The Atlas of Us
Tracy Buchanan

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My phone buzzes, a text from Will. I force myself to look at it.

Did you get my voicemail? You shouldn’t have gone. Call me.

‘British, love?’ There’s a woman watching me from across the aisle. Stark white lines dart up from the strapless top she’s wearing, disappearing over the fleshy mounds of her shoulders. I feel the urge to tell her about my friend Simone who nearly died of skin cancer.

Instead I nod. ‘Yes.’

‘Thought so. I saw you at the airport earlier. We’re going to see about our son, he’s eighteen.’

My heart goes out to her. How would I feel if it were one of my girls missing? ‘I’m sorry. I hope he’s okay.’

‘We hope so too, don’t we, Roy?’ The woman peers at the man next to her, but he just continues staring bleakly out of the window. ‘His friends say he met a girl, spent the night with her. Now he’s missing.’

Missing.

That’s the word I’ve been using to describe Mum’s status too since getting a call from her friend Jane on Boxing Day. But now that I’m heading to the temple – the endgame – missing seems too optimistic.

‘What about you?’ the woman asks. I can see she’s desperate for the comfort blanket of talk her husband obviously can’t offer. He’s probably like Will, always telling me I talk too much. Even after I’d got the phone call about Mum, he was too engrossed in his new iPod to listen properly as I tried to tell him how desperately worried I felt.

‘My mum’s been travelling around the islands over Christmas,’ I say to the woman now. ‘She’s not tried to call anyone to let us know she’s okay. We’re really worried.’

‘Oh, poor luv. You’ve come out here all alone?’

‘Yes. I’m all my mum has. We’re very close.’ I don’t know why I lie.

‘That’s lovely. You’re very good to come out here for her.’

Or stupid. That’s what Will had called me when I’d woken him in the early hours to tell him I wanted to fly out here to find Mum.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I am bloody stupid to leave the girls with their dad and come alone to a country more alien than I’ve ever known. I can smell the foreignness in the scorched spicy air drifting in through the windows; see it in the wires that hang precariously from the pylons; hear it in the strange urgent accents of the Thai people outside.

I feel my chest start to fill with apprehension but quickly swallow it away.

‘Have you been putting photos of your mum up on the notice boards?’ the woman asks.

I nod. ‘Yes.’

‘Strange, isn’t it? All those smiling faces?’

She doesn’t say why. I know what she means though. Strange to think half of them might be dead now, bloated corpses laid out in a temple like the very one we’re heading to now.

What if Mum’s one of those corpses? Oh God.

‘Did you check the patient list at the hospital?’ the woman asks.

I clear my throat, trying not to show the fear building inside. ‘Yes, I did.’ I’d gone into the hospital too, waving my mum’s photo in the faces of harassed-looking staff whose accents made my head buzz with confusion, the phrase book I’d bought in a hurry at the airport useless.

‘You never know, someone might call,’ the woman says, looking down at her mobile clutched in her plump hand. ‘The embassy photocopied the picture we brought of our son. So nice of them. I’m sure it’ll all be fine.’ Her hand flutters to the small cross around her neck. ‘I’m sure we’ll …’

Her voice trails off, her eyes losing focus as the bus slows down. A large spiky roof with gold spires comes into view, a mountain shrouded in trees behind it. As the bus draws closer, the whole temple appears before us, curved and ornate with tiered icing-sugar walls and arched windows fringed with gold. Two painted tiger statues adorn its entrance, looking ready to pounce on the frantic relatives and tired-looking officials hurrying around the busy area in front of it. This must be where the foreign embassies are: white canopies, rows and rows of photo boards, lines of desks weighed down with paperwork and flags. I try to find the Union Jack among all the other flags, as if it might blur the strangeness of this place a little. But all I can see is a tiny beige monkey that is weaving in and out of the table legs. I make a mental note to tell the girls about it. They’ll want to know things like that when I get back. They don’t need to know about the bodies I’ve seen floating in the sea, nor the turned-over cars. Just this little sprite of a monkey and the bright green lizards I noticed while waiting for the bus.

I think of their faces when I’d told them I’d be leaving them for a couple of days to find their nanna. My youngest, Olivia, had got that look, like she might cry any minute, and it had made my heart ache. They’ve not spent more than one night away from me and even then it felt like a small kind of torture for them – and me. To make them feel better, I’d told them Daddy was taking them to the show they’d been going on about; the same show he’s made every excuse under the sun not to go to.

I hope he takes them, I really do. He needs to spend more time with them. He can make their breakfast and ferry them from one friend to another like I do each day, wash their clothes, clean the house, pick up the dog muck in the garden … the list goes on. Maybe he’ll understand life isn’t such a breeze as a stay-at-home mum?

Oh God, what was I thinking? How on earth will he cope? I really was stupid coming here.

We pass under a square blue archway, the red globe lanterns hanging from its ceiling trembling in the breeze. The woman sitting across from me clutches at her husband’s arm. But he ignores her just like Will would ignore me. I want to shake him, tell him his wife needs him. Instead, I reach over and place my hand on the woman’s plump arm. The woman nods, her eyes swimming with thanks. But she doesn’t speak any more.

The bus comes to a stop beneath a lush green tree, and I try to recognise Jane’s son Sam among the crowds from the photo she sent. A man approaches the bus.

It’s him.

His tanned face speaks of exhaustion, of sadness and unknown horrors. People stand, blocking my view of him. I rise with them, smoothing my fringe down, checking the collar of my neat blossom-coloured blouse. Despite it being early evening, the heat’s a nightmare, sweat making the thin material of my blouse cling to all the wrong curves, curves I usually cover with tailored tops and trousers; strands of my fine hair already escaping from the ponytail I’d crafted so carefully a few hours before. I’m pleased I inherited Dad’s height and blond hair, but combine that with my mum’s curves and I’m in trouble.

I catch myself mid-moan. How can I worry about my weight when Mum’s missing?

The bus driver hauls open the door and I step out, blinking up at the sun and trying not to think about what it must be doing to all those bodies. The other passengers hesitate too, faces white with worry as they take in the temple in the distance. A woman leans her face into her husband’s chest and sobs while two young men next to me take frantic gulps of water, the nervous energy throbbing off them.

I feel even more alone now, watching all these people. They’re all terrified of what they might find, but at least they’re not alone. I look at Sam. Maybe I’m not so alone. I shrug my bag strap over my shoulder, heading towards him.

He turns as I approach, frowns a little like he’s trying to figure out if it’s the same person in the photo his mum sent. Then he smiles. ‘Louise?’ he asks, a Northern lilt to his voice.

He’s in his late twenties, a few years younger than me, and is wearing a white linen shirt and cut-off blue jeans. This close, I can see the light stubble on his cheeks and chin, the small jewel in his nose, the wheel pattern of the pendant hanging from his neck. He has tanned skin, fair hair, a mole on his cheek. Will would call him a hippy, like the man with long hair who was renting the house a few doors down with his Chinese wife and two children last year. I’d been desperate to invite them over for dinner; they’d seemed so interesting. But Will had always found some excuse or other not to. Six months later, they’d moved away. I wasn’t surprised. They didn’t look the type to be happy in an estate full of expensive new builds and gas-guzzling family cars.

‘Yes, I’m Louise,’ I say to Sam. I note a hint of surprise in his eyes. Maybe he was expecting someone like my mum, all bronzed and arty with floaty skirts and flowing scarves, instead of a pale, blouse-wearing, stay-at-home mum from Kent. ‘Thanks so much for offering to help,’ I say. ‘Your mum said you’d been helping out? I’ll try not to take up too much of your time.’

‘Take up as much time as you want. I promised Mum I’d do everything I can to help you.’ He examined my face. ‘How are you holding up?’

‘The paperwork’s a nightmare but—’

‘I mean about your mum missing. Must be tough?’

‘I – I’m not sure really. It’s been a bit of a blur since your mum called. I’m sure everything’ll be fine, I’m sure we’ll find her …’ My voice trails off. The truth is, I’m terrified. Terrified I’ve lost my mum before I’ve even had the chance to patch things up with her. ‘Jane says you live in Bangkok. Did you travel over here to help out?’ I ask, trying to change the subject. Small talk seems out of place here, but it’s a type of anchor for us Brits, isn’t it?

He shakes his head. ‘I came to Ao Nang to visit a friend for Christmas. Luckily, we were staying further inland. As soon as we heard what had happened, we started helping out and I ended up volunteering here,’ he says, gesturing around him.

‘It must be difficult.’

He swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. ‘Very. But at least I’m doing something to help. Have you done all the form-filling and DNA stuff?’

‘Yes, twice. No sign.’ I peer towards the temple. ‘So, do we go in there then?’

‘Not yet. The bodies are back there.’ He flinches slightly, like it physically hurts him to say that. ‘I’d recommend the boards first, there’s photos of each body on there. People find that easier.’

‘Yes, that makes sense.’ My voice sounds strong, considering.

‘Why don’t you show me a photo of your mum and I’ll go look at the boards for you?’
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