Grazia Book Club: Emma Rowley’s Where The Missing Go

Two years ago, Kate’s teenage daughter Sophie went missing – thought to be a runaway. Now, Kate volunteers on a missing persons helpline, where one night she receives an unexpected phone call …

Emma Rowley Where The Missing Go

by Rebecca Reid |

Where The Missing Go by Emma Rowley: ‘Hello,’ I say, making my voice sound warm and calm.

‘You’ve reached the Message in a Bottle helpline. I’m Kate.’

A click. Sometimes that happens, they lose their nerve, we were told in the training. There was less said about the prank callers, bored teenagers and men who’d like to hear a stranger’s voice.

It’s been slow tonight. Alma had been right onto the last few, dispatching each caller with practised ease. ‘Oh, I know love, it is hard, isn’t it, but it’s never too late to build bridges, you know. In the meantime, I know they’ll be so glad to hear you’re safe, now are you sure you don’t want me to take a phone number for you too, schedule a little check-in call from us in a day or two . . .’

That’s what we do here: people who have run away from home call us and we pass on messages to their loved ones.

RAN AWAY?

Send a message to let them know you’re safe

NO QUESTIONS ASKED

Just phone and give your message

We will pass it on

Send a MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE

That’s what the advert says. They’re all over the place, if you know to look for them: in churches, community centres, sometimes a local paper, if they can find the budget.

Alma’s brilliant at it actually, wheedling out parents’ names, half-forgotten postcodes, ‘how are things with you now?’, sketching over sad details of treatment centres and ‘no fixed abode’, the detritus of broken lives, sounding for all the world like some cosy great-aunt at a family party.

She may look like the president of her local WI – that’s exactly what she is – but Alma knows what she’s doing. Building bridges, keeping lines of communication open, delivering messages to family desperate to know something, anything, about their beloved husband, cousin, son . . . daughter.

As for me, I struggle to build rapport with callers, I’m told, can come across just a little chilly – I even, according to one feedback form (they’re big on all that here, inevitably, there’s endless briefing and de-briefing) lack ‘empathy’ with callers’ situations. Which I find somewhat ironic, to say the least.

But if I can’t be Miss Popularity, at least I’m reliable.

The phone goes again, startling me out of my thoughts, and I pick it up again. The static bursts into my ear, making me wince, then the line quietens to a low buzz.

‘Hello,’ I say. ‘You’ve reached the Message in a Bottle helpline.’ I know: the name is unbearably cutesy. ‘I’m Kate.’

No response. Then another round of pops on the line.

‘Is someone there?’ Perhaps this is a misdial, some automated call-centre system gone wrong before a worker gets patched in from his desk in Glasgow or Mumbai to try to sell me something.

‘Hello?’ I say again. There’s a burst of static, but beneath it I can hear muffled sounds now, like someone talking through water.

It’d better not be a crank. We have rules of course, can’t be rude even if they are drunk kids dialling in – ‘You never know why someone might be calling in,’ Alma will tell newbies solemnly, ‘even a prank call could really be a cry for help.’

So when I do get the odd heavy breather whispering obscenities or teenagers giggling into the handset, I make absolutely sure she is out of earshot before I give them a few sharp words, inform them I can trace the call and hang up. They don’t need to know that I can’t.

The line goes quiet again, then someone is there, suddenly real and breathing quickly.

‘Hello, Message in a Bottle,’ I say. ‘You’re speaking to Kate.’

There’s static again and I pull the handset an inch from my ear. ‘Do you need me to call anyone for you?’

More crackles.

‘This line’s terrible, I’m afraid. Is there anyone you’d like us to send a message to?’

It sounds like someone’s talking very far away, but I can’t make out the words. I can stay on the line as long as I feel the need to. I swivel in my chair and look out of the window. The last of the sun is slipping behind the jagged Manchester skyline, low rays of light striking the wall behind me as it flares out.

I try again, starting to work through our questions. ‘Are you in a safe place?’

A lull, then ‘. . . hear me?’ It’s a woman’s voice, a tinny whisper against the buzzing.

‘Yes, I can. Take all the time you need.’ I sip my cooling tea. I never want to scare them away.

‘You’re there!’ The relief’s palpable in her voice, low and hushed. She’s young – they often are.

‘Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere,’ I say. ‘Whenever you’re ready to talk.’ The Post-it I’ve stuck to my handset reminds me of our latest prompt, by order of the helpline’s harried volunteer manager, Chrissie. ‘If you prefer to text, we can, no problem. We now do—’

She interrupts me. ‘I’ve got to be quick. I need you to tell them not to worry any more about their daughter. That she . . . that I’m fine—’

The words are drowned out by static again. ‘Who? Who do you want me to tell?’ Suddenly my heart is racing.

Silence, then the voice, now tiny, like it’s very far away, ‘. . . not to worry if they don’t hear from me after this, it only hurts . . .’ and it’s gone again.

‘I can’t hear you, sweetie.’ I’m gripping my headset to my ears, pressing harder, harder, straining to hear. The line pops and sings.

Then the voice again, now clear, one that I know better than any other. ‘. . . are Kate and Mark Har—’ My skin is cold, all over.

‘Sophie,’ I say. Finally allowing myself to finally say it. ‘Sophie, is that you?’

But then there’s another burst of static, I can’t tell if she’s still talking.

‘Are you still there?’ I wait, my heart pounding. ‘Are you still there?’

‘Yes, yes, I’m here,’ she says. ‘I’m still here.’

‘Love you, So,’ I say.

It’s all I want to tell her, in the end. I don’t know what she’s going to answer, and then—

The dial tone sounds, too loud as I strain to hear. I breathe out, setting the phone back, slowly.

Every part of me knows that voice. My daughter, Sophie.

BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS FOR ‘WHERE THE MISSING GO’

Kate, the narrator, receives an unexpected phone call that will change everything for her. Have you ever experienced a phone call that changed the course of your life? What happened?

Lots of psychological thrillers today take place in the present-tense first-person voice, like Kate’s. What do you think it offers the reader? Do you think a story can benefit from the reader not knowing more than the narrator’s perspective reveals?

The action takes place around Manchester. Do you care where the books you read are set – would you be more likely to enjoy a novel if it was set somewhere you knew? Do you notice that the novels you read tend to feature particular places over others?

Where The Missing Go is OUT NOW

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