Pagina principale Then She Was Gone: A Novel

Then She Was Gone: A Novel

INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“An acutely observed family drama with bone-chilling suspense.” —People

“Jewell teases out her twisty plot at just the right pace, leaving readers on the edge of their seats. Her multilayered characters are sheer perfection, and even the most astute thriller reader won’t see where everything is going until the final threads are unknotted.” —Booklist, starred review

“Sharply written with twists and turns, Jewell’s latest will please fans of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, or Luckiest Girl Alive." —Library Journal

Ellie Mack was the perfect daughter. She was fifteen, the youngest of three. She was beloved by her parents, friends, and teachers. She and her boyfriend made a teenaged golden couple. She was days away from an idyllic post-exams summer vacation, with her whole life ahead of her.

And then she was gone.

Now, her mother Laurel Mack is trying to put her life back together. It’s been ten years since her daughter disappeared, seven years since her marriage ended, and only months since the last clue in Ellie’s case was unearthed. So when she meets an unexpectedly charming man in a café, no one is more surprised than Laurel at how quickly their flirtation develops into something deeper. Before she knows it, she’s meeting Floyd’s daughters—and his youngest, Poppy, takes Laurel’s breath away.

Because looking at Poppy is like looking at Ellie. And now, the unanswered questions she’s tried so hard to put to rest begin to haunt Laurel anew. Where did Ellie go? Did she really run away from home, as the police have long suspected, or was there a more sinister reason for her disappearance? Who is Floyd, really? And why does his daughter remind Laurel so viscerally of her own missing girl?
Anno:
2018
Editore:
Atria Books
Lingua:
english
Pagine:
368
ISBN 10:
1501154648
ISBN 13:
9781501154645
File:
EPUB, 4.17 MB
Download (epub, 4.17 MB)

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Once up on time thier was guy who was in 8children on the same parent her mother was never loved him but he did many thing for making her mother happy and to love. Him but she convinced her after 8year he leaves the home and he got to start another life he live like street children after few he got relative parent they loved him and he had goal to work hard for becoming rich that makes his mother to come back to him he try and try and he got every thing he went after that his mother to back with him and wished to say my son
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1

O futuro chegou

Year:
2013
Language:
portuguese
File:
AZW3 , 1.33 MB
2

[image: images]

What had Laurel’s life been like, ten years ago, when she’d had three children and not two? Had she woken up every morning suffused with existential joy? No, she had not. Laurel had always been a glass-half-empty type of person. She could find much to complain about in even the most pleasant of scenarios and could condense the joy of good news into a short-lived moment, quickly curtailed by some new bothersome concern. So she had woken up every morning convinced that she had slept badly, even when she hadn’t, worrying that her stomach was too fat, that her hair was either too long or too short, that her house was too big, too small, that her bank account was too empty, her husband too lazy, her children too loud or too quiet, that they would leave home, that they would never leave home. She’d wake up noticing the pale cat fur smeared across the black skirt she’d left hanging on the back of her bedroom chair, the missing slipper, the bags under Hanna’s eyes, the pile of dry cleaning that she’d been meaning to take up the road for almost a month, the rip in the wallpaper in the hallway, the terrible pubescent boil on Jake’s chin, the smell of cat food left out too long, and the bin that everyone seemed intent on not emptying, contents pressed down into its bowels by the lazy, flat-palmed hands of her family.

That was how she’d once viewed her perfect life: as a series of bad smells and unfulfilled duties, petty worries and late bills.

And then one morning, her girl, her golden girl, her lastborn, her baby, her soul mate, her pride and her joy, had left the house and not come back.

And how had she felt during those first few excruciatingly unfolding hours? What had filled her brain, her heart, to replace all those petty concerns? Terror. Despair. Grief. Horror. Agony. Turmoil. Heartbreak. Fear. All those words, all so melodramatic, yet all so insufficient.

“She’ll be at Theo’s,” Paul had said. “Why don’t you give his mum a ring?”

She’d known already that she wouldn’t be at Theo’s. Her;  daughter’s last words to her had been: “I’ll be back in time for lunch. Is there any of that lasagna left?”

“Enough for one.”

“Don’t let Hanna have it! Or Jake! Promise!”

“I promise.”

And then there’d been the click of the front door, the sudden dip in volume with one person less in the house, a dishwasher to load, a phone call to make, a Lemsip to take upstairs to Paul, who had a cold that had previously seemed like the most irksome thing in her life.

“Paul’s got a cold.”

How many people had she said that to in the preceding day or so? A weary sigh, a roll of the eyes. “Paul’s got a cold.” My burden. My life. Pity me.

But she’d called Theo’s mum anyway.

“No,” said Becky Goodman, “no, I’m really sorry. Theo’s been here all day and we haven’t heard anything from Ellie at all. Let me know if there’s anything I can do . . . ?”

As the afternoon had turned to early evening, after she’d phoned each of Ellie’s friends in turn, after she’d visited the library, who’d let her see their CCTV footage—Ellie had definitely not been to the library that day—after the sun had begun to set and the house plunged into a cool darkness punctuated every few moments by blasts of white light as a silent electrical storm played out overhead, she’d finally given in to the nagging dread that had been growing inside her all day and she’d called the police.

That was the first time she’d hated Paul, that evening, in his dressing gown, barefoot, smelling of bedsheets and snot, sniffing, sniffing, sniffing, then blowing his nose, the terrible gurgle of it in his nostrils, the thickness of his mouth-breathing that sounded like the death throes of a monster to her hypersensitive ears.

“Get dressed,” she snapped. “Please.”

He’d acquiesced, like a browbeaten child, and come downstairs a few minutes later wearing a summer holiday outfit of combat shorts and a bright T-shirt. All wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

“And blow your nose,” she’d said. “Properly. So there’s nothing left.”

Again, he’d followed her instruction. She’d watched him with disdain, watched him fold the tissue into a ball and stalk pitifully across the kitchen to dispose of it in the bin.

And then the police had arrived.

And then the thing began.

The thing that had never ended.

She occasionally wondered whether if Paul hadn’t had a cold that day, if he’d rushed back from work at her first call, rumpled in smart clothes, full of vim and urgency, if he’d sat upright by her side, his hand clasped around hers, if he hadn’t been mouth-breathing and sniffing and looking a fright, would everything have been different? Would they have made it through? Or would it have been something else that made her hate him?

The police had left at eight thirty. Hanna had appeared at the kitchen door shortly afterward.

“Mum,” she’d said in an apologetic voice, “I’m hungry.”

“Sorry,” said Laurel, glancing across the kitchen at the clock. “Christ, yes, you must be starving.” She pulled herself heavily to her feet, blindly examined the contents of the fridge with her daughter.

“This?” said Hanna, pulling out the Tupperware box with the last portion of lasagna in it.

“No.” She’d snatched it back, too hard. Hanna had blinked at her.

“Why not?”

“Just, no,” she said, softer this time.

She’d made her beans on toast, sat and watched her eat it. Hanna. Her middle child. The difficult one. The tiring one. The one she wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island with. And a terrible thought shot through her, so fast she barely registered it.

It should be you missing and Ellie eating beans on toast.

She touched Hanna’s cheek, gently, with the palm of her hand and then left the room.


62

[image: images]

I became fixated on you, Laurel. I raked the Internet for articles about you, for photographs and clips of the press conference you’d given the day after Ellie disappeared. You were such a refined woman. So succinct and articulate, no words wasted, no emotional incontinence, your pretty hands always twisted together so intricately, the sharply cut hair, the tailored clothes; no lace or buttons or trim. Even in your clothing choices you wasted nothing.

And in watching you I became more and more familiar with Paul. The shirts that looked conventional at first sight until you realized that there was a contrast trim of Liberty print inside the collar. The cuff links that appeared to be tiny dog heads. The slightly unusual tortoiseshell glasses. A flash of geometric-printed silk sock inside a handmade shoe.

Further investigation of such clothing showed that he shopped primarily at Paul Smith and Ted Baker. I began experimenting with a pair of socks here and a silk handkerchief there. Then I took myself for a proper shave in a barbershop. I had never before had a proper shave. In fact I rarely shaved; I tended to let the stubble grow out until my face itched, scratch it all off with a—generally—blunt razor, leave myself with a blotchy, butchered face, and then let it all grow back again. Clothes shopping for me was a joyless affair: a whizz around M&S with a basket twice a year. I began to enjoy browsing these boutiques for gentlemen. I liked the snake-hipped sales assistants, so eager to help, to guide me in the right direction. Then I had a proper haircut, found some products that gave my rather sparse and gravity-challenged hair the appearance of volume and lift, bought a pair of clear-lensed glasses with horn frames, and the transformation was complete.

It was a gradual process, over the course of a couple of months. It wasn’t as if I just suddenly popped up one day with a brand-new image like one of those awful TV makeover shows. I’m not sure anyone I saw regularly even noticed.

I just wanted to show myself to you and for you to like me. That’s all it was. For you to find me familiar. To find me the kind of person with whom you could share a slice of cake. I wanted us to be friends and then I wanted you and Poppy to be friends. Because by now I had had a DNA test done. By now I knew, with only 0.02 percent of a chance of improbability, that Poppy was not my child and that the only person she truly belonged to was you.

I had not expected mutual attraction. I had not expected your hands inside the sleeves of my jumper in the restaurant, our desperate ascent up the stairs of my house that night, your head in the crook of my arm the following morning. Women like you did not like men like me. And I . . .

No. There’s no defense for it. None. I took advantage. Plain and simple.

But I’m glad at least that you and Poppy have had a chance to get to know each other in relatively normal circumstances, not in the glare of a police operation, not in the strip-lit office of the social services, just as a child and her grandmother, sharing breakfast, going shopping, eating dinner with your family. I hope this means that in the days that follow Poppy will be seamlessly assimilated into the Mack family. I’ve given her the bare bones of the truth. I will leave it to you to decide how much more she needs to know. And remember, this house and everything in it belongs to Poppy. She’ll more than pay her own way in life.

But that brings me to the final, and in some ways, most compelling reason for me not going straight to the police back in May of this year. You’ll notice if you look through the window to your right that there is a flower bed in the garden, newer, higher than the others. Do you see? At the very back? I dug it out in early November, just before I met you.

Noelle Donnelly is under there.

Before that she was in a chest freezer in my cellar. She’d been in there since the night she told me about Ellie. The night she told me Poppy wasn’t mine.

I didn’t mean to kill her, Laurel, I promise you that. It was an accident. I went for her, I wanted to scare her, I wanted to hurt her. I mean, you can imagine, can’t you, how I was feeling, with that woman, that evil woman, in my kitchen, ripping my heart out of my chest. If you had been there, you’d have wanted to hurt her, too; I know you would. But I did not intend to kill her. Her chair went flying and her head hit the floor and . . .

Anyway . . . I’ll let you decide if you want to tell the police. If you want to tell Poppy. But I couldn’t go without telling someone and I know whatever you decide to do, it will be the right thing.

Please, Laurel, forgive me. Forgive me for everything. Forgive me for meeting Noelle, for allowing her into my life; forgive me for not questioning her more when she was pregnant, for not asking more questions about the basement in her house, for not going to the police when I suspected who Poppy’s mother was, for allowing myself to fall in love with you, and for taking these last few weeks with you that were not mine to be taken. Please forgive me.

The horizon is right in front of you, Laurel. March to it right now, with Poppy by your side.


