The Disappearance of Selena Cole
Heather Cole: Tuesday, 7.45 a.m.
It was the silence that frightened Heather. It seemed to come from nowhere, a creeping, drowning vacuum racing across the playground, down the muddy bank towards where she sat, both feet planted firmly in the rocky brook. One moment the air had sparkled with her younger sister’s laughter, the aching creak of the swing, then nothing.
There was a thrumming in Heather’s chest, like a small bird had flown in there and was trapped, its wings beating against her ribcage, only Heather couldn’t tell if it was the anger that bubbled up inside her seemingly all the time now, or if she was afraid.
It was anger. She screwed her face up, scowled at the water’s surface. Thought for a moment that the water reared back in terror.
Anger was easier, she had learned.
She looked down at her feet, where her red patent shoes shimmered beneath the bubbling water. Mummy would be so cross with her. She had told her not to wear the shoes, that they were for school, that they weren’t to play in. But Heather had screwed up her face, made her eyes all small and stern, had said she was going to wear them anyway. Had waited for the thunder, her mother’s face sliding into that flat expression, the one that said she was up for the fight, waited for her arms to cross across her narrow waist, the look that said, ‘Fine, I can stand here all day.’ Heather would have given in then. Honest she would. She would have puffed and rolled her eyes until they ached, but she’d have pulled the red patent shoes off, slipping her feet instead into the warm embrace of her wellie boots.
But that hadn’t happened.
Instead Mummy’s eyes had got full, the way they did when she was thinking about Daddy, and she had turned away, shrugging her shoulders. And Heather had stood in the hallway, staring at the red shoes, thinking how pretty they looked against the twisty tiles, and wishing she had just put her wellies on anyway.
Heather Cole sat on the bank, the tree stump hard against the small of her back, and listened, as hard as she possibly could. She cocked her head to one side, as if that way she could make the laughter come back. She glanced behind her, up towards the top of the embankment. Maybe Mummy was coming to find her. Maybe she’d taken Tara out of the swing and they were on their way to get her, only she couldn’t hear their steps because of the water.
That could be it.
‘I don’t know, Orl. Heather is just so angry. All the time. It’s like . . . ever since we lost Ed . . . she . . . it’s like she hates me.’
Heather had stood in the silent hallway, hadn’t moved or breathed, just pushed her ear against the living-room door. Could hear the tears in her mother’s voice. Heard Auntie Orla sigh.
‘She doesn’t hate you, Selena. Really she doesn’t. She’s just . . . she’s seven. She’s grieving and she doesn’t know how to handle it. Of course she’s taking it out on you. You’re all she has left.’
‘I know. But she was such a daddy’s girl. Sometimes I wish . . .’
Then her mother had sighed like a giant gust of wind. ‘Nothing. It doesn’t matter.’
Maybe they had left her. Had Mummy taken Tara and simply gone home? She had said that Heather was angry all the time. Heather knew what that meant. She was naughty. Daddy used to call her his little spitfire. Heather preferred that word. It sounded better. Maybe Mummy had left because she just couldn’t deal with Heather any more.
Heather scratched at the dirt beside her, watching her white nail turn slowly black. No. Mummy wouldn’t do that. Would she? But then nothing in Heather’s world worked the way it used to work, and so now she simply didn’t know.
The bird’s wings beat faster now.
Heather pulled her feet free from the water, the rushing cold making her shiver. She began to clamber up the bank, steeper than it had been when she climbed down it, arching hand over hand. It will happen now. Now. Now. She strained. Was that it? Was that Mummy’s voice? Wasn’t it? No. It was just the wind. As the ground flattened out beneath her fingers, she raised her head to see the cloud-soaked sky, the dew-slicked slide, the swing hanging slack.
She stood looking around the empty playground. She wondered if she was dead. It seemed that her breath had stopped. Was this how it had been for her father? That he had simply . . . stopped? That everything had fallen silent and then he was just gone? But no. She had heard the whispers, the word that Mummy and Auntie Orla were so careful never to say when they thought she was listening. Bomb. She was seven, only seven. But she knew what a bomb was. In her mind there was noise, more noise than seemed possible. Heat. Fire. And then nothing. So perhaps it did all come back to silence in the end.
Heather Cole pulled herself up, stood on the crest of the bank. She tried to breathe, the way she had seen her mother do it when she was trying to stay calm, when fear was only inches away. She sucked in a breath through her nose, held it, then exhaled, the sound whistling into the silence.
They were gone – Tara, Mummy. She was alone. She felt tears prick at her. Felt her lip shake.
