Lost Souls

leave of Absence

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Leave of Absence

by Anthony Ferguson

Robert is taking the family on holiday. Marching them rote style he piles them into the car on the allocated morning, wife, boy, girl and luggage, in reverse order. It seems cruel but Robert knows that it is the only way to get them moving. Lord knows they would never achieve anything without him prodding them along. They probably wouldn't even get out the front door, period. Not just to go on holiday.

Heading out on the open road, Robert is relieved to leave the clamour of the office and city life behind. He can practically feel the layers of stress peeling off the further away they get.

Beside him, Anne, his wife of fifteen years, sits faithfully, emitting a half smile. No holiday for her this, not with the children along. Motherhood is a full time unpaid career. Sometimes more like a sentence. She looks across at her husband. She'll play along with this for him. He needs this break, more than any of them.

Five minutes into the journey and the children are restless. Carla, five years old and impetuous, wants an ice cream. Tommy, aged ten and filled with the impatient spirit of adventure, joins in the mantra. Not just any ice cream, it has to be Maccas. "Wanna ice cream", the boy mocks his sister's baby voice. "Wanna ice cream, Daddy." They concur in unison.

A bead of sweat runs down Daddy's face, he thinks absurdly of an episode of the Simpsons, Bart and Lisa berating Homer from the back seat of the family vehicle. "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" The wife smiles across at him, offering tacit support.

"No ice cream. You just had breakfast."

"We only just left the house", she adds. Marital harmony restored.

That wasn't the case earlier in the week, when she confronted him about that business trip with his secretary. "Explain to me again, exactly why she had to go with you." She had asked repeatedly. What right had she to distrust him, her provider of fifteen years? What did he do to deserve such a lack of faith?

Suddenly, the horizon fills with the figure of a man in a suit, waving them down. A stationary vehicle sits to the side of the road behind him, populated by a wife and two children, not unlike his own. The occupants eye Robert with a look of desperate hope.

The man encloses on him with a wave and a smile. "Hey buddy. Thanks for stopping. Having a bit of technical trouble with the car. You couldn't take me to the next town, could you?"

Robert takes a perfunctory glance at his watch. The man's eyes follow him down to his wrist and back up to eye level, causing a slight twinge of guilt. He motions with an arm toward his own vehicle, filled to the brim with family and possessions. Reassured, he composes a response.

"I'm sorry sir, but as you can see, we're pretty much full up." The man looks downcast. Robert searches desperately for another solution to the problem. As if by magic, he pulls a mobile phone from his pocket. "Why don't you ring the town up ahead, or the town back there, and ask for help?"

The man, who Robert notices is around his age, stares dumbly at the phone tendered before him. "What sort of help, chum?"

"I don't know... mechanical... assistance?" Robert responds, a little taken aback.

The man ponders this suggestion for a moment. "Who would I call, pal?"

"Well, I don't know." Robert admits with a defeated shrug.

The two stand facing one another in the middle of the road. Neither speaks for a couple of minutes. Anne leans out of the passenger door. "Is everything alright, Robert?" He waves her away abruptly. Tommy begins to drum on the rear window in a rhythmic pattern. Carla picks up the beat on the one opposite.

"Sorry." Robert says to the man, folding the phone away and secreting it back in his pocket, returns to the vehicle. They all watch the stranger, still smiling, as they pull away, receding in the rear view mirror. Robert raises his voice, telling the children to stop their damn drumming.

"Directory assistance." Anne breaks the silence.


"You could have let him ring directory assistance." She repeats.

"Now you tell me." He snaps angrily.

"Honey," she says softly, perhaps with a hint of condescension, "remember your temper. Did you bring your pills?"

"Yes." He replies shortly. Not wishing to be reminded of his weakness. "In the glove box."

"Good." She says firmly. He glances askance at her, sitting with hands folded in her lap. Doesn't trust me, he thinks. Every boss takes his personal assistant to the seminar. Couldn't do all that work alone. What does she think I am? It's not like I'd even have time to...

The thought is interrupted by the vision of a man standing in the middle of the road ahead, signaling frantically. Robert pulls over, steps out of the car as the man approaches, smiling gratefully.

"Thanks for stopping, chum. Having a few technical problems with the car." At this, Robert glances across, knowing already that he will see the wife and two children sitting patiently inside.

"You look familiar." Robert interrupts the spiel. "Have we met?"

The man looks at him strangely. "No, I don't think so, pal. Anyway,"

Without hesitation, Robert produces his mobile. "Call directory assistance." He says firmly.

The man looks almost disappointed, but takes the phone Robert proffers. He prepares himself to dial, pauses, his finger hovering above the button uncertainly. Robert thinks of an American President wavering over the launch missile button in a half-forgotten Cold War movie.

"What's the number?" The man finally asks.

Robert opens his mouth to reply confidently. Then hesitates, racking his mind. "I don't know." He admits, resignedly.

"Sorry then." The man says.

"Sorry", says Robert, retrieving the phone. He walks slowly back to his vehicle.

Further down the highway, Robert tries to entice the children into a camping song. They aren't having it. Fingers drumming on the windows. "Wanna ice cream", Carla grizzles. Robert glares at Anne. You could at least try to help, he says with his eyes.

"Stop that bloody noise." He shouts at the children. Tommy reddens. Carla starts to sob. "Honey." Anne admonishes, reaching for the glove box.

"Don't!" He demands. "I'm fine." She looks accusingly at him and retrieves a box of tissues from the compartment. Leans back and wipes the child's eyes and runny nose, comforts her.

Robert stares at the road ahead, leans on the pedal a little more. Makes it the focus of his anger. Eyes widen as a mirage like image gradually comes into focus. A man in a suit beckons them to stop. Puzzled, Robert pulls over. Steps out before the man can reach them. "Thank God you came along, friend."

"Having some technical problems with the car." Robert finishes the sentence for him.

The man flinches, a look of confusion momentarily crosses his face. Then the smile returns. "Yes. Don't suppose you could give me a ride to the next town?"

Robert looks aghast, sweeps his arm at the family and belongings. Surely he should know. "Oh." The stranger acknowledges. "Got a full load. Okay then buddy."

A thought occurs to Robert. "Why don't you pop the hood? Let me see if I can have a look for you."

"Oh no." The man says hesitantly. "That won't be necessary. I wouldn't trouble you."

"It's no trouble." Robert insists.

The man steps between Robert and the car now. "Really, it's okay. You wouldn't... It's not mechanical. I think it's a computer thing."

"A computer thing?" Robert repeats sceptically.

"Yes, a computer thing." The man says insistently.

"Okay then." Robert reluctantly agrees, withdrawing.

"Thanks anyway", the man smiles, waving them off.

As the solitary vehicle and its occupants recede into the distance, Robert turns to Anne, looking for collusion. "Did you see that?"

"Yes of course I saw it Robert. Poor man. Those poor children."

"Poor man?" Robert splutters incredulously.

"Yes, poor man." She repeats, looking at him with a hint of disdain.

Doesn't trust her own husband, he broods. As if I would. Twelve hours a day I put in. Like a drum beat in his head it goes on.

"Tommy, stop it." He screams.

The boy withdraws his hand from the window, hunkers back on the seat, sulking. Carla sits quietly now, consoled with a sweet from Mummy's purse.

Inevitably, the road ahead is populated by a familiar profile. Robert slams the car to a halt, throws the door open and hurls the mobile phone into the man's chest before he can speak. The stranger's smile flickers for an instant, then returns. He looks down at the phone, glinting in the afternoon sun on the tarmac, then back at Robert as the car disappears rapidly over the horizon.

The children are both crying now. Robert stamps his foot down on the accelerator. He won't even look at Anne, but she glowers at him. "Robert really!"

"Don't!" He shouts.

Too late, she reaches into the glove box, retrieves the pills. Proffers one with some bottled water. "Come on. You know you have to." She entreats him like a child.

He snatches them from her hand. After everything he's done for her and those kids, he thinks. Swallowing the pill and water. Christ, all those clothes.

"What the Hell?" He stammers aloud, slamming on the brakes. The car shudders momentarily, as if threatening to flip. The children scream. "Robert for God's sake!" Anne cries.

Ignoring her, Robert flings the door open and runs up to the smiling man. "Look mister, what the Hell do you want from me?"

The man is taken aback, but the smile returns instantly. "Having a spot of technical trouble, pal. Can you give me a hand?"

"Listen you." Robert prods a finger to the man's chest. "What on earth are you playing at? Why are you doing this to me?"

The man looks hurt. "There's no need to be like that, sir. I'm just looking for a Samaritan, to help me and my family." He sweeps an arm behind him.

Robert takes in their pleading faces, the wife and two children, then looks desperately off into the surrounding desert. "How are you doing it? Going off road and overtaking me?"

The stranger maintains his air of calm, which only serves to inflame Robert. "Look, buddy, I only need a ride to the next town."

Robert tears at his hair. "I've told you and told you. I'm not taking you to the next bloody town. There's no room."

The man looks helplessly at Robert's full car, confirming the veracity of the statement. Robert closes in on him. "Listen son, I don't know what your game is, but my family and I are trying to go on holiday."

The man raises his hands and backs away slightly. "Whoah! Easy there, fellah." The passenger door of the stranger's car opens, and his wife steps out. She approaches the men. Robert thinks, My God, she looks just like...

"Hey mister." She cuts him off. "Don't you point your finger at my husband. He's a good man, a damn fine man and a good provider."

Robert is bewildered. She continues the sudden tirade. "Fifteen years he's given me. Fifteen years of joy."

"What did you say?" Robert's eyes widen in terror. "Fifteen years?" He answers for her. Then, backing slowly away, not taking his eyes off them, he returns to the car, scrambles inside and screams away over the horizon.

Foot pressed to the metal, Robert softly bangs his head against the wheel. The children are too terrified to even cry now. Anne tries to console, proffering a pill and bottled water. "Honey, come on, take your pill."

"Fifteen years I've given you." He says softly into the steering wheel.

"Please Robert. Do it for me, for us." She continues.

"And you accuse me and her." He says bitterly.

"I think we'd all feel a lot better if you took your medicine." She says, deliberately ignoring him now.

With a sideward swipe he knocks the pill and bottle of water flying from her grasp. "A man is not an island." He roars.

Now Anne starts to weep quietly, her head on her chest.

"Christ almighty!" It's not my fault, he reasons. Fifteen years, two kids, and she closes up like a clam. Is it any wonder I had to look elsewhere? A man has needs for heaven's sake.

He looks up, just in time to see the familiar face looming up ahead, the arm flagging him down, the resolute smile. Well not this time, pal, Robert thinks, planting his foot firmly. Anne screams. The children wail. "Not in my house!" Robert bellows as he cannons into the be-suited body, sending it flying over the bonnet and roof of the vehicle.

Careering into the distance, Robert looks back in the rear view mirror to make sure. Sports a wild grin at the battered frame lying in the middle of the road. The woman flies from the stationary vehicle and sprints to its side.

Sobbing audibly, Robert guns the car along the road. Anne spits wildly at him. "Robert, stop the car. You're going to kill us all."

He ignores her. "We are going on vacation." He states firmly, the voice wavering just a little. The tension is broken by a horrible cracking sound from the engine, and inexorably, the car shudders, lurches, and comes slowly to a halt. Robert motions it to the verge with the last vestiges of his strength. Looks around him desperately at their blank, hateful faces.

"I just want to go on holiday." He sobs forlornly. Beaten down at last. They sit there resignedly, not speaking in the fading light.


Gary is taking the family on holiday. His wife sits politely alongside, two children in the back. It was an effort to get them organised, but he's really looking forward to the break. Winds down the window, enjoying the feel of the wind in his hair. The car hurtles along the open highway. Then up ahead, a figure steps into the road. Gary slows the vehicle to a halt in front of the man in the suit who waves them down.

Copyright Anthony Ferguson 2006

Anthony Ferguson is a public servant whose work has previously appeared in Suspect Thoughts, Camp Horror, and Lost Souls. He holds a BA and a Masters degree in Literature and Australian History.

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