the lukewarm spray. One soaped up, the other rinsed off. Any embarrassment was a luxury; despite the unnecessary excitement from my aunt and sister, they were right to fear the water. We did not know what was in it. We did not truly know its danger. Yes, it saved us from the dogs. After all, the flood came and the dogs went: a straightforward equation at that surface level. But everyone knows that dogs can swim. Soon after, the authorities issued warnings about the water’s safety, implying it had been treated to keep us safe, and the archaic protective gear was distributed to all households, along with our government-issue rowing boats. So, it was imperative we washed the river-road water off as soon and as thoroughly as we could.
Still, the height of Esther’s hysteria was not justified.
‘Keep scrubbing!’ I instructed. ‘You need to get into every corner. You need to get it all off, just in case.’
‘Can you get us some clothes?’ Tristan asked after a while. He reached for a towel, ready to get out. ‘Billy will need something too,’ he added.
I headed off, with my sister calling out in the background – Is it all off? Has he been under there long enough? Are you sure? – but I’d given up listening altogether. Let her fret; let her arrange a service ; let her whatever…
In Tristan’s room I opened his drawers, pulled out boxer shorts, jeans and a t-shirt. Then I instinctively drifted into Elinor’s to find something suitable for Billy. Despite the two-year age gap, Billy wasn’t much smaller than my daughter.
And that’s where Tristan found me, fifteen minutes later: sat on the edge of Elinor’s bed, a plain white t-shirt and a pair of tracksuit bottoms folded in my lap, the drawers of her clothes chest pulled open. He’d waited patiently enough, but eventually, he just had to wrap himself up in a towel and come looking.
And he knew exactly what to say and do.
‘Let me take that,’ I heard him say, taking the unisex clothes I had selected for Billy and the ones I had next to me on the bed for him. Then he left, closed the door.
Beyond it, I heard further shushing away. There was a little protest from Esther – But she’s my sister, she’ll need me – but Tristan simply moved them all along, told them to leave me be. ‘Here you go,’ I heard him tell Billy, moving the conversation on with a practical instruction, ‘try these on for size.’
I was moved by Tristan’s smooth yet firm authority. He was not fazed by Esther’s if-you’re-not-family-you-don’t-count attitude to things and, as a consequence, her objections carried little weight. I smiled to myself as I imagined the extent of her frustration. Tristan’s approach helped me make a decision of my own: I needed to stop pretending he was just my lodger. I was under no illusions that anyone still believed that story, and I’d only kept to it myself as a means to protect Elinor. But from what? I was no longer sure. In any case, what did it matter? Now that she was…
‘Missing,’ I heard myself say.
Missing. There you go. You got a bit more from me that you expected. More than I expected, too. But there you have it: my daughter Elinor is missing. And it’s been seven weeks since. Since.
‘We need to get that stuff in soak,’ I told Tristan, returning to the bathroom, a further ten minutes after he’d left me in Elinor’s room.
Elinor who was missing – there, I’ve said it again. Faced it again. I guess this is my therapy?
‘Let’s get this bath filled up and we’ll do it in as big a load as the thing can manage.’
And so I went from the practical to the emotional, and then back again to the practical.
‘You okay?’ Tristan asked, when we had a moment to ourselves – he’d sent an eager-to-help Billy off to the kitchen in search of detergent.
‘It’s stored under the sink,’ I shouted out to the boy and then turned and nodded to Tristan. I didn’t say – I just nodded. It would do for now. And
Liz Kenneth; Martínez Wishnia