Ruby & Barnaby
by Mathilde Tobin
Cars speed down the barren highway, overtaking the dwindling bus when they get the chance, none of them stop. They are all going somewhere else.
The bus slows and comes to a stop at a heavily graffitied plastic bus shelter; another car drives past, and the driver mutters something under his breath about going the speed limit.
He turns in his seat to look at the young girl sitting in the seat closest to him. She can’t be more than seven, dressed in overalls and a tattered woollen jumper; her small, grubby pink suitcase sits in the seat next to her. She’s chewing on the ear of a toy rabbit who looks as if it has seen better days.
She spots the driver looking at her and her eyes light up.
“Is this my stop?” she asks, the rabbit’s ear still in her mouth.
The driver sighs, an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.
“This is the stop your mum told me to drop you off at.”
The girl peers out the window at the deserted stop.
“I can’t see my grandma. Mum said she’d be here to pick me up.”
“I know, kid, I… ” the driver hesitates and gulps, glancing at the other people on the bus, most of whom are asleep or have earphones in. “I can keep going if you want, you can stay with me, and we can try and find your grandma later.”
The girl shakes her head and slides off the seat, slipping her bare feet into a pair of faded red gumboots.
“No, my grandma will be here soon,” she says confidently, tucking the rabbit under her arm. “My mum wouldn’t lie.”
The driver looks like he doubts this, but at the same time he doesn’t want to end up in an accidental kidnapping scandal.
“Okay, well, I drive back here in a couple of hours. I’ll pick you up then if you’re still here, sound good?”
The girl smiles.
“Thanks, but my grandma will be here by then.”
The driver opens the door and the girl jumps down the stairs, her suitcase clattering down behind her.
“Be careful kid,” the driver says.
The girl smiles, sticking the rabbit’s ear back in her mouth.
She waves as the doors shut and the bus drives off, becoming a speck on the dusty highway.
The girl looks up and down the road before clambering up on to the seat in the shelter, the grubby suitcase lying in the dirt at her feet.
She takes the rabbit out of her mouth, and sits him up next to her.
“You count red cars, Barnaby, and I’ll count blue cars,” she instructs him, swinging her feet back and forth. “What do you think Grandma will be like?” she asks Barnaby. “Do you think she’ll knit us jumpers? I need a new one, and you could do with a new one too, Barnaby, you must get cold sometimes — there’s a red one! You just missed it!”
She swings her legs and chats animatedly to the rabbit and cars drive past and her grandma still doesn’t come.
The sky soon becomes strewn with soft pinks and purples, and the girl slips off the shelter seat.
“Come on, Barnaby,” she says, picking him and putting an ear in her mouth, “Mum must’ve forgotten to tell Grandma.” She picks up the suitcase and begins to walk. “I’m sure her house is along here somewhere. She can’t live far.”
The child walks along the highway, her suitcase trundling behind her.
“Isn’t the sky pretty, Barnaby? I wonder how it makes all those wonderful colours?”
The pinks and purples change to dark blues and purples, spreading across the sky like a bruise.
“We’ll get there soon, Barnaby,” she tells him firmly. “Grandma can’t live that much further. And when we get there, I’m sure she’ll make us a nice warm meal… maybe soup… or lasagna…” Her voice trails off as her mind wanders to food. It’s been hours since she last ate.
“It… it can’t be much further,” and there’s tiredness in her voice now.
The darkness slowly stretches across, reaching all corners of the child’s world.
“C’mon, Barnaby,” she mutters, “we can do it… Grandma will be so happy to see us… I’m sure we’ll be there soon. Grandma will probably feel so bad she forgot to pick me up that she’ll let me eat all the chocolate and lollies I want.” She’s just finishing up this thought when a car (blue, she notes, one point to her!) slows down and pulls up next to her.
The girl doesn’t pay it much attention, and continues to walk on.
“Excuse me!” a woman calls out, getting out of the car and jogging after the girl. “Excuse me!”
The child stops and turns, a determined look on her face.
“Hi,” the woman says, approaching her, “are you walking out here all by yourself?”
The girl frowns, thinking hard about her reply. “I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” she finally replies.
“Well, then… let’s, let’s be friends,” the woman suggests, “my name’s Julia.”
The girl doesn’t look completely convinced, but smiles anyway.
“I’m Ruby, and this—” she removes Barnaby’s ear from her mouth “—is Barnaby.”
“It’s lovely to meet you both,” Julia says gently. “Where are the two of you going?”
“To my grandma’s,” Ruby replies, “she forgot to pick us up from the bus stop.”
“Okay,” Julia nods, thinking over what to do, “where does your Grandma live? Maybe I can drop you off?”
“Oh, no, it’s okay,” Ruby shakes her head, “we’re almost there.”
“I don’t mind, really, where does she live?”
