Deceive Me – Karen Cole

I thought that things would be different when we moved to Cyprus. I thought it would be a way to escape the ghosts of the past. A fresh start for me and Chris and a way of stopping our daughter from screwing up her life. But nothing has worked out the way I hoped. I suppose I should have known that it wouldn’t. I should have known that wherever you go, you drag your past along with you, whether you want to or not. And whatever you do, you can never stop your children from growing up and making their own mistakes. Last night I woke in the early hours, as I often do these days, and lay in bed gripped by fear. It was three a.m. My heart was racing in my chest and my thoughts were churning, whisking up the same old worries. I must have lain there for hours sweating under the whirring fan, listening to the dogs barking outside and the beeping of the rubbish truck, until the morning light made its way in through the curtains and Chris’s alarm went off. I was like a zombie this morning, sleepwalking through the household chores, sweeping the red dust that collects on our veranda, picking up clothes in Jack’s bedroom, only to drop them back on the floor a moment later – he needs to learn to do it for himself. It’s not much of an excuse, I know, but it was because I was so tired that I fell asleep on the sofa mid-morning in front of Say Yes to the Dress. I only woke up because my phone rang.

For a moment, I stared in blank bemusement at the name flashing on the screen. Dave – my stepfather. Why’s he calling? I wondered. Whatever the reason, I didn’t want to know. Dave only ever means trouble. So, I pressed the ‘end call’ icon without answering and checked the time. It was one fifteen and I was already late to pick up the kids from school. So here I am, scrabbling around for my keys in a panic, and leaping into my furnace-hot car. I race out of the village, past the Oroklini salt lake, already dry and white as a bone, and I turn the AC up full blast, but I’m still sweating, and the steering wheel is burning my fingers. What kind of mother misses pick-up because they’ve fallen asleep in front of daytime TV? I wonder.

Not that I’m really worried about Grace and Jack. Jack’s nearly eleven now, mature for his age, and Grace has just turned sixteen. They can look after themselves. Besides, everyone keeps telling me how safe Cyprus is and what a great place it is for kids to grow up. Most of the parents and kids have gone by the time I reach the school. Only Olga is still there wafting around, looking immaculate as usual in a white summer dress and strappy sandals, her two perfect, blonde kids sitting obediently waiting for her on a bench. ‘Oh, Jo, I’m so glad I caught you,’ she says. ‘We’re having a PTA meeting on Wednesday this week to plan out some events for the year. Can we count on you to come?’ ‘Um, sure,’ I mutter, unable to think of an excuse on the spur of the moment. ‘Good, good,’ she beams.

‘We were all going to bring something, a cake or—’ ‘Sorry, but I need to go and find Jack,’ I say, escaping as soon as I can. It’s not her fault. She can’t help being perfect, I suppose, but Olga always manages to make me feel totally inadequate. Jack’s on the football pitch kicking a ball around with some other kids. His ginger hair’s not hard to spot amongst the dark heads of his Cypriot friends. He’s standing in the far goal, his face bright red. How many times do I have to tell him to wear his hat? He’s got his father’s pale complexion. He’ll burn within seconds in the midday sun. I pick up his hat from the ground by the goalpost and shout across the pitch. ‘Ja-ack!’ ‘Where’s your sister?’ I ask, as he comes running up, planting the hat firmly on his head and looking around.

Grace should be here by now. She’s supposed to walk over from the senior school and meet us. Jack snatches up his bottle and gulps down water. ‘I dunno,’ he says. ‘She must be in the canteen.’ I try her mobile, but it’s out of charge or it’s switched off. Unusual for Grace, who normally has to be surgically prised away from her phone. I’m guessing that she’s still angry with me over the other day. We barely spoke all weekend – the most I got out of her was a nod or a glare. Maybe she’s switched it off deliberately.

