Amsterdam, February 2018
The ice on the canal is so thick that parents push their baby strollers on to it with unabashed confidence. Children slide screaming on plastic sledges and makeshift skates. All around, friends and lovers skid together, red noses peeping out between hats and scarves as they grip each other and laugh wildly.
On the narrow street alongside the water, wind-whipped snow has drifted up against the old walls but a steady stream of feet has flattened the middle strip into a path. It’s slick and grey and Alex Dale shuffles cautiously, operating at half-speed while the rest of the city rushes.
She crosses a wider road, shared by every conceivable vehicle. Trams rattle down the middle of it, clanging their bells testily as bewildered tourists leap out of the way. Cars slip along with frightening confidence. And despite the icy ground, endless bikes surge past like a flock of mad birds so Alex has to jump back. A chorus of bells ring angrily at her.
Every view is postcard pretty. Crooked canalhouses lean into each other, their pastel colours echoed in the ice. Ornate bridges are strung with lights and every second shop boasts a cat, lying sarcastically in the window or on shoes for sale, amongst stacked books or curled around waxed wheels of cheese.
She is not supposed to be here. Her editor said to move on, that it wasn’t shaping up to be the story he’d hoped. Her contacts have gone cold on her. Even Barney the dog had looked at Alex through narrow eyes, turning his back with a harrumph as the pet sitter arrived. She bought the plane ticket with her own money, knowing even as she typed in her credit card number that she could be making a big mistake.
Alex tells herself she’s making the most of a long weekend. A city break! A lovely normal thing to do. But it’s the determination to scratch an itch that’s really at the heart of it. If her hunch is right, she’s so close to a pay off that the anticipation is almost painful. And if she’s wrong? She’s had a wasted trip that no amount of stroopwafels or trips to the Rijksmuseum will compensate.
She walks on, past the bar with the hidden staircase that she learned about yesterday. Continuing up the centuries’ old canal, she notices the old hooks at the top of the buildings that she learned are still used to hoist up furniture and boxes. The air is sweet, spiced by the vendors selling speculoos shortbread, Gluhwein and fried dough balls. She buys a volcanic hot oliebol filled with apple and clutches it in her hands, blowing to cool it but grateful for its warmth. All around her, the skinny Dutch wear their diets well. No doubt burning all the sugar off just by existing in this cold.
She had underestimated how long each road was, joining the Prinsengracht at its foot and following it all the way up to near the top. She rushes past the Anne Frank house, casting an eye at the wild snake of tourists taking selfies and laughing in the queue.
The arches of her feet are already screaming after the walking tour yesterday – “The Hidden Places of Historic Amsterdam” – and by the time Alex nears the address, her eyes are streaming and her toes have lost all feeling.
She turns into the tiny road in the Jordaan, filled with clusters of bikes and heavy plant pots tied down with chains. The ground floor apartment at number seven has the only set of windows in this road that are covered with nets. Behind them, a dark shape watches. Alex shifts her handbag on to the left shoulder, folds her right into a fist and knocks on the door.
Kent, December 2017
The tree was a mistake. The error further underlined as Barney lapped the last of the water from around the trunk, knocking three baubles off with his squat tail. Alex wouldn’t even be in her cottage for Christmas. She’d be making the annual trip down to Devon to spend it with her honorary family and leaving the tree to dry out and droop.
Her editor phoned just as Barney started pattering towards the back door, keen to piddle out the pine tree water outside.
“Hello?” she’d crunched the phone between her ear and her shoulder as she unlocked the door and shooed the dog out into the chill. It was only three o’clock in the afternoon but already the sky was dark grey and the lawn laced with frost.
“Michelle Mann!” William Boardman trumpeted, choosing impact over etiquette.
“What?” Alex muttered, squinted into the gloom outside. Barney was taking his sweet time, sniffing at a scruff of bush before peeing on it.
“Michelle Mann,” William said again, a little less triumphantly.
“What about her?” Alex asked, shivering and clicking her fingers at Barney to hurry him back inside.
There was a pause down the line. An audible holding of breath. Alex imagined William’s red cheeks quivering with excitement, like an overgrown schoolboy. The glee returned to his voice: “She’s your next story.”
