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One Plus One, Page 2

Jojo Moyes

  "Study break."

  She picked up an ashtray and held it toward 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."

  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?"

  "I'm fine."

  "Why didn't you call me?"

  "No credit on my phone." He leaned back and fired a virtual grenade. The screen exploded into a ball of flame. He replaced his headphones 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 dated briefly in his teens. Nicky had arrived silent and wary, his limbs thin and elongated, his appetite raging. His mother had fallen in with a new crowd, finally disappearing somewhere in the Midlands with a man called Big Al, who never looked anyone in the eye and clutched an ever-present can of Tennent's Extra 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."

  "You've met him twice in four years. And you're not even twenty."

  "Well, that's how families are these days."

  Afterward, 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. "Um . . . hello? It's Jessica Thomas here. I had a message to call."

  A pause.

  "Is Tanzie . . . ? Is . . . is everything all right?"

  "Everything's fine. Sorry. I should have said. It's Mr. Tsvangarai here, Tanzie's maths teacher."

  "Oh." She pictured him: a tall man in a gray suit. Face like a funeral director.

  "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 program 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 qualifying exam 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 a seagull in the sky. A few gardens along, 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 uniforms and kits. 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 a 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 as well as 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."

  He chuckled. "I'll be in touch."

  She put down the phone and sat heavily on the white plastic garden chair that had grown a fine sheen of emerald moss. She stared at nothing, in through the window at the curtains that Marty had always thought were too bright, at the red plastic tricycle 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 the dog insisted on sticking his head through. And 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, 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 shiny four-wheel-drives faced each other, 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 house keys in her free hand, as if they were actually her car keys and she and Tanzie just happened to have parked somewhere nearby. Mum kept glancing behind her. Tanzie guessed she was worried she was going to bump into one of her cleaning clients, who would ask what she was doing there.

  Tanzie had never been inside St. Anne's, although she'd passed it on the bus at least ten times because the National Health Service 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 big trees where the branches hung low, sweeping out across the playing fields as if they were there to shelter the children below.

  The children at St. Anne's did not swing bags at each other's heads or back each other against the wall to steal lunch money. There were no weary-sounding teachers herding the teenagers into classrooms. The girls had not rolled their skirts six times over at the waistband. Not a single person was smoking. Her mother gave her hand a little squeeze. Tanzie wished she didn't look so nervous. "It's nice, isn't it, Mum?"

  She nodded. "Yes." It came out as a squeak.

  "Mr. Tsvangarai told me that every single one of their sixth-formers who did maths got A or A starred. That's good, isn't it?"


  Tanzie pulled a bit at Mum's hand so they could get to the headmaster's office faster. "Do you think Norman will miss me when I'm doing the long days?"

  "The long days."

  "St. Anne's doesn't finish till six. And there's maths club on Tuesdays and Thursdays--I'd definitely want to do that."

  Her mother glanced at her. She looked really tired. She was always tired these days. She put on one of those smiles that wasn't really a smile at all, and they went in.


  "Hello, Mrs. Thomas. Hello, Costanza. It's very good to meet you. Do sit down."

  The headmaster's study had a high ceiling with white plaster rosettes every twenty ce
ntimeters, and tiny rosebuds exactly halfway between them. The room was stuffed with old furniture and through a large bay window a man on a ride-on mower traveled slowly up and down a cricket pitch. On a small table somebody had laid out a tray of coffee and biscuits. You could tell they were homemade. Mum used to make the same kind before Dad left.

  Tanzie sat down on the edge of the sofa and gazed at the two men opposite. The one with the mustache smiled like the nurse did before she gave you an injection. Mum had pulled her bag onto her lap and Tanzie could see her holding her hand over the corner Norman had chewed. Her leg was jiggling.

  "This is Mr. Cruikshank. He's the head of maths. And I'm Mr. Daly. I've been head here for the past two years."

  Tanzie looked up from her biscuit.

  "Do you do chords?"

  "We do," Mr. Cruikshank said.

  "And probability?"

  "That, too."

  Mr. Cruikshank leaned forward. "We've been looking at your test results. And we think, Costanza, that you should sit your GCSE in maths next year and get it out of the way. Because I think you'd rather enjoy the A-level problems."

  She looked at him. "Have you got actual papers?"

  "I've got some next door. Would you like to see them?"

  She couldn't believe he was asking. She thought briefly of saying "Well, duh," like Nicky would. But she just nodded.

  Mr. Daly handed Mum a coffee. "I won't beat around the bush, Mrs. Thomas. You are well aware that your daughter has an exceptional ability. We have only seen scores like hers once before and that was from a pupil who went on to be a fellow at Trinity."

  He went on and on so much that Tanzie tuned out a little: ". . . for a very select group of pupils who have a demonstrably unusual ability, we have created a new equal-access scholarship." Blah, blah, blah. "It would offer a child who might not otherwise get the advantages of a school like this the chance to fulfill their potential in . . ." Blah, blah. "While we are very keen to see how far Costanza could go in the field of maths, we would also want to make sure that she was well rounded in other parts of her student life. We have a full sporting and musical curriculum." Blah, blah, blah . . . "Numerate children are often also able in languages . . ." Blah, blah" . . . and drama--that's often very popular with girls of her age."

  "I only really like maths," she told him. "And dogs."

  "Well, we don't have much in the way of dogs, but we'd certainly offer you lots of opportunities to stretch yourself mathematically. But I think you might be surprised by what else you enjoy. Do you play any instruments?"

  She shook her head.

  "Any languages?"

  The room went a bit quiet.

  "Other interests?"

  "We go swimming on Fridays," Mum said.

  "We haven't been swimming since Dad left."

  Mum smiled, but it went a bit wonky. "We have, Tanzie."

  "Once. May the thirteenth. But now you work on Fridays."

  Mr. Cruikshank left the room, and reappeared a moment later with his papers. She stuffed the last biscuit into her mouth, then got up and went to sit next to him. He had a whole pile of them. Stuff she hadn't even started yet!

  She began going through the pages with him, showing him what she had done and what she hadn't, and in the background she could hear Mum and the headmaster's voices rumbling away.

  It sounded like it was going all right. Tanzie let her attention travel to what was on the page. "Yes," Mr. Cruikshank was saying quietly, his finger on the page. "But the curious feature of renewal processes is that, if we wait some predetermined time and then observe how large the renewal interval containing it is, we should expect it to be typically larger than a renewal interval of average size."

  She knew about this! "So the monkeys would take longer to type Macbeth?"

  "That's it." He smiled. "I wasn't sure you'd have covered any renewal theory."

  "I haven't, really. But Mr. Tsvangarai told me about it once and I looked it up on the Internet. I liked the whole monkey thing." She flicked through the papers. The numbers sang to her. She could feel her brain humming and she knew she had to go to this school. "Mum," she said. She didn't usually interrupt, but she was too excited and forgot her manners. "Do you think we could get some of these problems?"

  Mr. Daly looked over. He didn't seem to mind about the missing manners. "Mr. Cruikshank, have we any spares?"

  "You can take these."

  He handed them over! Just like that! Outside a bell rang and she could hear children walking past the office window, their shoes crunching on the gravel.

  "So . . . what happens next?" Mum asked.

  "Well, we'd like to offer Costanza . . . Tanzie . . . a scholarship." Mr. Daly lifted a glossy folder from the table. "Here's our prospectus and the relevant documentation. The scholarship covers ninety percent of the fees. It's the most generous scholarship this school has ever offered. Usually fifty percent is our maximum, given the extensive waiting list of pupils hoping to come here." He held out the plate toward Tanzie. Somehow they had filled it with new biscuits. This really was the greatest school ever.

  "Ninety percent," Mum said. She put her biscuit back on her saucer.

  "I do appreciate that there is still a considerable financial commitment involved. And there would also be uniform and travel costs, and any extras she might want, like music or school trips. But I would like to stress that this is an incredible opportunity." He leaned forward. "We would love to have you here, Tanzie. Your maths teacher says you're a joy to work with."

  "I like school," she said, reaching for another biscuit. "I know lots of my friends think it's boring. But I prefer school to home."

  They all laughed awkwardly.

  "Not because of you, Mum," she said, and helped herself to another biscuit. "But my mum does have to work a lot."

  Everyone went quiet.

  "We all do, these days," said Mr. Cruikshank.

  "Well," Mr. Daly said, "it's a lot for you to think about. And I'm sure you have other questions for us. But why don't you finish your coffee, and then I'll get one of our pupils to show you around the rest of the school? Then you can discuss this between yourselves."


  Tanzie was in the garden throwing a ball for Norman. She was determined that one day he would fetch it and bring it back. She had read somewhere that repetition increased the probability of an animal learning how to do something by a factor of four. She wasn't sure Norman could count, though.

  They'd got Norman from the animal shelter after Dad left and Mum stayed awake for eleven nights in a row worrying that they would be murdered in their beds once everyone realized he'd gone. Brilliant with kids, a fantastic guard dog, the rescue center said. Mum kept saying, "But he's so big."

  "Even more of a deterrent," they said with cheery smiles. "And did we mention he's brilliant with kids?"

  Two years on, Mum said Norman was basically an enormous eating and crapping machine. He drooled on cushions and howled in his sleep, plodded around the house shedding hair and leaving evil smells behind him. Mum said the rescue center had been right: nobody would break into their house for fear Norman would gas them to death.

  She had given up trying to ban him from Tanzie's bedroom. When Tanzie woke up in the morning, he was always stretched across three quarters of the bed, hairy legs across her bedsheet, leaving her shivering under a tiny corner of duvet. Mum used to mutter about hairs and hygiene, but Tanzie didn't mind.

  They'd got Nicky when she was two. Tanzie went to bed one night and when she woke, he was in the spare room and Mum just said he would be staying and he was her brother. Tanzie had once asked him what he thought their shared genetic material was, and he'd said, "The weird loser gene." She thought he might have been joking, but she didn't know enough about genetics to check.

  She was rinsing her hands under the outside tap when she heard them talking. Nicky's window was open and their voices floated out into the garden.

  "Did you pay that water bill?" Nic
ky said.

  "No. I haven't had a chance to get to the post office."

  "It says it's a final reminder."

  "I know it's a final reminder." Mum was snappy, like she always was when she talked about money. There was a pause. Norman picked up the ball and dropped it near her feet. It lay there, slimy and disgusting.

  "Sorry, Nicky. I . . . just need to get this conversation out of the way. I'll sort it out tomorrow morning. I promise. You want to speak to your dad?"

  Tanzie knew what the answer would be. Nicky never wanted to talk to Dad anymore.


  Tanzie moved right under the window and stood really still. She could hear Dad's voice on Skype, tense.

  "Everything all right?" She wondered if he thought that something bad had happened. Perhaps if he thought Tanzie had leukemia, he might come back. She had watched a TV film once where the girl's parents divorced and then got back together because she got leukemia. She didn't actually want leukemia, though, because needles made her pass out and she had quite nice hair.

  "Everything's fine," Mum said. She didn't tell him about Nicky getting battered.

  "What's going on?"

  A pause.

  "Has your mum decorated?" Mum asked.


  "New wallpaper."

  "Oh. That."

  Grandma's house had new wallpaper? Tanzie felt weird. Dad and Grandma were living in a house that she might not recognize anymore. It had been 348 days since she last saw Dad. It was 433 days since she'd seen Grandma.

  "I need to talk to you about Tanzie's schooling."

  "Why? What's she done?"

  "Nothing like that, Marty. She's been offered a scholarship to St. Anne's."

  "St. Anne's?"

  "They think her maths is off the scale."

  "St. Anne's." He said it like he couldn't believe it. "I mean, I knew she was bright but . . ."

  He sounded really pleased. She pressed her back against the wall and went up on tippy-toes to hear better. Perhaps he'd come back if she was going to St. Anne's.

  "Our little girl at the posh school, eh?" His voice had puffed up with pride. Tanzie could imagine him already working out what to tell his mates at the pub. Except he couldn't go to the pub. Because he always told Mum he had no money to enjoy himself. "So what's the problem?"

  "Well . . . it's a big scholarship. But it doesn't cover everything."

  "Meaning what?"