James Ryan

Talking to Strangers

‘The sooner the new motorway opens the better.’ I hesitated, holding back the impulse to say something about what we were doing, something like; We can’t just arrive into the hospital without talking about it. Eventually, I said ‘Rachel’. Just that; Rachel. like she had locked herself in a room and I was trying to coax her out, taken by surprise when she said, ‘I know,’ drawing breath before she said it again and in such a way this time, I thought she was all set to continue. But she didn’t, so I said ‘Rachel, we need to talk about what we’re going to do when we get to the hospital.’ Hoping that would edge things along which it did, but not for a while.

‘I know, but I can’t. I can’t stop thinking it might be Milo when I know it’s not. I mean how could it be? If it was we would have been told straight away. Yesterday evening, when that chid turned up.’

‘Not necessarily. The Gardaí don’t just contact people straight off. It figures. The earliest they could have rung us, think about it, was this afternoon.’ And, I found myself holding the baton of hope again, wanting to let go, but instead, I tightened my grip. ‘Makes sense. Doesn’t it? Waiting for someone, the parents or whoever, to show up before they start trying to sort it out?’

Rachel swung rapidly towards the passenger window, as if we had suddenly passed something she’d been looking out for, but missed. ‘All day, even before you left for Mondello, I felt something was going to happen. Something definite. I can’t say how, but I did. So when that call came, it was like as if I’d been waiting for it.’

‘Sometimes things work backwards.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Things can just slip out of the net, like a feeling appearing in advance of something happening.’

‘Where do you get such, such weird ideas?’

It had been months since I’d heard Rachel speak like that, her voice changing pitch a dozen times in the space of a few seconds. And I wanted so much to remain right there in that frame, Rachel alive in herself, me feeling the possibility of change, a future, different to the way things had been for so long. But as soon as I took a first step into that future, everything crowded in and it darkened. Then all at once it was pitch black, staying like that, pitch, pitch black, until I heard a phone tinkle, not at that moment, but back months ago, back to the day Rachel, without warning, decided go to London, that tinkle quickly giving way to a voice I recognised; Goldie.

What followed filled my whole head, a crippling reminder of how easily all routes forward I glimpse, can disappear. And there was no getting away from it, so I just gave in, let the memory of that call from Goldie sound in my head, listened to her say ‘Hal, where are you…? And everything around me, back on that crisp October morning, began to take shape like a developing photograph; the bridge, the canal dock, the pristine buildings wobbling in the greenish water. She had rung at 8.00 am. Or thereabouts; Hal where are you, I need Rachel’s new number. No, I thought. The whole point of Rachel’s new number was to reduce calls to an absolute minimum, save her from the ‘the awful let-down’, as she put it, of having her phone ring, only to discover it was not about Milo. Five people had that new number. Fintan Flannery, on the case from the beginning,  the dreaded Marie Cullen, Father Prendergast a self-appointed intermediary between everyone and anyone, her mum and Alain- and Kat [plus PA, Barry ] who, days after Milo’s disappearance, had hired a private investigation team. All were under instruction not to give the number to anyone, except Flannery, who, when Rachel put this to him, explained he would have to give it to colleagues involved in the case.

I tried lots of times to get Rachel to take calls, particularly from Barba, who occasionally rang the landline. Late one Friday night, when I’d worked my way through the guts of a bottle -plus, I rang her to ask if she could come over to be with Rachel. Things were as bad as they could be. We had gone back down to Cork to meet Flannery that afternoon. He had asked if Milo was circumcised, explaining that they -or some international investigation unit to which they were linked- were trawling child porn sites. Barba came over, but Rachel, sitting up in bed, her eyes swollen, her face all blotchy, remained inconsolable. And I just drank on, hell-bent on oblivion.

Anyway, when Goldie rang that morning in October, I was en route to the office, wheeling along Strand Road. I had been expecting a call from Rachel and was so certain it was her, I didn’t even check. The day before, when we were in the elevator on the way down to the car park, she announced, out of the blue, that she was thinking of going to London later that day. ‘London?’ I was totally thrown by the plan, but thinking, as I waited for her to respond, that maybe it wasn’t one hundred percent out of the blue. There had been a good few back and forth calls with Kat’s PA, Barry, about the private investigation. They had been reluctant to head into it, because Rachel, although hoping it would go ahead, just as I was, couldn’t find it in herself to meet or even talk to the guy in charge.  He wanted to meet us both, ‘preferably together’ as Barry reported, ‘but not necessarily so’. Still, Rachel saying she was going -just like that- felt sudden. After a minute or two when I’d had a chance to take it in, I began to feel easier about it. The investigation might uncover something. These guys can take steps which are outside the remit of the Gardaí. So maybe it was good she was going. And I managed to say so, assuring her, as we headed in opposite directions to our cars, that it ‘probably would be routine and they wouldn’t want to talk to her for very long.’

‘Who?’ Talk to who?’

‘What’s-his-name, that guy in the investigation place.’

She tilted her head, looked at me like I’d said something very peculiar. ‘I won’t be talking to anyone. I’m just going to London for a day or two. Do some shopping. That’s all.’

‘Just going?’