‘Christ,’ I mutter under my breath. Grabbing Jack’s sticky hand, we trudge across the car park and the schoolyard. It’s not far, but in the midday heat it’s a major expedition – like crossing the Sahara. ‘You have a good day?’ I ask, as we stop, panting like dogs, in the meagre shade of a tree, hiding from the searchlight glare of the sun. ‘Sure,’ Jack shrugs. ‘Learn anything interesting?’ I wipe the sweat from the back of my neck. A few strands of hair have come loose and are sticking to my skin. ‘Nope.’ We have the same conversation pretty much every day. Jack isn’t big on communication, much like his father.

In that respect he’s very different from Grace. Grace has always been a talker. Since she was little, she always confided every detail of her day: who was being mean to whom, what the teacher said, what marks she got in her tests. At least that’s how she used to be. In recent months she’s stopped telling me anything at all. The canteen’s nearly empty already. There are just a few kids playing table football outside and a couple of teachers sipping frappes. No sign of Grace. But inside, I see one of her friends sitting in the corner, fiddling with her phone. ‘Hey, Maria,’ I smile.

‘How are you?’ ‘Oh, hi, Joanna,’ she says in her perfect English, flashing me a metallic smile. She’s a sweet girl with a thick mane of wiry black hair and large, mild brown eyes. The type of girl who does Duke of Edinburgh, plays in the orchestra and always gets good grades. An ‘A star’ student. Grace used to be an ‘A star’ student too. Until Tom came into the picture, I think bitterly. But now? Her GSCE results were mixed at best, and her end-of-year report ambivalent. Grace needs to focus in order to live up to her undoubted potential. Grace seems to lack enthusiasm for this subject. Grace put in minimum effort this term.

Is she destined to throw away her future like I did? A daughter cursed to repeat her mother’s mistakes? It’s infuriating – after all the opportunities we’ve provided and all my warnings to her about throwing her life away on a man. ‘Have you seen Grace?’ I ask Maria. Until recently Grace and Maria were joined at the hip. But not so much over the past couple of months, not since Tom arrived on the scene. Maria looks startled. ‘Er, no, I haven’t seen her since the beginning of the day.’ She calls out to a passing boy, lanky and acne-ridden with bushy brown hair. ‘Hey, Andreas, have you seen Grace?’ He shakes his head and flushes faintly. ‘I dropped her off this morning,’ I say, feeling a first twinge of concern. I picture Grace as I last saw her, climbing the steps to the main school building, lugging her heavy backpack, her black ponytail swinging.

The brief backwards glance of defiant blue eyes; the determination not to smile or wave. Even her back radiated anger. Well, I’m her mum. She will have to forgive me sooner or later. She must be here somewhere, I think, and I try her phone again. But it’s still off. ‘Can I have some food? I’m starving.’ Jack tugs at my arm and I look down at him, bemused. I’d almost forgotten he was there. ‘Okay.

’ I shove a few euros into his palm. He’ll buy Coke and sweets and other unhealthy food, but right now I’m too annoyed with Grace to care. Would she have tried to walk home by herself? It’s possible, I suppose, given the mood she was in. But it’s a good ten miles and in this heat, thirty-four degrees in the shade – way hotter in the sun – it would be . Well, put it this way, it’s not something I’d like to try. ‘Stay here. Don’t move,’ I say to Jack. ‘I’m going to find your sister.’ I climb the stairs and check the toilets. Empty.

I peer into the classrooms on the first floor. Most of them are already locked. In the maths department I bump into Grace’s maths teacher – a young man called Mr Nicholaou with a thick Greek accent and a closecropped beard. He gives me an uncertain nod as if he vaguely recognises me but isn’t sure who I am. ‘Can I help you?’ he asks. ‘Have you seen Grace?’ I ask. ‘Grace Appleton?’ ‘Er . no.’ He scratches his head. ‘She wasn’t in her maths lesson today.

