Chapter no 40

Then She Was Gone


The days had lost their structure, their edges, their middles. At first she’d been aware of the passing of time, had distinctly felt the shape of the hours and days moving by. Friday had felt like Friday. Saturday like Saturday. Monday had felt like the day she would be sitting her history and Spanish GCSEs. Tuesday had been the day she should have been taking her first maths paper. The weekend after had come and gone and she’d still had a grip on it. It was next Monday. She’d been here for eleven days. Then twelve days. Then thirteen. It was her sixteenth birthday. She didn’t tell Noelle.

After fourteen days, though, she lost count. She asked Noelle, “What day is it today?” And Noelle said, “It’s Friday.”

“What’s the date?”

“It’s the tenth. I think. Although it might be the ninth. And it might be Thursday. Me and my daft, fuzzy head.”



It all spiraled away from her then, her peg in the map of time was irretrievably lost.



Noelle still brought her gifts. Fruit pastilles. A sugar-topped doughnut. A packet of tiny pencil erasers in the shapes of animals. Lipstick with glitter in it.

She brought her things for the hamsters, too. Bags of straw and little toys and chews and biscuits. “The babies,” she called them. “How are the babies today?” Then she’d take one out of its cage and hold it in the cylinder of her hand and stroke its tiny skull with a fingertip and make kissy noises at it and say, “Well you are the prettiest little thing I ever did see, you truly are,” and then sing it a song.

Still, though, Noelle Donnelly would not tell Ellie why she was here or when she would be leaving. Still she’d tantalize and tease and talk about her amazing plan and how everything was going to be just woopitydoo, just you wait and see.

Ellie still carried around the raw wound in the pit of her belly, the place where her mother lived. Constantly, she pictured her mother alone at home, touching Ellie’s things, lying down with her face pressed against Ellie’s pillow, circling an empty trolley around the supermarket, black-faced and wondering why why why her perfect girl—because Laurel had always made it abundantly clear to Ellie that she perceived her as such—had gone and left them.

She’d picture Hanna, too, her infuriating big sister, always trying to pinch brownie points from her, always snatching back little chunks of Ellie’s glory with barbed comments that she didn’t even mean. How would she be feeling now, now that Ellie was gone and she had no one left to play out her childish power struggle with? She would be hurting. She would be blaming herself. Ellie wanted to reach through the walls of this house and into hers, place her arms around her sister’s body and hold her tight and say, I know you love me. I know you do. Please don’t blame yourself.

And her father? She couldn’t think about her father. Every time he came to mind she saw him in his bathrobe, with bed hair. She saw the softness of his morning stubble, his bare feet, his hand reaching up to pluck the coffee jug from the shelf in the kitchen. That was how her father existed now to her, trapped in an amber tomb in his bathrobe. And Jake—she saw Jake as a free spirit; she saw him when he was a young boy, in the garden, playing football, slouching to school in his oversized blazer, a weighty school bag slung across his small boy body, picking up his pace at the sight of his friends up ahead.



And it was surprising to Ellie how little she thought about Theo during those first few days of captivity. Before Noelle had taken her she’d thought about him virtually every living moment of every living day. But now her family had taken center stage. She missed Theo but she needed her family. Ached for them. Curled herself into a ball with her hands pressed hard into her stomach and cried for them.

Ellie’s days were longer than twenty-four hours. Each hour felt like twenty-four hours. Each minute felt like thirty. Dark came late at this time of year and

the sun rose early and the time in between was spent in a violent swirl of dreams and nightmares, twisted bedsheets and sweat-drenched pillows.

“I want to go home,” she said to Noelle one morning when she came to deliver her breakfast.

“I know you do. I know.” Noelle squeezed Ellie’s shoulder. “And I’m sorry about all this. I truly am. I’m trying to make this as nice for you as I possibly can. You can see, can’t you, you can see the effort I’m making? The money I’m spending? You know, I’m going without myself to pay for you.”

“But if you let me go home, you wouldn’t have to pay for me. You could just go somewhere and I’d never tell anyone it was you. I’d just be so happy to be home, that’s all I’d care about. I wouldn’t tell the police, I wouldn’t . . .”

And then crash. The back of Noelle’s hand hard and sharp across Ellie’s cheek. “Enough,” she said, her voice still and hard. “Enough. There’ll be no going home until I say. You need to stop with your talk of going home. Do you




Ellie held the back of her hand to her cheek, rolled the cool flesh across the red sting of Noelle’s knuckles. She nodded.

“Good girl.”



Noelle went out that night and Ellie awoke in the dark, confused by the sound of heavy footsteps down the basement stairs.

“Ah, did I wake you?”

Noelle was in the room. She swayed slightly in the doorway, before clicking it shut behind her and locking it.

