The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun: a small mother-of-pearl box, inlaid with gold, a lipstick that was a stripe of fuchsia, a lucky charm in the shape of a dollar sign. Anything left behind in one of the hotels had to be put in a box and kept for two months. A girl who used to live in the house told her that. Didn’t matter if it was a pair of tights or a phone charger, it was put away and then, at the end of that time, it was offered to the person who had cleaned the room where it had been found. That girl had got a little clock that way. But Mr Dalzell didn’t operate like that. Mr Dalzell had said that anything she found was hers, automatically. Finders keepers, losers weepers. Except if she found a weapon. Any guns just pass them over to me, Roberta, he laughed.
Some things didn’t make it to the drawer. Roberta would run her finger along traces of powder to see what would happen. The big flat that overlooked the river, the one with the ceiling to floor windows, was a fine spot for the powder. She often found tablets too. One lot she kept for the Saturday night when she was in her slippers and dressing gown. Her heart felt it was going to burst through her ribs. Occasionally she gave away the things she found, like the bottle of perfume that was worth over a hundred pounds. It smelled like the sawdust in a hamster’s cage. Igor took it. He puffed it on when he was dressing up for a night out. The smell hung in the hallway. But most stuff needed to be bin-bagged: dirty knickers, grey bras, empty blister packs, bottles, blades.
One time the green-door house had syringes and burnt foil everywhere. That was sad because Roberta associated the place with families, like the people who left behind a game that she tried to play. She divided herself into two teams but even though she read them a couple of times, Roberta couldn’t understand the instructions. The family left a small box of chocolates and a card on the table, saying thank you.
Roberta had encountered Mr Dalzell when the agency sent her to a restaurant for a three-day trial. The woman in charge there told her, and the other people entering the world of work, that it was important to turn up on time, dress sensibly and, most importantly, listen carefully to what they were told to do. They should take in every word and if necessary ask for clarification if they weren’t sure. On the first morning, the chef gave her an apron and told her to wash her hands. He showed her how he wanted her to cut the vegetables. She looked attentively at the way he held the knife. You think you can do that, love? he said. He let her practise with a few carrots. Then he said, see this bag of peeled spuds here? I want you to cut them just the same way. We are making a thing called dauphinoise potato. She nodded. So, love, do you think you can do that?
It hadn’t been easy to use the point of the knife to get the right small circular shape. When the chef came back he saw she had cut discs of potato the same size as the carrots. He smiled and said not to worry, that he hadn’t explained it very well, and that she should maybe polish some knives and forks. At the end of the day, he got one of the guys to show her how to mop the floor and clean the place down. That was what she was doing when Mr Dalzell came into the restaurant to sit down at a table with the owner and the chef. Now there’s a girl who knows how to work, Mr Dalzell said. She could hear the chef telling him about the potatoes. Followed instructions to the letter, he said. The total letter. Mr Dalzell surveyed the gleaming floor. How’d you like to come and work for me for a couple of weeks? he asked. But the couple of weeks had become over a year.
Mr Dalzell had provided her with training. A woman called Ava showed her how to clean the rooms, change the bedding and towels. She got to know when properties were rented by schoolkids for their parties by the pizza boxes and empty cans. She got used to the sick and even the shit. There was always the box of rubber gloves. She had got used to blood. There was one time when a laminate floor had been gluey with it. Stuck to the hall was a clump of black hair. Under the sofa she found a tooth, shreds of gum still attached. Mr Dalzell had been good to her. He owned the house where she lived. He sorted out the boys. They hung outside the shops, shouted at her, threw things. She shouted back. Listen to Crackers going crackers! they laughed. Mr Dalzell got to hear about it and then their eyes slid away from her when she walked by. One boy got a face all puffed with bruising.
Mr Dalzell got her a phone so that she could communicate with Gary Jameson. Every morning, she waited for him in the kitchen, which was always a mess. There were the plastic containers thick with the dregs of Igor’s protein shakes, the dirty dishes in the sink, the spatter of hot sauce that the girl from Donegal made down the cupboard. But she was only going to tidy things up if she was being paid. When she got into Gary Jameson’s van, he would always say the same thing: Another day, another dollar. He gave her a list of the day’s jobs and she studied it. In the back of the van there were sheets, duvet covers, pillowcases and towels, their freshness almost aggressive.
