But the closer Olly gets to Mal, the more the truth eludes him.
It was five years ago to the day.
We gathered each anniversary. Somebody had said it was important to be together and so gathering became tradition. It was now an occasion, a point of punctuation that paused us each year since he’d gone. March rolled around and Mal’s memorial dinner loomed. There had been discussion about what to call it, but nobody could find a word for the commemoration of someone’s disappearance. We couldn’t treat him like he was dead, because he might be alive, and we couldn’t treat him like he was alive, because he might be dead. Mal had disappeared. So instead, we paused.
Here I was again, in front of the Malanders’ family home. I took a deep breath, hoping the answers were in the air around me, that respiring would reveal them.
It was always at his parents’ house: part informal gathering, part guilt-tripped obligation. Everyone did their best to play their roles, at least for an afternoon. Mal’s mother threw herself into the performance of overfilling glasses. “Well, of course, I always say it’s the men’s job to top up the ladies,” Joranda often announced whenever a rivulet of Burgundy shot down the stem and stained the hand of one of her guests. Her staccato chuckle, echoed by the distant walls of the large room, was intended to distract us from her deliberate mishap. But I always witnessed the warning glance Joranda fired at Mal’s father. Sacha, impervious to his wife, sipped his own drink, rooting himself into a corner seat. His blue eyes, as unnaturally pale as Mal’s, dared Joranda to push the matter until the strain and the stillness got to her. She scattered laughs and everyone else remained quiet. With those same eyes, Sacha dared anyone but Mal’s closest friends to come near him. We had invented these parts five years ago and now we were stuck. Nobody knew what to say or how to behave and everybody was too polite to mention it. Nobody knew what had happened to Mal.
This was a big old house. The whole street was one of the roads that pedestrians walk down as a treat, just to admire the wealth. The nice way. Dulwich, a London postcode that caused envy. To the Malanders, though, this was just where you lived. The ornate yet weatherworn brickwork of the façade stretched away on either side, runnels of ivy cascading in racing green. Each ground floor window displayed white slatted shutters, the kind that were so expensive my mum used to browse their brochures just to exclaim at the prices. The steep tiled roof was pierced with delicate eaves windows. The guttering was black and ornamental and festooned at junctions with heraldry.
I had grown up in a typical Home Counties town whose most valued amenity was the train station that could take you into Waterloo. Our road had been identical semis, white PVC gutters. Residents made alterations over the years, but all within a community conformity. My parents commented when neighbours got new cars. My mum scorned others’ indulgences, my dad envied them. They would bicker. She would say that next door couldn’t afford such a lavish lawnmower, particularly when they had crazy-paved their front garden, but he would want to rush out and buy the next one up without consultation.
There I stood on the Malanders’ threshold wondering how long I could leave things before having to ring the bell. There was comfort in stasis, the moment between the dread of the event and the event itself, but the future always becomes the present, eventually. Nevertheless, I gave myself another second. Then another. With each second, the risk grew that someone would arrive and need to pass me to gain access. Maybe I could cringe away cat-like into the undergrowth, melting from any reaching hand. I used to love coming to this house. It had been a sanctuary, a homecoming. This time, I wanted to do anything but press that bell.
It was a black metal button tightly nestled in wrought iron solar flares and drenched in age, calling out to me. Not for the Malanders any newly stuck-on plastic tat. My parents used to live behind a white PVC front door and had been proud of it, but since coming to the Malanders’ place, it seemed more like a lid to a storage solution than an entranceway to a family home. Tearing time apart by slipping between its seconds, I began to fear that if I didn’t ring that bell, if I didn’t press that button, the world would rip and everyone would blame me. The width of the Malanders’ oak front door was excessive, so much so that I found myself leaning even further across than I had expected, tilted to one side and off balance. My arm span was inadequate.
But it’s for Mal. We can justify anything if we tell ourselves that in some way it will matter to Mal, it will make him happy, it will bring him back. For example, we could punch ourselves in the face and say it was for Mal. As stupid as it sounds, I once really thought he might want us to do this, that this would make him come home. I came this close to telling the others, curiously confident that they would comply because we knew our roles: to be committed to doing anything to bring him back. It was a spell he still cast: it’s for Mal. Punch yourself.
We’re not even supposed to call him Mal here. To his family, he was, he is Lucas Malanders. They don’t refer to him by an abbreviation of their surname because they all have the same one. His parents, I imagine, picked out his name carefully, interrogating it of course for sonic compatibility with their family name, for the right indication of their background, for just the perfect nodding to European roots – something a little continental to elevate itself with foreign appeal. Instead, we went on about someone called Mal. His mother used to bristle at this in a way she thought we couldn’t see, as if the very mention of him barbed her. Her Lucas was our Mal.
