It was a Sunday morning, and a minister strode past me with a labrador. ‘That looks like a contented spot,’ he said, dog and dog-collar glistening. I sat in the middle of a little wood, just to the side of Kenilworth Chapel in East London, on 9 October 1994. The church looked closed and unattended. All around me, in tangles of ivy and nettles and scrub, lay hundreds of dilapidated grave-stones. They sloped every which way, and off into the distance, across a wide open ground beneath the Beckton flyover. The graveyards in English cities, especially in the east of those cities, are nearly always wasted and terrible. In Scotland, the tombstones are made to stand up; and the grass is most often cut and weeded. I was fairly shocked the first time I saw a London graveyard – in Walthamstow, I remember. It had nothing to do with the decorous, landscaped dead-parks of recent memory: it was a place where riot and decay ruled. It looked like a spot where time was having its way.

I sat on a stone, bent over a piece of paper. I was copying down the inscriptions on some of the gravestones. As I was doing so, two boys – around or about ten – nipped between the graves just a little off to the right. One of them wore a West Ham top; the other was a flash of yellow. Their missiles (clods of dirt and pebble-dash) would come from nowhere and bounce off the tombs still standing. You’d hear giggles, and see some yellow, then a stripe of claret; they’d peep for a second and disappear. The more I ignored them, the braver they got. They started letting out little hollers, rinky-dink battle-charges, but I sat still. I was laughing a bit by this time, and they obviously knew I knew about them. Eventually, they got within one or two tombstones, and I looked up from the page. ‘What is it?’ I said. ‘Cunt,’ they said, running away, tumbling through a wall of ivy as if the whole world was after them.

The stone to my right was Africa-shaped and fringed with damp moss. Most of the writing was gone now. ‘Also Rebecca Askham, mother of the above’, I could make out. And then: ‘who died October 1st 1903. Aged 50 years.’ The nettles around the bottom were at the top of their power. They stood for pain. The stone on my other side was in memory of ‘Frank Cyril Nicholson, who died January 13th 1897, aged 14 years’. It was a cool day, very quiet at times, then some horn or deep engine on the dual carriageway would break in. Frank Cyril died after 14 years; died, it seems, of natural causes. His death must have been very sad, but was probably not mysterious. His was a named loss. The cause was known, the end was marked, his spot was here, and was in a manner of speaking sacred. I sat thinking about all this, feeling the breeze well enough, and considering the script carved below Frank Cyril’s dates: ‘In the midst of life,’ it said, ‘we are in death.’

I had a stick, and with other people, later that day, I searched the long field of stones around the Chapel for traces of a missing boy. Daniel Handley, aged nine, had been missing from his home on the Windsor Park Estate since the previous Sunday. As I made my way down the field, losing sight of other people, I grew more and more uneasy. This was the largest patch of scrub near to Daniel’s home. I turned over in my head the various things that could have happened. I looked through the undergrowth, poking with the stick, and I reached a place almost under the flyover itself. The traffic noise was now thunderous, and the grass seemed longer than at any other point. My breath was quite short. It felt wrong to walk in this deep grass. Not just unsafe. Wrong. As I made my way through the field, looking into the grass and under bushes for signs of the boy – hoping there would be nothing – I found it hard to keep my footing. The light at the top of Canary Wharf blinked just over the other side of the carriageway and the sun was high up. The tower looked broad and massive, and its windows gleamed like the vicar’s collar. Daniel Handley was missing, and we were there trying to find him. We were there, walking on graves, trying to find the missing boy.

The previous day I’d gone to Daniel’s house. The Windsor Park Estate sits very near the Royal Albert Dock, just on the north bank of the Thames beside East Ham and Barking. It’s an area made up of newish housing schemes, heavy roads, flyovers, industrial parks, expansive malls and playing fields. At the beginning of the estate, on the corner of Windsor Terrace and Woolwich Manor Way, about five minutes from Daniel’s house, there’s a giant building site. There are mounds of rubble and dirt, roving dumpers, stacks of brick, packs of cement and pyramids of cellophane-wrapped pipe. There’s a giant sign at the edge of the rubble: ‘Another prestigious hotel development for Whitbread Medway Inns, constructed by Dean & Bowes Ltd, Huntingdon.’ The site was fenced off, though I managed to have a look around without much trouble. It was mostly empty, with hard-hatted workmen doing their thing in this or that corner. The ground was uneven, it was full of holes, but I guessed the police had already considered that.