19

[image: images]

Poppy is wearing a knee-length black velvet dress with a red bolero jacket and red shoes with bows on them, and Laurel feels another jolt of unease about the way the girl is dressed. It screams of lack of peer influence and a mother’s touch. But she puts the unease to one side and brings Floyd and Poppy into her living room where candles flicker and cast dancing shadows on the plain white walls, where bowls of crisps and Tex-Mex dips decanted into glass dishes sit on the coffee table, where soft background music blunts the hard edges of the small square room and where a bottle of Cava sits in a cooler and glasses sparkle in the candlelight.

“What a lovely flat,” says Floyd, passing her a bottle of wine and prompting Poppy to pass her the bunch of lilies she’d been clutching when she arrived.

“It’s OK,” says Laurel. “It’s functional.”

Poppy looks around for a moment, taking in the family photos on the windowsills and the cabinets. “Is this your little girl?” she says, peering at a photo of Hanna when she was about six or seven.

“Yes,” says Laurel. “That’s Hanna. She’s not a little girl anymore though. She’s going to be twenty-eight next week.”

“And is this your son?”

“Yes. That’s Jake. My oldest one. He’ll be thirty in January.”

“He looks nice,” she says. “Is he nice?”

Laurel puts the wine in the fridge and turns back to Poppy. “He’s . . . well, yes. He’s very nice. I don’t really see much of him these days unfortunately. He lives in Devon.”

“Has he got a girlfriend?”

“Yes. She’s called Blue and they live together in a little gingerbread cottage with chickens in the garden. He’s a surveyor. I’m not sure what she does. Something to do with knitting, I think.”

“Do you like her? It sounds as if you don’t like her.”

Laurel and Floyd exchange another look. She’s waiting for him to pull Poppy back a bit, rein her in. But he doesn’t. He watches her in something approaching awe as though waiting to see just how far she will go.

“I barely know her,” Laurel says, trying to soften her tone. “She seems perfectly OK. A bit, maybe, controlling.” She shrugs. “Jake’s a grown man, though; if he wants to be controlled by another human being, I guess that’s his lookout.”

She invites them to sit down and eat some crisps. Floyd does so, but Poppy is still stalking the room, investigating. “Have you got a picture of your husband?” she says.

“Ex-husband,” Laurel corrects, “and no. Not on display. But somewhere, I’m sure.”

“What’s his name?”

“Paul.”

Poppy nods. “What’s he like?”

She smiles at Floyd, looking to be rescued, but he looks as keen to find out about Paul as his daughter. “Oh,” she says. “Paul? He’s lovely, actually. He’s a really lovely man. Very gentle. Very kind. A bit daft.”

“Then why did you split up?”

Ah. There it was. Silly her, not to have seen the conversational cul-de-sac she was walking straight into. And still Floyd does not come to her rescue, simply scoops some dip onto a pita chip and pops it into his mouth.

“We just . . . well, we changed. We wanted different things. The children grew up and left home and we realized we didn’t want to spend the rest of our lives together.”

“Did he marry someone else?”

“No. Not quite. But he has a girlfriend. They live together.”

“Is she nice? Do you like her?”

“I’ve never met her. But my children have. They say she’s very sweet.”

Poppy finally seems sated and takes a seat next to her father, who grips her knee and gives it a quick hard squeeze as if to say good job on grilling the lady. Then he leans toward the coffee table and places a hand on the neck of the Cava and says, “Well, shall I?”

“Yes. Please. How did you get here? Are you driving?”

“No. We got the tube. Do you have an extra glass?”

She’s confused for a moment and then realizes that he wants the extra glass for Poppy. “Oh,” she says. “Sorry. I didn’t think. It’s the French way, isn’t it?”

“What’s the French way?” asks Poppy.

“Children drinking,” she explains. “Not something that happens much in other countries.”

“Only champagne,” says Floyd. “Only a sip. And only on very special occasions.”

Laurel pours the Cava and they make a toast to themselves and to her and to SJ for not showing up and meaning that Poppy gets to stay up late and wear her nice dress.

“That is a really lovely dress,” Laurel says, sensing an opening. “Who takes you shopping for clothes?”

“Dad,” she replies. “We shop online together mostly. But sometimes we go to Oxford Street.”

“And what’s your favorite clothes shop?”

“I haven’t really got one. Marks & Spencer is really good, I suppose, and we always go into John Lewis.”

“What about H&M? Gap?”

“I’m not really that kind of girl,” she says. “Jeans and hoodies and stuff. I like to look . . . smart.”

Floyd’s hand goes to the knee again, gives it another encouraging that’s my girl squeeze.

“So,” says Laurel. “Tell me about the home-schooling? How does that work?”

“Just like real schooling,” Poppy responds. “I sit and learn. And then when I’ve learned I relax.”

“How many hours a day do you study?”

“Two or three,” she says. “Well, two or three hours with Dad. Obviously he has to work. The rest of the time by myself.”

“And you don’t ever get lonely? Or wish you had kids your own age to hang out with?”

“Noooo,” she says, shaking her head emphatically. “No, no, never.”

“Poppy is basically forty years old,” says Floyd admiringly. “You know, how you get to forty and you suddenly stop giving a shit about all the stupid things you worried about your whole life. Well, Poppy’s already there.”

“When I’m with kids my own age I tend to roll my eyes a lot and look at them like they’re mad. Which doesn’t really go down too well. They think I’m a bitch.” Poppy shrugs and laughs and takes a mouthful of champagne.

Laurel simply nods. She can see how this self-possessed child might appear to other children. But she doesn’t believe that it’s the way it must be; she doesn’t believe that Poppy couldn’t learn to enjoy time with her peers, to stop rolling her eyes at them and alienating them. She doesn’t know, thinks Laurel, she doesn’t know that this isn’t how you grow up. That wearing shiny shoes with bows on and rolling your eyes at other kids is not a sign of maturity, but a sign that you’ve missed a whole set of steps on the road to maturity.

This child, Laurel suddenly feels with the immediacy of a kick to the gut, needs a mother. And this mother, she acknowledges, needs a child. And Poppy, she is so like Ellie. The planes and lines of her pretty face, the shape of her hairline, of her skull, the way her ears attach to her head, the shapes her mouth makes when it moves, the precise angle of her cupid’s bow, they’re almost mathematically identical.

The differences are pronounced, too. Her eyebrows are thicker, her neck is longer, her hair parts differently and is a different shade of brown. And while Ellie’s eyes were a hazel brown, Poppy’s are chocolate. They are not identical. But there is something, something alarming and arresting, a likeness that she can’t leave alone.

“Maybe you and I could go shopping together?” Laurel says brightly. “One day? Would you like that?”

Finally Poppy looks to her dad for his approval before turning back to Laurel and saying, “I would absolutely love that. Yes, please!”

[image: images]

Laurel goes to work on Friday. She works Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays at the shopping center near her flat. Her job title is “marketing coordinator.” It’s a silly job, a mum job, a little local thing to fill some hours and make some money to pay for clothes and the like. She comes, she smiles, she makes the phone calls and writes the emails and sits in the meetings about the inconsequential things she’s being paid to pretend she cares about and then she goes home and doesn’t think of any of it again until the next time she walks through the door.

But she’s glad to be there today. She’s happy to be surrounded by familiar people who like her and know her, even if it’s only on a superficial level. The previous evening had been strange and unsettling and she’d awoken thinking that maybe she’d dreamed it. Her flat had felt odd in the wake of her dinner guests, as though it didn’t really belong to her. The cushions on the sofa were in the wrong order, the result of Poppy’s attempt to tidy up after themselves, food was stacked in the wrong parts of the fridge, and there was a pile of washing up on the draining board that Poppy had insisted on doing in spite of Laurel trying to persuade her that she needn’t, that it would all just go in the dishwasher. The lilies on the dining table gave off a strange deathly perfume and Floyd had left his scarf in her hallway, a soft gray thing with a Ted Baker label in it that hung from a hook like a plume of dark smoke.

She’d been glad to leave the flat, to put some distance between last night and herself. But even as she switches on her computer and stirs sweeteners into her coffee, as she listens to the messages on her voicemail, it’s there, like a dark echo. Something not right. Something to do with Floyd and Poppy. She can’t pin it down. Poppy is clearly a strange child, who is both charmingly naïve and unsettlingly self-possessed. She is cleverer than she has any need to be, but also not as clever as she thinks.

And Floyd, who in the time that Laurel has spent alone with him, is virtually perfect, warps into something altogether more complicated when he’s with his daughter. Laurel finally crystallizes the issue while discussing her evening with her colleague, Helen.

“It was like,” she says, “you know, like when you’re supposed to be having drinks with a friend and they bring their partner along and suddenly you’re at the pointy end of a triangle?”

The evening had essentially been the Floyd and Poppy Show with Poppy as the star turn and Laurel as the slightly dumbfounded audience of one. Floyd and Poppy shared the same sense of humor and lined up jokes for each other. And Floyd’s eyes were always on his precocious child, sparkling with wonder and pride. There was not one conversation that had not involved Poppy and her opinions and there had not been one moment during which Laurel had felt more important, special, or interesting than her.

She’d closed the door on them at midnight feeling drained and somewhat dazed.

“Sounds like she’s got the classic only-child syndrome,” says Helen, neatly shrinking the issue down to a digestible bite-sized chunk of common sense. “Plus, you know, some fathers and daughters just have that sort of thing, don’t they? Daddy’s girls. They usually turn into the sort of women who can only be friends with men.”

Laurel nods gratefully. Yes, that all makes perfect sense. She has seen that bond before between fathers and daughters. Not with her own daughters. Ellie was both a mummy’s and a daddy’s girl and Hanna is just a law unto herself. And maybe the surprise she is feeling is due to her own issues and nothing to do with Floyd and Poppy. Poppy is entertaining in a gauche kind of way and Floyd is clearly a wonderful, nurturing, and loving father.

By the time Laurel leaves the office at five thirty and gets into her car in the underground car park she is feeling clearheaded and right-footed.

She cannot wait to see Floyd again.

[image: images]

Laurel and Floyd spend the whole of the following weekend together. It wasn’t planned that way, but there never seemed to be a point at which leaving his house made any sense. They had dinner out on Friday night, a late breakfast on Saturday morning, a trip to the cinema with Poppy that afternoon followed by a detour to M&S for new underwear and a toothbrush, Chinese take-out on Saturday night, and then brunch in a café around the corner on Sunday before Laurel managed to tear herself away and back to her flat on Sunday evening, ready for work on Monday morning.

At the office Laurel feels as though she has shed a skin, that she is somehow reborn and that she needs to mark the transition in some landmark way.

She calls Hanna.

“How would you feel . . .” she starts tentatively, “if I invited my new boyfriend to our birthday dinner?”

The silence is black and heavy.

Laurel fills it. “Totally don’t mind if you say no. Totally understand. I just thought, in the spirit of us all moving on? In the spirit of a brave new world?”

The silence continues, growing in depth and darkness.

“Boyfriend?” says Hanna eventually. “Since when did you have a boyfriend?”

“The guy,” says Laurel, “the guy I told you about? Floyd.”

“I know the guy,” she replies. “I just wasn’t aware that he’d made boyfriend status.”

“Yes, well, if you ever answered your phone . . .”

Hanna sighs. Laurel sighs too, realizing she has just done the thing she always promised herself she would never do. When the children were small, Laurel’s mother would occasionally make small, raw observations about gaps between phone calls and visits that would tear tiny, painful strips off Laurel’s conscience. I will never guilt trip my children when they are adults, she’d vowed. I will never expect more than they are able to give.

“Sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to nag. It’s just, yes, things are moving quite fast. I’ve met his kids. I’ve stayed at his. We talk all the time. We’ve just spent the whole weekend together. I just . . .” Ridiculous, she suddenly realizes. A ridiculous idea. “But forget I mentioned it. I mean, I haven’t even asked Floyd yet if he’d like to come. He’d probably rather saw his legs off. Forget I said anything.”

There’s another silence. Softer this time. “Whatever,” Hanna says. “Invite him. I don’t mind. It’s going to be so fucked up anyway, we may as well go the whole hog.”

[image: images]

Floyd says yes. Of course Floyd says yes. Floyd has made it very clear from the moment she headed home after their second date that he is wholly committed to their romance and that he is not interested in playing games or hard to get.

“I would love that,” he says. “As long as your family are OK with it?”

Paul had been OK about it. Hugely surprised, but OK. Jake had said it was fine. No one was jumping up and down about it but no one had said it was a mistake.

“And Poppy?” Laurel adds. “Would Poppy like to come too?”

She half hopes he’ll say no.

“She’ll be thrilled,” Floyd says. “She keeps saying how much she’d like to meet your children.”

“And my ex-husband. And my ex-husband’s girlfriend.”

“The whole shebang.”

The whole shebang. The whole hog.

She books a table for eight at a restaurant in Islington, a legendarily chichi place down a narrow cobbled alleyway off Upper Street.

She must be mad, she tells herself. She must be absolutely insane.


37

[image: images]

THEN

The sun came up early. Ellie took the chair that Noelle had sat on the night before and pulled it across to the window. She climbed onto it and peered through the grimy glass. She saw a tangle of undergrowth, a brick wall painted cream, a water pipe streaked green. If she peered upward, she saw the pink clouds of the cherry blossom tree, the blue sky, nothing more. She realized immediately that the only way anyone would see her in here would be if they were looking for her and she wrote the words “help” and “Ellie” into the dirt. She stood on the chair for more than an hour, her face pressed up against the glass. Because people must be looking for her. They must be.

She jumped down from the chair at the sound of the locks being turned on the door and she picked it up with both hands. At the sight of Noelle in a green polo neck and faded jeans a surge of horror and anger coursed through her and she grabbed the chair hard and swung it at Noelle. It glanced off the side of Noelle’s head, but she caught it before Ellie was able to properly hurt her with it, caught it and threw it across the room. Ellie jumped on her then, jumped on her back, her arms around Noelle’s throat as she tried to bash her head against the wooden wall. But Noelle proved herself to be stronger than she looked and manhandled Ellie backward and against the wall where she strangled the breath out of her, strangled her to the point of light-headedness and stars and then let her fall to the floor.

“You cannot be doing things like that,” Noelle said afterward, dropping Ellie on the sofa bed upside down, locking her ankles together with a plastic tie. “We’re in this together, you and me. We have to work as a team. I do not want to have to tie you up like a criminal. I really do not. I have treats in mind for you, lots of lovely things I want to do for you, to make this nicer. And I won’t be able to give you the treats if you behave like this.”

Ellie struggled against the cuffs around her ankles, pounded her feet against the end of the bed. She roared and thrashed, and Noelle stood and watched her, her arms folded, shaking her head slowly. “Now, now, now,” she said. “This isn’t going to work. The longer you behave like this, the worse it will be and the longer you’ll be here.”

Ellie stilled at those words. So, there was an end. Noelle had an end. Her muscles softened and her breathing steadied.

“Good girl,” Noelle said. “Good girl. If you can behave like this for the rest of the day, I’ll bring you your first treat. How about that?”

Ellie nodded, tears rolling down her cheeks.

The treat was a chocolate bar. A big one. She ate it in five minutes.

[image: images]

Ellie thought of before; she thought of eating toast and jam, calling Hanna a cow because she’d taken the last bag of salt and vinegar crisps that Ellie had mentally put aside for herself. She thought of filling her bag with books, a packet of ready salted crisps and a banana. She thought of her dad off work with a summer cold, in his dressing gown, sticking his head down the stairs and saying, “I’ll go through that maths with you later on if you like?” And her smiling at her dad and saying, “Cool! See you later!”

She thought of leaving the house without turning back to look at it.

She thought of her house.

She cried.


53

[image: images]

Laurel drives past Hanna’s flat on her way from Floyd’s to work that morning. She’s hoping for a sneaky glimpse of Theo and Hanna leaving for work together. But it’s dark and quiet and at least now Laurel can picture where her daughter has been. She has been in Theo Goodman’s bed.

Theo is a schoolteacher now. Hanna had told her that, funnily enough, about a year ago. Said she’d bumped into him somewhere or other. Laurel couldn’t really remember the details. That must have been when it started, she supposed.

Laurel is unfairly horrified by this twist in the fabric of things.

Theo was Ellie’s. He’d belonged to her and she’d belonged to him. They’d inhabited each other completely, like a pair of gloves folded into itself. And now she is cross with Hanna. Cross enough to wonder what Theo even sees in Hanna, in comparison to Ellie. She imagines, in the warped threads of her irrational thought processes, that Theo chose Hanna as a consolation prize.

But then she remembers seeing that blonde girl coming out of the supermarket on Sunday morning, that smiling, golden girl who looked nothing like the sour-faced girl who greets Laurel at her door from time to time, the pinched child who never laughs at her jokes, the tired-looking woman who sighs down the phone at the sound of her mother’s voice.

And it occurs to her for the very first time that maybe Hanna isn’t intrinsically unhappy.

That maybe she just doesn’t like her.

[image: images]

She calls Paul later that afternoon. He’s at work and she can hear the warm rumble of normality in the background.

“Listen,” she says, “can I ask you something? About Hanna?”

There’s a beat of silence before Paul says, “Yes.”

He knows, thinks Laurel, he already knows.

“Has she said anything to you about a boyfriend?”

There’s another silence. “Yes, she has.”

She exhales. “How long have you known?”

“A few months,” he replies.

“And you know—you know who it is?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

Laurel closes her eyes. “And she told you not to tell me?”

“Yes. Something like that.”

Now Laurel pauses. “Paul,” she says after a moment, “do you think that Hanna hates me?”

“What? No. Of course she doesn’t hate you. Hanna doesn’t hate anyone. Why would you say that?”

“It’s just, whenever we’re together she’s so . . . spiky. And cold. And I’ve always put it down to arrested development—you know, losing Ellie when she was just on the cusp of adult life. But I saw her the other day, with Theo. And she was so bright and so happy. She looked like a completely different person.”

“Well, yes, she is madly in love, by all accounts.”

“But when she’s with you, and Bonny, what’s she like then? Is she lighthearted? Is she fun?”

“Yes. I’d say she is. On the whole.”

“So, I’m right, you see. It is me. She can’t stand being with me.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“It is true, Paul. You’ve never seen it. You’ve never seen what she’s like with me when it’s just the two of us. She’s like a . . . a void. There’s nothing there. Just this blank stare. What did I do, Paul? What did I do wrong?”

She hears Paul take a breath. “Nothing,” he says. “You did nothing wrong. But I’d say, well, it wasn’t just Ellie she lost, was it? It was you, too.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You. You went kind of—off radar. You stopped cooking. You stopped—you stopped being a parent.”

“I know, Paul! I know I did! And I’ve apologized to Hanna a million times for the way I was then. Why do you think I go to her house every week and clean it for her? I try so hard with her, Paul. I try all the time and it makes no difference.”

“Laurel,” he says carefully, “I think what Hanna really needs from you is your forgiveness.”

“Forgiveness?” she echoes. “Forgiveness for what?”

There is a long moment of silence as Paul forms his response.

“Forgiveness . . .” he says finally, “for not being Ellie.”

[image: images]

Paul’s words have unfurled a whole roll of thoughts and feelings that Laurel hadn’t known were so tightly wound inside her and she is plunged straight back into the minutes and hours following Ellie’s disappearance, recalling the sour resentment at being left with Hanna, denying her the lasagna that Ellie had staked her claim on, as Ellie had staked her claim on so much in their family. Everyone had fought for Ellie’s attention, for a blast of her golden light. Then the light had gone and they’d dissipated like death stars falling away from the sun.

And yes, Laurel had never accepted Hanna as a consolation prize. She really hadn’t. And as a result she’d got the relationship with her daughter that she deserved. Well, now she knows this, she can work on it and make things better.

Laurel calls Hanna. It goes through to voicemail, as she’d known it would. But this can’t wait another moment. She needs to say it right now.

“Darling,” she says, “I just wanted to say, I am so proud of you. You are the most extraordinary girl in the world and I am so lucky to have you in my life. And I also wanted to say that I’m sorry, so sorry if anything I’ve ever done has made you feel like less than the center of my world. Because you are, you are absolutely the center of my world and I could not live without you. And”—she draws in her breath slightly—“I wanted to say that I saw you the other day, I saw you with Theo, and I think it’s wonderful and I think he’s a very, very lucky man. A very lucky man indeed. Anyway, that’s what I wanted to say and I’m sorry I haven’t said it before and I love you and I’ll see you on Christmas Eve. I love you. Bye.”

She turns off her phone and she rests it on the kitchen counter and feels a wave of relief and weightlessness pass through her. She is unburdened of something she hadn’t even known she was carrying.


55

[image: images]

Laurel’s mother is still alive when Laurel pops in to see her the next day on her way to work.

“Still here then?” she asks, pulling her chair closer to her mother’s.

Ruby rolls her eyes.

“You know it’s Christmas Day on Friday,” she says. “You can’t go and die before Christmas and ruin it for everyone. You do know that? If you were going to do it, you should have done it last week.”

Ruby chuckles and says, “Next week?”

“Yes,” says Laurel, smiling. “Next week is fine. It’s always a quiet time.”

She takes her mother’s hands and says, “We’re having a big Christmas Eve do. At Paul and Bonny’s. Hanna will be there. Jake. My new boyfriend. His daughter. I wish you could come.”

“No thank you,” says Ruby, and Laurel laughs.

“No,” she says. “I don’t blame you.”

“How is n-n-new b-boyfriend?”

The smile freezes on Laurel’s face. She doesn’t know how to answer the question so she smiles and says, “He’s wonderful. It’s all good.”

But as the words leave her mouth, she can feel the heavy lie of them.

Her mother feels it, too. “Good?” she repeats, concernedly.

“Yes,” she says. “Good.”

Her mother nods, just once.

“If you say so,” she says. “If you say so.”

[image: images]

Laurel calls Jake when she leaves her mother’s care home.

He picks up the call within two ringtones. “Mum,” he says, a note of concern in his voice.

“Everything’s fine,” she says. “Not an emergency. I just wanted to say hello.”

“I’m really sorry, Mum,” he starts immediately. “I’m really sorry about me and Blue and what we said to you the other day. It was out of order.”

“No, Jake, honestly. It’s fine. I’m sorry I overreacted. I think I was just so shocked to find myself in a relationship after so long I was a bit raw. Just wanted everything to be perfect. You know. And of course nothing’s perfect, is it?”

“No,” says Jake in a voice full of things he’d like to say but can’t. “No. That’s true.”

“Am I seeing you tomorrow?” she says. “At Bonny’s?”

“Yes,” he replies. “We’ll be there.”

“You know Floyd will be there too? Will that be a problem?”

“No,” he says, overly assured, she feels. “No. It will be fine.”

