Then he was just four years old, Francisco Garcia’s father went missing. But “he didn’t go ‘missing’ missing,” Garcia adds, and that nuance is one of the many fascinating aspects of the journalist’s compelling début non-fiction title, If You Were There, which uses the difficult story of his own experience of his father’s disappearance as a way to examine the often underreported and misunderstood issue of missing persons.
Garcia goes on: “‘Missing person’ is such an incredibly broad term. It encompasses everything from a teenager who is not in the place they’re meant to be, and parents are beside themselves until they end up coming home after drinking in the park until one in the morning, to Madeleine McCann. There are so many different circumstances, so many grey areas; from people who are gone for a few hours, to those who are lost forever.”
His own story is in those grey areas. His Londoner mother Stephanie met his Spanish father, Cristobal Garcia-Ferrera, while she was visiting Spain. They hit it off, and Cristobal moved back to London with Stephanie. Cristobal hung around for a few years, but had some substance abuse issues, which were compounded when Garcia’s mother died a short time after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Unable to cope, Cristobal upped and left, leaving Garcia to be raised by his grandmother and aunt. There was one last abortive attempt at a reunion, when Garcia was brought out to Spain in 2001 to see his father (“a complete disaster”), and Garcia has not seen or heard from him since.
Garcia says: “So my father wouldn’t have been a missing person in the eyes of the law, because he was an adult who just chose to leave. He’s not broken any laws and the police generally only become involved in those circumstances if someone has documented severe mental health problems, or has expressed some suicidal ideation. He was just a fairly chaotic young man who decided to go somewhere else. Yes, he decided to abdicate his responsibilities and he is a missing person to me. I haven’t had any contact with my Spanish family for years, but I imagine that if I went to them, they would know his fate—whether he’s still even alive—so he wouldn’t be missing to them.”
While Garcia has not exactly made peace with his father’s abandonment, in the two decades since, he has gained perspective. He says: “I understand now that he had what is euphemistically called ‘issues’, and he was really young, only about 21, when he left [Spain]. Plus, he struggled with the language, he worked as a painter and decorator, but probably illegally on building sites a lot of the time. So I think he struggled the way a lot of immigrants do with trying to get proper work and just fitting in to a new society.”
Garcia is also keen to stress that he had a pretty good upbringing, despite the tragedy of losing both his parents, albeit in different ways: “One of the things I wanted to make clear was that this wasn’t Angela’s Ashes, I’ve not written a misery memoir. My childhood was happy; sure, difficult at times, as any upbringing is, and unconventional. I just wanted to use my own story as a prism to look at this enormous issue.”
It is an enormous issue. Garcia notes in If You Were There that the official National Crime Association statistics are somewhat contentious, as many organisations in the sector believe missing persons are underreported—the charity Missing People, for example, believes that seven in 10 incidents of children who go missing are not reported. And Garcia’s own case would never have figured in any crime data. But the figures state that around 180,000 Britons are reported missing annually, and there are some 350,000 “miss- ing incidents” (the total number of reports to police). Happily, the vast bulk are resolved relatively quickly: 90% of children and 85% of adults are found within two days. But that still leaves a large number of people unaccounted for.
Garcia says: “Obviously, there are differences in severity, and different kinds of cases. But in looking at the numbers, I started realising there are so many threads that connect these things: homelessness, mental health, addiction, people trafficking, you have issues with modern slavery. And I started thinking about this academic term which is often applied to missing persons, called ‘ambiguous loss’, which means a sort of unresolved grief, not knowing what happens to your loved one. And that’s what I really wanted to look at, those ripple effects. That one missing person hits not just the immediate family, but so many people.”
One of the things he points out is that it is so easy for people to “slip”, particularly into homelessness, which is often where missing persons end up: “I think there is a question of how can people go missing today when everybody has that digital footprint—bank cards, phones. But once a vulnerable person gets under that layer of ‘respectable society’, it’s very hard to get back in... I started writing this book and reporting on the subject long before Covid, but I think this past year has shown us how isolating our society can be, and how so many people can fall through the cracks unnoticed.”
Looking at ripple effects has been a large part of Garcia’s work as a journalist. He always wanted to be a writer, inspired greatly in his childhood by his grandmother, who was reporter early in her life and a voracious reader. He says: “I don’t want to seem like a bit of tosser, but I never really imagined myself having the capacity to do anything but write.”
After getting his undergraduate degree at the University of Dundee, Garcia did a journalism masters at Strathclyde. When he started working as a journalist—writing features for VICE, i-D, the Guardian and New Statesman, among others—he found himself gravitating to exploring underground cultures, true crime and, yes, missing persons. One of his most-read and much- praised stories was a 2019 piece for VICE examining the mystery of a man who washed up on an Irish beach, and seemed to have “deleted” his past before killing himself. “I wasn’t really conscious of it, but of course my own personal experience played into the kind of things I was writing about,” Garcia says.
The perhaps glaringly obvious final question is, if his father is indeed still among the living, and he ever got to read the book, how would he want him to react? Garcia pauses a long while, takes a deep breath then says: “I’m not a person with a lot of resentment. As I’ve progressed through my feelings for my father, I think in the end I probably feel pity for the man. And that’s probably a worse emotion to feel for your father than hate, isn’t it? But I do have a lot of pity for him. And I hope that if he read it, that he wouldn’t feel I was resentful. I hope that he would feel that I had sort of done justice to his predicament.”
If You Were There (9780008412159) is published by Mudlark on 13th May. The hardback costs £14.99.