Chapter no 34

Then She Was Gone

Poppy serves dinner for Floyd and Laurel on Friday night. She lights candles, wraps a bottle of wine in a linen napkin, and pours it from the base, like a sommelier. She doesn’t eat with them because that would ruin the role play, merely hovers at a discreet distance, clears the table between courses, asks how their food is. Her hair, Laurel notices, is in a topknot, rather than the more formal hairdos she normally favors, and she has a tea towel tied around her waist in an approximation of a waiter’s apron. She looks very grown up. Very pretty. More like Ellie than ever. Laurel can barely tear her eyes from her.

She makes love to Floyd that night.



She is wrong, she concludes, lying in his arms afterward. She is wrong about it all. The lip balm means nothing. Maybe Noelle bought herself fruity lip balms. Maybe her whole house was full of fruity lip balms. The fact that Poppy looked like Ellie was also neither here nor there. People looked like people. That was a simple matter of fact. And maybe SJ had imagined Noelle’s flat stomach.

And this man, this man right here with his lovely jumpers and his gentle touch, this man who sends her smiley-face emojis and cannot live without her, why would he have invited her into his life if he was somehow involved in Ellie’s disappearance? It makes no sense at all.

She falls asleep in the crook of his arm, her hands entwined with his, feeling safe.

“I love you, Laurel Mack,” she thinks she hears him whisper in the middle of the night. “I love you so much.”



The uncertainty returns the following morning. She is the first up and the house ticks and creaks as all Victorian houses tick and creak. The kitchen is filled with cold white morning light and last night’s candles and background music are a

distant memory. She quickly makes two cups of coffee and takes them upstairs to the warm cocoon of Floyd’s bedroom.

“I have to go somewhere today,” he says. “Somewhere?” she says. “That sounds mysterious.”

He smiles and pulls her to him. They sit up side by side in the bed, their feet and ankles entwined. “Not really,” he says. “I’m meeting my financial advisor.”

“On a Saturday?”

He shrugs. “I always see him on a Saturday. I don’t know why. But I’ll only be a couple of hours. I wondered if maybe you’d be able to stay here and sit with Poppy? While I’m gone?”

“I’d love to,” she says and they drink their coffee. From upstairs they hear the sound of Poppy rising. They hear her footsteps on the stairs and then her knocking on the bedroom door. Laurel pulls Floyd’s dressing gown tighter across her breasts and Floyd calls out for her to come in. Poppy runs in and throws herself between them, right onto the sex-scorched bedsheets, against the pillows that Laurel had gripped last night and buried her face into.



Poppy rests her head against Floyd’s shoulder and then she finds Laurel’s hand and grabs it and Laurel feels oddly wrong, braless and unwashed, holding the hand of a young girl inside this nest of adult yearnings.

“I’m popping out later. Laurel’s going to stay with you,” says Floyd. “Yay!” says Poppy. “Let’s go somewhere.”

She presses her face against Laurel’s shoulder now and Laurel nods and smiles and says, “Yes, that would be lovely.”

And as she says it she drops a kiss onto the top of Poppy’s head, the way she used to do with all her children when they were small. And there’s a smell about her scalp, her hair, a smell that sends her reeling back in time: the smell of Ellie.

“We’ll go out for cake,” she says, a particular café coming immediately to mind. “We’ll have fun.”



The café is on the corner of Noelle’s road. Laurel noticed it when she was here on Thursday. It’s called the Corner Café and it’s been there forever; she’s sure she once took the children there for tea when they were tiny after a swimming lesson or a visit to the dentist.

Poppy has a pecan and maple twist. Laurel has a granola bar. They share a pot of tea. Laurel glances at Poppy nervously. She’s aware that she’s horribly overstepping the boundaries of her relationship with Floyd by asking his daughter to collude with her behind his back like this, but her need to answer questions outweighs her sense of loyalty to Floyd.

“Have you ever been here before?” Laurel opens.

Poppy looks around her over the rim of her oversized teacup. “Don’t think so.”

“You know,” Laurel says cautiously, “you used to live on that street?” She points over her shoulder.

“Did I?”

“Yes. With your mum.”

Poppy glances up at her. “How do you know?”

Laurel smiles tentatively. “It’s a very long story. How’s your pastry?” “It’s totally fantastic,” Poppy says. “Want to try some?”

“Yeah,” says Laurel, “why not. Thank you.” She accepts the piece that Poppy tears off and passes her. “You know,” she continues carefully, “I went in there the other day.” She nods in the direction of Noelle’s house.


“To the house where you used to live. To talk to your”—she drums her fingertips on the underneath of her chin and pretends to think hard—“well, I suppose he’s your cousin.”



“My cousin? I don’t have any cousins.”

“Well, yes, actually, you do. You have tons of them. Most of them live in Ireland.”

“No they don’t.” She looks defiantly at Laurel. “I promise you, I do not have any cousins.”

“That’s definitely not true,” says Laurel. “There’s two living in your mum’s house, just there. Joshua and Sam. They’re in their early twenties. Joshua’s at university studying history. He’s really lovely. You’d like him.”

Poppy glares at her. “Why have you been talking to them?”

“Oh, just one of those things. One of those great coincidences in life. Because it turns out that”—Laurel draws in her breath and forces a smile—“I used to know your mum, a long, long time ago. And when your dad told me that she’d

disappeared, well, I was a bit curious. So I called her up on her old phone number and this lovely boy answered the phone and he invited me for tea. He doesn’t know where your mum went either. He’s just looking after her house for her until she comes back.”

Poppy shudders. “I don’t want her to come back.”

“No,” says Laurel. “No. I know you don’t. But Joshua said”—she turns her smile up a few degrees—“that there’s another cousin your age. Called Clara. He said she’s really funny and clever. He said you’d like her.”

“Clara?” says Poppy, her eyes brightening. “She’s my cousin?”

“Apparently,” says Laurel. “And your mum’s family all agree with you, that your mother was a bit strange. But apparently she had a sister who died when she was little. It sent her a little loopy. But it sounds like the rest of the family are really normal.”

“Her sister died?” Poppy repeats pensively. “That’s really sad.” “I know,” Laurel replies. “It is really sad.”

“But no excuse for being a horrible mum.” “No,” she agrees. “No excuse at all.”

Laurel allows a silence to fall, giving Poppy a chance to absorb it all. “What did you say he was called?”


“That’s a nice name.”

“Yes. It’s a very nice name.”



Another silence follows. Laurel makes a great pretense of being absorbed by her granola bar while her heart races with nerves about what she’s about to do. “I’ve got his number,” she says after a moment. “I could call? See if he’s about? Go and say hello?”

Poppy looks up at her and says, “Do you think Dad would mind?” “I don’t know,” she replies. “Do you think he’ll mind?”

Poppy shrugs. “He might. But then . . .” Her face is set with a slightly staged resolve. “. . . I don’t have to tell him, do I? It’s not like he tells me everything he does.”

“I don’t want to be responsible for you lying to your father, Poppy.”

“But I wouldn’t be lying, would I? I’ll just tell him we went for tea. And that is true.”

“Yes. That is true.”

“And it’s not as if he’ll say and did you do anything else? Is it?” “It’s unlikely.”

“And he might not even be there. My cousin.”

“No. He might not. But I could give him a call. Just in case. Would you like me to do that?”

Poppy nods, once.

Laurel taps in his number and presses call.



Poppy’s steps slow as they turn onto the front path. “Maybe we shouldn’t,” she says.

“We don’t have to. It’s fine.”

But before they have a chance to change their minds, the front door is pulled open and Joshua is standing there in a hoodie and jeans, another young man standing just behind in a fluorescent green T-shirt and they’re both saying, “Oh my God. Poppy! Poppy! Come in! Come in out of the cold. My God, if it isn’t little Poppy!” and things of that ilk and Poppy turns briefly to Laurel, who smiles encouragingly at her, and they are both swept into the house on a wave of slightly manic hospitality and delight.

“So,” says Joshua, his hands in his pockets, bouncing up and down and beaming, “so you’re Poppy. Wow! Sit down, Poppy. And Laurel. Sit down. Please. Tea? Coffee? Anything?”

Poppy sits primly and shakes her head. “No thank you,” she says. “We just had tea and cake,” and Sam and Joshua look at each other and hoot and Joshua says:

“An English cousin! We finally have an English cousin. We already have a Canadian cousin, two American cousins, and a German cousin. And now we finally have an English one. Wow. And look at you. I can see my grandmother in you, so I can.”

Poppy smiles grimly, slightly overwhelmed. “So, this used to be your house? Is that right?”

“Maybe,” she replies, looking around herself. “I can’t remember.” “We should give you a tour, wouldn’t you say? What do you think?”

Poppy glances again at Laurel, who nods, and they follow Joshua and Sam through the house. Poppy is uncharacteristically quiet at first, peering nervously around doorways.

Joshua pushes a door at the top of the landing, “This must have been your room. Look, it still has the wallpaper.”

Poppy falters for a moment on the threshold and then she steps in, her eyes wide, her hands running across the wallpaper. It’s pale gray with a repeated pattern of pink rabbits and green tortoises on it, engaged in a running competition. The tortoises are all wearing sweatbands and the rabbits have on running shoes.



“I remember this wallpaper,” she says breathlessly. “The hares. And the tortoises. I used to see them running in the night. I’d stare at them and then I’d shut my eyes and they’d be running. Hundreds of them. Through my dreams. I remember it. I really do.”

“You want to see some more?” says Joshua, giving Laurel a knowing look. “There’s another room downstairs. I wonder if you’ll remember that, too?”

Quietly they descend back to the ground floor, through the kitchen and then down into the basement.

Poppy stops once more on the threshold, grips the outside of the door with her fingertips. She gasps and says, “I don’t want to go in there.”

“Oh, but it’s fine,” says Joshua. “It’s just a room.”

“But . . . but . . .” Her eyes are wide and her breathing is audible. “I’m not allowed in there. My mum told me never to go in there.”

Laurel touches her shoulder softly. “Wow, that’s an interesting memory.

Why do you think that was?”

“I don’t know,” says Poppy, sounding vaguely tearful. “I don’t know. I just remember thinking there was a monster down there. A big, scary monster. But that’s just silly, isn’t it? There was no monster down there, was there?”

“Did you have pets?” asks Laurel. “When you were tiny? Do you remember having some hamsters?”

Poppy shakes her head slowly and walks out of the kitchen and toward the front door.

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