Jan Speechley goes to sleep each night looking at a hand-drawn picture of her husband Ray’s face. In the morning it’s the first thing she sees.
She eyes up Ray’s likeness with frustration sometimes; other days she has only tenderness for him. Always - for more than a year now - she asks him the same question: “where are you?”.
Mrs Speechley was 16 years old when her path crossed Ray’s at TAFE’s West Wollongong campus, where she was studying to become a stenographer and he, a boilermaker.
At 18 they went to the same dance, before she let him walk her home to her Narooma door. They were married at age 19 and spent 57 years, nine months and 10 days together, until the day Ray scaled two fences to get clear of a South Coast nursing home, made it to the Princes Highway, and vanished.
Now Mrs Speechley, 78, must live without Ray. She has collapsed a few times from the stress of his disappearance. Recently she sold the South Coast home they had shared, with its views of the ocean, and moved to a more modest house in Albion Park so she could be close to her Illawarra-based son and grandchildren.
Once the fog of her early shock lifted, it all seemed so avoidable. Ray had changed with Alzheimer’s, but she had only placed him in the home – an IRT facility – for temporary respite. She had visited him about an hour before he disappeared.
Despite the above-and-beyond effort of individual local officers, she questions why the NSW Police Dog Unit wasn’t brought in, in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s vanishing. She says it was a month before two police dogs – one of them a cadaver dog - searched the bush near where Ray was last seen.
“They did have SES and some firefighters searching (initially), but it was nothing of the scale that at it was a month later. Why wasn’t it done sooner?" Mrs Speechley said.
“For us as a family, it was wrong. Those first days are crucial, and that’s what we lost.”
In a short statement, a NSW Police spokeswoman cited “operational reasons” as cause for delaying the dog unit.
"There were a number of operational reasons the Dog Unit was not called at the earlier time during this investigation and NSW Police Force and other relevant parties have spoken to the family of Mr Speechley directly about these reasons,” the spokeswoman said.
“The matter is now before the Coroner and NSW Police Force will not be commenting further on the incident."
Alerted to her husband’s abscondment, Mrs Speechley was returning to the nursing home when she saw a red car parked in a strange position beside the highway. Something about it caught her eye, but there was nowhere to turn around. By the time she came back to it, the driver was pulling away with someone in the passenger seat. Could it have been Ray? The question plays on repeat.
“I beat myself up every day for not getting the number plate,” Mrs Speechley said.
The Speechleys have turned to the new not-for-profit Sydney Search Dogs to carry out further searches of the area. Mrs Speechley wonders if her husband could have gone into one of the area mines.
She knows in her heart that Ray is not alive. If he were, he would have made it back to her by now.
At night she hears him calling to her. She cannot sleep sometimes because of it. She remembers their teenage courtship – the dance, and how he walked two kilometres out of his way to take her home that night, with her brother chaperoning. How they traveled the world and made a family together.
“He was gorgeous, he was gentle, he was lovable. He was funny. He was just lovely to look at,” Mrs Speechley said.
“Even to the end, he had a special way of looking at you, with a mischievous look on his face. He was just so special, to me anyway.”
“For it to end the way it did is heartbreaking. I just want to bring him home now, and put him to rest.”
An artist drew Ray’s picture as part of a campaign by the Missing Persons Advocacy Network – Unmissables – which aims to help jog the memories of the public and reignite interest in the missing.
Mrs Speechley keeps the picture close. Ray looks out from the frame, still a hint of mischief behind his eyes. He’s there for the sleepless nights and to ask until an answer comes: “where are you?”.