Natasha Bland is originally from Devon in the UK, Natasha now lives and writes in Kāpiti. Her fiction is published in various anthologies and has been shortlisted in international competitions including the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize, and the Early Works Press Short Story Competition.
I write in the spaces where my children are in bed, or when they’re all at school and I’m not busy with the multitude of tasks that having a family brings. Writing is something that I have to do, even though it often drives me to distraction. Those small moments when it’s all going well are the best kind of magic.
You Just Never Know
This is where they found her car, right here under this tree. Today, I tell myself, might be the day. Today I might find something, some sign that she will come back. Not lost, Dad likes to say, only temporarily mislaid. The tree dances above my head, a second winter passed since they towed her red Peugeot away. The leaves have unfurled a little, even since last week. The chirp of the birds, the rustle of those new leaves, it makes me want to scream.
I come here every Saturday. These days I am always alone, but the first few months Lizzy would come with me. We combed the whole woods for clues, as if we – a pair of fourteen-year-old girls – had a chance of finding something a whole team of police officers had missed. No evidence of foul play, they had told Dad, while I listened in the hallway. No chance she could have got lost in those woods. Given her history, they had decided to close the file. I tiptoed back to my room and I determined that they were wrong. My mother would not abandon me. Even foul play would be better.
Lizzy grew bored in the end. She tries to distract me now instead. ‘Come on, Esther,’ she’ll say. ‘Let’s go to the shops instead.’ Or she’ll invite me to the cinema. She’s losing patience like everyone else. My teachers, they say to me, ‘It’s no excuse for inattention. She’s been gone two years. It’s time for you to move on.’
Don’t get me wrong: I do want to have fun with the other girls, to get the grades I know I’m capable of. I just don’t want to give up on her. I can’t help coming back here, the same time every week. The car-park is usually empty but sometimes I might come across an elderly lady walking her dog, or a family letting off steam. Today, there is only one car, parked up alone, no sign of its owner. I make a note. I begin under the tree and I circle the parking area ten times, a ritual, looking high and looking low. It is wet today, water dripping from the trees and forming puddles on the gravel floor. I can feel the rain seeping through the back of my hoody and my feet are getting wet too. I am shivering, but I can’t bear to wait for the weather to clear. You just never know where she might turn up.
It was Mum who taught me that. When I was little and I lost a toy she would tell me to persist. ‘It’ll turn up,’ she’d say to me, ‘in the place you least expect it.’ It often did – my plastic pony in the saucepan cupboard, my rainbow beads in the dog’s bed. So the first time I lost Mum I remembered what she had taught me and it turned out she was right. They found her staring into a clothes store window, in a town miles away from home, some place I’d never have thought she’d visit. The second time I found her – curled up on the garden bench in the rain. The bench was cast iron and painted white. Mum was always complaining about how uncomfortable it was, so it seemed odd to me that she would choose to rest there. I gave her my hand and pulled her inside and I made her a cup of tea while she sobbed – ‘Sorry, Essie, I’m so sorry.’ I didn’t know what for. I was nine.
‘Where did you last see it?’ her other advice. ‘Retrace your steps.’ Sometimes that worked too. My teddy left sitting marooned on my bed. My mother in the car outside my friend’s house, where she’d dropped me hours ago.
‘It’s kind of obsessive, isn’t it?’ said Lizzy. ‘Just waiting around out there; checking up on you.’
I knew Lizzy was far from the truth. My mother had forgotten I existed while she sat there all those long hours. Her mind had bounced away from me, impossible to catch.
I am still circling the car park when my attention is caught by a movement: a woman is walking out of the trees. I stop still and I stare at her. She looks my way and catches my gaze. She is smiling and love beams from her eyes. It is just like I dreamt it. Her hair is brown like my mother’s; she is the same height, she is slim. I knew she would turn up! I knew I should keep looking! I start to walk towards her, but then she turns away from me and a spell is broken and I see her hair is not quite the right shade, she holds herself differently; her legs are too long and too thin. A little girl runs out behind her and she takes her by the hand. That love was not for me. Something drains out of me and I am left substanceless, unsteady on my feet. As they draw closer the woman looks at me swaying, and hesitates before saying hello and pulling her daughter away.
I hear them giggling and I turn and watch as they race to the car. The mother takes the girl’s boots off so tenderly. It was never like that with my mum. I don’t remember her ever giggling with me. When we went for walks she always marched too fast so that I struggled to catch up. When I tried to take her hand, it always seemed to slip away.
