The Atlas of Us
Tracy Buchanan

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She put her book away, reluctantly acknowledging it was time to head back and get on with the job. Her favourite kind of press trip were the ones organised by the tourist offices where she was met at the airport by a media rep then left to get on with it for the rest of the time, with the odd attraction visit and hotel inspection. But on the majority of her trips, most of her time was taken up by her host – usually someone who paid big bucks to advertise in the magazine – escorting Claire here, there and everywhere on a tight schedule, even just a one-nighter turning into a small kind of torture. She had a feeling this might be one of those trips; she’d met the inn’s owner before and he was a handful.

‘Ready to head back?’ she asked Archie.

He wagged his tail as she jumped up. A few minutes later, she was squeezing past the queue of Germans, apologising to them as Archie jumped up at their legs. Once they were behind her, she paused a moment to watch as they marched towards the sea. It already looked different, the blur of their forms blotting the scenery in front of her.

As she walked back along the path the tourists had come down, she thought of the conversation she’d had with Ben the night before. They’d been driving back from a friend’s wedding reception and she’d been looking out of the car window as the cat’s eyes on the road had blurred into one, creating a jet stream of light down the middle of the windy road. She’d had a bit to drink and had made Ben play Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ over and over as she’d stared at that light, feeling miserable, thinking of how it was always these nights – these long drives in the dark – that got her thinking about everything they didn’t have. After a while, he’d turned to her, the misery on his face mirroring hers.

‘Maybe you should use this trip to Exmoor as a chance to think about things,’ he’d said.

‘What do you mean?’

He’d looked surprised. ‘You’re not telling me you haven’t noticed how strained things are between us, Claire? How miserable you are in particular?’

She’d felt the panic start to rise. Yes, she had noticed, but then they’d only just finished their last round of IVF two months before, then work had been hectic, her boss seeming to punish her for taking two weeks off for her treatment by making her work longer hours, go on even more trips. She’d barely seen Ben, and had kept telling herself they’d go away once things calmed down and get things back on track.

But things had never really calmed down.

‘Sorry, I’ve been so busy,’ Claire had said to Ben. ‘I’ll take some time off, we can go away like we said we would.’

Ben had sighed. ‘It’s not enough, Claire. Watching Robyn and Richard get married today made me realise just how much we’ve changed since we got married.’ His knuckles had turned white as he’d clung onto the steering wheel. ‘We’re broken, Claire. We’ve tried to fix it but it’s time we admitted it’s over.’

She’d attempted to grab his hand, pleading with him it wasn’t over, they just needed to fight for their marriage. But he’d just stared ahead, jaw set. That night, he’d slept in the spare room. The last she’d seen of him was the next morning as he’d watched her drive away, a look of relief on his face.

Relief. Had it really got that bad between them?

As she’d driven away, she’d wondered if he’d realised it was three years exactly from the day of their first embryo transfer. She tried to imagine carrying a toddler in her arms with him strolling beside her. Things would be different then, wouldn’t they? She’d have the secure family life she’d yearned for ever since she’d discovered her dad dying and realised a life lived on the edge just left you all alone. But that life was gone and now, instead of that toddler, all Claire saw were six embryos bobbing up and down in the sea, the same six that had failed to implant, leading to a bunch of negative pregnancy tests she still kept in a box in her wardrobe.

Ghosts of lost hope.

‘Oh God,’ she whispered. She stopped walking and leaned her hand against the hard grey rock of the cliff next to her to steady herself, gulping in huge breaths as she saw the life she’d dreamed of ebbing away.

Then a bark echoed out in the distance. Archie looked up from the patch of grass he’d been sniffing, back straight as a rod as he tried to detect the source of the sound. Claire followed his gaze to see a feral-looking dog running along a dash of path on the other side of the river. She hadn’t even noticed there was another path. Then the dog’s owner came into view: tall, dark hair, long stride. He was walking with purpose, eyes scouring all around him, his dark fringe lifting with every step to reveal a hint of long lashes, straight nose, tanned forehead.

Archie let out a woof that echoed around the valley.

The man paused mid-stride and looked up at them. His dog paused too, ears pricking. Then it let out a thin whine that stretched across the river and steep bank between them. The man stepped forward, whole body alert as he reached into his pocket, pulling out a pair of binoculars. He pressed them to his eyes and Claire froze, feeling like he’d actually run across the river and scrambled up the bank towards her. Even Archie stilled, pressing his small black and white body against Claire’s shins.

The man lowered his binoculars and pulled his walking stick out from under his arm. That’s when Claire realised it wasn’t a walking stick he was holding … it was a gun.

He cocked it up towards her, pressing his cheek against the flat edge of its top, and all the misery she’d just been battling drained away, replaced by fear.

‘Oh Jesus,’ she whispered, finally finding her feet and stumbling backwards.

Suddenly, the air was punctured with a sound like a firework going off. She ducked and there was a terrible keening sound from above. She looked up to see a large deer with spindly antlers and fur the colour of conkers staggering around, blood trickling from a small hole in its head. Archie whined and the stag’s eyes snagged on Claire’s, making her almost choke on the fleeting look of terror and hopelessness in them.

