‘I saw my own brother drown’
Helen Brown asks why a family tried to erase the memory of one day in 1978
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