No Elle by Chris Green
Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head suggests to me I had a fair bit to drink. I remember I got in late from a celebration of my team’s promotion. It was altogether a good night. In order not to wake anyone when I got home, I took the daybed in the downstairs study. Elle has not been sleeping well lately, stress at work and the like, and I thought I might be a little restless. Also, it gave me a chance to be able to look at the photos of the evening on my phone. Probably best not to share all of these with Elle, I thought.
It gradually occurs to me that it has been light for some time. I take a look at my watch. It’s eight o’clock. I wonder why no one is up. It’s Friday, a work day and of course a school day as well, but it certainly seems very quiet upstairs. Thomas is sometimes a little slow in the morning but Maddie is normally bouncing around by now. And Elle herself has to be at the office by nine. She ought to be up and about.
Being self-employed, getting up at a specific time doesn’t matter so much to me. My colleague, Duke is flexible. He doesn’t mind opening up once in a while, so I can roll in when I like, or not at all. Duke is a handy fellow to have around. His main role is that of a fixer. Sometimes a bit of good honest persuasion is needed in my line of work and not many people would argue with Duke.
I’d better get the others up, though.
‘Anyone about,’ I call up the stairs as I do my ritual morning stretches.
There is no response.
‘Come on guys, rise and shine,’ I holler, in between my ritual morning yawns.
There is no response.
I decide I’d better go and take a look.
I make my way up the stairs trying to think of a novel way of waking them up, perhaps with a fake phone call or perhaps a sarcastic comment about their laziness. I look in Maddie’s room first. Maddie is the youngest. She’s four, no, wait, she’s five. Thomas is seven. I push the door open slowly waiting for Maddie to ask who is there. She doesn’t. Is she having a sulk about something? I poke my head around the door, leaving open the option of a boo type gesture, but there is no sign of her. The room is tidy. Her bed is made. It does not look as if it has been slept in. Thomas’s room, the same. Our bedroom, ditto. No Elle.
There must surely be a rational explanation. Have they gone to stay with a friend? Has something just slipped my mind? Was there part of a conversation that I missed before I went out yesterday evening? Just a hint that they might have been going somewhere for the night. This seems unlikely. We are creatures of habit, well, Elle perhaps more than me. In her world, these type of arrangements need to be made weeks in advance.
I didn’t have much contact with any of them yesterday, but they were around at tea time and I didn’t go out until half past seven. They were still here then, weren’t they? I remember now, I did go out a little early to stop off at the betting shop on the way to the pub. But still, this would have been nearly seven. Well, more like six I suppose. But, if something had happened, surely Elle would have phoned me. I had my phone on. I’m sure of that. I got that call from Darius about the new shipment while I was at The Blind Monkey.
It is of course theoretically possible that they’ve all got up, dressed, used the bathroom, had breakfast and that Elle has made the beds and taken the children to school very early, without waking me. Theoretically possible, but unlikely. I am a light sleeper even after a skinful and anyway, Elle’s yellow Fiat is still parked on the drive and all their coats are all still hanging up in the hallway. So whatever has happened, happened before I got home.
So what does this mean? I can’t think of anything that would have made Elle leave me. Quite the reverse. We have been getting on rather well lately. Certainly, as well as you can expect after eight years of marriage. Obviously, there have been one or two ups and downs over the years but surely, that’s all water under the bridge. If Elle had left me, then you would have expected at the very least a note, explaining how she saw things. A list perhaps of unforgivable misdemeanours of which I have been completely unaware. This is what usually happens, isn’t it? Is it? I don’t know. It’s never happened before. Even after Elle discovered I was seeing Tracey. But, this is the way it happens in TV dramas.
At a glance, it doesn’t seem that anything is missing. Even Elle’s handbag is still on the kitchen table where she has a habit of leaving it and it weighs about the same as it usually does. About ten kilos. What am I worrying about? I can just phone her. She never goes anywhere without her phone. It’s never out of her reach. I speed-dial the number. It doesn’t even go onto voicemail. ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later,’ is the message.
