The postcard lay photo-up on the hall floor: aerial shot of a glitzy city, streets a garish golden grid, the night sky flecked with blue and crimson. Written across the centre, like a corporate slogan, was Esta es Bogotá.
With hammering heart Pam bent down and picked it up. Turning it over, her gaze fell on that familiar, capitalised scrawl.
HI GUYS. GREETINGS FROM COLOMBIA. HAVING A GREAT TIME. LOVE, ALEX.
No more than that. Tilting the card, she saw that Bogotá was the name of a city. It rang the vaguest of bells.
Postcard clutched in one hand, she nudged the front door shut and dragged her shopping to the kitchen: two plastic bags packed with potatoes and carrots, broccoli and pork chops, milk and cheese. In an hour Joe would be home from work and expect dinner. Pam’s feet ached from standing in the shop all day, but the arrangement was fair. After all, on weekends, when she had to work, Joe cooked for her. That was how they’d survived: through partnership and support.
She read the message again. Fourteen months had passed since the last one, but time made little difference to the content. Always the same variations on a scant theme, slapdash punctuation with apostrophes missing. WEATHER GOOD. EVERYTHINGS FINE. HAVING A LAUGH. He’d have his reasons for doing that, she thought. Cruelty. Caution. Indifference. Perhaps a blend of all three.
On the kitchen windowsill she saw him, dressed in green t-shirt and blue jeans, scruffily handsome with his parted brown hair, the long, slender face lightly pocked with acne. There was another photo beside the bed, and a third, at Joe’s insistence, on the drinks cabinet in the living room. ‘Imagine he’s watching you,’ Joe had told her. ‘Asking you to stay strong. For him.’
And it had worked. Under that watchful gaze, she hadn’t touched a drink in three years.
It had happened in Gorey in 2002. Pam was working in a school canteen at the time. In mid-July she, the kids (Alex, at fifteen, the eldest, followed by Ciara, twelve, and Joseph, eight) plus the dog, Gogo, had headed off for a month, renting a caravan near the sea. Joe joined them for the last two weeks.
That summer the break was badly needed. Joe, working overtime laying internet cables in Dublin suburbs, was often tired and tetchy. Ciara seemed to see it as her duty to act the diva now that she was on the cusp of her teens. Her older brother, when not earning his first money stacking shelves in Supervalu, spent ever more time blowing things up on the games console in his bedroom. Meanwhile little Joseph seemed bewildered by the abrupt shifts in family identity.
But once they got away, tensions eased. The kids went wild in the surf. Alex kept an eye on his siblings, surprising Pam with both his good humour and sense of responsibility. When Joe joined them, Pam could feel the irritability drain from him, too. She and he laughed together, went for walks, cuddled, drank wine in the evenings.
Then, four nights before they were due to leave, on a blissed-out Tuesday evening, Alex took Gogo for a walk. Sometimes his two younger siblings joined him, but this time, quite casually, he said he and the dog would go alone. The rest of them prepared a barbecue: burgers and chicken drumsticks, jacket potatoes and sausages, picked up by Joe in town that morning.
They hardly noticed Alex’s absence until, at a quarter past seven, the food was ready.
‘He’d better hurry up if he wants to eat,’ Joe said.
Pam glanced at her watch. ‘He’s been gone an hour.’
‘Probably just lost track of time.’
‘Or got talking to Clionagh,’ Ciara said snarkily.
Pam explained about the girl from the neighbouring campsite. She and Alex had become friendly over the past couple of weeks, before Joe came down from Dublin. Pam had seen them together once, loitering among reeds in the sand dunes. The girl, tall with short black hair, had been smoking a cigarette. Pretty, in a tomboyish way. Pam had told Alex she hoped they weren’t getting up to any funny business. Blushing, he said they’d just been hiding out because Clionagh’s father, who she shared a caravan with, was ‘a bit possessive’ and she didn’t want to be seen by him.
‘Well, we’ll soon find out what’s more important,’ Joe said. ‘His belly or his lady friend.’
Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. The last stragglers were trooping home from the beach.
‘Can we eat?’ Joseph whined. ‘I’m hungry.’
‘Yeah, why should we have to wait ‘cos of him?’ Ciara piped up. ‘The food’ll be cold.’
‘You lot get started,’ Joe said. ‘I’ll go and find him.’
Pinching the postcard between her finger tips, Pam climbed the stairs. Colombia: Wasn’t that where coffee came from? And cocaine? Or was she confusing it with some other place?
She switched on the computer, went online, then typed Esta es Bogotá into a translator, harbouring no great hopes, but still wondering if it might be some cryptic clue.
In an instant the soul-sapping answer came back. Esta es Bogotá: This is Bogotá.
She sat immobile for a few minutes, slowly accepting that it was the same as always: a card, a curt greeting, and if the destination or words were meant as some kind of riddle, then it was too abstruse for a head like hers. She deleted the last hour’s search history and went out of the spare room into her and Joe’s bedroom. There she hesitated, then opened a drawer containing her jewellery and underwear, and tucked the postcard into a satin slip.
Safe from all eyes but her own.
They’d scoured the camp site and tennis courts, and threw a glance up and down the beach. Nearly two hours had passed since Alex set out. Night was falling, and it was no longer possible to believe he’d just lost track of time, or been side-tracked by some pretty girl with the promise of a fumble in the reeds. They’d no way of reaching him. Recently he’d been pestering them for a mobile, claiming all his friends had one, but Pam and Joe had told him he could get one on his next birthday, when he turned sixteen.
While Pam stayed by the barbecue with the kids – Joseph nibbling gloomily on a burger, Ciara standing around aimless and resentful, not wanting to eat – Joe knocked at the neighbouring caravans, asking if one of them had seen Alex, giving a description to those who didn’t recall him. A young mother said she’d nodded to him that very evening as he headed off with the dog. In which direction?, Joe asked, and she pointed towards the tennis courts. So, the same way as always.
Which was almost more disturbing.
At nine they called the guards. A middle-aged man in uniform rolled up after half an hour. With a casualness bordering on dismissive, he explained that it wasn’t unusual for fifteen year old boys to wander off and that Alex would surely return before long.
‘He knew we were cooking dinner,’ Pam said.
‘It’s not like him to do this,’ Joe backed her up.
‘He didn’t say anything before heading off?’ The garda stuck a finger in his mouth to free up some food wedged between his teeth.
‘Nor seem in any way out of sorts?’
‘And there were no arguments or–?’
‘Nothing,’ Pam insisted.
‘Well,’ the garda said, ‘I’ll tell the lads to keep an eye out. Let’s just stay calm for now. If he doesn’t show up by morning we’ll call a search team in.’
Just then, as news of a missing boy spread around the campsite, a young man came running, saying a dog had been found in a patch of woodland half a mile away, tied to a tree.
Did Alex have any enemies?, the guards asked as the search intensified. Were the family sure nothing suspicious had happened, that he hadn’t done or said anything to suggest worries?
No, they all agreed, recalling how the previous few days he’d been larking about on the beach, and saying that he didn’t mind the thought of going back to school now that the Junior Cert was over and he’d nine months of dossing in Transition Year. He’d even talked of his plans for the future, saying he might like to do something creative with his hands, like set design or carpentry.
‘He was as positive as he’d been for a long time,’ Pam concluded.
‘And was he hanging out with anyone besides yourselves?’
The only person Pam could think of was Clionagh.
‘I saw them together a couple of times,’ she said, recalling the skinny girl with her cigarettes and inscrutable expression. ‘I don’t know if they were just friends or . . .’
‘You think it’s normal for friends to spend, like, half their time snogging?’ Ciara said with a roll of her eyes.
Pam mentioned what Alex had said about Clionagh’s father being possessive, and that when they were hanging round together they tried to keep out of his sight.
‘It might be nothing,’ she said, but trapped in a vacuum of ignorance, it seemed worth passing on.
The guards said they’d investigate. They also explained that recently a few figures known on the local ‘homosexual scene’ had been spotted loitering nearby. Had Alex ever shown even the slightest inclination? Affronted, Joe assured them his son definitely didn’t lean that way. In any case, he was a sensible boy, not the kind to wander off with some stranger. If there was anyone else involved, he insisted, Alex must have been tricked, or coerced, or somehow led astray.
Pam left the back door open as she prepared dinner. As the chops sizzled in the pan, Gogo lolloped in. He was fifteen now, the same age Alex had been back then, arthritic and lethargic, though cooked food still had the ability to rouse him. He stopped at Pam’s side, his black snout sniffing the air.
‘No, Gogo, your dinner’s outside.’
He might not have understood the words, but he grasped the tone, and with drooping head slouched back towards the rear garden.
It wasn’t much of a life for him now, Pam thought. He was fed and brought to the vets when sick, and had a warm kennel to sleep in. But it was really for the kids they’d got him, and they were all gone. Ciara, not long out of school and temping in an insurance firm, had met a young German and six months later emigrated with him to Freiburg. They’d been there nearly five years, had a baby son, and Pam, who’d anticipated a disaster, was glad to admit she’d been wrong, and to see her daughter happy. Joseph was in the middle of a business degree at DIT and shared a house with three other lads his own age, his weekends seeming to be a merry-go-round of beer and football and parties. Ciara flew home once or twice a year, Joseph dropped by not much more often, though he phoned regularly. Both, in the end, had found their means of escape, and Pam didn’t blame them for it.
Back in the day, all three of the kids would play with Gogo on the green across the way, slinging a stick or slobbered-on tennis ball for him to chase, and would club together to get him a present at Christmas.
Even after Alex went missing, Ciara and Joseph seemed to find comfort in the fact that Gogo was the last family member to have been with him, and so provided a living link.
But for Pam it was different. She still remembered the dog’s hysterical, witless barking at that tree. When they untethered him, they hoped he’d lead them to where Alex was, or at least to some spot where clues would be waiting. But he’d simply bounded round in a demented circle, exclaiming his grief in a language foreign to everybody.
The fact he must have witnessed what had happened and couldn’t tell them, the fact that if he hadn’t existed Alex would never have walked that route that evening, were things Pam couldn’t forget, and struggled to forgive.
Occasionally, in the past, when no one was home, she’d beg him to give her some sign about what had happened. They’d even brought a dog whisperer in to try and coax the secret. Nothing. Once, after too much gin, she’d kicked Gogo’s flank, then been plagued with guilt when for the next week he’d carried a limp. She’d abandoned the booze soon after that, and since then they’d co-existed in a dull, loveless peace.
Now she wondered, if Alex ever came home, whether Gogo would recognise him?
The only significant sighting emerged a couple of days into the search. Two boys, no more than six or seven years old and with no good reason to lie, claimed they’d seen someone matching Alex’s appearance walking towards the woodland where Gogo was later found on the night of the disappearance. They said he’d been with a dark-haired man, but as they only glimpsed the pair from behind, and from a distance, they could give no clearer description. Nor could they recall for sure if there’d been a dog present.
In the end, the guards weren’t sure the person they’d seen had been Alex at all, and the sighting led nowhere.
Nor did the link to Clionagh’s father yield anything. He insisted he’d been in the caravan with his daughter all evening, and she backed him up. What’s more, he was a tubby, rough-looking sort with just a strip of grey hair horseshoeing his head, while the man the boys said they’d seen with Alex was young and slim. For months afterwards Pam couldn’t shake the feeling that Clionagh’s father must have had something to do with it – especially when it turned out he had a previous conviction for assault – but when, after questioning, the guards found no grounds for suspicion, she had to accept it was just that: a hunch lacking anything concrete.
Two weeks after the disappearance, the family returned to the house in Donaghmede. School was starting, and though the very phrase seemed obscene, they’d been urged to get back to some kind of normality, for the sake of the children at least.
When they left Gory, the detective in charge of the case promised the search for Alex would continue, and that he and his team wouldn’t rest till they found him.
The first postcard arrived in October of that year. Buckingham Palace, changing of the guard. The most generic scene imaginable. HI GUYS, it said. SORRY ABOUT RUNNING OFF. IN LONDON NOW. MISSING YOU ALL. PLEASE DONT WORRY ABOUT ME. LOVE, ALEX.
The words were all jagged capital letters, as if designed to thwart any analysis of the handwriting.
They handed it to the guards, who promised to pass on the information to their British counterparts, but warned the family not to get their hopes up:
‘The case has been in the papers. A lot of people know about it. We can’t rule out that someone–’
‘That someone what?’ Pam said. ‘Wants to torment us with this?’
‘Wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen something like it, I’m afraid.’
Pam knew they were probably right – there were cranks and perverts all over the place. But at the same time, there was reason enough to take it seriously. Why had they been unable to find Alex’s passport when they returned to Dublin? And what about the money he’d earned at the supermarket that summer? He couldn’t have frittered it all away on fast food and computer games. Suppose he’d hitched a lift to Dublin, slipped onto a night ferry and arrived in the UK before his name even got into the system? There he could have got hold of a new identity. Been taken under the wing of some shady sugar daddy. Such cases were by no means uncommon, Pam read on the internet. Thousands of people vanished without trace every year. The police overlooked the most blatant evidence. CCTV got wiped. Key clues were dismissed as irrelevant.
To the police this was just another case. But Alex was her son. And something in her gut told her he was out there, alive, and they couldn’t just give up on him.
The postcards continued at a rate of about one a year. At first major European capitals: London, Rome, Berlin, Madrid. Then, in 2008, San Francisco. After that the destinations grew more obscure: Vilnius, Lima. As if someone were playing hide-and-seek, deliberately trying to disorientate them.
Was it really possible, Pam would ask herself, that some sick prankster could maintain this stunt over all the years? Wouldn’t they grow weary after a while and nab some other victim? It’s not as if they got a response to their efforts. And who knew the address of the family? No one beyond the authorities, their employers and a few friends and relatives. If not Alex, were they to assume someone in their own circle was behind this? Who that they knew spent their life country- and continent-hopping? No one.
But if it was her boy, why would he do this to them? Why not a phone call, just once? A photo as proof? A single, merciful visit?
The last time a card came, Joe had been the one to find it on the hall floor. He’d told Pam when she got in from work that evening.
‘Where is it?’ she asked him. ‘What did you do with it?’
‘Put it in the bin.’
‘Because it was the same crap as usual. Why torture ourselves over it?’
She’d hollered at him that he had no right to do that, and rummaged through rotting potato peel and slops of sour cream till she reassembled the half dozen scraps. The card was from Istanbul. The Blue Mosque. On the rear, like Joe said, the same empty, jovial reassurances that he was fine and would return home when ready.
Weeping, she’d slumped onto a chair with the stinking scraps of card in her lap.
‘I’m sorry,’ Joe said, putting an arm around her. ‘But we can’t go on like this. I can’t go on like this. This has to stop. I’ve had it up to here.’
At half-past seven she heard the front door open. Darkness was oozing into the sky, though the September evening was still still warm and tranquil, and she’d left the back door ajar to release the odours and steam. Gogo, lounging listlessly in the garden next to his half-eaten dinner, clambered to his feet. He entered the kitchen, accepted a pat on the head from Joe, then sniffed the floor for scraps Pam might have dropped while cooking.
Joe kissed Pam on the lips. His spiky silver hair, recently trimmed, still grew thickly. He was fifty-seven, three years older than Pam, but she often thought he’d weathered the loss better than she had, with her lightless eyes and the mouth that just hung on her face, mirthless and limp. After a recent shower she’d noticed the hair at the front of her scalp was thinning.
‘How was your day?’ she asked.
‘Busy, as usual.’ The tone matter-of-fact, not complaining. ‘And yours?’
‘Much the same. Are you hungry?’
‘Starving. What’s on the menu?’
She showed him the golden-brown chops on the pan.
‘Oh, aren’t I the lucky man?’ He kissed her forehead. ‘Just what the doctor ordered.’
Over dinner they talked about their day. On his rounds near Coolock, while investigating some dodgy broadband cables, Joe had witnessed the nasty aftermath of a car accident. Driver suffered a heart attack, he’d heard someone say. Pam, in turn, told about the woman – Ukrainian or something – who’d spent almost an hour in the shop, tried on about a dozen pairs of shoes before swanning off without a purchase or a word of thanks. About such incidents she’d learned to laugh.
From time to time as they talked she thought about the postcard, and whether she should say something. All down the years, they’d sworn they’d be open with each other about everything and never let their trust, their marriage become another casualty of what had happened.
But she knew what Joe’s attitude would be. ‘Time to draw a line,’ he’d insisted after the Istanbul card. Every lead had dried up. The last they’d heard from the guards was back in 2011, when a man’s leg washed up on a Wexford beach. More agony over nothing. They’d suffered long enough, Joe said that time, and there was no point waiting for a knock on the door or a phone call that would probably never come, and even less point pinning their hopes on vile postcards. The children were grown and gone. They had to think of themselves now, salvage what they could from life.
They had to move on.
Pam, accepting the wisdom of these words, and the resignation behind them, had agreed.
But this evening, when Joe sat in front of the football on TV, sipping a beer or tea, she knew she’d sneak upstairs and snatch another look at that strange and glittering cityscape. She’d take the card from her satin slip and cradle it, thinking that maybe, just maybe, her son’s hands had touched it. If Joe had lost faith, so be it. She couldn’t force him to believe in what was, at best, a remote possibility. But nor could she follow him down that path. After all, whatever their origins, those cards were the one connecting thread that had persisted through all these years. If they were from Alex, it meant he hadn’t forgotten them, and everything could be forgiven. And if not? No matter. There was still a chink of doubt through which hope could creep – the one thing she asked for putting up with such cruelty.
So she said nothing, and in that silence experienced a strange new pleasure, as if she and the card’s sender, whoever he was, were now bound by a guilty, intimate secret.