A FORGOTTEN LIFE, REMEMBERED

There have been a few articles that have caught my eye recently about people who have either vanished intentionally, or who have disappeared some other way.  The first is this one, about a gentleman called Henry Summers, who lived on Easter Road in Leith.  Mr Summers was found dead in his flat, after three years in which nobody noticed or cared that he was no longer around in the neighbourhood.  It’s sad, and it happens sometimes – fortunately not too often, but for those lonely people who go undiscovered, it is a miserable death.  A former friend worked for a housing association, and they told me that sometimes, when they are asked to carry out an eviction, they turn up and discover that the rent’s not been paid for years because the tenant has died in the flat.  Not a pleasant discovery.

But Mr Summers’s story has a few twists, mainly in that people thought he was someone else, or two people, or that someone else was him.  It didn’t help that another Mr Summers, of a similar age, lived on the same road.  It turns out that that wasn’t too unlikely, as Summers was a common surname in the area.  Still kinda weird if you’re the other Mr Summers and everyone thinks you’re dead, though.

I had a similar problem in my 4th year at university.  I received a letter from the Student Loans Company informing me that my loan had been stopped due to me leaving my course.  Being an OCD sufferer, my brain went into overdrive.  What if I couldn’t buy food or pay rent?  What if I get evicted?  Have I been kicked off my course?  What did I do?  It turns out that someone else with the exact same name, date of birth, and in the same local education authority as me had dropped out of their studies at a college in Leicestershire.  I spoke with the SLC over the phone and convinced them that the had the wrong person.  Our names were next to each other on the list, and I can see how the mistake was made.

Something like this happened to a woman living in New York City, when somebody else kept stacking up driving offenses on her license!  Due to the way the system works (or doesn’t), the best thing she could do was pay the fines and hope she didn’t get any more (she did).  They did eventually meet, and the other Lisa Davis finally found out why her speeding tickets had mysteriously vanished off of her record so many times…

I find it more shocking that things like this happen so rarely, if you consider how many people share common names, and that coincidences around birthdates, hometowns, careers, etc. appear to occur quite frequently.  Maybe the system does work!

Mistaken identities aside, there are those who go missing and are never found.  Some intentionally, but not always.  The Missing Persons Bureau has people on their records going back over 50 years, and at present there are approximately 1,000 people on their database who remain unidentified.  As well as these, 250,000 people go missing every year.  Most are found, but many are not.

Here in Manchester, we had a recent local mystery, which could have been the plot of an Agatha Christie novel.  An elderly man arrived in Saddleworth, asked for directions to the top of the mountain, and was eventually discovered at the summit, dead from strychnine poisoning.  Just from those few facts, this looks seriously weird, and like there must be more to his story.  For months he went unnamed, until someone identified him as David Lytton, a British man who had lived in Lahore for many years.  Little else is known about him, and his death near to the Dovestone Reservoir remains a mystery.

In the town where I grew up, a young man was washed ashore, and found by passers-by, drenched in sea water and unable to speak.  While we were used to odd things happening there (it’s just one of those places, trust me), this was pretty epic, even by our standards.  He was taken to hospital, and given a pencil and paper.  He drew an elaborate sketch of a grand piano.  It was rumoured that when taken to a piano, he than played beautiful and complex pieces, but reports differ.  The local press dubbed him the “Piano Man”.  Eventually, he spoke, and was identified as Andreas Grassl, a 20-year-old German citizen who had gone missing four months earlier.  Today, little is known about how he ended up on Sheerness beach, although it is believed that he had planned to take his own life.

All of these tales are stories of intrigue, and sometimes tragedy.  While each of us considers our own life to be of high importance (whether we admit it or not), there is a chance that we may find ourselves in circumstances where there is no-one to look for us, or we cannot be found, or we cannot help ourselves.  If I went missing tomorrow, who would look for me?  And how likely is it that I would be discovered?  I have few living relatives, although I hope that at least some of my friends might enquire after my whereabouts.  What if I move abroad, or grow old alone?  That’s a more common scenario for today’s citizens than it has been at any other time for many centuries – who is going to keep track of the elderly millennials?  And what memories will we have to pass on to future generations?  I hope that I live an exciting enough life to get at least a full-page obituary, just not any time soon.

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