Whoever wrote the schedule knew how long each place took to be cleaned. A little flat might only be an hour. Others, like the big three-storey place, took so much longer. Gary Jameson sometimes waited outside for her, but often he went away. There were other things he needed to do in the area. Later on, he would pick up the bags of laundry and rubbish. Gary Jameson had the keys for all of the houses on a big metal ring decorated with a cockerel. Each key had a tag with the number and street name of the house. He would take off one of the keys and give it to her so she could let herself into the next place. Don’t lose it, he said. Don’t. Fucking. Lose. It.
In her little book, Roberta had all the addresses written down and all the buses she might need to get, if she couldn’t walk from one place to the next. It helped to put the details in the book, stopped them floating off. There’d come a time when the board at school almost looked underwater. The numbers flew out of her head, and words too. She would see them congregating in the corners of the ceiling and beg them to return to her head. They smirked, and said, nope. She started to divert her attention to the birds on the roof of the mobile classroom outside, and the tree that grew in the middle of the playground. It rustled. It looked so friendly. She didn’t like going out to play at lunchtime. Since when had they got so complicated with all the rules? No, you don’t throw it to her! We told you! You are not doing it right again! She said to him late one night, as she was going to bed, Daddy, I fell and hurt my head. It was a couple of months ago, I think. Well, that’ll harden you not to do it again! he said.
On the Tuesday, the first place, a small flat, was spruced up within half an hour. The next one was more work because the people had stayed for a week; they had made it their home, with their toothbrushes still in the glass, the ring around the bath. There were clippings of nails on the floor. Roberta bagged up the dirty towels, put out the new ones. The third place was on the edge of the park. Ain’t nothing like a house party, Gary Jameson said, as they drove there. Party house, this place, last night anyway. Give me a ring when you’ve finished, Roberta. He gave her the key and she got the bags from the van.
Although someone had opened a few of the windows, the house smelt of smoke. In the kitchen there was a pile of broken glass, pushed over to one of the corners. At the side of the sofa there was an old condom, the colour of frogspawn. She went round with a bin bag, filling it with bottles and cans. It had been some party, for sure. The vacuum cleaner was in a cupboard under the stairs. It needed to be emptied and Roberta did this the way she had been shown. Always so much hair: a brown bird’s nest of the stuff. After the hoovering, she polished the surfaces, then went upstairs. There was piss all over the bathroom floor and the towels were a ton weight because they were sodding wet. In the first bedroom there was another condom. She stripped the bed, which was streaked brown with fake tan, put on the fresh stuff.
The day she hit her head they had gone to the derelict place, the old Kane garage, Roberta, her sister and Desmond Kane. They were up on the roof and next thing she woke up with the sky a burning blue and Desmond Kane’s face above her. He carried her home on his back and her sister put her in bed with a hot-water bottle. Don’t tell where we were or what happened. Her sister brought up a bowl of soup but she couldn’t drink it. It’s the flu, her sister said. You have the flu.
When she opened the door of the smaller bedroom, a little girl—about eight or nine—was sitting on the floor. She looked up at Roberta, who stared at her and then closed the door again. People had been found in the houses before. A pair had once been still asleep in one of the beds. Gary Jameson got them out pretty quickly. Roberta remembered their frightened faces. She looked to see if Gary Jameson was still outside, but he had gone. She stood on the landing before opening the door again.
I’ve been waiting, the girl said. Waiting for my mum.
Roberta didn’t reply.
Is my mum downstairs? she asked.
Roberta looked at the floor. No.
Oh, the child said.
She had a basic face, as if someone in a hurry had drawn quick features on a pebble. Her brown hair was in a thin ponytail. She wore pyjama bottoms and a school sweatshirt with a logo of three children dancing in a circle above the words Newton P.S.
Did your mum bring you here? Roberta asked.
Yes. And I stayed in the room like she said.
You were meant to contact the police if you found a child. But Roberta didn’t think Mr Dalzell would appreciate her contacting the police. Plus, she had another job soon. Think! Think! Maybe she should contact Gary Jameson.
Am I leaving now? the girl asked.
The mother might have got stuck somewhere. Maybe the mother intended to come back. Maybe the mother had started feeling sick somewhere. She might have fallen in a K-hole. There was one time when the young guy who lived in the house was laid out in the kitchen after taking ketamine and Roberta thought he was dead. But a while later, he was back to normal. People might take the child away from the mother if they knew she had been left alone in a house like this.
