Chapter no 17

Then She Was Gone

“Morning! Are you Laurel?”

Laurel jumps slightly. It’s ten o’clock and she’d assumed that Floyd’s daughter would have been at school by now. “Yes,” she says, flicking on a warm smile. “Yes. I’m Laurel. And you’re Poppy, I assume?”

“Yes. I am Poppy.” She beams at Laurel, revealing crooked teeth and a small dimple in her left cheek. And Laurel has to hold on to something then, the closest thing to her, the door frame. She grips it hard and for a moment she is rendered entirely mute.

“Wow,” she says eventually. “Sorry. You look . . .” But she doesn’t say it. She doesn’t say, You look just like my lost girl . . . the dimple, the broad forehead, the heavy-lidded eyes, the way you tip your head to one side like that when you’re trying to work out what someone’s thinking. Instead she says, “You remind me of someone. Sorry!” and she laughs too loud.

Laurel used to see girls who looked like Ellie all the time, after she’d first gone. She’d never quite got to the point of chasing anyone down the street, calling out her daughter’s name and grabbing them by the shoulder as people did in movies. But she’d had the butterflies, the quickening of her breath, the feeling that her world was about to blow apart with joy and relief. They were always so short-lived, those moments, and it hadn’t happened for years now.

Poppy smiles and says, “Can I get you anything? A tea? A coffee?”

“Oh,” says Laurel, not expecting such slick hostessing from a nine-year-old girl. “Yes. A coffee, please. If that’s OK?” She looks behind her, to see if Floyd is coming. He’d told her he would be down in two minutes. He hadn’t told her that his daughter would be here.

“Dad said you were really pretty,” says Poppy with her back to her as she fills the filter machine from the tap. “And you are.”

“Gosh,” says Laurel. “Thank you. Though I must look a state.” She runs her hand down her hair, smoothing out the tangles that this child’s father put there last night with his hands. She’s wearing Floyd’s T-shirt and she reeks, she knows she does, of sex.

“Did you have a lovely evening?” Poppy asks, spooning ground coffee into the machine.

“Yes, thank you, we really did.” “Did you go to the Eritrean place?” “Yes.”

“That’s my favorite restaurant,” she says. “My dad’s been taking me there since I was tiny.”

“Oh,” says Laurel. “What a sophisticated palate you must have.”

“There’s nothing I won’t eat,” she replies. “Apart from prunes, which are the devil’s work.”

Poppy is wearing a loose-fitting dress made of blue and white striped cotton, with navy woolen tights and a pair of navy leather pumps. Her brown hair is tied back and has two small red clips in it. It’s a very formal outfit for a young girl, Laurel feels. The sort of thing she’d have had to bribe both her girls to wear when they were that age.

“No school today?” she inquires.

“No. No school any day. I don’t go to school.” “Oh,” says Laurel, “that’s . . . I mean . . .”

“Dad teaches me.”

“Has he always taught you?”

“Yes. Always. You know I could read chapter books when I was three. Simple algebra at four. There was no normal school that would have coped with me really.” She laughs, a womanly tinkle, and she flicks the switch on the filter machine. “Can I interest you in some granola and yogurt? Maybe? Or a slice of toast?”

Laurel turns to look behind her again. There’s still no sign of Floyd. “You know,” she says, “I might just have a quick shower before I eat anything. I feel a bit . . .” She grimaces. “I won’t be long.”

“Absolutely,” says Poppy. “You go and shower. I’ll have your coffee waiting for you.”

Laurel nods and smiles and starts to back out of the kitchen. She passes Floyd on the stairs. He’s fresh and showered, his hair damp and combed back off his face, his skin uncooked-looking where he’s shaved away yesterday’s stubble. He encircles her waist with his arm and buries his face in her shoulder.

“I met Poppy,” she says quietly. “You didn’t tell me you home-schooled her.” “Didn’t I?”

“No.” She pulls away from another attempt at affection. “I’m going to have a shower,” she says. “I can’t sit chatting to your daughter smelling like an old slapper who’s been up all night shagging her dad.”

Floyd laughs. “You smell delicious,” he says, and his hand goes between her legs and she’s torn between pressing herself hard against it and slapping it away.

“Stop it,” she says affectionately and he laughs. “What did you think?” he says. “Of my Poppy?” “She’s charming,” she says. “Totally delightful.”

He glows at the words. “Isn’t she just? Isn’t she just magnificent?”

He leans down and he kisses her gently on the lips before descending the stairs and heading into the kitchen where Laurel hears him greeting his daughter with the words, “Good morning, my remarkable girl, and how are you today?”

She continues up the stairs and takes a long slow shower in her lover’s en-suite bathroom, feeling a peculiarity and wrongness that she cannot quite locate the cause of.



Later that day Laurel goes to Hanna’s flat to clean it. Other people might find the thirty pounds pinioned beneath a vase of flowers on the table slightly peculiar. Laurel is aware that being paid in cash to clean her daughter’s flat is not entirely normal, but all families have their idiosyncrasies and this is just one of theirs. As it is, every week she puts the thirty pounds into a special bank account that she will one day use to spoil her as-yet-unborn grandchildren with treats and days out.

She folds up the notes and slots them into her purse. Then she does the detective sweep of Hanna’s flat that she has begun to do since Hanna stopped sleeping here every night. She remains unconvinced by Hanna’s explanation of

late nights and sleepovers, this sudden rush of parties and good times. That is simply not the daughter she knows. Hanna has never liked having fun.

The flowers are of particular interest: not a hastily bought bunch of Sainsbury’s tulips or Stargazer lilies, but a bouquet. Dusky roses, baby’s breath, lilac hyacinths, and eucalyptus. The stems are still spiraled together in the middle where the twine would have tied them together.

In the kitchen she takes out the cleaning products and eyes the work surfaces, looking for clues. Hanna was not home the night before, as evidenced once again by the lack of cereal bowl and makeup detritus. The problem, Laurel can see, is that if there is a man, then Hanna is spending all her time at his house so there will be no evidence to find at her house. She sighs and leans down to the swing bin to pull out the half-full bag, which, as always, weighs nothing, as Hanna has no life. She scrunches it down to tie the top in a knot and notices the crackle of cellophane. Quickly she puts her hand into the bag and locates the flower packaging. She pulls it out and unfurls it, and there is a tiny card taped to it, a message scrawled on it in scruffy florist’s handwriting:

Can’t wait to see you tomorrow. Please don’t be late!

I love you so much,

T x

Laurel holds the card between her thumb and forefinger and stares at it for a while. Then she shoves it back into the bin bag and ties a knot in it. There, she thinks, there it is. Hanna has moved on. Hanna has a man. But why, she wonders, is she not talking to me about it?

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