When she gets home, Laurel goes straight to her laptop, pulls on her reading glasses, and googles Floyd Dunn. They’d talked all night, until the restaurant had had to ask them very politely to leave. There’d been a gentle suggestion of going on somewhere else; Floyd Dunn was a member at a club somewhere (“Not one of those flashy ones,” he’d said, “just a bar and some armchairs, a few old farts drinking brandy and growling”), but Laurel had not wanted to travel back to High Barnet after the tubes stopped running, so they’d said good-bye at Piccadilly Circus and Laurel had sat smiling dumbly, drunkenly at her reflection in the tube window all the way up the Northern line.
Now she is in pajamas with a toothbrush in her mouth. The clothes she’d left on her bed are in a pile on the armchair and her makeup is still scattered across her dressing table; she has no energy for practicalities; she just wants to keep herself tight inside the bubble that she and Floyd made together tonight, not let life crawl in through the gaps.
Within a few seconds Laurel discovers that Floyd Dunn is in fact the author of several well-reviewed books about number theory and mathematical physics.
She clicks on Google Images and stares at Floyd’s face in varying stages of life and appearance; in some photos he is visibly younger: late thirties, long-haired, wearing a low-buttoned shirt. This is his author photo from his first few books and is slightly unsettling. She would not have shared a slice of cake with this man who resembles a lonely Open University lecturer from the early eighties. Later photos show him more or less as he is now, his hair slightly scruffier and darker, his clothing not quite so smart, but fundamentally the man she just had dinner with.
She wants to know more about him. She wants to envelop herself in him and his fascinating world. She wants to see him again. And again. And then she thinks of Paul, and his Bonny, the numb disbelief she’d felt when he’d come to
her to inform her that he’d met a woman and that they were moving in together. She had been unable to comprehend how he had managed to get to such a place, a place of softness and butterflies in your stomach, of making plans and holding hands. And now it is happening to her and all of a sudden she aches to call him.
Paul, she imagines herself saying, I’ve met a fabulous guy. He’s clever and he’s funny and he’s hot and he’s kind.
And she realizes that it’s the first time in years she’s wanted to talk to Paul about anything other than Ellie.
The next day is an agony of silence.
On Saturdays Laurel usually sees her friends Jackie and Bel. She’s known them since they were all at school together in Portsmouth, where they were an inseparable gang of three. About thirty years ago, when they were all in their twenties and living in London, Laurel had met up with them in a bar in Soho and they’d told her that they had come out to each other and were now a couple. And then eleven years ago, in her early forties, Bel had given birth to twin boys. Just as Laurel was exiting the parenting zone, they’d walked straight into it, and in the years after Ellie disappeared, their home in Edmonton full of nappies and plastic and pink yogurt in squeezy tubes had been a refuge to her.
But they are away this weekend, taking the boys to a rugby tournament in Shropshire. And so the minutes pass exquisitely and the air in the flat hangs heavy around her. The sounds of her neighbors closing doors, calling to their children, starting their cars, walking their dogs, ratchets up the feeling of aloneness, and there is no call from Floyd, no text and she is too old, far too old for all this, and by Saturday night she has talked herself out of it. It was a mad idea. Nonsensical. She is a damaged woman with a ton of ugly baggage and Floyd was clearly just using his effortless charm to secure a night out with a woman, something he could probably manage every night of the week if he so chose. And he was probably sitting in a café somewhere right now, sharing a slice of carrot cake with someone else.
On Sunday Laurel decides to visit her mother. She usually visits her mother on a Thursday; having it as a weekly slot makes it less likely that she’ll find an
excuse not to go. But she cannot spend another day at home alone. She just can’t. Her mother’s care home in Enfield, a twenty-minute drive away, is a new-build, redbrick thing with smoked-glass windows so that no one can peer in and see their own devastating futures. Ruby, her mum, has had three strokes, has limited vocabulary, is half-blind, and has very patchy recall. She is also very unhappy and can usually be counted upon to find the words to express her wish
Her mother is in a chair when she arrives at half eleven. By her side is a plate of oaty-looking biscuits and a cup of milk as though she was four years old. Laurel takes her mother’s hand and strokes the parchment skin. She looks into her dark eyes and tries, as she always does, to see the other person, the person who would pick her up by one arm and one leg and throw her in swimming pools when she was small, who chased her across beaches and plaited her hair and made her eggs over easy when she requested them after she’d seen them on an American TV show. Her mother’s energy had been boundless, her curly black hair always coming loose from grips and bands, her heels always low so that she was free to run for buses and jump over walls and pursue muggers.
Her first stroke had hit her four months after Ellie’s disappearance and she’d never been the same since.
“I went on a date last week,” Laurel tells her mother. Her mother nods and pinches her mouth into a tight smile. She tries to say something but can’t find the words.
“F-F-F-F . . . F-F-F . . .”
“Don’t worry, Mum. I know you’re pleased.” “Fantastic!” she suddenly manages.
“Yes,” says Laurel, smiling broadly, “it is. Except now of course I’m really nervous, behaving like a teenager; I keep staring at my phone, willing him to call. It’s pathetic . . .”
Her mum smiles again, or the facsimile of a smile that her damaged brain will allow. “N . . . Name?”
“His name is Floyd. Floyd Dunn. He’s American. He’s my age, ludicrously clever, nice-looking, funny. He’s got two daughters; one of them lives with him, the other is grown up.”
Her mother nods, still smiling. “You . . . you . . . you . . . you . . .”
Laurel runs her thumb across the top of her mother’s hand and smiles encouragingly.
“You . . . you . . . you call him!” Laurel laughs. “I can’t!”
Her mum shakes her head crossly and tuts.
“No. Honestly. I called him the first time. I already made the first move. It’s his turn now.”
Her mum tuts again.
“I suppose,” Laurel ponders, “I could maybe send him a text, just to say thank-you? Leave the ball in his court?”
Her mum nods and clasps Laurel’s hand inside hers, squeezing it softly.
Her mother adored Paul. From day one she’d said, “Well done, my darling, you found a good man. Now please be kind to him. Please don’t let him go.” And Laurel had smiled wryly and said, “We’ll see.” Because Laurel had never believed in happy ever afters. And her mum had been sanguine about Paul and Laurel splitting up; she’d understood, because she was both a romantic and a realist. Which in many ways was the perfect combination.
Her mother puts out a hand to feel for Laurel’s handbag. She puts her hand into it and she pulls out Laurel’s phone and hands it to her.
“What?” says Laurel. “Now?” She nods.
Laurel sighs heavily and then types in the words.
“I will hold you fully responsible,” she says, mock-sternly, “if this all blows up in my face.”
Then she presses the send button and quickly shuts her phone down and stuffs it into her handbag, horrified by what she has just done. “Shit,” she says, running her hands down her face. “You cow,” she says to her mum. “I can’t believe you made me do that!”
And her mother laughs, a strange, warped thing that comes from too high up her throat. But it’s a laugh. And the first one Laurel can remember hearing from her mother in a very long time indeed.
Seconds later Laurel’s phone rings. It’s him.