Missing people, the other big issue

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The Independent Online
LATE and tired at the end of a long day, I'm accosted on the Tube station by someone even more tired. His voice is hoarse but persistent. 'Buy the Big Issue and help the homeless] Buy the Big Issue]' I usually do, both to help him and because I am interested by the magazine's unconventional ragbag of writing about London as seen from street level. There are stories and poems by the homeless (the latter nearly always dreadfully, touchingly bad, plangent with longing and fantasy), articles about initiatives to help the homeless, jokes, interviews, classified ads - the usual mix of a weekly news magazine.

It's been getting better and better over the past year or so, and this is confirmed by a rise in circulation from 30,000 a month when it was launched in September 1991 to around 110,000 a week now. From London it has expanded outwards and is now sold in Brighton, Bath and Manchester as well. It speaks for the homeless, and has done wonders to improve people's perception of them by demonstrating that they aren't just idlers, slackers and dropouts; druggies, drunks and the unlucky. They may be some of those things, but many have just fallen through a gap in the family, the job market or the housing queue, and somehow never managed to regain a foothold. There but by the grace of God go I.

The page that moves me the most is always the one called 'MISSING: can you help?' It is run by a tiny charity set up in July 1992, and the page shows grainy, often hopelessly out-of-date photographs of four people. Below is a brief history of each, and an appeal to get in touch with their families, who long to hear that they are safe. There's a telephone number: 081-392 2000.

This week features Karl Folksman, who disappeared 20 years ago; last heard of working as a Red Coat for Butlins in Cornwall. There's Peter McCaffrey, not seen by his family for 13 years. 'His sister Belinda is especially desperate as she misses him very much.' There is Timothy Powell, last seen by his family seven years ago, when he was in hospital. Finally, there is the angelic young face of Kate Gledhill, who is 14, though she looks more like 18. She disappeared recently with her much older boyfriend, and there's been no news of her for several weeks. 'Her parents are terribly worried.' Dear God, so would I be] She apparently said she was going to a bonfire party and would be back later that evening; and off she went into the night . . .

It made me realise yet again that death might be easier to bear than disappearance. If someone dies, however agonising it is, you know what has happened. You can grieve, observe the rituals, have the funeral, lay down the flowers. But if they simply vanish: what do you do? What do you think? You hope, you tell yourself there's a common- sense explanation, they'll ring, be back. Then nothing. Silence. Imagination runs riot; nightmares don't just happen at night.

I have a friend in Hungary whose husband simply disappeared during the Second World War. For 18 months he was away, last heard of fighting on the Soviet front. Letters came, if intermittently. Then they stopped. What was she to think? Prison camp? Torture? Amnesia? Or sudden death? Not knowing meant that all those possibilities came and went as certainties. She has never learnt his fate.

Amazingly, the faces who look out of the grainy photographs in the Big Issue do turn into real, live people in 60 per cent of cases: the success rate of the Missing page is as high as that. Its helpline, which exists to support the people left behind, receives more than 500 calls a week, although the magazine can feature only some 200 people a year. There is also a one-minute slot on Carlton TV four times a week, just before the 5.40 pm news, and at 70 per cent its success rate is even higher.

People disappear for all sorts of reasons, good and bad. A few are genuine cases of amnesia, and one such man was reunited with his family recently after 20 years. Others are young people who have had a blazing row with their families and walked out, full of pride and fury. Husbands or wives may do the same. In a very few instances, the families looking for a missing person have had to be told that they were murdered, or committed suicide, or met with an accident . . . but at least, at last, they know.

Silence is the cruellest blow of all.