Chapter no 13

Then She Was Gone

Laurel hands the young girl who washed her hair a two-pound coin. “Thank you, Dora,” she says, smiling nicely.

Then she gives the hairstylist a five-pound note and says, “Thank you, Tania, it looks great, it really does. Thank you so much.”

She eyes her reflection one more time in the wall-length mirror before leaving. Her hair is shoulder-length, blonde, shiny and swishy. Her hair is entirely unrepresentative of what lies beneath. If she could pay someone in Stroud Green eighty pounds to give her psyche a shiny, swishy blow-dry, she would. And she would give them more than a five-pound tip.

Outside it is a blowy autumn afternoon. Her hair feels light as silk as it is whipped around her head. It’s late and she’s hungry and decides that she can’t wait to get home to eat so she pushes open the door to the café three doors down from her hairdresser’s and orders herself a toasted cheese sandwich and a decaf cappuccino. She eats fast and the cheese pulls away from the bread in unruly strings that break and slap against her chin. She has a paper napkin to her chin to wipe away the grease when a man walks in.

He is of average height, average build, around fifty. His hair is cut short, gray at the temples, receding, and darker on the top. He’s wearing good jeans with a nice shirt, lace-up shoes, tortoiseshell glasses: the sort of clothes that Paul would wear. And whatever her feelings are now about Paul—and they are conflicted and horribly confusing—she has to concede that he always looks lovely.

She finds, to her surprise, that she is almost admiring the man in the doorway. There is something about him: a low-key swagger and a certain—dare she say it?—twinkle in his eye. She watches as he queues at the counter, takes in more detail: a flat but soft stomach, good hands, one ear that protrudes slightly farther than the other. He’s not handsome in the traditional sense of the word

but has the air of a man who has long ago accepted his physical limitations and shifted all the focus to his personality.

He orders a slice of carrot cake and a black coffee—his accent is hard to place, possibly American, or a foreigner who learned English from Americans—and then carries them to the table next to hers. Laurel’s breath catches. He didn’t appear to have noticed her staring at him yet he’s chosen the table closest to hers in a café full of empty tables. She panics, feeling as though maybe she’s subconsciously, inadvertently, invited his attentions. She doesn’t want his attentions. She doesn’t want any attention.

For a few moments they sit like that, side by side. He doesn’t look at her, not once, but Laurel can feel some kind of intent radiating from him. The man plays with a smartphone. Laurel finishes her cheese sandwich in smaller, slower mouthfuls. After a while she begins to think maybe she was imagining it. She drinks her coffee and starts to leave.

Then: “You have beautiful hair.”

She turns, shocked at his words, and says, “Oh.” “Really pretty.”

“Thank you.” Her hand has gone to her hair, unthinkingly. “I just had it done.

It doesn’t normally look this good.”

He smiles. “You ever had this carrot cake before?” She shakes her head.

“It’s pretty amazing. Would you like to try some?” She laughs nervously. “No, thank you, I . . .”

“Look, I have a clean spoon, right here.” He pushes it across his table toward her. “Go on. I’m never going to eat all this.”

A blade of light passes across the café at that moment, bright as torchlight. It touches the spoon and makes it glitter. The cake has the indents of his fork in it. The moment is curiously intimate and Laurel’s gut reaction is to back away, to leave. But as she watches the sparkles on the silver spoon she feels something inside her begin to open up. Something like hope.

She picks up the spoon and she scoops a small chunk of cake from the end that he has not touched.



His name is Floyd. Floyd Dunn. He offers her his hand and says, “Pleased to meet you, Laurel Mack.” His grip is firm and warm.

“What’s your accent?” she asks, pulling her chair closer to his table, feeling the blade of sunlight warming the back of her head.

“Ah,” he says, dabbing his mouth with a paper napkin. “What isn’t my accent would be a better question. I am the son of very ambitious Americans who chased jobs and money all around the world. Four years in the U.S. Two in Canada. Another four in the U.S. Four in Germany. A year in Singapore. Then three in the U.K. My parents went back to the States; I stayed here.”

“So you’ve been here for a long time?”

