Chapter no 20

Then She Was Gone

On her birthday, Laurel receives a large bouquet of purple hyacinths and laurel from Floyd. Paul always used to put laurel in her bouquets. But this doesn’t take away from the pleasure of it, the startle of his thoughtfulness. And a comparison to her ex-husband is no bad thing, no bad thing at all.

Later on he takes her to a bar in Covent Garden called Champagne & Fromage, which delivers what its name promises. Throughout the evening Laurel keeps her eyes on her surroundings, hoping for a glimpse of Hanna, who said she was “going somewhere in town with mates” when Laurel had inquired about her birthday plans. But she doesn’t see Hanna anywhere and so the mystery of the man called “T” stretches on.

“When’s your birthday?” she asks Floyd, her knife breaking into a tartine. “The thirty-first of July,” he replies. “Roughly.”


He shrugs and smiles. “Things were a bit chaotic when I was born.” “Really?”

“Yeah. It was a steep trajectory for my parents. From the gutter to the stars.” “And the gutter was . . . ?”

He narrows his eyes and she hears a small intake of breath. “My mum was fourteen when I was born. My dad was sixteen. No one wanted to know. They were homeless for a time. I was born in a public toilet, I believe. In a park. They took me to a hospital . . . and left me there.”

Laurel’s breath catches.

“I was dressed in a blue suit and a fresh nappy, wrapped in a blanket. I had on a soft hat and mittens. I was in a box lined with a cushion. They’d written my name on a piece of paper. ‘This is Floyd, please look after him.’ My parents came back for me three days later. By that time I’d been taken into emergency foster care. There was no way they were giving an abandoned baby back to a pair of

scrawny teens with no means of support. It took them nearly a year to get me back. I think it was the fight to do so that fueled my parents’ ambition.”

“And how did you find out about it? Did they tell you?”

“Yes, they told me. My God, they told me. All the time. Whenever I was misbehaving they’d march it out: ‘We should have left you there in the hospital. We’ll take you back there, shall we?’ ” A muscle twitches in Floyd’s cheek.

“But do you remember anything about it?” she asks. “Anything about those days?”

“Nothing at all,” he replies. “My very first memory is my dad bringing home a plastic car. It had a little ignition”—he mimes turning a key in a lock—“and it made a noise when you turned it, an engine starting. And I remember sitting in that car for an hour, maybe more, just turning that ignition, over and over. I was about four then and we were living in an apartment in Boston with a balcony, views across town, all the bright lights and the ocean. So, no, I don’t remember the bad days. I don’t remember them at all.”

“You know,” she says, “you’re the first person I ever met in my whole life who didn’t know their birthday.”

He smiles. “Yup. Me, too.”

Laurel glances about herself. For so long she has been the story: the woman whose daughter disappeared, the woman at the press conference, the woman in the papers, the woman who had to bury her daughter in tiny fragments. But now here is another human with a terrible story. What other stories surround her? she wonders. And how many stories has she missed all these years while she’s been so wrapped up in her own?

“Your parents sound amazing,” she says.

Floyd blinks and smiles sadly. “In many ways I suppose they are,” he says. But there’s a chip of ice in his delivery, something sad and dark that he can’t tell her about. And that’s fine. She’ll leave it there. She understands that not everything is conversational fodder, not everything is for sharing.



They go back to Floyd’s house after dinner. Sara-Jade is curled up in the big armchair again, a laptop resting on her thighs, headphones on. She jumps slightly as Laurel and Floyd walk into the room.

“Happy birthday,” she says in her whispery voice. “Did you have fun?” Laurel is taken aback by the unexpected overture.

“Yes,” she says, “yes, thank you. We did.”

Floyd squeezes Laurel’s shoulder and says, “I’m just popping to the loo, be back in a minute,” and Laurel knows his withdrawal is deliberate, that he’s hoping she and SJ might finally have a chance to bond.

“I’m a bit tipsy,” she says to SJ. “We went to a champagne and cheese place.

Had more champagne than cheese.”

SJ smiles uncertainly. “How old are you?” she says. “If you don’t mind me asking?”

“No, of course I don’t mind. I’ve never understood people being ashamed of their age. As if it’s a failure of some kind. I’m fifty-five,” she says. “And a few hours.”

SJ nods.

“Are you staying over?” Laurel asks.

“No,” says SJ. “No. I think I’ll go home and sleep in my own bed. I’ve got work tomorrow.”

“Oh,” says Laurel. “What sort of work do you do?”

“Bits and bobs. Babysitting. Dog walking.” She lowers the lid of the laptop and uncurls her legs. “Modeling tomorrow. For a life-drawing class.”

“Wow. Is that clothed, or . . . ?”

“Naked,” SJ says. “Just as you say that there’s no shame in getting older, I think there’s no shame in being naked. And don’t you think,” she continues, “that if people say you shouldn’t be allowed to ban burkinis on the beach then, really, the natural extrapolation of that is that full nudity shouldn’t be banned either. Like, who decides which bit of a body should or shouldn’t be seen in public? If you’re saying that one woman legally has to cover her breasts and her minge, then how can you tell another woman that she’s not allowed to cover her legs or her arms? I mean, how does that even make sense?”

Laurel nods and laughs. “Good point,” she says. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

“No,” she says. “No one thinks about anything properly these days. Everyone just believes what people on Twitter tell them to believe. It’s all propaganda, however much it’s dressed up as liberal right thinking. We’re a nation of sheep.”

Laurel feels suddenly very drunk and has to resist the temptation to say baaaaa. Instead she nods solemnly. She has barely absorbed another person’s opinion for over a decade. She is no sheep.

“Your daughter was Ellie Mack,” says SJ, as if reading the changing direction of Laurel’s thoughts.

“Yes,” Laurel replies, surprised. “Did your dad tell you?”

“No,” she says. “I googled you. I’ve been reading everything on the Internet about it. It’s really, really sad.”

“Yes,” Laurel agrees. “It’s very sad.” “She was really pretty.”

“Thank you. Yes, she was.”

“She looked really like Poppy, don’t you think?”

Laurel’s head clears, suddenly and sharply, and she finds herself saying, almost defensively, “No, not really. I mean, maybe a little, around the mouth. But lots of people look like people, don’t they?”

“Yes,” SJ replies, “they do.”

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