The vanishing season

(The Independent on Sunday, 10 October 1999)

Hundreds of men walk out of their lives every year, and more disappear in October than in any other month. Richard Askwith considers the seductive appeal of ‘pseudocide’

A YEAR AGO, Andrew Capon walked out of his life. A 37-year-old steelworker from Grantham, Lincolnshire, he had been visiting Skegness, where he had gone with three friends to sell a caravan. They went out together for a night on the town, and, in the course of the evening, he slipped away. No one has been able to say precisely where or when he went, but everyone agrees that he hasn’t been seen since.

Sue Capon, who had been married for Andrew for 17 years before he went missing, still hasn’t formed an account of his disappearance that makes sense to her. “There’d been no sign that anything was wrong,” she explains, “and I’m sure that if he’d wanted to leave his family he’d have had the guts to tell me. But I’m sure he isn’t dead either – it just doesn’t feel right.” So she is still stumbling around in a state of semi-bereavement which, by its very nature, can never lead to closure, only to more speculation.

“Maybe he’s had a bang on his head and doesn’t know who he is, or maybe he heard that his dad died 12 days after he went missing, and now he blames himself and doesn’t dare show himself to his family.

“But whatever the reason, I just wish he’d at least call someone to let them know he’s all right. I’ve been round every pub and club in Skegness, I’ve checked every caravan at the site they were staying at, I’ve put up posters. But you’re never any the wiser, and it’s been so long. I don’t know what to do any more. I just have to keep the family going – we’ve got three children. But it’s terribly hard. Sometimes it gets easier for a bit, but then it gets worse. Only last week I broke down in tears.”

Logically, the possibility that Andrew may be dead can never be discounted. Nor can the possibility that he is alive and well and living happily under an assumed identity. If you imagine that this would necessarily be easier to bear, you underestimate the torments which afflict the families of the disappeared.

A year ago, Graham Cardwell walked out of his life. A 46-year-old assistant dockmaster and former Conservative councillor from Grimsby, he disappeared at the end of a nightshift at nearby Immingham Docks. The next morning, his helmet, coat and lifejacket were found on the Humberside mudflats, prompting a huge air and sea search by police and coastguards. When this turned up no trace of him, his distraught family gave him up for dead.

For eight months, his wife, Jane,and their three children “lived with the thought that he was dead”. Then, this summer, Humberside police found Graham Cardwell alive and well, living under an assumed name at an undisclosed address in the Midlands.

The news left Jane “distraught”, and even further from the truth than she was before. “We’ve been under tremendous pressure. To be suddenly told that he is living a life somewhere else is difficult to come to terms with.” She’s now keeping herself to herself, trying to rebuild what’s left of her life. But it’s not easy. Graham Cardwell has shown no inclination to return to his family, and, since he had done nothing illegal, the police are keeping his whereabouts secret. So Jane, too, remains a half-widow, the mystery of her husband’s vanishing as painfully opaque as ever.

* * *

“IT IS fairly common for people who disappear to make their escape look like a suicide,” according to my copy of Doug Richmond’s book, How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. “They could probably just as easily walk out of the door into a new identity, but for some reason they want people to think they have died. Perhaps they believe that it will keep people from searching for them, or that it will be easier for their families to cope with death than with disappearance.”

Richmond claims to have interviewed dozens of American men who have faked their own deaths, for reasons ranging from financial or marital troubles to pure “Gauguin syndrome” (that is, the desire to chuck it all in to do something interesting). But what’s really striking about his book is the fact that there are so many others stacked beside it in US bookshops, with titles like How to Create a New Identity or The Heavy Duty New Identity. All describe ways in which the free -thinking individual can, with sufficient patience and self-control, throw off the controlling reins of the modern state. (“It isn’t who you are that counts,” writes Richmond, “but whether you can prove it.”)