Twenty five minutes on hold, listening to Suspicious Minds, waiting to speak to an officer does nothing to instil confidence in police procedure. Once I’m put through to a real policeman, Sergeant Filcher does nothing to restore my confidence either. He sounds as if he is on diazepam medication and at the end of a twelve hour shift. I give him an account of the sequence of events since I last saw my family, but his interest in their disappearance is slight. Perhaps families go missing in Norcastle every day.
‘It’s only been a couple of hours,’ he says. ‘Perhaps your wife went to Asda on the way to school or something. Have you thought of that?’
‘Of course. But she never shops at Asda.’ To be honest, I’m not sure where she shops.
‘Have you checked the school? They have breakfast clubs and things these days.’
I haven’t checked the school, but to save time, I tell him that I have.
‘Look, Mr Black. If we investigated every family that changes its arrangements then there would be no officers available to catch the real criminals. Anyway, they’ll be down again next year.’
‘What are you talking about?’ I say.
‘Your team, they’ll be relegated again next year,’ he says. Sergeant Filcher must be a Blues supporter. The Reds beat the Blues with a goal in the very last minute of the very last game to secure promotion, at the Blues expense. I am anxious to not let Sergeant Filcher’s animosity get in the way of our conversation.
‘You’ll get on to looking for my family then, will you Sergeant?’ I say.
‘If your wife hasn’t turned up by, let us say, tomorrow evening, then call us again,’ he says. ‘Meanwhile, phone round your friends and relatives, will you! Goodbye, Mr Black.’
It can be difficult to convey the gravity of a desperate situation to others when you are the only one who realises it, so I sit down and think about how I am going to handle it. It may be wishful thinking but it is eminently possible that Elle might walk in through the door at any time with an explanation that I have not hitherto considered. Or that she might phone. ‘Sorry,’ she might say. ‘I had no way of letting you know, but ……..’ I have no way of telling if such a scenario is a long-shot or not. Sergeant Filcher is probably right. It has only been a matter of hours. Perhaps I should leave it for a bit. There’s no point in treating it as an abduction or a murder investigation just yet. Perhaps Elle’s just having a sulk. There again, he might be wrong. Uncertainty is often the worst. Given time, I could probably come to terms with the despair, but isn’t it the hope that is the problem? There again, perhaps I don’t care as much as I once did.
I don’t think Elle ever puts her phone on silent, so, as I did not hear it ring when I dialled it earlier, I can assume that it is not in the house. In which case, she probably still has it with her. I try ringing again, but get the same message, ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later.’ I decide to make my way through the contact numbers that Elle has written down in the pad by the phone over the years. Friends, relatives, extended family, hairdresser, former hairdresser, former hairdresser’s friend’s cat-sitter. I keep the conversations as casual as I can. It is important to find out if anyone has seen Elle but, at the same time, I don’t want everyone knowing our business. I don’t want people to think that I’m losing control. Reactions to the news of my family’s disappearance range from, ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.’ to ‘Oh dear, what have you been up to, now?’ No-one seems to take it seriously. You would think that there would at least be some concern for Thomas and Maddie’s welfare. The closest I get to concern is from Elle’s friend, Shannon, who is worried that I may have buried them in the back garden. Shannon has always disapproved of me.
Around midday, as I am coming to the end of the list, the house phone rings. It doesn’t often ring. We only use our mobiles these days. I am on it like a shot but it is a call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Carl begins to tell me how the service works. I swear at him and slam the phone down. No sooner have I sat down, than the house phone rings again. Once again, I am on it like a shot but it is another call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Craig begins to tell me how the service works.
I’m going up the wall, trying to think back over the last few days. Have there been any signs of restlessness, excitement, anxiety? Have the children been behaving in a secretive way or doing anything unusual? I suppose I have been out quite a lot lately but it seemed that everything was as it always was, work, school, mealtimes, staggered bedtimes.