I assumed she was off ill. Have you tried the canteen?’ I head to the main office, feeling panic mounting, but trying not to surrender to it. I won’t give Grace that satisfaction. The office is air-conditioned and almost cold compared to the temperature outside. The secretary, a plump, middle-aged woman with dyed black hair and a sour expression, is even wearing a cardigan. As I enter, she drags her eyes upwards as if just that physical act was an effort. ‘Can I help you?’ she says reluctantly. ‘Yes, I’m trying to find my daughter, Grace Appleton. Can you confirm that she was in school today?’ She taps listlessly at the computer. ‘She wasn’t marked in the register,’ she says.

‘There must be a mistake,’ I say, a note of hysteria entering my voice. ‘I dropped her off this morning.’ That gets her attention. Suddenly the listlessness is gone. ‘We can ring her tutor to check if you like,’ she says, lifting the receiver. I wait while she speaks on the phone in Greek. I catch a few familiar words and Grace’s name but don’t get the gist of what she’s saying. Then she cups the phone with her hand. ‘No. Grace wasn’t in school this morning.

Her tutor is sure because she won an award for her painting, but wasn’t there to receive it.’ ‘Thank you,’ I say. I’m starting to really panic now. To calm myself, I think of all the other times Grace or Jack have ‘gone missing’. There was that time in the playpark when Jack was three and I thought he was playing in the crawl tunnel, but he’d actually slipped out of the gate somehow and was by the lake looking at the ducks. And when she was four, Grace went through a phase of hiding in clothes shops, giggling away to herself inside racks of dresses as I called out hysterically. They always turned up unharmed in the end. I comfort myself with this thought. It will be the same this time, of course. It will be a false alarm.

Silly Mummy, worrying over nothing as usual. But the fact remains that no one has seen Grace since this morning, and I have no idea where she is. Back in the canteen, trying to remain calm, I ring Chris. ‘Hey, Jo. You okay?’ he says. I can hear the radio blaring in the background. He sounds tired and impatient. Not that unusual lately. The job he’s been working on – doing all the wiring for a new development – has been stressful. His boss is erratic and the prospective buyers demanding.

Lately he’s been coming home in a foul mood, more stressed and tired than he ever was in England. So much for our dream of getting away from the rat race and spending more quality time together as a family. ‘Are you driving?’ I ask. ‘It’s okay, I’m stopped in traffic. What is it?’ ‘Grace didn’t go to school today.’ ‘What?’ ‘She wasn’t in school. I dropped her off, but she’s not here now and her teachers say she wasn’t in lessons.’ My voice starts to wobble, and I bite back tears. ‘I don’t know what to do. Should I go to the police?’ Chris sighs, with a hint of impatience.

‘Have you tried calling her?’ ‘Yes, of course I’ve tried calling her,’ I snap. Fear is making me angry. ‘Okay, take it easy, Jo. She’ll be okay. She’s probably with Tom.’ Until recently it would have been unthinkable that Grace, my well-adjusted, wellbehaved teenager, would have skipped school, but with the advent of Tom all that has changed. Grace has become a person I don’t recognise. But Chris is right, of course. She’ll be with him. Not ideal, but right now it’s better than the alternative.

At least if she’s with Tom, she isn’t in any immediate physical danger. ‘Look, I’ve got to go,’ says Chris. ‘I’ll be home soon. Then we can figure out what to do.’ And he hangs up. Bloody Tom, I think as we head back to the car and drive though the snarled-up traffic to his flat. If I could wish him out of existence, I would. Chapter 2 Tom’s apartment is near the seafront in a fancy, modern complex with a large kidneyshaped pool. Next to the pool a glamorous blonde woman is lounging on a recliner watching her little girl splash around in the water. There are carefully clipped shrubs, flowering bushes and modern architecture with a lot of interesting angles and glass balconies.

