In a converted Georgian townhouse in south west London, three families live under one roof.
The large flat that takes up the top two floors is home to the Harlow family: happily married Paul and Steph, and their bubbly teenage daughter Freya. The smaller first floor flat is rented by Emma, who spends most of her time alone, listening to people coming in and out of the building. And the basement flat belongs to Chris, a local driving instructor, who prefers to keep his personal life private from the neighbours.
But their lives are all upended when Freya vanishes. As the police become involved and a frantic Paul and Steph desperately search for answers, they begin to realise that the truth behind their daughter’s disappearance may lie closer to home than they were expecting.
When everyone has something to hide, can you ever really know those closest to you? Or will some secrets be taken to the grave?
If it hadn’t been for a disruptive hamster and three nights of insomnia, Emma might not have found herself crouched in her under-stairs cupboard that night. She might not have heard the fear-pinched voice from overhead.
What had possessed her to buy the hamster in the first place? Rodents were for eight-year-olds who begged their parents for a pet, not broke, blue-haired women in their thirties. Had she really thought this ice-white creature with ink-spot eyes would offer comfort? During the day he submerged himself inside a nest of shredded paper, but when Emma went to bed he burst into life, rumbling on his wheel, flooding her small flat with relentless noise.
It felt like the soundtrack to her thoughts. Trundling around and around. Last night she’d shifted the cage into the living room, but back in bed she’d still been haunted by the cycling. She’d moved it into the kitchen. Still audible. So Gilbert’s new home was this gloomy cupboard under the stairs, among dog-eared design books and unsold vintage hats.
It was 6 p.m. now – almost breakfast time for her nocturnal tyrant. Emma’s flat had begun the various clicks and hums it always made as it warmed up and settled in for the night. It felt cold for mid-March, winter still clinging on, so she’d drawn her curtains and pulled on her pyjamas extra early, even by her recent standards. She was tipping sunflower seeds into Gilbert’s bowl when a voice made her freeze. It was so clear and close that it seemed to be in the cupboard with her, as if Gilbert was acting as ventriloquist.
‘Where are you?’ it said.
Emma straightened where she knelt, bumping the sloped ceiling. She knew the well-spoken voice – knew it better, actually, than she knew its owner. It was her upstairs neighbour, Steph Harlow. She and her family owned the top two floors of the converted Georgian house, while Emma rented the little ground-floor space, squished in next to their shared hallway. There was a basement flat underneath, too, owned by a married couple, Chris andVicky, but it had a separate entrance and Emma didn’t hear or see much of them. She was often acutely aware of the buzz of life from above, though: the Harlows’ footsteps and the flush of their toilet; the vibrant pitch of raised voices in the morning – FREYA, time to go, love!; MUM, where have you tidied literally all of my belongings to? And now Steph’s voice felt right on top of her, as if there was no partition between them. Maybe there was something about the way sound parachuted down the staircase between their two flats, into this cubbyhole.
‘Why’s your phone off?’ Steph said. ‘I’m getting worried, Freya. Call me as soon as you get this.’
Emma’s heart kicked in sympathy, recognising the gut twist of not being able to contact someone. She pictured Steph with her phone clamped to her ear, head dipped so her highlighted hair fell across her face, other hand absentmindedly smoothing her dove-grey suit. For that was how Emma would sometimes come across her in the hallway of their building, absorbed in checking her post or reading a text. Steph would spring out of her trance as soon as she noticed she wasn’t alone, finding a warm smile and a compliment for Emma’s latest combination of experimental hair/handmade earrings/ pimped-up second-hand shoes. Something like I could never pull that off!
Emma would babble in response: You don’t need to!You’ve got the classic-elegance thing down to a T!
And it was enviably true. Steph didn’t need a fanfare of accessories to make a statement: her height, cheekbones and general aura did the job without fuss. But Steph would dismiss any attempt to compliment her in return, then whisk off to work or back up to her family before the conversation could progress. Emma would be left with the drift of her perfume in the empty hall, and a lingering curiosity about the woman she’d shared a front door with for nearly ten months. She didn’t know what Steph did for a living, but assumed she was successful; didn’t know how old she was, but guessed at early forties, and wondered whether forty was the point at which you stopped doing ridiculous things, like buying anti-social hamsters or generally making a mess of your life.
Steph had fallen quiet now. A drumming vibrated the dusty air, and Emma imagined her neighbour’s hundred-quid heel tapping the floor above. She reached up as if to feel the beat in the low ceiling, jerked away at Steph’s returning voice: ‘Paul, pick up! Have you heard from Frey?’