This individualist theme clearly strikes a chord among Americans, from respectable fantasists to survivalists, libertarians and, of course, criminals. (Top tip: “If you want to remain free under your new identity, you must give up conducting criminal acts.”) In fact, “pseudocide” is something of a boom industry in the US. One study (by the academic who coined that term) found that at least 26 per cent of “suicides” from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in which no body was found were fakes, while the US life insurance industry has expressed concern at a rising tide of fraudulent claims from the undead.

The British commit pseudocide too – the most celebrated example was John Stonehouse, the Labour Minister who 25 years ago faked his death on Miami Beach and enjoyed a brief new life in Australia as John Markham before his past caught up with him. But British life insurance companies do not consider pseudocide a major problem, and, indeed, the British imagination seems more drawn to a softer kind of vanishing.

Our manuals are whimsical fictions like David Nobbs’s The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin; or, at a stretch, thrillers like Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (whose description of how to get a new passport by taking over the identity of an obscure, long-deceased person of the same age and sex is said to have inspired Stonehouse). We romanticise disappearance no less than the Americans do, but in a different way. Our idealised vanisher is the man who disappears not for profit, but from restlessness. We may be mildly interested, at the time, when we read about cases such as the still-unresolved disappearances, in yachting “accidents” off the south coast in April 1996, of Captain Norman Harriss and Tom Jardine, both of whom were experiencing financial problems. But neither their names nor their circumstances have passed into our folklore. Nor have those of John Folagbade, from Southwark, who was gaoled three years ago for an elaborate fraud that featured a decomposing body stolen from a mortuary.

But when it comes to the archetypal disappointed Englishman who – as we interpret it – couldn’t cope with the mess he’d made of things and told himself that everyone would be better off without him, we are altogether more sympathetic. Mention the name of Dr Matthew Choyce, or Allan Dryburgh, or Terry Taylor, or Neil Yates, or Roger Liddle, and your audience is as likely as not to recognise, if not the names, then at least the stories. Dr Matthew Choyce, for example, disappeared from his Newcastle home shortly before dawn on a Tuesday morning two years ago, left his car in a sea- front carpark and (despite the subsequent birth of his son) hasn’t been seen since. Allan Dryburgh, from Rosyth, left for work on 2 February 1998, without his credit cards or keys but with several months’ supply of blood- pressure tablets, bought a packet of Polos and vanished. Terry Taylor, married for 34 years, has been missing since January after telling his employers he was going to take the rest of the afternoon off. Neil Yates, a Nottinghamshire farmer, arranged to meet his family at a wedding but then spent seven months in hiding instead. And Roger Liddle, a solicitor from Forres, abandoned his wife and struggling business two years ago to start a new life (in which he was eventually detected) as a casual labourer in Cornwall.

Each of these sentences conceals untold depths of family tragedy, yet the emotions they provoke in the public – or the male public, at least – usually have less to do with pity and condemnation than with envy and admiration. We like the fact that theirs are stories, like spy thrillers, in which every mundane action – picking up the car keys, getting on the train, failing to pay the gas bill – is loaded with drama. And we’re impressed by the idea that, as far as we can tell, they are men who took on the system to win themselves a second life, rather than put up with the single messed-up affair that most of us make do with. Whatever anonymity they may have enjoyed before, their disappearances have made them – for those of an escapist disposition – something close to folk heroes.

* * *

TODAY, somewhere in Britain, two grown men will walk out of their lives (properly disappearing, as opposed to the 700-odd people who are reported missing every day but are found within 28 days). Tomorrow, another two will do likewise, and two more the day after that.

They’re unlikely to be aware of one another’s existence, but they’ll probably have a lot in common. As men in the 18-to-50 age range (and most probably between 29 and 39), they’re likely to be married or cohabiting, and may well be quite well-off. They will be preoccupied with practical matters. Some will have deaths to fake: cars to abandon on clifftops, clothes to leave on beaches. Others will be busy covering their tracks, withdrawing money, changing their appearance. And all will be faced with the complex challenge of providing for their futures in some way that does not involve being sucked inexorably back into their old lives.

