Love You Gone – Rona Halsall

‘When will you ever learn?’ Luke said to the boy sitting beside him, his frustration apparent in every syllable. ‘Didn’t that black eye teach you anything?’ Callum stared at him, his bottom lip quivering slightly, the blue and yellow haze around his right eye all that was left of his injury. Defiance shone in his eyes, but he wouldn’t speak, just sat there, a smouldering presence in the passenger seat. He was only nine, but had a teenager’s attitude and reminded Luke of himself at that age, with his mess of sandy curls, earnest blue eyes and a tendency to bottle everything up. Except Luke’s eyes hadn’t been masked by fear, and his body hadn’t scrunched in on itself like Callum’s did, his shoulders pulled up to his ears. Luke’s fingernails hadn’t been bitten so much that the skin around them bled. Rain drummed on the windscreen, the monotonous sound of the wipers getting on Luke’s nerves. He turned the heater up a notch, aware that Callum was shivering. ‘We are going and that is it.’ Luke tried to make his voice calmer than he felt. ‘No arguments. Okay?’ Luke sighed. It was all his fault, wasn’t it? His fault that his child had started wetting the bed, that he cried himself to sleep, that he hardly spoke to him anymore, wouldn’t even look at him most of the time. So much anger in that little heart. So much pain.

It has to stop. Luke knew that, and this trip seemed like the only option open to him now. But could he bring himself to do it? Could he really end this life that he’d made for them all? What a responsibility children are, he thought. Their little lives in our hands. And he’d managed to mess up his children’s lives good and proper. Luke’s hands gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. This was so much harder than he’d imagined. He stared ahead at the four lanes of cars, stuck in a stationary queue on the Thelwall Viaduct, just outside Manchester; the M6 at its finest. He checked his watch, an excuse to not look at his son, who he knew was still glowering. Luke could feel the waves of anger flowing from Callum, reverberating through the air, and being sucked into Luke’s body with every breath he took.

He looked in his rear-view mirror, the car behind almost resting on his bumper. He caught a glimpse of his dark-haired daughter, head bent over her tablet; another reminder that this decision was not just about him. This was about his children. About taking the pain and fear and worries away. He nodded to himself. He could do that for them, couldn’t he? However hard this was going to be, it was an act of mercy that had to be done. There really was no choice now. He inched forwards as the queue started to move. Luke flicked a glance at Callum. ‘Sorry, fella, I didn’t mean to get cross.

’ He ruffled his son’s hair. ‘I know this is scary, but let’s just stick with it for a little while longer, okay? You’ve got to trust me.’ Callum pressed his lips together, a frown making a groove between his eyebrows, his expression so like his mother’s that it made Luke’s breath hitch in his throat. Callum nodded before turning his face away, such a familiar expression of defeat that it squeezed Luke’s heart. The beep of a horn made him look up. The cars in front had moved on and he accelerated, shifted the car into second gear, his jaw clamped shut. They were on their way again. On their way to peace. TWO SUNDAY Mel squinted against the explosion of light in her rear-view mirror. ‘Dip your flipping lights, would you?’ she muttered as she cautiously negotiated her way round a tight bend.

The car behind was large and chunky, its headlights as bright as searchlights in the black of the February night, and was tailing her so closely she hardly dared brake for fear that the driver would end up on the back seat. She looked at the clock on the dashboard. This damned thing had been behind her for almost a quarter of an hour and she could feel the tension dragging at her shoulders. She knew she was driving slowly, but the road was narrow and twisty – and everything would have been so much easier if she’d arrived here in the daylight as she’d originally intended, but… Well, the delay was worth it, she thought, with a wry smile. Finally, she had the promise of a new contract with a company she’d recently started doing a bit of work with, and that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t stayed and put in the extra effort. Occasionally, when you were a working mum, business had to come before family. She nodded to herself. That was the unfortunate truth of it. Branches clawed at the passenger door as she navigated yet another tight bend, her teeth gritted so hard her jaw was starting to ache. It was a mystery why they were coming here for a holiday, given that they lived on the edge of Snowdonia in North Wales.