Where do you live? Roberta asked.
We’ve only just moved to the new place. I don’t know the address.
But that’s your school, yeah? Roberta pointed to the sweatshirt.
The child looked down. That’s where I go, she said.
Well, said Roberta. I wonder what we should do. I am going to have to make a plan. Okay, she said. I have got the plan. You are going to stay here and then I will come back for you. You’ll know it’s me because I will knock like this. Four times. Loud soft loud soft. And you will let me in.
Okay, the child said.
Roberta was waiting outside when Gary Jameson came. She loaded the black bin bags into the van and gave him the key. On the way to the next place, he stopped at the garage to get petrol. He ambled across the forecourt like a cowboy going into the saloon and expecting a shoot-out. Roberta’s hands were shaking as she reached down to get the big key ring. Place with the yellow fob, place with the green door, big windows, the window-box one, where could they go, where could they go, not the park place and then, yes, do it, the gloomy old place that hadn’t been used in ages, yes, thread the key off the metal before he is back. Gary Jameson was there with a bar of chocolate for her.
Thank you, she said. Do you want a piece?
You’re okay, bird.
This next place, Roberta said. Just let me in and then go because I don’t need a lift back home again. It’s alright. I’ll leave the bags round the back for you.
Oh, is that right now? he said.
You must have a boy on the go.
I might well, she said.
After, she headed back to the house where the child was. She knew what she would do. She would take her to school the next day and by then the mother might be ready to pick her up. Or someone else. A granny or a sister. She would keep her safe until then. There was no need for the police.
Loud soft loud soft. She half-expected the child to have gone, but there she was.
Good girl, let’s go, Roberta said.
The child was wearing a coat. But she was still dressed in pyjama bottoms, now tucked into boots.
Do you wear that to school?
No, the child said. I wear a school skirt and socks. But I don’t have them with me.
Well, they would need to get those things. Roberta and the girl walked side by side when they left the house. Adult and child, Roberta said when they got on the bus, waiting for the bus-driver to query it, but he didn’t. Adult and child, she whispered to herself, as they made their way down the aisle to a seat at the back.
In the town, they found a shop that sold school uniforms on the second floor. Roberta held up a couple of pleated skirts to the child.
You’re skinny, she said. But I’m not. And now—she shoved the skirt down inside her coat—I’m even less skinny than I was before. You need socks too?
Yes, and the girl said she also needed a schoolbag. Roberta paid for that, a cheap one with a cat on the front. After walking around for a while, they sat down so that Roberta could copy in her little book the bus times and the route to the house and back again. The girl watched her, gave her a smile when she raised her head from the book. She told Roberta that the school started at nine o’clock.
When they got off the bus, there was a shop on the corner where they got cereal and milk. The girl said she didn’t need a lunch for the next day because she got dinner in school. The hall was dark when they entered the house, but Roberta didn’t know where the light was. When she eventually found it, they both looked down at the various letters on the mat, the numerous promotions leaflets and menus for takeaways.
Well, the postman left a lot of those this morning, Roberta said.
The living room had thick and dusty brocade curtains and a red velveteen three-piece suite. The carpet was big blowsy flowers ready to burst into bloom. The girl sat on the sofa with her legs tucked under her, staring up at the cobwebs where the walls met the ceiling.
Is it just you who lives here? she asked.
Yes. Just me. That’s the way I like it.
Because it was so cold, Roberta looked around to find an old blow heater. It smelt of burnt plastic and kept cutting out, but it generated some sporadic warmth.
Today I don’t really feel like cooking, Roberta said, so we’ll just have cereal for tea. Okay?
Okay, the child said.
They sat by the heater, the occasional sound of the spoons clinking off the bowls. All of a rush the child said that the reason her mum brought her was because one of the times she was left before, she tried to make herself something to eat and she started a fire because the kitchen roll got caught on the flame. People had to come to put it out and her mum was very, very angry when she came back.
Roberta considered this. Things catch fire, she said. It wasn’t your fault. Wasn’t your mistake. Eat up.
People make mistakes, big fat Xs all over the work and that teacher always watching, even if you scowled back. They put her at a desk by herself where people from the past had gouged their names in the wood. She put her name along with them. Then they lifted her out to sit in the little room with the plant and box of tissues to speak to the woman in the cardigan who made her say numbers backwards, find words in a swirl of colour. Mistakes again, so they sent her to that other school with its buses, where she had to sit with a plastic bag on her lap because she was sick every journey. When she looked out the window, people made faces, did things with their hands. She slowly mouthed Fuck you, which surprised them.
