'If only we had said goodbye'

Each year, 210,000 people go missing in the UK. But what happens to those who are left behind? Interviews by Ruby Russell
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The Independent Online

Patricia, Barry's daughter: "I was close to my dad, really close, because I'm an only child. He went missing when my nan was in hospital - we found out he had gone when he never turned up to see her. My nan cried and cried, but she always believed he was out there somewhere. I think he was under stress, because he was so close to my nan. It was a shock to him that she suddenly had a stroke. And it was a major stroke - my dad left when everyone thought she wouldn't survive. I don't think he knows she survived the stroke." [Barry's mother died on Christmas Eve, 2005.]

Cristina, Barry's wife: "People say time is a healer, but not in this situation. It doesn't get easier, of course not. If you can say goodbye, things are clear, you can go on, you know what happened. But when it's like this it's hard to imagine the next day and the next. It's an open book, it's never-ending. The days get harder and harder. I keep asking, 'Why?'

"He didn't like travelling - he didn't even have a passport - so it's hard to think that he went abroad. One day I imagine that someone killed him, another day I might think he just left me because he wanted to move on. But that's not him, you know? The way he was, he never left the house without saying where he was going. If he didn't communicate with me he'd communicate with his family. One of us always knew where he was.

"He was only 19 when we had Patricia. I was 25. We met in a nightclub. We got married and had the baby - it all happened very quickly. No relationship is perfect, but when you learn to love someone, the important thing is to look at how you can work everything out.

"I don't expect people to think, poor Cris, poor Cris, because I am a strong person. I have to be strong for Tricia. I was on antidepressants last year, strong tablets, but now I have stopped them. I say to her, 'You are my medicine.' When you have someone to care about, that's it. You have to look forward. It's not easy. Life is more complicated than you expect.

"I really thought he would come home that first Christmas. I was with his mother when she died. She called for him before she lost consciousness. It's very difficult when someone is dying and they're asking you for something there's no answer to. But what can I say? I promised her I would keep looking for him. And keep hoping. God give me the strength. I just hope that we get an answer one day. Nothing will make me give up. I will never give up hoping." f

In December 1991, Nicola Payne, 18, was moving in with her boyfriend in Coventry. She popped out to pick up clothes for their seven-month-old son. She was not seen again

Marilyn, Nicola's mother: "The day our daughter went missing, I had a gut feeling that something was not right. I just felt sick. Then John, my husband, called to ask if I had seen Nickie. And I said, 'No, why?' All of a sudden I thought: this is what this feeling's about. I said to a colleague, 'I don't think I'll ever see Nickie again.' She said, 'Don't be daft, perhaps she's just gone for a coffee.'

"What tortures me the most, perhaps even more than losing her, are the questions. What happened in her last half-hour, hour, two hours? Whatever did anybody do to her? What happened? That haunts you.

"It's a wonder John and I are still together, because he kept saying to me, 'I look at that door and I just live for the day she walks back in.' I'd say to him, 'She never will, she's dead.' I can't help it, it's what I believe inside.

"Every morning when I open my eyes I always think about her straightaway. I sit at night and I always say a little prayer to her. It'll never leave me. If you've lost somebody and you have them buried, you've got somewhere to go, you've put them to rest. Not in our case. We could go to our graves and still not know."

In December 1995, a friend invited Philip Fudge, 21, to a party at the Liverpool barracks of HMS Eaglett. He was last seen leaving in a taxi. He was living in Hull with his mother

Nadine, Philip's mother: "On the Sunday [the party was on a Saturday] I got a call from one of the friends Philip went to Liverpool with, asking if I had seen Philip. They didn't know where he was. I got worried and rang the police and they said you have to give it four days. If it's a child, they'll act straightaway, if it's girl they'll go reasonably quickly, but if it's a boy they'll wait four days.

"But I took it seriously. I rang hospitals in or around Liverpool, police stations, Granada TV and the radio stations. Radio Merseyside put out a message for him to call his mother.

"My son-in-law thinks I jumped the gun and probably spooked him. He said if it were him he'd be terrified, thinking that the police were out looking for him and that there might be repercussions if he showed up now. But I couldn't stop, I had to find him.

"When the divers searched the Liverpool docks, that was my worst time. The barracks is not far from the water but he'd have had to climb a hell of a big fence, and get through security ... I knew it was possible he could have gone in the water, but I wanted them to stop - I don't know why. Thinking about the water, I just had this fear. They did find a body down there but it was an old man.

