Chapter no 2

Then She Was Gone

What had Laurel’s life been like, ten years ago, when she’d had three children and not two? Had she woken up every morning suffused with existential joy? No, she had not. Laurel had always been a glass-half-empty type of person. She could find much to complain about in even the most pleasant of scenarios and could condense the joy of good news into a short-lived moment, quickly curtailed by some new bothersome concern. So she had woken up every morning convinced that she had slept badly, even when she hadn’t, worrying that her stomach was too fat, that her hair was either too long or too short, that her house was too big, too small, that her bank account was too empty, her husband too lazy, her children too loud or too quiet, that they would leave home, that they would never leave home. She’d wake up noticing the pale cat fur smeared across the black skirt she’d left hanging on the back of her bedroom chair, the missing slipper, the bags under Hanna’s eyes, the pile of dry cleaning that she’d been meaning to take up the road for almost a month, the rip in the wallpaper in the hallway, the terrible pubescent boil on Jake’s chin, the smell of cat food left out too long, and the bin that everyone seemed intent on not emptying, contents pressed down into its bowels by the lazy, flat-palmed hands of her family.

That was how she’d once viewed her perfect life: as a series of bad smells and unfulfilled duties, petty worries and late bills.

And then one morning, her girl, her golden girl, her lastborn, her baby, her soul mate, her pride and her joy, had left the house and not come back.

And how had she felt during those first few excruciatingly unfolding hours? What had filled her brain, her heart, to replace all those petty concerns? Terror. Despair. Grief. Horror. Agony. Turmoil. Heartbreak. Fear. All those words, all so melodramatic, yet all so insufficient.

“She’ll be at Theo’s,” Paul had said. “Why don’t you give his mum a ring?”

She’d known already that she wouldn’t be at Theo’s. Her daughter’s last words to her had been: “I’ll be back in time for lunch. Is there any of that lasagna left?”

“Enough for one.”

“Don’t let Hanna have it! Or Jake! Promise!” “I promise.”

And then there’d been the click of the front door, the sudden dip in volume with one person less in the house, a dishwasher to load, a phone call to make, a Lemsip to take upstairs to Paul, who had a cold that had previously seemed like the most irksome thing in her life.

“Paul’s got a cold.”

How many people had she said that to in the preceding day or so? A weary sigh, a roll of the eyes. “Paul’s got a cold.” My burden. My lifePity me.

But she’d called Theo’s mum anyway.

“No,” said Becky Goodman, “no, I’m really sorry. Theo’s been here all day and we haven’t heard anything from Ellie at all. Let me know if there’s anything I can do . . . ?”

As the afternoon had turned to early evening, after she’d phoned each of Ellie’s friends in turn, after she’d visited the library, who’d let her see their CCTV footage—Ellie had definitely not been to the library that day—after the sun had begun to set and the house plunged into a cool darkness punctuated every few moments by blasts of white light as a silent electrical storm played out overhead, she’d finally given in to the nagging dread that had been growing inside her all day and she’d called the police.

That was the first time she’d hated Paul, that evening, in his dressing gown, barefoot, smelling of bedsheets and snot, sniffing, sniffing, sniffing, then blowing his nose, the terrible gurgle of it in his nostrils, the thickness of his mouth-breathing that sounded like the death throes of a monster to her hypersensitive ears.

“Get dressed,” she snapped. “Please.”

He’d acquiesced, like a browbeaten child, and come downstairs a few minutes later wearing a summer holiday outfit of combat shorts and a bright T-shirt. All wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.

“And blow your nose,” she’d said. “Properly. So there’s nothing left.”

Again, he’d followed her instruction. She’d watched him with disdain, watched him fold the tissue into a ball and stalk pitifully across the kitchen to dispose of it in the bin.

And then the police had arrived. And then the thing began.

The thing that had never ended.

She occasionally wondered whether if Paul hadn’t had a cold that day, if he’d rushed back from work at her first call, rumpled in smart clothes, full of vim and urgency, if he’d sat upright by her side, his hand clasped around hers, if he hadn’t been mouth-breathing and sniffing and looking a fright, would everything have been different? Would they have made it through? Or would it have been something else that made her hate him?

The police had left at eight thirty. Hanna had appeared at the kitchen door shortly afterward.

“Mum,” she’d said in an apologetic voice, “I’m hungry.”

“Sorry,” said Laurel, glancing across the kitchen at the clock. “Christ, yes, you must be starving.” She pulled herself heavily to her feet, blindly examined the contents of the fridge with her daughter.

“This?” said Hanna, pulling out the Tupperware box with the last portion of lasagna in it.

“No.” She’d snatched it back, too hard. Hanna had blinked at her. “Why not?”

“Just, no,” she said, softer this time.

She’d made her beans on toast, sat and watched her eat it. Hanna. Her middle child. The difficult one. The tiring one. The one she wouldn’t want to be stranded on a desert island with. And a terrible thought shot through her, so fast she barely registered it.

It should be you missing and Ellie eating beans on toast.

She touched Hanna’s cheek, gently, with the palm of her hand and then left the room.

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