I check our paperwork box files. Nothing seems to be missing. The passports are still in the safety deposit box and no money is gone from the joint account. I cannot get into Elle’s account as I do not know the password, so I have no way of finding out if she has made a large cash withdrawal. I go round opening drawers and take a look in cupboards and under cushions. I do not know what I might be looking for. Am I really expecting to find a nicely typed page of A4 that will explain the disappearance, or even a scribbled note? I unearth some of the things that Elle has kept to remind her perhaps of the good times; the programme for the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup (I’d forgotten she came along to that),both the Happy Anniversary cards I sent her when I was away, the postcards and letters I sent her from before we were married. I begin to feel a little guilt-ridden. Could I have been more caring? Should I have taken more notice?
In terms of solving the mystery, though, I am getting nowhere. Is abduction a possibility? What should I be looking for? There are no signs of forced entry. There are no obvious signs of a struggle, no furniture out of place, no scuff marks on the carpet. Everything seems as it always has been. I really don’t feel I’m going to come up with anything meaningful staying around the house.
As I’m locking up, I see Frank Fargo at number 66 is mowing his lawn. Since his retirement, Frank is home all day and he’s always looking out of the front window. He must see everything that goes on around here. Some sort of writer now, I believe. Spy stories or something, I think he said.’
‘Hi Frank,’ I say. ‘Sorry to bother you, mate, but I wonder if you happened to see anything last night. For instance, Elle going off with Thomas and Maddie.’
‘Lovely children aren’t they,’ he says. ‘And your wife is looking, uh, very fit. Yesterday evening, you say. No. I don’t think I did. I saw you go off in your cab. That must have been about seven thirty three, and then nothing. Of course, I do go to bed quite early. I like to turn in about nine.’
‘What about your CCTV cameras?’ I say. ‘Do you think they might have caught something?’
‘No. I’m afraid the device that records the footage has died,’ he says. ‘Went down a couple of days ago, as it happens. I’m waiting for SlowTech or whatever they are called to come out and fix it. I thought when the doorbell rang that it might be them.’
‘So, you haven’t seen anything suspicious?’
‘Well. Now you come to mention it. Tony Demarco from number 72 has been unloading a lot of stuff into his lock up garage lately.’
‘Tony Demarco. Is he the one with the big yellow van?’
‘That’s the one. I’ve never quite been able to work out quite what he does, But I think he’s some kind of wheeler-dealer.’
It’s a strange phenomenon, but when there is a mystery like this, everyone suddenly seems to be acting suspiciously. All the people I spoke to earlier about Elle’s disappearance are probably hiding something. Even Sergeant Filcher. Especially Sergeant Filcher. He is hiding something. Frank Fargo is definitely hiding something. He must have seen what happened. And Tony Demarco must have had something to do with it. The guy who comes round to clean the windows is probably in on it too. Even the lad who delivers the flyers for the community centre events is a suspect, and certainly, the Avon lady is a bit dodgy. The whole thing is a conspiracy. Everyone knows what is going on but me. I don’t like being in this position. I have a reputation to maintain.
I leave it for forty eight hours then call the police again and after I have badgered them for a bit, they agree to come round and have a look. After I’ve cleared a few things away, a detective with a forensics man comes along and spends an hour or so going over the place. They ask a few questions but I can tell their hearts aren’t in it. It is just a job to them. They don’t say much about what they are doing or whether they have found anything but as I hear nothing more, I assume they haven’t found anything.
I call the station just in case and when Sergeant Filcher says as far as he knows they’ve turned up nothing, I suggest they might put out a newspaper plea. He tells me he doesn’t make those kind of decisions but he will run it past Inspector Boss, but he thinks he knows what the answer will be. They have their reasons for keeping cases like mine out of the press.
‘And what might those be?’ I ask. His low-key approach does not do it for me. Does he not know that I have a certain standing in the community? If my family have been abducted, I want every officer out combing the streets looking for them.
‘You clearly do not understand police procedure, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘You’ve been watching too many crime dramas, on TV, I expect. For the time being at least, this is being treated as a matrimonial dispute.’
‘You think that we had a row in the middle of the night and Elle walked out and took the two children without even taking her handbag, do you?’ I say.
‘Look, Mr Black! There is no reason to suppose that Elle and the children have been abducted. There is absolutely no evidence to support this. Or any other line of enquiry that might constitute a serious crime.’
