How to Disappear – Gillian McAllister

Lauren ducks into the alleyway without warning. She’ll do it here, before she goes inside. She gets out the lipstick. It’s a nude shade she’s worn for years. Her mirror is old, too. Aidan bought it for her the Christmas before last. She looks at it now, her initials inscribed on the back, and opens it. One blue eye stares back at her. As she hides in the alleyway, she sees what she assumes is the candidate before her leaving the nursery. Oh no, Lauren thinks, as she watches her go. The woman is wearing a skinny trouser suit, burgundy loafers. Good hair. But more than that: she has confidence. It’s everywhere. In her walk, in the way she holds her handbag, dangling at the end of a slim arm.

Her appearance is neat whereas Lauren, looking back at herself in the mirror, is definitely messy. Her hair has frizzed in the rain, around her temples. The woman glances briefly at her, and Lauren shrinks further back into the alley. Don’t look at me. Don’t speak to me. She stares out on to the rain-slicked street after the woman has gone. There are people coming and going in winter coats, Christmas shopping in their hands. It’s late afternoon, already dark. The light from the shopfronts creates blurred sepia puddles of spilled light on the pavement. It is a totally normal street full of totally normal people.

She hopes. Lauren looks again in the mirror and puts her lipstick on. It feathers at the edges and runs. She wipes around her mouth but smears it further, leaving her skin red and sore-looking. What will they ask? Sweat gathers across her lower back. She doesn’t know how to answer interview questions any more. Not even the most basic ones. She gives up with the lipstick, closes the mirror and slides it back into her handbag. Inside the bag is a Portuguese custard tart from the bakery, which she will eat on the bus home, the paper bag spread across her lap to catch the crumbs. She’s also saved a trashy article to read about two celebrities who are rumoured to be having an affair.

Five minutes of guilty bliss, just for her, afterwards. What remains of her, anyway. The handbag, the lipstick and the preference for custard tarts and celebrity gossip are old. The parts of her that she has been permitted to keep. The parts of her that are left. She thinks of everything she can no longer do. Kiss her husband. Post on Instagram. Tell the truth. Lauren goes inside.

The reception has wooden floors and a branded rug with the nursery’s name on it. High Trees. They’re going to ask her competency questions, she is thinking, as the receptionist slides the glass screen back. ‘Can I help?’ she says, and Lauren thinks: no, nobody can. Suddenly, I can’t recall a time when I helped a dif icult child to develop, or I reported a safeguarding concern. Perhaps she can just tell them the truth. A half-truth. That she really, really needs this job. That she would be good at it. That she will love the children.

That there is nothing better, to her, than seeing a three-year-old late talker say, ‘Lauren, look!’ out of nowhere, as though somebody just turned on the speech part of their brain overnight. ‘I have a four-thirty interview,’ she says. As she speaks, she smells it. All nurseries smell the is a Portuguese custard tart from the bakery, which she will eat on the bus home, the paper bag spread across her lap to catch the crumbs. She’s also saved a trashy article to read about two celebrities who Lauren goes inside. The reception has wooden floors and a branded rug with the nursery’s name on same. Poster paints. The plastic smell of lunchboxes: cucumber and bread. She blinks and glances around her. She is home, home amongst these smells and the little starfish hands and feet of the children she will fall in love with.

Lauren forgets her frizzy hair, her smudged lipstick. ‘Great,’ the woman says. Her nails click on the keyboard. ‘Please can you confirm your name?’ ‘Leonora,’ Lauren replies. She glances at her reflection in the glass screen. There is no Lauren any more. Lauren is gone. same. Poster paints. The plastic smell of lunchboxes: cucumber and bread.

She blinks and glances around her. She is home, home amongst these smells and the little starfish hands and feet of the children she will fall in love with. Lauren forgets her frizzy hair, her smudged lipstick. ‘Great,’ the woman says. Her nails click on the keyboard. ‘Please can you confirm your name?’ ‘Leonora,’ Lauren replies. She glances at her reflection in the glass screen. There is no Lauren any more. Lauren is gone. BEFO RE BEFO RE 1 Zara Holloway Grammar School, London August Zara is fourteen years old when she witnesses the murder.