Now it was Paul Harlow’s image that filled her mind. Tall and athletic, maybe mid-fifties, his sandy hair a touch darker than his wife’s creamy highlights and his daughter’s white- blonde ponytail. Most mornings he rocketed past Emma when they were both out jogging by the Thames, his bulky headphones like a vice around his serious, determined face. He’d nod a brief greeting as he lapped her coming back the other way, and Emma would draw herself upright, trying not to look as exhausted as she felt.
Then there was Freya. The teenage daughter who apparently hadn’t come home at her usual time, who’d upset the family routine that played out upstairs each evening. When Emma glimpsed Freya it was usually in full flight: running on deer-like legs for the bus, or sometimes racing her dad along the river path, overtaking Emma with matching ease.The girl oozed energy with her swinging, sun-catching ponytail, her Fred Perry rucksack bouncing on her shoulders. Emma had come to recognise her gait up or down their stairs: she’d take them in leaps or descend at a gallop, one of her parents trailing behind with a fond shout, ‘Don’t worry, Freya, I can manage all the stuff . . .’
Emma had to admit she’d taken to peeking out of the window when she heard the Harlows leaving or arriving. Had started noticing the various combinations in which they went out or came home: Freya-Paul, Steph-Freya, Paul-Steph, all three together. With or without Waitrose bags, or takeaway cartons (Friday treat), or fresh bread that would infuse the building with its smell.
Clearly, Emma didn’t have enough to occupy her. Her once-busy days yawned empty and the Harlows’ seemed endlessly, beguilingly full.
Was that why her pulse was soaring now? Why she was listening for Steph’s next words, experiencing her neighbour’s anxiety as a charge in the air? With a rustle of paper, Gilbert’s pink nose emerged from his nest, as though he’d woken and sensed it too. Emma wondered whether she should run upstairs and offer to help. Her cheeks burned as she imagined explaining that she’d been crouched in a cupboard eavesdrop- ping on Steph’s phone calls.
She hunched into her dressing-gown. There was nothing but receding footsteps now, and a soft thud, as if Steph had walked to the other end of the flat and closed a door.
The smell of Heathrow’s first-class lounge always clung to Steph after a long shift. Some days it was the lingering perfume of a traveller, who’d been polite and interesting, or the sweet vanilla scent of expensive sun lotion. On more stressful days it was the trace of her sweat inside her suit, or the champagne breath of an arrogant customer, who’d stood too close. Today the lounge had been packed with impatient VIPs, and Steph, as manager, had felt obliged to take responsibility for them. Her professional smile had creaked as she’d delivered single malts and dark espressos alongside updates on their flights. On the way home there’d been traffic, traffic, traffic, her make-up had seemed to slide off her face in one melting mask, and her headache had exploded across her skull.
And now Freya wasn’t home.
Steph was sure she hadn’t said anything about seeing mates after sixth form, and it wasn’t the right night for volleyball or running club. She knew Freya’s schedule as well as her own and she’d begged her always to stay in touch about what she was doing. It was a deal they’d recently struck: Steph would (in theory) stop being quite so over-protective, as long as Freya promised at least to text if she was staying out. She was seventeen. A bundle of leggy energy and hormones. No longer the little girl who would seek out her parents’ faces in the crowd at all her sports matches, then snuggle between them on the sofa afterwards, drinking Steph’s ‘secret recipe’ hot chocolate with a spoon. These days, Steph had to remind herself to let her daughter breathe, let her live.
So was she overreacting now? Was it so unusual for Freya’s phone to be off? Steph checked the clock again – 6.20 p.m.: almost two hours beyond her normal home time. She couldn’t stop leaving messages, anxiety strangling her attempts to sound breezy: Drop me a text, Frey . . .
She inhaled slowly and cradled the breath in her lungs. At work when she needed to regain her calm, she’d stand at the giant window and watch a plane taking off, rising into the sky, her frustration somehow lifting with it. And she’d anchor herself to the floor below her feet.
She went to the tall sash windows of their living room, scanning for peaceful sights. The sun dissolving to pink on the suburban horizon. Silhouetted roofs of terraced houses, doorways flooding with light as people came home. For a moment she was comforted by her familiar slice of Kingston upon Thames, hovering between winter and spring. But as she leaned to see down the road, eager to spot Freya pacing along with a disgruntled bus-didn’t-show-and-my-phone- died look about her, Steph’s stomach clenched. The wind picked up, rattling the street’s two rows of trees, which in a few weeks would sing with colour but now looked skeletal and stripped.
