The minute she heard Tom’s voice Rose knew it meant trouble. In the three years since the divorce their only contact had been by email, infrequent and stiff.
The day had begun like any other. It was barely light when the alarm went off. Rose felt for her slippers with eyes still shut and groped her way to the bathroom. She dragged a brush through her hair, noting the roots needed attention, pulled on yesterday’s clothes and sped along the beach path to Newlyn, the wind blowing salt spray into her face. The fishing boats had already unloaded and the container lorries, heavily laden, were rumbling up the hill on their way to the restaurants of London.
Once she had collected the crab and started back, the town began to stir. Windows were opened, pavements swept, the awnings of the ice cream parlour released from their overnight restraints. The hum of a milk float, the clink of bottles. In doorways winos slumbered on, their dogs alert and watchful. The first claps of thunder rolled through the town as she reached home.
Full English breakfasts ran seamlessly into cottage pies and then the pace slowed for crab sandwiches and cream teas. The café had been full all day, a tropical rainforest, the windows steamed up and smells of wet wool, wet humanity. Broken-spoked umbrellas leaned wearily against walls, cagoules dripped from chair backs. A buzz of conversation, clatter of crockery, the gurgle of the coffee machine, waitresses scurrying back and forth to the kitchen balancing trays.
By five p.m. when Rose shepherded the last stragglers out, she longed for a cup of Earl Grey. She had just opened the fridge for lemon when the call came through. With a sigh she picked up the receiver. Felt the cat wreathe itself round her legs.
‘Have you had the radio on?’
‘Sit down, Rose.’ No formalities, no pleasantries. He sounded strained.
‘What’s happened?’ Aware her voice was rising, she scrabbled behind her for a chair. ‘It’s Ellie, isn’t it? Tell me.’
‘I’ve been at Heathrow all day.’
She struggled to hear him as the rain rattled on the window like thrown gravel. ‘Isn’t she there? Did you miss her? Have you phoned the airline?’ Her fingernails dug into the palms of her hands. The scream of a siren outside somewhere.
‘Can’t get through.’ His voice cracked. He was crying. ‘Rose…the plane is missing.’
Darkness crept in from the edges of her vision, a rushing sound in her ears. ‘A plane can’t just disappear.’ Her lips numb, she struggled to form the words.
‘It landed at Dubai, but they lost contact after it took off again.’
‘Somebody must know where it is,’ she shouted. ‘Have you asked—?’
‘Of course I’ve bloody asked.’ He took a ragged breath. ‘We’re all waiting for further news.’
‘But can’t you…surely…you must…have you tried her mobile?’
‘She lost it. Hasn’t replaced it. I’ll phone again when I know something. Keep the line free.’
A click. Rose stared at the receiver, her fingers white where she had twisted the cord round them. Thought of cigarettes. Years since she’d stopped but she felt a desperate need for a huge lungful of nicotine. She couldn’t just sit and wait. Leapt to her feet and sped upstairs. Drummed on the desk as she waited for her laptop to fire up. Mis-typed the name of the airline. Tried again. Cursed at the crap internet speed in Cornwall. As soon as the contact number appeared on the screen she snatched up the phone. Remembered Tom’s words about keeping the landline free and slammed it down again. Scrabbled through her handbag for her mobile, tipping the contents on the floor. Punched in the number, muttering.
Come on, come on.
No sodding signal again. She threw the phone across the room where it bounced off an armchair and slid under the settee. Maybe there’d been an email? Not likely. Months since Ellie had been in touch with her—it was always Tom she turned to—but she checked anyway. Nothing.
She shivered as she stood at the window. Sails of rain blew across the promenade, people hurried past, a woman in a yellow mac, head bent into the wind. Rose wrapped her arms around her body, rocked herself. Maybe the plane had made a forced landing and they’d hear soon. But why had there been no radio contact? A plane couldn’t be there one minute and not the next.
It could if it crashed.
Her throat contracted. She heard little moaning sounds and wondered where they came from. Tears ran down her cheeks and splashed on the window sill. She couldn’t be gone. Not Ellie. Not her only child. Pictures flashed across her mind; Ellie in her red snowsuit trying to catch the falling flakes, Ellie beaming with delight when she won the sack race, Ellie trying not to cry when she had her leg stitched. And then Ellie, her face sullen, on her graduation day.
Please, God, don’t let me lose her. She should never have been in India. This is all Tom’s fault.