The manicured lawns are real grass – a sign of luxury in water-poor Cyprus. Tom’s parents must help him with the rent, I think, because there’s no way he could afford this place on his diving instructor’s salary alone. Despite the luxurious appearance, the lift is out of order, so Jack and I climb the three flights of stairs. By the time we reach Tom’s flat we’re both out of breath. ‘Oh,’ Tom says as he opens the door. He doesn’t look exactly pleased to see me. ‘What do you want?’ he asks, keeping the door halfway closed. ‘I want to speak to my daughter,’ I say, pushing past him into the apartment. ‘Grace!’ I call out. ‘Grace! Where are you?’ ‘She’s not here,’ he sighs wearily.

The lunatic mother again, he’s thinking. I can hear it in his voice. But I don’t really care. He can think what he likes. All I care about is Grace. She must be here. Where else would she be? I storm through the apartment opening doors: to the kitchen, the bathroom, ripping back the shower curtain, then the bedroom, taking in the neatly made bed and the wetsuit hanging up by the door. I even open the wardrobe as if I’m playing a demented game of hide-and-seek. ‘What the hell?’ Tom follows me. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Mum, what are you doing?’ Jack echoes.

He’s standing behind Tom. He looks mortified. ‘You can’t just barge in here like this,’ Tom says indignantly. ‘Oh, can’t I? My daughter is missing. And I think you know where she is.’ ‘Missing? What do you mean?’ he repeats, staring at me. He’s doing a pretty good impression of being shocked. Grace obviously isn’t here. Suddenly all the anger leaves me like air rushing out of a balloon. I close the wardrobe door carefully.

‘She didn’t turn up to school today,’ I say. ‘I thought she was with you.’ Feeling confused and foolish, I head back to the living room. Grace, where the hell are you? I think, looking around the room as if it might provide a clue. It’s a large room, tidy and mostly empty. There’s a flat-screen TV on the wall and a modern, gleaming blacktiled kitchen separated by a breakfast bar. There are just two pictures on the walls – a poster of all the different fish you can see in Cyprus and a picture of the wreck of the Zenobia and some other diving sites. On the table next to Tom’s computer are a couple of framed photos: one of him and two other young men in a pub raising beer glasses to the camera and a picture of a little boy holding a tiny baby in his arms. The baby is staring wide-eyed at the camera, its fist stuffed in its mouth, gnawing its own knuckles. Looking at it, I feel a pang of longing and nostalgia.

The picture reminds me so much of Grace at that age – the way she would chew at anything with her toothless gums. And for a second, I’m back there in England in my tiny, damp living room with her in my arms. ‘That’s me and my baby sister,’ Tom says, catching the direction of my gaze. ‘It’s the only photo of us together. She died shortly after that was taken.’ ‘Oh.’ I’m not sure what else to say. I remember now Grace telling me that he’d lost both his baby sister and his father when he was very young. It’s part of the attraction for her, I think. For some people there’s something romantic about a tragic past.

And the fact that he’s damaged goods is irresistible to Grace. She’s always bringing home stray dogs, cats and birds with broken wings. In some ways Tom is just another one of her pet projects. Something to fix. I’m not sure what it is, maybe the heat or stress, but I feel suddenly dizzy and I steady myself against the breakfast bar. ‘Mrs Appleton? Are you okay? Sit down.’ ‘Thank you. I just need something to drink, that’s all,’ I say, sinking onto the sofa. All this rushing around in the heat has made me incredibly thirsty and I’m getting a migraine – pain pulsing behind my right eye. I can’t afford to get one now, not until I know where Grace is.

‘Could I have some water, please?’ Tom pours me a glass of water and gets a Coke for Jack then sits down opposite us, drumming his fingers against his knees. I can smell his aftershave. It has a citrussy tang and is making me feel nauseous. His face, swimming in front of me, is full of what looks like genuine concern. I must admit it’s not too hard to understand what Grace sees in him. He’s a good-looking young man. Twenty years old, square-jawed, with long wavy brown hair, broad shoulders and startlingly beautiful blue eyes. ‘She didn’t turn up to school this morning,’ I say. ‘Do you know where she is?’ ‘I don’t, I swear,’ he says. ‘I haven’t seen her since Saturday.

