The Atlas of Us
Tracy Buchanan

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I reach into the bag again for the item wrapped in plastic. It’s square-shaped and feels heavy, its surface rough beneath the material of the plastic. I pull it out and lay it on top of Mum’s bag. Its front cover is made from strips of thin wood interweaved with each other and an image of the earth is etched in bright turquoise into it with four words painted in gold over it.

The Atlas of Us.

There’s a bronzed key lock on the side but it looks broken. I open the heavy front cover, see two lines written on the inside page, the ink only a little blurred – amazing considering how much it must have been thrown about in the water:

To my darling, my life, my world. The atlas of my heart.

Your love, Milo

It feels impossibly romantic. Maybe Mum had met someone? And yet she still hadn’t got in touch with me to tell me about them. I can imagine what Will would say if he were here. ‘Accept it, move on. Your mother doesn’t want to involve you in her life any more.’

I flick through the atlas. On the first page is a hand-drawn illustration of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Opposite is a paper pocket. I run my fingers over it, surprised to feel something inside. I reach in and pull out a dried purple flower encased in cellophane. There are other items too: a yellowed tourist leaflet from a place called Nunney Castle, a ticket to an awards ceremony in London, a photo of a cobweb flooded with light and a business card belonging to a journalist called Nathan Styles. There’s a crumpled piece of notepaper too with a pencil sketch of a sheep teetering on a tightrope, its eyes wide with comical fear, a note scrawled in handwriting I don’t recognise above it:

Exmoor by Claire Shreve

A watercolour of grey pooling around the edges of moss green valleys, ready to plummet downwards and destroy everything below.

I’ve never heard of a Claire Shreve. Is she one of Mum’s friends? I flick through the rest of the atlas and see more illustrated maps – including one of Thailand – and pockets too, some bulging with items.

‘Do you recognise any of it?’

I look up at Sam. ‘Just the bag. And the passport of course. I’m not sure about this atlas, I’d have remembered it if I’d seen it. It’s quite unusual.’

‘Okay. Shall I see if I can find a photo on the boards? Or …’ he hesitates, ‘… you might prefer to see her?’

My head swims at the thought. Then I remember Mum’s words again: You have to fight against fear, stare it right in the face.

‘I’d like to see her please,’ I say.

‘I’ll take you.’

I follow Sam towards a pair of bright blue gates to the side of the temple, criss-crossed with red stripes, the spikes on top gold. The smell instantly hits me: meaty, horrific. I tuck the note back into the atlas and place my sleeve over my nose as I follow Sam towards the temple. A Thai woman is standing in front of the gates, a clipboard in her hand, a bucket of surgical facemasks next to her. Beyond the gates is a temporary trailer, people milling around it. I’m thankful it’s blocking the view of whatever’s behind it.

Sam nods at the woman, who hands me a surgical mask. I put it on, gagging at the TCP smell.

‘Brace yourself,’ Sam says as he leads me through the gate.

I walk around the corner of the trailer towards a large area fringed by spindly green trees, the hill darting up behind them. At first, I think it’s dirty clothes spread over the plastic sheets in the middle. But as I draw closer, I see a bloated leg sticking out of one mound, a tangle of black hair fanning out from another and realise it’s bodies, scores of them, half covered by different coloured sheets of plastic. People are walking around in blue scrubs and wellies, and then there are the relatives and friends, hands over mouths as they crouch over the bodies, some crying, most looking frantic and exhausted.

I want to turn around and get the hell out of there. But instead, I force myself to follow Sam as he walks towards the bodies and try to control the whirlpool of terror inside.

‘She’s here,’ Sam says softly, coming to a stop in front of a blue sheet. He crouches down, taking the corner of the plastic between his fingers, then peers up at me. ‘Ready?’

‘Wait.’ I look up at the bright blue sky, tears welling in my eyes. Everything will be different after this; even the sky might look different.

I have to do this. I have to know.

‘Ready,’ I say. I hear the crunch of plastic and look down.

The colour of the face hits me first: dark red, bloated. Then the hair, long, curly and tangled around a swollen neck. There’s nothing there to recognise. It’s all distorted, grotesque. How can I find my mum in that?

