‘What do you mean he’s gone missing?’ Stella frowned into her phone, then almost without thinking pointed out of the car window and said to her seven-year-old, ‘Look, Rosie – Stonehenge.’
‘Missing…?’ Jack, her husband, mouthed from the driver’s seat.
Stella made a face, unsure.
Behind her, little Rosie had no interest in Stonehenge, deeply imbedded in YouTube on the iPad, happily powering through their 4G data with her gem-studded headphones on. Usually Stella would have clicked her fingers to get Rosie’s attention and pointed out of the window again to make sure she didn’t miss the view, but the phone call from her mother trumped any tourist attraction. ‘I don’t understand, Mum,’ Stella said. ‘How can Dad be missing? Where is he?’
‘Well darling, that’s what we don’t know,’ said her mother, her voice tinny over the phone.
Stella felt strangely out of control. Thoughts popped into her head that she wouldn’t have expected.
She and her father did not get along well. They barely talked. Hadn’t for years. Past anger had morphed into silence, and silence into habit – the threads tethered firmly in place, calcifying solid with stubbornness and age. Yet as her mother spoke, Stella found herself overcome by unfamiliar emotion. She worried suddenly that she might start to cry. God that would be embarrassing. Jack would probably crash the car in shock.
‘Since yesterday,’ said her mother. ‘Although I’m not altogether sure what time he left because we were at Sainsbury’s.’
‘Since yesterday?’ Stella said, shocked. ‘Why didn’t you call before?’
This seemed very odd behaviour from her mother, who had never been the kind of person to suffer in silence.
‘So you’ve been worrying on your own?’
There was a brief silence at the other end of the phone.
‘Mum, are you OK?’
‘Yes darling, I’m fine,’ her mother said. And she sounded fine. Too fine. Almost drunk. Stella would have anticipated much more drama. A little more sobbing and neediness when actually she wondered if that was the kettle she could hear being flicked on in the background.
‘Not at all. Your father and Sonny have got on very well actually. I only told Sonny he’d gone this morning too – teenagers need their sleep, don’t they?’
‘And have you rung Dad?’ Stella asked.
‘Yes. Straight to answerphone. He’s left a little note telling us not to worry.’
Stella pressed her hand to her forehead. She was really tired. They had left at five to avoid the weekend holiday traffic down to the Cornish coast but had stopped once already for Rosie to be sick in a Starbucks cup after secretly shovelling all the sweets meant for the five-hour journey into her mouth in the first twenty minutes. ‘Look, Daddy – a whole Haribo bear,’ she’d said, quite gleeful. The traffic report on the radio suggested that this current tailback was because a caravan had jack-knifed further up the A303. ‘What does the note say?’
‘To be honest darling, I haven’t the foggiest.’
Something really wasn’t right in her mother’s reaction.
‘Mum, is there something you’re not telling me?’ Stella said, glancing across at Jack who was doing all sorts of faces back at her trying to get the gist of what was going on.
‘No darling, nothing.’
‘Unlikely with this traffic,’ Stella said, then added a goodbye.
When she hung up the phone Jack said, ‘Where’s your dad gone?’
Stella shook her head, chucking her phone into her bag. ‘She doesn’t know.’
Stella held her hands wide. ‘Apparently he does.’
Jack looked like he was about to say something else but was cut off by the car behind beeping when Jack didn’t immediately move forward to fill the gap as the traffic rolled forward a car’s length.
‘I knew we should have taken the M4 route,’ he muttered.
They drove on in silence for a while, the car warming up as their dodgy air conditioning failed to compete with the rising sun.
She and Jack had already had a row after she’d admitted being a bit nervous about seeing Sonny.
Jack had sighed and replied, quite haughtily in Stella’s opinion, ‘Well, it should never have got this far in the first place! We should have dealt with it at home.’
Stella had wanted to say that he very much did waltz in the door, but they’d been over this a thousand times already. That was how her and Jack’s relationship had been for the last few weeks. She’d tried countless times to explain to him the unrelenting frustration of every night trying to force their thirteen-year-old to get off his phone and do his homework, Stella’s own deadlines pressing down on her, stress mounting. Until the evening that Sonny had sworn he was doing his physics project but was just hiding his phone behind half a papier-mâché Vesuvius. Furious, Stella had whipped the phone off him, deleted the game he was playing and every other one and changed the password to her iTunes account so he couldn’t download anything else.
‘You stupid bitch!’ Sonny had shouted at her and then he’d looked immediately at the floor, his face rigid.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Apologise. Now!’ Stella said, hands on her hips, eyes wide.
