Sunday, 27 July 2014
The call comes at 3 a.m. The jagged ring of the bedside telephone tearing a hole in our sleep. I reach out a hand to silence it.
‘Hello,’ I whisper.
Static whispers back at me. I press the phone harder to my ear.
‘Who is this?’
I feel Steve roll over to face me, but he doesn’t speak.
The hissing static fades and I hear a voice.
‘Hello … Hello,’ it says, searching for me.
I sit bolt upright and switch on the light. Steve groans and rubs his eyes.
‘Kate? What’s going on?’ he says.
‘Who is this?’ I repeat. But I know. ‘Jake?’
‘Mum,’ the voice says, the word distorted by distance – or drink, perhaps, I think uncharitably.
‘Sorry I missed your birthday,’ he says.
The line fizzes again and he’s gone.
I look at Steve.
‘Was it him?’ he asks. I nod.
‘He’s sorry he missed my birthday …’
It’s the first time in seven months that he’s phoned. There’ve been three emails, but our eldest son had told us from the start that he wouldn’t be contactable by phone. Said he was freeing himself of all the stress that constant calls would bring. He’d keep in touch with us.
When he last rang, it was Christmas morning. We’d hoped he’d be back home with us, pulling crackers and making his lethal mulled wine. We’d suggested and then pleaded by email, even buying a plane ticket when he seemed to weaken. But Jake had stayed away, managing only a ten-minute call on the day. Steve had answered the phone and spoken to him first while I hovered beside him, then Jake had asked to speak to his little brother, Freddie, and finally his mother.
I’d hugged the phone, as if I could feel the heft and warmth of him, and tried to listen, not talk. But he’d remained distant as the seconds counted down in a phone booth somewhere and I’d found myself turning inquisitor.
‘So, where are you now, love?’
‘Here,’ he’d laughed.
‘Still in Phuket?’
‘And are you working?’
‘Yeah, sure. Doing this and that.’
‘How are you managing for money?’
‘I’m managing, Mum. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.’
‘Well, as long as you are happy …’ I’d heard myself say. The coward’s way out.
‘Yes, I am.’
After I’d put the phone down, Freddie had put a glass of Prosecco in my hand and kissed my cheek.
‘Come on, Mum. He’s fine. Having a brilliant time lying around in the sun while we’re sitting here in the rain.’
But I’d known deep down he wasn’t fine. His voice had become wary. And that nervy laugh. He didn’t sound like my Jake any more.
Friday, 15 August 2014
Lesley searched the inbox again. Just in case she’d missed it. She knew she hadn’t, but stopping looking would mean they had to act. They’d agreed. Malcolm stood behind her, watching her every move. She could feel the tension radiating off him.
‘Anything?’ he asked.
‘I’m ringing the police.’
She nodded. They’d never had to ring the police before in all their married life. The police belonged to another world – the world they saw on television or in the papers. Not theirs. She was shaking as Malcolm picked up the phone. She wanted to tell him to wait. To give it another day. Not to start this. Not to bring this into their home.
‘Mal,’ she said, but he looked at her as he dialled, silencing her. She could hear the hum of the fridge and a car passing by outside. Life going on.
‘Hello, I’d like to report my daughter missing,’ she heard him say.
That life was over.
‘A week. We haven’t heard from her or the friend she’s with for almost a week,’ he said. ‘Her A-level results came out yesterday but she still hasn’t been in touch … She’s Alexandra O’Connor … Eighteen. Her birthday was in May.’
Lesley remembered icing the birthday cake. Didn’t look anything like Ed Sheeran apart from the red hair, but Alex had loved it.
She tuned back in to hear her husband apologizing.
‘Sorry, I thought I’d said. She’s in Thailand, backpacking with her friend, Rosie Shaw. Her last text message said they were still in Bangkok.’
It took another twenty minutes for Malcolm to explain the situation, give his details and listen to the advice. When he put the phone down he rubbed his eyes and kept his hands there for a moment.
‘What? What did they say?’ Lesley said, the panic making her voice loud and unlike her. ‘Who did you talk to? Tell me!’
Her husband jerked his head up and looked at her as if to reassure himself that this woman shrieking in their kitchen was his wife.
‘They took down all the details, love. You heard me. I spoke to a woman officer. I wrote it all down on a bit of paper.’ He reached over to the worktop and picked up a Post-it note. ‘Here, look.’
Lesley brushed it aside so it floated to the tiled floor.
