How a writer found himself in a missing person story

Despite the cold, it had been a decent day. Late March is sometimes like that in London. More winter than spring, the grass often still frozen half solid underfoot. It’s rarely a time that speaks too loudly of renewal. This year wasn’t any different, as far as I can remember. The occasion that afternoon was a friend’s 30th birthday party, if that’s what you’d call a few faintly desultory beers in a barren Peckham Rye Park.

Back at home, my partner and I had settled down to watch a florid period drama. About half an hour in, that’s when it happened: the moment my life changed. My phone lit up with an unfamiliar name on Facebook Messenger. “Hello Francisco, this might be a shock. It’s your father’s family in Spain. Twenty years may have passed, but we have always remembered you.”

The story begins a few years before my birth in July 1992. My Londoner mother, Stephanie, had met my Spanish father, Christobal, in La Linea, his troubled home city, which sits at the southern tip of Andalusia, just across the border from Gibraltar. They’d fallen in love with youth’s ease and inevitability. London seemed like the best place for their new beginnings, so they returned. Mum, to her job as an admin assistant with Lambeth Council, and Christobal, to a fresh start in an unfamiliar city.

Though life was never easy, exactly, there were plenty of happy times. I arrived and our new family secured a small council flat in Lewisham. But things had changed by the mid-90s. Christobal’s work as a painter and decorator dried up and his drinking became more pronounced. Eventually, he returned to Spain, while Mum and I moved up the road to a small basement flat in Forest Hill. By 1999, things had taken a darker turn. Mum was ill and it was terminal. Breast cancer, barely into her 40s. By September that year, she was dead, a few months on from my seventh birthday.

The last time I saw Christobal was several months later in 2000, back in La Linea, on a trip accompanied by my maternal aunt. He wasn’t well either. In my memory, the drinking had hollowed him out, though grief had doubtlessly played its part, too. I don’t remember much about that trip, outside a few vivid flourishes of blue sky and Spanish heat. It was a harsh time in all of our lives. I was subsequently brought up by my grandmother and one of my maternal aunts, in London and Scotland. Life gradually began anew, and there were plenty of happy times to come. But until that Facebook message arrived 21 years later, that was the last I’d heard of Christobal, or my Spanish family. Life branched out in different directions and the silence gradually deadened to estrangement, even if I never did entirely stop wondering what became of my father.

In 2019, I started work on a book documenting the UK’s missing-persons crisis. When I began writing professionally in my early 20s, it wasn’t wrapped up with detailed career plans. I did it because I couldn’t really imagine doing anything else. I’d always been drawn to the stories at the margins and the shadow world of the disappeared: 175,000 people are reported missing in the UK every year, a number that encompasses everything from long-term “mispers” to the legion of vulnerable people who flit in and out of sight, suffering poor mental health, a lack of social support, or simply having been taken and harmed. It also led me to a better understanding of Christobal. How, in the decades since our last meeting, he too had become missing from my life.

By March 2021, I was tentatively happy with what I’d achieved on the book. There were still a couple of months until its publication in May and everything appeared to be on track. After all the weeks and months crisscrossing the country, conducting dozens of interviews with the missing and the left behind, as well as the agencies tasked with searching, there came a time when the mass of personal stories had cohered into a recognisable wider narrative.

There were the questions that I’d tried to answer as carefully as possible, like what this constant churn of disappearances might tell us about the health of our society. The number of people slipping through the gaps seemed to speak to an ever more emaciated social safety net. And what of the people, perhaps like my father, who didn’t want to be found? Intention matters. In June 2019, I’d visited the National Crime Agency offices in Vauxhall to speak with Joe Apps, head of the Missing Persons Unit. He’d explained how “many people who go missing don’t think they’re missing at all, because they haven’t got that concept in their head”.

In September 2020, I’d finally arrived in La Linea on the last leg of book reporting. Though I’d tried to justify it as a research trip, that was never really the whole of it. There was something else, something more elemental at play. Like what it would feel like to trace my steps around the city my father had hailed from, or appraise the water’s particular shade of blue as it spread out across the horizon. It was there that I’d made a conscious choice not to try to seek out my lost family. In truth, I wouldn’t have known how, then. So much time had passed in silence, it didn’t seem fair. There was no way of saying what my presence might have stirred up for them, or even if they’d want to know me at all. Back then, I thought if my life was ever to conclusively move forward, the ambiguity around Christobal would simply have to remain part of it.

None of this was going through my mind that night those first messages from that same lost family arrived. There was no room for reflection, just sheer, dumb shock. The first had arrived from my cousin, the second from an aunt I remembered from that visit two decades prior. In the following days, they started to arrive in a torrent, via WhatsApp and email. Aunts, uncles, cousins and even grandparents. So many names and faces from the distant past, suddenly made real again.

The irony was obvious and unavoidable. Just as I’d finished years chronicling the world of the missing, the focus had flipped. During all of the time spent considering how and why people slip into disappearance, I’d rarely given serious thought to the idea that I might be missing myself. But that’s exactly what I had been, from my Spanish family’s perspective.

They had been searching for, and thinking of me, just as much as I’d done the same for Christobal. I had been lost to them, but now I was found.