"Much later, about three years ago, the phone rang and it was a boy crying and saying, 'Mum, I'm sorry, I want to come home,' and all I kept saying was, 'Who is it?' I don't know why. Afterwards I realised - and this really gets to you - that I should have said, 'Where are you?' or something. He just kept saying, 'It's me, I'm sorry, I want to come home.' And then he said, 'Well I'll go now,' and put the phone down. Then the phone rang again, and I knew that this time I had to tell him to come home, but it was someone selling double-glazing. My daughter said, 'He's done it once, Mum, he can do it again.' But he never did." f

In August 2004, Blake Hartley was on an army training expedition in Chamonix, France. He was last seen in the early hours, walking home, after his 25th birthday party

Sally, Blake's mother: "The army was very much against us going to look for Blake - helicopters and search parties were there already - but the day after he went missing, I was there with my husband. The river L'Arve runs through the town. We went over a bridge and I said, 'Oh God, have you seen this river? It gives me the creeps.' It's big and noisy, with this horrible smell. And it's very, very swift.

"The hydroelectric dam was shut down for the night, so they floodlit it to watch for anything coming down. We've had the divers in there I don't know how many times. In April we brought specially trained sniffer dogs that can find bodies that have been in water a long time. We've contacted all the monasteries in France, as we thought he may be taking refuge in one. I have had posters put up throughout the valley, and I've done interviews with radio and TV. I've had drivers going across Europe with postcards.

"The trouble is, we don't know what we're looking for - a body or someone who walked away? There are so many possibilities, that's the problem. In May I've got a psychic coming out there with us. It's the only thing left."

Rebecca Carr went missing in Gillingham in 2002. She was 22. She was last seen at a nearby hotel, the King Charles. She left behind her son, who was then three years old

Lynne, Rebecca's mother: "Last November it was three years since Rebecca had disappeared and the police came to tell me they don't think she's with us any more. That was a big blow. They've had a lot of leads, and there have been stories that she may have been killed, but there's been no body. That's what keeps me going. They've arrested people, but they've never got to the bottom of it. There's no proof. She could still be out there somewhere.

"I've had to redecorate now, and take all my photographs down, because I was living in the middle of it. At the moment I'm not allowed to have Rebecca's son here because the memories in this house are too much for him.

"November, and Hallowe'en, is when he really starts playing up. For him, three years is a lifetime. They're his first years at school. I felt really guilty letting him go, but I wasn't doing him any good, because I was really depressed myself. He needed a family. He has little foster brothers and sisters now and they love him dearly; he's very happy with them. And he's only 10 minutes up the road, so I'm back to being Nanny now. I was trying to be Mummy and Nanny.

"He takes it out on women, especially his foster mum - 'Why don't you find my mum?' And then he'll break something of hers. 'You're not looking for my mum, no one knows where she is.' I have to meet him out, where there are lots of other things going on so he can't have a chance to get to me, to start asking questions. He's never said that to me. But I think he feels sorry for me, honestly, I really think he does.

"Some people you speak to about it pity you and that just makes me more upset. Sometimes you'll see someone in town and they'll say, 'How's your Becky doing?' and I'll just say, 'Yeah, she's all right, she's fine.'"

Seven years ago, Matthew O'Reilly, an artist, 29, left his family home in Barnstaple, Devon. A sign outside now reads: 'Welcome home Matthew. Please ring door bell'

Timothy, Matthew's father "Matthew doesn't know that his mother has died [in April last year]. Well, I wouldn't say he does. I didn't put an announcement in the national press, just locally.

"When he left, my wife felt it more keenly than I did. Or at least she felt it in a different way. Even when she was ill - she was very ill with cancer - and even at the end she would put down little notes about Matthew in her diary.

"The number of weeks he's been missing is now three hundred and sixty-something. I've been thinking about him all the time. Of course, life continues, but if he would make contact, well, I might not like the fact that he isn't here, but at least I wouldn't be worried.

"My home phone now diverts to my mobile, so that I don't miss a single call. A couple of months after he disappeared, the phone rang and I was trying to get downstairs in time to answer it. I'd had a hip replacement just after Matthew left. We didn't have a mobile back then. The phone was ringing and ringing and when I got to it, the person rang off. I've always wondered if it might have been him.

"One time the police came and showed us a photograph that had been taken of a youth, a body that was lying away from the camera with the soles of the boots foremost. We couldn't see the face very well. He was wearing jeans, the usual kind of clothes. We were asked if we recognised him. Well, my wife thought it was him. I was a bit more, 'Well, I don't know, his face, it isn't his face, and he wouldn't wear boots like that, he really wouldn't be caught dead in them.' We had to wait a few days before they came back to us and said, 'No, it wasn't him. We have ascertained who it was.' But it had dragged on, you know, and what my wife was feeling all that time ...

"Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think that he meant to stay away a long time, and maybe that phone call was from him. I can't say for sure why he didn't contact us but I certainly think he feels that he's living according to his present commitments, whatever they are, and he's more or less too embarrassed, I think, to ring home. Because he was a bit like that. He had a conscience, you know. It's not necessary, just not necessary, but there's no use my saying so.

"I don't know if he's seen the posters we put up, in town and nationwide. He may well have seen them but in his state of mind - I don't mean he's insane or anything like that, but I know more or less how he feels - he might have felt that he couldn't contact us." E

The National Missing Persons Helpline, 0500 700 700, www.missingpersons.org