A large Asda superstore stands across the road, with bus stops planted outside. Daniel worked here as a bag-filler – you know, putting people’s shopping into bags at the till. This was how he earned pocket money, and he was a well-known face around the area. He was out playing on his BMX bike the day he disappeared. It was silver and had no saddle. Like many kids his age, he would use the kerbs and ramps around the scheme, and the empty industrial estates just beyond it, to practise stunts on his bike. He was out doing that sort of thing on Sunday 2 October, and he played for some time at the house of a friend, but he failed to return home afterwards. He set out late in the afternoon, but had somehow not made it. That evening, two boys found an abandoned silver BMX on Eisenhower Drive, round the corner from Daniel’s house. The boys took it back to their home in Clapton, where they wiped it down, and thought to keep it. When they heard of the missing boy, though, they gave the bike to the police, who found that it was Daniel’s.

Daniel was the fourth of Maxine Williams’s five boys. In April 1994 Maxine had left the family home she shared with her husband David Handley in Newark Knok, and taken the kids to live at the house of her boyfriend Alex Joseph, at Lobelia Close in Beckton. Daniel went to Beckton Cross primary school, and was one of those kids who’d talk to anyone. He already had girlfriends, and was one of the dare-devils at school, one of the live wires, one of the minor pushers-and-shovers. He had, in the usual manner for the younger of several boys, a fair amount of brotherly reputation to live up to, or to live down. Some of his brothers were thought to be quite flash, and to be fairly unshy when it came to the business of standing up for things. His schoolmates talked to me of the Handleys as of one of those families who can easily absorb trouble, and who could dish it out just as easily. The mother’s boyfriend Alex is black, and even in an area as multi-racial as East London can be, there was a certain amount of prejudice in the local area about the fact of his living in Lobelia Close with a white woman and her children. People talked about them, and they did so, it seems, even before Daniel disappeared.

He’d been wearing a red boiler suit that day, which had the word ‘Racing’ stitched onto the left pocket. Underneath he had a green jumper. He also wore brown boots. The lake at the top of Beckton District Park had been dredged with special equipment; the gasworks and sewage treatment plant to the east had been searched repeatedly; warehouses and parks had been gone into; and door-to-door calls were under way all week. I turned into the Close the day they were due to start digging in die garden. There were television vans parked along the sides, and journalists were lining up behind the police tape, anxious for photos and news. At first, there was only a solitary female police officer guarding the house. The tape stretched across the road in such a way that people who lived on either side of the Handleys’ house had to run underneath it. Most of those going by were kids, and they zoomed right under the tape on their BMXs and racers; they did it repeatedly. They were showing off for the journalists, and clearly trying to wind up the lady officer.

A man from the Mail on Sunday walked round and round the Close, chapping on all the doors, getting himself steamed up. Every time he heard something interesting – and often when he heard something not – he’d draw out his mobile phone and call his news-desk. He’d repeat it to them hastily, clearly experiencing some sort of deadline-fever. The policewoman told me she thought he was ‘facetious’, and sort of rolled her eyes when the Daily Star walked up. Even amidst the solemnity and dead seriousness of this stake-out, there was something very funny about the man from the Star. Everyone looked at him. He stalked up and down the pavement, sucking one fag after another down to nothing, his head bowed with the weight of two or three cameras. His hair was very short at the front, very long at the back, and greasy all over; his suit was shiny, and the trousers flapped at half-mast. He had a thin moustache and he walked up and down like a loopy pigeon.

He pointed to a little Asian boy who played just in front of the tape: ‘Is your mum in, sonny?’ The boy nodded. ‘Can you ask her to come out here a minute?’ The boy ran inside. A few seconds later an adult arm appeared at the door, but only for long enough to pull the thing shut and turn the key in the lock. ‘That,’ said the Star, ‘is a definite no.’

‘Why don’t you stand on the back wall?’ said a blonde woman in shades.

‘Tried that.’

‘Eight of them, there’s eight of them digging in the garden,’ said an older guy, a producer-type, who had just stepped out of a red Volvo. ‘I think one of the snappers has got them at it.’

Maxine Williams and Alex Joseph, Daniel’s mother and her boyfriend, were in a DSS safe-house during the search. One of the neighbours, a middle-aged white man backed up by his jittering wife, takes the opportunity to speak with the assembled press. He has the air of someone familiar with the plot. He emphasises certain things, he makes a few tough points about how one should live in a community, and then he hammers home a series of assertions that you wouldn’t care to hear. I couldn’t print them, and the TV journalists knew – as he spoke – that they wouldn’t be able to broadcast them either. Halfway through his spiel, I saw the guy from Newsroom South-East switch off his camera.

I stayed by the fence for a while after the other people had gone. I wanted to talk with the kids. The Asian woman from next door eventually turned the key. She came over and asked if there had been any more news. I gave her what I had. She offered me coffee, and told me I could look out of her bedroom window if I wanted. It was right over the spot where they were digging. I didn’t go in. The police were coming in and out from the yard, wearing blue jumpers and white gloves. CID were doing the rounds of the houses, dressed in grey suits and carrying clipboards. A crowd of small boys had gathered around the tape.

‘Give’s a fag,’ said one.

‘You’re too young,’ says I.

‘Am I fuck. I’ve smoked for ages.’

‘Age are you?’

‘Nine,’ he says, pulling a ten-pack from his pocket, and lighting one up behind a tiny cupped hand.

‘Same age as Daniel,’ I said.

‘He smoked as well. He used to go out with my big sister. What do you think has happened to him?’

‘I don’t know. What do you think?’ At this point the others butt in. Two of them are 13, one other is nine. They give me their theories, tell me all about their parents’ suspicions, and reel out the local gossip. The little one is still swaggering about with his fag, clowning and blowing excellent smoke-rings. They talked about Alex, about how good a fighter he was. ‘He’s a bodybuilder,’ said one of the thirteens.

‘Brilliant muscles like that,’ said another, pulling up a sleeve of his T-shirt.

‘Can we talk into your tape-recorder?’ shouted Jason, the miniature smoker. I gave it to them, and they started barking into it – sentences and short stories all to do with such and such among them being ‘dickless’ or ‘a virgin’ or ‘pricks’ and ‘bastards’.

‘Daniel is just like any other kid,’ said the neighbour with the jittering wife. ‘These children were often kept away from school. I’d see it, and I’d want to complain. I knew something wasn’t right.’ One of the kids told me that Alex’s mum was the funniest person alive. She gave them money; you’d see her staggering across Lobelia Close with a can of Superlager, her dog Lady limping at her back.

‘She’s brilliant,’ said Jason, handing back my recorder. Just then, an ice-cream van – Tony’s Super Whip – came jangling down the street, and they all went after it.

Several months later, Daniel Handley was still missing. There was no sign of him; nothing had turned up from the searches or from the digging. Police were going over the same ground again and again. Mr Joseph, the boyfriend, was in the psychiatric wing of Pentonville Prison, having been charged with offences committed against some other children. Daniel’s mother was on remand, charged with similar offences under the Children Act. For six months or so, Daniel Handley’s whereabouts were unknown. He was yet another missing child, and most people had given up hope of ever finding him, or of ever finding him well. They weren’t to be proved wrong on the last bit. The boy’s body, still clad in his red boiler suit, was found in a wooded area outside Bristol in April. He’d been murdered, and placed in a rough grave, covered in leaves and dirt. That’s where he’d lain all those months.

The police spoke of a paedophile ring, and revealed details of Operation Oyster, an attempt by officers to close in on an East London gang. Witnesses came forward. A woman in Bristol recalled seeing someone just like Daniel, a little boy in red, in the company of three men in a café. The boy seemed quite happy, quite cheerful, and the men were friendly enough too. But, for whatever reason, a clear picture of the group remained in her head. A boy like Daniel was spotted again in Bristol one Sunday in November. Two men were holding his hands tight, walking him down the street. The boy seemed a bit distressed.

The child who rode down Eisenhower Drive on his saddleless bike that bright afternoon in October had encountered something dreadful on his way. The police have issued photofits and descriptions, and called for every sort of assistance. They are waiting for more responses and, in the meantime, have brought down the files on missing local children.

There are thousands of missing persons in Britain whose disappearance, unlike Daniel’s, is never reported. They fall out of troubled homes, Special Care, and approved schools every other day. Under the new regulations many people with mental health trouble are decanted out of hospitals and into the streets and night-shelters that now act as a sort of security net for them. Such people – often voluntarily at first – lose sight of all that they have been before. Many you talk to can’t remember much or anything about who they used to be. Runaways, amnesiacs, schizophrenics, victims of abuse. Every year, thousands burst – or are thrust – out of what community they have known; they take up their lives anonymously, often on the streets of Britain’s bigger cities. Most of them lose touch; benefits are often unclaimed; relatives are gladly left behind or were never there in the first place. Such missing persons you might call the unmissed, and it is possible that over 200,000 people at any given time in Britain can be described this way.

Whether missed or not, the common condition of all the missing (apart from their being out of sight) is that their documentary lives stop at the point they disappear. This termination, in fact, explains what it means to be a missing person in a country such as Britain. From birth, something like a small maelstrom of official paper swirls round your body, defining your human relations (birth and marriage certificates); outlining your religious life (baptisms, Holy Communions, Confirmations); describing your physical progression (medical records); the history of your teeth (dental records); your education (report cards, school files); giving evidence of your social life (club minutes, membership cards); defining your financial status (National Insurance contributions, tax returns, wage slips); your professional life (employment records, application forms, job appraisal reports); your mental or custodial history (psychiatric reports, social work papers, prison records); your domestic routines (phone records, gas bills, newspapers delivered); and hundreds of other extant documents relating to the conduct or the business of your life. These are bits of paper long forgotten by you, and by most people. These official records (to say nothing of private documents, letters and diaries) give a very full account of who you are, and what your movements have been over the course of your life.

Ours is a very written-down sort of life; it can’t easily be erased, nor can the binding power of ongoing records be easily snapped. Many of these records follow you wherever you go, and, in the normal run of things, they can cause you to be traced very quickly. A missing person has – for one of a variety of reasons I’m turning over – severed, or been severed from, their written life. They are not cashing cheques in their own name, they are not drawing benefit or earning money through their NI number, they are not paying tax, they are not visiting a doctor or a dentist in possession of their files, and, as police investigators quickly find out during a search, they are not regularly matching the pattern of what is known about them. You can change your identity, but it is not just a matter of going to another town and calling yourself Jeremy. It is a gigantic undertaking: a trail of subterfuge and avoidance of past documents leads away from the who-you-were to the who-you-are-now.

This scenario mostly applies to the non-vulnerable missing – that’s to say, people who may deliberately go missing for reasons of their own. It applies less to the unmissed, or to vulnerables whose disappearance is much more sinister. There is no big deal, for them, in turning away from the documents of the past. For runaways and abuse victims and schizophrenics, those documents are not binding in the way they are for your average mortgage-holder in Northampton. They are unmissed, and nobody is making the connections: they never had cheque-books, they never had work, and they will have all sorts of names to offer to hostel-workers and doctors if they ever see them. Children who disappear, the most vulnerable category of all, have no big documentary lives anyway, they just have lives. When they go missing, there can only be the possibility of foul play, a strange accident, or strangers. The police call them mispers. They are everywhere and nowhere; in the world and out of it; each of them different and each the same. Mispers.

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