A Family Affair: `We must be to blame somehow'

Jacqueline and Tim Reilly live in Barnstaple, Devon. Jacqueline is in her late 50s; her husband, a retired English teacher, is 76. Their son Matthew, 29, an artist, was living with them while he tried to get established. Nearly a year ago he vanished, and they have heard no news of him since
Click to follow

It was completely unexpected. Matthew had a studio at home, and often in the afternoon he would go into town for some exercise, or to go to the library, or to get some art materials. He went out at about 1.30 and just never came back.

First we assumed he had met some friends in town and had gone for a drink. Then it got late and we thought he had gone to Exeter, our nearest city. Then we thought he had missed his train back.

We became very anxious, and at midnight I telephoned the local hospital, and in the morning the police. They contacted everyone they could to try and get leads. We've also contacted the National Missing Persons Helpline and the Salvation Army, and have been distributing posters ourselves, but we still haven't found him.

There were a couple of silent phone calls at the beginning. I'm convinced it was him, but that was probably me trying to comfort myself.

For a long time we felt we could hardly go out in case he telephoned. We were almost tied to the house, and then we got a mobile telephone. When we go out we put the [home] phone on diversion, so that has given us more freedom.

Friends have been ever so good. If we've wanted to go out occasionally to the theatre - where we can't take the mobile - they have come over to sit in the house for us and take calls.

My hopes are still raised when the phone rings. When I go out I'll see someone and think for a moment it's Matthew. My heart jumps into my mouth. If we see a police car, I immediately think they're coming up to the house to give us news of him.

We think it was a crisis of the spirit that made Matthew go. Last year he was let down over a commission and he was very upset about it. He was also under pressure. He had been working for his first solo exhibition in a London gallery, and had to produce a lot of paintings. Some were 5ft by 6ft, and they could take weeks or months.

He had been working extremely hard. He was trying to get established, which is incredibly difficult; and, bless him, he couldn't afford to live away from home.

His disappearance has probably aged me by about 10 years. It's always there, you can never relax. It's physically and mentally exhausting, it really is. I hate going up to his studio because it's full of his work, and so completely empty of him.

I absolutely will not consider that he's dead. It's unbearable for one thing. I'm sure he's alive. We have had wonderful comfort and kindness from people. They all take the attitude - I don't know if they just say it - that they are sure that he's out there, and he'll come back. It's lovely when people say that.

In a way his disappearance has made my husband and I appreciate each other more. I suppose it has brought us closer.

Matthew is very intelligent and very well-read. He's quiet, but when you get him talking he's very good company. He's got a very dry sense of humour, which makes me fall around laughing.

I'm not looking forward to Christmas without him. I hope to God he's not living on the street, I can't bear the thought of that. If he came through the door now, I'd just fling my arms around him.


I was pretty shocked by the way it happened. He was here one minute, and then he was gone with only the clothes he was standing up in on a very rainy day.

The day after he left we went to his studio and found that he had ripped up one of his canvases. There must have been some sort of tension there. He was working very hard, almost all the time, and there was the big disappointment in October when the commission for a hotel in London fell through. He was absolutely shattered.

Matthew was very attached to our cats, and he looked after them. When he left we found a little note in the cats' tin supply, listing the food they liked.

We think he must be in London, because that seems to be the Mecca for a lot of people who want to lose their identity and be able to get some work. I haven't been able to consider going round the shelters because of my arthritic condition, and I've been recovering from a hip operation. Perhaps we can do it in the future when I've fully recovered the use of my legs.

On his 30th birthday in April we put an advert in the personal columns of The Independent, which he bought every day. It wished him happy birthday, told him that we had put money into his Abbey National account, and asked him to phone us.

We had no response and he didn't touch the money. I feel very frustrated that we can't seem to get any positive leads.

Except for the time when he did his art degree, he's been here at home. He lived semi-independently, and did his own cooking. He wasn't typically communicative, but that's the kind of person he is. We accepted him as such, but we still knew he was there.

He used to come and sit with us sometimes in the evenings and look at television. It's a terrible handicap not knowing where he is and what has happened to him. Our lives are on hold until he comes back.

I have considered that he may not be alive. But I doubt it - he's very constructive in many ways, except when he disappeared.

We must have some blame in it I suppose, but we don't know exactly what. If there is blame, it's in allowing him all that independence without telling us anything. We never insisted on him telling us anything, if he didn't want to.

If we did say anything it was always with a view to helping him financially - or something like that.

While I'm recovering from the operation I've been sleeping in a room with about 10 of his large paintings stacked up. I look at them every night. I'm sometimes moved to tears when I'm by myself, particularly when I look at some of the pictures that he's done, or some of the photographs.

I wonder what the Dickens is happening to him. If he contacted us it would put us at ease, and free us from a lot of feelings of fear.

National Missing Persons Helpline 0500 700700