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The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard - facing up to a family's tragedy

The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard - facing up to a family's tragedy

A young boy with thick dark hair, in swimming trunks and clutching his knees to his chest, is perched on a rock, staring speculatively out to sea. He looks cold, like many generations of children on English beaches. His name is Nicholas and, as his brother Richard tells us, he has just an hour or so left to live. Soon after his grandfather took this picture, the two boys went swimming from a nearby cove. The water was choppy. An undertow caught them. Richard, at 11 the stronger swimmer, scrabbled for a toehold in the sand and made it back to the beach. Nine-year-old Nicholas drowned. This haunting photograph is the jacket of The Day that Went Missing, a book that Beard calls his "inquest" into his brother's death. The author is now in his early 50s; for almost 40 years, he squeezed the memory of the event so tightly that he crushed it "out of existence". He did not even know the date on which Nicholas died. The accident took place in Cornwall. Every summer, the Beards took their four sons for a family holiday at the seaside. In 1978, they rented a remote farmhouse on a cliff top. The beaches below were ideal for energetic boys who tumbled about "like apes", played cricket on the sand and ran in and out of the water all day long. Mr and Mrs Beard and one of the grandmothers sat on a rug by the rocks, with a picnic in a wicker basket and the buckets and spades. Some families mourn by talking, marking every anniversary. The Beards chose silence. After a week of formal grief - no radio, no sports, no distractions - they returned to the same house in Cornwall to finish their holidays. Beard's father would never have a conversation about his son's death with his wife again. In early September, the two older boys - Tim, 13, and Richard - returned to boarding school. Jem, just six, stayed at home. Richard told no one that he had been in the sea with his brother and seen him drown. In fact, he told no one anything, encouraged in his profound desire to forget by an equal determination on the part of the school to say nothing. "Normal", in the British prep schools of the late 1970s, meant stiff upper lip, getting on with life. The guilt Beard felt at not having saved his brother, yet saved himself, was buried, along with the anguish and the sense of loss. There were no shared memories, no talk of Nicholas. Only when Beard felt that his own life was floundering did he decide to breach his "locked state of denial". He wanted not just to look for his dead brother but to achieve some emotional awakening of his own by "a reanimation of the shock of the day". As a novelist, he had inched gingerly towards Nicholas's death, introducing the drowning of younger brothers into two books, but in so doing had effectively done little more than place obstacles between himself and the past. Now, he set about his task in the manner of a forensic scientist. This is the book Beard always wanted to write, though it took nine others to get here His mother, it turned out, was more than willing to talk. Her memory of Nicholas was of an unusual boy, good at neither games nor lessons, who might equally have become "a banker or a murderer". The picture that emerged from the school reports, newspaper cuttings, diaries, photographs and letters - along with baby shoes and name tapes - which Beard found in her attic told a different story. At nine, Nicholas was already a good all-round sportsman, an excellent student who came consistently top of his class in many subjects, an inventive and creative boy who was highly competitive and hated to lose. Beard talked to the lifeguard in Cornwall who rescued the body, to the new owners of the holiday house, to local people, to friends, to his brothers. He unearthed an autopsy, visited the graveyard in Wiltshire, followed, in his mind's eye, the sequence of horror, disbelief, pain. The boys did not attend the funeral, so Beard had not been present when his mother fainted. As much as an account of a death, this is a portrait of a family. As the camera pulls back, we learn that the father had serious cancer of the neck, that they lived in Swindon, that there was enough money for expensive cars, and that one grandfather had been a keen amateur photographer, leaving many hundreds of pictures of Nicholas and his brothers. The result of this foraging is a touching, painful disquisition on memory and forgetting and the tendrils that tie us to the past. It is also a sad indictment of the private school culture still prevalent in the late 70s, which believed that only by squashing emotion could true character be formed. Forced to neither talk nor cry, Beard obediently convinced himself to repress. The Day That Went Missing was the book Beard always wanted to write, though it took nine others to get there, and it is a memorable addition to the growing collection of memoirs on loss and grief. When it was done, he bought a large red steamer trunk and filled it with the school books, the reports, the newspaper cuttings, the box files full of letters of condolence. On the top, he laid Nicholas's blazer, his tracksuit top, his blue cricket cap; and his own manuscript. Exposing himself so starkly to the past was an act of courage. It is impossible not to wonder where it has left him.

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