by Jay Rayner
Each year more than 200,000 people go 'missing' in the UK. We understand why children sometimes need to run away but what makes an adult open the front door and leave everything behind?
The walls tell a hundred stories, in a tidy patchwork of posters. Each bears the legend 'Missing' in shocking blood-red, a few lines of prose and a grainy photograph, usually taken in happier times. This is the common currency of the National Missing Persons Helpline, these narratives of the troubled or disturbed or, perhaps even apparently happy, who just upped and left one day. Each is different. Each is similar. Parents are always 'anxious' for news; friends are always 'concerned for their safety'; families just want to know that dad is 'safe and well'.
The 'Missing' posters on the walls of the helpline's busy offices in south-west London are the case workers' informal way of keeping score; of reminding themselves who they are looking for and which families they are supporting. Although they hardly need reminding; the phones don't stop ringing. The police estimate that 210,000 people go missing every year in Britain and, while most of them return within days if not hours, the helpline still deals with up to 100,000 calls a year from the frantic and the worried.
A good number of the posters have scrawled across them the reassuring word 'found' in thick marker pen. A case has been closed, a narrative concluded. A smaller number carry the more formal word 'located'. It is a helpline euphemism. It means the missing person turned up dead, as a large proportion of missing people do, but they never write that across the posters. Relatives often come to these offices and it would upset them, rob them of hope. In the world of missing people hope is not a commodity to be squandered. Finally there are those posters with nothing written across them, the open cases that sometimes stay so for years.
In their time Chris Stone, Sebastian Jaux, and Richey Edwards have all had their missing posters. Richey still has his, as yet unclassified even though a lot of people suspect that after seven years it ought to be marked 'located', given that his car was discovered abandoned so close to the Severn Bridge, a favoured spot for suicides. Sebastian's and Chris's would now be marked 'found', for they both came back. These three are very different sorts of people: Sebastian, the loquacious ex-public schoolboy from the home counties, Chris, the blunt middle-class IT guy from Inverness, and Richey, the famously intense guitarist from the Manic Street Preachers.
Taken together, however, they stand as a symbol for a neglected part of the missing persons phenomenon: the adults. 'Naturally everybody is interested in missing children,' says Janet Newman who, along with her sister Mary, founded the helpline 10 years ago. 'But the missing adults really are so important. The adults just aren't considered - and forgive this word - sexy. The public doesn't understand the damage done to families when adults disappear.' The lack of interest is not confined to the public or the media. While there have been countless academic studies into 'runaway' kids, the literature on adults is startlingly thin.
Finally, last week, a team from York University presented the findings of one of the first studies on missing adults to be conducted anywhere in the world, a 16-month project carried out with the co-operation of the National Missing Persons Helpline. Using the charity's dense case files the researchers went back to the once-missing and put to them a question they are rarely asked. Why did they go missing in the first place?
Chris Stone knows the answer to the question now, although at the time he couldn't make much sense of anything at all. The only thing he knew for sure was that he had to get away. 'I'd just set up my own business as a systems analyst,' he says. 'I was in my mid-thirties and leading a very stressful life, working 70 or 80 hours a week and drinking too much. I think I was trying to drink myself into an early grave, actually. One day I decided I didn't want to do it any more. I didn't like who I had become.'
One morning in 1996 he packed a bag and, without saying a word to anybody, got on a train from Inverness to London. 'I just decided, bang, I was going, and by the time I got to London I knew I was going to travel on to France.' He makes it sound like a positive experience and he says that, in some ways, it was. 'In those first few days I was the most relaxed I had been in ages. It was a release. It was all: thank god for that.' He was missing for 11 months.
He made it to France and travelled the country picking up work as a labourer and fruit-picker. As to the people that he'd left behind - his wife Christine and their two teenage kids, 'there wasn't a day when I didn't think about them. And it certainly wasn't that I had stopped loving them. But there was no doubt in my mind that they could cope and I actually thought they'd be better off without me. It didn't even occur to me that they might be missing me.'
He certainly didn't consider himself to be missing. He knew exactly where he was: in France, making new friends, building some form of life. He admits there were tough times. Christmas was rough and, as he puts it, he 'almost bottled then'. But going back still didn't make any sense.
His wife eventually worked out which country he was in - and discovered that he was alive - because he'd cashed a cheque just outside Paris. Soon a 'Missing' poster in his name was being pinned up across the country, but he didn't see any of them. 'In any case by the time I was lucid enough to think about returning I felt I had been away too long and done too much damage to my relationships.'
He only made contact again because he wanted to wish his son happy birthday. 'I expected a cool reception. Instead the response I got amazed me. I had assumed my family would have got on with their lives, but they had put everything on hold.' Over a number of days he and Christine talked on the phone and eventually he decided to return.
