NOVEMBER comes, and with it the season of remembrance. Many of us pray for those we have loved and lost. But what happens when there are almost no memories to draw on?
The writer Richard Beard was the second of four brothers. In August 1978, when the boys were six, nine, 11, and 13, the family went to Cornwall for their summer holiday. Days were spent on the beach: buckets and spades, a picnic lunch, a game or two of cricket, and lots of jumping about in the waves.
One day, Richard and nine-year-old Nicholas went for “one last swim” before heading back to the holiday cottage. They were just out of sight of the adults. “We were having fun, buffeted and breathless,” he writes. Then, all of a sudden, both boys found themselves being dragged out of their depth by the undertow.
Richard could see Nicholas struggling to keep his head above water, and panicking. “I couldn’t reach him and I didn’t want to go in deeper,” he writes. “I shouted at him not to stand. He had to swim.” The logistics are confused, he says, but Richard realised that his own life was in danger — and he had one shot at survival. He launched into “a frenzied approximate crawl”, and made it back to the safety of the beach. Nicholas drowned.
Nicky’s death was a heart-breaking, devastating loss. But, as the subtitle of the book hints, the tragedy suffered by the Beard family turned into something all the more complex in the light of what followed.
They packed their bags and returned home to Swindon for the funeral, which none of the boys attended. Immediately afterwards — quite remarkably — they loaded up the car again, and went back to Cornwall, on the grounds that the house was already paid for, for another week, and it was important to get things back to “normal” as soon as possible. They even visited the same beach.
Back home, more stiff-upper-lip repression followed. Richard and his older brother returned to boarding school a day later than the other boys so that their fellow pupils could get any embarrassing crying out of the way before the Beard brothers arrived. The conspiracy of silence continued: Nicky was never mentioned, because that would be just too upsetting. “For nearly forty years I haven’t said his name,” he writes in the opening chapter.
The Day That Went Missing is Richard’s attempt to piece together the events of the day, and to recover his lost brother. We follow his purposeful quest — he calls it an inquest — to find out what happened. What he calls the “epic level of denial” ran deep: when he sets out, he cannot recall the day of Nicky’s death, or even his birthday. He has no memory of the return to Cornwall after the funeral. He doesn’t know the name or location of the beach.
He talks to the lifeboat crew, to his old headmaster, to the people who now own the holiday cottage. He interviews his surviving brothers, Tim and Jem, and their mother, Felicity; the narratives they tell, even about quite harmless details, contradict each other. The description of the holiday cottage varies wildly; his mother insists that there is a red suitcase of Nicky’s possessions in the attic — which doesn’t exist.
Richard Beard, whose memoir The Day That Went Missing won the 2018 PEN Ackerley Award for literary autobiography
Nor can anyone agree what Nicky was like. His mother says she always thought he would become a banker or a murderer on the grounds that he wasn’t very bright and was no good at sport. But the school reports show an entirely different picture: Nicky was consistently top of his class, and just as athletic as his brothers.
The Beard family were churchgoers, and Richard and his older brother Tim arrived in Cornwall directly from a Christian summer camp. A friend of Tim’s, a vicar’s son, joins the holiday: the vicar himself arrives the day after Nicky’s death, and holds a service of holy communion around the holiday cottage’s dining-room table. The condolence letters that Richard unearths in his search — and especially those that refer to the family’s faith — seem almost without exception shockingly crass.
The silence, it appears, was largely orchestrated by the father of the household, no doubt with good intentions, and presumably because he himself found the loss of his son just too painful to discuss. It was only after his father’s death that Beard felt able to begin his search, although he says that he unconsciously wove the story of a drowning brother into his fiction.
There’s anger in the book: with his father for failing to dive in the water and rescue Nicky; with the prep-school system for its emotional repression; with himself for abandoning his brother; even with the dead Nicky, for being annoying. But this was another era, with different values and vocabulary. “At the time, there was a pervasive attitude,” his mother told him. “It happened. Get on with it.”
The trouble with denial is that it is “not a precision tool”, he writes. “All those years ago, we closed our eyes against Nicky’s death. But in resisting grief we shut out other stuff too, like the joy Nicky brought us and the characteristics that made him an individual human being.”
The Day That Went Missing is a compelling story, finely written and forensic in its search for truth. Memory is a slippery thing at the best of times; all the more so when trauma is involved. This account of one family’s tragedy is a haunting story that lingers long in the memory.
Sarah Meyrick is a novelist. Her latest novel is Joy and Felicity (Sacristy Press, 2021).
The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard is published by Vintage at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-78470-314-1.
Listen to the author, Richard Beard, in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
Tickets are now on sale for the 2023 Festival of Faith and Literature next February at the University of Winchester and Winchester Cathedral.
THE DAY THAT WENT MISSING — SOME QUESTIONS
- Why do you think it took Richard Beard 40 years to write this book?
- The author refers to an “epic level of denial” after Nicky’s death. Do you think the response of the Beard family was typical of the times?
- How far do you think attitudes to bereavement have changed since 1978?
- The author is often harsh about his own part in what happened. Did you admire his honesty — or feel he was unfair on himself?
- The author says that some of the condolence letters made him very angry. Was he overreacting?
- Is it inevitable that different members of the family tell different stories?
IN OUR next Book Club page on 2 December, we will print extra information about our next book, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. It is published by Picador at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-5290-7507-6.
Inspired by the Vardø storm and the witch trials in northern Norway in 1621, The Mercies follows the lives of the women who are left behind on their remote island after a ferocious storm wipes out all the men at sea. In the storm’s wake, the women learn to embrace independence, but their newfound strength is put to the test when an official arrives from the mainland armed with the task of dismantling their power and restoring male domination. The women’s independence is perceived as subversive, and charges of witchcraft soon follow. A chilling witch hunt begins.
Kiran Hargrave Miller, born in 1990, started writing poetry and plays during her final year at university. After graduation, she started writing children’s books, and won an array of awards with her bestselling novel The Girl of Ink and Stars. The author’s next run of children’s novels continued to receive literary acclaim and global success. The Mercies, published in 2020, is her debut novel for adults.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
January: The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land by Omer Friedlander
February: The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir