Chapter no 54

Then She Was Gone

When Laurel arrives at Floyd’s house that evening she feels lighter, more present, in the moment. And she notices for the first time that although there are only three days till Christmas, there is no tree in the house. In fact, there are no decorations of any kind.

“Do you not do Christmas trees?” she asks as Floyd helps her off with her coat in the hallway.

Do Christmas trees?”

“Yes, do you not put one up?”

“No,” he says. “Well, we used to, but we haven’t for years. But we can if you want one. Do you want one? I’ll go and get one now.”

She laughs. “I was thinking more of Poppy,” she says.

“Pops!” he calls up the stairs. “Would you like a Christmas tree?”

They hear her footsteps, loud and fast. She appears at the top of the stairs and says, “Yes! Yes please!”

“Right then,” says Floyd. “That’s settled then. I will go out now, like a proper father, and I will bring home the mother of all Christmas trees. Want to come with me, Pops?”

“Yes! Let me just get my shoes on.”



“We’ll need fairy lights,” says Laurel, “and baubles. Have you got any?”

“Yes, yes, we do. In the attic. We always had a tree when Kate and Sara lived here. There’s boxes of the stuff up there. Let me go and get it.”

He bounds up the stairs two at a time and returns a few minutes later with two large paper shopping bags full of tree decorations. Then he and Poppy get into the car and disappear into the dark night together and Laurel looks around and realizes that she is alone in Floyd’s house for the very first time.

She turns on the TV and finds a satellite channel that is playing Christmas songs. Then she pulls some things from the bags; random is the word she’d use

to describe them. Scuffed plastic balls, a knitted reindeer with three legs, a huge spiky snowflake that snags a hole in her jumper, stern-faced wooden soldiers, and a group of slightly alternative-looking wood nymphs in pointy hats with curled toes on their shoes.

She leaves them in the bag and takes out the fairy lights. There are two sets: one multicolored and the other white. The white ones work when she plugs them in at the wall. The multicolored ones don’t.

She goes through some of the drawers in the kitchen, looking for a spare fuse. She looks in the drawers in the console table in the hallway. Takeaway menus, parking permits, spare keys, a roll of garden refuse bags. But no fuses.

Then she looks at the door to Floyd’s study. This is where he and Poppy do their home-learning together, where he writes his books and his papers. In her own version of this house, they’d knocked through from the front to the back to make a double reception. But Floyd has left the two rooms separate, as they would have been in Victorian times. She hasn’t been in Floyd’s study yet, just viewed it fleetingly as he’s walked in or out. She feels, quite strongly, although she’s not sure why, that Floyd would not want her in his study without his permission, so she stands for a moment or two, her hand on the doorknob, persuading herself that it is just another room in the house, that Floyd cannot live without her, that of course she can go into his study to look for fuses.

She turns the handle. The door opens.

Floyd’s study is well furnished and cozy. The floorboards are covered over with threadbare kilims. The furniture is solid and old; there are two chrome table lamps with arced necks, one with a green glass shade, the other white. A laptop is open on his desk showing a screen saver of changing landscapes. She quickly starts to sift through his drawers.



Pens, notebooks, foreign coins, computer disks, CDs, memory sticks, everything organized in internal compartments. She goes to another desk, one that sits by the back window overlooking the garden. Here the drawers are locked. She sighs and absentmindedly riffles through the piles of paper that sit on top of the desk. She is no longer looking for a fuse, she knows that. She’s looking for something to snap her out of the strange fug she’s been trapped in for the past few days.

And suddenly she has it in her hands. A pile of newspaper cuttings, all from around the time of the Crimewatch appeal on May 26. There’s her face, there’s Paul, and there’s Ellie. There’s the interview she did for the Guardian and the interview she and Paul did together in the local paper. She remembers Floyd in his kitchen coyly confessing to having googled her after their first date. Yet six months earlier, before he’d even met her, he’d been tearing out and collecting newspaper cuttings about Ellie’s disappearance. She slots the cuttings back into the pile of paperwork at the sound of a car door closing on the street outside and quickly leaves Floyd’s study.

Floyd and Poppy return a moment later. The have bought an eight-foot tree. “Well,” says Floyd, his cheeks flushed pink with the effort of getting it into the house, balancing it on its stump briefly so that Laurel can appreciate its great

height. “Will this fulfill the brief?”

