One August day while on holiday in Cornwall in 1978, Richard Beard, who was 11, and his younger brother Nicholas slipped away from their parents for one last swim. They left “the broad stretch of beach” where the family had set up camp and clambered over rocks until they came to an isolated cove or inlet. The boys were boarders at the same Berkshire prep school and they had a fractious and rivalrous relationship, as many brothers do. Together they waded into the sea but soon the nine-year-old Nicholas (or Nicky, as he was known, the third of four brothers) was in trouble, having been carried out of his depth. Richard was also struggling in the water and was forced to make a decision: should he save himself or try to save his brother? “I couldn’t reach him and I didn’t want to go in deeper,” Beard writes in his memoir The Day That Went Missing. He is tormented by a final image of his drowning brother, “his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater”.
The Beards went home to Swindon after Nicky’s death. There was a funeral, and then they did something extraordinary: they returned to the cottage in Cornwall to resume their holiday, as if nothing had happened. The family had entered the deep freeze of denial. Nicky became the great unmentionable, mourned but never spoken about. The dates of his life and death were not even on his gravestone. Richard Beard told me when we met for coffee one recent morning that, after Nicky was buried, his parents never again had a conversation about their dead son.
The Day That Went Missing is a book about a family tragedy that has the momentum of a detective story as, all these years later, the middle-aged author attempts to piece together the fragments of what is known of his brother’s life. It also has something of the mystery and intrigue of a metaphysical quest, since it is an attempt to capture the essence of someone long dead.
Beard knew what happened that day – he was in the sea with Nicky – but, because of the family silence, he did not know how it happened or who was there with them in the extended group on the beach or why his parents responded as they did. He knew none of this because his parents were in denial but also because he had forgotten so much, or chosen to forget.
Beard felt able to approach the subject only after his father died in 2011. He began searching through his father’s papers for references to or information about Nicky. He interrogated his mother and two brothers. Beard read Nicky’s school reports and the letters he sent home from school, and he studied photographs of his brother, including those taken on the beach in the final hours of his life.
As part of his investigation, Beard returned repeatedly to Cornwall to visit the cottage where the family had stayed and to find the beach where the tragedy happened. As he made his way down a cliff path to the beach, he sobbed uncontrollably – for his lost brother but also because of the waste of all the long decades during which Nicky had been erased from their lives.
Written in pellucid prose and artfully constructed, The Day That Went Missing is never sentimental or self-pitying and is all the more moving as a consequence. There is self-reproach, sarcasm and anger, and Beard is especially tough on his father, a self-made builder (he described the family as “arriviste or nouveau riche” when we met) who in later life drank heavily.
Beard speaks slowly and often looks down as he measures his sentences. He later attended Radley, one of the grandest boarding schools in England, but did not feel comfortable there and told me he had not spoken to any of his classmates since the day he left. At times, in the book, it is as if he’s indicting an entire class of repressed, boarding-school-educated Englishmen – after all, you could say, as Pink Floyd did in “Time”, that “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way”.
It was “awkward” when Beard first began questioning his mother about her dead son Nicky. “But she was also relieved. More than that, she was happy that someone was taking an interest. He was, after all, a child of hers who had lived to nine years old and who had effectively been deleted during this refusal to talk about him … She has read the final book and is very proud of it. She has also said how much time we have wasted by not thinking about Nicky, not allowing him to exist.”
Before we parted, I asked whether he had consciously not used the word “love” in the book. He seemed surprised. That evening I received an email from him: “I did the wordsearch, and there are instances of love as a descriptive verb (intensifying ‘like’) and of ‘lovely’, so I’m not a total monster. However, I’d say there are only two genuine uses, one on page 80, regretting the absence of love from the letter-writing home from school, and one at the very end – when I realise I want to run towards the people I love on the beach. Otherwise your hunch is justified, and a little disconcerting.”
He need not be disconcerted – because the book he has written is an act of love which honours and memorialises the brother he lost so traumatically. Indeed, as you read the concluding paragraph – in which he describes placing the manuscript of the book inside a trunk among Nicky’s belongings, including his school cap and his blue cricket hat – you are reminded of the final, beautiful lines of Philip Larkin’s “An Arundel Tomb”:
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
Richard Beard’s “The Day That Went Missing: a Family’s Story” is published by Harvill Secker
This article appears in the 10 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why the Tories keep winning