When I was 9 years old, my oldest brother died in an accidental drowning. That was a long time ago, but I still remember tiptoeing around a house that was sodden in grief, wondering when things would get back to normal even as I knew that they never would.
Richard Beard’s story is worse. He was 11 in 1978, swimming off a Cornish beach with his 9-year-old brother Nicky, when they were both pulled under by a huge wave. Nicky “was out of his depth. He wasn’t and then he was,” Beard writes in the harrowing opening chapter of his memoir, “The Day That Went Missing.”
Richard was two years older than Nicky, and stronger, and he was able to make it back to the beach. Nicky did not, and he died.
Unlike my family, Beard’s family got back to normal almost immediately. “At the time, there was a pervasive attitude,” Beard’s mother told him years later. “It happened. Get on with it.”
And so they got on with it — went home, buried Nicky, and then returned to the seaside cottage to finish their summer holiday.
They were so good at getting on with it that Beard forgot everything about that day and its aftermath — forgot it, or repressed it. For most of his life, he remembered the moments in the water with devastating clarity but had almost no recollection of anything before, or after. He couldn’t even remember the date it had happened.
When, as an adult, his own life began falling apart, he went on the hunt for these lost memories.
“The Day That Went Missing” is an excruciating read as Beard stoically marches toward the past, seeking out documents and artifacts — the coroner’s report, newspaper clippings, report cards and old photographs, as well as Nicky’s schoolwork, toys and jerseys. It’s all in a red trunk in the attic, his mother tells him, but she is wrong. There is no red trunk. Memory, Beard notes, is so often wrong.
To get back to that day, he interviews his mother, God bless her — and what terrible conversations those must have been — as well as his brothers, teachers, friends and the first responders.
He returns to the holiday cottage and to the beach. As he walks along the cliff path, the ocean comes into view, and, “I start crying. Just like that, no warning,” he says. “I’m blubbering my heart and eyes out, but my legs keep moving, then I call out loud for my mum. … I wipe my eyes and pull myself together, because this is the place.”
What is he looking for? Why does he need to remember? “I want to find the missing emotional content in a lost true event,” he says. “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.”
Finding that truth, he hopes, will be a start toward healing the fissures that have occurred in his life.
Beard is careful with his mother and siblings in this book. He saves his bitterness for his father, now dead, whose decision it was for the family to get on with things.
“I haven’t mourned him, and I did not cry at his funeral. … I knew when my dad died to carry on as if nothing awful had happened. A lesson he taught me himself.”
Beard’s book has all the required elements of a great memoir — a compelling story, deep introspection, fine writing and an unflinching quest for factual and emotional truth. This haunting book is a profoundly moving study of memory, denial and grief.
The Day That Went Missing
By: Richard Beard.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 280 pages, $27.