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Chapter no 50

Then She Was Gone

When Poppy was around two or three years old I decided to put my house on the market. You were giving me a little money here and there for her upkeep but I was too proud to ask you for more and, besides, it had never been about money, none of it. But I was poor then, Floyd. Like properly poor. I could only work when Poppy was with you and she was only with you half the time. So I decided to release some equity. We didn’t need a big house on three floors. We’d make do in a small flat.

But then of course I remembered the spanner in the works. That girl. That bloody girl.

She’d passed over at some point. I don’t know when exactly. It was for the best, I’d say. Yes, it was for the best. According to the papers they’d scaled back the search for her. That to me said they had her as a runaway. So I decided to make it look that way.

 

 

I’d kept the bag she’d been carrying when she first arrived. Which shows, doesn’t it, that I’d been half intending to let her go at some point, that I wasn’t entirely bad. I took the keys from her bag and when I saw the mother leaving the house with her swimming kit I let myself in through her back door and I took some things that I thought the girl would have taken if she was heading out of the country: a scruffy old laptop, some cash, a pair of candlesticks that she might have wanted to sell. I’d always liked those candlesticks—they’d sat on top of the piano by the table where we worked. I’d admired them once and the girl had said something about taking them on to the Antiques Roadshow one day to find out how much they were worth.

I also took a cake. I was reminded when I saw it there of a day when the pleasant mother had brought us two slices of still-warm chocolate cake instead

 

 

of the posh biscuits and the girl had said, “Is it one of Hanna’s?” and the mother had said, “Yes. Freshly baked.” And the girl had turned to me and said, “My sister makes the best cakes in the world. You will never eat a better chocolate cake than this.” I can’t say I can particularly recall the cake or whether or not it was the best in the world, but I do remember the girl’s face when she told me that, the anticipation shining in her eyes, the unabashed pleasure she took in the eating of it.

It’s odd, you know, because when I look back to those days when I was her tutor I feel sure I must have dreamed the whole thing, because by the end I swear I had no idea what I’d ever seen in her. No idea at all.

She was, after all, just a girl.

 

 

I looked everywhere for her passport. The passport was the key to everything. But it could not be found for love or money. And then I had the most brilliant idea. I’d seen her sister when I’d been watching the house and the two girls were very similar to look at. So I went to the sister’s bedroom and found her passport in under a minute. I slipped it in the big bag with the computer and the candlesticks and the cake in its Tupperware box and ten minutes later I was home.

It’s hard to talk about what came next, because it did require a certain level of barbarity, I must be honest. A few years earlier, when the smell from the basement had become problematic (I had a visit from the next-door neighbors shortly after she passed, asking after it. I told them it was the drains), I’d moved the girl to a blanket box in the attic. So while Poppy stayed the night at yours I took her from there (well, I say “her”; I think “it” would be more accurate by this stage) and I dropped her into the boot of my car along with her rucksack, which I’d packed with the old clothes and the passport, and I drove through the dark of night to Dover. Then I found a quiet lane deep, deep in the middle of nowhere, and I laid some of her bones down in the road and drove my car over them and then I dropped them into a ditch, dropped her rucksack at her side, kicked over some leaves and mud and left, pretty sharpish. The rest of her bones I took to a municipal dump a few miles down the road.

I thought she would be found almost immediately. I’d made hardly any effort to hide her. I wanted her found. Wanted it over. Wanted, on some subconscious level, to be caught out. I’d barely given a thought to the forensic aspect of the thing, after all, hadn’t thought about the fibers and the tire marks and the like. But months and months passed by and it was as though it had never happened. It seemed I’d got away with it, completely.

 

 

Then the London housing market slowed down and I decided against selling my house. Life, as it was, went back to normal.

 

 

Well, I say normal, but sweet Jesus, what was normal about living with a toddler? And this toddler was a law unto herself. A monster. All she wanted, morning, noon, and night, was sugar. Sugar on her cereal, sugar on her fruit, Nutella on everything; otherwise she wouldn’t eat it. She would not go to sleep at night, and at nursery she was mean to the other children, she’d wallop them and trip them up; I was forever being called in. And then I’d bring her to your house for her weekly stays and she’d be, oh, the perfect little angel. All, Daddy this and Daddy that and at first of course I loved it because she was my route back to you and in that respect it had worked. But then I could see the two of you forming a kind of breakaway team. It was like you and SJ all over again. She’d sit on your lap and she’d twirl your hair and she’d look across at me as if I was nothing to her. Less than nothing.