What time do you go to bed? Roberta asked.
Half eight, the child said. But can I read for a while?
Does my mum know I’m here?
Don’t you worry, Roberta said.
Later, Roberta prepared the room where the child would sleep. She shook the pillow, folded the corner of the duvet so it looked welcoming, wiped the chest of drawers and window sills with an apple disinfectant that she found under the sink.
The child was at the door. Will I go to bed now? she asked.
Yes, Roberta said. Take off that sweatshirt so it’s good for the morning.
The child did that. She put her head down and crossed her bony arms across her chest. Roberta went outside the room, took off her own jumper, then her T-shirt, then her vest. She put the T-shirt back on and then handed the vest to the girl.
Thank you, she said, the vest still warm in her hand.
When she climbed into bed, the child lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.
The reading! She needed to read. Roberta suddenly realised. She bounded back up the stairs with the brochures that had been put through the door. The girl sat up to read a promotional leaflet about PVC windows and fascia.
Thank you, she said. That’s great.
The dark pressed against the window and Roberta put on the heater again. Cognitive, cognitive, said the woman with the cardigan. Nothing to do with falling. But if she had had a mother she would have taken her to the hospital and then she would have gone to the school with the blue blazer just like her sister. When the people talked, they thought she couldn’t hear them, but she did. Disgusting the way she went off with her fancy man, they said. What’s a fancy man? she asked her sister.
But her sister was in Australia now. She once sent her a postcard with a wallaby on it. It was on the fridge in the house although somebody had drawn glasses on it. When school finished she went to the place where she put coffee in the polystyrene cups. Lines of them, twenty cups per row. And then after that the restaurant where she cut the potatoes. And then, Mr Dalzell.
In the morning, when Roberta came into the room, the girl had already made the bed and was sitting wearing the stiff new skirt over the pyjama bottoms.
Well, you can’t wear those, Roberta said.
I’ve got no pants.
Take off the bottoms and come down for breakfast.
In the kitchen there was a blunt pair of scissors. Roberta hacked at the legs of the pyjama bottoms to fashion a pair of shorts.
There you go.
That was a good idea, the girl said.
I got lots of them, said Roberta.
The gates of the school were painted red and yellow stripes; there were posters covered in Perspex telling about safety in the playground. From a distance Roberta watched the other parents kissing the kids, checking things in their school bags. A woman swept a boy’s hair smooth from where his parting was shaved in. She hadn’t brushed the child’s hair. At the top of the stairs, as the girl was about to enter the big doors, she turned round and waved. Roberta raised her hand.
Another bus and a walk through the park took Roberta back to her own house. When she got into the van, Gary said, Another day another dollar. What did you and your boy get up to? On second thoughts, don’t tell me.
He gave her the schedule for the day with a cut and swollen hand. In the morning there were a couple of flats, but then later on it was the big house on the Antrim Road. On the bus, the child had said she thought she got out at half past two. There was too much to do in that house for her to be back on time.
Could we go to that big one a bit earlier? Her voice sounded like someone else’s.
Christ, you’re not wanting to head off again with this fella?
No, I have to go to the doctor’s.
I can drop you at the doctor’s. How long you going to be? There’s another place to be sorted after that.
Not sure, Roberta said. Not sure how long the doctor will keep me. What happened to your hand?
It’s nothing, he said. Should’ve seen the other guy.
The two flats were easy. In the first one, the lavender air-freshener sorted out the smell of smoke. The other one was as if someone had enjoyed cleaning it themselves. They had stripped the bedding and left it on the floor, placed the towels neatly on top of it. She was back in the van in no time. It smelt different today. She said so to Gary Jameson.
Well, bird, you do not miss a trick, he said. It was new laundry people who used a different powder. The old ones had done the job for Mr Dalzell for a while, Gary Jameson said, but nobody was indispensable. These others were cheaper.
The house on the Antrim Road she called the wedding cake because of the ceilings like icing. There were paintings on the wall of fields and farmyards. Once there was a religious group who stayed there for a week or so; they left a lot of leaflets about the power of prayer and used sanitary towels. The people staying this time did not seem to have been religious. There were some bongs made out of Lucozade bottles. There were loads of dirty dishes heaped up in the sink. She couldn’t remember how the hot water worked in this place. She would have to boil lots of kettles. Maybe she shouldn’t go to the school at all. The child could have told the teacher that she had been kidnapped by a strange woman. The police might be waiting for her at the school. Or she could go, but stand on the other side of the road, casual. There was only an inch of washing-up liquid left so she filled the bottle with water to eke it out.