Alex was six when Michelle Mann went missing. It was one of those early school summers, the first she was allowed out alone to play at the park or to pick up cigarettes for her mum, carrying sweaty coins and a note of permission. Dropping into the newsagents was always a pleasure. Killing time staring at the newspapers, putting off her return.
Pictures of Michelle’s golden bubble perm and shiny coral cheeks had stared out from the newsstand one day. And over the following weeks and months, as Alex returned to the sanctity of the papers to buy sweets with a coin tossed by her birth father, or to pick things up for her mum, the steady stream of photos continued. Of course they did. A pretty eighteen-year-old, inter-railing with two friends from her church youth club, there one minute and gone the next. It was tabloid gold.
It still is.
“Her family have approached us?” Alex gasped, still holding the door open, cold air slapping her cheeks even though Barney had huffed his way back to his bed next to the Aga.
“Well, not exactly,” William said. “They’re still,y’know.”
She did know. “They still think God will shine His heavenly light on her body when He is ready etc, etc?”
“Yep, all that bollocks. So no, not her family but better.”
“Better? Who could be better than… oh shit! Really? Which one of them?”
“Julie.” He said it as flatly as he could manage, but Alex could almost hear the electricity that was running up and down him, the timeless growl of a journalist with the scent of a story. She slammed the kitchen door shut with a whoop.
In August 1986, eighteen-year-olds Michelle Mann, Julie Atkins and Helen Brown had left their homes in Merseyside to go travelling through Europe before starting at their various universities in the autumn. Photos of the smiling trio were burned into the collective consciousness, the girls on a boat in Portugal, tanned and squinting in stonewashed shorts. The three amigas in Spain, drinking Sangria from a jug, red eyes matching sunburned shoulders. Linking arms on the Left Bank in Paris, in sundresses and espadrilles. And – most famously – standing in front of the Paris Catacombs. The last place Michelle was seen alive.
Due to start a history degree at the University of Liverpool (but clever enough for Oxbridge according to the many teachers interviewed after her disappearance), Michelle had demanded they go to see the underground tombs of Paris. Julie and Helen had initially gone along with it, just as they had the Labyrinth Park of Horta, an old storybook maze in Barcelona. And just as they’d been browbeaten in advance into visiting Auschwitz on the future leg of the journey that was never finished.
Just inside the Catacomb, witnessed by Paris’s six million dead, the girls bickered. It was the last conversation they ever had. Julie and Helen stormed back outside, Michelle headed further in. She was never seen again.
Cheshire, January 2018
“You know what close girlfriends are like,” Julie Atkins said, sipping tea from an Emma Bridgewater mug. Alex did know, academically if not personally.
“We used to call it ‘handbags’, y’know,” Julie went on. “Like we’d all be throwing our handbags at each other one minute and besties the next.”
“What was the fight about? Do you remember?”
“I remember everything,” Julie said, her smile dropping. “It’s stupid, really. I’d had enough of boring stuff and I wanted to go to a bar. Maybe meet some boys and go dancing but Michelle was never interested in that.” The smile formed again, but her eyes lingered on a framed photo of a teenager amongst the many on the mantelpiece.
Julie nodded. “Yeah. She’d wanted to go travelling too but…” she trailed off. Alex fidgeted on the sofa. The drive from Kent to Cheshire had been long and her bones ached but her spine vibrated with excitement. Michelle Mann! This was a big story. Especially as this was the first time one of the other girls – now fifty-year-old women – had ever given an interview.
“So you fell out because you wanted to go somewhere different?”
“Yeah. I just didn’t want to keep looking at old things! It had been weeks of the same. I mean, the trip had started well enough. Portugal was quite good, we’d done some boat trips and things like that. Spain was good too until she, sorry Michelle, heard about this old maze and we spent the last day knocking around in there.” Julie sighs. “I guess I thought it was just a way to placate her mum, saying we’d see all these sites and museums and stuff, but it turned out Michelle really meant it.
“Helen was bored of it too but she was always closer to Michelle. She’d never really contradicted her until that last time, in Paris…” Julie’s eyes start to mist. “That time she sided with me and off we went. But we were only gone for half an hour. We couldn’t find a bar that would bloody serve us and Helen started to feel too guilty so we went back.”