‘Yes, Hal. Just going.’

I stopped, looked down at the yellow, circled matchstick man, marking the pedestrian route across the car park. The plan had hit me at a new angle, spun me around to a position where I found myself objecting, not exactly shouting, but talking loudly enough to alert Pav, who from his desk up in the foyer, switched on a big set of lights I’d never seen before. I can’t recall what exactly I was saying, just that it was reverberating around the car park. It had to do with Rachel making a plan just like that, somehow managing to step into the future. Do something that didn’t involve me. I was incapable of taking such a step and until then, believed she was too. If I’d taken stock, even for two minutes, I would not have reacted like that. I might have come to realise that I was, in fact, pleased she had managed to break out of the crippling despond where, for weeks, she had spent all but the shortest stretches. Two minutes, that’s all it would have taken me to focus on the bigger picture; Rachel drifting ghost like around the apartment at night, edging bits of food back and forth on her plate, coming to a sudden standstill in the middle of the room and telling me it was the medication, when I knew full well that nothing she’d been prescribed could have had such an effect. I tried to row back, tell her I thought going to London was a good idea, but it was too late. She had shut down. And not like she might have done in the past, but in a way that is difficult to pinpoint. Our default position was changing or had already changed.  We were rarely in sync. We didn’t have to be, or maybe didn’t want to be, at least not in the way we always had been and particularly since Milo was born.

She texted me early that afternoon; ‘Getting the 5.10, be in touch tomorrow AM.  x. Rachel. I read it aloud, repeating, ‘x Rachel’, quick to fall on that one ‘x’, quick to sink into the relief I got from it. I immediately shot back three higher case X’s. So, when on the way to work the next morning my phone rang, I was disappointed to hear Goldie’s voice and not Rachel’s.

‘Hal, where are you? I need Rachel’s new number. ’

‘Can’t be done, Goldie.’

Silence while Goldie waited for me to start defending my position, which I knew I must not do. I almost smiled while I waited to see how far she was going to push it.

‘Hal. Are you free for a coffee?’


‘No.’ She laughed in that hoarse, breathy way she does, gathering herself together unexpectedly fast to say, ‘Hal I need to talk to you.’

It felt like we were in a new, unfamiliar space.

‘OK. You know, just before you go over the bridge, that blue wooden place. 10.30?’

Goldie had been on, I don’t know how many times, about getting Rachel to go on a girls’ weekend to this Spa, part of a chain of spas whose profile she managed. Or, as Rob would report, ‘had managed’ until things changed, forcing them to rationalise and close their account with her.  So, I just sat there, gazing lazily across the canal dock, the brand new buildings wobbling precariously in the greenish water. It then struck me that she might want to check me out, see if I’d heard the rumour that she was about to fold. Which I had, but didn’t believe; ‘bullshit’, is what Kev said when I put it to him, quick to tell me that there was  no let-up in what he called her daily couture blitz on Grafton Street. If anything, her spending, he said, had spiralled onto a new plane, antique furniture, paintings, a cellar and the like.  I smiled as I recalled Kev at her house warming party, conducting a tour of the place, describing everything as a professional guide in a historic home might, stopping half way up the stairs and making the group, following behind him, laugh when in gobbledygook Italian, he drew attention to the grain in the marble.

‘How are you?’ Goldie gives each of these words its own space and emphasis. How, are, you. Rachel said she learned how to do this on the high-powered PR course she did somewhere very famous in Chicago. Unlikely, but the result, either way, is that the words reach you, plied with interest, making you feel you ought to try and say something other than ‘fine’.


Goldie looked directly into my eyes, searching for more.

‘Fine. I mean, you know…’ I shrugged. ‘What else? Fine.’

She raised her hand a little, allowed it to drift in the direction of my arm, lowered it slowly. If that had happened a decade ago, on the Pav steps or in the Buttery, I would have levitated. Not now, but I have to admit that there’s still a buzz with Goldie, no staying in neutral.

‘Hope this isn’t intrusive.’ She shifted about a bit, crossed her legs. ‘I need to ask if you know about Rachel in London?’

‘God, news travels.’

‘Barba was on last night. She’s worried about Rachel. Hal.  Really worried.’

I lifted my coffee cup, took a long sip in a bid to block the stampede of words charging forward; everyone is worried about Rachel and why wouldn’t they be? Is there some approved fucking way of behaving when your two year old son disappears without trace? I swirl the coffee in my mouth until I’m certain these and whatever other words are gathering will not pass my lips.

‘You know then? Well in which case it’s between you and Rachel and it’s none of my business.’


‘You know. So let’s leave it at that. It’s none of my business. And I’m sorry. I am sorry, Hal. Barba asked me to speak to you. She’s…’

‘Wait now. Goldie. What’s going on?’

‘Hal, can we draw a line under this? I mean right now? Barba wasn’t sure if you knew about Rachel. Knew about her plan? That’s all.’

‘For Christ’s sake, Goldie, What plan?’

‘Getting sterilised. Rachel is planning…’

I must not think about that now. I pressed hard on the accelerator, picking up speed. Up, up, up.  Must not think about that now. Must not





Comments are closed.