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180,000 people go missing every year in Britain – my father was one of them

What happens to a family when a parent disappears?

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

21 August 2021

9:00 AM

A couple of Southern Hemisphere summers ago, in January 2019, I was at the Michael Fowler Centre in Wellington, New Zealand. It was an unseasonably chilly evening as I sat listening to an emotional solo piano performance by Nick Cave.

He sang a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’, a wonderfully gloomy piece of psychology set to music about the death of a father. This rather well-known Cohen track has particular significance for me. It always prompts thoughts of a slightly lesser-known L. Cohen, my own father, who had disappeared without trace 50 years earlier.

Whatever became of him? Where did he end up? What might he have been doing at the same moment I was listening to Nick Cave that evening? You tend to wonder about these things from time to time if you haven’t seen your old man in half a century.

My father Lionel was a dark-eyed and soft-spoken, sort of good-looking, music obsessive. Presumably in the mood for a fling, he met my mother, Mary, while he was holidaying in the South Seas. They first bumped into each other in a record store. I suppose he was drawn to her honeyed Irish accent, or something else suitably musical, for I was born almost exactly nine months later.

My parents — even though this was the Swinging Sixties — were married by this point. The three of us went to England before too long and for the next four or so years life proceeded ordinarily enough in Kent, even if their relationship seemed to be, at least with the benefit of hindsight, a little frayed at the edges. Lionel took the train from Tonbridge each morning to go to work in London. Sometimes my mother would take me down to the platform in the afternoons for his return. Everything was more or less normal, until it wasn’t.


One day Lionel didn’t show up at the station. Nor the following day; nor, as it transpired, ever again. For a long time afterwards, I suppose he would have been counted simply as a missing person. Nobody appeared to know what had become of him, although since the police were never involved there can’t have been any suspicion of foul play. Even so, for a significant period, the official line was that he had possibly died. My mother and I later discovered that he had simply relocated, albeit with a somewhat grand flourish and — it later turned out — for the most pedestrian of reasons: another relationship. But where had he relocated to?

Nobody seemed to know, and, despite attempts to find out over many long years, his whereabouts and newfound circumstances remained a mystery. His parents couldn’t be asked about it. One of them was dead and the other off the scene. The rest of his wider British family, who first arrived in the UK from Lithuania and Poland in the late 1800s, were now globally dispersed, mostly to South Africa. Today that would only be an email away, but in those days it might just as well have been Mars.

Such is the way of many exit ghosts. An estimated 170,000 people go missing every year in Britain. Mercifully few of them are abducted by strangers, even if these are the shocking cases that understandably capture the popular imagination. Rather, according to organisations such as Missing People, they are far more likely to have contrived to abandon their families. In all, according to the latest UK Missing Persons Data Report, 96 per cent will eventually reappear having suffered no physical harm. The same lack of harm, however, doesn’t always apply to the emotional well-being of those they have left.

Some who go missing are escaping the law or bad debts. Some are kids who have run away from home. A number have mental health issues. For the most part, though, according to Francisco Garcia, author of If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind, these are mostly individuals like my father: people looking to get out of jagged domestic situations they perceive to have become intolerable. And, as Garcia writes of his own disappeared father, who vanished when he was seven, those left behind will more often mentally make do with ‘yoked-together fragments’ of memory to be interpreted with as much generosity as can be mustered.

In the years following my father’s disappearance, my mother, now back in New Zealand, often seemed to forget where she was or even who she was. It was as if what had happened in England made her lose all sense of continuity. She never remarried or, as far as I’m aware, looked twice at another man again.

It seems almost absurd to even be talking about such a subject, let alone considering it as a social epidemic, in a world in which interconnectedness has become the name of the global game. Everything we supposedly need to know is within reach of a computer search engine. Our work histories. The articles we may have produced. Our late-night rants and oh-so-perfect family shots on social media. All of it is now just a mouse-click away. And yet, with apparent ease, tens of thousands of people still manage to disappear.

‘Empires dissolve and peoples disappear,’ the English poet William Watson, whose work my father was rather fond of, reminds us, but ‘the song passes not away.’ Especially not one particular song by a namesake artist.

A few days after Cave’s swirling performance of the Cohen tune, I was surprised to receive the most specific answer of all. At the time of the show, almost to the moment Cave played ‘Avalanche’, Lionel had died in Eastbourne aged 86. A bad heart, according to the messenger, and she should know because she was a half-sister from another domestic arrangement I knew nothing about until that moment. She had been unaware of me until not much earlier. She had been sorting through her — our — father’s effects, in a matter-of-fact way, only to discover a reference to me in his papers. On this occasion, technology was fortunately indeed a help. A couple of hours of online research filled in the gaps for her. It turned out that they had been living one county over in East Sussex for several decades. What does one say about something like that? Not a lot, probably. You just clamber out from beneath the rubble and keep listening to the music.

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