‘Never mind that. What did this woman say? What are they going to do to find Alex and Rosie?’
Malcolm stooped to pick up the piece of paper and put it back on the worktop. Lesley wanted to hit him.
‘Sorry, love, but we’re going to need this.’ He spoke slowly as if she were an elderly relative. ‘She said she’s going to pass on the details to Interpol and we should ring the British Embassy in Bangkok. That’s what they advise. But she said this happens a lot – young people going travelling and forgetting to contact their parents. She said it was early days and that we should try not to worry.’
‘So she thinks it’s going to be all right?’ Lesley willed him to say yes or nod. Let it be all right …
Malcolm shook his head. ‘She doesn’t know, love. We’ve to ring her if Alex gets in touch – or if we don’t hear from her in another week.’
‘She will get in touch, won’t she?’
Malcolm pulled her to him. ‘Of course she will. She’ll want to know her A-level results. Tomorrow or the next day. She’ll turn up, like a bad penny.’
Lesley wiped her eyes with a paper towel and tried to look hopeful.
‘I’d better ring Jenny back,’ she said, grateful there was something practical to be done. ‘I told her I’d be in touch as soon as we’d spoken to the police. She got a bit funny about it yesterday.’
‘I think she’s as frantic as we are. Rosie’s her only one. And Jenny’s on her own.’
Malcolm was tapping at the keyboard of the laptop. ‘The police want a photo. I said I’d send one. Then I’ll find the number for the embassy.’
Lesley looked over his shoulder. He’d picked the one Alex had sent of her and Rosie in a tuk-tuk on the day they arrived, grinning madly, their surroundings a blur.
‘At least they’re together,’ Lesley said and wept, her head on her arms on their kitchen table.
Bangkok, Day One
Sunday, 27 July 2014
Sunday at 05:00 am
… is here. It’s brilliant. The adventure starts now!
Her fingers danced over the keys of her phone, posting the selfie on Facebook of her standing in front of Suvarnabhumi Airport with tired eyes and a silly grin on her face. She’d planned this photo on the plane, but she hadn’t factored in the noise and heat as the terminal doors slid open. It had shaken her physically. She’d known it would be hot – but not like this. Her face was wet and strands of hair were plastered to her forehead. The air was so thick she could taste it on her tongue. She put her backpack down carefully, trapping it with her feet to keep it safe, and stretched her arms above her head, feeling the first buzz of freedom.
Alex had looked forward to this for a year, fantasizing about places, people, adventures while she worked for her A levels and stacked shelves to earn the money.
She’d looked forward to everything about it, starting with the flight – she’d always loved the sensation of suddenly rushing down the runway towards something new. And she’d felt the same thrill as the engines revved at the start of this, her first long haul taking her across the world. But the sensation had worn off quickly. It was eleven hours of sitting in a middle seat, trying not to touch the arm of the person next to her, hidden under thin blankets like a corpse.
Rosie had had three glasses of wine with her hideous airline meal – ‘The chicken or the pasta?’ – and Alex had warned her she’d get dehydrated. Her friend had rolled her eyes and made a big show of flirting with the man on her other side, before falling asleep and snoring gently. Alex had tried to sleep, too, squirming in her narrow seat to find a comfortable position, pulling up her blanket and uncovering her feet, fidgeting with her seatbelt to stop it digging into her hip. In the end she’d sat in the dark and watched films on the tiny screen in front of her until her eyes stung.
When the lights came back on an hour before landing, she’d unbuckled and gone to the toilet. Her face in the mirror looked weird. Eyes red-rimmed and mouth slack with sleep deprivation. She’d yawned at herself and wrestled with the unfamiliar door to get out, suddenly panicky.
There’d been a boy standing waiting when she burst out. She’d laughed at herself – ‘They’re a real ’mare to unlock, aren’t they?’
He’d smiled shyly back and let her past.
And now she was here. Bangkok. She picked up her backpack and swung it heavily on to her shoulder and staggered slightly, dizzy from the sudden movement. She felt stiff and spacey, as if her feet weren’t quite touching the ground.
Strangers were asking her to come with them. Small men with wide smiles and insistent hands.
‘You need a taxi?’
‘I know good guesthouse.’
‘You want to see temple?’
She stood, the choices drumming on her skull. It was 5 a.m., dark, hot, and she wanted to lie down.
Come on, Alex, let’s go, she told herself. Where’s Rosie?
Her friend had wandered off, looking for something for her headache.
