The Day That Went Missing by Richard Beard

A slight change here from the kind of book I normally read, but one that I felt compelled to track down after reading Annabel’s glowing review and her account of attending a talk given by the author. I steer clear of the recent trend of misery memoirs, but this book, although dealing with a family tragedy, is far away from that kind of thing. I think Annabel’s review triggered memories of my reading of Paul Morley’s excellent account of his father’s suicide, “Nothing”, with its subsequent effect on his family; and so I tracked down a copy of Beard’s book from the local library, and read it almost in one sitting.

“The Day” is a painfully honest, searing account of the loss of a sibling and the extraordinary way in which an English family in the 1970s dealt with it. In 1978, the Beard family were holidaying in Cornwall, and during that holiday Richard, 11, and his brother Nicky, 9, went for a last swim one day on the beach. Out of sight of the rest of the family, the boys got caught by an undertow; Richard found the strength to swim back to shore, but was unable to help Nicky, and had to make the decision to leave him to drown. And the emotional fall-out of that decision seems to be with him still.

The family coped in an extraordinary way, as Beard reveals, basically going into denial; they carried on as if nothing had happened, Nicky was never mentioned, the rest of the boys went back to boarding school and Richard wiped the memory out of his mind. Except, obviously he didn’t, because for nearly forty years he’d been circling it, avoiding it, partly building it into his fictions, and was clearly damaged for life, which is understandable.

So this book relates Beard’s way of trying to find his way back into his life of the past, the missing day (and indeed the period immediately after it) to find out what happened, how they carried on and come to some kind of reckoning with that missing past – to hold a kind of inquest for his lost brother, as he says in the book. He does just that, but whether it brings him peace is anybody’s guess.

“The Day…” is of course a gripping read. Astonishingly Richard actually knows very little about his brother – not the date of his birth, nor his death, what he was really like; all of these things have become buried by the denial of the past by the family, and it seems that it was only the death of his father, who refused to ever mention Nicky again, that released Richard to start talking. First to his mother, then to his brothers, then to friends, old teachers, even the lifeboat volunteer who pulled his brother’s body out of the sea. Family filing cabinets are explored, the loft reveals photos unseen since the day and items of his brother’s touchingly kept for all those decades, and Richard uses these to build up a picture of his brother and bring back the memory of the day.

Beard doesn’t spare himself, beating himself up regularly for any resentment he felt for his brother, and for not being able to save him on the day. The book doesn’t have any huge big shocking reveals, but it has moments where your jaw drops a little and you can’t quite believe the family behaviour. It’s something of an indictment of the British way of life at the time; still the stiff upper lip, let’s pull up our socks and carry on, chin up, and all that. The combination of a reticent family life and a boarding school stuck in the 1950s created a situation where counselling was offered and turned away, and religion is no real help at all.

Beard has written a powerful, very moving book (I was certainly in tears at some points), and it’s heartbreaking watching him force himself to seek out the beach where the incident happened, the farmhouse they were staying in. At the end of the book, I wouldn’t say Beard necessarily has managed to find closure, but I felt that he had managed to put together the lost fragments of part of his life and reach some kind of understanding of what happened in the past and how it had affected him. Opening up and being able to talk to his remaining family must, you would hope, have had a cathartic effect and Beard was fortunate that he was able to track down so many documentary records and people who still could talk about the event.

So an unusual read for me, maybe, but quite an unforgettable one – and one that makes me think that although I sometime decry the over-emotional way we react to things nowadays, with massive public outpourings of grief, at least that’s a lot better than bottling up and denying things ever happened…