By Julia Kite

Julia Kite

Julia Kite

When I read fiction, I like a story that tidies up all its loose ends. That is why, at first consideration, it seems strange that I am so fascinated by real-life cases of missing people and how they are perceived – because for some of them, there is no resolution and there is no ending, happy or otherwise. The ones that do have the ending everyone dreaded inevitably grab headlines, with photographs from happier times splashed around the media, but eventually the tides of the news cycle wash them into the archives and leave their family and friends to try to rebuild their lives. These people, who have no choice but to watch and wait and bear the brunt of tragedy, cannot escape when the media pack up and walk away. They’re the ones who will forever replay what-ifs in their heads and second guess their actions from the last time life had a ‘normal.’ When I began writing The Hope and Anchor, I knew I wanted to write about those people, the ones left behind when cameras depart.

Years ago, after I had moved to California from London, my first time back in England was for Christmas, and I remember how all the papers screamed the disappearance of Joanna Yeates in Bristol. Her cheerful face in those photographs with her university cap and gown, or cuddling a kitten – they stared out at the country as everyone went about their festive preparations. Twenty-five-year-old Joanna had no dodgy past, no hint of trouble about her; she could have been one of any millions of women walking home on her own. We watched her on CCTV, the last moments of her promising life reduced to buying a pizza and some cider. Joanna was found murdered on Christmas Day, and I remember thinking there seemed a particular cruelty in her family having to live out their worst nightmare in public then, making statements to a country that could easily switch it all off and be of good cheer because they weren’t the ones who’d had love ripped out of their lives.

On the other hand, I don’t remember how I first heard about Joyce Vincent, the woman who lay dead and unnoticed in her North London flat for more than two years. Most likely it was when Carol Morley’s acclaimed film Dreams of a Life brought together the old friends, the ex-boyfriends, the work colleagues, all united in disbelief that this vivacious, talented woman could simply disappear into London and out of their lives, let alone die unnoticed. With so little known about the real Joyce Vincent’s psychology and motivations, and only scraps of memory cobbled together into speculation, the lurid headlines about the dead woman in the bedsit created a Joyce that seemed to belong to anybody who looked. Facts were few and far between, but undeniably real were the words and reactions of everybody who had loved her enough to share what they knew of her life with a filmmaker.

Both these women, missing and then dead, became a perverse kind of public property, their lives suddenly of general interest only because of their tragic victimhood. Joanna never asked for complete strangers to debate what became of her pizza or look at pictures of her forensically-ransacked flat; Joyce didn’t grant her blessing for people she’d never met to wonder about what may have happened in her past to turn her into a recluse before her death. Their stories were told without permission, without any vetting power.

Yet writing fiction is, by definition, an exercise in telling stories that are not your own. I knew in writing The Hope and Anchor that I didn’t want to rehash any of these real events – after all, they are not mine to tell. Instead, I wanted to look at the stewards of the missing person’s legacy, the family and friends who never applied for this job. That is why my book is not a standard mystery. It’s less important what actually happened to Angela, our missing woman, than what led up to those events her entire life, and how her girlfriend and her sister attempt to pick up the pieces and reconcile with her legacy when suddenly the Angela they loved seems to belong to everybody.

Who owns a missing person’s past? Who gets to tell her story when she’s gone, and what story is that going to be? How do you mourn a tragedy that goes from private to public, and what is owed to a crime victim who is no longer around to reap any justice or compensation? These questions have no hard and fast answers. Survivors must keep living, tackling the same mundanities as those untouched by violent loss, even if those lives can never go back to their previous normality. My goal in writing The Hope and Anchor was to show there is no roadmap for the uncertainty of grief, no morality tale or simple platitude to guide the way. Life, in all its messiness, doesn’t come with a guarantee of tidy endings. The story behind how the living continue in the face of death is what fascinates me so much.