‘I saw my own brother drown’

He­len Brown asks why a fam­ily tried to erase the mem­ory of one day in 1978

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books - by Richard Beard

The nine-year-old boy clutch­ing his towel and gaz­ing out to sea in this photo is Richard Beard’s younger brother, Nicky. It was taken on Au­gust 18 1978, hours be­fore he drowned on that Cor­nish beach. For al­most 40 years, the Beard fam­ily has barely spo­ken of the in­ci­dent, or of their lost boy. Brisk be­liev­ers in the virtues of English, mid­dle-class emo­tional sup­pres­sion, they live in de­nial of their de­nial. “The at­ti­tude was: it hap­pened, get on with it,” says their mother.

In Richard Beard’s 2011 novel, Lazarus Is Dead, the hero’s younger brother drowns. The scene, Beard writes now, is “founded on what I re­mem­ber – the fu­ri­ous pad­dling, the treach­er­ous foot­ing, the aban­don­ment”. In fic­tion­al­is­ing Nicky’s death, he wanted to do two – con­flict­ing – things: “kill the mem­ory” and pro­voke a re­sponse from his fam­ily. He suc­ceeded in nei­ther.

There is also a sub­tle self­ex­cul­pa­tion to Lazarus Is Dead, which his fam­ily would not have no­ticed. “I’d for­got­ten, along with so much else, that I was the only per­son who had this close-up knowl­edge, which I’d never pre­vi­ously shared. For me, fic­tion was a way of be­lat­edly own­ing up to what only I knew.” In the novel, the hero twice at­tempts res­cue. In re­al­ity, though, “I hadn’t stayed in the water to res­cue my brother.”

This brave, nec­es­sary me­moir finds Beard strug­gling to bring the facts back to the sur­face. He “can’t re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing, not each sep­a­rate mo­ment”. He was 11, Nicky two years younger. The broth­ers got per­mis­sion for “one last swim” and ran away from the rest of the fam­ily to a rocky cove. He re­mem­bers them play­ing “breath­less” in the waves. Then the un­der­tow; the sand slip­ping from be­neath their toes. Nicky was far­ther out. A des­per­ate doggy pad­dle. Richard shouted that they had to swim, not try to put their feet down. Nicky stretched his neck taut, whined and went un­der. Then Richard was run­ning, cry­ing, smash­ing a stranger’s ex­pen­sive sun­glasses on the rocks. After that, it’s a blank.

Beard’s re­turn to the beach in mid­dle age is ag­o­nis­ing to read. He experiences “a sense of phys­i­cal block­age in my heart, in my throat”. He gets lost. Stalls. Walks slower and slower. Sits down to take note and even­tu­ally starts shout­ing “F---! F---!” as if from sud­den-on­set Tourette’s. He feels his adult strength, the strength to pull a boy from the waves, a strength he didn’t have in 1978. A lover of sto­ries, Beard imag­ines a past in which the owner of those smashed sun­glasses had in­stead been more proac­tive, had saved Nicky. A mas­ter of dis­tract­ing de­tail, Beard vis­its the lo­cal lifeboat sta­tion and learns that 400,000 peo­ple drown an­nu­ally world­wide, 50 per cent of them chil­dren. About 150 peo­ple drown ev­ery year in the UK. Since 1967, 325 lives have been saved by lifeboat vol­un­teers: “One more wouldn’t have hurt,” he writes.

He finds the man who re­ally did pull Nicky from the waves, a re­tired head­mas­ter, from whom Beard feels com­pelled to ex­tract ev­ery aw­ful mem­ory of the small, wet, floppy body be­ing winched up to the he­li­copter, which had been scram­bled – point­lessly – half an hour after Nicky went un­der.

A by-prod­uct of the Beard fam­ily’s col­lec­tive de­nial of Nicky’s death turns out to be a de­nial of his life. When Beard fi­nally sum­mons the courage to ask his mother what her lost boy was like, she tells him that the third of her four sons was “a dif­fi­cult child, a naughty child. He was ei­ther go­ing to be a banker or a mur­derer.” But school records show he was a bright, kind, sporty but (fa­tally) over­con­fi­dent boy. Does it lessen his mother’s loss to deny Nicky’s po­ten­tial? Or is it that she didn’t know her boys that well?

They were, after all, each packed off to board­ing school at eight, and trained to con­ceal any sense of aban­don­ment. When she wrote to them, she packed her letters with the empty cheer of ex­cla­ma­tion marks. After Nicky died, she re­moved the nametapes from his uni­form, and sewed those of her youngest son, Jem, into their place.

Most bizarrely, it turns out, after Nicky’s fu­neral, which his broth­ers did not at­tend, the fam­ily re­turned to Cornwall to fin­ish their hol­i­day. It had been paid for, after all. Back home in Swin­don, Beard’s par­ents then buried their grief in dif­fer­ent ways. His fa­ther drank; his mother adopted more ba­bies. The three sur­viv­ing broth­ers grew up con­grat­u­lat­ing them­selves on how strong and adapt­able they were. The project, for Beard at least, was learn­ing not to feel “un­til, hard of heart, I can ask a 75-year-old re­tired head­mas­ter to de­scribe pulling a small drowned boy from the sea, when that dead boy is my brother. And I don’t even blink.”

Some peo­ple still think it best to “move on” from trauma quickly, with min­i­mal dis­cus­sion. Beard’s book shows the price we pay for that il­lu­sion of move­ment is, emo­tion­ally, never to move on at all. The nov­el­ist re­alises he has lived trapped in his 11-year-old self: “Smart, sav­age… com­pet­i­tive and wary.” Even his in­ter­ests haven’t changed: “Cricket, read­ing, com­ing top of the class. I like day­dream­ing and feel­ing sorry for my­self and not be­ing pun­ished. I avoid suits who cry.” The un­der­tow got him even­tu­ally. Now he’s res­cu­ing him­self.

‘She took her dead son’s name out of his uni­form and sewed Jem’s name on top’

288PP, HARVILL SECKER, £14.99, EBOOK £9.99

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