But they will also be boiling over with concealed emotion. For whether they have been planning the moment for months or are acting on the impulse of an instant, they will tell no one what they are doing. Instead, they will take a deep breath – their last in the world as they know it – and quietly disappear.

If you’re a man, and you’re not one of them, you may feel a stab of envy. What could be more exhilarating than to feel every care of your current life slipping in an instant from your shoulders, to see a new future ready to open before you, unblemished, like a new book? Yet the fact is that, whatever your background, disappearing can prove an awfully miserable adventure, for all concerned.

On 22 February this year, Sean O’Donnell found himself staring into the grey waters of the Humber estuary, listening to the clangour of the docks and, beyond it, the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the North Sea.

It was a cold morning, and, following a row with his wife, the 40-year- old unemployed lorry-driver had just walked out of their neat house in Beverley. He had walked with no very clear purpose along the first proper road he came to, Grovehill Road. This took him past the Post Office, where there was a giro to be cashed, and then on to Beverley railway station, where, as it happened, a train to Hull was expected shortly.

Half an hour later, still scarcely beyond the door-slamming stage when it came to deciding on a course of action, Sean was in Hull, where he spent the rest of the day “drinking coffee and smoking a bloody lot.”

Sean is a big, heavily-tattooed man with a taciturn manner that makes him seem less sensitive than he is. But, recalling his “adventure” today, he can scarcely stop his lip trembling. “Every minute I sat there, I was wishing I could go back, but I just didn’t have the guts to go back and face Jane.”

Instead, he brooded about the background to their “little” row. “I was fed up with the way I’d been treating everybody. I wasn’t being a very nice person to be around. I was generally feeling bloody sorry for myself, everybody was trying to help me, and I was just being that nasty to them, snapping at everyone. I hated myself.” He now recognises that he was suffering from depression, exacerbated by the pain of a back injury sustained at work three years ago. Then, though, all he could think was that “Everyone would be better off without me.”

He had his passport in his pocket, as identification for the Post Office, and, as he sat with his coffee, he could see the ferries escaping down the Humber towards the North Sea. By the end of the afternoon he was on one.

“Me and Jane had talked about going to Amsterdam, and so I had this idea that if I went there and sat there long enough, she’ll come and get me.”

Misery delights in such delusions. In the real world, Jane’s head was spinning with the inevitable storm of unanswerable questions: where? Why? Until when? “If he wanted me to find him, he might have left a few more clues,” says Jane today. “And, anyway, how could I go anywhere? He’d left us with nothing.”

“For the first three weeks after I got there, I used to go and meet the coach every day, to see if she got off it,” says Sean. But the reality of his situation soon overwhelmed his optimism. He ran out of money within days and was reduced to living on the street. “I didn’t know what the hell to do, except stay in one place and hope Jane would find me.”

For three months he “lived from hand to mouth”, in circumstances that he still finds hard to talk about. “It was horrible,” he says eventually. “Disgusting. I’ve never been so ashamed of anything I’ve ever done.”

Did he think of sending a message home? “No, because I was afraid of what the reaction would be. I knew I’d been bloody selfish, and you can’t put down what I thought she’d be thinking.”

This was a fair guess: Jane, a less tentative character than Sean, was burning with an indignation that still occasionally surfaces despite her delight at their eventual reunion. “I didn’t know how a man could do this to us,” she says. Six weeks before Sean disappeared, she had given birth to their fifth child. “I just felt abandoned really.”

Sean winces. “It was just me being bloody selfish,” he repeats sadly.

“For the first 24 hours I was wondering if he was going to come back,” continues Jane, “and then I reported it to the police. Then, a few days later, I plucked up the courage to check the passports, and his was gone.

“That’s when my mind started working overtime. I couldn’t understand – I still can’t understand. I had no money or means to go anywhere – how was I supposed to find him? It was a helpless situation.”

