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Chapter no 18

Then She Was Gone

Laurel has not seen Paul since Ellie’s funeral. There they had stood side by side; Paul had not brought Bonny and had not even asked if he could.

Yes, he is a good man.

A good man in every way.

He had held her up that day when she felt her legs weaken slightly beneath her at the sight of the box going through the curtains to the sound of “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane. He’d passed her cups of tea at his mother’s house afterward, and then found her in a corner of the garden and lured her back into the house with the promise of a large Baileys and ice, her all-time favorite treat. They’d sat together after everyone else had gone and rolled the ice around the insides of their glasses and made each other laugh, and Laurel’s feelings had warped and contorted and turned into something both light and dark, golden and gray. He hadn’t once checked his phone or worried about being late for Bonny and they’d left his mother’s house together at ten o’clock, weaving slightly toward the minicabs that rumbled and growled on the street outside. She let him hold her deep inside his arms, her face pressed hard against his chest, the clean, familiar smell of him, the softness of his old Jermyn Street shirt, and she’d almost, almost turned her face toward him and kissed him.

She’d woken the following day feeling as though her world had been upended and reordered in every conceivable way. And she hadn’t spoken to him since.

But now she feels as though all that ambiguity has melted away. She is a clean slate and she can face him once more. So when she gets back from Hanna’s flat, she calls him.

“Hello, Laurel,” he says warmly. Because Paul says everything warmly. It’s one of the many things that made her hate him during Ellie’s missing years. The way

he’d smile so genuinely at the police and the reporters and the journalists and the nosy neighbors, the way he’d reach out to people with both of his warm hands and hold theirs inside his, keeping eye contact, asking after their health, playing down their own nightmare, trying, constantly, to make everyone feel better about everything all the time. She, meanwhile, had pictured herself with her hands around his soft throat, squeezing and squeezing until he was dead.

But now his tone matches her own state of mind. Now she can appreciate him afresh. Lovely, lovely Paul Mack. Such a nice man.

“How are you?” he says.

“I’m fine, thank you,” she says. “How are you?” “Oh, you know.”

She does know. “I wondered,” she began, “it’s mine and Hanna’s birthday next week. I was thinking maybe we could do something. Together? Maybe?”

Hanna had arrived in the world at two minutes past midnight on Laurel’s twenty-seventh birthday. It was family lore that she’d been born determined to steal everyone’s limelight.

“You mean, all of us? You, me, the kids?” “Yes. Kids. Partners, too. If you like.”

“Wow. Yes!” He sounds like a small boy being offered a free bicycle. “I think that’s a great idea. It’s Wednesday, isn’t it?”

“Yes. And I haven’t asked her yet. It’s possible she may be busy. But I just thought, after the year we’ve had, after, you know, finding Ellie, saying goodbye, we’ve been so fractured, for so long, maybe now it’s time to—”

“To come back together,” he cuts in. “It’s a brilliant idea. I’d love to. I’ll talk to Bonny.”

“Well,” she says, “wait till I’ve spoken to the kids. It’s hard, you know, they’re so busy. But fingers crossed . . .”

“Yes. Definitely. Thank you, Laurel.” “You’re welcome.”

“It’s been a long journey, hasn’t it?” “Arduous.”

“I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too. And Paul—” He says, “Yes?”

She pauses for a moment, swallows hard, and then reaches down into herself to retrieve the word she never thought she’d say to Paul. “I’m sorry.”

“What on earth for?”

“Oh, you know, Paul. You don’t have to pretend. I was a bitch to you. You know I was.”

“Laurel.” He sighs. “You were never a bitch.” “No,” she says, “I was worse than a bitch.”

“You were never anything other than a mother, Laurel. That’s all.” “Other mothers lose children without losing their husbands, too.” “You didn’t lose me, Laurel. I’m still yours. I’ll always be yours.” “Well, that’s not strictly true, is it?”

