Local Girl Missing@Claire Douglas
It’s a dreary afternoon, just after lunch, when I finally find out that you’re dead.
My mobile vibrates with an unrecognised number and I pick it up, distracted by the mountain of paperwork I’m immersed in.
‘Is this Francesca Howe?’ A male voice burns a hole in my memory. His warm, country timbre doesn’t belong in my office on the top floor of my parents’ hotel, with its minimalist furniture and views of the Gherkin. It belongs in the past; to our hometown in Somerset where seagulls squawk at dawn, waves crash against the pier and the smell of fish and chips permeates the air.
‘Daniel?’ It comes out as a croak and I grip the edge of the desk with my free hand as if to anchor myself to this room, to the present, so that I don’t go spinning head first into the past.
There can only be one reason why he’s calling me now, after all these years.
It means there is news. About you.
‘Long time,’ he says, awkwardly.
How did he get my number? My legs are as weak as a new foal’s as I stand up and stagger over to the rain-splattered window that overlooks the city. I can feel the air filling up my lungs, hear my ragged breathing.
‘Is this about Sophie?’
‘Yes. She’s been found.’
My mouth fills with saliva. ‘Is she … is she alive?’
A beat of silence. ‘No. They’ve found something …’
His voice cracks and I try to picture what he looks like now, your big brother. Back then he was tall and skinny, permanently dressed in black with matching hair and a long pale face. Unhealthy looking, like a vampire in a teen film. I can tell he’s struggling to retain his composure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him cry; not when you first went missing, not even when the police decided to give up the search after days of trawling the undergrowth and sending boats out to sea, or when the public lost interest after one of your navy blue Adidas trainers was found at the edge of the deserted pier and it was assumed you had fallen into the Bristol Channel and been swept away by the tide. When everyone apart from us began to forget all about you, Sophie Rose Collier, the sometimes shy, often funny, twenty-one-year-old girl from Oldcliffe-on-Sea who disappeared from a club late one night. The girl who cried at the old BT adverts on the TV, who fancied Jarvis Cocker, who couldn’t open a packet of biscuits without scoffing them all.
Daniel clears his throat. ‘Some remains have been found, washed up in Brean. Some of it …’ He pauses. ‘Well, it fits. It’s her, Frankie, I know it.’ It feels strange to hear him call me Frankie. You always called me Frankie too. I haven’t been ‘Frankie’ for years.
I try not to imagine what part of you they’ve discovered amongst the debris on the shores of Brean Sands. I hate to think of you that way.
You are dead. It’s a fact. You are no longer just missing, I can’t delude myself into believing that you’ve lost your memory and are living it up somewhere, maybe Australia, or more likely Thailand. We always wanted to travel. Do you remember our plans to go backpacking around South-east Asia? You hated the cold winter months. We would spend hours dreaming about escaping the biting winds that whistled through the town, shaking the bare branches of the trees and throwing sand in our paths so that we could feel the grit of it between our teeth. Oldcliffe out of season was grey and depressing without the tourists to add the much-needed hustle and bustle.
I finger the collar of my shirt away from my throat. I can’t breathe. Through my partially open door I can see Nell tapping away at her computer, her red hair piled on top of her head in an intricate bun.
I move back to my desk, slumping onto the swivel chair, the phone hot against my ear. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I say, almost to myself.
‘It’s OK, Frankie.’ I can hear the whistle of wind in the background, the whoosh of tyres parting puddles, the indecipherable chatter of passers-by. ‘It’s not like we didn’t expect it. Prepared ourselves for it.’ What city or town is he calling me from? Where did your big brother end up? ‘Her remains need to be formally identified. Things are difficult because of how long’ – he takes a deep breath – ‘because of how long she’s