I turned twenty-six on the seventeenth, this month. There was an odd vague shadow over it; the first message I received was from my girlfriend, wishing me a happy birthday...and reluctantly informing me of some bad news.
We know a young couple like ourselves, Jenny and S
Steve, and we'd gone out together for drinks and food, an enjoyable first time combining two couples in a social event. However, after a heavy night of drinking in Wetherby with friends, Steve had gone missing. He'd now been gone without contact for forty-eight hours.
I celebrated anyway, and felt no guilt; quite apart from the fact that we knew no details, what could I do? The answer was solved on the Tuesday - the police were organising a search of the local area, and volunteers were called for. My girlfriend heard from Jenny first thing in the morning, and even as I was just coming to, she asked if we wanted to join them - there was no question.
We went to Wetherby, on the bus. A friendly, elderly gentleman passenger enquired as to our plans. "We're meeting friends" responded my girlfriend without hesitation, and we both hoisted polite masks. There was no question of involving this good-natured stranger in our duties, but it tinged my confused feelings with a darker sheen, of something unwanted, or forbidden.
The rendezvous was at the Police Station, and as we walked through the town, we expressed our admiration for this old-fashioned place - and each time, we both shared a paradoxical sense of guilt, that we should be brought to and be enjoying this place, when we were here for such a sober purpose.
There were a lot of volunteers, around thirty people - none of whom we know. We gave our details to the police, recording everyone who was joining the search. I stumbled over my address, giving a postcode for a place I left a year ago. Like any right-minded citizen, the mere presence of the police is intimidating - exactly as it should be. But I was already wrong-footed by the nature of the situation...
The officer taking my girlfriend's details himself stumbled; nobody I know spells Natasha with two 'E's, but he managed it. We laughed about it, quietly and nervously, as we massed in the old magistrates court for a briefing.
Another intimidating room, another reminder of the power of the law; other volunteers around us expressed concerns, hoping they'd never have to appear in a court-room. There were more chuckles, and I felt briefly outraged that people should joke at such a somber time...
But then, hadn't we? Weren't we keeping our worries and fears at bay with humour, such a natural human response?
Seconds before the briefing was due to begin, Jenny arrived and met us for the first time. Before my girlfriend could even stand up, Jenny was in her arms, sobbing. That was the first time the miasma of complex emotions around me solidified, and I felt a stab in the chest. Guilt rolled over me, followed by helplessness in the face of my friend's anguish, fear of what we might find, anger at the grim outlook...
"Thank you both so much for coming" Jenny whispered. We met eyes, and I nodded jerkily before dropping my gaze to the floor; the emotion in her eyes overwhelmed me. I'm not a man given to emotional displays, I prefer to keep myself guarded and controlled, and if I'd looked into her face much longer, my sympathy would have pulled me down.
She took a seat across the aisle, and my girlfriend laid her head on my shoulder. There weren't any words, what could be said? I put my arm around her shoulder, as a sold Yorkshireman of an officer stood up.
He thanked us for coming, explained the procedure, warned us of the dangers, and showed us where we'd be searching. We filed out, herded by uniformed officers, who stopped traffic to take us across major A-Roads, curious motorists gawping from windows as we clambered a fence and into the rich, muddy farmland surrounding Wetherby.
We were spread in a broad line, more than two hundred foot wide, each person ten feet from his partners either side. We would walk forwards slowly, searching the ground for 'evidence'. The police had said the first priority was finding Steve of course, but anything to indicate what had happened would be valuable.
It was at that point, in the briefing, when I began to suspect the police's privately-held outlook, that we were searching for clues to why Steve had died...
My girlfriend, a medical student, had observed earlier in the day that this would be the last day we could conceivably find Steve in a rescuable condition, but her voice held no conviction and I wondered who she was reassuring. I knew my own suspicions...
Seconds in to the search, and my hand went up. A mobile phone, damp and flashing a red light, dropped in the soil. Two officers clustered around it, advancing theories and suspicions...why was it covered with water? Did that indicate it had been rained on, perhaps left overnight...?
Minutes of tense waiting for an answer, and a female volunteer came down the line, stiff and awkward; she'd dropped the phone herself. Nerves all around relaxed minutely, and I swallowed a bilious mouthful of tension.
We searched all afternoon, crossing field after field, mud caking on our boots. Time and again my eye was drawn to some twinkling object; I knew we were looking for small personal possessions. Was that a pound coin? I bent down; a perfectly round, pound-shaped glass disc, dusty and churned up from the ploughed soil. Either side of me, people watched as I bent back up, eyes questioning; I shook my head, ashamed at my own mistake, and pushed forward.
You'll have seen it on the news, people crossing land in a broad line, searching. Except we only had a handful of officers with us, five or six, spaced along the line to respond to finds.
Beside me to the right, a family - father, mother, daughter - walked closely together, continuing banal stories about friends and relatives. I flickered with annoyance, three people covering the same space as one, barely concentrating. Had they erected psychological barriers against the solemn nature of our work? Were they well-intentioned but useless volunteers, bereft of the grasp of duty, floundering in pursuit of our goal? Perhaps. But if I spent my time concentrating and berating them silently, I was far from carrying out my own task. I returned to scanning the ground.
By the third field, my suspicions were promoted; we were searchin newly planted, wide fields, where any large object would have been easily spotted. We were off the course Steve could have been expected to take, as he was leaving Wetherby for home, his last known position was across the A1 to our left - he'd never be in these fields.
Twenty minute before daylight ended, we crossed the A1 to begin our trek back to town; we'd probably travelled two miles, searching eight fields minutely. I expressed my suspicions to my girlfriend; we were searching areas outside the likely location of Steve's position. Untrained, unreliable volunteers could be psychologically assuaged, and at the same time cover a zone not expected to produce results, freeing official search parties to try the river and other dangerous regions most likely to contain possibly alarming finds...
Thanks were handed out freely by police, we'd excelled, we'd saved search parties much time and effort, knowing this region was already checked. We parted as swiftly as we'd met, and Jenny had left; she was not involved in the search, a decision we could all agree with, lovers should not find each other in this case...
My girlfriend and I took the bus back, exhausted physically and mentally. Bereft of a result, unwilling to face suspicions we couldn't confirm, we retreated into music, two people beside each other on a bus, headphones in, eyes staring without seeing. I don't believe we've held hands for that long before though...
Today is the nineteenth, and Steve has been missing since the sixteenth. At a quarter to twelve, my girlfriend rang. It's surprising what can be conveyed without words, even across a telephone call. There was silence, then a deep sigh backed with tears. I said "Oh.", and felt a hollowness creep into my chest.
I was at hers by five past, and we held each other silently in the kitchen. She'd cried out her tears by then, and I'm not given to upset...especially when I feel this confused.
All I know is that he has been found, as we all feared he would be, beyond help. As little as I know about how he was lost, is as little as I know about my feelings. Steve occupied a strange point in my world, more than a stranger or friend of a friend, not yet a close mate - but on the way to be. I'd seen him at Jenny's birthday, just before Christmas. We shook hands, discussed a popular computer game - I gave him some pointers, he thanked me profusely for advancing him past a tricky part. We made plans to go for another dinner with our girlfriends, discussed good bars and restaurants, I told him I'd be celebrating my birthday with a party in January...
That amiable man with a sense of humour so like my own, who'd sat opposite me in a bar and roared at my jokes and rapped out some choice one-liners of his own, would not be any better known. I'd never know what he was hoping to do with his career, if he and Jenny would be moving in, if we'd enjoy any other outings as a couple.
My girlfriend is visiting Jenny this afternoon; I mulled the matter over silently at hers, then asked if she wanted my company. She considered it, then decided that I should give Jenny some space, and...as a boyfriend, my presence might only make things worse.
I've never confronted the concept that merely being present, when you want to convey sympathy, friendship and comfort, could be even worse than not attending. My friend would benefit more from me not being there. I accept it logically, but emotionally - how do you reconcile that thought? It makes sense, but I cannot say I like it.
I must make sense of my feelings. Writing this blog has helped, and if you've read through it, you have my thanks.