“But Michelle had already gone?”
“Yeah. She’d gone.”
They searched, of course they did. Helen walking through the catacombs, looking for their friend. Julie walking back to the hostel they were staying in, watching carefully for a girl who looked like Michelle, a girl who might be marching angrily along the Boulevards.
“All of her stuff was still in the dorm apart from her rucksack she’d had with her.”
“We’d kept them on us. Didn’t trust the other people staying in hostels.” Good sensible girls, from good sensible homes. Julie’s dad was a builder, her mum a housewife. Helen’s parents were teachers while Michelle’s dad worked for Philips Electronics and her mum devoted her time to church work.
In preparation for the interview, Alex had dug out as much as she could on the original coverage. Ordinarily, families of missing people will willingly talk to the press, anything to get their loved one’s face in the public eye, to encourage sightings, gather an army of eyes. At the time, the closest person to give an interview from Michelle’s family was a cousin, who angrily blasted the three girls for going in the first place. “They were warned something like this would happen and they went anyway… Michelle’s mum is heartbroken.”
Over the years, the Manns had also been quoted indirectly. Snippets from other parishioners from their church, check-out staff who’d engaged them in conversation at the supermarket, and the various flotsam and jetsam of a small community living on the dying embers of a once big story. Fifty quid tips here and the occasional thin quote on an anniversary.
“Why are you speaking to me, now?” Alex asked. “After all these years?”
Julie cast an eye at the framed faces dotting the room and shrugged. “I had a big birthday recently. My kids came, my little grandson, my cousins, my elderly mother. Even my ex-husband. And all them were there just for me. Like this life that I’ve had was being counted out in people. And I just thought, bloody hell, she never got to have this. And we still don’t know why.”
Alex thought, just briefly, of Barney. How small her life had been before he plodded into it.
“So,” she said, shaking the thought away. “What happened when Michelle didn’t come back in Paris?”
“Well, there wasn’t much that could happen,” Julie shrugged, a vein of regret pulsing underneath.
After no credible sightings during the first three days, Michelle’s father flew out to meet with police. Helen and Julie’s mothers begged them to come home. Binning the rest of the Interrail tickets, the girls got on a ferry. “We cried the whole way.”
The following month, Julie and Helen went to their respective universities, began their respective lives, and kept a respectful distance. “It just didn’t help to dwell on it, or on her,” Julie said. “We decided to leave the whole situation behind us. That meant each other too. She and Michelle were always the closer ones anyway but I haven’t seen Helen in years. And I’m sure she won’t talk to you.”
“Do you have a gut feeling about what happened to Michelle?” Alex asked.
“I don’t know if I should say. Her mum was a fruit loop but she was still her mum, she doesn’t deserve to hear me say it.”
“That you think she’s dead?”
Julie nodded towards the Dictaphone.
“Off the record?” Alex said lightly.
“Off the record, I’m sure she’s dead.” Julie’s eyes brimmed suddenly with tears. “A live person can’t just disappear but a dead body can. She might even still be in the catacombs. I mean, I know they searched but…” She trailed off. “Or the bottom of the Seine. Or maybe she was bundled into the back of some truck and then buried in Belgium. It’s impossible to know. But she had everything to live for here, and yet she didn’t come back. What else could have happened?”
London, February 2018
As Alex turned into the mews courtyard in a well-heeled part of Chelsea, Julie’s caution rang in her ears. “She won’t talk to you.”
Helen Brown was now Helena Montgomery, marketing director for a fashion company that Alex hadn’t heard of but felt she probably should have. And Julie was right, Helen-with-an-a did not want to talk to Alex. She demurred by email, by phone and finally via her executive assistant. “Ms Montgomery is at full capacity, I’m afraid.”
God these houses are pretty, thought Alex.Three million quid’s worth of pretty. Even on a sludgy February day, slipping on the slick cobbles, it was like walking through a film set. Her visit was on a Saturday and all through Chelsea, women in high heel boots carried boxy bags on fancy strings. Well groomed men with designer jeans and designer beards strutted by. Everyone wearing their financial confidence like a halo.