Paul wasn’t answering his phone either. His gym nights had recently crept from three a week to four, helping him unwind after being cooped up in the office. He was like Freya in that way, like a kid who needed to be tired out, batteries exhausted, before they’d settle. Though Steph wasn’t as sporty as her husband and daughter, she understood Paul’s hatred of being manacled to a desk. She was always on the move at work, trying to give the impression of gliding serenely about when actually she was whirling between wine deliveries, staff short- ages and catering-related crises.
Now she made a deal with herself and her pounding heart. She would change out of her work clothes, pour herself a drink, chop the veg, and if she still hadn’t heard anything she’d start calling round Freya’s friends.
That wind was rattling the window frames now. Howling in the roof above Freya’s attic conversion, or ‘penthouse suite’, as they jokingly called it. Steph hurried to close all their curtains, briefly comforted by the soft, weighty fabric dropping across darkening glass. In the kitchen, the steaks she’d taken out of the freezer that morning were seeping watery blood onto the break- fast bar. The oven clock flashed 18:50. Steph swallowed some wine, seized asparagus and a green pepper from the fridge. Then she cheated on her deal. Threw down the vegetables but didn’t chop. Reached for her phone and started dialling instead.
Jess was the obvious first choice, though talking to Freya’s best friend could be hard work. She was so different from Freya, so much flightier, and Steph and Jess always seemed at cross-purposes when they tried to chat. Steph prepared to cut to the chase as she dialled her home number. Jess’s dad answered with a bark of their surname: ‘McKENZIE!’ He seemed disappointed that Steph wasn’t a legal client he’d been waiting to hear from, and passed on the phone with a warning to his daughter not to keep the line engaged for long.
The conversation progressed in echoes from there, Jess repeating the last two words of each of Steph’s sentences with added upwards inflection.
Steph eventually ascertained that Jess hadn’t been in any lessons with Freya that day, so hadn’t seen her since morning registration. They only had one A-level subject in common, business, on a Monday and Wednesday. Today – Thursday – Freya had psychology and PE.
Jess checked Snapchat. Freya hadn’t been online since posting at 9.17 a.m: Not sure which to be more thrilled about … surprise maths test or explosion of bright green protein shake in my bag!
‘She’s had her location turned off all day,’ Jess said, as if Steph knew anything about how Snapchat worked.
‘Really?’ Steph jumped on this. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Oh, we all tend to keep it off, these days. I can let you know if she comes online?’
‘Yes, yes, please do!’ Steph ended the call, rushing on to the next. None of Freya’s friends had heard from her, nobody whose number Steph knew anyway. No one remembered seeing her leave school, but her volleyball teammate Zadie said she often dashed for the 3.45 bus so she didn’t have to cram onto the more crowded 4.05.
Where would Freya have gone without any of her friends? A brief Back at 8 message would satisfy Steph now; she wouldn’t get upset if there were no kisses on the end. Steph still signed off texts to her daughter with Love you or LU, but Freya’s reciprocation had dwindled lately. She was growing up, and it was hard in lots of little ways that Steph had never anticipated.
She called Freya’s school next, praying someone would still be there and cursing herself for not trying earlier. A security guard made sympathetic noises to Steph’s garbled explanation, then managed to intercept an administrator just leaving for the night. After some pleading from Steph, she went back into the office and checked their register system, confirming that Freya had been in all her normal lessons. Steph thanked her far too profusely, but once she’d hung up she didn’t know whether or not to feel reassured. She stared at her prized Family Calendar & Organiser (which Freya loved to make fun of), as though something illuminating might’ve replaced what she knew was there: Freya driving lesson (lunch), and Paul gym.
Freya had scrawled a doodle of a Mini Cooper underneath: another unsubtle hint about the car she coveted. Steph had started drawing them, too, in the corners of the bank notes she gave Freya for her driving lessons: her way of telling her daughter that maybe, if she was lucky, they’d buy her one for her eighteenth.
Perhaps her driving instructor could shed some light. Maybe Freya would’ve mentioned something to him about going somewhere after school. And Chris lived two floors below, in the basement flat. Steph remembered when he and his wife had moved in, just over a year ago, she’d welcomed them with some half-joking comments about how handy it would be having a driving instructor in the building when Freya started to learn. When Freya had turned seventeen, Steph and Paul had felt obliged to send business Chris’s way. And, actually, he’d built up a decent reputation by then, teaching several of the neighbourhood kids to drive.
There had been some tension lately, though. Steph cringed as she thought about the last proper conversation she’d had with Chris. At the prospect of asking him now for his help, her old shyness threatened to sneak back in, the tendency towards social avoidance she’d spent years training herself out of. She gulped her wine, squared her shoulders. A touch of awkwardness was nothing if it might help her track down Freya.