He sighs again. “Where it counts,” he says. “As the father of your children, as a friend, as someone who shared a journey with you and as someone who loves you and cares about you. I don’t need to be married to you to be all those things. Those things are deeper than marriage. Those things are forever.”

Now Laurel sighs, an awkward smile twisting the corners of her mouth. “Thank you, Paul. Thank you.”

She hangs up a moment later and she holds her phone in her lap for a while, tenderly, staring straight ahead, feeling a sense of peace she never thought would be hers to feel again.

 

 

Hanna sounds annoyed even to be asked about it. “What do you mean, all of us?” she asks.

“I mean, me, you, Dad, Jake, Bonny, Blue.” “Oh God,” she groans.

Laurel stands firm. She’d known Hanna wouldn’t leap headfirst into the concept. “Like you said,” she explains, “it’s time for us all to move on. We’re all healing now, and this is part of the process.”

“Well, for you maybe. I mean, you’ve never even met Bonny. How awkward is that going to be?”

“It won’t be awkward because me and your father won’t let it be awkward.” How long had it been since she’d used those words? Me and your father. “We’re all grown-ups now, Hanna. No more excuses. You’re almost twenty-eight. I’m

virtually an OAP. We’ve buried Ellie. Your father has a partner. He loves her. I have to accept that and embrace her as part of this family. The same with Jake and Blue. And, of course, with you . . .”

“With me?”

“Yes. You. And whoever sent you those beautiful flowers.” There’s a cool beat of silence. Then: “What flowers?” “The bouquet on your kitchen table.”

“There is no bouquet.”

“Oh, well, then, the imaginary bouquet with the imaginary pink roses in it.

That one.

Hanna tuts. “That’s not a bouquet. It’s just a bunch. I bought them for myself.”

Laurel sighs. “Oh,” she says, breezily, disingenuously, “my mistake then.

Sorry.”

“Will you just stop trying to invent a boyfriend for me, Mum? There is no boyfriend, OK?”

“Fine. Yes. Sorry.”

“And I really don’t like the idea of this big family meal. It’s too bizarre.” “Are you free?”

She pauses before she replies. “No.” “No?”

“Well, not on my actual birthday. On our birthday. No. But I could do another day next week.”

“What are you doing on our actual birthday, then?” “Oh, you know, just drinks after work. Nothing special.”

Laurel blinks slowly. She knows her daughter is lying. That “T” is taking her out somewhere special. But she says nothing. “Well, then,” she says measuredly, “how about the Friday?”

“Fine,” says Hanna. “Fine. But if it’s all a hideous disaster, I’ll blame you for the rest of my life.”

Laurel smiles.

As if that was anything new.

 

 

Laurel arranges to see Floyd again on Thursday night. She didn’t need to fret and simmer this time. He’d texted her within half an hour of her leaving his house on Wednesday morning. That was the best date I’ve ever been on. And Poppy loves you. Could I see you again? Please? Tomorrow?

It had arrived on her phone as the tube burst out of the tunnel and into the daylight at East Finchley. She’d sucked her smile deep inside herself and texted back: Maybe. Unless . . .

She asked him if he’d like to come to her flat for dinner. He said that would be lovely, he’d ask SJ to sleep over at his.

And now she is shopping for that dinner, alarmed and exhilarated by the litany of choices she is having to make. For so long she has done everything by rote, out of necessity. She has eaten the same meals cooked from the same ingredients that she has picked up in the same aisles. All her meals are roughly calorie controlled. Three hundred for breakfast, four hundred for lunch and three hundred for dinner. Enough left over for a chocolate bar or some biscuits at work, two glasses of wine at the tail end of the day. That is how she views food: as calories.

