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Chapter no 24

Then She Was Gone

Laurel doesn’t see Floyd that evening. But he calls her at seven o’clock, just as he’d said he’d do, and Laurel is surprised to feel a little pulse of annoyance.

“I’ll call you at seven,” he’d said. And here he is, calling her at seven. She might have enjoyed a few moments’ indulgent anticipation. For a minute she toys with the idea of not answering her phone, but then she checks herself. She’s doing it again, keeping too much of herself back. And this was exactly why she and Paul had not survived the years of Ellie’s disappearance, because of her, because she’d never allowed herself to be properly subsumed into her relationship with him, had disapproved of him for loving her so deeply and unquestioningly, felt gently suffocated by the lack of gaps in his feelings for her. At the first moment of mutual desperation, she’d escaped into the airlock inside herself that she’d deliberately kept empty all those years.

“Hi,” she says brightly, “how are you?”

“I am very well indeed. Oh, apart from the gaping hole in my heart where you should be right now, of course.”

“Stop it,” she says teasingly, although she half means it. “Do you not have a gaping hole in your heart, Laurel?” “No,” she says. “No. But I am missing you.”

“I’ll take that,” says Floyd. “What are you up to?” “Well, I have a glass of wine, naturally.”

“Are you dressed?”

“Yes. I am fully dressed. I am even wearing slippers.” “Slippers, yes, carry on. What else?”

“A big cardigan.”

“Ooh, yeah. A big cardigan. How big exactly is your cardigan?”

“It’s huge. Gigantic. Really long sleeves that cover my hands. And a hole in the hem.”

“Oh, tatty then? A tatty cardigan?” “Very tatty. Horribly tatty.” She laughs.

“No, no, don’t stop!” he jokes. “Tell me more about your big tatty cardigan!”

 

 

She laughs again and looks down at her phone as she hears another call coming in. It’s Jake’s number and Jake only ever calls her on a Wednesday, and she feels an instant jolt of primal worry and says, “Floyd, I’m going to have to call you back. Jake’s trying to get through to me.”

“Quickly, quickly! What color is it? Tell me it’s brown? Please.” “No,” she says, “it’s black! Now go! I’ll call you back.”

“Jake,” she says, switching to his call.

“No,” says a female voice. “It’s not Jake. It’s Blue.”

“Oh,” says Laurel. “Hi. Is everything all right? Is Jake OK?” “Yes. Jake’s fine. He’s sitting right here.”

Laurel’s heart rate slows and she leans back into her sofa. “What can I do for you, Blue?”

“Look,” she says. “I’ve been wrestling with this all weekend. I haven’t been able to think about anything else. Your boyfriend . . . ?”

Laurel’s heart rate picks up again.

“I have a—a, like a sixth sense? And your boyfriend . . . his aura is all wrong?

It’s dark.”

“I’m sorry?” Laurel shakes her head slightly, as if trying to dislodge something from her ear.

“I have this gift, I can see into people’s psyches. Through the walls of their higher consciousness? Into their subconscious? And I’m really sorry, but the minute I sat down and saw him there, the minute he and I made eye contact, I knew.”

“You knew what?”

“That he’s hiding something. And I know you and I aren’t close, Laurel, and I know that’s mainly down to me because I’m so self-protective, but I do care about you, you’re the mother of the man I love and I want you to be safe.”

Laurel waits for a moment before forming her response, and then when it comes it’s a slightly unkind, disparaging laugh. “Good grief,” she says. “Can you put me on to Jake. Please.”

“Jake thinks the same,” says Blue. “It’s all we’ve talked about all weekend. He totally agrees with me. He—”

“Just put him on to me please, Blue. Now.”

She hears Blue tut and then her son’s voice saying, “Hi, Mum.” “Jake,” she says. “Seriously. Come on. What is this shit?”

“I don’t know. It’s just . . .” “What, Jake? What is it?”

“I can’t really explain it. It’s what Blue said.”

