Thursday 30 March 2017

Gone Without A Trace by Mary Torjussen

Published by Headline on March 23, 2017

Chapter One

I was singing as I walked up the path to my house that day. Actually singing. I feel sick at the thought of that now.

I’d been on a training course in Oxford, leaving Liverpool as the sun rose at six, returning at sunset. I work as a senior manager for a large firm of accountants, and when I got to the reception of our head office and signed myself in, I scanned the list of attendees from other branches and recognised several names. Though they weren’t people I’d met, I’d read about them in our company’s newsletters and knew they were high-flyers, and for the first time I realised that must have been what the company thought of me too.

My skin had prickled with excitement at the thought, but I’d tried not to let my feelings show, relaxing my face into that calm mask I’d practised so assiduously over the years. When I went into the conference room, I saw the others standing around chatting like old friends. They looked polished and professional, as though they were used to this sort of event, and I was glad I’d spent a fortune on my clothes and hair and nails. One of the other women had the same Hobbs suit as mine, though luckily in a different colour; another gave a covetous look at the chocolate Mulberry bag my boyfriend, Matt, had bought me for Christmas. I took a deep breath; I looked like one of them. I smiled at the nearest person, asked which branch she worked for, and that was it, I was part of the group and soon my nerves were forgotten.

In the afternoon, we were set a task to complete in a team, and at the end I was chosen to present our findings to the whole group. I was terrified, and spent the break time in a corner feverishly memorising my speech while the others sat around chatting, but it seemed to go well. Once I’d made the presentation I could relax and was able to answer everyone’s questions in full, anticipating follow‑up questions too. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Alex Hughes, one of our partners, nodding as I spoke, and at one point he made a note about something I said. When everyone was packing up to leave, he took me to one side.

‘Hannah, I have to say you performed very well there,’ he said. ‘We’ve been looking at your work for a while now and have been absolutely delighted with your progress.’

‘Thank you.’

Just then Oliver Sutton, the firm’s managing partner, came to join us. ‘Well done, Hannah. You were excellent today. When Colin Jamison leaves in September, I think you’ll be on track for promotion to director. Wouldn’t that make you the youngest in your branch?’

I don’t know what I replied. I was so surprised to hear him say that; it was like one of my dreams had come to life. Of course I knew exactly when each director had been promoted; I’d pored over their bios on the company’s website. I’m thirty-two, and I knew the youngest had been appointed at thirty- three. That had helped give a certain edge to my work lately.

The organiser of the event came up to speak to them then, and they smiled and shook hands with me before turning toher. I walked as calmly as I could to the cloakrooms and locked myself into a cubicle, where I nearly screamed with pleasure. This was what I’d been working towards for years, ever since leaving university and starting with the firm as an assistant. I’d never worked as hard as I had this last year or two, and now it looked as though it was going to pay off.

When I came out of the cubicle, I saw in the mirror that my face was pink, as though I’d been out in the sun all day. I took out my make‑up bag and tried to repair the damage, but my cheeks still glowed with pride. Everything was going to be all right. I reached into my bag for my phone to send a message to Matt but then the human resources director came into the cloakroom and smiled at me, so I smiled back and nodded at her and took out my hairbrush instead to smooth my hair. I didn’t want her to think I was excited about anything, to suspect that maybe I thought I didn’t deserve promotion.

There was also no way I wanted to hang around while she was in the loo, so I went back to the conference room to say goodbye to the others. I decided I’d tell Matt face to face; I couldn’t wait to see his excitement. He knew how much I wanted this. Of course it was too early to celebrate – I hadn’t actually been promoted yet, after all – but I was sure that Oliver Sutton wouldn’t have said that lightly. Each time I thought of his words, I felt a swell of pride.

And then in the car before I set off, I thought of my dad and how delighted he would be. I knew he’d hear about it from my boss, George, as they played golf together, but I wanted to be the first to tell him. I sent him a text:

Dad, I’m at a training day and the managing partner says they’re considering promoting me to director in a few months! Xx

Within seconds I got a reply:

That’s my girl! Well done!

I flushed with pleasure. My father has his own business and he’s always said that the one thing he wants is for me to be successful. As far as my career was concerned, he was my biggest supporter, though it could be stressful if he thought I wasn’t promoted quickly enough. Another text beeped through:

I’ll put a treat in your account – have a celebration!

I winced. That wasn’t the point of telling him. I typed back quickly:

It’s OK, Dad, no need to do that. Just wanted to tell you how I got on. Tell Mum, will you? Xx

Another message beeped:

Nonsense! Money’s always good.

Yes, money’s nice, but a phone call would be better, I thought, then I shook some sense into myself and started the car.

It was a two-hundred-mile drive home and I did it without a break. I live on the Wirral peninsula in the north-west of England, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool. Despite the evening traffic, it was an easy drive, with motorways all the way. The journey passed in a flash. I was so excited I couldn’t stop myself wriggling on my seat as I practised what I would tell Matt and how I would say it. I wanted to stay calm and to just mention it casually when he asked me how my day had gone, but I knew I’d burst out with it as soon as I saw him.

When I reached Ellesmere Port, about fifteen miles from home, I saw the Sainsbury’s sign shining brightly in the distance, and at the last minute I indicated to take the exit. This was a night for champagne. In the shop, I picked up a bottle of Mo√ęt, then hesitated and picked up another. One isn’t enough when you have news like that, and besides, it was Friday: no work the next day.

Back on the motorway, I pictured Matt’s reaction as I told him the news. It wasn’t as though I’d have to exaggerate. Just repeating what Alex Hughes and Oliver Sutton had said would be enough. Matt worked as an architect and had done well for himself; he’d understand how important it was for my career. And financially, too, I’d be level with him if I was promoted. I thought of the salary scale for directors and felt a shiver of excitement – maybe I’d even be earning more than him!

I stroked my soft leather bag. ‘There’ll be more of you soon, sweetheart,’ I said. ‘You’ll have to learn to share.’

It wasn’t just the money, though. I’d take a pay cut to have that kind of status.

I opened the windows and let the warm breeze run through my hair. The sun was setting and the sky ahead was filled with brilliant red and gold streaks. My iPod was on shuffle, and I sang song after song at the top of my lungs. When Elbow played ‘One Day Like This’, I pressed repeat again and again until I reached home. By the time I arrived, I was almost in a state of fever, and my throat was throbbing and sore.

The street lights on my road popped on to celebrate my arrival. My heart pounded with the excitement of the day and the fervour of the music. The champagne bottles clinked in their bag and I pulled them out so that I could present Matt with them in a ta‑da! kind of moment.

I parked on the driveway and jumped out. The house was in darkness. I looked at my watch. It was 7.20 p.m. Matt had told me last night that he’d be late, but I’d thought he’d be back by now. Still. There’d be time to put the bottles in the freezer and get them really chilled. I put them back in the bag, picked up my handbag and opened the front door. I reached inside for the hall light, clicked it on and stopped still. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Was someone in our house?

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