“Wow,” says Laurel, pressing herself against the wall so that Floyd can negotiate it through the hallway and into the sitting room. “That is a tree and a half. We’re going to need more lights!”

“Ta-da!” Poppy appears behind him, clutching bags from a DIY store full of fairy lights.

“Brilliant,” says Laurel. “You thought of everything.”

The TV is still tuned into Christmas songs; “Stop the Cavalry” by Jona Lewie is playing.

Floyd cuts the netting around the tree and they all watch as the branches spring free. Floyd is strangely overexcited about the tree. “Hey,” he says, turning to Poppy and Laurel, “it’s a good one, huh? I got a good one?”

They both assure him that it is a good one. Then Poppy and Laurel begin to dress the tree while Floyd goes to the kitchen to prepare supper.

“So, you don’t normally bother with a tree?” Laurel asks.



“No,” says Poppy. “I don’t really know why. We’re just not a Christmassy kind of family, I guess.”

“But Sara-Jade and her mum? They do a tree?”

“Yes!” Poppy’s eyes light up. “Kate is mad about Christmas. Totally nuts about it. Their house looks like a Christmas card.” She catches herself. “It’s a bit much, really,” she finishes.

“Sounds lovely to me.”

Poppy smiles then and says, “Will there be a tree at Bonny’s house? On Christmas Eve?”

“Oh, God, yes. I’m sure there will be. Definitely. A big one probably.”

Poppy smiles broadly. “I can’t wait,” she says. “It’ll be nice to have a proper Christmas for a change.”

“What do you normally do on Christmas Day?”

“Nothing much, really. Have lunch. Swap presents. Watch a movie.” “Just the two of you?”

Poppy nods.

“You don’t see family?” “I haven’t got a family.” “You’ve got SJ.”

“Yes, but she’s just one person. I mean like a whole big family. Like yours. I sometimes wish . . .” She glances toward the sitting-room door and then lowers her voice. “I love being with Dad. But I sometimes wish there was more.”

“More what?”

Poppy shrugs. “More people, I suppose. More noise.”

They take a step back from the tree a while later, just as “Fairytale of New York” comes on the TV. The tree is fully dressed and Laurel has switched on the fairy lights.

Floyd comes in and gasps. “Ladies,” he says, putting an arm around each of their shoulders, “that is a triumph. An absolute triumph.” He turns off the overhead lights and then turns back to the tree. “Wow! Just look at it!”



The three of them stand like that for a moment or two, the Pogues playing in the background, the lights on the tree flashing on and off; Floyd’s arm is heavy across Laurel’s shoulders and she feels him tremble slightly. She looks up at him and sees that he is crying. A single tear rolls down his cheek, a thousand tiny Christmas lights refracted through it. He wipes it away and then smiles down at Laurel.

“Thank you,” he said. “I didn’t know how much I wanted a Christmas tree this year.” He leans down and kisses the crown of her head. “You,” he said, “have made everything perfect. I love you, Laurel. I really do.”

She stares at him in surprise. Not that he has said it, but that he has said it in front of Poppy.

She glances quickly at Poppy to gauge her reaction. She is smiling at Laurel, willing her to complete the moment. She has no idea how hard this is for Laurel. But they are both gazing at her, waiting for her to give them something, and it is Christmas and it is dark and for some reason Laurel feels that she must do this, that it is hugely important in some strangely sinister way she can’t quite define, and so she smiles and says, “And I love you both, too.”

Poppy pulls Laurel into a hug. Floyd follows suit. They hold each other for a moment or two, the three of them, the heat of their combined breath meeting in the heart of the embrace. Eventually they pull apart and Floyd smiles at Laurel and says, “That’s all I want for Christmas. That’s all I want. Full stop.”

Laurel smiles tightly. She thinks of the press cuttings on Floyd’s desk. She thinks of the carrot cake they’d shared in that café near her hairdresser, the overpowering certainty of him as he’d walked in the door and found his way to her. And then she thinks of the phone call from Blue.

Your boyfriend. His aura is all wrong. It’s dark.

And she feels it, right there and then. Stark and obvious. Something askew.

Something awry.

You’re not who you say you are, she suddenly thinks, you’re a fake.

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