There was no rancour, no bitterness: just a sense of undiluted joy. Pictures passed back and forth. Some depicted Mum and Dad in London and Spain, flushed with youthful happiness. More recent images were enthusiastically received on both sides. Had anyone, they asked, ever told me how much I look like my father? The same smile and facial features, down to the thickness of our eyebrows.

Mainly, they said for me to take my time, that the past was the past and they wanted to talk, whenever I was ready. That there could be many new memories to make. They’d found me via Facebook after many years of searching, unaware that I’d kept my entire Spanish surname. They hadn’t thought until recently to look for a Garcia-Ferrera on social media, assuming I’d taken my mother’s maiden name – Ward – to go with Garcia, as is the custom in Spain. And, finally, there I’d been, staring back at them from a half-dormant Facebook profile. All of this time and they’d been looking for a person who didn’t technically exist. It’s an odd feeling, to suddenly become a ghost in your own origin story.

After a sleepless night, I replied. The central question didn’t remain unanswered for long. Christobal had died just a few years after my last visit in 2000. At 32, he was only three years older than I am now. By then, he’d lost most of whatever clarity he’d once possessed. It had been hard for him and the wider family. But he had never forgotten the memories of his London life, or his son. Every night, they told me, he’d sleep with a picture of Mum and me tucked under his pillow.

They had waited so long to give me an honest biography of my father’s life. La Linea in the 1980s wasn’t a great time or place to be young. Unemployment was high and prospects limited. Drugs were rife and he had fallen in with a bad crowd in his youth. He’d been in his early 20s when he’d met Mum, little more than a kid, in truth. She was a few years older and proved an immediately steadying influence.

Yes, he’d had his demons. And there were times when he had been weak. But he had also been so very young. They wanted me to remember so much of the good he carried in him. Kindness had always come naturally. And he was smart. You had to be, to have learned English and Portuguese. I replied with the truth. That I’d never felt anything like bitterness towards him and wasn’t going to start now. Life had always been too pressing for that. There had been pity, certainly. I’d sometimes wonder whether that was worse than resentment. After all, who would ever want to pity their father?

Closure is an ideal never too far away in any discussion of the missing. It was a word I’d learned to distrust over many months of reporting. What did it mean, applied to the endless complexity of an individual life or disappearance? One woman I’d spoken with in the north-east had been a missing person in the mid-2010s, after her mental health had deteriorated. The two days of her self-imposed absence had reverberated through her life in the years since. After her return, people had looked at and treated her differently, though she had since built up a new life, refusing to let the “episode” define her. For her, the act of returning hadn’t offered any kind of neat conclusion. Things are rarely that simple. In the early days of writing the book, I’d sit down with my old friend Jamie Reid in an Edinburgh pub. We’d first met years before in Dundee, when I’d been studying for my undergraduate degree in the city. In the spring of 2014, his mother, Susan, was reported missing. After four months of agonising silence, her body was discovered a few miles from their family home.

His life in the years since has been a study in resilience. He’d moved to Edinburgh, earned a degree, started a thriving career and remains one of the most contagiously social people I’ve ever met. But moving forward doesn’t mean the past isn’t always there. “People in my home town are obviously happy to see me and are happy for what I’ve achieved, but it can be exhausting sometimes, too,” Jamie had explained to me then. “It’s the reminder of a previous life, when everything was different.”

Life is rarely symmetrical and neither is loss. Grief can take many different forms, but there is certainty in death, if nothing else – or at least, that’s what I used to think about the ghosts of my own past. The person was here and now they aren’t, and never will be again. There isn’t a more emphatic form of closure. No ambiguity, no tiny thread of hope that things might turn out differently given enough good fortune. It’s the kind of cold, hard clarity that means you can start to “move on”, as the months bleed into years and the hurt hopefully diminishes into something less vivid.

Perhaps that isn’t quite true. I’m not sure the old conclusions work now, when it comes to Christobal. It might sound strange, or even callous, but the news of his passing came as a relief. It explained so much, like why he’d never tried to make contact. In truth, I might not have known what to say to him after all this time. It’s not a problem with the rest of my new family. Since that March night, we’ve stayed in steady contact, exchanging regular messages about the minutiae of our weeks, or whatever else we want to speak on. There’s no rush now to dissect all the things that went before.

One thing I’ve grown to understand is this isn’t, and was never, just about me or my impressions of an absent father. At first it was a shock to discover that while Christobal might have been missing from me, I was equally missing from his – our – family in Spain. Perspective is crucial and absence can often cut two ways. I’d no idea I was being searched for, as well as doing the searching myself.

So much of life is timing. The happy or disastrous accidents of fate we have little to no control over. That this new chapter has opened up in front of me, at the very moment I’d finally given up on closure, often catches me as unreal. Six months on, there are still times when my good fortune almost feels obscene. I’d told myself that some things just weren’t meant to happen. That’s what I thought my work with the missing had shown me in the end: that reunions were the stuff of fairytale not real life, with all of its messy compromises and false starts.

September was warm this year, as it often is in London. Even as the trees shed their leaves, there was something in the air that just seemed to speak to fresh beginnings. Maybe it had something to do with a purchase I made at the start of the month. It isn’t all that expensive to fly to Spain at the moment and I’m looking forward to visiting La Linea again. Only this time, I’ll have a whole new family to guide me.

If You Were There: Missing People and the Marks They Leave Behind by Francisco Garcia is published by HarperCollins at £14.99. Buy it for £13.04 at guardianbookshop.com

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