‘For all you know, I could have killed them and dumped the bodies in the canal,’ I say.
‘Now you are just being facetious, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘We will monitor the case, and if anything develops we will, of course, let you know. Oh! By the way, I see your team has had to sell its star players.’
Half-heartedly I take it to the Gazette. Everyone is saying that it is an avenue that should be explored. Well, when I say everyone, I suppose I mostly mean Majid at the off-licence. His family had a similar experience. The editor of the Gazette, Burford Quigley decides that it warrants no more than a few column inches on page five. Not even a picture. Perhaps I forgot to let them have a photo.
As the days pass and weeks turn into months, I become less and less hopeful. Occasionally there is an alleged sighting but none of these comes to anything. Friends of mine sometimes drop by to take advantage of my hospitality and from time to time friends of Elle’s phone to find out if there has been any news, but they do this less and less frequently as the months go by.
Elle’s best friend, Lois is the only one who phones regularly.
‘Hi Matt,’ she will say. ‘Any news?’
‘No,’ I tell her.
‘I can’t understand it,’ she will say. ‘Elle used to tell me everything and she never once said anything about leaving.’
I tell her that she is very kind, but there’s probably nothing she can do.
‘But, you must get very lonely there all by yourself,’ she will say. ‘Why don’t you come round and I will cook you dinner? Or I could come over.’
Lois is the most attractive of Elle’s friends and she is recently divorced. Although the offer is tempting, it wouldn’t seem right, would it?
‘Maybe another time,’ I say.
‘No-one would need to know if that’s what you are worried about,’ she says.
The letter that arrives contains five random six by four photos. There is no message to accompany the photos and the address on the front of the envelope is printed on a sticky label in the anonymous Times New Roman font. The communication does not actually suggest that it is from Elle, but, equally, it does not suggest that it is not. One photo is of a younger looking Elle in front of The Bell in Tanworth in Arden in Warwickshire. Although I cannot remember the specific shot, I could have easily taken this photo. I can recall Elle and I going there about ten years ago to see the singer, Nick Drake’s grave. Northern Sky was always one of her favourites. I like Pink Moon. There is a photo of Elle with Thomas and Maddie in a rowing boat on the lake in the local park. I presumably took this one.
Who took the other photos is less clear-cut. They are of me and Suzie. I had almost forgotten about Suzie. It must have been the year before last. Who could have sent these random pics and what exactly are they trying to say? There is not even a blackmail note. Come to think of it what use would that be anyway. All in all the communication makes no sense. It is difficult to make out the postmark on the envelope. I think about it for a while and then decide to call the police. I decide to hold the three of me and Suzie back. A plainclothes policewoman comes over to collect. She looks about thirteen.
‘I’ll get the forensics team to examine these closely,’ she says. She writes a receipt, to my surprise in joined-up writing, and takes the envelope and photos away.
I hear nothing more from the police regarding the matter. When I enquire it appears that the package has gone missing. I begin to wonder if the youngster that came round was a real policewoman. Perhaps, in my confusion, I called the wrong number or something and someone is playing a joke on me.
‘Isn’t it unusual for evidence on a case to go missing?’ I say.
The duty officer, whose name I don’t manage to catch, says that he has had a good look but can find no reference to the case I am speaking about.
‘The disappearance of my wife and children,’ I say, angrily.
He puts me on hold again. I am subjected to ten minutes of Suspicious Minds and when he comes back on he says he has no record of this.
‘Would you like to go over it again?’ he says.
‘I would like to speak to Sergeant Filcher,’ I say.
He tells me that Sergeant Filcher is currently on sick leave.
I cannot say for sure that I am being followed, and it’s only occasionally that it happens, but once or twice lately when I’m driving out to see clients, I notice there is a dark blue Tiguan with obscured registration plates on my tail. It appears out of nowhere a couple of blocks from where I live. On the occasions that I go a roundabout route, the Tiguan does the same. Duke tells me I am being paranoid.
‘It’s not the bizzies, Matt,’ he says. ‘They mostly drive Fords.’
‘Why do you think we’re being followed then, Duke?’ I say, squinting to try and make out who is driving the Tiguan, but it has tinted windows and the sun shade is down.
‘Is it the same one?’ he says. ‘There are a lot of them about and they are nearly all dark blue?’
‘It looks like the same one,’ I say. ‘Tinted windows and sun shade down.’
‘It’s just one of those things,’ he says. ‘Tiguans have a tendency to tail you. I’ve noticed that before. And they all have tinted windows but still the drivers drive with the sun shade down.’
Is he serious or is he just having me on? Perhaps they are tailing Duke.
Later, in The Blind Monkey, Lois asks me what is wrong. She says I seem worried about something. I tell her about the Tiguan tailing me. She echoes Duke’s thoughts. She has noticed it too, she says. Tiguan drivers have a habit of tailing you. Like red sky at night, shepherd’s delight or the grass is greener on the other side, it is one of those commonplace assertions that despite you wanting to think otherwise, keep proving to be right. Where on earth did she get that from? Is she in collusion with Duke?
Oh! Did I not say? I have started seeing Lois. Two or three times a week, and perhaps the occasional weekend. And she has started to stop over. Well, I can’t be expected to live like a monk, can I? Besides, what would people think if Matt Black couldn’t get a girl? They might think I was batting for the other side.
I think that the Tiguan driver might be a private detective. I read on the internet that the car of choice for private detectives is a VW Tiguan. Apparently, nearly all private eyes in the UK drive a Tiguan and their favourite colour is dark blue. A survey has shown that this is the least conspicuous car on the road, followed by a grey Tiguan and a grey Ford Focus. Why would a private detective be following me? Might it be because of Lois? Or for that matter, Duke?
Something else has been bothering me. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I can’t help but be a little concerned with the speed with which Lois has dispatched the children’s things to the garage and the amount of Elle’s things she took to the tip last week.
‘Elle won’t need this,’ she kept saying.
Six carloads in all she took, including nearly all of Elle’s clothes and, it seemed, quite a lot of her personal papers. It is one thing Lois making room to move some of her things in so that she can stay over but another her taking over the house. I mentioned that this might be happening to Duke but he just laughed.
‘Now, you really are becoming paranoid,’ he said. ‘Why can’t you ever enjoy something for what it is?’
Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head lets me know I had a fair bit to drink. I watched the match on Sky. It was a tense affair with a lot at stake. The Reds were finally beaten by a last minute goal by ex-Blues striker, Joe Turner and are now relegated. To make matters worse the Blues are promoted. I think that Lois was a bit shocked at the level of my support for the Reds, but she did manage to stop me before I actually put the hammer through the TV screen at the end of the match. I don’t think she likes football a lot. This doesn’t bode well.
The phone rings. It is an ebullient Inspector Filcher. He has the air of a man who is on ecstasy and has just been told he will live forever. He reminds me in great detail about the match last night, what the result means for my team and what he said a year ago. Surely he has not phoned up to tell me this. Surely he cannot get so much pleasure at another’s misfortune.
‘And, what about the Blues?’ he adds. ‘Ironic or what!’
I am about to put the phone down when he says that he too has been promoted. He asks me if I will come down to the station but says he is not going what it is about over the phone. Has he been handed back the case? Have there been developments?
‘Who was that?’ says Lois. She is already dressed.
‘It was Filcher,’ I say.
‘I thought that you said he was….. off the case,’ she says.
‘He was. But he’s back. There may have been developments. He wants me to come down at the station.’ Lois seems suddenly nervous.
‘That’s …… great news,’ she says, although her body language tells a different story. Her muscles tense and the colour drains out of her face.
‘I think I’ll phone Duke,’ I say. ‘Get him to look into it.’
‘No! Don’t do that,’ she says.
‘I can’t really say.’
‘But I’m bound to find out.’
‘All right. ……… Are you ready? It was Duke that helped Elle move her things out that night, a year ago. While you were at your football do.’
‘Duke? Never. He wouldn’t do that.’
‘Well, he did. You are so unobservant you didn’t even realise that Elle was seeing Duke’s brother, Earl. Didn’t you think it was suspicious the way she used to dress to go to Pilates?’