I’ve been trying to ring her, but she hasn’t been answering her phone.’ Saturday. I press my temples, trying to centralise the pain. I’d rather not think about Saturday. Grace and I had an epic row – one of the worst ever. I close my eyes, trying to block out the image of her face twisted in anger and to forget the awful, hurtful things she said to me. I wish you weren’t my mother. You’re the worst fucking mother in the world. It was over Tom, of course. Always Tom.

Curse him. Before Tom came into the picture, Grace and I had a pretty good relationship. We obviously had our differences. Grace was always quite independent, and I know I can be overprotective at times, but mostly we got along great. I’m only thirty-three, young to be the mother of a sixteen-year-old, younger than many of the mothers of Grace’s friends, and we related in a way that they didn’t. We went shopping together, swapped clothes, laughed at each other’s jokes. But then, just over a year and a half ago, all that changed. It seemed so innocent at first, when she came back from a school trip to France with the school’s orchestra, radiating the unmistakeable glow of infatuation. How sweet, I thought. A teenage crush.

She didn’t try to hide the relationship. She even proudly showed me the photos of him on her phone over dinner that night. ‘Thomas Mitchinson,’ she said, trying to sound casual, but the flush that crept up her neck gave her away. ‘He’s how old exactly?’ I asked, squinting at the handsome face on the screen with a first lurch of unease. ‘He’s only four years older than me,’ she said defensively. ‘Dad’s seven years older than you.’ ‘That’s different. We’re both adults. You’re only fourteen.’ ‘Nearly fifteen.

’ I put my fork down. I’d suddenly lost my appetite. ‘You’re not having sex, are you?’ ‘Mu-um! Don’t be gross.’ ‘Because if you are, you need to use protection. I don’t want you making the same mistakes as me.’ As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said them. Grace was staring at me, eyes dark with anger. ‘So, I’m a mistake, am I?’ she said, her voice quivering. ‘No, of course not . It’s .

’ But I didn’t get to finish my sentence. She’d already stalked off in a huff, leaving her vegan spaghetti bolognese half finished. It’s just a crush, I thought at the time. An innocent crush. It’ll blow over. They never have any staying power, relationships at that age. It’ll be finished within a month. That was nearly two years ago. I look over at Tom now, his handsome, tanned face, his frank blue eyes. He’s doing a good impression of looking concerned.

Either he’s a good actor or he really doesn’t know where Grace is. ‘She wasn’t with you on Sunday?’ I persist. ‘No. I already told you.’ He sighs, picks up his phone and taps at the screen. ‘What if I try?’ He holds the phone to his ear. Then after a few seconds he says, ‘Nope. Her phone’s still not working.’ So, where was she on Sunday if she wasn’t with Tom? I think back. On Sunday morning she snuck out of the house early, before Chris and I were up, and she didn’t return until late in the evening.

When she got in, she dumped her bag by the door and stormed up to her room without saying a word. At the time, I assumed she’d been with Tom all day. But, if he’s telling the truth, it seems she was somewhere else. Where? With whom? There’s so much I don’t know about Grace anymore, it’s scary. My baby girl has become a stranger. I sigh and stand up. There’s no point in staying any longer. Tom doesn’t know where she is, or if he does, he’s plainly not going to tell me. ‘Can you do me a favour? Let me know if she contacts you?’ I say as I head to the door. He doesn’t owe me any favours, but he nods anyway.

‘You too. Can you tell me when she turns up? I’m worried about her now.’ He does look worried. In fact, it looks like tears are welling up in his eyes – a reminder that despite his manly appearance, he’s really not much more than a boy. ‘She’ll be at home, I’m sure. I’ll get her to give you a call,’ I say. I can’t believe I’m comforting him.

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