Behind me, those familiar front path tiles, faded tessellations of red and cream and black, had somehow muted any approaching footsteps. The gravel in the grand crescent driveway hadn’t crunched, no squeak from the metal gate as it yawned open like it always did, leering. I turned. It wasn’t Mal.
Mal’s sister-in-law squinted at me as if a flickering eyelid’s translucence could keep out the low March sun. I’ve always felt unease when an adult Rebecca still insists on being called Becca, even into her late thirties or early forties – an age Becca adjusted according to her audience.
I remember a girl who brought a rabbit called Becca to show and tell at primary school. She had shown off a specialist leash that allowed you to take your bunny for a walk. But it had been put on incorrectly. The class had cooed over Becca – the rabbit, not Mal’s sister-in-law – but every time it moved, the lead had tightened. The pet had been slowly strangled until the teacher had fetched some scissors and hacked it free.
Now, every time I heard the name, I could see a twitching nose, a petrified bunny, liquid black eyes that threatened to bulge out of their sockets, distending further with each passing second. That person, that Becca, had no chance of being taken seriously – having what my mum would always consider a pet’s name. You could tell a lot about a person from their name, she often said, especially if it made a child stand out in the playground. This was, apparently, unfair of the parents – not that the Malanders worried about such things: they had named their firstborn Yannick. And Becca had married him. I had a theory that being a Malanders was all Becca had ever wanted. I could tell by the way she clutched Yann’s arm while welcoming guests across the threshold, or held his hand at the dinner table, oblivious to Joranda’s pursed lips, or smiled inanely whenever he spoke. However, Yann, like his parents Sacha and Joranda, had eyes whose irises were frozen the Malanders blue. Becca never matched because hers swam with a pitch so dark her pupils sank into them, like the eyes of a rabbit trapped in a leash.
Like all Beccas, Mal’s sister-in-law was blonde, but with her access to the Malanders’ wealth, expensively so. Dads would consider her a beauty but, up close, she was simply someone with the means to make the most of herself. Top price highlights, the kind of make-up that belongs on black credit cards, outfits that made it clear that money really isn’t an issue why can’t everyone have real fur gilets.
First to move, Becca was clasping me, administering kisses on each cheek. I could almost smell the price of her fragrance. Her skin’s softness bordered on ludicrous. Her dark eyes scrutinised me, but I could see nothing in their depths. The minuscule crow’s feet that surrounded them deepened as she smiled. She was still holding my upper arms between her fingers and thumbs, squeezing my flesh, almost measuring the meat of my biceps. Like a baby who has no say over their cheeks being stroked by strangers, my arms belonged to anyone who grabbed them, though normally it only occurred after people had had a few drinks. She let go quickly, but only once she was done.
Becca had a bag for life in the crook of one arm. She thrust this at me. The supermarket chain emblazoned on it was one my parents always thought too overpriced to shop in, but secretly wished they could afford. My mum claimed the cheaper stuff was just as good before swearing at smoked salmon packaging that never opened properly, a useless scrap in her hand.
“Turns out I’m the only one who remembered that Tash has gone vegan,” Becca announced. “So they sent me out to source some, shall we say, alternatives. If Joranda asks, you didn’t hear it from me.” She giggled like it was hilarious. I did a sympathy laugh.
A dark shape paddling in the stained glass before us snatched open the front door.
“Olly,” declared Joranda. Her cheeriness was perfected. I had long suspected she found it painful to see me because I reminded her of her missing son. Two arms pressed into my sides from opposing directions and I was squeezed into a well-choreographed hug with Mal’s mother.
Joranda, in her late sixties, was still as svelte as her teenage self – something I had seen in silver picture frames on the dresser outside the dining room: all sleek bobs, miniskirts and laughter in black and white on Carnaby Street. Whenever he passed these photos, Sacha claimed his wife’s trim figure was the result of what he called the “Parisian lady’s diet” of cigarettes and wine. Joranda denied these embellishments, though I only ever saw her consume full-bodied reds, expertly held and never spilled while she moved with all the gesticulations of a seasoned English stage actress. The only times I ever heard her accent slip to betray her childhood in Zimbabwe was when Sacha wound her up: “Now, Sacha, you know I can’t bear the smell of cigarettes inside the house.”
“Take those through to the kitchen, Rebecca,” she instructed while I was still enclosed. Her voice reverberated across a cashmere sweater membrane into my body. I had gone for a shirt. These people preferred blue. The right level of formality for this informal occasion.