You’d think that was wilderness enough to explore, but apparently not. Apparently, this area had other things to offer. That’s what Luke had said when he’d told her where they would be spending the half-term holidays. ‘Why couldn’t he just have booked Center Parcs like any normal person?’ she asked the empty passenger seat, like she had an invisible friend sitting there. She swung the wheel round a sudden corner, almost running up the grass bank, and her heart flipped for a second, sensing she was going to crash. It was no good, she was going to have to stop and let this idiot get past. Thankfully, the road widened a little and she pulled into a gateway, allowing the car to get round her and speed on its way. She sat for a moment after it was gone, trying to return herself to the sense of calm she’d felt earlier. When she’d thought she had everything nicely organised in her mind. ‘Should have booked it myself,’ she huffed.

‘Daft letting a man make holiday arrangements.’ But she knew in her heart that she’d been pleased when he’d surprised her with it, even though it had clashed with a work event, because it meant some quality time together as a family. Something they’d been missing in recent months. What did it matter where he’d booked? It’s the thought that counts, she told herself, smiling at the mental image of her big, handsome husband with his wavy blond hair and rugged features; a nose that had been broken playing rugby and was now a little crooked, a scar on his right cheek from a rock-climbing accident, his square chin with a little dink on one side from a childhood mishap. And those crystal blue eyes that still made her stop when he gazed at her. A whole uninterrupted week on holiday. How long since that had happened? She felt her annoyance evaporate, to be replaced by a small buzz of excitement. The children were going to love it, being at an age where they could handle an adventure, and that’s exactly what this holiday was going to be. ‘It’ll be great,’ Luke had said. ‘Honestly, wait until you see the website.

All these activities right on the doorstep.’ She’d leant over Luke’s shoulder as he scrolled through the pictures, his enthusiasm infectious. ‘See. We can hire mountain bikes and go for rides in the forest. Have picnics. You know the kids love a picnic. Loads of walks. Look, there’s a sculpture trail. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? We could even go up one of the fells if the weather’s good. And look at this…’ he’d scrolled down, ‘A high ropes course!’ He’d looked up at her, his face alight, and her heart had melted.

He was as excited as the children would be. Not that she would be going near the thing, but she’d happily take pictures and enjoy seeing them having a good time. She’d wrapped her arms around him and snuggled her face into his neck. ‘What a lovely surprise,’ she’d said. ‘That’ll be perfect.’ And it would be, she thought now, if only she could find the place. She clicked on the inside light and checked the directions, looked at the map he’d printed for her, not wanting to rely on her satnav, because he’d warned her it might not work too well on these little lanes. She seemed to have been on this road for an awfully long time and she wondered if she’d gone wrong again. Surely I should be there by now? She traced the road with her finger and realised with a sigh of relief that she was only a couple of miles away. ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelu-jah!’ She sang the words, then jazzed it up with a gospel rhythm, adding a few Praise the Lords for good measure.

Singing always cheered her up, but there was no doubt that she felt a little confused. New possibilities had presented themselves over the weekend, another option that she wasn’t sure what to do with. Mum and wife. That was all she’d ever wanted to be and now her life was a twisted knot of conflicting priorities. She squared her shoulders, pushed any thoughts of work out of her mind and focused instead on getting to her family. That’s what was important. The village was a mere blip on the map, just a collection of cottages on the edge of Grizedale Forest in the Lake District, and as she got nearer she slowed down, hunched forwards over the steering wheel, checking for road signs. My god, these roads are awful. Spooky as well, surrounded by trees for miles and miles. Anyone could be hidden in these woods.

Or anything. She gave an involuntary shiver. Despite Luke’s enthusiasm, she still felt that a week of getting cold and wet would not do their tempers much good, cooped up in a little cottage with unpredictable February weather hurtling around them. She shivered at the thought, unsure why he hadn’t booked them a holiday in a warmer destination. Clearly her hints about Tenerife being a nice place for a family break had been too subtle, and she decided that she’d have to try and be a little bit clearer next time. No heated swimming pool. No childminders. No lovely coffee shops and restaurants. Nope. All those amenities are miles and miles away.