“Oh, come on, Jake. I know you better than that. You’re not like her. That’s not who you are. You don’t have a . . . a sixth sense. You’re the boy who never noticed when a girl liked you. The only member of the family who didn’t notice when Granny Deirdre started losing her marbles. You’ve never been any good at reading people. So don’t give me that. What the hell is going on?”

“Nothing, Mum. We just got a bad vibe off him. Floyd, or whatever he’s called.”

“No!” she snaps. “Blue got a bad vibe off him. You just got whatever vibe Blue told you to get because you’re her little lapdog.”

Jake falls silent and Laurel holds her breath. She has never, in all the time that Jake and Blue have been together, expressed any disapproval of their dysfunctional dynamic.

“Mum . . .” he starts. But he’s whining and Laurel cannot possibly listen to her adult son whining, not now, not when everything is going so well, not when she’s finally, finally happy.

“No, Jake. I’m sorry, I know she’s your girlfriend and the center of your universe and I know you really, really love her. She’s your rock; I get that. But I have been sad for so long and broken for so long and finally I have something good, something special, and I am not having you and your whacko girlfriend tell me that it’s wrong. Dad liked him and Hanna liked him and that is more than enough for me.”

“I’m sorry, Mum,” says Jake.

 

 

But she can still hear the whine in his voice and she can’t stand it and so she says, in a very quiet voice, “I’m going now, Jake. I’m going to hang up. Tell Blue that I know she means well but that I don’t want to hear any more of her outlandish theories.”

She’s shaking when she hangs up and she feels nauseous. She grabs her wineglass and takes a huge gulp. She should phone Floyd back, but she can’t. What would she say? Oh, my son’s partner just told me that she thinks you’ve got a dark aura and now I’m too upset to have jokey conversations about cardigans with you? So she sits instead and for an hour she slowly and deliberately works her way through her wine until her hands have stopped shaking enough to send Floyd a text: Sorry about that. Jake had lots to say and now I’m tired and heading for bed. I will

 

 

be wearing gray jersey pajamas. They’re relatively old.

His reply arrives a few seconds later: That will give me plenty of food for thought to get me through the night. Sleep tight my perfect girl. Speak tomorrow x.

She turns off her phone, switches on the TV, finds something mindless to watch, and pours herself another glass of wine. For an hour at least she coasts through oblivion, feeling sweet numbness spread over her like a heavy cloak. Then when she feels nothing at all, she finally goes to bed.

 

 

“Oh,” says Laurel, coming into the kitchen at Floyd’s house the following evening. “Hi, SJ. I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight.”

SJ is standing at the sink, a pint glass of water in her hand. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she says. “Me and Mum had a big fight last night.” She shrugs, rests her left foot against her right foot and then the right against the left. She’s wearing a black lace top with black joggers and scuffed silver tennis shoes. A constellation of hoops and drops glitters at her earlobes. She reminds Laurel of one of the fairies in a book she used to read to the children when they were small. The fairy was called Silvermist and had silver hair and silver lips and was always dressed in black. It was a sad fairy. Androgynous. It had secrets.

Floyd comes in after Laurel and sighs. “To be fair,” he says, as though Laurel had said something, “it has been a very long time since Kate and SJ fell out.”

“We haven’t fallen out,” SJ snaps. “Well, had a fight, whatever.”

“What did you fight about?” asks Laurel. “I mean you don’t have to tell me, obviously . . .”

Sara-Jade casts her long-lashed gaze to the floor and says, “She doesn’t like my new boyfriend.”

Floyd makes a strange noise behind Laurel and she turns to give him a questioning look.

“He’s forty-nine,” SJ says.

Floyd makes another noise and looks pointedly from Sara-Jade to Laurel and back again.

“He’s married,” says Sara-Jade. “Well, sort of married. In a long-term relationship.”

“Oh,” says Laurel, wishing she hadn’t asked. “He has four children. The youngest is eight.” “Oh,” says Laurel again.

“I’ve told her not to come here expecting validation or exemption from the usual rules of human decency.”

“No,” says Laurel. “No. I . . .” She tries and fails to find somewhere to bring her gaze to rest.