This was not Alex’s world, and she was not about to pretend it was. Instead, she was pretending to be a prospective child minder, for Helena’s daughter Jasmine. She could see the little girl in the upstairs window overlooking the door. Alex waved warmly and the little girl smiled shyly and then slipped out of view. Along the sill sat a clutch of little china houses, tall and crooked.
Alex lifted the brass knocker and fixed her face. As the metal thudded back against the door, a woman opened up.
“Clare?” the woman asked. Her hair was honeyed and she wore soft grey slippers and a silk jumpsuit. Someone else would probably know that the clothes were made by Helena’s company.
“Yes,” said Alex, moving to step inside.
“No,” said Helena, her eyes hardening. “Because you’re not called Clare, are you?”
“No,” said Alex, slowly. “I’m not.”
“And you’re not a childminder either, you’re that journalist.”
“That’s right. And I’m sorry for the deception.”
Helena snorted. “I was hardly decieved. It took two minutes of due diligence to find out that your pseudonym didn’t exist. You think I’d entrust my child to someone without making checks?”
“I just really wanted a chance to explain what I’m working on. Julie is on board with-”
“Julie needs to let this go. She was hardly friends with Michelle anyway, we just felt sorry for-“ Helena stopped herself and put her hands in front of her chest, breathing as if in prayer. Or probably as if in a fifty quid yoga class.
“So you could give a more nuanced account then?”
“Let sleeping dogs lie, won’t you? You won’t get anything out of me. And you need to understand something, Ms Dale. If you try to contact me again, in person or any other way, it will become a police matter.”
Knowing when to quit, Alex turned and strolled away.
As the door closed, she heard Helena mutter. “Tabloid scum.” Just a ghost of her Liverpudlian accent flavoured the slur. Alex smiled. Everything is copy, and even false starts like that build colour. Besides, she thought, looking back up and waving at the window where the little girl was back watching, she knew where Michelle Mann was now. And where she has likely been for 32 years.
Amsterdam, February 2018
The apartment is warm after the bracing chill of the lowland wind. A thin grey cat winds itself around Alex’s legs and she bends to stroke its ears.
“You were on the tour yesterday, weren’t you?” Michelle says, her own scouse dampened down and replaced with a scratch of Dutch, and the transatlantic blend of international cities.
“I was,” Alex says. “It was an excellent tour, I learned a lot.”
“Would you like a tea?” Michelle asks. “I only have the Dutch version I’m afraid. It’s weak as piss but you get used to it.”
“Hey Mickey!” A pretty middle aged woman protests from the kitchen and Alex looks over in surprise. “You English didn’t invent tea, you know.”
“I’m fine for tea thanks, I had a hot chocolate earlier.” Alex walks to the kitchen and offers a hand to the other woman. “My name’s Alex Dale, I’m a journalist.”
“I’m Anouk, Mickey’s partner,” the woman says, shaking her hand firmly. “And I heard you introduce yourself at the door.” Anouk looks over at Michelle. “So the secret is finally out then?”
Michelle takes a deep breath with her eyes closed, then sits a little clumsily on an armchair. “Over thirty years though,” she says quietly. “That’s not bad shakes.”
“How long did you think you’d get?” Alex asks, squatting to fuss the cat with one hand and turning on the Dictaphone in her pocket with the other.
“A few months. An extra gap year at best. But I kept getting away with it and, honestly, it just felt so good to be free.”
“You weren’t worried that your family or friends were suffering?” Michelle looks down. “Well, yes, but-”
“How is your dad?”Alex adds.
Michelle frowns just briefly and Anouk comes to sit protectively on the arm of her chair. “How did you… did he speak to you?”
“God no,” Alex almost laughs. “And I now he’s retired now of course, which must make it harder.”
Outside of a brief spell in the army, George Mann worked his whole adult life for Phillips. The last generation to do such things. Perhaps he would have left, moved to Sony or Bush or Hitachi. Or out of the stereo game altogether, when the iPod arrived and ruined everything.
“But he couldn’t leave, could he?” Alex said. “Because then the trips to the Dutch head office would have had to stop.”
