The two of us are in the sea, jumping as the waves roll in. Until now I have tried not to know this and many times I’ve stopped, squeezed shut my eyes and closed the memory down. I can do that, crush it out of existence. All it costs me is the effort.

We were having fun, buffeted and breathless. I can believe I know this, even though the effort to forget has been immense. The memory is in ruins, but the foundations are traceable.

He was out of his depth. He wasn’t and then he was. I can’t remember everything, not each separate moment.

I don’t know how, but suddenly he was out of his depth. I think I tried to push him back towards the shore, but the logistics are confused and I, too, am up to my neck. With my feet touching the sand my mouth is barely above the water. The instinct, because I’m not a good swimmer, is to walk back in but when I feel with my toes the sand sucks out from beneath me. The next time I try, only the tips of my toes touch solid ground. The ocean floor sweeps from beneath me. Nicky is further out into the sea than I am, and I don’t know how that happened either. Is he?

His head is to my left as I look towards the horizon. I’m looking to him, away from land and safety, so I must be worried. He’s further out than me and too far to reach by walking, and anyway I’m in too deep to walk. I don’t understand how he got there. I search with my foot for solid ground and my head is under and I just about touch and the sand rushes out. I push back up. His neck is stretched taut to keep his nose and mouth in the air, and he is panicked into a desperate doggy-paddle, getting nowhere. He whines, his head back, ligaments straining in his neck, his mouth in a tight line to keep out the seawater.

I couldn’t reach him and I didn’t want to go in deeper. I shouted at him not to stand. He had to swim. I shouted he shouldn’t try to stand. He tried to put his foot down and his head went under.

Out of my depth, I was about to die. Nicky was trying to stand in water that was too deep, and in any case the undertow would drag him out. I decided to leave him. A conscious decision. I kicked my legs up and launched into a desperate crawl, face submerged, no breathing, a last resort to create forward momentum towards the shore. Front crawl was the fastest stroke over the shortest distance, though I didn’t really know how to do it, and if I stopped to breathe I would die. I smashed my arms and hands into the water, head down, feet thrashing, because I understood that for me it was now or never.

Faster! Harder!

The Day That Went Missing

I was going to die so I decided to save myself, and staying alive took total concentration

I understood with absolute clarity that I had one go at this. Run out of breath too soon and I would drown, exhausted and unable to find my footing. Keep going and I might get close enough in to stand, to live.

The memory is unsatisfactory. I experience the pain of remembering though I can’t clearly remember. I was going to die so I decided to save myself, and staying alive took total concentration. I swam my frenzied approximate crawl until finally I had to breathe, and when my legs dropped down, my feet touched sand. The sand dragged me out, but I was far enough in to fight the undertow. I swam again, until I needed to breathe again. Chest-high in the water, waist-high, the sea was around my thighs and I could almost run, heaving my hips one way then the other, driving hard towards land, knees raised, escaping the water.

I don’t remember looking back, or arriving at the camp on the main stretch of beach. I’m out of the water and running. I see a man. He is higher up, on rocks (or on a path above the rocks?). I tell him . . . I don’t know what; whatever I said isn’t part of what I know. I communicate the situation and the man stands up, gazes out to sea as if primed to make a decisive intervention. He takes off his sunglasses, and in a purposeful gesture hands them to the distressed and dripping boy.

I’m running again, to the right, over patches of hard sand between flat rocks, from one terrain to another. I remember looking down on myself, as if from above, running with the stranger’s metal-framed sunglasses and finding them an absurd responsibility to have accepted. I throw his stupid sunglasses to the ground and they smash on hard rock and I don’t care. I’ve broken an adult stranger’s sunglasses, intentionally, and I don’t care. I’m crying, I’m running. My face is out of control.

  • The Day That Went Missing


    My younger brother’s name is Nicholas Beard. He was nine years old, and I was with him in the water when he drowned.

    Life changes in an instant.

    On a family holiday in Cornwall in 1978, Richard and Nicholas are in the sea, jumping the waves. Suddenly and inexplicably Nicholas is out of his depth and then, shockingly, so is Richard. Only one of the brothers returns to the shore.

    Richard does not attend Nicholas’s funeral and afterwards the family return to Cornwall to continue the holiday. Soon they stop speaking of that day at the beach altogether. Years later, haunted by grief, Richard sets out to piece together the story. Who was Nicholas? What really happened that day? And why did the family never speak of it again?



    ‘This captivating book, both heart-rending and jaw-dropping, unfolds like a detective story’ Daily Mail

    ‘A memoir of real truth and heartbreaking emotional heft’ Sunday Times

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