And then SJ starts crying and runs from the room, her thin arms bunched together in front of her chest.

Laurel looks from the door to Floyd and back again.

 

 

“You can go after her if you like,” he says to her, slowly and calmly. “I’ve said all I’ve got to say on the subject.”

Laurel looks away from Floyd and toward the hallway. SJ is brittle, like Hanna, but Hanna never cries. Sometimes Hanna looks like she might cry but her eyes stay dry and the opportunity to touch her, to hold her, to nurture her eludes Laurel. So it is some long untapped maternal longing that sends her out of the kitchen and into the hall where SJ is snatching her coat off the coatrack and sobbing uncontrollably.

“Sara,” she starts. “SJ. Come into the living room with me. Come. We can talk.”

“What is there to talk about?” she wails. “I’m a bitch. I’m bad. There’s nothing else to say.”

“Well, actually,” says Laurel, “that’s not true. I . . .” She inhales. “Come and sit with me. Please.”

SJ rehangs her coat and follows Laurel. In the living room she curls herself into the armchair and looks at Laurel through wet eyelashes.

Laurel sits opposite her. “I had an affair with a married man once. When I was very young.”

SJ blinks.

“To be fair, he didn’t have any children. And he’d only been married for a year. We had an affair for two years. It was while I was at university.”

“Was it a teacher?”

“No. Not a teacher. Just a friend.”

“And then what happened? Did he leave her for you?”

Laurel smiles. “No. He didn’t. I left university and moved to London and we thought we couldn’t live without each other and that we were going to have all these wildly romantic rendezvous in country hotels. Of course, within six weeks it had totally fizzled out. Apparently he and his wife split up that same year. Too young to get married, basically. We were all too young. Did you know that the parts of the brain involved in decision-making aren’t fully developed until you’re twenty-five years old?”

SJ shrugs.

“Who is it?” Laurel asks.

“It’s the course leader,” SJ says, “at the art college where I model.” “How long has it been going on for?”

SJ drops her chin into her chest and mumbles, “A few months.” “And how often are you seeing him?”

“Most days,” she says. “Where?”

“At work. In his office.” She shrugs. “Sometimes at his brother’s place when he’s out of town.”

“Does he ever take you out anywhere? Drinks? Dinner?”

SJ shakes her head and plucks at the drawstring on her joggers. “So it’s just sex?”

SJ lifts her head quickly. “No!” she exclaims. “No! It’s much more than that!

We talk, all the time. And he draws me. I’m his . . .” “Muse.”

“Yes. I’m his muse.”

 

 

 

Laurel sighs. Cliché after cliché after cliché.

“Sara-Jade,” she starts carefully. “You are a very beautiful girl.”

“Huh.”

“You are very beautiful and very special. This man—what’s his name?” “Simon.”

“Simon has very good taste. He can clearly see quality when it crosses his path. And I’m sure he’s a wonderful man.”

“He is,” says SJ. “He really is.”

“Of course. You wouldn’t be with him if he wasn’t. Has he said he’ll leave his wife?”

“Partner.”

“Partner, wife, it doesn’t matter. They have children. They share a home. Has he said he’ll leave her for you?”

She shakes her head. “Do you want him to?”

She nods. And then shakes it again. “No. Obviously. I mean, you know, his kids, especially the little one. And I’ve been through it myself. So I know what it feels like.”

“How old were you when your parents split up?”

“Six,” she says. “Virtually the same age as Simon’s son. So . . .” “So you don’t want him to leave her for you?”

“No. Only in an imaginary way, where no one gets hurt.”

“But what if she finds out? His partner? What if she finds out? And then leaves him anyway?”

“She won’t find out.” “How do you know?” “Because we’re discreet.”

“SJ, this is the modern world. There is no privacy anymore. Everyone knows everything. All the time. I mean, look how quickly you googled me after we met. Found out about Ellie. Someone, somewhere will find out what’s happening and they might just tell Simon’s partner and then everything will be broken. Irreparably. And the only way you can avoid that happening is by walking away. Making it stop.”

