The Atlas of Us
Tracy Buchanan

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‘I think my mum knew your wife,’ I say gently.

The man flinches. ‘Friend, not wife.’

‘Friend. Sorry. She had my mum’s bag when she was found,’ I say, gesturing to the bag slung over my shoulder. ‘And there was an atlas with a note written by someone called Claire Shreve in it?’

He frowns. ‘Are you sure that’s your mother’s bag?’

‘Her passport was in it. It’s quite a distinctive bag too.’

‘Did your mother know Nathan Styles?’

I think of the business card in the atlas. ‘No. Why?’

He ignores my question. ‘What’s your mother’s name?’ he asks instead.

‘Nora McKenzie.’

His face flickers with recognition. ‘The name rings a bell.’

All my nerves stand on edge. ‘Really? Did Claire know my mother?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Sorry, I’m not very good with names, especially now.’ He looks down at the body again, face crumpling. Then he takes in a deep breath, composing himself. ‘I need to make some calls then I really must sleep. But maybe it’ll come to me once I get some rest. Where are you staying?’ I tell him the name of my hotel in Ao Nang and he nods. ‘I’m not far from there. There’s a small café just a few minutes’ walk from it.’ He pulls out a pen and business card from his pocket and scribbles down the café’s address before handing it to me. ‘Shall we meet there tomorrow morning, at nine?’

I want to tell him he needs to remember right now but then I put myself in his shoes again.

‘Perfect.’ I look down at the business card: Jay Hemingford, Journalist. ‘Thank you, Jay.’

He smiles very slightly then looks back down at Claire Shreve. I leave him alone and follow Sam through the gates, the crowds and noise a contrast to the quiet solemnity and hushed sobs of the makeshift morgue behind us.

‘Mum mentioned you booked a hotel in Ao Nang,’ Sam says. ‘There’s a bus coming soon that’ll get you there. You should go check in and get some rest then start again with a fresh head tomorrow. I can come by the café tomorrow morning after you’ve met with that man to see if I can help with any information he gives you?’

‘That’ll be great, thanks.’

‘And my mum gave you my number right? So just call if you need me.’

‘I will. I really appreciate your help, Sam.’

‘No problem. I better get back to it.’ He shoots me one last pained look then jogs away.

When the bus arrives, I step onto it like I’m sleepwalking, slumping into a chair near the back and staring blankly out of the window as it starts rumbling down the road. There’s a young boy crying for his mum in front of me, his dad cuddling him to his chest as he tries to hold back his own tears. I wish I were a child again so I could cry for my mum. I’m relieved that wasn’t her body, but that’s not to say there won’t be other temples, other bodies to see … one of which might really be hers.

The bus bumps over a pothole, and something digs into my hip. I look down and realise I still have the atlas. I must remember to give it to Jay Hemingford when I meet him tomorrow so he can return it to Claire Shreve’s family.

I hesitate a few moments then lift the atlas to my nose. It smells of salt, of mangoes too, I think. I go to open it, unable to resist. It’s clear Claire Shreve wouldn’t want random people poking their nose in. Maybe if I just look in the pocket next to the Thailand map? If Mum met Claire Shreve out here and they visited the same places, there might be some breadcrumbs leading me to Mum’s whereabouts. And anyway, if they did know each other, surely Claire Shreve would want to help me find my mum?

I find the right page then reach into the pocket. The first item is a photo of three people I don’t recognise: a young girl with curly red hair, a petite brunette a few years older than me, then a young blond man. There’s a hint of a palm tree in the background and, behind them, a large elephant statue with blue jewels all over it. I turn it over, but there’s nothing on the back.

I go to the next item, a creased napkin with a pencil drawing of a rock jutting from the sea, someone standing on it with their arms wide open, like they want to catch the scribbled moon above.

And then the final item, a piece of orange tissue paper patterned with flowery swirls. Attached to it with a safety pin is part of a torn note, three words scrawled across it:

The bad things …

I shiver slightly, despite the heat, then tuck it back into the pocket before leaning my forehead against the cool window, thinking of that first note I’d found.

