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Authors: Luca Veste

Then She Was Gone

BOOK: Then She Was Gone
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For Uncle John “Murphy” Kirkham

Thank you for the inspiration and for everything else over the years

ONE YEAR AGO
Tuesday 1 September

He had no final memory of her. Only a single image. One last moment, trapped in an interminable loop, playing over and over in his mind. There, every time he closed his eyes,
mocking him.

Tim Johnson was beginning to accept that there was nothing else about his daughter he would ever remember.

People will tell you that love at first sight doesn’t exist. That it takes time to feel all the emotions that make up the L word. Comfort, familiarity, yearning. They don’t just
appear overnight.

Those people are wrong.

Have a child and feel that bolt of lightning when you hold them for the first time. A little face looking up at you, completely at your mercy and dependence. That’s love at first sight.
When his daughter had been placed in his arms, he had fallen in love instantly. Head over heels, flat on his back in love. His whole life had led to that point. Every mistake, every misstep, it had
all been worth it.

It had taken him a couple of days to find the best route to walk around the park. The area was new to him and full of hidden surprises, nooks and crannies to discover. He had seen it only in
pictures before now, the large pavilion-type structure taking up most of results when he searched for it on Google. A circular building with glass windows making up the outside structure.

There was, of course, more to Sefton Park than that building. The park itself covered at least two hundred acres; a piece of tranquillity in the heart of the city of Liverpool, its vast green
spaces surrounded by trees. He had found a cafe in the middle of the park, an old fountain nearby. The whole area undisturbed and well-kept, despite the reputation of the local youths. There were
closer parks, but it was worth taking the extra time to visit this one.

The days had seemed much longer recently. It had become more difficult to fill the quiet moments.

‘Feed the ducks, Molly? That’s what we’ll do today, hey, baby? Daddy take you to feed the ducks?’

The four-week-old child he pushed around the park in front of him didn’t open her eyes, having fallen asleep before they’d even reached the park. The motion of the pushchair sending
her straight off.

‘When you’re a bit older, we’ll find some swings in this place. You’ll like that.’

A balding man, desperately hanging onto the last remnants of his thirties, jogged past them, his heavy breathing and the tinny dance music filtering through headphones breaking the silence.

The jogger didn’t seem to notice him, lost in the effort of running just a little further.

A cool breeze whistled through trees to the side of them, disturbing birds perched in the treetops. He looked up as they took flight, circled and settled once more. Autumn was drawing in. The
last remnants of summer already forgotten.

‘We’ll have to wrap you up warmer soon, Molly. It’ll be cold this winter, I think.’

He’d lived in the north of England for almost a decade and still wasn’t used to the subtle differences compared with the south where he’d grown up. They passed another large
open space of field. A bare patch of land sitting unused. Just a vastness, opening up and then encircled by a line of trees in the distance. A small inlet of water ran beside the path, broken twigs
and leaves floating on the surface.

Silence settled back in. A contrast, he imagined, with the weekends and school holidays when the park would be bustling with life. Children of all ages being let loose by harried parents, taken
for a walk to use up some energy. Football and cricket matches being organised on the spacious green land. Jumpers for goalposts and all that nostalgia.

He imagined sitting there, a blanket underneath him and the sun on his face, hearing the sounds of laughter and raised voices. Pictured Molly running off, never too far, but enough for her to
learn a little independence. Meeting friends, discovering new things and new pleasures.

He imagined a life there. The thought of it made him smile.

When he heard the footsteps behind him, he thought it was the jogger again, back for another lap. The hurried slaps of soles hitting the path as they headed in his direction didn’t make
him flinch or turn around.

Maybe if he had, things would have been different.

In the pram, Molly fussed a little, so he slowed his pace and tried to soothe her. He moved the dummy closer to her face, the suckling increasing as she finally found it again and began to calm
once more.

The first blow didn’t register at first. The surprise of it, a dull thud at the back of his head, his vision blurring for an instant, was so unexpected in the peace of the
surroundings.

The second blow buckled his legs. He tried to steady himself, clutching the pushchair’s handles as his balance went. A third blow sent him to the ground.

Not like this. Not like this.

He crumbled to the ground, the fall not registering as his weight hit the floor. The sound of the pushchair falling with him became muffled as the blurriness returned with vigour. He tried to
reach out towards it, but his hands didn’t obey. As he shifted onto his side, he saw a black boot scrape towards him. He tried to shake his head, but that just sent waves of pain through his
temples. A feeling of nausea swept through him, the edges of his vision growing darker by the millisecond.

That single image, just before he lost consciousness. The wheel of the pram, holding Molly, his life, spinning round and round.

Not an image of his daughter. The pushchair couldn’t have fallen beside him with her facing him. No, she was facing the other way, so all he saw was a wheel. Spinning and spinning.

As he lost her.

