The Years Lost
father on the phone, full of plans for holidays and birthdays. Police think she set off for her work as a chef the next morning, but she never arrived.
Despite a major investigation, no one knows what happened to Claudia. But investigators strongly suspect she has “come to harm”.
“It’s the not knowing that is the worst thing,” Peter says. “If someone dies, at least you know and you’ve buried them. If someone goes missing, not knowing feels worse.” I meet Peter at his home. He moved from a village outside York to Claudia’s neighbourhood after she disappeared. At 67, Peter is a successful property lawyer, but with a hole wearing through his cardigan elbow and her missing persons poster on the bare windowsill, he seems vulnerable. He is divorced and his other daughter is living farther away. This interview he endures, despite the pain, because it is one more thing he can do for Claudia, who would have celebrated her 40th birthday in February.
Does he imagine her at 40? He shakes his head. “That’s very difficult. I still think of her as 35. And that’s what we’ve missed, this transition from carefree young lady, to whatever she might have been. Would she have got married? Would she have started a family? Five years of her life, of being with us, that’s gone missing.” He pauses. “It’s a very long time.” Sometimes, to feel closer to her, he goes to a pub nearby, “because there are people there whom she knew – I talk to them, and that’s a sort of closeness.”
I ask how he copes with the birthdays, Christmases and the anniversary of her disappearance. “I think about her when I’m lying in bed or doing anything. When I go out, I look around and think, ‘Claudia, are you seeing something like this? Are you still with us? Are you seeing the same blue sky?’ That’s not something that just comes up on anniversaries. That’s all the time.”
When he talks to her in his head like this, he is testing his faith in her being alive. When Claudia’s friend first raised the alarm about her disappearance, Peter used his key to enter Claudia’s house, unaware that it would be the first of half a decade of visits. He was at first relieved that the house was tidy, and Claudia was not collapsed on the floor. But then his mind was tortured by horrible possibilities.
“Now, I don’t keep going over those. There’s no point. Rightly or wrongly, I made my mind up reasonably early on, on what had probably happened to Claudia: I think she was abducted on her way to work. Probably by somebody that she at least recognised, as I don’t think she would have willingly got into a stranger’s car.”
Without evidence to the contrary, there is a chance Claudia has managed to keep herself alive, although each year that goes by seems to close this door a little further. “It’s a hope. The previous senior investigating officer and myself reckoned we were working on parallel lines. He reckoned she was dead, I reckoned she wasn’t. We both wanted to find her.”
People often say that the suffering gets easier with time after a bereavement, but in this case the passage of time brings its own pain. “It won’t get any easier. There is still a big hole in my life where Claudia was,” and at this, his voice breaks and he looks up to stop the tears.
Peter disciplines himself not to fall apart; he can’t, for her sake. He has redirected some of that emotional effort into becoming fierce on behalf of other families of missing people.
Like most of us, Peter never considered the practicalities of coping after someone vanishes: when it happened to him, he was appalled. In the United Kingdom, the missing person is neither dead nor present and therefore, no one has the power to handle their affairs.
At the moment, even when someone has been missing for a long period, it is hard to get them registered as presumed dead, to sell the house or wind up their accounts.
Peter describes the difficulties: “Once a mortgage hasn’t been paid for three months, the mortgage company is quite likely to sell the property, and that’s a relatively short time. You can’t do anything. The bank, insurance companies, mortgage lenders, they all say, ‘We can’t accept your instructions, as you’re not our customer’.
“You’re at your lowest emotional ebb, and you have to fight all these problems. I’ve met so many people in this situation. It’s terribly distressing.”
Peter is pleased though that small things are improving: when a student went missing in York in January, Missing People, a charity, was contacted. “The charity quickly had people on the streets, talking to people. That didn’t happen five years ago.” And just recently, the police said technology had improved enough that it was worth repeating forensic tests on Claudia’s house. They stayed for six weeks. That they were in there so long has made his hopes rise, although they haven’t released any findings.
On the advice of another man whose daughter went missing in the 1980s, Peter is striving to keep the case in the public eye. Now, he gets approached occasionally by people who recognise him, and he doesn’t mind, because “that means it’s working”. Somewhere, someone knows something, and he needs to find them.
The interview ends, and Peter jumps up in relief to find a photo of Claudia for me to look at. There she is, in a bridesmaid’s dress for her sister’s wedding. “Oh, she hated getting dressed up, she liked being covered in mud more than anything; she had one horse or another from when she was tiny,” says Peter, who seems so completely changed. Remembering her and holding her picture in his arms has made him, just for one brief moment, happy.