SJ sniffs and ties knots in her drawstring. “Do you love him?”

“Yes.”

“Do you love him enough to hurt a lot of people who don’t deserve to be hurt?”

“How do you expect me to answer that?”

“It’s a tough question, but you do need to answer it. Not now, but over the next hours and days. I’m not going to tell you that in ten years you’ll look back and wonder what the hell you were thinking, because I remember being twenty-one and thinking that my personality was a solid thing, that me was set in stone, that I would always feel what I felt and believe what I believed. But now I know that me is fluid and shape-changing. So whatever you’re feeling now, it’s temporary. But what will happen to that family if they find out about their father’s betrayal will have repercussions forever. The damage will never heal.”

Fat tears coalesce in the rims of SJ’s eyes and drop heavily onto her cheeks.

Laurel thinks she sees her nod but she’s not quite sure. “Why did you and your husband split up?”

“Because of Ellie. Because I didn’t think he was hurting enough. Because he tried to make me believe that things would be OK, and I didn’t want things to be OK.”

 

 

“Did it hurt your children when you split up? Do they hate you?”

The question takes Laurel by surprise. Not did they hate you, but do they hate you. She thinks of last night’s awful phone call from Blue and Jake. She thinks of Hanna’s refusal to engage with her on anything other than a very shallow level of human interaction, and the way both her children keep her at arm’s length. She’s always put it down to their responses to losing their sister when they were both at such a vulnerable age. She can’t even remember how they reacted to Paul moving out. The separation was played out so slowly it was hard to pinpoint the moment it had actually ended. She doesn’t remember tearful recrimination, she doesn’t remember her children hurting, or at least hurting any more than they’d already been hurting.

“I don’t know,” she replies. “Maybe. But then we were already a broken family.”

SJ nods; then she unfurls her limbs, sits forward in her chair, and engages Laurel on a different level entirely. “I’ve been reading lots of stuff about it. About Ellie. On the Internet.”

“Have you?”

“Yes. I mean, I was only a kid in 2005 so I’d never heard of Ellie Mack before. And now, well, it’s sort of weird that you’re here, in my dad’s house, and that this hideous terrible thing happened to you, a thing that just doesn’t happen to people. And I keep thinking . . .” She pauses. “Do you believe that she ran away?”

Laurel feels herself almost physically pushed backward by the unexpectedness of the question.

“No,” she says softly. “No I don’t. But then I’m her mother. I knew her. I knew what she wanted and where she was heading and what made her happy. And I know she wasn’t stressed about her GCSEs. So no, deep down I don’t believe she ran away. But I have to because the evidence is all there.”

“The burglary, you mean?”

“Yes, the burglary. Except I don’t think of it as a burglary. She used her key.

She just came home to collect some things. That’s all.”

“But . . . the bag. Don’t you ever wonder about the bag?” “The bag?”

“Yes. Ellie’s rucksack. The one they found in the forest. Don’t you think, I don’t know, but surely after all those years on the run she’d have had some different things in it? Not just the things she had when she ran away from home?”

A chill runs through Laurel. She thinks of the hours she spent asking herself the same question at the time. Eventually she’d made peace with the theory that Ellie had deliberately kept a bag with her things from home in it as a kind of security blanket, in the same way that Laurel had kept Ellie’s bedroom untouched for most of the years that she was missing.

“And you know,” SJ continues, “there’s another thing, something really strange, about Poppy’s mum—” She stops talking and they both turn at the sound of the door opening. It’s Floyd. He’s holding two mugs of tea and he throws Laurel a grateful look.

“There you go,” he says, putting the mugs down on the table and then sitting down next to Laurel. “Medicinal tea. For frayed nerves. Everything OK?”

Laurel touches Floyd’s leg and says, “We’ve had a good chat.”

“Yes,” agrees Sara-Jade. “It’s been a good chat. I’m going to think about things.”

Laurel and Sara-Jade exchange a look. They have started a conversation that needs to be finished. But it will have to wait for another time.

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