The man sitting next to Ray was a talker.
It was hit or miss in these places. Either you managed to sit quietly with your thoughts and sink a bourbon or five in peace. Or you wound up next to the kind of misery that loved company.
Most of the time these guys were harmless and if you could tune out and let their muttering fade into the background then everyone was happy. But this particular guy seemed to need more. He was wrangling for a conversation like a dog with a bone.
Judging from the drivel pouring out of the man’s mouth, Ray’s best guess was that his wife had recently left him or he’d just found her screwing his best mate, or some other clichéd bullshit. The guy asked if Ray was married and Ray told him he was. The man had then threw out a few ugly comments about the worthlessness of women and slapped Ray on the back like a co-conspirator.
But he had misjudged his audience. Ray had straightened his spine and said, “I love my wife. She’s the centre of my universe.” And that had shut him up.
From that point on, however, Ray had kept quiet. The guy was unshaven, unkempt and about eight single malt’s deep. Ray decided to avoid a fight by saying little, drinking a lot and then making a swift exit. He had his first two objectives firmly under his belt and was about to put the third into action when the man pointed up at the television set above the bar.
“Isn’t that the most depressing shit you’ve ever heard?” he said.
Ray couldn’t imagine that it was, but he lifted his head anyway. There was a news story on, something about a dead body found near a river. The images were of a muddy bank, a taped off crime scene and a white transit van. A reporter stood in front of a body of water, her face solemn.
“Hey barman. Turn that up?” the man called. He turned to Ray. “That’s gotta be the fucking worst, am I right?”
The volume increased. Words tumbled out of the reporter’s mouth. Tragedy. Missing since. Last seen. White van. Snatched. Buried. Woods.
“I said, am I right?” the man persevered.
Ray sighed, watching the screen. “What happened?”
“They dug up a kid. Someone buried a fucking kid in a forest.”
A picture flashed up of a boy aged around 5 years old. Big grin, sandy hair, brown eyes.
“Someone grabbed him in his own front yard. I cannot imagine anything worse. Can you, man? I mean, think of the parents. Imagine getting that call.”
To Ray’s horror, the man started to cry. His big shoulders shook and wet sounds came out of his mouth. Ray watched him for a moment and then turned back to the TV screen.
“Who does shit like that?” said the man, through his tears.
Ray drained his glass then dropped a few notes onto the bar. He slid off his stool, heading for the daylight.
* * *
Outside, he pulled his phone from his pocket.
Ellen answered on the seventh ring. “Not a good time, Ray.”
“Should I call back?”
“It’s ok. Can’t be long, though. Dinnertime.”
Ray could hear running water and the clank of saucepans.
“So how are things going?” he asked.
“Everything’s fine,” she replied.
There was a long pause. She wasn’t going to make it easy for him, but when had she ever?
“It’s been six weeks, Ray,” she said, at last.
Ray was aware how long it had been. He’d meant to go home. He’d booked flights every weekend but always cancelled them at the last minute.
“I’m sorry, work has been –”
“Six weeks. You should’ve come back. You should be here.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.” Ray swallowed, his throat tight. “I saw something on the news. They found a kid.”
The sound of running water stopped. Ray pictured his wife by the sink, soap suds dripping off her hands .
“Yes, the dead boy. I saw it, too. Terrible.”
“It made me miss you. All of you. I hate being away from you. I’ve been thinking more about making some changes to my schedule. Delegate, take more of a back seat.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Ellen said.
Ray nodded silently. “I could do a week at home every month. Potentially.”
“Yeah. Play it again, Sam.”
Ellen was silent for a moment. “Honey, there’s no need.”
“But it’s so isolated out there.”
“It is, but I manage. And I’ve got my girls.”
Ray hesitated, reaching for his next words. “And how are they? The girls?”
“Oh, you know. The new one is still… adjusting.”
“But Stephanie has had a good week. She was outside almost all day today.”
“Outside?” Ray was shocked. “Are you sure that’s…”
“It’s fine, Ray. There’s no one for miles.”
“But what if…”
“I said its fine. Trust me.”
Ray let out a jagged breath. “Sorry. That news story just got to me.”
“Oh, calm down,” she chided. “I’m not about to go burying a body in the woods, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No, of course not.”
When she next spoke, Ellen’s voice was a razor blade hidden in a cream puff. “Ray. What we’re doing here… it’s watertight, remember? There’s nothing to worry about. Be thankful. We finally have everything we’ve ever wanted. We have each other, we have our dream home, and now we have our dream family.”
He was comforted by her confidence. She really was the most brilliant person her had ever known in his life. She could do anything, make anything work. And she was the most spectacular mother, just like she always said she would be.
There was a rattle of crockery and glass. The trolley, he thought. She was pushing it down the path towards the shed.
“You’re doing a wonderful job providing for us, honey. So you stick to what you do best and I’ll take care of everything else.”
He knew she would, she always had. Anything they needed, anything they wished for, she’d always gone the extra mile to make sure they had it. He made the money, sure, but she… well, she made their dreams come true.
He heard the familiar slide of a dead bolt. The bang of a heavy door. The bolt again, and then brisk footsteps. The sound had changed now, everything hollow and echoey. He shifted his weight around, passed the phone to his other ear, waiting for her to finish.
Another dead bolt. The rattle of keys. A bang, and the snap of a padlock.
He shuddered, involuntarily.
“I really have to go now, Ray.” Ellen’s voice bounced off cold metal walls.
“Ok. I’ll leave you to it.”
“I’ll see you soon,” she said.
He really should let her go, this part was always tricky. You always needed both hands. He could already hear a disturbance; muffled voices, a few dull thuds.
A sigh. “Yes, Ray?”
I’ll come next weekend. I promise.”
“Whatever you say.”
“I love you,” he said into the handset, but Ellen had already gone.
Anna Downes lives in Long Jetty on the Central Coast of Australia with her husband and two children, aged 1 and 3. She was born and grew up in the north of England but moved to Australia in 2011 after meeting her husband at the top of a French mountain. She trained to be an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London and worked professionally for four years before deciding the lifestyle was not for her. She now works as a massage therapist while raising her children by the ocean. She also writes a lot of stories.