I stop dead, startled. Her image catches my eye, small and desolate, staring out from the laminated paper. A monochrome photograph with a screaming pink border – it’s hard to miss. Someone has neatly attached the poster to a street light opposite the river, so that anyone walking toward Stratford centre will see it.
Missing. Maisie Kowalczyk. Last Seen February 25th, 2017.
Kowalczyk. What a mouthful. I’d never actually thought of her having a surname. She’s always just been Maisie. I take a quick picture, struggling with my phone’s touchscreen as my breath rises in white clouds, the grass beneath me frost-speckled and crisp. Soon the streets will be bustling with bardolators and winter tourists. I hurry on, catching my reflection in a shop window and looking away quickly.
“Ciao! Sofia, where have you been? You forget what time we open?”
Gianna is irritable, distracted with trying to unlock the antiquated cash register behind the counter. There’s a knack to it that she’s never quite gotten. Her shirtsleeves are floury, her dark curls wound up in a haphazard bun. We’ve worked together for ten years, and it’s the only hairstyle I’ve ever seen her wear – in fact, she dresses the same every day, like a cartoon character. Black work-shirt, faded jeans. We’re wildly disparate. She’s dark and lean, I’m a well-built redhead. When she first hired me, I couldn’t make bread to save my life, but she wasn’t interested in my baking abilities. Only that I was Italian – or half, at least.
“Italiana is more authentica,” she’d explained. “Besides, you can learn. I cannot teach the English to make sfogliatella. It’s like making love – you have to be Italian to do it right.” I couldn’t tell if she was joking.
La Panetteria is hers, passed down from her father, a Sicilian ex-pat who came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to become a playwright, and found breadmaking easier than prose. Gianna looks older than her fifty years, with deep wrinkles around her eyes. She blames cigarillos and early mornings, but quits neither.
“Sorry, Gianna. I meant to text.”
“Ah! The text is even later than you!” She cackles at her own joke. “We have pre-orders to fill, cara, or did you forget what Mondays are?”
“I didn’t forget.” I hurry through, tossing my bag and coat into the ‘office’, a damp little corner of the kitchen where we keep the safe. “I saw something on my way in.”
“Il fantasma? Seeing things?”
“Maybe.” I pull out my phone and show her the photo I’d taken on my walk in.
“Yep.” I grab my apron. “Missing two weeks, it says. What do you reckon?”
“It’s dangerous now, you know” She leans distractedly over the counter, fiddling with the napkin dispenser. “All the time in the news, these girls go missing. Hard to be young. You should be careful.”
“I don’t feel so young anymore.” I laugh. “Unless thirty-five is the new twenty.”
She sighs, spinning me around to retie my apron.
“You’re plenty young. Boh. She’ll be back. You know how she is.”
Everyone along our little parade knows Maisie. We’re a little community here, a cultural mélange of shops tucked away from the main high street. The land of taxis, takeaways, and Polski skleps. And people like Maisie.
She’d turned up one day, a year or so ago. She was young and loud, her routine always the same; wandering over from whatever doorway she’d slept in, mooching for change amongst the cobblestones. Drugs and street living had turned her blue eyes milky, her blonde hair wispy, and her diminutive frame cadaverous – she was almost translucent. In the mornings she’d perch in the doorway of the old bookies, wrapped up in a hideous green puffer jacket that oozed stuffing, just watching the shop, waiting until we looked busiest. At La Panetteria that usually means the morning rush, when our regulars come in for sweet pastries and hot cappuccino; that’s when she would slink through the crowd of ticketed customers, sprawl over the counter and demand free food.
The last time we spoke was unpleasant.
“Got anythin’ spare?” she’d asked, with her usual stray-cat grin. “I ‘ent had breakfast.”
“I’m a little busy today, Maisie. Can’t you go bug someone else?” The grin disappeared and she rearranged her expression into one of deep, wounded sorrow.
It was extortion through irritation. If you ignored her, she would loiter beside the till, staring at you in her gaunt, disquieting way. I’d give in, handing over the ransom of cake or pastries and ignoring Gianna’s silent disapproval.
But I was having a bad day. An argument with my husband left me distracted, and half the morning’s cannoli batch had burned. When Maisie appeared, inevitable as the tide, I was at the end of my tether.
“Please, you really need to go,” I said, wrapping a customer’s order. “I’ve nothing for you.”
She pouted then, like a child. “Please, Sofia,” she whined. “Go on!”
My face went hot. I stormed out to the kitchen, grabbing the ruined cannoli from the food waste bin and shoving them haphazardly into a bag. Charcoal crumbs flew everywhere. When I marched back over, she recoiled.
“There!” I hissed, throwing the bag. “Buon Appetito! Now get out!”
She left quietly, all hunched shoulders and wounded eyes. Gianna shouted after her, calling her un scroccone – a parasite. There were murmurs of agreement from the customers. I kept quiet. There had been a faded yellow bruise beneath her eye, barely visible, like a smear of pollen.
She wouldn’t be back. Despite what Gianna might say, when people disappear, they’re gone forever. Like my mother.
We make it through our shift without mentioning Maisie, although I spot Gianna bagging up the leftover cannoli. Then we lock together as usual, standing companionably close, watching the closing shutter as it rattles and squeaks. As I turn to say goodbye, she takes my face in both hands.
“Oh, Sofia. Be careful, amore. I see you walk along the river, and my stomach–”
I pull her hands away, clasping them in mine.
“She probably just ran away, Gianna. She’ll turn up, just like you say.”
“Si. I suppose.”
But as I leave to walk home, she’s just standing there watching me, her expression unreadable.