It was the shoes. It was the stupid red shoes. If she had just put the wellies on like she’d wanted to really, they would still be here. Heather looked down at her sopping wet feet, hating them now.
Then there was a sound, a wail that punctured the silence. Heather swivelled her head, left to right, trying to locate the source of the sound. Then she saw it. Tara sitting in the slack swing. She was still there. Tara was still there. Heather pushed the awful shoes into the long grass, took off at a run across the playground, ran like her life depended on it, past the slide, the empty roundabout, to the limp-hanging swing and her three-year-old sister.
‘Tara! Tara! It’s okay! I’m coming!’ She slip-slid on the gravel, her voice coming out small, and even to her own ears she sounded younger than her seven years.
Tara’s head snapped towards her and she stared at Heather with those huge blue eyes, their mother’s eyes, so everyone said. Her face had pinked up, the way it always did when she cried, her lower lip jutting forward, shud-dering.
‘Mama, Heafer. Mama’s gone.’
Investigating a Vanishing
DC Leah Mackay: Tuesday, 9.46 a.m.
‘She was here? When the girls saw her last?’
I sense rather than see the PC nod, because I’m not looking at her. My gaze has been trapped, caught on the empty swing. It has begun to rain, soft drops, more like a mist than anything with any guts to it, and the water is pooling on the red plastic of the seat, transforming the rusting chain into a Christmas garland. Dr Selena Cole would have stood here, just where I am standing. Would have reached out her hands, wrapping them tightly around the metal chains, her three-year-old daughter sitting beneath them. Maybe they were laughing, the little one thrilled and a little scared as her mother pushed her, backwards, forwards.
I take a breath, feel the emptiness chase me, diving in, down my throat, nestling in my lungs. The vacuum where Selena Cole once stood. I look at the mountains that tower around us, dwarfing the tiny hamlet of Endleby. Hereford feels so far away from here, and yet it must be, what, five miles at most?
‘The little one, Tara, was on the swing.’ The PC, Sophie
I think her name is, tucks her chin inside her jacket, voice disappearing into the fabric. ‘Mother was pushing her. Heather, the seven-year-old, had gone down to the stream.’ She indicates a shallow rise, an infant summit climbing to an oak tree, then dropping away out of sight. ‘There’s a little brook there, over that hill. When the girl came back, her mother was gone, sister was alone.’
‘Heather didn’t hear anything?’ I look down towards the road, my eye following its gentle curve. Twenty metres, thirty maybe, and then the house, stone-built, double-fronted, screaming of age and money, immediately abutting the playground. Selena Cole has vanished so close to her home.
‘Nothing. The neighbour – Vida Charles – found the girls, must have only been a short time later, sobbing their hearts out.’
I nod, and as I nod, I try to find the line, the one that delineates my life, separating the mother from the detective. Her girls, Selena Cole’s. Not my girls. Mine are fine. Mine are safe. I shake myself, pull myself up taller, like the extra inch will make a difference. It’s baby brain. I’ll blame baby brain. Can you do that when your babies are nearly two years old? I guess if it’s twins then you get an extension.
‘The girls okay?’ I ask.
Her girls, Selena Cole’s girls, aged three and seven. Sophie shrugs. ‘As okay as they can be, I guess.’ She sighs, nods towards the house. ‘The neighbour is in there with them. I’ve got a call in to their aunt and she’s on her way.’
‘The father?’ I ask. My gaze moves from the swings across the gravel, the grass, down towards the road. Where did Selena Cole go? What happened? Did something just snap in her? The demands of parenthood or marriage or just life suddenly overloading her, so that in the end she couldn’t remember exactly who she was, couldn’t push through the noise and the responsibilities and the chaos. Did she stand here, one daughter on the swing, the other playing, and then just turn, walk away? The road is right there. Did she get into a car, drive off, leaving her children behind?
‘The father is dead.’
I look at Sophie. ‘He’s dead?’
‘Do you remember that terrorist attack in Brazil last year? He was there – Ed Cole. Apparently they ran some kind of consultancy business together, he and Selena. Pretty successful by all accounts. They were at a conference when it was hit. She survived. He didn’t.’
‘I know. Those poor kids.’ Sophie says it abstractly, like it is a story she has read.
I study her for a second. Decide that she doesn’t have kids.
I look back at the house. Think of the weight resting on Selena, the grief. Was that it? She was her girls’ world, their security, their sanctuary. But a support beam can only hold so much weight. Did Selena collapse in on herself, her knees buckling from the pressure of it all?
I glance at Sophie. ‘We need to get the word out. We may be looking for a body.’
