O n a bleak December morning, the east wind gusting in across the Essex marshes and dousing the city in cold rain, Alison Vlasich decided, finally, to go to the police.
She was standing in her daughter’s room when she reached this decision. The silence inside the flat seemed intensified by the muffled moans and buffeting of the wind outside. It was an uncanny, nagging silence, and in her state, both panicky and weary, she couldn’t decide whether it was really there or whether it was just a numbness inside her head. Then she realised that Kerri’s bedside clock, with its happy Mickey Mouse face and loud comforting tick, was gone.
It had taken two sleepless nights and many hours of fruitless phone calls to bring her to this point. The only time she’d previously rung the police was when old Mr Plum had collapsed outside her front door after he’d returned home to find his flat crawling with preteen burglars. Mrs Vlasich’s 999 call had produced such an intimidating array of sirens and flashing lights that she was inclined not to repeat the experience. No, she thought, on the whole, the best thing would be to go down in person to the local police station and speak to someone face to face about the fear that was now making her feel quite physically sick. This was how they did it on TV on Th e Bill, she told herself, pouring out their troubles to a big, attentive, reassuring desk sergeant with a name like Derek or Stan, who would then take it upon himself to make sure things got properly sorted out.
She put on a little make-up, noticing with surprise how pale she had become, then zipped up her anorak and stepped out onto the rain-swept deck. She hurried away, avoiding the stairs and lifts at this end of the block, following the zigzag route of the deck as it passed through court after court until she came at last to the big ramps at the south-east corner of the estate. Below her she saw the glow of the Tesco shopfront on the other side of the street, the dark bulk of The Merry Jester by the traffic lights, the Esso station opposite, and the concrete framework of the police station, tucked in between the last block of housing and the primary school.
She had some trouble finding the public entrance to the police station. It wasn’t the nice timber and glass doorway that she thought they had on TV at Sun Hill, but a brutal aluminium job with wired glass and a closed- circuit television camera mounted overhead that looked as if it had been designed to keep out the IRA or gangs of teenagers.
Inside there was a kind of waiting room with metal seats but no counter, and no friendly desk sergeant. No one at all, in fact. In the far wall was another door with wired glass and no handle. Beside the door was a notice: ONE PERSON AT A TIME ONLY PERMITTED IN THE INQUIRY AREA.
Mrs Vlasich looked through the wired glass and saw an elderly man in a cap leaning on a counter, deep in conversation with a uniformed officer on its other side. She tried to push the door, but it was firmly locked and the two inside didn’t notice her. She stepped back and saw a button mounted on the wall with a sign: PRESS FOR ATTENTION . She pressed, and heard a buzz beyond the locked door. Nothing happened. The two men continued with their conversation, the man with the cap gesticulating to elaborate a point.
She pressed the buzzer again, and this time the door clicked open. She pushed at it, but was stopped in her tracks before she could step inside by the policeman’s voice.
‘Please wait out there until I’m finished with this gentleman,’ he said to her, quite sharply, before she had a chance to say anything.
She hesitated, then began to explain how urgent her problem was, but the door had clicked shut again in her face.
She sat down and waited. Five minutes. Ten minutes. The room was extremely depressing, bare but not what you’d call clean. There was a large stain of some brown liquid that had dried under a chair in the corner. She didn’t see how people could have had coffee in here. Unless the regulars knew the score and came equipped with vacuum flasks.
Fifteen minutes. Alison Vlasich sighed, got to her feet and looked through the wired glass of the locked door. The old man was still talking, the officer writing out a report. She clenched her fists and walked out.
Ten minutes later she arrived home again. The driving rain had soaked through her anorak, and her shirt was wet. She put on a fresh blouse, picked up the phone and dialled 999.
‘It’s my daughter,’ she said. ‘She’s been abducted.’
Half an hour after her call two people came, a stern-looking woman in uniform and a man in a suit. They both seemed very young. She was so flustered by now that she didn’t catch either of their names the first time, and had to ask them to repeat them: Police Constable Sangster and Detective Sergeant Lowry. They all sat down and she gave them her daughter’s name, Kerri, and age, fourteen last birthday in July.
Why had it taken her almost forty-eight hours to report Kerri missing? She bit her lip and twisted her fingers and tried to explain, the effort almost more than she could manage. The flat was empty when she’d got home from work on Monday evening, two days ago. She’d looked in Kerri’s bedroom and seen that her daughter had changed her clothes after school, and had then presumably gone out again. When Kerri hadn’t appeared by seven that evening, Alison Vlasich had had another look in the girl’s room and realised that she had taken her pyjamas and her frog bag.
‘Frog bag?’ The woman constable looked up from her notepad.
‘It’s shaped like a frog, bright green, and when she wears it it looks as if there’s a big frog sitting on her back.’ Alison began to cry quietly.
‘So you thought she’d gone to stay with someone for the night?’ the woman constable suggested eventually, offering her some tissues. ‘A friend maybe?’
Alison nodded and sniffed.
‘Without telling you?’ the man called Lowry asked, sounding rather bored.
This was the difficult bit to have to explain to strangers, straight out. Kerri had changed so much in the last two years, through the divorce. She had been such a good, obedient little girl before. Now she seemed set on hurting her mother at every opportunity. She had done this before, going off to stay with a friend without warning, knowing Alison would worry and be forced to ring round everyone until she found where she was. To be quite honest, it was a relief (she was ashamed to say it) to find the flat empty when she returned exhausted from the hospital, because then she didn’t have to face the sulks, the rudeness, the jibes, becoming more habitual and polished with every day that passed.
‘You’re a nurse?’ the woman constable asked.
‘I work in the kitchens.’
She felt that the policewoman was sizing her up, trying to decide how reliable she was, and she fiddled self- consciously with the sleeve of her blouse, glad now that she’d changed into something smart, a reminder of better times.
So Alison didn’t ring round her daughter’s friends that first evening. The following evening, yesterday, when Kerri still hadn’t come home, she started to make the calls, thinking that the girl, to punish her, was refusing to appear until she did so. Nobody knew where she was. Worse, none of her friends had seen her at school that day. The school was closed by this time, and Alison had waited till this morning to get them to confirm Kerri’s absence.
‘I think her father’s got her,’ she concluded, any hope that the police could help her ebbing away.
‘What makes you say that?’ the man in the suit asked. The way he pursed his mouth with impatience, and drummed his fingers, flustered her. His fingers were stained brown, and his eyes kept flicking around the room as if they were searching for an ashtray.
‘Stefan wanted custody when we split up. He’s never accepted things.’
‘Does he have access? Does Kerri visit him?’
Alison shook her head. ‘He lives abroad. I won’t let Kerri go to him, because I know he wouldn’t let her come back.’ She reached for her handbag and produced a slip of paper. ‘This is his address and phone numbers.’