‘You’ve met him twice in four years. And you’re not even twenty.’
‘Well, that’s how families are, these days. It’s not all two point four.’
Afterwards, she sometimes wondered whether that had been the final straw; the thing that had caused Marty to abdicate responsibility for his family altogether. But Nicky was a good kid, under all the raven hair and eyeliner. He was sweet to Tanzie, and on his good days he talked and laughed and allowed Jess the occasional awkward hug, and she was glad of him, even if it sometimes felt as if she had basically acquired one more person to feel anxious about.
She stepped out into the garden with the phone and took a deep breath, her stomach a knot of anxiety. ‘Um … hello? It’s Jessica Thomas here. I had a message to call.’
‘If it’s about Nicky, I did check his study-periods rota. He said he was allowed to do revision at home and I thought that this was how they –’
‘Mrs Thomas, I was calling you about Tanzie.’
A clench of panic. She glanced down at the number, registering. ‘Tanzie? Is … is everything all right?’
‘Sorry. I should have said. It’s Mr Tsvangarai here, Tanzie’s maths teacher.’
‘Oh.’ She pictured him: a tall man in a grey suit. Face like a funeral director’s.
‘I wanted to talk to you because a few weeks ago I had a very interesting discussion with a former colleague of mine who works for St Anne’s.’
‘St Anne’s?’ Jess frowned. ‘The private school?’
‘Yes. They have a scholarship programme for children who are exceptionally gifted in maths. And, as you know, we had already earmarked Tanzie as Gifted and Talented.’
‘Because she’s good at maths.’
‘Better than good. Well, we gave her the paper to sit last week. I don’t know if she mentioned it? I sent a letter home but I wasn’t sure you saw it.’
Jess squinted at the sky. Seagulls wheeled and swooped against the grey. A few gardens down Terry Blackstone had started singing along to a radio. He had been known to do the full Rod Stewart if he thought nobody was looking.
‘We got the results back this morning. And she has done well. Extremely well. Mrs Thomas, if you’re agreeable they would like to interview her for a subsidized place.’
She found herself parroting him. ‘A subsidized place?’
‘For certain children of exceptional ability St Anne’s will forgo a significant proportion of the school fees. It means that Tanzie would get a top-class education. She has an extraordinary numerical ability, Mrs Thomas. I do think this could be a great opportunity for her.’
‘St Anne’s? But … she’d need to get a bus across town. She’d need all the uniform and kit. She – she wouldn’t know anyone.’
‘She’d make friends. But these are just details, Mrs Thomas. Let’s wait and see what the school comes up with. Tanzie is an extraordinarily talented girl.’ He paused. When she didn’t say anything, he lowered his voice: ‘I have been teaching maths for almost twenty-two years, Mrs Thomas. And I have never met a child who grasped mathematical concepts like she does. I believe she is actually exceeding the point where I have anything to teach her. Algorithms, probability, prime numbers –’
‘Okay. This is where you lose me, Mr Tsvangarai. I’ll just go with gifted and talented.’
He chuckled. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
She put down the phone and sat heavily on the white plastic garden chair that had been there when they’d moved in and had now grown a fine sheen of emerald moss. She stared at nothing, in through the window at the curtains that Marty always thought were too bright, at the red plastic tricycle that she had never got round to getting rid of, at next door’s cigarette butts sprinkled like confetti on her path, at the rotten boards in the fence that the dog insisted on sticking his head through. Despite what Nathalie referred to as her frankly misguided optimism, Jess found her eyes had filled unexpectedly with tears.
There were lots of awful things about the father of your children leaving: the money issues, the suppressed anger on behalf of your children, the way most of your coupled-up friends now treated you as if you were some kind of potential husband-stealer. But worse than that, worse than the endless, relentless, bloody exhausting financial and energy-sapping struggle, was that being a parent on your own when you were totally out of your depth was actually the loneliest place on earth.
Twenty-six cars sat in the car park at St Anne’s. Two rows of thirteen big shiny four-wheel-drives faced each other on each side of a gravel path, sliding in and out of the spaces at an average angle of 41 degrees, before the next in line moved in.
Tanzie watched them as she and Mum crossed the road from the bus stop, the drivers talking illegally into phones or mouthing at bug-eyed blond babies in the rear seats. Mum lifted her chin and fiddled with her keys in her free hand, as if they were actually her car keys and she and Tanzie just happened to have parked somewhere nearby. She kept glancing behind her. Tanzie guessed she was worried she was going to bump into one of her cleaning clients and they were going to ask what she was doing there.
She had never been inside St Anne’s, although she’d been past it on the bus at least ten times because the NHS dentist was on this road. From the outside, there was just an endless hedge, trimmed to exactly 90 degrees (she wondered if the gardener used a protractor) and those big trees where the branches hung low and friendly, sweeping out across the playing fields as if they were there to shelter the children below.