The Atlas of Us
Tracy Buchanan

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‘You don’t have to, really. I can do it.’

This time, my voice breaks as I imagine seeing a photo of Mum up there. Sam gently places his fingers on my bare arm. They feel cool, dry. ‘I’m here to help, Louise.’

The woman from the bus approaches from the direction of the photo boards, her face pressed against her husband’s chest as he stares ahead, tears streaming down his cheeks.

I look back at Sam. ‘If you’re sure?’

‘Of course. You’ve probably been asked this already, but are there any distinguishing marks, jewellery, anything that will help me identify your mum?’

‘Just a bracelet she always wears. She’s wearing it in this photo.’ I start digging around in my bag. ‘Thing is, I haven’t seen her for over two years so I’m not sure if she still looks …’ My voice trails off. Why did I say that?

‘Two years?’

‘It’s a long story.’

Sam scrutinises my face then nods. ‘Understood. So, the photo?’

I pull the photo out and hand it over. Mum looks happy in it, tanned, smiling, her dark hair whipping about her face. Slung over her shoulder is a pink bag with the smiling face of a child embroidered into its front. I can just about make out her precious bracelet, a rusty old charm bracelet with bronze teapots and spoons attached to it. She’s wearing the yellow cardigan with red hearts I got her a few years ago too. That did something to me when Jane emailed the photo to me after they’d both gone to some Greek island together last year, made my heart clench to see her wearing the cardigan I got her – like maybe Mum did care for me.

Something changes in Sam’s face as he looks at the photo. ‘That’s an unusual bag. I think I saw it last night.’

I try to keep my voice steady. ‘With a body?’

He looks pained. ‘Yes, I’m sorry. It was wrapped around the woman quite securely. It came in late so if there’s any ID with it, it won’t have filtered down to any lists yet.’

I sway slightly, vision blurring. Sam takes my elbow, helping me steady myself.

‘I’ll go out back and check for you,’ he says softly. ‘Is it okay if I take this photo?’

‘Yes.’ My voice is barely above a whisper.

‘Why don’t you sit down?’ He steers me to a nearby seat, an oddly shaped bamboo chair that feels rough under my calves. He then runs towards the temple, his flip-flops slapping on the sandy concrete as he weaves between the tables and photo boards, apologising to people as he bumps into them.

I put my head in my shaking hands. Is this what it comes to in the end? I feel a rush of regret and anger. Regret at not working hard enough to rebuild my relationship with my mum again when she stopped talking to me, anger at the fact I’d had to even try to rebuild it. It had only been a stupid argument; I’d never dreamt it would have led to her not contacting me for such a long time.

‘Oh, Mum,’ I mumble into my palms.

I stay like that for a while, trying to grapple with the idea of Mum being gone forever. When Jane had called saying how concerned she was, I knew, quite suddenly, that I had to come out here to find Mum. It wasn’t just about finding her, it was about starting over with her, making amends. I’d brewed on it all of Boxing Day as I’d watched the news unfold on TV until I’d had to wake Will to tell him what I’d decided. I could tell he didn’t believe I’d go through with it, even when I started packing my suitcase.

I sit up straight when I notice Sam jogging towards me again. He’s holding a bag to his chest like it’s a newborn baby and there’s this look on his face that makes something inside me falter. He places the bag on the dusty ground and crouches down in front of me, placing his hands over mine. I pull my hands away, stifling the growing panic inside.

‘There was a passport in the bag,’ he says very softly.

He pulls it from the bag and hands it to me. I open it, see Mum’s face, her name. I put my hand to my mouth and blink, keep blinking. It feels like there’s a wave inside, flattening everything in its path.

‘You said the bag was found with a body,’ I say. ‘Have you seen it?’

Sam nods, face crunched with pain. ‘There’s a lot of …’ He sighs. ‘A lot of damage to the face. But she has dark hair like your mum’s.’

The edges of the world smudge.

I close my eyes and smell Mum’s scent: floral perfume, mints and paint oils. With it comes a memory of her smiling down at me, her paintbrush caught mid-sweep, a blot of black ink smudging the eye she’d been painting – her own eye. The ink crawls down the canvas, distorting her painted face. I was eight at the time and had just got back from a disastrous day at school.

‘What’s with you, grumpy face?’ she’d asked me.

I’d hesitated a moment before stepping into the spare room she was using as a studio. Our house was just a small three-bed semi but my father had insisted on turning the largest room into a studio for Mum. It had always felt off-limits to me. But she’d beckoned me in that day, gesturing towards her paint-splattered chair, a bright blue leather one she’d found in the local charity shop.

‘Tell me everything,’ she’d said, kneeling in front of me and taking my hands, getting green paint all over them.

‘I don’t want to go into school tomorrow,’ I’d said, resisting the urge to pull away from her and clean the paint off my hands. I’d never got on well at the private school Dad had been so keen to scrimp and save to get me into, the teachers always seemed to regard me as inferior to the other, richer kids. Mum had warned him it would happen. ‘There’s nothing worse for a snooty bourgeois than an aspiring bourgeois,’ she’d said. Is that what she’d thought of me when I married a company director – a snooty bourgeois?

‘Why not, darling?’ she’d asked.

‘My teacher told me off today.’

She’d raised an eyebrow, smiling slightly. I remember thinking that mums aren’t supposed to smile about things like that and part of me was annoyed. Why couldn’t she be like other mums?

‘Why’d your teacher tell you off, Lou?’ she’d asked.

‘I told the truth.’ Her smile had widened. ‘She read out a poem she’d written to help us with our poems and I said it was rubbish.’

Mum had laughed then, those big white teeth of hers gleaming under the light. ‘You told the truth, that’s wonderful! “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”,’ she’d added, quoting her favourite Keats poem.

‘But she hates me now.’ I’d crossed my arms, turning away. ‘I can’t go into school.’

‘Of course you can! You can’t let fear rule you, Lou. You have to fight against fear, stare it right in the face.’

‘You okay?’ Sam asks, pulling me from the memory.

I open my eyes, Mum’s words echoing in my mind like she’s right there with me.

You can’t let fear rule you, Lou.

‘Can I see the bag please?’ I ask Sam.

‘Of course.’

He hands it to me. It’s dirtier than in the photo, caked with dried mud, and there’s a grotesque tear across the child’s face. I imagine Mum shopping in one of Thailand’s markets with it, reaching into it for a purse to buy some odd Buddhist ornament, half a smile on her tanned face.

I take a deep breath then unzip it, peering in. There’s a hairbrush in there, a bright red lipstick and something wrapped in a plastic bag. I pull the brush out first, examining the hair on it. It looks dark, just like Mum’s.

But then lots of people have dark hair, right?

I place the brush gently to one side and look at the lipstick. Mum sometimes wears red lipstick. She’s not alone in that though, plenty of women do.

But what about her passport? That can only belong to one woman.

I clench my fists, driving the surge of grief away. It’s not over until it’s over.
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