“I’ve been here for”—he scrunches closed his eyes as he calculates—“thirty-seven years. I have a British passport. British children. A British ex-wife. I listen to The Archers. I’m fully assimilated.”

He smiles and she laughs.

She catches herself for a moment. Sitting in a café in the middle of the afternoon, talking to a strange man, laughing at his jokes. How has this happened, this day? Of all the days, all the hundreds of dark days that have passed since Ellie went? Is this what closure does? Is this what happens when you finally bury your child?

“So, do you live around here?” he asks.

“No,” she says. “No. I live in Barnet. But I used to live around here. Until a few years ago. Hence the hairdresser.” She nods in the direction of the shop a few doors down. “Total phobia of letting anyone else touch my hair, so I trek down here every month.”

“Well . . .” He eyes her hair. “It looks like it’s worth it to me.”

His tone is flirtatious and she has to ask herself if he’s weird or not. Is he? Is there something odd about him, anything a bit off? Is she failing to read warning signs? Is he going to scam her, rape her, abduct her, stalk her? Is he mad? Is he bad?

She asks these silent internalized questions of everyone she meets. She was never a trusting person, even before her daughter vanished and then turned up dead ten years later. Paul always said he’d taken her on as a long-term project. She’d refused to marry him until Jake was a toddler, scared that he was just going through a phase and would stand her up at the register office. But she asks

these questions even more these days. Because she knows that the worst-case scenario is not simply a terrible thing that isn’t likely to happen.

But she’s staring at this man, this man with gray eyes and gray hair and soft skin and nice shoes, and she cannot find one thing wrong with him. Apart from the fact that he is talking to her. “Thank you,” she says in reply to his compliment. And then she moves her chair back, toward her table, wanting to leave, but also wanting him to ask her to stay.

“You have to go?” he says.

“Well, yes,” she says, trying to think of something she needs to do. “I’m going to see my daughter.”

She is not going to see her daughter. She never sees her daughter. “Oh, you have a daughter?”

“Yes. And a son.” “One of each.”

“Yes,” she says, the pain of denying her gone daughter piercing her heart. “One of each.”

“I have two girls.”

She nods and hitches her bag on to her shoulder. “How old?” “One of twenty-one. One of nine.”

“Do they live with you?”

“The nine-year-old does. The twenty-one-year-old lives with her mum.” “Oh.”

He smiles. “It’s complicated.”

“Isn’t everything?” She smiles back.

And then he tears a corner off a newspaper left on the table next to his and finds a pen in his coat pocket and says, “Here. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. But it hasn’t been for long enough. I’d really like to take you out for dinner.” He scribbles a number on the scrap of paper and passes it to her. “Call me.”

Call me.

So assured, so simple, so forward. She cannot imagine how a human could be that way.

She takes the piece of paper and rubs it between her fingertips. “Yes,” she says. Then: “Well, maybe.”

He laughs. He has a lot of fillings. “ ‘Maybe’ will do for me. ‘Maybe’ will do.”

She leaves the café quickly and without looking back.



That evening Laurel does something she’s never done before. She drops into Hanna’s unannounced. The expression on her older daughter’s face when she sees her mother standing on the doorstep is 90 percent appalled and 10 percent concerned.


“Hello, love.”

Hanna looks behind her as though there might be a visible reason for her mother’s presence somewhere in her vicinity.

“Are you OK?”

“Yes. I’m fine. I just . . . I was just passing by and felt I hadn’t seen you in a while.”

“I saw you on Sunday.”

Hanna had popped by with an old laptop for her but hadn’t crossed the threshold.

“Yes. I know. But that was just, well, it wasn’t proper.”

Hanna moves from one bare foot to the other. “Do you want to come in?” “That would be nice, darling, thank you.”

Hanna is in joggers and a tight white T-shirt with the word Cheri emblazoned across the front. Hanna has never been much of a style maven. She favors a black suit from Banana Republic for work and cheap leisurewear for home. Laurel doesn’t know what she wears in the evenings since they never go anywhere together in the evenings.

“Do you want a cup of tea?” “Bit late for tea for me.”

