The date is etched on my mind. – It was the day Robbie disappeared, the 17th June, 1974 – forty seven years ago, and it changed the lives of family and friends for good. It left a small space in my heart and it’s still there today.
Robbie would be 60 this year. In twelve days’ time it will be his birthday, but there won’t be a special ‘who’s an old man now’ party. I will raise a glass to my best friend and wonder where he went.
He was just an average thirteen year old kid. He lived at home with his mum and dad, his brother and sister and his Gran. He loved eating and he loved playing all sports. Robbie was just a good all round kid.
It was as if he just vanished into thin air. One minute I was saying ‘see yer’ to him and the next thing is that he’s gone, never to be seen again. Where did he disappear to? No-one knew – will anyone ever know?
He’s still on the missing persons list but the case stopped being ‘active’ a long time ago. Every so often the family who are still here are told of some bones that have been discovered somewhere, and they get hopeful and prayerful that it’s Robbie, that they will finally be able to say their ‘goodbye’s’ and lay him to rest, but it’s never him, just another unfortunate person who went missing, but who got found.
I was the last person to see Robbie alive that day – my best friend. We went to kindy and all through primary school together – it was two weeks before we were going into High School. When I think back to how long it has actually been since the day he disappeared, how much life he’s missed out on, girlfriends, marriage, children, maybe even grandchildren, it tears me up. When I think of him, I wonder what he would look like now, still skinny with blond hair? – doubtful because that’s how I used to look too, and now….I’m overweight and bald!
The day he went missing we had gone down to the river- it was a warm summers day- the kind of day that makes you feel really happy and grateful for where you lived. We were looking forward to a swim and throwing the tennis ball to each other, before coming back to my house for some lunch. It was a clear bright day and when the sunlight hit the water and the little ripples danced, it was if they had been sprinkled with gold. I remember that we had been swinging and dropping from a low lying branch for ages - it was hanging from a huge tree, and we dropped into the cool water making as much splash as we could. When we got out we sat on the river bank with our towels around us. Robbie turned to me and with his big smile said “Only two weeks left of the holidays, let’s see if the boys want to go to the movies and have pizza afterwards tonight. What do you reckon?”
“I reckon it sounds good to me” I answered and we put our t-shirts on to walk back to my house.
I did tell the police when I was first interviewed that on the way home through the glade, where the path divides into two tracks, there was a man leaning against an old post smoking a cigarette. I’ll never forget his face because it was quite badly scarred as if he had been in a fire and it had melted, and somehow fallen downwards. One of his eyes hung down slightly and on the same side his mouth did too. It was red in patches and very lumpy. He didn’t scare us because of the way he looked but it was more the fact we were in deep discussion and he startled us by yelling “Was it cold in?”
We both turned to look and Robbie gasped in surprise “Ummm not once you’re in” he told the stranger. And that was it. We just walked on but I did remark to Robbie that I wouldn’t like to see him in the dark on my own.
I did hear that the burnt face man had been a ‘person of interest’ during the investigation of Robbie’s disappearance, but no one ever saw him again. It’s not like he wasn’t recognisable or anything.
After we had eaten some sandwiches at my house and played a bit of cricket in the back yard with my brother, we decided to go to Robbie’s house. It was only about a fifteen minute walk from mine and we had almost worn a permanent pathway between the two houses and could have walked there blindfolded.
His Dad worked but as his Mum was a teacher she also had the holidays off and was at home when we got there. She asked me how the family was, and I told her that Dad was being made redundant in a few weeks but he was convinced that he could have a well-deserved break and Mum could work full time instead of part time! Robbie’s mum was one of the mothers who helped anyone and everyone if they had a problem. Nothing was too much for her to do and she had passed down the trait to Robbie.
I recall that after we had told her we were going to tell the ‘gang’ about our plans for tonight, she immediately asked if she could give anyone a lift to town or back, but we said we would all walk as a group. It would still be early – we all had times that we had to be home by! (It was always so much fun walking back through town, doing things we shouldn’t do like knocking on doors and ringing doorbells and running off - all innocent childish stuff).
Just as I was about to leave his house, Robbie’s Mum asked him where his good sneakers were. “Oh no, I must have left them at the river”
“I’ll come with you” I offered but he said we would walk as far as my place together and then he would quickly run on to get his shoes.
I thought for years after how I should have gone with him to get his sneakers. His last words to me were “I’ll see you at 5.30 and we’ll meet the others at the cinema. See you Tom” and with his face alight with enthusiasm and youthful exuberance, he ran on towards the river.
That was the last time I or if there was anyone else he met on his way, saw him.
It had been 6pm when I decided to walk to Robbie’s house to see what was keeping him. “See you Mum. Won’t be late” I called out and the reply came back “Have fun and look after yourself….and no silly nonsense in town”.
When I got to his house his Mum was surprised to see me because she had been out at the shops and thought Robbie had already left to go to mine. “I’ll check that’s he’s not in the house somewhere “she said, calling out his name and going into each room. His sister was on night shift and was annoyed with her Mum waking her to ask if she had seen Robbie. “No I haven’t” she said crossly and “when you find him send him in here so I can thump him”
“Take a seat Tom and I’ll ring the other boys who were going. Hopefully they haven’t left home yet”. They hadn’t left home, but no one had seen Robbie. His Mum rang his Dad at work and he came home straight away.