I’d come to collect her from your house sometimes after you’d spent a day together and she’d hide behind your legs. Or hide herself in a room somewhere in the house and refuse to come out.

“I’m not going!” she’d say. “I’m staying here!”

And sometimes I’d think, fuck it, fuck you both, and I’d leave and there’d be the two of you, closing the door behind me, going back into your lovely cozy house to do lovely things together. And she ate what you gave her. She’d come home and tell me about stir-fries and crispy prawns and stews from African restaurants. There was no sugar in your house, no junk food, no CBeebies, no cheap electronic toys that made noises that imprinted themselves onto your psyche forevermore. None of the stuff I’d given her to shut her up. Just books and music and trips to the park.

Then one day, and you’ll remember this day, Floyd, it was pretty significant, you told me you were thinking about home-schooling Poppy. I’d just filled in the forms on the Internet for a place at our local primary school. But that wasn’t good enough apparently: oh no, nothing was good enough for your precious Poppy. Only you, Floyd. Only you.

“My mini-me.”

That’s what you used to call her.

 

 

As though I literally had nothing whatsoever to do with the child. And as though only a child who mirrored you in every single respect could possibly be worth loving.

Anyway, you said, “She’s very bright. Really very bright. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was Mensa level. I don’t think a mainstream school is going to know what to do with her. And if I’m going to home-school her, it makes sense for her to come and live with me permanently.”

And you know, I think you thought I’d be relieved. I think you thought I’d say, OK, fabulous, well, that’s a weight off my mind. You knew how hard I found her at home. You knew how much we clashed. And you knew, deep down, that I wasn’t a natural-born mother, that I wasn’t a nurturer.

But what you didn’t know was what I’d done to get that child for you. You had no idea. You had no idea that my life was not a life, not in any real sense of the word, and that the only thing that lit the path for me was you, Floyd. And if you had full custody of Poppy, then, really, what was the use of me? You’d have no reason to see me anymore. You’d have no reason to keep me on the side.

I couldn’t let you take Poppy. She was my ticket to you.

We started that conversation like adults and finished it in a red heat.

I knew then that you wouldn’t let it go. And a few weeks later you found your moment and you pounced.

 

 

I couldn’t bear to leave the house with that child half the time. She was a liability in public places. In shops she wanted me to buy her everything. And I mean everything. There was no shop that didn’t sell something she wanted. And if I didn’t get it for her, then I was “mean” and I was “horrible,” and she’d scream the place down. So I learned to do all my errands when she was at the nursery. But

that afternoon I remembered that I needed ketchup—not for me, mind, oh no, I could live without ketchup without having an epileptic fit, but Madam couldn’t. So I left her. I was gone for ten minutes. Possibly fifteen.

She had climbed up onto the work surface in the kitchen, looking for food

 

 

of course, because she might die if she didn’t eat something for ten minutes— and she’d fallen and bashed her head against the corner of the unit and there was a cut and there was some blood and I called the 111 number and they told me what to look out for and when to bring her in if necessary and I did everything right, Floyd, everything. I behaved like a proper decent parent. But of course the next time she saw you she had a huge black eye and she was all wan and bruised and oh, Mummy went out and left me and I was hungry and I just wanted some cereal, that was all, and blah blah blah. And you turned to me and you said, “That’s it, Noelle. That is it.”

And I knew what you meant and I knew it was going to happen. So that was when I decided. Me and Poppy. We were going away. And if you wanted us back, you’d have to come and find us.

 

 

I had it all planned out. I would take my bonny, brown-eyed girl back to Ireland! My mother and father would be captivated! All my brothers would say, Well, look at the child, sure if she isn’t the prettiest Donnelly in a generation. And after a few weeks I’d phone you to tell you where we were and you would get on the first plane into Dublin and you’d see me there in the bold green light of the Emerald Isle, in the bosom of my family, our child with cheeks like rose blossoms, and I’d take you to see the perfect little village school where we went ourselves when we were small and you’d meet my mother and father, the cleverest people I know, and my brothers with their huge brains, and you’d see the shelves in their big Victorian villa heaving with the books and the trophies and the shields and you’d know that I’d done the best for my child, that she was in the best place and that you could not take her, not now that she was so happy and so settled, cousins all around, the sheep and the sea and the sweet meadow air.

In this fantasy, you would decide to stay. You’d rent a small windswept cottage and eventually, because we were all so happy and everything was so

perfect, you’d ask us to move in with you. And that was how we’d end our days. The three of us together. The perfect family.

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