She nods slowly. ‘Suicide?’
I stand where Selena stood, reach out my fingers, touch the chain of the swing that she touched, imagine that I can hear the belly laugh of a little girl, the flip-flopping footsteps of another.
Selena. What have you done?
I pull my coat tighter around me. The rain has finally decided to put some effort in, large drops softly plunking against the swing in an easy rhythm. Even though it is early in the day, the sky is the colour of battleships. ‘I need to speak to Heather and Tara.’
The lights are on in the house. All of them, it seems. The wide-eyed bay windows gaze outwards, spilling an orange glow into the small walled garden. I can see the children inside, bundled together, still wearing their coats and buried so deep inside the cushions on the sofa that it is hard to distinguish them from it. The elder holds the younger within her arms, her long biscuit-blonde hair spilling over her like a shawl. Her lips are moving and I study her, trying to make out what it is she says. Then her face is transposed with that of my Georgia and suddenly I realise that she is singing, her mouth shaping the words to ‘Let It Go’. Tears prick at my eyes. I think of Georgia, spinning around the kitchen, a clumsy pirouette, singing the Frozen song loudly and keylessly. But it’s not Georgia. I shake my head, a sharp, hard movement that makes Sophie look at me, curious. It is not Georgia, but Heather Cole, seven years old, cradling her sister, Tara Cole, three years old. And their mother has vanished.
‘Shall we?’ Sophie gestures to the door. I nod.
The house is warm, uncomfortably so after the chill of the outside. The hallway wide, autumnal Victorian floor tiles giving way to hard-wood trim, the walls a deep luscious red. I cannot help but feel that this is what it must be like to stand inside the ventricle of a heart. There is a strip of pictures in heavy iron frames. Heather and Tara, two slender blonde girls, their heads together, smiles all but identical. Heather and Tara again, but this time they hang off a woman – late thirties, her hair dark, cut into a chin-length bob so that it swings, trailing across her lips. I stand, transfixed by the image of Selena Cole. I wouldn’t call her beautiful, rather striking, with her large eyes, her full lips, her slightly uneven features. I stare at her, wondering where it is that she has gone.
There is another picture, a third to complete the triptych. Heather and Tara and Selena with a man. Ed Cole, I presume. I breathe in, inhaling the loss this family has had to bear. He is handsome in an offhand kind of way, broad and rugged, a nose that looks like it has been broken once, or even twice, his head shaved, lower face swathed in a beard, light veering to red. There is a sparkle to him, so much life that it seems impossible he could be dead.
I find myself thinking of Alex. We have a photo on our mantelpiece, the four of us knotted together, Georgia on my lap, Tess on Alex’s, taken when the girls were eighteen months old, everyone laughing even as Tess tries to squirm away, her eye caught by a nearby cat. It was a good day. A bright day. Before I came back to work, when I could still legitimately claim to be a mother, a detective. After all, it was a career break. A break. That means you are returning, that you will come back exactly as you left, not as some impoverished facsimile, there in body but not in spirit.
I hear Sophie enter the living room ahead of me, realise that I have taken too long.
The girls are still huddled together on the sofa, an elderly woman perched beside them, her back straight, fingers plucking at her thick wool trousers. She looks up as I enter, expression serious. The neighbour, I guess. The one who found the children.
‘Mrs Charles? I’m Detective Constable Leah Mackay.’ She nods her head once, firmly. ‘Vida Charles. I live a couple of doors down. Their neighbour,’ she adds, redundantly. ‘Mind, my house isn’t like this. Only a little one, mine. My husband was a postman. Retired now, of course. So, you know, we couldn’t afford a big house. Not like this one . . .’ She trails off as if she has forgotten how the thought ends.
I nod, smile. But I’m not thinking about her. I’m thinking about the children. The little one, Tara, isn’t looking at me. She is holding her sister’s hand, her gaze far off, as if the enormity of what has happened is simply too much for her little mind to process. But Heather is looking at me; her gaze has not left my face.
I sink down, sitting on the sofa beside her. ‘Heather? I’m Leah.’
She studies me appraisingly. ‘Are you a policeman . . .’ she catches herself, ‘lady?’
I nod. I keep the smile, as if it will somehow ease her pain.
‘You’re going to find my mum.’ It isn’t a question. It is a statement. She says it as a mantra, one hand stroking her little sister’s hair. ‘She’ll come back then.’
She is Tess, asking another police officer where I have gone. She is Georgia, instructing another police officer to find me, to return me to her.
I nod again. Try to forget that I want to cry.