Then it tumbled down the bank, landing with a thump in front of her, one of its antlers cracking in half on impact.

She put her hand to her mouth, unable to drag her gaze away from the deer’s eyes, which were now staring into nothingness. Blood was pooling around its head and Archie tried to get to it, yanking Claire out of her shock. She pulled him back and turned towards the man, ready to scream at him – but he was gone.

She jogged back, whole body buzzing with anger. When she reached the inn, a white marquee was being set up on the expanse of green that fanned up from the river. A woman in her fifties watched from the path with a pretty blonde girl, her face lit up with pride. A wedding?


Claire darted past them then paused as she noticed glimpses of a large farmhouse in between the leaves, dark and imposing, ivy strangling its gutters. Spread out beyond it was a huge hill that sloped into a valley, cows and sheep dotted all over.

She walked into the inn, the soles of her wellies squelching on the pine floorboards. She found Henry, the inn’s owner, in the plush-looking bar talking to a girl of about thirteen or fourteen with spirals of vivid red hair. She peered up at Claire, green eyes sparkling with curiosity as Archie’s tail wagged against Claire’s chest.

‘You got here!’ Henry said when he saw Claire approach. He bounded up to her, leaving the girl behind and giving Claire a kiss on both cheeks. He was huge, at least six foot three, with thick blond hair.

They’d met once before during a press trip to the boutique hotel he’d once owned in Oxford. She’d always found him a bit overwhelming and had been dreading spending more time than she needed to with him this weekend. That dread had grown after everything that had happened with Ben; how could she keep up the fake smiles today of all days? That was the thing with editing a travel trade magazine aimed at tour operators: you were forced into situations with people you wouldn’t usually want to spend much time with.

‘The new hairdo suits you,’ Henry said, smiling.

She put her hand to her head. That weekend, she’d impulsively asked her hairdresser to cover the usual brown with bright red and chop it to her shoulders. She hadn’t changed her hair in such a long time, her boss preferring her to keep the same style so she didn’t confuse the magazine advertisers. But she’d felt like she needed a change. When she’d stared at herself in the mirror afterwards, it seemed to have changed her face somehow, making her brown eyes look even bigger, skin even paler.

‘Did you arrive okay?’ Henry asked. ‘All checked in?’

‘Not checked in yet,’ Claire said as she tried to catch her breath, hands still trembling half with anger, half with shock at having a gun pointed at her. ‘We’ve just been for a walk. Look, I just saw—’

The girl approached, eyes on Archie, huge smile on her pretty face as she crouched down in front of him. She was wearing muddy jeans and wellies, and a green faded hoodie that matched the colour of her eyes. Archie backed away slightly, wary after the rough treatment of other children.

‘Your dog’s a bit nervous, isn’t he?’ the girl asked Claire.

Claire smiled. ‘He can be. He only has one eye so it makes him quite anxious with strangers.’

‘Oh yes, I can see now. You hardly notice with the black patch of hair. Thought it’d be something like that. Dad gets Jack Russells in to kill the rats on the farms sometimes and they’re always so confident. Uncle Milo says I’m to get myself to a dog’s level if they’re scared.’

‘That’s enough now, Holly, Claire doesn’t need to hear your uncle’s theories on canine behaviour, thank you very much.’ Henry leaned in close to Claire. ‘I’m afraid my niece hasn’t been taught manners,’ he whispered rather too loudly.

Rude git, Claire thought.

Holly frowned slightly at Henry’s comment as she slowly reached her hand out to Archie. He hesitated a moment, considering his options, then slunk towards her, head low, tail wagging. She softly stroked his ears and he drew even closer, leaning against her shoulder as she smiled.

‘She’s a wild one,’ Henry continued. ‘No surprise considering she’s part of my wife’s crazy family. I’ll tell you all about that after a few glasses of wine,’ he added, tapping his nose. ‘Plus she’s not had a proper mother figure all these years and has been brought up surrounded by pigs and tractors in the farm up the road.’

Claire thought of the farmhouse she’d seen just a moment ago. ‘Maybe all kids should be brought up on farms then?’ she said. ‘She’s wonderful with Archie.’

Holly looked up at Claire, a hesitant smile on her face. ‘Uncle Milo says I should be a vet. But I’d prefer to be a journalist, like you.’

‘She’s seen the magazine,’ Henry said, noticing the confused look on Claire’s face. ‘Been excited about your visit for days.’

‘Oh, it’s only a small magazine,’ Claire said to Holly. ‘How old are you?’


‘You have a while to decide what you want to be yet. Why don’t you look after Archie while I talk to your uncle?’ She handed Archie’s lead to Holly. ‘Make sure you hold the lead tight though, he likes to chase birds and cars.’

‘Just like your uncle Milo,’ Henry said, guffawing as he steered Claire away. His face grew serious when they got out of earshot. ‘Everything okay, Claire?’
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