Today he talks about new priorities. It is, he says, his family, the family he abandoned, that is now 'the most important thing in my life'. A year after his return he and Christine renewed their marriage vows. Asked why he didn't seek another solution to his problems Chris says simply, 'It's the British mentality, isn't it? We don't talk about things that are troubling us. We just bottle it all up.' Chris didn't talk to anyone before leaving, not even Christine. 'That can't be healthy, can it?'.
Sebastian Jaux agrees. 'Men have trouble talking about their feelings, don't they?' he says. 'We should get people to talk before they run away.' He didn't. Instead, one summer break from university, he merely lay on the sofa in his parents' house near Tunbridge Wells, watching trashy TV, eating junk food and spiralling into depression.
Today he can identify lots of reasons for his problems: long-term culture shock after leaving Lancing public school where he'd felt so secure, so known and liked; a sudden lack of confidence, a feeling of isolation while away in France as part of his degree. And all of it compounded by an inability to talk to anyone - including his parents who were, in any case, absorbed by caring for Sebastian's father, who had been paralysed in an accident.
'I felt very selfish for feeling miserable,' Sebastian says now, 'because I'd been given everything I wanted in life. I also felt that if someone wasn't happy they were bad in some way.' His parents thought he was being lazy. 'And a year before I would have thought exactly the same about myself.' Eventually he found a job painting a house but he hated that too.
'Coming home from work one day I started driving in circles. I couldn't go home because I couldn't face it. I couldn't go and see friends because I couldn't relate to them.' There was only one thing for it. A week before, as suicidal thoughts first entered his head, he'd looked up Beachy Head on the map. 'I had thought about using my dad's shotgun but I thought that would be messy and unfair to whoever had to clean it up.' He pauses. 'The mind works in odd ways sometimes.' Beachy Head it was, then.
But he couldn't do it. He lay on his belly, staring over the cliff edge. Occasionally he stood up and prepared himself to jump, but then he would retreat. 'Now I was really stuck. My pride wouldn't let me go home so instead I got in the car and started driving.' He reckoned he wouldn't be missed for a day or so. The fact was, in his declining mental state he couldn't imagine anyone missing him.
So began a long, circuitous route about the country. For a while he had enough plastic money to keep him going and his parents were able to follow the transaction trail. At least they knew he was still alive. Eventually, however, the accounts ran out and the cards were cancelled. He took to driving away from petrol stations without paying. He went to Wales and Manchester, even made it as far north as Scotch Corner. One day, feeling desperate, he fed a hose pipe from the exhaust of his diesel car through the driver's window and attempted to gas himself. 'But even that didn't work,' he says now. 'I laughed. I couldn't even commit suicide successfully.'
He now sees that failed suicide attempt as a turning point, as the moment when he began to start the long crawl back towards a sense of self. But, for all that, he, like Chris, also had no idea of himself as missing. 'I knew exactly where I was,' he says. 'In any case I couldn't imagine anybody was looking for me.' He certainly didn't see any of the posters.
The episode came to an end, after five weeks as a rough sleeper on the streets of London; there weren't many ex-public schoolboys occupying the doorways down on the Strand. He'd kept himself going by shoplifting and one day dropped two chocolate bars into his bag in a shop at Charing Cross Station. He knew he was being watched. He knew that if he put them back he could walk out of the shop without being apprehended. But he didn't put them back and he did leave the shop. He agrees it looks like he wanted to be caught. 'I saw my actions as random though I thought others might ascribe motivations to them.' That night Sebastian went home to Kent, courtesy of a police car.
Slowly he has rebuilt his life, reordering his priorities. 'There was always this pressure to achieve, a feeling that if I didn't achieve now I'd miss my slot.' He thinks that's rubbish now, that there's time for everything. He's even gone back to France to teach English, 'to turn a shit situation around and make something good out of it.'
Listening to Chris's and Sebastian's stories it becomes clear that we abuse language when we talk about missing people. Neither thought of themselves as missing. The word 'missing' describes the feelings of the family left behind; they are the ones doing the missing. Perhaps the word 'lost' would do a better job. Certainly Sebastian thinks it appropriate to his condition. When he was out on the road he knew where he was, he says, but not who he was. He was lost within himself.
It is a point emphasised by the York University research. As the study by Nina Biehal, Jim Wade and Fiona Mitchell says, 'Going missing is not an easy phenomenon to define.' Children, at least, are legally in the care of somebody (usually, but not always, a parent) until they are 18. If they leave that carer then legal processes kick in to protect them. But when we describe an adult as missing we are simply saying they are not where we think they ought to be, that they have slipped away from the ties we assume everybody to have.
Legally, though, if a person over 18 walks out of a house, the police have no duty to get involved unless there is a clear issue of vulnerability. At 18 they're an adult. They can go where the hell they like and there's no law saying they have to phone home.
Of course the realities, hidden away in the Missing Persons Helpline's case files, are more complex. The York University team took as their sample all the case files opened by the helpline in the 12 months from October 1999, plus all those closed within that period, a total of nearly 2000. As part of the study they sent out questionnaires to a proportion of those who had been 'found'. They received nearly 120 responses, each filled with the previously unheard voices of the missing.
