Warning: loss of a child
The papers laid out on the coffee table are yellow with old news. He jiggles the stiff window latch open; it needs a little oil. The lively commotion from the street below fills the silence that hangs in Helen's empty home.
He wipes down the mantelpiece, dusting a photo of the five of them at his son’s wedding in 2009. He and Val have their arms around each other, looking proudly at their boy, while Helen and her sister laugh with their little brother.
He lifts Helen's ashtray, a cheap trinket from a holiday to Tenerife, one he remembers he said, flippantly, carelessly, you might find in a charity shop corner. He berated her about her smoking habit, warning her that she’d give herself lung cancer. She didn’t listen; she only laughed, the melted tar curling her voice into a hearty rasp.
He looks out the window to the main street below, next to the dark waters of the river. A thicket of women, their hair various shades of honey blond, huddle under the coffee shop canopy across the street. He can’t see their faces. His heart is thumping. But they turn their heads, and he sees that she’s not there. The grip on his heart slackens. But only slightly.
He wants to make a cup of tea. Lately, there has been a tremor in his hands, and when he tips the kettle, the spout knocks the mug. It falls to the tiles and smashes. He crouches down, picking up the slippery shards, slicing open his finger.
“It’s broken. You can’t fix it.” But foreboding washes over him. He doesn’t want to change anything. Everything should be left exactly as it was. Shaking severely, he heaves himself onto a chair, taking slow and controlled breaths, the way his doctor told him to. He is startled by a knock at the door.
“Dad? Are you in there?”
Slightly stooped, he opens the door for his daughter.
“I knew I’d find you here. I’m on my lunch break. What happened to your hand?”
“Just an accident.”
She retrieves the first aid kit and dresses the wound. He watches her do it. Helen is frozen at age twenty-nine, and Eve is in her mid-thirties, but they have the same square chins and light brown eyes, the same way of pursing their lips when they are concentrating. He knows, with some guilt, that he is blessed to have Eve and Ruairí, even though Helen is gone. But their ageing and accomplishments only highlight Helen’s long absence. He hasn’t seen Ruairí in months, not since the baby shower.
“We’ve decided on a name,” Ruairí beamed at them, his wife cradling her bump next to him. He, Val and Eve encircled the two on their deckchairs, sipping champagne. “Helen.”
He stood up, slopping his drink on his trousers, nearly snapping the thin glass stem. “No. Absolutely not.”
Enraged by their pity-laced looks, he left amid their pleas for reason and drove far away from the feeling of wanting to throttle Ruairí. He drove to the river and sat on the stone steps leading down to the water. The furious rush of choppy waves rang in his ears as he begged God for a release from the pain, the anguish, the feeling that each passing day, he was the only one who still cared about Helen.
Baby Ellen was born two months ago. He hasn’t met her yet. He stifles the regret that rises inside when he remembers his overreaction. Ruairí has reached out to him a couple of times. He has been too ashamed to respond.
“All done,” Eve says, taping the bandage around his hand.
“Thanks, pet. I’m fine. Just a wobble.”
“Remember what the doctor told you after your heart attack, Dad.” Eve twists her wedding band around her finger, frown-faced. She spots a pamphlet by the kettle.
“How to care for your braces.” She picks it up and smiles. Her own teeth are tea-stained and crooked.
“Do you remember when she got the promotion, and told us all she was finished having gammy teeth? She always smiled in every photo, even though her mouth was full of metal.”
“I remember.” He lights up. “They cost her a fortune too. “It’ll be worth it, Dad, when you see my smile,” she told me.” He stops. He had offered to pay for them, but Helen wouldn’t hear of it.
Eve puts her hand on his as she passes him the mug of hot tea.
“Eleven years today. Mum asked me to check on you.”
He gives a low laugh. “Did she, now? I thought she couldn’t bear the sight of me.”
They're separated now, him and Val.
“She’s dead!” Val would yell towards the end, worn out with exasperation as the years had rolled on. “She’s gone. She’s not coming home. That’s it. We have to move on.”
He can’t. He doesn’t believe her.
If she were dead, some dormant paternal instinct would awaken inside him and release him from this sickening limbo. Until then, he is resolute. He can’t stop until she is found.
When he is pacing alone in their once-full family home, waiting for Helen to come home, he spirals into bitter rants about how they have all deserted her. He is the only one still looking and his heart is heavy with that knowledge. He is campaigning for her, speaking to the media, running the search parties that grow smaller and smaller every year. He combs her apartment every week to check for changes. He watches out every window, searching for a sign. He keeps journals, to document snippets of his memories with her.
“You’ve made her out to be a saint,” Eve commented when he read aloud a passage. “But she wasn’t. She was just normal. The best kind of normal.”
The day she vanished was a normal day. He was at work. His team had been working on securing a multi-million euro acquisition. Months of effort had been poured into the endeavour. He was in a meeting when his secretary darted through the door, pressing his Blackberry into his hand. The distraught ravings of Val rebounded in his ear as he left the room of shocked associates. Helen hadn’t shown up to supervise the breakfast shift at the Riverfront Hotel, and no one had seen her since.
Three weeks later, they found her phone and purse thrown into the wildflowers of a field five miles away. Discarded, like they had been tossed out of a moving car. But no trace of Helen. No trace in eleven years. He was left to sift through a smouldering mess of dust and rubble, looking for a way to rebuild his life without her in it. A heavy burden to carry.
“It’s hard to believe that one day, I was speaking to her on the phone, and the next day she was gone. We were planning a dinner for her thirtieth birthday," he says.
Eve nods. She was there. She has heard it all before. “Mum’s going to have a gathering for the family this evening. We would love it if you came. She wants to see that you’re alright.”
“I can’t, love. Someone has to be out looking for her.”
Eve used to fight him on comments like this. She argued that it was absurd to abandon his career, to spend every waking hour looking for her, volunteering at missing persons charities, campaigning about Helen’s case, so that the media would never let the story die. To throw away everything he had worked for in his life.
“You resent us for moving on with our lives, but that’s what Helen would have wanted!” she cried at him. “I know in my heart that she’s gone.”
“There’s no proof that she’s dead! How can you give up on her? She’s your sister, for Christ’s sake!” he flung back at her in despair.
“It’s been years. Years, Dad. She’s dead, OK, she's dead. What more proof do you need?”
"You can't know that. Why am I the only one who's still looking?"
Today, Eve only nods. She unpacks her lunch and together they eat and chat about her overwhelming workload of personal injury cases to be litigated, how she hopes they will settle so she doesn’t have to go to court. As he listens to her, he wonders how she does it. He can’t move on. He doesn’t want to. Not without Helen.
After he parts with Eve, he roams the route Helen would have taken to work that day. He tapes her missing posters to streetlights, hands sheets to local business owners who repeat their condolences and promise to put them in their windows. Missing, missing, Helen O’Shea. 5’7, build: slim. Butterfly tattoo on her left shoulder. Dearly missed by her loving family.
It’s only a thirty-minute walk from her apartment to the Riverfront Hotel. In the early days, he paced these roads, looking for minute, missed clues. A dropped cigarette. A blood spot. People pass him; he looks into their faces, searching for her. He never smiles at strangers. Any one of them could be hiding the secret that would bring his daughter home. He worries; has he forgotten what she looks like? He knows her photographs better than anything in the world, but they are eleven years old. They haven’t captured the precise way her eyebrows twitch for a microsecond as a thought flits across her mind, or how she scowls ferociously in the sun because she never remembers her sunglasses.
He arrives home to his large, empty house. He opens the Find Helen Facebook page and posts a renewed appeal for answers. Many people have “liked” the page, but few interact with it anymore. Eleven years is a long time to ask people to keep remembering.
He closes his laptop and leans back in his chair. He thinks of the theories the Gardaí bandied around.
Did she run away? No, he was vehement. She would never have left without saying goodbye. They excavated her personal life for a reason to leave but came up with very little. A drug debt was suggested, though he insisted that his daughter never used a day in her life.
Did she fall into the river and drown? To him, this is a ridiculous question. Helen wasn’t tipsy, she was walking to work. The river has been searched multiple times over the years, and no body has ever been discovered. The dark waters could not have swallowed her for so long.
He believes it was a planned abduction. A vile creep could have logged her morning routine; a stalker could have spied on her from his car, monitoring her movements, waiting for a quiet morning to seize his moment. Maybe she was focused on lighting her cigarette, scowling with pursed lips as she cupped the flame, and a man snatched her and bundled her into the back of his car. He never lets himself think of what might have happened past this point. His fragile heart can’t bear further speculation.
In the early evening, he drives to the fields. They stretch on for many acres, dense with tufted fescue, brambles and bright wildflowers. When months passed without Helen’s return, the Gardaí shifted their search from a missing person to a murder inquiry. This was where they found her purse and phone. In the depths of his heart, where his imagination never strays, he thinks that this is where she rests.
He sits in the quiet of the car, watching the wind brush the hanging heads of the dog daisies. His shaking hands remind him that he is an old man now. He fears that he will die without knowing what happened to her, and that no one will look for her when he is gone. The devil that snatched her from him likely lives on, skulking in the town, watching her father be driven demented in the search for his child. The Gardaí believe that the case will be cracked one day. Someone knows the crucial clue that would crack the case, but the more time that passes, the less likely they are to give it up.
He will search until he is dead in the ground, and maybe then, when he meets his maker, he will know what happened to Helen that day in July. She was twenty-nine when she went missing. She would be forty now. He lives in limbo, the last one standing. He can’t move on. Not without Helen.
He bargains with God; has he sinned too often? Has he repented enough? What more can he do to claw his way out of this prison? Let her be alive or dead. Let there be an end to the unknown. He lies awake at night sometimes, wondering why this burden, this load. Any load but this. He has often heard that God gives the toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, but he doesn't believe this. He doesn't believe anyone of any age is strong enough to shoulder this burden. The close of each day is punctured by questions: what did he do to deserve this? Why Helen? Where is she?
As he is pulling his rucksack over his shoulders, Val’s car crackles up the embankment. His two children are with her, equipped with boots and backpacks.
“Hi Dad,” Ruairí says, taking his father’s hand and drawing him in for a hug. He resists at first, then grips his son tightly. Eve watches them, her shoulders shaking, her hand over her eyes.
When Ruairí releases him, Val slips her hand into his. He grasps it, interlacing their fingers. It’s a lifebuoy tossed to a man adrift far from the shore. He knows she hates it here, hates the thought that Helen, their oldest child, might be lost here, cold and alone. But he has to try. She knows this. She has always known this.
He and his family step into the fields. It’s a warm July evening. In the lingering light, they search for their lost loved one amongst the wildflowers that grow in the long grass.