Rob was back at the house, fast asleep in his room. Tom was relieved to find no sign of Jall. The last thing he needed tonight was to have to listen to that sanctimonious prick droning on.

There was nothing on TV other than the usual mix of reality TV, third-rate dramas and documentaries, and Tom wasn’t in the mood for any of it. He tried watching a film but turned it off before he’d got even half an hour in. He couldn’t even derive any satisfaction from hunting down and killing aliens in video games tonight. Instead he sat in the dark in front of the gas fire and stared into the flames, trying to make sense of what had happened tonight, toying between either going back to try and talk to Siobhan again or drinking himself stupid. He’d just gone to get his first beer when the phone rang. He picked it up quickly, hoping it would be her. It wasn’t. It was Clare. Tom struggled to hide his disappointment. She immediately picked up on his tone and he explained what had happened.

‘So where is she now?’ she asked.

‘At home asleep, I think. She pretty much threw me out.’

‘Doesn’t sound like Siobhan. Time of the month?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s you,’ she said.

‘And how’d you come to that conclusion? What do you know that I don’t?’

‘It’s the reason I was phoning. I wanted to check you were feeling okay.’

‘Me? Why?’

‘I think there might be something going around. Some kind of bug.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘Penny’s not right.’

‘Is she ill?’

‘Not as such…’

‘Could it be something to do with her birthday? Her dad, maybe? I’ve heard about kids who don’t outwardly react to something, but then—’

Clare interrupted. ‘It’s nothing like that.’

‘What then?’

‘It’s hard to explain… she was a little off-colour this morning when I took her into school, but I couldn’t afford to miss work so I made her go in thinking she’d pick up once she was there. Since I collected her this afternoon, though, it’s like she’s…’

‘She’s what?’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I feel stupid even saying this, but it’s like she hates me, Tom.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘I swear, I’ve never known her like this before. It’s like I’ve brought someone else’s daughter home by mistake.’

‘Why? What’s she doing?’

‘Last night she was fine. In fact, we had a lovely evening after you’d dropped us back. We sat and watched telly for hours, a proper girly night in.’

‘So maybe she’s just tired after that. Is she—’

‘Please don’t patronise me, Tom. I know when my daughter’s tired. This is different.’

‘Sorry,’ he said quickly, feeling embarrassed. ‘Maybe it does have something to do with yesterday? You’re her mum, Clare. You’re the closest person to her, the one who’s always there for her. So maybe it’s just that she’s angry about something, and you’re the easiest one to take it out on. She’s only young. Christ, I find it hard enough trying to work out how I’m feeling half the time, a kid’s got no chance.’

‘You think she picked up on my vibes yesterday and now she’s paying me back?’

‘I don’t know. I don’t think so. Maybe me being there didn’t help. Probably made her realise how different this birthday was to the last. I should have stayed away.’

‘It’s nothing to do with you, you’re just paranoid.’

‘You might be right about that.’

‘No, there’s more to this, Tom, I’m sure there is. Maybe she is coming down with something. You should have seen her, though. She kept hanging back at school like she didn’t want to get into the car. Can you imagine what that felt like? She went straight up to her room when we got in and I’ve hardly seen her since. She came down for her dinner but barely touched it. Christ, she could hardly bring herself to look at me. I tried to talk to her but she wouldn’t say a frigging word. She all but blanked me. She’s been up in her room ever since.’

‘Do you think her dad’s been in touch through the school?’

‘I doubt it. Like I told you, Aiden doesn’t give a shit. If he can’t be bothered to come around and see her on her birthday, he’s hardly going to be trying to get to sneak in and see her at school, is he?’

‘Maybe someone saw us out last night and said something to her?’

‘You’re not listening to me, Tom. This has got nothing to do with you or the three of us being out together yesterday. It’s more than that.’

‘One of the other kids then? Trouble with a teacher?’

‘They’d have told me. Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but this is different. I’ve never seen her like this before.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

‘I don’t know. I guess I’ll have to see what she’s like in the morning, and if she’s the same then I’ll…’


For a few seconds all Tom could hear was the static hum of the phone line. He was about to hang-up, thinking he’d lost signal strength, when he heard more. Clare’s breathing. Heavy footsteps. The creak of a floorboard. Then a loud crashing noise which clearly startled Clare as much as it did him.

‘Jesus!’ she cursed.

‘What the hell was that?’ Tom heard another noise, then another. ‘Clare…? Are you still there…?’

‘I’m here,’ she said quietly, muffled noises continuing in the background.

‘What the hell’s going on there?’

‘It’s Penny. She’s trashing her room. I’m going to have to go.’

‘Do you want me to come over?’

‘No offence, but what good’s that going to do?’ she said, sounding breathless.

‘Is there anyone else who can help? Anyone I can call for you?’

‘Like who? I’ve tried the family but no one’s answering. Look, I’m going to have to go. I’ll talk to you later, Tom.’

And with that the line disconnected.