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Chapter no 60

Then She Was Gone

Laurel, there are so many things I want you to know. But the first is this: when I walked into that café in November, when I chose the table next to yours, when I complimented you on your hair and invited you to share my cake, I was not trying to seduce you. You were far too beautiful and far too delicate and I would never have been so presumptuous.

Everything that happened after that meeting was entirely unexpected, and, I can see now, with hindsight, horribly, horribly selfish.

Earlier this year I switched on the TV to watch the news and there was a trailer for the show coming up afterward. Crimewatch. Not a show I’d normally watch. Not my thing at all. But they said they’d be staging a reconstruction of the disappearance of a girl called Ellie Mack and then a picture of Ellie Mack appeared on the screen and my heart stopped. The missing girl looked exactly like Poppy. Older than Poppy. But exactly like her.

So I sat and I watched the show.

 

 

“It’s been ten years since Ellie Mack, a fifteen-year-old from north London, disappeared on her way to the library,” the presenter said. “Ellie was a popular girl, well liked at school, in a happy relationship with her boyfriend of eight months, and the beloved heart and soul of her family. According to her teachers, she was set for a full house of As and A stars in the GCSE exams she was sitting that month. There appeared to be no obvious reason why this smiley, charmed girl should leave her home one Thursday morning and not return.

“We first launched an appeal for witnesses to Ellie’s disappearance in 2005. That appeal was unsuccessful. Now, ten years on, with no sightings of Ellie and no evidence to suggest her abduction, we have staged a reconstruction. But first, here’s Ellie’s mum and dad, Laurel and Paul Mack, to remind us of the girl they haven’t seen for ten long years.”

The footage shifted from the presenter to a video of a tired-looking couple sitting side by side in a very nice kitchen. She had a sheet of vanilla-blonde hair, cut sharp at the ends and clipped back on one side. She wore a black polo neck with the sleeves pushed back, a simple watch, no rings. He was a classic city boy: pale blue shirt unbuttoned at the neck, thick graying hair parted at the side, short at the back and longer on top, a soft, spoon-fed face that was probably steam shaved in Jermyn Street twice a week.

It was you and Paul.

You started talking first, to someone off camera who had been edited out. Your voice was serious and mature, like a newsreader, and you had the same broad forehead and wide-set eyes as Ellie and Poppy. I could see the line that went straight down through the three of you; it was breathtaking. You talked about the golden light of your girl, the journey she’d been taking to the stars when she went, the laughter and the dreams, the lasagna she’d asked you to save for her lunch on her return. Your eyes turned to glass as you talked. You circled your narrow wrists with your thumb and fingers. You had beautiful hands: long, elegant, feminine.

 

 

Paul started to talk then. I don’t mean to be rude but I could tell that he was a flibbertigibbet. Well meaning but ultimately pointless. And I could tell that you were no longer a couple. Your body language was all off. He talked about the bond he’d had with his daughter—with all of his children, he hastened to add—how she’d been an open book, always told her parents everything, didn’t have any secrets. His eyes also turned to glass and flicked briefly toward you. He was hoping, desperately I could tell, for some reassurance, but he did not get it. While you spoke, pictures flashed up at intervals of Ellie: as a child at the foot of a plastic slide; on the back of a speedboat with her father’s arm around her, the wind in her hair; on Christmas Day in a silly hat; and in a restaurant with her arm around an elderly lady who looked likely to be a grandmother.

The girl looked far too alive to be dead, I thought. Even in those slightly blurred photographs I could feel the essence of her, sense the sheer joy of her. But it was a coincidence, I persuaded myself, that’s all it was. A young girl with a fairly commonplace name who’d disappeared a year before Poppy was born and bore a striking resemblance to her.

Then the interview faded out and the reenactment began.

And that was when I knew, that was when all the little pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I knew it was no coincidence. There was the high road, the café on the corner of Noelle’s road, the Red Cross shop where she bought her nasty clothes. The camera panned across the street and I could even see the distant bloom of cherry blossom on the tree outside her house. My skin covered over with goose bumps.

Because, you see, Noelle had told me once in a fit of anger that she was not Poppy’s real mother, that a girl called Ellie had had her baby for her. I hadn’t been sure at the time if it was her madness that had caused her to say such a thing or if it might in fact be true. I had never seen her naked while pregnant. She had not allowed me to touch her. But still, it seemed farfetched. I hadn’t given it too much credence.

 

 

And if it had in fact been true, then I’d always imagined the mythical Ellie as a desperate addict, some loser that Noelle had picked up off the street and thrown some money at to carry her fake child for her. But here on my TV screen was a beautiful young girl with her whole life ahead of her, vanished off the face of the earth and last seen virtually outside Noelle’s house.

This was not a child who would have left her family behind, her boyfriend and her future, to willingly bear a baby for a stranger. And this sent my thoughts spiraling back to those days after Noelle’s disappearance, when I’d gone to her house to collect Poppy’s things. I thought of the weird basement room I told you about, nothing in it but the stained old sofa bed, the dead hamsters, the TV with built-in VCR, the three locks on the door.

And I knew, immediately, that Noelle was capable of stealing a child. And I knew immediately what I needed to do.

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