Time hung paused in the air.
She could feel her heart rate rising. ‘If you don’t apologise, Sonny, by the time I count to three—’ The words came out of her mouth almost on instinct. As if she was so tired and stressed her brain had resorted to a time when she was guaranteed control. To when Sonny was a little kid and more than happy to apologise if it meant he’d get to keep his chocolate buttons.
Right now, Stella had no idea what she would do when she got to three. She should have used the deleting of the apps as bait but such strategy was easy in hindsight, all she could do now was start counting. ‘One.’
Sonny’s eyes stayed fixed on the ground.
Please just say sorry.
His jaw clenched.
‘Three,’ she said.
Sonny looked up, stared her straight in the eye. Then the corner of his lip turned up in the smallest hint of a smirk, his expression saying, ‘What you gonna do now, Mum?’
For the first time ever, Stella had felt the urge to slap him round the face. She hadn’t. But it had crossed her mind that in that moment she didn’t like her son one bit. Nor did she know what to do with him. So she had walked away, hands raised in the air, and said, ‘Do you know what, I don’t need this.’ A flash of her own childhood had popped into her head. She imagined what would have happened if she’d looked at her father the way Sonny had just looked at her. It was unthinkable. The thought made her pause and turn, look at Sonny still grinning smugly down at the carpet, and say, ‘You can go to Cornwall. See what a few weeks with Granny and Grandpa does.’ Her father had certainly never taken any crap from her growing up.
So here they were, driving down to Cornwall a fortnight later to pick up Sonny. The morning sun was shimmering like dust in the air, tension thrumming through the car.
Stella glanced across at Jack’s profile. His eyes were fixed on the crawling traffic ahead. She hated that he’d cut her down when she’d mentioned feeling nervous about seeing their son because Jack was who she talked to. He was the person who made her feel better, who helped her think straight. Her wingman.
They didn’t usually fight over things like this, Jack usually took her lead on parenting. But they seemed so busy at the moment, both of them distracted with work, the kids being particularly kid-like, and with the start of the summer holidays they hadn’t had a proper chance to talk it all through. She had thought maybe they might on this five-hour journey, but now it all seemed rather overshadowed by the sudden and strange disappearance of her father.
Stella stared out of the window, repeating the fact over in her head, ‘Dad’s missing.’ But it wouldn’t really lodge properly in her brain, like a moth on a light bulb fruitlessly knock, knock, knocking to get inside. She didn’t want to acknowledge it – there were too many questions to know where to begin.
The traffic started moving again.
Stella felt completely off-kilter. She got her phone out to try and distract herself but immediately remembered the emails on there about a looming work deadline that she couldn’t bring herself to open. Work felt like another life. If she thought too much about it she could sense her normal balance of organised chaos teetering precariously into overwhelming. She stared at her phone. The screensaver was a picture of Rosie and Sonny posing over giant milkshakes piled high with whipped cream and a load of Cadbury’s flakes and Oreos shoved in the top – an after-school treat on Rosie’s birthday. It had all gone a bit pear-shaped after the photo was snapped because Sonny had accidentally on purpose nudged Rosie’s face into the cream, but it was rare to get a picture of the two of them smiling for the camera. Stella clicked the phone off and put it back in her bag. It scared her that she didn’t know if she wanted to see her own son. She had a vision of him at her parents’ house, would he even come down to greet them? Then she thought of the empty sofa cushion where her dad always sat and felt herself go a bit dizzy. Like her brain couldn’t hold all this stress. She pressed her palms to her temples.
‘You OK?’ Jack asked, glancing Stella’s way.
‘I’m not sure.’ Stella took some deep, calming breaths.
Jack frowned. Stella was always sure.
‘Are you going to be sick?’ he asked, panic in his voice. ‘Do you need a cup?’
She had to laugh. ‘No, I don’t need a cup.’
Then from the back seat Rosie shouted, ‘I need to go to the toilet.’
And Stella was back in the moment. Her momentary lapse shaken off by the sharp immediacy of parenting. ‘OK there’s a service station just up here,’ she said, glancing round to reassure Rosie and then back to Jack. ‘I’m fine,’ she added, to dispel his look of nervous concern. ‘Absolutely fine. Dad can’t have gone far. As you say, he doesn’t go anywhere so it won’t be that hard to find him.’ She got ready to undo her seat belt as Jack pulled into the Little Chef.
‘We find him. We get Sonny. We go. It’ll be fine.’