Disappointment chills me but I remember my mother’s advice (‘Don’t give up, Esther! You’ll find it soon enough’) and I return to my search, as that one lonely car pulls away. Somehow it no longer feels the same: when I crawl beneath the tree, it is with almost no conviction. I keep stopping and staring into space, noticing the rain dripping off the end of my nose, the smell of damp earth and leaves, instead of thinking about my mother. Does this mean I am giving up? I force myself to keep crawling, parting the muddy grass with my cold fingers. Still, it as if I know I will find nothing but broken twigs and worms. I remind myself of Dad’s hopeful face last night. ‘She always turns up,’ he said, as we sat at the kitchen table eating tea. Dad’s a great cook. He did most of the cooking, even before she went. He still always makes enough for three. So, we were eating mushroom risotto (it’s always something Mum would like). ‘One of these days,’ he continued, ‘she’ll waltz back in, or she’ll turn up somewhere strange – remember when they found her on the bridge.’
He laughed and so I chuckled, even though it wasn’t funny. I was twelve that time. It was my birthday. That was the day it dawned on me that there was something very wrong with my mother. This was more than just absent mindedness. Mums weren’t supposed to go missing like this.
Dad’s laughter faded as fast as it had arrived and so I searched for something to cheer him. ‘You’re right Dad. She’ll come back. She always does. I’m going to the woods tomorrow. One of these days she’ll just be sat there waiting, as if she’s never been away.’ It’s so much safer to speak in clichés. It is a language I learned from my parents.
Dad nodded, but then he looked down at his plate, spearing a piece of mushroom with his fork. I wondered how much of an effort it was for him to keep so positive. It was never like this before. Hours, maybe days, a week at the longest. It was never two years before. She will have aged in that time, more lines etching around her eyes. I have too – would she recognise me, I wondered. No longer her little girl. I pushed my plate away.
So here I am, like I promised Dad, but she isn’t sat here waiting. And she’s never been where I left her that day, marching away without a backward glance. ‘I love you,’ she called from the school gates, and though her voice broke I refused to answer. We’d been fighting again you see. She has never turned up even in the least expected of places.
She lied to me! I jump to my feet, brushing the dirt from my jeans and I stamp my way into the woods. I always follow the path, terrified of losing my way – it seems so easy to do. Today is different. I need a new plan. I plunge right into the trees, stumbling through undergrowth, the branches scratching my cheeks. My feet catch on splayed out roots and more than once I fall. I think of the fairy tales I used to read while mum sat in her room staring at the wall. I think of the brave knights searching for missing princesses. I am no longer sure which I am. I am the one who is searching, so why do I feel so forsaken?
The trees clear with no warning and I am back on the path, spat out by the forest. I don’t give up, I am fearless. Once more I part the trees, relishing the scratches on my fingers. Once more I stumble like a bewildered heroine, blindly searching for rescue. I realise vaguely that I want to disappear, to be swallowed up in this darkness where she must be. I will get lost and then I might find her. But the forest will not keep me. I wander and I wander – half an hour at the longest – only to find myself back on the path, the reassuring gravel and marked out edges mocking me.
I sit down at last, on the edge of that path, and finally I sob. I remember that day on the beach, about a month before she vanished: she swam too long and I thought she would not make it back to shore. At last, she had stumbled across the pebbles to me, and looked back so wistfully to the endless horizon. I knew, even then at thirteen: she hadn’t wanted to come back. It is time for me to give up.
It is darkening when I turn and walk back out of the woods; even so, the path is obvious to follow. It is not easy to vanish. You would have to really try; you would have to really want to. The realisation echoes dully in my chest. I walk home slowly, through the lanes, to the edge of town, past lit up houses where mothers and fathers tuck their children into bed. When I was little my mother would go through all those motions. She would read me a story and she would kiss me. It was like being kissed by a ghost. There was an emptiness around her that threatened to swallow me whole.
At home Dad sits on his frayed armchair gazing at the TV, at semi-famous people dancing. He looks at me and for a second his eyes light up. ‘Any clues?’ he asks as if he doesn’t already know what my answer will be.
I shake my head slowly. ‘Not this time.’
It is only myself I have rescued.
His head turns back to the TV. ‘Nothing here either. I stayed in just in case. Didn’t want to miss any news.’ He has barely left the house since she went.
‘I was thinking, Dad.’ I say. ‘I might not go to the woods anymore.’
He nods vaguely. ‘She’ll turn up, you’ll see. Where you least expect her to be.’
I smile at him and I nod my head, but I know for sure that he’s wrong. My mother is not coming back. She was never really here.