Down these tortuous roads. And don’t get me started on the fact it’s self-catering! But then, the holiday wasn’t about her, it was, as Luke had said, all about the kids. She smiled to herself and put a hand on her stomach. Wondered if, by some miracle, it had worked this time, if one of her aging eggs had actually succumbed and was, at this very moment, growing inside her into a new being. Positive thoughts, positive thoughts, she told herself, as she willed a baby into existence. A sign loomed out of the gloom in front of her. Satterthwaite. ‘Yes! At last.’ She breathed a sigh of relief that seemed to start at her toes and work its way up through her body, leaving her sagging in her seat as she peered over the steering wheel. On the left, the instructions had said.

And there it was, a wooden sign on a gatepost, the lights of the house visible behind a tall privet hedge. And Luke’s mudsplattered 4×4 parked in the drive, next to the house. Mel swung off the road, parked up and wriggled her feet, uncomfortable in her smart shoes, which really weren’t the best design for driving. Six o’clock, that’s when she’d told Luke she’d be here in her last text, promising to set off after the morning workshop, which she’d told him she was running. As a management consultant, she usually stayed to do a bit of networking after every event she organised, cementing her place as a professional they could rely on. However, this weekend had not really gone according to plan and now she was two hours late. Mel was Mrs Punctual, always on time, early rather than late. Always. Her heart gave a little jerk. Manchester to the Lakes.

How could it have taken her the best part of eight hours? She took a deep breath. Obviously, she’d had to stop for something to eat, and that had taken longer than planned. Then she’d decided to avoid the motorway because she hated the M62 and there had been an accident on the M6. Nobody could predict the traffic, could they? Plus, the last bit of the journey had resembled a rally track more than a road. She couldn’t be blamed for being careful. Better that she got here late than ending up in a crash somewhere because she was rushing to make up time. Anyway. She took a deep breath and stopped her mental gabbling, picked up her handbag, rested it on her lap and rummaged inside until she found her make-up bag, then tilted the rear-view mirror so she could see her reflection. She tutted and tried to tidy her hair, which was misbehaving on one side, as if she’d slept on it when it was wet. Her mouth twitched.

She found her comb and persuaded her hair back into some sort of shape. Normally it was a sleek shoulder-length bob, a shiny black curtain that swung round her face; a style which looked simple, but had cost a fortune to create. Still, it was worth it, giving her the right professional image, and she looked a lot younger than her forty years. Everyone said so. Wide-set brown eyes sparkled back at her as she tidied up the smudged mascara with a face wipe, swiped a new covering of powder on her cheeks, nose and brow, then touched up her lipstick. She zipped up her make-up bag, gathered her reading glasses and phone, put everything into her handbag and sat for a moment, taking a few calming breaths. You’re here now. She wondered if they’d eaten or whether she’d have to start cooking. She hoped he’d done the shopping, and got some easy dinner in; the thought of slipping straight into catering mode after a long and emotionally exhausting day was not something she wanted to contemplate. ‘Don’t worry about the cooking,’ he’d told her, when he’d seen her face fall at the idea of a holiday cottage instead of a hotel or the resort that she’d favoured.

‘We’ll all share the jobs. Make sure it’s a holiday for everyone.’ Hmm. She made her mind change tack, her eyes scanning the cottage, which looked like it was a decent size and much smarter than it had appeared in the pictures. This looked like it had potential for a bit of comfort. And she really, really hoped he’d bought wine. She closed her eyes for a moment, aware of her exhaustion now that the adrenaline of the weekend was starting to fade. Running the workshops always got her hyped up. It was like being on stage, putting on a performance, but she had to be alert, watch all the interactions between attendees and pick up on the different personalities. She allowed herself a glow of pride; the success of the event was all down to her and the clients had been delighted with the way everything had gone.

‘We’ll definitely want you to do some more work with us. And I’ll recommend you to Head Office,’ the Regional Manager had said. It was a big company, with branches all over the UK, and it could turn out to be a real money-spinner, not to mention the fact that it would look good on her company website and social media profiles. Yes, there was no doubt that she was good at her job, but it did keep her away from her family at times, and she’d started to wonder if she needed to balance things better. That’s why this week was so important; a bit of time for bonding and not thinking about work at all. ‘Get out of the car,’ she told herself, her energy levels on empty, making such a simple action seem like a Herculean effort. The lights glowed from the windows and she imagined Tessa and Callum, all excited about being in a new place, planning what they were going to do during the week, Luke getting the house organised. She smiled to herself, and climbed out. It would be fine. Fun.