She takes a breath, ready to get to the point of her call. “Is Blue there?” she says. “I wondered if we could have a word?”

“Yeah,” says Jake. “Yeah. She’s here. You’re not going to . . . ?”

“No. I told you, Jake. Water under the bridge. I just want to ask her something.”

“OK.”

She hears him call out to Blue, who comes to the phone and says, “Hi, Laurel. How are you?”

“I’m good, thank you, Blue. I’m fine. How are you?”

“Oh, you know. Busy, busy. As always.”

There’s a pause and then Laurel says, “Listen, Blue, I wanted to apologize for the way I reacted last time we spoke. I think I may have been a little over the top.”

She can almost hear Blue shrug. “Don’t worry about it.”

“No, really. I’m sorry. And I just . . . I’ve been . . . I don’t know. I suppose I just wanted to know more about why you thought what you thought when you met him.”

“You feel it, too.”

Laurel blanches and brings her hand to her throat. She feels horribly caught out. “No,” she says, “no. It’s—I just want to know what you think, that’s all.”

Blue sighs and continues. “Floyd has a dark aspect. Very dark. Dangerous, almost. But the discrepancy between his true self and the way he presents himself is striking. It’s like he’s taking cues from people. Working out how to be. And then there’s the way he is with his daughter. It’s not quite right. He watches her all the time, did you know that? You can almost see him prompting her under his breath. Like she’s acting, too, and he’s there to stop her making a mistake, to stop her exposing him for what he is. I don’t think . . .” She pauses. “I don’t think he really loves her. Not in the normal sense of the word. I think it’s more that he needs her, because she makes him human. She’s like a cloak.”

Laurel nods and makes an affirmative noise, although she is still processing what Blue has said.

“But what you just said, about him being dangerous. What do you mean by that?”

“I mean,” says Blue, “that a man who can’t love but desperately needs to be loved is a dangerous thing indeed. And I think Floyd is dangerous because he’s pretending to be someone he’s not in order to get you to love him.”

Laurel shudders at Blue’s words. They chime so completely with her own feelings yesterday standing by the Christmas tree.

“What about Poppy?” she says. “What did you make of Poppy?”

“Poppy is like a rainbow. Poppy is everything. But she needs to get away from her father before he starts taking her colors away.”

There is a long pause. Then Laurel says, “Thank you, Blue. Thank you for your time.” She slowly slides her phone into her handbag and drives to work feeling slightly numb.


3

[image: images]

THEN

The first thing that Ellie shouldn’t have done was get a bad grade in maths. If she’d worked harder, been cleverer, if she hadn’t been so tired the day of the test, hadn’t felt so unfocused, hadn’t spent more time yawning than concentrating, if she’d got an A instead of a B+, then none of it would have happened. But going further back, before the bad maths test, if she hadn’t fallen in love with Theo, if instead she’d fallen in love with a boy who was rubbish at maths, a boy who didn’t care about maths or test results, a boy with no ambitions, or better still no boy at all, then she wouldn’t have felt that she needed to be as good as him or better, she’d have been happy with a B+ and she wouldn’t have gone home that evening and begged her mum for a maths tutor.

So, that’s where it was. The first kink in the time line. Right there, at four thirty or thereabouts on a Wednesday afternoon in January.

She’d come home in a temper. She often came home in a temper. She never expected to do it. It just happened. The minute she saw her mum or heard her mum’s voice, she’d just feel irrationally annoyed and then all the stuff she hadn’t been able to say or do all day at school—because at school she was known as a Nice Person and once you had a reputation for being nice you couldn’t mess with it—came spitting out of her.

“My maths teacher is shit,” she said, dropping her bag on the settle in the hallway. “Just so shit. I hate him.” She did not hate him. She hated herself for failing. But she couldn’t say that.

Her mum replied from the kitchen sink, “What’s happened, love?”

“I just told you!” She hadn’t, but that didn’t matter. “My maths teacher is so bad. I’m going to fail my GCSE. I need a tutor. Like, really, really need a tutor.”

She flounced into the kitchen and flopped dramatically into a chair.

“We can’t afford a tutor,” her mum said. “Why don’t you just join the after-school maths club?”

There was the next kink. If she hadn’t been such a spoiled brat, if she hadn’t been expecting her mum to wave a magic wand and solve all her problems for her, if she’d had even the vaguest idea about the reality of her parents’ finances, if she’d cared at all about anything other than herself, the conversation would have ended there. She would have said, OK. I understand. That’s what I’ll do.

But she had not done that. She had pushed and pushed and pushed. She’d offered to pay for it out of her own money. She’d brought up examples of people in her class who were way poorer than them who had private tuition.

“What about asking someone at school?” her mum suggested. “Someone in the sixth form? Someone who’ll do it for a few quid and a slice of cake?”

“What! No way! Oh God, that would be so embarrassing!”

And there it went, slipping away like a slippery thing, another chance to save herself. Gone. And she didn’t even know it.


32

[image: images]

Later that day Laurel visits her mother, Ruby.

“Still here?” she asks, placing her handbag on the floor and slipping off her coat.

Ruby tuts and sighs. “L-L-L-Looks like it.”

Laurel smiles and takes her hand. “We drank a toast to you on Friday,” she says, “at the birthday party. We all missed you very much.”

Ruby rolls her eyes as if to say sure you did.

“We really did. And guess what? I met Bonny!”

Ruby’s eyes open wide and she puts her fingertips to her mouth. “W-Wow!”

“Yes. Wow. She’s nice. I knew she would be. Cuddly.”

“F-F-Fat?”

Laurel laughs. “No. Not fat. Just bosomy.”

Ruby looks down at her own flat chest, the same flat chest that she bequeathed to her daughter and they both laugh.

“Boyf-f-friend? All happy?”

“Yes!” she replies with more positivity than she’s feeling. Her mother has extended her miserable existence beyond the point of comfort to see her daughter happy. “Really happy. It’s going really well!”

She sees a question pass across her mother’s eyes and she moves the conversation along quickly, asks after her health, her appetite, if she’s heard anything from her hopeless brother, who moved to Dubai the same day Ruby moved into the home.

“I won’t see you again,” her mother says as Laurel puts on her coat.

Laurel looks at her, looks deep into her eyes. Then she leans down and holds her in her arms, puts her mouth to her ear and says, “I will see you next week, Mum. And if I don’t, then I want you to know that you have been the best and most amazing mother in the world and I have been extraordinarily lucky to have you for so long. And that I adore you. And that we all do. And that you could not have been any better than you were. OK?”

She feels her mother’s head nodding against hers, the soft puff of her hair like a breath against her cheek. “Yes,” says her mother, “yes. Yes. Yes.”

Laurel wipes tears from her cheek and puts on a smile before pulling away from her mother.

“Bye, Mum,” she says. “I love you.”

“I l-l-love you, t-t-too.”

Laurel stops in the doorway for a second and looks at her mother, absorbs the shape of her and the exquisite feeling of her existence in the world. Then she sits in her car for a moment afterward, in the car park. She allows herself to cry for about thirty seconds and then talks herself out of it. Wanting to die and dying are generally unrelated. But this felt like more than her mother simply wanting to die. This seemed to come from inside her, from the inexplicable place that thinks about an old friend moments before bumping into them, that can sense the approach of a thunderstorm before it’s broken, the place that sends dogs to dark corners of the house to die.

She picks her phone from her bag and stares at it for a while. She wants to talk to someone. Someone who knows her better than anyone.

She nearly calls Paul. But she doesn’t.


26

[image: images]

The following day, Laurel parks her car in a multistory car park in Kings Cross and heads to St. Martin’s school of art in Granary Square. Floyd had told her that SJ was working there today when she’d asked nonchalantly over breakfast.

It’s a bland day, newspaper gray, lifted by the Christmas lights and decorations in every window. Granary Square is wide and quiet as she approaches it, a scattering of pigeons across its surface, a few people braving the cold outside to smoke a cigarette with their morning coffee.

At reception she asks for Sara-Jade Virtue. She’s told that Sara is working until lunchtime, so she sits in the restaurant next door and she eats a second breakfast and drinks two coffees and a peppermint tea before returning at twelve thirty and waiting for her outside.

Sara-Jade finally appears at ten past one. She’s wearing a huge pink fake-fur coat and boots that look far too big for her. She starts when she sees Laurel.

“Oh,” she says. “Hi.”

“Hi! Sorry for, you know, turning up unannounced. I was just . . . Are you hungry? Can I take you for lunch?”

SJ looks at her wrist and then up at the sky. “I was supposed to . . .” but she trails off. “Sure,” she says. “Fine. Thank you.”

They go to the pub across the way. It’s brand new with plate-glass windows on every side giving views all across the square and the canal. It’s buzzing with business suits and students. They both order fishcakes and fizzy water and pick at the bread basket halfheartedly.

“How are you?” says Laurel.

“I’m OK.”

“How was work?”

“Yeah, it was OK. Bit cold.”

“Yes, I don’t suppose this is a great time of year for nude modeling.”

“Life modeling.”

“Yes. Sorry. How many students are there? Drawing you?”

“About twelve today. But sometimes it can be thirty or forty.”

“And what do you think about? All those hours, in one position?”

SJ shrugs. “Nothing, really. Just what I need to do when I get home. Things I’ve done, places I’ve been. I do this thing sometimes where I let my head just sort of bounce around from place to place; I find myself in places I haven’t thought about in years, like a bar near my old college, or a restaurant in Prague I went to when I was eighteen, or a railway track I used to walk down when I visited my grandparents and the smell of cow parsley there . . .” She tugs off a small piece of bread and puts it in her mouth. “Those birds, what are they called? Wood pigeons. That noise they make.” She smiles. “It’s kind of fun.”

“And then you suddenly remember that you’re naked in front of a group of strangers?”

SJ throws her a look of incomprehension. Her mouth opens as though trying to form a response but then closes again. Laurel remembers what Poppy said about her being humorless.

“So, did you see him today? Simon?”

SJ looks nervously from left to right and raises a hand warningly.

“Sorry,” says Laurel, “indiscreet. And, to be honest, not why I came here to see you. I just . . .” She recrosses her legs. “What we were talking about the other night. About Ellie . . .”

“Yeah. I’m really sorry about that. It was a bit insensitive of me. I can be a bit like that.”

“No. Really. I didn’t mind. I don’t mind. It’s not anything I haven’t thought about before. There’s not one aspect of the whole thing I haven’t thought about a million times already, I promise you. Including the rucksack. But you were about to say something, the other night, something about Poppy’s mum. About Noelle.”

SJ looks up at her through her thick eyelashes and then down again. “Oh yeah,” she says.

“So?” Laurel encourages her. “What was it? What were you going to say?”

“Oh, nothing much. Just that she was a bit strange. A bit freaky.”

“You know,” Laurel says, “I read Ellie’s old diaries last night. And she wrote about Poppy’s mum. She called her a ‘bunny boiler.’ And she also wrote that Noelle used to bring her gifts and call her her best student. And it all just struck me as a bit . . .” She struggles for the next thread of her commentary. “Did you have much to do with her?”

“No, not really. I used to come and stay with Dad quite a lot when I was small and sometimes she’d be here, but not always and she acted like she hated me.”

“In what way?”

“Oh, you know, cutting remarks about my behavior. That I was out of control. That in her family she’d have been belted black and blue for such cheek. And the minute my dad left the room she’d just ignore me, act like I wasn’t there. She called me ‘the girl.’ You know, ‘Will the girl be there?’ ‘When is the girl going home?’ That kind of thing. She was fucking vile.”

“Oh Lord, how horrible. You must have been horrified when she got pregnant.”

“I cried.”

“I’m not surprised.”

They move apart for a moment to allow the waiter to put down their dishes. They thank him and then they glance at each other, significantly.

“How did you feel about Poppy when she was born?”

Sara-Jade picks up her cutlery and slices through the middle of her fishcake. Steam blooms from it for a second or two. She puts the cutlery down again and shrugs. “It was, I don’t know . . . whatever. I was twelve. She was a baby.”

“But as she grew, became a little person? Did you feel close to her?”

“I guess. Sort of. I didn’t see her all that much at first because . . . well, basically because I didn’t want to.”

“Oh,” says Laurel. “Was that because you were jealous?”

“No,” she says firmly. “No, I was too old to be jealous. I didn’t want to see her because I didn’t believe . . . I didn’t believe she was real.”

Laurel looks at her questioningly.

“It’s hard to explain, but I thought she was like a robot baby. Or an alien baby. I didn’t believe that Noelle had really given birth to her. I was scared of her. Terrified of her.”

“Wow,” says Laurel, “that’s a really strange reaction.”

“Yes. Kind of freakish.”

“Why do you think you felt like that?”

Sara-Jade picks up her knife and turns it between her fingertips. “There was a thing—” she begins, but then stops abruptly.

“A thing?”

“Yes. An event. A moment. And to this day I don’t know if I imagined it or not. I was kind of a weird kid.” She laughs wryly. “Still am. I do know that. I had a special assistant at school for a while, because of emotional difficulties. I was prone to insane outbursts of anger. Tears sometimes. And this, this thing, it happened right at the height of all this, when things were peaking for me in so many ways. Puberty, hormones, social anxiety, I was still fucked up over my parents splitting up, all that shit. I wasn’t a pretty sight. I wasn’t an easy kid, either. I was a total nightmare, to be honest. And right in the middle of all this I thought I saw something.” She places the knife gently down on the table and looks straight at Laurel. “I looked through the door of my dad’s bedroom, when Noelle was about eight months pregnant. I looked in and . . .” She stops and her gaze drops to the table. “She was naked. And there was no bump. She was naked,” she repeats. “And there was no bump.

“And I don’t know what I really saw. I have never been able to process it. Never known if it was just me being a nutty little kid freaking out about a new baby or if it really happened. But when that baby was born three weeks later, I was terrified. I didn’t see her until she was nearly one.”

Laurel hasn’t moved a muscle since SJ’s pronouncement.

“Did you tell your dad?”

She shakes her head.

“Did you tell anyone?”

“I told my mum.”

“What did she say?”

“She told me to stop being a crazy person.”

“Where was the baby born?”

“I don’t know. I never thought about it.”

Laurel closes her eyes and suddenly the face of Noelle Donnelly flashes to the forefront of her consciousness, clear and precise as if she’d seen her only yesterday.


14

[image: images]

“Hi. Floyd. It’s Laurel. Laurel Mack.”

“Mrs. Mack.”

That soft transatlantic drawl, so lazy and dry.

“Or are you a ms.?”

“I’m a ms.,” she replies.

“Ms. Mack, then. How good to hear from you. I could not be more delighted.”

Laurel smiles. “Good.”

“Are we making a dinner plan?”

“Well, yes. I suppose. Unless . . .”

“There’s no unless. Unless you have a specific unless in mind?”

She laughs. “No, I have no unless in mind.”

“Good then,” he says. “How about Friday night?”

“Good,” she says, knowing without checking that she will be free. “Lovely.”

“Shall we go into town? See some bright lights? Or somewhere near me? Somewhere near you?”

“Bright lights sound good,” she says, her voice emerging breathlessly, almost girlishly.

“I was hoping you’d say that. You like Thai?”

“I love Thai.”

“Leave it with me then,” he says. “I’ll make us a booking somewhere. I’ll text you later with the details.”

“Wow, yes. You are . . .”

“Efficient?”

“Efficient. Yes. And . . .”

“Exciting?”

She laughs again. “That’s not what I was going to say.”

“No. But it’s true. I am a thrilling guy. Nonstop fun and adventures. That’s how I roll.”

“You’re funny.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ll see you on Friday.”

“You will,” he says, “unless . . .”

[image: images]

Laurel has always taken care of her appearance. Even in the terrible early days of Ellie’s disappearance she would shower, choose clothes carefully, blot out the shadows under her eyes with pricey concealers, comb her hair until it shone. She had never let herself go. Herself was all she had left in those days.

She’s always made herself look nice but not worried about looking pretty for a long time. In fact, she stopped attempting to look pretty in approximately 1985 when she and Paul moved in together. So this, right now, her stupid face in the mirror, the open bags of cosmetics, the flow of nervous energy running through her that has her putting mascara on her eyelids instead of eyeliner, the terrible scrutiny and crossness at herself for allowing her face to get old, for not being pretty, for not being born with the genes of Christy Turlington, this is all new.

She grimaces and wipes the mascara away with a cleansing wipe. “Bollocks,” she mutters under her breath. “Shit.”

Behind her on her bed are the contents of her wardrobe. It’s strange weather tonight. Muggy, for the time of year, but showers forecast, and a strong wind. And although her figure is fine—she’s a standard size ten—all her going-out clothes are ones she’s had since she was in her forties. Too high up the leg, too flowery, too much arm, too much chest. Nothing works, none of it. She surrenders, in the end, to a gray long-sleeve top and flared black trousers. Dull. But appropriate.

The time is seven oh five. She needs to leave the house in ten minutes to be on time for her date with Floyd. She quickly finishes her makeup. She has no idea if she’s made herself look better or worse but she’s run out of time to care.

At the front door of her apartment she stops for a moment. She keeps photos of her three children on a small console here. She likes the feeling of being greeted and bade farewell by them. She picks up the photo of Ellie. Fifteen years old, the October half-term before she went missing; they were in Wales; her face was flushed with sea air and ball games on the beach with her brother and sister. Her mouth was fully open; you could see virtually to the back of her throat. She wore a tan woolly hat with a giant pompom on the top. Her hands were buried inside the sleeves of an oversized hoodie.

“I’m going on a date, Ellie,” she says to her girl. “With a nice man. He’s called Floyd. I think you’d like him.”

She passes her thumb over her girl’s smiling face, over the giant pompom.

That’s awesome, Mum, she hears her say, I’m so happy for you. Have fun!

“I’ll try,” she replies to the emptiness. “I’ll try.”

[image: images]

The light is kind in the restaurant that Floyd’s chosen for their date. The walls are lacquered black and gold, the furniture is dark, the lampshades are made of amethyst beads strung together over halogen bulbs. He’s already there when she arrives, two minutes late. She thinks, He looks younger in this light, therefore I must look younger, too. This bolsters her as she approaches him and lets him stand and kiss her on both cheeks.

“You look very elegant,” he says.

“Thank you,” she says. “So do you.”

He’s wearing a black and gray houndstooth-checked shirt and a black corduroy jacket. His hair looks to have had a trim since their first meeting and he smells of cedar and lime.

“Do you like the restaurant?” he asks, faking uncertainty and fooling nobody.

“Of course I like the restaurant,” she says. “It’s gorgeous.”

“Phew,” he says and she smiles at him.

“Have you been here before?” she asks.

“I have. But only for lunch. I always wanted to come back in the evening when it was all gloomy and murky and full of louche people.”

Laurel looks around her at the clientele, most of whom look like they just came straight from the office or are on dates. “Not so louche,” she says.

“Yeah. I noticed. I am very disappointed.”

She smiles and he passes her a menu.

“Are you hungry?”

“I’m ravenous,” she says. And it’s true. She’s been too nervous to eat all day. And now that she’s seen him and remembered why she agreed to share his cake with him, why she called him, why she arranged to meet him, her appetite has come back.

“You like spicy food?”

“I love spicy food.”

He beams at her. “Thank God for that. I only really like people who like spicy food. That would have been a bad start.”

It takes them a while even to look at the menu. Floyd is full of questions: Do you have a job? Brothers? Sisters? What sort of flat do you live in? Any hobbies? Any pets? And then, before their drinks have even arrived, “How old are your kids?”

“Oh.” She bunches her napkin up on her lap. “They’re twenty-seven and twenty-nine.”

“Wow!” He looks at her askance. “You do not look old enough to have kids that age. I thought teens, at a push.”

She knows this is utter nonsense; losing a child ages you faster than a life spent chain-smoking on a beach. “I’m nearly fifty-five,” she says. “And I look it.”

“Well, no you don’t,” he counters. “I had you at forty-something. You look great.”

She shrugs off the compliment; it’s just silly.

Floyd smiles, pulls a pair of reading glasses from the inside pocket of his nice jacket and slips them on. “Shall we get ordering?”

They overorder horribly. Dishes keep arriving, bigger than either of them had anticipated, and they spend large portions of the evening rearranging glasses and water bottles and mobile phones to free up space for them. “Is that it?” they ask each other every time a new dish is delivered. “Please say that that’s it.”

They drink beer at first and then move on to white wine.

Floyd tells Laurel about his divorce from the mother of his elder daughter. The girl is called Sara-Jade.

“I wanted to call her Sara-Jane, my ex wanted to call her Jade. It was a pretty simple compromise. I call her Sara. My ex calls her Jade. She calls herself SJ.” He shrugs. “You can give your kids any name you like and they’ll just go ahead and do their own thing with it ultimately.”

“What’s she like?”

“Sara? She’s . . .” For the first time Laurel sees a light veil fall across Floyd’s natural effervescence. “She’s unusual. She’s, er . . .” He appears to run out of words. “Well,” he says eventually. “I guess you’d just have to meet her.”

“How often do you see her?”

“Oh, quite a lot, quite a lot. She still lives at home, with my ex; they don’t get on all that well so she uses me as an escape hatch. So, most weekends, in fact. Which is a mixed blessing.” He smiles wryly.

“And your other daughter? What’s her name?”

“Poppy.” His face lights up at the mention of her.

“And what’s she like? Is she very different to Sara-Jade?”

“Oh God yes.” He nods slowly and theatrically. “Yes indeed. Poppy is amazing, you know, she’s insanely brilliant at maths, has the driest, wickedest sense of humor, takes no shit from anyone. She really keeps me on my toes, reminds me that I am not the be-all and end-all. She wipes the floor with me, in all respects.”

“Wow. She sounds great!” she says, thinking that he could have been describing her own lost girl.

“She is,” he says. “I am blessed.”

“So how come she lives with you?”

“Yes, well, that’s the complicated part. Poppy and Sara-Jade do not have the same mother. Poppy’s mum was . . . I don’t know, a casual relationship that rather overran its limitations. If you see what I mean. Poppy wasn’t planned. Far from it. And we did try for a while to be a normal couple, but we never quite managed to pull it off. And then, when Poppy was four years old, she vanished.”

“Vanished?” Laurel’s heart races at the word, a word so imbued with meaning to her.

“Yeah. Dumped Poppy on my doorstep. Cleared out her bank account. Abandoned her house, her job. Never to be seen again.” He picks up his wineglass and takes a considered sip, as if waiting for Laurel to pick up the commentary.

She has her hand to her throat. She feels suddenly as though this was all fated, that her meeting with this strangely attractive man was not as random as she’d thought, that they’d somehow recognized the strange holes in each other, the places for special people who had been dramatically and mysteriously plucked from the ether.