She is reading a book as she walks from the school football pitch to the surrounding fields. Dry clumps of yellow-green grass litter the lawn like balled-up socks, and she keeps tripping over them. She’s reading Eleanor & Park. She knows it makes no sense to read and walk, but she can’t help it. She’s gripped by the love story. As she narrowly misses walking into a goal post, she puts the book in her bag and thinks, instead. Specifically, Zara begins to think about stationery. She bought new pens today, a pack of three wrapped in cellophane. Blue, black, red. She’ll never use the red one – isn’t it rude to write in red? – but she likes the collection, the three together in a neat row.

Zara likes tidiness, though she thinks maybe she shouldn’t. She should like drinking and boys. But anyway, it is so nice to look forward to things in this way. The past few years have been full of worry. It came from nowhere. One morning when she was eleven, Zara began to worry about everything. What if her mother died, what if she attended a party and felt so panicked she needed to leave, what if the Tube crashed, what if, what if, what if …? It has taken Zara years to learn to manage it. Anxiety. Such a bland name for something so sharp. Zara has always felt on the sidelines – thinking about books at the school disco when she should be thinking about dancing, apparently – but the anxiety somehow made her more so.

An observer of life, not a participator in it. She once said this to her stepsister, Poppy, who said, ‘I die, Zara, you’re such a mood.’ It’s already dusky, at eight o’clock, but the evening stretches out in front of her: tonight is going to be spent in a delicious frenzy of unpacking. Four stiff cardboard folders. Slippery A4 plastic wallets. Sticky tabs. Joy Of Missing Out, is it called? JOMO. Well, that. She’ll sort out her folders, and then she’ll return to school, to Year Ten, a new woman, she has decided. She doesn’t quite know who she will be.

Not yet. But it won’t be who she was before. When she first hears the noise, she tells herself it’s nothing. An unexplained shout on a hot summer’s evening. Her pace is slow and relaxed across the empty field, the sky a high lavender dome above her, little dried tufts of grass sticking to her trainers. It’s only when she hears the second shout, then the third, that she stops, a fine layer of sweat on her lower back slowly evaporating as she turns, scanning the horizon for the noises like an animal looking for its predator. Her eyes land on the bandstand. It’s been having its roof repaired over the summer. Each week, on the way home from her extra literature lessons – not cool, at all, but she loves everything about them – slightly more progress has been made. She squints now in the half-light.

That’s where the noise is coming from. Two men. One on the stage, another halfway up the steps. wrapped in cellophane. Blue, black, red. She’ll never use the red one – isn’t it rude to write in red? – But anyway, it is so nice to look forward to things in this way. The past few years have been full of Zara has always felt on the sidelines – thinking about books at the school disco when she should be be spent in a delicious frenzy of unpacking. Four stiff cardboard folders. Slippery A4 plastic wallets. summer’s evening.

Her pace is slow and relaxed across the empty field, the sky a high lavender dome lower back slowly evaporating as she turns, scanning the horizon for the noises like an animal looking but she loves everything about them – She paces forward, then stops, maybe forty feet away. Something’s happening. Zara’s anxiety often used to make her think that something bad was happening when it wasn’t, but this time she thinks she might be right. Goosebumps appear on her arms as she moves back across the field to one of the greenhouses nearby. She lets herself in and breathes in its familiar, hot musk tomato smell. She spent so many hours in here over the spring, growing organic and non-organic lettuces for a biology experiment that she found stressful. She would re-pot the lettuces in her break times, moving them from small pots on the window sill to fat Gro-bags outside. She would lie awake, sometimes, worrying about her frillyleaved lettuces out in the cold, which her mum, Lauren, laughed at. ‘But there’s no need to worry about that,’ she said, a sentence she had uttered often. Concealed by forgotten, spindly, grey-green plants, she looks carefully through the holes in the leaves and into the bandstand.

She can see the figures clearly. Two boys, a couple of years older than her, maybe sixteen. Not men, as she had first thought. There is no way she can intervene. All of the old feelings rear up. Butterflies in her stomach. Cold hands. A feeling of being watched, being hunted. The old anxiety, but this time with reason. She can’t step forward.

She is frozen in fear. She can’t leave the safety of the greenhouse. She puts a hand on the mottled green windowpane, just looking. It is important, if she can’t step in, to look. It is the right thing to do, to watch, when something important is unfolding, and Zara so likes to do the right thing. She watches it unfold, staring, unblinking, so hard her eyes become dry and painful. Something horrendous is happening, but Zara forces herself to keep staring, not glancing away for even a moment. She counts, instead. One second. Two.

Three. It’s over in ten. And nothing is ever the same again.

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