“Um…” Ruby puts Barnaby’s ear back in her mouth, chewing on it intently. “I’m… I’m not sure,” she finally admits, “I know she must live somewhere that way.” She motions vaguely in the direction she’d been walking.
Julia looks at the child, unsure what to do.
“How about I take you to the police?” she eventually suggests. “And then they can find your grandma.”
Ruby shakes her head fiercely.
“No, I’ll just keep walking,” she says firmly.
“The police aren’t scary,” Julia says quickly, realising she’s made a mistake, “they’ll know exactly where to find your grandma, I promise.”
Ruby looks at her suspiciously, chewing slowly on Barnaby’s ear.
Julia smiles, relieved.
“Okay then,” Ruby grins, “let’s go.”
Ruby hops into the passenger seat of the car, and Julia puts the suitcase in the back seat, before getting into the driver’s seat.
“There’s a bottle of water in the glovebox, if you’re thirsty,” she says as she starts the car up and begins to drive.
Ruby doesn’t take the time to reply, opening the glovebox eagerly and gulping down the water.
“I drank all my water on the bus,” she explains, once she stops drinking.
“So why were you visiting your grandma?” Julia asks, trying not to sound as curious as she feels.
Ruby looks out the window, her fingers fiddling with Barnaby’s ears.
“My mum didn’t have enough money, so she said I could go stay with my grandma until she got enough.” Her voice is quiet, and Julia wishes she’d hugged the child before she started driving, she sounds like she needs it. “But she’s coming back for me,” Ruby says defensively, turning to Julia, “once she’s got enough money, she’s gonna come get me and we’re gonna go out for ice cream and get a double scoop in a waffle cone. She promised me.”
“What flavours are you gonna get?” Julia asks.
“Cookies and cream, and chocolate,” Ruby tells her with a grin.
The police station of the nearest town looks almost deserted when Julia pulls up. There is one car parked out the front and one dim light on indoors.
Holding Ruby’s hand, Julia leads her up to the station; she hesitates at the door, not knowing the protocol. Does she knock or just go in? She settles with just entering.
The place appears to be empty except for one man sitting at the front desk, reading by his lamp; he hasn’t noticed them enter.
Julia clears her throat. “Excuse me?”
The man jumps slightly, looking up, surprised.
“I— Sorry, we don’t usually have people come by at night,” he says, putting his book down and standing up, “what seems to be the problem?”
“This is Ruby,” Julia says, “I found her wandering along the highway. She says she was walking to her grandma’s house, but she doesn’t know where her grandma lives.”
“Right…” the officer murmurs, “well that is a problem… and did you ask about her parents? I’m Sergeant Jacobs by the way.”
“Julia Matthews. Ruby told me that her mother didn’t have enough money so she put her on a bus to go stay with her grandmother until she got back on her feet, and she didn’t mention a father.”
“I don’t have a father!” Ruby pipes up, chewing on Barnaby’s ear.
“That’s okay,” Jacobs says, “not everybody does, do you mind telling me your mother’s name?”
“Georgia,” Ruby replies promptly.
“And her last name?”
Ruby looks up at Julia, unsure.
“Um, I don’t know.”
“What about your last name?” he asks.
Ruby shakes her head.
“What about your grandmother’s name?”
She shakes her head again, chewing on Barnaby’s ear.
Jacobs sighs, exchanging a look of hopelessness with Julia.
“Well, don’t worry” he says to Ruby, “I’ll call in some people and we’ll find your mum and your grandma.”
Within half an hour, Jacobs has called in five other officers; Ruby is sitting in a chair in the main room, Barnaby propped up in the seat next to her. She listens as they walk back and forth, occasionally glancing at her. She catches the phrase “no missing person’s report” and she can tell that they’re doubting the existence of her grandmother.
Julia comes over and sits next to her; she looks tired.
“Don’t worry,” she says to Ruby, “I’m sure they’ll find someone soon.”
Ruby doesn’t respond, looking up at Julia for a moment before looking away, and placing Barnaby’s ear in her mouth.
Julia sighs, placing her head in her hands; she’s tired, she was supposed to be home in her bed by now.
“I’m just going to the bathroom,” she says to Ruby, who ignores her, “I’ll be back.”
Ruby watches her walk away, and looks around at all the police officers, none of whom are paying her any attention. They’d quizzed her earlier, on names and bus times, on what her mother looked like, and when she couldn’t give them any solid answers, they’d given her a packet of chips and told her to wait in the chair.
“C’mon Barnaby” she murmurs, slipping unnoticed through the room of busy adults and out the door.
It takes them five minutes to notice she’s gone; as soon as they do they’re outside with torches, scouring the area and calling her name.
It’s early next morning, as the darkness is slowly being replaced by the young light of dawn, when they finally find something: Barnaby, with an ear missing.