Gary Jameson was late. She looked at her phone. Ten minutes late. She wasn’t going to be there for the child and she hadn’t even cleaned that house properly at all. Corners cut everywhere. Mr Dalzell would not be impressed.
The van swung round the corner.
Thought you were never coming, she said, as she got in.
Desperate to see lover boy.
I’m going to the doctor’s, she said.
Where’s the place again?
She said it was near the Iceland shop.
What they treating everybody with? Bags of fucking frozen peas? How long you going to be at the doctor’s? There’s still that other house.
I don’t know. I’ll have to see.
Check you all of sudden, he said.
She crossed over from the Iceland car park to the school with its cluster of buggies in the playground, its semicircle of parents. When the bell rang, kids filtered out, some jumping from the top step, some clutching things they had made out of paper. And then the child was standing beside her.
Hi, she said.
Roberta looked around to see if anyone was watching them.
Hi, she said back.
Are we going home now? the child asked.
Well, I thought, Roberta said, I thought we could try to find your flat. Because your mum might be there. Now, which way do you think?
They looked up the road to the hills, and down to the shipyard cranes. That way, the girl said. That way for definite.
There’s flats, tower blocks, up there.
The girl shook her head. No. This way. She started talking about how a boy had got shouted at that day for lifting the giant snail from the tank and putting it on his desk.
Maybe the snail liked it, Roberta said.
Maybe it did, said the child.
They walked past butchers’ shops and chemists, home bakeries and key-cutters. At one point the child indicated to turn down a particular street.
You sure? Roberta said. Doesn’t look like flats down here.
It was a street of brick terraces.
I thought, the child said. But I can’t really remember.
It was starting to rain.
What are we having for our tea? the child asked.
You know what, Roberta said, I was going to do something called dauphinoise potatoes which is meant to be very nice, but I think we are just going to get something from the shop.
The phone rang and it was Gary Jameson wondering where she was. She turned away from the child and said that she was still at the doctor’s. No, she didn’t know how much longer she would need to be. A police car went past, its siren sounding. Gary Jameson would hear that and know she was out in the street.
I’ll do it first thing in the morning, she said. But he had already gone.
The house seemed warmer when they returned to sink into the plush fabrics while they waited for their pie to heat. Roberta found raffia placemats at the back of a drawer and so she laid the table for the two of them.
I’ve got homework tonight, the girl said. Can you help me with some of it?
Certainly, Roberta said. Important that you do your homework.
After tea, she got out a maths book and showed Roberta the page where she had to calculate angles.
I can do this one, and this one, but not that one.
Their faces were close as they peered at the page, biting their lips at the mathematical notation. The child turned to look at her. Do you know? she said.
Homework’s for kids to do by themselves, said Roberta, turning away.
Oh, the child said softly.
That night the child read her English book in bed. When she went to sleep, Roberta sat on the landing outside the room, her back against the wall. The door was ajar and she could hear the easy breathing. There was the slight sound downstairs of the blow heater, some nonsense on the television, that old one with a big bulging back. She sighed. No dashing, running around, leaping on and off buses. There was no need to think about anything just at present because it would be hours before the morning light would come and she would not mind if it took twice as long in its arriving.
On the way to school in the morning, Roberta said, I hope you remembered to put that homework in your bag.
The girl tapped it. Of course, she said.
There were some of the same people on the bus: the woman with the jungle print scarf, the man who was already wearing his work ID around his neck, the guy with the studded leather jacket.
You’ll be waiting for me today, the girl said. We won’t go walking around again. You’ll be waiting for me?
Of course, said Roberta. She tapped the girl’s ponytail. She’d forgotten to brush it again. But tomorrow.
By the time she got back to her own house, Gary Jameson was already there.
Dirty stop out! he shouted. I know what you’re up to.
When she got in, she took a look at the schedule. They were starting with the place she should have done yesterday, fine. But there was a gap between the next house and the one at twelve o’clock. That would give her time to get to the shops. And then she saw that she was meant to clean another place when she was meant to pick the child up from school again.
