Chapter no 14

Then She Was Gone

“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 . . .”



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.”



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.

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