‘You shouldn’t have had all that wine on the plane. Didn’t you bring any paracetamol?’ Alex had said, reaching to unzip the side pocket of her bag.
‘No,’ Rosie had snapped, and marched off.
Alex hoped it was going to be all right. Anyway, it was too late for doubts. They were here. And it was brilliant. Well, it would be.
Friday, 15 August 2014
DS Zara Salmond was treading so lightly around DI Bob Sparkes that morning, it felt like he was being stalked. She was always just out of sight, but she couldn’t have been more intrusive if she’d been holding up a neon sign saying, ‘The boss’s wife is dying.’
Eileen’s cancer had come back two months ago, blowing new holes in her, murdering her slowly. ‘We can beat this,’ he’d told her after the latest results came back. ‘We’ve done it once, we can do it again.’
The kids had cried with him at home, away from their mother. Sam rang every day before she left for work and when she got home and passed on any news to her brother. Everyone was being strong for each other, and the effort was exhausting. It was all he could do to get out of bed some mornings.
Work had been fantastic, his bosses urging him to take as much time off as he needed, but Sparkes could not settle at the hospital or at home. He needed something in his life that was not about cancer. He needed to pretend that a normal life was possible, for Eileen’s sake and to distract his aching heart.
But he had clearly forgotten to brief DS Salmond.
He knew she was keeping the rabble in the incident room from his door out of kindness, but Sparkes lost it when he overheard his detective sergeant telling a colleague, ‘You’ll have to come back later. He’s not having a good day.’ He could picture her caring look and shouted, ‘Salmond, get in here!’
When she put her neatly groomed head round the door, he wiped the smile off her face.
‘You are getting right up my nose, Salmond. Stop telling people to leave me alone. Go and do something useful. I feel as if I’m being quarantined.’
The DS tried to laugh it off, but Bob knew he’d been too rough. He stood to stop her leaving.
‘Sorry. It’s just that when you’re talking about me, you sound as if you’re dealing with a jumper on a bridge. I’m all right.’
‘OK, boss. Point taken. I’ll leave you to it. I’ve got reports to finish.’
‘Tell me what you’re up to.’ He pointed to a chair.
Salmond sat and crossed her arms. Still defensive, Bob thought.
‘Come on, Zara. Remind me.’
‘Well, I’m chasing up the final results on the drugs bust out at Portsmouth.’
‘It’s a bit slow, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. Well, people have been off for the summer holidays.’
‘Anything to worry about?’
‘No, all looks tidy. Oh, and we’ve had a report of two girls from Winchester going missing.’
‘Missing? How old?’ he said, immediately on full alert. ‘When did this come in? Why didn’t you tell me straight away?’
‘They’re eighteen and missing in Thailand.’
‘Ah,’ Sparkes muttered, his mind slipping away to the meeting with Eileen’s consultant later.
‘Bit off our patch, but I’m up for it if you want to send …’ DS Salmond said, a shade louder to show she’d noticed his eyes glazing over.
‘In your dreams, Zara. Anyway, you’ve just been away.’
‘Hardly a holiday, boss. When Neil said Turkey, I thought sun-loungers. We spent most of the time looking at ancient latrines for his Year Ten’s project. In forty-degree heat.’
‘Latrines? Excellent. Any photos?’
Salmond laughed. ‘Neil’s got loads. I’ll ask him to send you a selection.’
‘Yeah, no hurry. What about these girls then?’
‘It’s only been a week but the parents are twitchy. The girls are away for the first time and didn’t ring for their A-level results yesterday. The dad of one of them phoned it in this morning and I’m passing on the details to Interpol, but my bet is they’ll be on a beach somewhere. Lucky them.’
‘Yes, lucky them. Well, let me know if you hear anything more.’
And he winked to let her know they were all right.
‘Quick update, sir,’ Salmond said twenty minutes later. ‘The Press Office are briefed about the backpackers and there’s a Facebook campaign already running – the family are doing it.’
Sparkes pulled a face.
‘It’s a good idea, sir. That’s where kids who might be sitting in a bar next to Alex and Rosie will be looking.’
‘Yes, them and every weirdo and glory-seeker on the planet, offering fake sympathy and sightings just to be part of the drama. And then there’ll be the trolls, blaming the parents for letting their kids go travelling, calling the girls slappers and whores. God, who opened the microphone to people like them? At least before social media you didn’t have to hear this stuff. They could sit in the snug of their local pub or their front room and spout their bile.’
‘Anyway,’ Salmond said. ‘Moving on …’