I quickly look away again, stifling a sob. Could it really be her? It takes a while before I’m certain my voice will sound normal. ‘I can’t be sure,’ I say. ‘She has the same colour hair. But I – I can’t be sure. Is she wearing a bracelet? She always wore her bracelet.’

There’s a pause, more rustling then Sam’s voice. ‘No. There’s a necklace around her neck though, quite distinctive. It’s a gold typewriter with blue gems for keypads?’

Hope flutters inside. ‘I never saw her wear something like that. Do you think that means it’s not her?’

‘She could have bought the necklace at a stall here, plus her passport was inside so …’

His voice trails off but I understand what he’s trying to say. The chances are it is Mum. I feel the tears coming, the world tilting, and stumble away, leaning against a nearby tree as I try to control my emotions.

Sam follows me, placing his hand on my back. I don’t flinch away from him this time.

‘Mum left when I was twelve,’ I gasp. ‘I’ve barely seen her since. The last time was over two years ago at a party, it was awful.’ I don’t really understand why I’m saying all this now, to a virtual stranger. But the words continue to come out in a rush. ‘We had a terrible argument and I didn’t hear from her after, no matter how many times I called. Your mum keeps me posted with what she’s up to. But my mum won’t speak to me, her own daughter, and – and now I can’t even be sure if it’s her body back there.’

I start crying again in loud, shuddery hiccups and Sam wraps his arms around me. He smells faintly of sweat and TCP, the plastic of his outfit crinkling against my cheek. I ought to pull away. What would my husband say? But I need this right now, human touch, even if it’s a stranger’s touch. We stay like that for a few moments, surrounded by death and mourning relatives.

Then there’s a strangled sob from nearby. I pull away to see a man with curly blond hair crouching down next to the body we’ve just been looking at. An Indian man wearing scrubs is standing over him, brow creased.

‘This is Claire’s necklace,’ the blond man says. ‘It’s hand-crafted, one of a kind. She wears it all the time. Oh God.’

Relief rushes through me as I look down at the atlas in my mum’s bag, thinking of the note I found in it. Is it the same Claire?

‘What if it’s not Mum?’ I say to Sam, clutching onto this new possibility. ‘There was something in the atlas written by someone called Claire! And if that’s Claire’s necklace …’

‘But your mum’s passport and bag were with the body, Louise,’ Sam says softly.

I refuse to acknowledge what he just said, can’t possibly now there’s a glimmer of hope it might not be Mum. I look towards the blond man who’s now kneeling next to the woman, his head in his hands. Hope surges inside me. ‘He seems convinced he knows who she is,’ I say.

Sam follows my gaze. ‘He does, doesn’t he? Maybe it’s not your mum.’

I look up at the sky. Still the same. I promise myself that if – no, when – I find Mum alive, I’ll make her talk to me, really talk to me and we will repair what came apart since she left.

Then something occurs to me. ‘Maybe the reason that woman had Mum’s bag was because she knew her? If so, that man might know where Mum is.’

I go to walk towards him but Sam stops me. ‘Louise … give him a minute.’

I look into Sam’s eyes. I can tell he thinks I’m grasping at straws. Maybe I am, but what other leads do I have? ‘I have to find my mum, I have to bring her back to me, back to her grandchildren. I don’t care what it takes, where I have to go, but Mum’s going to be on that plane back to the UK with me.’

I shrug off his arm and march towards the man. He looks up when I approach, his eyes red.

I hesitate a moment. Maybe Sam’s right. But then I think of Mum out there somewhere, possibly injured in some filthy hospital with doctors who don’t speak English.

‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ I say softly, kneeling down to his level and putting my hand on his arm. He’s wearing a powder-blue suit, more expensive-looking than any of Will’s.

He shakes his head in disbelief, tears falling down his tanned cheeks. ‘I knew she was in the worst possible place for the wave to hit. But I never dreamed I’d find her body. She’s been through so much, gone through so much, and always come out fighting. Oh God.’

His voice cracks and I feel like crying with him. It could have been me kneeling here grieving for my mother. It was for a few moments.
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