag next to the cleaning crate in the hall. Nathalie was polishing the doorknobs. It was one of her things. She couldn’t bear fingerprints on taps or doorknobs. Sometimes it took them ten minutes to leave an address.