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Chapter no 62

Then She Was Gone

I became fixated on you, Laurel. I raked the Internet for articles about you, for photographs and clips of the press conference you’d given the day after Ellie disappeared. You were such a refined woman. So succinct and articulate, no words wasted, no emotional incontinence, your pretty hands always twisted together so intricately, the sharply cut hair, the tailored clothes; no lace or buttons or trim. Even in your clothing choices you wasted nothing.

And in watching you I became more and more familiar with Paul. The shirts that looked conventional at first sight until you realized that there was a contrast trim of Liberty print inside the collar. The cuff links that appeared to be tiny dog heads. The slightly unusual tortoiseshell glasses. A flash of geometric-printed silk sock inside a handmade shoe.

Further investigation of such clothing showed that he shopped primarily at Paul Smith and Ted Baker. I began experimenting with a pair of socks here and a silk handkerchief there. Then I took myself for a proper shave in a barbershop. I had never before had a proper shave. In fact I rarely shaved; I tended to let the stubble grow out until my face itched, scratch it all off with a—generally

 

 

—blunt razor, leave myself with a blotchy, butchered face, and then let it all grow back again. Clothes shopping for me was a joyless affair: a whizz around M&S with a basket twice a year. I began to enjoy browsing these boutiques for gentlemen. I liked the snake-hipped sales assistants, so eager to help, to guide me in the right direction. Then I had a proper haircut, found some products that gave my rather sparse and gravity-challenged hair the appearance of volume and lift, bought a pair of clear-lensed glasses with horn frames, and the transformation was complete.

It was a gradual process, over the course of a couple of months. It wasn’t as if I just suddenly popped up one day with a brand-new image like one of those awful TV makeover shows. I’m not sure anyone I saw regularly even noticed.

I just wanted to show myself to you and for you to like me. That’s all it was. For you to find me familiar. To find me the kind of person with whom you could share a slice of cake. I wanted us to be friends and then I wanted you and Poppy to be friends. Because by now I had had a DNA test done. By now I knew, with only 0.02 percent of a chance of improbability, that Poppy was not my child and that the only person she truly belonged to was you.

I had not expected mutual attraction. I had not expected your hands inside the sleeves of my jumper in the restaurant, our desperate ascent up the stairs of my house that night, your head in the crook of my arm the following morning. Women like you did not like men like me. And I . . .

No. There’s no defense for it. None. I took advantage. Plain and simple.

But I’m glad at least that you and Poppy have had a chance to get to know each other in relatively normal circumstances, not in the glare of a police operation, not in the strip-lit office of the social services, just as a child and her grandmother, sharing breakfast, going shopping, eating dinner with your family. I hope this means that in the days that follow Poppy will be seamlessly assimilated into the Mack family. I’ve given her the bare bones of the truth. I will leave it to you to

decide how much more she needs to know. And remember, this house and everything in it belongs to Poppy. She’ll more than pay her own way in life.

But that brings me to the final, and in some ways, most compelling reason for me not going straight to the police back in May of this year. You’ll notice if you look through the window to your right that there is a flower bed in the garden, newer, higher than the others. Do you see? At the very back? I dug it out in early November, just before I met you.

Noelle Donnelly is under there.

 

 

Before that she was in a chest freezer in my cellar. She’d been in there since the night she told me about Ellie. The night she told me Poppy wasn’t mine.

I didn’t mean to kill her, Laurel, I promise you that. It was an accident. I went for her, I wanted to scare her, I wanted to hurt her. I mean, you can imagine, can’t you, how I was feeling, with that woman, that evil woman, in my kitchen, ripping my heart out of my chest. If you had been there, you’d have wanted to hurt her, too; I know you would. But I did not intend to kill her. Her chair went flying and her head hit the floor and . . .

Anyway . . . I’ll let you decide if you want to tell the police. If you want to tell Poppy. But I couldn’t go without telling someone and I know whatever you decide to do, it will be the right thing.

Please, Laurel, forgive me. Forgive me for everything. Forgive me for meeting Noelle, for allowing her into my life; forgive me for not questioning her more when she was pregnant, for not asking more questions about the basement in her house, for not going to the police when I suspected who Poppy’s mother was, for allowing myself to fall in love with you, and for taking these last few weeks with you that were not mine to be taken. Please forgive me.

The horizon is right in front of you, Laurel. March to it right now, with Poppy by your side.

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