I’d like to begin by talking through three disappearances.
I. On October 13, 2004, a backpacker named Monica Hurley disappeared from a youth hostel overlooking Bondi Beach. She had travelled to Sydney from Cork, Ireland, and had lined up work starting January as a Registered Nurse in Melbourne. The interim period she planned to spend traveling: from Sydney, northbound to Queensland; northwest to Darwin; southbound to Uluru; and then leeway to re-visit whatever place she liked most. As recorded in the hostel’s ledger, she checked in at 4:40 pm and—unlike the majority of backpackers her age—opted for a single-room over a dorm. She wandered out among the regular throng around 6 pm and returned later for a pair of closed shoes. It was 38°C that day and, as the sun set, Bondi congealed into a nighttime warmness, sweat-stuck shirts and paddlers still sighted along the coast long after the flags had been packed up. At breakfast the following morning, Monica was not seen, and stayed that way for two days until the cleaners’ delight at her bed remaining made coalesced into alarm. The only evidence of her having been there was an unsealed pot of moisturizing sunscreen on the counter: a cast of her three middle fingers having set in the cream when she last scooped.
II. Hamish Staine, who held a variety of middle-management positions in Sydney’s drug industry, was let go in April 1996, after a downsizing in response to changing consumer demand (heroin, no longer chic; cocaine, hard to come by). Hamish, who had always been thought of as a candidate for police informant, became one shortly after. He had entered into a methadone program and, facing the likelihood that his Centrelink would be cut off before he was dry enough for employment, cut a deal. At home with his partner and young daughter, he was visited by someone he knew but didn’t introduce, who returned a set of fishing equipment they had borrowed for the Easter long weekend. That evening, Hamish caught a citybound bus from outside his apartment in Surry Hills, and alit along Elizabeth Street. He was sighted entering Central Station, and never again.
III. And now the famous one. It was almost 40 degrees on Australia Day, 1966, when Jane Beaumont and her siblings Arnna and Grant disappeared. They were 9, 7, and 4. Having recently earned the privilege of attending the beach unaccompanied, Jane chaperoned the other two along the five-minute bus ride from their house to the water. To look at, they would have resembled a trio of Russian dolls. Jane had a messy helmet of hair to compliment her sharp, boyish features; and her siblings followed suit. Identical eyes and dimples. Hair similar but neat. They left their house at 10am, were expected back by 2pm—with the police notified of their non-appearance at half-seven.
At Glenelg Beach, they were joined by—and later departed with—someone described as a “tall blond and thin-faced man”. Jane had been previously teased by her sister for having “a boyfriend down the beach”, a statement detectives poured over, without much luck. A shopkeeper sold Jane some pasties and a meat pie, which she paid for with a £1 note that her mother had not given her. Within forty-eight hours, every able-bodied police officer in Adelaide was mobilised. They dredged estuaries by hand, passing shoulder-to-shoulder through each limb-like body of water, bent at the hips, hands clutching furtively into the dark as if they were crabbing. No luck. A psychic, Gerard Croiset, was imported from the Netherlands and identified a building site near Jane and Arnna’s primary school as the location of their remains. The developer of the site, quite reasonably, refused demands to tear the place down; but public demand prevailed and the place was demolished—nothing.
Attempts to locate the children were further complicated by a pair of letters, received by Mr and Mrs Beaumont, allegedly written by Jane. The handwriting matched Jane’s, and the facts reported therein were consistent with what was reported by the police (and, in what should have been a giveaway, the newspapers). The parents’ hope was buoyed by the letter’s promise of the children’s safe return and, going to the stipulated meeting place, they found nothing, with a follow-up detailing how the parents’ betrayal of the man’s trust (they had taken a police officer with them) meant that the children would not be returned. Twenty-five years later, it came to light that both were written by a sixteen-year-old boy from Victoria, who thought it a laugh. A statute of limitations prevented any charges being laid. I contacted the State Coroner of South Australia to see whether any formal inquest had been undertaken (which, in these cases, usually function to close the case by concluding that the missing have died) and I received the following reply (in a Cadbury-purple coloured font):
Dear Mr Walsh,
Thank you for your email.
Please be advised that a Coronial Inquiry has never taken place in relation to the Beaumont children, and therefore, no information is available.
So Jane, who could be fifty-eight now, on balance isn’t. She was probably buried in an unremarkable place beside her siblings, outbound from Adelaide and beyond the parameters of the search.
* * *
While 95% of Australians reported missing are ‘recovered’,1 that remaining 5% disappear in an irresolvable, motiveless way. I say irresolvable because, unlike the American brand of disappearance—which, as a byproduct of that particularly dense, infrastructured American way of living, means it is only a matter of time before every overdeveloped building is re-developed and every clogged sewer is sieved, revealing the remains of everyone unceremoniously stashed down an elevator shaft or buried beneath a football field—when you disappear in Australia, you disappear.2 Similarly, I say motiveless because, again unlike that American brand of crime—which you can indelibly trace upriver to a particularly American kind of insanity that appears on our televisions in their universities and movie theatres, always a manifesto trailing from the gunperson’s hip—Australia’s worst criminals seem originless, cruel people who exercise cruelty for its own sake.
My mother, whose philosophy as a journalist required her to answer any and all correspondence in the off chance it would produce a story, spent part of the 1980s in a letter writing exchange with a famous murderer. I can’t be more specific, for her fear of his being ‘out of jail’—a fear that did not affect my mother, 1986, but really gets mum, 2015, who has since had children and decided to live forever—but I can say the letters are weird and sad. They have lines like: “I have been used all my life by people who think I am too soft and too kind hearted” and “I have tryed to change the way I am, but I just can’t do it love”. And, without mum’s side of the correspondence, I have no idea what this person meant when they wrote: “Why didn’t I tell you myself well I felt so bad about it because you are so wonderful to me and I let you down again. I’m really sorry darling”.
Then one day, the letters stopped—as if mid-sentence—perhaps because he had lost his letter writing privileges, or because he had found a better pen pal, or because he had become bored. In the same way, my mother forgot the saga entirely until she rediscovered the letters during a declutter. It was funny to me that she hadn’t chased him up, hadn’t wondered what had happened—but there were other stories to pursue, and she just forgot. In the same vein as their first disappearance, the 5%, having done the media rounds, then disappear for a second time, barely making it into public memory. The only ones left to obsess are the next of kin, who have to deal with interpreting a lifetime’s worth of information. And just as above, it comes as a ceaseless barrage of minute facts and day-to-day itineraries—of where their lost ones had been and who they had spoken to. A stream they can trace ceaselessly from birth until the arbitrary moment that the information stops, recedes into silence, and becomes a permanent question mark—a conclusion that isn’t!—but that’s how it is with disappearances, they happen when you least
1. A euphemism allowing those found dead to still be counted as successes alongside the safe returns.
2. While most people know that Picnic at Hanging Rock ends with the girls disappearing, very few people know that the original cut of the novel actually told you how they disappeared. In the original ending, the girls ascend the rock face and enter into a kind of time warp and, one by one, transform into lizards and wander into the cracks of the cliff face. The whole sequence has a surreal, magical-real kind of feel, and the sequence of them throwing their corsets from the cliff before turning into reptiles was thought inconsistent with the realism that would eventually turn it into a best seller and so it was excised.