*    *    *

He didn’t know how long he was out for, but the sun was still beaming down when he rubbed his eyes and got to his haunches. The memory of what had happened came back
slowly to him, making him rise to his feet, before falling back down onto his knees and dry heaving onto the grass beside him.

‘Molly,’ he tried to shout, though his throat betrayed him. He swallowed back bile and tried again. ‘Molly.’

He turned to where he’d seen the last image. Saw only an empty path. No spinning wheel. No overturned pram.

No Molly.

No daughter.

No life.

Wednesday 2 September

Twenty-four hours she’d been gone. Out there, without him. Scared, confused. If a four-week-old could feel those things. Wondering where he was. She knew his face. That
was how it worked, he was sure of it. It didn’t matter if it was twenty-four hours, or twenty-four days. She would remember him.

Please don’t let it be twenty-four days.

‘Do you not have a photo of . . . Molly, did you say?’

He sighed for what seemed the thousandth time since the detectives had reappeared at the house. ‘I’ve told you again and again, no I haven’t. She’s only a few weeks old
and I have been too busy to print any yet. I had some on my phone, but that’s been stolen, along with my daughter. What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be out there, finding
her?’

‘Mr Johnson, I can assure you we have officers out there doing exactly that. The best way to help us is to give us as much information as possible, OK? Now, let’s start at the
beginning again. Think we can do that?’

He nodded, tiredness washing over him. He had been awake all night, unable to sleep. Once the police had arrived at the park, everything had begun to pass in a blur of questions and offers of
tea.

‘We’ve only just moved here,’ Tim said, a sigh escaping from his mouth. ‘We were over on the Wirral before here.’

‘And why the move? Where’s Molly’s mother . . . Lauren was it? Yes . . . where is she?’

He hesitated, again, as he had every time he’d told the story. ‘I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to her since we had to leave. I tried calling her, but there’s no
answer. She hadn’t been well for a while . . .’

‘In what way?’

He pointed to his head, his hand moving upwards slowly. ‘Mentally. During the pregnancy she was saying very strange things. She’d put on a show of being fine for the midwives,
nurses, things like that. Not that she’d let me in for the appointments.’

The detective looked up from her notepad at that. ‘Why do you think that was?’

He bristled a little at the accusatory tone. He didn’t trust her. The headscarf wasn’t right, not with the Scouse accent alongside it. It made him wary of her. ‘She
wasn’t thinking straight. She thought I was going to bring bad luck in. She wanted only women around her. Even for the birth. I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the place. Couldn’t
even hand out cigars in the waiting room like a nineteen fifties dad. Had to wait at home by the phone for her to call me.’

‘That can’t have been easy.’

He relaxed a little as the detective’s voice became less accusatory. Maybe it didn’t matter so much that she was one of those Muslims. Or a woman. ‘No, it wasn’t. I
wanted to be there for her and Molly. To cut the umbilical cord and all that stuff. It wasn’t exactly what I had been expecting.’

The detective leaned towards him, her coat brushing against the edge of the couch. ‘Then what happened?’

He took a breath. ‘The first few days were fine, a struggle, of course, with a newborn, but it seemed like all the weird stuff had been forgotten. Then, I came home from doing a shop to
find her setting things on fire in the backyard.’

‘What sort of things?’

He looked around for the glass of water he’d had earlier, but couldn’t see it. ‘All of the clothes we’d bought Molly. Photographs she’d brought home from the
hospital. Molly’s moses basket and all her bedding. It was like she was trying to erase any trace of our daughter’s life.’

The detective glanced towards her partner quickly before turning back to him. ‘Where was Molly when this happened?’

‘She was inside the house. She’d been left on the living-room floor. I picked her up and made sure she was OK. Lauren was still outside, just staring at the flames.’

His mouth was dry, his whole body itching to stand up and go across to the kitchen and satiate his thirst. He waited instead.

‘This was two weeks ago,’ he said after a few seconds’ silence. ‘I gave her a few more days, just to see if it was a one-off. She just got worse. I couldn’t leave
the house without Molly. I was scared of what would happen while I wasn’t there. I didn’t sleep much, not that you can anyway with a newborn, but it wasn’t because of that. I was
worried about what she would do.’

The detective shifted back on the couch. ‘What led you over here, to Liverpool?’

He swallowed back dryness. ‘I had to go out and get a few bits. Molly had been crying for a while and I’d finally got her down to sleep. I didn’t want to disturb her, so I
didn’t take her with me. Lauren had been in a good mood that day, so I thought it would be OK if I just went to the shop quickly and came back . . .’

Every time he had got to this part of the story, he had begun to shake. Imperceptibly at first, before it became more noticeable.

‘I came back home and she was on the doorstep with Molly in the pram. They were about to leave, but she wouldn’t tell me where they were going. I . . . I persuaded her
to go back inside. That’s when I saw the note on the coffee table in the living room. She tried to hide it, but I got to it first.’

BOOK: Then She Was Gone
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