She tried, none-the-less, especially after the police put her in touch with the National Missing Persons Helpline, a charity which works to reunite the disappeared with those they have left behind. A case-worker from the NMPH maintained regular telephone contact for the rest of her ordeal, as well as distributing posters appealing for news about or from Sean, and arranging for Jane to appear on Yorkshire television’s Missing programme. But the torture of not knowing remained.

“I didn’t think he would have killed himself, and I thought he was probably hoping I’d find him, but how could I know? All I did was sit here waiting. I couldn’t sleep properly, couldn’t eat. I lost two and a half stone in three months. You can’t even really tell anyone, because you can’t get it in your own head. It’s like a bit of your life that hasn’t happened. It was really, really awful.”

Eventually, after three months, their luck changed. The NMPH was beginning to distribute posters about Sean to Europe, and a copy was faxed to the Salvation Army in Amsterdam, where it was seen by a homeless acquaintance of Sean’s, who brought it to his attention.

“We were sitting on a park bench. He said to me, ‘Did you know you’re wanted?’ I said, ‘No I’m not.’ He said, ‘Yes you are – look at this.’”

Events accelerated. As so often happens when a missing person sees an NMPH poster, the realisation – or confirmation – that someone cared, and wanted him back, hit Sean like an explosion. Within hours he was at the Salvation Army mission himself, phoning home.

“I’d just gone out the door to go shopping,” says Jane, “when I heard Vicky, our daughter, shouting, ‘It’s Dad! It’s Dad!’”

Sean blinks. “By the time I heard Jane’s voice, I cracked up. That’s it. There were tears running down my face. I think I spent the first four minutes of the phonecall just crying.”

Two days later, Sean was gazing from the deck of a ferry as it rolled back into Hull. “There must have been 10,000 people at that terminal, and the only person I could see was Jane.”

He blinks again. “Now you’d have to prise me away with a crowbar.” He stares at his great tattoo-blackened fists, then speaks in a small voice: “All I’d ever wanted, really, was for things to go back to the way they used to be before.”

Sean claims that his depression is gone now – “It knocked it all out of me” – and, so obvious is the closeness of the couple today, their shared awareness of how much each means to the other, that it’s tempting to conclude that Sean’s adventure must have done some good. But Jane is having none of it.

“It’s not worth it,” she says. “It’s not worth putting your family through one minute of that misery, of not knowing. People who go missing are very selfish. The ones that have gone missing know exactly where they are, but they also know exactly what their families are doing. It’s the ones at home that are wondering all the time.”

* * *

EACH unhappy family man is unhappy in his own way, and the case histories of the disappeared rarely conform to a neat stereotype. None the less, some tentative generalisations can be made. A quarter of the 18,000 people on the NMPH’s long-term database are men aged between 30 and 50. Men aged between 20 and 29 are the next biggest category. (Other big groups are teenage runaways, among whom females outnumber males by two to one; and the elderly, whose disappearance is often linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s.) Women rarely bolt from marriages, except to escape violence (in which case the NMPH usually knows where they are), but, for many men, going missing seems to be the only escape route from the sometimes intolerable pressures of modern manhood. More go missing in October than in any other month.

For men in their thirties and late twenties, the unfamiliar responsibilities of fatherhood are often to blame. For men in their forties, pressure relating to work or loss of work is more likely to be a factor. In both groups, the problem of the initial disappearance is often compounded by the fact that, as Jane O’Donnell puts it, “Once they’ve gone, they don’t know how to come back.”

Neil Yates, the overworked Nottinghamshire farm manager who was supposed to meet his wife at a friend’s wedding in July 1998 but spent seven months roughing it in Kent instead, described the experience as being “like when you tell a little lie and then a bigger one to cover it.” He started off deciding that he needed “a few days on my own”. After a few days, however, “I couldn’t face coming back.”

“A lot of people feel that they can’t come back until they’ve made something of themselves,” says Sophie Woodforde of the National Missing Persons Helpline. “Or until they’ve solved the problems that made them run away in the first place. But usually they can’t.”

The ranks of the disappeared seem to have been swelling remorselessly in the past decade, but it is hard to be certain, because until 1992 there was no central body monitoring such matters. The National Missing Persons Helpline was set up to fill the gap, by two sisters from North Sheen, Janet Newman and Mary Asprey – both of whom are now OBEs.

Today, the Helpline has more than 30 paid staff, 60 regular volunteers and a large donated office in North Sheen, and scrapes by on a charitable income of around pounds 750,000 a year. It is the only organisation in Europe that monitors missing adults as well as children on a national basis. (In Britain, individual police forces focus mainly on their own regions, and look only for missing people who are considered at risk of suicide or foul play; the Salvation Army, by contrast, does not deal with “vulnerables”.) The Helpline searches actively for missing people, supports their families, passes on messages in both directions (while maintaining complete confidentiality), and operates a 24-hour free hotline (0500 700 700) for anyone seeking help or advice relating to disappearances – as well as a confidential Message Home service (0800 700 740), on which missing people can leave word that they are still alive.

Much of the NMPH’s work concerns missing children – the under-18s generate 100,000 missing person reports each year – but it is the unfashionable business of tracing missing adults that consumes the bulk of the Helpline’s limited resources.

“If we were just missing children – or missing cats and dogs – we’d be fine,” says Sophie Woodforde. “But at the moment we’re the victims of our own success. The more people get to hear about us, the more people come to us for help. So our workload is increasing all the time, and our income hasn’t increased to match.”

An obvious solution would be to focus solely on children, but the NMPH is determined not to go down that path, not least because, as Janet Newman puts it, “If a father or a mother or a grandparent goes missing, it affects the children too, and causes enormous distress.” Also, of course, many of the men who go missing are little better than children anyway. Sean O’Donnell speaks for many of the disappeared when he says: “I’m just a big boy at heart – a 40-year-old kid who didn’t want to grow up properly.”

* * *

WHEN ROGER Liddle left his life in Scotland and escaped south, he paused as he passed through York to dismantle his mobile phone and throw the pieces into River Ouse. It was a practical act – mobile phones can be traced – but also a symbolic one: as the waters closed over the pieces, so the story of his first life closed too.

Perhaps that is why so many missing people are drawn to coasts and lakes. Some may be seeking memories of happy childhood holidays, and some, no doubt, are thinking of drowning. But it’s hard not to believe that part of the motivation is water’s perceived power of oblivion: its capacity to smooth, to conceal, to heal.

Yet the ripples left by a vanishing do not disappear: instead, they continue to define the vanisher, to the exclusion of all else, until and unless he returns. His disappearance does not end the story of his old life: rather, it condemns his fellow characters to a perpetual limbo of wondering and waiting, hoping against hope that the missing pages of the story will turn up.

If you stand on the edge of the mouth of the Humber, and think of some of the men who have disappeared in these parts in the past 12 months, it is hard not to feel disoriented. The grey water that rushes past Grimsby towards Skegness seems to beckon, in the way that a cliff beckons even for those without a suicidal thought in their heads.

But the seductive thought – “It could be you” – can rarely stands up to close scrutiny. For a start, as countless missing men have found, ordinariness – sordid, boring mess – is as unescapable a feature of life after a disappearance as before. Thus Neil Yates, having struck out for freedom, spent nearly all his seven-month adventure “walking or staying in my room” and “worrying about everybody”. And every day that Sean O’Donnell spent in Amsterdam was spent “hating myself, and wishing I could go home.”

The two men who disappear today will probably feel that they are walking out of an intolerable present into an unfettered future. But they will also be walking, in an equally intolerable way, into someone else’s past. “Walking away doesn’t solve anything,” says Jane O’Donnell. “It makes it 10 times worse, and at the end of the day all the person is doing is taking their problems with them.

“If anyone else is thinking of going missing, I’d say one thing to them: don’t do it. It causes too much heartache for those they leave behind.”

 For more information on the National Missing Persons Helpline call 0181 392 4510 or 0956 570 764

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