‘But she didn’t take anything. Not even her car.’
‘She took lots of things. As I said, you are really not very observant. And, let’s face it, the Fiat was a wreck. You know she kept on at you to get her a new one.’
‘But, why did she do it? I mean, go off with Duke’s brother like that behind my back. We were getting along fine.’
‘She said she was fed up with your lies and deceit. And the sordid little affairs. And the football. Constant football. Day and night.’
‘What about the children? What about Thomas and Maddie?’
‘Elle says that you never took any notice of the children. She said she was surprised you could even remember their names.’
‘What about you, Lois? If I’m so terrible, why did you keep chasing after me?’
‘Chasing after you? That’s a laugh. Well, you’re so stupid, perhaps I’d better explain. I started phoning you, initially to report back to Elle. It was amusing, playing with you like that. Then, a month ago, out of the blue, I was given notice to move out of my flat, so moving some things in here seemed the easy option. You weren’t exactly resistant to the idea. You didn’t think this was a permanent arrangement, did you? But that business last night with the match on the TV. Well, that was the final straw.’
I believe that it is time I got a word in to present my side of the case, but Lois’s tirade is not yet finished.
‘And the thing is,’ she continues, ‘you just don’t see it. You always think you are right. You bend the truth to suit you. Black is white. Up is down. You are the most self-absorbed person I’ve met. Your way of seeing things is so far removed from the way things are that it might as well be a parallel universe.’
‘OK! OK! You’ve made your point. So, how does Filcher fit into all this? What is it he wants to tell me?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ says Lois. ‘It wouldn’t have been that hard to find your family. It’s not going to have taken the police a year. Anyway, I imagine Filcher knew that Elle had gone off with Earl, or something like that. That’s why he fobbed you off. If you had been a bit more resourceful then you could have found them yourself.’
‘But Filcher went off sick. What was that all about?’
‘Probably just overwork. Rising crime rates and all that. Sometimes they have to deal with proper crimes, you know. Well. You do know. You’ve been on the wrong side of them yourself once or twice in the past. In fact, what you and Duke are doing now isn’t exactly legal, is it? Perhaps Filcher wants to catch up on what is happening there.’
I am slowly running out of places to take the discussion.
‘What about the photos?’ I say. ‘Who sent the photos and what happened to them?’
‘I don’t know who sent the photos,’ she says, ‘or what happened to them. For all I know, it might have been Elle having a laugh. ….. And, before you ask, I don’t know who has been following you either. Perhaps that’s just something else that you’ve made up.’
‘But you agreed with Duke about the Tiguan. You said that ……’
‘Ah, Duke! We are back to Duke. Your trusted right-hand man, who would never double-cross you. Get a life, will you! Do you think that you can trust anyone in your line of work.’
‘I’m going out now,’ I tell her. ‘When I get back, I want you gone.’
‘No problem. I couldn’t stay a minute longer.’
As I slam the front door, I see that Frank Fargo is painting his picket fence.
‘Hello,’ he calls out. ‘Nice morning!’
‘Morning Frank,’ I say. I’m not in the mood for Frank. It’s a pity I parked the car on the street and not the drive.
‘Your new ….. girlfriend is very pretty,’ he says. ‘Lois, isn’t it?’
‘What!’ I say.
‘Very nice. Your new girlfriend.’ He has put down the brush now and is coming over.
‘I expect you saw her yourself,’ he says, ‘but I noticed your wife, uh, Elle, round here yesterday.’
‘No. I didn’t see her.’
‘She was in a dark blue Tiguan. With a big burly black fellow. He looked a bit like your man, Count. I think they might be moving into number 96. …….. You’ll be able to see a bit more of the children then, I expect. Lovely children.’
‘What!’ I say again. I am dumbstruck.
He is not finished yet. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but what is it that you and Count do exactly?’ he says. ‘It’s just that I’m writing a new story. It’s a bit of a departure from my spy novels and it has a pair of small-time underworld characters in it, so I was curious as to what type of activities bring in the money.’
© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved