‘Are you all right there?’ The Garda’s large hand catches me, tight as a clamp, just as I stumble on a loose rock.
‘Thanks,’ I say, steadying myself. I glance up at him, but he’s looking at my feet, frowning. ‘Should’ve worn better shoes!’ I wince at my own words. Now he’ll think you’re a mindless flake, I tell myself. Typical woman, only concerned about her bloody footwear.
‘Ah, sure it’s hard to know what to be wearing, up here,’ he mutters, blinking at the sky. ‘It’s different every day. Hiking boots mightn’t be enough some days, and others you could trot up here barefoot.’ He looks back at me. ‘You’re all right, now?’
‘Thanks,’ I nod, and he lets go of my arm. He wasn’t using force, but my flesh throbs anyway, like I’m bruised.
I take in a deep breath, trying to swallow.
‘We’ll ring your mother, now, as soon as there’s anything to report. All right?’ He’s keeping a respectful distance, hands in the pockets of his luminous jacket. ‘Mightn’t be signal for the mobiles up here on the bog, but we’ll do our best.’
‘Right,’ I tell him, hoping that it’s the police who’ll be talking to Mam, if and when there’s anything to say. They’ll hardly expect me to, will they?
‘Is she keeping well, anyway?’ He pauses. ‘Your mam, I mean,’ as if I wouldn’t have known who he meant.
‘Ah, well. You know. As good as can be expected.’ I’ve always hated that phrase. My mother’s doing fairly well, all things considered. Better than me, maybe. It should be her up here, walking this rough-cut path, other than she said she wouldn’t be able for it. She insisted I go, instead, and made the Gardaí change their normal procedures, just for her. They complied, because everyone says ‘yes’ to Mam.
‘It’d be great, now, if we could find a few answers for her,’ the Garda mutters. ‘Let her spend the rest of her days with a bit of peace.’
‘She’s hardly on her deathbed,’ I tell him, a bit more sharply than I mean to.
‘God, no,’ he says, quickly, turning to me with his eyes wide. ‘I only -‘
‘It’s my poor father needed the peace. He could never accept that Gillian was -‘ I still can’t bring myself to say dead. Murdered. I clear my throat and carry on. ‘He always thought she’d be found, you know. Without her memory, maybe. Kept in captivity, or something. It destroyed him. But Mam? It’s like she knew, from the beginning.’
‘Mothers have that sort of instinct, though, don’t they.’ He kicks a sharp-edged rock out of my path.
‘Shame her mothering instinct wasn’t as strong,’ I say, mostly to myself. The Garda lets on he hasn’t heard me, but I see a twitch around his mouth as he clenches his jaw.
‘Here we are, now,’ he says, his voice soft, as we crest the hill. The peaty, rocky path we’ve been walking on turns into churned-up muck, tyre tracks and footprints everywhere. He leads me off to one side where temporary flooring’s been laid down across the boggy surface. A hundred yards away, yellow, flapping security tape is tied in a rough triangle around a patch of ground. It flicks at my vision like a hook dangling in front of a fish, but I refuse to look.
So many people. All these cars. Lots of high-vis overcoats and muttered conversations, and nobody – no matter how much they want to, and how badly the air crackles with their need to – not one person looks over at me. I float through them like a ghost, the Garda at my side.
There’s a folding table at the end of the plywood walkway covered with large plastic boxes, white, with tight-fitting lids. He leads me towards them and my knees start to soften. His vice-hand is around my arm again.
‘If you’re not able,’ he says, ‘nobody is going to mind. All right, Gráinne? You just say, now, and we can go back down. We can just wait for the DNA tests to come back, and you can put all this behind you.’
I shake my head. It’s too late. I’m here.
‘No,’ I manage to say. ‘I have to find out. For Mam.’ She’ll be less than pleased, otherwise.
He nods. ‘Take your time, so. You give me the nod, when you’re ready. All right?’ I close my eyes. They’re swimming in a thick layer of hot tears, which overflow and run down my cheeks. They start to sting in the cold breeze.
‘Right,’ I say, half-whispering. ‘Now, before I talk myself out of it.’
The Garda gestures at a colleague and she unseals the nearest box. I blink and look into it, and sitting there in a neat plastic bag are a pair of tiny T-bar sandals, still mostly red. One of them even has the plastic flower attached. I remember the day they were bought for her, and how hard I cried.
‘Good Christ,’ I hear, vaguely, and the Garda catches me, lowering me gently to the ground. He shouts for help, and someone brings over a blanket and a flask. They get me sitting up and I stay there, staring at the forest across the way, watching the trees dance, until the cup of steaming tea in my hand turns cold.
‘Gráinne,’ I hear, and I turn to see the Garda crouched beside me, a mobile phone in his hand. ‘We’ve been trying to get your Mam for ages, now, but she’s not answering. Will you give it a go, instead? Maybe she’ll talk to you?’
My mother knew, all along, that this day would come, I want to tell him. She won’t be answering the phone to me, or anyone, ever again.
But I take the phone and dial her number anyway, and he holds my hand as gently as a child.