“He has to be somewhere Jane” Robbie’s dad said “Let’s not get too worried. Why don’t we walk down to the river and see if he’s anywhere to be seen. Don’t cry love. Well find him. You know how he loses track of time”.
Robbie’s grandma arrived home while we were still there and wanted to come with us but was told by her son “You stay here Mum in case he comes back – you’ll have to protect him. Jane told me that his sister wants to kill him!”
We walked briskly towards the river. Robbie’s mum was trying desperately to stay positive but was obviously not feeling it, saying to
“Oh he’s been late before” was all I could offer.
The sun was getting lower in the blue sky – a slight chill could be felt in the air and little flying insects were buzzing all around on top of the water. We passed the post where the burnt face had been, and he’d gone.
“Oh” Jane cried out, a shriek before a sharp intake of breath “His new sneakers”. We all looked towards the edge, and there they were, sitting in the tall grass where we had hastily taken them off.
“Robbie” we all started to yell but the only sounds we heard was the lapping of the water being pushed by the wind up against the rocks and the faint cry of a bird somewhere quite far off.
“Where can he be James?” Robbie’s now desperately worried mum asked her husband.
“I don’t know but he could be at home by now. Let’s go”.
We all half walked, half ran back to the house but the look on his Gran’s face when asked if he had come home, said it all, and we knew he hadn’t. By now the other boys had come over to wait til he came back, but at 8.30 Robbie’s dad, after visiting or ringing up all the people he could have gone to, decided to ring the police.
It was awful. His Mum, Sister and Gran hadn’t stopped crying since the police arrived. I can recall feeling a bit sick in the stomach and it felt quite unreal, as if I might wake up from a nightmare. After I had spoken to the police my Mum and Dad took me home and it was when I got inside my own house that I cried. I wanted my best friend to come home. I needed to know that he was safe and well, that tomorrow it would be normal again and we would play football or cricket and eat sausage rolls for lunch. I wanted to know that we would be going to High School together in two weeks and that nothing had happened to him. “Please God” I prayed through my tears lying in my Mums comforting arms “bring Robbie back to us”.
Two weeks had passed since Robbie had disappeared. There were posters up on street corners, shop windows and telephone poles. It was in the papers and on the news. “There are no new leads” the newsreader told us “In the case of missing teenager Robbie Jamieson who disappeared while walking back to the river near his home to find his new sneakers”.
As time elapsed and the police were no closer to finding out what had happened to Robbie, it became obvious to most of us that someone had taken him or done something to him.
I started High School without my best friend – and I carried around sadness that I couldn’t always shake off, and never knew when it would come upon me. Sometimes when I was laughing with the other boys I would think of Robbie and how funny he would find the situation, and feel guilty we were having fun without him. I could picture his freckled face, white teeth and great big grin. I also had anger inside of me – for whoever did this, the person or persons who changed our lives that day.
Robbie’s Mum thought for years that there was a chance he was taken away and one day she would see him in the street or wandering through the markets – that he had been drugged and couldn’t remember what happened but once he saw his mum it would all come back to him – and life would return to normal. She even told my mum that maybe he was taken to another country, on the other side of the world and she would wait for that envelope or the knock on the door to tell her he was alright and would be home soon. His Dad went along with it for his wife’s sake but in his heart he knew Robbie would never return.
His Grandma lit a candle every day for ‘Robbie’s safe return’, ever hopeful. She prayed daily and walked up to her church to sit and think about her grandson but sadly died two years after the disappearance, having lit the candle that morning and as it flickered in the peaceful old building, she closed her eyes and passed away sitting in a pew, her grief as raw as the day Robbie left.
Robbie’s dad was still alive. He was ninety now – old and frail. He told me once that his one wish in life had been that his son’s body had been discovered before Robbie’s Mum had passed away. She died about twenty years ago, and George said that she checked the mail box every day since his disappearance for a letter from her son or someone who knew where he was. She had clung on to the hope that he was still alive for all of those years – ‘false hope’ James had said, but that’s all she had.
It was difficult for Robbie’s brother and sister – their lives had been turned upside down and they also lived with the reality that they would never see their little brother again. When they had children of their own, they knew exactly what their parents had gone through, knowing what it would feel like if one of theirs just disappeared one day.
I wonder what Robbie would look like now? The only image I will ever have of him is of a thirteen year old boy, happy, full of the joy of life and looking forward to the future, with seemingly not a care in the world. I have one photo of him and I together. It was taken on my thirteenth birthday – my mum was always hopeless at taking photos so it’s mostly of the road outside our house and at the side of the picture is me straddling my new bike and my best friend has his arm around my shoulders and we’re grinning like a couple of cheeky teenagers! We look very similar, like brothers. It sits on top of my desk so I look at it every day – and am thankful for my life.
I don’t hold out much hope of ever seeing Robbie – in fact I think it would be a miracle if I did. No, I think some evil person took his life. I just hope he didn’t suffer much.