‘Home’ is an apartment twenty minutes’ walk away, deep within a new estate. I live with my husband, Nathan, on the second floor of an apartment block, decorated in a style he calls ‘Pinterest Grey’. From the outside, it’s an ugly rectangular slab. Our balcony is the only bright spot; Nathan has planted creeping strawberry plants and velvety tea roses, and they bloom throughout the year. I asked him once if he could plant something a little less English – Bougainvillea, perhaps, or Dahlia. He’d replied that Mediterranean flowers don’t grow well in English soil. É vero.
It’s chilly when I open the front door. Nathan runs hot, I run cold, so we ‘compromise’ by keeping the apartment at 18 degrees. Even in winter. Usually, I wear thick jumpers and say nothing. Today, I roll the thermostat up to 25. It’s petty, but I’m unsettled, still dwelling on Maisie’s disappearance. And – unexpectedly – on my mother’s.
She left when I was nine. I don’t remember much, only that she dropped me off with her parents one afternoon and never came back. But I do remember my father’s face when he came to collect me, and my grandfather watching us drive away, a handkerchief pressed to his nose. Sometimes women disappear, my father explained to me later. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they don’t. My mother hadn’t.
Pretty soon afterwards, the ‘girlfriends’ started to appear – always young, always pretty. Always quiet. I would wait in our kitchen for him to come home each night, praying that he’d be alone this time. Never mind his hot temper, his casual cruelty. He was all I had.
Slowly my father grew older, the girlfriends faded away, and it became harder to survive his temper alone. That was my fault. After all, I’d wished everyone else away.
Nathan had been my saviour. We’d met at a club in town; I’d been the naïve 19-year-old, drinking alone, desperate to be away from the house. He’d been the soft-spoken bouncer, rescuing me from a bar lout with wandering hands. A twenty-first-century fairy-tale. My father gave me away at the wedding, uncomfortable in an ill-fitting suit. He died a year later. A thunderclap coronary which took everyone but me by surprise. He ran hot, too.
I turn the thermostat down again, grabbing a jumper instead, not wanting the argument. Nathan wouldn’t be home until late; Monday night is Open Mic at the local dive bar, and there’s bound to be a scuffle or two between howling renditions of Simple Man and Born to Run. But I’ll get dinner ready early, just in case, and wait for him. When he gets home, we’ll sit and eat together, watching TV until he starts to doze off. Our routine is unwavering, so I wonder for a moment whether I’ve lost my mind as I grab our laptop from the coffee table and open up the browser. I should be cooking – slicing onions, cutting peppers.
The website from the poster is easy to remember; missingpeople.org.uk. Solemn faces stare unblinkingly from the homepage as I type in Maisie’s name. There she is. The photograph is clearer online, a good likeness. No coat, though, and she looks exposed without it, like a hermit crab out of its shell.
An ache starts in my chest, and I close the laptop with a snap. No more, now. Let that be the end.
I hurry back to the kitchen. To cook, and to wait.
Weeks pass, then months, until suddenly it’s summertime and the tourist crowds keep us too busy to think. Maisie retreats somewhere to the back of everyone’s mind, to that strange country called the past. Now and then, someone lays flowers in her old spot. They never leave a card.
It’s the last Thursday in August. I’m standing behind the counter, sweating through my polo shirt and trying to wrap bread for an order, when I overhear someone saying her name. Maisie. My head snaps up.
“What do they think happened, then?”
It’s one of our regulars, a woman I think of as Hippie Lady. She wears a crochet cardigan, and always leans her vintage Raleigh against the window. Even after Gianna put up a sign.
“Dunno,” says a younger woman beside her, also in crochet. I vaguely recognise her. A daughter?
Gianna calls out a ticket number and they both move forward.
“Did you say something about Maisie?” I call out, unable to stop myself.
“Yes?” says Hippie Lady, looking slightly taken aback. “Maisie Kowa… Kowal… well, whatever it was. The homeless girl? They found her last week. In the river.”
“Her boyfriend got taken in by the police, but they let him go,” adds Young Hippie Lady, rolling her eyes. “No evidence. They said she must have jumped.”
“Did they find her coat?” I blurt out. They exchange a glance.
“I’m… not sure. Did you know her, love?” I see my morbid curiosity mirrored in their faces and feel sick.
“No.” I look back to the loaf of bread in my hands. “Not really.”
On the walk home I try to pull down the sun-faded poster, but it’s secured fast with cable ties – my thumb catches on the laminate, slicing open. I press it to my mouth, tasting copper. All those faces on the missing persons website. The mothers. The daughters. The girlfriends. I think of my father telling me, Sometimes they come back. Sometimes they don’t.
That night I dream of Maisie, floating in the river, clutching at her jacket with one cold, ghoulish hand. Her face in the water, locked in a Cheshire Cat grin. I wake with a jolt and sit upright, summer bedsheets puddling around my waist. Nathan grunts; asleep, but still annoyed. For the briefest moment I want to wake him, but he wouldn’t understand. Besides, I don’t need comfort. I need an answer, to a question I’ve no one left to ask.
Sometimes, women disappear. Do they ever come back?
I slip out to the living room, slide open the balcony door. My skin is burning, but when I hold my hand in front of me, I can almost see through it. The moon is monstrous, obscenely full, shining in through the open doorway and transforming the grey walls into a brilliant silver, sleek and smooth, like the caress of a hand, the undertow of a river.
About The Author
Amy Doherty is an English Literature & Creative Writing student from Buckinghamshire, UK. Writing transcripts by day and short stories by night, she enjoys all genres, but particularly the darker side of fiction. She lives with her husband and three children.
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