The admin office is on its own island between New Zealand and South America, at the end of a long gangway that roughly approximates the southern portion of the International Date Line. It’s not really an island, more of an office on stilts, and it sits like a hat above the greenish water of the South Pacific, in a spot that’s supposed to be open ocean. To get to it from Belgium, where Sue and John and Bailey are when they realise they’ve lost Troy, they must walk down through France and Spain and across the short bridge into Morocco; past the turbaned men on their mechanical camels and the black-hooded women praying against a sand dune; down through the Congolese jungle where a couple of children or dwarves in chimp suits sit licking BananaramaCreams and fanning themselves with palm fronds; across the bridge from Angola to Brazil and down through Argentina to Tierra del Fuego; across a sheet of plastic sea ice; past a group of huddled penguins; around a sign that says “DANGER: ICE MAY BE TREACHEROUS DUE TO GLOBAL WARMING”; and finally out onto the gangway at the point where 3:00 p.m. Sunday becomes 2:00 p.m. Monday. The walk takes twenty-two minutes.
At the admin office they are greeted by a pretty brown girl whose nametag states that she is called Maia. “Hi,” she says in a tired voice, “how can I help you?”
John catches Sue’s eye, but she shakes her head to indicate that he should do the talking. He turns to Maia. “We’ve lost our son – he wandered off somewhere around Belgium. Would you be able to put out a message on the intercom or something?”
Maia sighs. She looks barely older than Troy – sixteen, maybe seventeen. Her uniform is a machine-printed mock-mudcloth, complete with a stiff cowl neck and raspy-looking tag. “Sure,” she says. “I’ll need to know his name, his age, and what he looks like.”
“Troy,” says John, “his name’s Troy Harrison. He’s fourteen but he’s quite tall for his age – maybe five-nine, five-ten? And he’s got brown hair…” He looks at Sue as if she must have a better idea of what their son looks like than he does.
She sighs. There’s no way Troy can be described that won’t make him seem drearily unexceptional. “I think he’s wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of a guitar on the front. And jeans that look kind of… ripped. He’s quite skinny.”
Maia’s mouth opens in a yawn. Inside it her skin is pink, not brown, and a white retainer with a red heart on one side sits against the roof, its metal prongs clasping her teeth like insects’ legs. She blinks and snaps her mouth shut. “Just a minute. I’ll see if he’s turned up out back.”
While she’s gone, Sue watches as Bailey drifts over to the ice cream cabinet, gazing around as if she’s not even aware of where she’s going. When she reaches it she turns around in mock surprise, and Sue notes with a pang the doughy love handles that sit atop her daughter’s too-tight jeans and below her too-short top. Another bulge encircles her back, where the elastic of her trainer bra cuts an indelicate swathe. Sue resists the urge to swoop over and pull the jeans up, the top down, save her daughter from humiliation. Two years ago she might’ve done it. But Bailey is twelve now, and beyond her reach. Sue can’t protect her from the world forever.
Bailey opens the cabinet and draws out a plastic-wrapped ice cream. “Daddy, can I have a treat?”
John uncrosses his arms and pulls a couple of coins out of his pocket and hands them to Bailey without speaking. As she takes the ice cream to the counter he catches Sue’s eye as if to say Well, what can you do? It’s not the first time Troy has left them in the lurch like this. Sue doubts it will be the last. As always, she should’ve kept a closer eye on him. She should’ve known he was too old for this. There’s no end to what she should’ve, could’ve, would’ve, done.
In the stillness, she can hear voices out the back. As Bailey shifts against the counter, wiggling her hips and pulling her top down, Sue hears a muffled giggle. John frowns and checks his watch, and she feels a swell of irritation – not at Maia, but at Troy. He probably waltzed off while they were all peering at the map, thinking about what he would say to his friends, how he would plant his feet wide and shrug his bony, newly broadened shoulders and say, Yeah, my family took me to this lame-as theme park so I hid behind a tree. I mean, what was I supposed to do – tag along with my sister like I was enjoying it? Sue knows how these things work. She knows, and yet she still performs the worried-mother jig. She would love to be able to just walk away, leave him to fend for himself.
By the time Maia gets back, almost ten minutes have passed. “Your son is not out the back,” is all she says.
John looks as if he’s going to find something to grumble about, but then he just says, “Right. So can you put out a message on the intercom for us?”