“He couldn’t have got past my mother,” Michelle says. “He’d have had no excuse to come over here. Now he comes less but he says he’s visiting his old work pals.”
“Your mum never comes?”
“To Amsterdam? With its whores and its drugs and its sailors?” She laughs. “No, my mother has no passport. And no interest in meeting Dad’s work friends either.”
“So she really has no idea you’re here?”
Michelle looks down and shakes her head. “No. She thinks I’m dead. And that’s more palatable for her than the truth.”
Anouk squeezes Michelle’s shoulder just quickly.
“Julie thinks you’re dead too. I think she’d really like to hear otherwise, to speak to you,” Alex says.
“She feels responsible.”
“Oh Julie. She mustn’t. I thought Helen would tell her, to be honest. I said as much when she came to say goodbye in the Catacomb. I thought she’d have blown it by the time she got back to the hostel but she never cracked. Not once.”
“Would you ever come home?”
Michelle’s eyes flash with fervour. “Not while my mother is alive. But when she’s finally in the heavenly realm that means so much to her, maybe then. Only if Anouk wanted to. I’ll need to come clean at some point. It’s getting harder to avoid using the doctor. And this place and everything else has to be in Anouk’s name.
“If I went above board, I could get government help.” She laughs. “Actually, I could get a proper job. Or finally do my degree. But everything is digital now, isn’t it, and the march of progress doesn’t leave much room for secrets. Although now my story’s blown anyway so who knows what I’ll do. I’m too old to run again.”
“Did you come here for Anouk?” Alex asks, hoping her Dictaphone is recording clearly through the fluff and tissues of her pocket.
“No. It feels like it, in a way, but we didn’t meet until I’d been here a few years. I came to Holland because I could use the interrail tickets to come here but it was never on our original itinerary so there was no need to look for me here. No one ever did. And of course, I knew Dad could come, if I got a message to him.”
“And you worked cash in hand, giving tours?”
“Not straight away, at first I worked in an underground bar. That’s how I met Anouk. But the bar cleaned up their act and needed paperwork. Then I got into the tours. It was perfect for me. I get to talk about history all day long, all those nooks and crannies that people hid in over the years.”
“How often do Helen and Jasmine come to visit?”
Michelle and Anouk look at each other, surprised.
“She came out more when she was younger,” Michelle answers. “It’s harder with Jasmine,” Anouk adds.
“So maybe five times since her daughter was born?” Alex asks, raising an eyebrow.
“Probably about that, how did you-”
“The canal houses. I saw them on Jasmine’s windowsill from outside their place. I guess she gets one every visit?”
Michelle nods, defeated.
Anouk wraps her arm around Michelle and the two women stay locked in silence. Alex looks around the apartment. A cosy lounge with a tiny galley kitchen behind. A skinny staircase running up the side of the main room, leading to a bathroom and bedroom from what Alex can see. A life. A life of Michelle’s making, away from the judgement of her mother, out from the expectations of her teachers. A life of teaching living history, using her passion everyday.
“So what happens now?” Anouk asks.
Kent, February 2018
The front door opens as Alex parks. Pat the dog sitter waves as Barney bursts out.
Alex gets out in a hurry and bends down to him, scruffing the hair on his back and rubbing his ears as he snuffles and snorts. “Back inside, boy,” she says, optimistic that in Pat’s presence that he might do as he’s told. He doesn’t. He sits down with a groan and watches as Alex pulls her suitcase from the boot. Then he accompanies her inside, bashing into her legs grumpily.
Later, with Pat dispatched home and Barney lying in front of the fire, Alex opens her laptop and types an email to William, her editor.
“This is big,” she writes, uneasily. “I found Michelle alive and kicking. I guess we need to do the full Monty. Speak to her dad, her mum, the police. There’s a legal case to answer here, possibly fraud…” Alex looks at Barney, looks around at the life she has built. A life no one is threatening to unpick. She pats her leg and Barney waddles over and climbs on to the sofa next to her. He puts his blocky little head on her leg, nudging the computer.
Alex deletes her email so far.
She starts again. “William, I was wrong. No case to answer, she’s probably long dead. So what’s the next story, boss?”
Alex Dale first featured in Try Not to Breathe, available now.