Lisa Jewell: The Alternative Ending I Envisaged for Then She Was Gone (Warning: Contains Spoilers!)

Lisa Jewell: The Alternative Ending I Envisaged for Then She Was Gone (Warning: Contains Spoilers!)

In the original version of this book, the one I delivered to my editor in December 2016, Floyd discovers Ellie in Noelle’s basement when he goes to her house to collect Poppy’s things after killing Noelle in his kitchen. Ellie is close to death but instead of calling an ambulance, Floyd takes her home. He has a dead body in his house. He cannot afford to get the emergency services involved. For a few days he keeps her in his study. He feeds her good food and runs her hot baths and introduces her to Poppy as a niece of his. All the while Floyd is planning to return Ellie to her family. But he needs to be sure first that the police are not looking for Noelle and that no one suspects that he had anything to do with her disappearance. Then finally, after a few days, he agrees to take Ellie home. This is what Floyd (talking to Noelle) describes happening next:

“When I brought Ellie her supper that evening, she was bristling with purpose.

‘I can do it,’ she said. ‘I can go home and I can tell my parents that I ran away and that I’ve been living in a squat. Or a commune. Living rough. Hand to mouth. Moving from place to place. I’ll tell them that I lost my mind. That the stress of my exams made me go mad for a while. I’ll tell them that I’ve been lost and that now I’m found. And I won’t, I swear, I won’t tell them about you or about Poppy. I swear. And I promise.’

This came from her like a stream of consciousness. She clutched her knees as she spoke, her hazel eyes wide with intent, with honesty. I believed her. I absolutely believed her. I said, ‘good. That’s really good. I’ll take you tomorrow. When Poppy’s at school. I’ll take you home. To your mother.’

She cried at the mention of her mother. One of those curdled sobs that gets first sucked in and then expelled, halfway to a burst of laughter.

I cried too. I felt hugely, remarkably emotional at the prospect of taking her back, this poor caged creature. In those moments I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to unlock the doors of my car, reach across her, open her door and softly say, ‘go on then. Go.’ Watch her disappear around the corner. Hear the sound of her mother’s voice, the sobs of joy and disbelief, hear the front door close behind her and know that she had been pulled back into the heart of her family.

I packed her a bag the following day.

I ran her a bath and let her sit at the mirror in my bedroom to arrange her hair. I found an old makeup bag of yours and she applied some mascara, rubbed some colour into her waxy cheeks.

I found a loose green muslin skirt of Kate’s in a bag she’d clearly been intending for the charity shop. It had an elasticated waist. She paired it with another jumper of mine, a soft grey cashmere one. She looked almost pretty. Like a quirky student coming home after her first term at university.

We got to her road. Her suitcase was on the back seat. She sat upright and keen, reminding me of a dog we’d had in Canada, a terrier thing. It used to sleep for whole cross country car journeys and then awake the moment we crossed the line into our suburb, its ears and tail erect, quivering at our approach with its snout at the window.

‘Here,’ she said, pointing at a road opposite. ‘That one, on the left.’

‘This one?’ I said pulling over briefly.

‘Yes. Number thirty five.’

Her voice was full and rich as though she was already being pumped back to full and proper life.

I peered over her shoulder. A road much like mine, lined with semi-detached Victorian villas with gabled roofs, mostly gentrified. A fine place for the mother of my child to reside. It all seemed very neat. Very genteel.

And then my head began to buzz with the enormity of everything.

I looked at Ellie, this person I’d known for barely three days.

A stranger.

And within this stranger was the essence of everything that mattered to me and the potential to take a can of petrol to it, to blow it all to ash and rubble.

Because, Noelle, I don’t think you ever really understood how much I loved Poppy. It was more than love, it was blood and bone, fibre and matter, the beginning and the end. Poppy was my creation, my muse, my angel, my universe. I couldn’t, I simply, simply could not live without her.

The buzzing in my head grew louder and I slapped my hands over my ears, clasped my cheeks.

‘No,’ I heard myself saying in someone else’s voice. ‘No. Not today. Not now.’

I put the car into gear and I drove us both home.

Rivers of tears rolled down Ellie’s cheeks, but she didn’t say a word.”