“Sure.” Maia exchanges Bailey’s ice cream for the coins and goes to the bench behind the counter, leans over the microphone. “Could Troy Harrison please come to the admin office along the gangway from Antarctica. That’s Tro-oy Harr-i-son. Your family is waiting for you here.” She comes back to the counter and stretches her arms out and does a little shake. “Give him fifteen minutes or so. It can take quite a while to get here.”
“Yeah, we noticed,” says John, but to Sue’s relief he doesn’t say anything more sarcastic than that. He lingers at the counter for a moment, but then he shakes his head as if he’s forgotten why he’s there. He turns to Sue and shrugs. “Let’s hope he heard that.”
She doesn’t say You mean listened to it; she’d rather not tempt fate. Instead she follows him wordlessly to the seats on the other side of the room, where Bailey is blankly licking a face-shaped ice cream. Through the grimy window behind them she can see a large flightless bird jerkily picking its way along the New Zealand coast.
“When did you notice he was missing?” says John. “Was it definitely Belgium?”
It’s about the third time he’s asked her. He seems to think that going over and over it again will produce fresh details, submerged memories. She’s tempted to add a red herring – Troy’s guitar-stamped torso disappearing behind a castle, his skinny legs loping across the channel to England – if only to vary things a bit, make the fact that they’ve been foiled by their son again mildly more interesting.
“Well, it was definitely somewhere around there,” she says. “Belgium’s when I noticed.”
He clasps his hands over the small but distinct mound of his belly. “I wonder where he could’ve hid, then. Belgium’s pretty open.”
She sighs. “I don’t know.”
He falls silent again. Beside him, the face Bailey is licking has collapsed in on itself; an apricot-coloured jowl slides down the stick, excreting a milky ribbon onto her clenched fingers. Her tongue brushes over it all like a wet cloth. Behind her head, out across the water, the moa continues to rove the New Zealand coast, making a low robotic keening noise that reminds Sue of the Dinosaurs Alive! exhibit that she took the kids to years ago, when Bailey was still in a pushchair, and how as they made their way around the first corner into the carnivores’ enclosure she felt a low dull surge of dread.
Fifteen minutes pass, half an hour, and still Troy is missing. “Are you sure that message went out?” John says. “Are you sure they would’ve heard it on every continent?”
“Yes,” says Maia. “I’m sure.”
“There’s nowhere that’s far enough from a speaker that he might have missed it?”
Maia shrugs. “Not that I’m aware of.”
John rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, clutching the lip of the counter as if he’s stretching. “Well, can we send out another message? Let’s give a description of him this time. Tell anyone who sees him to send him here. Don’t you have park rangers or something? People with walkie-talkies?”
“No, we don’t, sorry.” Maia moves to the bench behind the counter, leans over the microphone. “Could Troy Harrison please come to the admin office off the gangway from Antarctica. If anyone sees Mr Harrison, who is fourteen years old and is wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of a guitar on it, could they please send him to the admin office immediately.” She turns, shrugs. “Sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”
“All right.” John takes a mint from the complimentary basket, and then a couple more. Sue can see the red veins crosshatching them, the little plastic packets with their serrated ravioli-edges. It seems oddly generous, for a place this ramshackle to offer complimentary mints. It must be a ploy to shut the customers up.
John rips one of the packets open and pops the mint into his mouth, pushes the others into his pocket. He turns back to Sue and Bailey. “I think I’ll just have to go out looking for him. He must think this is some kind of joke.”
“Shouldn’t we wait a while first?” says Sue, although she’s secretly glad he’s volunteered for the task and not her. “What if he gets back here before you do?”
John shrugs. “Then you just wait here for me.” He glances at his watch. “I’ll be back in, let’s say, half an hour tops. By quarter to three.”
Sue almost confesses that she doesn’t think they should split up any more than they already have, but she holds her tongue. He’d just think she was being paranoid. What could happen, anyway? John’s not the type of man who gets lost – or he’s not the type who would ever admit to getting lost. He’s so sure of his sense of direction that he’d rather keep following it than admit it’s acted up.
But she just nods. “Okay.” As she watches his bulky frame and skinny legs and pink shorts retreat down the gangway towards the plastic ice floes and huddled penguins, she feels a guilty surge of relief. At least she’s not the one going back out there. For some reason the whole day has depressed her: it seems desperate, what they’re doing here, pretending to be one of those families that waddle around full of ice cream and ignorance, pointing at the mechanical animals and swinging on the rickety bridges as if slapdash props will substitute for the real thing.