‘So, did Marty ring this week?’
‘I didn’t mean change the subject to that.’
‘Well, did he?’
Jess sighed. ‘Yup.’
‘Did he say why he didn’t ring the week before?’ Nathalie shoved Jess’s feet off the dashboard.
‘Nope.’ Jess could feel her staring. ‘And no, he didn’t send any money.’
‘Oh, come on. You’ve got to get the Child Support Agency onto him. You can’t carry on like this. He should send money for his own kids.’
It was an old argument. ‘He’s … he’s still not right,’ Jess said. ‘I can’t put more pressure on him. He hasn’t got a job yet.’
‘Well, you’re going to need that money now. Until we get another job like Lisa Ritter’s. How’s Nicky?’
‘Oh, I went round to Jason Fisher’s house to talk to his mum.’
‘You’re joking. She scares the pants off me. Did she say she’d get him to leave Nicky alone?’
‘Something like that.’
Nathalie kept her eyes on Jess and dropped her chin two inches.
‘She told me if I set foot on her doorstep once more she’d batter me halfway to next Wednesday. Me and my … what was it? … me and my “freakazoid kids”.’ Jess pulled down the passenger mirror and checked her hair, pulling it back into a ponytail. ‘Oh, and then she told me her Jason wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
‘It’s fine. I had Norman with me. And, bless him, he took an enormous dump next to their Toyota and somehow I forgot I had a plastic bag in my pocket.’
Jess put her feet back up.
Nathalie pushed them down again and mopped the dashboard with a wet wipe. ‘Seriously, though, Jess. How long has Marty been gone? Two years? You’ve got to get back on the horse. You’re young. You can’t wait around for him to sort himself out,’ she said, with a grimace.
‘Get back on the horse. Nice.’
‘Liam Stubbs fancies you. You could totally ride that.’
‘Any certified pair of X chromosomes could ride Liam Stubbs.’ Jess closed the window. ‘I’m better off reading a book. Besides, I think the kids have had enough upheaval in their lives without playing Meet Your New Uncle. Right.’ She looked up, wrinkled her nose at the sky. ‘I’ve got to get the tea on and then I’ve got to get ready for the pub. I’ll do a quick ring-round before I go, see if any of the clients want any extras doing. And, you never know, she might not cancel us.’
Nathalie lowered her window, and blew out a long trail of smoke. ‘Sure, Dorothy. And our next job is going to be cleaning the Emerald City at the end of the Yellow Brick Road.’
Number fourteen Seacove Avenue was filled with the sound of distant explosions. Tanzie had calculated recently that, since he’d turned sixteen, Nicky had spent 88 per cent of his spare time in his bedroom. Jess could hardly blame him.
She dropped her cleaning crate in the hall, hung up her jacket, made her way upstairs, feeling the familiar faint dismay at the threadbare state of the carpet, and pushed at his door. He was wearing a set of headphones and shooting somebody; the smell of weed was strong enough to make her reel.
‘Nicky,’ she said, and someone exploded in a hail of bullets. ‘Nicky.’ She walked over to him and pulled his headphones off, so that he turned, his expression briefly bemused, like someone hauled from sleep. ‘Hard at work, then?’
She picked up an ashtray and held it towards him. ‘I thought I told you.’
‘It’s from last night. Couldn’t sleep.’
‘Not in the house, Nicky.’ There was no point telling him not at all. They all did it around here. She told herself she was lucky he had only started at fifteen.
‘Is Tanzie back yet?’ She stooped to pick up stray socks and mugs from the floor.
‘No. Oh. The school rang after lunch.’
He typed something into the computer then turned to face her. ‘I don’t know. Something about school.’
It was then that she saw it. She lifted a lock of that dyed black hair, and there it was: a fresh mark on his cheekbone. He ducked away. ‘Are you okay?’
He shrugged, looked away from her.
‘Did they come after you again?’
‘Why didn’t you call me?’
‘No credit.’ He leant back and fired a virtual grenade. The screen exploded into a ball of flame. ‘The number’s on the table. If it’s about me, I was there on Friday. They must have just not seen me.’ He replaced his earphones and went back to the screen.
Nicky had come to live with Jess full time eight years previously. He was Marty’s son by Della, a woman he’d gone out with briefly in his teens. He had arrived silent and wary, his limbs thin and elongated, his appetite raging. His mother had fallen in with a new crowd, finally disappearing to somewhere in the Midlands with a man called Big Al, who wouldn’t look anyone in the eye and clutched an ever-present can of Tennents Extra like a hand grenade in his oversized fist. Nicky had been found sleeping in the locker rooms at school, and when the social workers called again, Jess had said he could come to them. ‘Just what you need,’ Nathalie had said. ‘Another mouth to feed.’
‘He’s my stepson.’