The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard
Earlier this month I wrote about an evening with Richard Beard at my local indie bookshop, it was a very special experience for an author event. I went away from the evening with my signed copy of his new book of memoir and started reading it there and then. For those who haven’t read the previous post, I’ll recap the basic premise of the book.
Subtitled A Family Story, The Day That Went Missing recounts a tragedy that happened to his family in 1978, how they dealt with it over the years, and now the beginning of to come to terms with it forty years later. In 1978 Beard was 11 years old, the second of four sons. The family were on holiday in north Cornwall. Late in the day, he and his 9-year-old brother Nicky had snuck to a cove around the corner from the main beach for one more swim. Out of sight of their encampment, they went in the sea and both quickly got out of their depth and in trouble. Richard had to make the decision to leave Nicky to save himself, Nicky was caught by the undertow and drowned. Then his family essentially clammed up. The boys didn’t attend Nicky’s funeral. Richard went back to his boarding school without Nicky, and did his best to repress his grief.
It wasn’t until forty years later, after his father died, that Richard felt he could talk to his mother about Nicky and that opened up the well-spring of grief, but also a desire in Richard to bring Nicky’s memory back into the family. The result is this book.
However late in the day, I want to conduct an inquest.
Nicky died, and the purpose of an inquest is to find out when, where, how and in what circumstances, Once I have that information, in as much detail as possible, I want to believe that an intact memory will make itself known. The logistical and emotional truth of what happened may be held in storage in my brain; if I find the route to the correct door, the hidden closet, I can reveal what’s inside.
Beard starts with the settling the date of Nicky’s death. It’s surprisingly difficult to pin down – it’s not on his tombstone in the village churchyard; it’s not on the plaque on the memorial cricket scoreboard his family endowed at their prep school. It’s then he starts to talk to his mother – and of course she remembers it – and her first trip out to the shops after they returned from Cornwall:
‘Five lamb chops,’ she said, hating the sound of the number. ‘Five chops, please.’
Five not six. The lamb-chop moment, the first time she came home from the shops without any dinner for Nicky almost broke her heart.
Beard’s mother directs him to a stash of documents in the bottom of his late father’s filing cabinet in the study. They discover all the condolence letters, annotated by his parents where they’d replied. There were some photos from earlier in the holiday, taken by his grandfather. No official documents though. These letters and his mum’s uncertain memories of the day cement in Beard the need to investigate what happened on that day and the ones following. This means two things: exploring the newspaper archives – and most importantly going to Cornwall.
In Cornwall, Beard takes a long time to find the actual beach where it happened and it is on the long path to that fateful beach that he is overtaken by strong emotion. Just a brief but wracking sob. I wept with him. Beard is brutally honest in this memoir, analysing his own perceptions, assumptions and emotions as he goes. The passages in which he talks to Ted Childs, the remaining member of the lifeboat crew from Port Isaac that recovered Nicky from the water, are amongst the most moving. Beard has to suppress his own emotions and turn journalist to gently coax Childs to recall the details of the only rescue of a child’s body in his career as a volunteer lifeboatman.
Armed with this fresh knowledge, Beard can now start to piece together more of what happened in the days that followed – he can see the inaccuracies in many of the newspaper reports, correct the details they’d remembered wrongly. The writer in him is able to step back a little:
Even years later I use my various documents – the school reports and the RNLI statistics – as a barrier against the great abyss. Reading and writing diverts the emotional shock, until much later reading and writing may help to bring it back.
Then, about two thirds of the way into the book – come two bombshell reveals. The first is almost treated as a throwaway by Beard and reaches to the heart of his father’s character. The second, although mentioned on the inside cover flap was a big shock to read – even though I knew what had happened from the author event I went to, but I’m not going to spoil that for any other readers here. I still found myself saying, “They never did?…” in disbelief.
One of the other themes running through the book is the impact of Nicky’s death on Beard’s own writing – and in particular his novel Lazarus is Dead. published in 2011. In this novel, Beard takes the character of Lazarus from the bible and gives him a younger brother who dies – in a drowning accident – totally based on Beard’s experience of being the only first-hand witness to Nicky’s death. Beard describes his novels as ‘clever rather than emotional’ and when he signed a copy of Lazarus is Dead for me at the event, he said he hoped I’d find it interesting. Having read his memoir, it’s become a must-read-soon book on my bedside pile.
The Day That Went Missing is more than just another ‘clever’ book from Beard – and clever it really is in the way he tells his and Nicky’s story, winkling out the truth from mis-remembrance; building up a picture of the real Nicky from the exaggeration of school reports; working out the timeline of what happened; and also coming to understand his father’s actions a little. It’s a clever true detective story, but told with powerful emotion and full of Beard’s own personal pain. The feeling really comes through that this book doesn’t represent closure as much as being a tool for the work in progress that is Beard himself.
Beautifully constructed, honestly written, I can’t recommend this powerful addition to the canon of grief memoirs enough. (10/10)
Source: Own copy
Richard Beard, The Day That Went Missing, Harvill Secker, 2017, hardback, 288 pages.