“Wow,” she says. “Poor Poppy.”

Floyd turns his gaze to the tablecloth, rolls a grain of rice around under his fingertip. “Indeed,” he says. “Indeed.”

“What do you think happened to her?”

“To Poppy’s mother?” he asks. “Christ, I have no idea. She was a strange woman. She could have ended up anywhere,” he says. “Literally anywhere.”

Laurel looks at him, judging the appropriateness of her next question. “Do you ever think maybe she’s dead?”

He looks up at her darkly and she knows that she has gone too far. “Who knows?” he says. “Who knows.” And then the smile reappears, the conversation moves along, an extra glass of wine each is ordered, the fun recommences, the date continues.


20

[image: images]

On her birthday, Laurel receives a large bouquet of purple hyacinths and laurel from Floyd. Paul always used to put laurel in her bouquets. But this doesn’t take away from the pleasure of it, the startle of his thoughtfulness. And a comparison to her ex-husband is no bad thing, no bad thing at all.

Later on he takes her to a bar in Covent Garden called Champagne & Fromage, which delivers what its name promises. Throughout the evening Laurel keeps her eyes on her surroundings, hoping for a glimpse of Hanna, who said she was “going somewhere in town with mates” when Laurel had inquired about her birthday plans. But she doesn’t see Hanna anywhere and so the mystery of the man called “T” stretches on.

“When’s your birthday?” she asks Floyd, her knife breaking into a tartine.

“The thirty-first of July,” he replies. “Roughly.”

“Roughly?”

He shrugs and smiles. “Things were a bit chaotic when I was born.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It was a steep trajectory for my parents. From the gutter to the stars.”

“And the gutter was . . . ?”

He narrows his eyes and she hears a small intake of breath. “My mum was fourteen when I was born. My dad was sixteen. No one wanted to know. They were homeless for a time. I was born in a public toilet, I believe. In a park. They took me to a hospital . . . and left me there.”

Laurel’s breath catches.

“I was dressed in a blue suit and a fresh nappy, wrapped in a blanket. I had on a soft hat and mittens. I was in a box lined with a cushion. They’d written my name on a piece of paper. ‘This is Floyd, please look after him.’ My parents came back for me three days later. By that time I’d been taken into emergency foster care. There was no way they were giving an abandoned baby back to a pair of scrawny teens with no means of support. It took them nearly a year to get me back. I think it was the fight to do so that fueled my parents’ ambition.”

“And how did you find out about it? Did they tell you?”

“Yes, they told me. My God, they told me. All the time. Whenever I was misbehaving they’d march it out: ‘We should have left you there in the hospital. We’ll take you back there, shall we?’ ” A muscle twitches in Floyd’s cheek.

“But do you remember anything about it?” she asks. “Anything about those days?”

“Nothing at all,” he replies. “My very first memory is my dad bringing home a plastic car. It had a little ignition”—he mimes turning a key in a lock—“and it made a noise when you turned it, an engine starting. And I remember sitting in that car for an hour, maybe more, just turning that ignition, over and over. I was about four then and we were living in an apartment in Boston with a balcony, views across town, all the bright lights and the ocean. So, no, I don’t remember the bad days. I don’t remember them at all.”

“You know,” she says, “you’re the first person I ever met in my whole life who didn’t know their birthday.”

He smiles. “Yup. Me, too.”

Laurel glances about herself. For so long she has been the story: the woman whose daughter disappeared, the woman at the press conference, the woman in the papers, the woman who had to bury her daughter in tiny fragments. But now here is another human with a terrible story. What other stories surround her? she wonders. And how many stories has she missed all these years while she’s been so wrapped up in her own?

“Your parents sound amazing,” she says.

Floyd blinks and smiles sadly. “In many ways I suppose they are,” he says. But there’s a chip of ice in his delivery, something sad and dark that he can’t tell her about. And that’s fine. She’ll leave it there. She understands that not everything is conversational fodder, not everything is for sharing.

[image: images]

They go back to Floyd’s house after dinner. Sara-Jade is curled up in the big armchair again, a laptop resting on her thighs, headphones on. She jumps slightly as Laurel and Floyd walk into the room.

“Happy birthday,” she says in her whispery voice. “Did you have fun?”

Laurel is taken aback by the unexpected overture.

“Yes,” she says, “yes, thank you. We did.”

Floyd squeezes Laurel’s shoulder and says, “I’m just popping to the loo, be back in a minute,” and Laurel knows his withdrawal is deliberate, that he’s hoping she and SJ might finally have a chance to bond.

“I’m a bit tipsy,” she says to SJ. “We went to a champagne and cheese place. Had more champagne than cheese.”

SJ smiles uncertainly. “How old are you?” she says. “If you don’t mind me asking?”

“No, of course I don’t mind. I’ve never understood people being ashamed of their age. As if it’s a failure of some kind. I’m fifty-five,” she says. “And a few hours.”

SJ nods.

“Are you staying over?” Laurel asks.

“No,” says SJ. “No. I think I’ll go home and sleep in my own bed. I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“Oh,” says Laurel. “What sort of work do you do?”

“Bits and bobs. Babysitting. Dog walking.” She lowers the lid of the laptop and uncurls her legs. “Modeling tomorrow. For a life-drawing class.”

“Wow. Is that clothed, or . . . ?”

“Naked,” SJ says. “Just as you say that there’s no shame in getting older, I think there’s no shame in being naked. And don’t you think,” she continues, “that if people say you shouldn’t be allowed to ban burkinis on the beach then, really, the natural extrapolation of that is that full nudity shouldn’t be banned either. Like, who decides which bit of a body should or shouldn’t be seen in public? If you’re saying that one woman legally has to cover her breasts and her minge, then how can you tell another woman that she’s not allowed to cover her legs or her arms? I mean, how does that even make sense?”

Laurel nods and laughs. “Good point,” she says. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

“No,” she says. “No one thinks about anything properly these days. Everyone just believes what people on Twitter tell them to believe. It’s all propaganda, however much it’s dressed up as liberal right thinking. We’re a nation of sheep.”

Laurel feels suddenly very drunk and has to resist the temptation to say baaaaa. Instead she nods solemnly. She has barely absorbed another person’s opinion for over a decade. She is no sheep.

“Your daughter was Ellie Mack,” says SJ, as if reading the changing direction of Laurel’s thoughts.

“Yes,” Laurel replies, surprised. “Did your dad tell you?”

“No,” she says. “I googled you. I’ve been reading everything on the Internet about it. It’s really, really sad.”

“Yes,” Laurel agrees. “It’s very sad.”

“She was really pretty.”

“Thank you. Yes, she was.”

“She looked really like Poppy, don’t you think?”

Laurel’s head clears, suddenly and sharply, and she finds herself saying, almost defensively, “No, not really. I mean, maybe a little, around the mouth. But lots of people look like people, don’t they?”

“Yes,” SJ replies, “they do.”


43

[image: images]

THEN

Her stomach was stretched as taut as a spacehopper, laced with bluish veins and dissected by a long, brown line. She could sometimes see the vivid outline of a small foot pressing at the paper-thin skin, elbows and knees; once she even saw the delicate pencil shading of an ear. The person inside her rolled and roiled and danced and kicked. The person inside her pressed hard against her lungs and her esophagus, then the person turned over and pressed hard against her bladder and her bowels.

Noelle bought her pregnancy books to read and medicine to counteract the indigestion and the constipation and the backache. She bought her a special pillow, shaped like a banana, to keep her knees apart at night. Ellie liked the pillow: it felt like a person; sometimes she spooned herself against it, laid her cheek upon it. Noelle bought a book of baby names and she’d sit and read them out to her. She bought a doctor’s stethoscope and together they listened to the baby’s heartbeat. Noelle would run her hands around the bump and talk about what she could feel. “Ah, yes, that baby’s on the move,” she’d say. “It’s turning beautifully. It’ll be engaged before we know it.”

Ellie had suspected she was not fat but pregnant a few weeks after she’d first felt the baby moving. She couldn’t pinpoint the precise moment; it just became increasingly obvious, day by day. She’d stared at Noelle one afternoon, trying to think of a way to ask the question while simultaneously not wanting to know the answer. Eventually she’d said, “Something’s moving inside my stomach. I’m scared.”

Noelle had put down her cup of tea and smiled at her. “You have nothing to be scared of, sweet thing. No, no, no. You just have a little baby in there, that is all.”

Ellie gazed down at her belly and stroked it absentmindedly. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “But how could it be?”

“It’s a miracle, that’s what it is, Ellie. And now you know. Now you know why I chose you. Because I couldn’t have a baby of my own and I asked God to find me a baby and God told me that it was you! That you were special! That you were to have my baby!” Noelle looked rapturous, elated, her hands clasped together in front of her heart. “And look,” she said. “Look at you now. An immaculate conception. A baby sent from the Holy Father. A miracle.”

“But you don’t believe in God.”

Noelle moved fast and Ellie was too big to move swiftly enough to get out of her way.

Whack. Noelle’s hand hard across the back of her head.

Then Noelle was gone from the room, turning the locks hard behind her.

[image: images]

Noelle refused to countenance any questions about the provenance of the baby inside Ellie over the following weeks. All Noelle did was smile and talk about “our miracle” and swan into Ellie’s room clutching tiny sleep-suits from Asda and little knitted slippers from the Red Cross shop, a wickerwork sleep basket with a tiny white mattress and a gingham shade, a little book made of cotton that squeaked and crinkled and jingled when you touched the pages. She brought lovely cream for Ellie’s swollen feet, and sang lullabies to the bump.

And then one day, in very early spring, Ellie awoke in a strange mood. She had slept badly, been unable to find a position in which the baby wasn’t squashing some part of her insides. And in the moments that she had slept, she’d dreamed vividly and shockingly. In her dreams she gave birth to a puppy, hairless and tiny. The puppy had quickly grown into an adult dog, a hound from hell with bared teeth and red eyes. The dog had hated her, it had skulked outside the door to her room, growling and slavering, waiting for Noelle to unlock the door so that it could come in and attack her. She awoke from this dream three times, sweating and hyperventilating. But each time she fell back into sleep the dog would be there, outside her door.

She was keen to see Noelle that morning. The night had felt long, virtually endless. She wanted a human being to break the strange spell she’d cast herself under. But Noelle didn’t come at breakfast time and she didn’t come at lunchtime. With every passing minute Ellie became more and more anxious, more and more scared. When she finally heard the sound of Noelle’s key in the lock in the early evening she was ready to throw herself at her and sling her arms around her neck.

But when the door opened and she saw Noelle’s expression, Ellie immediately recoiled into the soft cocoon of her bed.

“Here,” said Noelle, slamming a bowl of Coco Pops, a bag of Wotsits, and half a packet of Oreos on the bedside table. “I haven’t had time to cook.”

Ellie sat cross-legged, her arms wrapped around her bump, looking at Noelle in surprise and fear.

“Oh, stop with the big brown eyes. I’m not in the mood for it. Just eat your food.”

“It’s not very nutritious,” she ventured quietly. Noelle had been making a big effort to give Ellie vegetables and fruit since she’d become pregnant.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she muttered. “One shit meal’s not going to kill you or the baby.” She sat heavily on the chair, radiating fury.

Ellie waited a few minutes before speaking again. “Where’ve you been?” she asked, pulling apart the packet of Wotsits.

“That’s none of your affair.”

