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Grace Dent on TV: The Missing, Channel 4

When people go missing, those who are left behind are also lost
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Tim Beardsley got out of bed one morning while his wife, Terrie, was in the bath. He got into his car and drove off. Some might say “sneaked off”. Others might say he “mooched off”. Or maybe he “stormed off”. He’d been a bit down. No one saw him go, so we’ll never know. Tim didn’t say goodbye, that’s for certain, and this was two years ago and he has never been seen since. The Missing, a lovely piece of TV on Channel 4 this week, attempted to look at the world he’d left behind.

On “his side” of the sofa, Tim’s wife had left  a pile of toy bunnies. The couple called each other “bunny” and bought fluffy toys for each other as one of those silly things they did. Since Tim left, Terrie has written him a Facebook message every evening just to make sure he knows he is missed. Terrie’s life these days is little more than a cerebral maze of potential clues, aggravating question marks and head-tilts from well-meaning strangers. Her only chance of peace would be  simply to forget Tim existed or to believe that  he wished to remain unfound, neither of which Terrie would be doing any day soon. “I mean, what kind of wife would I be if I gave up?” she says.

The Missing was a beautiful and sensitive piece of television about the insidious agony of not knowing. Oddly, I felt no real concern for Tim  – whatever had happened to him, it could be  argued that it was his choice to make – but I certainly wanted closure for Terrie, because her life was as lost as Tim’s.

Long after the documentary finished, I found myself pondering the facts. I say “facts”. The Missing showed us that in cases like this, all you have are vague ideas and subjective interpretations. Tim left with no goodbye. No suitcase. He was stressed by work. Was it work or something he’d not told Terrie? His credit cards and bank accounts have never been accessed. His car was found by a lake, but no trace of his body was. Was he lost on the mountains? Were the police divers wrong about how far he could have waded out carrying a heavy weight? Was Tim’s car-dumping an elaborate bluff? Had he gone to Acapulco? Was he homeless with amnesia? Was he with another woman? But if Tim had another woman, why was his house full of the fluffy toy bunnies? Oh, there we are at the beginning of the maze again. Besides, if Tim wanted to leave Terrie, why didn’t he take his beloved Ginetta sports car with him? He’d never leave his car. But hang on, oh, he did.

His best friend says he feels he’s let Tim down. “He’s just a little bit lost, and we have to find him.” Tim’s sister in law remembers him as “distant” in the days before he went, but had clearly lost patience with the idea that he was a depressive and saw him more as a selfish git who had abandoned his wife. Or maybe she has developed this version of events as a form of tough-love towards Terrie. Two years after events, it was hard to know who really remembered what.

The Missing’s other unresolved story was of big sister Berna’s search for Esra, a mother of one who went to the shops one day and never returned. The story had been told so many times by the family that Esra’s little boy could recite it like a Grimm’s Fairytale. “Mummy went to the shop and then she was gone.” Berna was defiant that Esra would never leave her little boy and run away, nor commit suicide. “I keep thinking, has someone got her?” said Berna. Her eyes were dark-ringed. She was a woman consumed by  sadness and anger. Berna walked the streets  with flyers and stuck posters to lampposts. What Berna really needed was a good night’s sleep but I wondered by the end of this hour whether Berna would ever give up, get over or move on. My conclusion was no. “She would do this for me, if the shoe was on the other foot, she would look for me,” wept Berna.

Thankfully, there was one happy ending, with missing person Mark Whittingstall being found by police and calmly ringing his frantic brother to say, in a rather dazed manner, that he’d just “gone off and time had gone on a bit longer than he thought”. It was a curiously child-like way of expressing the level of upset he had caused but those little words solved everything for his family. “I feel like I’ve been carrying around a massive weight and someone’s just taken it off me,” said Mark’s brother. Sadly for Terrie and Berna, their daily suffocation by sadness continues.