They were going to have a great time, a holiday to remember. She started to drag her case up the gravel drive, the little wheels bumping and sticking, making it feel like she was wrestling with the damned thing. Her stomach gave a gurgle, a reminder of hunger, or possibly nerves? Was Luke going to be cross that she was so late? Although the glow of the lights made the house look warm and welcoming, when she opened the front door, it was as chilly inside as out. Does the place even have central heating? she wondered, a nugget of dread settling in her mind. Imagine what it’s going to be like if it doesn’t. She shivered and closed the door behind her. ‘Luke,’ she called. ‘Luke?’ She stopped and listened; the air felt still and undisturbed. She left her bags in the hallway and went from room to room, taking in all the details, possessions scattered everywhere. The lounge ran across the front of the house, with a huge picture window looking out onto the front garden.

It was nicely furnished with a red, squishy sofa in front of an inglenook fireplace, equipped with a large wood-burning stove, and two matching armchairs on either side. A blue patterned rug sat in front of the hearth, a pile of logs stacked on one side of the stove, a basket of newspapers and kindling on the other. Pictures of landscapes hung on the walls, and a series of downlights gave the room a cosy glow. Nice. She went back out into the hall and opened the door on the opposite side, walking into a spacious dining kitchen, which was surprisingly sleek and contemporary, with a Ushaped worktop and an enormous American-style fridge-freezer on the far wall. The dining table was a large slab of oak, all wavy round the edges, sitting on stainless steel legs. A laptop was open on top of it. A pink fleece hung over the back of a chair, Luke’s jumper lay in a heap on the floor and shoes were scattered by the back door. Mel clacked through the kitchen, her heels slipping on the tiles. The back door was unlocked, just as the front door had been, and she peered outside, the kitchen lights casting a glow across a paved patio area.

Beyond that was a wall of rustling blackness. She closed the door and walked back to the hall, noticing the row of wellingtons. She frowned and glanced around. How strange. Maybe they’re hiding? It was just the sort of practical joke they’d play on her. Callum thought it was hilarious every time he made her jump out of her skin. She nodded to herself, a smile on her lips. She slipped off her shoes and crept up the stairs, stopping to listen at every creak of the floorboards. But all was quiet. She held her breath as she sneaked into the first room, the master bedroom with an en suite bathroom by the door.

She checked inside. Nobody there. Luke’s pyjamas lay on the floor. A T-shirt and underpants had been discarded on a chair by the bed. She threw open the wardrobe doors to find Luke’s clothes hung up, all neat and tidy, a pair of shoes sitting underneath, but nothing else. No child waiting to spring out and scare the bejesus out of her. Her eyes swung round the rest of the room and she walked over to pull the curtains closed. There was something eerie about a black pane of glass, something she really didn’t like, but as she glanced out she wondered if they might be hiding outside in the bushes somewhere. She crept out of the room. Back down the hallway, she peered into the children’s bedrooms, tutting at the mess they’d managed to create in the space of two days.

A jigsaw puzzle had been started on a dressing table in the room that Tessa had claimed, the box tipped up on the floor, pieces everywhere. Clothes were scattered all over the unmade bed, sheets rumpled as though caught in a whirlpool. In the next room, Callum’s tablet lay on his pillow. She tapped it and a frenzied battle scene emerged on the screen, Transformer robots made out of cars, the sound deafening, making her scrabble to turn the thing off again. She listened. Surely there would be a giggle, a rustle of clothing, the sound of breathing? Silence filled her ears, stuffing them full of the absence of her family. A shiver ran through her, making her teeth chatter, and she wrapped her arms around herself. They’re not here. She straightened, deflated by the lack of a welcome, and went back downstairs, no effort to be quiet now, her teeth nipping at her bottom lip and annoyance furrowing her brow. They were going to make her go outside.

In the freezing cold. While they were probably all wrapped up in coats and scarves and not cold at all. Well, they could wait a bit longer. In fact, she’d let them come and find her, while she worked out how to get some heat on. She sighed, disappointed that her imagination had been so wrong, her expectations of happy smiles and hugs so wide of the mark. She hurried back into the kitchen to see if she could find a boiler of some sort. She had no idea what sort of heating arrangements there were, but she could see radiators, so that was encouraging. A search of the kitchen and utility room found no sign of anything resembling a heat source. Then she remembered the log burner in the lounge and wondered if it heated the house as well. It seemed the only option.