A watercolour of grey pooling around the edges of moss green valleys …

I’d visited Devon for the weekend with the girls the year before. Will had meant to come with us but something big had gone down at work. He’d suggested cancelling it but I’d thought, what the hell, why can’t I do it alone? It wasn’t easy. The drive down there was a challenge with two grumpy, tired kids. But once we’d got into the stride of things, it had been a little adventure – just me and the girls enjoying long walks and scones crammed with jam and cream, no frowning husband and Daddy to tell us we’d get fat.

God, how I’d love to be back there right now on safe and familiar ground, away from the fierce heat and the strange smells and sounds. The past few years, I’ve dreamed of spreading my wings a little. But I’d meant trying a holiday to Greece instead of Portugal; meeting new friends whose lives revolved around more than the school run and bake-offs; romantic dinners somewhere other than the local Italian. I didn’t mean this – fumbling blind in a country with bamboo houses on stilts. I’d rather see thatched cottage roofs and feel Exmoor’s sharp westerly wind fierce against my skin …

Chapter Two (#ulink_a96d4509-a74c-5b13-87fc-2e6335e30a05)

Exmoor, UK


In Exmoor, there’s a feeling that, at any moment, something might suddenly plummet. Like the sky that September day when Claire drove towards the inn for the first time, a watercolour of grey pooling around the edges of moss green valleys, ready to plunge down and destroy everything below. Or the sheep that stood nonchalantly on steep verges dipped in purple heather, unaffected by the tightrope they walked between the drop below and passing cars.

When Claire arrived at the inn, a white three-storey building that seemed more suited to the plains of America than this windy British valley, she too felt as though she might plummet at any minute. She’d been holding it together so long, but the conversation she’d had with her husband the night before had sent her into freefall, the fragile walls she’d built up around herself the past few years starting to crumble.

She didn’t check in as soon as she got there as she normally did on trips for the magazine. Instead, she’d headed straight for the signposted path leading towards the cliffs, praying the fresh air would bring her some peace as it always seemed to on her travels. As she entered the cocoon of trees behind the inn and followed the rippling river towards the sea with her Jack Russell, Archie, she didn’t think much, brain muted from the drive there and all that had happened the night before. Instead, she watched as the scenery changed from the lush foliage of the surrounding forest into a valley of grey rocks.

It had rained overnight and now the air was fresh, the sky overhead a light grey mist. Archie clambered over the small rocks, nudging his wet nose under the stones, nibbling at the weeds that lay drying beneath them. She was pleased the inn’s owner Henry Johnson had insisted she bring her dog to try out the pet-friendly rooms. She wasn’t sure how she’d have coped here completely alone. Sure, she was used to travelling solo with her job, but that was before the floor fell out from beneath her marriage.

Soon the path rose up and away from the river, a steep bank of grey rock either side. In the distance, the river’s mouth opened, bubbling over pebbles and out into a frothing sea. As she drew closer, metal barriers appeared with notices warning of sheer drops. She stopped at one of the barriers, looking out over the cliff, tummy wrinkling as she imagined tumbling into the furious waves below. Her publishing director wouldn’t be too pleased considering press day was just around the corner.

She allowed herself a small smile before pulling her camera out of her bag and lifting it to her face, taking the usual obligatory photos for the magazine … and some for herself too. She had a scrapbook of photos from trips such as these just for herself. They weren’t amazing photos; the magazine couldn’t afford to send her on a course. But she’d learned on the job how to take a half-decent picture and now she enjoyed it, capturing moments she might have otherwise struggled to remember later as she wrote articles to crazy deadlines.