Pulling on the nearest coat, which turned out to be Paul’s heavy wax jacket, she locked her flat and flew down the stairs. In the hallway she paused with Emma’s door on her right, and the exterior door straight ahead, hit by another pang of nerves. The limestone floor made the hall permanently chilly. Steph rested her foot on the slab that had been wobbly for years, soothed by its familiar tilt, then shook herself and left the house.
The street smelt of evening meals being prepared behind dozens of glowing, shrouded windows. Steph swung through the iron gate that led down to Chris and Vicky’s separate entrance. Servants’ entrance, she remembered Chris quipping awkwardly when they’d first met, as he’d dragged a mattress down the narrow stone steps. It seemed extra dark down there now, the night pooling in the small, weed-riddled space in front of the basement door. There was a whiff of blocked drains, which would raise eyebrows among their more street-proud neighbours.
Steph rang the spluttery bell. Faint music leaked out as she waited – Pink Floyd maybe. She was about to press again when the door opened and Chris stood there in jeans and a grey hoody. He was slightly younger than Steph, with short dark hair, attractive eyes, and almost always a light spray of stubble on his face. On the occasions she saw him clean-shaven, she would puzzle over what was different. Now his hair and skin glistened slightly, as if damp.
He stood a pace or two back, as though braced for another reprimand. The memory of their last conversation bristled between them.
It must have been about a month ago. They’d seen each other on the street one morning, both de-icing their cars after a frosty February night. Steph hadn’t intended to confront him but something had been niggling at her. She’d had a restless night, and her fingers were cold, her mood unusually grey.
Freya seems to have had an awful lot of lessons, she’d found herself saying, her voice sharpened by the chill in the air. She’d tried to lighten her tone as she’d added, Feels like I’ve been handing cash over to her for months and months! Tell me she’s ready to take her test.
Chris had paused as he’d cleared ice from the logo on his navy car. His breath had clouded in front of him but no words had followed. He’d seemed to look meaningfully at Steph’s BMW, emerging from beneath its own layer of white.
Eventually he’d said, She’s getting there.
Steph had been able to hear his gritted teeth, grinding away any light-heartedness.
From what I can see she’s pretty competent, she’d said. I hope you’re not spinning things out.
Chris’s expression had tightened and Steph had regretted being so blunt. She’d been thinking for weeks that maybe Chris was taking advantage of them, charging for unnecessary lessons, and Paul had agreed with her, in his own semi-distracted way. But once she’d blurted it out she’d begun to doubt herself.
That’s not the way I do business, Chris had said, with more anger than Steph had expected. He’d always seemed a mild-mannered guy, always greeted her with the same quiet smile. Why was she creating this awkwardness? Why hadn’t she just let it slide?
Something had stopped her backtracking, though. They’d stayed locked in the moment, the frost on her windscreen crackling softly as it thawed. Then Chris had got into his car – and had he slammed the door, or had the noise just been amplified by the freezing silence of the street?
She tried her best to smile at him now. To push aside the disagreement. ‘Sorry to bother you, Chris. You saw Freya today, didn’t you?’
‘At lunchtime. Was there . . . a problem with the lesson?’
She flushed. ‘No, no. I just wondered if she’d said anything about her plans for this evening. She . . .’ her throat narrowed ‘. . . she hasn’t got home yet.’
‘Oh.’ He passed a hand over his cropped hair. ‘No, she didn’t say anything.’
‘And she seemed okay? She went back to school afterwards?’ ‘She seemed fine.Yeah, I dropped her off there.’
Steph paused. She felt she should ask more questions but her thoughts were a tangle. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I’m letting all the heat out of your flat . . .’
As she retreated up the steps, he called after her: ‘I could have a drive around if you like? Look for her?’
Steph stalled, almost at street level now. She glanced at his car parked nose-to-tail with hers – CHRIS WATSON DRIVING SCHOOL – and imagined it creeping through Kingston, headlights sweeping the darkness in search of her daughter. It was a scene from a TV drama. It dropped a shudder through her core.
‘No,’ she said, looking back at him. ‘Thank you, that’s kind. But it’ll . . . She’ll be back soon, I’m sure.’
‘I’m sure.’ Chris nodded, his brow creased as he watched her go.
Steph hurried back to her own front door, a sudden longing for Paul piercing through her. He’d probably be showering at the gym now, trying to ease himself into relaxation mode, oblivious to her soaring anxiety. She fumbled with her keys, eager to get back to her phone. A cobwebby sensation brushed across her spine and she whipped around.
Nothing there. Just the street they’d lived on since Freya had started ‘big school’, the half-hexagons of bay windows making a geometric wave along the terrace, the black iron railings, which didn’t normally look so jagged.
The Downstairs Neighbour is out in Hardback and Ebook editions on February 4th 2021