I re-entered the world from Joranda’s bosom. Becca had vanished. Joranda stepped back onto her own front doorstep. “Let me look at you.” I remained in place. I thought about whether there was an appropriate feeling to project on the five-year anniversary of your best friend’s disappearance. I opted for blankness. “Don’t tell the others, but you’ve always been the most handsome of all of Lucas’s friends. And look at you now. Really growing into your looks. A man’s prime keeps building and building. Is there anyone on the scene?”
I felt my face go red. Once, at the Malanders’ villa in the South of France, Joranda had said I had the complexion of an English rose. I hadn’t known how to take it, something people mostly said about girls. Mal had laughed loudly; his family had agreed with him while I blushed. My blood rushes to my cheeks in blotches, painting harlequin-like contrasts against the fairer patches, like the red and green that compete to cover the same apple. Sacha had said I had a ruddiness that proved I was of good English stock: “There must have been some very good breeding, Olly.” It was a marking you saw on boys from private schools playing rugby in cold weather. I had never been one of them. My parents were pale, my older brother too. But when embarrassed or overexerted, redness covered their whole faces, not just patches. I didn’t match.
“Or are you still determined to be by yourself?” Joranda used the tone of an adult asking a child what they want to be when they grow up. I felt my molars clamp together, my jaw rigid. This was always the first thing she was bursting to ask me. Her compulsion had grown with each passing year as my answer remained that I was single, her eyes narrowing, her chest deflating with my response. The audacity of me, a human in the modern world, not to have a significant other, not to have my own wife in tow, not to be settled and secured and no longer a free radical. I never challenged Joranda though. Her role was the grieving parent.
I think my looks are what made it so unfathomable to Joranda. Even with my ruddy cheeks, people have been telling me how good-looking I am since my late teens. The first was Mal, shortly after we first met. By my mid-thirties, I was old enough to recognise the benefits, but I knew I must pretend not to be aware of their existence. I’d learned to meet compliments with humility, as if mirrors didn’t work for me. It’s an act I keep up dutifully. I’m happy to say it: people like how I look.
It’s not something I’ve achieved or worked at or fought for, but I might as well make the most of it. It’s nice not to have to worry about it. Photos of me come out well. I suit all clothes. I don’t need to prepare to leave the house. I’m decent enough to know that admitting any of this renders me immediately unlikeable. But everyone tells me all the time anyway. The fact I’m aware too is just one of the secrets in life we all keep.
Besides, there’s a cruel vengeance to it as well. My face, as an involuntary source of pleasure to others, is therefore not my own. It is a public commodity. A common property. It matters to those around me what I’m doing with this blessing, so they don’t hold back in telling me what they prefer. If they’re not suggesting how I should clothe myself, wear my hair, keep my stubble, they’re projecting their expectations onto it. For Joranda, this means I cannot be by myself.
Whenever I saw her, especially since Mal had gone, Joranda complimented my appearance. I got the sense she took pleasure in my face, my build. Her eyes were always moving, but they lingered at the top of my chest where hair crested through my collar. “Isn’t he ever so good-looking?” she often asked Sacha, as if to confess her crime before she had even thought of it. Joranda believed good looks were to be shared with another. One other out there should be rewarded by pairing with me, granted unlimited observation of my image, all the time spent touching my arms they wanted.
At my age, there’s an inescapable shame to turning up anywhere without a partner. It’s as if adult life is one big PE lesson where everyone’s asked to get into pairs, but by being the leftover I am a reminder to others of how awful it must be to be lonely. But I’m not lonely. I’m fine. And it’s this fact that makes my singular existence even more unpalatable. The questioning was one thing, but I could never stand the pity.
“Oh it makes no sense to me! Your generation – honestly – I thought you all couldn’t wait to get married and yet nobody seems to have snapped you up. And in the middle of your thirties. You’d make such a lovely husband, Olly, you really would.” She reached for my forearm to draw me after her into the house.
And with that I was engulfed. The house inhaled me. Since meeting Mal at university, I’d probably spent more time here than at my parents’. I recognised the smell first. It was the excess of very old books that fought for space along miles of shelving. It was a sharpened tang of houseplants supplanted from tropics and growing unchecked in stuffy corners.
The age of the house hung in the air, but Joranda’s touch was everywhere: the citrus and pepper diffuser positioned in the large entrance hall, the monstrous mirror by the front door where I saw myself, bewildered, as she led me along, a painting of the family overshadowing the grand wooden staircase. It exhibited Joranda and Sacha seated before likenesses of their three children as unwilling teens, the Malanders’ glacial eyes gazing off into nothing with an unearthly peace. Mal was the exception of course. He had fixed the artist and therefore the viewer with an unrelenting stare.