Hanna rolls her eyes. She has little patience with Laurel’s caffeine sensitivity, thinks she makes it all up to annoy her.

“Well, I’m going to have a coffee. What shall I get you?” “Nothing, honestly. I’m fine.”

She watches her daughter moving around her small kitchen, opening and closing cupboards, her body language so closed and muted, and she wonders if there was ever a time when she and Hanna were close.

“Where’ve you been then?” says Hanna. “I’m sorry?”

“You said you were passing?”

“Oh, yes. Right. Hair appointment.” She touches her hair again, feeling the white lie burning through her.

“It looks lovely.” “Thank you, darling.”

The piece of newspaper with the scribbled number and the name “Floyd” on it is in her pocket and she touches it as she speaks. “A funny thing happened,” she begins.

Hanna throws her a look of dread. It’s the same look she throws her any time she starts a conversation about anything, as though she’s terrified of being dragged into something she hasn’t got the emotional capacity to deal with.

“A man gave me his phone number. Asked me out for dinner.”

The look of dread turns to horror and Laurel feels she would do anything, pay anything, give anything to be having this conversation now with Ellie, not with Hanna. Ellie would whoop and beam, throw herself at Laurel and squeeze her hard, tell her it was amazing and incredible and awesome. And Ellie would have made it all those things.

“Of course I’m not going to call him. Of course I’m not. But it got me thinking. About us. About all of us. How we’re all floating about like separate islands.”

“Well, yes.” There’s a note of accusation in Hanna’s voice.

“It’s been so long now. And yet we still haven’t found a way to be a family again. It’s like we’re all stuck. Stuck inside that day. I mean, look at you.” She knows the moment the words leave her mouth that they are completely the wrong ones.

“What?” Hanna sits up, unknits her fingertips. “What about me?”

“Well, you’re amazing, obviously you’re amazing, and I am so proud of you and how hard you work and everything you’ve achieved. But don’t you ever feel . . . ? Don’t you ever think it’s all a bit one-dimensional? I mean, you don’t even have a cat.”

“What! A cat? Are you being serious? How the hell could I have a cat? I’m out all day and all night. I’d never see it, I’d . . .”

Laurel puts a hand out to her daughter. “Forget about the cat,” she says. “I was just using it as an example. I mean, all these hours you work, isn’t there anything? Some other dimension? A friend? A man?”

Her daughter blinks slowly at her. “Why are you asking me about men? You know I don’t have time for men. I don’t have time for anything. I don’t even have time for this conversation.”

Laurel sighs and touches the back of her neck. “I just noticed,” she says, “a few times recently, when I’ve been in to clean, you haven’t been home the night before.”

Hanna flushes and then grimaces. “Ah,” she says, “you thought I had a boyfriend?”

“Well, yes. I did wonder.”

Hanna smiles, patronizingly. “No, Mother,” she says, “sadly not. No boyfriend. Just, you know, parties, drinks, that kind of thing. I stay at friends’ places.” She shrugs and picks again at the dry skin around her nails.

Laurel narrows her eyes. Parties? Hanna? Hanna’s body language is all skew-whiff and Laurel doesn’t believe her. But she doesn’t push it. She forces a smile and says, “Ah. I see.”

Hanna softens then and leans toward her. “I’m still young, Mum. There’ll be time for men. And cats. Just not now.”

But what about us, Laurel wants to ask, when will this stop being our life? When will there be time for us to be a family again? When will any of us ever truly laugh or truly smile without feeling guilty?

But she doesn’t ask it. Instead she takes Hanna’s hand across the table and says, “I know, darling. I do know. I just so want you to be happy. I want us all to be happy. I want . . .”

“You want Ellie back.”

She looks up at Hanna in surprise. “Yes,” she says. “Yes. I want Ellie back.” “So do I,” says Hanna. “But now we know. We know she’s not coming back

and we’re just going to have to get on with it.” “Yes,” says Laurel, “yes. You’re absolutely right.”

Her fingers find the piece of paper in her pocket again; they rub against it and a shiver goes down her spine.

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