“I was worried,” she ventured. “I mean, it made me think, what would happen if something happened to you while you were gone? Like, maybe you were in an accident or you got ill. What would happen to me?”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me, don’t be stupid.”

“No, but it might. You might get a concussion and forget your address. And I’d be locked here with a baby in my tummy and no one would know we were here and we’d both die.”

“Look,” said Noelle, exasperated. “I am not going to get a concussion. And if anything else happened, I’d tell someone you were here. OK?”

Ellie saw that Noelle was losing patience, that she should drop the conversation right now and eat in silence, but what she’d just said, that she would tell someone she was here, this was new and transcendental and extraordinary and thrilling. This couldn’t be ignored.

“Would you really?” she asked, slightly breathless.

“Of course I would. You think I’d just leave you here to die?”

“But what about . . .” She picked her next words carefully. “Wouldn’t you be worried? That the police would come? That you’d be arrested or something?”

“Oh, for crying out loud, child. Will you stop. Stop with all this nonsense. I’ve had enough filthy shit today already to last me a fucking lifetime. I do not need any more from you. All I do is spoil you and care for you, and all you do is sit on your huge fat arse thinking up stupid things to worry about. I have put my life on hold for you and that baby. Now just stop whining and let me deal with everything. For God’s sake.”

Ellie nodded and stared into the orange rubble of the crisp packet, her eyes filling with tears.

“Those animals stink, by the way,” Noelle growled, tossing her head in the direction of the hamster cages. “Get them cleaned out or they’re going down the toilet.”

And then she was gone, and Ellie was alone. Outside the high window a sharp wind threw the tangles of the leafless foliage around like tossed hair while Ellie ate her Wotsits and prayed for a bus to bang into Noelle Donnelly next time she went to the shops, prayed for her to be hospitalized for long enough to have to tell someone about the girl in her basement with a miracle baby growing in her tummy.

[image: images]

Noelle didn’t seem to be excited about the baby anymore. The bigger Ellie got, the more disinterested Noelle became. The gifts stopped, the baby names stopped, there were no more little sleep-suits to admire or gentle palpations of the bump to see what position the baby was in. Noelle still came three times a day to visit Ellie, to bring her food—no longer the healthy, good-for-the-baby meals of the early months, no more boil-in-the-bag vegetables and uninspired arrangements of tomato and cucumber, just fried food in varying shades of white, pale brown, and occasionally orange—and often she stayed to talk.

Sometimes these chats were mundane, sometimes they bore precious nuggets of information—the weather outside, for example, with its suggestion of the changing seasons, or the increase in her business as children in the world outside began their GCSE studies with its suggestion of the time of year. Other times these chats were a kind of catharsis for Noelle, an unburdening of herself. Ellie had found these mood swings terrifying at first, had never been quite prepared for whichever version of Noelle might come through her door that day. But as the time passed she started to get an instinct for Noelle’s psychology, started to sense immediately what their chat would be like before Noelle had opened the door, just by the rhythm of the fall of her feet on the wooden staircase outside, the sound of the key in the lock, the speed with which it opened, the angle of her hair across her face, the sound of her breath as she drew it in to form her words of greeting.

Today she knew immediately that Noelle was in a self-pitying mood.

Flop flop flop came her size-eight-and-a-half feet down the stairs.

Sigh before she put the key in the lock.

Creak as the door opened slowly.

And sigh again as she closed the door behind her.

“Here,” she said, presenting Ellie with her lunch: two slices of white toast cowering under the contents of a can of Heinz beans with minisausages, a film-wrapped pancake filled with chocolate spread and rolled into a flattened tube, a can of Lucozade, and a bowl of jelly beans.

Ellie sat straight and took the tray from Noelle. “Thank you.”

She began to eat in silence, aware of Noelle brewing and cogitating beside her.

Finally she heard Noelle take a deep breath and mutter, “I’m wondering, Ellie, what the heck this is all about. Aren’t you?”

Ellie peered at her and then moved her gaze back to her beans on toast. She knew better than to offer any input when Noelle was like this. Her role was simply to be a human sounding board.

“Everything we do, every day. The effort it takes just to get out of your fecking bed every morning. Doing the same goddam things every day. Switch on the kettle . . .” She mimed switching on a kettle. “Brush your teeth.” She mimed this, too. “Choose your clothes, comb your hair, cook your food, clear up your food, take out the rubbish, buy more food, answer the phone, wash your clothes, dry your clothes, fold your clothes, put your clothes away, smile at all the cock-sucking bastards out there, every day, over and over and over and there’s no opt-out. I mean, you can see why some people take to the street, can’t you? I see them sometimes, the homeless, lying there on their cardboard mattress, dirty old blanket, can of something strong, and I envy them, I do. No responsibility to anyone, for anything.

“And you know, I must have been mad thinking I could do this.” She gestured around the bedroom, at Ellie and her bump and the hamsters in their cages. “More mouths to feed, more drudgery to add to the workload, more money to find to pay for more things that will need to be washed and cooked and folded and put away. I don’t know what I was thinking. I really don’t.”

She sighed deeply and then got to her feet. She was about to leave but then she turned and glanced at Ellie curiously. “Are you OK?” The question was an afterthought. Noelle didn’t really want an answer. She didn’t want to hear that Ellie had barely slept in days because she was too uncomfortable at night. She didn’t want to know about Ellie’s sore tooth or the fact that she’d run out of clean underwear and was washing her pants by hand in the basin or that she needed a new bra as her breasts were now the size of watermelons or that she missed her mum so much, her insides burned with it, and that she could smell summer approaching and could feel the days growing longer and that she cried when she thought about the smell of fresh grass and barbecues in the back garden and Jake on the trampoline and Teddy Bear the cat stretched out in the pools of light that fell upon the wooden floorboards. She didn’t want to know that Ellie no longer knew what Ellie was, let alone how she was, that she had bled into herself, become a puddle, a pool, plasmatic in form. That sometimes she felt as though she loved Noelle. Sometimes she wanted Noelle to hold her in her arms and rock her slowly like a baby, and other times she wanted to slit Noelle’s throat and stand and watch as the blood spouted out, slowly, magnificently, running through Noelle’s fingers, the collapse of her, then the death of her.

Ellie knew what Stockholm syndrome was. They’d studied it at school. She’d read about the Patty Hearst case. She knew what could happen to people kept in captivity for prolonged periods of time. She knew that her feelings were normal. But she also knew that she must not let those feelings of affection—those moments when she yearned for Noelle’s attention or for her approval—she mustn’t allow them to dominate. She needed to hold on to the parts of her that wanted Noelle dead. Those were the strong, healthy parts of her. Those were the parts that would one day get her out of here.


27

[image: images]

So, it’s my turn, is it?

OK then. OK.

Shall we do it like an AA meeting? My name is Noelle Donnelly and I did something bad.

I’m not about to make excuses, but I had a tough time growing up. Two horrible brothers above me. Two below. And a sister who died when she was only eight. My mother and father were unforgiving of the limitations of children. They believed that a child should be a grown-up in every way apart from the way of having an opinion you could call your own. Not that religious, which was strange for the times and the place. Church on a Sunday was a good opportunity to find out that everyone else’s children were doing better than their own. The Bible had some good quotes that could be used to sow a seed of terror here and there. We all believed in hell and heaven, even if we believed in nothing else. And sex was something that only disgusting people did, married or not. We never asked after our own provenance, imagined a kind of chaste communion across a brick wall somehow. Because they had separate bedrooms, my mother and father.

Home was a ten-bedroom villa on a hill, sheep all around, a mile and a half to school, downhill going there, uphill coming back. My parents took in orphans sometimes, in emergencies. They’d arrive bleary-eyed in the small hours, huge sets of siblings that they housed in the dormitory room in the attic. We called it “the orphan room” long after there’d been an orphan in it. So my parents can’t have been all bad. But mainly, on the whole, yes they were.

We were known as the clever family. You know that family? We all know that family. Pianos all over the place. Books beyond belief. Grade As or you had failed. That was all we ever talked of. Academic success. My father was a maths teacher. My mother was a writer of books about medical history. We all went to the best schools and worked harder than everyone else and won all the awards and all the medals and all the scholarships and all the trophies going. I swear there was not a scrap of anything left for anyone else.

Well, I was clever enough to keep up, there was no doubt about that. But I was at a disadvantage for being (a) the middle child, (b) a girl, and (c) not the girl who had died. Michaela. That was who I was not. Michaela, who was bonnier than me and nicer than me and yes, naturally, cleverer than me. And also much less alive than me. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that that would make me all the more precious to my mother and father. Well, at least we still have our lovely Noelle. But no.

Michaela died of cancer. We all thought it was a cold. We were wrong.

Anyway, that was me. The less bonny, less clever, less dead sister with the four horrible brothers and the mum and dad who judged more than they loved.

I did OK. I got into Trinity. I got a degree in mathematics, a PhD in applied mathematics. I moved to London shortly after I graduated and it was nice for a while just to be clever Noelle, not just one of the Donnellys. I tried my hand in the financial sector, thinking that I’d quite like to be very rich and have a performance car and an apartment with a balcony. But it really wasn’t me and everyone there knew it wasn’t me and so I left before I’d earned enough money for a scooter let alone a car.

You know, when I look back at this time, I’m amazed by myself, I really am. I was so young and so appallingly unsophisticated, didn’t know a soul, yet there I was in the seething belly of the metropolis, had a room in a flat in Holland Park of all places. I had no idea then how high I was flying in that postcode; I thought everyone who came to London from Ireland lived in a road full of big wedding cake houses. I didn’t know that Walthamstow existed. And I was cute, you know, looking back on it, had model looks, almost, in that bare-faced, hollow-chested sort of way, all legs and tangled hair and huge watery eyes. No one ever told me I was pretty, though, not once; I don’t really know why.

I took a job at a posh magazine for a while. I was in the finance department and I was literally invisible for the full three years. Then I got made redundant and I had to give up my little room in lovely Holland Park, say good-bye to the wide avenue with the organic butcher before anyone knew what organic even meant, the food shop that sold lobster bisque in tins, the park itself with its orangery and its bowers. And that was when I discovered that Walthamstow existed: E11 with its little brown houses and its tired laundrettes, shuttered cab offices and boarded-up buildings.

I decided to retrain as a teacher.

I don’t know what possessed me. I’d already proved to myself that I had no presence, that I was unable to draw any attention to myself whatsoever. How I thought I’d be able to engage a class of thirty slack-jawed teenagers on the principles of algebra I do not know.

I qualified but I never did teach my own class. I lost my nerve. It made me feel sick to my stomach just thinking about it. So at the age of thirty, I placed an ad in my local paper and I began tutoring. I was very good at it and all those smoothie-making mums spread the word, passed me around like a restaurant recommendation, and I made enough to move out of my little room in the little house in Walthamstow and buy myself a place in Stroud Green where the houses were slightly bigger, but not much. And that was that. That was that for a long time. And, oh—did I mention?—I was still a virgin at this point.

No, seriously, I was.

I’d had a boyfriend for a while back in Ireland, from age fourteen to fifteen. Tony. So I’d got all the kissing stuff out of the way, thought the rest would come later. Well, it never did.

And then I read in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) about a book. It was aimed at people who thought they “couldn’t do maths,” and believe me the world is full of people who think they can’t do maths, which I have to try very hard to understand, because truly, I don’t. How can people understand how to walk into a room full of people and find something to talk about but they can’t understand how numbers work? It makes no sense to me. Anyway, I can’t remember the name of the book now. It might even have been called Bad at Maths. Yes, that’s right, it was. Bad at Maths. I bought it and I read it. It opened my eyes to things I’d never thought about before. But more than that, it made me laugh. I wasn’t one for reading books, generally, and I only read this because it was in the TES, and so I hadn’t been expecting such humor in a book about maths. But there it was. Humor. Bags of it. And a photo on the inside cover of a lovely man with a smiling face and a thatch of dark hair.

It was a photo of you.

I’d never been a fan of anything much before I read your book. There were TV shows I enjoyed, Brookside being a particular favorite; I watched that up to the last episode. And I always perked up if Take That came on the radio, although on the whole I was more of a classical fan. And of course I’d had crushes across the years. Loads of them. But this was different.

You were different.

Do you remember, the first time we met? I know you do. You were signing books on your publisher’s stand at the Education Show at the NEC. I go every year. Tutoring is a lonely world and you have to plug yourself into the mains every now and then and get a fix of what everyone else is getting. You can’t be yesterday’s flavor of the month when it comes to these north London mummies. You have to keep on top of things.

But mainly I was there because I knew you were going to be there. I’d made an extra-special effort: I had on a skirt and tights and a lipstick the color of toffee apples that set fire to my hair and made my blue eyes shine. I was forty-one years old. The autumn of my youth. Christ, virtually the winter. And yes, I was still a virgin.

You sat on a high stool at a high table, a small pile of your books in front of you. There was no one there, no queue, only a small sign on the wall behind you that said “Author Floyd Dunn Will Be Signing Copies of His Book ‘Bad at Maths’ Today, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.” And next to it a photo, that photo of you, the same one from inside your book that I’d stared at for so many hours, memorizing the way your hair fell around your ears, the line your mouth made as it attempted a serious smile.

My eye went from the photo to you and back to the photo. You were thinner than I’d imagined. I’d expected a little belly, maybe. I don’t know why.

“Hello!” you said at my approach, as though someone had just plugged you in and switched you on. “Hello!” You wouldn’t have known how nervous I was. You wouldn’t have guessed. I played it very, very cool.

“Hello,” I replied, my hands tight around my dog-eared copy of your book. “I have my own copy. Would you mind signing it for me?”

I passed it across to you and you smiled that smile you have, the one that makes your eyes into fireworks that go bang bang bang in my soul.

“Well,” you said, “that is a well-loved copy.”

I could have told you I’d read it thirty times. I could have told you that your book made me laugh more in a week than I’d laughed in the year before I read it. I could have told you that I was completely in awe of you. But I wanted you to see me as an equal. So I simply said, “It has been a very useful tool. I’m a maths tutor.”

“Well,” you said, “I am very glad to hear that.” You took the book from me and held your pen over the title page. “Shall I sign it to you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Please. Noelle.”

“Noelle,” you said. “That’s a lovely name. Were you a Christmas baby?”

“Yes. December the twenty-fourth.”

“Best Christmas present ever, eh?”

“No,” I replied, “apparently not. Apparently I ruined Christmas Day for everyone.”

You laughed then; I hadn’t imagined a laugh for you. In your photo you looked as if you might go so far as a chuckle, if tickled to the point of no return. But no, you had a proper laugh where your mouth opened wide and your head tipped back on your neck and a big thunderclap boom exploded from you. I liked it, very much.

You wrote something after my name, I wanted to see what it was, but I didn’t want to look as though I cared.

“You’re American,” I said.

“To a certain extent,” you said. “And you’re Irish?”

“Yes. To the fullest possible extent.”

You liked my little joke and you laughed again. It felt like someone massaging the inside of my stomach with velvet-gloved hands.

“Where are you from?”

“Near Dublin,” I replied. “County Wicklow. Where all the sheep live.”

You laughed for a third time and I felt emboldened in a way I’d never felt before in my life. I looked behind me to check that a queue hadn’t built as we’d talked. But I still had you all to myself.

“Are you here again tomorrow?” I asked.

“No. No. They’re putting me on a train back to London after this. Which leaves in, oh”—you looked at your watch—“approximately two hours. I should probably be wrapping this up soon.”

“Have you signed many books?”

“Oh, yeah, hundreds and hundreds.” You clicked the lid back on your pen and gave me a sideways smile. “Kidding,” you said. “About twenty.”

“Long way to come, to sign twenty books.”

“I tend to agree with you.”

You slid the pen into your jacket pocket and turned away from me, looking about for a person to whisk you away, no doubt.

“Well,” I said. “I’ll let you get away. I hope you have a safe journey back to London. Whereabouts do you live?”

“North London.”

“Oh,” I said, an Oscar-worthy moment of fakery, “snap. So do I.”

“Oh!” you said. “Whereabouts?”

“Stroud Green.”

“Well, well. What a coincidence. Me, too.”

“What? You live in Stroud Green?” This I had not known. This I could never have believed to be possible.

“Yes! Latymer Road. Do you know it?”

“Yes,” I said, joy virtually pouring out of my ears and my eyeballs and my nostrils. “Yes, I do know it. I’m just a few roads down from you.”

“Well, well, well. Maybe our paths will cross again then?”

“Yes,” I’d said, as though it would be no more than a fun coincidence if they did, not the culmination of all my hopes and worldly dreams. “Maybe they will.”

Two weeks later, they did.


40

[image: images]

THEN

The days had lost their structure, their edges, their middles. At first she’d been aware of the passing of time, had distinctly felt the shape of the hours and days moving by. Friday had felt like Friday. Saturday like Saturday. Monday had felt like the day she would be sitting her history and Spanish GCSEs. Tuesday had been the day she should have been taking her first maths paper. The weekend after had come and gone and she’d still had a grip on it. It was next Monday. She’d been here for eleven days. Then twelve days. Then thirteen. It was her sixteenth birthday. She didn’t tell Noelle.

After fourteen days, though, she lost count. She asked Noelle, “What day is it today?” And Noelle said, “It’s Friday.”

“What’s the date?”

“It’s the tenth. I think. Although it might be the ninth. And it might be Thursday. Me and my daft, fuzzy head.”

It all spiraled away from her then, her peg in the map of time was irretrievably lost.

[image: images]

Noelle still brought her gifts. Fruit pastilles. A sugar-topped doughnut. A packet of tiny pencil erasers in the shapes of animals. Lipstick with glitter in it.

She brought her things for the hamsters, too. Bags of straw and little toys and chews and biscuits. “The babies,” she called them. “How are the babies today?” Then she’d take one out of its cage and hold it in the cylinder of her hand and stroke its tiny skull with a fingertip and make kissy noises at it and say, “Well you are the prettiest little thing I ever did see, you truly are,” and then sing it a song.

Still, though, Noelle Donnelly would not tell Ellie why she was here or when she would be leaving. Still she’d tantalize and tease and talk about her amazing plan and how everything was going to be just woopitydoo, just you wait and see.

Ellie still carried around the raw wound in the pit of her belly, the place where her mother lived. Constantly, she pictured her mother alone at home, touching Ellie’s things, lying down with her face pressed against Ellie’s pillow, circling an empty trolley around the supermarket, black-faced and wondering why why why her perfect girl—because Laurel had always made it abundantly clear to Ellie that she perceived her as such—had gone and left them.

She’d picture Hanna, too, her infuriating big sister, always trying to pinch brownie points from her, always snatching back little chunks of Ellie’s glory with barbed comments that she didn’t even mean. How would she be feeling now, now that Ellie was gone and she had no one left to play out her childish power struggle with? She would be hurting. She would be blaming herself. Ellie wanted to reach through the walls of this house and into hers, place her arms around her sister’s body and hold her tight and say, I know you love me. I know you do. Please don’t blame yourself.

And her father? She couldn’t think about her father. Every time he came to mind she saw him in his bathrobe, with bed hair. She saw the softness of his morning stubble, his bare feet, his hand reaching up to pluck the coffee jug from the shelf in the kitchen. That was how her father existed now to her, trapped in an amber tomb in his bathrobe. And Jake—she saw Jake as a free spirit; she saw him when he was a young boy, in the garden, playing football, slouching to school in his oversized blazer, a weighty school bag slung across his small boy body, picking up his pace at the sight of his friends up ahead.

And it was surprising to Ellie how little she thought about Theo during those first few days of captivity. Before Noelle had taken her she’d thought about him virtually every living moment of every living day. But now her family had taken center stage. She missed Theo but she needed her family. Ached for them. Curled herself into a ball with her hands pressed hard into her stomach and cried for them.

Ellie’s days were longer than twenty-four hours. Each hour felt like twenty-four hours. Each minute felt like thirty. Dark came late at this time of year and the sun rose early and the time in between was spent in a violent swirl of dreams and nightmares, twisted bedsheets and sweat-drenched pillows.

“I want to go home,” she said to Noelle one morning when she came to deliver her breakfast.

“I know you do. I know.” Noelle squeezed Ellie’s shoulder. “And I’m sorry about all this. I truly am. I’m trying to make this as nice for you as I possibly can. You can see, can’t you, you can see the effort I’m making? The money I’m spending? You know, I’m going without myself to pay for you.”

“But if you let me go home, you wouldn’t have to pay for me. You could just go somewhere and I’d never tell anyone it was you. I’d just be so happy to be home, that’s all I’d care about. I wouldn’t tell the police, I wouldn’t . . .”

And then crash. The back of Noelle’s hand hard and sharp across Ellie’s cheek.

“Enough,” she said, her voice still and hard. “Enough. There’ll be no going home until I say. You need to stop with your talk of going home. Do you understand?”

Ellie held the back of her hand to her cheek, rolled the cool flesh across the red sting of Noelle’s knuckles. She nodded.

“Good girl.”

[image: images]

Noelle went out that night and Ellie awoke in the dark, confused by the sound of heavy footsteps down the basement stairs.

“Ah, did I wake you?”

Noelle was in the room. She swayed slightly in the doorway, before clicking it shut behind her and locking it.

Ellie sat up straight, clutched her racing heart. Noelle looked strange. She was wearing an awful lot of makeup, some of which had been rubbed away. One eye had more eye shadow than the other. There was a black smudge by her cheekbone. And she was dressed very smartly: a shiny black blouse with fitted black trousers and some high-heeled shoes. She had a single gold hoop in one earlobe.

“I’m sorry,” she said, edging toward Ellie. “I didn’t realize how late it was. I’ve had a bit to drink and you know how the time just rolls itself up when you’ve had a few jars.”

Ellie shook her head.

“No,” said Noelle, perching herself on the side of Ellie’s bed. “Of course you don’t. You’re just a girl.”

She smiled and Ellie could see a blackish stain on her teeth.

“So,” she said. “Aren’t you going to ask me where I’ve been?”

Ellie shrugged.

“I’ve been to my boyfriend’s flat,” she said. “Did I tell you I have a boyfriend?”

“No.”

“I bet you can’t believe it, can you? Boring old Noelle the tutor. Having a boyfriend. I mean, he’s not a patch on your fella. Obviously not. But he’s a god to me. Cleverest human being I’ve ever met. No idea what he sees in me, of course.”

“You look very nice tonight,” said Ellie, obsequious in the wake of Noelle’s slap to her cheek earlier on.

Noelle glanced at her. “Oh, you little sweetie. I do not. But thank you.”

Ellie smiled tightly.

“Anyway, how has your evening been?”

Ellie shrugged and said, “OK.”

Noelle glanced around the room then and sighed. “I was thinking maybe I could fix you up with a TV and a DVD player. You can get o