She put a hand on the black metal. Cold. It was when she straightened up again that her eyes caught the note propped on the mantelpiece. Gone for a hike. Weren’t sure when you’d be here. Luke The note was scrawled on a scrappy bit of paper torn from a notebook. She went to put it back, then stopped, frowning. Shouldn’t they be back by now? It had been dark for a couple of hours, and knowing how meticulous Luke was when he planned his outings with the kids, she knew he would have made sure that he got his timings right. Then it dawned on her. A night hike! Why am I not surprised? It’s just the sort of adventure he’d decide to do with the kids, to make the holiday a little more special.

They were probably out looking for badgers or bats or some other nocturnal creature. She stared at the cold fire. So, they’d gone out and forgotten to stoke it up before they left. An easy oversight, she told herself, when you were used to a boiler on a timer that switched itself on and off, with no need to even think about it. Still, she could get the fire going and let the house warm up for their return. In the meantime, she had a little bit of space to grab something to eat and relax. She sent him a quick text telling him she was at the house, and headed to the kitchen. She pulled the fridge door open then stopped when her hand grasped a bottle of wine. Wait a minute there. We need to think about this.

She put a hand to her stomach. Can’t take risks. Not at my age. This could be my last chance. My very last chance. She pulled out a carton of milk and flicked the kettle on. ‘Let’s make do with a nice cup of tea,’ she said into the silence. The fridge was well stocked and she was pleased to see bags of fresh pasta and ready-made sauce. Nice and simple. Things were looking up, she decided, delighted that she wasn’t going to have to start creating a meal from scratch.

Humming to herself, she took her mug through to the lounge and perched it on the mantelpiece while she started to get the fire going, looking forward to being there to welcome her tired and bedraggled family back home again. On the whole, Luke hadn’t done too badly, she decided. It was a nice house. No, it was a lovely house. Plenty of space, homely, nicely decorated with a lovely bathroom and an en suite. There was even a utility room, she’d noticed, where all the wet and muddy clothes could go. Yes, it would do very nicely. An hour, two cups of tea and a bowl of pasta later, Mel sat in front of the fire, watching the logs glow red, while she pulled the blanket she’d found in the bedroom tighter round her shoulders. She’d changed into her joggers and sweatshirt, with a fleece over the top and thermal socks on her feet, just until she’d properly thawed out. At least she could feel some heat from the fire now, but the rest of the house was taking a while to warm up.

She checked her watch again and frowned. They should be back by now. She glanced at her phone, but there was still no answer to her text. Mind you, reception was a bit intermittent, she’d noticed, better at the front of the house than the back. Slowly, she uncurled herself and straightened, feeling like she’d been frozen into place, all her joints stiff as she walked to the window, glad to see the reception change from one bar to two. Maybe that’s the problem? She rang his number, but his phone went to voicemail. She tutted and peeped through the crack in the curtains, not able to see much for the rivulets of rain trickling down the window panes. Fancy taking those poor kids out in this weather. She was starting to feel a bit annoyed now. He must have checked the forecast, because he always did, and would have known there was a weather front coming in.

Going outside was not something she relished, but she decided she had to go and have a look, see if there was any sign of them coming up the road. She shuffled into the hall, slipped her feet into her wellies, pulled on her waterproof and opened the door, shivering in the wind that rattled branches and murmured through the hedges that bordered the garden. She walked to the road, the glimmer of lights from the house shining on the wet tarmac, but beyond that, an oppressive darkness. A loud swooshing heralded a sudden burst of hailstones, which bounced on the road, off the cars, the trees, finding their way down her neck, icy rivulets melting down her back, making her gasp and run inside, slamming the door behind her. She wrapped a strand of hair round her finger and tugged. Although Luke had taken the kids out in the dark plenty of times, it was now nine o’clock on a cold, wet February night and pitch-black outside. She’d been here for over an hour and the fire had been stone cold when she’d first arrived, so she had to assume they’d been out for several hours. They should be back by now.

.

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