When she’d taken enough photos of the roaring sea and craggy cliffs, she led Archie down the slope towards the lime kiln she’d read about, a hut-shaped structure that merged into its surroundings. Its entranceway gaped open and Archie ran towards it but she yanked him back, noticing the sign at the front warning people not to enter for their own safety. When she was a teenager, she would’ve marched right in, regardless of any signs, just like her dad used to. One of her earliest memories was of when she was five and they were visiting the Wailua Falls in Kauai, Hawaii, a stunning double-tiered waterfall that dropped over a hundred feet, surrounded by tropical green flora. Her dad had heard you could get the best photos by scrambling down the steep cliffs towards the base of the waterfall. So, as Claire watched from the safety of the viewing area with her mum and sister, he’d managed to do just that, taking the iconic photo Claire still saw in travel magazines showing two streams of water silver-white as they gushed into the green lagoon below. Looking at that photo, you could almost feel the splash of water on your face, hear the roar of the waterfall.

Ten years later, Claire had visited the Big Falls waterfall in California with her friend Jodie. Inspired by her dad, she’d crossed the river and scaled the jagged hillsides around it to reach the waterfall’s base, getting an amazing photo looking directly up the waterfall, the blue sky and bright yellow sun reflected in its sheen.

Put her in the same situation now and she wouldn’t dare do that. Life had taught her taking the risky path simply wasn’t worth it.

‘This way, boy,’ Claire said, pulling Archie away from the cliff edge and towards the cluster of boulders leading down to the ocean. They picked their way over the rocks towards the sea, fizz from the waves speckling Claire’s jeans. It was strange how still things felt at that moment, so calm and beautiful, despite the frenzied nature of the waves nearby. She was completely alone here, just Archie, the roar of the sea and the squawk of birds for company. Is this the way it would be from now on, just her and Archie? It was unlikely anyone else would take her barren, broken body, after all. Even at thirty-one, it seemed a daunting prospect. What about in twenty, thirty, forty years? Would she end up like her dad, ill and alone in some grotty flat, despite all she’d done to try to avoid a destiny like his? At least she’d been with him at the end. There would be no child holding her hand and mopping her brow now.

She sank down onto a large rock, putting her head on her hands. This was really happening, wasn’t it? Ben was leaving her, taking all the dreams they’d shared with him too. What was she going to do now? She felt a scrabbling at her feet and looked down to see Archie peering up at her with his one good brown eye – the other had been removed after a bout of glaucoma. He put his front paws on her knees and nuzzled his wet snout into her jeans. She leaned down, pressing her cheek against the warm fur of his neck.

‘At least I’ve got you, haven’t I, boy?’

He wagged his tail in response and she sighed, reaching into her bag and pulling out the book her friend Jodie had managed to get an advance copy of – Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. That was the advantage of having a friend who was an arts and culture events organiser; she could sate her craving for good books before other people got their hands on them. Claire had met Jodie during her travels with her family when they were both thirteen – Jodie with her bohemian mum and crazy sisters, Claire with her ramshackle family. Jodie had been her one true friend, still was in a way, other friends just ships in the night due to the intense hours Claire worked. Both of them still somehow managed to meet whenever they could, despite their hectic schedules. She wondered what Jodie would say about her and Ben splitting up. Maybe she’d be secretly happy. Jodie had never really warmed to him.

She looked down at the book and let herself get lost in the words. That was all it took sometimes, the feel of flimsy paper between her fingers, the sight of black ink dancing before her eyes and delivering her into another world. Books were often her only companions on lonely nights during press trips. They’d been there for her when she was a kid craving consistency too, curling up in a little nook somewhere, the characters she’d read about becoming her friends when she only had her family for company as they travelled from one place to the next.

She reached into her pocket for her other companion – chocolate – and luxuriated in this chance to leave all her troubles behind, occasionally stopping to marvel at the scenery around her, her new fortress of solitude.

But it wasn’t long before her fortress of Solitude became a fortress of German tourists as a whole centipede of people appeared on the horizon, trailing one after another on the path above. Among them was a family, a little boy strapped to the mother’s chest in a baby holdall. She’d once dreamed of holidays like that with Ben.
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