She stopped cooking for Paul and the kids the day Ellie disappeared. Slowly they’d finished the contents of the fridge, and then the freezer, and then at some point Paul and Hanna had gone to Asda and filled a giant trolley to the brim with “staples”—pasta, canned fish, sausages, frozen meat—and Paul had, without any form of official handover or agreement, taken over the kitchen. And, God bless him, he was a terrible cook—no sense of taste, no idea about balanced meals—but the bland, well-intentioned food had appeared and the family had eaten and no one got rickets or died of malnutrition, and that was all that mattered, she supposed.

But now she has to cook a meal for a man. A man she’s had sex with. A man she would be having sex with again. A man who took his daughter to an Eritrean restaurant when she was a toddler. And she feels completely out of her depth.

She’s clutching a computer printout of a Jamie Oliver recipe for jambalaya. Rice. How hard can it be?

She collects peppers, onions, chicken, chorizo. But it’s the other elements that throw her. Nibbles. Aperitifs. Puddings. Wine. She has no idea. None. She

piles her trolley with strange-sounding crisps made out of pita bread and lentils, then throws in some Walkers ready salted, just to be safe. Then tubs of taramasalata, hummus, tzatziki, all of which she throws back when she realizes that they didn’t go with the main course. But what does go with jambalaya? What do they nibble on in Louisiana before dinner? She has no idea and picks up a Tex-Mex dip selection pack, which feels like something a student might buy for a house party.

She covers all her bases for pudding. He’s American, so she chooses a New York–style cheesecake, but he’s also an Anglophile, so she picks up a sticky toffee pudding, too. But what if he’s too full for pudding? What if he doesn’t like pudding? She buys a box of After Eight mints, imagining some kind of well, you’re not really English until you’ve eaten an After Eight mint type of conversation and then finally she pays for everything and loads it all into the back of her car with a sigh of relief.

Her flat is another hurdle to cross. It’s fine, essentially. She’s neither messy nor tidy. Her flat is usually only a ten-minute run around with a vacuum and bin bag away from looking perfectly presentable. But it’s the lack of personality that worries her. Her flat is smart but soulless. Shiny, new, low-ceilinged, small-windowed, featureless. She’d let the children take most of the things from the old house. She’d given a lot to charity, too. She’d brought the bare minimum with her. She regrets that now. It was as though she’d thought she’d be here for only a short time, as though she’d thought that she would just fade away here until there was nothing left of her.

She showers and shaves and buffs and plucks. She cooks in her pajamas to save her clothes and she finds the process of chopping and weighing and measuring and checking and tasting and stirring more enjoyable than she’d expected, and she remembers that she used to do this. She used to do this every day. Cook interesting, tasty, healthy meals. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. She’d cooked for her family, to show them that she loved them, to keep them healthy, to keep them safe. And then her daughter had disappeared and then reappeared as a small selection of bones, and the body that Laurel had spent almost sixteen years nurturing had been picked apart by wild animals and scattered across a damp forest floor and all of those things had happened in spite of all the lovely food Laurel had cooked for her.

So, really. What was the point?

But she is remembering now. Cooking doesn’t just nurture the recipient; it nurtures the chef.

At seven o’clock she gets dressed: a black sleeveless shirt and a full red skirt and, as she’s not leaving the house and won’t have to walk in them, a pair of red stilettoes. At seven fifteen her phone pings.

Disaster. SJ blown us out. Can either come with Poppy or reschedule. Your call.

She breathes in deeply. Her initial reaction is annoyance. Intense annoyance. All the effort. All the hair removal. Not to mention the changing of her bedsheets.

But the feeling passes and she thinks, actually, why not? Why not spend an evening with Floyd and his daughter? Why not take the opportunity to get to know her a bit better? And besides, the bedsheets needed changing.

She smiles and texts back. Please come with Poppy. It would be an absolute pleasure.

Floyd replies immediately.

 

 

That’s fantastic. Thank you. One small thing. She’s obsessed with other people’s photos. If you have any of Ellie, maybe best to put them away. I haven’t told her about Ellie and think it’s best she doesn’t know. Hope that’s OK.

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