'Most of the adults - around two thirds - decided to go deliberately,' Nina Biehal says, 'and most of them went because there was a breakdown in relationships.' Wives fell out with husbands. Children fell out with parents. 'I was told to chose between my partner or my family,' one respondent said. 'I chose my partner as I have had years of problems with my family.'
Sometimes these breakdowns were long-term. A husband had walked out on his wife when the marriage had broken down, for example, and they had not spoken for 20 years. Now his son wanted to find him and had therefore contacted the helpline. The father was not so much missing, as just out of touch.
A number were far more dramatic. 'Domestic violence came up as an issue in a small number of cases,' Biehal says. 'Women described wanting to get away from an abusive partner.' As one woman put it: 'I tried to leave the man but he always found me. It was his home town so he had other people watching me in case I got away. He always made sure I had no money.'
Then there were those - 19 per cent of the total - who simply drifted out of touch; people who had lived out their lives on the very darkest margins of society. 'I have survived everywhere possible,' one said. 'I didn't really class myself as a missing person. Because of my alcohol addiction I didn't want to disrupt anyone else's lifestyle. That is why, in the end, I did not contact anyone.'
Finally there were the 16 per cent whose departure was unintentional, usually through dementia or mental illness. 'I felt depressed and had stopped taking my medication and was not thinking straight,' one said lucidly. They were the ones who tended to be found most quickly.
Perhaps the most startling figures are those covering what happened to the 90 per cent of people found alive. Only 20 per cent decided to go back to the household they had left. Almost 40 per cent agreed to make some form of contact with those they had left behind. But another 40 per cent - two-fifths of the sample - refused to renew contact of any kind. For them missingness was not some temporary state. It was a transition to a new life and they had no intention of going back. Whatever their reasons for going in the first place they were severe and complex enough to prove permanent.
Rachel Edwards knows that her brother's seven-year absence may well be permanent, but she refuses to make any assumptions. She says it's impossible to do so, and that's the biggest problem. 'It's the uncertainty that's so draining,' she says. 'We want a conclusion to it all. We need to know whether he's dead or alive.' That uncertainty is only exacerbated by Richey Edwards's fame. By February 1995, when he disappeared, aged 28, his band, the Manic Street Preachers, were just breaking through to the big time. Richey, with his history of depression and anorexia and self-mutilation, had become a cult band's cult figure. He represented a particular brand of authenticity to a fan base claiming to be tired of pre-packaged pop.
It was not a role he relished. He left his London hotel the very day he was due to fly to America for a tour he did not want to do, and disappeared. His car was found abandoned two weeks later at Aust motorway services on the English side of the Severn Bridge. Since then there has been not a word, save for a spate of sightings abroad which have all turned out to be false. 'Each one of those sightings has only made it worse for us,' Rachel says.
Last month, at the seventh anniversary of his disappearance, the tabloid press speculated that the family was going to take advantage of the law to have him declared dead so they could gain access to his now healthy legacy. Putting aside the general misunderstanding of the law - you can now have someone declared dead long before seven years are up if you have reasonable proof - the speculation was also just plain wrong. The family had no such plans.
'The thing is, when we said we weren't going to have him declared dead people suddenly said then you must think he's alive,' Rachel says. 'But the only reason we didn't do it is because we don't know he's dead. I also can't say he's alive because I have no evidence.' It is that heavy ballast of uncertainty again. In any case, she adds, there is no great legacy and they wouldn't be interested in it if there were.
She does accept, though, that there are only a very few possibilities as to what has become of her brother. 'He either left his car, hitch-hiked and took a new identity or he jumped from the bridge. I don't know which it is.' In pursuit of the most final possibility she has contacted 27 coroners on either side of the Severn Estuary, a time-consuming business because there is no central database of the dead. 'I wanted to know if they had any unidentified bodies that had been taken from the water.' She has found eight so far. None of them is her brother. They are just eight other people whose disappearances appear to have gone unnoticed. 'The truth is even if he did jump from the bridge his body might never be found.'
As to why he went she says 'I don't know. The only way you can know that is if they come back and tell you. I know you don't do something like that unless you are depressed or upset by something. I know a lot of people thought it was a publicity stunt. But they don't understand the torture people who go missing are going through. They don't feel they have any choice.' What's more, she adds, 'there's not a lot of sympathy for it.'
She may be right. We understand why children and young people sometimes need to get away. They may feel genuinely at risk. But we tend to assume that adults have a duty to cope, to get on with their lives, to struggle through. Anything else is seen as a cop-out, a dereliction of duty. But not everybody can struggle through. For them the conventions of normal life that once seemed so firm and reassuring suddenly seem anything but. An established home life and a network of relations and friends is no longer the solution. It becomes the problem. And then they open the door and walk away.
The National Missing Persons Helpline number is (freephone) 0500 700 700.
[Originally published: The Observer, 10 March 2002]