Ellie sat up straight, clutched her racing heart. Noelle looked strange. She was wearing an awful lot of makeup, some of which had been rubbed away. One eye had more eye shadow than the other. There was a black smudge by her cheekbone. And she was dressed very smartly: a shiny black blouse with fitted black trousers and some high-heeled shoes. She had a single gold hoop in one earlobe.

“I’m sorry,” she said, edging toward Ellie. “I didn’t realize how late it was. I’ve had a bit to drink and you know how the time just rolls itself up when you’ve had a few jars.”

Ellie shook her head.



“No,” said Noelle, perching herself on the side of Ellie’s bed. “Of course you don’t. You’re just a girl.”

She smiled and Ellie could see a blackish stain on her teeth. “So,” she said. “Aren’t you going to ask me where I’ve been?” Ellie shrugged.

“I’ve been to my boyfriend’s flat,” she said. “Did I tell you I have a boyfriend?” “No.”

“I bet you can’t believe it, can you? Boring old Noelle the tutor. Having a boyfriend. I mean, he’s not a patch on your fella. Obviously not. But he’s a god to me. Cleverest human being I’ve ever met. No idea what he sees in me, of course.”

“You look very nice tonight,” said Ellie, obsequious in the wake of Noelle’s slap to her cheek earlier on.

Noelle glanced at her. “Oh, you little sweetie. I do not. But thank you.” Ellie smiled tightly.

“Anyway, how has your evening been?” Ellie shrugged and said, “OK.”

Noelle glanced around the room then and sighed. “I was thinking maybe I could fix you up with a TV and a DVD player. You can get one of those little all-in-one things for next to nothing these days. It might mean less treats and what have you for a while. But better than staring at these four walls for hours on end. What do you think?”

Ellie blinked. A DVD player. Movies. Documentaries. “Yes, please, thank you, yes.”

“And some books, too? Would you like some books to read?” “Yes. I would. I’d love some books.”

Noelle smiled fondly at her. “Books then,” she said. “I’ll pick some up from the Red Cross shop. And some DVDs. We’ll make it nice in here for you. We’ll make it as good as home.”



She got to her feet then and looked down at Ellie and said, “It’s all coming together now. I can feel it. It’s all coming together. Just you wait.”

Ellie watched her fiddle clumsily with the key in the lock. She sensed a moment of vulnerability. She played with the idea of ambushing her. Throwing

herself upon her, slamming her drunken, makeup-smeared face into the wall, once, twice, three times, grabbing the key from her, shoving it hard into the lock, turning, opening, running, running, running. But even as the thought showed itself to her, the door clicked open and Noelle Donnelly was passing through it and then slamming it shut behind her and then she was gone.

“Mummy,” Ellie whispered into the palms of her hands. “Mummy.”



Ellie would never really know what happened the following night. She could guess, because of what happened afterward, but the actual facts, the details, only one person knew, and she would never tell her.

Noelle came down with her supper at six o’clock. It was chicken nuggets and chips with a perfunctory spoonful of mixed peas and sweet corn on the side. There was a big cream bun on the tray, a small bowl of jelly beans, and a glass of Coke with a slice of lemon in it. Noelle cooked for her as though she was five years old. Ellie ached for a bit of sushi, or some garlic prawns and rice from the posh Chinese up the road.

Noelle stayed a while that evening. She’d brought Ellie a new book and some fancy shampoo. She seemed to be in a sparkling mood.

“How’s the dinner?” she asked. “It’s nice, thank you.”

“You’re so lucky,” she said. “At your age you can eat and eat and eat and never gain an ounce.”

“But you’re very slim.”

“Well, yes, but that is purely because I barely eat. When I turned forty, oh”— she made a circle of her mouth—“what a shock that was. No more cream buns for me. And the older you get, the worse it gets. I’ll be living on water and air by the time I’m fifty at this rate.”

“How old are you?”

“Too old,” she said. “Far too old. I’m forty-five. What a silly-sounding age that is, to be sure.”

“It’s not that old.”

“Well, love you for saying that, but all the same it is that old. Particularly when it comes to certain things.”

Ellie nodded. She didn’t know what the certain things were and she certainly wasn’t going to ask.

“So, it’s a joy to have a young person to cook for. I can buy all the yummy things in the shops instead of just looking at them.” She smiled and there were the tiny teeth that chilled Ellie’s soul.

And that was that.

The edges of Noelle Donnelly began to blur and shiver, the walls of the room turned black and bled into everything and for a small second there were just Noelle’s teeth, suspended alone in a sea of blackness, like a UFO in the night sky. And after that it was the morning. And even though everything felt normal,

Ellie knew it wasn’t normal, that something had happened.

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