After this episode, Floyd brings Ellie back to his house and takes her to his basement. There he keeps her for another year while he builds her back to health and forms a relationship with Laurel. Then, on Christmas Eve, feeling that Laurel has formed a tight enough bond with Poppy to take her seamlessly into her life, he leaves Laurel a video and drives to the countryside to kill himself. Meanwhile, Ellie waits in the basement, knowing that something big is about to happen:

“Ellie sits very still on the edge of her bed. She is wearing the dress that Floyd gave her for Christmas. It’s red slub silk, with a fitted bodice and a full skirt. She’s wearing it with the shoes he bought her to go with it; green suede pixie boots with a small heel. Her hair is combed to a shine and parted down the middle. She’s applied a full face of makeup. Floyd said, ‘I’m leaving. And I’m not coming back. But someone’s coming for you. Just make yourself look pretty and wait here.’

Ellie thinks she knows who it might be. But she cannot bring herself to crystallize her suspicions. She’s known something was about to happen, that something was about to change. She’s known it for weeks. Floyd has been less attentive, spent less time with her. She’s heard footsteps overhead, the vague outline of a female voice. There’s been laughter in the house. And when Floyd did come to visit, he was serious and thoughtful, and more concerned, Ellie had felt, about her predicament.

She hears the front door bang shut. She screws her eyes shut, she screws them so tight she can see stars. For a while the house is in silence. Then she jumps at the sensation of movement by her side and opens her eyes to see that it is just Darcy, her cat. Floyd bought Darcy as a kitten, gave her to Ellie on her birthday last year. Floyd has been the best he possibly could be under the circumstances. But Ellie will not miss him. No. She will not miss him at all.

There are footsteps overhead. Ellie smooths down the skirt of her dress and then smooths down her hair. She clears her throat and rearranges her legs. The footsteps come closer. And then she hears the key in the lock of the study. A noise she recognises so well. She stands. Then she sits. Then she stands again.

She hears the creak of the trapdoor opening up, and then there is a foot. A woman’s foot, a woman’s leg, the hem of a green skirt. Ellie holds her breath, holds it deep deep down within herself. Because this might be it. This. Now. The moment she has barely dared to dream of for eleven long years.

And then, there is her mother. There is her mother and her mother is standing in the pool of light from Floyd’s study and her mother is saying; Ellie, Ellie, is that you? And her mother is beautiful and her mother is there. Right there. And Ellie says; mum, mum. It’s me. And they walk slowly at first towards each other and then faster and then she has her mother in her arms. Her own mother. Her very own mother. And she breathes in her hair and her face cream and the perfume on her neck and she feels the bones of her back and the skin of her arms and the silk of her hair against her face and she holds her and she holds her and she will never, ever let her go, she will stand like this for eternity, in the arms of her mother.”

I wrote this scene, on a cold December afternoon, after weeks of building up to it, months of knowing it was going to happen. I wrote it and instead of euphoria, instead of tears, I felt nothing, other than maybe a sense of, hm, that was a bit weird.

But I couldn’t see how the book could end any other way? How could I send this story out into the world without a happy ending? It would be far too depressing. Far too bleak.

I emailed it to my editor and waited to for her response.

At first she seemed as flummoxed as me. She could tell there was something not right, but she couldn’t pin down what it was. So she and another editor locked themselves away in an office and brainstormed it for a few hours. A few days later my editor and I sat together in a slightly rubbish pub in the city and she said, we have a radical suggestion. My heart raced. I was terrified it was going to be something that I couldn’t do, didn’t want to do or that would be impossible to do.

She said, Ellie needs to die.

I’d started nodding before she’d got the last syllable out. Yes, I said. Yes, that’s right, that’s absolutely right.

So I went home and the next day I started the process of reversing Ellie’s existence. It was easy to do, her life was easy to dismantle, because she had not had a life, not really. But then, in the closing pages of the new version of the book, as I wrote the last page of the last chapter I realised there was still a chance for Ellie to breathe, to shine, to exist just one last time. And I wrote an epilogue. And as I wrote it I cried.

2 thoughts on “Lisa Jewell: The Alternative Ending I Envisaged for Then She Was Gone (Warning: Contains Spoilers!)

  1. This clearly illustrates the importance of a strong relationship between editor and writer. So well done editors for being insightful enough and sufficiently bold to suggest this new (and much more realistic and plausible) ending. It also gave Lisa the opportunity to write that epilogue, which ranks as one of the most moving endings to a work of fiction I have read in recent years

  2. Thank you for sharing this – I was so curious after reading your afterword. The editors were right of course! Good on you for being so open to that. Compelling read.

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