I can’t do that one, she said.
Roberta, Gary Jameson replied. Roberta. You are just going to have to sweetheart, because, you cannot fucking pick and choose. You got a job to do. You want to piss off Mr Dalzell?
They had been playing cards in this house. She knew that from the way everything was drawn round the table as if it was a magnet. She cleared that, attacked the blood on the floor in the kitchen, dried to rust. She did not want to annoy Mr Dalzell, who had been so good to her. But even so, there was time for her to get to the shops between this house and the next.
Back on the second-floor uniform area, she lifted a five pack of kids’ pants, a two pack of tights and a cosy looking nightie for the child. It was easy enough to go down the stairs rather than the escalator, hide the stuff under her coat. Next, she went to a bookshop, wandered about until she came to the section called Study Guides. She had seen her sister with these what seemed like a long time ago. There was a shelf for Mathematics—so many of the books—and Roberta picked one that, when she flicked through the pages, seemed to replicate the problems of the other night.
She called into another shop to get sweets for the girl. There was a queue and as she waited she cast her eyes over the magazines and newspapers, she noticed the pictures and the headlines. A footballer had hit his girlfriend. All the papers were talking about it. But then in the local paper it was different. A woman had been found strangled. Murder enquiry. She was pretty, with her hair curled like that and her smile. Roberta got the sweets and then headed towards the bus stop.
It wasn’t until she was crossing the road that she realised. She stopped and a car nearly hit her. The man rolled down the window and shouted but she didn’t hear because she was running back to the newsagents. She lifted a paper and walked out of the shop. Josephine Claire Muldrew, twenty-six years old. There was another photo of her inside, a little younger, holding a child, whose face had been pixelated out. All that was there were her thin arms, a halo of hair. Mother of one.
A rough hand caught Roberta on the shoulder.
Do you mind? Who do you think you are?
He took the paper from her.
I’ve had enough of people like you, he said.
She gave him the money that she had in her pockets, ten pence pieces, five pence pieces.
Cheek of you, he said.
It was the centre of town, just after midday, and people were staring at the woman shaking and crying, looking at a notebook as if it contained instructions for living. Maybe she was on drugs. There was something not right.
The phone rang.
Where are you, Gary Jameson asked. I’ve been waiting this past fifteen minutes.
When you getting here?
I don’t know.
He would be tapping the steering wheel with those cut fingers.
Going to have to tell Mr Dalzell there’s a key missing, he said. You know anything about that?
No, she said.
Okay, Roberta. And then he ended the call.
Back at the school, no one was on the climbing frames. Hard to believe it, one said. Did you ever speak to her? Yeah I asked her where she got her jacket from once. Wonder what happened. I heard what happened. Strangled. Poor wee child. Police were at the school earlier, for the wee girl. Did you see? I know what happened. She was at one of them dodgy parties and then went off with some stranger to another house, you know?
What’ll happen to the child? Roberta asked.
They all turned to look at her. A woman in a blue coat shook her head. Sad isn’t it? she said. No dad on the scene, don’t know if there’s any family, maybe they’ll find a relative or else she will be put in care.
Oh, there’s a relative alright because the wee girl has been at school the last couple of days, another one said.
The bell sounded and out came the kids, some in football strips. They shrieked, jumped in the air, swung their bags round and round. Look! a boy said, as he came to his mother in the semi-circle. He was holding a single green shoot in a yoghurt carton. Slowly, gradually, they moved off as their kids turned up. They left and Roberta stayed. She leaned against the railing, looked at where the pointed black roof met a white sky. She called Gary Jameson back, but it went to his answerphone. Ready to work! she said in a high, shaking voice. She still had the things for the child. The maths guide. A teacher came out, surveyed the empty playground, then noticed a jacket left behind near the climbing frame. Roberta sat down on the ground and opened her notebook. They had not said goodbye because there was no need to. Schools had playgrounds. In the whole of the place there couldn’t be more than one hundred primary schools.
Hey mister, she shouted to the teacher. Can I ask you, how many primary schools are there in Northern Ireland?
I don’t know, he said. Eight hundred maybe? About that number. Can I help you?
She scored out one hundred. That was a lot more, eight hundred. But there were fifty-two weeks in the year, and at least a couple of years when she would still be at a school like this, wherever they sent her. The maths book would be out of date, maybe, by the time they found each other. But there were lots of them in that shop, shelves of them, for people of all ages.